October 16, 2019

HBI Launches Latin American Project with Anne Frank Event

WALTHAM – HBI’s two-day launch of the Project on Latin American Jewish & Gender Studies (LAJGS) began with a dramatic reading of Marjorie Agosín’s Anne: An Imagining of the Life of Anne Frank at the JCC of Greater Boston and followed the next day with programs in two Jewish day schools.

Credit: Josh Luckens

“The events highlighted the ongoing relevance of Anne Frank in Latin America “as a reminder of the enduring power of art, narrative, and truth as resistance to systemic instances of dehumanization,” said Dalia Wassner, director of the LAJGS, a project with the mission to study and explore of Jewish life and gender in Latin America and among Latin American Jews worldwide.

In her opening remarks, HBI Director Lisa Fishbayn Joffe noted that in a week that saw the anti-semitic slaughter of 11 Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on a Shabbat devoted to welcoming the stranger and refugee in our midst, we are reminded “that we must be ever vigilant to identify and respond to those who would demonize some groups in society, who would divide us and who would facilitate anti-semitic violence against us.”  In the re-telling of the story of Anne Frank for children, Marjorie Agosín and Francisca Yáñez, offered guidance and insight into addressing this complex and delicate task of explaining terror and violence to children, Joffe noted.

Credit: Josh Luckens

The evening opened with a performance by Nisha Sajnani, director of Drama Therapy at NYU, accompanied on piano by Jan Zimmerman. Artwork from Argentine artist Sandra Mayo displayed on stage and on the way into the auditorium complemented the themes of the evening by connecting the Holocaust and periods of dictatorship in the Southern Cone. The program as a whole urged the audience to consider the ongoing impact and salience of Anne Frank in Latin America.

Francesca Colletti, New England Executive Director of Facing History and Ourselves, a co-sponsor of the event, related the program to our times. Anne’s words were resonant to so many issues of our time – displacement of children and families, injustice and even death in the face of discrimination and hate.  But the words also speak to us of resilience and hope.”

The launch of the LAJGS  project was made possible by a gift of $50,000 to HBI from former HBI director, Professor Emerita Shulamit Reinharz and former Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz.  Shulamit Reinharz explained that the focus of their philanthropy is to fund projects that embody an important innovation on issues related to Jewish life and social justice and are led by a dynamic individual. The LAJGS project, led by Wassner, is a “perfect fit for these goals,”  said Shulamit Reinharz.

Wassner added, “Recent events in our country and around the world have highlighted the importance of promoting greater understanding of minority identities, including those of Jews, women, and immigrants. With their generous support, Shula and Jehuda Reinharz have made a foundational investment in LAJGS’s mission to generate innovative research and culture that explores the role of gender and Judaism in Latin America, and that understands Latin American Jewry as an important part of the global Jewish story.”

Credit: Gann Academy

The following day, Nov. 2,  Wassner, Agosín and Yáñez held workshops at Gann Academy and Solomon Schechter Day School. Yáñez spoke to Lily Rabinoff-Goldman’s creative writing class at Gann. She told the students that her country had suffered a coup d’etat in 1973 that ousted the democratically elected Salvador Allende, instituting instead a military dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet that would last 17 years. She recalled the feelings of insecurity and fear she felt as a little girl who became a refugee.

In preparation for their departure, her parents asked her to pack her most beloved belongings. She recalled choosing a favorite doll, but mostly paper cutouts of beautiful color images. As she boarded the plane, her suitcase flew open causing her paper cutouts to blow away. At that moment, her family was being escorted at gunpoint, allowed to escape only due to a moment of international cooperation. Certain her cutouts would be lost, Yáñez told of her surprise when her father, mother, and brother each turned and descended the plane’s stairs, set on retrieving the youngest family member’s prized possessions. At that moment, she understood what love looked like.

