Posts Tagged ‘Jewish Identity’

Reflexive Advising

August 26, 2011

A few weeks ago, I received the following email (names deleted to preserve anonymity).

“Hello.  I am an Alumni of OWU, I graduated this past May. I received your email from my friend… Over the years I have been studying and researching Judaism and I truly feel in my heart that I am ready to convert to Judaism. I am not entirely sure where to start or what steps to take. I was hoping you could give me some advice and point me in the right direction. Thank You.”

Reading this, I was struck with a feeling I’ve had on other occasions since I took this job nearly three years ago; a feeling I wrote about in an article for Harlot for the Arts (2010).  I thought, “Who am I to give anyone advice on becoming Jewish?  I’m still trying to figure out what it means to me to be Jewish.” Of course, I don’t expect my own quest to end anytime soon.  So, while I may not be a Rabbi or qualified to supervise anyone’s conversion process, I realized I could speak about my own understandings of and relationship and commitments to Judaism.  Most importantly, I knew that I could listen to this young woman tell me why she wanted to become a Jew.

I suggested we meet for coffee and that in the meantime, she ought to do some reflecting and writing on what being Jewish means to her and what questions she has about it.  This morning, she came to my house and we spent an hour getting to know one another.  She shared somethings about her background – she was raised by her mother, whom she described as “obviously Christian but not very religious”, until she was thirteen when her mother passed away and she move in with her sister, a devout Christian who attends church at least three times a week.  She first learned about Judaism from a high school teacher and then attended a Messianic Temple on and off through college.  She came to realize that this was not a sufficient enough shift for her as she no longer thought of Jesus as a messiah.  She had been drifting for awhile, but expressed a longing for a spiritual home and a new community with which to worship.  The laws of kashrut and Shabbat appealed to her but she still had a lot to learn.  Speaking with her informally about what that learning might entail – exploring different denominations and congregations, experiencing the Jewish calendar, becoming mindful of the laws of kashrut, etc. – helped me realize how much I know and take for granted.

It makes me wonder what I take for granted when I talked to non-Jews about Judaism.  It makes me wonder what I take for granted when I speak with students about their relationships to Judaism.  It made me wonder what I will take for granted in raising my daughter as a Jew in the midwest.  Clearly I have me own work to do.


Yiddishisms for the New Year

August 14, 2011

There are a lot of things I miss about living in New York; the museums and restaurants, walking everywhere, and seeing and hearing Jews everywhere I go.

This week, I’m back in New York for an end of summer family vacation.  We’re staying at a friend’s apartment in Brooklyn (Michael I know you’re reading this and thank you again!!) and on our way in we saw a family of hasids renting a car for what I’m sure was to be a lovely summer Shabbat in the country.  We talked about the similarities between how they dress and the Amish back home in Ohio.

Today we’ll be seeing some of my family for brunch and I’m sure we’ll be having a bagel with a schmear.  I look forward to talking with my aunts, uncles, and cousins and listening to their accents when they plotz over the new grandbabies in the mischpoche and kvetch about the state of the economy and our fakakta leaders in Washington.

Our identities are reflected by what we wear, what we eat, and how we speak.  This year, let’s commit to making OWU more Jewish by speaking a bit of Yiddish, or as my Great Aunt Gert refers to it, “talking Jewish.”  (According to her experience, Hebrew is for Israelis and Rabbis, Yiddish is Jews.)  Here are a few resources to get started.

Yiddishisms from the folks who do bagels and lox best – Russ & Daughters


I bet you didn’t know that Dick & Jane speak Yiddish…

And the Yiddish Book Center.

Alfred Tibor: Anti-Semitism and the Second World War

March 1, 2010

Work by Alfred Tibor

On March 16th @ 7:30PM, OWU Hillel and a group of other campus offices and organizations will sponsor a talk by Alfred Tibor.  Mr. Tibor is a Holocaust Survivor who lives in Columbus.  The talk will be open to the public and all are encouraged to come.  As time goes on, hearing firsthand accounts of the Nazi Holocaust from survivors is becoming less and less feasible.  We hope all who are able will join us for this rare opportunity.

