A poem/prayer for Charleston

This morning, I wrote a poem/prayer about yesterday’s murders in Charleston because otherwise, I do not know how I can go back to teaching/reading. So much is being written in these minutes, I just hope some lines will galvanize us as a society into action.

Holy One,

We stand before you, speechless in the face of yet another murder perpetrated in your holy space. Nine people, shot after an hour of shared prayer. Unfathomable.

The city of Charleston is no stranger to racist violence, not now, not in the past. We might live far away from South Carolina, yet Charleston and this crime, an act of terrorism directed against our own black brothers and sisters are now a part of us:
Every time we do not speak out when we see terrible things happening in front of our eyes.
Every time we see poverty and do not reach out—I am thinking of the breadlines stretching around the blocks.
Every time we see someone who cannot afford the medical treatment they need. And we all know someone in such a situation.
Every time we see racism and do not intervene, because it is scary, or inconvenient.
Every time we refuse to talk about race and the advantages we enjoy just for looking white in our communities.

How much longer will we accept this? When will we rise and truly work towards a society free of guns, poverty, and systemic inequality? Not in some world to come but RIGHT NOW.

May the hearts of all at Mother Emanuel and in the city of Charleston find solace. May we act so that this becomes the very last instance of racially motivated murder we will ever have to face.

We ask for your blessings for the victims, and their families.

“וְנָתַתָּ שָׁלוֹם בָּאָרֶץ וְשִׂמְחַת עוֹלָם לְיוֹשְׁבֶיהָ”
Establish peace in the land, and everlasting joy for its inhabitants.

Mother Emmanuel

Paris on my mind, again

As Jews throughout the US approach Shabbat, my thoughts are with those murdered and wounded today in Paris, who perhaps rushed out to pick up a coke or candy for Shabbat and who were taken hostage in what seems to be a concerted wave of terrorism. It could have been any of us, at any day. Shooting up a kosher supermarket hours before Shabbat is yet another conscious attack on our freedom. #JeSuisJuif, as the new tag line goes. For how long, I wonder.

Today, as the leaders of the Jewish community in Paris have urged Jews to stay at home and not to congregate in synagogues, I feel fortunate to spend Shabbat in the comfort of family and friends, and, more than ever, community. “In times of war, gather” (בשעת מלחמה כנס את הרגל) our sages say (in Sifrei Devarim I think).
And yes, this is war, a hardening of invisible boundaries between communities and individuals, on an increasingly brutal and brutalizing trajectory. I pray that on this Shabbat, we may experience menuchah (rest, repose) and gather strength for the long struggle and the new fault lines that are taking shape in our days.

But really, I have no idea how to absorb these developments.

Je ne suis pas Charlie, mais…

I spent all day yesterday pouring over the news, following every detail of the massacre in Paris, horrified and sad that these acts continue last year’s trajectory (2014 was one of the deadliest years for journalists). I grew up in Germany, a young democracy, and the fragility of our freedoms was imprinted in me early on, together with the vigilance and the effort it takes to be a good citizen and to live in a truly free and open society.

I just read an “Interview with a Muslim”  at religion dispatches here.  And I feel for Haroon Moghul. He concludes with “I condemn violence against the innocent. I think what happened in Paris was horrible. Do I need to say more?” No, yes, maybe?

I hear the “where are the Muslim mass demonstrations against this in Saudia” around me quite a bit as well and they remind me of the collective questions I often receive. Why did we bomb Gaza? Didn’t we know there were small children? Why are we not taking better care of  Holocaust survivors? How can I justify the Occupation? — all this because I am a Jew teaching Jewish Studies in the US (which also means I am co-responsible for NSA listening devices but that’s a different story). I am still looking for a satisfying response that doesn’t fizzle, but it usually takes longer than anyone wants to listen.

Yes, these idiots in Paris could interpret something in their tradition to justify their murders and to scream God is greater while shooting people. Wrong? For sure. Was that Islam as I see it? No. Were they Muslims? Yes, and worse, killing in the name of religion! This, I imagine, must be difficult to square for Muslims because saying “they are no good Muslims”–which Haroon Moghul is explicitly not doing in his very brief remarks–is not enough. And, of course,  most victims of extremist Islamist violence are Muslims. But, just as people such as Yigal Amir, the assassin of Prime Minister Rabin in 1995,  or Baruch Goldstein, were terrorists who instrumentalized religion, they were was ALSO religious Jews who are still seen as heroes by some today. As someone who is somewhat connected to Jewish tradition, this is a bitter pill to swallow but YES, there are people who abuse ideas in religion and yes, they might be my co-religionists, nothing I can do about it.

