A Glance into a Synagogue in Copenhagen

By Natalie Friedman

On my way to the library in Copenhagen, Denmark I spontaneously stopped to look at a reflective plate in front of a synagogue. On a gold plate, there was an engraved Jewish star. I watched an elegant older woman wearing a fur coat and jewels walk into the synagogue through the glass doors. As the glass door behind her closed, I said, “Excuse me, excuse me!” She looked at me, unsure of what to do. A policeman appeared out of nowhere, but I assumed he came from one of the two the police cars guarding the street. He said with urgency, “How can I help you?” Perhaps my large backpack scared him.  I looked at both the woman and the policeman and I asked if there were any events for the holidays. He said, “Not anymore, but check Chabad.” I replied, “Wow, the security is….” unsure of what to say. He replied, “Well, welcome to Europe,” in a tone as if the danger was obvious and just old news. I found myself surprisingly upset after this encounter. I was upset that they thought I would threaten this building. I was upset that a type of place that I once called home was so heavily guarded and surrounded with fear.

I walked into the library and right away, I called the synagogue to ask about how I could see it. I was determined to get in and to gain a more positive experience of the Jewish community that I deeply cared about. I called because I was scared of the procedure that I might have to go through if I approached the building again. From the phone call, I learned that either I needed an appointment or I was allowed to come in for services (today or tomorrow), and I could only enter with my passport. That day was Shabbat, a weekly Jewish holiday, and it was also Chanukah, a yearly Jewish holiday. That day was special and I would go to seek out a familiar community in Copenhagen.

The fact that I needed a passport was not only for safety reasons, but also so that security could make an assumption based on my religion and origin. When I arrived again, I was asked questions like “Where you from?”, “Why are you in Copenhagen?”, and “Why have you not been here before?” Perhaps, subconsciously, I knew the synagogue would be heavily guarded, and maybe this was why I didn’t seek out the Jewish community in Copenhagen earlier (as this event was in the 5th month of my stay). I imagine that this is how stereotyped “dangerous” groups feel: alienated and feared. Was this why I was so upset? From this situation I learned two things: First, my attempt to call the synagogue made me conscious of the importance of Judaism to me. Second, I understood that communities who feel alienated and feared may become fearful or resentful. I believe this experience serves as a sign or marker that reflects a change in me and my filter of the world.

Tips for Traveling

By Natalie Friedman

I recently attended a JCC (Jewish Community Center) event in Los Gatos, titled “Jewbilee.” My favorite part was the keynote presentation. The principal, Rabbi Darren Kleinberg of Kehillah Jewish High School was interviewed by Rabbi High Seid-Valencia about his new book, Hybrid Judaism. I left this talk feeling empowered and reminded of the version of myself when I was in studying abroad in Denmark one month before.

Rabbi Darren Kleinberg gave the audience valuable advice. He explained, “before you meet anyone, I need you to remember three things:”

 

  1. That person is infinitely valuable.
  2. That person is unique.
  3. That person is equal.

 

This advice resonated with me. Last quarter, when I traveled to Lyon, Paris, Edinburgh, Florence, Rome, Barcelona, Geneva, and London I met many new people from different cultures. I believed in these three qualities both naturally and often. My belief in these things stemmed from my excitement and curiosity about undiscovered boundaries. Rabbi Darren Kleinberg mentioned a feeling of openness that is evoked when you keep these qualities in mind about each and every person that you meet. This idea was not necessarily remembered because the physical place that I was in – although the places I got to go were pretty special – but really it was my attitude about the people.

 

A month after I returned from Denmark, I missed the feelings that accompanied the entire adventure. This keynote prompted me to write this list of both tips and perks about traveling alone with openness.  

 

 

  • Immerse yourself in what you love about traveling

 

For me, it’s art. The Rodin sculptures at Musée des beaux-arts de Lyon were so emotional and real.

 

 

  • Feel Beautiful

 

For me, I like to add some extra lipstick, or wear a nice pair of sunglasses, dress up for you and only you.

 

 

  • Feel all you can

 

You are in control of how you are feeling. Traveling alone often consists of short interactions with people, and you are on your way. Tip: Try not to listen to sad music about being alone. I made this mistake. While traveling alone can be empowering, it can also be lonely, so don’t prompt that loneliness with negative media about the topic.

 

  1. Everything is up to you!

 

Your schedule is free! Every stop that you make in that boutique is a grand adventure. If you were with someone else, you may not have stopped in.

 

  1. Be Brave, Commit, Stay Open

All of these things are intertwined. To commit, you must be brave. Once you have committed, you must stay open.

 

  1. Smile at a stranger, especially the cute babies.

 

  1. Talk to a stranger

Offer to take a photo for that couple, learn about where they came from. You likely won’t see them again, but how great is it that an encounter like that could happen? When else will you meet someone from Bulgaria?

 

  1. Draw interesting looking things, if that’s your thing!

Draw every detail! You have all the time in the world, no one is waiting for you (I drew all the people in view from the spanish steps in Rome).

 

  1. Observe the culture: the contrasts, the similarities

The common yet charming mistakes that the locales make in english, the common desserts, the common christmas decorations or lack thereof, etc.

 

There is a fabulous Ted X talk titled “Owning Alone” by Teresa Rodriguez. I watched this video while I was in Denmark and it had a great effect on me. I had planned to go on my first trip, alone to Florence and I was slightly nervous about it. This video includes a woman who had gone through a man telling her that they were no longer getting married through a letter. After a lot of therapy that didn’t seem to work, she decides to go on a trip to London. She explains, “Yes, I was alone, but I was alone in London!” It is at this point that she understood, that being alone is not necessarily a bad thing. In the context of traveling alone or not being in a relationship for some people, being alone implies that there must be something wrong with you if you if you haven’t partnered up yet.

 

She goes on to say that “One of the best ways to heal a broken child is to go back to that place of discovery, that place of toddlerhood, where we look at things in a new light with new verve and new excitement. And I was there on High street and for the first time in a long time, I was alive. I was living in the now… It’s so rare that we go into that delicious now.” This theme was especially important to me when I was in Denmark. I took a class on Existentialism and Søren Kierkegaard. In this class, we spoke about the often impossible yet ideal notion of living in the now. While taking this class, I started to acknowledge every time I noticed that I could feel the present moment. This was the first step. By noticing when it was happening, I felt I could begin to prompt this feeling as well.

