Monthly Archives: October 2010

What’s In a Name?

By Gabriel Weinstein

For hundreds of years, Ethiopian Jews dreamed of strolling through Jerusalem’s supposed golden streets and celebrating the Sigd festival in its hills. By the late 1970’s, Ethiopians decided that dreaming of Israel no longer sufficed, and embarked on foot to the Promised Land. Scores of Ethiopian Jews fulfilled their dream of reaching Israel through Operation Moses in 1984 after trekking through deserts, skirting Ethiopian border authorities and toiling in unsanitary Sudanese refugee camps. But Ethiopians never dreamed that in Israel, their utopia, they would abandon their Amharic names.

Journalist Ruth Mason explores how Ethiopian immigrants traded their Amharic names, and ultimately a sense of identity, for new Israeli-sounding Hebrew names in her documentary These Are My Names.  The film, which premiered last week at the Jewish Eye World Film Festival in Ashkelon, Israel, expresses the Ethiopian community’s frustration about changing names through interviews with Ethiopian immigrants who gave up their Amharic names. One such immigrant said, “We  were given Hebrew names without thinking about our past.  We were told, ‘You are new people and you will start from the beginning.’”  A woman interviewed in the film was given the name Tziona by her teacher, because she resembled her teacher’s friend. In a Jerusalem Post article, Mason explains Ethiopians’ names have special significance because “They are all named after important events or feelings and emotions, representing something that happened at the time of their birth; it is part of their identity.”

The importance of names to Ethiopian Jews exemplifies a universal aspect of Jewish culture. Beginning in the biblical era, individuals changed their names to correspond with elevated social status or the completion of a notable accomplishment.  The biblical figures Abraham, Sarah, Jacob and Joshua all received new names during their lives.  The Book of Samuel makes a distinct connection between an individual’s given name and their personality, proclaiming “Like his name, so is he” (1 Samuel 25:25).

Several biblical figures’ names, such as Jacob, reflected their character traits or events in their lives. Jacob was named Ya’akov, meaning to usurp, because he clung to his brother Esau’s heel (ekev) during birth, and would later steal his birthright.  After a night of wrestling with God’s angel, Jacob became Yisrael, meaning struggle with God.

Ethiopian immigrants are not the first, nor will they be the last, group of Jews to change their names as an assimilation tactic.  During the Hellenist era, Jews forged new aliases by combining Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek names. Napoleon made European Jews adopt formal last names, giving rise to common popular surnames like Rosenberg and Silverstein.  Jewish immigrants to America in the 19th and 20th centuries anglicized their first and last names to fit in.  In 1938, Nazi authorities declared that all Jews in Germany and Austria would be called Sarah or Israel. During the mass aliyahs (migrations) to Palestine, many olim, such as the writer Dan Ben-Amotz, discarded their European names for modern Hebrew names.

What distinguishes the Ethiopian name change phenomenon from its predecessors is its context: It occurred in the Jewish state, while the others occurred in countries where Jews were a marginalized minority.  Whereas Jews in previous eras eventually embraced their foreign aliases, These Are My Names depicts the Ethiopian community’s ambivalence over their name changes.

The assignment of new names to Ethiopians without their consultation or consent breaches the guarantee of citizens’ right to practice their respective linguistic, cultural and educational practices outlined in the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Whether inadvertently or intentionally, Jews perpetuated a cycle of forced identity change that for millennia was used to weaken Jewish identity.

If renaming Ethiopian Jews was intended to promote integration, it has hardly succeeded.  In 2003-04, the percentage of employed, working age Ethiopian men in Israel dropped to 45, down from 54 a decade before.  Most of the Ethiopian community work minimum wage jobs. In a survey of Ethiopians in eight Israeli cities, 45 percent of adults were illiterate.  These Are My Names highlights just one of the major challenges the Ethiopian community confronts in its integration into Israeli society.

 

The Hidden Israel

By Symi Rom-Rymer

A chubby young African boy dressed head-to-toe in an Israeli police officer’s uniform looks defiantly into the camera.  A teenage girl in a pink room solemnly faces the camera under her hijab.  A transvestite clad in a rhinestone studded bra and panties dances with abandon in a Jerusalem night club.  These are the faces of another, less visible Israel.  Their stories and struggles are often overshadowed by the sexier tales of relentless violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  But for one night, African guest workers and their children, Arab Israelis, members of the transgendered community and other marginalized groups are the center of attention.

