February 27, 2021

Paddling Around the Statue of Liberty

By Amy Sessler Powell

Sweeping vistas of iconic American symbols, fears of getting hit by giant ferries, too many emotions to process at one time  — these are some images from my paddle around the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor on Sept. 15.

Credit: Robert Powell

Paddling around Liberty and Ellis Islands on a 12-foot six-inch stand up paddle board was one of the craziest and most challenging things I have done to date. I began competitive paddle boarding three years ago. This particular 6.5 mile race, the amateur division of the APP (Association of Paddlesurf Professionals) World Tour, was different than the others. I was nervous. I trained in wind, rough ocean swells and busy lakes. I put myself in well-travelled waters to get used to boat traffic. I circumnavigated small islands. I conditioned my body, strengthened my legs, arms and core, but the minute I surveyed the scene in the Hudson, I had doubts. Even though it’s over and I did it, I am still not sure how one gets ready for the Hudson.  

Why was I drawn to this race? It seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity, a way to paddle around our most American symbols at a time when they seem most threatened. It was a way for me to honor the journey of fitness and sport that I started rather late in life, at my half-century mark, by striving for a major goal, timed exactly during the week commemorating the 17th anniversary of 9/11 and between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a time to consider the past, present and future.  It was a journey that spoke to many sides of me — a second-generation Jewish woman who grew up in this region. That’s how I found myself in the Hudson that day.

Race Day

As the airhorn goes off and we leave the North Cove Marina, Battery Park, at the base of the Freedom Tower to cross to the N.J. side, people start falling in. I fall in, once, twice, three times. Can I do this? We are all confused by waves, currents and boat wakes that make no sense. But, there is camaraderie more than competition in this one. Everyone is encouraging each other, and there she is —  Lady Liberty, beckoning us all just as she beckoned generations with the famous words of Emma Lazarus:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

The first leg of the race crosses through a safety checkpoint created in the water on the N.J. side. Then, we turn left  around the back of Ellis Island, facing the back of the Statue of Liberty. The water is still rough with strong currents and waves, but for a few minutes there is no traffic as the large ferries are banned in this one spot. I feel so small in the water as I face these giant icons. I wonder what it feels like to be an immigrant entering New York Harbor. What did it feel like for my grandparents in 1937, Jews fleeing a Germany that threatened their life? They had once been comfortable there, but had to make terribly difficult decisions because they were Jewish. Their early life here was not easy, but they did it. I am the beneficiary of their choices as I stand here, paddling. What is my responsibility to this legacy? What do these symbols mean today? Have they lost their meaning?

Credit: Robert Powell

I try to dwell in these thoughts for a moment, but I don’t really have the luxury. Often paddling is serene, long stretches of water with gorgeous scenery. Today, it’s completely different — a full emotional overload of sights, smells, thoughts, and survival. The Liberty Island Ferry is in front of me and holds for a moment while a few of us pass. The people cheer the tiny racers in the water and it makes me happy, energized, which is good because the Staten Island Ferry is to my left throwing a giant wake my way. As I round Liberty Island, now looking at her side, the waters are getting crazier again and the traffic is beyond anything I ever experienced. There are boats from the Coast Guard, NYFD, NYPD, The Circle Line, freighters that seem as large as the Verrazano- Narrows Bridge to my right. Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas is docked in Bayonne and I hope it stays right there until this race is over.  We were warned to respect the perimeter set up by Homeland Security or risk being shot. I think that was a joke, but I’m not planning to find out.

The race has thinned and I’m not sure where I stand anymore and I don’t really care. This one is about so much more. Finishing seems like an accomplishment. I need to take time for the vista. I am not likely to get a second chance at this amazing perspective. Yet, the race continues to challenge me and is in fact getting more difficult as we round Liberty Island, now staring once again at Ellis Island, but from the front. I’m more than halfway and I take in my last closeups of the Statue of Liberty. Once I pass it, I don’t dare look back for fear of losing my balance.

