Monthly Archives: December 2009

Jerusalem: December 24

by Cherryl Smith (El Cerrito, CA)

I’m wheeling my new rolling cart out of the supermarket on HaPalmach on Christmas Eve, strolling past Bank Hapoalim, which looks pretty crowded, and congratulating myself on the purchase of the brown and white checkered shopping cart that makes the seven block trek back to our apartment on Rechov Alkalai an easy errand, no awkward maneuvering of heavy grocery-filled plastic bags or hands red from the drawstrings. There’s a new bookstore on the corner and tonight I decide to go in. It’s a small, inviting place with a good English selection and an electric kettle for tea or instant coffee. I browse for a few minutes and though I’m feeling carefree and happy, I resist buying more books, say l’hitraot to the young clerk and go back outside where the air is cold, and the streets, the open stores, the traffic — all are the same as on any other weekday evening.

How to describe this, the joy of Christmas in the Holy Land?

Tourists have arrived from around the globe and the hotels in Jerusalem, as well as in Bethlehem, are full. The municipality is distributing free evergreen trees at Jaffa Gate to anyone who wants one.  For the past few nights, a lime green floodlight has been projected onto the Old City walls. There is even a large inflated Santa Claus outside a shop on a side street in the Christian Quarter. Around 10 pm, we hear bells ringing from the Old City and we do not, immediately, remember that it’s Christmas Eve.

This is my first visit to Israel in winter, the first time that I have experienced Christmas as just another day, all the weeks and months leading up to it invisible within the Jewish calendar of Haggim and Shabbatot that create the rhythm of life here. It’s the first winter that I have not wished to flee my surroundings, to mute the sensory barrage of piped in Christmas music, the glare of Christmas lights, the shopping countdown and the spending frenzy–the first time that Chanukah has not been swept into the holidays of “the season.”

There is Christmas in Israel and it is a religious observance, the reason for the December influx of tourism to the sites made famous by Christianity. Here, in the one Jewish country of the world, Christmas is not a national holiday. The day passes unnoticed in the Jewish and Arab-Muslim neighborhoods and for the first time in my life the weeks of December did not include finding a response to the question: “Are you ready for Christmas?”

The IBA English news even interviewed Christian tourists in a kind of human interest story you sometimes see given to Jewish holidays in the US.  The tourists, “some of whom refer to themselves as pilgrims,” notes Yochanan Elron, the anchor, have filled the hotels and are enjoying Israel for the holiday. IBA news’ Leah Stern speaks to visitors outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. One African-American woman traveling with a tour group is especially enthusiastic. What does she want to tell the folks back home? “Everybody” ought to come here, see the sites, spend time in Israel. It’s safer here than in the cities in the USA.  You’ve “just got to experience Christmas in Israel,” she says.  It is “the best Christmas” of her life.

The same for me, exactly.

Cherryl Smith is author of After Being Somewhere Else (poems) and Writing Your Way Through College, a student’s guide. She teaches writing at Sacramento State University where she is a Professor in Composition and Rhetoric.  During the fall and winter of 2007 she taught at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

This piece is reprinted with permission of the author.

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Two year anniversary since my father died….

by Linda Cohen (Portland, OR)

After Linda’s father died in December 2006, she began her blog, 1000 mitzvahs, as a way to move through the grief that she was feeling at that time. “It has proved to be a transforming experience both for myself and my family,” she writes. “This mitzvah project has allowed us opportunities to talk more about my father, doing mitzvahs and sharing more family stories.” The numbers below refer to the number of mitzvahs that she has performed since starting the blog.

Today is December 1, 2008. My father died two years ago today. His death also coincides with my son’s birthday which turns out to be a wonderful blessing. Solomon was so excited today to turn eight. I had left three gifts on the table and he was so happy to find them when he woke up. Later, he confessed to me that he had peeked into one of the bags while I was still asleep. When he opened the presents he never let on that this was the case. I know sometimes my husband and I wonder if our kids really need one more toy, but today Solomon was so grateful for everything that he received. There were some baseball items (hat and cards), PJ’s, Legos, several gifts of money but his most favorite gift was a boxed set of Chaotic cards. He had been coveting them for weeks at Target and I was excited when I snuck them to the cashier without him seeing a few weeks ago. He was shrill with excitement when he opened them and saw what was inside.

I spoke with my stepmother today and she had gone out for dinner with my stepsister and her family. They ate Chinese food, told stories about my dad and toasted him. Officially in Judaism, you commemorate or have someone’s “yartzeit” on the Hebrew date of their death. So I have decided that even though it is sometimes easier to remember the English date, I want this date to remain Solomon’s special day and I will light a candle in memory of my dad next week on his yartzeit, December 8th. I am sure my dad would want it this way too.

820) Referred a friend to a colleague of mine for some services.

821) Have you ever offered to do something and then really wished you hadn’t? You might wonder why did I offer to do that? I had one of those moments this weekend and was even contemplating how I could get out of it. It was kind of a misunderstood offer that would require about an hour of my time which in itself was no big deal, it was just that it was in combination with my son’s birthday party on an already busy day. In the end, I just figured I should make the best of it and did, and you know what? Attitude is everything because it turned out to be exactly what I needed at that time of the day.

