A Time for Learning

For a recent Coastal-transplant like myself, there’s nothing more beautiful in the District right now than watching the trees change from green to yellow to red in a kaleidoscope of Crayola colors that I’ve hitherto never experienced. As autumn moves onward and the weather continues to cool, many of my fellow Avodahniks are finally settling into a comfortable routine at their job placements, getting prepared for a long winter in the office. Not so here at Behrend Builders! We’ve had five great projects here in the past three weeks alone and the work has just begun.

These five projects, all of which have been staffed almost entirely by volunteers, have required painting, sanding, caulking, scraping, taping, sweeping, scrubbing, and a whole lot of learning. As it turns out, most high school freshman have never painted anything before; consequently, most of the scrubbing that happens results from at least one student tracking green paint through three floors of white carpet (it’s like a leaf design, it’s artsy! No? ok…) As a result, I am slowly learning to adapt my leadership development experience and facilitation skills to help volunteers not only recognize their positions of privilege and explore the class differences in their community, but also to help them become empowered through properly protecting floors, ceilings, and furniture.

Nevertheless, the time I spend teaching Behrend’s volunteers about the refined art of window caulking is definitely repaid to me through the enlightening and engaging dialogues I’ve had with those same people. For instance, last weekend during Behrend Builders’ Open Build I was simultaneously painting a door and having a talk about racial identity with some young Howard University women. One woman in particular, Mary, described to me a frustrating situation that she has recently found herself in. While Mary looks African-American, she actually self-identifies as Afro-Caribbean (specifically, Haitian). She explained to me that this puts her in a strange position on campus because, while she looks African American and is thus treated as such by society, she is often excluded from African American community events on campus because she self-identifies as something else. Mary thus feels like she is unable to engage with and be supported by a campus community of people with similar experiences while maintaining her own sense of self.

This struggle to make a place for one’s self in a community while also maintaining one’s sense of self is something I struggle with all the time. Whether it’s choosing between a job with better pay or a job that lines up with my ideals, making friends with new neighbors, or even something as simple (for some) as deciding whether or not to go out with friends on Shabbat, I am constantly trying to strike a balance between building relationships with others and building a strong relationship with myself. As the autumn progresses and Behrend Builders’ projects continue, I hope that my routine, as often as it includes physical work, continues to include conversations with others that lead to more considerations and reflections like this one as well.

Top 8 reasons you should be at the Jewish Literary Festival

By Dana Mulhauser, Festival committee member extraordinaire

The Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival is now eight days into its eleven-day run, and I’ve been having a shockingly fun time attending events. “Why,” you ask me, “is that so shocking? Shouldn’t you, Dana, a member of the festival committee, have known how much fun the festival would be?”

O imaginary blog reader, thank you for being so inquisitive. Here is my answer for you. I expected to learn things from this festival and to add a few books to my reading list. I was unprepared for how riotously entertaining it would be.

So, in honor of the eighth day of the festival (and in preparation for Hannukah, which comes early this year), I offer you brief descriptions of eight entertaining elements of the literary festival:

1) Food. Not only did the festival provide me with brunch on Sunday, it even included babka. Do you think the National Book Festival has babka?

2.) Being read to. One author explained that, while she’s glad people listen to her audiobooks, she herself has no input into which actors do the readings or how they interpret the work. With that in mind, it’s it doubly lovely to hear an author read her own work — squeaky voices, silly accents, and all.

3) Spending time at the J. Yesterday I saw, entering the doors at the same time, two women carrying yoga mats, a man holding four books to be signed, and a woman eating a plate of roast chicken.

4) Great questions. At the Joel Chasnoff event, an American Air Force colonel asked why Israeli army officers dress like slobs. And yes, when asking the question, the officer stood at attention, shirt neatly tucked, pants pressed, and shoes shined.

5.) Great answers. Yesterday, someone told Allegra Goodman which part of her last book she thought was lousy. The author answered with such grace, thougtfulness, and aplomb that it made me want to read the book all the more (and to be her friend).

6.) Comfortable chairs. Really.

