Tribal Podcast: Yonah Bookstein, Rabbi at Pico Shul, Jewish community activist
Tribal understandings: Jewish and Navajo spiritual leaders speak of sacred lands
A Reform rabbi, a Navajo medicine man and a professor walk into a museum.
It sounds like the opening of a joke, but on a recent May Shabbat at Window Rock, Ariz., capital of the Navajo Nation, it’s the beginning of a cross-cultural discussion that pondered the question “What makes land sacred?”
The dialogue featuring the spiritual leaders of two tribes, Navajo medicine man Johnson Dennison and Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld of the Reform Congregation Albert in Albuquerque, N.M., was held at the Navajo Nation Museum.
Anthropologist Gordon Bronitsky moderated the event with an audience of more than 40 Jews and Navajos.
It was the second in a series of Navajo-Jewish exchanges.
The first program was held in November at Congregation Albert, where the duo wrestled with how each group managed living in “Two Worlds”—one of tradition, the other of contemporary life.
Bronitsky, the program organizer and a longtime resident of the Southwest, took a Navajo language course in college and knew some Hebrew. The former university professor suspected that when it came to land and sacredness, the two unlikely desert neighbors had some views to share.
Before the second event, Bronitsky observed that the Navajo have a phrase, “dineh bikeyah” (the people’s land), that expresses a feeling of rightful ownership.
It is similar, he said, to when Jews say “Artzeinu” (our land)—as in the “Hatikvah” verse, “Lihyot ’am chofshi be’artzeinu,” “To be a free people in our land.”
Opening the discussion with “Shabbat shalom,” the kippah-wearing, white-bearded Rosenfeld explained that the Hebrew word for “holy” was “kadosh,” and that the word for profane, “chol,” was the same as the word for “sand”—something, an audience member later pointed out, that both groups had seen much of.
“The biblical land of Israel is sacred land for the Jews,” Rosenfeld said, sidestepping the charged issue of boundaries.
“It is sacred because God promised it,” added the rabbi, who in his previous pulpit in Anchorage, Alaska, had worked with native peoples.
Dennison, wearing a turquoise necklace typical of the Navajo, greeted the audience in both English and his native language. “You are all welcome to the Navajo land, it is a sacred place,” he said.
For Dennison, a medicine man with a master’s degree in educational administration, Navajo land is both a homeland where he found “harmony and beauty” as well a place where, he related later, his family could raise a flock of sheep and a herd of goats.
“There is a spiritual and emotional connection to the land,” he said.
Dennison defined Navajo land as lying between “four sacred peaks” that “were established by the holy people as the cornerstones of Navajo country”: Blanca Peak to the east, Mount Taylor to the south, San Francisco Peak to the west and Mount Hesperus to the north.
The Window Rock for which the area is named—a windswept, red rock opening that stands about a half-mile from the museum—illustrated the connection.
Taken at its physical geographic description, Window Rock is simply a 200-foot-high natural arch of Middle Jurassic Bluff Sandstone. But as a sacred place, according to Lapahie.com, “portal to the Navajo Internet,” “It was one of the four places where Navajo medicine men go with their woven water bottles to get water for the ceremony that is held for abundant rain.”
Adding emotional attachment to Window Rock is the Navajo Code Talkers Memorial at the base of the arch. The Code Talkers, made famous in the film “Windtalkers,” were a group of Navajo-speaking U.S. Marines who during World War II devised a Navajo-based code that the Japanese were unable to break.
As for the Jews’ attachment to their holy land, Rosenfeld pointed out that “you don’t have to live on it.”
At the same time, he stressed—quoting Psalm 137, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither”—Jews are not allowed to forget their attachment.
Both speakers saw rays of sacredness emanating from the east.
Dennison remarked that the traditional Navajo home, the hogan, was to this day oriented with its entrance to the east.
“The tip of light of where the rising sun first strikes is considered sacred,” he said. “First light enters our whole being.”
Rosenfeld saw “spirituality coming from the east,” east being the symbol of Jerusalem. “Jews face east when they pray,” he said.
Several audience members, speaking in Navajo or in English with a bit of Hebrew, also spotted similarities in experience and ritual.
Navajo Lydell James saw a connection between his tribe’s Long Walk and the Holocaust. The Long Walk, known as “Bosque Redondo,” was an 1864-66 forced relocation of the Navajo from their historic tribal lands to an area around Fort Sumner, N.M.
