Diverse Interests

Who Has the Right to Ritual

Who has the right to ritual, to define what is and what isn’t appropriate or appropriated, to declare themselves as a member of the tribe?

Grave marker at a small dilapidated Jewish cemetery at Babi Yar
Grave marker at a small dilapidated Jewish cemetery at Babi Yar

Mourning the more than 33,000 Jews executed at Babi Yar isn’t the only reason I am collecting recordings of Kaddish. I am also trying to claim tradition and ritual and to grapple with a religion I’ve loved and hated, but never quite shed.

The right to ritual isn’t something I’ve come to contemplate only recently. It’s just that now, I am realizing that I can stake a claim to a tradition that isn’t always, or even often, friendly to me or people like me.

Who am I? I’m a rootless mongrel like so many of you. How far back do my Jewish roots go? I used to care, but no longer do. Who cares? What I know is that right below the center of my breastbone is something that is and always has been physically and psychically connected to centuries of Jews that came before me. It is undeniable and unshakeable.

Yet, walking into a synagogue fills me with anxiety. I feel unrecognized and unwelcomed when I stray from the congregation I grew up with. I feel judged for the decisions I’ve made, for the love I’ve chosen, for the laws I flout and for those I’ve forgotten or never known.

I’m bored by impersonal rituals that lack heart and services that seem to be more for entertainment than for participation.

I’m more scared by rejection from the community than by threats of terrorism that the bag checkers and security guards pretend to protect me from.

What has made the synagogue feel unsafe to me is not outside its walls. It’s inside.

I understand that we are a threatened community. This makes us want to diligently protect our borders. It makes us want to protect our traditions. Yet that protection can go too far. It can become like an auto-immune disease that kills off exactly what it needs to be healthy. (Full disclosure: allergy sufferer and asthmatic speaking)

I say it’s time we let down our guard more than a bit and find ways to welcome strays and mongrels like me. There are more than a few of us.

Here’s my first challenge to you who are part of active Jewish communities. Find a way to welcome newcomers and strangers. Assign the extroverts among you the task of being friendly. Give some space to loners. Try it. Tell me if it works.

And please send me a recording of Kaddish. Instructions are here: Prayers for Mourning

Thanks.

 

 

Prayers for Mourning

Kaddish

Kaddish is the Jewish prayer for mourners. It’s said every day for eleven months after the death of a family member. After that it is repeated yearly on the anniversary of the death.

It marks a completion. Its meaning is unimportant. The sound of the words, spoken in ancient Aramaic, is what is important. The rhythm. The melody. The comfort of the words.

In Night Elie Wiesel wrote of men reciting Kaddish for themselves as they approached their deaths. He wrote about his anger with G-d. Why should he sanctify a G-d who allowed the crematoria? Still the prayer rose inside him.

As it rises in many of us.

I need your help

I am collecting recordings of people saying and chanting the Kaddish for a soundscape.

Make a sound recording or video of you, your friends, your minion, your congregation, your family saying Kaddish. You can use the microphone on your phone. You can use a better microphone if you have one. It’s okay to send me video files even. Whatever you can do is welcome.

Sending your files to me

You can send me files from your computer or smartphone using the following link:

https://www.dropbox.com/request/8abXNn6Gj6CGxT540xku

Use Dropbox to share your prayersRecord your reading from your telephone

You can also make a recording of your prayers of Kaddish using your telephone. Here’s how to record your message:

1) Call LifeOnRecord, +1-800-437-3009 by May 1, 2017
2) When prompted, enter your Invitation Number: 33848
3) Record your message after the tone. When finished you can either hang up or press the # key. If you press the # key you’ll be given options to listen to your recording, accept your recording, or re-record it.

If you are not in the US and Canada, find a local number here: http://www.lifeonrecord.com/faqs.htm#countries

The flower burning in the Day—and what comes after…

Babi Yar (Babin Yar) 2016. Nineteen years before I was born 33,700 Jews were killed in a massacre 2 miles from the center of Kiev in a wooded area called Babi Yar.

A few days after the Germans took Kiev on September 11, 1941, signs began appearing ordering Jews to appear near the site of the Jewish cemetery.

Failure to do so, the signs read, would result in being shot on sight.

The Jews thought it was for resettlement. Another resettlement. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Eighteen days after the Germans took Kiev, the massacre began.

This was one of the first huge mass executions of Jews by the Nazis. It was the beginning of the Final Solution.

The killing continued throughout the war. An uncounted number of Roma and Ukrainians were also killed there.

