As has been the tradition for the past decade, Jewish Federation volunteers placed American flags (and in some cases Jewish War Veteran [JWV] markers) on the graves of Jewish war veterans in area cemeteries – Ohave Shalom in Waterford, Beth El in Groton, and Norwich Hebrew Benevolent in Preston. A heartfelt TODAH RABAH (thank you) to this year’s volunteers Gerry Levine, Henry Dunkerly, Jerome Schwell, Maier Fein and Len Cohen for placing over 200 flags and adding and/or replacing 14 JWV markers that help identify the graves of Jewish War Veterans.
The purchase of flags and markers is made possible through the Harold Weiner Family Endowment of the Jewish Federation of Eastern CT.
Clergy and participants came from Norwich, New London, and Groton, CT. Speakers included Rabbi Rachel Safman, Monghi Daoudi, and New London Mayor Finizio. Rev. Cornish was particularly moving: his determination to overcome his disability has inspired us all for many years, as have his preaching and playing of the saxophone.
The event was quickly organized by Rev. Wade Hyslop of Trinity Missionary Baptist Church. On Sunday, Rabbi Aaron Rosenberg and other clergy participated in a service at our local AME Church.
It was good to see the diverse communities of our region represented. More must be done to address the challenges and the dangers of racism. I think there will be follow up to the activities that have taken place in the wake of the tragic attack in Charleston, and the JFEC and all our congregations will be part of those efforts.
Jerry Fischer, Executive Director, JFEC
Published June 22. 2015 8:30PM from THE DAY
Updated June 23. 2015 10:33PM
New London — More than 100 people joined hands outside the Trinity Missionary Baptist Church as they sang “We Shall Overcome” on Monday evening to remember the nine victims of the recent massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, S.C. Click here to read the rest of the article about the vigil from The Day.
Holocaust survivor Ray Gawendo stands Friday as the East Lyme High School Brass Ensemble plays the Israeli national anthem. Gawendo, who turned 100 years old on Jan. 4, received gifts, a cake, a musical serenade from the brass ensemble and the singing of "Happy Birthday" from the student body. Gawendo has spoken to student groups at the school about her experiences during the Holocaust as part of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut's "Encountering Survivors" program.Sean D. Elliot/The Day
Published January 10. 2015 4:00AM
East Lyme - With cheers and applause, students filled the East Lyme High School commons on Friday morning to celebrate the 100th birthday of Ray Gawendo, a Holocaust survivor who has shared her story with a new generation.
The high school's brass ensemble played the Israeli National Anthem and "Sto Lat," a traditional Polish song, to honor her - and hundreds of students then began singing "Happy Birthday." Gawendo, who had spoken to East Lyme students last year, stood smiling near a table with a sheet cake and yellow roses.
"You're looking at a true role model," said social studies teacher Shannon Saglio to the roomful of students. High-school senior Laura Abel told the students that Gawendo was born in 1915 in an "impoverished part of the world" that would see two world wars.
"And of course the conflict was not simply about borders or domination or power or wealth," she said. "The conflict bore the hallmark of something far more evil: It was about ethnicity and religious beliefs, and it led to the most horrific period of genocidal behavior ever seen in human history."
"It was a period in which mankind became capable of unspeakable violence against his neighbor," she added. Abel vowed to pass on Gawendo's story to her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
"At 100 years of age, you truly are a living symbol of the resilience of the human spirit," Abel said. "You are proof that evil cannot overcome goodness."
Gawendo, who now lives in Waterford, comes from an area of Poland that later became part of Lithuania. She was held by Nazis in a work camp near Tallinn, Estonia, but ultimately survived the Holocaust.
According to Gawendo's 2006 testimony at Temple Emanu-El in Waterford, reported then by The Day, the Russians liberated the Kloga camp in September 1944. In the four days before the camp's liberation, the Nazis shot to death most of the camp's laborers - and only 38 people survived. Gawendo herself was shot when "a German woman SS trooper sprayed the barracks with machine gun fire." Gawendo had said she stuffed a rag in her wound, lay near dead bodies while the SS women were present, and eventually crawled out and escaped.