Furthermore, and making this a bit more complicated for the west: these idiots, like earlier terrorists and no doubt future ones, are also products of the west. Most are born here, they speak our languages, study at our schools (maybe they don’t hear the message but they were there at some point), dance to our music, eat our food, they sound and look like us. What is wrong in our societies that we create such monsters? Because this is not just “a Muslim” problem, it’s a western  problem. It will be a challenge  to figure out how to deal with these events because there will for sure be more.

Many fear that Muslims live in closed societies but a recent study in Germany has shown that in fact Muslims integrate — but most Germans are not in the least interested in having them integrate. You can read more here. Instead, the idiots at Pegida in Dresden can complain about the Islamization of German cemeteries. Some findings of the study that stood out to my mind: 40% of all Germans said that the very presence of Muslims makes them feel like strangers in their own home.  24% think that there should be no future Muslim immigration. 61% of all Germans believe that Islam does not belong to the west, that’s 9% more than a few years ago. And this although Salafis make up fewer than 1% of all German Muslims.German Muslims do not live in a parallel society, this study shows. 58% agree with gay marriage – this is not the image of a closed-off conservative society cherished by so many. And where do  people reject Muslims particularly vehemently? Right, in areas where there is virtually no Muslim presence. Sounds familiar…

Islamfeindlichkeit (great word, depressingly) is alive and well in mainstream society. What does that tell teenagers?


Image by Reda Philippe El Arbi

Reichskristallnacht – Commemorated 25 years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall

This year, this very loaded date also coincides with the many memorials of the First World War. My grandfather and his brother were among the millions of teenagers who joined the army in patriotic fever. Only one of them came home, but my family still tells stories of their war experiences, and we still keep my great-uncle’s cigarette case that he carried when he died.

Here, the dead are commemorated with ceramic poppies, and NPR has more here.

Poppies in London

I’ll link to a much earlier post on this date here.

I wish I could say Never Again, but that seems hypocritical.

Let us Light Candles for Peace

If it is your custom to light candles in honor of Shabbat, here is a meditation for peace, co-written by Sheikha Ibtisam Mahameed and Rabba Tamar Elad-Appelbaum for these troubling days:

Let us Light Candles for Peace
Two mothers, one plea:
Now, more than ever, during these days of so much crying, on the day that is sacred to both our religions, Friday, Sabbath Eve
Let us light a candle in every home – for peace:
A candle to illuminate our future, face to face,
A candle across borders, beyond fear.
From our family homes and houses of worship
Let us light each other up,
Let these candles be a lighthouse to our spirit
Until we all arrive at the sanctuary of peace.

Ibtisam Mahameed Tamar Elad-Appelbaum

!تعالوﻭاﺍ نضﯾﻳئ شمعاتﺕ اﺍلسلامﻡ

وﻭاﺍلدﺩتانﻥ وﻭطﻁلبﺏ وﻭاﺍحدﺩ: خصﯾﻳصا اﺍلانﻥ, في ھﮪﮬﻫذﺫهﻩ اﺍلاﯾﻳامﻡ, اﺍﯾﻳامﻡ اﺍلبكاء اﺍلكبﯾﻳرﺭ, في اﺍلﯾﻳوﻭمﻡ اﺍلمقدﺩسﺱ لدﺩﯾﻳاناتنا, في ﯾﻳوﻭمﻡ اﺍلجمعة وﻭمساء اﺍلسبتﺕ, نضﯾﻳئ في كلﻝ بﯾﻳتﺕ شمعة للسلامﻡ: شمعة تطﻁالبﺏ بوﻭجﮫﻪ اﺍلمستقبلﻝ, وﻭجﮫﻪ اﺍلانسانﻥ. شمعﮫﻪ تنتصرﺭ على اﺍلحدﺩوﻭدﺩ وﻭاﺍلرﺭعبﺏ. منﻥ بﯾﻳوﻭتﺕ عائلاتنا وﻭبﯾﻳوﻭتﺕ صلوﻭاﺍتنا نضﯾﻳئ اﺍحدﺩنا للاخرﺭ وﻭاﺍلشموﻭعﻉ تكوﻭنﻥ اﺍلبرﺭوﻭجﺝ وﻭاﺍلفنارﺭ لارﺭوﻭاﺍحنا

!حتى نصلﻝ لمعبدﺩ اﺍلسلامﻡ. اﺍبتسامﻡ محامﯾﻳدﺩ

!تمارﺭ اﺍلعادﺩ-اﺍفالبوﻭمﻡ !!!


