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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SmartParenting (?)

As a parent, I’ve found my smart phone to be a god-send.  If it’s in the middle of the night, and my child is up for a feeding, I can check email or play a game so that I’m not “engaging” her when she should be eating and then falling back asleep.  Or the light is great for when I can’t find her pacifier.  Or the web app is ideal for 3:00 am searches if I can’t get back to sleep after she’s asleep because I’m wondering (worried?) about some development question.  Or my children love the sound of Atlanta Nana’s voice, and I’ve been known to call her or play her voicemails over the Bluetooth in the car to soothe them while I drive.

You can always tell when I’m on maternity leave by my Facebook activity, not just the endless pics of my cute kids but also how often I can be on.  I tend to have a lot of “free time” at odd hours.

But then, what about the other times?  When it’s in the middle of the day, and I’m thinking, “Please just go back to sleep so I can play Freecell?”  Or saying, “Mommy just needs to send this text of your cute face to your grandparents and aunts, I’ll be with you in a sec”?  It seems natural in this “connected age,” but then I think, am I a bad parent? (For the former scenario, probably.  For the latter scenario, can you blame me?)

There was a blog post not too long ago about “Texting While Parenting,” which noted the psychological and socio-emotional effects of using a smart phone while your child is awake instead of engaging them. This was followed up by numerous articles in October about the physical danger of smartphone use.  Great—now parents need to add another reason to feel guilty or fear about their parenting skills?

Then I remembered a Yom Kippur service years ago, before I was a parent to a 2-year old and 3-month old.  The rabbi said something about “10% is showing up, 90% is being there.” (I didn’t write it all down, something about not writing on a High Holy Day…)  And that makes sense to me.  You can’t always be the perfect parent.  And sometimes you need to put your screaming child in a safe place and walk away.  But you can be present when you’re with them.  Drop7, email, SongPop and Facebook can wait.  Your children and mine should not.

Instead of just saying children should honor their mother and father, let’s add Commandment 5 ½:  honor your children.  Think of it as a lasting Chanukah present.

And don’t worry—I’ve never texted while driving or when my child is in the pool or bathtub. (Though I keep it on the bathroom counter because I always worry that something might happen, and I’ll need to call 911—I’m Jewish, I worry, it’s part of the deal).

Monday Media: Charles King’s Odessa

Last fall Professor Charles King came to the DCJCC to discuss Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams as part of the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival. This free event was The Bernard Wexler Lecture on Jewish History for 2011.

The port city of Odessa has been a gathering place of geniuses, villains, aristocrats, artists and political insurgents of every nationality, religion and social class. King traces the history and myths that have made the city one of the world’s most important multicultural centers for nearly three centuries, unfolding a mesmerizing tale that dramatizes the conflict between cosmopolitanism and nationalism, acceptance and ethnic zeal.

Right click and “save link as” to download as an MP3
Or listen online here

Telling It Like It Is: Jews, Sports and Writing

With baseball season in full swing, enjoy this podcast from the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival, Telling It Like It Is: Jews, Sports and Writing.

Former New York Times columnist and Emmy-winning television host Robert Lipsyte, author of the memoir An Accidental Sportwriter; historian John Bloom, author of the biography There You Have It:  The Life, Legacy, and Legend of Howard Cosell; and moderator Dan Steinberg of The Washington Post’s “D.C. Sports Bog” discussed sports, culture and modern media.

This event was part of the The Chaim Kempner Author Series, which brings authors of recently published books to the 16th Street J for the learning and enjoyment of the entire community, and was presented in partnership with the 16th Street J’s Sports Leagues.

Right click and “save link as” to download as an MP3
Or listen online here

Seven Questions for: Schmekel

Schmekel is awesome. The “100% Transgender, 100% Jewish schtick-rock band” does songs about important things, silly things, and thingy things.

“Schmekel’s bespectacled transsexual singer-songwriters are guitarist Lucian Kahn and keyboardist Ricky Riot. Mohawked bassist Nogga Schwartz yells loudly, and genderqueer drummer Simcha Halpert-Hanson carries two big sticks.” (Read more about ’em here.)

And they were kind enough to hold forth on the vital topics in our Seven Questions:

1) How would you describe what you do to someone from the 19th Century?

Lucian: Oscar Wilde has written a farcical, yet appreciative, song-cycle about the polymorphous perverse.  He’s a Jew from Bukovinia, and he’s got a Dynamophone.
Ricky: We are a band of openly Jewish inverts who play magical loud instruments. Three of us are short gentlemen who are rumoured to have even shorter organs. One of us is neither man nor woman. Our songs are gay and jolly yet not suitable for the faint of heart.

2) What did you want to be when you grew up?

Lucian: A rock star!  Or possibly a Ninja Turtle.
Ricky: Some kind of performer.
Simcha: Well, it varied.  From ages 3-7 I wanted to be a painter; ages 8-12, I desperately wanted to be a famous actor, like Claire Danes.  And then from age 13 onward, I passionately devoted myself to the quest of *indie* (I abhored corporate rock) pacific-northwest stardom (I abhored the east coast). Thankfully, I no longer find the east coast an abhorrence.

3) Is there a book you’re embarrassed to admit you’ve never read?