Wassner thanked the event’s co-sponsors, JCC of Greater Boston, Facing History & Ourselves, Gann Academy, Hadassah Boston, Jewish Women’s Archive and Temple Beth Zion of Brookline. Earlier in the week, Yáñez spoke in Agosín’s class at Wellesley and also at Emerson College.

To learn more about the LAJGS and other upcoming HBI programs and events, visit this web page.  

Make Your Own Haggadah With Gendered Themes

By Amy Powell

Just before Pesach in 2011, the New York Times reported some important news about gender and Passover: The fusty Maxwell House Haggadah, offered free in grocery stores with a purchase of Maxwell House coffee (this year there was one in my matzo box), adopted some gender-neutral language.

Rather than calling G-d a king, they used “monarch,” and changed the four sons to the four “children.”

Today, there are so many varied haggadot with more profound changes relating to gender than simply adopting gender-neutral language. Haggadot exist for a spectrum of observances, age groups and personal preferences, many with updated themes of freedom, plagues, renewal and more.

For those searching for readings and themes — and perhaps not ready to invest in new haggadot — there are many downloadable versions. HBI has compiled a few tools to help you design your own seder with an eye to HBI’s mission of developing fresh ideas about Jews and gender.

For example, JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, compiled numerous  Pesach Divrei Torah, described as “by women, for all,” in a 32-page free download titled Shema Bekolah, Hear Her Voice.

Another resource, is JewishBoston.com and The Wandering is Over Haggadah: A Seder For Everyone, their free and downloadable, contemporary and customizable haggadah. Here, you will find readings and options on anti-Semitism, mental health, immigration, feminism, labor rights, social justice, climate change, racial justice, inclusion, Israel, LGBTQ liberation and more. The contributors include The Jewish Climate Action Network (JCAN), JCRC, ADL, Ruderman Foundation, Jewish Family & Children’s Services, Emilia Diamant, JewishBoston.com, New England Jewish Labor Committee and others.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, known as the “Velveteen Rabbi,” created a downloadable haggadah, the Velveteen Rabbi’s Haggadah for Pesach, out of her desire for a seder text which cherishes “the tradition and also augments that tradition with contemporary poetry, moments of mindfulness, a theology of liberation, and sensitivity to different forms of oppression.”

Jewish Family & Children’s Services released two downloadable haggadot related to healing and wholeness: the Chaverim Shel Shalom Haggadah and the Betty Ann Greenbaum Miller Center for Jewish Healing Friendly Visitor Passover Seder.

Haggadot.com has a tool called Let’s Make Your Passover Haggadah Together, with a platform that allows you to create a custom seder, using content aggregated from more than 150 individuals, artists and 13 organizations. These can be tailored and either downloaded or printed for your seder.

I’m probably not banning Maxwell House completely. I have a soft spot for a wine stain that may have been created by people who have since passed away. It’s also useful to have multiple copies of at least one haggadah with every single verse of Dayenu! But as the four children remind us, it’s better to have a multitude of voices around the table, asking questions and heightening our awareness of what the holiday means.

Amy Powell is the assistant director of HBI.

Beginning a Conversation about American Modern Orthodox Jews

By Sylvia Barack Fishman

Are Modern Orthodox communities ready for female clergy or synagogue presidents? How comfortable are they when women say Mourner’s Kaddish without men?

These and other issues are the subject of a JOFA Webinar on Wednesday January 31, when HBI Co-Director Prof. Sylvia Barack Fishman will introduce and moderate a discussion with researcher Dr. Mark Trencher, author of the new Nishma: Profile of American Modern Orthodox Jews, survey research sponsored by the Micah Foundation. Among other findings, the Nishma survey spotlights sweeping liberalization among Modern Orthodox Jews in attitudes toward expanding women’s roles in public Judaism, including the synagogue.

