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Something is Happening Here


by: Ed Simon on December 15th, 2015 | 1 Comment »

A specter is haunting American political discourse – the specter of Trumpism. As a result numerous interpretations of his bizarre success have proliferated, analysts seemingly at a loss for explanation. Much as Dylan’s Mr. Jones in “Ballad of a Thin Man” we find that “something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is.” The light-hearted jokes of summer about Donald Trump’s ridiculous orange bouffant and his shrill Queen’s accent have given way to a more ominous autumn, one where the presidential candidate doesn’t disavow the suggestion that if elected he would require Muslims to be registered in national databases and for mosques to be closed down, and where his supporters beat Black Lives Matter protesters to Trump’s approval. Now the candidate is calling for the barring of all Muslims from immigrating to the United States. One fears that an increasing winter of discontent is what will necessarily follow.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump, credit: Gage Skidmore

Pundits have searched for a word to describe all of this. With his macho posturing, the xenophobia and extreme nationalism, the sense of aggrieved ethnic entitlement, the bellicose militarism and the growing cult of personality many have settled on the word “fascism.” It seems surreal that we’re now discussing the repeatedly bankrupt real estate mogul and reality show carnival barker this way, but that is where we find ourselves. Godwin’s Law has seemingly broken down, and that word has disturbingly returned to our understanding of mainstream American politics.

Michael Tomasky at The Daily Beast called Trump a “neo-fascist,” Chauncey Devega at Salon describes Trump’s rallies as being a “white fascist brigade” and Jamelle Bouie at Slate has written that “[fascism] is the political label that best describes what the GOP front runner has become.” But surprisingly, this rhetoric isn’t limited to liberal sites; in what is an unprecedented phenomenon even Republicans are beginning to label Trump as a fascist. No less than Jeb Bush adviser John Noonan tweeted “Forced federal registration of U.S. citizens, based on religious identity, is fascism. Period. Nothing else to call it.”

It’s admirable that some on the right are willing to call out fascism when they see it, but it reminds one a bit of Casablanca when Captain Renault was shocked to find that gambling was going on in the casino. After a generation of ad hominem talk-radio delusion, FOX news agitprop, the Sarah Palin debacle and the Tea Party, is it any wonder that all it took was a candidate with a sort-of-charisma to unite all of those noxious elements into a proto-fascist movement? Let there be no doubt that there is something happening here, on November 21st Mercutio Southall, a Black Lives Matter protester, was beaten by racial slur screaming Trump supporters at an Alabama rally while the candidate could be heard yelling “Get ‘em the hell out of here!” Less than a day latter while being interviewed on FOX news Trump doubled down, and said “Maybe he should have been roughed up because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.” One day after those comments and three terrorists who organized themselves online shot five Black Lives Matter activists in Minneapolis.


On Frank Sinatra


by: on December 12th, 2015 | 4 Comments »

I have been a Frank Sinatra fan since before I can remember. My parents told the story of me during my terrible twos: I would be screaming about something that had gone wrong in my little girl toddler world, but when Frank Sinatra came on the radio singing “Three Coins in a Fountain”, I would stop screaming, listen to him sing the song, and when it was over, I would continue screaming.

Frank SinatraGenius music and musicians populate the soundtrack of my life. Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, The Beatles, Motown, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Weather Report, Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston, Patty LaBelle, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Michael Jackson, Sting, Al Jarreau, and more. I learned classical music from Leonard Bernstein’s children’s concerts and from my piano teachers in East St. Louis, Illinois. I was, and I am still proud of African-American opera singers such as Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Paul Robeson, William Warfield, and the young opera singers that prove the saying – strong women and men keep coming. I loved the three tenors – Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. I thrilled at the singing of the tree mo’ tenors – Thomas Young, Roderick Dixon, and Victor Trent Cook. Every year I ride around with that year’s version of the WOW Gospel collection playing in my car.

Still, Frank Sinatra was and remains one of my favorite singers, always somewhere in the background waiting with a voice that makes me pause a moment, put my troubles on hold, and just listen. There is a mystery to great art and to great artists. A great singer may not have the most astonishing voice, or the most pure technique, yet, they have a mysterious X factor that touches our humanity in an indescribable, inexplicable way. Frank Sinatra is such an artist.


The Two Saints


by: Stewart Brinton on December 11th, 2015 | 1 Comment »

My podiatrist is an observant Jew, an Ashkenazi by heritage. Every so often I make an appointment to have a callus trimmed on my little toe. I am fond of Jewish culture and humor and I look forward to our visits. He tells me Jewish jokes and I ask him the meaning of Yiddish words.

