Climate Change Advocacy 101 for Jews

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, Rear Adm. David W. Titley, Dr. Jalone L. White-Newsome and Dan Segal.

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, Rear Adm. David W. Titley, Dr. Jalone L. White-Newsome and Dan Segal.

Often a failure in communication is not the message or the messenger, but how it is presented. I am not talking about a Madison Avenue campaign to convince people to buy something they don’t need, but an understanding of the audience.

Yesterday, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Jewish Community Relations Council held a conference Protecting Creation: A Jewish Response to Climate Change. The speakers were clear and articulate representatives of their professional realm:

  • Rabbi Nina Cardin from the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network;
  • the Rear Admiral David Titley, retired from the United States Navy and currently Senior Scientist and Director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State;
  • Dr. Jalonne White-Newsome, of WE ACT for Environmental Justice; and
  • Dan Segal, Chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

I learned that since 2010, Philadelphia has experienced: its snowiest winter, its two warmest summers; its two wettest years; two hurricanes; and derecho (a widespread, long-lived, straight-line wind storm that is associated with a land-based, fast-moving group of severe thunderstorms. Derechos can cause hurricane force winds, tornadoes, heavy rains, and flash floods.) I learned that Pennsylvania is one of the dirtiest states, producing more pollution than the country of Chile. And I learned that the fact that the ice caps in Antarctica are increasing is a testament to the warming conditions elsewhere, bringing more water to the Antarctic.

It can be overwhelming to think about a global problem, but we can start with a personal or household exercise in calculating our carbon footprint. We can promote community-based resiliency planning, because the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina has showed us that the most vulnerable were the elderly and handicapped who were without access to transportation out of their disaster area. So, a contact list of individuals who live alone or cannot drive in our neighborhood would result in faster response than relying on the National Guards.

Promoting our concerns for the environment means knowing how to speak to those who do not share our beliefs. It means advance preparation, so we are aware for example that a particular Congressional representative has a relative with asthma, which is exacerbated by air pollution. It means meeting our audience on their terms, incorporating their concerns.

Rabbi Shawn Zevit of Mishkan Shalom spoke from the audience about his inter-faith work, in which his fellow clergy face difficulty talking about climate change when their parishioners are facing unemployment and eviction from their homes. It is easily dismissed as a problem of white privilege. The Sierra Club found that by reaching out to disparate niche populations, they were effective in integrating their cause. They now work with veteran groups, a particularly effective ally in capturing the attention of Congress.

Rear Admiral David W. Titley

Rear Admiral David W. Titley

A few years ago, I was given a platform from my synagogue for environmental issues. So, each week I was able to present one environmental fact to the kehillah through our shul bulletin. This was well received until the week I wrote about meat consumption being a major hazard to the health of our Earth. In the flurry and fury of complaints to the rabbi from meat lovers, I lost my forum. (Rear Admiral Titley said, “We will not convince people with the scientific facts, because scientists have tried for 30 years and failed.”) I learned yesterday that the way to influence my shul peers is not to bludgeon them with the facts, I have to re-frame my approach to make it a religious value, a mitzvah.

Let us brainstorm together on ways to create a cleaner, healthier, and more sustainable world for future generations. Time is running out, as the Arctic ice caps melt and coastal cities and island nations face flooding and contamination of their water tables (ruining their supply of drinking water). We all aspire to a good and meaningful life, we just have differences in how to meet our goals.

A Thanksgiving Prayer for the Refugees

hiasAs we Americans head into our national holiday of giving thanks, I take note of the troubles of our brethren abroad. So many are without sufficient food, clean water, and a safe place to sleep. Many more fear for their lives as well as Europeans who are reeling from the massacre in Paris on Friday the 13th.

Fear brings its companion, hysteria. Hysteria breeds irrational behavior, and the rants of public officials on protecting our people, by limiting the freedom of those others they consider a high risk to public safety, are distressing. This country has been down this road before, especially during World War II, with the arrests and incarceration of citizens of enemy descent (see Jan J. Russell’s The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II).

In the Bible, there is the curious incident of the body found at the edge of the city limits (Deuteronomy, 21:1-8), upon which the elders of the city are to atone publicly with a sin offering. The sages say that this is to instill communal responsibility for the travesty that a stranger should die unwitnessed and unclaimed. I was troubled by this interpretation, feeling overwhelmed by the awesome task. With time and reflection, I now better understand that actions — both individual and institutional– impact the integration of people within society.

How many times have we read about the individual who was bullied and ignored, who later exploded in anger and vengeance? Would that we could turn back the clock, so that someone does reach out to this person. Could we better allocate our mental health resources to serve more people? What if gun sales were better controlled? Why not try to reach out to our new neighbor, so that we could see each other as human beings?

How hard do we try to protect people from persecution for their ethnicity? The French and the Belgians are now dealing with the legacy of decades of neglect and isolation of their Muslim aliens, who were never adopted into their national identity. I think the U.S. is a little better in integrating our immigrants, in part because of our pride in our heritage as a nation of immigrants.

