Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Crisis and Hope

Crisis and Hope

The eruption of pain, anger and frustration pouring out across our country in the days and now weeks after the brutal murder of George Floyd made me see that I clearly have a lot to learn and understand about race in America.
I write this as someone whose main area of research is the early modern Atlantic world. This is the time and place that gave birth to the Atlantic slave trade, the harrowing matrix of terror, dislocation and forced labor that began in the 1500’s as European traders began buying African slaves in exchange for European goods and shipping their human cargo to their new found American colonies to serve as the crushing engine of the agricultural economy of the New World. The brutal reality of the slave trade is woven into the fabric of my teaching in courses such as the Sephardic Atlantic, New World Encounters, and the Jewish Presence in Latin America.
And yet the visceral power and fury of the protest unfolding on America’s streets showed me that there was much more for me to understand -- beyond books and art and testimony. I realize again that this is about the lived experience of being an African American in our country and that it is time I listen more intently.
Last Friday in Teaneck, NJ the town that I call home for almost 15 years, there was a Black Lives Matter protest. I was happy that my shul was on the protest route. We decided, like many other businesses and institutions on the route, to offer water and snacks to the marchers. I went to join and I was deeply moved by two elements in particular. First of all, this was an all-Teaneck event: all races, persuasions, ages and creeds. Secondly I was struck by the force of the messaging on the posters carried by the marchers:
Why are we still protesting?

Will I be next?

These are existential questions for many of our fellow Americans; and I need to witness that question, I need to absorb it and be present to it.
Last week a group of my colleagues and I wanted to express our empathy, our pain and concern. We believed that being historians of the Jewish experience could prepare us for fighting this fight. We understand the vicissitudes of persecution and marginalization. We understand how violence and terror can rain down on a marginalized group and also how those persecuted peoples can tap the fountains of courage and creativity and forge a new path for themselves.
We believe that in learning about Jewish suffering we can be prepared to fight against the persecution of others. We wanted to express our outrage and solidarity and we wanted to say it in words. And we realized that it would ultimately be a static message that would do little to deepen our community’s understanding of the issues at hand, and do less to empower us -as individuals and a community- to engage with these existential questions and forge a path towards positive change. Instead we decided to do what we do best- teach, dialogue, process and engage. We dreamed up an evolving series of “teach-ins” where we would consider how the past can help illuminate and energize our present moment.
Beginning this week and stretching into the Fall we will host a series of talks with YU faculty and prominent guests to explore moments of crisis, civil unrest, persecution and violence towards the marginalized and bursts of creativity, resistance and seismic social and political change. In dialogue with students and the wider YU community we hope that this exploration of the past will empower us to engage the challenges we face today.
I encourage you all to come out for our first event this week with Rabbi Saul Berman reflecting on the civil rights movement of the 1960’s and what it can teach us today. This series is sponsored by the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Program in International Affairs, the YU Center for Israel Studies, under the university-wide umbrella of Judaic Studies@YU. We look forward to a full line of insightful explorations of the past with an eye towards the present.
This Thursday at 1pm EST:
Here is the updated zoom

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Say it Loud and Say it proud!! No Hate, No Fear Solidarity March January 5th, 2020

Say it Loud and Say it proud!!
No Hate, No Fear Solidarity March
January 5th, 2020

A sea of people gathering in the cold clear air, joyous, proud and ready to be counted, we streamed into lower Manhattan, snaking around the court house, the African burial ground, and city hall. At one point we can hear the steady rhythmic beat of drums, eventually we got to see its source- Fogo Azul-(  an all-woman drum circle in the style of Brazilian carnival with a lovely and poetic Portuguese name to go with it. Soon after, near the opening of a subway a group of Habonim Dror members began singing sweetly in Hebrew, a bit further up a few teenagers began a chant- hey ho- hate and fear has got to go.

Walking, slowly, often standing shoulder to shoulder with people was the shape of the day, but it was- as Heschel said after Birmingham- praying with your feet. It was about proclaiming to ourselves, to our children to our neighbors- to all the good people of this amazing city: we were always here, and we are not hiding!! We are proud and loud and joyous and ready to keep on doing what we always do, right here in the midst of the beautiful chaos, the creative friction and global synergy that is life in New York.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Monday, September 2, 2019

Entanglements: Reflections on late summer reading

Jaffa- the “Bride of the sea”, that ancient, scrappy, hot, ocean-swept port. It seems to be part of the connective tissue of some of my recent summer reading. It's where a young, iconoclast, dreamer/rabbi comes to take his first position of leadership in the Holy Land. Rav Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook was offered the position of chief rabbi of that “den of sin” in 1904. His rabbinic colleagues of the “Old Yishuv” saw that small strip of land along the Mediterranean as a haven for atheism and licentiousness. Indeed there was little of the sort of piety and conformity characteristic of Jerusalem. Jaffa was a crossroads where the train lines linking the Levant met at the port open to the sea. It was a place of merchants and fisherman of cafes and markets, Muslims, Christians and Jews of varied origins and who spoke many languages. Rav Kook took advantage of being so close to the beating heart of his revolutionary age- he saw the vitality, the courage and the creativity of these free thinkers and he appreciated the hard work of the laborers and merchants that lived in and around the port city.