Who was killed at Babi Yar and how many exactly, may remain a mystery. When whole families are wiped out, there is no one left to count them.

Towards the end of World War II, the bodies were dug up. The bones smashed. What was left, burned. The history of the place was repressed first by the Nazis and then by the Soviets. Still, it would not remain a secret.

Today it is a rambling park. Construction crews work to reshape it. Kitsch sculptures mark the locations where Jews were killed. A menorah. A child with a headless doll. A stack of heroic bodies.

A highway borders the site. There is no west or east. No south or north.

Broken tombstones from a small Jewish cemetery in Babi Yar
Broken tombstones from a small Jewish cemetery in Babi Yar. Taken July 13, 2016.

The prayers you share are for them. They will be part of a soundscape (like a landscape painting, but made of sound) that I am creating specifically for the site.

Thank you for participating.

Please share with others.

Iran Talks Give Peace a Chance

A perspective on the nuclear talks with Iran and what it means for Iranian people, human rights, and peace. This post originally appeared on Harry’s Place

“Nuclear energy is our indisputable right”

Eight years ago when I last lived in Iran, the slogan: “Nuclear energy is our indisputable right” had become the punchline to a joke. When I shopped for fish at a popular market on Jordan Street in Tehran, the staff greeted me by chanting it in a friendly manner. On a trip to Kermanshah a Kurdish family asked me: “Is nuclear energy only your indisputable right, or is it also ours?” When then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited the provinces, he was met by people chanting, “A public swimming pool is our indisputable right.” During the 2009 election campaigns, people sent text messages to each other that read: “Sorry I woke you up at this time of night. It’s nothing special – I just wanted to say that nuclear energy is our indisputable right.”

Taken by Tori Egherman. Share-and-share alike with attribution.
The woman with the video camera is asking me about the right to nuclear energy. Image provided by author.

Framework agreement

On April 2, as Iranians were celebrating the closing day of their two-week New Year’s holidays, the news broke that negotiators had at last come to an understanding about the framework for a nuclear agreement. That framework includes replacing the core at the Arak heavy water plant and decreasing its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 95%, as well as intensive inspections. It also means that Iran won’t leave the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

Vocal hardliners have been quick to point out the framework’s weaknesses, with some in the US and Israel arguing that it is too soft and those in Iran claiming the country is surrendering. Some have interpreted the celebration of Iranians as meaning that the P5+1 negotiating team cut a bad deal. This shows a lack of understanding of Iran. People there take to the streets to celebrate World Cup losses. Any opportunity for public celebration is welcomed.

What many in Iran seem to particularly long for is rapprochement with the West and with the United States in particular. According to an article by Narges Bajoghli, the majority of those in Iran’s Basij and Revolutionary Guards also look forward better ties to the West. She writes:

In over nine years of on-the-ground research with different factions of the Revolutionary Guard and Basij, I have found that an underlying concern for many, regardless of political leaning, is a desire to create an Iran with more opportunities for their children, and that means the removal of sanctions and better relations with the world.

The role of sanctions

Tough sanctions may have brought Iran to the negotiating table, but what kept them there was the knowledge that the people of Iran wanted engagement with the West. This was made clear in 2009 in the wake of the disputed and flawed presidential elections and again with the election of current president Rouhani. Iranian voters overwhelmingly rejected the candidate seen as representing the Supreme Leader’s foreign policy, then nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. Jalili ran for office specifically on his record of standing firm on Iran’s right to its nuclear program.

There is a strong sense of nationhood and national pride among most Iranians inside and outside the country. The nuclear program, which has been a cause of so much pain and deprivation in Iran, represents accomplishment and security even to those who would seem to be its natural detractors. For a final agreement to be successful, the people of Iran need to have some evidence that their suffering under the sanctions regime was not for nothing. This means lifting sanctions that hurt them the most and making sure to do it with great fanfare. For instance lifting the sanctions on refined petroleum, which have contributed to a dramatic increase in pollution in cities like Tehran, may immediately contribute to cleaner air.

Sanctions also camouflage corruption. They allow profiteers to drive up prices on items such as medicines and create false shortages. They give power to the corrupt and dangerous in society. I saw this every day when I lived in Iran. I saw how poorly the US and Europe communicated both the scope of and the reason for the sanctions to the Iranian people.

Human rights

While most human rights advocates and Iran’s civil society welcome a negotiated agreement, there is concern that hardliners will seek to establish their control by increasing oppressive measures. Hadi Ghaemi of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran says:

Iran could be roiled in political tension in the wake of the agreement, and even more so if a more permanent agreement is reached in June. Hardliners will push to maintain political relevancy, while pent up demand for basic rights, long frozen as Iran locked horns with the West, will rise to the surface.