Let us not turn our backs on the plight of the Syrian refugees, who are fleeing from the same kind of horror that Europeans are now experiencing through the evil actions of ISIL. They need a home where they will be welcomed, where their young will become integrated into our society, and where they will adopt American values. This is my prayer for them. Throughout our history, we have turned others of “dubious” backgrounds into loyal, law-abiding citizens and we should continue to do so with the Syrians. Happy Thanksgiving!

Here is a letter from a former Iraqi Kurd (obtained from HIAS-PA):

My name is Ali and I served as an interpreter for the U.S. Army in Iraq for three years. In 2013, I came to Tennessee as a refugee after two years of vetting by the U.S. State Department.

I knew I had to leave Iraq in 2009 when a friend of mine, another interpreter, took a vacation in Sinjar. While he was at home, his car was blown up, killing him and two of his family members. If I stayed long after the Army left Iraq, I would have been killed too. In 2011, I returned home and began the refugee application process.

Over two years, my brothers, my wife, and my children traveled several times to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad for screening. As a Kurd traveling to Baghdad, it was a dangerous for us. The airport, the hotel, and each of the checkpoints on the way to the embassy were all very dangerous. There were many interviews, tests, medical screenings, and background and security checks. They talked to family, friends, and people who employed us previously. And they did it repeatedly over two years. And then finally, on October 23rd 2013, we were approved.

Like my family, the refugees you see on the news are leaving because it is their only chance at a better life. They leave their homes, live in a tent or on the street … maybe they find a camp. Aid and international refugee programs are the difference between life and death.

As I watch the news from my home in Tennessee, I don’t understand politicians who are trying to stop people fleeing from war from coming to the United States.

I don’t understand why they’d try to prevent Kurds, especially, from coming to America. Over twelve years in Iraq, not one American soldier was killed by a Kurd. These are good people coming from over there. The little boy who washed up on the shore in Greece, his name was Aylan and he was a Kurd who fled the violence in Syria with his family.

The people fighting ISIS alongside Americans last week in Sinjar are Kurds. They are trying to escape ISIS and they need America’s help right now.

Thank you for reading my story.

HIAS-EcuadorResponse From an Anonymous Persian Jew:

Dear Hannah,

I beg to differ. This issue is not one that one can apply one size fits all. As tragic and heart-rendering as the plight of the refugees from Syria is, please bear in mind that we are dealing with a radically different culture and set of circumstances.

When we let in and took in thousands of Somali Moslems and housed them in Minnesota, we did not expect that their American-born children would become the backbone of the Islamic radicals in Somalia, the Shabaab. The Shabaab are no different than the Daesh (aka, ISIS) and their acts are barbaric.

Islamic culture has within it seeds of violence and intolerance that are deeply rooted in the Qoran and Hadith. I will not come to the defense of Europe, but to be fair, these folks did not come in to adopt European civilization. The Jews in Europe lived next to European civilization and, whereas they retained their distinct identity and religion, the Jews did not try to assimilate European society or convert Europeans.

We are comparing apples to oranges. The Christian and Yazidi communities are persecuted and should be embraced and welcomed by us. Alas, political correctness does not allow it.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Circle of Compassion

After the tragedy of 9-11, Kermit Roosevelt explored how a country could become gripped by fear and panic. A law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, he’s written Allegiance, a sophisticated legal thriller that plunges readers into the debate within the U.S. government surrounding the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans (between 110,000-120,000) during World War II.

A former clerk for the Supreme Court Justice David Souter, Roosevelt delved into the political machinations and intrigue over the Japanese internment. I learned from the book about the pro-Japanese extremist group, the Hoshi Dan, who pressed their brethren for renunciation of American citizenry and why so many of the inmates failed the loyalty test (30% refused military service and almost 16% refused to disavow loyalty to Japan).

The Nisei who were born here faced the prospect of being separated from their parents. Their parents could not answer positively, as they were still citizens of Japan (and not allowed to be naturalized by an act of Congress), so they’d be committing treason. Also, they thought the questions were a trick: if they disavowed loyalty to Japan, does that mean they’d previously supported the Emperor?

While reading the book, I thought of our fellow Jews who send their children to study in Israel (a claim of disloyalty made against the Japanese), volunteer for the Israeli Defense Force, and even raise money for equipment for the Israeli soldiers. What would happen when Israel is labelled an enemy nation in some future war?

At the author’s presentation at Main Point Books, a woman came who was born into one of the worst of the Japanese internment camps, Tule Lake in rural California. I asked her if the adults reacted differently from the children and she said that she has not met any adults who retained any resentment. She quoted a Japanese phrase which translates as “It cannot be helped.” This sounds Buddhist in philosophy, and a healthy perspective that allowed the Japanese to seek a life in this country after World War II.

I marveled at the diverse role of real Jews in the narrative: Federal Judge Louis E. Goodman who presided over the July 1944 criminal trial of 26 Japanese-American young men who were drafted from the internment camps and refused to serve. Goodman dismissed the federal charges on the grounds that men were living with duress and restraint, so they cannot be compelled to serve or to be prosecuted for their unwillingness to serve. Other prominent Washington Jews, however, were not concerned with the plight of the Japanese-Americans, including Herbert Weschler, then Assistant Attorney General. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter operated on the belief that supporting President Franklin D. Roosevelt (who’d picked eight of the nine Supreme Court Justices) was the surest way to end the War and end the suffering of all.

