Everywhere You Go There’s Always Someone or Something Jewish

  
Digging into some fish and chips, a meal with Jewish roots.

Digging into some fish and chips, a meal with Jewish roots.

A week before Thanksgiving, I stood in the doorway of a building on Skulagata, a street in Reykjavik, Iceland, with my husband and son looking out at the North Atlantic and trying to find shelter from the blustery wind that was making the 30-degree evening feel much colder. We were waiting for our tour guide to pick us up for our search for the Northern Lights. Other tourists were waiting to be picked up by other tour operators. I started talking to a young American woman who was traveling alone. Our conversation turned to the election. I mentioned that I was concerned about some of the president-elect’s choices for advisors because of their association with the alt-right movement.

“My son and I are Jewish,” I said.

“Me too,” the woman said.

We talked for a few more minutes and then our guide arrived. The woman and I wished each other good luck in finding the Northern Lights and safe travels. As we drove out of the city, I smiled and started quietly humming the opening lines of Rabbi Larry Milder’s famous Jewish tune:

Wherever you go,
There’s always someone Jewish.
You’re never alone when you say you’re a Jew.
So when you’re not home, and you’re somewhere kind of newish,
The odds are, don’t look far, ‘cause they’re Jewish, too.

Milder was right; even in Iceland, which has a permanent Jewish population of about 100 people, it wasn’t hard to stumble across a fellow tribe member. After Iceland, we traveled to London, with a Jewish population of 172,000. I can’t say if we met any Jewish Londoners, but we did see a few Hasidic Jews snapping photos of Buckingham Palace as we walked back to our flat one evening, and we took in some Jewish history.

We walked through biblical times at the British Museum, which has a large collection of archaeological material and ancient art from Mesopotamia, Iran, the Levant (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel), Anatolia (Turkey), Arabia and Central Asia and the Caucasus. Highlights of the collection include Assyrian reliefs, treasure from the Royal Cemetery of Ur, the Oxus Treasure, Phoenician ivories and the library of cuneiform tablets from Nineveh. Items from Ur, Abraham’s home which he left for Canaan, and Nineveh, mentioned in Genesis 10:10-12 as the home of Nimrod and again in the Book of Jonah, brought the stories of the Torah to life.

The Assyrian Flood Tablet, which tells the story of a plan by the gods to destroy the world using a great flood, was startlingly similar to the story of Noah. Utu-napishtim, a character in the Epic of Gilgamesh, was warned in secret by the god Ea that humankind would be destroyed and told to build a huge boat to ensure the survival of humans and animals. Birds were released from the ark before it landed safely.

This item was of particular interest to us because Noah is my son’s Torah portion for his bar mitzvah. It was cool to look at his parsha written not in Hebrew, but in cuneiform! And versions of this familiar story existed at least 1,000 years before the Assyrian tablet. This object sparked a conversation about how Judaism developed and evolved from and in response to other ancient societies, and how the writers of the Torah made important stories from other cultures part of Jewish literature.

From the Bible, we jumped in Jewish time to the 17th century and the Spanish Inquisition by way of lunch at Kerbisher & Malt, a fish-and-chips restaurant. We learned that fish and chips have Jewish roots—Spanish and Portuguese Jews who fled the Inquisition introduced the crispy, light fish to the British. Typically, street vendors sold the fish from large trays hung from their necks. In the 1800s, fish shops, or “fish warehouses,” were serving fish with bread or baked potatoes.

Encounters with other Jews and discoveries of Jewish connections are intriguing because they remind us that we are part of something bigger, that our family extends beyond our family tree to include a community we feel connected to but do not know personally. This bond created between Jews by shared history and experience is called peoplehood. And it’s best learned through engagement in Jewish life.

Purim and My Mexican American Jewish Newborn

  

A Purim Carousel in Brooklyn

Purim in my neighborhood is an extravaganza. Limousines crowd the streets and rabbles of teenagers run in and out of houses dressed up as the main characters in the Purim story.

A quick summary for those who are not familiar: There is Vashti, who is dethroned by the King Ahasuerus. Then Esther becomes the new Queen after she wins a beauty contest, which she doesn’t even dress up for (she’s THAT beautiful). Mordechai is her cousin (probably equally beautiful) and he figures out that some people are trying to kill the king. Then Haman (the evil one in the story) gets promoted to be the head official by the king, but he hates the Jewish people. Mordechai refuses to bow to Haman and then in turn Haman makes it his life goal to destroy the Jewish people. Mordechai asks Esther for help. She invites the King and Haman to a banquet and when they attend she invites them to a second banquet. At the second banquet she asks the King to have mercy on her people and accuses Haman of his wrongdoings. Haman is then sentenced to death on the very same gallows he had himself made to kill the Jewish people.