822) Offered to drive two children to Solomon’s party to help out the parents.

823, 824 & 825) Donated a gift certificate to a Mitten Tree project, as well as coordinated a donation of hand creams and purchased some baby clothes for the project.

826) Brought new magazines to my gym to donate to the reading area.

827) Donated in memory of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holzberg of Mumbai, India.

Linda Cohen considers herself a young, hip Jewish mother who does what modern Jewish mothers do. They bring the traditions into the 21st century. They take care of their families, their communities and get involved with organizations they care for passionately.

Linda feels blessed to be married to her insightful “renaissance” husband. She’s also the mother of two spirited and exuberant children who keep her laughing and always keep her humble. They all live in Portland, Oregon with their Cavalier Spaniel.

You can read more about her work at http://1000mitzvahs.wordpress.com/ where this piece first appeared. It’s reprinted here with permission of the author.

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Following the Lead of My Radical Foremothers

by Dina Ripsman Eylon (Thornhill, Ontario, Canada)

The idea to start an academic journal on Jewish women came to me while researching the lives of Rachel Yanait Ben Zvi, Mania Shochat and Netiva Ben Yehuda for an article on women in the military in pre-state Israel. I realized that despite the fact that these women were instrumental in military organizations prior to the establishment of the Jewish state, nothing about them was mentioned in history textbooks of the period. Growing up in Israel during the 1960s and 1970s, I was not aware of the contribution of any of these women, except for Rachel Yanait Ben Zvi, (the wife of the second president of Israel) even though during this time in North America, the Second Wave of the feminist movement flourished.

Confounded by personal reflections and undefined theories forming slowly in my mind, I devoured books in the fields of women’s history and feminism. I wanted to know more about complex issues like Jewish marriage and divorce, and the role women were expected to play in the family. I wanted to understand political and social structures that propagated discrimination and inequality.

Through this personal quest for enlightenment, I was introduced to the works and philosophy of the renowned novelist and author Virginia Woolf. In the late 1920s she explored the subjects of women’s history and writing. Woolf delivered two lectures on the topic of women and fiction at the Cambridge women’s colleges of Girton and Newnham. She examined women’s writing from all possible angles and famously concluded that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” and inevitably, if she is to write anything at all, or be written about. In A Room of One’s Own, her subsequent work, she articulated women’s inopportune historical exploits and boldly stated: “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.”

In Israel, the question “what does it mean to be Jewish?” does not surface except for the need to affiliate oneself with either the secular majority or the observant minority. When I arrived in Canada in 1980 to pursue my graduate studies, I learned that being a Jewish woman was not limited to being merely secular or religious. Jewish identity was not inherent but actually a product of one’s self-search or desire to belong socially. Assuming a Jewish identity was a choice that many women wanted to make.

As the eminent Jewish feminist Susan Weidman Schneider wrote in her seminal work Jewish and Female, “the tension for Jewish women today comes from the struggle to stay within the tradition yet not compromise one’s identity and integrity as a woman.” Weidman Schneider described a variety of ways in which these identities are sought: changing and feminizing known rituals, “rediscovering” new aspects of Judaism that may relate to women, studying sources and texts to discern women’s input, and moreover, “transforming traditional Judaism and Jewish institutions so that they include women…”

Schneider’s book was another milestone in shaping a more defined view on the life of Jewish women in North America and helped to crystallize my feminist ideology. It was an ideology based on a determination to empower women by the only weapon I had – education.

As the founder and editor-in-chief of Women in Judaism in 1997, I wanted to help create ‘a paradigm shift’ within the field of Jewish Studies and build a new one reintroducing the findings to what is considered now the ‘mainstream’ or “malestream” study of Judaism. Since its inception, the journal has gained international readership and is listed in dozens of directories and indexes. In addition to publishing prominent scholars, the journal promotes young and emerging scholars and makes it a priority to give a voice to materials that most likely would have never been published by “malestream” Jewish periodicals. The journal welcomes a diversity of points of view, conflicting or harmonizing, in order to develop a genuine dialogue.

Our primary goal is to give Jewish women an uninterrupted voice, a place where all voices are heard and listened to, devoid of any patriarchal sponsorship or censorship.

Author and publisher, Dina Ripsman Eylon has a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. She has been teaching various undergraduate courses at Carleton University and at the University of Toronto. For the past twelve years, she has served as the publisher and editor-in-chief of Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal (http://www.utoronto.ca/wjudaism/journal/journal_index1.html), a gender-related publication, which has engaged and promoted new feminist scholarship in Jewish Studies. Her book, Reincarnation in Jewish Mysticism and Gnosticism, was published by Edwin Mellen Press (2003). Eylon founded the Vaughan Poets’ Circle and serves as the Thornhill branch manager of the Ontario Poetry Society.

This piece is based on Dina Ripsman Eylon’s “No More Anonymity,” which appears in Living Legacies: A Collection of Inspirational Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women (edited by Liz Pearl). It’s reprinted here with permission of the author.

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