In preparation for the writing of Allegiance, Kermit Roosevelt (a great-great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, and thus also a relative of President Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt) also researched the psychology of empathy and what conditions promote compassion. To his surprise, one key factor is the reading of fiction, that is reading narratives that open a window into other people’s lives and broaden what the late Attorney General Francis Biddle called the “circle of compassion.” After all, the instinctive reaction to fear is to draw lines of safety. Anyone outside these lines are deemed “not-like-us,” suspicious, and potentially dangerous. In the worst historical incidents, the Other is characterized as Not Human Like Us.

The world seems smaller than ever, through the Internet and global travel and migration. Do we enlarge our circle of compassion or do we circle the wagons and withdraw within? Kermit Roosevelt has written a sensitive portrait of a young man, raised in the insular lap of privilege of the Main Line of the 1940s, who gradually develops a broader view of humanity. The protagonist, Caswell Harrison, becomes a fuller human being when he learns the capacity to imagine the suffering of others so unlike him and he sought a role in their aid.

Re-Remembering Our Loved Ones

candleOver Shimini Atzeret, I was moved by the sermon of a rabbi who had lost his twin babies at 20 weeks of gestation, just before the Sabbath. He quoted from Kohelet (Ecclesiastes):

… better off than he, is the stillborn child, for he [the stillborn child] comes in vain and departs in darkness. Though it never saw the sun, nor knew of it; its contentment is greater than his.

Twenty-three years ago, I suffered the loss of a baby, but there is no traditional Jewish ritual for miscarriages or stillborn babies. No naming ceremony, no shiva. I did not even seek out a support group. Finally, I have now been given a positive perspective on my loss. My new friend had copious tears down her face.

Then, the rabbi segued into talking about other losses: the death of people we have lived with. He said that the tendency is for us to have a fixed static memory of the departed person, because time has stopped for that person. However, in order to give a future to our relationship, we need to bring that person into our present and incorporate new interactions. We need to re-member them into our lives.

My dad died in June, and Mom has placed a large framed photograph of him in the living room. She talks to him daily and when my siblings and I visit, we bow and greet Dad. Upon our departure, we announce our farewell. At the oddest moments, I think of Dad and how he would have reacted. I take comfort in that and it gives me the impetus to talk about him with my daughters. He remains alive in our thoughts, and thus he is still relevant. May the rabbi and his wife take comfort in imaging their twin daughters as they grow throughout childhood.

Originally published in A Cultural Mix.

Film Chat: A Borrowed Identity

dancing_arabs-629937_full[1]The final selection in the 19th season of the Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia was Eran Riklis’s A Borrowed Identity, originally titled Dancing Arabs, based on the 2004 novel by Sayed Kashua of the same title.

It is a provocative film that sensitively portrays the alienation of Arabs living in Israel, as they are subjected to legal obstacles, border crossings, and prejudice. It is also discomforting to watch Jews being the oppressor. However, it is a well-crafted piece of art.

The protagonist, Eyad, is a young Arab Muslim boy who wins a scholarship to a prestigious school in Jerusalem, after a humorous incident in which he solves a complicated riddle posed on an Arab show on cable television. The social isolation and public humiliation of being an Arab in a Jewish state impedes his progress. Along the way, he is assigned to visit a disabled Jewish boy, Jonathan, as part of the school’s community service requirement. [Read more…]

The Locavore Movement and the Religious Jew


— by Hannah Lee

My favorite non-fiction book in 2007 was Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, written with her biologist husband, Steven Hopp, and their two children about their experiment in growing all of their food on their own land in rural southwest Virginia.  It also powered the growth of the locavore movement.  I found the memoir fascinating in its intelligence, its honesty (mistakes were made!) and the family’s sense of humor. My favorite anecdote was when Kingsolver quipped to her friends that when you’re ranked as “number 74 (on a Doomsday author’s book about the dangers of 100 people who were destroying America), you try harder,” as she endeavored to eviscerate a turkey.

In Wednesday’s New York Times (its Dining section being the highlight of the week for me), readers learned what the family has been doing since their milestone year.  They wanted to expand the lessons learned to their blue-collar, Appalachian community.  First, they contemplated creating a year-round farmers’ market but the growing season is short.  So, Hopp decided that a restaurant would be more viable, one in which the produce, meat and cheese would be sourced locally.  As reported by Jane Black, “Coffee and tea would be allowed because they are dried, but they should be organic, fair trade or both.”

How has the Harvest Table, as Hopp’s restaurant is named, fared since it was launched in October 2007?   It’s been difficult, and they have yet to make a profit.  This isn’t a “progressive, urban enclave” such as exists in Brooklyn or Berkeley, so most of their neighbors have not even bothered to step in, thinking the meal would be too expensive.  As for attempts to reaching beyond the choir (of like-minded folks), you first have to get them in the door.  And the labels, “farm fresh,” “organic” and “local” do not muster the excitement they do in urban communities where entrepreneurs (food impresarios, I call them) charge up to $200 for a dinner served in the fields (as I heard reported on NPR last week).  So, they keep the prices low (comparable to Applebee’s though the reporter noted that the portions are larger in the chain restaurants) and the profile humble, the opposite of the marketer’s urge to scale up in sophistication.  Black gives an example: “What might be called “fennel pasta with pecans” in Brooklyn and served with a detailed description of the vegetable provenance, is “pasta primavera” here.