That Jaffa was an Arab city –Christian and Muslim- as well as a Jewish one- with a strong Levantine community of Ladino and Arabic speakers- does not come up often in Yehuda Mirsky’s magnificent intellectual biography of the religious visionary and deep-souled rabbi. But Jaffa –its heterogeneity, its sensual power and the sort of comings and goings that mark it as a port- are central to the form and some of the content of Rav Kook’s thought and activism –at least in the early stage of his time in the Holy Land.

I think I am keyed into the Jaffa angle by the riveting and often dreamlike novel by Moshe Sakal, The Diamond Setter. He tells a multi-generational and cross-border tale of love and memory and the power of unspoken legacies. It centers around a small jewelry shop in Tel Aviv, a short distance from its other focal point of Jaffa. The novel shuttles back in time to Damascus and a seaside Lebanese town weaving a story that works like a time machine. The novel is made for those of us who are in love with the stories of our parents and grandparents and want to continue to crawl back and see and feel and smell these other places and have them still live with us- at least the good stuff! The scent of tea and pomegranates in the garden, the crisp linen suits and verandas- even some of the traumas- the heroism, the lived pain.
I am drawn to stories of layers, and people with layers; layers that blend and harmonize and serve as counterpoint. In other words, identities that we have so many parts of ourselves, we don't need to make sense of all of it- it is just who we are, but what happens when we do engage these layers and vectors individually,
and celebrate them, one by one, see how they inform and torment and enliven us, how they live in conflict- hopefully productive?
We are so many things.
We contain multitudes- we need not be either/or.

“Where are you from”? For some people that's easy- they are from right here- they have never left the place their family has been from for generations. However, if you scratch a bit you can find that there is more to the story. Despite that truth, the fact that some people can answer that question of origin with ease and others squirm in response says more about the individual than their origin story.

Kwame Anthony Appiah’s engaging new book, The Lies that Bind is a useful tool for navigating the layers and complexities of our multiple identities. Appiah identifies certain fundamental elements that weave together to form our sense of who we are and how we fit into a wider society:
By giving these aspects of Identity a name and exploring how they function- with real world examples, both historical and contemporary- Appiah helps the reader to think about how these elements play out in their own lives and why there are so many conflicts surrounding these elements in contemporary society. His major message is that very few aspects of our identities are unchanging or essential. We are malleable and ever evolving. We are shaped by our encounters with other people and cultures and in turn that encounter creates new ways of being. His discussion of cultural appropriation is a good example of the sort of analysis he practices throughout the book. Towards the end of the book he writes:

That’s why we should resist the term “cultural appropriation” as an indictment. All cultural practices and objects are mobile; they like to spread, and almost all are themselves creations of intermixture. Kente in Asante [Appiah’s father’s tribal region in Ghana] was first made with dyed silk thread, imported from the East. We took something made by others and made it ours. Or rather, they did that in the village of Bonwire. So did the Asante of Kumasi appropriate the cultural property of Bonwire, where it was first made? Putative owners may be previous appropriators. (p. 208)

He starts with a concrete example and works outwards. What can kente cloth, or Goethe’s West-östlicher Diwan teach us about the idea of cultural purity and ownership? a whole lot it turns out!
And this takes me back to Moshe Sakal’s The Diamond Setter. Identity here is fluid, it is constructed, it runs deep and it is a mystery. The book evokes and plays with the constant and multi-faceted cultural dialectic of fin de siècle Levantine life. There is a flow of people and languages and codes- religious, ethnic, sexual.  These elements move between neighborhoods- beautifully evoked in the visit of the Muslim Jabali family to the pre-wedding party at the home of Mousa Kadosh in the Jewish quarter of Damascus- and cities- Yaffo, Alexandria, the resort town of Aley in Lebanon and the jewel that was Damascus—and between lovers and families and across tribal divides. He does not romanticize this past world. There is suspicion, fear and violence around every corner. But Sakal does not spend too much time on a blame game, his is a human story, people in love, hungry for home and trying to make their way in the world with grace and beauty. The artistry of the jeweler and the craftsmanship of the storyteller go together. The author actually apprenticed as a jeweler just like the author/narrator of the novel, Tom. And in the novel we learn that many of the older generation put pen to paper, weaving stories in their native Arabic or in their adopted French. These literary outlets ended when they crossed into the land of Hebrew, it took two generations for it to resurface.
Poetry and music also weave their way into the story. We hear Fareed, the Syrian border crosser who finds his way to his Palestinian grandparents old home in Jaffa, mumbling lines from the 1001 nights in his sleep, and Rami, his Isrseli Arab friend, finishing them in response. We meet aunt Gracia and her cursed golden voice; the young beauty whose beautiful voice brought her wealth and adventure but also pain. We see her in her native Damascus, feted by the rich and powerful but also sharing her gift within the intimate settings of a family celebration. We discover her deep bond with her brilliant and sensitive blind sister Mona. And we see her as the older diva, secluded in her Southern Tel Aviv apartment, refusing to sing again, even for the delight of her beloved and doting nephew. Music and its silencing, memory and its invocation

It is striking to see the grandchildren of those who moved to Israel from Arab lands reassert their Judeo-Arabic patrimony. They embrace the music and language that their parents often hid or downplayed and that their grandparents mourned as they tried to make their way in a new country. Dudu Tassa, Etti Ankri, Ravid Khalani and the sister trio A-WA just to name a few. I thought of A-WA’s performance at the Yom Ha’atzmaut concert this year. (You can see them here at the 1:36 minute mark They performed their breakout hit- Habib Ghalabi – a song loosely based on one of the many Yemenite songs their grandmother would sing in Judeo-Arabic. And the three sisters sang the song with their usual flare first in Arabic and then switched to Hebrew- this was after all a Yom-Atzmaut concert. Bibi and his wife and many of the other top ministers were there, clapping and enjoying this piece of musical dynamite that is rooted in the singer’s pride in their family story and longing for a culture that was ripped away from them as part of the logic of Zionism. Did any of those politicians sense the irony or appreciate the critique implicit in this exuberant embrace of Arabic?  What did they do with this complex sense of Israeliness?
What if they would have performed a song from their new album  Bayti Fi Rasi.  The song, "Hana Mash Hu Al Yaman" (Here is not Yemen), is a protest song that sounds like a dance number (and the video solidifies that image). The song alternates between their grandparents’ dreams of Eretz Yisrael as:

A land of wheat, barley, grape and olive,
Fig, pomegranate, date and home.

And the harsh reality they encountered upon their arrival:
Here I will find a good job
(in cleaning or working the earth)
And I will learn the language
(Lose the accent!)
With time I will belong
(here aint Yemen!)
I came to you fleeing
You saw me as primitive

This pain has been simmering and transforming Israeli society and politics for the last 40 years if not more. From the “ma’apachat hana’na” and the “black panthers” to the rise of Likud and Shas and so much more. The common narrative that links the treatment of Arab Jews upon their arrival to Israel to their rejection of Labor and the left in general is well established. However in the area of culture I think we see a more complex phenomena: the children and grandchildren of those immigrants reclaiming their Arabness as part of being an Israeli- of being a Jew in the Middle East and of actively creating something new out of the old.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

An Al-Andalus of the Mind in the Heart of NYC

Back in the Moroccan Court

I recently received two reminders about how much I love the small white square of art and fantasy that is the Moroccan Court. After entering the small gallery dedicated to the arts produced in Islamic Spain, just past the small but precious glass cabinet on your right showcasing a Hebrew Bible, some synagogue tiles from Toledo and a small philosophical anthology translated into Hebrew after its earlier life in Arabic and Greek, and another glass case with engraved ivory ink wells and small chests meant for storing pens and other everyday items, yes beyond all this you will see some light and an elegant frame of creme colored arches and columns. Streaming down through an opaque white screen in the ceiling, light flows down upon the round fountain in the center of a carefully crafted square, rich in the subtlety and electrifying infinitude of Andalusian plaster work. You can enter and take a seat on one of the stone benches and simply sit, contemplate the way the water streams from the fountain and how that light and air find their place between the columns and arches and the tiles inlaid in the wall. This court was meant to evoke the innumerous gardens at the center of homes built in the Arabic style in southern Spain, Andalucía or Al-Andalus in its Arabized form, and throughout Morocco. The Met actually brought in artisans from Morocco to recreate this space in line with their centuries old tradition of plaster work, carpentry and masonry. The video of the making of the court is a candid look at their artistic process:

The Catholic kings of Reconquista Spain would engage in a similar cultural practice. When they would want to expand their palaces they would invite muslim artisans from the still sovereign Muslim kingdom of Granada to craft their gardens and salons. Other times they would rely on the workmanship of those Muslims who stayed behind after the conquest of their territory by Christian rulers, the Mudéjar. They relished their victory over the infidel but still appreciated the beauty of their architecture and textiles and pottery.

