Monday, November 28, 2011

The Multicultural Jew: Occupying the Heart - Jews and the Social Protest ...

The Multicultural Jew: Occupying the Heart - Jews and the Social Protest ...: In the weeks that marked the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, wh...

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Occupying the Heart - Jews and the Social Protest Movement

Kol Nidre, Occupy Wall Street 2011 - Leah Bee5
In the weeks that marked the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, while protesters were gathering on the streets around the world, another smaller gathering was taking place in Zuccotti Park, in Lower Manhattan. It received much less attention in headlines and on the Internet, but its egalitarian statement spoke strongly about the importance that Jews have played in Occupy’s social movement, just as they did during the 1960s Peace Movement.

While the world was debating whether Occupy movements were fueled by antisemitism and racist intentions, Jews and Gentiles were gathering in a square near Zuccotti Park to hold a Kol Nidre service. Judaism’s holiest day, Yom Kippur, became the inspiration for spiritual unity. This act of unison took root again a little more than a week later in Seattle, as protesters linked arms around a sukkah to protect it from being dismantled by police.  This age-old symbol of Jewish tradition became the perfect emblem by which to signify both the durability and the impermanence of the social movement. It also demonstrated once again the undeniable connection between Judaism and social action. Judaism’s most sacred symbols, such as the sukkah and the hanukkiah hold undeniable places in the story of social justice and human rights.


Jewish Com. turns out for civil rights, Wash. DC, 2009 - Tedeytan

Maybe that is why Jews have had such a strong role in social justice. The PBS documentary, From Swastika to Jim Crow – Black-Jewish Relations, notes that approximately 50 percent of the Civil Rights attorneys in the Deep South during the 1950s, 60s and 70s were Jewish. They played a prominent role in fighting for the rights of African-Americans, and stood shoulder to shoulder with civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Civil Rights banners are in Yid. and Eng, 1909. - Bain News Svc
Jews also participated in protests for labor laws, and for the rights of Irish immigrants in the early 1900s, as my Orthodox grandmother herself attested. Observant and secular Jews had only to look at their own families’ pasts to find the inspiration for empathy.

But the reverse has been true as well.  Jewish spiritual movements that now have an active role in the shaping of Jewish faith and observance such as Jewish Renewal and Baal Tshuva gained their start during the “counterculture” activism of the 1960s. Other congregations – both Orthodox and Progressive - sprang up or were strengthened by the outreach that resulted during this period.

Most recently, the Occupy Judaism movement has helped to inspire new dialogue within the international Jewish community. Concepts such as the Occupy Rosh Chodesh (New Hebrew Month) and Occupy Shabbat have become emblems for a 21st century Jewish consciousness that is fueled by social media and global interaction.

It will be interesting to see whether the Occupy Wall Street Movement and its various followings can overcome the impact of growth and politics. In an exchange of letters with another participant of the Occupy Oakland protests, Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun Magazine ,chair of the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives and author of Embracing Israel/Palestine (Tikkun Books, 2011) pointed out that while non-violence has been a strong characteristic of most of the Occupy protests, not all participants at Occupy Oakland have endorsed this stance.
Occupy Oakland - Brian Sims

“(There) is a determined group of violent self-described ‘anarchists’ who ideologically believe in violence and seek it out” says Lerner, who agreed with protester, Jordan Ashe that such action contravenes the spirit of the Occupy movement in general.

Ashe, who identifies himself in his letter to Lerner as a “law student, father, husband and 99%er,” said that he “observed and heard things that left (him) in a state of great concern.  The 99% need healing, they need repair, they need transformation.  The camp was ripe with hostility towards police.” He noted that he found the anti-Israel sentiment that emerged during one pro-Palestinian speech disturbing.

Occupy Portland 2011 - K. Kendall
 As of this afternoon however, there was no evidence of this friction on the streets of New York and Washington, DC, where observant Jews met to welcome in the Rosh Chodesh. With the Torah Scroll carefully spread across a table in the center of a walkway at Zuccotti Park, Occupy Wall Street participants crowded around to hear a reader chant Torah. To the ear it might have seemed like any other Rosh Chodesh. But looking at the photograph of the engaged faces poring over the Torah scroll against a backdrop of skyscrapers and Christmas tree lights, its hard to imagine how anyone attending the reading could look at Jewish spirituality the same again. The Occupy movement may turn out to be short lived, but its message will continue to resonate on many levels for a time to come.