The Envisioning Justice exhibit featuring Israel’s marginalized groups was part of a social justice-themed benefit for the New Israel Fund, a New York-based non-profit organization that focuses on civil society and social justice issues in Israel.  The curator of the exhibit, Deborah Plum, is a co-founder of Omanoot, a multimedia arts organization that uses contemporary Israeli art to bring people together.  I recently sat down with Deborah to talk with her about Omanoot and the thought-provoking exhibit she put together.

Why start Omanoot?  What does it have to offer people today?
Art has become intimidating.  Beautiful things have become so challenging for people.  Art galleries are competing with YouTube and free music and it’s very hard for people to make time for it.  When I went into Omanoot, I really wanted to create this organization that people could use as their outlet, to help people connect to art in an authentic way.   We’re trying to be this bridge between the Jewish and Israeli non-profit world /organizational world.  We’re not tied to specific political cause, religious organization, medium or theme.  We’re trying to bring together new energy [and] speak to people who aren’t as hooked in.

What was your vision for the benefit show?
I really wanted to create a voice for artists who care about social justice issues and who deal with them in their art and personal lives and do so in a very personal way.  The goal was not just to show minorities and their subjugation, not just about their sadness, but rather to show the complexity of it.  For instance, Gil Lavi [an internationally

Swings by Gil Lavi

renowned photographer] did a series of photos in Sderot.  What drew me to those photos was that it was about Sderot.  Not about Sderot being bombed or about the State not taking care of the town, but about the place itself.  It showed Russian immigrants living there and happy to be there.  It wasn’t about the statistics.  I loved those photos.  I think it was my inspiration for the whole show.

One piece, by Chen Yerushalmi, dealt with the notions of layered identities through masks.  Can you talk about why that was important to you to include in the show?
I wanted to come across for women’s rights, not just Arab women’s rights, but all women’s rights.  Yerushalmi’s piece was interesting because how much of it was about the masks we wear.  The identities we cling to—woman, Israeli–what does that mean beyond the superficial?  How does that impact you as a person?  In some ways, they minimize the role that these identifiers should play.  At the end, it’s just you.  In terms of female identity, Israel is such a patriarchal society.  Her piece is not negative or positive, but it is such a beautiful expression of those views.

What about the photos of transvestites by Tanya Habjouqa?  What did those offer?
I wanted to include those pictures because they [the subjects] were so happy.  Here was a club in Jerusalem full of Palestinians and Israelis who were partying together.  These were dancing, smiling pictures of coexistence in its purist form.  I really pushed for them because I felt that a lot of the photos that I had seen were of ceremonies or parades or vigils for those who had been hurt.  I didn’t want to show parades, I just wanted to show life.

Many of the pieces brought up topics that I didn’t know about such as African migrant workers and Darfurian refugees.   Do you feel Americans in general don’t know as much about these issues?
Not just Americans.   Some Israelis also are unaware.  Israel is always in a situation.  It’s always focused on Palestinian-Israeli issues.  I wanted to show other issues that probably impact them on a daily basis.  Israel needs workers.  They’ve closed the doors to Gaza and so they have to import people. Ilan [Spira] is really the first photographer to give these people a voice.  To document the Filipino workers in the bus station, for instance.  He’s used his photos to argue their cases in court.  He’s dedicated his life to making this issue public.

What do you see that art can offer in terms of addressing difficult topics like the ones in the show?
I think that it’s very emotional, when presented properly.  Art is very personal and can be seen from so many different angles and associations.  For me, visual memory resonates.  Now when I read a newspaper piece about migrant workers, I have the image of that little boy in a police costume.  They’re part of my dialogue.  There’s no expiration date on your experience.

What did you want people to get out of the show?
I hope it left them thinking, “Maybe I should learn more about migrant workers or about women in Israel or about Arab Israeli citizens.”  And I hope that for people who didn’t see art as a way to experience this topic, this show changed their minds.  In our obsession with the internet to connect with everything, we forget how much else there is.  If they’re intimidated [by art], I hope that it broke some of those barriers.  I heard people talking about the art and asking questions and it was so inspiring.

Although the exhibit was up for only one night, the artists’ work can be seen in galleries around the world as well as on their own websites.  To find out more, please visit the NIF benefit page, the Omanoot website, or click on the artists’ names above.

