In big, bold letters, the words “Grateful for:” pop up on my phone screen every day, demanding I fill in the blank. Some days I blatantly hit the snooze button without a second thought. But on the days I decide to be diligent, my answer hardly varies – I am grateful for the life I am privileged to live. I’ve seen the world. I attend the University of California. I own a Hulu and a Netflix account. The day-to-day nuances of this privilege change, but underneath, it is a core belief that I am more fortunate than many. On down days, I have to remind myself at least I still have legs. This is my daily reality check. I was born into a white, upper-middle-class family, and this makes me feel guilty. This guilt stems from the fact not everyone is as privileged as I, and maybe I could be doing more to combat inequality. I admit, my little alarms are a way of selfishly easing the guilt, a reminder to check my privilege. While this guilt is not inherently problematic, as these feelings are often unavoidable, I find it imperative to talk about it.
Two weeks before my sophomore year started, I embarked on a backpacking trip around Europe with two close friends. Amsterdam was our longest sojourn, and I refused to stay longer than three days and not see the Anne Frank House. Hopping from one train to another with our bulky backpacks, my friends and I eventually got ourselves through the long, winding queue and into the house in which the Frank family hid from the Nazis for more than two years. The house was tall, but cramped. The first room was cold and pure white; the headphones translated the exhibit’s audio from Dutch into, in my case, English. The stairs leading to the first floor had character, worn down from years of use and discovery. Each room had a different atmosphere, yet all solemn and heart-rending. Following the line of international tourists, I listened to the voice in my headphones, absorbing every detail and feature of a decomposing house so full of life. Anne’s room, with postcards and newspaper clippings taped to the faded orange walls was the most charming and sobering. Here, I began to feel the tears well up. I had listened to the grotesque horrors of the Nazis and the impressive feats of Miep Gies and Johannes Kleiman risking their own lives for a crusade much bigger than themselves. I felt haunted by Anne’s room that so closely paralleled my own childhood den. I felt guilty; these atrocities could never have happened to me. I could have walked down any street in Germany during WWII without fear, my blonde hair and light eyes making me somewhat exemplary. I often think I am not worthy of such a privileged life – all I did was be born. Yet, in these moments I must remember not to let guilt mask my view of the world. In times of challenging adversity, it is not guilt that should win. Empathy should dominate.
White guilt can manifest itself in many ways. There is the “white savior complex”, in which a well-intentioned white individual holds the belief that they can “save” desperate, needy people, many of whom may be people of color. For example: mission trips to Kenya to build a school promoting a Eurocentric ideology that Kenyans possibly never asked for, emphasizes the sentiment that Western societies are superior. Actions taken to challenge injustice born out of the white savior complex can be seen as acts of selfishness or ignorance. The service that comes from this manifestation of white guilt can free the “savior” of guilt in a detrimental manner, possibly leaving the “sufferer” in a worse position than before.
Constance Wu, an Asian-American actress who actively promotes empathy and equal representation on screen, touches on this: “We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world.” The belief that the white way of life is the right way of life is essentialist thinking. Occasionally, white saviors may be propelled by the idea that if they manipulate a culture different from their own into following the “correct” values and ideals, they no longer need to feel liable. Justifying “involvement” abdicates white/privileged responsibility for continually perpetuating white-centric viewpoints. If this is the case, these saviors feel that they have done their job, that they have rescued the poor and needy from inferiority, and thus, are freed of burden. This eliminates guilt, yes, but at what price? By influencing others to follow this “correct” path, these saviors are stripping away cultures that diversify and embellish our world. However, if one can take responsibility and move past the guilt stemming from what they are perpetuating, aspects of privilege can be used in a powerful and constructive manner. The privileged have the platform to have their voices heard, voices that can preach compassion and advocate for empathy. We also have the capacity to provide a space for others, those who have been disempowered and disenfranchised, to campaign for themselves, while we take a step back and listen. While preaching compassion is crucial, the groups that seek equality for may have other solutions we haven’t considered. Providing an open ground, as not to dictate their platform depending on whether we agree with the ideologies they present or not, opens a gateway into these other solutions.
Empathy is paramount. But why? There are many aspects of privilege. So far, I have mostly talked about white privilege, yet not every white person has complete freedom from discrimination. For example, while I do have greater access to privilege and less consistent and debilitating discrimination and adversity, I am a queer woman. In the wake of Trump’s election, I felt an attack on part of my identity. Empathy allows one to vicariously experience another’s feelings or experience, validating hardship and adversity. Though it may be objective, it compels the capacity to put yourself in another’s shoes. There are multiple facets to one’s identity, which people can often share with one another. Finding aspects of our privilege, and discovering how to use this to our advantage, is a central thought of being empathetic.
Upon my reflection of visiting The Anne Frank House, I now realize though I am white, I could have been targeted during the Holocaust. Though my blonde hair and light eyes give me the facade of the Aryan race, coming out as queer could have sent me straight to my death. This thought only serves to strengthen the testimony that empathy and compassion are critical. Many aspects of our society today seem to reflect the same bigotry from which Anne hid almost 100 years ago. We often say history should not repeat itself, yet our memories of the Holocaust have not prevented other genocides. For example, since the Holocaust, there has been the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, 1.5-3 million Cambodians killed under the regime of Khmer Rouge, and most recently the attack on Rohingya people in Myanmar. This serves to prove that a lack of empathy is damaging to our world.