In the summer of 2014, Israel invaded Gaza. It was called euphemistically Operation Protective Edge. It should have been called Operation Sadistic Righteousness. The wanton carnage and destruction upset me deeply. I had to book an appointment with my podiatrist and wondered how I would broach the subject of the invasion. I decided to tell him a story:

Many years ago there was a Jewish film festival and I attended one of the sessions. Before the showing of a documentary on Israel, the director, a young Jew from Toronto, gave a prologue and told the audience his intent was to give a humanistic approach. He interviewed everyone in the film with an open-ended attitude. No politics or polemics were allowed in the editing, just people’s stories revealed. When he finished the film, he was shocked; he couldn’t show it anywhere. Not even in his synagogue. Through great effort, he eventually got it shown once on late night cable in Australia.


A Checkpoint Is No Place for a Mezuzah


by: Tali Ruskin on December 11th, 2015 | 9 Comments »

A few weeks ago, I was traveling with a group of 35 American tourists, a Palestinian bus driver, and a Palestinian tour guide from Jenin (a Palestinian city in the West Bank) to Nazareth (a Palestinian city inside the Green Line). When we came to the Jalameh checkpoint, the soldiers pulled us over to an area for additional screening, where we joined tens of Palestinians, most of whom were Israeli citizens on their way home from shopping, visiting relatives, or working.


What followed for the next fifteen minutes was a routine exercise in ethnic profiling, in which 20-year-old Jewish Israeli soldiers, armed with heavy artillery, are empowered to make decisions about who is or is not fit to pass. After taking the two Palestinians off the bus for interrogation, several more soldiers came onto the bus to check our passports. One soldier stood at the back of the bus, pointing his gun down toward one of the few people of color in our group, staring at him in creepy silence (not unlike the 44 seconds of silence that Netanyahu performed for the UN). When they finally asked him for his passport and saw that is was not American, they did not simply glance at it and return it to him, as they had done with the rest of the group. “Why?”, they asked him. Why was he traveling with a group of Americans, where had he been, what had he been doing, who had he stayed with, did he have family in Jenin. Eventually, they returned his passport to him, and told us to take all of our stuff and get off the bus to go through the metal detector.

Checkpoint GatesAs I approached the trailer that contained the metal detector and soldiers checking IDs, I saw a mezuzah posted on the entrance. My heart sank. At once, I felt shame, sadness, rage, and disgust. I explained to my fellow delegates that the mezuzah is a Jewish ritual object that contains a scroll on which the following words from the Torah are written:

“And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be upon thy heart; and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the doorposts of thy house, and upon thy gates.” – Deuteronomy 6: 4-9


“Ba’nu Choshekh L’kadesh: Sanctifying darkness, seeding the light”


by: Rabbi David Seidenberg on December 10th, 2015 | 2 Comments »

Every year at my boy’s school there’s a Chanukah concert that includes rap songs and other talent. A few years ago, it included the song the popular song, “Ba’nu Choshekh L’garesh“. I’m not so connected to modern Israeli culture, though, so it was my first time hearing it. Here’s a translation:

We come, the darkness to expel -
In our hands, light and fire.
Each one is a small light,
And all of us together – an immense light!
Flee darkness! Be gone black!
Flee before the light!

The school, Lander Grinspoon Academy in western Massachusetts, teaches great midot – moral qualities – and it’s also multiracial. (I shouldn’t need to say that because Jews are all races, but our prejudices can make us forgetful about who we are.) So the words “Be gone black/Hal’ah sh’chor” really struck me as the wrong thing to be singing, even though I know that no one who loves the song today or in the past – certainly not the Yemenite composer, Sara Levi-Tanai – would have intended any such thing. “Ba’nu Choshekh” probably represented pretty well what a lot of people imagine when they think about Chanukah – we are celebrating the triumph of light over darkness.


For many Jews, anti-Arab racism hits home


by: Keren Soffer Sharon on December 9th, 2015 | 12 Comments »

Following the devastating attacks in Paris, right wing forces have been fanning the frightening flames of anti-Arab racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia. There have been calls for increased surveillance of Muslim communities, unconstitutional registration of American Muslims, and religious tests for Syrian refugees seeking safety in the United States.

A transit camp (maabarah) for Mizrahi immigrant refugees in 1952

I am Mizrahi. I’m a Jew, and like many Mizrahim, I’m also an Arab. We Arab Jews have a unique perspective to offer on the Syrian refugee crisis, and on the Islamophobic and anti-Arab backlash that we are seeing in this country and across the globe. For me, anti-Arab racism is not something abstract. It’s not something that needs a historical analogy to feel visceral. The hatred and fear directed toward our Arab and Muslim friends is an attack on the Arab heritage of Mizrahim and on our rich history as Jews.

Mizrahi Jews (meaning “Eastern”) are Jews who for over 2,500 years were indigenous to the Middle East, North Africa, parts of Asia and the Balkans. For much of this time, Mizrahim were deeply rooted in the Muslim-majority societies in which they lived. Our ultimate displacement was the result of several historical forces, including the establishment of the state of Israel by Ashkenazi (European) Jews with the support of imperial powers.

