4/15/16

Looking ahead... Can Jews "Pass as White" if they don't look white?

Though we didn't cover it in class, probably because conversations about it in American Jewish culture are too new, there is another wrinkle in the trajectory of American Jews being integrated into American society based on the privilege that we "pass as white."  Namely, what happens when some of us don't look remotely white to begin with?

The problem is that it can create, or continuously re-create an uneasy liminal state wherein Jews cannot fully access their Jewish identity in most contexts.  This, for better or worse, can include access to the benefits of, or even the opportunity to, "pass as white" that American Jews enjoy.  Mizrachi Jews in America may sometimes find themselves in a tenuous situation as xenophobia in general, and Islamophobia specifically, grows.  As classic racial tensions rise, Jews of African-American ancestry worry (with cause) about visiting synagogues during High Holidays.  The list goes on.

I feel that this is an issue that is somewhat unique and will require some new thinking in order to work through in the coming years and decades.  I'm wondering if anyone else has any thoughts on this?

Intersectionality, Anti-Semitism, and the "Hierarchy" of Oppression

One of the themes that we have been discussing is the relative social standing of Jews in America.  From the very beginning, Jews were able to escape many of the deep-seated social and political constructs of Europe that were built in some way on a foundation of antisemitism.  While Jews were no strangers to bigotry in America, even the antisemitic tropes that were similar, like Henry Ford's publishing of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, did not have the same impact on American society as it did in European nations.  Eventually, Jews gained de facto equality in the later part of the 20th century, able to "pass" as part of the privileged white middle class.

However, this led to an interesting phenomena among American activist movements, and one which I was almost wholly unaware of.  I was surprised to learn, for example, that some Christian Feminist movements predicated part of their ideology on the notion that Judaism was the inherently patriarchal element of Christian history.  This, in turn, created a difficulty for Jewish feminists, religious or not, who felt that an intrinsic element of themselves had to be denounced in some way in order to "earn" a seat at the broader feminist table.

I was thinking about this as we covered our section on GLBTQ Jews in recent history.  And while we focused on GLBTQ issues and rights within American Judaism, I feel that it is also necessary to continue to have a conversation about GLBTQ Jews in the greater sphere of American activist issues.

Earlier this year, the National LGBTQ task force canceled a reception that was to be hosted by the Israel LGBTQ group A Wider Bridge, and would have included representatives from Jerusalem Open House, citing that other LGBTQ groups were agitating for their exclusion on the basis of claims of "pinkwashing," and diverting discussion from policies related to the Israel/Palestine conflict.  While both of these groups are Israeli, what concerns me greatly is that some of the secondary effects in social media that I observed were pulling American Jews, both LGBTQ and their allies, into having to "take a side."  While I am not a person who personally believes that all criticisms of Israel (even those that refer to themselves as anti-Zionist) are inherently antisemitic, in the wider context of its effects on American Jews, I can't help but feel troubled.

From the example of earlier feminism and the LGBTQ movement today, I wonder this: is there a "hierarchy" of sorts related to activist groups?  If being Jewish (itself still a minority in many ways) requires a litmus test of sorts to gain access into the broader conversation of LGBTQ, or any other movement, focused on Israel, is this an example of antisemitism?  Is it based on classical antisemitic tropes, or is it something new?  Or is it a wholly different idea, and am I reaching?

4/12/16

Meaningful step? Or next to nothing?

This article was up on the Jerusalem Post a few days ago, and after our discussion yesterday regarding GLBTQIQ relationships with Judaism, I thought it would be worth posting.  It deals with Israeli Jews, not American, but I would like to think that the American Liberal Orthodox group mentioned at the end of the article had some influence into the Beit Hillel organization's statement.

The question that I pose in the topic is does this statement actually mean anything significant? It calls for the acceptance of homosexual Jews into the community as participating members, but at the same time reiterates the halachic stance that homosexuality is sinful.  They say it is ok to be gay as long as you don't do anything about it.

The other side of the coin is that Beit Hillel is a religious zionist organization, with many members located in settlements behind the green line.  So even if one was grateful for this statement, but also had the political stance of being against many of the other statements this group has made in the past regarding land, state, and belonging, what is the moral imperative to either accept the statement or condone the group?

Click for article

Questions of (one) Gay Jew

Yesterday in class we discussed one question that gay American Jews were asking early (and continuously) was "what is my place in this community?"

I thought I'd share a little of my own evolution on this question, as it is so well documented!

Exhibit 1: A resolution passed and approved by the General Board of NFTY at Mechina 2003, authored by yours truly. The typos and the 17 year old reasoning are fabulous, but it remains a part of NFTY History (check out page 60 there). Most interesting is the implicit "compromise" or recognition that NFTY ought not care about the word marriage. The resolution states (or would state in proper english) that NFTY... "supports the right of same-sex couples to wed, or the equivalent thereof." (Emphasis added 2016)

Exhibit 2: An op-ed piece published in the Brown Daily Herald on Yom Kippur 2005, which coincided with National Coming Out Day. Lots of problematic pieces here, but definitely true to how I felt then after returning to the U.S. from a gap year in Israel which had pushed me hard on the pendulum towards "tradition."