The Iranian government’s record on human rights is disastrous. Ethnic minorities face severe discrimination and suppression of their rights. The rate of execution per capita is the highest in the world. Religious minorities, particularly the Baha’i, suffer. The Baha’i face arrest, harassment, and barriers to education. The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, stated that pressure on Iran is especially important: “Iran is the country in the region with the biggest gap between potential [for respect for human rights] and reality.” People in Iran are ready to claim their own rights and are chipping away at the structure that limits them. As one Tehran professor recently wrote in an open letter to the spokeswoman for Iran’s foreign ministry, defending Dr. Shaheed:

The fact is, even if in all of the almost 200 member states of the UN, human rights are violated, and Western countries keep silent against all of them, violations of human rights in the 201st country are still unjustifiable.

A successful agreement that relieves the state of near-war means that civil society and human rights defenders will gain more space. The state of conflict with other powers and the isolation of the country are often used as excuses for tamping down dissent and arresting human rights defenders. They face charges such as “compromising national security” and “spreading propaganda against the state.” With a final agreement, these spurious charges will become more and more ridiculous and harder to defend. A successful agreement also means that human rights defenders can lobby other powers for support without hearing the response: “All we care about is a nuclear agreement.”

Give peace a chance

Some of you may think I’ve been “irantoxified” as a result of my four-year stay in Iran. I can tell you that I was, indeed, fundamentally changed by the experience. I felt real oppression for the first time in my life. I had to learn to control myself emotionally, physically and verbally. I also became passionate about human rights, not just in oppressive countries like Iran, but in free countries like the United States and the Netherlands. I saw what war does to family and friends and watched as my sister-in-law trembled uncontrollably at the news that American warships were in the Persian Gulf. I met Basiji who valued democracy, a judge who opposed the nuclear program, observant women who railed against forced hijab, a transgender man who read tea leaves, and ruthless profiteers. I was met with kindness and hospitality that were both unexpected and comforting. I buried people I loved there. I left the country wanting nothing less than the best possible future for the people who had welcomed me so unabashedly.

There will not be a linear path to reform and an opening of society. There never is anywhere. Iranians will have high expectations that an agreement will solve their economic and social woes. This is true even as they make jokes about expectations of buying whiskey in supermarkets and going into the streets in shorts.

In summation, if this agreement is to work and if the government of Iran is to be persuaded to permanently give up any efforts to build a bomb, the people of Iran need to be convinced they’ve made the best of all possible agreements. In the wake of the agreement, sanctions need to be lifted quickly and loudly. By publicly clarifying what is no longer sanctioned, the US and Europeans can give the people of Iran the information they need to hold their own government accountable for economic malaise. The sanctions will no longer be cover. The benefits of being part of the international community must be made clear to the people of Iran. They are certainly aware of the suffering that comes from isolation.

Trauma Can be Passed Down in Our Genes

Below is a post I wrote for TEDxAmsterdam. Reproduced in full:

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is something we are now accustomed to attributing to the effects of war. We used to call it “shell shock.” Today we know that trauma is not only experienced individually, but shared through generations as well. Researchers have known for awhile that trauma experienced by mothers during pregnancy can affect children and even alter the way DNA is expressed without changing its sequencing. A recent study shows that it can also alter microRNA in the sperm of mice, causing anxiety and depression in offspring. The experiences of your parents and grandparents may influence the person you are today.

Speakers Dr. Megan McElheran and Annie Murphy Paul
Speakers Dr. Megan McElheran and Annie Murphy Paul

You can inherit memories

Scientists Michael Meaney and Moshe Szyf have proven that the experiences of female rats could change the DNA passed on to children without altering its sequencing. Now scientists in Zurich have shown that the father also contributes to passing on the effects of trauma to his offspring.

A recent study published in Nature Neuroscience conducted by neuroscientist Isabelle Mansuy and her colleagues at the University of Zurich in Switzerland showed that the offspring of mice who experienced high levels of trauma experienced high levels of stress and depression. The sperm of traumatized mice had a higher expression of microRNA (small RNA) linked to anxiety, depression, and stress. The scientists showed that the stress and depression were passed on genetically, rather than socially, by injecting sperm into mice who had not undergone trauma.

The notion that traumatic experiences influence the children of survivors is not entirely new. Writing in Nature, Virginia Hughes notes that:

People who were traumatized during the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia tended to have children with depression and anxiety, for example, and children of Australian veterans of the Vietnam War have higher rates of suicide than the general population.