Key findings regarding women’s roles include:

  • Three-quarters of Modern Orthodox respondents said that women should be eligible to be synagogue presidents.
  • The mekhitza (divider between men and women) should be “woman friendly.”
  • More than two-thirds said women should be eligible to speak from the bima (front stage)
  • More than two-thirds said women should be able to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish even if no men are reciting it.
  • More than half agreed that women should have expanded roles in the clergy. Younger Modern Orthodox men (57 percent) were much more likely than older Modern Orthodox men (48 percent) to agree with that statement.

Another key finding is that Orthodox retention rates today are dramatically better today than they were 30, 40 or 50 years ago.  Younger Modern Orthodox Jews as a group have different attitudes, behaviors and values than their parents’ generation. However, the broad range of Orthodox institutions, including liberal Orthodox day schools and rabbinical training institutions for both men and women, provide a space for Jews who in earlier generations migrated out of Modern Orthodoxy into other wings of Judaism. Orthodox retention rates reflect this shift towards diverse Orthodox institutions that provide spiritual homes for the people who in earlier generations often left Orthodoxy. Their presence strengthens the Modern Orthodox community as a whole.

Survey respondents were highly educated Jewishly. The vast majority had substantial Jewish education (95 percent of men and 89 percent of women). Respondents almost universally view their Jewish education as an ongoing lifelong process: 97 percent of men and 95 percent of women participate in regular Judaic study at least once a week.

In addition, Modern Orthodox Nishmah survey participants are transmitting Modern Orthodox Jewish culture to the next generation. 83 percent of their school-age children in grades 1–12 attend Orthodox day school. Significantly, despite often-articulated anxieties that Orthodox co-education may be on the decline, 75 percent of the day schools these children attend are coeducational—indicating that they are adapting to shifting gender roles and expectations.

This educational continuity is especially important because Dr. Trencher, the survey author, is concerned that the broad range of attitudes may lead to a schism between right- and left-wing institutions, leadership, and laity in the American Modern Orthodox community. But one may argue instead that Modern Orthodoxy’s broad continuum of attitudes, behaviors and values is a positive development in contemporary communities.

The JOFA Webinar, Profile of American Modern Orthodox Jews, will be streamed live from JOFA’s Facebook Page, Wednesday January 31 from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. For more information, visit, JOFA’s event page.

Sylvia Barack Fishman is the Joseph and Esther Foster Professor of Judaic Studies
and the Co-Director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

Embroidering a Jewish Life

By Rachel Braun

Editor’s note: Join us at Brandeis University on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018 at 7 p.m. for Graphic Content: The Sacred Art and Beautiful Math of Rachel Braun, Liberman-Miller Lecture Hall, Epstein Bldg. 515 South St., Waltham.

This article first appeared in Lilith’s online blog.

God Counts the Stars, 2015, Rachel Braun.

Embroidery has been part of my life for over two decades; it is a core Jewish practice for me and an entry point into sacred texts. I design Judaic embroidery, starting with words from Torah or liturgy, then elucidating and interpreting the words with needle and thread. But before I discovered my embroidery passion, I’d thought about needlecraft only in limited ways.

In college, some 40 years ago, I read an article about Colonial quilt-making for an anthropology class. The author wondered why Colonial women would commit to such a painstakingly slow production process. Indeed, needlecraft is very laborious! Designing and stitching an embroidery canvas can take me easily 150 hours.

The author’s hypothesis was that usually women were responsible for repetitive production processes which had temporary outcomes, living under a tyranny of iterative tasks. Women cooked and fed their families; hunger returned anew. We laundered clothing; those garments became soiled. We cleaned; dirt arose again in every corner. Quilting, the author concluded, allowed women to participate in permanent material culture, establishing and recording their presence. Perhaps not as physical as barn-raising (and not as well paid?), but still valued.

In my adult life, I’ve become aware of the impermanence of traditional female tasks, though my responses to the feeding-laundering-cleaning conundrums of Colonial women may have differed. Raising four children, I cycled through three basic lentil recipes at dinner and taught my kids to use the washing machine. As for cleaning, my mantra became “as long as the kids don’t get cholera, the house is clean enough.” They didn’t, and it was.

