To Be a Jew

Individuals explaining what it means to them to be a Jew.

Happy New Year 2012 (5773)

Wishing all our readers a sweet and happy Rosh HaShanna.  Shofar blowing by Jews around the world.

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A Tale of Three Religions: a Muslim Israeli Holocaust Survivor

Leila Jabarin (nee Helen Brashatsky) with her grandchildren. credits: AFB (click picture for and additional photos).

A set of distinctly Eastern European eyes peers out from under the white hijab. Although the woman is Muslim, she was born in Auschwitz.

When Helen Brashatsky’s parents and two brothers arrived in Auschwitz in 1941, Helen’s mother was pregnant. Pregnant women were usually killed, but Helen’s mother was lucky. A Christian doctor hid Helen’s family under the floor of his house inside the Auschwitz compound. When she was born, he hid her in a pile of bath towels. During the day, Helen’s mother did the doctor’s housework and her father was the gardener. At night the parents would return to the doctors house and feed the children bread soaked in salt water. After WWII the family immigrated to Israel and settled in Ramat Gan.

Helen was six when her family came to Israel, a few months before statehood was declared. She grew up in Ramat Gan, but at 17 she fell in love with an Arab man. Much to her parents’ dismay she ran away to marry him and live in his village. Eventually after two years she and her family reconciled.

Even though she married an Arab man, she remained Jewish and did not convert to Islam. But when her children began approaching army age, she became concerned that her daughter would not be accepted in the community where she grew up if she had to serve in the army. By converting she could prevent her children from being drafted and so she did.

Helen never told her husband and children about her Holocaust story. For years she would cry alone on Holocaust memorial day, much to the confusion of her family. She says “There are no words to describe the pain that I feel. How can children eat dry bread soaked in water? If this happened to my children, I don’t know what would become of me.”

She says she was waiting for the right moment. That moment came when a man from Israeli social services showed up to ask about her past. Her oldest son, now 33, says that it answered a lot of questions “Mum used to cry on Holocaust Memorial Day watching all the ceremonies on Israeli television. We never understood why. We all used to get out of the way and leave her alone in the house…We understand her a bit more now.”

For more about Leila’s story: Holocaust survivor finds haven as Muslim in Israel , Your Middle East (AFP), April 18, 2012.

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Turning No into Yes

Adam Kohn and grandchildren holding signs saying "Art must go on even after Auschwitz" . Adam Kohn's family visited Auschwitz in 2010. They produced a video of the family dancing to "I will survive" in front of a synagogue, and three concentration camps. Click photo to see video.

Picking up on Eli Weisel’s observation that he has spent his entire life trying to turn “No” into “Yes”, Joshua Hammerman discusses why remembering tragedy is only half the story of Holocaust remembrance:

If the message is survival for its own sake, it is not a survival that is well-rooted. Ultimately, that message won’t be enough, unless it is accompanied by the joyous refrain, “Shiru l’Adonai shir hadash,” “Sing unto the Lord a New Song.” And that is why “Never again” is also not enough.

… The Holocaust can be a spark of Jewish identity and even Jewish pride, but it is not enough to ensure another generation of Jews

…. When I see the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been raised for scores of Holocaust memorials and research centers in America, it doesn’t bother me at all. The memory must remain fresh. The world needs to know; our children need to know and take pride in their heritage, even as regarding Auschwitz

….But there must be a matching grant. The same amount of money must be poured into Jewish education, synagogues and day schools, into making affiliation affordable for every young family, and into programs that emphasize joy rather than victimization. It should not and cannot be one or the other; it must be one and the other…. Auschwitz will reside at the core of the next generation’s Judaism, but we must understand this — the Holocaust will be reinterpreted. The facts will remain the same — they must — but the lessons will change. Just as the exodus from Egypt must be reinterpreted “b’hol dor v’dor” (in every generation) so will the Shoah. It is hard to imagine discussing these events with fewer tears, but they will. It is hard to imagine the bitterness dissipating, but it will. It is hard to imagine anyone coming to reaffirm the joy of Judaism through these darkened binoculars, but they will.