7.) Lively debate. I’m not sure what was better theater: watching Leon Wieseltier banter with Ruth Franklin, watching Ruth Franklin banter with her questioners, or watching the audience watch everyone else’s bantering.

8.) The audience. Any crowd of readers is going to be a good crowd, but these have seemed particularly friendly. I’ve run into old friends, conversed with total strangers, and gotten more suggestions for new books than I know what to do with.

So there you have it. Lucky for you all, there are three more days of the festival to go. So come debate capitalism and the Jews with Jerry Muller, hear a little historical romance with Jessica Jiji, and nosh with Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. I’ll see you there.

After Rich Iott: Playing Nazis and Writing Like Survivors

Rich Iott dressed as a member of the Waffen SS

Rich Iott, second from right, in a Nazi SS Waffen uniform

There was a gasp of disbelief when it became known that Rich Iott, a Republican candidate for Congress in Ohio, enjoyed dressing up as a member of the Waffen/SS as part of historical reenactments of World War II battles. Mr. Iott’s subsequent defense of his hobby and appreciation of the over-achieving German military has not done him any favors. Nor has his counter-attack on Eric Cantor, the current Minority Whip and the highest-ranking Jewish Republican member of Congress, helped much. In the process of digging his hole ever-deeper, Mr. Iott explained his admiration for the soldiers he recreates by saying, “They were doing what they thought was right for their country. And they were going out and fighting what they thought was a bigger, you know, a bigger evil.”

When he says that, Iott is engaging in a naïve, if amoral, act of radical empathy. In Iott’s mind, his German alter-ego, Reinhard Pferdmann is a tragic character, who fought valiantly for what he believed—conveniently ignoring that part of what he believed-in was an ideology of racial purity that legitimized the murder of millions.

Moral idiocy aside, Iott is achieving what many of us seek in literature – a vicarious experience that allows us a measure of understanding of another’s life and experiences. It is the particular life and experiences in question that make Iott’s activity a perversion of imagination. The legacy of the Holocaust makes such a life unworthy of memorializing in a manner lacking explicit condemnation.

What about when those life experiences include surviving the Holocaust? There we run into the opposite problem, where the importance of the lives lost makes memorializing them either in a fictional or a non-fictional setting a sacred and fraught act. There rightly are no “historical reenactments” of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising or the march from Auschwitz to Buchenwald. Likewise, to read a work of Holocaust fiction or memoir actively discourages empathy because it is generally accepted that one who was not there cannot truly understand the experience of surviving the Holocaust. Ruth Franklin’s new book, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction (Oxford University Press) takes a look at this complex issue which she’ll be discussing on Tuesday, October 19 at the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival. The program will feature an introduction by Leon Wieseltier, the Literary Editor at The New Republic.

Scandals involving fake Holocaust memoirs (Fragments and Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years) are despicable frauds, not only because they serve the pernicious ends of Holocaust deniers, but because they have made the requirement of fidelity to historical and biographical facts obscure the role imagination plays in transcendent literature. In fact, the lack of artifice in seminal works like Elie Wiesel’s Night, have long set the standard for other Holocaust-themed works. While Rich Iott labors under a surplus of misguided and selective imagination, Holocaust literature risks a paucity of it. Franklin would argue that fidelity to true imaginations (as opposed to Iott’s frivolous ones) is as great a responsibility as fidelity to the facts (which Iott selectively ignores).

In her thorough survey of the major memoirs and novels about the Holocaust, Franklin identifies the essential contributions the best of these works makes to the perpetuation of the Holocaust narrative. She covers the writers you would expect like Wiesel and Primo Levi, but she also spends significant time on lesser-known and equally worthy authors like Imre Kertesz. While Franklin is an advocate for the power of imagination, she is particularly hard on authors of the “Second Generation” whom she accuses of “identity theft.” Likewise, she sees promise in the “Third Generation” of writers like Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer who by not having to deal directly with the Holocaust, have been able to shed new light from oblique angles. She also spends significant time on Thomas Keneally’s “non-fiction novel”  Schindler’s Ark and its adaptation into Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List.

