Category Archives: Jewish identity

Unexpected treat: Shabbat in Bogota

Before I take off for Cartagena tomorrow,  I want to tell you about a special – and unexpected treat: Shabbat dinner – in the Zohar hostel with the hostel’ hosts and E., an Orthodox Cali Jew/ fellow traveler.  Where to even begin….


E., B., J., from left to right.  I have no other pictures from the dinner because once the sun went down, there would be no pics.

E., B., J., from left to right. I have no other pictures from the dinner because once the sun went down, there would be no pics.

The Zohar’s J. and B. are captivated by Kabbalah, and by extension, Judaism.  E. has been satisfying their curiosity, providing equal opportunities to teach and learn.  I was invited to Shabbat/Friday night dinner thanks to my DNA.  At 5:30 we gathered in the hosts’ home on the 2nd floor and E. prayed the afternoon service.   Needless to say, not part of my ritual.

What I’m about to say may sound familiar if you’ve read earlier posts about my Eastern European conversations:  As Jews here reclaim their Judaism (Benei Anussim, Orthodox communities are springing up all over the country – 21 at current count – all Orthodox, because as E. shared, if you don’t know anything you should learn it all the ‘right’ way and then you have the knowledge to make the decision to do otherwise – choose your own brand of Judaism (and in my case “Jewish Renewal” thanks to Romemu in NYC).   Based on J.’s and B.’s strong affinity, E. threw out the possibility they had Jewish DNA – something that was drawing them back in so to speak.

Inside the church at Monseratte, atop the hill overlooking Bogota.  I'll have pics of synagoge's as I attend.  As you can imagine the church's here are plentiful, with crowds attending afternoon services.

Inside the church at Monseratte, one of Bogotá’s prize destination,  atop an eastern hill overlooking the city. I’ll have pics of synagogues as I attend. As you can imagine the churches  here are plentiful, with crowds attending afternoon services in those I’ve popped into.

Gondola that took us down the hill - my scariest action so far - I was with a Peace Corps volunteer, W. from Paraguay and she agreed!  This pic courtesy of

Gondola that took us down the hill from Monsarrat – my scariest action so far – I was with a Peace Corps volunteer, W. from Paraguay and she agreed! This pic courtesy of

The Hebrew (with a Sephardic accent) and Spanish prayers were diligently listened to by J. and B. – from Kabbalah, they were focused on the pronunciation of each letter, and open to its spirituality.  It’s one more example of how intent guides the value of any experience.  I’m respectful – and in awe of those learning a new religion – having the strength and self-awareness to know something is ‘missing’ from their life – not to mention learning how to read Hebrew and pray. E. didn’t learn till he was 28 – (and he knew he was Jewish: his mother is Sephardic, his grandfather Ashkenazi/German from the EEuropean immigration of the ’20’s).

Rich red and green dot the eastern hills above the city, these in Monserrate

Rich red and green dot the eastern hills above the city, these in Monsarrat.

During a lovely dinner of soup (with lots of potatoes Colombian style), salad, chicken and ox tail (yup!), B. asked non-stop questions – in Spanish with spectacular non-verbals!  My brain bloated way before my stomach, though most of her questions (I think…) dealt with both the history of Judaism and also specific Halacha (rules).  E. clearly outlined the difference in men’s and women’s roles in Orthodox Judaism – separation of the sexes, men leading prayer in volume and intensity –  while I explained how my service is filled with singing and dancing – and mixed seating.  I imagine over the next few months I’ll find myself in many different synagogue groups, equally awed, equally amazed, and feeling wonderfully blessed (and even frustrated).

Overlooking Bogota - as you can see a HUGE city.  The skies are overcast and actually quite polluted thanks to diesel fuel

Overlooking Bogotá – as you can see a HUGE city. The skies are overcast and actually quite polluted thanks to diesel fuel

E. and I were in total agreement that there is no-one way to be Jewish.  As he said – it’s not a race, nationality, or even just a religion – it’s a way of thinking.  And freedom of thought, as Jews reclaim their identity here is the greatest gift.  Though he was quite insistent on the importance of following the ‘rules’ (Halacha) which is not my way of practicing.  This insistent determination is something I’ll be paying attention to over the next few months.

One thing is for certain – I listen for similarities from my E.European conversations and that has to stop.  I’m in a different culture with a different history.  I know so little – I have so much to learn.

The eastern hills are lush and beckoning.  Notice the cross planted as a reminder - a mecca to all who look up.  By late afternoon the sky clears to reveal the brilliant blue sky and welcome warmth!

The eastern hills are lush and beckoning. Notice the cross planted as a reminder – a mecca to all who look up. By late afternoon the sky clears to reveal brilliant blue sky and welcome warmth!



Blocks away, is this restaurant/sign.  It appears I not only can't understand Spanish - but I can't understand Hebrew either.  Yet, that it's even here intrigues me.  If anyone can  translate - please do!

Blocks away, is this restaurant/sign. It appears I not only can’t understand Spanish – but I can’t understand Hebrew either. Yet, that it’s even here intrigues me. If anyone can translate – please do!