Yom Kippur attendees, Zuccotti Park, 2011 - Leah Bee5

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Monday, November 21, 2011

Finding the True Meaning of Hanukkah

Hanukkah - Photo by Kara Allyson

Hanukkah seems like an odd time to contemplate the fate of the Jewish people, yet each year at this time I find myself caught up in questions about our true role in the world.

Perhaps it is because this holiday always seems to carry a mixed message for me. Each year, we light the eight candles of the hanukkiah to celebrate the rededication of the Temple. In doing so, we recount the story that is at the heart of Hanukkah and in fact, every festival we honor as Jews throughout the year: that it was God’s power that allowed the one cruse of oil to last for eight days of light within the Temple, and God’s power that continues to sustain us as Jews.

Detail on the Knesset Menorah - Deror Avi
Yet ironically, when we recount the Maccabees’ triumph in reclaiming the Temple we seem to go out of our way to avoid acknowledging another part of that tale – the part that talks about the human toll that was expended in getting to the Temple and claiming their victorious battle against the armies of Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

So each year I find myself debating issues about Hanukkah.  Not about why we celebrate its miracle, but why many Jewish homes traditionally celebrate the Festival of Lights as a children’s holiday: low-key, focused around a nine-stick hanukkiah, rather than regaling the unlikely triumphs of an oppressed people.

Isn’t it important that a band of Jews managed to reinstate their freedom by fighting back against their oppressors? Doesn’t this qualify as a kind of David and Goliath story in which determination and dedication as Jews wins out against cultural suppression? Given our history as a people, shouldn’t we be celebrating the victory of that battle as the true meaning of Hanukkah?

Photo by Woody Ellen
The answer that one finds when researching these questions says volumes about the rabbinic viewpoints that uphold this yearly festival – and about the principles that through time, have guided our survival as a people.

“The message of Hanukkah is expressed in the prophetic words of the Haftarah of the Sabbath of Hanukkah,” says Rabbi Isaac Klein in his book, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice. “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts (Zachariah 4:6).” [1]

Taken literally, this eloquent phrase reminds us that we are nothing if we are not God’s people. That historical spiritual connection has always defined who we are – even for many secular Jews who may observe the traditions of Passover, light the candles each December and go to synagogue at Yom Kippur. Our traditions as Jews answer to a higher power, a consciousness about what is right and what is wrong, and an identity that is uniquely fashioned by how we regard our relationship with our history.

Judah Maccabeus 1533 - Pub. Dom. (US)
The Maccabees' battle is not part of the story we tell of Hanukkah because violence has never really been what defines us as a people. Even during the Jewish people’s most trying times, it has been our power to resist oppression – not conquer lands as the Maccabees are said to have later done – that has defined our survival. We attribute that power to something greater than ourselves, but we recognize that it is our sense of tzedek, justice and fairness that maintains our equilibrium as Jews. We may celebrate the demise of the Pharaoh’s armies in the Red Sea during Passover, and we may recount the story of Haman’s foiled plot during Purim, but in each one of these cases we attribute our safety to a higher power, not to our physical prowess. Our festival celebrations are a reflection of what has through millennia and many struggles, sustained Judaism.

“Only the rabbinical kind of power – the power not of rock but water, fluid and soft from moment to moment and yet irresistible over the long run – had survived,” writes Rabbi Arthur Waskow in his explanation of why the ancient rabbis omitted descriptions of the Maccabees’ battles in the Gemara. “Only the rabbinical kind of power had protected and preserved Jewish peoplehood.”[2]  

It is our fierce desire for survival as a Jewish people that defines our holidays and observances each season, and ultimately our identity as Jews.

15th cent. Hanukkiah excavated from Lorca, Spain - Nanosanchez

This year as I light the candles at Hanukkah with my family I will remember the Maccabees’ courage and sacrifice during their battle to reclaim the Temple, as I always do each year. But I will do so knowing that Hanukkah’s true meaning lies in how we express our connection with that history that ultimately defines who we are as a people. 


[1] Rabbi Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1992.
[2]  Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Seasons of Our Joy: A Modern Guide to the Jewish Holidays, Beacon Press, 1990.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Multicultural Jew: The Evolving Face of Jewish Identity

The Multicultural Jew: The Evolving Face of Jewish Identity: The question of who is a Jew is the seminal issue of debate these days, and will likely continue to be argued in Knesset and Jewish living...

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Multicultural Jew: Why Would Someone Want to Be A Jew?

The Multicultural Jew: Why Would Someone Want to Be A Jew?: The question of who is a Jew is the seminal issue of debate these days, and will likely continue to be argued in Knesset and Jewish living...