By April N. Baskin and Corinne Lightweaver
The world has descended upon Rabbi Alysa Stanton. From coast to coast and continent to continent, global media trumpet the ordination of “the first African-American female rabbi.” Whether it’s The Forward, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, The Jewish Week, CNN, Black Entertainment Television, the Huffington Post, The New York Times, and seemingly every other Jewish and secular media outlet, all of them, by-and-large, cover the same facts:
“Alysa Stanton is the first mainstream African American female rabbi in the world. A convert to Judaism after being raised in a Pentecostal family, she was ordained by Hebrew Union College on June 6, 2009. She is the new congregational rabbi of Congregation Bayt Shalom in Greenville, North Carolina.”
That’s the whole story. That’s where most of the media stops. What interests us is what is not covered, the questions that are not asked.
America’s response to Stanton’s ordination calls for introspection and self-examination by the larger Jewish community. It is true that Alysa Stanton’s ordination is a historical moment that should be celebrated. However, disproportionate attention is paid to her gender, racial background, and path to Judaism when her work and character should receive equal coverage, if not be at the forefront. What’s more, the emphasis on her being “the first” downplays a decades-old, increasing shift in the fabric of American Jewish life.
Rabbi Stanton’s ordination did not happen in a vacuum. She is not the first person of color to become a rabbi, nor is she the first woman of color to become a rabbi. Just as Rosa Parks wasn’t the first or even the second to refuse to move to the back of the bus, Stanton is the rabbi of color who received the attention of the mass media. It is true that she IS the first African American female rabbi. Yet it needs to be acknowledged that other Jewish clergy of color who are not of African American descent have preceded her in mainstream synagogues, and more are in rabbinical school or on the way. Furthermore, Jews of color who are currently serving as presidents of congregations and working on synagogue boards are not the first to do so.
So, why aren’t the people of color who preceded her in the rabbinate getting equal press coverage? Over the course of American history, a social construct of race developed and the racial binary of white vs. black arose as those in power separated themselves from African Americans, who were—and still are—systematically oppressed. As immigrants came to the United States, they were either classified as black or assigned a non-white status. To this day, that non-white status is often applied to certain ethnic communities including Asian Americans, Latinos, and even Jews at times. Neither black nor white, depending on the situation, all of these groups are classified as the middle ground of America’s social construct of race. And while certainly all of these populations receive media attention, African Americans receive more attention, while Anglo-whiteness remains the norm and groups in the middle ground are often rendered invisible.
Even though the Jewish community is negatively affected by this power dynamic, it is not immune to this systemic habit of ignoring people who are not black, but also not white. We should be beyond the black/white binary in the United States. It seems that in the case of Stanton’s ordination, the U.S. press is gloriously pursuing shock value over critical journalism, marketing sensationalism, and emphasizing the supposed improbability of a black person, let alone a black female, becoming Jewish and a rabbi.
To move beyond this systemic polarization, it helps to know that the number of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis of color is already significant. Three prominent rabbis—among many–come to mind. Last month was the ten-year anniversary of Korean American Angela Buchdahl’s graduation from cantorial school, followed by her ordination as a rabbi in 2001. Cuban-born Rabbi Rigoberto Emanuel Viñas is ordained as a rabbi and master Torah scribe. Colombian-born Rabbi Juan Mejía, who intends to work with crypto-Jews in the American Southwest, graduated this year from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
While information about rabbis of color is readily accessible, some misinformation is still being reported. Take for example a May 29 report from the Associated Press claiming that the only known black male rabbi graduated from American Jewish University (undoubtedly referring to Rabbi Gershom Sizomu of Uganda). On the contrary, there are many black male rabbis in Orthodox communities. In many of these communities, a man who studies in yeshiva for a certain period can choose to take the requisite exams to earn smicha, thereby becoming a rabbi.
There is no doubt that Alysa Stanton has broken ground and established herself as a leader. She has gained not only worldwide interest, but respect as well. Among those who know her, she is seen as a gracious and reflective person who can inspire and aspire while keeping her feet solidly on the ground. Through her studies and her compelling personality, she has become an ambassador for a group of Jews who have long been ignored. Yet, she herself says she is committed to serving all Jews.