Photo Credits: “Chen’s Mask” Photography by Adam Cohen; “Asylum” by Ahikam Seri

Symi Rom-Rymer writes and blogs about Jewish and Muslim communities in the US and Europe.

ObamaCare Turns the Tables on the Jewish Mothers

By Doni Kandel

An unusual wave of exhilarating self-confidence has overcome Jewish sons across America, according to reports.  The surprising cause of buoyancy?  Obamacare.

Political scientists, thought to have accounted for all possible economic and sociological side-effects of the controversial healthcare bill passed earlier this year, seem to have missed the phenomenon that many fear will have far-reaching effects. Anticipating that doctor’s salaries will decrease significantly as a result of the legislation (some say by as much as 15-20%) ObamaCare has profoundly shifted the power in the age-old Jewish battle of Mothers nagging their sons to go to medical school.  In fact some say Sarah’s complacency in the sacrificing of Isaac was due to his refusal to go to medical school.

Widespread hysteria has correspondingly hit the Jewish Mother’s community as the yiddesheh mamas, infamous for nagging their underachieving spawn for failing to get that MD, now face the daunting challenge of losing a key weapon in their guilt repertoire.

Dave Kay, a single 32 year old assistant manager of a local Best Buy store, told reporters this week that, “President Obama has finally delivered the hope he had promised. I had the audacity to hope that this would be the year I would not cry into my soup during my family Passover seder, and I think I’ve got a good shot now. Now I am just a wife and a few grandchildren away from redemption.” When asked by reporters if he appreciated the poetic possibility of redeeming himself on Passover (the Jewish holiday of redemption), Kay responded, “it would be a nice change from the ever poetic slaughtering of the first born son,” while throwing up the popular “this guy” thumbs.  “That has taken place for as long as I can remember.”

Researchers have posited potentially far-reaching implications, both positive and negative, due to this ego boost of Maccabian proportions. Some have presented the possibility that the flailing real estate market may now see a large bump in demand as swarms of Jewish sons liberate themselves from their parents’ basements in search of independent lifestyles for the first time. Additionally, the phone companies are encouraged by the proposition that without the ability to spy on their sons in their own homes, phone call frequency in the stalker range can be expected.

However, other researchers are profoundly concerned with the devastating effect this infusion of self-worth is having demographically. Many men, who have been babied by their mothers for far too long but are now brimming with self-esteem, have misguidedly asked out girls who are way out of their league. This may result in a widespread epidemic of women being turned off to dating altogether, thus stunting an entire generation’s population. There have already been a number of reports of matchmakers uttering sales pitches which would previously seemed insane, such as, “he does have a large mole over his right eye, but at least he’s not a doctor.”  Willy Loman reportedly has been heard turning over in his grave.

Rahm Emmanuel, the former White House Chief of Staff who was instrumental in passing ObamaCare, is thought to have been an operative in an underground movement for the liberation of Jewish boys from the oppression of their mothers.

Senator Barbra Boxer (D-California) has gained a big bump from conservative voters in her re-election polling numbers since her announcement this week that she plans to vote to repeal the healthcare bill. The aging Jewish mother has grown increasingly alarmed after her son allegedly gave her some lip. She even went as far as to promise, “If he refuses to eat leftovers tonight I swear I’m joining the Tea Party”.

Esther Ashema, a 48-year-old Jewish mother from the Upper West Side of Manhattan remains calm, however.  When asked if she was worried about her son finding the courage to cut the metaphorical umbilical cord, she responded, “Come back to me when his wife figures out how to make chicken soup that doesn’t taste like sewage.”

 

Sky-Scraping Prices in Tel Aviv

by Merav Levkowitz

HGTV recently aired the Israel episode of House Hunters International, where two Chicago sisters with a $500,000 budget searched for an apartment in Tel Aviv. After being shown the three options available, they found themselves seriously debating between a rooftop duplex that was smaller than what they were looking for and a vintage apartment that was in such bad shape it would require at least $100,000 worth of repairs.

Ultimately they chose the duplex, but the fact that a crumbling apartment with a price tag of half a million dollars was featured hints at the real estate markets in what was recently declared the nineteenth most expensive city in the world—a whole ten spots ahead of New York!  How did Tel Aviv become so expensive?