For the full essay see The Times of Israel.

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Holocaust, the Fourth Generation

I hope that you come to me
And tell me that you learned the word chronological
And that you put all the books on your book shelf in chronological order
And I hope that the diary of Anne Frank
Ends up ordered out of history between the dinosaur books and the caveman books…
I hope that you yell at me
and that you run to mommy, “Mommy, Daddy’s lying to me”….

I will patiently answer your “How?” and your eventual tearful “Why?”
You will bear witness, but I hope you resist
I hope that the world you live in is one that makes believing in the Shoah more difficult than believing in God….

The above poem is by Andrew Lustig, author and producer of the video “I am Jewish”.

Speaking about his video to the Times of Israel, he said:

Basically, I really hope that one day remembrance, regarding the Holocaust, can mean something different. I hope that my children can live in a world where they are so accepted and appreciated for who they are that the idea that anyone would hate them for it would be as unbelievable, at first, as if I told a child today that years ago people were hated and killed because they had hazel eyes, or dirty blond hair.

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Cuban Jazz Meets Klezmer : Flashmob on the Streets of Paris

The above video was a joint project of the JewSalsa dance school, TanJoe art Gallery, the Jewish Agency, et le FSJU. The concept and dance routine was an initiative of dance professor and musician David el Shatràn.

According to an article in the French JSS News, the dance routine is divided into four sections each representing different types of Latin dance rhythms in honor of the four questions from the Passover seder:

The flashdance itself is also meant as a kind of metaphor for the seder as well because it welcomes all to join in.

For more information:

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Seders around the Jewish World

Beijing at night

On the first night of Passover as the sun moves around the world Jews from all countries begin one after another to celebrate the seder. The particular way each family and group of friends celebrates differs from table to table, time zone to time zone. Yet we all tell the same story on the same night.


In Tablet magazine Dan Levin talks about his seder in China. He writes

For most of the year, our Jewishness hovers in the background; our primary identity here is “foreigner.” But Passover forces us to confront our shared religious heritage—and how it resonates in a Chinese context. The Haggadah features tales of villains and heroes, tyranny and dissent, and when we distill the Seder’s morality play through the dark realities of China, it reads as subversive political commentary. After all, we are celebrating freedom in a country that is not free.


An Israeli chef and his crew prepared 900 chickens, tubs full of salad, and over a 1000 boiled eggs with the electricity going on and off. Over 1,100 people came from all over Nepal to attend the seder. Each year about 10,000 Israelis visit Nepal. The seder in Katmandu is one of three seders in Nepal.  For more, see 1,100 Pounds of Matzah in the Himalaya Mountains .


Last year seder Gilead Shalit’s family marked the seder in the tent the family had erected outside of the prime minister’s house. This year for the first time in six years the family is celebrating Passover with Gilead Shalit in their own home.

Soldiers from the HaRuv brigade arrived expecting a festive seder meal. Instead they got cold matzah and salami. IDF kitchens must serve kosher food. The rabbi in charge of supervising the kitchen insisted that the planned meal be thrown out because it was improperly heated.

Several Russian Jewish oligarchs celebrated an unremarkable seder in a Jerusalem hotel this year, but the way they prepapred for the seder was anything but usual. The week before the seder they traveled 200 kilometer through the Aravah desert northward to Jerusalem accompanied by camels without their usual modern conveniences . The trip organizer told the Moscow Times that the journey presented “a serious spiritual and physical challenge to the particpants.”

Gilad Shalit’s family have left their tents, but the residents of Machpelach house in Hebron have just set up theirs. They were evicted the week before Passover by the IDF. The residents claim that they had bought the property fair and square and had the right to live in the house. The IDF says that property has been set aside for military use and they can’t be there. Their claims will be reviewed in the coming months. In the meantime as a protest they have set up a tent nearby and held their seder in the tent.