We need to amplify the voices of the oppressed, whether that be people of color, lower-income minorities, or people of a faith that have been constantly and unfairly attacked. As a society and as humans, we cannot afford to quiet the stories shared by members of marginalized groups. As a person of privilege, learning how to speak up against institutionalized prejudice is vital to breaking inequality. It is not enough to acknowledge your privilege, you have to recognize ways to use it properly. Soley memorizing statistics, for example, is not advocacy. Faye Crosby, former Yale professor and current lecturer here at UCSC, says it best: “Given current imbalances, it is not enough to be non-prejudiced; you must also be affirmatively seeking to establish and strengthen a just and peaceful world.” We can help by fighting for voting rights, staying informed about foreign affairs, and pushing for equality. Attending panels and protesting are meaningful. Having these taboo conversations, continuing these discussions about privilege, and understanding, not just listening, to the dialogue from other communities, are all essential. Do not expect thank-you’s and accept when you may be wrong.
Frank once said, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” What I felt inside the Anne Frank House was guilt, but Anne taught me a valuable lesson. I can suffocate in my guilt, or I can turn it into meaningful activism. Anne wanted everyone to live by compassion and empathy. We can start acting now, start using our privilege as a platform, and start improving the world.
According to Dictionary.com vampires are widely thought of as “a preternatural being, commonly believed to be a reanimated corpse, that is said to suck the blood of sleeping persons at night.” Though it is common for vampires to be represented by a male figure, there is a woman in Jewish folklore that proves there is room for females. This figure is Lilith.
Lilith was the first wife of Adam, before Eve was created and came into the picture. Adam didn’t treat her as his equal, insisting Lilith “lie beneath him.” G-d created both Adam and Lilith from the same earth, and Adam was frustrated by this. He let his ego get in the way. And Lilith didn’t care for this. According to an article titled “Lilith: the Mother of All Vampires” written by Jes Greene, Lilith “declared war against mankind, promising to murder children, torment men and destroy women’s hopes for families.”
Though history portrays Lilith as an “evil spirit” or even a witch in medieval demonology, she also shares the qualities of a vampire. Greene vocalizes that though Lilith’s goal was to “seduce men in the night, steal their semen and produce demon spawn… she would also sometimes suck their blood to make herself stronger.” She shares some aspects of Dracula, who would suck the blood out of young and strong adults, such as Lucy Westenra, a character in the novel Dracula. As a vampire, Lilith would run off into the night, steal children and feed on them. In the Jewish Folklore, according to Jes Greene, Lilith sucked the blood from young men and stole babies in the middle of the night and devoured them, which made her into an “object of fear and loathing.”
In Jewish folklore Lilith is defined as a demoness, yet there is much more to her. In another article, titled “The Goddess Lilith – Reclaiming Women’s Power and Survival,” Kimberly Moore claims that she is a power symbol in modern day society. “She is all women who have been subjugated, humiliated, and cast out from male-defined society. Her rage is the rage of women who have realized that our natural women’s sexuality has been made dirty by men who fear the power of it and the power of free women.” What Moore is suggesting is that at one point Lilith was put down by a misogynist male and told that her natural sexuality made her into a “tramp.” She releases the rage women hold onto when they’re subjugated, because women shouldn’t be controlled by a man’s wrath. Women should be free to embrace their sexuality, not hide it.
Photo courtesy of Jessica FischmanThis is another Indian-Jewish recipe that I absolutely I love! It’s a bit like an Indian style egg roll, but with a fun Jewish twist. When I was too young to help in the kitchen, I remember sitting and watching my mother cook for hours. I was always amazed at her willingness to dive in get her hands dirty. As I grew older, I became increasingly interested in cooking, and my mother began to let me help her out in the kitchen. Among the many skills I’ve learned from her, one of the most important lessons is that patience and vigilance can go a long way when cooking.
Items you may need:
Frying pan (Preferably 6-9 inches)
Ingredients for Stuffing:
Stuffing (may be made with chicken,
beef, turkey, or made vegetarian)
Approx 1 lb ground chicken
1 tbsp oil (more if necessary)
2 onions sliced or chopped
Fresh ginger and garlic
1 tsp turmeric
A pinch of salt
A pinch of pepper (optional)
Add oil to a pan, heat on medium-high fire. Then add the onions and fry until golden brown. Add the above spices, except the coriander, and fry. When well mixed, add the ground chicken and fry until browned and cooked on a medium heat. Add the coriander, mix it in and cook for a few minutes. It should take no more than half an hour in all. After the mixture is cooked, it can also be frozen for later use.
For the crepes I will be using wonton wraps that you can purchase at the market.
Ingredients for the crepes:
2 cups plain flour
1 tbsp oil
A pinch of salt
A pinch of pepper
Put all the above ingredients into a food processor and mix. Start with the water first then add the other ingredients. The mixture should be light, but not watery. If you need more water or flour to balance it out, add as needed. It will look frothy on the top. To fix this, just stir it around. Leave the mixture while you prepare the stuffing.
You will need the 6-9 inch frying pan (if the pan is any bigger the pan fries will be too big)
A little oil in a bowl with a brush
A cutting board
(Skip the following steps if you bought premade wonton wraps).
Empty the contents of the liquidizer into a bowl. This makes it easier to work with. Take the smallest ladle to pour the mixture into the frying pan.
To start, brush the pan with the oil when the pan is hot enough. Add a little of the mixture (this is the tricky part) to the pan and try to make it as thin as possible (comes with experience). Then immediately, swish the mixture around the pan as quickly as possible, if there are any holes put a few drops of the mixture into the holes. Cook on one side for a few seconds until the crepe is firm then turn the crepe and cook for a few second on the other side, just so it should not be raw. Right away flip the less cooked side on to a board, this is the side you will fill with a tablespoon of the chicken mixture.