But Hopp’s quote that hit me personally was this: “We are always trying to figure out how to educate people more, but with the recognition that most people don’t want a lecture.”  I’ve just returned from a visit with my daughter in Chicago, where I stayed in the lovely home of a young couple found through the Airbnb lodging-rentals website.  My host was a New Zealander (with an American wife) and he’d never  met a religious Jew before.  He was curious about some tenets of the Jewish faith.  So, do we give the short, flippant answer or do we attempt the more thoughtful and accurate explanation but risk losing our audience?  My daughter has been through the cauldron of fire before when we transferred her from a religious high school to our local acclaimed public high school (the beloved alma mater of basketball star Koby Bryant) and it was during the social studies freshman unit on the Middle East and she was called upon to explain all of Jewish past, present, and future.  Trying to educate and defend Israeli politics is a challenge far beyond most 14-year-olds.  But, she did engage her peers and she’s matured into a thinking, articulate adult.

So, we found ourselves having a more engaged conversation about faith and ritual with our host than is encountered at the usual Shabbat table.  What struck me anew is that every Jew must conduct herself as a diplomat, a model representative of her people (forgive my use of the distaff (feminine) possessive pronoun).   The people you encounter may not have ever met another earnest, committed Jew before.  You may have this one opportunity to give them not only a positive impression of Yiddishkeit (Jewishness), but you may also have the privilege and challenge to un-do and clarify erroneous impressions conveyed by others, who were less careful, less knowledgeable, less sophisticated.  Would you pass your test?  This may have been our test for The Three Weeks of introspection as we Jews head towards Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, which falls on August 8th this year.

Book Chat


— by Hannah Lee

As a Chinese-American, I am neither white nor black and I am privileged to observe the nuances of race relations in this country as a bystander (except when my own racial heritage is a source of grievance).  I wonder if an academic awareness of an issue allows one to appreciate the inherent complexities?

I read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and I was riveted but very perturbed by its central issue of race relations.  Set in 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi, a young white woman interviews and edits the painful narratives of black maids about their relationships with their white employers.  I  wanted to identify a black perspective.  Another friend cautioned me that I cannot generalize to all blacks, as African immigrants and people with Caribbean roots do not share the same experience as those descended from slaves brought to America.  No, indeed, but I was sure that a black person would respond differently to the book.

More after the jump.
I spoke with a black staffer at my local library, someone whom I’ve known for the 21 years that my family has lived in this community.  She did not enjoy the book as did the white readers who have praised The Help, launching it onto the bestseller lists.  She could forecast how the plot would go, and she skipped over parts.  Her niece was bored by it and never did finish the book.  I asked her if it would have been a better book if it had been written by a black author, but she demurred at that.

Could the difference lie in perspective?  Events resonate more when they become personal, as Jews are instructed to imagine that they themselves are leaving Egypt during the Passover seder.  Issues become more painful.  It took me a few years before I could follow a friend’s recommendation for Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
, because the central character, a child, dies from an epileptic seizure and my child has the same disorder.I’ve read that people like horror films because they find it cathartic, a vicarious experience that leaves them relieved to be safe and ordinary.  I wonder if readers of The Help become more understanding?  Are some readers smug that they are not racist and do not harbor any prejudicial intent?  Or do they have a renewed sensitivity to insults to human dignity?  Do they speak out in protest?My Rabbi has noted that we do not feel pain to the same degree when a tragedy, a violation, happens to someone else.  However, the challenge is in the striving to maintain sensitivity and that is a hallmark of a compassionate person.

I attended a book discussion along with my friend who grew up in the South.  She found the novel realistic, and told me later that the others (all white women) did not appreciate the fact that though the overt theme of the book was racism, the same kind of prejudice and peer control exist in other times, other places, including our own.  I attempted to point out that the new theory on bully-behavior management, is not to address the bully directly, but to educate the silent majority, that they can take control of a situation by speaking up.  The queen bee, Hilly, from the novel could not have continued in her role, if the others did not let her do so.  However, most people were too afraid, ignorant, or blind to the racial divide in a society in which they had a comfortable perch.  I wonder if readers would become more conscious and sensitive to injustice around them?  I made a reference to To Kill a Mockingbird, which is now a classic.  Did readers of the time immediately take to its message?

The film version, starring Emma Stone as the ingenue reporter, Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, Viola Davis as her source, a black housekeeper named Aibileen Clark, and Bryce Dallas Howard as their nemesis, the controlling Hilly Holbrook, will open in the local cinemas on August 10th.

Who Infuses Klezmer and Jazz Music With An African Beat?

–by Hannah Lee

The e-mail came on a Friday afternoon via my publisher.  It was the cultural attaché for the Israeli Consulate here in Philly and she wanted me to cover the event they were sponsoring at the Art Museum as part of its Art After Five program.  The problem?  The concerts are held on Friday evenings and I observe Shabbat the traditional way.  When I told my family about the prominence of the guest artist, Israeli-born Oran Etkin, they encouraged me to cover the event.  What I ended up doing was to complete my Shabbat preparations by 5, drove down to the Museum in a pouring rain, attended the concert, and was back home and ready for candle-lighting before any other member of my family.  The interview with the soft-spoken artist was conducted the following Monday by Skype.

