L’Shanah Tovah (Happy New Year!)

L’Shanah Tovah! Happy New Year to all who celebrate Rosh Hashanah!

It was the Jewish New Year on Monday October 3rd, but it hasn’t felt like a celebration to me in years. I grew up in a Conservative Synagogue and I associate synagogues and Hebrew services with solemnity and pretending to be Jewish enough for these holy days.

But this year I attended services through Mishkan Chicago. Mishkan believes:

“that when we gather together, where ever we are on our journeys as Jews and as citizens of the world, we create meaningful connections- with ourselves, with others, with Jewish wisdom and with God. That’s what Mishkan is all about.”

300x300This is Judaism in the world, as I’ve never experienced before. There were people of all ages, and different races, and a multitude of other invisible aspects of diversity in attendance. For the first time I felt I could own my Jewish identity, and not just because there was a rainbow flag on the wall. Nobody had to say “you’re included”; it was all through peoples’ actions.

I think a lot about the Jewish narrative that says Jews are victims. My Hebrew School education and family education taught me that Jews must always live in fear and watch our backs because we are Other no matter where we live and therefore unsafe. On one level, history has shown centuries of pogroms, and massacres and torture and conversion of Jews. But Ashkenazi Jews (Jews of European descent) must also content with our current history as oppressors of Palestinians as well as discrimination and erasure of Jews of color. Previous synagogues I attended would discuss standing with Black Lives Matter (and take action to stand with Black Lives Matter), but would not even open the discussion of standing with Palestine. I struggle with my Jewish heritage and reconciling being both victim and perpetrator while having no one to talk to about these issues.

The Rabbi at Mishkan put into words all my thoughts and contradictions about Judaism, victimhood and our place in standing for justice for all people. Her analysis of the Torah portion is that when Sarah gives birth to Isaac and demands Abraham discard his second wife, Hagar, and her son Ishmael, Sarah acts out of fear and insecurity. Sarah does not act justly and neither does Abraham in turning Hagar and Ishmael out. The Rabbi’s interpretation of the text is that this insecurity is the same insecurity that allows Jews today to create an apartheid state in Israel. It is our fear of being victims that drive us to victimize others. It wasn’t right with Sarah and Abraham and it isn’t right today.

Yes, Jewish history is full of persecution. Our main narratives are “we were slaves in Egypt” and “we are survivors of the Holocaust.” Yet, we are so much more. We are people in the world with varying degrees of power and privilege, but a responsibility to lift others up. We’re not responsible because we’re Jews, but because we’re humans. For me, being a Jew means standing for justice. It means have been victimized (and some of us still are) but I will do what I can to ensure no one else goes through the same experiences.

Attending services at Mishkan reminded me that when I joke about one day becoming a Rabbi, it’s not actually such a joke. I hope to one day stand on the bema and be that welcoming, that inclusive and that truthful about Judaism and all its contradictions.

 

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Why We Study the Holocaust

All high school seniors in the program I work for have to go to the Illinois Holocaust Museum.

I dread visiting Holocaust Museums. I’ve been to the Breman Museum in Atlanta, Yad Vashem in Israel, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe in Berlin. It has gotten easier, but I’ve never gone as a chaperone before and felt the need to constrict my emotions. This tour is for the students, after all, not for me to process my own heritage and the stories within my family which are lost.

In Holocaust Museums my policy is silence. I do not speak and I do not wish others to speak around me. But our docent tour guide today asked a series of questions at the start of the tour I wanted desperately to answer.

She asked, “What is the Holocaust? What is a Holocaust? What is genocide?” She asked us to name genocides occurring right now. She asked the most important question: “Why do we study the Holocaust?”index.jpg

The docent explained how it is the enormity of the Holocaust that makes it so noteworthy. 11 million people were murdered. She explained how this was industrialized and mechanized slaughter, so different than even the war the Holocaust is engulfed in.

Genocide is not a unique violence against Jews, yet we talk about the Holocaust as if it is the only genocide that deserves attention.

My answer to why we study the Holocaust is different. The Nazis were Europeans. The Nazis were cultured Western Europeans. The murderers and the men who planned these horrors were white. And even though Hitler and the Nazis classified Jews as a separate race, the Jews of Europe who were murdered (for the most part) looked like white people.