Once you fill the crepe with a tablespoon of the mixture, fold in the top half of the crepe then the two sides and then the bottom. Fold more if the crepe is too big. When you are done folding all the crepes, you are ready for the next step. You might need to brush the pan with oil after each crepe.
The last step of the preparation:
1/2 tsp oil
To egg and crumb the pan fries put the eggs in an dish with a little of the oil and mix. The oil helps the breadcrumbs adhere to the eggs. Dip the pan fries in the egg and then roll it in the crumbs. At this point, premade rolls/pan fries can be frozen on a sheets of wax proof paper at least overnight and when firm can be placed in ziplock bags for future use. The premade rolls/pan fries will then have to be fried in a frying pan with a little oil for frying. The pan fries when fried should be brown.
A tip when frying anything – before you place your food on a cooling rack, line a tray with kitchen paper towels to reduce the mess from the excess oil.
These may even be eaten cold, though hot is the way to go!
Rabbi Brous created IKAR in 2004 with the purpose of revitalizing Jewish spaces in the United States and abroad. In 2016, 1.2 million people viewed her TED talk, “Reclaiming Religion.” She spoke at the 2017 Women’s March in D.C. and has been noticed by publications such as Newsweek, The Forward, and the Jerusalem Post as a top influential Jew. She also blessed President Obama and Vice President Biden at their most recent inauguration prayer service.
Recently, I have felt the need to divide myself into two – my religious and political selves would exist as their own, separate entities. The organized Jewish community around me would tell me that my progressive beliefs on Israeli and United States politics were too controversial to discuss. I craved a reality where I didn’t have to hide my political beliefs because my community around me might disapprove. I fought and voiced my beliefs and little changed. The anger I felt had me questioning whether this community was one that I should remain a part of – and it hurt to have to consider a new path.
Seeking a new perspective, I attended a prayer service back home in Los Angeles at Temple IKAR. I was not convinced that this organized Jewish space would provide a welcoming environment, until I witnessed the service. For the first time in my Jewish life, I felt allowed and validated to embrace my own Jewishness and politics simultaneously. For the first time, I felt deeply connected to the sermons and felt as though I was meant to be Jewish.
I felt it appropriate to turn to the rabbi herself to talk through why politics are so divisive in the prayer space, and how Jews can better bridge the gap. In these politically tumultuous and divided times, I find it imperative to engage with different perspectives and not shut them down, even if controversial.
Zachary Brenner: You grew up Reform and you’ve said that you become a rabbi because of the orthodoxy in Jerusalem. When you came back to the United States, you went to a Conservative seminary. Why the Conservative movement in the United States? Did you think that would be the most accessible avenue to accomplish what you wanted to accomplish?
Rabbi Sharon Brous: When I was in college and went to study in Jerusalem, it ignited something in me. I felt this feverish desire to learn as much text as I could and immerse myself as much in Jewish tradition as I could. Partially to make up for what I hadn’t learned growing up, partially because as I began to study Talmud and other traditional Jewish texts I was well aware that women’s voices were completely absent from these texts and I felt this urgency to bring a woman’s voice in and a woman’s perspective into a space that previously didn’t make room. I wanted to be in the most traditional environment that would take me. So, for me, that was the choice of the Conservative movement. It wasn’t because of an allegiance to Conservative theology or a desire to build Conservative institutions, but I wanted to study text in a serious way and I felt the need to become as literate as I could in our traditions. And so the seminary was the best fit for me at the time and I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to be a rabbi, per se. I certainly did not think I would become a pulpit rabbi. What I wanted was to study text in the most intentional and intense possible way that I could.
ZB: Were there any theological concepts that you really struggled with at the seminary? Maybe moments of disconnect between the Torah and how you viewed the world?
Brous: Yes… The seminary was more interested in critical analysis, meaning trying to understand the editorial layers of the text, to sort of look at it from a critical historical perspective. And what I was interested in was why have these texts survived for thousands of years? And how can they help us understand what it means to be a human being and a Jew in a world that is burning with hatred and with human suffering? And so I was kind of asking a different set of questions. I didn’t want to be liberated from the text. I wanted to be held by the text. I was really looking to Torah as a way to give guidance to a time of incredible moral crisis, which I feel is the case now even more than it was when I went into seminary 20 years ago. The way I landed on the idea of becoming a rabbi was through this epiphany… this realization that all of the great forces of social change, the people who I admired most in the world were really activists and able to drive the raw change of systems in society for all people of faith. I wondered if my faith was also kind of a quiet driver of my own activism. I understood innately that the world didn’t need to be the way it was, and that wasn’t in itself an act of faith. And so, that’s what set me on this path in the first place. What I wanted was to learn text so that I could get fuel for this vision of a different kind of world. So there was a bit of misalignment for me in that way that we are traditionally taught in seminaries to engage traditional text. But I found a way to make it work and I was very inspired and moved by the learning.