Everybody loves Kabbalah

slight exaggeration.  While Madonna put it (back) on the spiritual map, there are certainly worse trends to follow out there.   In here, my current hostel, The Zohar, my hosts’ (Joshua and Beatriz)  red-stringed wrist shows the far-reaching appeal of this practice.  There was even a Kabbalah center here in Bogotá which my hostel host is pushing to reopen.

The 'living room' at the Zohar Hostel

The ‘living room’ at the Zohar Hostel

Coming to the Zohar (the hostel) was accidental – focused on satisfying my physical, not spiritual needs – I walked past and had seen the pictures.  Uncovering the Kabbalah connection came when I realized the name’s familiarity – though I had to google it to be sure.   My host, J. knows little about Judaism.  He does know Jews – through work in NYC and also ‘rumor’ so to speak here in Bogotá.

The original site of Bogota!

The original site of Bogotá!

I wouldn’t say this hostel is particularly spiritual, though it’s got wonderful down comforters which adds to my sleeping nirvana.  Yet, in a country of less than 5,000 Jews there are now 2 of us here – Elijah, who is here for work.   He’s spent 12 years in Miami and will be going back for the Jewish High Holidays.  I notice  how fluidly people travel between the Americas – which also means I can’t say I’m American – because so is everyone else here.

Elijah’s Orthodox, living in Cali, a small city west of here –  there is a community and a growing Jewish community as Colombians declare their Judaism.  There has always been a population here insisting they were Jewish – but unable to prove it with papers, meaning  they’ve been ignored.   E. shared they practice the Halacha (laws), keep kosher, speak Hebrew.  But still the ‘established’ Jewish community, the Ashkenazi who moved here in the 1930’s fleeing Hitler, wouldn’t recognize them.   Last January, Spain released a list of over 5,000 names of those exiled 500 years ago.  Surprise, surprise – they were all Jews.   There are 21 Jewish communities springing up around the country.  And they are Orthodox – E. says if you are embracing the religion take it all and then decide what you believe, and how you will practice.  (I’ll be writing about Shabbat dinner with Elijah, Joshua and Beatriz soon).

Really, I don’t look for this stuff.  Not yet – not on this trip.  But already my curiosity is sparked and I can feel the draw to explore in-depth other parts of the country – and these communities.  After all, there are no coincidences.

This 'mini-golf' event courtesy of Quaker Oats was taking place at the original Bogota site.  This could have been anywhere….

This ‘mini-golf’ event courtesy of Quaker Oats was taking place at the original Bogotá site. This could have been anywhere….

It all comes back to identity:   how one maintains identity when it’s not supported by the environment.  I’m sure I’ll learn more about this with indigenous people as I see the country.

Then there’s language:  I’m here to teach English, the ‘universal language’.  At a ‘Spanglish’ conversation group at a local bar, Eduardo, a young ‘Biology teacher who teaches in English’ pointed out if everyone speaks English what will happen to all the other languages.  What will happen to alternative ways to communicate and express oneself.  Will Starbucks and H&M take over?  Or are they already here and I haven’t seen them (which is more likely….)

Subway shops are everywhere, I've seen a Starbuck's cup (not store), several McDonalds - you get the idea….

Subway shops are everywhere, I’ve seen a Starbuck’s cup (not store), several McDonald’s – you get the idea….

Somehow I’m making time to look for work – one ‘offer’ for an unspecified number of hours and I’m soon off to another interview.  I’ve finally tapped into the corner of the expat community at the local language school and realize there are people who will help me settle in and see the city.

Mike (right) and his buddy showed me the ropes of taking a bus and their experience as Expats.  On their way for a casting call, Mike will be playing a dead guy in a Micky Rourke movie

Mike (right) and his buddy showed me the ropes of taking a bus and their experience as Expats. On their way for a casting call, Mike will be playing a dead guy in a Micky Rourke movie

It all reminds me I need to learn Spanish!  My handful of words aren’t enough in this country where English is as rare as hot water in the kitchen faucet.  The simplest things can be a challenge when there is a language barrier.   I was proudly escorted to an ATM yesterday by a (haltingly) English-speaking businessman.  I’ve shared that feeling many times in NYC, escorting foreigners through the subway and city streets.

Fortunately those little acts of kindness are immune to language – or should I say rely on the power of universal language – a smile.

That’s a bit of my first 8 days….

FYI:  I’m off to Cartagena tomorrow for a 2 week gig.  This should be interesting!


CelebrateTrees: Tu B’shvat, the Jewish Arbor Day!

‘It is because of you we are here.‘  Lilka Bielski, Tuvia Bielski’s widow said as she looked up at the trees (in a video) in the Belarus forest where the Bielski partisans (best known from the movie ‘Defiance’)  survived the Holocaust.

Please go here to read more about amazing Partisans:

Please go here to read more about amazing Partisans:

These same trees that saved partisans during the Holocaust, are the ‘green lungs’ that maintain life.  Celebrating these – and all – trees, and the renewal and rebirth they represent – is what Tu B’Shvat is all about.