After this initial introduction of Stanton, we hope that the media will turn its focus to issues of substance and content. Tiffany Rivka Gordon, an African American rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston, says, “I’d like to hear about Alysa’s thoughts on halacha and holidays, not so much about what she is.”
Gordon also notes, “After black and female, Alysa is identified as a convert, which just speaks more to the myth that Jews of color in this country are automatically converts.” We ask, why focus on the rabbi’s conversion with no concurrent investigation of her current conceptions of spirituality, her views on Israel, or her rabbinic interpretations of contemporary halachic debates or ethical dilemmas? Not to mention, according to Jewish tradition, a Jew is not supposed to remind another of his/her conversion.
The media frenzy around Alysa Stanton’s ordination has opened the possibility of improved coverage of Jews from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, but in order to be relevant, journalists must dig deeper. Fortunately, times are changing. According to Gordon, “My own personal experience is so not colored by my skin.” Instead, she says, “People genuinely want to know what my opinions are as a young Jew, not only as a Jew of color.”
As those who know Stanton well can testify, she is a spiritually inspiring rabbi who has much to give and many lessons to teach. As she states with conviction, “I believe that it is a new era for changing, strengthening and deepening our faith in humanity, regardless of one’s religious creed or spiritual practice. I believe this is a time where hope needs to be embraced with all of our might… I have committed my life to being a rabbi of the people, a rabbi of hope.”
April N. Baskin is a Schusterman Insight Fellow. Corinne Lightweaver is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.
this is basically a note to send you to a piece i’ve written for the latest issue of the Monthly Review on the origins of the current rise to visibility of jewish opposition to zionism. i hope you’ll read and enjoy – and if you disagree with me, argue here.
the piece is online, at http://monthlyreview.org/090622lang.php, but i also want to encourage you to read it in an actual copy of MR that you can hold in your hands, dog-ear, underline, lend to friends, drip coffee on, prop up unsteady chairs with, &c. because one of the problems with reading online is that you don’t encounter interesting things by accident without doing a lot of work. and MR is well worth stumbling across; i’m sharing an issue with a detailed look at the economics of the u.s. penal state in the current crisis and a look at the prospects for land reform in paraguay, among other things.
a few words for those unfamiliar with MR:
i’d be fond of Monthly Review even if i didn’t find its articles as valuable as i often do, because it’s a non-sectarian radical magazine that’s made it through 60 years of struggle. it’s anchored in heterodox marxism, with a lot more openness to other strains of radical thought than that usually implies, and in a strong commitment to thinking transnationally, while being well aware that it’s a u.s.-based publication. it’s strongest on political economy, which means the tone can be a bit academic at times, but given the lack of serious economic analysis on the left these days that’s a small price to pay. the online MRzine brings together an impressive range of voices and subjects, with the weight generally shifted away from the global north. which reminds me to mention MR Press, which you may know if you’re my age as one of the first to publish EZLN communiques in english, or if you’re somewhat older, as a publisher of socialist feminist writing, or if you’re somewhat older as a key source of writings from third world revolutionary movements from china to chile and beyond. anyway: take a look.
Queer Jewish writer (and co-author of Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape) Jaclyn Friedman at this year’s Boston Dyke March:
Written on June 10th, 2009
After six days of packed actions I am finally having the chance to sit down and write a short update on our incredible trip in Israel so far. This will be a far too short update but I want you to know that we arrived (well quite a few days ago actually) and are doing well (thought intensely processing this heart-filled and heart-breaking witness). The moment we landed Infinity and I felt compelled to go to the Old City in Jerusalem for sunrise. Entering the familiar and ancient walls felt both sacred and profane. How can my people pray to a wall that separates us from another holy site, the beautiful Dome of the Rock? And how long will we stuff our tiny paper prayers into the crevices of rock before they billow and catch in the wind and rise above this wall?
