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A Sukkah Occupies Wall Street

Tuesday, October 18, 2011 | Permalink

Last week, Rabbi Jill Jacobs wrote about Sukkot and social justice and asked discussed the importance of place. Her most recent bookWhere Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community (Jewish Lights), is now available.

As I write this blog post, I am preparing to teach at Occupy Wall Street on Monday. Following a successful Kol Nidrei service, a Jewish contingent there has constructed a sukkah — the temporary hut in which Jews traditionally eat — and even sleep — during Sukkot.

Since I don’t use the subway during the holidays or Shabbat, I won’t get to see the sukkah in person until tomorrow. But sitting in my own sukkah these past few days, I have been thinking a lot about the paradox of protection and vulnerability that characterizes Sukkot.The sukkah represents both of these poles—on the one hand, the fragile skhakh (covering of leaves, branches, and other natural materials) that constitutes the roof of the sukkah leaves us almost entirely exposed to the elements. Over the past few days, we’ve endured quite a few drizzles and gusts of wind, as well as bugs and the general banging and clanging of the Manhattan streets. (When the rain gets serious, though, there’s no obligation to remain in the sukkah—the holiday is supposed to be enjoyable.) On the other hand, the skhakh also reminds us of the anenei hakavod (clouds of glory)—the Divine Presence said to have accompanied the ancient Israelites during their trek to freedom. Sukkot doesn’t try to resolve this paradox—rather, the sukkah forces us simultaneously to experience both fragility and divine protection. Through this experience, we learn that the seemingly-strongest structures can sometimes fail to protect us, while the most fragile structures can help us feel protected.

The movement to Occupy Wall Street (and many other places around the world) has also played with these two axes of fragility and strength. In placing themselves physically in the centers of financial power, these protests force us to question our assumptions about what is strong and what is weak. We often assume that those with wealth and power will always have wealth and power, that corporations will always be able to call the shots, and that those with less access to wealth will never have power.

But the occupiers, who make themselves vulnerable by camping outside and by exposing themselves to arrest, have developed more strength than many of us might have expected.

I will teach tomorrow from a tiny, fragile sukkah. It will be cool and windy. It may rain. And yet, even within this vulnerability, I will feel myself protected by the strength all around me.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and the author of Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On-Guide for Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community (Jewish Lights) and There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition. She will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all through Sukkot.

October Jewish Book Carnival

Monday, October 17, 2011 | Permalink
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter 



The October Jewish Book Carnival is here! The month’s carnival is being hosted by Homeshuling. 

Check it out for a review of The Last Brother, Sadie’s Sukkah Breakfast, The North of God, and more.

Does Place Matter?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011 | Permalink

Yesterday, Rabbi Jill Jacobs wrote about Sukkot and social justice. Her most recent book, Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community (Jewish Lights), is now available.

I started Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community with a question: Does place matter?

In today’s globalized world, it’s easy to say that place doesn’t matter at all. With a few clicks of a mouse, I can skype with friends and relatives all over the world. If I choose tomorrow to move to Fiji, I can do so. If I wanted, I could hire a secretary in India, outsource data entry to Cambodia, and telecommute from a cruise ship on the Atlantic. We no longer live in a world in which we grow up, go to school, work, and die in the same city or even often the same country.

And yet, I had a deep conviction that place does matter. Personally, I have prioritized doing justice work in the place where I live (New York City/the United States) and in Israel, where I have deep roots and much experience. At the same time, I cannot ignore the dire poverty in parts of the world far from where I live, and where I may never visit.

Place plays a fundamental role in Jewish tradition. We tell our people’s story in geographic terms—Abraham left the land of his ancestors and settled in Canaan; Joseph and his brothers went down to Egypt; the Israelite people came out of Egypt, journey through the wilderness, and found their place in the land of Israel. Our history includes sojourns in Europe, North Africa, Asia, and the Arab World. We continue to mourn the destruction of the Temple—once our central place—and the subsequent expulsions from many of the places we have lived. There is even a divine aspect to place—the rabbis call God “HaMakom”—“The Place.”

At the same time, we are a people whose history transcends place. We maintain our traditions even as we move around the world (though these traditions have shifted according to the places where we live). We speak of Am Yisrael—the people of Israel—as a unit not bounded by geography.

So does place matter or not?

