Category Archives: Jewish Culture

The global power of Jewish community

venice synagogue

The incredible beauty of the Venice Synagogue. The intricately carved mehitzah (separation) is on the far left.

The rabbi’s D’var Torah was an odd blend of Italian and Hebrew, and other than hearing “Balak” a few times, its meaning was lost on me. What was incomprehensible wasn’t the speech. It was that I was sitting a few arms’ lengths away from this kind, bearded man and participating in the Shabbat morning service as a member of a global community, in a Venetian synagogue that was hundreds of years old—in the Jewish Ghetto, the very first one ever.  

This synagogue was built in a place once relegated to Jews in the 16th century because it was the least pleasant part of the city to live in due to frequent flooding. Yet, just one year past the 500th year of the ghetto’s founding–I am experiencing a vibrancy to this community that no one would have predicted. The Venetian Jewish community was the first ever to live on the site of what was a geto, meaning iron foundry in Italian. (The word was originally pronounced with a “soft g” as in Gepetto or George, but the later German immigrants could not pronounce it properly, so it became a “hard g”).

In 1516, with strict conditions of not living beyond a closed off area, obeying curfews and marking themselves with either a  yellow hat or a yellow badge, among other discriminatory laws, the Venetian Republic granted Jews the right to settle here in this condensed area.

 

venise-quartier-juif-1520

The synagogue is on the left, through the small black door. It’s hard to believe the beauty that reveals itself once you walk inside (above).

Would anyone living at that time have imagined this? World travelers in the hundreds, coming to Venice, wanting to honor Shabbat and be with each other?  Here, in a synagogue hundreds of years old, the words “Am Yisrael” and “Klal Yisrael” were not theoretical terms, but were embodied in the faces of the Israelis, French, British, South Africans, Canadians, and Americans who I sat among.

Who is this people who are drawn to be with each other, who live thousands of miles apart in their everyday lives but for whom the lure of Shabbat evokes its power to gather together? For the two little Venetian girls in the corner, excitedly chattering in Italian, this is just what is–an ordinary Shabbat. For me, the experience is a testament to our strength, our resolve, our commitment to history yet our deep refusal to let it just be history.

In another winding cobble-stoned street of the ghetto is Chabad of Venice, where we davened Kabbalat Shabbat and had our meals.

chabad entrance

The building’s exterior is drab by any standards, but the spiritedness of the people overshadowed it easily.  Close to 200 people gathered to be part of this communal experience, filling a portion of the piazza.

jewish ghetto

While I often spoke to peers and students about the ‘global Jewish community’, I never felt it as clearly as I did on this Shabbat. The experience was so hyper-real that I still can’t comprehend the depth of feeling I had. You are not alone. There are countless souls who you are connected to, with whom you have a shared history. All you need to do is dip into the river of connection once, as I did, to discover its power.

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This is Not the Climate Change You’re Thinking About

Sloppy Words & Food

Sloppy Words, Sloppy Food

At times, I resist writing a post because I just don’t want to spend the time doing all the research it might take.  I also think that no one would want to spend their valuable time just reading another opinion.  So, to be fair to you, this one’s for me. It’s just something that I want to have noted somewhere, and this is the place I picked.

You probably won’t like what I have to say.

The climate change that I’m experiencing is not related to weather. It’s related to how we see ourselves as human beings in the world. More often than not, my experience of living in today’s society seems to affirm that we think less and less of ourselves.

Our behaviors on a daily basis are less refined. More is done without proper thought or intention.

For one, our speech is less dignified. We’re sloppy with words and they have become more angry, more vindictive, more explosive.  Name-calling is not unusual. We pay less attention to accuracy, and often speak first, think later. Sure, online fact checking exists, but who wants to do that all the time?

I am most bothered about this because it goes against my understanding of our numerous laws and cautions regarding speech. (There have been volumes of commentary written about the laws of speech but for an extremely quick introduction read this and/or this).  According to our tradition, the world was created with words which is why we place such an important value on the spoken and written word.

The very thing that is often associated with Judaism, the Ten Commandments, is really an awkward translation of the Hebrew, meaning “Ten Utterances” (Aseret HaDibrot, the root D-B-R meaning words and speak, reinforcing the elemental connection between the two).

Our way of eating has become on the one hand more conscious, on the other much less so. We might be paying a lot of attention to what we eat (gluten-free? fat-free? organic? all natural? free range? no GMO’s?, no growth hormones? dairy free?–really, I just touched the surface here) but we certainly aren’t paying attention to how we eat.

The food packaging industry has burgeoned with food (?) that can be eaten as quickly as possible, no eating utensils or table needed. Machines can pulverize our food beyond recognition. There are outrageous food contests where thousands gather to watch people gobble as much food as they can without actually regurgitating. There are people who try to win these competitions.

We eat on the run. In a car. While on our devices. In a rush. Often alone.

The way we treat our food is the way we treat ourselves. All the research points to a society that is making itself sick by the way we eat, yet changing those habits is very difficult. There are many laws in Judaism about what we eat and how we eat. They are all structured for us to resist the passive ingestion of substances, and elevate the activity that honors us as human beings.