What excited us was the reputation Oran has as a clarinet player and a teacher, lauded by New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff and PRI‘s internationally syndicated radio show, Afropop Worldwide.  His music fuses traditional West African (Malian), Jewish, and Middle Eastern melodies with modern jazz, creating what The Boston Globe dubbed a “hypnotic balance between straight-ahead jazz and world music.”  He’s performed across the world with musicians ranging from jazz guitarist Mike Stern to rapper Wyclef Jean.  His music has been featured on a Grammy-nominated album, Healthy Food for Thought, alongside tracks by Russell Simmons, Moby, and Sweet Honey In the Rock.  

More after the jump.

Oran is also an innovative teacher and the creator of the popular Timbalooloo music classes.  His first CD for children, Wake Up, Clarinet!, has won awards from the Parents Choice Foundation, NAPPA (the National Parenting Publications Awards) and the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Seal.  It features Jason Marsalis from New Orleans on drums, Fabian Almazan from Cuba on piano, Curis Fowlkes from Brooklyn on trombone, and Garth Stevenson from Canada on bass.  His debut album, Kelenia, was recognized as the “Best World Beat Album” at the Independent Music Awards.  Oran has performed at the Blue Note, Central Park SummerStage, Joe’s Pub, the United Nations and numerous other venues in the United States, Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and the Middle East with musicians including Jason Marsalis, Wycliffe Gordon, Lionel Loueke, Mandingo Ambassadors, Airto Moreira, Toumani Diabate, and Killah Priest of the Wu-Tang Clan.

How did a Jew, an Israeli, learn to play traditional African music from Mali?  Oran had a teacher in college- his alma mater being Brandeis- whose uncle played the kora, also known as the African harp or lute.  This teacher, Joh Camara, brought Oran to visit his family in Mali and Oran fell in love with the people and their music.  The two African musicians who’d performed at the Art Museum had the same surname, Kouyate.  Did this have a cultural significance, as Cohen connote priestly descent for Jews?  Yes, the West Africans have an oral tradition by a griot or a jeli who relates the history of their people through music and song.  People bearing the Kouyate surname are descendents of the original griot family.  They traditionally perform at milestone ceremonies and Oran has been privileged to participate in some of these festive occasions.  Richard Freedman, professor of music at Haverford College, reminds me that these griot lineages have broken down somewhat in the wake of sound recording (which allows others to copy the style), and of course, of social change in Mali, emigration, etc.  In fact, you can even study kora in the United States!

Two non-Western instruments were performed at the concert– in addition to Oran on the bass clarinet and saxophone and Marcos Verela on the double bass– the balafon and the calabash.  Yes, you read correctly- it was a giant egg-shaped half gourd, measuring almost two feet in diameter with a hardened shell that was about half an inch thick.  The drummer, Makane Kouyate, produced such a diverse blend of sound with his instrument that I was sure he had a steel drum hidden behind it.  No, it was only the calabash with a microphone tucked underneath on a regular table.  When the drummer beats the instrument from the side, it evokes a click sound, and when he bangs it from the top, while standing, it sounds like a bass drum.  Played by Balla Kouyate, the balafon is a percussion idiophone of West Africa and it looks like a wooden xylophone.  It was carefully and lovingly made by its owner, as these musicians take pride in making their own instruments.  The drummer had also stretched goatskin for his other drum, the djembe.  I learned from Wikipedia that according to the Bamana people in Mali, the name of the djembe comes from the saying Anke djé, anke bé which translates to “everyone gather together in peace” and defines the drum’s purpose.

The percussionist had his two young children sitting contently up front behind the “stage,” a cleared space at the bottom of the grand staircase inside the Museum, with a huge cloth curtain drawn across the back of where the musicians performed.  Oran confirmed that the balafon player was their father, noting that this was “the natural way of understanding music.”  When children learn at a young age, music comes to them naturally; they do not have to learn the rules as one has to endure learning the grammar of a foreign language.  With his Timbalooloo classes, the next generation is being exposed to world music with “real people playing real music, attending to each other,” and in the process, they learn to appreciate each other through their music.

In the past two years, his touring has increased and been brought to another level.  There is much interest in Europe, where it is said that they appreciate and value jazz music.  Oran says it’s true in certain aspects as a cultural, artistic, and intellectual achievement.  But then, he would hate to generalize, as he only sees a certain subset of a music audience.  He now lives in the United States and he sees people who do not know or value jazz music.  Maybe, it’s because jazz started in this country, mused Oran, “so people here take it for granted and not value it as much.”

For the concert, Oran wore a slim black jacket over a collared white short-sleeved shirt (which was exposed when he took off the jacket when the music got “hot”) and jeans.  The bassist wore black, but each of the two Malian musicians wore a blue or gold flowing wide-sleeved African robe called a boubou or a bubu. Why did Oran not wear something similar?  It would not be authentic.  Oran elaborated thus: they understand and respect each performer’s own identity and integrity.   According to Professor Freedman, “They are mixing the traditions while attempting to preserve the uniqueness of each layer.”  Oran continued, “It adds more value when meeting other musicians when you bring who you are and make something new.” It enables a wider message.