I ended up devoting much of the second chapter of the book to a particularly intriguing text that considers how to prioritize our own needs with those of the people of another place. In this text, the people of one town have a well from which they take water to drink, to feed their animals, and to do laundry. People of another town, in which there is no well, stop by to ask for water. The ensuing several centuries of discussion considers which of our own needs take priority, when to share the water, and what responsibility to place on the residents of any individual place to care for their own needs.

The conclusion: Place isn’t everything, but it still matters.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and the author of Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On-Guide for Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community (Jewish Lights) and There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition

Sukkot and Social Justice

Tuesday, October 11, 2011 | Permalink

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the author of Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On-Guide for Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community (Jewish Lights).

My initial venture into Jewish social justice came my first year of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Determined to learn something about Harlem — the neighborhood that bounded my school to the north and east—I got involved with a community organizing effort to help residents avoid eviction and ensure safe living conditions. At the time, New York City was in the process of ridding itself of thousands of buildings that had defaulted to city ownership when landlords abandoned them during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s and 1980s. In the late ’90s, as housing prices in Harlem were rising, the city began selling these buildings to for-profit landlords, who often found ways to evict long-term tenants or to push them out by refusing to turn on the hot water, or to do needed repairs.

Several times a week, I would walk ten minutes east of JTS, to 123rd and Harlem, and spend time with elderly women trying to get their landlords to turn the hot water on, or families fighting eviction as rents rose. I would then walk back to school, where I would break my teeth over Aramaic grammar, and immerse myself in conversations about Shabbat and Jewish mourning practices. All of these felt important, but I struggled to understand the connection between what I saw in Harlem and what I was learning in school.

My peers and my teachers supported my work, but couldn’t guide me toward anything that would help it all make sense. At the time, nobody in my world was talking about Jewish social justice. Most of the organizations that now define the Jewish social justice landscape either did not yet exist, or were tiny players in the Jewish landscape.

I started studying Jewish texts about the relations between landlords and tenants and, to my surprise, found dozens of rabbinic conversations from 1500 years before, about when one is allowed to evict a tenant, what repairs the landlord must do, and what repairs fall under the tenant’s responsibility.

I took a risk and wrote a short piece about my own experiences both organizing in Harlem and tutoring children in a transitional housing center nearby. I wrote about the Jewish paradigm of the sukkah — the temporary structure meant to be lived in only for a week—and the ma’akeh — the guardrail built on the roof of a home to prevent falls. I wrote about an eleven-year-old boy I had met who was exceedingly bright — but who had never learned to read probably because his family’s frequent moves meant that he never stayed in one school long enough to learn. I wrote about the need for stable, long-term housing that protects the physical and emotional health of its residents.

On a whim, I sent this piece to Tikkun Magazine. I was 23 years old, and had never published anything in a national publication. To my surprise, they took it. To my greater surprise, people read it. And, to my amazement, numerous people told me that they, too, had been looking for connections between Judaism and social justice.

This all happened before such publications had an on-line presence, before blogging existed, and before we could facebook or tweet articles to the world. So it was shocking that so many people read a paper publication, and then e-mailed or called me to tell me what they thought.

This initial experience led me through a long process of working in social justice organizations, both inside and outside of the Jewish world. I wanted to know more about urban politics, so I got a degree in Urban Affairs. And, eventually, I decided to write more. I kept getting calls from people looking for a book that would provide a Jewish approach to contemporary issues. I couldn’t find a recent one to recommend, so I decided to write my own. This led to the publication of There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition, which came out in 2009. This book looked at criminal justice, housing, labor, the environment, and other justice issues through the lens of Jewish text, social science, and real people whom I have met in my work.

And then I thought I was done. Writing a book is quite a project—especially when one has a full-time job. I spent Sundays, late nights, and early mornings crouched over my computer writing and editing. I drafted my husband and several friends into editing. So I promised not to write another book for a very long time.

But then, I started touring with There Shall Be No Needy. I went to Barnes & Nobles, synagogues, Board of Rabbis meetings, and JCCs around the country. And, at every stop, someone raised his or her hand and said, “It’s good to hear that Judaism has so much to say about social justice. But my synagogue’s social justice committee is struggling. What should we do?”

And so I realized that I needed to write another book. Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide To Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community starts where There Shall Be No Needy leaves off. It gives the theoretical background for why Jews should do social justice work. It walks through how to choose where to focus one’s justice work. And then I get practical. Based on my own experiences, as well as textual precedent, I talk about how we can do effective service, organizing, and advocacy in our own communities. I talk about how we can form strong partnerships with other religious, ethnic, and social welfare organizations. I talk about how we can use power effectively.

