July 2016

Topic of the Week: Intern Reflection

July 29, 2016

A Visit to Mayyim Hayyim, Non-denominational Mikveh

By Nora Smolonsky

As someone who is not a practicing Jew, I felt reservations before going to Mayyim Hayyim, a mikveh in Newton, MA. To be honest, I was not entirely sure what a mikveh was. I was worried that I am not Jewish enough, knowledgeable enough, or even pure enough to feel comfortable in such a sacred space. But after a few minutes of being there, I was put at ease by our guide Leeza Negelev, the Associate Director of Education, who greeted us with a welcoming and unassuming attitude. As she continued to tell us about Mayyim Hayyim, I was quickly engrossed by the details and religious context of the ceremony.

Since I was not yet aware of the history of mikvehs, the significance of the fact that Mayyim Hayyim is the first non-denominational community mikveh was lost on me. It was not until we had a discussion with our fellow interns that I became aware that mikvehs are often not accommodating or accessible spaces. As our conversation and lesson about the mikveh, and Mayyim Hayyim specifically, continued, I found myself in awe of what a unique place I was in.

Mayyim hayyim literally means living water, or water of life, and a mikveh is a gathering of water used by Jews, and those converting to Judaism. The Torah states that men and women alike are obligated to immerse in a mikveh for various reasons, as they both have the potential to become ritually impure. Men were once obligated to go to a mikveh after genital emission, but this action was eventually decided to be non-obligatory, as it could be a daily occurrence for men and thus too inconvenient and challenging. But one of the primary uses of mikvehs today is for niddah, when women immerse after menstruation, typically a monthly occurrence. As such, like much of Judaism, the history of who has a mikveh and why, is rooted in sexism. Mayyim Hayyim, however, is an intentionally radical space made to accommodate and celebrate the needs of all Jews. With mikveh guides of all genders, the space is open to Jews of all genders.

Negelev explained that Anita Diamant, the author of The Red Tent, helped create Mayyim Hayyim after observing that conversion ceremonies often took place without respect for the person converting. According to Negelev, Diamant was shocked by the lines outside mikvehs in extreme temperatures and felt inspired to create a space that celebrates mikveh ceremonies and those participating in them. While this safe and healing space was developed because such an accommodating space did not exist prior, Mayyim Hayyim now operates with the belief that all Jewish people deserve to have a space to be celebrated.

As gender roles have traditionally defined aspects of who is able to participate in mikveh ceremonies, I was moved by the fact that Mayyim Hayyim not only accepts people of all gender identities, they also have specific ceremonies to honor gender transition and the process of coming out. The guest book was full of experiences from people who had previously not been accepted by other mikvehs because of their lifestyle or identity, but when they came to Mayyim Hayyim felt honored and cherished, not just accepted. There are various reasons to immerse in a mikveh, ranging from those commanded in Jewish law, to traditional, to new. The new ceremonies can occur during any type of transitional experience including, but not limited to, to heal from cancer or another illness, before a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, becoming a grandparent, or for a birthday.

Mayyim Hayyim inhabits a 200 year old house, but the actual mikveh space was built 12 years ago (it is now of Bat Mitzvah age, as Negelev pointed out) and was designed with intention. In the space outside of the Mikveh, the high ceiling that lets in natural light is meant to make the participant feel connected to the outside world and spirit. Above the door between the mikveh and the hallway is an open window that allows loved ones of the one immersing to be able to hear the ceremony and communicate with each other. Inside the actual mikveh, the ceiling arcs downward over the water, creating an intensely personal and private experience for the person partaking in the ritual.

While going to Mayyim Hayyim made me want to learn more about ritual purification in Judaism, more than anything, it inspired a strong desire to participate in a mikveh ceremony as I am in a transitional stage in my life. Simply being inside of the space, even without participating, was incredibly calming and spiritual in a way I cannot describe. So, I made myself an appointment to participate in a transitional ceremony and immerse in the mikveh.

Nora Smolonky was an HBI Gilda Slifka summer intern and recent graduate of Concordia University.

Mayyim Hayyim is a non-profit community organization run by volunteers. If you are interested in learning more about Mayyim Hayyim, taking an educational trip, or making an appointment for yourself , please go to http://www.mayyimhayyim.org/. Thank you again to Leeza and the other volunteers at Mayyim Hayyim for making us feel so welcome. 

Topic of the Week: Intern Reflection

July 14, 2016

The Color of Solidarity

By Farrell Greenwald Brenner

I grew up in an inter-faith home in rural New York. Since I first set foot in public school, I have always had the confusing job of answering that pesky and inevitable question of my curious and goyish peers: “Well, what are you?” I still don’t know. I’ve been reconciling my selves in recent years by dedicating my studies to the role that race plays in Jewish history, and the role that Jewishness plays in our contemporary racial politics.

I appreciate the work of Jewish artists such as Daniel Kahn, who understands Jewishness to be a messy and diasporic identity. In his song “A Jew in You,” he explains:

“My definition here could use some explanation, true:

You have to ask yourself just what I mean when I say Jew.

Well, the Jewishness concerning us should not be misconstrued.

Blood and land are things with which it doesn’t have to do

and religion here is a matter most irrelevant too,

so let’s try to look at this anew.”