!בואו נאיר נרות שלום

שתי אמהות ובקשה אחת: שדווקא עכשיו, בימי הבכייה הגדולה האלה, בימים המקודשים לדתות שלנו, בשישי ובערב שבת, נדליק בכל בית נר לשלום: נר שמבקש פני עתיד, פני אדם. נר שצולח גבולות ואימה. מבתי המשפחות ומבתי התפילה שלנו נאיר זה לזה והנרות יהיו מגדלור לרוחנו

עד שנבוא אל היכל השלום

   איבתיסאם מחמיד ותמר אלעד-אפלבום

I couldn’t find the original online, so there’s no link.

Addendum to gender and war

I had heard rumors of this but apparently this is a real and serious campaign started by women in Crown Heights to entice girls to be “dressed in Tznius attire (i.e. clothing which keep necklines, elbows, knees and feet covered at all times)” for the safety of Israel.

On the one hand, this could be seen as an attempt to have kids show some sort of activism in a situation that makes grownups feel helpless BUT it is again an activism born out on the bodies of girls. I do not see a similar appeal for boys to be dressed in this way.

All this reminds me of the frumkas, the women who wear many layers of clothes, and essentially veil, taking modesty to a whole new level. I have to run but PHEW!

A brief note on gender and bombs in Israel…

Now that “ground operations” are under way, just hours before a suggested “ceasefire on humanitarian grounds”, here is an absolutely absurd story about gender segregation in bomb shelters, and it’s not the first such story circulating these days. And not to forget the many who do not have shelters in which to seek cover, or who are refused entry because they live on the wrong side of the tracks.

In Ashdod, where more than one bomb has landed lately, the Rabbinical courts reportedly marked the doors of their bomb shelter with a sign: “For men only.” The women’s secure area appeared far less enforced, it seems. This has since been addressed but seriously?! See here for more… 

The bottom sign reads “Shelter for men” (from the article linked above, photo is courtesy Stav Shaffir/Facebook).

As we know from so many other wars, fighting and bombs do not stop people’s lives. People go to work, children go to school (ok, it’s the summer break but you get my drift), groceries need to be bought, people celebrate weddings, births, and funerals, and go to bars and cafés.

Having read this story about gender-segregated shelters, I remembered a touching article I had read earlier in the week, by Osnat Sharon, an attorney and rabbinical advocate who helps Jewish women navigate the labyrinth that is the Israeli legal system. She tells the story of a woman who finally had her day in rabbinical court, trying to obtain a get, a religious divorce. In her own words, and quoted from the Times of Israel:

When it was finally time for R’s hearing, she went in with her head held high – finally, this was going to be her day! Then, just as the rabbis were questioning the couple to ensure that they were both agreeing to the divorce willingly, the missile warning alarm sounded yet again. R stared at the rabbis, unwilling to move; she had waited too long for freedom to have it postponed. She continued to stare at the rabbis. The rabbis remained in their seats. In fact, we all remained in our seats – even as we heard the other rooms emptying out and people scurrying to the bomb shelter. The rabbis continued with the proceedings even as the alarm continued, even as loud “booms” were heard as the missiles landed in an open field right outside of town. But R didn’t hear any of those things. All she heard were the rabbis’ words:  your divorce is final. You are free.[http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/through-fire-and-flames/#ixzz37lXJTJdv]

Choose Life Ramadan / 17 Tammuz

These are difficult times for liberal Jews (and Muslims, I imagine). The bombings of Israel and Gaza, the Iron Dome, the images of terrible suffering in Gaza, and now the anti-semitic attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions in Europe that are taking place under the cover of  fighting for Palestine. And so I was happy to find an event combining both Ramadan and the fast of 17 Tammuz, part of the campaign  בוחרים בחיים צום יז בתמוז- רמדאן 2014 نختار الحياة، مشروع رمضان وصيام 2014 Choose Life Ramadan-17 Tamuz fast. A rather impressive list of events they held can be found here.