Exhibit 3: An August 2014 piece on ReformJudaism.org in which I talk about coming "full spiral," so to speak, and the blessing of having such documents to serve as "time capsules" along my own growth and understanding of homosexuality and Judaism.

I would love to hear any feedback from any of you on what you find surprising or interesting in any of these "points" along my "Gay Jewish American" (or American Jewish Gay) timeline.

4/8/16

On Jewish Feminism and "new traditions."

So, here's the thing...

A few weeks ago, Women of the Wall announced that they would be undertaking a new project: to hold a Birkat Kohanot observance on the women's side of the Kotel, on Shachareit over Chol HaMoed Pesach.  Little details are being given as to the actual logistics, such as if the blessing will be performed only by those of Bat Kohen status, but already it seems to be causing a stir among the usual suspects.

As a tradition that isn't usually practiced outside of the land of Israel, save for specific days and in more traditional synagogues, I'm not certain that I've ever known it to happen that a Bat Kohen has performed this in, say, a Masorti Synagogue in Israel, or in a Conservative Synagogue here in the US.  While I understand the halakhic interpretation that WoW and other egalitarian groups follow in order to wrap tefillin, read from Torah, and practice other observances, I can't think of anything similar for the offering of the priestly blessing.

From my perspective, of admittedly little knowledge, this seems to be a wholly new thing, but I could be wrong.  I admit, though, I'm a bit uneasy with it, if for no other reason than the word "Kohanot" and its singular, "Kohenet" already has a usage that could be troubling to WoW.  

Rabbi Jill Hammer, graduate of JTS, has already claimed the word for use in her Kohenet Institute.  This organization is, to my eyes at least, a vaguely neo-pagan, "earth based" version of feminist ideology mashed-up with Judaism.  It is as Jewish as the Kabbalah Center is actually about Kabbalah.  While the two organizations aren't linked, WoW's detractors might think it is, and frankly, adopting this brand new observance doesn't help with WoW's assertion of legitimacy.  

These two organizations might be unconnected, but I wonder if this may be a case of good intentions with poor marketing on the part of WoW.

I want to be an individual, just like all my friends...

As Max brought up earlier this week, our reading, "Jewish Education in the Age of Google," sounded quite dated, in its speculation of a future where, "Someday soon - if not already - children, and some adults, will be carrying devices that operate as cell phones, PDAs, MP3 players, PlayStations or XBoxes, Wifi internet devices, DVD players, and TV receivers all in one."

Of course, we know that not only has this technology been realized, it has given way to secondary industry built upon the level of communication and sharing of data it provides.  A level of individualization that probably wasn't even conceived a decade ago.  Someone may have been able to understand the preponderance of services like Amazon Now, which allows me to shop at lunch and have the electronic, productivity, or food items that I order be at my door by the time I come home.  What was probably impossible to predict were other secondary "on-demand" services.  Uber and Lyft for ride-sharing.  Zipcar for hourly car rentals.  Luxe for valet parking anywhere.  Soothe for massage.  Wag for dog walking.  Wherever you are, at pretty much the time you want it.

So what does this mean for Judaism?  This level of on-demand individualization and customization is more difficult to realize in a thing built upon thousands of years of tradition and community, but it is still possible.  Though I haven't seen an app for an on-demand minyan yet (though if anyone has seed money, I smell a startup), there is a whole different business paradigm that is coming into prominence that seems to be more of a parallel to the trajectory of Jewish communities in the US: the online "boutique" commerce sector.

Rather than going for mass-market appeal and storefront space, these companies are using different models to produce a single product or service to be sold direct-to-consumer.  Their marketing focuses more on high detail of the construction and manufacture of mattresses, linens, clothes, to capture a high percentage of a more narrow market, usually aimed at middle-class millennials, and almost entirely relying on ads on the internet or podcasts.

Part of the marketing relies on appealing to a sense of individuality, cutting-edge sensibility, and yes, even a "sexy" factor.  Of course, there is nothing inherently new about Jewish communities, just as there is nothing inherently new about, say, a mattress, but through a combination of a single new element and high-gloss marketing, we have successful companies with sexy names like CasperPurple, and Helix.

And so, we have it too, with Jewish communities.  In the last decade, there has been an emergence of non-affiliated minyanim in largely urban areas with similarly sexy, non-standard names (and websites) like The Kitchen in San Francisco, Lab/Shul in New York, and our very own IKAR here in LA.  Part of the appeal of these communities is, arguably, their ability to better meet the needs of a more narrow market based on local culture than needing to balance it with the demands of a larger, national level organization like the URJ, USCJ, or OU.  Similar to the businesses who maximize quality for cost by efficiency in manufacture and delivery, these Jewish communities are able to shift money for services and individualization by eliminating things like institutional dues, or even the overhead associated with a brick-and-mortar physical location.