Lucian: I spend a lot of time singing about penises.  It’s hard to embarrass me.
Ricky: Lucian, I actually gave you a book about penises once. Did you read it? I hope you’re not embarrassed. Someone once lent me Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, insisting that it’ll change my life and help me understand her better. It was really dumb and I want those few hours of my life back.
Simcha: There are a lot of trashy teens-dying-of-cancer-while-falling-in-love books I am embarrassed to admit I’ve devoured.  Unless I am trying to prove my academic prowess or qualify my halachic knowledge base, I can’t think of any basic books I ought to have read by now and haven’t.

4) Woody Allen, Pro or Con?

Lucian: Pro early Woody Allen.  He understands the importance of a good egg salad recipe.
Ricky: Also pro early Woody Allen. Biased opinion though because I have an uncle who looks exactly like him.
Simcha: A natural anti-depressant.

5) What’s your favorite non-English word?

Lucian: I identify strongly with the word feygele.
Simcha: I really love the Yiddish language.  I guess of all the words and names I’ve learned thus far, my favorite would be Faraynikte Shtaten [Ed.: United States] because it’s so long and intimidating to read in Yiddish.
Ricky: Shlemazal is a funny word and a funny concept. It’s a person with really bad luck. Also Abra Cadabra is in Aramaic. It means, “as it is said, it shall be created”. And how ‘bout some Hebrew slang: “Lefasbek” is to add someone on Facebook. And I’ll conjugate it for you. Hoo mefasbek, hee mefasbeket, anachnu mefasbekim…

6) What issue do you wish other people knew more about?

Lucian: I wish more people knew and cared about the problems facing queer homeless teenagers and trans people seeking medical care.
Simcha:  I agree with Lucian.  I also wish people had more sensitivity to gender-identity and the bathroom.  Stress is a powerfully debilitating force.
Ricky: I wish that more people including myself knew more about the process by which a capitalist economic system makes people poor.

7) Historical figure, living or not, that you’d want to share a bagel with, and what kind of bagel?

Lucian: I would like to share an everything bagel with Paul Celan.
Simcha: I’d share a garlic bagel with Rebbe Schneerson and find out whether he is actually Mashiach. 😉
Ricky: Thelonious Monk, because that dude was nuts and probably really interesting, and might have taught me a few things about music. Onion bagel, toasted, with olive cream cheese and lox.


Catch Schmekel on May 20 at Chief Ike’s with GLOE, as part of the Washington Jewish Music Festival.

Read all of the Seven Questions interviews.

The Bread of Affection

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By Alex Grossberg, Preschool Assistant Director and Pedagogista

As the students and teachers of our Preschool began preparing for Passover, there was a lot of discussion about the symbols of the holiday. The one symbol that the students kept mentioning was matzah! Unlike most adults, children usually seem to enjoy matzah. As one three year old said, “It’s like a super giant Passover cracker!”

Each year teachers all over the country explain to their preschool students that we eat matzah to remind us of the exodus from Egypt. As an adult, I have a hard time understanding the correlation, so how do we expect a group of two–five year olds to grasp such an abstract concept? During the days before Passover, the students were invited to participate in a matzah factory at the DCJCC.

After talking about the history of the Jews leaving Egypt, the students went through the entire 18-minute process (we were not too strict on time, especially for the younger ones) of making matzah.  We then served it at our Seder in Song the week before Passover.  Here is what the process looked like in the words of our preschoolers:

  1. “We used flour and water. And we mixed it up (motioning mixing the ingredients together).” – Gamalim (2.5 yr old) student
  2. “And we rolled it. We rolled it really flat.” – Gamalim (2.5 yr old) student
  3. “We need some flour on the rollers so it doesn’t stick.” – Peelim (4.5 yr old) student
  4. “I made a pancake!” – Etzim (2 yr old) student
  5. “Squish it! Look how flat I made it. It looks like a state. Or a chicken. And this is the head. It looks like a triangle. It looks like a pyramid. Hey! It looks like a pyramid of Egypt.” – Bogrim (5 yr old) student
  6. “We poke holes so it doesn’t rise.” – Gamalim (2.5 yr old) student
  7. “Don’t let it rise! But, yesterday, my mom made bread. And she put it near the heater on my little chair. We had to wait for it to rise. It took a long time. I got to try a little piece, but it was past my bedtime.” – Bogrim (5 yr old) student
  8. “That doesn’t look like real matzah. It looks to be like real bread. It doesn’t look matzah-shaped. Matzah is square shaped, and ours is a circle.”  – Peelim (4.5 yr old) student
  9. “And now we are baking it in the oven” – Teacher; “We don’t put bacon in the oven!” – Gamalim (2.5 yr old) student
  10. “I made a gorgeous matzah!” – Yanshoofim (3 yr old) student
  11. “It’s the best matzah I ever ate!” – Kochavim (3.5 yr old) student

Media Monday: Alicia Oltuski’s Precious Objects

Today’s podcast from the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival features Alicia Oltuski’s fascinating talk on Precious Objects: A Story of Diamonds, Family, and a Way of Life.

Alicia Oltuski, a 26-year-old journalist and daughter of a diamond dealer, takes readers behind-the-scenes to reveal the shrouded inner workings of the diamond industry and some of its most fascinating characters. Combining interviews with family, friends, dealers, craftsmen, gemologists, scientists, detectives and entrepreneurs with historical research, Oltuski lifts the curtain on the extraordinary world of diamonds.

Right click and “save link as” to download as an MP3
Or listen online here

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