Four years ago Chef Alon Goren of the El Barrio restaurant in Tel Aviv realized that many of his staff were foreign workers who had no place to go for seder night. He invited them to the restaurant for a small seder. The next year he invited workers from restaurants run by friends. The third year the number of people coming to the seder grew so large that he could no longer hold it in his restaurant. He moved it to a villa owned by a high ranking police officer and friend of his. This year the seder was held in a Flamenco studio in south Tel Aviv. Describing the children at his seders Goren said “It’s just amazing. The kids who come speak Hebrew fluently. They’re Israelis! Their parents are from another world, but these youngsters are so Israeli. They know the songs, and they have such a good time,”.


In Egypt was the seder that wasn’t. Every year since the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, the Israeli embassy in Cairo has held a seder. This year the seder was canceled due to deteriorating relations with Egypt. Because of problems protecting staff, embassy personnel have been returning home to Israel each weekend . Because the seder fell on Shabbat this year, the ambassor was in Israel with his family rather than in Cairo.


Ruth Ellen Gruber from Budapest writes:

At Pesach, I made a “seder crawl” that took me to the Bet Orim seder and two others on the first night and one additional seder on the second. I had been invited to all of them, and seder hopping was how I dealt with the dilemma of having to make a choice about which to attend. Each was a big communal affair for dozens of people, organized by one of Budapest’s plethora of different Jewish groups and congregations. They all took place in and around the city’s downtown old Jewish quarter, in venues ranging from a modern JCC auditorium to the formal dining room of a popular restaurant to a funky basement youth cafe.

United Kingdom

Angie Jacobs writes in the Times of Israel about the prepackaged McSeder plate in her local supermarket and the challenges she and her sister had with creating a seder plate that was acceptable to the vegetarians in the family.

USA, East Coast

At the Garden, spending Passover with Springsteen : Long Island resident Warren Rosen didn’t want to miss Bruce Springsteen’s opening concert at Madison Square Garden in lower Manhatten. Since there was no way to get from his Seder Table in Massapequa Park, to the Garden, Rosen decided he’d bring the Seder to Springsteen. He rented a room in a restaurant across the street from Madison Square Garden; printed up special Haggadot with Bruce Springsteen on the cover; and invited his friends. They began the seder with “Matzah Ball”, a song written by his wife and set to the tune of Springsteen’s song Wrecking Ball. When the seder was over, everyone crossed the street and went to the Springsteen concert.

College student Alan Meskin writes in the Forward about his family’s efforts to maintain their Russian roots duing the seder. Obviously there are Russian dishes at the meal, but more than that the seder has special meaning for Russian immigrants to the USA. He writes:

To Russian immigrants especially, the holiday is a moment when they can think about the recent attainment of independence from the former Soviet Union and how they were let go after years of oppression and hatred.

USA, Moab Desert, Utah


Several families gathered in the Moab desert in Utah for a day long pre-seder and seder program. In memory of the Jews having to walk their way out of Egypt, they began their pre-seder celebrations with a hike to the Corona Arch, a giant natural made stone arch, an hour long hike from the nearest road. At the arch they read the story of the Exodos from the Torah. After the reading, following Miriam’s example, women danced with tamborines. The group returned to their camp site to complete the evening with a traditional seder. The annual desert seder is lead by Reform rabbi, Jamie Korngold. Next year, she will leave leadership to someone else. Korngold plans to be in Jerusalem.


USA, West Coast

In the Los Angeles Jewish Journal a morrocan Jewish father describes how Arabic and his Morrocan heritage shaped his understanding of the seder and the world around him.

Growing up in a French-speaking Sephardic-Moroccan home in Los Angeles, my sisters and I were never taught that Arabic was the “language of the enemy.” That is, unless we considered our parents “the enemy” — they spoke it between themselves when they didn’t want us to understand what was being said. I have vivid memories of Judeo-Arabic being spoken in my home. … Throughout my upbringing, the first chant at the Passover seder that really made it feel like Pesach for all of us around the table sounded like this …. Although my parents are no longer alive, my family continues our Judeo-Arabic chanting at the seder. These chants continue to tell the story of Pesach — my Moroccan ancestors’ Pesach — to my children, in the original language of their ancestors.