Forests provide safety

Forests provide safety

This holiday is sometimes called the Jewish Arbor Day, or what might be called the Jewish Earth Day.   Clueless, I’ve thought of this as the ‘dried fruit holiday’ since the kosher supermarkets in my neighborhood offer a smorgasbord of dried fruits which I happen to love.

Literally, Tu B’Shvat, a minor holiday, means the 15th of the Jewish month of Shevat.

Tu B'shvat delights

Tu B’shvat delights

What I love more, is understanding what this holiday is all about:  celebrating nature and our relationship to the earth and as a reminder to serve and protect trees.  In Israel it’s all about ecological awareness and planting trees.

I’ve learned this for the first time thanks to  Rabbi David Ingbor’s sermon one Friday night at the Romemu Synagogue.   Environmentalist or not, this is a time of physical and spiritual renewal.  A second Rosh Hashonah.   Check out Romemu’s site and download the sermon:

And listen to the music on “A Taste of  Romemu:

It’s so easy to take trees for granted, especially this time of year as they stand naked and silent, seemingly devoid of color and purpose.

'naked trees' in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, preparing for spring

‘naked trees’ in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, preparing for spring

Tu B’Shvat is the perfect time to start celebrating nature as we (humans and nature alike) enter this time of fertility after winter’s dormancy.  And don’t trees deserve a much-needed time of rest, of fallow, after all they do for us?

Those seeds strewn in the fall, and through Rosh Hashonah intentions?  They’ve had time to scatter and settle, hopefully to miraculously take root and prepare to bloom when conditions are right.

Tu B’Shvat is a reminder that life stirs before we see it:  just as our dreams don’t come true one sun-filled morning, but rather build over the course of mulching and mulling experiences and actions.

While this may be a minor holiday, trees serve a major purpose in Judaism and Israel, which I think is pretty amazing:

Jews were ‘told’ to plant trees when they ‘returned’ to Israel.

All the more interesting since there were virtually no trees there.  So now, when Israel boasts having more trees now than 100 years ago, it is easy to understand how this is true.

In 1901, early settlers in Palestine began planting trees as part of the Jewish National Fund (JNF).   Now, there are over 240 million trees in Israel!  In fact, one of the most popular ways to commemorate and celebrate an event or person is by planting trees in someone’s name through JNF.

(FYI, about planting trees…  James Michner, in his fictional book “The Source”.   writes about American Jews coming to visit ‘their’ trees, only to find they aren’t memorialized that way!)

Good thing there are so many trees since that proverbial peace symbol of an olive branch, well, we need lots more olive branches  from lots more olive trees…

While some of those who have planted trees were Partisans, and the children of Partisans, I think in this day and age we are all Partisans of a sort in need of safety.

We all need a safe place to hide – from the ravages of climate change.

10,000 trees were killed, uprooted, in New York alone during Sandy.  Ironic – the trees that will save us from climate disasters are destroyed during those same disasters.

I want the world to be a safe place, full of safe hiding places, preferably for play, not war.  So while I won’t literally be planting trees this weekend, I’ve already ‘asked’ JNF to plant a few to honor a niece.

planting tree

Who knew Tu B’Shvat is in fact a major holiday in intent?  A holiday of action and change!

Here’s to celebrating renewal and rebirth as we all start to thaw from our winter fallow.  And a reminder to go hug (and plant) a tree in thanks for the safety she provides.

Harlem’s Gospel experience and invitation

The Apollo theater, Harlem’s famous landmark was initially home to Yiddish theater before launching the career of musical giants including Michael Jackson!

On a hot August morning,  buses line Harlem’s 125th Street as hundreds of people snake single-file past street vendors and residents before dodging down side streets in search of spirituality.  Spirituality in Gospel music.

Soaking up the cultural and spiritual Gospel experience is a must-do for NYC tourists and residents.   A to-do that took this New Yorker 11 years to accomplish!  Along with fifty members of NYC’s

138th Street, Strivers Row was where the wealthy lived in Harlem 100 years ago

Shorewalker’s, we looped through Harlem’s Striver’s Row on 138th St. on our way

Striver’s Row @138th Street in Harlem, NYC.

to a large square building more reminiscent of a government building or bank than of a church.

Fitting I suppose for a religious institution.

Mount Olivet Baptist Church, at 120th Street and Lenox Avenue (now Malcolm X Boulevard), was built  in 1907 as Temple Israel for German Jews. Its four trunk like Corinthian columns could be mistaken for something out of imperial Rome were it not for the Stars of David nestled in their leafy capitals – and the Stars of David in the balcony section and the Ten Commandments and Hebrew inscription above the baptismal pool that was once the Ark. The synagogue was designed by Arnold W. Brunner, architect of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, at Central Park West and 70th Street.

Hundreds of us – literally – are crowded into the back of the sanctuary of this exotic venue.  We’re sweaty and makeshift fans courtesy of the programs are both relieving and mildly distracting.

Stars of David atop the pillars of Ephases Baptist Church. Respectful of the service, I didn’t take any pictures inside.

It takes only minutes for us to sink into the warm ambience and spiritual energy that makes Gospel a full experience.   Four women singing around the piano in the front left, belt out songs, challenging us to participate. 