I was reminded of this splendid little spot first by that fuzzy form of digital extortion  known as a facebook "memory". A beautiful picture of me (with more hair and less grey in my beard) and my two oldest kids, at that point rather young, taken by my cousin Abbie on a visit to the MET 7 years ago.

I loved the space then and I love it still because it takes me back to my memories of being in the Alhambra or sitting in the garden of a small pensión in Córdoba that claimed to have been the house of the great Spanish-Incan humanist, El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, or of so many spaces like it through the wider Iberian world, in the Spanish revival style houses of wealthy friends in Miami Beach, the inner courtyards of homes and hospitals and schools in Havana or Mexico City- this simple floor plan- an arched door, revealing and concealing a cool, shaded garden with a fountain and mezmerizing tiles. 
Shortly after this image from my recent past I received a short note from a student. I assigned my class to visit the MET and to especially explore the rooms dedicated to Medieval Spain as a way for them to get a closer look at the materiality of the culture we have been studying. This student told me that she had a particularly good time on that trip, she used it as the place to go on her first date with a young man (another former student) she really liked. In this same email she shared that that same young man proposed to her in that same room the day before. I was so thrilled that at least one other student found this space as lovely as I do. 
My kids are more ambivalent! 

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

kippur 5778: a modern piyut for kedusha

My community has the custom of breaking up the prayers of the days of awe with short, meditative reflections offered by members on parts of the prayers. Here is a transcription from my offering, inspired by -who else- Leonard Cohen who is still singing his broken psalms to soothe, to bother and provoke, and to open doors for the mind and heart.

There is a long running debate throughout the writings of  חז׳ל as to the who is greater- the angels or humankind?

In the end, in their usual counterintuitive way, the Rabbis show how people, with their limitations and passions and messiness, are superior to Angels in their static purity and spiritual rigidity.

Yom Kippur is a day which has it both ways, we are like Angels- not eating or drinking or making love like humans do-- seemingly nodding to the superiority of the heavenly creatures. We shout out the line spoken by the Angels-
Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto Leolam Vaed—
Instead of our usual, mortally inflected whisper

We spend our day like the angels, praising and basking in the divine presence.

And yet, we know that we are not angels, we are only playing like angels. Our white shawls and kittels are a thin costume barely hiding the hard truth that yom kippur only gives us a taste of the angelic, the pure, of what living life unencumbered by passions and limitations feels like. In the incessant rounds of confession, declarations of being purified in the divine waters of the God’s mikveh, of calling out the secret identity of God’s true self, that which was revealed to Moshe Rabeinu from behind the cleft of the rock on Mt. Sinai after the depth of the Children of Israel’s depravity-

Hashem, Hashem, Compassionate Lord, a God who is long in patience, of great Kindness and Truth, who stores up kindness for millennia, who lifts up sins and evil and errors and purifies

With each passing declaration its like we rise up for air, gasping the sweet oxygen only to remember that it’s a moment of truth, of wisdom, of insight that allows us to see our lives anew, as people committed to growth, to change, to pushing ourselves and becoming who we know we can be.

And yet we also know that after the final triumphant shofar blast tonight when we begin Ma’ariv we will all declare that we are happy to be praying to a God who is compassionate and atones for sins
The cycle will begin again and we will fall again into our negative patterns, slip into our small mindedness and worse
And yet and yet: today we were higher than the angels.
I thought about this when reading Leonard Cohen’s עה׳ש poem #43 from his Songs of Mercy. (this is a precious collection of 50 modern psalms/prose poems that Leonard wrote, I believe around the time he was deep into his practice of Zen Buddhism. I read through it most years during Ellul)

I believe this can function as a modern reshut, or introduction to the kedusha like the ones composed by the great Paytanim of old to open up the prayers for their listeners.

HOLY IS YOUR NAME, HOLY is your work, holy are the days that return to you. Holy are the years that you uncover. Holy are the hands that are raised to you, and the weeping that is wept to you. Holy is the fire between your will and ours, in which we are refined. Holy is that which is unredeemed, covered with your patience. Holy are the souls lost in your unnaming. Holy, and shining with a great light, is every living thing, established in this world and covered with time, until your name is praised forever.

The one line I wish to consider is:
Holy is that which is unredeemed, covered with your patience.

We are not angels- we carry with us much which is unredeemed and thanks to God’s patience- erech apayim- those parts are still with us, they are part of us. Even with all that unredeemed “stuff”  we continue to grow and unfold under His wisdom, with the life energy of the world pulsing through us, giving us breath every moment- Gods patience.

We need God’s patience and we need to share it with each other, we need to share it next time anyone- but especially those close to us- bother us, hurt us, confuse us- to have patience with them, to tap into God’s patience and see them as unredeemed but part of the divine universe, just like us