Goy until proven Jewish


“Who is a Jew?” is a uniquely Jewish question. It is a question that epitomizes the Jewish people and culture. It is a philosophical question that embodies the history of Jewish debate. It is a question of belonging that symbolizes Jews as a minority. It seems like a theoretical question, until your Judaism is in doubt. The question “Are you a Jew?” is a much more personal question and it is a question that many more Jews are being asked. In Israel, American Jews who made Aliyah or are living in Israel are finding that the burden of proof for proving Jewishness is getting increasingly heavy.

When it came time for Julia to get married, she was prepared to fight to prove her Jewish identity. She had moved to Israel three years prior, from the East Coast of the United States, and had gotten used to things always being harder in Israel. But she was not prepared for what she would face.

As someone who keeps a kosher home, doesn’t drive on Shabbat, and considers herself religious, it was important to Julia to have an Orthodox wedding with the Israeli Rabbinate. She is proud of her Jewish heritage, which she can trace back to her great, great grandfather who was an Orthodox Rabbi. However, she knew that her heritage would be hard to prove because of a gap in documents. The gap is a result of her great grandmother and great grandfather being institutionalized, which was the regrettable practice at the time for people born deaf. Being institutionalized, her great grandparents did not form a connection with Judaism, which meant that they did not leave a paper trail, such as a Ketuba or tombstone, for Julia to prove her Jewishness decades later.

Knowing that as an American Jew the Rabbinate would scrutinize her files, she went to the Rabbinate armed with pictures of her great, great grandparents’ tombstones, her parent’s Ketuba from a Reform Rabbi, her Bat Mitzvah certificate, letters testifying to her Jewish identity from two people in her community, and a letter from her Rabbi from the Conservative movement. However, all of this proof was not enough for the Rabbinate and she was refused approval of her Jewish identity.

Speaking of the letter from her Conservative Rabbi, Julia said, “The Rabbi who knows me the most is from a Conservative synagogue. So, I thought it was better to get a letter from someone who really knew me, which was obviously a mistake. It is better for (the Rabbinate) to get a letter from a Rabbi who they know but doesn’t know me whatsoever,” Julia said, still distraught about the treatment she received.

The refusal by the Israeli Rabbinate to accept a letter from a conservative rabbi doesn’t only hurt Julia, but it impacts the entire Conservative movement. Conservative Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, California and co-founder of ShefaNetwork and KeshetRabbis said, “For me as a Rabbi to be so marginalized by the religious authorities of my own sacred home demonstrates that the Jewish exile hasn’t ended yet and that the perpetrators of Jewish exile today are largely Jews. The State has only begun to acknowledge the corrupt form of Judaism that has reigned in the State of Israel and that it is going to take a lot more work to end the exile being perpetrated by Jews at Jews. Secular politicians have an obligation to the global Jewish people that they are beginning to acknowledge.”

After a long and painful process, and only about three weeks before the wedding, Julia finally did receive approval to get married in Israel. However, the process has left her with a deep scar. “It was equally frustrating and offensive to my identity. My whole family is Jewish. I have never once in my life doubted my Jewish identity. It was so shameful. It really made me feel ashamed. This is so not Jewish.”

Julia probably does not take any solace in the fact that she is not alone in this struggle. There is a systematic and epidemic distrust from the Israeli Rabbinate towards American Jews and Rabbis from non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

Morgan, just like Julia, is a Jewish American immigrant to Israel who got engaged to an Israeli. While Morgan was opening up her marriage file at the New York Rabbinate so she could get married in Israel, her fiancé simultaneously went to his local Rabbinate in Northern Israel. They both faced obstacles related to Morgan being able to prove that she is Jewish.

In New York, Morgan was dealing with a variety of obstacles – from the Israeli Rabbis not understanding that religion isn’t listed on a driver’s license to them not appreciating the fact that Morgan’s mother, who grew up in the projects of New York had faced a lot of anti-Semitism growing up and was more focused on surviving than finding a kosher grocer. While Morgan and her extended family members were being interrogated by the Beit Din in New York, a Rabbi in Israel explained to her fiancé that Morgan’s parents are the equivalent of goyim because they were married by a Reform Rabbi in Los Angeles and affiliate with the Reform Jewish movement.