Last Friday we began our delegation with an opening orientation that was both joyous and somber as only hours later a Palestinian activist in Nil’in had been killed by the IDF. This is the reality of being here in Israel–feeling surrounded in one moment by happy, laughing families in a cafe, and just over the hill knowing there are people starving and in desperate need of life-saving medicines, trapped behind a concrete wall. Medea, Ann, and the rest of the folks coming from the Egypt-Gaza delegation to join us in Israel were detained for 8 hours at the border between Egypt and Israel. With some quick pink work, thanks to Jodie, Congresspeople called the Israeli Embassy to support them getting into Israel, and by Saturday night they reunited with our delegation. With their exception, everyone else on the delegation got into Israel with ease. Before I go any farther, I want to say that the best way to get the gist of what we are doing here is to see the photos and there is a group pool of vibrant shots.
Saturday morning we had a legal briefing to know our rights as activists; we met with a Palestinian Member of the Israeli Parliament who talked about how there can be no peace without equal rights; we held a clowning workshop with famous doctor-clown Patch Adams and the Israeli radical clowning troupe (I learned lots of fun new mixers and ice breakers!) (see more pics); and in the early evening we attended a demonstration as Saturday was the anniversary of the 1967 war. Our CODEPINK contingent added a bright pink splash to the stream of activists marching through the streets of Tel Aviv. Saturday night we boarded our bus and journeyed south to the Adamama farm in Nir Moshe an hour and a half to the south of Tel Aviv, where we’ve been staying for the past three nights. Adamama is a rustic ecovillage with a strawbale house, large tents, and a sweet staff who live on the property and make delicious meals (a vibrant array of peppers and tabouli and homemade rugelach). From our Adamama base camp, we have gone out every day to take a stand for freedom in Gaza at the checkpoints. On Sunday we arrived with our humanitarian aid for the children, including a bright playground and school supplies, and submitted our passports for entry. Patch and the clowns hammed it up in front of the border guards and even got them to smile quite a bit. In the end we were not allowed in and so we held a rocking vigil outside the gate, complete with an Israeli samba troupe, Kasamba.
Read about the Erez Border action on YNet news.
Sunday afternoon we participated in workshops organized by our Israeli delegation partners, the Coalition of Women for Peace, and great orgs like Physicians for Human Rights and Gisha Legal Center for Freedom of Movement. In the evening a small group of us went to Sderot to meet with folks who lived there and were enjoying a film festival, and to listen to their stories of living in constant stress and fear of attack. Monday we went again to the Erez checkpoint, this time carrying with us contraband items that are not allowed into Gaza. Scary, dangerous items like pencils, coffee, chocolate, paper, pumpkins, and light bulbs! We did a street theater action with the goods and then headed onward to Kerem Shalom checkpoint where we again brought out the contraband, this time including our playground. Kerem Shalom is where the trucks carrying humanitarian aid enter Gaza. We created an altar at the gate with all the goods and sang songs loudly while fastening tea bags (also totally not okay in Gaza!) and balloons (another no-no) to the fence. Under the hot sun, we managed to hold quite a presence at the checkpoint that we had thought would be very militant and confrontational. During our morning actions Ann Wright heard back from the Israeli authorities that we had been officially denied entry into Gaza. This was disappointing, though highly expectable, news to our delegation and we took action at once contacting congress and trying to push the issue. We returned to Adamama in the afternoon for two excellent workshops, one from Who Profits? on corporate illegal operations in occupied Palestine and successful boycott campaigns, and the other on radical feminist activism. In the evening we had the amazing opportunity to listen to a panel of shministiot–the brave young women (shministim means 12th graders) who refused to serve in the Army. Their words were incredibly inspiring and down to earth and we hope to create a tour for them in the US.
Today, Tuesday, was an absolutely remarkable day. By 10 pm tonight we had done three actions, heard a presentation on Gaza, and packed our bags to depart for Jerusalem tomorrow morning. We started the day with a demonstration with kites at the Erez checkpoint, in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza who organized hundreds of people to demonstrate at the border with kites as well. It was beautiful to see the kites, constructed in the West Bank, soaring high above the concrete walls surrounding the open air imprisonment that the Israelis have created out of the seaside land of Gaza. After flying kites we wrote notes to the people on the other side of the wall and ritually tied them to the chain fence around the gate, with flowers and more balloons. We were joined by Israeli activists and were able to talk on the phone with the people protesting on the other side. From Erez we went to Tel Aviv where a group of 15 people from our delegation met with the US Embassy to vocalize outrage about not being able to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza via Israel, and discuss the siege and the US role in occupation. A smaller group of PINKs created a vigil outside the embassy with free gaza and end military aid signs.