In the Ted talk, Teresa Rodriguez quotes Debussy, “It is the space between the notes that makes the music” By getting out of a comfort zone, one can create a space and gain a new view. It is in these spaces that one can change and turn into something beautiful.

 

Politics and the Islamophobic Lingo

By Victoria Lang

After the bedlam incited by President Trump’s ill-contrived immigration ban, a word, which I presumed to have withered slowly away, re-entered to my occasional political conversations. I’m speaking of the obtuse construct: Islamophobia. To discuss the word is to discuss an intersection of religion and politics, and sadly, much of this discourse has turned too toxic to even be dialectical. Perhaps this has some correlation with our lexicon that’s grown spectacularly imprecise and euphemistic. Words like post-fact, objectify, social justice, trigger warnings are mostly loaded, nonsensical, and given more credence than they deserve. But my concern, here, is primarily with one word and its politics. Their bloated definitions, and subsequently corrosive culture, have swallowed both the left and right into its mass of confusion and dishonesty.

The implied conflation behind Islamophobia puts its critics closer to the alt-right by the inane left. It’s apparent that a good portion of leftists now stand with Muslim apologists who quite loftily claim representation of the entire Muslim community. Typically, as a non-sequitur, apologists bemoan about Muslims being “offended” individually and as a race, and some even argue boldly that Islam is full of liberties. Oscar Wilde once said in his famously gnomic wit, “A true gentleman is one who is never unintentionally rude”— “gentleman,” here, is of course arbitrary. Likewise, I’ve always preferred upholding dignity for myself and my fellow creatures over compassion and pity. The right kind of people don’t demand apologies or sulk obsessively in their own psyche. And when the worst kind of people demand such things, it’s utterly morally reprehensible.

Islamophobia operates in similar absurdity. It presents a face of kind solidarity when it is in fact an ugly, narcissistic infant who thinks it’s granted special rights. Theocratic mouthpieces use the word to smear advocates for individual freedoms and cover up horrid realities of Muslim societies. Meanwhile, willing liberals suck it up to put themselves on a gallant podium of identity politics. The Southern Poverty Law Center, displaying a wonderful example of this apologetic cant, discredited itself by placing Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz on their list of “anti-Muslim extremists.” Both defend the liberties of other Muslims and their only “crime” is calling out the very religious cruelties stagnating progress. Nawaz cleverly coined the slanderous organization, and those sharing similar sentiments, “regressive leftists.”

Most charges of Islamophobia begin like so: someone excoriate Islam for its doctrines and the violence it inspires, then a stunned listener accuses them of an attack on the whole population of Muslims, as if it were a grand ad hominem. A bizarre passing of short-circuiting in the accuser’s brain and ceases their ability to see difference between ideology and people. Most frustratingly, they want everyone else to believe their irrationalities, too. After all, the turgid slur amasses all Muslims under an umbrella of victimhood and claims to defend all of Islam even from Muslims offending for the sake of reform—who are the ones making grand statements, really?

 Here are the two groups of Muslims that must be made distinct and mustn’t be let off as unscathed victims, no matter how appeasers disallow their scathing. Jihad is the use of violence to advance Islam and Islamism is the politicization of Islam. In principle and practice, the Quran defends and orders jihad, and jihadists evoke it as far as interpretation allows it. By definition and inception, Islamism cannot exist without Islam and, in my judgment, is nearly congruent to clerical fascism. On citing incidents of either form of iniquity, there are simply far too many to name in one article.

But just to give a primer for the sake of argument, in the past few years and ongoing, jihadists bombed and beheaded Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt where they comprise about ten percent of the Egyptian population (the CIA Factbook shows this number; some other statistics suggest more). In Iraq, Salafi jihadists like the Islamic State slaughter and enslave Yazidis due to their Yazidi beliefs which the Salafi regard as apostasy. In Indonesia, Islamists from Aceh revolted in numerous attempts to sever their oil-rich, sharia-abiding region from a relatively more pluralist Indonesian body. In Xinjiang, Uyghur jihadists and nationalists, some of whom trained by the Taliban and al-Qaeda, attack not only Han Chinese but also Hui Muslims over historical feuds and their non-Turkic ancestors. These are just a few examples from a plethora of grotesque assaults and factions inspired by Islam and its multifarious mutations. Each case certainly comes from causes unique to their political and historical contingencies but all of them share two essential qualities: (1) they occur independently from Western intervention and (2) Islam justifies, or nominally justifies, their heinous acts.

If the literal fundamentals of a belief are dangerous and peace is only possible through interpretive acrobatics, then its author is a poor communicator and his commands shouldn’t be a manual. A manual with opaque criteria and orders violence on deviants is immediately a temptation for mass slaughter. The false interpretation argument of “real Muslims” being the peaceful ones and “fake Muslims” being the appalling ones strikes me as unimpressive when, clearly, the peaceful ones are less strapped by the exact tenets. There is no “moderate” Islam but only less devout Muslims who cherry-pick beliefs. Personally, I choose to disbelieve any religion entirely because it’s the only ethical choice without cognitive dissonance, and the chances of religion explaining the natural world is effectively zero. But even if one doesn’t completely renounce religion, at least admit that more pious, more “fundamentalist,” and more “into the manual” mean less tolerant of diverging from original dogmas and more open to committing the most explicitly odious kinds.

Therefore, the following maxim has yet to be disproven: all jihadists and Islamists are Muslim. But the misinterpreters (at best) and slanderers (at worst) insist that the declaration is all Muslims are jihadists and Islamists. It’s true that jihadists and Islamists are among the minority of the vast Muslim population. But they possess tremendous political power, some of which rest upon compliant Muslims. The less violent and less reported variant propagandize to willing people to acquiesce and permit the practice of sharia law. One should think earnestly about tolerating the intolerant especially when it demands entitlements. During the 2005 Danish cartoon pandemonium involving a Danish newspaper satirizing the Prophet Muhammad, Islamists denounced what was a valid exercise of free expression. Some Danish liberal politicians welcomed and encouraged prohibition of blasphemy while more pro-Islam appeasers thought publications should be under religious restriction because it would be racist to depict Muhammad.