A sophomore, who knows Mr. Tibor from her hometown of Bexley, has taken the lead on planning this event as a response to the anti-semitic incident we suffered as a community in December.  When she first proposed the event to me she said, “There was an anti-Semitic attack in December, but many people on campus still do not know that it even occurred…I feel that it is very important for the OWU campus to host Mr. Tibor so this incident does not just go by and is forgotten about.”  A member of a sorority on campus, she has been working with the Panhellenic Council and Council of Fraternity Presidents to ensure that the audience for this talk is a large as possible.  She told me, “Mr. Tibor asked how big OWU was and when I responded around 1,800, he said he wanted 1,801 in the audience.”  I am impressed by her energy and efforts and hope others will be too.

Last year for Yom haShoah, John Koenigsberg spoke to us about his experiences as a child survivor of the Holocaust. Of all the Jewish children who lived in Nazi occupied Europe, he is among the 7% who survived. During the Second World War he was ultimately hidden by a Catholic Family and was able to survive.  He came to the United States after the war, at age 16.

Similarly, Mr. Tibor’s story is not one that follows the familiar ghetto-concentration camp storyline.  Originally known as Alfred Goldstein, Tibor was born in Hungary in 1920 and was drafted into the German Army in 1940.  He was one of only two survivors of a Siberian prisoner-of-war camp.  He and his brother changed their last name to Tibor in honor of their third brother, Tibor, who was executed in a concentration camp along with the rest of their family.  Tibor moved to the U.S. in 1957 were he worked as a designer and made a name for himself as a sculptor who creates work in response to the Holocaust.

Help us fulfill Mr. Tibor’s wishes and fill Gray Chapel to capacity on March 16th.

Stereotyping Jews, Female and Otherwise

December 30, 2009

Over the OWU holiday break, I’ve had a number of occasions to think about being and appearing Jewish in the midwest.  As I’ve written in recent posts, the Chanukah/Christmas season routinely prompts me towards identity reflection.  Events on campus during finals week had me playing the role of BIG Jew on campus more fiercely than I have before.  And, most recently, I’ve been examining our cultural condition in relation to two Internet videos that have kept Jewish bloggers’ fingers flying through the Christmas holiday.

The first, “Coasties” was conceived by two male students at The University of Wisconsin.  The title makes reference to a term used by college students in the midwest to denote students from one of the coasts (or suburban Chicago).  The term originated as a geographic marker, but through its use a subtext emerged which suggests coasties come from economically privileged families, sometimes, as the song suggests, Jewish families.

A line from the song declares: “She a coastie, always blowin‘ daddy’s money, you a coastie, my east coast Jewish honey.”  Any Jewish coastie will quickly recognize this as code for JAP, or Jewish American Princess.  When I was growing up, being called a JAP was an insult, a sign that people thought you were spoiled and obnoxious.  Today, the term has been appropriated by some Jewish girls, like nigger in African-American circles, as a badge of honor.  (See: Zazzle)  Are there any risks of such behavior?

Heeb Magazine suggests “…the majority of the [University of Wisconsin] student body, hailing from the rural Midwest, have little or no direct exposure to Jews in their upbringing and sadly, their bite-sized understanding of our culture gets boiled down to a pair of fuzzy boots and a Lawng Aylind accent.”  In other words, when people’s first and most frequent exposure to Jews comes in the form of cultural stereotypes and jokes, often voiced by Jews themselves, that is all people think of when they think of our people.

LandlineTV’s video “The Making of Rachel and the Dragon,” which also came out last week, pokes fun at Jewish American Princesses directly.  The video depicts Jewish women as bored and judgmental.  It refers to actors and actresses whose careers have been built on comical and self-mocking brands of Jewishness, including Sarah Silverman, Larry David, and Fran Drescher.

The song and video seem innocuous jokes to some, anti-semitic slurs to others.  I wonder, where is the line and who draws it?  Have you ever made a joke about Jews with your Jewish or non-Jewish friends?  How did it play?  How did you feel after?  What damage do we, as Jews, do to ourselves by recylcing stereotypical jokes about Jewish cultural and behaviors?  If our audience isn’t familiar enough with the culture to get the joke from the inside out, are we contributing to our own condemnation?