And why should you care? Because memory is preserved in many different ways. To be critical of the selective memory of World War II war reenactors only does half a job. We should be equally rigorous in how the legacy of World War II reads on the pages of our books.

No apologies for accepting same-sex couples in the Jewish Community

by Halley Cohen, new director of the Stuart S. Kurlander Program for GLBT Outreach & Engagement (GLOE)

The New Jersey Jewish Standard released a statement on Monday apologizing for the “pain and consternation” caused by a same-sex couple’s wedding announcement they had published last week. They have promised not to run any more such same-sex announcements in the future, saying that, “The Jewish Standard has always striven to draw the community together, rather than drive its many segments apart.” Well, all except the gays, of course. Apparently, this “community” they want to bring together does not include same-sex couples. Perhaps gay people individually, just as long as they aren’t too loud about it or want to draw any attention to themselves or their families or their lives.

This is why our children kill themselves.

In this ongoing spate of publicized suicides by young queer (or perceived queer) people, we grasp at any explanation to try to understand the tragedies. Is it because technology makes bullying and exploitation easier now? Maybe all of society is more polarized to the extremes in politics and actions. Or perhaps kids are just meaner to each other these days? I call “bullshit.” It’s too convenient to blame the kids. The kids aren’t without culpability, but if we’re going to trace the blame back to its source, then it has to rest on our own adult shoulders.

Every time we, as adults, decide that it’s fine to say something negative against people of different genders or sexualities, our children see that. They also see when we don’t speak up against other people who say anything to the effect of, “Gay isn’t okay.” And they see that everywhere – from politicians who win votes by preaching hate as a family value, to those who want LGBT teachers out of their schools. More broadly, every child has something within herself or himself or hirself that will separate that child from whatever is more common. If we don’t embrace big-D Difference, that child grows up fearing or hating her/his/hir own, both within and in others.

And we’re making it worse.

When papers like the New Jersey Jewish Standard cave to the interests of the “deep sensitivities within the traditional/Orthodox community,” they aren’t doing anyone any favors. Their actions fracture the Jewish community further because they make it seem like all traditional/Orthodox Jews are hostile to the LGBT community. Luckily, there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. The DCJCC is proud to host DC Minyan, which identifies itself as, “fully traditional and fully egalitarian,” and invites people to celebrate the aufruf of two female members this coming Shabbat morning, among other inclusive events. Plus, there has been movement in national Orthodox groups, as well.

On October 20, GLOE will be welcoming Miryam Kabakov and her book, Keep Your Wives Away From Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires, to the DCJCC through the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival. The element that struck me most was the sheer variety of experiences within an Orthodox or traditional setting:  women who are out of the closet and in; married, “married,” single, dating; in the happy aftermath and in the ongoing negotiations with family. Being queer is only incompatible with an Orthodox life if individuals decide it is. Often, they don’t.

I shouldn’t have been so surprised. I might have had a blind spot about the Orthodox because I figured, “I’m Jewish; I know what they believe.” It seems so many Jews have different rules for whoever they think of as “the Orthodox,” treat them differently (positively and negatively), even if only in their thoughts. The newspaper went so far as to change their editorial policies because a portion of that population was upset, even though the paper also mentioned letters of support for same-sex marriage announcements.

Keep Your Wives Away From Them gives images of lives that are often invisible or purposely ignored on multiple levels. It works against this trend that says to queer youth, you don’t exist here and are not welcome. By creating visible Jewish community, it says the opposite. The book says, “community” means same-sex couples, too.

More talk, more publicity, more ink in newspapers is what the issue needs. Not statements of apology for acknowledging the lives of queer Jews.

To New Beginnings

by Michal Rosenoer, Behrend Builders Coordinator and Avodah Fellow

I’ve picked up a lot of new identities in this past month. Not passports or aliases, but rather identity-markers like “recent graduate” and “young Jewish professional” that are both new and strange to me. Since I moved here from the San Francisco Bay Area just over a month ago, I’ve been in the process of re-writing myself and, incidentally, re-shaping the way I see the world.  

