Weblog Entries for October 2005

Who Is a Jew?

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I walked out of the Jewish Museum’s new exhibition, “The Jewish Identity Project” thinking that identity is a strange and a slippery thing. “Identity” is where the person that you feel yourself to be on the inside intersects with the person that society perceives on the outside. “Identity” is the point at which an individual comes up against categories like skin color, class, citizenship, nationality, and religion. These are treacherous categories. They decide social status. At some points in history, they have determined whether a person lived or died. But there is always ambiguity at the boundaries of these categories. This exhibit features portraits of people whose identity as Jews challenges certain stereotypes of “race” or behavior.

As you enter the exhibit, you see huge photographs of men, women, and children, some at weddings or other obviously Jewish settings. These are faces of all shapes, sizes, and skin tones. “Are Jews white folks?” asks one exhibit. One answer to this question comes from Avishai Mekonen, an Ethiopian Israeli searching for other “Jews of color” in America. At the opposite extreme, two Jewish men strike American Gothic poses against the white railings of their Midwestern porch. They are totally indistinguishable from their neighbors in their town on the prairie. The face of American Judaism is the face of humanity. It is exciting to see the Jewish Museum exploring and celebrating the internal diversity of American Jewry.

So what if this weren’t a special exhibit? The point of the “Jewish Identity Project” seems to be: “Jewish diversity, it’s more normal than you think.” It is time to incorporate that diversity into a permanent view of who is a Jew. According to the 1990 population survey, a little over half of American Jews are married to someone who is not Jewish. This percentage is likely to increase in the next century. Jewish families and identities are becoming more complex. JOI feels that it important to acknowledge that complexity. This exhibition takes a step in the right direction by reflecting Jewish diversity back at the viewer.

Experiencing Alien Cultures

“I need to experience an alien culture by next week,” a friend of mine said gloomily. We were both graduate students in a small midwestern town at the time. He was taking a course intended to improve his cultural sensitivity and make him a better teacher. To pass this class, he needed to find a place where he would feel totally confused and alien, like a fish out of water. The small Midwestern town did not offer much in the way of exotic and alienating experience, or at least he thought it didn’t. After all, he had spent two years in Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer.

“You want to feel confused?” I said. “No problem. Meet me at 6:00. Alienation guaranteed.” I took him to a religious service held almost entirely in a foreign language. Everyone in the room seemed to know what to do, except him. People sat, stood, swayed, sang and prayed silently. Sometimes pages were announced, sometimes not. He flipped through the prayer book totally lost.

It was a perfectly ordinary Friday night synagogue service.


Guantanamo Servicemen to Get Holiday Services

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Rabbi Melinda Zalma, Program Officer at the Jewish Outreach Institute, does more than talk the talk of outreach. She actually walks the walk too. That is why she spent Rosh Hashanah at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, providing services to members of the U.S. Navy. We at JOI define outreach as “bringing Judaism to where people are” rather than waiting for them to come to you. That is exactly what Rabbi Zalma is doing and we are all proud of her for doing so.

Invite the Extended Jewish Family for Rosh Hashanah

Lynn Schusterman, cochair of JOI’s 2005 North American Leadership Conference, says it all and at the right time of the year in the current issue of the “Forward”. Simply put, if we are going to nurture our community, then we have to be welcoming of all those on the periphery who would join it—if only we would lower the barriers of access. The JOI Conference is designed to help those who are making decisions in the community to do just that. We join Lynn in inviting you to join us in Atlanta on December 4-6, 2005. The conference promises to be exciting and engaging. During the conference, the results of JOI’s outreach scan of the Greater Atlanta Jewish community will also be released.

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