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J Street danger

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Ben Cohen’s column, “ ‘Jewish state’ considerations aren’t new” (March 28), in last week’s Standard was perhaps the most well-thought out piece I’ve read in a long time. As Jews we face as much danger from inside as does Israel.

In World War II the Dutch had their famous turncoat, whose name became synonymous with treachery. Today we have J Street performing the same. They are the same as the “black hats” who stand on the sidelines during the Salute to Israel Parade in New York, holding placards calling for the destruction of Israel.

Unfortunately the administration in Washington seems to be taking its cue from this minority. Secretary of State John Kerry has said, and top levels of the administration have concurred, that declaring Israel as a Jewish state is not necessary to reach an accord with the so-called “Palestinians.”

While the Muslim countries refuse to acknowledge that fact, Obama, Kerry and J Street conveniently overlook the reality that Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are all officially designated as “Islamic Republics.”

Add to that the fact that the Arab League, consisting of some 22 Arab nations, is designated “Arab” and you can only wonder what the problem is with designating Israel as a Jewish state.

The plain and simple truth of the matter is that Kerry and Obama know they can pressure Israel whereas the Arab states will tell them to %##@-off. As soon as the appearance of an accord raises its head Hamas attacks, Israeli civilians are killed, Abbas raises new demands, and our administration tucks its tail between its legs and demands Israel make more concessions.

While Jonathan Pollard rots in prison for 29 years (and he did deserve some punishment), administration after administration refuses to consider his case. At the same time they join demands for the release from Israeli prisons of terrorists and those who have killed women and children, bombed hospitals and schools, attacked buses and shopping centers.

Because they know if they put pressure on Abbas, the Arab states will tell them to %#$@-off.

It’s way past time that we, as Jews and Americans, tell the administration to play honest broker and deal a fair hand instead of one from the bottom of the deck. Let’s have some comment from our elected officials in the Administration, the House of Representatives, and the Senate. Let’s have them declare the BDS movement for what it is…anti-Semitic.

 

 
 

Hudson County needs a federation

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It’s time for Hudson County to be annexed by a Jewish federation.

Hudson County is home to an exploding population of Jewish young adults, and Jewish life in general is growing fast. Not only are the Jewish young adults of New Jersey following the trend of the rest of their cohort in moving to Hudson County, but families with young children and empty nesters who desire an affordable and cultured urban area near New York City are settling down for the near future and retirement.

Crazy as it would have sounded 10 to 20 years ago, Hoboken and Jersey City are desirable spots for the post-collegiate but still partying demographic, refugees from Manhattan and Brooklyn, and seniors. What draws them here are Hoboken’s 200 bars, Jersey Cities art galleries, fine dining, high culture, quality living, and more.

 

 
 

If you were a slave

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I attend a lot of meetings. (Maybe you can relate.) Many are important; few are memorable. About 15 years ago, I attended a Passover seminar at the Los Angeles Board of Rabbis that will stay with me forever.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater discussed modern-day slavery. He invited everyone present to contemplate slavery — ancient and contemporary, Israelite and gentile — and then to sing these words as a dirge: “Avadim hayinu lepharoah bemitzrayim. Ata b’nai chorin.” The translation is: “We were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt. Now we are free.”

It’s a song we usually sing up-tempo. We treat it as a children’s ditty. The text is a pastiche of two readings from the Haggadah. La, la, we used to be slaves. Yai, deedle, dai, now we’re free.

By slowing it down and singing it mournfully, the meaning hit me differently. We were slaves. We, our entire people, were slaves. I looked around at my fellow escapees, and I observed a few hard-boiled rabbis crying around the table. Everyone felt the weight of the words. Everyone mourned that human beings could do this to one another.

On Passover, we taste slavery in vegetables and dipping sauces; we feel freedom in the soft pillows on which we lean. Through sensory experience and the power of story, the ancient rabbis constructed an order (seder) meant to spark inquiry. Meanings, not just matzahs, are hidden, and they can be uncovered only through feats of imagination.

The ultimate feat of imagination is set out as a requirement in Pesachim 116b: “In each generation, every person is obligated to see him or herself as personally having left slavery in Egypt.”

Can you truly imagine being a slave? Can you imagine being treated as a beast of burden, building with bricks in the hot sun, allowed no rest and little food? Can you imagine threats against your children? Under such circumstances, can you imagine losing connection with your past and hope for your future? That is what happened to the Children of Israel in Egypt. And that is what still happens to slaves today in countries across the world, including the United States.