However, this begs the question, at least for a Jewish community model, if this level of individualization is sustainable over the long term.  What do they do when demands of its membership turn toward more traditional attributes?  IKAR is right now considering raising money and support for a permanent location.  Several of these communities have even formed a coalition for mutual support called the Jewish Emergent Network (whose website looks strikingly similar to the mattress companies above).  What does this mean for the future of these unique, individual institutions, especially as they will need to confront the questions of generational issues and the services that traditional synagogues provide to meet these needs such as childhood education?

And so, what is the likelihood that this Jewish Emergent Network will eventually find itself asking the question of whether or not to become a full-fledged institution to support it's individual members?  I'm sure the next 10 years will tell us.

4/5/16

For Debbie Friedman

Towards the end of the article that we read for tomorrow morning's class, Nadell mentions Debbie Friedman. While I can assume that this was not meant as a "throw-away" line, I wanted to make sure to expand the record a bit.

Debbie (זצ״ל) is in large part responsible for the way that Reform worship and music looks throughout the country, and for many melodies that are now understood as "traditional" throughout the world. (For example, I have heard Orthodox yeshiva buchers singing Havdalah to the "traditional niggun" which they don't even realize was composed by Debbie...)

Her personality was electric, riveting, and yet made each and every person feel as if their voice mattered. She was the antithesis to the silencing of voices, and her impact was much, much more than Miriam's Song. She was teaching at HUC here in LA before she died, and her albums have sold over half a million copies.

I will always be grateful to have learned from Debbie. Her memory remains a blessing for me, and the breadth and depth of her influence continue to grow. If you'd like to learn a little more about her influence on Reform music and thus Reform Judaism, take a look at this tribute video from the URJ from 2008:

4/4/16

Orthodoxy and Millenials


I took a closer look at the article Dr. Hochman shared in class today, published just last week—great read. This quote seemed particularly apt:
Relationships and community may represent both the greatest opportunity for loss and the most appealing opportunities for gain in becoming more traditionally observant.
Green goes on to discuss that baalei teshuvah often gain a strong sense of community that stands in contrast from the surrounding, secular American culture, but they often have to work diligently if they are to remain close with their families and communities of origin. This reminded me of a cousin who became baalat teshuva later in life (she was probably early 30s when she became orthodox) and had a lot of trouble meeting a husband because she was "old" for the community she was entering. Simultaneously, it was very hard for her parents to adjust to her new life... Do any of you have stories like this in your families or extended families? In what ways do you think involvement in Reform communities may also represent an opportunity for gain or for loss? How can we make sure that participation and collaboration with our communities lands more often on the side of gain than the side of loss?

On a separate note, Green suggests that perhaps this trend into orthodoxy is "a way to find meaning in the relentless rhythms of daily life," and I'm wondering what kind of modes of meaning we are working on practicing for ourselves and working on offering as alternatives to orthodoxy for our congregants.

Finally, to offer a counterpoint, see this longer essay from Mosaic August 2014 on Modern Orthodoxy, and the challenges it faces from the right and the left.

4/3/16

Jewish Education in the Age of Google



I was really intrigued by the articles assigned for tomorrow's reading, in particular because while they are so "contemporary," they are also already quite dated. Take for instance "Jewish Education in the Age of Google" written by Jonathan Woocher. The article is dated to May 15, 2006—just shy of 10 years ago. While it may be hard for us to imagine, that means that this article was written over a year before tbe first iPhone was released

I thought it would be interesting to see how many results we get for the same google searches Woocher conducts in his first paragraph. Here's what I found:

"Jewish Education" 2006—34.8 million hits, 2016—3.66 million
"Torah" 2006—7.02 million, 2016—17.4 million
"God" 2006—176 million, 2016—1.39 billion
"Israel" 2006—250 million, 2016—811 million

The result for "Jewish Education" which decreased tenfold since 2006 is puzzling to me, but the increases in the "Torah," "God," and "Israel" are pretty much what I would have expected to find.

Woocher reminds us, of course, that this is a "curious exercise," but nevertheless, it seems interesting to share here. I believe that Google also adjusts its search algorithm based on your location and/or search history, so some of you might want to share if you get very different results for these searches.

More broadly, the article makes me wonder how some of the conclusions may be more or less relevant today than they were 10 years ago. For instance, he notes that "good platforms can be even more powerful (and profitable) than good programs," and he cites a Jewish example of this in the Birthright model of providing a framework where program providers can come in and customize a program to their constituents and their beliefs. Where else do we see models like this? Can the contemporary synagogue be an effective "platform" as they continue to restructure in terms of dues, program schedules, etc? Or should we be seeking alternate platforms entirely?

4/1/16

Jewish Participation in the Political Process

Happy April Fools everyone! Here's a little story about a nice Jewish woman's spectacularly failed "participation" in the political process and her "attempt" to make Jewish into American. "A Mink Coat in Every Closet!"