The more daring ones in my neighborhood dress as Haman. The more beautiful dress as Esther. Occasionally, a Vashti costume will be thrown into the mix. But most popular are Mordechai and the King.

My partner Adrian and I live three blocks away from my mother with our newborn girl, Helen Rose. Last year, we remembered to call my mother on Purim to heed the warning: “Listen Ma, remember if the doorbell rings don’t answer it. It’s just the kids who like to dance around everyone’s living room to celebrate Purim.”

My mother ignored us as usual.

“Holy cow!” The phone call came from her at 9 p.m. She yelled over the tooting of horns and the rattling of groggers. “The doorbell rang and I thought it was you guys,” she screamed. “Next thing I know there’s about twenty Orthodox Jewish boys dressed as biblical characters dancing around my living room! I gotta go before someone breaks something.” She hung up.

That’s how Purim goes in Midwood, Brooklyn.

Adrian, who is Mexican-Catholic, asks me, “Is it like Halloween?”

I laugh, “Well sort of but we really put Halloween to shame.” And we do. Forget about goblins and ghouls. We make hamantaschen, triangle-shaped cookies that symbolize Haman’s death. (Haman wore a hat shaped like a triangle.)

“Well, what did you wear for your first Purim?” Adrian enquires. I laugh again and think back.

The first official Purim I celebrated was at the Orthodox Yeshiva I attended as a girl. It was first grade and every girl wanted to go as Esther. It’s like the newest Disney character but she’s thousands of years old. I wanted to be different and I hated wearing dresses even though I had to wear one to school every day. Here was my chance to break out! Instead of going to school dressed as Esther like every other girl I went dressed as the castle.

My mother walked me to The Variety Store on Avenue M and Mr. Miller showed me where the colorful oak tag was. I bought two pieces of hot pink oak tag and punched holes in the top of each piece. Then I used string to tie the pieces together and put them over my head. I drew windows and a door and that was it. I was the castle. It was funny but not as funny as Stephen, a boy in my class, who dressed up as Vashti the banished Queen. I think I saw him on Ru Paul’s Drag Race a few years ago.

“We’re not dressing Helen as a castle,” Adrian says.

 “No kidding,” I answer.

Baby Helen celebrates Purim

Baby’s first Purim!

Traditionally speaking, the kids in my neighborhood usually only dress up as characters from the Purim story. I suppose we could put Helen in something different and I suggest this to Adrian.

“How about a piece of challah bread?” he asks.

 “What?” I say pretending not to hear him.

 “Challah bread,” he continues, “It’s kosher, it’s traditional and it’s my favorite!”

“Yeah, because that’s not embarrassing at all,” I add.

Adrian smiles, lifts up the baby and says, “Challah por favor!”

Trying to explain Purim is not easy. For starters G-d’s name is not mentioned once in the entire book. Does this mean G-d is not present? It actually means the opposite, that G-d is ALWAYS present and for this reason Esther and Mordechai are able to save the Jewish people. Also, there’s the part about the Megillah. The Megillah is the scroll of Esther and tells the Purim story. This scroll is read on the evening Purim begins as well as the next morning. In Midwood, young Orthodox Jewish boys of about 10 and 12 years old stop people on the street to ask:

“Are you Jewish?”

 On my walk to my mother’s house every year I answer, “Yes.”

 Then the boys say, “Have you heard the Megillah this year?”

Because I do not attend synagogue on Purim I say no and they ask to read the entire scroll of Esther to me standing on the corner of East 23rd Street and Avenue M.

The scroll of Esther can take some time and there is even a Jewish saying, “It’s like he read the whole Megillah,” referring to how long something can take. But, every year I say, “Yes, boys, please read.”

And this is the most beautiful part of Purim. That two boys who are 10 and 12 years old know it is a good deed to read the story of Esther to a wandering Jew on the streets of Brooklyn. And because they are Yeshiva boys they speed read their Hebrew out loud as if to prove the “whole Megillah” saying wrong.

This year I can’t wait to take the baby on a walk through the streets of Midwood during Purim. I wonder what those boys will say. “Is she Jewish?”