As I pass through the safety gate on the N.J. side for the second time and and turn for the N.Y. side, the Freedom Tower looms in the distance, sunlight bouncing off its bevelled sides. It’s both a beautiful sight and a terrible  reminder of what happened 17 years ago this week. I am flagged down by the safety patrol and ordered to sit and wait for The Queen of Hearts to pass. I’m disappointed as affects my momentum and yet grateful for a chance to sit for a second, gulp some water and electrolytes, and enjoy the view.

Credit: Robert Powell

As I am cleared to continue, I cross back to the N.Y. side and round the final turn along the promenade.  Now, the crowd cheers for me, but the freighter to my left sends a huge wake that hits the wall and rocks me on both sides. An NYPD boat zooms into the marina to drop people off, creating wakes in front as well. I fall again, right in the home stretch and I am determined not to complete this race on my knees. I’m exhausted physically and emotionally in this final push, but I’m going to hit my goal of finishing in under two hours. This water is challenging me to the end, but the finish line is visible. I turn into the marina, Freedom Tower up above, family and friends on the dock. I don’t want to come in crying so I choke back tears. It’s a confusing moment with so much to unpack. I don’t even know where to begin. I’m offered a freshwater hose for my board, but instead spray myself with the cold water. I have no idea what bacteria lurks in the Hudson.

It takes the trip home to Massachusetts and the better part of the next week to sort it out, but I am not finished. It will take some time. I sit in synagogue on Yom Kippur and consider the idea of creating challenges and of being my best self in the coming year. I think about the challenges in our country, our world and my role. These thoughts take me back to the Hudson and the crashing of emotions I experienced. I’m not sure of all the takeaways, but I am sure of one. Things can be learned and practiced on all levels. Goals that seem outrageous can be achieved, but require concentration and hard work. There are no easy ways forward.

Amy Sessler Powell is the assistant director of HBI. She thanks her supportive family, friends, as well as trainers and communities at B&S Fitness and SUP East Coast Style.

Two Jewish Sisters in Search of Sloths

By Rachel Bernstein

The bus sped away down the dusty two-lane road leaving my twin sister and me standing next to our giant duffel bags staring at a large painted sign of a sloth pointing us inside the gates of the sanctuary in the middle of nowhere. We had travelled over 2,000 miles to see some sloths in celebration of our impending 30th birthday, and come hell or high water, we would see them.

Our trip to Costa Rica was our first time traveling abroad together since we went to Israel on the same Birthright Israel trip 10 years earlier. We’re close as twins, but have very different personalities and interests. I was a Jewish Studies major in college while Erica was a Fashion Design major. Now I’m still in Jewish Studies as a doctoral candidate in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Sociology at Brandeis, and Erica works in Emergency Management after obtaining her master’s degree in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. Despite our differences, we have a tradition of doing the big things together – we had a joint b’not mitzvah, we went to an all-girls Jewish summer camp together and now we were going to celebrate our special birthday with sloths.

Baby sloth with stuffed animal.

Baby sloth with stuffed animal.

This time, unlike Birthright Israel, we were not on a bus filled with our peers, and we didn’t have a tour guide helping us with the local language and planning all our activities. We did grow a little bit on this trip—when we didn’t like the accommodations, we didn’t call Dad, we found another place to stay ourselves. We researched and booked all the activities and transportation we would need and want for our trip. We relied on each other to navigate the cultural differences and the limitations of our lodgings (thank goodness I brought plenty of snacks!).

The Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica, made famous by some adorable Animal Planet and YouTube videos (see “Bath Time for Baby Sloths”), is located on the Caribbean coast just south of Limon. My sister and I had been planning for months how to celebrate our “Big Birthday” and we kept coming back to the enticing joys of spending time on the beach, exploring the rainforest and interacting with sloths.

The Sloth Sanctuary did not disappoint. As part of the Insiders’ Tour, we wandered through all the enclosures of adult sloths rescued by the Sanctuary, as well as see all the tiny baby sloths staying in the “Slothspital” NICU unit. All of the sloths at the Sanctuary are either orphaned and must be nurtured by humans or injured from unfortunate run-ins with powerlines or cars. The sanctuary provides a safe cage for sleeping most of the day and lots of beans and other goodies for them to eat.

baby sloth in nicu

Baby sloth in the NICU. Photo by Erica Bernstein.

We learned a lot about (and from) the sloths at the Sloth Sanctuary. There are two types of sloths—two-fingered and three-fingered. They’re commonly referred to as “two-toed” and “three-toed,” but since the only difference in the number of claws are on their arms, it’s technically their fingers that are different not their toes. Sloths are anti-social creatures who don’t need the companionship of other sloths, and they only take care of their offspring for one year. They move so slowly because of their very slow metabolism, which means they only have to expel waste once a week!

We saw several sloths in the wild during our adventures on the Caribbean coast. As we travelled by boat from a resort in Tortuguero through the canals back to the mainland, our boat driver stopped so we could all watch a wild three-fingered sloth attempt to climb from the river onto the far riverbank. I don’t know how the driver spotted the sloth—like most wild sloths, its back was coated in thick, green algae (a type of algae only found in sloth fur!) which blended into the riverbank. Half the sloth was in the water, and the other half was clinging to the soft mud along the riverbank. It slowly reached a long arm up to grasp the grass at the top of the bank to heave itself out of the water. All 30 of us on the boat held our breath at the sloth’s attempt. Alas, it slipped further down the bank. But it reached right back up again to find a finger-hold in the mud. Our boat sped off before we could see the sloth make it safely to shore, but it was clearly an example of patience and “try, try again,” or The Little Sloth that Could.

sloth eating snack

A two-fingered sloth having a snack at the Sloth Sanctuary. Photo by Erica Bernstein.

On the last day of our trip, on a group tour to a coffee farm, Poas volcano, and La Paz Waterfall, the familiar chime of Hebrew rang out in the seats next to my sister and me on the tour bus. I turned to the two retired couples from Israel and introduced myself in Hebrew. They had just arrived for a long vacation in Central America and we were leaving the next day, so we launched into a conversation about where we’d been and what we’d seen. I showed them pictures of the sloths on my iPhone—we had a hard time with the word “sloth” between Hebrew and English, but eventually settled on “type of monkey-like creature.” It was a nice parallel to our last twin trip together to Israel a decade earlier—meeting a group of Israelis on a bus as we toured a foreign land, just my sister and me.

Rachel Bernstein  is a doctoral candidate in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Sociology. She is the research director of the HBI-Gilda Slifka Summer Internship program.

Where Can I Get a Knish?

By Amy Sessler Powell – 

In the year since Laura Silver published Knish: In Search of Jewish Soul Food, became known as the world’s foremost authority on knishes, and occasionally strolled New York City dressed in a giant knish costume, Silver has been asked one question more than any other: “Where can I get a knish?”

As these conversations unfold, Silver sees something else – that people have strong opinions as well as fond memories of knishes. With the book already published, how does she harness all these knishisms? With an interactive knish map, of course. What else?

Silver unveiled her “Interactive Knish Map,” at the Association for Jewish Studies Conference in December as part of the Jewish Studies and Digital Humanities workshop. The map gives knish lovers a platform to share stories and memories of that “pillow of filling tucked into a skin of dough” as Silver defines it on page two of her book. There, knish lovers and readers will find a forum, not to settle, but at least to rehash the important questions: round or square, potato or kasha? But more important, the map will help answer the all-important question: Where can I find a knish?

The map is new and just getting started, but already there are sweet memories entered by knish fans that hearken back to a time in their childhood, recall a special relative or relive a frequent day trip from their past.

“When I was 12 years old, I worked for Mrs. Stahl probably in the year 1943. My best friend, Irv Rosen and I would fill the orders at the counter and ring up the bill at the cash register. 

What I wouldn’t give for a taste today!” writes one person.

Another shares, “Hi, I’m 68 years old. I remember the mid-to late 50s when I was a student at P.S.16 on Wilson Street in Brooklyn N.Y. There was an older gentleman who frequented the area around the school who sold knishes from a small cart for 10 cents a piece. Since that time I have never, ever tasted a knish as delicious as his. They were a soft yeast like bread, deep fried I think, filled with a mashed potato mixture to die for. I remember his beat up metal salt shaker when he would ask you if you wanted salt on your knish.

Ah, to be back there again.”

In a loving tribute, one son and brother writes, “My parents Myer & Marion Kaplan and brother, Gary Kaplan for many years operated Myer’s Kosher Kitchen in Revere, MA. While they made many kosher Jewish delicacies, their meat knish (the only kind they made) was perhaps the single most popular and best selling product.

It took several years to perfect the recipe, first for a flour which would withstand the manufacturing process, then the meat filling with the just right taste and texture, and then for the machinery which would produce a constantly shaped (oblong) product where the dough would not crack during the baking process.

Because they were federally inspected, they were able to ship in the New England area and to sell in super markets. 
As in most small businesses, the product was at first hand made with my mother the main person directing the women who rolled the dough in long sheets, filled it and cut the long roll into the individual knishes.

As the product became very popular, they knew they needed to acquire machinery to mass-produce the knishes. She and my brother went to Italy where they found a piece of machinery originally designed to produce ravioli. They were able to get the machine modified to make the knishes and they were then able to supply many thousands of dozens of kosher knishes to satisfy both the greater Boston area and New England. 

Alas, the business closed several years ago and Myer’s knishes are no more. A loss lamented by many for whom Myer’s kosher products were a necessity.”

Silver explains that the map is a work in progress that she hopes will catch on with fans of both knishes and the nostalgia that surrounds them. Those with a knish story now have an outlet to share with the knish-loving world. So, nu, what’s your knish story?

Amy Powell is the HBI Communications Director. Laura Silver is the author of Knish: In Search of Jewish Soul Food, published in the HBI Series on Jewish Women. Also visit her recent blog, “Oy to the World: A Song for the Yule-Averse at the Jewish Food Experience.


An Orthodox Woman and an Amish Woman Walk Into a Casino…

By Rivka Neriya ben Shahar

I had spent a period of time living with an Amish family to conduct research that compared consumption of mass media by Old Order Amish Women to that of the Ultra-Orthodox women. I grew close to this family and learned a lot about their culture and ways of doing things.  Once I was back in Israel, I made plans to visit the U.S. again and wrote to “Anna,” not her real name.

I asked her, “What I can bring from the Holy Land?”

At first she told me she didn’t want anything, just to see me with my “hands empty and my heart full.” But, finally, she agreed to let me to bring her some water from the Jordan River. This is about two hours drive for me from Jerusalem and I asked some friends who were going there to bring back the water. Some suggested I just bring any water, that no one will know the difference. But I knew the difference and wanted to do it properly. I got water from the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River and made a nice package for her, hoping these bottles would not break when I traveled.

When I presented the water, I was glad I had done it all properly. Anna and her family were so thrilled. I could see they were awed. “Jesus walked on this water,” she said to me over and over again.

As we talked, I explained that these bodies of water are really like streams, ponds or small lakes, that they are nothing like the Atlantic Ocean. That was when Anna told me that she had never seen the ocean. She was 56 years old and lived in Lancaster County, Penn., not far from the Atlantic, but she had never been there.

“I have a car. We will go. I will take you there,” I said.

Since they live in a near blackout of information from outside their community, none of the women in this family knew the closest beach. We asked some of the boys who worked for construction companies.  They told us the nearest beach was Atlantic City, N.J. or Ocean City, Md. We drove to the public library. It would be her first time seeing “the Internet.” I researched that Atlantic City was closest so we went.

I didn’t know anything about Atlantic City and neither did Anna. In my mind, it translated to “the city of the Atlantic,” so it must be a bountiful and clean beach. When I look back on this, I wonder why I didn’t Google it from the library. I think the reason is because I got into Anna’s mindset.

During the nice two and half hour ride with Anna and her daughter, we had very good conversations. I started wondering why, when we came close to the city, we saw many billboards about gambling with immodest pictures, but we didn’t think that had anything to do with us. When we arrived, we parked at a hotel garage and press “C” on the elevator thinking it was the way outside. The other options were just numbers. The elevator doors opened and we were in the level of the casino!

