You Shall Pursue

March 16, 2014

Sermon: Jews, Crimea, and the Importance of Diaspora

Filed under: D'var Torah, Jewish Communitty — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 9:22 am

A few years ago, when I was living in Israel, I had the privilege of visiting Cairo with a group of friends during the Passover break (and yes, the irony is not lost on me). As part of our vacation, we went to the Etz Hayim synagogue in Cairo. The synagogue is beautifully maintained by a Muslim historical preservation group.

And while it was a joy to see a piece of Jewish history, I couldn’t help but mourn that there were no Jews left to pray in this synagogue, no children left to celebrate becoming B’nei Mitzvah, no couples to celebrate weddings. Most Egyptian Jews have immigrated to Israel, and built a life for themselves there, but there is a real loss of a community that has existed continuously for thousands of years.

And speaking of loss, in recent weeks, Ukraine has been in turmoil, and Russia has sent troops into the Crimean peninsula. One of my professors just came from a mission in the area, and she spoke movingly about the fear and confusion in the Jewish community during this time. People are scared, and confused. And on Wednesday, an envoy from the Ukranian Jewish community was refused a meeting with the Israeli government. And I worry, yet again, about what this means for the Jews.

According to current population estimates, there are about 70,000 Jews living in Ukraine, and about 17,000 of them live in Crimea. Before World War II, the Crimea was an area of remarkable autonomy for the Jews. There was agriculture, and yiddishkeit, and a thriving community supported by American philanthropy and a nascent Zionist can-do attitude.

But the War and Stalinism decimated that vibrant Jewish community, and now the Jews living there are mostly old, and there is only one synagogue.

The strength of the Jewish people has long been its interconnectedness. From the time of the earliest Diasporas, in Alexandria and Babylonia, there has been a tremendous amount of communication and movement between Jewish communities all over the world.

In the time of the Gaonim, the great early Medieval Rabbinic decisors in the 5th to 11th centuries, Jewish communities from Spain and Europe and even the Land of Israel wrote to the great academies in Persia, and so developed prayer books and practical marriage laws and many aspects of Judaism that we take for granted today. And as Babylonia shrunk in importance, the community in Spain grew in scholarship to take its place. And so to Eastern Europe, and so to America.

At the height of the Soviet Union’s persecution of the Jews, the American and Israeli Jewish communities worked together to protest and provide safe-haven for their Soviet brothers and sisters. In the 1960s and 1970s, Israel staged missions to bring the persecuted Jews of Ethiopia, Yemen, and Morocco to the land. We are unique among the nations in that our commitment to protecting our own is backed up by explicit national policy.

So then, why not just send planes into the Crimea, airlift out the 17,000 Jews living there, and bring them back to Israel? Besides the fact that Israeli governmental policy has moved away from such dramatic missions, I don’t think aliyah is always the answer.

In my opinion, we are a people that is strongest when we have a healthy relationship between diaspora, and Israel. We are a people that has grown into its own scattered among the nations, carving out a place of more or less autonomy, and more or less acceptance, always surviving, and sometimes thriving. We have always been, in the words of Mordecai Kaplan, a people of two civilizations, the Jewish civilization and the civilization in which we find ourselves, and in that hybrid comes our strength.

Author and co-developer of Birthright Israel Gidi Grinstein speaks of the Jews as a people of “flexigidity.” Our customs, our language, our Torah, has remained remarkably consistent over time, which contributes to our sense of continuity. But we are also a people remarkably good at drawing from the cultures around us, at creating fluid hybrid cultures that serve our contemporary moment. Without both of these aspects, without the ability to maintain our unique pocket cultures, we lose access to the brilliant variety of experience that makes our people so vibrant and so durable.

I think of American Jewish culture. Our opportunities to grow in creative writing, literature, theater, and music. Our brilliant thinkers and writers who are able to flourish and publish in a culture with separation of church and state. The way that klezmer and African and European music blended together to create the blues. The fact that someone like Michelle Bachman will use a word like “chutzpah,” even if she can’t pronounce it. America has been good to the Jews, and good for the Jews. And so was Egypt. And so was Spain. And so was Babylonia. And so was Prague.

And this is why it is our duty to use our voices and our influence to protect Jews in other lands of the Diaspora, and not just in Israel. This is why it is so important to keep writing, and speaking to Congress members, and sending money for rabbinic missions all over the Jewish world. Because our survival and existence depends on a multitude of experiences. It is how we have become who we are today.