This afternoon we staged our first ever protest action inside an Ahava store! Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories is a privately held Israeli cosmetics company that manufactures products using minerals and mud from the Dead Sea. The Hebrew word “Ahava” means love, but there is nothing loving about what the company is doing in the Occupied Palestinian territory of the West Bank. The Ahava store in Tel Aviv is located in the oceanfront fancy Hilton hotel. Six of us women covered our bodies with mud and then put our nice clothes on over, so that we could disrobe in the store to bare our signs and mud. Our chants included: “Ahava you can’t hide/We can see your dirty side!” “Your product’s made in stolen lands/We’re here to show your dirty hands!” “Don’t Buy Ahava!” Meanwhile the other members of our delegation swarmed into the hotel mall area outside Ahava, and posed as tourists gawking at our action, flashmob style. We had a good turn out of press photographers and journalists (many of whom took boob shots of my “No Ahava” mud job) and made such a splash in the hotel that security came and SHUT DOWN Ahava for the rest of the day! (If I only had to put on mud and wear a bikini to get a military recruiting center to shut down!)
It felt really powerful to be taking a stand against occupation in this very tangible way. We chanted and marched out of the hotel and continued to hold a muddy vigil outside the hotel for quite some time. When I was a teenager traveling to Israel on delegations I used to think Ahava was a cool gift to bring back for friends and family at home, and standing in such drastic opposition today made me realize just how much my awareness has changed, transformed.
There is so much to say about the incredible people on our delegation, the hard-working outstanding organizers at the Coalition of Women for Peace and their member groups, and even the way that we have been treated by Israeli police and soldiers. Our joy, humor, and creativity seems to slice through meanness at each turn; after all, we are CODEPINK activists. While I know that we enjoy the privileges of these fun-filled actions, there is an ever-present awareness of the reality for the people who are suffering at the hands of occupation, and actually the people on all sides who are involved in a battle that fewer and fewer people seem to see a peaceful or amenable end to.
I so look forward to sharing our action stories, and the stories of the people we are meeting, with you when we return. Helping to lead the logistics on this trip definitely keeps me busy. You can find our delegate blogs at www.codepinkalert.org/blog. For now it is approaching one am so I am going to send you all love from southern Israel and bid you laila tov, good night!
Translated from HaOkets (“the sting”), a site run by Itzik Saporta and Yossi Dahan of the Adva Center, a non-partisan, action-oriented Israeli policy analysis center. It was founded in 1991 by activists from three social movements: the movement for equality for Mizrahi Jews, the feminist movement, and the movement for equal rights for Arab citizens. This letter is also available in Hebrew and Arabic.
A New Spirit – A Letter from Jewish Descendants of the Countries of Islam
June 8th 2009
We, Israeli women and men descendants of ancestors from Arab and Islamic countries, hereby express our support for the new spirit that President Obama has expressed in his speech in Cairo – a spirit of reconciliation, realistic vision, the pursuit of justice and dignity, respect for the different religions, cultures and for all human beings.
We were born in Israel and Israelis we are. Our country is dear to us, and we would like to see it secure, just and prosperous for the benefit of its inhabitants. Simultaneously, the recent history into which we were born cannot erase a history of hundreds and thousands of years, during which our ancestors lived in the Middle East, in the vast areas under Muslim hegemony and in the Arab lands. Our fathers and mothers not only lived in the area since time immemorial, but were also part of the fabric of life and have contributed significantly to the development of the region and its culture. Today, as well, the culture of the lands of Islam, the culture of the Middle East, and the Arabic culture, are all part of our identity, a part of it that we cannot sever and wouldn’t wish to sever, even if we could.
The history of the Jews in the lands of Islam contained painful moments. Yet a fair and realistic introspection reveals that the tough moments cannot hide or conceal a magnificent history of shared life. Muslim rule over the Jews was much more tolerant and courteous compared with non-Muslim countries, and the share of Jews in Muslim countries cannot be compared with the tragic fate of whole Jewish communities in other regions of the world, particularly in Europe.