“What did you do?” she asked, again and again. I could see that she was terrified. “I don’t know!” I answered. “I thought that this is the way to the ocean!”

I am a modest woman and I had no idea what I had done or where we were. Anna told me that if anyone were to see her in such a place she would be excommunicated for at least six months.

Then, a kind person recognized from their clothes that Anna and her daughter were Amish.  This stranger understood my terrible mistake. I asked this kind person to take us to the ocean and she led us out of the casino and toward the beach.

Everything changed in the moment when she saw the sea. As the waves washed in and out, Anna and her daughter watched in awe. There were still billboards all around selling things, advertising things we did not want to look at, but there was also a good feeling from the heart.

As she watched the waves wash in and out, she asked, “How do they do that? From all the pictures I have seen, I didn’t know they could move. How can you not believe in G-d when you see this?”

We sat together, our legs in the water, and sang religious songs. They thanked God again and again for the opportunity to see the creation. When we sat there, I called my spouse in Jerusalem.

“Hi, we are at Atlantic City.”

“Are you crazy? He asked. “This is the east coast’s Las Vegas! You should know that this is a casino and immodest place.”

“I grew up as a ‘good Jerusalem’s girl,’” I answered.

In the end, the Amish women and I had the same knowledge about Atlantic City.

Dr. Rivka Neriya-Ben Shahar is a lecturer at the Sapir Academic College in Sderot, Israel, and was a Fulbright Post Doctoral Fellowship recipient for the year of 2011-2012 and a scholar-in-residence, at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

Orthodox Jewish Feminists – An Oxymoron?

By Robyn Shames

I have always believed, and still do believe, that Jewish Law has within it the ability to adapt to almost every situation and provide just and humane solutions to every crisis. This is how I have been able to work toward justice for agunot as executive director of ICAR – The International Coalition for Agunah Rights – for the past 10 years. I know that there are systemic solutions that would remove this ultimate power, to withhold a divorce, from the husband, thus creating a more gender equal Jewish marriage and divorce.

Our sages, throughout history have shown their creativity in so many aspects of Jewish life, and in the past, even on this particular issue, but it seems that in recent years, the rabbinical establishment has chosen to see women, even Orthodox women, as their enemy and not their equal counterpart, and thus feel no pressure to solve this issue.

Why are women seen as the enemy of religion? Why are women’s demands to take part in their religious rituals – be it in the synagogue, becoming of age (the Bat Mitzvah), under the wedding canopy or at the time of divorce – seen as an attack on religion rather than as an honest plea to be seen as a valued member of their own religion? One would think that religious leaders in this day and age would want to embrace anyone looking to become a more committed Jew – “even” a woman. “

ICAR and women’s organizations that promote change within the confines of Jewish Law are often vilified by the Orthodox rabbinical establishment. We are told that we are looking to bring ruin upon the Jewish people and the Jewish family. Any change to the old order is immediately not only suspicious, but evil. How can I still consider myself Orthodox?

Perhaps the way forward is by encouraging dedicated and learned Orthodox women to take a new look at age-old rituals, laws and texts so that they can reinterpret them through a gender-friendly lens, thus granting women a religious justification for their internal yearning to be a full member in their own religion and to partake in its rites. Meanwhile, all of us activists cannot lose faith, and must continue the Sisyphean task of making small steps forward, notwithstanding the stalwart opposition of the religious establishment.

Indeed, many do believe that Orthodox Judaism and feminism cannot coexist and that they have to choose between them but I still do not agree. I can’t allow myself to believe that this is true, as I am not willing to eliminate core values, beliefs that are integral to who I am and who I want to be.

But, I have a confession – I am finding it ever more difficult to categorize myself as an “Orthodox Jewish Feminist” even though it has been a major component in both my personal and professional life for many years. I am even questioning if such a creature can even exist.

Robyn ShamesRobyn Shames is Executive Director of ICAR, the International Coalition for Agunah Rights (Jerusalem). Active in Orthodox Feminist causes, she is a member of Shira Hadasha synagogue in Jerusalem. Shames is an attorney by profession and a social activist by inclination. Born in Montreal, Canada she immigrated to Israel in 1971.




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