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Marking Shabbat in Zuccotti Park

Wall Street protesters make time for Friday night dinner

 
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Now in its third week, the Occupy Wall Street protest that began in New York is gaining strength. Not only is it attracting increased media attention, but it has spread to other cities, such as Los Angeles and Chicago.

While no Jewish organizations have formally set up camp at the New York gathering, Jews are clearly involved, said former New Milford resident Daniel Sieradski, who has joined the demonstration about five times.

“I’ve seen folks I know from the young New York Jewish social innovation scene and from the Israeli activist scene,” he said, pointing out that the Shabbat potluck dinner he organized at the protest last Friday night drew some 25-30 participants.

“Our thing was the first and only Jewish event,” he said.

One of the attendees was Sieradski’s mother, Jewish Standard contributor Jeanette Friedman, who lives in New Milford. “I’m a victim of the banks and the bankruptcy court,” she said, noting that her home is in foreclosure. Her husband lost his job after becoming ill and the couple is no longer able to make their mortgage payments.

“A lot of families are being thrown out of their homes in New Jersey,” she said, explaining her support for the protest. “What are the banks going to do with these houses? Knock them to the ground? Leave empty lots? They’re not even trying to renegotiate.”

Friedman is also troubled by “skyrocketing drug prices,” pointing out that she has changed health care plans several times to try to contain costs. “I marched against the war in Vietnam in 1965, for women’s liberation in 1970, and for Soviet Jewry. Why wouldn’t I march for myself? What am I, nuts?” she joked.

Friedman said she brought challah, tuna fish, luckshen kugel, and juice to the ad hoc Shabbat dinner.

“We washed our hands in the rain since there was no water available,” she said. “Some people stopped by and asked for food. One person asked if we had anything gluten-free,” she said. Fortunately, her daughter-in-law had made a “huge pot” of vegetarian cholent.

Sieradski advertised his Shabbat dinner through Facebook and Twitter, and everyone who participated agreed in advance to bring some food.

“I put out the call erev Rosh Hashanah, so only people not fully shomrei mitzvot were likely to hear about it,” he said. Nevertheless, “There were observant people present, including a rabbinical student.”

He said he plans to hold a dinner again, possibly during Sukkot, so that more people can attend. He may also seek a permit to erect a sukkah.

Sieradski said there was “no negativity” directed to the group as Jews. The only complaint from some longtime protesters was that the food should have been donated to the official “kitchen” of the demonstration.

“We brought enough food to feed 50 people,” he said, adding that the guests recited kiddush, made motzi, and sang niggunim (religious tunes) and zemirot (Shabbat songs). Among those present was musician David Peel, who, said Friedman, “used to hang out with John and Yoko,” referring to the late singer John Lennon and his widow, Yoko Ono.

“The mood was very pleasant in a way, like back in the day,” she said. “People were cooperative. Even the [police] were nice at that moment. There need to be more people coming out, but they shouldn’t get ugly about it. Our country needs leaders who will speak to our needs.”

She said she would like to see Jewish organizations that provide social services participate in the demonstration. “We need those who are in touch with people who are hurting to make their voices heard,” she said.

While the demonstration has so far drawn mainly college-agers, attendees “run the gamut,” said 32-year-old Sieradski.

“My mother was there,” he said. “And young kids, 12-year-olds, were among those arrested on the [Brooklyn] bridge. I’ve also seen 80-year-olds.”

He noted that the organizers — who spread the word mainly through social media such as Facebook and Twitter — “are working on the ethnic diversity issue.” While the protest began with a preponderance of young, white men, “We’re working on getting more women and people of color.”

In addition, he said, the demonstration is “all consensus-driven. There’s no-one in charge; we’re all cooperating. That’s what’s so radical. It’s the first protest action that’s completely decentralized.”

Sieradski said he has been attending the demonstration every few nights.

“I was drawn by the fact that there is zero accountability,” he said. “Bankers are buying political clout by financing politicians who don’t hold those bankers accountable when they impoverish the nation.”

He described the often-chaotic decision-making process at the protest as “kind of like a Quaker meeting. One reporter called it ‘a church of dissent.’”

He said he feels “an extremely positive vibe,” describing participants as a diverse group, from the left and right, “from anarchists to Ron Paul supporters and everyone in between.”

Sieradski said that for the vast number of participants, anti-Semitism is not “on their radar.” As in all demonstrations, however, some groups want to publicize their own cause.

This includes radical anti-Zionists, who conflate economic injustice with U.S. support for Israel, and neo-Nazis, who blame economic unrest on the Jews.

The former Bergen County resident said he has been pointing out to organizers that these streams exist, and that there is a need to deal with the problem they create. “It steals the thunder from our focus on challenging politicians,” he said.

The young activist also said he will join the protest again this weekend.

“I’m going because of the words of Isaiah,” he explained, citing the Yom Kippur morning prophetic reading. “How should I spend Yom Kippur — beating my chest, or standing in solidarity with suffering people?”