While Oran is not observant of Jewish religious tradition, he is a modern-day Israeli.  Hebrew was his first language and he still speaks it with his family.   In addition to language, he claims an Israeli identity in the way he relates to other people, a more casual way of friendship than is demonstrated by Americans, who do not drop in on their friends un-announced.  He has felt more at home with other immigrants, through their multiple identities.  As with music, so it is with his social life.

Before his maternal grandmother’s death when he was eight, he and his elder brother recorded her memoir.  They made 10 audiocassettes of the family’s oral history about the uncle who left Poland/Russia for Ethiopia (and became close to the Emperor Haile Selassie) and she who’d emigrated alone to Israel in the 1930’s.  She, Mina Nadel, later earned a doctorate at the Sorbonne and became head of the biology department at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.  Oran plans to write music one day based on her stories.

Was there musical talent in his family?  We do not know if it was so further back in time that the Etkin clan was musical, but in his immediate family, there are no professional musicians.  His mother played the piano at home.  His father played no instruments but he was very musical and he sang around the house.  He taught him the importance of melody, said Oran, as “jazz musicians can get so caught up in the notes that they get away from the melodies.”  He was obsessed by Louis Armstrong from the age of nine and he discovered jazz on his own.  His parents then took him to New Orleans to hear the real stuff in his early teens.

Oran also has a sister who’s much younger by 10 years.  In caring for her and teaching her how to read and do math, she taught him how to teach.  His playfulness and inventiveness come across in his children’s CD.  Teaching is in the family: His brother, Amit Etkin, has both M.D. and Ph.D. degrees, and is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Oran’s goals are to play more and more music.  A bachelor, he likes to wake up and make music with people whom he likes and trusts.  He will continue to tour and meet people who are interesting to him socially as well as musically.  His Timbalooloo ventures will also expand, with more CDs, and also children’s books.  Watch for news of his proposed television program and you can check out his websites,  www.oranetkin.com for the jazz and world music (including Kelenia), and www.timbalooloo.com for the program for children.   He has taught other people his pedagogical method and when touring, he also teaches classes on site.  Parents hear by word-of-mouth and they gather their children to meet him around the world, whether it be in Paris or Los Angeles for the Grammy awards ceremony.  My 2-year-old niece and her family will be moving to Edinburgh, Scotland this fall, so I hope that Oran would plan a gig there.

Kelenia, the title of his debut album, means “the love between people who find each other.”  Today is the Fast Day of the 17th of Tammuz and as we Jews begin the Three Weeks of semi-mourning culminating in the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, Tisha B’Av, the rabbis remind us that the ancient first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by sinat hinam, senseless hatred.  May the trust and acceptance that comes through a love of shared music inspire us for a future of peace.    

Farming the Biblical Way

— by Hannah Lee

Touted as a “squash rock star” by Laura Matthews on her blog, Punk Rock Gardens, Tom Culton, 30, has not only appeared on the David Letterman show but he has participated in Sotheby’s The Art of Farming auction along with the gracious-living guru Martha Stewart.  He has been featured in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Bon Appetit magazine.  He supplies his heirloom and other weird-looking vegetables to local upscale restaurants such as  Vetri, Zahav, and The Farm and Fisherman in Philadelphia (the latter recently garnered a three-bell rating from the Inquirer’s food critic, Craig LaBan) and to celebrity chefs such as Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud in New York City.

What the other media interviews do not mention is that Tom is a devoted member of the River Brethen Church, one of only two remaining Old-Order Mennonite communities in Lancaster and in New Paltz in upstate New York.  Members of his family have been living in Lancaster County since 1740, but several generations back they were dissatisfied by the leadership and dropped out.

More after the jump.
Tom is the first one in his family to return to his ancestral faith.  According to the Wikipedia, the River Brethren oppose war, alcohol, tobacco, and worldly pleasures.  They also observe the Sabbath — on Saturdays, like the Jews —  in which they do not work.  Tom scatters extra grain for his chickens before the Sabbath, just as manna fell in double portion for the Jews in the desert.

Tom grew up farming but it was in his teens that he understood “it’s one of the most important roles” he could have in the world.  After his mother’s death in 2001, he found solace in farming– nurturing something while Nature nurtures him in return.  “Growing food is one of the beautiful things in the world, even when it can be a dark place,” said Tom.  His  mother bequeathed to him the ancestral home (his father had left them when Tom was only three days old), and Tom ventured to turn his family farm– previous crops had been tobacco and carrots– to a more sustainable future.  His grandfather, now 81, has come to see the folly of his post-war generation relying on chemicals without  regard for the environmental impact.

Faith is a very important factor in Tom’s life.  It gives focus, strength, and understanding.  He “doesn’t look for answers in man-made solutions, but in God’s solutions.”  The farming life is so insecure, affected by unpredictable weather conditions and capricious market prices.  Farmers can easily lose faith in the face of difficulties but Tom turns to prayer during the sad times (deaths and relationship woes), crops failures, and husbandry diseases.

