Where Is A Jew?

One reason I love my emails of headlines from the Times of Israel is that every once in a while there’s something so ridiculously cool I don’t quite know what to do with myself.

Of course, I generally feel like I’m the only one who thinks it’s so cool, but I try not to let that small factor affect my overall enjoyment learning about something new. One of my favorite topics to read about is what can be dubbed “Jews from Unexpected Places,” i.e. not places we often associate with Jewish communities, such as the US, Israel, or Europe, which appears every so often at the bottom of the headlines.

Congregation Kahal Kadosh Shaare Shalom is Jamaica's only remaining synagogue. (Courtesy of Congregation Kahal Kadosh Shaare Shalom via JTA)

Today I was clicking my way through the ToI website and found an article about the Jewish community of  Jamaica. I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about Jewish history, including the Jewish migrations to the Western Hemisphere, but I had no clue there was ever a Jewish community in Jamaica, let alone one that is active today in Congregation Kahal Kadosh Shaare Shalom, the island’s only remaining synagogue. Given the long history of Judaism and roles Jews have played as merchants over the centuries, Jewish communities in other places shouldn’t be, well, surprising.

So much of American-Jewish culture (which often means Ashkenazic culture) is focused on Europe and Israel that I think we often forget how much of a global reach Judaism has had. Most of the Jewish-American traditions I know best come from Eastern Europe and New York; and like a lot of American Jews, those are my personal family traditions.

But our knowledge of Judaism should be wider. Last year while in Israel I met a Jew from Kenya, a place I had no idea has a Jewish community at all, let alone a strong one. I read an article in September about the Jewish community of Uruguay. A few months ago I had dinner with a woman who works with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and with a Jewish Community Center in India. A Jewish man from Uganda is studying at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem this year, and every time I go to the Israel Museum I find at least one object I never would have dreamed of, especially in the Costumes and Jewelry exhibit. And the Washington Jewish Film Festival will be screening a documentary about the Jews of Nigeria. These places have their own traditions, histories, and, of course, food, all made unique by the combination of Judaism and other local customs.

There’s a whole world of Judaism out there to explore, Jewish communities in all parts of the world, and we can honor those communities when we remember:

1)      that Jews are found in cultures all over the world, and speak be’chol lashon – in every tongue!
2)      that Jews come in every color!
3)      not to ask Jews of color if they have converted, or other exclusionary questions.

Though Jews have been living on Jamaica since 1577, maybe even since Columbus’ first trip in 1492, the community is getting smaller; it’s down to about 200 people. But it is a strong, diverse group of Jews by birth and Jews by choice, many of whom have converted back to their family’s Jewish roots. They are maintaining what is possibly the oldest Jewish community in the Western Hemisphere, and a wonderful reminder of the beauty that is the multi-faceted Jewish culture.

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Are My Holiday Traditions Yours Too?

Ah, holiday traditions. ‘Tis the season for them, no matter where you’re from or what you believe.

Chanukkah is over, unless you’re like my family and waiting for everyone to come home around New Years to celebrate together, and most people are putting the chanukiot and dreidels away and bemoaning the piles of latkes leftover in the fridge. Still, Jews have another holiday with its own traditions coming up. No, you didn’t forget one; it’s merely Sleeping In, Chinese Food, and Movies Day, or what most of the world considers Christmas.

Okay, so maybe not every single Jew does the Chinese Food and Movies thing, but I know plenty of people who do, and I’ve yet to meet someone who disagrees with the widely-accepted popular culture stereotype. I’ve been doing it happily since I was allowed to go to the theater without my parents. I don’t recall missing a year since, I have a regular partner-in-crime back home in New Jersey, or at least I do when we’re both in the same state at the same time, and if I’m away it’s not too hard to find someone to go with. (I don’t count last year because December 25th is no big deal in Israel.)

D25-logo2012

This year, I’ll be adding something to my Christmas Day plans: participating in the DCJCC’s annual December 25th Day of Service, which brings together over 1,000 volunteers to bring some warmth and cheer to over 10,000 DC, Maryland, and Virginia residents.

 

EntryPointDC and a grand group of good-hearted young professionals will be at Change Inc., a social services organization in Columbia Heights, throwing a party for children of local, low-income families. Not only will we bring gifts, but we’ll have snacks, art and crafts projects, and D25 Partymaybe, if they’ve been good, a visit from Santa. It’s a couple hours out of a day when we’re not at work anyway, and what mitzvah to bring some holiday cheer to kids who may not get it anywhere else! (And no one said anything about not getting Chinese food and seeing Les Miserables after…). You can sign up here to join us, spaces are still available!

Any other interesting December 25th traditions out there?

 

 

 

 

 

Modernity and Tradition: Our Struggle for a Modern Jewish Identity

By Tami Wolf
Director, EntryPointDC

It might seem crazy, but the daily struggle we have today over the balance between tradition and modernity and identity is not new to the Jewish people.

Torah is full of examples of Israelites trying to live in the bigger world while maintaining their ways, not always successfully. Even the story of Chanukkah, which starts on December 8 this year, is about how one group of people thought Jews should balance tradition and modernity. If it weren’t a struggle, if we didn’t have conflicting feelings about this, it wouldn’t still bother us today, and that is why it is still so important.

This afternoon, the DCJCC hosted Anat Hoffman for a lunchtime update on the current state of pluralism in Israel. Hoffman works with two organizations that are working for change, i.e. changing tradition, in Jewish life in Israel. One is the Israel Religious Action Center.

The IRAC, as it’s affectionately known, is the legal arm of the Union for Reform Judaism in Israel and addresses issues of religion and state in Israel, including social justice, equality, and religious pluralism. They are trying to find a way to balance traditional and modern values and make religion in Israel something all Jews can feel comfortable with.

Hoffman is also the head of an organization called Women of the Wall (WoW), whose mission is “to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.”

Women of the Wall meet every rosh chodesh (new month) to pray at the kotel together. From my own experiences with them, the Women of the Wall are not looking to start a fight with local police officers or upset other worshipers; they merely want the right to pray in a way that is meaningful to them.

This afternoon, Hoffman talked about how Israelis are attempting to maintain traditions while living in a definitely modern state. She talked about the work IRAC and WoW are doing on things we think of as extremist – things we would never dream are happening in a place we see as so western and modern:

  • segregated busses, where women sit in the back and men in the front;
  • uncondemned racism from state-employed rabbis towards Arabs;
  • and, of course, the hold a small group of ultra-orthodox extremists have over all religious aspects of the country, including over the management of holy sites.

Hoffman’s struggles with the IRAC and Women of the Wall are two windows on the struggles we face between living our traditions and embracing the modern world we live in today.
Anat’s visit kicks off a slew of upcoming Israel programming at the DCJCC.

Theater J, the DCJCC’s professional theater company, will be staging two plays about life in Israel, and it is one of those that I want to talk about specifically.

Apples from the Desert, by Savyon Liebrecht, is a story of a search for balance. The protagonist is Rivka, a young Sephardic religious girl, whose life is turned upside down when she meets and falls in love with a secular kibbutznik from the south, Dooby.

Rivka has to do what all of us strive to do: find a way to maintain her religious identity in a way she feels is appropriate without dismissing the expectations of her family and community or turning away from what she really wants.
I don’t think there’s a “right” or a “wrong” solution to this problem, but I do think we can all arrive at answers we are comfortable with, at least for the moment. I have no doubt this is a daily struggle, something that as individuals we always have to come to terms with and re-evaluate as our lives move on.

Personally, I’m very much looking forward to exploring how DC’s young professionals see this issue and have made choices for themselves, on December 22 after a performance of Apples from the Desert, and especially how Israel has been a part of that process. (That means you’re invited, so come talk this out with me.)

And on that note, Happy Thanksgiving from EPDC!

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