For one reason, on a broad economic scale, Israel’s banking practices tend to be more conservative than those in the U.S. while its financial sector is not completely entangled in the mortgage market.  In Israeli real estate there is a trend of larger down payments and less reliance on mortgages. As a result, Israel managed to maintain relative stability amid the heat of the global economic crisis. The boom in real estate prices has been driven by low interest rates and a shortage in housing.  So while much skepticism lingers toward real estate in the United States in the aftermath of the subprime mortgage crisis, real estate prices in Israel, especially in Tel Aviv, remain on the rise.

The desirability of a Tel Aviv address is another reason for its robust real estate market.  Home to many high-tech companies and venture capitalists, the city pulses with energy, innovation, and life. Given its population of young, successful professionals working in casual, but demanding, start-up environments, the city is alive at all hours of the day. In fact, it is not uncommon to find traffic jams and packed cafés at 2 AM on most days of the week. Tel Aviv caters to a young, vibrant population with disposable incomes, few attachments—it is known as a “city of singles”—and hyperactive desires for movement and change. New bars and restaurants open daily, but it is also not unheard of for bar and nightclub owners to “close” their operations at the end of a season only to reopen shortly thereafter with new names and décor. Naturally, the proximity to the beach and the near-constant sunshine add vibrancy and a sense of frivolity, which draw many to the city.

One of the key reasons, though, for the continued real estate boom is that Israelis are not the only ones drawn to Tel Aviv. In recent years, there has been a great influx of foreigners, mostly French and American, buying up properties in the city.  “Absentee owners,” as they are often known, live overseas and come for occasional visits, leaving their apartments empty for most of the year. For some of them, owning property is a tangible display of support for Israel and a way to live as locals during their frequent visits. Ownership may also be a step in the gradual process toward aliyah (immigration to Israel). Regardless, these vacation-home buyers have altered the real estate scene in Israel’s biggest cities and particularly in Tel Aviv. With their deep pockets and few demands, including a willingness to wait longer for construction to be complete, these buyers have garnered the attention of luxury developers. Consequently, there is a new growth of highly-priced developments, which remain out-of-reach for many Israelis. At the same time, foreigners’ purchases have removed properties from the markets. Many absentee owners leave properties empty throughout the year in order to maintain the flexibility of coming and going as they please and to avoid dealing with tenants from abroad, but by doing so, they further decrease the supply of rentals available.

Rising real estate prices in Tel Aviv are both a source of pain and pride in Israel. On one hand, locals are resentful about the housing shortages and rising prices. Looking forward, there are also worries about an imminent housing bubble burst and the consequences it might induce. On the other hand, according to Ynet News, “for Israel, where high-tech and science are booming businesses, the property price spike is the latest claim to fame,” especially given the current global economic climate. Still, this facet of “pride” does little for the local consumer simply looking for a home. Is he or she doomed to paying a million dollars just to “live in a doghouse?” This facetious video clip, making the rounds among Israelis, suggests they might.

Kosher for Halloween

By Daniel Kieval

It’s Halloween in the suburbs. For a couple of weeks, already, the neighborhood decorations have been out in full force: pumpkins, black cats, spiders, ghosts. Then there are the houses that hold nothing back, turning lawns into graveyards complete with tombstones, skeletons, and back-from-the-dead monsters, such as mummies and zombies.

With kids and parents across the country designing costumes, planning parties, and fortifying candy supplies, Halloween may seem an unlikely time to start pondering Judaism.  After all, the chaos of the fall holidays has passed, and Jews are supposed to be enjoying a well-deserved break, not starting in on more holidays. Yet, surrounded as we are by the Halloween culture, it may be worthwhile to ask the question: Does Halloween’s glorification of blood and gore, of demons and the living dead have any relation to Jewish values? Can Jews learn from zombies?

Jewish tradition has its fair share of monsters, spirits, and dead bodies coming to life. Folktales are one classic source. Stories tell of the giant clay Golem who saved the Jews of Prague; the young bride possessed by a malicious spirit known as the Dybbuk; and departed ancestors popping out of their graves in Tevye’s dream in Fiddler on the Roof. The Talmud, too, contains references to the dark and supernatural – one striking passage tells us that one can see demons by burning a part of a black cat and rubbing the ashes in one’s eye, while anotherwarns that the demon Shabiri will strike blind anyone who drinks water at night. Even the Amidah prayer, recited daily by Jews for centuries, contains a wish for the resurrection of the dead, t’chiyat ha-meitim, that some associate with the coming of the Messiah.