It is in church on the Sabbath that Tom feels embraced as a farmer.  In fact, his fellow church  members are all farmers, but he is the only organic one — and the one with the highest yield from his land.  Once a contractor for a  fellow church member ventured to drive his truck through Tom’s land — with its access road that “would have saved him $5 in gasoline” costs — but Tom saw the guy in time and ran to block access, standing him off “like the student protestors in Tiananmen Square (China).”  He was cursed roundly for his unneighborly action, but the unheeded drips from the guy’s pesticide-laden truck (and the wheels) could have cost Tom his organic certification or at least incur a hefty fine.

Tom has tremendous respect for the elderly and the ways of old.  His grandfather lives with him.  The senior Culton is not enamored of speaking to outsiders but he enjoys puttering on the farm.  He also cultivates his own saffron plot– for his favorite rice dishes– a therapeutic crop requiring a labor-intensive harvesting of the stamens.  Respect for the elderly was also demonstrated by his church when their Bishop suffered a stroke.  To maintain his dignity, he and his wife were sent to a remote farm (away from bustling Lancaster) owned by a church member to live out his days in pastoral peace.  Ancestral ties are maintained through family burial plots on his property, a right protected by his church. In another affirmation of tradition, Tom is refurbishing his family’s buggy, which he plans to use on his wedding day when he meets the lucky gal who cherishes a farming life.  The River Brethren were among the last of the Mennonites to give up their buggies.

Organic farming can give comparable or better yields than conventional agriculture but it does demand much more labor.  Tom grows alfalfa, which is dicey to grow without pesticides, as feed for his dairy goats and as a cash commodity as well as a cover crop for fixing nitrogen (a natural alternative to petroleum-based fertilizers).  Every five years (in contrast to the seven years between Shmittah (Hebrew for “release”) years in the Jewish tradition), he takes out his alfalfa and rotates his crops in the fields.  He has located a French company that uses certified non-GMO (genetically modified organism) corn to produce biodegradable plastic for agricultural purposes.  It’s much more expensive, priced at $400 for 5,000 square feet versus $89 for the conventionally produced plastic.  Tom has seen farmers take the lazy way and simply plow the regular plastic under their land, where it doesn’t ever completely degrade but which does chip off and get into our food and water supply.

How did he learn to farm the organic way?  When he began farming seriously, it was already in his DNA.  So, he did not read much, because it was really just common sense.  “You go with your heart” and do what is only sustainable for your land.  It has become a “very religious experience” to come to realize that modern research has confirmed his wholehearted experience on the farm.  Tom recently got his first computer and was able to search on the Internet for the correct spelling of the Red Piriform tomato (with ribbed shoulders) that was previously thought to only grow in the Ligura region of Italy but which Tom has succeeded in cultivating and supplying to his chef friends. On Tom’s kitchen table is a bobble-head figure of Mark McGwire, the discredited baseball player who admitted to steroid use last year, to remind himself that people still prize natural talent — and by extension,  natural food — without chemical enhancements.

Tom has one high-top (plastic-covered tent) greenhouse without any heating source and one that is heated by waste oil, processed by him (centrifuged to remove impurities) on his land.  He collects the oil from the area restaurants, which pay him to take the waste oil off their hands.

This year, Tom has the assistance of Matthew Yoder, recently returned from a stint in Maine and newly adopted into the River Brethren faith, and Ian Osborne, an “English” young man not of the faith– just as Jews might distinguish between themselves and the goyim (Gentiles).  Matthew brought his knowledge of crops that thrive in New England and the two of them have planted heavily on the 53 acres of the Culton Organics farm.  What are his favorite crops?  Fava beans– or just about any bean– and artichokes with its purply, thistly flowers.

Tom’s plans for next year comprise of a reduced reliance on produce and the introduction of ducks and geese (for the eggs and meat).  His farm now supports 15 chickens (only two of which are now mature enough to lay eggs daily), a small flock of goats, and one turkey.  Most of the goats are milk-producing animals, but one lone billy goat was allowed to retain his horns and escape castration (which adversely affects the taste of the meat).  Why was this one chosen for the sacrifice (his eventual slaughter)?  He was the mean one of the flock.

Tom and his friend, Michael Solomonov, the chef at Zahav and a recent winner of the prestigious James Beard award, plan to tour Israel together.  Does he wish to see the Christian religious sites?  No, he is willing to follow Michael’s lead; besides he is more interested in seeing the Jewish historical sites.

You could taste the delicious dishes made from the heirloom vegetables from Culton Organics at area restaurants and you may meet Tom and Matt on Sundays at the Headhouse Square Farmers’ Market (open from 10 am to 2 pm at Second and Pine Streets).  Be sure to bring your smile or he’ll charge you double.

What Do We Need From Our Jewish Leaders?

— By Hannah Lee

As part of a lecture series at the National Museum of American Jewish History, this past Tuesday evening was a session titled, “Challenges to American Jewish Leaders Today.” The featured panelists were Dr. Erica Brown, scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and winner of the esteemed Covenant Award for her work in Jewish education, and Dr. Steven Cohen, research professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU.

