Monthly Archives: July 2019

Jul 26

25 July 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

The big Summer music hit this year in Israel– a country predominately made up of Jews who have emigrated there from around the world– is an unconventional Arabic-inspired R&B hit by Alessandro Mahmood, an Egyptian-Italian singer. Soldi (money) is sung in Italian, but that hasn’t stopped it from being wildly popular in Israel, where, following the Eurovision song contest (in which Soldi was Italy’s entry) it has become the surprise hit of the Summer.

It’s a beautiful song– but I don’t think that’s the reason it has been so successful. In essence, Mahmood describes the complex and multi-ethnic identity which has shaped him. The lyrics are full of anger and frustration as much as anything and the complications of living as a hyphenated identity are ones that most Israelis can relate to. Even two generations into Israel’s existence as a state, most people either are themselves primarily speakers of a non-Hebrew language, or have parents who are.

Jews are unusual among minority groups in that we are actually multi-ethnic and multicultural. Jewishness is a national concept which spans several ethnicities, numerous languages, and hundreds of cultures and sub-cultures. Although there are only about 15 million Jews on Earth (.02% of the world’s population) within that small fraction they represent a huge diversity of global culture.

To me, this is something to be celebrated and cherished. Gradually it is disappearing– thanks to the re-centralisation of Jewish population in two primary centres (Israel and America), and thanks to commercial publishing and the internet. In pre-1789 times, practically every local community had its own custom (minhag). For example, there would have been a minhag St. Albans which was subtly different to minhag London. Both would have shared key features with minhag Shanghai and minhag Casablanca – but each would also represent the uniqueness of Jews in those places as well.

The impulse to standardisation is important– things are easier if everyone sings the same tunes, pronounces Hebrew the same way, uses the same cantillation, etc. However, what standardisation can (and often does) mean is a flattening of the diversity and richness of Jewish culture(s). Rather than try and collapse all difference into one single presentation of ‘Jewishness’ we should embrace the plurality of our community. To that end, it’s almost more appropriate to describe ‘Judaisms’ rather than Judaism.

In Soldi, Mahmood sings: È difficile stare al mondo quando perdi l’orgoglio (It’s hard to live in the world when you lose your pride). Although he’s singing about something very different– the success of his very words in contemporary Israel should remind us of the same lesson. If we abandon the racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity that enriches Judaism(s) and ourselves, we’d be losing something foundational to we are. Instead, we should take pride in the way(s) in which we live in the world and cherish the differences which we are able to contain, all within one people and one nation.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jul 23

18 July 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

On the wall of my office, there’s a large poster which features the Hebrew text of a quote from the Book of Michah (Chapter 6, Verse 8):

הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ.

You have been told, mortal, what is good– and what God wants from you: to ensure justice, love compassion, and walk humbly with your God. 

I have this there because of a very old and bizarre tradition. Our Sages believed that when one died, they would be summoned up to a sort of celestial Beit Din where they would have to give their name and recount the events of their life. However, they were afraid that, at that critical post-death moment, one might forget their name! To help allay this anxiety, they suggested a daily practice: that after every recitation of the Amidah (thrice daily traditionally), one should recite a verse from the Tanakh which contains their name in it.

As a result, years ago, I started reciting Michah 6:8 daily to remember my own name, because the third word in Hebrew is adam (mortal). But I didn’t just choose this verse because I was worried about having an identity crisis– I also chose it because of the message which it contains, one that I think is absolutely central to the project of Judaism.

We’re going to read this passage this Shabbat, as it is contained within the assigned Haftarah for Parashat Balak. What does this message of moral clarity have to do with Balak, though? Our parashah contains a fumbling, misguided prophet, a comically-frustrated king, and even a talking donkey who can see angels! As is often the case, the connection between the Parashah and the Haftarah is not about content, but about context.

In Bil’am’s attempt to curse Israel, he recites that famous line: mah tovu ohaleikha ya’akov (How good are your tents, Jacob!). That is precisely the connection. There, in the Parashah, Bil’am says mah tovu (How good…); here in the Haftarah, Michah tells us mah tov ([God has told you] what is good…).

Whereas Bil’am is descriptive, Michah is prescriptive. Bil’am suggests that the Israelites are already good, just by looking at their encampment from atop a mountain. Michah suggests that mortal beings are yet to be fully good– but can achieve such a state through love, mercy, and humility. Although it’s tempting to read parashat Balak and give ourselves a nice pat on the back, mocking Bil’am and savouring the fantastical story of a foreign prophet accidentally blessing us, we’d do better to look at the counterpoint provided by the Haftarah. The tents of Ya’akov and dwellings of Yisra’él can still be good, must be good even– but probably only with a bit of work by us to guarantee it– work to ensure that we do justice, love compassion, and walk humbly with God.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jul 17

11 July 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

Food can tell us a lot about history– and often, food undermines our own self-conceptions of what ‘history’ is all about. Take the example of paella. Paella is (unofficially) Spain’s ‘national dish’– it exudes Spanishness and Hispanophiles the world around cherish the smell and savour of a proper paella (cooked of course in a proper paellera (the utensil which gives the dish its name)).