For Gary Smith’s vegan family the shank bone was only the beginning of their problems with the traditional seder. None the less they found a way to adapt the seder to integrate both their connection to Judaism and their commitments as vegans. He writes in the Jewish Journal about their “veder” or a vegan seder:

Our veder is really not much different than most others except that as vegans and animal rights activists, we see animals as fellow innocent victims. We decide to include and remember the 10 billion animals who are killed for food each year in the United States, the hundreds of millions in vivisection laboratories, the animals enslaved in zoos, circuses, racetracks and water parks for human entertainment, and the millions killed for fur, leather, wool and silk. Although being vegan is still outside the mainstream, it is in no way a rejection of the values we grew up with. In fact, the very teachings of Judaism encourage us to question authority, protect those who are most vulnerable, and take action against oppression and injustice — qualities that are common, if not necessary, to vegans and animal activists.


And finally we reach Hawaii where blogger Lorraine Gershun writes about her family’s second night seder:

My husband and I set the table this afternoon for our second night Seder. When we finished I realized that we were both wearing our bathing suits. He was still in his board shorts from his morning surf session and I had just returned from the neighborhood pool after swimming some laps. “Now that is being Jewish in Hawaii I thought.”

Update: 2012-04-15, added stories about seder in Katmandu, Nepal and Moab Desert, USA.

Several families gathered in the Moab desert in Utah for a day long pre-seder and seder program. In memory of the Jews having to walk their way out of Egypt, they began their pre-seder celebrations with a hike to the Corona Arch, a giant natural made stone arch, an hour long hike from the nearest road. At the arch they read the story of the Exodos from the Torah. After the reading, following Miriam’s example, women danced with tamborines. The group returned to their camp site to complete the evening with a traditional seder. The annual desert seder is lead by Reform rabbi, Jamie Korngold. Next year, she will leave leadership to someone else. Korngold plans to be in Jerusalem.

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The Malavsky Family Choir

Cantor Samuel Malavsky, born in Kiev, was well known for singing with his sons and daughters in concert in the 1940’s and 1950’s, long before women cantors were accepted even in non-orthodox synagogues. Malavsky insisted on giving his daughters respect due to cantors as well. In concerts Malavsky’s daughters, and not just Malavsky, would sing with tallit and kippah. Several prayer tunes were composed with “boy alto” solos so that his daugher Goldie could sing. Some had soprano solos as well. Malavsky’s music may be some of the earliest cantorial settings deliberately composed for the female cantorial voice.

During World War II, they sang the High Holidays in San Francisco. The family frequently lead Passover seders in the Catskills as well. But in general, opportunties to use their skills to lead prayer were limited. Orthodox synagogues would not allow him to sing with his daughters. Conservative synagogues welcomed the family as a group, but Malavsky did not like the changes to liturgy. He found his solution singing in hotels, music halls. Sometimes the same Orthodox rabbis who would not let Malavsky and his daughters sing in their shuls would come to the concert at the hotel.

The family also did numerous recordings and even cinema shorts, as in this clip below (song starts at 0:56).

  • The family choir, known as “The Singers of Israel” performed ….
  • Malavsky’s cantorial style was known for its strong marked beat and syncopation. (jewish virtual library)
  • Goldie Malavsky : her own album – , singing Ich Baink Ahaim

Some other songs by the Malavsky family:

  • Yedid Nefesh : Malavksy as soloist accompanied by soloist
  • Ribon HaOlamim : solo by Malavsky, no choir, but very beautiful classical chazzanut, shabbat song typically sung between shalom aleichem and eshet chayil
  • Tzur MiShelo Achalnu : Shabbat table song, sung after eating. (clip above)
  • Vchol Boei Olam : solos by both Malavsky, a daughter and the family choir
  • Tzena Tzena – Israeli folk song