Can you imagine being one of approximately 27 million slaves now in bondage? Can you imagine enduring your child’s kidnapping, knowing that she likely is enslaved? Can you imagine being so poor that you feel you must “sell” one of your children to get him an education (or at least the false promise of one) and to feed the others? Can you imagine generations of debt-bondage in your family, all for a fake loan or a paltry sum your grandfather borrowed? Can you imagine coming to this country with the help of coyotes, only to discover that the job they promised is a lie — and that you are a slave? Can you imagine going to a party only to be drugged, isolated, beaten, and ordered to make money as a street walker — or die?

If you can really imagine, then you are compelled to action. But what can be done?

Beginning last spring, I immersed myself in research about human trafficking. I wanted to find out what could make a difference. The Bible commands us: “love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut.10:19, et al.). It calls Jews to be a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6).

If individual Jews help to free slaves, each one does a mitzvah. When Jews band together to free slaves, we perform the same mitzvah, while making a statement about our faith, sanctifying God’s name, and, in the image of the ancient rabbis, “paving a path toward peace.”

That is why my family began a group called “Jews Freeing Slaves” on jchoice.org. It allows Jews to support the universal cause of human freedom as Jews, by donating directly to anti-slavery organizations with excellent track records.

Research is vital for measuring effectiveness and discerning the subtle, variable “best practices” for freeing slaves. But facts and metrics are no substitute for vision. It was one particular vision — my daughter’s — that gave my good intentions real power.

The breakthrough came when my 7-year-old, who couldn’t investigate, simply imagined.

Specifically, she imagined that I could personally have a hand in freeing 100 slaves within a year. My mind easily could have dismissed her idea as naïve and absurd, but my spirit felt a quickening, a sense of rightness.

Maybe it was all those years of practice at Passover seders that allowed me to see into her imagination. I made a solemn agreement with her to do it, if she would be my partner.

With this article, I am asking you join us. Imagine what we can do together — and, then, let’s do it.

 

 
 

The 11th makkah

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All about plagues, potatoes, and Pesach

My bubbe referred to Pesach as “the 11th makkah.”

Her commentary on this additional plague evolved through the years. At first, it was said in a joking-but-serious manner, as in, what a huge production — cleaning the house, taping up cabinets, dragging the Pesach dishes up from the basement, planning out menus, buying the matzah, buying the cream cheese, buying the eggs, buying the potatoes, peeling the potatoes, readying the seder plate, and so on and so on — all this in preparation for a mere eight days of the year.

As time went on, this half-joke kind of got swallowed up by a critique on the absurdity of it all. By “critique,” I mean more like an abbreviated, dismissive, bah-humbug wave of the hand, followed by a drag of her cigarette and a tap against the ashtray, and then a return to peeling potatoes with my mother.

Growing up, I didn’t think much of it — just the usual catchphrase, year after year, followed by stuffing potatoes into the food processor, piece by piece, as they journeyed closer and closer to becoming kugel. Pesach prep — I laugh at this now — was exciting, a high among the monotony of the rest of the year.

I had my appointed duties, at which I became increasingly adept: smoothing out the contact paper that lined the kitchen table and counters (and sometimes popping unruly bubbles with a toothpick), cleaning all the mirrors in the house with Windex, assisting my mom and bubbe with the potato peeling (the ratio of my finished product to theirs was about 1:10), polishing some of the silver. Pesach food, itself, also provided a break from the regularities of daily living: bringing crushed matzah and cream cheese sandwiches into Yankee Stadium; making matzah brei/pizza/lasagna/anything that transformed it out of its cardboard state; popping macaroons between breakfast, lunch, and dinner; and anything to do with potatoes, potatoes, potatoes.

Each year, ever since transitioning from being guest to being hostess, I remember my bubbe’s phrase — particularly on my umpteenth trip up and down Pathmark’s Passover aisle in the middle of the night — and then I give the heavens a nod as if to say, “Bubbe, when you’re right, you’re right.” But when I say this, also joking-but-serious, I like to keep in mind that while choosing between half a dozen brands of matzah lining the shelves of Aisle 4 might overwhelm me to tears at midnight, the holiday’s true meaning — the redemption from slavery to freedom, from tears to celebration — is the reason why I can and why I am stocking up on these provisions in the first place.