In true Brechtian fashion (Kahn’s major influence), he describes a collective politics that defies borders and nationalism.

Interestingly, it was through the writings of Black feminist theorists such as Angela Davis, Alexander Weheliye, Frantz Fanon, and Hortense Spillers that I was first prompted to interrogate my Jewishness as a racial identity. I was seeking meaning out of a complicated and sometimes violent intergenerational history of migration, assimilation, and intermarriage.

But one of the most important things I’ve learned in the past few years came from another Jewish American scholar: while Jews are not always considered to be white, we have benefitted from white privilege and racism in the United States. Karen Brodkin’s How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America was particularly crucial to my understanding of how race in the United States has been quite literally molded through policies, attitudes, and institutions. Unlike Nazi-occupied Europe (the time and place on which I focus the brunt of my research), where race was read and evaluated through a combination of nationality, ethnic background, language, and physiognomy, the litmus test for “Black” in the United States relies primarily on skin pigmentation.

While Black communities have historically and consistently been targeted with environmental racism (i.e. Flint, Michigan), mass incarceration, excessive and violent policing, discrimination across multiple sectors, underfunded schools, etc., Jews have been able to access post-secondary education, suburban housing, and class mobility through programs such as the 1944 GI Bill of Rights, which granted disproportionately non-Black servicemen (and only men) free higher education. This coincided with an uptick in anti-Black violence in the 1940’s. The racist policies of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) also played a role in widening the gap between Black Americans and ethnic minorities; Brodkin explains that “The FHA’s and the [Veteran Administration’s] refusal to guarantee loans in redlined neighborhoods made it virtually impossible for African Americans to borrow money for home improvement or purchase.” Of course, prior to these developments, Jews experienced interpersonal and structural anti-Semitism, such as the quotas that kept Jews out of universities. Anti-Semitism is still a phenomenon in the United States, but it would be disingenuous to equate it with the material consequences of racialized violence for Black communities today.

In short, I learned to understand my Jewishness not only through the traditions and identities of my family, but also through the anti-Black racism that is so deeply embedded in every aspect of a country built on slavery. I don’t always know how to identify myself, but I do know that I probably won’t die in the custody of police this week. I know that, when I walk into a room, I am going to be taken seriously for my opinions on race because I will be immediately read as white. I do not feel guilty for my white privilege, but I will be accountable for the power it grants me, though it’s power I never asked for.  

This is just one reason of many that Jewish folks in the United States have a responsibility to our Black and brown siblings. Police brutality is not a question of mistrust, isolated incidents, Black criminality, or “bad apples”; it is part and parcel of a larger system of racism from which we have benefited endlessly. I often find myself appealing to fellow Ashkenazim’s collective memory of racialized trauma (we might know a thing or two about living under the terror of white supremacist police states), but it should not take an invocation of the Holocaust to mobilize European-descended Jewry towards racial justice. Our shared, if complicated, history with Black communities, and our own experiences of anti-Semitism in the U.S. should be enough. I’ll remind readers that we also live in a world where Mizrahim in the West experience racial profiling and police violence as well. I’ll also remind readers that Black Jews exist, and they certainly do not have the privilege of apathy or inaction, nor can they separate their Blackness from their Jewishness. For those of us who rest on withering fifty-year-old laurels such as “I/my parents/my congregation marched with such-and-such during the civil rights movement,” it is necessary to continue that legacy (water and prune the laurels, so to speak). Anti-racism isn’t about showing up once and then patting ourselves on the back—it’s about reorienting our lives toward justice, which includes a whole host of continual responsibilities.

I know that many of my peers and elders are concerned about the invisibility of Jews in racial justice organizations, and even more overt forms of anti-Semitism. These are valid, and necessary discussions to be had. However, I won’t abide by rhetoric that equates the contemporary situation of Jews to that of Blacks when Jews, as a community assimilated into whiteness, have so much power in comparison to and over our Black neighbors. To quote Fannie Lou Hamer and the subtitle of the Mixed Multitudes Haggadah published by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” As an accomplice in Black struggles for liberation and peace, I choose to decenter my feelings—unlike me, my Black peers don’t have the option of walking away when they get frustrated (and I can say from firsthand experience that coalition-building is some of the most frustrating work I have ever done). Unlike me, their lives are on the line. Our ethical obligation to others, whether through the lens of tikkun olam or that of life in a diaspora, is not conditional—and it certainly does not give us permission to derail discussions about anti-Blackness, á la the Oppression Olympics. When those at the furthest margins of society and at the bottom of every hierarchy win, we all win. Systemic and structural change is not affected without the leadership and centering of the groups who need it the most.

With that, I encourage readers to think about what they can do in their own communities. Start conversations with your Jewish friends and family about how racial privilege and oppression have affected their lives. Show up when there are calls to action. Sally Kohn wrote this great article a year ago on what white people can do to support Black Lives Matter. There are multiple organizations working towards racial justice both nationally and in Massachusetts that you can follow and get involved in. A favorite of mine is Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a Jew-centric organization based in New York that works in coalition with labor movements and other identity-based grassroots organizations. Others like Showing Up for Racial Justice, Mass Action Against Police Brutality, and Community Change Inc operate in the Boston area and do everything from direct action to consciousness-raising.  

Farrell Greenwald Brenner was an HBI Gilda Slifka summer intern.