Wrestling with the Ethics of the Sochi Olympics

The following is reprinted with permission from MyJewishLearning.org. We thank them for their words on this year’s Olympics which we know is weighing heavily on our readers’ minds. 

By Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Sochi peace logoThe more I read and learn about what has been happening in Russia, the more I am afraid for its citizens. The attention that the fairly recently implemented “anti-gay propaganda” law is getting is certainly high on the list of reasons to be concerned. What begins as fines quickly becomes imprisonment. There is already more than enough evidence that creating an environment of state-sponsored discrimination against a section of the population based on an essential part of their being leads to violence against those individuals. There are numerous accounts of LGBT Russians being attacked by vigilantes and thugs.

We should all be concerned by these stories. As a Jew, and as a lesbian, I cannot help but think about Germany in the 1930s. We teach that history precisely so that we might better recognize the early signs of state-sponsored prejudice that can quickly escalate into something more. I don’t think I’m being reactionary. I’m truly and deeply concerned.

What does this mean for the Sochi Olympics, and beyond the events of the Olympics themselves. I admit, I find myself at a gut level drawn to the idea of boycott – of simply not watching. But I’m not convinced that this is an effective or meaningful response at this stage.  I would have supported the International Olympics Committee if they had made a decision to relocate or cancel the games at an earlier juncture, and I also recognize the logistical, legal, and political complexities of making such a decision.

Continue reading here

Japan

If, like me, you’ve been watching the news coming out of Japan, I’m sure your thoughts and prayers are with the Japanese people.

In looking for ways to help I did what many have done: I googled.

A JTA News Alert informed me that the Jewish community, largely based in Tokyo, was spared (due in large part to distance from the epicenter). 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would help in whatever way possible.

The Japanese consul in Israel, Mitoshiko Shinomya, told the Israeli news website Ynet that he was heartened by the Israeli government’s offer of assistance. “Israel officially offered its help an hour after the earthquake struck,” Shinomya said. “It is very heart-warming, but at this point we do not know exactly what the extent of the damage is, so it is difficult for us to say what can be done.”

The Jewish Federations of North America is setting up an emergency relief fund to help those in affected areas, a spokesman said, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a federation partner, opened a mailbox Friday for donations to be used for Japan/Pacific disaster relief. Donations can be made at https://jdc.org/donation/donate.aspx.

According to the JDC’s site,

JDC is now partnering with the Japanese Jewish community to provide funding to a local NGO for emergency needs including food, water, and shelter in the disaster region. JDC acquired substantial expertise in earthquake and tsunami-related response in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Maldives, and India following the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004.

The 8.9 earthquake, the most powerful to hit Japan in more than 100 years, has killed hundreds of people and caused untold damage through massive flooding. JDC worked in Japan before the American entrance into World War II, helping support Jewish refugees in Kobe, Japan who fled Hitler’s Europe. Today, several thousand Jews live and work in Japan.

Sadly, the number confirmed has now grown into the thousands, with the deaths estimated to be in the tens of thousands. There are hundreds of thousands of people who are now homeless, countless people are missing and entire towns washed away.

Please pitch in to the relief effort, as I have, if you’re able to.

Back to Poland

The Forward ran a feature story by Mladen Petrov , “Poles Create Images That Say ‘I Miss You, Jew’”. It’s about an art project conducted by a Warsaw ad executive, Rafal Betlejewski. On the front page of the paper is a person sitting in a chair in Lodz, where my best friend’s grandmother grew up–next to an empty chair to symbolize all the Jews who aren’t there.

You can see the website of the project, where many Poles have collected their memories of Jews, at tesknie.com. Betlejewski was moved by reading Jan Gross’ book Neighbors, about a pogrom during the Second World War in the small Polish town of Jedwabne.

I’d read about this project before, because I knew about Gross and Jedwabne from working with Joanna Michlic, a historian of Polish Jewry. Dr. Michlic is a specialist on the history of the relationships of Poland’s Jews with the broader community of non-Jewish Poles. She’s also a child of an interfaith family. She and I are about the same age. I was reading about the Solidarity movement in the Cleveland Plain Dealer while she was active in the Solidarity movement–and it was in that context she first understood herself to be Jewish. She was raised with no Jewish identity. Her family didn’t think it was safe.