So yes, in our written tradition we’ve got spirits, we’ve got monsters, we’ve got dead bodies coming to life. But in our day-to-day practice we have a concept called kavod ha-met, respect and care for the dead. It is for kavod ha-met that Jews do not display a dead body before burial, nor do we cremate or embalm them (sorry, mummies). In fact, Jewish tradition considers caring for a dead body the greatest deed one can perform, since there is no way for the recipient to return the favor. Those who engage in this practice are called the chevra kadisha, the holy community. Halloween associates dead things with gore, decay, and terror. The chevra kadisha clean, purify, and dress the body and then sit with it until it can be buried. Where Halloween wants to make us feel repulsed by the dead, Jewish ritual seeks to bring us close to them in loving care.

Perhaps, then, the more worthwhile question is: Can zombies learn from Jews? Halloween can be an occasion to think about our own relationship to death. Is it something creepy, disgusting and scary, something that we avoid except in the context of horror movies and media violence? Or is it a natural, if difficult, part of existence, something that reminds us to glorify life and appreciate what we have while we have it? Judaism reminds us that it’s not wrong to enjoy a good monster story on occasion, but it also reminds us that in real life dead people are not monsters, and may even be pathways to holiness.

 

De-constructing a City of Queer Borders

By Lily Hoffman Simon

If you were to ask someone to picture the queer community in Israel, it is a fair bet to say that they would picture the group as homogenous, fixed, marginalized.  The term queer itself, initially a derogatory label for homosexuals, was reclaimed as an all-encompassing umbrella term for anyone who defines themselves as having an “alternative” sexual expression, emphasizing the uniform oppression of queers. What happened to the complexities of that oppression, and of those identities? What about the places/spaces that encourage these complexities?

Enter City Of Borders, a new documentary following the lives of queer Israelis and Palestinians.  The directorial debut of Yun Suh, a Korean American filmmaker who gained interest in Israel/Palestine while working as a broadcaster and reporter in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Israel, the film demonstrates exactly what is lacking in most of the queer Israeli discourse: Complexity and heterogeneity.

Take Adam, for example. Adam is a secular Israeli settler in the West Bank, where he lives with his partner. Yet, he is a leading activist in the gay rights community. A gay rights activist and a settler? This union of traditionally leftist and rightist values superficially seems like a contradiction.  Yet the movie advocates for this complexity, and encourages the viewer to stop looking at Israel as either gay or straight, right or left, and start looking at the complex issues and tensions apparent in individuals’ identities. Isn’t that what the term queer is all about anyways?

City of Borders centres around Shushan, a gay bar in Jerusalem (that has since closed), where a significant chunk of the queer community congregates. This hotspot serves as a uniting force within the otherwise divided Israeli queer community. Where else can a Jewish settler converse, and maybe even make out with, a Palestinian drag queen from Ramallah? At this bar, people do not have to fear oppression; it provides a safe haven for all kinds of sexual expression in the midst of Israeli oppression, especially in a religious and conservative Jerusalem. It also provides a space for identity free from political connotations, where a Palestinian-Israeli and Jewish Israeli lesbian couple can hold hands without fear of judgement.  At this bar, coexistence trumps politics.

Outside the bar, however, the seemingly ideal relationships have to contend with a difficult political reality. The bi-racial lesbian couple, Samira (a Palestinian-Israeli woman) and Ravit (a Jewish-Israeli woman), seem so in love, while at the same time rebellious in their “stick it to the man” attitude towards everyone who questions the validity of their relationship. So it comes as a surprise in the context of their relationship, yet not in the context of the usual perceptions of Israel, that at the beginning of their relationship, Samir lost sight of her love for partner Ravit, and instinctively realized herself as “fucking the occupation.” By exemplifying even the hardest politics in the most intimate moments, the movie refuses to let the viewer accept identity, or queer/political discussions, as static.

So the queer community in Israel is rampant with complex identities and internal tensions, but so what? City of Borders is doing something radical, by demonstrating the heterogeneous nature of the Israeli homosexual community, which is an alternative to most presentations. Within the bar, these differences don’t matter, but in greater Israel, these tensions still play a significant role in people’s lives. By extension, the movie is advocating for a complex view of Israeli society and identity. This breaks down the simplified, so often dichotomized, discussion surrounding queer rights, and even surrounding Israel/Palestine.

Moment Cover Sneak Peek!

Here it is – the highly anticipated cover to the November/December 2010 issue of Moment!  The issue will be on newsstands and in your mailbox on November 1.