I went to an evening at the Masjid (mosque) Malcolm Shabbaz on 116th Street and Lenox,  in honor of an Iftar (breaking of the fast during Ramadan) and in honor of the fast of 17 Tammuz. We were maybe 60 people, more or less evenly divided between Muslims, mostly members of the mosque, and Jews. It was a loosely organized evening, and opened with brief remarks made by two of the organizers, Mia (also an organizer of the Harlem Minyan)  and Brother Tariq, followed by individual conversations among the participants. I was excited to be in this mosque that I had read so much about: founded originally in 1945 as Temple Number Seven (there is another Temple  Number Seven on 127th Street that serves the Nation of Islam), and Malcolm X’ mosque, this was the site of much radical struggle in the 60s and 70s, and I was thrilled to find one of its chroniclers sitting across the table from me and happily chatted away.

After some fifteen minutes or so, we were offered the traditional fig and water opening the Iftar (breaking of the fast), and all of us joined the community in the main mosque for Maghrib, followed by Ma’ariv downstairs, and, of course, more food.

All in all a good evening, an important evening, more for me personally than for any Muslim-Jewish  rapprochement. It was an evening that reminded me how much I love living in New York (I could have walked to the mosque, if it hadn’t rained so heavily), and also a time that reminded me of just how much work remains to be done.  Yes, we were together, shared food and drink, and talked, no, I at least didn’t even mention politics apart from making some general noises. But that is probably ok: for some of the Jews who came, it was the first time they entered a mosque (!), let alone spoke to a Muslim outside of work or a restaurant, and many were probably unaware of the place’s storied history.

Steter Tropfen höhlt den Stein, as we say (loosely translatable as “small acts effect change”).

Spring 2014 courses

RELG 383, Introduction to Judaism, Wardlaw 101, 3:55 pm – 5:10 pm

Why do Jews eat crackers on Passover and why are they square? Is kosher food blessed by rabbis? How is Judaism different from Christianity or Islam? How does the Holocaust impact twenty-first century American Jews? Why are there so many Jewish jokes on the Daily Show? And, in the year 2014, what on earth is a Jew? We will approach these questions through the lens of the Haggadah, a ritual manual Jews read during Passover.

This “living text”, arguably the most popular Jewish book after the Hebrew Bible, will be our key to unlock a number of ideas that have shaped the Jewish experience such as the Oral Torah, the emphasis on prayer and social justice, sanctification of daily life, but also the impact of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and gay and transgender rights. You will notice that the last four classes are TBA. Those are classes whose topics will be determined by you, the students. Suggested topics are: the Ark of the Covenant, conversion to Judaism, Black Hebrews, Jews of color, Israeli music…

 RELG 203Z Introduction to Comparative Religion (asynchronous online course)

This course is an  introduction to comparative religion. You will think about the role of spirituality and religion in public life, and explore a number of religious traditions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, as well as Atheism and some more recent religious movements.

Current Project: Transgendered Jews in legal and medical Hebrew texts

My project looks at gender variance in medieval Hebrew texts written by commentators of Jewish law (the Rishonim) who were active in Europe and the Mediterranean between 1000-1500.

Two years of the anti–Semitism report in Germany

In 2008, the Bundestag decided to set up an independent work group to study the state of anti-Semitism in Germany. After a year of deliberation, the group was convened and after another year had passed (we are now in 2011), they published their report. It wasn’t pretty… 20% of Germans were seen as anti-Semitic, possibly more.

Two years later, not one of their recommendations has been put into action, and there seems to be no consensus that there might be any need to for action. In the meantime, a neo-Nazi terror group has been dismantled, after they had committed a number of murders, and anti-Semitic sentiment, if anything, has risen in popularity.

You can read more in German, here: http://www.publikative.org/2013/12/11/schaumschlaegerei-gegen-antisemitismus/

And the original report of the Bundestag is here: http://dipbt.bundestag.de/dip21/btd/17/077/1707700.pdf

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