Next year, I will be studying at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. And along with me, there will be several students from the Abraham Geiger Kolleg Institute of Potsdam in Germany. Yes, I will get to study with German rabbinical students. If that is not an example of a Jewish community resurfacing from the ashes, I don’t know what is. And I am sure that our shared studies will leave us all the richer. We as a community can come out from the ashes, if we support each other and help each other to grow. And we, as a community, will all be the richer for it.

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March 31, 2013

Out of Egypt

Filed under: Choosing Life, Jewish Communitty — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 12:48 pm

In our culture there are two quite distinct ways of defining oneself as a Jew. One way is primarily ethnic and secular and arises from the experience of being “other,” of not being Christian in Christian America… But the second sense of Jewishness arises from an attachment to Jewish religious traditions, including lighting the Sabbath candles, celebrating the Passover seder, and singing Hebrew songs.

The Educating Synagogue, Joseph Reimer

The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Sukkoth. There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. A mixed multitude went up with them, and also large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds.

Exodus 12:37-38

This year was my first year hosting my family’s Passover seder (after many years of leading the seder at my parents house). Because my family is what it is, this year there were more non-Jews than Jews around the table. My mother, my cousin’s wife (who is the daughter of a pastor), my Presbyterian grandparents, my Wiccan roommate, my sister’s Presbyterian boyfriend, and my atheist former-Christian friend all joined the Jews  in making the journey out of Egypt. And today, I am going over to my grandmother’s house with my Jewish dad and sister to help her celebrate the resurrection of Christ with ham and lox and bagels. Welcome to my family!

In large part, I owe my faith to my grandparents. They are the only religious people in my family, they introduced me to scripture and houses of worship at a young age, and they have supported my journey into faith. Granted, my faith is not their faith, but we are family, and I recognize that part of family is things turning out well, but not exactly how you planned.

Intermarriage has been in the news a lot this year (and every year; it’s a contentious issue) but what the naysayers seem to miss is that the ship has already sailed. My family is what Jewish families look like. And it’s not just a matter of praying that somehow the children of these families make it through with a Bar/ Bat Mitzvah and maybe some Jewish summer camp. It’s about the multiplicity of our lives now. We have non-Jewish friends. We have non-Jewish family. And if we reach out to them and make them a part of our celebrations, we are that much stronger as Jews for having to explain our faith and our customs to those whom we love.

The trick is making sure that we, as people, know enough and have enough passion to be able to explain competently. It is not enough in this world to say that Judaism is doing what your parents and grandparents did, without meaning, without understanding, because what if your grandparents did exactly none of it? No, we must actively embrace Judaism, and build memories for ourselves and our children, and seek out the beauty of our tradition, because there is no easy path any more. We must find the path ourselves.

My cousins have a two year old daughter, who is just getting old enough to start to understand things a little bit. This year, I handed her the egg on the seder plate and she tried to crack it on the table. She laughed at the singing. She and her mom hid the afikomen, and then opened the door for Elijah. I think she had fun, although it’s hard to tell sometimes with two-year-olds. She’s the next generation in our complicated family, and I wish nothing for her but love and an understanding of the stories of all of her people.

February 20, 2013

The Queerness of Patrilineal Judaism

So I had an idea for an educational program about the varied ways that Jews from interfaith families don’t fit the normative narrative of what is Jewish, and may not want to. I think there is a real lack of conversation about how to confront the reality that there is a whole generation of Jews who were raised in interfaith families, and are now coming into their own Jewish identity, and have a real lack of institutional and communal support around forming that identity. Here are my thoughts (which will have to be WAY fleshed out):

