Trouble to See #2: Beyond Central Casting

further thoughts and references on Jews and Racial Justice….

“Bernie Sanders Looks Like Everyone’s Jewish Grandpa…,” read a headline on the Jewish Daily Forward website earlier this election season. But Sanders doesn’t look anything like these Jewish men, some of whom are probably grandpas, or like many Sephardic grandpas. He doesn’t look like the grandparents of many Jewish children in the United States. Bernie Sanders looks like Jewish grandpas from only one part of the world.

The blurb was meant to be cute, sure, but it still promotes an extremely limited view of who “looks Jewish.” (Sadly, the Forward lets the same sloppy “Jewish looks” idea inform news stories as well.) This, in turn, helps validate widespread challenging of anyone who doesn’t look like “a Jew” Central Casting might send.

Jews of color, in particular, report being frequently singled out and questioned about their background — despite that fact that this is contrary to a number of Jewish teachings.

This is just one way in which Jewish communities have work to do, more than most of us would like to admit,
in the area of racial justice.

(How) Are You Jewish?!

Not all Jews of color are Jews by choice. But the Talmud’s specific stress on not embarrassing a proselyte or child of a proselyte (Baba Metzia 58b) seems apropos. As does Jewish law forbidding differentiating between Jews by choice and Jews by blood (see, e.g., Yebamot 47b).

More generally, Jewish tradition teaches “verbal wrongs”
are more serious than monetary ones
and that shaming a person in public is the same as shedding blood
(Baba Metzia 58b, again).

It is sometimes argued that people are “merely curious” and not attempting to shame a person who looks “different.” But this ignores what Jews of color, and others who don’t necessarily resemble Ashkenazi Jews, have repeatedly said: Being harassed with demands to explain yourself and your connection to Judaism is not welcoming; it is exhausting to be singled out all the time and demoralizing to have one’s identity challenged.

Micah810_53Michael Twitty, an African American Jew, describes how other Jews regularly question his presence in Jewish space and often demand: “Were you born Jewish?” (Jews United for Justice “Racial Justice Seder“)

MaNishtana, “100% Black, 100% Jewish, 0% Safe,” has his identity challenged so often, he says, that he finally penned a book entitled Fine, thanks. How Are You, Jewish?

In her famous poem, “Hebrew Mamita,” Vanessa Hidary speaks about a man complimenting her with, “You don’t look Jewish. You don’t act Jewish.” Eventually, she develops this  response:

Bigging up all people who are a little miffed
‘cuz someone tells you you don’t look like
or act like your people. Impossible.
Because you are your people.
You just tell them they don’t look. period.
listen here

Jewish Diversity and Racial Justice

One organization that has been working for years to “foster an expanding Jewish community that embraces its differences,” is Be’chol Lashon: In Every Tongue. Among their offerings are research, resources, and diversity-celebrating materials.

Recognizing and celebrating diversity within Jewish communities also means addressing the discrimination and risk that fellow Jews face because of their color. See, e.g., “#MyJewish and Why It Matters.” This is another crucial element in the story of Jews and Racial Justice. (more soon)

NOTE

The same publication has made factual errors in the past based on assumptions about who “looks Jewish.”
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Death by Disrespect (Beyond 31)


How can we end the plague of disrespect around race-related topics that threatens our country with disaster? Perhaps the Omer journey shows us a way to begin.

Rabbi Akiva, a key player in the story of four who visited Paradise (see yesterday’s post), is also central to a narrative linked with the Omer period. The Talmud relates how 24,000 of Akiva’s students “died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect.”

Later tradition identifies the “same time” as the first 32 days of the Omer and the proximate cause as a divine plague. (More below on Akiva and the Omer.)

Rampant, Unacknowledged Disrespect: Then…


The Talmud speaks of plague victims as “twelve thousand pairs of students,” referencing the practice of learning with a partner. Among the many questions this brief, symbolic tale raises is one of awareness: Did Rabbi Akiva realize his students were disrespecting one another and fail to intervene? Or did he somehow not notice the disaster brewing among ALL 12,000 pairs of students? How could anyone be that oblivious?

One explanation is that Akiva’s students outwardly gave the impression that all was well, pretending to respect one another’s opinions and learning.

Are we behaving any differently in this country today?

