(D'var Torah delivered at the Jewish Center of Princeton, 8/12/06)
Social activist Yavilah McCoy says, “The language of social justice is a Jewish tongue.” Last September, I arrived in Israel anxious to learn how this Jewish tongue is spoken and silenced and sung in the Jewish state. As a recipient of the Nomi Fein New Israel Fund/Shatil Social Justice Fellowship and a grant from the Amy Adina Schulman Memorial Fund, I had the opportunity to intern with any organizations in Israel pushing for a more just and egalitarian society. I chose to work at Kol Ha-Isha, a multicultural feminist center in Jerusalem and Yedid's Citizen's Rights Center in Ashkelon, where I ran an after-school enrichment program for thirteen and fourteen-year-olds.
I chose to go to Israel because I wanted to become uncomfortable, to dive into the twists and snarls and hyphens of identity and religious choice in the “Jewish State.” I went with the conviction that as humans, we are copartners in the work of creation, and as Jews, it is our responsibility to repair broken world parts. I went to honor the memories and continue the stories of Amy Adina Schulman and Nomi Fein - two young women who lived by these values. One of whom, Amy Adina, grew up here in our Jewish Center congregation. I wanted to learn about and contribute to pursuits of social justice in a state that aspires to be both Jewish and democratic. A state that exists in the tangled tension between what it means to be “universally human and distinctly Jewish.”
I think of the shuk – the market in the center of Jerusalem – swirling with energy and aromas – how I collided with strangers among heaps of dried mango, candied pecans, and glistening olives. My favorite spot inside the labyrinth of the shuk is a corridor off to the side, where there is a tiny shul with old, bearded men shuckling back and forth directly across from a vegetarian Indian restaurant, opened by young Israelis returning from finding themselves abroad. You feel the force of the fusion between old and new – familiar and foreign. A homeland full of strangers.
This week’s parsha – Eikev – contains the most commonly cited mitzvah in the entire Torah. As the Israelites get closer to entering the Promised Land, Moses reiterates G-d’s commandment to them: “V’ahavtem et ha ger. Love the Stranger. For you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” I want to reflect on my experiences in Israel this year through the lens of this mitzvah. The organizations I was working with are geared towards empowering individuals and communities who are disenfranchised socially and economically within Israeli Society. They look to bridge divides along clefts of class, gender, race and ethnicity. I am thankful for the opportunities I had – as a foreigner - to meet people from all walks of life in Israeli Society – a homeland full of strangers who are always intersecting and defining each other.
When I first arrived in Israel, I met Sari Revkin, the Executive Director of Yedid. She said to me, “Come to Yedid and meet Israel.” Yedid operates 18 citizens rights centers in all parts of the country where people can come for referrals and counseling in the areas of housing, healthcare, employment and education. The centers develop programs to meet the needs of their local communities, many of which are in the periphery, socially and geographically. Simultaneously, Yedid’s central office pushes for policies to repair the systemic injustices tied to Israel’s climbing poverty rates. 1/5 of the country now lives below the poverty line. Like America, there is also a growing phenomenon of the working poor as nearly half of those living in poverty are employed.
The day before Pesach, I was preparing an English lesson for my students in Ashkelon for our after-school enrichment program, “Yesh Matzav.” “Yesh Matzav” is slang for, “There’s a chance. . .” I like to think of it as “There’s always possibility.” That April afternoon, a woman came in the door with a baby in her arms and a toddler clinging to her legs. She asked if we had any matzah. She couldn’t afford to buy the Bread of Poverty. Out of Egypt. Still a stranger.
Ashkelon is a city of 105,000 residents, the majority of whom are new immigrants from the Former Soviet Union and Ethiopia and veteran Israelis of Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) origin, whose families have lived in poverty for generations.
The teenagers I worked with are first generation Israelis – they told me stories of how their parents walked through the Sudan on their way to Ashkelon – while playing with their cell phone cameras – and obsessing over Kelly Clarkson’s latest single. In June, two of the program participants lost their fathers unexpectedly, one after another. Both Maya and Ora’s fathers had immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia in the early 90’s. They had worked tirelessly in various construction and cleaning jobs to secure opportunities for their children. At the shock of their losses, relatives and community members flooded their homes and tents set up in the yards to grieve and to comfort their families. I sat next to Maya and Ora on mats on the floor with the other Yesh Matzav participants during each of those first seven days, stuck for what to say. I fielded questions from siblings and friends sitting with them about America and the eccentricities of English, entertaining the group with the holes in my Hebrew. Women filled and refilled porcelain coffee cups, barely bigger than thimbles, stirring in sugar. They dispensed portions of spicy red lentils framed by Injera, traditional Ethiopian bread. For the next few weeks, whenever I saw Maya, she showed me a tiny keychain with her father’s picture when he was her age in Addis Ababa, a memento she kept attached to her cell phone.