One can view the last few decades as a period during which a deep chasm between the Jews and the Arab and Muslim world has been opened. We prefer to see these years as a painful yet temporary crack in a much longer history, that includes a shared past as well as a shared future. Thus, when we look at the map of our region, we see Israel as part of the Middle East, and not solely from the geographical perspective.
Judaism and Islam are not foreign to each other from religious, spiritual, historical and cultural perspectives. The partnership between these two religions extends into numerous past generations, yet the memory of this partnership has faded over the last decades, both in Israel as well as in the majority of the Muslim world, together with the memory of the unique history of Mizrahi Jewry (which today constitutes 50% of the Jewish population in Israel!). In the reconciliation process that is required between East and West, in the desired retreat from enmity and fear back to cooperation and co-existence, Mizrahi Jews and Judaism can and should embody a living bridge of remembrance, healing and partnership.
From our point of view the rift between Israel and the Arab and Muslim world cannot be a permanent one, since it splits our identities and our souls. As for the tragic Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we hope that a fair solution of respect and mutual recognition will soon be found, one considerate of the hopes, fears and sorrows of the Palestinian side, as well as those of the Israeli side. We therefore express our support for the new spirit set forth by Mr. Obama in Cairo, and we are joining the hope for a future in which bridges of mutual respect and humanity will replace walls of suspicion, belligerence and hate, all in the spirit of justice and humanism that is shared by Judaism and Islam.
Signed (*): Kobee Oz (Tunis), Yossi Ohana (Morocco, Berberia), Hedva Eyal (Iran), Neta Alkayam (Marocco), Almog Bahar (Iraq), Mois Ben Harash (Morocco), Navit Barel (Tripoli, Lybia), Yael Barda (Tunis), Yizhak Gormazano Goren (Egypt), Bat-Shahar Gormazano Garfunkel (Egypt/Iraq), Yali Hasas (Lybia/Yemen), Claris Harbon (Morocco), Shlomit Leer (Iran), Dr. Nataly Mesika (Tunis), Shimon Mermelstein (Afganistan), Orli Noy (native of Iran), Yonit Naaman (Turkey/Yemen), Yehezkel Nafshi (Iraq), Yuval Ivri (Iraq), Adamit Pereh (Yemen), Yehezkel Rahamim (Iraq), Yodit Shahar (Turkey), Mati Shemoelof (Syria/Iran/Iraq), Naftali Shem Tov (Iran-Kurdistan/Iraq), Kzia’a Alon (Kurdistan/Bukhara), Yael Yisrael (Iran/Turkey), Dror Nissan (Tripoli, Lybia).
(*) [Yossi:] Apologies if I made too many mistakes in transliteration of the names from Hebrew.
I first got word of the Holocaust Museum shooting on twitter, and immediately googled James W. Von Brunn’s name to find his website HolyWesternEmpire.org filled with racist, white supremacist, anti-Jewish hate.
Dana Goldstein at TAPPED reports:
According to NBC, the man who shot a security guard and potentially one to two other people at the Holocaust Museum today is 89-year old James W. Von Brunn. Von Brunn maintains a white-supremacist website, HolyWesternEmpire.org. The biography of Von Brunn on the site states that he spent over six years in federal prison for attempting to “place the treasonous Federal Reserve Board of Governors under legal, non-violent, citizens arrest.” A World War II veteran and resident of Maryland, Von Brunn is the author of a pamphlet entitled “Kill the Best Gentiles: A new, hard-hitting exposé of the JEW CONSPIRACY to destroy the White gene-pool.” He is a Holocaust denier who has written that “Hilter’s worse mistake” was the “he didn’t gas the Jews.”
Update: Sadly, it’s been reported that security guard Officer Stephen Tyrone Johns has died. My condolences to his family and loved ones. More soon…
As Dahlia Lithwick noted in Slate this past weekend, Guantanamo may be America’s most infamous “prison problem,” but it is far from our only one.