The question is, how do we participate? 

Do we sing? Clap? Stand and sway? 

Is there a protocol and how do we learn it?

Congregants rise to shake hands in welcome to  each other while slowly making their way to us visitors.  This is the easy part: it takes little enticement for us to eagerly reach out for connection, touch.

Many of Harlem’s churches, like Mount Olivet reveal rich reminders of its Jewish past, brief as it was.  In the balcony, emerald-green Stars of David are centered in the stain glass windows of this former synagogue.  Front and center, the Ten Commandments atop the ark, held the

Manhattan Grace Tabernacle in Harlem with its Magen David. The writing in the arch is Hebrew

Torah’s and now houses the Baptismal pool.  Hebrew lettering arched above reminds all of the German and Eastern European Jews who called this sanctuary and neighborhood home from the late 1800’s to the 1920’s.

This Gospel Church’s Jewish past  surprised many in my group.  Yet, human ‘migrations’ are the universal story of cities large and small, for better or worse.

Neighborhoods change, seemingly in a NY minute here in the Big Apple.  Subtle reminders remain, requiring focused attention and observation.  In Harlem alone about a dozen churches began their spiritual life as synagogues!

Former Allen St. Synagogue in the once Jewish Lower East Side and now Chinatown is a  Buddhist Temple and 99 cent store

‘In the name of G-d has sparked so many wars, yet sanctuaries fluidly change religious affiliation.  Both from year to year, and more often, from day-to-day.  My Kabbalat Shabbat, (Friday night services welcoming the Sabbath) are spent in a Presbyterian church.

There’s peace in those pews.  If we can pray in the same space, can’t we play nice?

As I sway and clap back in Harlem on that hot Sunday, letting my body blend with the music, my mind wonders and wanders: why don’t tourists  include Jewish services, or other religious services to their cultural experience?

Here in 2013, post-apocolyptic-Mayan-miss, there’s a perfect opportunity to understand and connect with others.  To develop and grow our empathy. 

If we can’t literally walk in someone else’s shoes to grow and develop empathy, it’s possible to pray in someone else’s pews. 

Have you had the opportunity to pray in another house of worship? 

What did you learn about your own religion and sense of spirituality?

Here’s to a year of peace, empathy, and, connection!

Chanukah: The Power of Light

Samantha at Bourbon Coffee on 14th St., Manhattan unique and joyful celebration of Chanukah

Samantha at Bourbon Coffee on 14th St., Manhattan unique and joyful celebration of Chanukah

Amidst the lights and music of Chanukah comes the lights of Chanukah.  It’s a festival – not a holiday, and, like many Jewish celebrations it involves near annihilation and food.

Sunday, a friend asked about the meaning of ‘gelt’ as we walked chomping on chocolate gelt coins.    Midway through making up answers, I came face to face with the fact:  after lighting hundreds of Chanukah candles, spinning countless dreidels, and, eating twice my weight in potato latkes and soufganiot (doughnuts) over more than half century of celebrating:  I DON’T KNOW!

Fortunately, I had picked up a brochure:

I'm thinking this is an "Everything you wanted to know about Chanukah - that your friend didn't know" brochure, courtesy of Lubavitch Youth Organization/Chabad

I’m thinking this is an “Everything you wanted to know about Chanukah – that you didn’t know” brochure, courtesy of Lubavitch Youth Organization/Chabad

In fact, while reading Chabad’s Lubavitch Youth Org’s short brochure I realized not only do I NOT

The way we Eastern Europeans prefer to ingest our oil!  martha stewart highlights sharon lebewol's latke's from her 2nd Ave Deli Cookbook

The way we Eastern Europeans prefer to ingest our oil! martha stewart highlights sharon lebewol’s latke’s from her 2nd Ave Deli Cookbook

understand the meaning of ‘gelt’, I don’t fully understand the whole festival.

Ultimately, Chanukah, is about the triumph of freedom over oppression, of spirit over matter, of light over darkness.

Our sages said, “A little light expels a lot of darkness.”

Notable as the longest night of the year is days away.

Lighting the candles Sunday night

Lighting the candles Sunday night.  My Chabad brochure explained: ‘ the 8-branched menorah is a symbol of hope and eternal optimism that G-d will make things work out for us, even when it seems unlikely.’   It must work!  Menorahs have nurtured perseverance during the horrors of the Holocaust and the gloom of the Soviet gulag!

Some of what I needed to learn:

313 B.C.E.:  Alexander the Great conquered Jerusalem.  The Jews lived under Greek ‘rule’ until they were forced to worship statues of Zeus.  Then, enough was enough:  In 140 B.C.E., the Jews fought a war over religious freedom led by the Maccabees, an acronym for ‘Who is like You among the powerful, O L-ord?’

Battles were fought and miraculous victories led to chasing the Greeks out of Jerusalem.  But the Greeks had desecrated the Holy Temple and there wasn’t any undefiled oil to keep the special light above the Ark where the Torah’s are kept lit.  It would take 7 days round trip to get undefiled oil.  Ah, the days before Fed-Ex!