More after the jump.
Brown started the conversation with a quote from Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic: “American Jews are the spoiled brats of the 20th century.”  Cohen explained that viewpoint as such: American Jews are ignorant and they don’t even know it.  But he, Cohen, is not as concerned about Jewish literacy–  as defined by the ancient rabbinic texts– but chooses to define and measure Jewish engagement and identity.  Brown declared that American Jews have accomplished a tremendous amount for American culture, but less for the legacy of Judaism.  Once they are finally introduced to their Jewish legacy, they do learn to appreciate the reservoir of Jewish wisdom that is applicable and relevant to their communal roles.  Cohen countered thus: Jewish knowledge comes from being effective.  It’s not essential to know the rabbinic texts.  Furthermore, he said, Jewish knowledge also includes cooking skills.  So, would you come to a program on chicken soup? quipped Brown.  Yes, but only to taste, retorted Cohen, I cannot cook and that makes me a deficient Jew.

Turning to Israel as another indicator of Jewish identity, Brown noted with dismay that American Jews cannot have a civil discourse over issues these days.  Cohen, who’d made aliyah (emigrated to Israel) in 1992, considers  himself  a learned Jew because of his intimate knowledge of Israeli life and politics.  He outlined the two camps of Jews in America thus: one that feels an obligation of loyalty to Israel and the other that is concerned primarily with human rights.  The former is concerned that the human-rights camp undermines the security of Israel while the latter camp is worried that the Zionist hawks undermine the democratic and moral character of Israel.  (Cohen considers himself  a security-driven dove.)  Brown regards incivility as representative of American politics today, as shown in vituperous anonymous exchanges on the Internet and sometimes even in person.  Cohen was more concerned about the lack of knowledge of policies than incivility.  Later, he noted that three comparison groups- American Jews of old (early 20th century), the Orthodox, and Israelis– are all defined by strong passion.  It’s not incivil to be passionate about an issue.

In Cohen’s 2000 book, The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America, he refers to “sheilaism,” a term coined by Robert Bellah and Richard Madsen in their monumental study, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life to encapsulate the egoistic adoption of ritual– Brown called it “the religion of one”– and the resultant breakdown of communal religious life.  Another term they bandied was “journeyism,” to refer to the expectations of the disaffected to be supported in their journeys of spiritual exploration.  They, and we, lose the communal and social reasons for religion.  So, how do we create community for these disaffected youth?  Cohen advocates the growing success the Jewish community has achieved in delivering personal meaning through new venues, such as minyanim and havurot.  Drawing upon semantics, he noted that observant Jews used to greet each other with chag kasher v’sameach for Pesach (Passover), but now we tell each other, “Have a meaningful fast.”  He was wowed by the inclusion of “meaningful” in the Artscroll machzor (High Holiday prayer book) that is widely accepted in the Orthodox community.    According to Cohen, we have moved from the normative system of “This is the right way to live” to an aesthetic system with an enriching culture.

A hot topic is conversion; current debates focus more on who has the right to determine who is a Jew than who is Jewish.  Brown cited Joseph Caro’s 16th century seminal work in traditional Judaism, The Shulhan Aruch, for posing the test question: Are you willing to accept the fate of the Jewish people?  If so, then the proselyte can be taught the mitzvot (commandments).  She claimed  that there is a big price to be paid for taking out the Jewish content.  Cohen said that we should welcome more converts.  He estimated that 10% of intermarried couples will have grandchildren who identify as Jews and only 50% of Gentile inter-married partners do convert.   He proposed cultivating conversionary-minded rabbis.  Brown retorted that a lack of teachers was not the obstruction but communal lack of acceptance.  She taught that the Biblical Ruth was ignored by the women of Bethlehem when she arrived there with her mother-in-law Naomi– and this was after Ruth’s dramatic and poetic declaration of faith.  Cohen agreed that prejudice against converts was morally wrong but its removal would be insufficient to increasing the incentive for conversion.  He thinks there is a sizeable cohort of non-Jews who are connected but would not convert.

Cohen then proposed the radical idea of dropping the God part of Ruth’s oath and calling for Jewish affirmation, not conversion.  Brown protested that this would unfairly narrow the definition of who is a Jew.  Cohen said that it would be gambling a loss of people choosing the cheaper, more accessible product– Birthright, for instance, instead of the more intensive and demanding six-weeks’ stay in Israel– but we’ll be compensated by a wider reach to those who would not have been tempted outright.  Brown quipped that he was offering wholesale instead of retail.  Cohen admitted  it’s a half step toward conversion.  It’s thus not a burden for rabbis and teachers, but we have not yet shown the love to motivate these non-Jewish partners for further engagement.   What is most important is inclusion, to keeping the tent opened wide.  Brown bemoaned the current culture of self-esteem and consumerism, in which our youth do not see themselves as stakeholders, but treat Judaism as “fee for service.”  They will attend High Holiday services but they would not pay dues, which cover the rabbi’s salary and the utility bills.

Regarding Jewish leaders under the age of 40, Cohen noted a major shift from people to purpose, from belonging to judging everything–  family, institutions, Israel–  according to our interests and passions.  

What does it mean to be a Jewish leader nowadays?  Without minimizing Jewish literacy, Cohen extorted us to also recognize other forms of Jewish knowledge.  More than the rabbinic texts, there is an additional corpus of knowledge not recognized by our Biblical scholars and seminarians, but is represented within the gallery space of the new National Museum of American Jewish History. That is also Jewish content, Jewish knowledge.