Speaking about the refusal of the Israeli Rabbinate to accept Reform Judaism as a legitimate form of the religion, Reform Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, Senior Rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, California and recently named among the “Top 50 Influential Rabbis in America” by Newsweek stated, “I have little doubt that the rabbinical authorities who impugn the status of Reform and Conservative Rabbis, their congregations, and those who convert to Judaism within them, have gladly accepted financial assistance offered to Israel by those very same Jews and given countless sermons about the importance of unity among the Jewish people.  This makes these Rabbis, in a word, hypocrites.”

The Rabbi who called Morgan’s family goyim explained to her fiancé that she would need to provide documents that show her Jewish heritage for the past three generations. When her fiancé asked this Rabbi how the Rabbinate knew that he was Jewish, since his father had been born on the way to Israel from Yemen without any documentation, the Rabbi refused to give a reason.

Morgan says that one of the toughest parts of this process was that the Rabbinate approached the issue from the “assumption that we aren’t Jewish. They were asking questions to try to trap us, which is so insulting. I was so disgusted. This whole process for the privilege to be married in Israel made me feel as if I didn’t even want to come here anymore. How dare you question my mother and me like we are not Jews! It is a scourge on Israel what they are doing to people, to olim (immigrants), to people who served in the army. It all just disgusts me.”

The entire process to prove that she was Jewish enough to get married in Israel took Morgan approximately a year. After eventually getting a letter through a connection, Morgan can now joke about the experience. “I was making a good six figures in New York, and I’m coming here. Who else but a Jew would do this?”

The Israeli Rabbinate’s refusal to accept letters testifying to an American Jewish immigrant’s Jewish identity from Reform, Conservative, and even some streams of Orthodox Rabbis as sufficient proof is a growing trend and one that is well-known among the immigrant community in Israel, but not well known among American Jews.

“I think Israel’s religious decisions are under the radar for most of the young American Jewish population because most of the young American Jewish population is already distanced from Israel for other reasons,” explained Rabbi Creditor. “We can’t afford to continue distancing these young Jews for both political and religious reasons. It probably is a good thing that young Jews don’t know about those things yet. But as soon as they find out it is an absolute barrier to any sense of connectivity with the State of Israel.”

In recent years, there has been more coverage related to isolated incidents of the Israeli Rabbinate denying Reform and Conservative converts the right to get married, but these are reported as issues that mainly impact converts and their descendents. However, these stories show that converts are simply the canary in the coal mine. When the Israeli Rabbinate refuses to recognize conversions of Reform, Conservative, or other streams of Judaism, it is not a directed offense against converts; it is an affront against American Judaism as a whole. It is an assault against the legitimacy of the leaders, the Rabbis, and the members of one of the strongest Jewish communities in the world.

It is an issue that impacts many, if not most American Jews. According to the 2000-2001National Jewish Population Survey, in the United States there are 1.3 million Jews in Conservative household and 1.7 million in Reform households. This means that, just like Julia and Morgan, more than three million American Jews could face obstacles proving their Jewish identity and potentially be denied the right to get married in Israel. But surprisingly, the American Jewish community, one of the strongest supporters of Israel, is not demanding that Israel reciprocate that support.

Rabbi Creditor explains that being critical of Israel can by synonymous with being a Zionist. “It is absolutely essential that American Jews be engaged in Israel’s safety and life. What makes anybody an authentic Zionist is that they love their Jewish people, they love their Jewish family. And we are free thinkers. We should continue to be free thinkers who love our family. I raise my voice loudly, to demand of my homeland that it treat me like family. And in return, I model that kind of respect and love through everything that I do. My commitment to Israel is what gives me the right to demand of Israel that it treats me with respect.”

Jessica Fishman moved to Israel from the US in 2003 and writes the Aliyah Survival Blog, an irreverent portrayal of life as an immigrant in Israel. Her new book, Chutzpah and High Heels: The Search for Love and Identity in the Holy Land, will be published soon.

Nice Jewish goys


On a recent Friday night, a group of 20-something foodies gathered to celebrate Shabbat. Well, maybe not 'celebrate' in the traditional sense of prayers and candles, but a Sabbath meal all the same. In the back of a thrift store in downtown Manhattan, two long wooden tables had been erected for a family-style eating experience among the displays of distressed jeans and vintage belts.

Several times a week, the store is turned from a Soho boutique into City Grit, a 'culinary salon' founded in 2011 by Sarah Simmons, an emerging chef recently named one of “America's Greatest New Cooks” by Food & Wine magazine. Ms. Simmons was standing in front of a comfortably packed room, explaining the genesis of her 'Southern Shabbat' dinner, which we'd soon be tucking into.