Thanksgiving Jew.0

November 24, 2009

For Jews, Thanksgiving is both a re-run and a preview.  Our harvest festival, Sukkot, was weeks ago.  Pesach (Passover), which won’t come around until the end of March, is our time to gather the family around for a freedom feast.  We are Americans as well as Jews, however, and there are no laws prohibiting us from participating in Thanksgiving’s tasty, and primarily, secular celebrations.  In fact, most people would agree that we should express thanks for the freedom and prosperity we’ve found in the United States.

This ain't Norman Rockwell's Thanksgiving

Growing up, my family usually celebrated Thanksgiving at my aunt and uncle’s house on Long Island.  We started our meal by lighting candles and saying the blessing for Yom Tov (1).  My aunt’s father would bless the wine and say the Shehechiyanu (2), in recognition of the miracle that we were all together for another year.  Next, we’d say haMotzi over my aunt’s finger-licking, buttery garlic bread before moving onto the spinach salad, turkey, and sweet potato pie.

Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday, per se.  For many, this is one of its greatest attributes.  Temporarily putting aside the critical debate over the real relationship between the settlers and native Americans, we gather to gorge ourselves on great food and family.  But, like so many others, my family began this day off from work and school in front of the television, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade; a parade that ends with Santa riding his sleigh down Broadway, ringing in the holiday season.  For us, it was the beginning of the annual, month-long reminder that we were different.

And so, it seems appropriate that we should find meaning for Thanksgiving as Jews: A day for reaffirming our Jewish identity within and against the dominant Christian-American culture; A day to recommit ourselves to acts of Tikkun Olam, to work for peace and justice like the fight against hunger; A day to enact responsible choices about what we put on our tables and in our bodies.

Chag Samaech. Happy Holiday.

1. Yom Tov literally means “good day.”  This blessing is said over candles on holidays other than Shabbat or Chanukah, which they have their own blessings.
2. Shehechiyanu is a blessing of thanks for sustaining our lives so we could experience this moment of joy.  It is traditionally said when experiencing something for the first time.  Many people, including my Aunt’s father, express their joy by looking for opportunities to say shehechiyanu.


December 8, 2008

December 2008

This year, Chanukah begins on December 21, the Winter Solstice, the day of the year marked by the fewest hours of daylight.  (If you follow Shabbat candle lighting times, you know this isn’t quite true, but it’s a nice idea…)  What could be more appropriate for a celebration of light?  Could there be a better time to light candles and recall the hope that kept the first Chanukah lights glowing?  A better time to sit back and take pleasure in the flickering flames?

Chanukah is also a time for rededication.  As our ancestors did for their desecrated temple, this is a time to rededicate ourselves to Judaism.  As the story of Judah and the Macabees reminds us, “throughout the ages Jews have succeeded in maintaining their beliefs against numerous attempts to forcibly change them, often at great cost to themselves.”  Today, it seems that the greatest threats to our commitment are internal, not external.  Like most Jews throughout the world today, we live in a country where we are free to practice Judaism anyway we choose.

Is it still necessary to light the candles in our windows as a public display of our Jewishness?
Must we abstain from all Christmas celebrations to avoid threats of assimilation?
What kind of rededication will you enact this year?

An article in Tikkun Magazine suggests that “Chanukah represents the triumph of idealistic non-conformity.”  Family and friends have often accused me of making choices that challenge dominant cultural norms.  It’s true, I pride myself on making choices about how I spend my time and money not based on the fashion of the times or own the expectations others have for me, but on my ever-changing sense of what is right, for me and for the world, based on my own knowledge and experiences.  This Chanukah, I see that rebellion and self-determination as Jewish dedication.

This Chanukah, I also celebrate accepting the position of Assistant Chaplain for Jewish Life at Ohio Wesleyan as a form of rededication.  The job will provide means for me to rededicate myself to the culture and traditions I was raised with; to find new meaning and purpose for them in my life today, in the Midwest.  How will you mark Chanukah this year?