In the late 1930s, Ezra Haddad, an Iraqi Jewish author and historian, proclaimed, “We were Arabs before we became Jews,” in Al-Akhbar, an Iraqi daily newspaper. Before British and French colonialism, Arab Jews, Arab Muslims and Arab Christians shared communities, identities and homes – in the deepest sense. My mother’s maiden name is Soffer, which means “scribe.” My ancestors were Torah scribes in Basra, Iraq, dating as far back as anyone in my family can remember. There was no place my family would have called home before Basra. Like other Iraqi Jews, my family was part of a thriving Jewish community living among other religious minorities in a society that was widely tolerant of non-Muslims. We shared the physical, cultural and psychic space that made us all Arab. It is only recently, through the centralizing of the Ashkenazi narrative as the dominant Jewish story, that our identity as Jews is supposed to override our identity as Arabs.

There is no history to support the claim that Jews and Muslims are, or have ever been, perpetual enemies. Let us not forget that when both religious groups were expelled from Spain by the Catholic Monarchs in 1492, it was Muslims who welcomed Sephardi Jews (meaning “from Spain”) into Morocco and parts of the Ottoman Empire. And contrary to the notion that Jews were never safe in Muslim-majority territories, it was actually the Christian territories where they faced the most virulent forms of Antisemitism. Jews and Muslims were both demonized and targeted during the Spanish Inquisition under the same system of Christian hegemony that would later form the political foundations of white supremacy as we know it today.


José Luis Iñiguez performs his Art as Ritual


by: Arif Qazi on December 7th, 2015 | Comments Off


José Luis Iñiguez practices his art as a form of ritual, mysticism forgotten in his roots. With the use of found objects, ceramics and sculpture, he is able to show the world of his past and create new meaning. José has a BFA in Ceramics, Studio Art from California State University Bakersfield and a MFA in Fine Arts from California College of the Arts in San Francisco, CA.

José raised Catholic by his mother and father, a religious yet superstitious household, a world of ghosts and spirits. Though not religious himself he holds onto these believes and they become his art.

In his piece titled Inheritance. It is an assemblage of different found objects he has gathered to tell a story. 2 wooden planks lay against the wall suspended from the planks is a bag with the icon of Jesus in contemplation in Spanish written across the bag “No one likes you the way I do” and within the bag sits a plant. José would be embarrassed to carry the bag with the icon of Jesus around in public, religion has become somewhat of a taboo in his circles and our progressive culture. The planks of wood against the wall represents the cross deconstructed laying against the wall, the pieces of the church. The plant is a Rue plant, a plant in Mexican beliefs or superstitions is said to absorb bad energies or ill omens, usually put at the entrance of the house. It is a remnant of the nature worship of the indigenous people of the Mexico and has adapted itself into day to day superstitions. José tackles these contradictions, the separation of nature from church this nature that still exists parallel to the church, hidden away. The initial reaction from the audience was misguided they were not able to easily access his art. José was not breaking through.

Still I Rise

José was not being edgy enough, not taking enough risks with his art, being safe and needed to be bold. In his studio, frustrated, José took brick to a sparewindow and its frame laying against the wall. The brick shattered the glass, shocked the advisor and in that moment he had broken through. The piece titled “Still I Rise” had been created, José later on had added a Jesus night light in the center of the broken window. This became a pivotal piece for José, and broken down boundaries for him. He needed to go where he had came from, Mexico.

Immigrated at an early age and never fully understood what it is to be Mexican. He explored the markets, visited his family left back in Mexico, saw how they lived, believed, worshipped. He saw devout Christians with a deep belief in magic and superstitions. He bought amulets, charms, powders, trinkets sold by the vendor and assembled an inventory of these items it became his toolkit. The locals showed José how to perform these spells, charms and create amulets they included spells to ward of evil, bestow good luck, blessings in finding a partner. José had performed these rituals with these items as a performance piece at the Yerba Buena Gardens.The traditional blessing to find love or a significant other involved turning a small figure of St. Anthony’s, patron saint of lost items, upside down then making a deal with him to turn him right side up if the figurine would find you a soul mate. This blessing can be done many times as needed until it comes to fruition.


Gun Lobbyists Love Terrorists Because It Takes the Limelight Away


by: on December 5th, 2015 | 7 Comments »

The mass shooting at San Bernardino has left us all reeling. In the hours immediately after the event, most people thought it was another lone shooter. Muslim everywhere were probably heaving a sigh of relief that it wasn’t another terrorist attack. Then the name of the alleged shooter comes through media wires, and we are down the rabbit hole all over again. “Muslim Killers” screams a New York Post headline and suddenly we all forget the most important thing: America has just had yet another mass shooting.