To some degree, the western world cares and funds Holocaust education projects and Holocaust museums because the victims look like white people and the perpetrators were white people. The Holocaust is a stain on white supremacy. It dismantles the idea that such violence and atrocities only happen in the darker places of the world–Africa or the Middle East. And so if Holocaust education is funded with slogans of Never Again,  Never Again and mean Never Again will white people perpetrate these crimes.

Think about the way the west reacts to terrorism. Terrorism hits Paris in November 2015 and people change their Facebook picture to the French flag. Terrorism strikes Brussels in March 2016 and the news coverage was endless. It’s not to say these attacks were not devastating. Innocent people died. But, just as the Holocaust is not the only genocide, terrorist attacks in Europe are not the only terrorist attacks that matter. As Nadine Ajaka describes in The Atlantic, when terror strikes the Middle East for instance, we are left to our own devices for media coverage and world support.

Terrorism across Syria, bombings in Beirut, in Ankara, in Istanbul, Boko Haram’s killings in Nigeria, and other attacks, even those not motivated by religion. Where is the funding for museums to educate against all forms of hatred and murder?

We study the Holocaust so the West can say “Never again” with a clear conscience. But we can, and should and must, study the Holocaust as one example out of many of human cruelty, human compassion, and human resistance. We must study the Holocaust until Never Again is true for all.

 

1001 Holocaust Poems

At work, we’re in the process of reviewing applications for which students to accept into the college access program I work for. And nearly every  applicant’s graded assignment they shared in their application, was in reference to the Holocaust unit in their 8th grade curriculum.

Every student had a Holocaust poem. At least ten applicants said if they could go back in time they would want to interview Hitler.

And on the one hand, it’s great. Here is a whole generation of incoming high school students who have (at the very least) a cursory understanding of one of the genocides of the 20th century. Some students were even aware that the Nazis murdered queer people, people with disabilities, the Romani, political prisoners, and others.

download (3)Learning about the Holocaust teaches compassion, empathy and a tangible way to see how oppression can lead to justifying violence. Students have the opportunity to question their role as bystanders.

But on the other hand, there are not many Jewish students at the school where I work. And I’m concerned that the only exposure to Judaism, comes from a clinical view that labels Jews as victims. If the only way students hear about Judaism is through the Holocaust then schools are erasing Judaism and Jewish students from a larger historical conversation. Jews exist in the past, in this specific box of victim status. Jews do not exist in the present.

If we are not oppressed then we have no place in the history books.

This narrative is limited and harmful and keeps Jews as Others. You can care about the genocide against us because we’re White enough to look like you, but if we are not victims we are nothing. We do not have a history beyond the Allies liberating the concentration camps and (maybe) the foundation of the State of Israel. Students do not know to question the role of Jews today.

As Passover arrives at the end of the week, it’s important to know that Jews are not yet free in many places in the world and at the same time, that we are responsible for restricting the freedom of others. We are not just perpetual victims. We are also perpetrators against Palestinians and Jews of color.

I cannot stomach another Holocaust poem, knowing this unit of history, this poem might be a student’s only engagement with Judaism.

In between White and Person of Color

I have white privilege but I don’t identify as white. Because White, to me, means White Christian culture. And as a Jew I’m excluded. It can be as subtle as having to go to school on major Jewish holidays, or as frustrating as having to explain my religion to people as “the token Jew.”

In short, I’ve stopped identifying as white. But the problem is that I have white privilege. My family is everything Eastern European and by my skin color I am white. I don’t feel comfortable identifying as a person of color and I don’t seek to equate being Jewish as being a person of color because I know I don’t experience the same oppression.

Is there an in between?

I can check ‘other’ for my race on government surveys, and (if given the option) write Jewish, but I’ve spoken with people who say calling Judaism a race is part of what caused the Holocaust. I don’t believe that, but it’s difficult to get the thought out of my mind.

Does anyone know if there’s a way to identify that encompasses my Jewish identity and recognizes my white privilege? I would really appreciate the advice.