Gawendo said in an interview that she talks publicly about her experience - and she wishes more survivors would, too - so people can learn about the period and also "how to cherish their life."
After the ceremony, a small group of students had lunch and birthday cake with Gawendo, and showed her a video of students thanking her for her courage. The room was decorated with black-and-white photos of Gawendo and her sister as young girls and of Gawendo's father, as well as signs saying "Happy Birthday" and "We Will Never Forget," and a gold cut-out of the number "100" with "Sto Lat" written underneath.
Students eagerly approached Gawendo to speak with her, with one student conversing with her in Polish. Students from Saglio's "Human Rights and Wrongs" class and the high school's brass ensemble, led by teacher Susan Johnston, helped in planning the event, along with Christine Maxfield, the school's library assistant.
Saglio said it's important to tell Gawendo, and other Holocaust survivors, that the next generation will carry on their stories.
Saglio and Matthew LaConti, a history teacher, had met Gawendo through the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut's "Encountering Survivors" program, in which small groups of students go into the homes of Holocaust survivors, or their children, to learn their story.
"It's created some lasting friendships that really are special," said LaConti.
Several regional schools, from Plainfield to Westbrook, have participated in the program, which is run through the Strochlitz Holocaust Resource Center of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut, said Nickie Padilla the center's coordinator.
Jerome E. Fischer, the Jewish Federation's executive director, said the program began several years ago during a period in which denial of the Holocaust seemed to be gaining some traction. "We wanted to counter that in a very real way," he explained. The federation decided that the best way would be for students to go into the homes of Holocaust survivors, or their children, to hear their testimony and learn about their culture.
I found this interesting article on Yom Kippur by Tzvi Freeman. The Yom Kippur Machzor (prayer book) translated into English resembles a graceful bird of flight, an albatross, clumsily waddling along the ground; a ballerina in an astronaut’s suit -- on Jupiter; a romantic sonata performed by a jug band. All the more amazing, then, that there is one word -- a key word -- that the English language got right. Not just right, but exquisitely right. One could say, even better than the original. And that is “atonement.” For this is certainly what Yom Kippur is about in its very essence: A day of “at one-ment.”
How did this language know? Our sages had picked up on it long ago that the Torah speaks about Yom Kippur as a day “once in the year”. Of course, that could simply mean it is a unique day, distinct from every other day in all regards. But in a deeper sense, at the core of Yom Kippur lies a theme of “onement” and our act of being there -- at that onement.
Yes, you’ll tell me, I’ve got it all wrong. “Atonement” is simply the translation of the Hebrew Kapparah -- any act that effects forgiveness, cleanses our soul of the stains it has acquired over the year and allows us and G-d to make up and get on with things. What has that got to do with “oneness” or “onement”?
Everything. First of all, because atonement achieves at-onement. When the inner soul of man below and the Essence of Being above forgive and make up, they are at one once again.
And because at-onement achieves atonement. Because, in order to achieve atonement we must first arrive at onement. But the rest of the year we are not at onement. Why? Because of the way we see things.
Looks are deceiving. With our fleshly eyes we see ourselves as aliens in a universe harshly cold and silent to the drama of emotions and desires, agony and ecstasy, aspirations, failures and achievements that make us human beings.
But a deeper sense tells us that, no, deep within this reality and entirely transcendent of it is an essence that resonates with the stirring of our inner hearts. For do not we also emerge out of this universe? If we have a heart, a mind, a soul, must not the universe also have such? “The One who formed the ear, does He not hear?”
We call that Essence, “G-d.” And so, we pray.