I did have a few moments of collapse over the course of the six years of rabbinical school, of theological crisis… The most transformative of them was a moment when I was reading the New York Times before school started one morning in my fifth of six years, and I read a story about Mozambique and these horrible floods that had ravaged the countryside, and there’s a picture attached to the article of a woman on top of a tree, holding her baby in a little bundle in her arms. And the story was about how women all over the countryside had climbed up these trees with their babies and they were waiting for rescue helicopters to come and save them. One woman gave birth in one of these trees. And the article said that there were no rescue helicopters because the country had been devastated by civil war, they were profoundly impoverished, nobody was coming to save them. And so, I remember staring… I had just bought a new, beautiful, gorgeous Vilna Shas Talmud set, and I was so proud of it and I had lined it up, set it up on my bookshelf perfectly and I was looking at it, thinking… what are we doing about it? These women are dying and their babies are going to die and if these texts don’t have anything to say to me about what it means to live in a world where mothers and babies are going to die because nobody gives a damn about them, then what’s the point of their preservation in the world? And so that was a huge moment for me and I remember I was paralyzed for several hours. And then I walked up to school and got there late and walked in the middle of class and I just felt the disconnect between what we were learning in seminary and what was happening in the world. I felt my whole body aching from this. I felt like I was being stretched across continents and I stormed out. At some point I couldn’t sit in the room anymore. I felt like I was suffocating and I walked out and went to Columbia, where I studied as an undergrad, and there was a center for the study of human rights there and I just walked in and I said “I need to see your director, this is an international emergency. There are these women, we need to get helicopters…” and the director of that program ended up becoming a mentor to me and insisted that I stay in rabbinical school. I told him “I’m dropping out of school, I have no interest in doing this anymore” and it was a total theological crisis.
And [the director’s] job – he was a former priest – was to advise me in bringing these worlds together. “So what do your rabbis have to say about what it means to live in a world that’s shattered to pieces?” What might it mean to come home from war and try to reintegrate into your home? Is there some way that our tradition’s wisdom on teshuvah, on forgiveness, could help make sense of what the experience of a child soldier might be in Sierra Leone when he returns home after committing horrific crimes?” What are the ways that I could apply the Torah that I so loved and sat in for so many years studying in seminary to what was going on in the world?
ZB: In your services, you do not shy away from preaching about social justice. There have been conversations between you and other rabbis about leaving politics out of the Jewish space — that politics are ubiquitous and need to be left out of the sacred space. Yet, you view your religious leadership as moral leadership, and that what others may call politics, you call Torah. To you, politics and Torah are inherently intertwined. Why is it that you think there’s such a resistance to politics in the prayer space?
Brous: I understand why people are wary of faith communities and faith leaders entering the public square because, for the last several decades in the United States, faith has been used and abused and corrupted in the political space. I think we have seen religious leaders use their bully pulpits to advance an agenda that is regressive and cruel and I think there’s a lot of resistance around that – rightfully so – and a desire to create separate spheres. Like, let the political sphere be the political sphere and the religious sphere be the religious sphere.
However, I don’t believe there is any way to engage in our religion, in what our faith demands of us, without actually engaging in what’s happening in our country and our world today. My colleague was told last year, since the inauguration lined up with Parshat Shemot (the beginning of the book of Exodus) that “you are not to mention the word ‘Pharaoh’ this year, because that would be seen as too political.” Because somebody might then perceive that he was then calling this current administration Pharaoh. So, what is happening there is a rabbi is being told that you’re not allowed to engage Torah. These stories have not persisted for 4,000 years for nothing. We have not carried Sefrei Torah for a thousand years for nothing. We take these stories so seriously because we believe that every generation will be called to engage with incredibly morally challenging situations and the wisdom of our tradition is here to guide us for precisely such a moment when, for example, a Pharaoh rises to power who takes pride in attacking and oppressing vulnerable minority populations and makes a mockery of our commitment to dignity and equality. So, we haven’t carried that story around for nothing, and it’s not because we like telling good stories. It’s because we know that in every generation there’s a possibility of a Pharaoh rising, and will we be ready to resist.
I don’t consider that politics, I consider that religion and I think there’s a false binary that’s been established precisely because of our fear of the abuse of, frankly, white evangelical Christianity in the public space that has made us very wary of faith in the public space. And what we’re seeing right now that I think is so critical and what make me so optimistic is there is a rising up of faith leaders who are serious, rooted progressive faith leaders who are interested in manifesting our deepest commitments to justice, to human dignity, to love, to compassion on the public stage. That is exactly what resonates to me.
And I’ll tell you that a couple of weeks ago we had a Friday night service and there was a rabbinical student there from out of town who came over to me afterwards and he said “I have a challenge for you, which is everything you just said…” because I’d given this fierce denunciation of something that had happened in the country that week, and he said “everything you just said, someone could take another line of Torah and justify the exact opposite. Or even the same line of Torah that you resonate to and read it differently and justify the opposite. So how do you know you’re right?” And I said “I don’t know that I’m right, but I know that the world will not be worse off if we are more decent, more compassionate, and more loving and fair to each other. And the world might actually be worse off if that other person’s interpretation is wrong and instead we are more indecent, more cruel, less forgiving, and less concerned with each other’s dignity.” And so, I don’t know that I’m right, and yet this is the only way that I know how to read our tradition and to be human in the world right now.
ZB: It’s almost as if saying that because of the problematic relationship between religion and the public sphere, we can’t act on that relationship. As opposed to countering it in another way, with respect or this commitment to human decency, which… this country and the world has really been craving for so long.
ZB: Like many other left-leaning Jews in the United States, I have felt a disconnect with the greater organized Jewish community for a while. What was preached and taught to me throughout my childhood seemed to be inconsistent with what I saw the community acting upon in regards to Israeli and United States politics. There was an occupation that I had never even heard uttered until I went to college – and even then I was often told it was an opinion or too controversial to discuss properly with other Jews. Jews would vote for problematic leaders because these leaders seemed to have a positive relationship to Israel. I think it’s incredibly important for Jews like us to have a new space to be able to explore and act upon our spirituality and political moral fiber in a way that doesn’t segregate us from the community, but embraces us. Do you think the tide is shifting? Will the greater Jewish community embrace the marrying of politics and Torah as a new norm?