As much as I think that the world agrees with me on how different we are from animals, that just isn’t so. A recent article in the New York Times has the primatologist Frans de Waal outlining why he believes there is little distinction between human beings and primates.  You can read a rebuttal to that here in the online “Evolution News”.  Denying the fact that we are imbued with a special capacity to make moral and ethical choices minimizes who we are and robs us of what our potential is on this earth.

It is difficult in today’s society to intentionally slow down enough to pay attention to behavior that might elevate our souls, instead of denigrating our core.  The spark that I believe is in all of us, and what makes us special creatures should inform our behavior more often.

May we be blessed with the awareness that comes from knowing that and the opportunity to be able to practice it.


Nine Unexpected Ways That Jewish Culture Fascinates Asians

What if we took our New Year Celebration to the streets?

What if we took our New Year Celebration to the streets?

What are we, as Jews, missing?

Clearly something, since others, especially Asians, find that there is an immense value in our Jewish culture and traditions.  Aspects of our heritage that we either take for granted or deride as old-fashioned provide them with ample areas of study.

Perhaps by reading this (non-definitive) list of specifically Jewish phenomena that they find interesting and worthy of study, we will be inspired to reclaim our own connections. Here is what has been the subject of examination:

  1. Our method of Talmud study, which engages the mind in different ways than other types of learning. I’ve written about this curiosity of the South Koreans several years ago here. About 50,000,000 Koreans have studied the Talmud (in a country where most people are Christian or Buddhist).  If that wasn’t impressive enough, a recent article in the New Yorker called “How the Talmud Became a Best-Seller in Korea” states that every South Korean home has at least one copy of the Talmud. (Reality check–if you’re Jewish and reading this: can you say the same?).
  2. The way in which the bonds of connection is reinforced between the generations through home-based rituals. Our many holidays and celebrations reinforce and strengthen family values…all of which are of interest to a nation that wants to advance, yet hold on to family traditions.
  3. Our penchant for beating the Nobel odds. They are exploring the reasons why at least twenty percent of Nobel Prize winners are Jewish, while Jews represent less than 0.2% of the world’s population. They want to know the ‘secret sauce’ that outdoes statistical expectations. (Much has already been written of the “Tiger Mom” syndrome and how it relates to Jewish mothers’ approach to success, so I won’t go into that here).
  4. Our entrepreneurial success (particularly in Israel, where there are a disproportionate number of profitable tech start-ups relative to the population) and ability to think of ever newer technologies that answer today’s problems successfully. Even though for example, founders may not identify primarily as “Jewish” the fact is evident (an obvious example would be Mark Zuckerberg….who, um, married Priscilla Chan).
  5. Judaism as researched from an academic lens. Since the Chinese nation is in a process of advancement, it sees Jews as another ancient people who have excelled while maintaining a distinct identity.  There are no fewer than ten academic centers of Jewish studies in Chinese Universities across the country, and students often spend a semester abroad, learning more about Jewish history and culture in Israel or the United States.  The deputy director of the Glazer Institute of Jewish Studies at Nanjing University, says that the curiosity reflects “Judeophilia” rather than “Judeophobia” .
  6. Trade potential between the Israel and China. Trade has increased over 20000% in the past two decades, and today reaches over $10.8 billion. China is now Israel’s third-largest trading partner, after the United States and the EU. Naftali Bennett, Israel’s Economy Minister has described Israel as “going East” in terms of trade and Research &Development.
  7. The ability to keep languages alive that many thought were doomed to extinction. Hebrew was not a spoken, modern language until the 1940’s and for years the use of Yiddish has been in decline. Chinese state radio now broadcasts in Hebrew.  Jewish experts who China brings as guests for news and business shows are able to speak Hebrew with their Chinese interviewers.  A Ph.D. student recently wrote and performed history’s first Chinese-Yiddish song (you can watch it here) after studying Yiddish and Hebrew in Israel. She stated that “Nowadays, more and more Chinese are curious about Jewish history and culture.” An online news item reported that people living in Russia’s Far East (a territory along the Russian-Chinese border) are studying Yiddish. There, “all schoolchildren learn Yiddish as part of the curriculum, even though students of Chinese and Korean descent often outnumber Jewish ones.
  8. The investment potential of connecting with Israeli companies. Stephanie Lee, founder of Beijing Zion Shalom Cultural Development Company, matches Chinese investors with Israeli high-tech startups stated  “We really want to learn more about the culture, also the religious customs, and see how children are raised”.  In the early part of the decade there was virtually no high-tech funding from China. Just two years ago, within a couple of years, Chinese firms invested $32 billion in Israel.  Asia’s richest man Li Ka-shing, invests heavily in Israeli tech and bio-tech, and over one-third of the startups funded by his company is Israeli. China is in second place (after the United States) as a collaborator with Israeli high-tech firms backed by Israel’s Office of the Chief Scientist.
  9. The appeal of Shabbat. A company in Israel, called Shabbat of a Lifetime, arranges a Sabbath meal experience with non-Jewish tourists who want to experience its allure first-hand in homes of traditionally observant Jews. Recently, those who are requesting the program are predominantly from Asian countries.

Please share 🙂  #Israel #startups #JewishCulture #JewishAsianConnection

Further reading on related topics:

Jews With Asian Heritage Pose Growing Identity Challenge to Jewish Establishment

Choose Your Own Identity