But I do embroider—vigorously, creatively, spiritually. Am I, as was alleged for our Colonial quilters, seeking immortality in material culture? That premise seems a bit specious: what we call women’s work (and what that treatise I read in college alleged was impermanent) is indeed permanent work: a long-term investment in the continuity and culture of humanity, as stabilizing as building a barn. But material culture has its purpose—useful, beautiful, necessary, communal. My framed embroidery pieces adorn the walls of my home and shul, and I dream that one day they will be passed to future descendants, or even considered museum-worthy. Just in case they aren’t, I’ve made a dive at immortality by sharing them in a book, Embroidery and Sacred Text (2017).

In contrast, the process of designing and creating the embroidery is not about seeking permanence. For me, it has become a potent practice of living Torah and enacting Jewish life, rather than documenting myself for future generations. These experiences unfold in the offering of a drasha, a textual commentary, within the design itself, and indeed, in the repetitive glide of the needle through the fabric.

Jewish life is built around repetition, as can be attested by anyone who has slogged through a Torah reading about details of Sanctuary construction or particulars of sacrificial offerings. The former, including the lampstand of the Sanctuary, was a permanent aspect of Israelite material culture. In contrast, we who have fallen in love with our babies’ peculiar little scents fully appreciate that the fleeting sweet savors of the sacrifices might have ingratiated an ancient Israelite with the Deity.

Lampstand, 2016, Rachel Braun.

Perhaps it’s the statistician in me that is so attracted to these “boring,” repetitive verses. The verse that is worked into “Lampstand,” pictured above (2016) includes this construction detail: “a knob beneath two stems, from it, a knob beneath two stems, from it, and a knob beneath two stems, from it, for the six stems that issue from the Lampstand” (Exodus 25:35, translation by Everett Fox). Hearing that verse of Torah read aloud, emphatically, made me want to embroider the knobs, all the more emphatically.

Another favorite text is the list of Israelite stops in the wilderness of Sinai. The Book of Numbers, Chapter 33, lists 42 stops made by the Israelites as they progressed to Jericho, before entering the Promised Land. Remarkably, each stop is listed twice: “They set out from Hazeroth and encamped at Rithmah. They set out from Rithmah and encamped at Rimmon-perez. They set out from Rimmon-perez and encamped at…” (JPS). Moved by the rhythm of those repetitions, I embroidered the place names around the border of “Bamidbar: In the Wilderness(2011). 

Bamidbar: in the Wilderness, 2011, Rachel Braun.

Gertrude Stein wrote, “There is the important question of repetition and is there any such thing.… I first really realized the inevitable repetition in human expression that was not repetition but insistence” (“Portraits and Repetition,” in Lectures in America, 1935).*

Was the repetition of names and verbs describing their travels—setting out and encamping—insistence that the Israelite journeys could not easily be distilled? Surely, in God’s recurring acts of protection and anger; in Moses’ stream of reflection, rebuke, and encouragement; and in the Israelites’ stirrings of joy, desperation, and disappointment, there was much insistence and less mere repetition. I used the embroidery patterns of “Bamidbar” to develop that drasha in thread. Each pattern block (so-called blackwork embroidery) varies in geometric symmetry: a mixture of reflections, translations, and rotations. The placement of patterns and colors gives the piece, overall, an essential 180° rotational symmetry. The intention is to convey movement, unevenness, and variations of order and disarray– much like the biblical journeys described in Numbers.

If part of the human task is to seek the Divine by emulating God’s behaviors, we embroiderers are in a good place. The embroidery “God Counts the Stars” (2015), pictured at the top of this article, quotes Psalm 147:4-5: “God counts the stars, giving each a name; with grandeur and power, wisdom beyond measure” (my translation). God counts the stars! That God painstakingly conducts a celestial census, and in doing so honors individuality in each, certainly touches a statistician’s heart. What patience that takes! What concentration, and attention to detail! Just like stitching—patient, intentional, repetitive, faithful. And just as God names the stars, the embroidery gives each star its own needlework pattern. The art interprets the text, but it also mimics the text, and exposes the text.

The anthropologist was wrong. Repetition and renewal are not circumstances to be requited with permanence. Rather, they pulsate with the rhythm of life, honoring the endurance of its fragility and the individuality of seemingly identical elements, be they meals of a Colonial household, knobs of the Sanctuary lampstand, or stars in the sky. Repetition is everywhere in Jewish life: in sacred text, in the cyclical reading of Torah, in counting stars, in the geometric patterns of blackwork design, in the embroiderer’s steady hand on the fabric, in Jews’ never-ending celebration of words. With each repetition, we insist that we will seek and savor that which is sacred.

 


* I am indebted to Lisa Newell z”l for introducing me to Stein’s ideas. Addressing a Fabrangen Havurah High Holiday service long ago in Washington, D.C., Lisa wondered aloud why we had so many Amidahs to recite and to repeat. Paraphrasing Gertrude Stein, Lisa explained, “Repetition is insistence!” Among her many accomplishments, Lisa was co-counsel in the 1983 landmark comparable-worth case, challenging women’s wages paid by the State of Washington. She died in 2000.

 


Rachel Braun explores how Jewish texts can be embroidered—literally and figuratively—in original needlecraft designs. Braun is a Torah chanter, synagogue service leader, Jewish educator, and high school math and statistics teacher. Her talents—artistic, spiritual, and mathematical—come together in her book Embroidery and Sacred Text: New Designs in Jewish Needlework (Bookbaby, 2017). Her website is www.rachelbraun.net.

A Usable Past, a Useless Present

A Piece of Kvetch

By Galina Zelenina

On a gloomy October day in Saint Petersburg, I was having coffee with a local LGBT activist at a half-clandestine queer studies conference. Just a few months before, the State Duma Deputy, Yelena Mizulina, had authored her infamous ban on “gay propaganda” (whatever that means). At the time, I was working on a series of essays for an independent internet journal, one of the few respectable venues in the Russian internet that straddles the boundaries between academic and socio-political debate. The series were supposed to delve into parallels between the queer discourse and homophobia in the USSR and that in contemporary Russia; my column on the Saint-Petersburg conference was meant for that series. In the end, the editors cancelled the project. “This is not our war,” they explained apologetically.

Now, sitting together in this coffee shop, I listened as this LGBT activist began praising academic work as a form of activism: “You don’t have to take to the streets or go out to Marsovo Pole (a usual venue for unpermitted protest marches in the city)—instead, you can make a bigger difference by just publishing an article.”

During my time as a scholar-in-residence at HBI, I have had a pleasure of attending two events Brandeis hosted recently. The first was an annual Simon Rawidowicz Memorial Lecture given by Elisheva Baumgarten of Hebrew University in Jerusalem who spoke on matchmaking in medieval Ashkenaz. The second was a panel discussion on how race, ethnicity, and religion intersect with sexual violence, organized by Bernadette Brooten, the Kraft and Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies at Brandeis.

Highly regarded for her invaluable achievements in scholarly activism (most importantly for her search for a usable past for Christian lesbians in her book Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism), Brooten organized the discussion to initiate a talk on the influence exerted by religions on people’s views on and practice of sexual crimes. Although religions change over time, becoming more sensitive, old laws still matter, and we need to study religious past in order to improve the present.

The timing of this discussion, part of Brooten’s ongoing Feminist Sexual Ethics Project, could not have been better as it coincided with the wave of recent accusations of sexual misconduct against Harvey Weinstein and several other “males of influence” followed by the hashtag campaign #MeToo flooding social media with stories of sexual harassment and assault.