Brous: I’m thinking about this podcast that I did with Rabbi Ari Siegel. It might be worth checking out because he’s an Orthodox rabbi, brave enough to be in this conversation with a non-Orthodox rabbi, which I so appreciate. But we have really different world views and different ideas of what it means to be a Jew in the world. My strong feeling is that we were not put on this planet to self-sustain. That’s not the goal. I think we have story that’s built into our DNA. The story of Yetziat Mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt, and the purpose of our survival is to share that story. And to show that it’s possible for people to move from slavery to freedom, from dark to light. So it’s not just about survival… and I think a lot of young Jews really resonate to that idea. We don’t just want to do it because it’s what our parents did and it’s what our grandparents did. They want it to be meaningful and want it to help us figure out how to live in very evil and tumultuous times. Will that become normative? I think there are many people for whom that is already normative. There are some people who will never… who will never find an affinity to that kind of active, spiritual engagement in the world. So I don’t think that it will ever be everyone but I think it’s increasingly clear that so many people are running away from Judaism because they resent the hypocrisy, particularly when it comes to Israel. When we’re taught to have certain Jewish values but then when we see those values not manifest in the Jewish state and we raise that question, we are not given good answers. And we’re also sometimes called traitors for even asking the question. And that’s something that a lot of young people can’t live with and won’t live with. They are sick of a Judaism that feels perfunctory and boring and tired and uninteresting like we’re not even trying. And I think as a result, they’re either going to walk away or they’re going to build a new way of being Jewish in the world. That’s part of our job at IKAR. That’s what we set out to do. We said, “I’m not giving up on this thing. We love this.” A lot of people will just walk away and a lot of people will say “I don’t need to make these sides of my heart align, I’ll just stick with the tradition.” But I also see a growing number of people say “I’m not walking away, and I’m not giving up my values in order to be a Jew in the world.” So I will find a way to make these worlds live in one body.
ZB: You’ve said that you’re not looking to build the biggest and widest tent so that any person with any political perspective would feel comfortable in IKAR. You’ve said that any Trump supporters you may have had left a while ago, and the amount of political conservatives is numbered in IKAR. Why is it important for you, particularly in a time of political divisiveness when people are so hesitant and defensive, to push the boundaries in the prayer space?
Brous: There’s this old, famous saying which everybody attributes to somebody different. Some people think it was about faith but was actually about journalism – the whole idea that we are called to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And I think journalists have to do both and I think clergy have to do both. And my sense is that what this hour demands of us is that we think about “what is the moral imperative?” What does it mean to live in a country that is so fiercely divided, where cruelty is so close to the surface at every turn, where indecency is so visible? What does it mean to live in a time and in a place with systemic racism and inequality? On one hand, we have to have a space that’s safe enough for those messages to even be spoken. So if every time I stood up and opened by mouth someone threw an egg at me, I would never get my sermon out. If I were constantly being heckled in my own pulpit, I wouldn’t be able to share a message. At the same time, if all I’m saying is what everyone wants to hear all the time, then I’m not really saying anything and they don’t need to hear it. So what we want to do is create an environment that’s rooted in essential principles of decency and compassion and dignity and then share a Torah that can be very challenging within the space that’s created there.
There are conservatives at IKAR, there are people who don’t agree with me on Israel and domestic issues. People will come over after services and say “I have a different read on things than you do”, but we’ve worked really hard to create a space where people can respectfully engage with me and with each other when they don’t agree. I feel that half of my job right now, particularly in this political culture that we’re living in right now, is to take a population of people who feel like our breath has been stolen from us, who are completely stunned and disarmed by what’s going on in the country, and name it and say it out loud and give some kind of spiritual support to the people who need it, and also to challenge and to push my own community and the broader community that might hear something that I’m going to say, you know, on a podcast or read [in] an article. That we really have to do both.
ZB: What about the Conservative movement and greater Jewish community has been most heartwarming or motivating to you lately?
Brous: I will tell you that what I’m most inspired by this week is the teens. It’s the students, young people who are actually standing up and using their own voices to make clear what they will and won’t stand for, and I feel like that’s what’s happening in our Jewish experience. That there are young people who are finding a way to stand up and say “I want to love this thing so fiercely, that I’m able to insist that it reflect the best of what I know we’re capable of.” So I feel, in some ways what’s happening with the high school students in Florida is a reflection of the same kind of transformation that I see happening within the Jewish community over the last decade, which is it’s all around the country. Young people are stepping up and saying “I want to be a part of my own spiritual life. I don’t want to just walk in, stand up, be seated, turn pages. I want to actually sing until I cry.” Or “I want to think differently and more creatively about the way that we create space that feels really welcoming and radically welcoming. You know? Or I want to think about what Jewish family looks like, because it’s not what it looked like 30 years ago.” There are ways in which young people, teens and twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings are actually standing up and saying “I have a different idea of what this thing needs to look like and I love it enough to try to change it.”
ZB: That’s been really motivating to me as well… There are Jews across the board who want to connect deeply to religion, who find it difficult to find a place. Many friends and I have been grappling with our politics that don’t conventionally align with what we were raised with. A lot of my friends are anti-Zionists who are demoralized by the peace process. I’m attracted to the idea, like you were saying before, of taking responsibility for the fact that this is my life, this is my spirituality. Why should the politics of the greater community affect the personal?