Miraculously, a pure, sealed bottle of oil was found beneath the floor.  A bottle to last a day, miraculously lasted for eight.

Miracle or luck?  A question for another day.

Chanukah celebrates this miracle with the ritual of lighting menorah’s:  special candlesticks allowing candles to be lit for each of the  miraculous eight nights,

Eating oil laden food like potato pancakes fried in oil

Sufganiyah, fried jelly donuts - a Chanukah delicacy!  pic courtesy of wikipedia.

Sufganiyah, fried jelly donuts – a Chanukah delicacy! pic courtesy of Wikipedia.

Giving ‘gelt’ or charity.  Most often in the form of foil wrapped chocolate, though as kids it’s much sweeter to get a gift each night.  I become my niece’s least favorite aunt by giving donations in their name!

Gelt!  Check out hanukah for more info

Gelt! Check out Hanukkah for more info

Playing Dreidel, spinning a four-sided top – for money – and praying for a miracle to take the pot.   Here’s the deal with dreidels:  When the Greek

Dreidel playing gelt!  Winner eats all - happily!

Dreidel playing gelt! Winner eats all – happily!

Antiochus forbade Torah study, Jews studied secretly in caves.  When an officer approached, they would hide their books and pretend to play with tops. The dreidel’s four sides have a Hebrew letter imprinted on each side:  Nun, Gimmel, Hay, and Shin, standing for the Hebrew:

Spinning dreidels!

Spinning dreidels!

‘Ness Gadol Haya Sham’: 

‘A great miracle happened here’

FYI:  Give the top a twirl and when the dreidel stops spinning, if it lands on the Gimmel it means you win everything.  Landing on the Shin will diminish your lot by 2 M-n-M’s.

chanukah dreidel gimmel

Today, Wednesday, the fifth night, is the most special:  five lit candles out of eight signifies more light than darkness.

Watching the candles burn on my menorah, I’m acknowledging struggles and darkness, taking in the light .  Menorah’s have been lit and dreidels have spun through far worse than my measly problems, I know.  Still, it’s reassuring.

My Lubavitcher Youth brochure says it better than I ever could:

Let us pray that the message of the Chanukah lights will illuminate the everyday life of everyone personally and of the society at large, for a brighter life in every respect, both materially and spiritually.

I’ll drink (some hot chocolate) to that!

What’s your favorite holiday ritual? 

What have you learned about it lately that blew your socks off?

From Moscow about Love: identity Talk in the Park

What part of your life would you change for love?

Why would you  change your beliefs and identity?

How do you know if what you changed for is ‘real’?

 I meet M. in NYC’s Bryant Park where as ‘The Coach is IN:  A Talk in the Park:  people present situations and needs.  I  ‘coach’ success strategies to help them resolve conflict, improve communication, and  focus careers.
I think of it as my new conversational journey:    
M. and her friend L. huddled over their MAC’s debating ‘to be or not to be coached’at the table next to me.  Insinuating myself into their conversation,  I had myself two new ‘clients’.  (like Peanuts’ Lucy, I charge a nickel so “clients” must be in “air quotes”)
M. and L’s  friendship begun on a bus to Boston  has lasted through time and distance – a fact that speaks volumes about them both.  Interestingly, both had relationship questions but at different ends of the ‘love’ spectrum.…ch-is-in-vol-5/

M’s in a relationship and she’s scared.  Fear is causing a conflict:  internally.   

This fear has evolved in the last year – it wouldn’t have been relevant before.  A Moscow Jew,  she has been learning and becoming involved with Judaism (it sounded like through Chabad).

One of Moscow’s synagogues: Choral Synagogue

Friday nights find her in Shabbat Services these days.  Her beliefs, life style and identity have changed.  She now works for a Jewish organization, taking young people to Israel on Birthright/Taglit trips.

The Friday we spoke would be the first Shabbat not spent in a synagogue in a year.  She wondered how she would feel, already missing the sanctuary services offered.

M’s complications:  love and religion.  She’s dating a young man from her synagogue, a man she was friends with for months.  They like each other – a lot.

Her fear is NOT about whether the relationship will last. (she knows it’s a real possibility).

Remember her conflict is internal.  It’s about her changing at her pace. Her boyfriend is more observant, observing dietary laws (kosher) and the Sabbath (Shabbat).  For them to be together she would have to be equally observant.  Now she  attends Shabbat services,  but is she ready for more?  What does she want?  She’s not sure.

Her fear:  being told what or how to do things.  She doesn’t want to change for the wrong (read:  not her) reasons.  This tug-of-war wraps pulls at her mind  and emotions:  she loves shrimp but might  be willing to be Kosher.  He can keep Shabbat, but she may still want to see a Saturday movie with her friends.

Optimistically she questions: Perhaps he’ll change and meet her half way?  She knows the answer.

As her afternoon coach, I can only offer strategies to understand and then

Me with my coaching sign in Bryant Park!

communicate her needs.  Providing a framework to sort through her thoughts and feelings, I leave her to do the hard work.

While M’s story is not unique, I’ve heard  50 shades of it since my conversational journey last fall,  amazement at this movement’s magnitude continues.  