For more about the “The Singers of Israel”, see

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Remembering Redemption: Vehi SheAmda

After the four questions and the story of the four sons we get to the Vehi SheAmbda, the reminder that redemption is an ongoing theme in Jewish life, occurring over and over again in history:

וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה לַאֲבוֹתֵיֽנוּ וְלָנֽוּ. שֶׁלֹא אֶחָד בִּלְבָד, עָמַד עָלֵיֽנוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנֽוּ. אֶלָּא שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר, עוֹמְדִים עָלֵיֽנוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנֽוּ. וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם

And it is this [covenant] that has stood for our foremothers and forefathers and us. Not just one enemy alone has stood against us to destroy us. Rather in every generation there are those who have stood against us to destroy us, and the Holy One Blessed Be saves us from their hands.

This version of the song is sung by Adi Arad, an Israeli singer who specializes in Chazanut and is also known for the prayer she composed for Gilad Shalit while he was in custody.

The song has both middle eastern and Ashkenazi versions. Some of the more interesting versions found on You Tube: the Caravan Tamir Israali Scouts chorus, middle eastern European (different tune), Israeli pop rock, and Elior Itzkovitz-cohen singing with orchestra and children’s chorus; ,

According to Issac Luria, the great kabbalist, one should cover the matzah and raise the wine glass. When done, the wine glass is lowered and the matzah uncovered.

It is as if we are acting out the story of rescue and redemption. Wine is dark and fluid. It has no fixed form. So too God in moments of darkness needing rescue. In those moments God cannot be grasped. But when redemption is revealed we can look at events and see God in our midst. The troubles become like liquid flowing away and we are left standing safely on solid ground. Moments of redemption are like matzah whose white color is reminiscent of light and understanding and whose flat surface and solid feel represents the foundational sense of God in moments of redemption.

Matzah also symbolizes redemption because of the way it was transformed. In the story of the Exodus during slavery matzah represents the bread of poverty and affliction. Then on the final night the very simplicity of matzah becomes the sign f redemption. The fact there was no time to let it rise is prove that redemption was not just on its way but rather in the here and now pushing them forward and out from Egypt.

Even within the seder itself we are reminded of many redemptions and rescues. Vehi SheAmda concludes the part of the Seder devoted to the story of Abraham. It precedes the story of Laban and Jacob. In yesterday’s post (Karev Yom: It Happened At Midnight), Abraham was our first midnight story of redemption. Jacob and Laban were players in the next two midnight stories. Placed as it is between Abraham and Jacob it acts as an acknowledgement of the first of many redemptions in Jewish history.

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Karev Yom: And it Happened at Midnight

Below in 1980 on national Israeli TV, a woman leading a seder, surrounded by family singing the piyut Karev Yom. The woman below is actress Hanna Rovina , winner of the Israel prize in 1956, singing the song in call and respone fashion.

The song has many versions, each showing a different flavor of Jewish music. Here is another version of Karev Yom sung by Yaffa Yarkoni. from her album Sabra. Yarkoni received the Israel prize in 1998 and died at age 86 at the beginning of this year. Instead of call and response she uses a driving beat and decorative melisma typical of Israeli Sephardic cantorial style.

There are also versions where the instruments take on a central role: here is a klezmer version with double base, clarinet, accordian, violin and drums sung by Evyatar Banai. The sound is sweeter and softer. And here, a middle eastren music setting with ud and gesang by Ensemble Majimaz.

The song, Karev Yom, expresses Jewish hope and longing for final redemption: a day where there is no day or night.