Interestingly, this is not the first campaign of its kind. In spring 2015, the #NotGuilty campaign was launched in the British social media, and in 2016, a Ukrainian feminist kickstarted a similar Flashmob on Facebook under the hashtag #яНеБоюсьСказати (“#Iamnotafraidtospeak”) that went viral, spreading to Russia and Belarus. Judging by my social media newsfeed, the campaign attracted enormous attention, and was perceived as having potential for making a difference and leading to social change. Ironically, the only tangible response it has invoked in Russia was a law decriminalizing domestic violence, passed by the State Duma in the early 2017.

Unlike the participants of the #яНеБоюсьСказать campaign who predominantly shared their experiences of rape, the women responding to the #MeToo movement started in response to the Harvey Weinstein scandal have posted accounts of sexual harassment and assault. The importance of the campaign in bringing the conversation of sexual assault into the mainstream cannot be underestimated.

After Brooten’s panel discussion about the intersectionality between sexual violence and race, ethnicity and religion, evaluation forms were passed out so that participants could “strongly or somewhat” agree or disagree with the assertions that both religious past and ethnic context influence sexual violence. While the degree of influence and other details may be subject to debate, there seems to be general agreement about one fundamental question: issues of sexual violence must be addressed.

Refuting the Karaites’ contention that frequent disagreements between the Talmudic sages rendered the rabbinic tradition untrustworthy, medieval Jewish scholar Abraham ibn Daud claimed that the sages disagreed not over commandments in principle, but only about details: “They did not dispute whether or not it is obligatory to light the Shabbat light. What they did dispute was with what it may be lit and with what it may not be lit.”

Blessed are those who are disputing the details once they have achieved general agreement on fundamental issues.

The lecture by Elisheva Baumgarten, although seemingly much less burning and time-sensitive, actually deserved no less attention by social-minded students. Not only because she is such a brilliant scholar. (I know one influential politician in Israel, likely to become a PM someday, who—to make the long story short—left academia for politics because he had always admired Baumgarten’s academic career and had finally faced the fact that he could never achieve an equal measure of success.) The true reason is that, being thoroughly medievalist, her lecture was nonetheless relevant for and connected to the present.

Unlike her predecessors in the study of medieval rabbinic responsa on family issues, Baumgarten takes a feminist stand, arguing and proving that women used to be much more active, powerful, influential and independent in medieval Judaism than later, in modern Orthodoxy. In her lecture, she discusses whether medieval Jewish parents, on a regular basis, married off their daughters as minors, or whether the daughters still had the final say. After considering responsa, moral exempla, and tales (and keeping in mind that all three genres, being written by learned men, represent the male perspective), she concludes that non-halachic genres offer a more realistic picture than the responsa and that we may assume that in medieval reality, girls had more choice, freedom, and final say than we are led to believe.

Baumgarten seems to belong to the same scholarly trend whose main spokesman, Daniel Boyarin, a talmudic scholar, Orthodox Jew, liberal, feminist, and LGBT advocate, refutes the common view of talmudic culture as androcentric and misogynist, purposefully and consistently discovering a usable past for his liberal Orthodoxy in rabbinic texts.

Blessed are those who search for a usable past once they have a usable present.

I highly doubt that in Russia, any Orthodox Jew wants to hear of medieval Jewish women playing “traditionally male” roles of rabbis, circumcisers, or ritual slaughterers. It seems even less probable that any Russian Jewish community would be willing to learn about the specifically Jewish masculinity and the long tradition of homoeroticism and homosociality. Queer scholarly activism is a risky affair in the city where, alongside the recently unveiled bike lanes—the unmistakable sign of a modern, civilized society—a chain of food stores displays a “No Entry for Sodomites” sign in its windows. But at this point, this is precisely where the activism is probably needed most.

Galina Zelenina is a 2017 Helen Gartner Hammer Scholar in Residence at HBI and an associate professor at the Center for Biblical and Jewish Studies at Russian State University of Humanities in Moscow.

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