To say that it’s a matter of censorship would be a bitter pill to swallow in secular democracies where freedom of the press exists, but masquerade it as racism then it can convince a slew of plebeians ready to throw punches at the “offenders.” The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a rather shady group of Islamic countries officially or covertly, pressured the European Union and the United Nations for more action against Islamophobia in the incident’s chaotic aftermath. These are ambassadors who, in their respective countries and occasions, collude with governments that ignore or encourage killing of Christians, Jews, Hindus, ex-Muslims, Muslim reformers, Muslim women, gay Muslims and mavericks courageous enough to express themselves.

And the Danish paper committed a crime for drawing a sketch? No self-respecting person should capitulate to this kind of hypocrisy, especially when its beliefs were intoned by an illiterate merchant who lived on the edge of the Arabian desert. If the goal is to eliminate offensiveness for mocking an ideology, then the principle should not benefit one and not the others. And if this principle applies to everyone and every belief, then no one would dare to satirize freely or speak candidly, leaving the most boring and obsequious kinds of speech, if any are left by then. What the Islamists preach is not multiculturalism, where every idea can be discussed and debated, but uniculturalism dressed up as diversity.

Moral hypocrisy and moral blackmail can be quite effective on the credulous, and I suspect the Islamist lobbyists want the distortions to persist. Historically, anti-racism movements achieved progress by abolishing, or at least subduing, racial animosity through generations-worth of efforts. But their efforts failed to transfer to an abolition of racialization, if their spectral successors can even tell the difference. If hatred toward a race defines racism, then one must also, being responsible for what’s asserted, contemplate on what race and hatred constitute. The politically correct have only substituted the virulence of hatred with unbridled coddling of some amorphous group they gather as a race. This is patronization rather than empowerment, and ventriloquism rather than representation. The categories of race wouldn’t exist without the racists who created them, so to frame Islam as a race is to commit the same fallacy. Islam is not a united religion and has no ethnic boundaries, let alone be a race.

However, the wish to unite Muslims does form the basis of a caliphate. The so-called “collective voice of Muslims”—literally the OIC’s motto—likes to give the definition of Islamophobia utmost extension, encapsulating anyone who challenges anything Islamic however remote or precise. Most religions make audacious claims like all-knowing, all-seeing and all-creating deities, but institutions like the OIC combines religious audacity with political authority. Just to name a few of their farces: they say Islamophobia is the greatest threat to global peace, refer to Muslims as the “Muslim world” as though all Muslims want to be represented as such, and, most outrageously, have submitted a multitude of U.N. Resolutions attempting to criminalize hate speech against Islam, including censoring reports of Islamic terrorism, while paying lip-service in support of democratic values as if most of their member states had any democratic values to begin with. Inspect carefully at these sorts of rhetoric and evaluate their intentions, those who invoke accusations of hate speech are often those who can’t stand debate. Those who respect the Socratic form needn’t resort to whining about being offended.

For all intents and purposes, Islamophobia is a stupid neologism and propagandist machine that has no place in intellectual conversations. It’s designed to fool people who think Muslims are “brown people” when not all Muslims are brown and not all brown people are Muslims. It deforms the idea of racism and burns the innocents who amplify voices that Islamists try to smother. Those who fall for such chicanery will voluntarily open the gates for barbarians to stride in and siege democratic values. In principle, there is no such thing as medium free speech, partial free speech, or free speech with exemptions in fine print. Pluralism does not privilege one religion over others. Secularism, or the separation of church and state, presupposes freedom of worship, if only privately. Tolerance does not mean cultural and moral relativism. These shouldn’t be partisan issues in liberal democracies unless, those who surrender these principles are sympathetic to theocracies. If this is the case, then it’s not a misunderstanding between leftists and secularists but the cry of a theocratic left. The cultural and intellectual war would hence be between Enlightenment-humanist values and totalitarian-religious values. Liberals should be seeing this conflict more saliently. It’s not enough to understand right from wrong within the confines of race when the world is more than monochrome, as the color of one’s skin is a faulty determinant of ethics and merit.

In the advent of the abolitionist movement in America, the word discrimination took on a pejorative parlance when white racists reviled at the prospect of sharing equal status with blacks. The original definition, which has sadly become secondary in American colloquialism, indicates an ability to make distinctions—a strong mark of critical thinking. The irony never eludes me when I hear the left lambast the alt-right for “discrimination against Muslims” when the reason for prejudice is that the alt-right doesn’t discriminate among Muslims. Milo Yiannopoulos once described his alt-right, shall I say, camp as a defense of Western values and against Islamic encroachment—the most positive description one could possibly give. This rather ridiculous “defense” is mostly composed of Christian fundamentalists, white supremacists, right-wing trolls and a minority but election-swinging cohort of small-town, working class.

During the Obama era, they called themselves the Tea Party, known for its susceptibility to conspiracies like calling Barack Obama a “Kenyan-born, communist Muslim” and charlatans like Sarah Palin. Their patron saints include an eclectic line-up of Donald Trump (who couldn’t stop babbling about Obama’s birth certificate), Stephen Bannon (who shamelessly glorified Palin as a “tough, smart woman” in film), Richard Spencer (an unabashed neo-Nazi) and of course, Milo Yiannopoulos. All of them are rank opportunists of various gradations, but out of these four Bannon is perhaps the most hazardous one. He is a compound of Romantic war fantasies and “Judeo-Christian” values among other things. Being one of Trump’s loyalists, Bannon became a Trump auxiliary without ever having to traipse through legal drudgeries. Call me old-fashioned, but I’d like to see politicians respect proper avenues of power, because the reptilian opportunists won’t.

Like his political ascent, legality and protocol are more like obstacles than civic obligations to Bannon. Executive Order 13769, or the “Muslim ban,” placed a temporary suspension of all migrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries. The draconian decree invariably matched some of Bannon’s egregious rhetoric. During his time at Breitbart, Bannon challenged Trump on radio where Trump argued along the typical Republican platform acknowledging the economic vitality of legal immigrants. As a rebuttal, Bannon didn’t simply take issue with illegal immigrants but also legal immigrants, suggesting that America’s problem was immigration, period. Putting words into action, the executive order barred legitimate, visa-holding, green-card travelers—a move that was bereft of most advisers’ knowledge, inadvisable from those who knew, and detained an Iraqi who assisted U.S. military abroad.

But perhaps his impulse is not firstly a raw abhorrence of Islam, and instead a passionate longing for holy wars. “Judeo-Christian forefathers” are his favorite people, namely the Vatican, because military history depicts them as defenders of the West against Muslim empires. But it’s also an ideal he shares with the Islamic fundamentalists. The state and the church are synonymous and the primal forces which give their people vitality. As for Bannon’s conception of war history, the first American encounter with an Islamic state, the Ottoman Empire, was of Thomas Jefferson’s secular-liberal values rather than Christianity. If there’s anything holy about America, then it’s the very loud Christian right that continually tries to distort history and science.

On the lower echelons, the Trump electorate’s opinion of foreigners and the global order is a ghastly creature, a mash of parochial Know-Nothings and mindless militarism. Under their bluffable demeanor is an insecure nostalgia for postwar relics. Now that coal mines are disappearing, borders are porous and queers are walking down the aisle, “Make America Great Again” means making the America they once knew alive again. Trump’s outrageous trumperies and rants (and dubious love of Russians) swapped America’s “beacon of democracy” for a panoply of populism. It’s been said that fascism is the most backward beliefs augmented by the most revolutionary language. With a circus of loyalist humbugs in the White House, I doubt their vogue contains enough luster to carry on for long. Americans can only stomach so many lies and know well enough to not be treated like morons—and maybe some will realize they’re being treated by morons. But the most faithful Trump fans will continue to laud him no matter his ineptitude and their decisive political location, unequal compared to the more cosmopolitan urban burgs, protects their otherwise minority influence.

Fortunately, not all of Trump’s cabinet are sycophantic loons who need to emulate Trumpmania. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, one of the “pragmatists” as the media calls them, made vital visits to South Korea and Japan. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, who also carries quite an outstanding background, was initially flustered by the Muslim Ban (he did not receive prior notice despite lying about it afterward) and reportedly tried to pry Bannon’s influence off Trump. Hopefully, our so-called CEO of USA, Inc. (which sounds horribly authoritarian but it’s how he treats his job) will show some learning curve and know that he can’t make informed decisions without a competent board of advisors. Although, one thing I don’t expect to improve immediately is the American populace’s dialogue, and the Trump offensive against news outlets will likely degenerate it further. Politics is full of half-truths and hyperbole no better reflected than in its catchy soundbites. As imperfect as mainstream media may be, they are only enemies to Trump’s ardent followers.

On the other hand, does the left understand Muslims and foreign policy better than people like Bannon? I suppose the race-card players haven’t rocked our constitutional architecture quite like the nativists have—perhaps only because they aren’t the ones in power. It would be illusory to see Muslim societies as perfectly sensible, requiring mandatory protection and validation. The meme of Islamophobia continually self-replicates its vacuousness and, like an immortal gene, it eschews any who try to stop the spread. Chances are that the memetic ignorance will spread to the vilest and most paranoid ones who truly hold nasty prejudices toward whatever they think is “Muslim.” The shadowy virus of ignorance—the radix malorum—hides itself with vague symptoms, indistinguishable among those who possess the pathogen of prejudice and those who do not.

If the Islamists are harbingers to combat racism and stereotypes as they proclaim, they would allow people to leave Islam without death penalty thereby separating ethnicity from abominable precepts. And the regressive left, for all their ambitions to eradicate racism, frequently speak on the same side out of fear of appearing, but not actually, racist—hence their name denoting retrograde instead of progress. I’ve never considered myself a centrist (and I’m certainly no Democrat or Republican) but under current notions of left and right, I find that the further one moves toward the fringes of the spectrum, the more delusional and fanatical their occupants become.

Where Do I Belong: Being the Immigrant of my Family

By Rose Teplitz

When I was young and told the other children at school that one of my ancestors came to America from the Mayflower, they looked at my almond-shaped eyes, my long black hair, and laughed.

        “You can’t be from the Mayflower,” they mocked me. “Because they were white and you’re Chin-eeese.”

        They elongated the word “Chinese” for extra emphasis and I remember the fierce burning in my cheeks, embarrassed, but also confused. My family had found veritable proof that we were descendants of a man who boarded the Mayflower and had made it to America in 1602. I didn’t understand why the other children didn’t believe me.

        Later that day, I told my best friend, Maria, of my Mayflower ancestor. As a loyal best friend should behave, she did not taunt or berate me with questions like the others.

        “That’s cool,” she said, but then paused and tilted her head at me with a serious expression, “but they’re not really related to you, like by blood, you know? ‘Cause you’re adopted.”

        It was an honest statement and was not intended to hurt my feelings, but her words rang in my head as I walked home from school. “Adopted.” I had always known that I was adopted, but my adoptive family was the only family I had ever known; I assumed that it was clear I was now part of that lineage, biology and DNA aside. But that day, I became unsure if I had a right to connect myself to my parents’ biological predecessors. Then where did I belong? For the first time, I felt like an immigrant in my own family.

Because of the dreaded Mayflower fiasco, I had lost interest in questioning my parents about our lineage for I wasn’t even sure if “our” was supposed to be “their.” I stopped paying attention to what the family had been and decided that, like other immigrants before me, I would forge my own path in the world and write my own history.

When I reached college, I decided to join Leviathan Jewish Journal as an artist and soon was promoted to the position of Art Director. My mother’s family had been Catholic and I had attended Catholic Church all my life. The only experience I had with Judaism was a brief exposure to a dreidel at a friend’s birthday party; there was no particular reason for me to choose Leviathan, but I longed to change my direction to something new.

I became dedicated to the publication and appreciated the people in the organization. I produced content issue after issue for several years, learning about Jewish culture, perspectives, and current events until I decided to take a class focused on Jewish writers in New York to add to my insight.

One day we watched a documentary in class  that showed the thousands of Jewish immigrants who had poured into Ellis Island between the late 1800s’, early 1900s to escape the atrocities spreading across Europe. As I detailed the history of the film to my father that night on the phone, he said, “You know, my grandparents were Jewish immigrants who went through Ellis Island, too.” I nearly dropped my phone and began to press him for more details, but paused.

“But they’re not really related to you, like by blood, you know? ‘Cause you’re adopted.”

Maria’s words reverberated in my ears and I hesitated. I was the adopted kid, the immigrant child who didn’t have a blood connection to anyone my father was talking about. Inside my head, I weighed the pros and cons. On one hand, I was intrigued, wanting to learn more about the family history for the first time in years. On the other hand, was the Mayflower fiasco.

I decided to take a leap and ask.

My father only had a few bits of information about his grandparents, but he knew that his grandfather, Samuel Teplitsky, came over by boat from the Ukraine in 1902 because, as a Jewish man, he was in danger from the pogroms that targeted anyone who practiced Judaism, or had a Jewish-sounding last name. He had left behind his wife, Rebecca, in the old country, with the intention of bringing her over when he raised enough money. At Ellis Island, he went through the arduous and long immigration process, that to some, ended in heartbreak and tears due to a denial of entry into the new world because of a child with trachoma or a family member deemed mentally unstable. Fortunately, Samuel was successfully able to pass through and was suddenly on the streets of New York City. He took transportation to Chicago where he became a house painter and was lucky enough to be one of the few who made a decent living. Rebecca came over to join him a year later and together they had 9 children, the youngest being my grandfather. Years later, my grandfather had my father and aunt.

My great-grandparents ("Ma" and "Pa") with their children and grandchildren. My grandfather sits on the left in the front row ("Dave")
My great-grandparents (“Ma” and “Pa”) with their children and grandchildren. My grandfather sits on the left in the front row (“Dave”)

“Then your mother and I adopted you,” my father finished.

That night, I went over and over what little information I had received, trying to form an accurate picture of Samuel when he first stepped off the boat into America. Though I initially imagined him as excited and in awe of New York, I then thought of the reason he came to the country: escaping persecution because of his religion. Apparently, by the time he and his wife had their children, they no longer practiced and by the time my father and mother adopted me, it was as if any trace of Judaism had been erased.

But then there was me, the little adopted Chinese girl who had sat in the front row of a Catholic church for her whole life, writing and taking courses on Jewish life and culture, picking up a couple Yiddish words, and attending Shabbat. Following a path to learning about Judaism without any prior knowledge of my family’s past religious practices just because I thought, I’m in college, now is the time to try something different and something new.

But it turns out I was actually returning to something old and significant.

I have almond-shaped eyes, long black hair, and was born in China. I have no recollection or any possible way to discover my bloodline or see the family I am biologically related to. All I have is my family here. People may point to my Asian features and question if I can truly call my family’s ancestors mine.

 

And the answer is yes, I can.
I am Chin-eeese and do not have a blood relation to the people above, but my family is built up of immigrants. We all came to America with the hope to find a happier life and a society who accepts us for who we are. It would be wrong for me to pretend that I have no relation to my ancestor aboard the Mayflower because that would mean not only was I not truly accepting who I was, I was not accepting my family members either.

The Story of Yael: My Transition From Orthodoxy into Non-Observant Jewishness

By Shelby Backman

I have two sets of names. The first set consists of my federally recognized first, middle, and last name: Shelby Alexandra Backman. The second set I rarely use or even with my closest friends: Shira Yael Hertzliya. These are my three Hebrew names. It is Jewish custom to be named after ancestors; my names are the female version of my two great-grandfathers and a great uncle: Asher, Yoel, and Hertzl. Two of them were supposedly rebbes and all three of them had escaped from Russia to the United States at the turn of the century. “All of them,” my mother would say, “were great men and leaders in the Jewish community.”

I do appreciate that I am named after these men. But I never associated my names with theirs, nor my life with theirs. I’m not ashamed of my Hebrew names; they just don’t have a place in my everyday life. Still, despite the fact that I rarely use these names, they define a part of me. My relationship with them mirrors my relationship with Judaism and how it has developed and been redefined throughout my life. In fact, when I lost my faith in God, my Hebrew names returned to me a Jewish identity that I thought I would never regain.

For most of my early life, my mother raised me as an Orthodox Jew. I was a part of a Chabad congregation in San Diego and attended the same Jewish summer camp as the children in my synagogue. My mother and I weren’t as strictly observant as the other members of Chabad. We still drove and turned on lights during the Sabbath, and only used one set of plates even though we kept the laws of kashrut. Even still, she and I would study the Midrash (rabbinic commentary of the Torah) on a weekly basis. I even joined and actively contributed to an adult Midrash group while I was still in elementary school. I loved knowing that I was Jewish. I was one of the chosen people, and the world was my oyster.

Karin Gold

My names reflected this feeling. In the Orthodox community I preferred being addressed as Shira, or sometimes Herzliya. Shira means “[holy] song,” and Hertzliya is both related to the word for “deer” as well as a city in the Tel Aviv district of Israel. A search on Google will give “mountain goat” as the common translation for Yael. In comparison to a song or deer, a mountain goat did not feel particularly flattering. Later, during my Midrash studies with my mother, I learned that Yael is also the name of the heroine who saved the Jews by stabbing an enemy general with a wooden pin. In comparison to my other names, Yael’s relationship to Jewish history seemed relatively unimportant. Firstly, her tale is recorded in the book of Judges, Jewish scripture not included in the five books of the Torah. Secondly, only two parshas (chapters) are dedicated to her story. Thirdly, Yael isn’t even a Jew. As a child, I only wanted to be known by the two names that explicitly portrayed my Jewish identity. Yael wasn’t a part of that agenda, so I shunted the name and dismissed it as “just another name I have.”

As I got older, I felt less and less connected to the Orthodox community. This disconnect was partly exacerbated by the problems that developed between my mother and me. More importantly, it was difficult for me to relate to the Orthodox customs or beliefs any longer. I hated having to wear long skirts and long-sleeved shirts, even during the summer, as mandated by Orthodox Jewish law. I could never commit prayers beyond the Shema and the Aleinu to memory and never felt the desire to. I wanted to be like my non-Jewish friends who didn’t have to go to temple on Saturdays and didn’t have to read the Midrash every night. Bit by bit, I began to cut away pieces of my Jewish upbringing.

Once I came to UCSC, I stopped attending temple altogether. I didn’t want to return to the Orthodox way of life, but I still recognized myself as Jewish. However, because I’d grown up extremely religious, I felt like I couldn’t connect with any Reform or Conservative Jewish group. Essentially, I felt like I wasn’t a part of the Jewish community, regardless of my steadfast Jewish identity. So I kept my relationship with Judaism private and personal.

Then, earlier this year, I became an atheist. I fell into a depression. I had lost God. I knew that I could count on my friends to celebrate my successes and to sympathize with my struggles. However, I felt that only God could experience my life as I experienced it. Losing him meant I lost my closest confidant. His existence also reaffirmed my Jewish identity. The belief that my relationship with him had a different meaning in this life because I was Jewish allowed me to be comfortable with my Jewishness,

regardless of which prayers I said or which customs I chose to keep. By losing God, I felt like I’d not only lost the ability to be a part of any Jewish community, but I’d also lost an integral part of my being, a part that shaped so much of my childhood.

Once I became an atheist, even my favored Hebrew names seemed foreign to me. All three belonged to ancestors who, unlike me, were proud of their Jewish heritage. At that point, it was much easier to shun my Jewish identity because I felt like I didn’t deserve to call myself Jewish. I was the stereotypical “wandering Jew.”

Soon after I became an atheist, I began dating a fellow atheist-Jew who, unlike me, embraced his Judaism. In my relationship with him, I saw that it was possible to be Jewish without believing in God, but I still didn’t understand my place in the community. I thought I would never reconcile with my Jewish identity, let alone my Hebrew names (which I had long since stopped using).

During my last quarter at UCSC, I enrolled in Rabbi Chein’s “Women of the Hebrew Bible” class in order to understand what it means to be a Jewish woman, especially one without faith. Weeks went by and I felt no more connected with Judaism than I had at the beginning of the quarter. Then, as I was starting to accept my fate as an outsider, I revisited the story of Yael.

The story takes place in Israel, where the evil King Jabin had sent his general Sisera to wage war against the Jews. In response, Deborah, the reigning prophetess, appoints a Jewish man, Barak, to lead his army into a war against Sisera’s forces. Meanwhile, the story introduces Yael’s character. She is married to Herber the Kenite, a man who has separated himself and his tent from the Jews and has befriended King Jabin. Because of her association with Herber, Yael is considered an outsider in respect to the Jewish people. Barak and Deborah ride into battle against Sisera’s army and the Jews come out the victor. Unfortunately, General Sisera survives the defeat and runs to the safety of Herber’s tent. When Sisera arrives, Yael greets him and serves him a glass of milk. After Sisera lies down to rest, Yael takes a wooden tent pin in one hand and a hammer in the other. She then drives the pin through Sisera’s temple. When Barak rides up later in pursuit of Sisera, Yael shows him the general, lying dead on the tent’s floor. She, the wife of Herber the Kenite, friend to King Jabin, had killed the enemy of the Jews despite her husband’s allegiances. Even as an outsider, she came to the aid of the Jewish people when she was handed the opportunity, betraying her expected loyalties.

After rereading the story of Yael, my names were no longer a painful reminder of the Jewish identity I had discarded. In fact, the name that I had once regarded as the least Jewish of the three now gave me a sense of identity within Judaism. Deborah and Yael represent two extremes within the Jewish community: Deborah is completely involved and immersed in Jewish life, whereas Yael is essentially detached from it. During my childhood, I was a Deborah in my Jewish community. As an adult, I have become a Yael. The story of Yael demonstrates the important role that both women play in the survival of the Jewish people. By chronicling the heroism displayed by these two extreme Jewish identities, the story of Deborah and Yael showed me that my lack of faith didn’t have to dictate my place in the Jewish community. It didn’t matter which path I chose to express my connection with Judaism;

Judaism could manifest itself in many forms. From religious practices to cultural observances to recounted histories, I could be a part of all of it, or none of it, or somewhere in between and still identify as Jewish. My ability to relate to other Jews through my experiences and our shared history is what matters. This is what makes me a Jew.

Although I still don’t use my Hebrew names in everyday interactions, they are just as much a part of my identity as my secular names. Regardless of my feelings about God or Jewish customs, Judaism’s history and culture shaped my childhood and connected me to my ancestors. As an atheist, I’m no longer a part of the religious community I’d once identified with. But I also know that to be part of the Jewish community, I don’t have be a Deborah. I’m proud to be a Yael.

By Karin Gold

Published on page 37 of the Spring 2012 issue of Leviathan.

Why This Night is Different

By Shani Chabansky

The congestion got to her consciousness first. Then came the afternoon sun, staring at her through the slats of the venetian blinds she’d forgotten to shut before her afternoon nap. When she reached for the clock on her nightstand, she felt the sweat that had seeped through her clothes and onto her bed sheets. 5:00 p.m. Sophie Reznik still couldn’t breathe through her nose, but the lack of tension in her neck and shoulders and the ease with which she could move her limbs told her that the fever had broken.

“Soph, are you awake? I need your help in the kitchen!” Her mother had been bustling about all week long, preparing for the seder. Watching her multitask was like watching a professional circus clown, juggling her zillions of post-it notes and to-do lists.

“Yeah, I’ll be there in a minute!”

Wading through the mountain of used Kleenex, damp pajamas, and piles of half-highlighted social theory articles ripped unceremoniously from school readers, she tossed on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt and shuffled into the kitchen.

The pre-Pesach preparations dance began. There is no professional choreographer in the world who could match the elegance of a mother and daughter symbiotically concocting a meal. It was pure telepathy, the way they skirted around each other like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

In many ways it was sure to be a typical seder, nothing special. It would be just as anxiety-inducing and potentially explosive as the years before. The subjects of tonight’s arguments would be the only variable to set this seder apart. It was her stepfather’s first Passover experience, as her grandmother would be sure to mention. Although she claimed that she’d made peace with her daughter’s newly acquired Italian husband, Bubbe’s subtle little comments about the “unconventional” relationship gave her true feelings away. And then there’d be her father, who was quite the character himself—an Israeli, obsessed with the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley. He was sure to bring his latest toy, this time a tiny digital video camera to record the evening and share with the chevrei in Ramat Gan. And then there’d be Rosa, Sophie’s first girlfriend.