“Tonight is really special for me, which is funny, considering that I'm a Presbyterian from North Carolina,” she told the assembled, who had each paid $55 to attend the dinner (pricey wine assortment not included). “But I've been going over to friends' houses for years for Shabbat, and hopefully soon I'll become an honorary Jew myself.”

“Though I'll have to wait till my grandmother dies,” she added ruefully. “And I don't want that to happen anytime soon.” Ms. Simmons' take on the classic Sabbath meal featured a buttermilk-dressed salad, a thick chickpea stew–or “hummus soup,” as Ms. Simmons put it–that included rice grits and kofta meatballs, a barbecued main course from the newly opened BrisketTown and a dessert of chocolate mousse over mini-latkes. “I always loved dunking Wendy's fries into Frosties,” Ms. Simmons offered by way of explanation.

Was it traditional? Well, no. Was it kosher? Well, it was kosher-ish, and no one was complaining. “When Shabbat is offered to you, it's hard to say no,” said Stephanie Feder, a series producer at ITV Studios. Also in attendance were a New York Post features reporter and a relocated Australian couple who had scoured the Internet to find an inclusive Shabbat meal in the city.

“We try to go to Shabbat dinner every week,” said Jordana Shell, a social media consultant who had run the online division of a fashion magazine back in Australia. Her husband, Adam Shell, works in finance. “It's a good excuse not to cook at home,” she said.

“It's not like there are a lot of Jewish people in Australia,” Mr. Shell grinned.

Shiksa Simmons's concept of a culinary Shabbat–more of a meal than a Sabbath–was something she picked up from the Young Manhattanite Shabbat. So was mine.

The first time I ever heard of lobster kugel was at the home of Andrew Krucoff, web content director of 92Y and founder of New York's most brutal media Tumblr gang, Young Manhattanite (YM). It was 2011, and I was in awe of the individuals who would come over to Mr. Krucoff's cramped Lower East Side apartment and linger in the 7-by-3-foot kitchen. On any given weekend, you could find Sloane Crosley (who did, in fact, bring cake–a flourless chocolate one, to be precise), various Gawker alums and performance artist Nate Hill, infamous for dressing like a dolphin on the subway and offering free lap rides, as well as for putting up posters in Williamsburg for a “crack” delivery service. (The crack was candy, but people seemed to love the novelty of ordering it anyway.)

The whole YM Shabbat scene was as treif as can be, and not just in the kugel sense. Non-Jews frequently outnumbered the Jews, or at least the practicing ones–though you could always count on at least one person to remember the blessing over the wine, if not the theme of his bar mitzvah. One time, I proudly slaved for 20 whole minutes on matzo ball soup mix, only to have it served with a pepperoni pizza that had just been delivered. A Coke cake–the kind that comes from a can, not a Colombian cartel–stands out as a particularly delicious example of the flagrant disregard for tradition, both cultural and culinary.

“I was purposely putting out nonkosher food like shrimp cocktail,” said Mr. Krucoff, who began having “YM Seders” in 2006. “But I wouldn't say I was trying to have Shabbat ironically. The parties wouldn't have been fun if [The Forward cartoonist] Eli Valley hadn't been there, doing the hamotzi [blessing over the challah] and reading and interpreting the d'var Torah [Torah portion] of the week.”

Of course, what counted as a d'var Torah had a very loose definition; in one notable instance, BlackBook senior editor Tyler Coates just read aloud the climatic scene from Sophie's Choice. One night there was no food, and everyone just sat in a circle and took turns reading their favorite portions from the erotica collection Coming and Crying.

“We weren't that religiously observant, but we liked the idea of this self-created religious ritual,” said Mr. Valley. “For me, it's about carving out a space of personal ownership with friends. It's a way of connecting to each other but not abiding by any of the rituals that we don't consider necessarily holy, in and of themselves.”

But if YM Shabbat was on the fringe edge of hipster sacrilege–enough to warrant a small piece in The New York Times and a much longer piece on The Awl–it was reflecting a larger movement in millennial culture. After two decades of Wall Street-like ambition, in which having your BlackBerry on-hand during family meals and working through the weekend was en vogue, the events of the early 21st century hit urbanites where it hurt.

We weren't, as Tom Wolfe put it, “Masters of the Universe.” The world would keep revolving if we took it easy on a Friday night or, hell, the whole weekend. There was the 'slow' movement in food and lifestyle (the latter adopted by Arianna Huffington and promoted on her 24/7 newsicle website, which always seemed a little suspect). Self-help gurus like Timothy Ferriss urged us to work less and take short cuts. It doesn't take a leap of logic to figure out why the idea of Shabbat–literally, a day of rest–would be appealing, no matter what your religion.