Brous: That’s right. Let me just say one last thing about it. In this podcast, if you listen to it, you’ll hear, the rabbi asks me… his analysis is essentially you’re either Halakhik and Jewishly serious and pro-Israel, or you’re not Halakhik and Jewishly serious and you’re pro-justice. I’m a little bit simplifying but that’s essentially the equation. And I said “why are you so attached to a false binary?” Because to my mind, that’s a ridiculous false dichotomy. I mean I am both of those things. And if that camp doesn’t exist, let’s build a new camp. I’m not willing to give up on Israel and I’m not willing to give up on the Jewish tradition. And I’m not willing to give up on our people. I’m also not willing to give up on my core commitments to justice and to humanity and love. And so if those things don’t already exist in conversation, I will create a new conversation. And it’s because it’s grounded in our tradition. We are not starting from scratch, it’s just a different way of prioritizing what we see in the text. Meaning, I will lead with “all humans are created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of G-d.” That is an essential starting point for me. And maybe other people will bypass that and look to other essential starting points for them, but it’s not illegitimate [to] start at the beginning of Genesis and say, “okay, if we’re working on the assumption that all people are created in the image of G-d, how do we build a religious life that’s rooted in that assumption?” So I feel that this is the moment and the project of IKAR and this is what so many young people are starting to do around the country, [which] is to say “What is the third way that I will build?” Because I will reject a false binary, I am not going to participate in that. I’m not choosing camps right now, I’m going to build a third way.
In this second issue of the 2017-2018 school year, we are proud to continue our commitment to providing honest, versatile, and meaningful content from a diverse array of topics. In this issue, we have published everything from a meditation on Judaism and cannabis, to an Indian-Jewish recipe, to a commentary on Biblical Isaac, to an interview with one of the most influential rabbis working in the United States. Leviathan continues to be a space where all of our staff is free to explore topics that interest them, and we hope that what continues to interest us also continues to interest our readers.
We would like to continue to extend our deepest thanks to all of the organizations, departments, and readers who have supported the work we do here at Leviathan. With the publication of this issue, we officially became a journal that has been running for forty-five years. Our lasting success over these four decades is due in no small part to the support we receive.
Moving forward, we are committed to expanding the conversation within the Jewish community and providing an open space for all students to be able to explore their thoughts in relation to Judaism. We extend an invitation to anyone who might be interested in engaging with our journal – we’d love to hear from you!
I was lucky to interview Bettina Aptheker, a current distinguished professor in the Feminist Studies department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In the fall of 1964, she was a leader of the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley. The Free Speech Movement, a movement that fought for civil rights and later, opposed the Vietnam war. She writes about her experiences in Intimate Politics: How I Grew up Red, Fought for Free Speech, and Became a Feminist Rebel. In this interview, we speak about her experience in this time period as a woman, as a Jewish woman, at one point as a Jewish woman prisoner, and as a victim of sexual harassment.
On Berkeley and the Free Speech Movement
Natalie Friedman: During the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, Jack Weinberg, sitting at the CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) table, was placed under arrest. Many students sat around the police car [which you mention as] a critical moment in your life when you spoke on top of the car. What compelled you to get on the police car and speak?
Bettina Aptheker: I was very young, just 20, in 1964. A lot of people were speaking on top of the car, [including] Mario Savio, [the leader of the Free Speech Movement] and Art Goldberg, who later became an attorney. They were almost all men, and I thought I might have something to say and that a woman ought to get up there and say something. Later on, the other person who spoke on top of the car was Jackie Goldberg, who is wonderful and later became one of the most important state legislators. Later, when we were surrounded by the police and it looked like they were going to break us up, a woman lawyer spoke on the top of the car. I didn’t have any feminist consciousness, it was just a feeling. I had a great time speaking on top of the car. The crowd was marvelous, it was at night, the lights of the cameras were blinding me, so I couldn’t see, but I could hear them and feel them. I quoted Frederick Douglass, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” The crowd roared back.
NF: Mario Savio was a very important leader in the Free Speech Movement. You describe your friendship with Mario in your book as special. Can you tell me more about your relationship to him?
BA: [1964 was] when I met him. He was a year older, a junior and a philosophy major, very brilliant. [There was] a thing about him that was so marvelous for me. I was the daughter of this very famous communist, so in these radical circles, that’s how I was always thought of. It was hard for me to establish a person who wasn’t the ‘daughter of’ [my father]. It was also a part of the sexism at the time and again, I wasn’t conscious of it, but I knew it made me uncomfortable. Mario didn’t care who I was the daughter of. What mattered to him was human to human connection. Of course, the movement was very very intense, and we were meeting all the time, often until the wee hours of the morning. There were 11 of us on the steering committee, [and] there was a larger executive committee that met. Also informally, we hung out together a great deal of the time. We would go to a movie, talk about a book, have a cup of coffee. It was never romantic, but the right-wing papers would say, this young (Jewish) communist is corrupting this blonde hair blue eyed fellow.
NF: In your book, at the Oakland Jail, you describe the booking process in which an officer accused you of being a Russian Jew, and not an American. Were you surprised by the officer’s accusation of you lying about your Jewish identity?
BA: Yes, I was shocked. You know, it was so off the wall. Being booked was so routine: you give your name, they didn’t usually ask about nationality. In the other times I was arrested, it never came up, so this guy was an anti-semite. He knew who I was. I was very prominent; I was in the paper all the time, the movement was even in the New York Times, we were on television all the time, I spoke at every rally.
On Sexual Harassment
NF: You describe the times when the leader of the Communist party of the Bay Area was sexually harassing you. At the time of the sexual harassment, you mention that you didn’t think of control of your body as a civil right. In your current, working definition of feminism you include that the control of your own body is a civil right. How did this shift come about?
BA: It was the impact of the Women’s Liberation Movement, I wasn’t conscious of it before. The women’s movement was later and I was a latecomer to it. It was in the air! I was at San Jose State University and it became a very important part of the definition of feminism for me. This includes reproductive control but also sexual control.
NF: Do you wish you would have reacted differently to the sexual harassment? What would you tell others who are struggling with this dilemma now?
BA: If I had the consciousness, I would have done something very differently. Also, you have your boundaries. [This comes from] the way you are socialized. I thought maybe I was doing something wrong. The female child often thinks there is something wrong with her or [that she] in some way invited this. It gets very complicated emotionally.
My consciousness has changed very much. The way I handled it was the way many children handle it. I was a young adult, I went to his wife. Many children go to their mother. They were my foster family, my family brought me to them. It was a second home, that would make sense. She didn’t believe me [because] he denied it. It was very hard, but [my telling her] stopped it. He [only] made one more attempt after I told her.
NF: It seemed like your Jewish Identity surfaced in the 80’s. Can you elaborate?
BA: My partner, [Kate Miller], got me my first menorah. She kept saying, you’re Jewish [and] she encouraged me to look into my Jewish roots. I was at the funeral of my father’s older sister, Minna. She was elderly and she had died and I was driving home by myself. I was on the coast, just leaving San Fransisco into Pacifica. So, I looked out at the water with the waves coming in. I had an epiphany about how as humans we are so miniscule and I saw the pebbles on the beach and they just get washed out to sea and [there was] something about that and having been moved by the sermon.
Minna was active in the synagogue [and] very much a pillar of the Jewish community. So I thought to myself, I am going to find a synagogue. It happened that the rabbi [that I found] had been an activist in the civil rights movement. I was very comfortable, it was progressive, and I studied Hebrew myself. I got excited about this Jewish identity. I then met Paula Marcus at Temple Beth El, who is now the Senior Rabbi. We became close friends and still are.
My father never abandoned his Jewish identity but he was completely secular. My mother’s mother was totally Orthodox and I remember [my mother] describing being at Passover and being totally starving [because the Orthodox service was so long]. If you tried to skip part of the service, they would notice. It’s good to eat a little something before.
NF: In your book, you describe that your immediate family wasn’t religious. But, your grandfather was the principal founder of the oldest synagogue in Brooklyn. Can you tell me more about that?
BA: His name was Benjamin Aptheker [and] he died long before I was born. I haven’t been [to this synagogue]. I was thinking it would be interesting to go. My father was raised in this orthodox synagogue and he was Bar Mitzvahed with the rabbi’s son and that was a big deal. He spoke Yiddish because his parents spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want the kids to know what they were saying. My dad spoke fluent Hebrew. Who knew? I was in my 40s when I found out. A cousin of mine lives in Hillsborough, said “oh yeah, your grandfather started it in Borough Park”. It was a wealthy Jewish area. They made their money here, and they came almost penniless. They owned a factory that made ladies underwear. Their house was a full city block – an estate.
NF: What are your thoughts on American Jewish engagement in politics now?
BA: We are a very small minority in the population. We have had over decades of very significant influence and [engagement] in progressive politics. A very disproportionate number of white students that went south are Jewish. Michael Schwerner [a Congress of Racial Equality social worker], and Andrew Goodman [a civil rights activist killed by the Ku Klux Klan] were Jewish, from New York. That was not unusual. [These numbers] are very disproportionate in relation to our numbers in the population. The Reform Rabbis that I have encountered were very much involved in the Civil Rights Movement. There is this historic connection between black and Jewish activists in the 30s and 40s. What I see happening today, [Jews] are still very progressive on domestic issues. [Jews] still generally vote Democratic. [There was an] overwhelming vote for Obama and for Hillary from the Jews.
Some of the students that come to me who are pro-Palestine – I say… don’t demonize Israelis and don’t demonize the Jewish people.
NF: In your book, you write, “I was split into two people, the private Bettina, living in desperation, and the public Bettina, going to classes and writing scholarly papers… In the public world I was Herbert Aptheker’s daughter, an organizer, visible on campus. In my interior world, I was lonely, confused, anxious. I felt crazy at times because I couldn’t reconcile the two realities.” How did you reconcile those two identities?
BA: I had this public persona. I was terribly wounded, [and] the reason I lay that out in the memoir that way is because I don’t think I’m that unusual. I think many girls and women experience this split of appearing totally together and on top of things but are internally a total mess. I’m an incest survivor, I’m dealing with sexual harassment, I have huge issues with low self-esteem, worthlessness, [and] suicidal tendencies.
I wasn’t a split personality. I always enacted characters who were almost always male. There is a picture of me smoking a cigarette reading the paper. I was in Bogart mode. It’s a hilarious picture.
NF: What do you wish you could tell yourself at the time? Girls your age now?
BA: I wish that I could have taken a class like what I teach. I wish feminist studies and women’s studies classes were offered [when I was in college]. [At my age,] You knew how you felt but you didn’t know what to do about it. I knew I was a lesbian [but] I didn’t have the language for it. There were lesbians in the Communist party, [but] the party was very homophobic. Some of [the lesbians] were living together openly but never talking about it. It was don’t ask, don’t tell. I had known one of [the lesbians] from my childhood. My father thought highly of both her and her partner, and in my 30s my dad told me. I said, “really?” It would have been so important.