Throughout Eastern Europe, Jews are exploring  long hidden, forgotten, ignored Judaism.   Throughout Russia young people are exploring (all) religion, dealing with the ‘usual’ debate over who is ‘legally’ Jewish.   A generation after the fall of communism  people have the freedom to ‘wake up’ and stretch their beliefs.  Religion, and faith can be explored and expressed.

I’m reminded again how easy it is to take my Judaism, my freedom to believe, for granted.   My fear:  how easy it is to store aspects of my identity until they’re needed or wanted.

M. is strong and determined.  She’ll maintain, grow and develop her identity, discovering  who she is and who she is meant to be.  I hope I can do the same.

One bit of (ironic) news about Eastern European Jewry heard while docenting at  Museum at Eldridge Street:   A., an Israeli-German woman living in Hamburg, shared  all (almost) synagogues in Germany are Orthodox!  Before WWII, Reform Judaism began there.  

New Jewish congregants are moving into Germany from ‘the East’.  The only reform synagogue is the Orienenburger Synagogue, http://www.jg-

The Orienenburger or Neue Synagogue in Berlin is home to a beautiful and welcoming egalitarian service (just be sure to get on a list to get in!). The beautiful facade is all that is left of the synagogue which was destroyed during Kristallnacht in 1938. Germany has a GROWING Jewish population, only recently publishing a Jewish newspaper for the first time since WWII!   is egalitarian. The  Cantor and Rabbi are women, lead beautiful and welcoming services.    I attended several services here when visiting Berlin,  services which felt like ‘home’.


Pictures of Zagreb’s Jewish community

This gallery contains 28 photos.

‘We’re still here’ was a frequent refrain during my October conversational journey with Eastern European Jews.   Conversations unsurfaced pride, wonder, and questions.  Questions continue to blossom as I sift through notes and pictures in the comfort of local coffeehouses.    Zagreb, a last minute substitution  as my time … Continue reading

Would you hide me? Or: WWID?

Afternoons, the ‘F’ train became the ‘fight train’ as I traveled to my NYU teaching gig.   High-schoolers’ pent-up energy ricocheted off subway walls, without regard to bystanders. Until the day this innocent was attacked by a flying jelly bean.  My gentle admonition to take care was answered with a threat to ‘beat me up’ – no great challenge for her and a lesson of caution for me.  A lesson to contain my ‘suggestions’.

An email discussion with my niece Emily found us chewing on the meaty topic of the Donner Party  (sorry….).   Revulsion aside,  Em wisely admitted she couldn’t really say what she would do in that situation.

How could she?  How could any of us?

Things always look easier when you are on the outside looking in.  Traveling to the past and critiquing the actions of others is easy.  It’s easy to slap  moral judgements and out-of-context beliefs on what was done in a time and place viewed far from the comfort of a book or LCD screen.  But when the going gets tough and push turns to  life and death, I always stop and wonder, “What would I do?’ (WWID)

In all situations, I  hope for the character and strength of Miep Gies, the family friend who helped hide and feed Anne Frank and her family regardless of danger to her and her husband.

Moral strength leads to moral pondering and to Nathan Englander’s  ‘What we talk about when we talk about Anne Frank’ (New Yorker 12/12/2011  (

My teaser:  An obsession-turned-‘game’ finds its way into the  reunion conversation of two slightly drunk, slightly high, middle-aged couples, connected through the wives Yeshiva school days.  An afternoon of tension and discomfort laced with humor and startling revelations leads to the taunting pose between spouses:  ‘Would you hide me?’

See, you need to read this book!

Provocatively, ‘would you hide me?’ haunts my mind’s crevices and shadows conversations.   Staring matches in my bathroom mirror dares:  What would I do?

Can I trust my eyes with the answer?  Can others?

Surely we all say we will protect others.  Of course.  How can we possibly say no?  But how do we really know?  Is the strength to hide and protect fused into a person’s core identity?

A recent review of the Holocaust movie:  “In Darkness” implied enough already with the Holocaust.  This topic’s been exhausted.  Read Mr. Englander’s story.

I wonder if we haven’t had enough.  Surely there is something more to our interest in Hitler’s horrors against Jews, Gypsies, gays, and others.  A gnawing question knocking at our sensibilities as we watch and read.  A question turned inward forcing us to (uncomfortably) explore moral strength and identity:  What would I do?

Yes, more stories of the Holocaust and other genocides are needed.  More stories to prompt consideration of ‘WWID?’

‘Never Again’!  A Holocaust slogan reminds.    I’d like to say that there will ‘never again’ be a holocaust, and a threat to wipe Jews off the planet.  I’d like to say there will be no more genocides.

I fear polar bears will become extinct before acts of genocide.  And people like polar bears.

Under the world’s watchful eyes genocides have threatened to wipe out nations around the globe.  Anti-Semitism is alive and far too well.

Every holocaust starts small.  In ‘small’, hate-filled people.  Hate-filled become haters.   Hate fills people slowly, as recipients of actions that expose rather than hide.   Actions that attack rather than protect.