All of which isn't to say that traditionalism has flown out the window, or that every Sabbath dinner is some freaky free-for-all. Take Zachary Thacher. A 39-year-old with his own digital ad agency, Mr. Thacher has spent every Friday for the past 11 years holding his own form of Shabbat dinner in a “traditionalist egalitarian” community he created on Manhattan's Lower East Side, called Kol haKfar.

“It does matter to me that it's all in Hebrew, that people are actually following the traditions,” he said. “But it's equally important to be progressive. We have women leading the service, and we have had a long-time member of the minyan who is African-American and converted to Judaism. And we've had other women of color as participants. so we're very open to any kind of people, as long as they are open to learning and being serious.”

At first blush, Messrs. Thacher and Krucoff may seem to exist on separate ends of the theological spectrum, yet they are both examples of how the rules of Sabbath can become flexible when adapting to modern times. Yes, even in the Orthodox community. If you don't regularly attend temple, for instance, you can just log on to Shabbat.com, a sort of Airbnb for Jewish dinners. And while inviting total strangers into your home might seem unnatural to New Yorkers–who tend to avert their eyes in the elevator to avoid knowing their neighbors–one member who contacted me over the phone claimed that the honor system works. “You can leave reviews for people, and to join the site you need to have some Jewish references,” said the man, who only wished to be identified as a 'practicing Orthodox' individual.

“We open our home to everyone, gay or straight, man or woman,” he said, noting, however, that the people would have to be either Jewish or seriously interested in Judaism. Not that he would pass judgment on someone else's version of Shabbat.

“There's a whole Jewish universe, and one of the nice things about Shabbat.com is that it's open to everybody,” he stressed. “We don't have someone at the door checking ID.”

When asked what kind of people usually sign up to attend, rather than host, meals, our source made Shabbat sound like JDate. “Oh, it's usually young, single people,” he said. “And you sound like a nice, young Jewish girl” he trailed off.

And there it was, as brazen as the gefilte fish matzo tacos that once sat as a centerpiece at a YM Shabbat: the implied question that every young person will find herself being asked on a Friday night, no matter what her religious beliefs happen to be.

“You're single, right?”


 

This article first appeared in the New York Observer, Jan. 23, 2013.  Reprinted by permission.

Swedish solidarity ‘kippah walk’ unites Jews, non-Jews


Kippah-wearing Jews and non-Jews are expected to march Saturday in Sweden as a sign of solidarity with Malmo’s Jews.

“The idea is to show ourselves and others that we refuse to be afraid or hide our Jewish affiliation,” Fredrik Sieradzki, director of communications for the Jewish community of Malmo, told JTA. He said he expected at least 100 marchers.

Earlier this year, a rabbi from Malmo was physically assaulted.

In 2010, Malmo’s mayor, Ilmar Reepalu, said that a group of Jews in Malmo who were attacked by Swedish Muslims during a peaceful protest in support of Israel brought the violence upon themselves for not distancing themselves from Israel and its actions during the month-long Gaza War in 2008-09.

The first walk began in Malmo in January when members of the local synagogue decided to keep on their kippot upon exiting their synagogue. Reports about the march on Facebook helped draw more marchers in. The walk on Saturday is the fourth such event in Malmo, a city with a population of approximately 1,800 Jews.

It will be the first time that a kippah walk is organized by Stokholm’s much larger Jewish community.

On Friday, the newspaper Sydsvenskan ran an op-ed by Sweden’s minister for European Affairs, Brigitta Ohlsson, in praise of the kippah walk.

Sieradzki wrote that members of the community were being regularly harassed “predominantly but not exclusively” by young members of Malmo’s large population of residents of Muslim or Middle Eastern background. Anti-Semitic incidents involving members of the community who are visibly Jewish can occur on a daily basis, he said.

“The statement is that Jews should be free to walk in Malmo without fear, and that is sadly not the case right now,” Lena Posner-Korosi, president of the Council of Swedish Jewish Communities, told JTA. “Many Jews are frightened to show their affiliation. We in Stockholm are having a kippah march in solidarity with the Malmo community, but for our own sake as well. It`s a signal which says, `We are here, we don’t harm you so don’t harm us.’”

Anti-Semitism in Malmo first drew international attention in 2009, when riots broke out due to the presence of Israeli tennis players in the city, which hosted the Wimbledon Cup.