“The hurt doesn’t end,” he said.
Laura Jijon, who is Jewish and works with the Navajo as an adult education administrator at the University of New Mexico Extension in nearby Gallup, N.M., cited a similarity to the spiritual significance that Dennison placed on the four directions and the six directions that Jews wave the lulav on Sukkot.
She also pointed out that “the hogan and the sukkah are both sacred dwellings.”
As to the generational challenges facing each group, the rabbi and medicine man acknowledged that their respective people’s commitment and sense of holiness about their lands could be at risk.
“We don’t own the land,” Dennis said. “It’s a Western concept of marking the land and water. It becomes a property. In the future we could lose sight of the sacredness of the land.
“How do we keep the fire burning?” he asked.
“Is something inherently holy? Only if a community takes it as such,” said Rosenfeld. “Fifty-nine percent of American Jews have not been to Israel.”
Historically, Navajos and Jews have long had some ties.
In the 19th century, Solomon Bibo, a Jewish immigrant from Poland and New Mexico trader, “was the only white man ever to be the chief of a Navajo pueblo,” Bronitsky said.
And before the event Bronitsky, standing before a photo display of Miss Navajo contest winners, pointed to the photo of the second winner, in 1954-55, Ida Gail Organick.
“She was married to a Jewish doctor,” he said.
Bronitsky believes it was unlikely that the Navajo had their own term for Jew.
Now they do.
Touring Eastern Europe with a Navajo choral group, Bronitsky had worn his kippah during side trips to Holocaust memorials.
At the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, awaiting the flight home, he wondered if the singers could come up with a word for a Jew.
“Bich’ah yazhi dineh’eh” was the phrase one of them coined, “people who wear little hats,” he recalled following the Shabbat discussion.
Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tikkun for which olam?
If you want to be popular in the Jewish world today, just say tikkun olam.Everywhere you go it seems that Jews of all stripes are jumping on this universal bandwagon.
It’s not just the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, secular, progressive and humanistic groups. Many Orthodox are also getting involved.
What’s going on? What is it about this notion of “repairing the world” that makes Jews go gaga? And who decided that we the Jews — with less than half of 1 percent of the world’s population — should become the Great Fixers of Humanity?
Recently, in one day, I got to experience three different views of tikkun olam. The last view was so politically incorrect, it was almost embarrassing.
Let’s start with the first one. It’s lunchtime at the Magic Carpet on Pico Boulevard, and I’m enjoying myself with two prominent progressive Jews of the community. It’s the kind of lunch where you get a big “l’chaim” just by blurting out words like social justice and universal health care. If you want a really big hug, just say “Palestinian rights.”
This is classic tikkun olam: There are problems and injustices in the world, and it is our duty to try to fix them. Economic injustice; reforming the criminal justice system; promoting interfaith dialogue; fighting hunger and homelessness; fighting global warming; helping the dying children of Darfur; and so on.
This approach has talmudic roots in the mishnaic term “mipnei tikkun ha-olam,” which can be translated as “in the interest of public policy.” As you can read on the Web site MyJewishLearning.com, the term refers to “social policy legislation providing extra protection to those potentially at a disadvantage — governing, for example, just conditions for the writing of divorce decrees and for the freeing of slaves.”
In modern-day America, classic tikkun olam has evolved into full-blown social activism that for many Jews is the primary expression of their Judaism.
I got my second view of tikkun olam several hours later when I attended “An Encounter With Jewish Spirituality” at the home of Rabbi Abner Weiss in Westwood. Rabbi Weiss is one of those renaissance Jews: an Orthodox scholar, author, trained psychologist, expert in kabbalah and leader of a congregation (Westwood Village Synagogue). He has just launched this new “Encounter” program to provide a “kosher” Jewish yoga and meditation experience for those who haven’t found spirituality in traditional Judaism.
In his introduction, the rabbi went back to the time of Abraham to talk about a world “not lit, but in flames” and how we partner with God to put out the flames. Abraham was the first hero of tikkun olam, not as a holy priest, but as an everyman who “chose God,” “loved without reason” and performed simple acts of loving kindness.
But in kabbalah, the rabbi went on, “Tikkun olam is a lot more than social activism.”
In this “spiritual” view, all mitzvot have the power to change the world. Because the mitzvah has a Divine origin, it also has a Divine effect. Thus, lighting the Shabbat candles, making a blessing before you eat or honoring your parents has the same cosmic power to “repair the world” as any demonstration in front of the federal building to raise the minimum wage.
While lauding the work of social activism, the rabbi impressed on us that in the mystical tradition, tikkun olam starts from the “inside out” — we repair ourselves through deep contemplation and by clinging to God and His commandments, like Abraham did, which, in turn, gives us the strength, humility and wisdom to make our world holy.
That same night, on an Internet reader forum, I stumbled on yet a third view of tikkun olam, one I can charitably describe as “tribal.”
It was a rambling, passionate rant that boiled down to this: “The Jews should take care of Jews, and let others worry about their own.” In other words: Tikkun, yes, but for our own olam.
This wasn’t just politically incorrect; it was downright offensive. How dare we focus on ourselves and forget the rest of the world?
But that response seemed too predictable, so I gave it some serious thought. That’s when it got embarrassing. You see, I confess that the tribal rant struck a deep tribal chord in me, and brought out stuff that had been brewing inside for a while.
I wondered: Have we gone a little too far with our passion for tikkun olam? Can this grand love affair with “repairing humanity” become a runaway train that will take Jews further and further away from the binding glue of Jewish peoplehood?
For every million we raise for children in Africa, certainly a worthy cause, how many hungry Jewish kids will we not feed or help send to a Jewish school?
I know the classic response: “It’s not either/or, we must do both.” Well, that may be ideal, but in the real world, where 90 percent of Jewish tzedakah goes to non-Jewish causes, too many Jews are not doing both.
Let’s face it: there’s something quite intoxicating about tikkun olam — this notion of a little tribe looking out for the whole planet. After you’ve tasted that global Kool-Aid, who feels like schlepping to La Brea Boulevard to pack food boxes for needy Jews?
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t care about Muslim children dying in Darfur. But why can’t we hold accountable the billion Muslims around the world who haven’t lifted a finger to help their own brothers and sisters? If we encourage other groups and nations to take better care of their own, does that count as tikkun olam?
For Jews, what is the appropriate balance between “repair of the whole world” and “repair of the Jewish world”? Is it in balance now? Has our glorifying of tikkun olam contributed to the modest percentage of Jewish money that goes to Jewish causes — and the declining interest in Zionism among young American Jews?
If, for many Jews, social activism has become “the new Judaism,” will this overshadow foundational Jewish practices like Shabbat and Torah learning that may not seem as “sexy” and “relevant”?
And should we pay more attention to the spiritual approach to tikkun olam that teaches us that all of God’s mitzvot can help repair the world?
If you ask me, we’re due for an honest debate on the untouchable — and touchy — subject of tikkun olam.
The Graves Of Sudan
With Thanksgiving here and Chanukah just around the corner, most of us are reflecting on all there is to be thankful for, embracing our freedom as Jews and Americans. As we share our thanks this year and celebrate the holidays, it is my hope that more American Jews will think of those who are denied what we have come to expect as basic human rights, particularly those who are suffering from genocidal campaigns in Darfur, Sudan.
In this remote region, more than 1.5 million African tribal farmers have been violently driven from their homes by the government of Sudan and the militias they armed, called Janjaweed (evil men on horseback). Despite repeated calls from humanitarian organizations and U.N. agencies warning of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today, there continues to be a systematic program of expulsion, rape and murderous violence that has taken at least 100,000 lives.
As Jews, we have an increased moral obligation to respond, to speak out and take action against ethnic cleansing. The epithet “never again” must not be reserved for Jews alone, but in fact, Jews must be the guardians of this call for action, highly sensitive and responsive to all attempts by any people to annihilate another people.
I went to Darfur in August to bear witness, to assess humanitarian needs and to ensure that funds provided by the American Jewish community are being and will be used effectively. I met many of the displaced farmers and listened to their chilling stories.
The government bombed their villages; men on horses rode in, often yelling ethnic slurs and shooting wildly. They stole; they raped; they killed. They stuffed wells with dead bodies or carcasses and burned villages to the ground.
I met Fatima; her five children were all ill with life-threatening diarrhea. I met a 10-year-old boy — clinging to the leg of a medical assistant — who saw his parents and two brothers shot dead.