I’ve told everyone I know that I’m really not writing another book for a very long time. But I do look forward to hearing from individuals and institutions about your own experience implementing the ideas in Where Justice Dwells.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and the author of Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On-Guide for Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community (Jewish Lights) and There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition. She will be blogging here all through Sukkot.

Jewish Art

Tuesday, October 11, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

From Tablet:

A Jewish literature is easy to identify. But defining Jewish art is a task of Talmudic complexity, as a new book, Jewish Art, makes clear.

In today’s Tablet magazine, columnist Adam Kirsch looks into the very idea of Jewish art with the help of the content of the new book. Authors Samantha Baskind and Larry Silver examine the theory that no real definition of Jewish art exists.

Feast of Famine

Monday, October 10, 2011 | Permalink

Lauren Shockey is the author of Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris. She offered thoughts on Yom Kippur and break fast to us last week, which we’re sharing here today.  While it’s too late late to make some of the delicious dishes she mentions for this past year’s Yom Kippur, save them for next year, or, even better, try them out for Sukkot this week.

We might associate Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, with fasting, but for me, the holiday is as much about eating—that is, breaking the fast—as it is about abstaining from food.

Growing up in New York City, my break fast meals were minor affairs.  Really, it was just my parents and me having dinner, since the vast majority of our Jewish relatives live outside of New York City.  Yet when I lived in Tel Aviv, working at the restaurant Carmella Bistro and writing what would become Four Kitchens, I befriended a group of Israelis who took me under their wing and we celebrated the Days of Awe together, first having a large dinner for Rosh Hashanah, and then an equally festive break fast meal following Yom Kippur.  Because I was apprenticing to be a chef, I had been tasked with cooking for Rosh Hashanah, and I prepared an elaborate feast combining American favorites (brisket, an apple tart) with Israeli ones (hummus).

For Yom Kippur, my friend Kate took over the dinner. My newfound pals and I gathered around the table, admiring her flaky golden boureka right out of the oven, excited to sate our hunger and begin anew.  Yet, as when the seasons change and we look towards the New Year, our longing wasn’t just a physical hunger, but an emotional one, too, of beginning a journey together as the book seals our fate for the ensuing year.

Although I celebrated the holidays in New York City this year with friends and family, I cooked the dishes that I made during my Tel Avivian Days of Awe (and which subsequently made it into Four Kitchens): sweet potato soup with feta and za’atar oil, red-wine braised brisket, and pomegranate-herb salad (see recipes below).   And yet while I’ve mastered the skills to develop recipes on my own, I still like to leaf through cookbooks that celebrate the season and the cuisine of the Levant.  Here are my three of my picks for when you’re looking for delicious sustenance for the Jewish holidays.

The New Book of Israeli Food – Filled with luscious photographs, this book celebrates contemporary Israeli cooking, and you can even find a recipe from Carmella Bistro where I worked.  You’ll see simple fare, like shakshuka (spicy poached eggs), as well as more complicated dishes like lamb and quince stew.  Part of the book is also divided by holidays, making it all the more fun this time of year.

The Book of Jewish Food   — Claudia Roden is a cookbook goddess, exploring the cuisines of the Levant.  While I am partial to the recipes in her New Book of Middle Eastern Food, I really love how in this tome she explores the worldwide Jewish Diaspora and how recipes have changed according to geography.

Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous  – Having lived in both Paris and Tel Aviv, I find this book to be really informative.  We don’t normally think of France as having a strong Jewish culture, but Nathan traces the past 2,000 years of history, illustrating the parallels in the two cuisines.  The North African Sephardic recipes are of particular interest to me, since I love the rich, spice-filled cuisine.

Recipes from Four Kitchens:

Sweet Potato Soup with Feta and Zaatar Oil 

This is a really simple soup, warming and autumnal and gently flavored with hints of the Middle East. Zaatar is a spice blend that combines dried hyssop, thyme, and sesame seeds and can be found at Middle Eastern grocery stores or other specialty stores.

Serves 6-8

1⁄4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons zaatar
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 small leek, diced
5 small sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped in 1-inch cubes
6 cups water
2 cups chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1⁄4 cup feta cheese

In a small pot, combine 1⁄4 cup olive oil and the zaatar. Cook over medium heat until hot, but take care not to burn the zaa‐ tar. Set aside for at least 1 hour to cool and infuse.