Sometimes the Yedid Ashkelon center rattles as shells plummet into nearby Gaza and planes are often heard whizzing overhead. I have been more fortunate to hear the sounds of my students parsing out algebra problems with math instructor, Yoav Ben-Dror, a father of four who drove to Ashkelon once a week to volunteer after work at a Tel Aviv high tech company. I heard the sounds of pencils steered across pages, as the students practiced drawing portraits with Nadia, an artist and architect who immigrated to Ashkelon from Brazil.
For one English lesson, I chose the Langston Hughes poem “Dreams” as the text of the day. After the students read, translated and repeated the poem, Yoav shook his head and said to me, “Annie – you are very American.” Why? I asked. “You are always talking about dreams – American dreams.” He then proceeded to tell the students his dream for them - that they will go to University, the new Promised Land, that they will study what they want to study.
Before I left, I thanked the “Yesh Matzav” participants for teaching me Hebrew and imparting their grasp of Israeli culture. They responded, “We love your culture. You don’t like it when we’re mean to each other. And you always say please and thank you.” I chuckled to myself, suddenly aware of the traits that slipped into my identity growing up in America, and of the countless nuggets of knowledge that have passed between the Yesh Matzavniks and myself in gestures, in reflexes, in the pace of conversations.
I traveled between Ashkelon and Jerusalem twice a week by bus – I got used to talking to strangers and learned to elbow my way onto the Egged. I joined in as passengers shouted “Nahag! Nahag!” “Driver! Driver!” when the door nearly closed on an elderly woman or the bus overshot a soldier’s stop. I remember one particularly crowded bus ride around Hannukah time. I was standing, smushed in someone’s armpit and bucking back and forth as the bus wound its way up to Jerusalem. All of a sudden, a man shouted, “Who didn’t light the menorah today?” He began lifting tin menorahs out of a plastic bag and passing them around the bus. In that bizarre moment, I couldn’t have felt more at home.
Both Yedid and Kol Ha-Isha work in the field of hospitality – not so much for tourists – though they did welcome me graciously. But they are dedicated to opening spaces for those who are strangers within Israeli society. Cultural theorist Ash Amin of the University of Durham, expands on this notion of hospitality as a welcoming in of the stranger, that does not come from a place of pity or condescension. But rather, a hospitality that stems from mutuality and the recognition that we are all, always hosts and guests at once, our identities molded and morphed by one another. Perhaps this is what means to love the stranger. To recognize that we are who we are relative to the stranger. We are the relative of the stranger. We are the stranger. In eternal Egypts.
Kol Ha-Isha was created in 1994 as a “safe space” for women who felt like strangers in the mostly elite, Ashkenazi feminist movement. Kol Ha-Isha set out to give voice to Mizrahi women – and to other women from different, often marginalized, socio-economic and ethnic communities, religious affiliations, nationalities and sexual orientations. In recent years, Kol Ha-Isha has focused on defending the economic rights of women in Israel. It runs micro-finance projects, offering courses for women who want to start their own businesses based on a talent or passion. It is also home to a Crisis Counseling and Referral Center, and the Antea Galley – an activist artspace.
The gallery is a metaphor for the goals of the organization, its white walls constantly reinvented, nails burrowed in, plucked out, holes refilled as exhibits shift as chairs are re-arranged and the space is endlessly transformed by the women who enter and exit.
The final event I attended in the gallery was the graduation ceremony for participants of one of our micro-business projects – “Women Cook up a Business.” Against a backdrop of a ceramics exhibit by Palestinian and Jewish artists, a group of 24 graduates, women from low-income households in the neighborhoods of central Jerusalem, transformed the gallery into a banquet hall. A buffet boasted Moroccan cous-cous and simmering garlic, a potpourri of shiny tomatoes and olives. A flag marked each dish, giving credit to its culinary artist.
Women huddled around one of their classmates, Ruti, as she cut a golden-brown mushroom pastry into triangles. She explained how she mastered the color of the crust and the texture of the dish without using gluten. Three years ago, Ruti’s husband was diagnosed with diabetes. She embarked on a research campaign, experimenting with alternative flours and sugars and developing a cache of kosher recipes for individuals with special dietary needs. With the tools she acquired in the course, her new-born business has taken off, reminding her daily that it is filling a niche not only within her own Haredi, ultra-orthodox community, but in the city as well.
The name of the business “Pat V’Salo,” comes from the Gemarrah. “It means that if something is missing from someone, not to worry, they will find it,” Ruti explained to me. “It is the idea of knowing that something is there, waiting, even if you can’t get to it at that moment.” Ruti cooks from a two-room home on a tight budget, balancing her burgeoning business with caring for her eight children, from ages one to fifteen, one of whom has special needs. I asked her how she does it – she said she sleeps 4 hours a night.
I spent one sleepless night in the spring at a retreat on multicultural inclusion with members of the staff, board and various projects of Kol Ha-Isha. Israeli women spoke of childhoods in Iraq, Morocco, Siberia, India, Romania, Switzerland, Curacao, the Galilee and East Jerusalem as we engaged in a conversation on the role of Palestinian women in the organization. I was witness to the sticky, exciting and never-ending process of serving as a truly multi-colored center for women. The weekend generated more questions than anything else. Is Kol Ha-Isha a Jewish, Israeli or multicultural organization? Is multiculturalism an appropriate model for discussing relations between Jewish and Palestinian women, whose divide is one not only and not always of cultures, but of "nations?" Are we ready to embark on this process when many Mizrahi women within the organization still don’t feel like they have a voice?
I stayed up all night talking with three Israeli women my age – all citizens, not all Jewish – hailing from an Arab Village up North, from Ukraine, and Switzerland. We talked about all kinds of topics – from dating to reality TV. We spoke in Hebrew – a language that is a mother tongue to none of us.
During one staff meeting at Kol Ha-Isha, a visiting American activist came to speak with us about the challenges of working in a social change organization – She said to us, “Here, you are creating a world that doesn’t exist.” She spoke about the excitement of that task as well as the sense of loss and sacrifice as activists must sometimes choose to become strangers in the worlds they leave behind. I think of my mentor and role model at Kol Ha-Isha – Yael Arami, who grew up in a Yemenite, orthodox family in Petah Tikva. She is a Mizrahi, orthodox, feminist, social activist and former Rabbinical Student. She bounces between circles. . .resisting the voices that tell her the fragments of her identity cannot form a united whole. The words for wholeness and peace are the same in Hebrew.
Yael published her story in a book called The Flying Camel, a compilation of essays by Jewish women of Mizrahi backgrounds. In that book, Iraqi-Israeli professor Ella Shohat writes, "Some of us refuse to dissolve so as to facilitate neat national and ethnic divisions," She warns how war reduces identity to dangerous binaries of black/white, us/them.
I left Israel two weeks ago, when the war had just started to reduce homes to rubble – as the earth was opening up all over to reclaim the bodies of fallen soldiers and citizens from Haifa to Beirut. I can’t stop thinking about whether it is possible to create an Israel where war doesn’t feel so much like home. An Israel of peace, of wholeness.
I am ever grateful to the Schulman and Fein families for this year of tremendous growth, for the chance to fall in love with the strange, homey, complex and colorful country that is Israel. I want to conclude by returning to the story of Nomi Fein, for whom my fellowship is named. Nomi was Bat Mitzvahed over Pesach of 1978. She read the haftorah, from the Book of Isaiah, and built her d’var torah around the line “V Gar Ze’ev em Keves.” “And the wolf will dwell with the lamb.” A vision of the world to come. The verb – gar – to dwell or live - shares a root with the word ger – stranger. I think of the wolf and the lamb as strangers to each other and the messianic image from Nomi’s haftorah as a sign of a time when these strangers will come to practice true hospitality, acknowledging each other from a place of mutual encounter and recognition. A time when they will not only affirm the other’s right to exist, but the power each has to shape the other.
In this week’s parsha, Eikev, in addition to the commandment to love the stranger, we find the commandment to love G-d, in the text of the V’ahavta. One of the ways we are told to show our love for G-d is by hanging mezuzahs on our door-posts, at the gates of our homes. How fitting that we declare our love for G-d at the site where we may start the process of hospitality, of love for the stranger - this holy site of exits and entrances, this perilous border between us and them, self and other.
I think of the uncertainty of Israel’s borders - the nations of the Middle East that push and pull at each other’s flesh and clay– nudging boundaries, busting barricades. And I pray that strangers can learn to love each other, that wolves and lambs can dwell together – within us and between us.
May we see and be seen, hear and be heard for all that we aspire to be. May we risk it all to create worlds that don’t yet exist. May the language of social justice be a universal tongue. Shabbat Shalom.