…and Now

How many of us have been vaguely aware that we live in a nation divided by White privilege but failed — whether through indifference, despair, or confusion — to address it, opting instead to go along to get along? And when an uprising occurs in Ferguson or Baltimore, how many of us find the whole thing too painful to consider in any serious way?

from JFREJ in NYC May 2

from JFREJ in NYC May 2

How many of us have engaged, however unconsciously, in the variety of mental gymnastics that help maintain the “all is well” impression, with any suggestion to the contrary attributed to isolated incidents and (usually “outside”) individual agitators?

How often have perspectives of people of color been dismissed as “extreme” by media, and individual consumers of it, instead of taken seriously?

And how often have we dismissed every perspective but our own, often using labeling — “liberal,” “Tea Party,” “Right,” “Left” — to define others as unworthy of consideration?

Ending the Plague

According to legend, there are 32 days of plague followed by 17 more days in the Omer. The Hebrew numbers “32” and “17” can be read as equivalent to the Hebrew words “lev [heart]” and “tov [good].”**

It is the “good heart” that seems to have been missing from Akiva’s learning community and that is all too often missing from discourse in our country today.

Perhaps we can begin to turn this around by consciously chipping away at the veneer of “all well” and pursuing real respect in its place.

What if each one of us committed to having one difficult, but honest and respectful, conversation about race?

Suppose 12,000 of us engaged in such a conversation, yielding 24,000 people with a slightly broader understanding! And if each of those 24,000 engaged someone else….

Imagine our experience of Revelation, at the end of the omer period, encompassing the many new perspectives gained during this journey. If we approach Sinai this year with hearts each a tiny bit more attuned to the neighbors surrounding us, what more might be revealed?

**lamed + bet = lev/heart (32) and tet + vav + bet = tov/good(17).


Who’s ready? And how might we share our commitments to this effort?

We counted 31 on the evening of May 4. Tonight, we count….

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Tefillin Barbie Tries a New Siddur

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Soferet [scribe] Jen Taylor Friedman uses her scribal arts to create a variety of ritual items: ketubot [marriage certificates]; scrolls of the Book of Esther; scrolls to be used in mezuzot [doorpost markers] and tefillin [ritual boxes bound to arm and head]; as well as complete sets of tefillin. In 2007, she became the first woman we know to have completed a full Torah scroll. (More about female scribes)

UPDATE: An earlier version of this blog listed vegetarian tefillin among HaSoferet offerings. This was in error. Apologies. See discussion and comments below.

Barbie_ArrivedSince 2006, Taylor Friedman has also been providing mini-tallitot [prayer shawls] and tiny tefillin for Barbie® dolls.

One of these “Tefillin Barbies” recently traveled from Montreal to Washington, DC.

DC Tefillin Barbie arrived with a volume of the Babylonian Talmud in her hand. Seems she was studying something in Yebamot. This tractate focuses on marriage of a widow to her brother-in-law, but I believe Barbie may have been exploring passages, which appear near the beginning of the volume (4b, 5b), about tying of tzitzit, ritual fringes.

Study vs. Prayer

Early critics of Tefillin Barbie argued that, because tefillin are donned for prayer, Barbie ought to have a prayerbook in her hand, not a Talmud volume; some also criticized the particular edition of the Talmud she uses. (See, e.g., DovBear; more below).

In response, Taylor Friedman’s website now explains that Barbie is engaged in “daf-yomi” [page a day] study of the Talmud. (This practice requires seven years of daily discipline to complete. Some women in Israel and in the U.S. engage in this study, but it is usually considered a male enterprise; in addition it’s usually considered an orthodox practice, although non-Orthodox Jews also participate.) She adds:

Barbie is hardcore, see? She’s taking daf-yomi shiur before minyan starts, telling you that she’s sorry you don’t get that Tosafot but we don’t have time to get into it right now and she’ll go through it with you if you can stay afterwards.

Perhaps a real hardcore Barbie fan might get a whole set of mini-Talmud volumes, so she is carrying the right volume for any particular day of the seven-year Daf-Yomi cycle: For example, she’d be starting Moed Katan/Hagiga [Minor Feast/Festival Offerings] today (8/13/14). But I’m pretty sure DC Tefillin Barbie downloads her learning off the internet or uses a local library volume.

Meanwhile, having been warned “that tallit and tefillin are not designed to come off, and that this is a collector Barbie, not a toy suitable for small children,” I assumed Barbie might be pretty set in her ways. But when she arrived, I realized that she was, in fact, a Barbie doll…

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