I met the mother of twins who gave birth the day the militia came to her village. She saw her brother, aunt and uncle killed but managed to escape with her family, her newborn babies tucked into a straw mat.
They and over a million others fled in terror and came gradually to camps being set up to receive them — now about 158 camps scattered throughout Darfur (a region the size of California) containing tens of thousands of families packed into tent cities, fighting hunger, illness, displacement, boredom and depression. People whose simple agricultural life had allowed them to remain self-sufficient, now have no means of support.
Currently, the situation is deteriorating. The populations coming into the camps keep growing, and there is not enough food. There are too many cases of dehydration, malnutrition and deadly diarrhea.
Living in close quarters like this breeds its own set of sanitation, physical and mental health problems. Mortality rates — already at about 10,000 a month — could rise suddenly.
Some of the Janjaweed have been outfitted by the government as “police” to provide “security” for the camps. Women still disappear or are raped when they venture out to collect firewood to use for cooking or to sell to buy food.
The U.S. Congress labeled the crisis genocide in July, and the Bush administration followed suit in September, but members of the U.N. Security Council, particularly Russia, China and Algeria, continue to block sanctions and other strong actions, creating deadlines and weak resolutions that are unenforceable and unheeded. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan reported that security is declining and violence is on the upsurge.
In a reversal that demonstrates that international pressure can make a difference, the Sudanese government reluctantly agreed to allow 3,000 African Union troops to monitor the tenuous cease-fire and escort aid convoys, but they have no mandate to protect civilians. The Sudanese army and police continue to attack camps and forcibly relocate internally displaced people.
Recent reports describe government forces burning shelters, smashing water pipes, beating and shooting people and refusing access to aid agencies. On Nov. 8, the Sudanese government signed a historical peace agreement, accepting a no-fly zone over the region and promising to disarm the Janjaweed and improve access to aid. The next day, more violence was reported in camps.
The United Nations is conducting an investigation to determine whether the crisis constitutes genocide. This marks the first time in the history of the Security Council that Article 8 of the Genocide Convention has been invoked, which is a most welcome occurrence, but it is not enough by itself. By the time the assessment is complete, at least another 30,000 people will be dead.
Confronted with the realities of a grim future, we must increase pressure on the U.S. government and international community to persuade the Security Council to do what must be done to end the violence and suffering. Sudan must be forced to improve access to the camps for humanitarian aid workers and supplies, and it must be sanctioned until the Janjaweed is disarmed and the region is secured.
The African Union troops must be given an expanded mandate under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter to protect civilians. Should the no-fly zone over Darfur be violated, enforcement by NATO forces must be authorized.
Additional humanitarian aid is desperately needed. Governments must do their part to ensure that the U.N. humanitarian programs are functioning at full capacity and meeting the vast needs. Support from individuals to nongovernmental organizations providing humanitarian assistance is also essential.
American Jewish World Service (AJWS) launched a Sudan Emergency Appeal in April to help meet these needs. To date, $500,000 has been raised to rehabilitate water sources, construct sanitation facilities and provide therapeutic feeding centers to care for the thousands of malnourished children. I surveyed these programs when I was there and left overwhelmingly satisfied that lives are being saved.
As a result of my assessment, AJWS is also providing educational and recreational materials and programs for orphaned children, zinc treatment for children suffering from diarrhea and because rape is being used as a strategic weapon against women and their families, we are providing reproductive health care and addressing the consequences of sexual violence against women. Financial support for these ongoing efforts is critical.
The Jewish response is growing. The Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, comprised of 45 national Jewish organizations, created a Jewish Coalition for Sudan Relief that has raised about $170,000, and the Reform movement has spearheaded its own campaign, raising about $120,000. A number of Jewish organizations have joined us as members of the Save Darfur Coalition, a broadly diverse group of more than 100 faith-based and humanitarian organizations advocating for the people of Darfur, and other Jewish organizations are responding with humanitarian aid.
Until conditions are established that permit the voluntary, safe and dignified return of those displaced by the conflict and violators of human rights are held accountable, our diligence must not wane.
Leviticus teaches, “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” This holiday season, let us celebrate with our loved ones, but let us also resolve to do all that we can to end human suffering and prevent genocide whenever, wherever and to whomever it occurs.
Ruth W. Messinger is the president and executive director of American Jewish World Service, an international development and emergency relief organization. For more information, to make a donation or take action, visit