Michal Rosenoer, Avodah Fellow at Behrend BuildersBefore I go further into this note, I would like to not-so-formally introduce myself. My name is Michal Rosenoer and I am the new Program Coordinator for Behrend Builders here at the Washington DC JCC. I took over this position in early September upon my acceptance into AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, which places a fellow in this position each year. As I mentioned earlier, I just moved to the District in late August from California where I was born, raised, and attended the University of California at Berkeley (go Bears!) As I’ve begun to make the transition from one coastline to another and from college-student to professional within the last 30 days, I can honestly say that I’m currently experiencing one of the busiest and most exciting times of my (albeit short) life. So what does it feel like to pick up all these identities at once?

Emotionally exhausting.

In college, I was just your average run-of-the-mill “liberal outdoorsy female.” Now, in a city where nametags, business cards, and even zip codes are defining features of a person, I am those things and so much more. In addition to the identifiers listed above, I have also recently become an AVODAH fellow, a housemate in an intentionally-Jewish communal home, a JCC employee, and a West Coaster (commonly identified by a lack of solid footwear in inclement weather, apparently). Coming to terms with my new life here in D.C. means not only adjusting to the pressures and expectations from each of these new titles, but also asking big questions like, “what does it mean to be doing social justice work in the city’s capital,” or “how is Shabbat a radical practice,” and of course, the ever-ongoing debate, “are these shoes work-appropriate?” Some of these discussions are entirely internal, but some have been facilitated by my peers, the AVODAH staff, and of course, my new colleagues here at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center.

Right now I am struggling to answer many of these questions for myself. Sometimes I even struggle to hold them all in my head at once, but I am quickly learning that responding to these queries is an ongoing process (I think they call this personal growth); just accepting the existence of the questions and all the facets of my new life is a step in the right direction. Baby steps are key, I am told.

Fortunately, I like where these baby steps are getting me thus far. While I am still adjusting to a Hekshered-kosher vegetarian kitchen and working a 40-hour work week, I think the most daunting new identity of them all – “adult” –  is becoming a little less intimidating. I look forward to sharing part of my journey here, with the DC JCC community.

Required Reading for Rick Sanchez and Jon Stewart

What to make of Rick Sanchez’s bizarre and self-destructive anti-Semitic outburst? Well, Jon Stewart, who was the Jewish synecdoche in his rant, made some gentle fun of it and Rick Sanchez on his show Monday night. Yes, he made Sanchez look foolish, but Sanchez had already done that on his own. At the end, he pretty much lets him off the hook by stating, “I’m not even sure Sanchez believes what he’s saying.” There were some follow-up columns today, word of an apology and the whole affair seems ready to fade as its Friday to Monday lifespan expires.

Capitalism and the JewsBut missing in the ensuing fallout has been the more delicate question, not of whether Rick Sanchez believed what he was saying, but why, throughout the ages have similar charges been levelled at Jews and believed in the first place? Why is it that the refrain of “Jews control (fill in the blank: CNN, the media, the banks, all of capitalism)” has such durability?

There are two parts to that answer, and the first is the acknowledgement that Jews have been very succesful in the media and in Western capitalism generally. Prominently successful? Definitely. Disproportionately successful? Perhaps. And at times that success has made Jews a target for groups that are dissatisfied and under duress (and when your show is getting the shove for Eliot Spitzer’s comeback, you’re definitely under duress). While that explanation satisfies the sociological explanation of how one group comes to blame another, it sidesteps a more delicate question: Why are Jews more or more prominently successful in capitalist societies?

That is the question at the heart of Jerry Muller’s suddenly all-too-timely Capitalism and the Jews which is being featured on October 25 as a part of our Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival. The title itself is provocative because the Jewish community has been reluctant to discuss its own success so publicly. Muller writes in his introduction, “some Jews regard the public discussion of Jews and capitalism as intrinsically impolitic, as if conspiratorial fantasies about Jews and money can be eliminated by prudent silence.” In its willingness to look studiously at the history of Jews and the rise of capitalism, this book reminds me a lot of An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood by Neal Gabler, which tackled the history of the Jewish moguls who established the film industry as an economic and cultural force in American life.