‘Would you hide me?’  It’s small actions that protect and hide others.  From sadness, fear, hopelessness.  Actions we can all take.  These days it’s way too easy to poke fun at others using social media.  Too easy to exclude others who are sitting around a table if they aren’t part of the group.  Too easy to focus on our ‘stuff’ and not listen to a friend’s needs.  Too easy to criticize rather than compliment.  Or worse, purposely ignore an opportunity to compliment, to support another.

I think I can do the hard thing.  Can’t we all?

WWID?  I can do the small stuff.  Take  responsibility.  I can make decisions and take actions to demonstrate I am a person who protects and hides others.  I hope.  Even if I haven’t always done so, I can do better.

I can respect a confidence more than sharing a story on Facebook, tweet, or at a party.

I can resist the urge to say or post something about another that might in reality be insulting, even if it’s done with humor.

I can value a person’s sense of self rather than my need to be part of a ‘group joke’ – at someone else’s expense, even if that person isn’t there.

I can stop teases, taunts, and mean-spirited gossip – even if I can’t stop jelly beans shooting through subway cars.

Not yet.

It’s the decision to make little ‘random acts of kindness’ that turn us into protectors.  Right? 


Aspects of identity need to be taught.  As a coach, I help others develop secure identities, to be safely in the driver’s seat to turn right.

But I know it’s scary to be the face of reason.  The one saying stop when others look for Facebook likes.

How did we get here?  How have we not traveled further?

Take a leap.  It’s scary, but go ahead.  Take action.  Ask yourself:  ‘What would I do?’

Debora’s Naked Identity: Rated ‘G’

Keep your pants on:  there is no nudity in this post!

This says it all. Thanks to

Would you veer from success?   Change an aspect of yourself, one that others label as your identity, an identity that earns you money and fame?

I guess it's up to each of us to make use of all the colors in our palettes. Hard to do in a world that worships black

Can an artist’s expression journey seamlessly through mediums touching all the senses?  Can art successfully fossilized on penthouse walls evolve and breathe new life into distant space?

If an artist’s identity

is  her mode of expression in

paint AND lush felt AND thoughtful painted word,

how will others define her artistic identity?

And THE biggest question of all:

 WHY veer from success???

I say if you want to know what an artist would do, ask the artist herself.  Debora personifies Rumi’s quote:  ‘Either appear as you be or be as you appear’ and veering is part of her identity!  Tall, slender, with  hair radiating exuberance we chatted over Turkish coffee.

Fascinated, my imagination turned Debora’s words to rich images as she shared her body of work, describing colorful canvas, lush felt

Like 'A Sweeter Stride' on Facebook to hasten its publication! (And nibble on excerpts!)

roses, installations of sound and word, and her most recent offering: a memoir.  ‘A Sweeter Stride’ unveils her captivating journey through ( occasional) colliding worlds of art and love in NYC over the last two decades and promises to be a fascinating ride.

Like it on Facebook:  ‘A Sweeter Stride’ to hasten its pilgrimage to print.

Our discussion turned to her evolving

I think it's important to remember that art is participatory. Each of us creates beauty in what we see, make, and do.

artistic identity and colleagues’ fear and trepidation.  Others question how she will be ‘found’ post-art form migration.

Debora’s artistic metamorphosis is identity evolution.  New creative expression in naturally selected new niches.

My conversational journey exploring Jewish Identity unveiled identity evolution as  ‘Naked Identity’.  Surely there is more to that than meets the eye.

Can ‘Naked Identity’ be shielded from prying eyes by donning the latest fad

Something to keep in mind as we go spring clothes shopping.Image from

and like the Emperor recreating himself with a new suit of clothes?

Or like Debora (and the owners of stories heard on my journey – see previous posts), fling off the trappings of others’ perceptions and flaunt that nakedness.

The Emperor wasn’t the only one who discovered, less is more when it comes to  ‘Naked Identity’.  Naked, a mid-winter tree stripped and bare, shows

'Naked Identity': Birch trees in winter. Without adornment of rich green leaves, fragrant flowers or succulent fruit, deciduous trees bare their souls so to speak in the heart of winter, taking care of themselves, not caring to entertain or enthrall or support others. Naked, the heart, soul and true identity of a tree is the reason for each new spring creation and display of beauty, taken down each winter. (thanks Wikipedia for the picture)

the tree’s true essence:  thin, gangly  limbs awkwardly – no ridiculously – jutting out from its scarred,  bulbous trunk.

Against a grey winter sky, urging the donning of warm woolens, the tree bares its branches taunting us to love it or leave it.

Trees remind us ‘Naked Identity’ is devoid of lush green finery  and shots of color and is  about the tree doing for, and being about, the tree.

Naked, the tree is still herself – her true self,  just without care of what others think and need.  Naked, she is able to build internal resources, building strength to branch out in new directions, seeking new opportunities (for sunlight) while being firmly rooted in where and who she is (physically and metaphorically).

True beauty is found in ‘Naked Identity’.

 Deborah’s art, like the tree, branches out, seeking glimmers of opportunity,  while firmly  rooted to her artistic core. Beauty drawn from internal resources.