Her experience of growing up in an interfaith family is nothing like the experiences of the people who use our site. In the Forward article, Petrov writes:

The idea is not strongly supported everywhere. During a recent photo shoot in Grodzisk Mazowiecki, a town near Warsaw where Jews constituted 87% of the population at the beginning of the 19th century, only 15 people showed up. At the Gdański train station, a large number of those who came were in attendance mainly because of their own Jewish roots. Some critics see in the project both a hidden Jewish agenda and a simple gimmick for self-promotion by Betlejewski, who has conducted two unrelated social campaigns in his work as an ad agency executive.

Betlejewski’s partner in the project, Judyta Nekanda-Trepka, tells the reporter, “With the campaign, we wanted to remind people of the actual meaning of the word. ‘Jew’ is not an offensive word!”

Joanna Michlic has made the point that Polish nationalism could have two characters: an ethnic exclusivist character or an inclusivist civic character. In the present day, Poles are choosing inclusivist civic nationalism, and over 3,000 people have posted to tesknie.com to tell the stories they felt they couldn’t tell about their Jewish neighbors.There’s more than one lesson to pull out of this story for American Jews, for people in interfaith families, for people in the United States grappling with how to deal with ethnic difference and immigration. We have the same choices in front of us–to be hidden or to be open, to include or to exclude.

Freedom

Julia Gutman wrote two articles about her intercultural relationship for InterfaithFamily.com, Does OK Really Mean OK? and Momo and Matzoh: Our Tibetan-Jewish Marriage. She sent me a press release that begins:

FREE TIBET WORLD TOUR: MAN PLUS BIKE TO SAVE TIBET IN 8 MONTHS
A Tibetan American Goes Solo, Leaves Job, Family, to Alert World of his People’s Plight
At 40, Lhakpa has never been to Tibet. As he brushes his teeth, photos of escaped prisoners, their flesh rotten, race through his mind. Despite protests over human rights, China was awarded the honor of hosting the Olympics. It is sports, many said, not politics. Remind you of 1936 Olympics in Germany, anyone? So he left his job and family to ride his motorcycle from the UN in New York on March 10, around the world on a shoestring, modern nomad style to talk about Tibet, hoping pressure changes China’s behavior. He plans to return by 2011.

I spoke with Julia on the phone. First she explained: Lhakpa is her husband! She said she was surprised at how supportive her Russian Jewish relatives were of his quest to publicize the plight of Tibetans. They saw a parallel between his people’s situation and what had happened to their families in the Second World War.

This is a good interfaith story for Passover, when Jews celebrate emerging from slavery to freedom. In this case, the 40 years in the desert are going to be eight months on a motorcycle.

If you would like to follow Lhakpa’s ride around the world, you can read his blog, freetibetworldtour.com, or follow him on Twitter, Youtube, or Facebook.

London Jewish Museum reopens

The Jewish community of Great Britain is a cultural powerhouse, I can’t even summarize all the great stuff that has come out of it. It’s the Jewish community responsible for the first Limmud, Aviva Zornberg, Neil Gaiman, Claudia Roden, Harold Pinter, Julian Sinclair, Martyn Poliakoff, Susan Edni, and so many other amazing people in arts, entertainment, science, politics, literature and Jewish life. (Yes, I am aware that list was a little random–give me yours!)

Two of those people, the food writer Nigella Lawson and creative director of the BBC Alan Yentob, re-opened the Jewish Museum in London this past week. The Jewish Museum in London has a slightly different model than some of the ones in the US. It seems poised to use the Jewish experience as “one of Britain’s oldest minorities” to bring other immigrant and minority experiences to the foreground. Cara Nissman reported for us last year on how Jewish museums might provide neutral territory for interfaith families. You don’t need to be Jewish to go to a museum, and in fact the exhibits in a Jewish museum may provide an opening to discuss the non-Jewish partner’s history and culture.

If you’re going to London, check the Jewish Museum’s events list–it looks like they have a lot of interesting events there.