 “Yes,” I will answer.

 “Has she heard the Megillah this year?”

 And because she does not attend synagogue with her mother on Purim I will say no and they will ask to read the entire scroll of Esther to her. Then they will ask, “What will you dress her up as?” and I will smile and say, “Challah bread, we were thinking challah bread…or a hamantaschen cookie.”

Happy Purim, everyone! From the Mexican-American-Jewish-Newborn and her family.

Jewish Mourning: A Lesson for My Newborn

  

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When I was 8 years old I had a good friend who lived around the corner from me. His name was Nachshon. We took the same school bus to school and at the Orthodox Yeshiva we attended we were in the same class. I went to his house often after school to play video games or just to hang out. He rarely came to my house. My family was not religious enough for his family even though we had a kosher home and my parents tried hard to educate us in Judaism. My parents were liberals. They had been actors and met on stage. They believed in finding out about oneself both inside and outside of the religion. For this reason the Jewish community at my Yeshiva rejected many of my parents’ beliefs and therefore my brother and I were rejected as well, though in a subtler manner.

I was allowed into Nachshon’s home where the rules of kosher/non-kosher, religious and non-religious were in tact and could not be stirred. He was, however, not allowed into my own home. At 8 years of age I didn’t care. He had a Nintendo and my brother and I did not. He had better toys, better games and carpeting in his basement. He had what I didn’t have, or so it seemed.

Then something happened to Nachshon, or rather something happened to his father. One day Nachshon didn’t show up to school. In the middle of Torah study that morning our teacher told us all to put on our coats, we were going somewhere. Once outside we boarded a yellow bus. The bus twisted and turned through the sooty Brooklyn streets until we were close to my own neighborhood. We ended up in front of Nachshon’s residence.

I had been to his house many times before but never with my whole class. There were twenty of us: the girls dressed in long skirts and long sleeved shirts, the boys with yarmulkes, black pants and white shirts. We looked like a sea of exclamation points shuffling through the small doorway. The house was dark and the mirrors had been covered with black fabric. There were low boxes on the floor in the living room for the family members to sit on. It was then I realized what we were doing there. We went, as a class to sit shiva. Shiva is the traditional Jewish mourning period. It usually lasts for seven days and family members sit on the floor or on low boxes, they cover their mirrors and in my neighborhood they leave the door open for visitors to come and go. It is a “mitzvah,” a good deed to sit shiva. As a child it is terrifying.

Nachshon looked small in his own home surrounded by guests from all over the neighborhood. His father had been sick for a long time. No one knew any of the details. He died of some kind of cancer and now the closest family members sat around the living room on low boxes reciting his name and weeping.

That year I stopped going to Nachshon’s house to play. He didn’t speak to me in school. I heard that his mother wanted him to hang around only very religious Orthodox Jewish boys and girls. I was not in that category. The next year I was kicked out of the Yeshiva and I didn’t see him again for a long time. Then one day something happened to me, or rather something happened to my father.

I saw Nachshon again four-and-a-half years later at a shiva for my own father. He showed up on the front porch with sad eyes, dressed in a black suit, his yarmulke a patch of crimson velvet on his head.

“I’m so sorry about your father,” he said. It was the first time he had ever been to my house. Death had brought him there. Death, sympathy and compassion had overcome my “not Jewish enough” family. Though he came on his own. There was no school bus, no long skirts following his lead. He came alone. It was the last time I ever saw him. I felt as if his presence was an apology.

Today I have a newborn. She is Jewish by her mother, Mexican-Catholic by her father. I wonder what she will feel as she grows up in the neighborhood I grew up in. Her father speaks a different language and her mother wears rock t-shirts every day of the week. Does this make her less Jewish? Will parents be afraid to send their children to our house? How will this make her feel? What will I say when she says “Why?”

I will tell her I lost a very close friend a long time ago because of fear and judgment. I will tell her something broke between us because the community that surrounded us did not know how to bind us closer together in a time of mourning and instead shifted us apart.

I would like my daughter to grow up understanding the customs of each religion. The way Catholics and Jews deal with death is of equal importance. But more than this I want her to make her own decisions about religion and I want her to be able to turn to spirituality in times of great distress. I want her to have courage the way Nachshon had when he defied the community and walked up on my front porch to pay his respects. I will explain to my daughter one day that in that one fixed moment in time we were who we were as Jews but more so as resplendent human spirits.

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