Our sentencing and incarceration system is broken. With the U.S. having only 5 percent of the world’s population and yet almost 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, we are imprisoning people at nearly five times the world average; according to Lithwick,
approximately one in every 31 adults in the United States is in prison, jail, or on supervised release.
Democratic Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, who famously served as Secretary of the Navy under Reagan and was at one point thought to be under consideration as Obama’s running-mate, has introduced landmark legislation to retool our prison system. Called the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009, Webb’s bill would set up a commission to examine the American criminal justice system and make recommendations about how to best reform it.
(reposted from S. Bear Bergman’s blog)
Call For Submissions
GENDER OUTLAWS: THE NEXT GENERATION
Kate Bornstein & S. Bear Bergman, eds
Deadline: 1 September 2009
In the fifteen years since the release of Gender Outlaw, transgender narratives have made their way into cultural locations from the margins to the mainstream and back again. Today’s trannies and other sex/gender radicals are writing a radically new world into being. GENDER OUTLAWS: THE NEXT GENERATION (Seal Press) will collect and contextualize the work of this generation’s most forward-thinking trans/genderqueer voices—new voices from the stage, on the streets, in the workplace, in the bedroom, and on the pages and websites of the world’s most respected mainstream news sources. Edited by that ol’ original Gender Outlaw herself, Kate Bornstein and writer, raconteur, and theater artist S. Bear Bergman, GENDER OUTLAWS: THE NEXT GENERATION will include essays, commentary, comic art and conversation from a diverse a group of trans-spectrum people who live and believe in barrier-breaking lives.
One week has passed since the murder of Dr. George Tiller, a physician at one of three clinics in the United States that provide late-term abortions. Now that the news cycle is winding to a close, I’ve noticed one bittersweet effect of the shooting that anti-choicers probably didn’t count on: the highlighting of the reality of late-term abortions, and the reasons why women get them. Dana McCourt at The Edge of the American West sums it up very well:
Only 1.1% [of abortions] are after more than 21 weeks. 21 weeks is about two weeks shy of the lower-end of viability. 21 weeks is still in the second trimester. We can safely assume that the number of abortions in the third trimester is even smaller, especially because abortion after 24 weeks is generally not permitted by law except in cases of danger to the health of the mother and the fetus.
Let’s have some more context. One commonly-cited reason for abortion past the first trimester is the presence of fetal abnormalities, including Down syndrome and other fetal abnormalities. These are usually detected on an ultrasound and confirmed via amniocentesis. Amniocentesis is somewhat risky, so it’s usually performed only if there’s a reason to suspect an abnormality. And the usual time to find an abnormality would be during the second trimester ultrasound, usually around 18-20 weeks, sometimes a bit earlier. It seems reasonable to conclude that many of the abortions performed post 21-weeks are due to the discovery of some sort of anomaly. Moreover, medicine can’t catch these abnormalities significantly sooner than they are discovered.
So, we’re well under 1%, and we haven’t even made it to the types of cases that would need the attention of someone like Tiller, who performed abortions after 24 weeks when there was a sufficient medical reason. (He turned women away sometimes.)
Women do not get abortions in the third trimester because we’re prone to changing our minds at the last second. Rather, almost all late-term abortions are obtained because serious illness or malformations render the fetus inviable. More »
Originally published in jweekly.com
Until this year, I had never counted the Omer — the ritual of marking each of the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot with a nightly blessing.
But when Passover came to an end this year, I felt I could use more of that “liberation” our tradition speaks of. Armed with no more than a leaflet and my enthusiasm, I began counting toward Shavuot, which begins Thursday, May 28.
As I had hoped, the short nightly study gave me a frame for my days that grounded me in something outside of myself, something powerful.
But what I didn’t expect was the response when I told friends about counting. One turned me onto a daily online resource. An “unaffiliated” friend shocked me by pulling a book on Kabbalah from his backpack. My housemate asked, somewhat hesitantly, if she could count, too. As a first-year teacher in Oakland, she has not had an easy year (facing staggering class, language and resource battles).
To her, and the rest of us, somewhat obscure Jewish practices — not only of celebration, but of daily commitment — can begin to feel valuable and relevant. More »