 
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A rabbi hasn’t walked into the bar ... yet

It’s not every day that a liquor license comes up for sale in Teaneck. (State licensing laws limit the number of licenses in a formula based on a town’s population.)

So when Jonathan Gellis heard that the owner of Vinny O’s in Teaneck was looking to sell the establishment, including the license, after 28 years behind the bar, he realized that only one of the more than 20 kosher restaurants in Teaneck could sell alcohol.

That seemed to be an opportunity.

Mr. Gellis is a stockbroker by day. He’s used to working in a regulated business — and the alcohol business in New Jersey is highly regulated.

Mr. Gellis grew up in Teaneck; his parents moved the family here from Brooklyn in 1975, back when the town had only one kosher restaurant. His four children attend Yeshivat Noam and the Frisch School, and he serves on the board of both institutions. He also is president of Congregation Keter Torah.

 

The converso’s dilemma

Local group goes to New Mexico to learn about crypto-Jews

Imagine that you were raised as a Catholic. Then one day — perhaps as a beloved parent or grandparent lay dying and leaned over to whisper something in your ear — you learned that your family once was Jewish. Your ancestors were converted forcibly some 500 years ago.

For those people all over the world who have had that experience, the next step is not entirely clear. Do they jump in with both feet and vigorously pursue their new Jewish identities, or do they simply go about their business, choosing to do nothing with this new information? These dilemmas, and more, were the subject of a recent Road Scholar program in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The topic — “New Mexico’s Conversos and Crypto-Jews” — continues to fascinate both Jews and non-Jews, as evidenced by the religious identity of the attendees. Among those participating in this month’s session — there are 10 such programs held each year — were five residents from our area, including this author.

 

How to learn Hebrew

Confronting American Jews’ linguistic illiteracy, many programs offer help

Can you read a Hebrew newspaper or order a meal in an Israel restaurant? If you’re like the vast majority of American Jews, the answer is no.

“Half of Jews (52%), including 60% of Jews by religion and 24% of Jews of no religion, say they know the Hebrew alphabet,” according to last October’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” the famous study released by the Pew Research Center.

“But far fewer (13% of Jews overall, including 16% of Jews by religion and 4% of Jews of no religion) say they understand most or all of the words when they read Hebrew,” the report continues.

Alarmed by this finding, the World Zionist Organization, the Israeli Education Ministry, and several partner organizations recently launched the Hebrew Language Council of North America to help more Jews become conversant in the language of their literature, lore, and land — as well as the language of their peers in Israel.

 

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Mississippi burning, remembered

Puffin marks jubilee of Freedom Summer

It was a summer that changed lives.

It was a fight for American democracy in the face of terrorism.

It was dubbed “Freedom Summer,” and it drew 700 college students and young adults to help Mississippi activists fight for civil rights.

The year was 1964.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech the previous August, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In Washington, a far-reaching civil rights bill that would desegregate public facilities had been introduced to Congress by President Lyndon Johnson — but quickly stalled and was then filibustered for months.

 

Adding to Jewish life in Clifton

Rabbi Moshe Mirsky heads religious services department at Daughters of Miriam

Rabbi Moshe Mirsky thinks his new position as the director of religious services at the Daughters of Miriam Center/Gallen Institute in Clifton is a perfect shidduch.

Actually, it is not quite a new job. Rabbi Mirsky had already worked there with Rabbi Ira Kronenberg, who just retired from the home this month, in the late 1980s. Back then Rabbi Mirsky was studying for simicha — rabbinic ordination. He worked there once again in the 1990s, while he was teaching at various day schools.

“I would come on the weekends for Shabbat and on yom tov to assist Rabbi Kronenberg,” he said. “I would lead davening, give Torah classes, go to the Alzheimer’s unit, and try to engage the residents Jewishly. I had a special rapport with Rabbi Kronenberg and the residents.”

Indeed, then he already was doing many of the things he is doing now as director of religious affairs.

 

Poor assumptions = poor policy

ZOA’s congressional lobbyist talks about Israel, Oslo, and plans doomed to fail

The two-state solution is a chimera, Joshua London says. It is a lovely vision of something that never can be real, and chasing it — chasing the plan that would make Israel and Palestine two separate states, living next to each other in prickly but sustainable peace — is chasing the wind.

Mr. London, who lives in suburban Maryland, is the Zionist Organization of America’s co-director of government affairs. He will be taking a break from his daily routine — lobbying Congress to further the ZOA’s own understanding of the Middle East — to speak at a parlor meeting in Teaneck on Wednesday.

His goal, he said, “is to bring clarity and critical analysis to the longstanding U.S. policy for support of — and in fact to apply pressure toward — the creation of a Palestinian state from territory that otherwise belongs to Israel, and to do so under the notion that this will bring peace.”

 
 
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