As Muslim Americans worry about the backlash, as brown people everywhere worry for their own safety, gun lobbyists are laughing their way to the bank. When a white person shoots into a crowded building, they are in the hot seat for just a little while as discussions about gun control and the mentally ill circulate the airwaves. But when a Muslim does the same, the media calls it terrorism and the discussion veers towards radicalization and ISIS and everything else “Islamic” with those very big quotation marks.

Don’t get me wrong, when somebody uses guns and IED devises to kill 14 people, when his home is full of pipe bombs, I’m the first one to call him a terrorist. I don’t care whether he’s Muslim or Christian or atheist. If you spread terror, you are a terrorist and you deserve everything you get in this world and the next. But what infuriates me is how easily and quickly the media narrative shifts away from the issue of gun control. And that’s why gun lobbyists love terrorists. They no longer have to answer about why the United States has the highest gun violence rates in the developed world, or why an archaic constitutional amendment is being used to perpetuate and glorify a culture of violence.


View from the Ladder


by: Irwin Keller on December 3rd, 2015 | 5 Comments »

Eighty years ago, the United States debated whether it would open its doors to Jewish refugees fleeing the terror of the Nazis. It did not. And this historical echo was not lost on me, as I’m sure it was not lost on Jews throughout this country.

These have been weeks of significant gravity. Serious things have happened. We have been weighed down in their aftermath, by sadness, fear, and anger. What happened on a Friday evening – the Shabbos! – in mid-November in Paris captures our imagination and won’t let go. And the attacks last week on the tourists in Mali just add to our fear and helplessness.

All of this would be enough to burden us heavily. But then comes a second wave of injury, as we watch politicians turn tragedy into cheap rhetoric. Two dozen American governors saying they would close their borders to Syrian refugees: the very people who are fleeing ISIS. Offering terrorists their victims back. And knowing that the public is insular and racist enough to believe that we couldn’t possibly tell refugees and terrorists apart.

So what can we do? What course do we take? Maybe a first thing is to climb out of this morass for a higher view. But how do we climb, when the drama and trauma hold us so tight, when gravity weighs so strong?

We dream a ladder. That’s what we do. It’s what Jacob did, in last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayetzei. He was fleeing danger too, running scared. He was escaping his brother, but in the world of Torah, violence between siblings is meant to point also to violence between nations. So Jacob’s moment was not so dissimilar to ours.


All Real Living Is Meeting


by: Matthew Gindin on December 2nd, 2015 | Comments Off

All real living is meeting.- Martin Buber

As is so often the case, the events of the last weeks and their questions resonated with the parshayot (torah readings). How should we relate to the other that we fear? Who are our fellow travellers? Where is God in the tortured conflicts of our time?

In the Bible portion Vayetze Jacob leaves Be’er Sheva in the Holy Land and goes north to Haran. The Hasidic commentator the Sfas Emes points out that this symbolizes the soul leaving behind the well (be’er) of Shabbat (sheva) to go into the materiality of the world- from the place of p’nimiyut (internal spirit) to the place of gashmiyut (worldliness). In parshat Vayishlach, last week’s portion, Jacob is returning to the Holy Land and therefore to the place of p’nimiyut, which besides internality can also paradoxically mean the Face (panim). Jacob will descend into his own depths and emerge to a confrontation with the face of the Other.

“And Jacob was left alone (levado)”(Genesis 32:25). The Midrash says, “Jacob was left alone (levado)”- this is like the aloneness of the Holy One who pervades all the universe (Genesis Rabbah, 77:1)”. How is Jacob’s aloneness like the aloneness of God?

The Holy One’s aloneness is described as ein od milvado -there is nothing besides Him alone (Devarim 4:35). On one level Jacob is in a place of great aloneness where he must rely on his own resources (Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dynov, Igre de-Kala, quoted by Rav Itamar Eldar). This is one way in which his aloneness is like the Holy One’s- it is an aloneness of self-sufficiency. Further R’ Tzvi Elimelech and others connect this verse to another one from Isaiah: “And human haughtiness will be humbled and people’s pride be brought low, YHWH alone ( levado) will be exalted on that day (Isaiah 2:17)” Here Jacob lets go of pride and self and thus attains to an “aloneness with the alone”. Jacob’s aloneness is one where he comes into an unmediated meeting with the Divine presence, as taught by the Shem Mi-Shmuel (Vayishlach 1878). This last type of aloneness is a seclusion even from ideas of self and other, past and future. Jacob enters into a deep stillness where he transcends stories about himself and his brother. Jacob is alone, but not in the sense of isolation. In this aloneness his consciousness becomes unrestricted, and it is in this sense that his awareness “pervades all the universe like the Holy One”.

It is from this ultimate place that the Other can be met completely, free from the cage of concepts based on the past. Here transformation of our attitude to the other can really occur, even if we only glimpse this state briefly. Without it, change tends to be more superficial.