In a large pot, heat the butter and remaining olive oil over medium‐high heat. When the butter has melted, add the onion, carrot, and leek, and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the sweet potato cubes, and sauté for another minute. Add the water, stock, and bay leaf, and bring to a boil. once the soup begins to boil, lower to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes. Check to make sure the sweet potatoes are completely soft. Add the salt to the soup.

Remove the bay leaf and puree the soup using a regular or immersion blender. If the soup is too thick, add a little water or stock until a desired consistency has been reached. Ladle the soup into individual bowls. Crumble the feta into each bowl and drizzle with the zaatar oil.

Red Wine-Braised Brisket

Brisket is a popular choice for the Jewish holidays, and although the meat can frequently be tough, the trick is to cook it for a really long time over a very low temperature so that the fat and collagen break down and the meat becomes fork‐tender. This is great served over a bed of creamy polenta or mashed potatoes. The 5‐to‐6‐pound brisket is the weight before the fat is trimmed off; after the fat is trimmed, the yield should be about 3 to 4 pounds of beef.

Serves 8

1 medium to large yellow onion
4 carrots
1 leek, white part only
2 ribs celery
1 beef brisket, about 5 to 6 pounds before trimming
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1⁄4 teaspoon
freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
6 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
6 sprigs thyme
2 cups red wine
2 cups beef stock

Preheat the oven to 320 degrees F. Cut the onion in half ver‐ tically, then cut each half into quarters. Cut the carrots, leek, and celery into 2‐inch pieces.

Trim and discard all the fat off the brisket, including the cen‐ ter layer of fat. Cut the brisket into three pieces. Generously season the brisket pieces with the salt and pepper on all sides. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over high heat. When the oil begins to smoke, place one piece of the brisket in the pan and sear on each side for about 2 minutes, or until a dark golden crust forms. Remove from the pan and keep warm. Repeat with the remaining two pieces of brisket. Add another tablespoon of olive oil to the pan, and sauté the gar‐ lic, onion, carrots, leek, celery, bay leaves, and thyme until the garlic begins to turn golden. Transfer the vegetable mixture to a Dutch oven or other heavy‐bottomed baking dish. Place the beef atop the bed of vegetables.

Add 1⁄2 cup red wine to the skillet and deglaze the pan, scrap‐ ing up any bits that may be stuck to the bottom. once you have reduced the wine by half, pour over the meat. Add the remaining wine and the beef stock to the skillet, and bring to a boil. Pour over the meat and vegetables. The liquid should come halfway up to the meat but should not submerge it completely.

Bake, covered, for 4 hours, basting and turning the meat every half hour. The braising liquid should be at a gentle boil the whole time. If the liquid is boiling rapidly, lower the heat to 315 degrees F. If there is a lot of liquid remaining in the pot, cook with the lid slightly ajar for the last hour. The meat should be tender enough when done to be cut with a fork and should fall apart easily when handled with tongs. Let sit for about 10 minutes before serving.

Divide the brisket among bowls and serve with some of the vegetables and braising liquid.

Pomegranate-Herb Salad

This bright‐green‐and‐red salad is inspired by the herb salad with toasted cashews served at Carmella. Plus, it utilizes the best trick I learned at Carmella: deseeding pomegranates in a snap. Since herbs have a tendency to darken when cut, make sure they are completely dry after washing them (the best way to wash them is to leave them tied in bunches and let them soak in cold water for a few minutes, swirling the water occasionally to remove any dirt) before slicing. And don’t worry if you have uneven or whole leaves; that’s part of this salad’s charm.

Serves 6

2 pomegranates
2 bunches parsley (about 6 cups’ worth of leaves)
1 bunch cilantro (about 2 cups’ worth of leaves)
1⁄2 bunch mint (about 1 to 11⁄2 cups leaves)
4 cups baby arugula leaves
1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt
1⁄4 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice

Slice the pomegranates in half lengthwise. Make five to six incisions at a 20‐degree angle into the base of each half. over a bowl, place the pomegranate half seed‐side down into your palm and whack the top of the fruit with a spoon. Repeat until there are no more seeds left in the fruit. Remove any yellow pith that might have fallen out along with the seeds. Place the seeds into a large salad bowl.

Cut the parsley, cilantro, and mint: Leaving the herbs tied in bunches and using a sharp knife, thinly slice the herbs starting at the top of the bunch. once you reach mostly stems, discard the bunch. Add the herbs to the bowl.