While Gabler structured his book around the biographies of the Hollywood moguls and the studios they created, Muller breaks his study into four sections: “The Long Shadow of Usury,” which examines the rise of capitalism and Jews’ early roles in it; “The Jewish Response to Capitalism” which further explains the success of Jews in modern capitalist societies and the communal response to this dominant ism; “Radical Anticapitalism” which looks at what Muller calls “the dialectic of disaster; anti-Semitism led Jews to prominent positions in Communist movements, and their very salience in a movement that threatened existing society provided new fuel for anti-Semitism.” Finally, Muller looks at the sometimes lethal mix of capitalism and nationalism — and the important ways in which nationalistic kinship can both shape and be shaped by economic development and disaster.

Of course, a logical exposition of the history and consequences of Jews and capitalism should be all that’s needed to put to rest these silly conspiracy theories and fury-fueled anti-Semitic rants.

Then again, maybe Jon Stewart should have Jerry Muller on his show. They’d have a lot to talk about.

Women Rock Film Program

Women have been rockin’ the J’s film program lately!  First, Ruth Bader Ginsburg came to visit a couple of weeks ago.  It’s not every day that we have a Supreme Court justice here, on stage, for any reason.  Justice Ginsberg – most gracious, thoughtful and displaying a keen sense of humor – was part of a panel talking about Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, another award-winning film by our very own star filmmaker, Aviva Kempner.  The Justice appears in the film and came to share with the sold-out audience her thoughts and memories of the Goldbergs on radio and tv.  She recalled her own family and childhood growing up in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood.  The event was a special program and party to celebrate the DVD release of Aviva’s film, which is about yet another groundbreaking woman, Gertrude Berg.

One young woman in the audience, Robin Janofsky, was inspired after the Q&A to confess that she had “a life-changing moment” right in our theater!   Robin asked the Justice what advice she would give to young women today.  “Have confidence in yourself…work hard to make your dream come true,” Justice Ginsburg answered.  “There has not been a better time in history for young women than now.”

From the audience, CBS News reporter Dan Raviv asked if a program like the Goldbergs on radio and tv contributed to acceptance of Jews in the US.  Justice Ginsburg explained that she views the program as part of the universality of the immigrant experience.  “Italian and Irish families could also related as could all families coming to a new world…hoping their children could achieve and not lose their own identities.”

And we’re not done yet.  This week mother-and-business-woman-turned-filmmaker Vicki Abeles brought the DC premiere of her new film Race to Nowhere to our WJFF Year-Round screen.  The film is a powerful and provocative exploration of our pressure-cooker educational system and its too often destructive effect on children and families.

The discussion with Vicki after the film was serious, heartfelt and enlightening.  Parents asked how they can help their kids, even those as young as pre-school.  Speaking from the audience were principals of two alternative DC schools as well as teachers from DC, VA and MD – sharing their reactions to the film and their own experiences as educators.  Some had questions and some wanted to support Vicki’s call for grass-roots action to make changes in the US educational system.  One teacher, for example, expressed the desire to show the film to the as yet un-named new superintendent of the Montgomery County schools in the hope of helping the county schools move away from the emphasis on testing.  For those of you who missed it, Vicki and the film will be at the Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema again on Monday, October 4.

On last thing…if you want to see a lovely film, head to Nora’s Will which is going into an extended run at the Avalon.  The WJFF sponsored its screening at Filmfest DC last April.  The film won 7 Mexican Academy Awards including Best Picture, and now Michael O’Sullivan in the Washington Post called it “sweet, surprising and satisfying.”

Now it’s time for me to get back to planning the 21st Washington Jewish Film Festival.  Just wait until you hear what’s coming this December 2012!!  More news soon.  In the meantime, tickets are on sale for our next film program on October 18 – Sayed Kashua: Forever Scared plus one episode of this incredible author’s groundbreaking Israeli tv series, Arab Labor.

Susan Barocas, WJFF Director

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