I think it’s all too easy to lose the real meaning of a holiday, religious or otherwise, when we’re so caught up in the details that the details overshadow the festivity itself. Now, Mom, I’m not pointing a finger at Bubbe; for her, the meaning of Pesach was spending time with her grandchildren, this new generation, her pride and joy, which outweighed any bah-humbug about the minutiae of Pesach prep. Likewise, in addition to the “11th makkah” mentality (as in, for example, searching high and low for those last bottles of Diet Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda, only to come home hours later, frustrated, frazzled, and empty handed), I, too, try to find meaning behind all the tedious planning.

For me, the Haggadah is where it’s at. Or, rather, from late adolescence and on, I gravitated toward one particular phrase in Maggid, arguably the most fundamental part of Pesach itself. We’re instructed that in every generation, a person must view himself as if he, personally, experienced the Exodus. There’s much talk among the sages and modern-day rabbis about what this might mean. Yes, it’s about retelling of the Exodus from Egypt, imagining what it was like to be enslaved and then freed, and, most importantly, handing down the experience from generation to generation. What I take away from this phrase is that there’s a different, personalized redemption for each of us.

For me, it takes on a psychological meaning, something compared to that moment when depression starts to lift and the inner self migrates from darkness to light — certainly from the dark winter months to spring — now freed from emotional imprisonment. I also think that you don’t have to experience a mood disorder to take on this approach of emotional freedom, from tears to laughter, from a time of sorrow to one of celebration.

For my husband, growing up in a large extended family, it’s been about embracing the holiday and freedom itself with divrei Torah throughout the seder, stealing and re-stealing the afikoman with a craftiness that would impress any Mossad agent, taking turns reading the Haggadah aloud, and capping off the night (at well past 2 a.m.) with ruach-filled, harmonized singing.

For the family in which I grew up, it’s been, as with many families, about the freedom to have our own unique traditions: the scattered observations and interpretations throughout the seder, both Torah-related and comical; the way my brothers and I, while hungrily awaiting the meal, would at random moments dip a potato in saltwater, and kezayis be damned, yell out “karpas!”; how at the end of the seder, with most of us faded away, the few still half-awake would get a second wind and belt out “One is Hashem!” with rhythm, beat, and style.

It seems there’s room for all of it — the details and what’s behind the details. The conventional story of the Exodus, my own personal spin, how my husband and his family celebrated, how I experienced it growing up, and in whatever way in which it will be passed down to our children. Ultimately, as I understand it, it’s about tradition — “V’higadita l’vincha / and you shall tell your son” — and the freedom to pass down the story of our nation, each in his own way, from one generation to the next.

In which case, certainly there’s room for the “11th makkah” alongside everything else — my bubbe’s seemingly clashing “pheh!” to Pesach, accompanied by a potato-peeling, kugel-making tradition handed down from mother to daughter to daughter for generations to come.

 

 
 
Keeping the Faith

Count the days, study the ways

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Come Tuesday night, we begin to count our days — 49 days, to be exact, seven complete weeks — as we vicariously journey from Egypt to Sinai, from the slavery of Egypt to our birth as God’s holy nation.

Each night, we add another day, and remind ourselves, as well, of the days that have passed. “Today is the 15th day of the Omer, which is two weeks and one day of the Omer.”

One day added to another and then another, each day taking one step closer to the moment when God reveals to us our sacred mission as His kingdom of priests. We are His emissaries to the world. It is our task to teach the world by example how God wants all His children to behave toward each other and toward all of creation.

 

 
 

Passover is here

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Finally, after all these weeks of preparation, of buying and cleaning and cooking and worrying and planning and throwing out and panting and wailing and despairing — after all the slavery — the holiday of liberation is just a few days away.

It’s ironic, isn’t it — the work at times seems so overwhelming that by the time night falls and the first seder begins, it’s hard to remember its promise.

But we should.

And then the seder begins — and we do.

Last fall’s Pew Study, Bad News for Jews, documented terrible fall-offs in religious observance across most of the Jewish spectrum, but even so, it said, seven in 10 Jews go to a seder. Most of us remember the seders of our childhoods and we mark each year’s passage as familiar faces age and gray and then disappear, and other, younger ones babble and then giggle and then learn to read. There is something about the smell of a seder, its particular spices and richness and nuttiness (in every possible sense); something about the familiar wine and gravy stains in the Haggadahs, that link us to the selves we used to be last year. Each seder is different, of course, and each family has its own traditions; its own songs and soups and flash points.