Take the arugula and form it into a ball. Using the same sin‐ gle slicing motion, cut the arugula into small pieces. Add to the salad bowl along with the salt, olive oil, and lemon juice. Com‐ bine well and serve immediately.

Be sure to check out Lauren Shockey’s recently published  Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris.

JLit Links

Monday, October 10, 2011 | Permalink
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter


Werner Sombart: Portrait of an Anti-Semite

Friday, October 07, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ned Beauman wrote about Oscar Panizza and Henry Ford. His debut novel, Boxer, Beetle (Bloomsbury), is now available.

Can an anti-Semite reach correct conclusions about Jews? Here is Jeffrey Herf in his book Reactionary Modernism on the work of Werner Sombart, a leading German sociologist of the early twentieth century:

“Sombart stressed four aspects of European Jewish social history that contributed to the origins of modern capitalism. First, the Jews were dispersed in different countries and thus had international contacts. Second, their existence as outsiders forced them to be more attentive to new economic opportunities and to favor economic rationalism over local custom and tradition. Third, because Jews had been excluded from full citizenship rights, they turned their attention away from politics to economics. Fourth, Jewish wealth made banking and lending possible, activities from which modern capitalism was born.”

All those points seem both valid and interesting out of context, and indeed Sombart’s 1911 book The Jews and Modern Capitalism was not seen as anti-Semitic when it was published. Furthermore, the records of Sombart’s feelings on Nazism is vague and contradictory, and his views seem to have fluctuated over his lifetime. Nonetheless, reading more about Sombart, one feels certain he was basically pretty hostile to Jews – at one point he even wrote that he didn’t like Berlin department stores because their ‘crass juxtapositions’ were a product of Jewish sensibilities.

So where does that leave his sociological insights? The fact is, anti-Semites do spend a lot of time thinking about Judaism – more time than a lot of Jews spend thinking about Judaism. Occasionally, they are going to come up with something solid. When I was researching the history of anti-Semitism for Boxer, Beetle, I encountered this problem often, and it seems to me that at a hundred years’ distance, maybe it’s finally time to go back to some of these old sources – even if we have to employ the intellectual equivalent of those steel boxes with built-in lead-lined gloves like they install in nuclear research laboratories.

Ned Beauman is the author of Boxer, Beetle

Ford vs. Sapiro

Wednesday, October 05, 2011 | Permalink

On Monday, Ned Beauman wrote about Oscar Panizza. His debut novel, Boxer, Beetle (Bloomsbury), is now available.

Henry Ford might be the most famous American anti-Semite, but it’s not widely known that the industrialist only narrowly escaped having to answer for his vitriol in court. In 1927, the heroic Jewish lawyer Aaaron Sapiro sued Ford for remarks that Ford had made about Sapiro in his book The International Jew (later popular among the Nazi Party). Unfortunately, the libel case ended in a mistrial, and had been pretty precarious from start to finish. As Time magazine reported: ‘During the life of the Sapiro-Ford trial the following events were chronicled: Henry Ford was badly battered in an automobile accident. Stuart Hanley, lawyer for Mr. Ford, suffered a back strain. Two of Aaron Sapiro’s children came down with scarlet fever. Milton Sapiro (brother) splintered a wrist in another automobile crash. Senator James A. Reed of Missouri, chief counsel for Mr. Ford, went to the Henry Ford hospital with an acute attack of gastrointestinal trouble. Superstitious observers whispered that the trial was hoodooed.’

What the article neglects to mention is that Ford probably contrived his injuries in order to avoid appearing in court. There’s something almost Ballardian about an automobile tycoon deliberately staging his own automobile accident. But what I like even more is the bluff that followed. Sapiro’s team were having trouble serving a subpoena to Ford. ‘Eventually the server threw it on Ford’s lap through the open window when he stopped his car at an intersection,’ writes Hadassa Ben-Itto in The Lie That Wouldn’t Die, his history of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. ‘Ford suffered severe loss of face when the judge summarily rejected his lawyer’s argument that the service of the subpoena was faulty, claiming that the document had not actually landed in his client’s lap, but slipped to the floor of the car between his knees.’ One imagines that Ford was soon fantasising about a luxury version of his own Model A with two new features perfect for the busy anti-Semite: triple-gauge crash simulator and velvet-upholstered subpoena guard.

Check back all week for more posts from Ned for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Visiting Scribe.

MetaMaus Book Trailer

Tuesday, October 04, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

More on MetaMaus: