Author Archives: Lindsey Bridwell

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Conservative Movement Expanding Access

082914_mishmash_philanthropyThe United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, with support from the Ruderman Family Foundation, will launch an initiative to transform Conservative congregations into truly inclusive communities for people with disabilities.

Through the grant, the UCSJ will work with its affiliated congregations to develop comprehensive visions and action plans on inclusion. The goal is to create congregations where everything — from the entryway to the bima, from education programs to prayer services, from social activities to the very attitudes of congregants and leaders — allows people with disabilities and their families to participate fully and comfortably in congregational life.

“Many of our kehillot have begun to meet the need for inclusion, primarily in the architectural arena,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the Conservative movement’s umbrella group. “But few have been able to undertake the intense research, reflection and planning needed to make inclusion a spiritual and programmatic reality.”

The UCSJ will use the Ruderman grant to hire an inclusion specialist who will collaborate with its leadership consultants in working with congregations. The USCJ team will create an “action community” of 10 to 20 congregations that demonstrate the interest and readiness to study and work intensively on developing a realistic blueprint for change that will then be shared with other congregations.

“Inclusion of people of all different abilities is already an intrinsic value held by generations of younger Jews,” said Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation. “Working toward the goal of building an inclusive community, our foundation is proud to partner with United Synagogue to help encourage the establishment of inclusive synagogues across North America and thereby making our Jewish community more welcoming for all.”

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All I Know and Love

082914_mishmash_bookBy Judith Frank
William Morrow, 422 pages

Released just one week after the latest war between Israel and Hamas broke out on July 8, Judith Frank’s new novel seems almost prescient. The second book from Frank, a professor of English at Amherst College and recipient of a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, tells the deeply moving story of what happens to an extended family when a young married couple, Ilana and Joel, are killed in a bombing in Jerusalem and orphan their two young children, Gal and Noam.

Devastated, Gal and Noam’s maternal Israeli grandparents, Malka and Yaacov, and paternal American grandparents, Lydia and Sam, as well as Joel’s twin brother, Daniel, and Daniel’s partner, Matt, come together to care for the children. Both sets of grandparents are shocked when they learn that Ilana and Joel have chosen Daniel and Matt as guardians of the children. As the grandparents gradually come to accept this outcome, Daniel and Matt must negotiate the inevitable changes in their own relationship while they learn to parent grieving children practically overnight.

Daniel struggles with his complicated relationship to Israel, historically a source of conflict between him and his dead twin brother.

Despite the tremendous sadness that Frank captures here, “All I Know and Love,” manages to leave the reader uplifted and inspired by the resilience and curative power of the human heart.

The Participant Observer

I have had a long and abiding interest in the process by which we make decisions. Long ago, I was taught that the best way to make a decision is to impartially examine all of the relevant facts. Impartiality guarantees objectivity.

Sadly, however, we are seldom truly impartial, and therefore, our ability to make objective decisions is impaired.

This lesson was first made clear to me in the one of the first courses I took in college. It was in cultural anthropology, a subject that I have found fascinating ever since. I remember reading the works of anthropologists Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, who studied exotic and primitive Native American and South Pacific societies, although they eschewed the term “primitive.” They believed that, as trained social scientists, they could observe these societies in a neutral fashion, as one would study laboratory phenomena. They felt assured that their descriptions and analyses would be objective.

However, subsequent social scientists severely criticized these studies. They attacked the assumption that one could live in a society for months and even years yet remain impartial and neutral toward that society. One could at best be a “participant observer,” and participants in social interactions can never be totally objective.

The lesson that one cannot be fully objective when he has a personal stake in a situation is the central lesson that Sherlock Holmes tried to teach Dr. Watson in Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective stories. Sherlockís amazing ability to see details that no one else saw, thus drawing his astounding deductions, was a function of his ability to detach himself from the situation at hand and observe it with total impartiality. This is something that the more emotional Dr. Watson simply could not do.

Our self-interests hinder our ability to clearly see the facts before us and, hence, cloud our capacity for clear judgment. This critical life lesson is alluded to near the beginning of this week’s Torah portion: “You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality; you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and upsets the plea of the just.”

The Torah instructs judges regarding how they are to handle their professional responsibilities. What application does this have to the vast majority of us, who are not professional judges?

Rabbi Israel Salanter, the influential rabbinic scholar and insightful social critic who founded the important 19th-century ethical school of thought known as the Mussar Movement, asks this question. I have taken the liberty to rephrase his answer in contemporary terminology:

“All of us are judges. We may not be ordained scholars, wearing rabbinic robes. We may not be appointed by the community to adjudicate differences between plaintiffs and defendants. We may be unqualified to sit in judgment of those accused of crimes or sins. But we are all judges, because we all face situations that call for personal decisions on our part. We face such situations countless times each day. A judge is but a person who must decide. In that sense, we are all judges, and we must all be guided by the directives that the Torah issues to the professional judiciary.”

Following this line of thinking, we must all be careful not to take bribes, for bribes will blind us to the facts we need to know in order to make moral and practically effective decisions.

But what are the bribes that threaten to undermine our objectivity in our daily life? Surely, we do not meet up with shady characters, sneaking up on us with envelopes full of cash, attempting to influence the numerous decisions that confront us moment to moment in the course of our daily routine.

Here too Rabbi Salanter has an answer, and here too I resort to my own paraphrase of his profound insights into the human psyche:

“There is a force within us called self-interest. This force pressures us to seek our own comfort, to procrastinate, to find excuses not to act, to avoid risk and flee from challenge. We all tend to prefer the easy way out. This inner force is ‘bribery,’ for it blinds our ability to see the facts as they really are. We choose creature comfort over ethically correct action and are tempted by the promise of immediate gratification instead of the difficult road that would produce long-term achievements.”

This is one of the ways that Rabbi Israel Salanter defines the yetzer hara, the “evil inclination” of which the rabbis speak. But for him, this yetzer harais not a demon or Satan or some other such personification of evil. Rather, it is a normal component of human nature, one with which we all struggle. It is part of our existential condition.

The shady character with the envelope full of cash is within us. It urges us to repress our moral inclination and to deny the sublimity of our souls. It persuades us to settle for less, to ignore our conscience. It frustrates our God-given idealism, and it mocks our values and ideals.

How do we combat this “bribery?” Rabbi Salanter has suggestions in this regard as well, and they include serious study of traditional Jewish ethical works, introspection, humility and self-discipline.

But there is another type of resource more readily available to most of us, and it is epitomized in this familiar teaching of one of our earliest sages, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachya, who taught: “Get yourself a teacher and acquire a companion.”

Too often, especially these days when society pressures us to exercise our moral autonomy, we make decisions without consulting others. We are loath to seek out the advice of wiser men and fail to heed their counsel when we do seek it. We are reluctant to discuss our decisions with friends, peers and colleagues. We avoid those in our circle who could serve as mentors, and our competitiveness prevents us from requesting guidance from others who have confronted our very dilemmas.

Solomon, the wisest of men, advised us, “Salvation comes with much consultation.” Just as we have a yetzer hara, an evil inclination, we also have a yetzer tov, a good inclination. And that good inclination drives us to the company of other human beings. We can discuss our dilemmas with those in our environment who view them more objectively than we can on our own. That is the path to wise decisions, both in the moral and practical spheres of our existence.

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.

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All About ‘Attitude’

Born to a family of Russian Jewish  immigrants, Gustavo Bulgach says, “Tango is more than the music you hear in Buenos Aires, it’s something you breathe.” (Courtesy of Skirbal)

Born to a family of Russian Jewish
immigrants, Gustavo Bulgach says, “Tango is more than the music you hear in Buenos Aires, it’s something you breathe.”
(Courtesy of Skirbal)

LOS ANGELES — The music that packs the Skirball Cultural Center’s stately courtyard — Yiddish tango — is a musical hybrid twice over.

On the tango side, it is a blend of African-born rhythms and a potpourri of European music styles. On the Yiddish side, it combines mournful liturgical melodies with folk songs.

Tango too is famous for its sensual dance, while Yiddish music is rooted in the festive freylekhs of traditional wedding bands.

In combination, the two prove irresistible, as the concert crowd stands and sways to the tangled rhythms.

For Gustavo Bulgach, 47, band leader of Yiddish Tango Club — the star attraction at the Skirball on Aug. 21 — the music is also a reminder of his childhood in Buenos Aires in the 1970s and ’80s. Born to a family of Russian Jewish immigrants, Bulgach grew up in Argentina learning Jewish folk music at the feet of his grandfather, a passionate music lover, and in the synagogue founded by his grandfather.

At the same time, he says, “Tango is more than the music you hear in Buenos Aires, it’s something you breathe.”

Bulgach is far from the first to combine Jewish music and tango in a heady combination. Tango music was born in late 19th-century Argentina in communities of newly arrived European immigrants, many of them Jews.

As Jewish musicians learned to play in the increasingly popular style, they added their own musical and linguistic flourishes — not only joining major tango orchestras, but also composing new tangos in Yiddish. Max Zalkind, for one, composed both in Yiddish (“Odesa Mama”) and Spanish (“Mi Quinta in Castelar”).

At the same time, as tango music became an international sensation, the genre swept across Eastern Europe. Records and music journals filtered into cities and shtetls and created a new tango style even in places never visited by touring Argentine
orchestras.

For example, as Lloica Czackis, a musician who has researched the history of Yiddish tango, noted in an article written for the website of World ORT, Poland “quickly became one of the capitals of European tango at a time when most of its musicians, both in the classical and popular scenes, were Jewish.”

The result was a pre-World War II profusion of Yiddish tango in Argentina, Eastern Europe and even America, as Yiddish-speaking Jews joined in the tango craze and made it their own.

The Holocaust also created its own grim chapter in the history of Yiddish tango, as the Nazis encouraged concentration camp orchestras, or lagernkapellen, to play tangos, which they considered less encouraging of rebellion than American jazz. Indeed, as Czackis notes, Paul Celan’s famous poem on the concentration camps, “Death Fugue,” was originally titled “Death Tango.”

Bulgach’s own renditions of Yiddish tango draw on these traditions and, at the same time, offer a fresh take on the genre. In some cases, Yiddish Tango Club plays traditional klezmer songs but with elements of tango, such as using the Argentine bandoneon rather than an accordion.

In other instances, Bulgach combines tunes and rhythms from both genres more freely, as in his self-composed “Librescu Tango.” And in other pieces still, the combination is already inherent in the music — for example, Bulgach notes that legendary tango composer Astor Piazzolla often said his favorite 3-3-2 rhythm was influenced by the Jewish music Piazzolla heard as a child in Brooklyn.

Jewish tango music also has experienced something of a revival. Bulgach says it has become common practice at Jewish concerts in Argentina for the musicians to perform an old Yiddish tango as part of the repertoire. At the same time, documentaries and concerts of Jewish tango music have sprung up across the United States, and Jewish tango music has even reappeared in Eastern Europe, repeating the patterns of nearly a century ago.

Above all, though, Bulgach says tango is more about a feeling than a specific harmony or rhythm.

“To me, the tango is like the blues,” he says. “It’s an attitude. It’s darkly lit. It’s ecstatic. It’s out of control.”

Likewise, in both tango and klezmer, Bulgach says the test of success is whether people are inspired to get up and dance.

By the end of the Yiddish Tango Club concert, the Skirball courtyard is crowded with dancers joyously swept up by the spirit of Yiddish tango. A few dance expert tangos in pairs, while most bop and bounce informally to the music.

As the evening comes to a close, Bulgach leads the band and his audience in a tango-ized version of “Hatikvah,” turning the anthem of hope into a lilting, dance-like melody.

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‘Little White Lie’

Lacey Schwartz’s film  "Little White Lie" tells of her discovery in adulthood that her father was black.

Lacey Schwartz’s film “Little White Lie” tells of her discovery in adulthood that her father was black.

SAN FRANCISCO — When Lacey Schwartz celebrated her bat mitzvah more than two decades ago in her hometown of Woodstock, N.Y., a synagogue-goer turned to her and said, “It’s so nice to have an Ethiopian Jew in our midst.”

Never mind that Schwartz, a striking 37-year-old with long black curls and a megawatt smile, is about as American as they come. Raised by two Ashkenazi Jewish parents in a largely white upstate New York town, Schwartz’s complexion — darker than that of her relatives — had long been attributed to a Sicilian grandfather.

Despite lingering questions, she believed the story. But when Schwartz enrolled at Georgetown University and the Black Student Alliance sent her a welcome letter based on a picture she submitted, Schwartz could no longer deny something was amiss.

She confronted her mother, Peggy Schwartz, only to discover that her biological father was a black man named Rodney with whom she had had an affair.

The discovery of her family secret and Schwartz’s coming to terms with her newly complex racial identity serves as the basis for “Little White Lie,” a moving documentary that had its official world premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival earlier this month following screenings in Cape Cod and Philadelphia.

“I started from a place where being Jewish equaled being white,” said Schwartz. “So I had to push myself to expand my idea of what being Jewish was.”

Upon launching the project 10 years ago, Schwartz thought she was making a film about black Jews. At the time she was living in what she called a “racial closet.” Schwartz identified as black in the broader world, but at home she behaved as though nothing had changed.

082914_white-lies2Many therapy sessions and a degree from Harvard Law School later, Schwartz decided to hone in on her family’s story. Her biological father had passed away just shy of her 30th birthday, and she realized that if she didn’t investigate her own narrative, she was skirting the issue.
“I wanted people to be having these conversations, but I wasn’t even talking about things in my own life,” Schwartz said. “I felt strongly that I couldn’t talk the talk unless I walked the walk.”

Schwartz’s mother has been supportive of the project since its inception. Peggy Schwartz, 67, said she initially had some trepidation about how others might perceive her (“Will people think I’m a raving lunatic?” she quipped in a New York Jewish accent), but that quickly faded and she felt safe spilling her secrets on camera.

“I owed it to my daughter to no longer be deceptive about what my life was like,” Peggy Schwartz said of her participation in the film, which is slated to air next year on PBS. “She needed to go on her path, and she invited me to go on mine. I’m very grateful for that.”

Still, it wasn’t easy. Years of silence had built emotional walls that were hard to break through, and Schwartz had to push her mother to engage
in conversations about the real circumstances of her birth.

Schwartz’s father, Robert, long divorced from her mother, also agreed to participate but with markedly less enthusiasm. During a lively Q&A session following the San Francisco screening, Schwartz said that while the man she’d always known as “Daddy” went along with her process, it was not the path he might have chosen.

In a particularly moving, if awkward, scene in the film, Schwartz’s father calls her mother’s years-long affair and Lacey’s ensuing paternity — neither of which was divulged to him — “the ultimate betrayal.”

While Schwartz the filmmaker has embraced her black identity, it has not been at the expense of the strong Jewish cultural identity she developed during her formative years. Some of the earliest stirrings of the film came through her work with Reboot, a hand-picked collective of Jewish creative professionals who come together to explore meaning, community and identity.

“Reboot is a space that encourages you to ask the questions you really want to ask about your Jewish identity,” Schwartz said. “It has been inspirational.”

In addition to winning grants from major Jewish funders — the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, the Jewish federations of New York and San Francisco, and the Righteous Persons Foundation, among them — Schwartz’s film has also received long-term support from Be’chol Lashon, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that promotes racial, ethnic and cultural diversity in Jewish life.

Schwartz, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her husband and twin 1-year-old sons, serves as the group’s national outreach director and its New York regional director. Diane Tobin, Be’chol Lashon’s founder and executive director, said the organization plans to use the film to educate teens and spark conversations about Jewish diversity.

Schwartz said that she hopes the film will catalyze discussion not only around race, but also the consequences of keeping family secrets.

“This is a very personal story, but it’s also universal,” she said. “It’s a project about family secrets and the power of telling the truth.”