Draw near the day which is neither day nor night;
Exalted One, proclaim that Yours are day and night;
Set guards over Your city all day and night;
Brighten as day the darkness of the night;
And it came to pass at midnight! (translation by Josh Kulp )

The words are taken from the last verse of a piyut (liturgical poem ) found at the end of Ashkenazi haggadot, “And it Happened at Midnight”. The poem is a reworking of Bemidbar Rabba 20 which lists a series of events that all, according to tradition, happened at midnight. Each line excepting the last stanza (Karev Yom) begins with a different letter of the alphabet in order. Each event is focused on either returning from exile or alleviating the sufferings of exile. They are described in order starting with Abraham and ending with the final redemption.

  • Abraham’s victory over the kings that kidnapped his nephew Lot (Genesis 14)
  • Jacob’s return to his homeland which involved two midnight miracles: Laban’s dream and Jacob’s wrestling with an angel (Genesis 31:24, 32)
  • Israel’s escape from Egypt ( Exodus 11:4, 12:29 )
  • The tribes victory over Sisera, thanks to the generalship of Devorah and the clever thinking of Yael. Devorah defeated Sisera’s armies forcing Sisera to flee. He fled into the tents of his supposed ally Heber the Kenite, where his wife Yael stabbed him with a tent peg (Judges 4-5)
  • King Hezekiah’s victory over the Assyrian armies. The Assyrians had conquored the north of Israel and had surrounded Jerusalem. They sent Ravshaka, an Israelite, to demoralize them by saying that their God was a wsh and would not help them. Miraculously one night a significant portion of the camp was dead. 2 King 18 (fall 2 King 19:35)
  • The story of Daniel set during the Babylonian captivity. The poem names three events that happened at midnight: the rescue from the lions, Daniel’s visions and the death of Belshazzar.
  • The story of Esther also set during the Babylonian captivity. Haman decreed pograms against the Jews at midnight and the king read through the chronicles one night because he couldn’t sleep. While reading he discovered that Mordachai whom Haman wanted to kill, had in fact saved the kings life.
  • The end of times when Isaiah’s prophesy of redemption and in-gathering will be fulfilled (Isaiah 21:10-12)

The full Hebrew words are available here.

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Yes We Canaan: Breaking Free by the Ein Prat Fountainheads

The Ein Prat Fountainheads is a group of students and graduates from the Ein Prat Academy in Ein Prat Israel. Here is their latest music video.

The group began Chanukah 2010 when 20 students and graduates of the Ein Prat Academy got together to put together a video put together for the school Channuka party. It went over so well that they decideed to do another video for Purim 2011, this time with 100 people involved. Currently the travelling group has about 9 members but many more are involved in each video.

They put the Purim video up on Youtube for friends and family. The family and friends video went viral. The strong public response crystalized the students and graduates into a performing group. They have been making holiday videos and touring ever since. Shani Lachmish one of the group’s lead singers described the group’s goal in an interview with Shalom Life in May of last year (2011):

Our goal is to produce fun and meaningful music videos that put smiles on people’s faces and help them connect with their Jewishness in new ways. We also want to showcase the diverse, vibrant and highly-engaged Israeli-Jewish identity that is emerging in our generation of Israelis today,” said Shani Lachmish, graduate of Ein Prat and one of the lead singers of the group.

Their videos for Rosh haShanna also received a warm response. “Dip Your Apple”, a takeoff on Shakira’s Waka Waka, was Israel’s top You Tube video for 2011. At last count it had nearly 2 million views.

The initial videos were all take-offs on world pop hits. Since Rosh haShannah they have been moving into new territory by using original compositions. Both their Chanukah video and the video above releasd for Pesach 2012 are original compositions by Ben R., the director and co-producer of their 2011 Rosh haShannah video. Lyrics for the new video are available on You Tube (click through to the video and then expand the “See More” tab).

Their next Israeli concert will be in Jerusalem on April 10, 2011 at the Beit Avi Chai center in Jerusalem. They also have a US Tour planned for May 13-24, 2012. For list of appearances or to book a concert see .


Ein Prat Fountainheads on Facebook
Ein Prat Fountainheads on YouTube
Ein Prat Fountainheads on Twitter

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