The doorbell interrupted their trance-like preparations.

“Hello?” A septum-pierced nose followed by a pair of brown eyes peered around the door.

“Hey!” Sophie said. “Mom, I’d like you to meet Rosa.”

When she came out to her parents back in high school, she didn’t have any proof to support her claim that she was a lesbian. As much as she enjoyed the bi-curiosity of the girls in the drama department, an actual lesbian relationship seemed as impossible as acceptance into a Haredi community. But during her first quarter at UC Berkeley, she enrolled in FMST 1: Introduction to Feminist Studies, and that’s where she met Rosa. When she informed her parents that she would be accompanied by her first girlfriend at the seder, they supported her (albeit with raised eyebrows and tones tinged with skepticism).

More than anyone, it was Bubbe’s reaction to Rosa that Sophie was concerned about. Radical in all senses of the word, Bubbe was the kind of grandma your friends envy, while you’re stuck coping. Sure, her noodle kugel made Sophie’s house the high school hang-out spot and, once in a while, the old jewelry she gave Sophie for birthday presents would come back into fashion. But somehow, dinner conversations with Bubbe always involved a half-hearted attempt to avoid anything remotely controversial, the inevitable slip, and then the plunge into the political whirlpool (no snorkels involved).

She could just imagine the dinner conversation unfolding. Her father would inevitably tell the story of when his mother bought a live carp and kept it in their bathtub for a few days before the seder. He and his sister grew attached to the fish, then were forced to witness the death of their pet when their mother turned the carp into gefilte. Bubbe would be white-knuckling her walker while Sophie and Rosa discussed the prison industrial complex. Having had enough, Bubbe would open up the floodgates, arguing that, in fact, slavery is a thing of the past and that, in fact, the United States is a post-racial society. What do undocumented workers in Los Angeles have anything to do with Moses and the burning bush?

“Let’s turn now to the first page and begin with the kadesh,” her mother announced.

Sophie grabbed Rosa’s hand underneath the table and gave it a reassuring squeeze. The first cup of wine, as always, went down silently. Sophie wondered why they always sang “Ma Nishtana” before they were sufficiently sloshed. By the time they’d downed the second cup, Sophie’s congestion came back with a vengeance and her patience for Bubbe’s wisecracks started waning.

“Well, I’d ask you when I can expect grandchildren, but now that you’re lesbian, things are different…”

“You want different?” Sophie exploded, blowing a wad of phlegm into her napkin and tossing back her second second cup. “I’ll give you different! How about the difference between an egalitarian, agrarian society and a colonialist, capitalist enterprise? You wanna talk differences? How about the differences between a progressive Judaism driven by social justice and a conservative Judaism blinded by faith?”

“Progressive Judaism? You’d be happier in a Marxist system where, as we all know, Jews are treated with the utmost respect,” Bubbe sarcastically spat. “I’m sorry to say, sweetie, that you should get a life and step outside your crazy leftist echo chamber.”

Banot…” her father interjected. “We haven’t even hidden the afikoman yet! Nu? What’s with the pause? Save the fireworks for the dinner. Yalla!”

“What’s the point of finding the afikoman? I know what’s coming. What’s the prize this year, a new freaking iPhone?” Sophie demanded. Rosa squeezed her hand under the table and Sophie sighed. “Okay, okay. What’s next? The Four Sons?”

“Let’s see, let’s skip ahead to the plagues,” her mother

finally spoke up. “Let’s start with dam, sephardaya, kinim…”

They managed to get through the first half of the seder without any further interruption. Well past midnight, Sophie toyed with the half-eaten macaroon on her plate. Between the wine and the fever that was claiming her mind, it was getting extremely difficult to recall the lyrics to “Chad Gadya.” Bubbe was nodding off into her Nescafe. She looked across the table and found her

mother’s gaze.

“Well, I guess it’s about that time, folks,” said her mother. “Don’t worry about the dishes, just leave everything where it is.”

Sophie walked around the table and touched Bubbe lightly on her shoulder. “Hey Bubbe, it’s time to get up. The seder’s over.”

“What’s that? Oh, thanks Soph. You’re a good girl,”

Bubbe said.

“Thanks, Bubbe.” Sophie helped her out of her chair, called a taxi, and waited with her in the living room.

“I think we forgot to let Elijah in,” Sophie murmured. The prophet’s absence was the least political thought she could muster up. She hoped Bubbe’s exhaustion would prevent another

argument.

“Serves him right,” Bubbe replied. “Seventy-five seders and not once have I seen the guy lift a finger around the house.”

Outside, the taxi honked. Sophie helped Bubbe into the car.

“Are you sure you don’t want to take home any haroset?”

“No, no. I’ll be fine. Thank you, sweetheart.”

Lyla tov, Bubbe.”

“Good night, Sophie.”

Published on page 11 of the Spring 2012 issue of Leviathan.

Pearl of Gold, Force of Nature

By Karin Gold

This past winter break, six days after my birthday, my grandmother passed away. It was December 18th. I got the call around eight in the morning and cried for a good two hours while my dad rushed to buy plane tickets to Israel so we could go to the funeral and say goodbye. We stayed in Israel for two weeks for the funeral and the shiva, the seven-day period of mourning, and flew back to the US by New Year’s Eve. During my short time in Israel, I shuffled through all her old pictures and journals and was reminded of her life, a story I have heard many times. Only now do I realize how much inspiration can be drawn from her journey and her strength.
My grandmother, Pnina Kelem Gold Noiman, was born on November 29th, 1929 in a small town in British-controlled Palestine (later to be known as Tel-Aviv, Israel). Growing up, she was always surrounded by family. Either alongside her twin brother, Shmulik, or her younger brother Yechezkel (Ezekiel), she was never alone, and she liked it that way. Sadly, at the age of twelve, Pnina suffered her first loss. Her mother passed away and she was left as the only woman in a house filled with three men. Due to the tragic reality of her mother’s death, she had to become the mother figure for both of her brothers and quickly assumed the role of housewife.