And that is one of its main beauties. We are all doing the same things; we are each doing them ever so subtly in our own way. We are many people; we are all one people.

May we all have a sweet and liberating Pesach.

-JP

 
 

Seeking the promise of Passover’s freedom for agunot

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In these last hours before the night of the first seder, there are going to be those families who desperately seek out every last crumb of chameitz they can find. Yet many will go on tolerating the “chameitz” that through apathy and ignorance we inflict on Jewish women worldwide.

Because no matter how many Haggadahs recount the story of our freedom from slavery, as long as agunot (women who haven’t received gets, Jewish writs of divorce, from their ex-husbands) are stifled from living their lives, then we aren’t really entirely free.

We see people at car wash vacuum cleaners pumping quarter after quarter into the machines to get rid of that horrid extra Cheerio from the baby seat. Yet the dirty deal that doesn’t draw life-changing action from traditional Jewish society turns an agunah’s wish to marry and to experience intimacy again into its own sort of chameitz.

Some of these former husbands will fight you over the observance of the most remote Talmudic stricture — but they knowingly sabotage the lives of their ex-wives.

We wish for everyone a beautiful, meaningful seder, no matter how you and your family choose to celebrate.

But as long women in our Jewish world are kept in a state of agunot, then they are not really free. If they’re not free, than we didn’t leave Egypt as a totally liberated people.

There is an 11th plague, although it’s not something you dip your finger in wine to commemorate. It is apathy. It is not having the courage to take this “Mitzrayim” out of the Jewish way of life. We believe Orthodox Jewish leaders could do something if they had the courage.

For as long as there is one agunah, then matzah is really the bread of affliction.

Because as long as women are not given gets, then we let oppression happen right before eyes.

And for many agunot, this night simply is no different than all other nights.

- PJ

 
 

Not an occupation!

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When I think of the word “occupation” what comes to mind is the Russian occupation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania or the Chinese occupation of Tibet or the Nazi occupation of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. I do not think of the Israeli responsibility of governing Judea and Samaria, otherwise known as the West Bank. As you remember, the only reason Israel was forced into Judea and Samaria was when it was attacked by the Judeans and Syrians in a war to drive Israel into the sea.

After the 1967 war, Israel attempted to return these lands to the Arabs but was met with the famous three “Nos” at the Khartoum Conference.

It is unlikely that there will be a resolution and peaceful settlement between Israel and the Arabs as long as the Arab leaders will find it personally profitable to maintain this status quo, and as long as they are afraid of being beheaded by the more radical elements in their society.

 

 
 
 
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Criticizing charedim — what about our kids?

Hundreds of thousands of charedim marched against military conscription last Sunday. The issue is tearing Israel apart.

More secular Israelis argue that the charedim are parasites. They don’t work. They live off government subsidies. Worse, they don’t fight for the country, expecting some other’s guy’s kid to risk his or her life and possibly die so the charedim can sit idly and study, contributing nothing meaningful to the country.

The charedi response is that their Torah study defines the essential character of the Jewish state. After all, without the Torah and Judaism, what distinguishes Israel from Belgium? The contribution of the young man with side curls sitting in front of a Talmud is no less valuable than his olive-green clad counterpart holding an M16. The latter focuses on Israel’s physical survival, the former on its spiritual continuity. And just as you can’t have a body without a soul, you can’t have an army that doesn’t have a spiritual reason to fight.

 

 

Tzitz, tefillin, and the halachic process

Recent weeks have seen much discussion about the permissibility of women wearing tefillin.

Although I do not question the sincerity of the parties involved, and maintain high regard for the individuals involved, I see this as an opportunity to reflect on the unique mitzvah of tefillin and on maintaining the integrity of the halachic process. In addition to the specific halachic question involved, this controversy also raises the broader question of how halachah functions, and I would like to provide some perspective on both of these issues.

 

 

Ask the right questions

With the arrival and maturation of my generation, the Millenials, the question “Who is a Jew?” is rather passé.

Forget the halachic dimensions to this endlessly debatable topic. Forget all the moralizing arguments over the issue. Forget the demographically induced paranoia, the post-Holocaust hand-wringing, the Israeli legal maneuvering (not to mention the pandering that comes with it), and the denominational infighting. And — for heaven’s sake! — forget the Pew study.

The fact is that “Who is a Jew?” is the wrong question. To maintain our relevance — to regain it, really — the question we must ask today is “Why be Jewish?”

 

 

 

 
 
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