‘Hidden’ Eastern European Jews, shared their identity evolution to Naked Identity is rooted in Judaism.  (see previous posts about my conversational journey – identity5772)

We are all artists, of a sort.  Our challenge is to get naked and bare our soul to uncover our core identity.   And as we know, getting naked is the easy part. 

Looking inward, nourishing our roots,  silent and uncaring of expectations and needs of others, we can discover our gangly, bulbous perfections before going out on a limb to sell new creations.    As the days get longer, my dreams ache to branch out, seeking new opportunities, hoping my roots are strong and deep enough.

  What feeds the root of your creations?

 As spring beckons, where will you branch out to uncover and celebrate your ‘Naked Identity?

Best wishes for a lushful spring!

European perspectives from the Eldridge Street Synagogue

‘I’ve never been in a mosque!’ may not be what you would expect to hear inside a synagogue, even the synagogue-turned-Museum at Eldridge

Synagogue (now also a Museum) at Eldridge Street

Street ( in NYC’s Lower East Side.  But last Sunday, my tour (as docent)  was transformed into magical conversation as early 20th century Jewish immigration history blended with 21st century European.

My four Swiss  and Swedish, non-Jewish, guests battled the weather on this blustery cold Sunday for a trip far from the maddening crowds of midtown.  Why?  Why visit this synagogue/museum, and invite discussion ?  Granted, it’s a beautiful, inspiring source of immigrant (Jewish) history, and  (optimistically) a certain destination for traveling American Jews.  Interestingly, I often guide  non-Jewish Europeans interested in  historic and  Jewish sites.

Touring a synagogue, they said, was a welcome treat.  Zürich and Stockholm (as in much of Europe) synagogues are barricaded.   Jewish history, and especially the Holocaust are

Orthodox Zurich SynagogueSynagogan Stockholm

topics of regular dicussion – in the news and studied at school; visiting a synagogue and talking with Jews,  seems  a natural part of this education.

We found ourselves, having that rare conversation: open and honest, intimate, yet anonymous (names seemed unnecessary) between Jew and non, American and Europeans.  A seeming gift as my quickie 20-minute overview expanded into an hour-long discussion of religious and global  sociopolitical issues.

What did they want to share?   Discussing religious – and immigrant issues in Europe today is complicated:  both countries claim large and growing Muslim populations – typically, they said, not discussed.

Yet my ‘guests’ wanted to talk about this issue and more.  They want to visit synagogues, mosques.  Our conversation reminded me how present Jewish history is where Jews are largely absent.

The three Swiss visitors told of  millions of unclaimed (Jewish) dollars quietly ‘absorbed’ by banks, until loudly – and scandalously –

Sign from a kosher restaurant in Zurich


Zürich, with Switzerland’s largest Jewish population ( 18,000, Wikipedia) , has a sizeable, easily identifiable Orthodox population.  With twelve synagogues ( Google) there are Kosher supermarkets while others have  aisles of kosher food.  A fan of (kosher) red horseradish sat in front of me.

Our Swedish conversant had taught in a school with a Jewish ‘half’. Stockholm’s Jews, ‘blend in’.  Few are identifiably Orthodox.  With no ethnic registration in Sweden, the halakh-icly (Jewish mother) Jewish population is estimated (Wikipedia) around 20,000.  Neutral during WWII, a further search found  anti-Semitism a growing problem in Malmo, Sweden’s 3rd largest city (an interesting, yet scary read)(

Jewish humor! Cartoon found on the website of Stockholm’s synagogue Adat Jeshuran

I asked if there was a public Menorah at Chanukah/Hanukkah like  in Zagreb (with 1,500 Jews) .  Laughing, they questioned the Ch vs H pronunciation – the guttural Ch rumbled easily from their European throats.  No, there is no visible celebration. The Swiss woman  saw her first  ‘Festival of Lights’ notice here in NYC, ten years ago.

In my post ‘Holiday Lights in Zagreb’ notice the picture of ONE small corner of ONE decorated window acknowledging Chanukah, and, the identity challenge for Jewish and Muslim kids who don’t celebrate Christmas.  The Swedish woman shared  (some) Muslim’s had Christmas trees for their kids – a gesture of belonging.  (Check out the post ‘A promised Krakow story’ about Slawek’s experience.)

Up in the women’s section, the two men and two women naturally sat on either side of the aisle .  Naturally, as one man said, the men and women sat separately (like Orthodox Jews)  in his small town Swiss Church.

Religious similarity?   Do excuses for war cause humans to search for differences?

There was competition for which country was changing more due to immigration:  Sweden:  1 in 8 is an immigrant.  Switzerland:  1 in 7.  As diversity increases, does tolerance?

How do we broaden our tolerance, make it part of Homo sapien DNA?  Can teaching respect drive hate crimes to extinction?

Classroom learning is a good start.  But is there any substitute for open, honest, face-to-face conversation like the five of us shared?  Our conversation was another reminder that people want to talk and learn about issues of religion and identity.

My challenge:  searching for ways to safely carve out time and emotional (listening) space for conversation.

Wishing you a week filled with unexpected and open conversation!