All year round we live apart from this Essence. Yes, we have a conscience driving us not to fall out of harmony with it in a sort of pas de deux. But it is a harmony of “should”: We would rather do “this,” but that other voice says we should do “that.” So we do. But sometimes we don’t. At least, not exactly as we “should.” We fall out of sync. Like two musical notes not quite in tune, a dissonance ensues. We fall further apart. Our backs are turned to each other.
There is no dance, no duet, only the friction of two disparate travelers acting out their own scripts.
But on Yom Kippur we embrace, our essence with that Essence Within and Beyond. And we say to one another, “The dance may be faulty, but the hearts are one.” There is no longer “should”. There is “is”. All is forgiven. At onement.
G’mar chatimah tovah to you and your families.
Republican says Democratic rival's campaign mentions that he's Jewish
By STEPHEN SINGER Associated Press
Publication: The Day | Published September 9, 2014 4:00 AM
Hartford - Mark Greenberg, the Republican candidate for the U.S. House in the 5th District, has again challenged Rep. Elizabeth Esty over Democratic campaign research mentioning he's Jewish.
Less than two weeks after his campaign released an Internet ad criticizing the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for citing his religion, Greenberg on Sunday again rapped Esty and Democrats on the issue of religion.
"I am Jewish. I'm proud of it," he said in an interview on WFSB-TV. "But it should have no place in that kind of research."
Asked if he believes Esty is anti-Semitic, Greenberg said, "Well, I don't know what she is."
Greenberg tied the religious issue to Esty's criticism of his relationship with former Gov. John G. Rowland that was detailed in his testimony last week in Rowland's corruption trial. He testified in U.S. District Court in New Haven that Rowland approached him in his 2010 campaign for Congress, offering a role at a cost of $35,000 a month, which Greenberg said he rejected.
Esty accused Greenberg of failing to tell voters immediately about his involvement with Rowland.
Greenberg said Sunday that Esty "attacks me on everything, frankly."
He pinned on Esty an opposition research book by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that details Greenberg's positions on numerous issues such as Social Security and the budget, lawsuits against him and his business interests and quoted comments he's made on politics, religion and other issues.
It even cited a lawsuit against his real estate firm and another company over the eviction of a gay man after 46 years in a New York City apartment following the death of his same-sex partner, who held the lease.
A biographical sketch includes Greenberg's date of birth, education, career highlights and religion.
"They know more about my life apparently than I do," Greenberg said.
In an emailed statement, the Esty campaign said Greenberg knows her campaign had nothing to do with the opposition research book.
"Religion is absolutely not an issue in this campaign and Elizabeth condemns any attempt to make it one," the campaign said. "He's shown that he'll say anything to try to hide the numerous lawsuits against his questionable business practices and the fact that his cozy relationship with Rowland has been exposed."
Josh Schwerin, spokesman for the Democratic campaign committee in Washington, D.C., said Greenberg is "the only person who is trying to make religion an issue" and said he should "lay off the crocodile tears."
Associated Press, taken from The Day
Published September 04, 2014 3:11PM Updated September 5, 2014
In a photo courtesy of Connecticut College archives, Joan Rivers, previously Joan Molinsky in an undated undergraduate photo during her time at the college from 1950 - 1952.
New York — Joan Rivers, the raucous, acid-tongued comedian who crashed the male-dominated realm of late-night talk shows and turned Hollywood red carpets into danger zones for badly dressed celebrities, died Thursday. She was 81.
Rivers was hospitalized last week after she went into cardiac arrest at a Manhattan doctor's office following a routine procedure. Daughter Melissa Rivers said she died at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, surrounded by family and close friends. New York — Joan Rivers, the raucous, acid-tongued comedian who crashed the male-dominated realm of late-night talk shows and turned Hollywood red carpets into danger zones for badly dressed celebrities, died Thursday. She was 81.
"My mother's greatest joy in life was to make people laugh," Melissa Rivers said. "Although that is difficult to do right now, I know her final wish would be that we return to laughing soon."
Before she was Joan Rivers, she was Joan Molinsky, an underclassman at Connecticut College.
Rivers attended the college from 1950-1952, transferring to Barnard College after her sophomore year, according to the college’s Lear Center for Special Collections and Archives.
A post on the center’s Tumblr blog states that Rivers participated in plays on campus, directing some. She took part in a performance of J.M. Barrie’s “Shall We Join the Ladies” in 1951, according to the post.
In a 2006 interview with The Day, Rivers said she transferred to Barnard when she decided to pursue an acting career.
“I went two years, and then decided I wanted to be an actress so I went to Barnard for the last two years," Rivers said at the time. "My sister went (to Conn) before me. It was a family legacy. ... Is the Lighthouse Inn still there? I loved that place.”
Rivers — who made "Can we talk?" a trademark of her routines — never mellowed during her half-century-long career. She had insults ready for all races, genders and creeds. She moved from longtime targets such as the weight problems of Elizabeth Taylor, of whom she said "her favorite food is seconds," to newer foes such as Miley Cyrus, and continued to appear on stage and on TV into her 80s.
Comedy was not only her calling, but her therapy, as she turned her life inside out for laughs, mocking everything from her proclaimed lack of sex appeal ("My best birth control now is just to leave the lights on") to even her own mortality.
"I have never wanted to be a day less than I am," she insisted in a 2013 interview with The Associated Press. "People say, 'I wish I were 30 again.' Nahhh! I'm very happy HERE. It's great. It gets better and better. And then, of course, we die," she quipped.
With her red-carpet query "Who are you wearing?", the raspy-voiced blonde with the brash New York accent also helped patent pre-awards commentary — and the snarky criticism that often accompanies it, like cracking that Adele's Grammy wardrobe made the singer look like she was sitting on a teapot. Rivers slammed actors at the Oscars, Emmys and Golden Globes for E! Entertainment. In 2007, Rivers and her partner-in-slime, daughter Melissa, were dropped by their new employer, the TV Guide Channel, and replaced by actress Lisa Rinna. But they found new success on E! with "Fashion Police," which Rivers hosted and her daughter produced.
No performer worked harder, was more resilient or tenacious. She never stopped writing, testing and fine-tuning her jokes.
"The trouble with me is, I make jokes too often," she told the AP in 2013, just days after the death of her older sister. "I was making jokes yesterday at the funeral home. That's how I get through life. Life is SO difficult — everybody's been through something! But you laugh at it, it becomes smaller."
She had faced true crisis in the mid-1980s. Edgar Rosenberg, her husband of 23 years, committed suicide in 1987 after she was fired from her Fox talk show, which he produced. The show's failure was a major factor, Rivers said. Rosenberg's suicide also temporarily derailed her career.
"Nobody wants to see someone whose husband has killed himself do comedy four weeks later," she told The New York Times in 1990.
Rivers had originally entered show business with the dream of being an actress, but comedy was a way to pay the bills while she auditioned for dramatic roles. "Somebody said, 'You can make six dollars standing up in a club,'" she told the AP, "and I said, 'Here I go!' It was better than typing all day."
In the early 1960s, comedy was a man's game and the only women comics she could look to were Totie Fields and Phyllis Diller. But she worked her way up from local clubs in New York until, in 1965, she landed her big break on "The Tonight Show" after numerous rejections. "God, you're funny. You're going to be a star," host Johnny Carson told her after she had rocked the audience with laughter.
Her nightclub career prospered and by late that year she had recorded her first comedy album, "Joan Rivers Presents Mr. Phyllis and Other Funny Stories." Her personal life picked up as well: She met British producer Rosenberg and they married after a four-day courtship.
Rivers hosted a morning talk show on NBC in 1968 and, the next year, made her Las Vegas debut with female comedians still a relative rarity.
"To control an audience is a very masculine thing," Rivers told the Los Angeles Times in 1977. "The minute a lady is in any form of power, they (the public) totally strip away your femininity — which isn't so. Catherine the Great had a great time"
In 1978, she wrote, directed and co-starred in the movie "Rabbit Test." It had an intriguing premise — Billy Crystal as a man who gets pregnant — but was poorly received. In 1983, though, she scored a coup when she was named permanent guest host for Carson on "Tonight."
Although she drew good ratings, NBC hesitated in renewing her contract three years later. Fledgling network Fox jumped in with an offer of her own late-night show.
She launched "The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers" on Fox in 1986, but the venture lasted just a season and came at a heavy price: Carson cut ties with her when she surprised him by becoming a competitor.
Carson kept publicly silent about her defection but referred obliquely to his new rival in his monologue on the day her show debuted.
"There are a lot of big confrontations this week," Carson said as the audience giggled expectantly. "Reagan and Gorbachev, the Mets versus the Astros, and me versus 'The Honeymooners' lost episodes."
Her show was gone in a year and she would declare that she had been "raped" by Fox; Three months later, her husband was found dead.
It took two years to get her career going again, and then she didn't stop. Rivers appeared at clubs and on TV shows including "Hollywood Squares." She appeared on Broadway and released more comedy albums and books, most recently "Diary of a Mad Diva."
Rivers once joked that there was not "one female comic who was beautiful as a little girl." She was born Joan Molinsky in Brooklyn to Russian immigrants Meyer Molinsky, a doctor, and Beatrice. Rivers had a privileged upbringing but struggled with weight — she was a self-proclaimed "fatty" as a child — and recalled using make-believe as an escape. After graduating from Barnard College in 1954, she went to work as a department store fashion coordinator before she turned to comedy clubs. She had a six-month marriage to Jimmy Sanger.
In recent years, Rivers was a familiar face on TV shopping channel QVC, hawking her line of jewelry, and won the reality show "Celebrity Apprentice" by beating out her bitter adversary, poker champ Annie Duke. In 2010, she was featured in the documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work."
Dan Steinberg, File/AP Photo
In this Sunday, July 26, 2009, file photo, Joan Rivers greets the audience at the "Comedy Central Roast of Joan Rivers" in Los Angeles.
She never let age, or anything, make her sentimental. Earlier in 2014, she got inked: a half-inch-tall tattoo, "6M," on the inside of her arm representing 6 million Jews killed in the Nazi Holocaust. In 2013, she brashly pledged to work "forever."
"You never relax and say, 'Well, here I am!'" she declared. "You always think, 'Is this gonna be OK?' I have never taken anything for granted."
Survivors include daughter Melissa and a grandson, Cooper.
Day staff writer Tess Townsend contributed to this story.
The Farewell Dinner for Emissaries May and Bar and the Annual Meeting of the Jewish Federation took place on Thursday, June 19, at Temple Emanu-El in Waterford. A crowd of more than 80 showed up to wish May Abudraham and Bar Halgoa well as their year of service to Eastern CT came to a close. May will be traveling to the West Coast to visit family over the summer before returning to Israel in late August. Bar headed to Michigan to assume the duties of camp counselor before returning to CT in late August and then heading home to Israel. Both will be entering the IDF, May will train in the intelligence branch and Bar will train as officer in the Navy.
At the Annual Meeting which immediately followed the Farewell Dinner, Federation President Romana Primus present retiring State Senator Andrea Stillman with the Yad b'Yad (Hand in Hand) Award for her dedicated service to both the Jewish community and community-at-large during Andrea's two decades plus as State Representative and then Senator. Bob Fishman, Executive Director, of the Jewish Federation of Connecticut (JFACT), prefaced Romana's presentation with congratulatory remarks on behalf of JFACT and other Federations in Connecticut.
May and Bar led everyone through their action-packed year as Eastern CT's Emissaries via a multimedia presentation. Marcia Reinhard, Emissary Coordinator, and Jerry Fischer, Executive Director, then presented May and Bar with parting gifts.
Both Romana and Jerry gave brief reports about the State of our Community and as there was a quorum present, the nominated directors-at-large were voted into office. Following the meeting was a dessert reception of fresh grit and cake prepared by Lynda Stolz and Norm Bellanger. Lynda and Norm also prepared a most delicious Middle Eastern style supper for all to enjoy earlier.
Photos courtesy of Joel Etra
Monday evening, August 17, the Jewish Federation of Eastern CT held its annual Summer Board Meeting at Temple Emanu-El in Waterford. Joe Courtney, eastern CT’s 2nd District Congressman addressed board members and invited guests on a variety of topics. The topic that drew the most discussion was the nuclear deal between the United States and Iran. Courtney explained he is supporting the deal and why. With 60-plus people in attendance, there was a lively discussion of the pros and cons before the meeting adjourned for the evening. Prior to hearing Courtney, the group enjoyed a catered buffet meal from Ivy’s Simply Homemade, which turned out to be a big hit. (Photo by Joel Etra)
The difference between an optimist and a pessimist is said to be that an optimist sees the glass as half full, while the pessimist sees it as half empty. As Jews we know all too well that our history has been laden with plenty of tzuros: persecution, Inquisition, expulsions and Holocaust. And yet, I contend, we Jews by nature are creatures of hope. We embrace life. We celebrate life.
In his well known essay Concerning Jews, Mark Twain observed, "If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race....His contributions to the world's list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also way out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers...The Jew is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of fhis parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert mind."
In the Book of Proverbs amongst the admirable attributes of the Eshet Chayil, the woman of valor, is that "she looks to the future cheerfully." That is not always easy to do. Who hasn't encountered obstacles and challenges, set backs and tragedies? Our hearts go out to people who are struggling to find a decent job, who are wrestling with addiction, who receive a disturbing diagnosis, and whose relationships with loved ones are strained. No one is immune to difficult situations. Kohelet in the Book of Ecclesiastes, remarks, "To everything there is a season...a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance." Moses put it this way, "God put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life!"
As the Jewish year 5774 draws to a conclusion, there are no shortage of concerns for us Jews. Israel endured rocket fire from Gaza and engaged in Operation Protective Edge. Although a cease fire is in place, who knows whether it will endure. Anti-Semitism is once more rearing its ugly head in Europe. One does not need sophisticated surveys to know that the Jewish community in the U.S. and Eastern Connecticut in particular is both aging and diminishing. And it is no secret that Generation X and the Millennials are less likely to affiliate with congregations and contribute to Federations.
Jerry Fischer, Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern CT, shared and article with his Board, entitled, "Becoming an Unaffiliated Jew" by a disgruntled woman. I replied, "This confirms that some people find it difficult to justify the expense of belonging. I wonder though, what is the price of not belonging? Is there a feeling of having disowned your extended family? ...We need to reach out to people such as this. We are few in numbers and need and value every fellow Jew."
We are about to begin the year 5775. We will not give in to despair. Hope is in our DNA. Let us grasp on to promising signs. Israel endured thanks to the Iron Dome, shelters, the IDF, and the country coming together. The U.S., European countries, even Egypt and Saudi Arabia understood that Hamas was more determined to hurt Israel than help its people. European countries quelled anti-Semitism, rather than foster it. Here in the U.S. and especially in Southeastern Connecticut Judaism is still very much alive. We have vibrant synagogues, an active Federation, and even a new Hillel House at Connecticut College.
We Jews are passionate and compassionate, progressive and forward looking. Even those who choose not to observe much, still harbor positive memories of holidays, religious school, becoming B'nai Mitzvah and the values that have sustained our people. They may still practice Chanukah and Passover on some level. May they find their way into a synagogue for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Teshuvah, often translated as repentance, really means returning. We return to our roots in order to move ahead.
In the movie Frisco Kid, Gene Wilder plays a rabbi on his way from the Old Country to San Francisco in the 1800's. He end up travelling with a kind-hearted outlaw played by Harrison Ford. Along the way, the rabbi loses his self-confidence and declares, "I'm not a rabbi." His outlaw buddy protests, "Don't say that. You are a rabbi. I'm a robber. That's what I am. You are a rabbi. You can fall in the mud. you can fall on your butt, you can travel in the wrong direction for a little while. You're still a rabbi. THAT'S WHAT YOU ARE!" Similarly, YOU are JEWS. Like the name Yisrael, you may struggle with the meaning of God. You possess a hyperactive conscience that can impose guilt and motivate you to do the right thing. You care deeply and have a sense of humor. And even when you walk through the valley of deep darkness, you hope. That's who you are. YOU are JEWS!
May 5775 be for all of us a year of hope in which we rediscover all the beauty, meaning and value of living Jewishly.
Leshana tova tikatevu,
Rabbi Aaron Rosenberg
Last year, when she was in 4th grade, Maxie got into a little tiff with a classmate. After this kid kept taking her best friend’s LEGO pieces, Maxine muttered to her LEGO-bereft friend, “We should sue his parents for dropping such a turd-bomb.”
The LEGO-snatcher lost it. He started screaming about how Maxine had just called his parents terrorists and how everyone hates his family because they’re Muslims. He had to be sent to the office to cool off, and Maxine sobbed when the substitute teacher asked if she’d really called this kid’s family terrorists. I had to talk to the sub, the principal, and Maxie to understand the full story. And then I had to explain to Maxie that just as we don’t make jokes about bombs in the TSA line at the airport, we don’t call a Muslim classmate a turd-bomb. (Well, we shouldn’t call anyone a turd-bomb. But Josie, my 12-year-old, informed me that Maxie had been repeating a line from the TV show Parks and Recreation. Apparently this was funny in context.)
Even though Maxie hadn’t said the word “terrorist,” the other kid heard it from his own defensive and angry place; he’d talked himself into believing she’d said it. Ironically, it was Maxie’s best friend, an Arab-American kid whose family hails from the Middle East, who got Maxie off the hook.
Now, in light of what’s happening in Gaza, and in light of news reports about anti-Semitic incidents on the rise around the world and in light of hatred of Israel bleeding into hatred of all Jews, I’m angsty about my Jewish kids being in secular schools in a way I’ve never been before.
What if the tiff in Maxie’s class last spring isn’t a one-off? What if bias incidents against different groups become even more common here? And what if I’m not crazy to feel, for the first time, anxiety about my kids’ Jewishness as I send them out the door in the morning?
Living in a diverse world is complicated for kids as well as grownups. I’ve written about my Jewish-day-school-vs.-public-school ambivalence. And I’m delighted that my kids’ experience of the world is broader and deeper than mine was at their age.
I went to an Orthodox-run Jewish day school until 8th grade. I prayed behind a mechitza and listened to my male classmates thank God for not making them women. My Conservative Jewish mother made sure I was exposed to feminism, but my world was nevertheless almost exclusively white and Jewish. Maxie’s elementary school, on the other hand, is majority non-white (though this is changing rapidly as the East Village gentrifies) and there are only a handful of Jews. My kids go to shul, Hebrew school, and Jewish overnight camp, but their daily experience is as a distinct minority.
Fortunately, we live in New York City, where a certain cluefulness about different faiths and skin colors and languages and cultures is as much of a given as traffic on the FDR. My friend Rebecca Einstein Schorr recently wrote in Kveller that her kid’s school scheduled Meet the Teacher Night on Rosh Hashanah. That would never happen here. A place that suspends alternate-side parking for Idul-Fitr, Shemini Atzeret, Diwali, and the Solemnity of the Ascension does not have school on the High Holidays.
But bits of cluelessness always slip through the cracks. Last year, Maxie’s teacher emailed parents asking if anyone would mind if he read The Polar Express to the class, pointing out that even though it has Santa Claus in it, it’s not a Christian book. I was the fun-sucker who wrote back that uh, yes it is. Santa Claus is a Christian dude. Just because he’s become associated with nebulous free-form wintertime “Happy Holidays” gift-bringing “spiritual but not religious” good-will-to-all-men cheer doesn’t mean everyone sits on his lap. And I still remember one of Josie’s classmates in 2nd grade exclaiming, “You’re Jewish? I thought you were normal!”
So yeah, Santa feels exclusionary to us. I want no religion at all—no menorah, no electric-nosed reindeer, no Kwanzaa kinara candles—in public school. Thomas Jefferson is my homeboy.
Thankfully, Maxie’s teacher immediately backed off. He did not pull the clueless routine of the teacher in the middle-grade novel Penina Levine Is A Hard-Boiled Egg, who insists that the Easter Bunny is not a goyish symbol, and therefore Penina has to do the Easter-Bunny-themed assignment or get a zero. (I adore this book, by the way. The question of how much Jews should go along to get along in a secular world is a good one, and not every Jew in Rebecca O’Connell’s novel agrees with Penina’s decision to dig in her heels. It’s a great conversation-starter with your kids when Passover and Easter roll around.)
I very publicly have struggled with my own ambivalence about Israel. Our people are pretty divided about Israel ourselves. Yesterday, I unfollowed two Jewish acquaintances on Facebook: one who only posted things demonizing Israel, and one who only posted cheerleader-y Israel-is-awesome things demonizing everyone who criticizes Israel. And in the past, I wrote that the word “Zionist” made me skittish. It doesn’t anymore. I understand now that Zionism merely means “believing that Jews should have a homeland” in the way that feminism means “believing that women are people.” Being a Zionist doesn’t mean you hate Palestinians, just as being a feminist doesn’t mean you hate men.
I am still dismayed by Israel’s current leadership. But I am much more clueful about Israel’s own citizens and activists who work for peace. I’m more educated about Middle Eastern history (thank you, Simon Schama) and Hamas’ military tactics and strategy. And perhaps because I am a contrarian, the more the world turns on Israel, the more confident I am about calling other liberals on their naivete and blind spots. I am like a Jewish, middle-aged Taylor Swift, the girl who didn’t want to call herself a feminist until someone explained to her what the word meant. (I wish I could be the Beyonce of owning one’s Zionism. Don’t we all.)
Something feels different now. I don’t worry about Maxie’s best friend turning on her, but I worry about other 5th graders saying disparaging things about Jews. Comments that used to feel like an inevitable-but-not-unbearable burden of choosing to live in a non-homogeneous world—hey, let’s read a Santa book in class; oh, I thought you were normal—start to feel more ominous when people around the world start getting more comfortable letting their hate flags fly: Banning kosher food from London supermarkets, attacking Jews strolling on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, screaming anti-Semitic slurs at a bus full of Jewish schoolchildren in Australia and threatening to slit their throats.
At their Jewish camp, my kids have met Israelis with a range of political perspectives. I’ve talked to both girls about the challenges facing the Middle East. Their schools, despite occasional conflicts, work hard on teaching kids to hear opposing views with respect. And they’re old enough to know that the problems facing Israel are not like the ones on standardized tests, where all you have to do is fill in the right bubble and make no stray marks.
I have not talked to them about people increasingly hating on Jews because I have no idea what to say, or what utility the scary news has to their lives. Be more paranoid? Go through your daily life knowing that more people hate you than hated me when I was your age?
I don’t want them to be fearful or ashamed. I love that Maxine draws Jewish stars all over her artwork, and that Josie wears the T-shirts from camp friends’ bat mitzvahs to class. I don’t want to tell them to keep their Judaism on the down-low. But I also don’t want them to become targets. And I don’t know what to do about that.