The Magen David – or Star of David – was not always evocative of Judaism. It was placed on temples and seals as early as 7th century BCE, utilized by Jews and non-Jews alike. It was made an official emblem in 1354 as the flag of the Jewish community of Prague, and was further popularized in the 1800s. The six-pointed star was also used on the Moroccan flag in 1795, without an explicit connection to Judaism, and was changed to a five-pointed star in 1912. In more recent years, the Magen David is a symbol of the Zionist movement. It also represents a general connection to Judaism regardless of Zionist connections, and was used to stigmatize Jews during the Holocaust. It is present on the Israeli flag today.
Chai is the Hebrew word for living or alive. The word also has a third meaning: eighteen. This is because the letters that spell the word – het and yud – are the eighth and tenth letters of the Hebrew alphabet, respectively. A symbol worn on necklaces and other types of jewelry, its meaning is tied to the number it represents; there are stories of the number eighteen and its multiples being good luck, which is one of the contributing factors to why the Chai is both worn and donations in $18 increments are not uncommon.
Menorah is the Hebrew word for lamp, or candelabra, and has seven branches. A hanukkiah is a type of menorah with eight branches, and a ninth candle to light the others. It was used in the ancient temple of Jerusalem and in the modern celebration of Hanukkah. Before the Star of David was a widely used symbol of Judaism, the menorah represented Jews on buildings and in coats of arms, likely because its creation is described in Exodus. It represents both light and knowledge.
This hand, significant not only to Jews, but Muslims as well, is tied to the number five, and is said to ward off the evil eye. The number five is significant in Islamic tradition as it is tied to the Five Pillars of Islam, and the number also represents the five fingers. In Jewish Talmudic writing, the hand may have referred to the hand of G-d. Its history may be tied up in superstition, but that history is a long one, dating back to at least the 14th century. It was inscribed on fortresses in Islamic Spain, where, several centuries before, Jewish literature and poetry also flourished.
Khoresht is a winning dish in my home and has been passed from generation to generation with delight. Both of my grandmothers were amazing chefs. What we call today gourmet cuisine was her daily ritualistic endeavor. This is one of her many signature dishes with some slight modification. The smell from the slow cooking, especially the cooked dried lime, will perfume the house and becomes a much anticipated and welcomed dish for any season and mood. Even I let go of my vegetarianism to eat this dish! Side note, it can be made vegetarian too! It is a very nurturing type of dish because the slow cooking allows for the nutritious elements to stay within the juicing of the stew. The raw herbs and vegetables; radishes, cucumber, mint, and the white top of the scallion, (which are served and accompany the stew) have a cooling yin effect to balance the warmth of the yang from the stew. Persian cuisine is strong on balancing those two elements, the hot and cold. The dish will be served on top of saffron white rice which has its own aroma. Basmati in Arabic means perfume. Saffron in Arabic translates to Yellow-Gold and is the most expensive spice in the world! Saffron has been used medically to reduce fevers, cramps and enlarged livers and calm the nervous system as well as healing wounds.
Some ingredients are specific and can be purchased at a Middle Eastern market
1 large white onion
1 cup red kidney beans
1 cup white cannellini beans
1 cup pinto beans
(you can choose any kind of beans you like or mix)
In the winter use red beans which warm the body more, in the summer use white beans, and in other seasons, use a mixture!
3 bunches of organic parsley
3 bunches of organic coriander
3 bunches of organic cilantro
1 bunch of green onions
1 handful of organic spinach leaves (optional)
2-3 lbs grass fed stewing beef, cubed
3 tsp turmeric powder
6 medium dried Persian limes (for cooking, but not to be eaten)
Salt or soy sauce (to taste)
Freshly ground black pepper (to taste)
1/4 cup olive oil
Instructions for Stew:
Slowly cooked in a Dutch oven or big stainless steel pot
In a Dutch oven, brown the meat in olive oil just long enough to sear all sides of the cubes. About 20 minutes, add turmeric toward the end of the searing
Meanwhile, cook beans in boiling water for 30 minutes, rinse beans in cold water
Saute onion with meat until onion becomes translucent, add salt and pepper to taste
Soak greens to clean all dust, drain, discard all stems and finely chop, respecting every leaf, that is to say, in olden days the chopping took much longer than the second generation method of coarse chopping.
No food processor allowed. The chopping is essential to the release of the herb aroma. (Well, perhaps the third generation will successfully use the food processor.)
Add whole dried Persian limes. These will be discarded after cooking.
Cut onion greens and discard the lower white area. Add onion greens to the other herbs
Add the half cooked beans to the seared meat
Add 10-12 cups boiling water, then add the mixture of greens, add more boiling water as needed to cover the greens
Add 1/4 cup soy sauce. (This ingredient is not part of Persian cooking but instead of using chicken consomme or chicken broth I find the soy to add a healthy and tasty balance.)
Cover the pot and cook the mixture on the stove for 30 minutes on medium heat
Preheat the oven to 350°F and then transfer the pot to the oven for 3 hours
Serve with chelow, which means saffron steamed plain basmati rice
Instructions for Rice:
2-3 cups Basmati rice in a large volume of salted, boiling water
Cook the rice in the boiling water with a pinch of salt and tablespoon of olive oil for 10 minutes or until the rice is slightly soft but not fully cooked
Drain the rice
Add a small amount of olive oil to the same pot with a little water and saffron powder, when hot, empty and fry a thin layer of rice to create a crust for 2 minutes (do not burn), then add the balance of the partially cooked rice, add 1/4-1/2 cup of water, lower the heat to simmer and cover the rice with a clean kitchen towel to allow for the steam to escape for 20 minutes
When ready take a big flat plate cover the pot and turn the pot over the plate. (Strong steady hands and trust in your ability)
This Khoresht is served on Shabbat, on holidays and is considered comfort food. Best with Pinot Noir or Syrah.