However, when we dig a bit deeper we realise paella isn’t quite what it seems; nor is, consequently, “Spanishness”. Food historian (good job if you can get it!) Clara Maria de Amezua traces the history of paella to the Jewish community in pre-Muslim Iberia (prior to 711). Large amounts of Jews had arrived in Spain as part of the Roman Empire and had settled in various parts of the country. Jews in Catalonia and Valencia provided a key trade link with Provençal and lived as other citizens of the Roman, and then Visigothic kingdoms that occupied the Iberian peninsula.

One of the staples of this ancient Jewish community was a dish called adafina– more or less a type of cholent. Adafina was a slow-cooked stew of meat and vegetables, designed to be eaten on Shabbat. As usual, Jewish practice shaped Jewish eating habits, and through them, Spanish identity (but we’ll get there).

The big transformation happens when Muslim armies begin to conquer Spain in the 8th century and bring with them a crop which had been hitherto unknown in those parts: rice. It was the wide reach of the early Muslim empire (only one generation after Muhammad), which developed rice in India and brought it across the world to Spain. There, Jews and Muslims lived in close proximity and on-again off-again friendship. As a result of this contact, the Jewish adafina seems to have been adapted to include stewed rice, and appears in inland Valencia fairly early into the Moorish period. There it was called paella valenciana de la huerta (from the vegetable garden).

The original paella wouldn’t have featured seafood– but rather rabbit, duck, or chicken, along with fresh vegetables and beans. In many ways this dish came to represent the compound identity of Spain– using a dish (paellera) with roots in Roman cuisine, developed from a Jewish style of cooking for Shabbat, and with the inclusion of Arabic staples (like rice) and spices (like saffron). Later, Valencians who lived on the coast introduced a second version of paella this time with local seafood.

There are so many examples of food which both reinforce and undermine our identity. Paella demonstrates that Spanishness is quite a compound one– made up of different cultures and communities. We also can see in paella a link to our own history– as one of thousands culinary offerings which have been shaped by contact with Jewish dietary laws. These processes are still ongoing today (ie. Yotam Ottolenghi has brought Israeli cuisine to the British mainstream, etc.) but perhaps paella may have a special place in our own culinary history.

Regardless of the past, there’s paella in the future– specifically, vegetarian paella (closer to the original!) at this Sunday’s annual Garden Party. If you haven’t already signed up– email the office to RSVP and get ready to savour the complicated trajectory of paella from Roman-era Jewish adafina to the 2019 SAMS Garden Party. Buen provecho! 

Shabbat Shalom,

Jul 04

4 July 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

Cars burning, thousands protesting, motorways blocked, tearful families at tragic funerals– these sights are ones that are sadly familiar to Americans after the last few years. Nearly five years ago, in Ferguson, Missouri, 18 year old Michael Brown was shot dead by a police officer after an altercation (the details of which are unclear). Then there was 12 year old Tamir Rice (shot while holding a toy guy), Walter Scott (shot from behind while fleeing), Alton Sterling (shot while already subdued by officers), and Philando Castile– who was shot seven times while sitting in his car and reaching for his license during a traffic stop. Unfortunately there’s more young black men who make this list– more than I can name here, and there are still more being added today- in an ongoing epidemic of police brutality which undermines the American narrative that civil rights is an historical event and not an ongoing crisis.

The eerie coincidence with the case of Solomon Teka and Michael Brown is thus especially disturbing. An Ethiopian-Israeli, Solomon was involved in an altercation in a playground in Haifa when an off-duty police officer attempted to intervene. He shot at Solomon and killed him, four days ago. In the days since, Israel has been embroiled in massive protests led by the Ethiopian community against such police brutality and systemic racism– especially against, once again, young black men.

Although all of these cases are complicated, it is impossible to ignore the role that race plays in their tragic endings. Perhaps Michael Brown had just shoplifted, perhaps Alton Sterling did have a criminal record, perhaps Solomon Teka was involved in a fight on the playground– but if each of these young men were white, would have the situation still ended with their deaths?

In some ways, Israel has already done better than America. Political leaders have supported the protestors and politicians around the spectrum have called for a review of institutional racism in policing. Indeed, in a stark contrast to many American cases, the officer who killed Teka was immediately arrested and is being held on house arrest while the case is reviewed. Perhaps a slightly better reaction to a horrible situation– but the question remains, why is this situation even occurring in the first place?

America has a long history of racial tension and extreme violence. It was less than a hundred years ago that Black Americans were considered unequal in the eyes of the law, and less than a hundred years before that they were not even considered people. But why is Israel experiencing the same issues, exemplifying the same racism? Shouldn’t a people who themselves have been targeted for centuries by racism do better to eliminate such a plague from their own society?

Sadly, such is not the case. Experiencing racism is no immunisation against exhibiting it– and Israel needs to be especially vigilant to not fall into such terrible patterns. Jews of colour around the world find that their experience, their stories, and their Judaism– are consistently undermined and subverted. Israel is an incredibly diverse place– representing cultures and ethnicities from literally around the globe; but touting diversity can’t be the last step. As evidenced by the case of Solomon Teka (may his memory be a blessing), Israel has a lot further to go to ensure that the diverse society which makes it up is protected and preserved through good policy and administration.

Shabbat Shalom,