At the age of fifteen, Pnina made a decision for her family and the Jewish community. She ran away from home and joined what was called the Haganah (Protection). The Haganah was a group of Jewish teenagers and adults who wanted to be part of an army to protect their land from invasion before an organized Zionist military even existed. While she was part of this impromptu organization, her job was to deliver hand grenades and explosives to other units, a job punishable by death by the British forces. After serving for two years in the Haganah, she joined the Palmach, the underground army of the Yishuv (Jewish community), prior to the formation of the state of Israel. Coincidentally, the United Nations voted in favor of the notion to partition the British mandate of Palestine in order to make room to create an Independent Jewish State of Israel on her sixteenth birthday. However, just because the UN voted it into existence, did not mean that the notion was recognized right away. There were still battles to be fought and the very idea of a country to protect.
During her service in the Palmach, Pnina went to Jerusalem in the Orthodox Battalion in 1948. In Jerusalem, specifically in the village of Mekor Chaim, she was part of the protection agency and went undercover for six months. During these six months, no one heard from her or knew her whereabouts. In Jerusalem, one of her jobs was picking up the dead bodies on the street and organizing them for a proper burial. While serving, Pnina was one of the only three girls in the entire Palmach that participated in combat during the war in 1948 and even found herself in face-to-face combat against Sudanese soldiers.

Photos courtesy of the Gold family

Finally, at the end of the war, she came back to Tel-Aviv and was reunited with her family. In that same year, the first-ever Israeli newspaper came out and Pnina Kelem was on the cover. An extensive article was written about her explaining how she risked her life in order to help create the State of Israel and protect the newly formed country. After the war in 1948, Pnina went to work in the legal department of the IDF and met a man named Benjamin Gold. Now Benjamin, or Benny, as he liked being called, was seeing a lovely girl at the time and was unfortunately quite happy in that relationship. Pnina, as was characteristic of her, managed to worm her way into his life and became his confidant. She listened to all his newly relevant relationship problems with his girlfriend, and comforted him when he was upset. He inevitably fell in love with Pnina and, after breaking it off with his old girlfriend, they were married just two years later. In 1951 they had a son and by 1961 they had a total of three children: Yoram, the oldest, Orna, the middle child and only girl, and Ehud (Udy) the youngest. Benny was a construction worker and an architect and because of his job, the entire family (with exception to Yoram) relocated to the small country of Sierra Leone in Africa and lived there for a year while Benny finished building a water tower in the city of Freetown.
In 1967 they returned to Tel-Aviv to continue their lives in Israel. In 1968, when little Udy was only seven years old, Pnina faced another tragedy when Benny passed away in his sleep from a heart attack at the age of forty-two. This devastating and completely unforeseen event shifted the family dynamic in a very familiar way. Orna, like her mother before her, was forced to assume the role of housewife and disciplinarian while Pnina worked two jobs in order to provide for her family. Finally, after being alone for ten years, Pnina found Moishe Noiman, also a widower and one of the only men who could handle a woman with a fire like hers. He moved in with her after the youngest child was out of the house and they started their 32-year long relationship together. In those thirty-two years she continued to work and in that time became the grandmother of six. Each one of her children had two of their own and, continuing the trend of her family, the children’s genders alternated according to their birth order: boy, girl, boy, girl, etc.
In 2009, Pnina riskily had open-heart surgery at the age of eighty. Luckily she recovered, but because of the surgery, her memory was never the same. Doctors say that after enduring this type of physical trauma, it is possible to develop Alzheimer’s, a condition in which one loses their short-term memory abilities. Because of this degenerative disease, about a year later she barely remembered her own grandchildren and confused her children with one another. In the summer of 2010, right before my eldest cousin’s wedding, our family put her into a home that had an on-call staff to make sure she remembered to eat and continued to function normally. Although she was not happy to go to the home, after a while she did not remember when she had gotten there and simply adapted. Even at eighty-one years old, Pnina Gold was not an easy patient to have. When someone bothered her, she would deliver the following warning‚“If you don’t shut up in the next five minutes, I’m going to go over there and smack you myself!” Unbeknownst to the other loud patients and the staff, she was completely serious. She walked right over to whoever was making the ruckus and smacked them, either with her cane or with her bare hand, just so that they would be quiet. Luckily she was living in Israel, and the hospital staff was not only used to this type of behavior but also unmoved by her threats and her occasional misbehaving. Sometimes they would even send her into other patients’ rooms to keep them in check! It would be safe to say that even with her crazy antics, she displayed her chutzpah everywhere she went. Pnina was definitely what one might call “a woman with balls.”
Once in a while, Pnina had to receive blood transfusions because of her heart condition.

On December 18th, 2011,  she went in to the hospital for a routine transfusion. Things went wrong, as things often do. Her heart was very weak, and she was old. She passed away at the age of eighty-two, leaving behind Moishe, her three children, six grandchildren, and infinite friends. Her funeral was very beautiful. Many came, including the six grandchildren, four of whom lived outside of Israel. Family and friends laid her to rest in a respected cemetery in Israel with a beautiful tombstone picked out by her children.
This woman was my grandmother.

Photo provided by the Gold family

A woman of valor, integrity, kindness, and tremendous chutzpah. I grew up with her playing Rummikub, listening to her stories, and raiding the candy cupboard made only for the grandkids. I grew up getting knitted sweaters every year, the best food anyone could taste, and kisses that pierced my face with  her sharp nose and sharp chin at the same time. I will miss her more than words can describe and so will everyone who knew her. She was my grandmother, my friend, and my hero. Her name, Pnina, literally translates to Pearl. Pearl Gold. And that’s what she was, a pearl of gold. Rare, beautiful, and although malleable, also strong. So here’s to you Savta Pnina, Savta Pina, Savta Ptitim. You were the most interesting, inspiring, and heroic person I have ever met. Much love from the world below, I know you’ll give them hell up there.

Published on page 12 of the Winter 2012 issue of Leviathan.

Shayndl’s Search For Love

By Allison Carlisle & Shani Chabansky

Click to enlarge

Shayndl’s Search For Love - Page 1/2
Shayndl’s Search For Love - Page 1/2

Published on page 52 of the Fall 2011 issue of Leviathan.