Stand Up and Be Counted Part Two–Jewish Library in Jerusalem of Lithuania

Last July, I blogged about Wyman Brent’s efforts to start a Jewish library in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Vilnius, known as Vilna in Yiddish, was a center of Jewish life. Many Jewish families who live in the US are descendants of Jews from Lithuania. As Brent explains,

The purpose of the Vilnius Jewish Library is to help strengthen Jewish culture in the Jerusalem of Lithuania.  There were more than 100 synagogues and prayerhouses in Vilnius before the war.  There was also the YIVO Institute which did so much to promote knowledge and education.  Now there is one functioning synagogue here and, YIVO has moved its operations to the USA.  Since the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto, there has not been a proper center of Jewish culture.

Another focus of the library is to promote tolerance and understanding.  There remains lingering anti-Semitism which is visible in the national media and within the Lithuanian government. The idea is to create a center which puts the spotlight not just on Jewish religion and culture but also upon the amazing accomplishments of Jews throughout history.

Brent, who is not Jewish, believes in libraries and the power of books and culture in general to overthrow bias. Now, people in the rest of the world have an opportunity to support his vision:

I was able to see the space which will hopefully house the library.  This is not the permanent location but it will be more than suitable for two or three years.  The place is directly across the street from the Parliament and the National Library buildings.  Both can be seen from the front windows of the proposed library.  There is room for concerts, lectures, and offices.  I say not permanent because eventually the collection will outgrow those rooms.  However, it is a beautiful and fitting location in which to begin.

After years of work, I feel like I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.  There is one thing which still needs to be done.  The Prime Minister is the one which will have the final decision in this matter.  I was told the best way to influence things in a positive manner is to receive letters of support for the Vilnius Jewish Library.  The letters need to be actually mailed as opposed to being sent by email.  I am reaching out to you and to anyone you know in getting out those letters.  The letters can be printed out or hand written but all must be signed and there must be somewhere their name printed so it can actually be read.  If a person is uncomfortable in providing a home address, they are very welcome to use a P.O. Box or business address.  This is NOT a call for donations of money or materials.

Here’s my letter–it’s really short:

Ruth Abrams, Managing Editor
InterfaithFamily.com
90 Oak Street
Newton, MA 02464

Wyman Brent
Ausros Vartu 20-15A
Vilnius LT-02100
Lithuania

February 25, 2010

Dear Mr. Brent,

I am writing in support of the creation of a Jewish library in Vilnius. As Jewish tourists seek their roots in Eastern Europe, the library could provide them with a space to explore Jewish culture. The library would also be a resource to Lithuanians and a source of pride for them and of connection between the people who share this history.

Please share this letter, among many others from interested parties around the world, with the Prime Minister of Lithuania.

Sincerely,

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Ruth Abrams

Where to Donate to Help Haiti

If you are looking for a way to do something about the massive human suffering of the people of Haiti in the wake of the earthquake there, there are many organizations providing aid to Haiti that are accepting donations.

A group with a long history in the country is Partners in Health. They provide community-based health care and they know the situation on the ground well. They are also seeking doctors and other medical personnel to volunteer.

Another group with a pre-established presence in Haiti is Médicins sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders. They have a donation page here.

A Jewish charity doing work in Haiti is American Jewish World Service, which makes grants to other organizations on the ground. You can make similar donations through the social action arm of the Union for Reform Judaism. Another organization, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) is part of an advocacy effort to allow Haitian immigrants and temporary workers to stay in the US under Temporary Protected Status.

The Jerusalem Post reports that Israel has sent a disaster relief team to Haiti. Israel has a record of expertise in providing earthquake aid in other countries. Several North American Jewish charities have contributed financial support to Israel’s work in Haiti, according to the Jerusalem Post, including American Jewish Committee,  B’nai Brith International,  the Canadian B’nai Brith branch and the Venezuela-based Central American branch of B’nai Brith.

We Are Here–In Vilna and in Abilene

I met Wyman Brent on Twitter–he’s a librarian, which already biased me in his favor. Today he posted to tell his Twitter followers, “Tomorrow at 12 I sign agreement for Vilnius Jewish Library. 1st real Jewish library in Lithuania since war.” In an article in the Baltic Times, “Making the Vilnius Jewish Library a Reality,” he explained,

“It’s kind of strange because I’m not Jewish and I’m not of Lithuanian descent,” said Brent.
As Brent describes it, it’s not so much a project as a labor of love.
“I’ve always loved libraries, I’ve been volunteering in them for years. I love reading, that’s something my parents gave me, and I’m fascinated with Jewish culture. I fell in love with Lithuania when I went there the first time in 1994. So it was kind of like, I love libraries, I love Jewish culture and I love Lithuania, so let me put this all together into this Jewish library,” explained Brent.

There is still a small Jewish community in Vilnius, once called the Jerusalem of Lithuania. (In Yiddish, it’s called Vilna.) This is very interesting to me as a person working for an organization that serves interfaith Jewish families, since most of the small remnant of the formerly vibrant and large communities in Eastern Europe are in such families. And also — it’s Vilna, where Hirsch Glik wrote the stirring song of resistance with the chorus, “Mir zaynen doh” — we are here.

Another web resource about small Jewish communities is the Small Synagogues website, http://www.smallsynagogues.com/. It contains the sweet stories of synagogues in small towns like Abilene, Texas and Sheboygan, Wisc. I really liked the warm tone of Sherry Levine Zander’s articles. That, too, has overlap with the lives of a lot of children of interfaith families who grew up as the only Jews in small towns.

Harry Potter and the Jewish Fear of Interfaith Marriage

The latest Harry Potter movie opened last night. I couldn’t go, but I’ve been waiting all summer for the opening so that I could blog about Jewish intermarriage themes in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The themes in the movie have been upstaged by reports that Dan Radcliffe, who plays Harry Potter in the films, is claiming his Jewish identity in the pseudonym he’s using for his poetry.
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“Did you know that Harry Potter is Jewish and is from an interfaith family?” my coworker asked. I corrected her, “No, Harry isn’t Jewish, Daniel Radcliffe is Jewish. We ran a celebrity column about that three years ago.” I admit, I knew that anyway. I love Dan Radcliffe–every interview he does charms me with his upbeat, bouncy personality. I haven’t read his poetry, though, and I might not. He’s 19 years old; it would have been nice to let the poetry stay pseudonymous, don’t you think? I wouldn’t want people to read my poetry from when I was 19.

I had to edit this to provide you with a link to the My Jewish Learning blog Mixed Multitudes where they reproduced the poetry. (Vey iz mir.)

But really, Harry Potter is Jewish — sort of. the entire Harry Potter series could be read as an allegory about how a small minority population that fears persecution deals with intermarriage with a majority population that isn’t entirely aware of it. I am well aware that I am not the first person to make this connection, but it’s even more interesting to me now that I work at InterfaithFamily.com. (If you somehow haven’t read the Harry Potter books–is that possible?–I’m going to spoil the ending of the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince movie below the cut.)

In the Harry Potter universe, wizards have undisputed magical powers, whether they come from “pureblood” families, mixed families or entirely non-magical families. There is no “who is a wizard” question–if you can do magic, you’re magical. Jewishness is far less easy to define. (If only Jews could fly.) Nevertheless, wizards and witches from pureblood families who fear the non-magical, Muggle majority, are the bad guys in Harry Potter.

Harry Potter’s parents were both magical, though he was raised by his non-magical aunt and uncle. He finds out when he enters the wizarding world at age 11 that his mother had a lower status to some wizards because she was a witch-by-choice. (OK, you know that I mean because she was a witch with non-magical parents.) Harry’s best friend Hermione is the target of an anti-muggleborn slur, and Harry finds out that pureblood mania is a big part of why some wizards supported the evil wizard who killed his parents. The Wizarding world has good reason to fear both the encroachment of Muggle ways into their subculture, and to worry about actual persecution.

We don’t learn until the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince that Severus Snape, the sarcastic teacher who heads Slytherin House, is the son of a magical mother and a non-magical father. If you know the books, you know what a problem this was for Snape–there are hints that his father had anti-magical bias.

Does that make Snape halachically a wizard? How about according to Reform Wizardry?

Should we be contacting Albus Dumbledore to see if he wants to list Hogwarts as a welcoming organization?