  • Rabbinic Judaism has certain beings/people that fall between different categories. Sometimes they are one thing, sometimes they are another, sometimes both, and sometimes neither. I have most commonly seen this sort of multiplicity used to talk about categories that would now be called intersex/ genderqueer people.
  • As a child from an interfaith family, I am both Jew and not-Jew, and different groups read me in different ways at different times.
  • Different children from interfaith families have different reactions to their multiple heritages, from wanting to be read only as Jewish all the time, to wanting to be read as only not-Jewish all the time, and everything in between.
  • Any way that a child of an interfaith family wants to be read is valid. No, really. They are all valid. What they do with that identity in the broader Jewish world that may disagree with them is what gets complicated…
  • Zelig Krymko, one of the Limmud participants who I had a chance to reconnect with this weekend, pointed out that in an interdenominational world, we live on a spectrum that is horizontal, not vertical and we play on these axes, jumping between them, and often ending up at very similar places for very different reasons, or in very different places for similar reasons. How do we embrace and play on that spectrum when not all parts of it recognize our Judaism?
  • How can we use rabbinic Judaism’s comfort with “queer” categories (meaning categories that encompass and shift between different identity markers in different situations) to create a Judaism that is more comfortable with people who are not interested in strict dichotomies of identity formation?

Jewish friends from interfaith families, what am I missing? What do you wish the broader Jewish world knew about your Jewish identity?

January 9, 2013

Reconstructionism Part 3: Two Civilizations

Filed under: Choosing Life, Rabbinical School, Spirituality — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 1:30 pm

I am writing this to you on a computer, in English, wearing blue jeans, in the city of Philadelphia in the country of the United States. What does that have to do with Judaism? According to Kaplan, quite a lot.

While Kaplan wrote extensively on the “Jewish civilization,” he did not see Judaism as a bounded, separate entity from the rest of the world. Quite the opposite, in fact. He recognized that Judaism is affected by the broader civilizations in which the Jews live. From Aristotle’s influence on Maimonides to Polish music’s influence on klezmer, Judaism has always borrowed from the surrounding culture and made elements its own. And he hoped that a thriving, healthy American society would, in turn, help Judaism to thrive. In particular, he was excited about how democratic ideals could help make Judaism more participatory and open to its laity.

When Kaplan put forth his idea of “Judaism as a Civilization,” he was advocating that Judaism should be respected and celebrated in a way that was uncommon for religious and ethnic minorities in his day. The prevailing paradigm for Americanization in the earliest years of the 20th century was an assimilation into WASP culture, which was identified as American and pushed onto minorities as a condition for social acceptance. So when Kaplan calls Judaism a civilization, he is not just advocating that Jews take Jewish ritual, religion, and culture seriously. He is also advocating that ALL Americans take the Jewish project seriously, rather than an identity that Jews must shed outside of the synagogue to become “real Americans.”

Things have changed, to say the least. Multiculturalism is still a challenge in America (see: FOX New’s “War on Christmas” stories every December, current anti-Islam hysteria) but, in general, we accept that Americans can proudly celebrate and embrace a variety of identities and still be wholly American. It is very rare that we are asked to justify how we can consider ourselves both loyal Americans and Jews. And in many cases, this leads to Jewish people identifying much stronger with the American Civilization than the Jewish one.

The question is where that leaves us as a community. Predictions of doom and gloom aside, from where I stand Jews are still innovating, passionate, and fighting to keep their civilization vibrant. I am really not interested in talking about whether or not Judaism is going to survive the next generation, or the next dozen. What I am interested in discussing is how Jews who are invested in the Jewish civilization can make that passion, investment, and innovation clear to Jews who may be rejecting a sixty-year old version of Judaism, when there are pockets that addressed their concerns decades ago (see: Jews who are angry at “Judaism” for rejecting interfaith families when I am in rabbinical school).

Part of this is adapting to modern American tools of information dissemination. Part of the reason I am writing this blog is so that there is another young, liberal, religious voice out there talking about social justice, God, and what it really means to become part of the clergy (I’ll talk about this more later). Part of this is fighting against a very real and painful tendency for the most Jewishly invested members of our community to ghettoize. Since coming to rabbinical school, I spend the vast majority of my time around other rabbinical students, and other religious Jews. But I also dance, and keep in touch with my friends from high school, and go to church with my grandmother on Christmas, and in small ways I try to stay open and enthusiastic about my work and my Judaism while firmly embracing the parts of myself that are in love with broader American society.

And last, and perhaps most counterintuitively, I think that we as a community need to become more comfortable about the fact that ALL Jews live in multiple worlds, and dip back and forth between them at different times throughout their lives. The more we can acknowledge the challenges of balancing between two worlds, both our own and those faced by the people we are trying to serve, the easier it will be to convince people that the values, education, and rituals in the Jewish civilization are worth clinging to.

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