Post 9-11 Babies Pre-Disposed to PTSD

Annie Murphy Paul

In a 2011 TED talk, Annie Murphy Paul, who investigates what we learn in the womb and how it shapes who we become, stated:

About a year after 9/11, researchers examined a group of women who were pregnant when they were exposed to the World Trade Center attack. In the babies of those women who developed post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD, following their ordeal, researchers discovered a biological marker of susceptibility to PTSD — an effect that was most pronounced in infants whose mothers experienced the catastrophe in their third trimester. In other words, the mothers with post-traumatic stress syndrome had passed on a vulnerability to the condition to their children while they were still in utero.

“Trauma is a great equalizer”

In a talk given at TEDxYYC, Dr. Megan McElheran discussed her experiences dealing with veterans returning to Canada from war in Afghanistan. She warned against the current flirtation with what she calls the “happiness myth,” stating that it leads to increased alienation because of the notion that “…if you are not happy there is something wrong with you…”

She finds it important to understand the full range of human experience. “We are all capable of anything,” she stated. She urged us all to operate with empathy:

If, on a day-to-day basis, we as individuals and as members participating in our communities are better able to operate from a position where all experience is valued, I think we will be healthier and better able to address the challenges in our lives from a place of being willing and able to have an experience whatever those challenges should entail.

Can PTSD also be contagious?

As the family members of veterans with PTSD increasingly show signs of the disorder themselves, researchers are asking if PTSD is contagious. In an article in Mother Jones, writes:

“Trauma is really not something that happens to an individual,” says Robert Motta, a clinical psychologist and psychology professor at Hofstra University who wrote a few of the many medical-journal articles about secondary trauma in Vietnam vets’ families. “Trauma is a contagious disease; it affects everyone that has close contact with a traumatized person” in some form or another, to varying degrees and for different lengths of time. “Everyone” includes children…

Trauma is not only experienced individually, but shared in families and through generations.

#Recipe: My Grandmother’s Chocolate Cake

My grandmother was famous for her chocolate cake. Some relatives joked that the secret ingredient was cigarette ashes, but I’m here to tell you that’s not the case.

When she died, many of her loved ones still had her cakes stowed away in the freezer. One passover, my sister found what she thought was the recipe hand written inside a haggadah. It turned out to be a grocery list.

Recently one of my cousins shared the recipe with us. I admit I was a bit scared to make it the first time. I was afraid it would not live up to the memory. There was nothing for me to fear. The very act of making the cake was enough to bring my grandmother back to life. It didn’t matter whether it was delicious or not.

Those of you heard the KFJC discussion between me and DJ Ruthie might be interested in the chocolate cake we talked about.

The cake (all the measurements are American style):

1 cup butter (I use about 3/4 of a block of butter for this)
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
3 cups self-rising cake flour (I find it’s best when I replace one cup of flour with one cup of cocoa powder — yum)
1 large bar (or a little more) of good quality dark chocolate — melted (about 7 ounces–more for chocolate lovers)
5 eggs — separated
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 mashed bananas (when I make layers, I use 3 mashed bananas and put one between the layers)

Cream together the butter and sugar
add melted chocolate (I put a little bit of olive oil in a bowl and then put in the chocolate and microwave it)
Add the buttermilk and flour
Beat the eggs separately add the yolks
Fold in the whites

Bake at 180 C/350 F

Bake a deep cake about 45 minutes
If you are making layers, 30 minutes

I am not a huge frosting fan, so I don’t add any. It’s delicious with raspberries or powdered sugar on top.

Talking About Food, Family, and Memory with DJ Ruthie

On December 30, 2013, I appeared on KFJC to talk about food, family, and memory. Today, I am starting to upload the recipes we discussed on the show and sharing the recorded conversation. Watch this space for more! If you want to stay updated, fill out this contact form and submit it. I will let you know when I add new posts.

The interview is available online now. It starts at about minute 6. Listen now.

Prayer Goes Out; Food Goes In: Plum Chicken with Bibi Kasrai

The day I spoke with the author of The Spice Whisperer, Bibi Kasrai, she was busy with her new enterprise, a cooking camp for children. She had left a career as a corporate executive to do what she loves: cooking and teaching.

That day the children were making hummus, croque-monsieurs, and popsicles. It’s this mix of cultures that makes Bibi and her cooking special. As she describes in her book, her journey from Iran to the United States took her all over the world, learning to cook, falling in love, and encountering a wide range of cultures.

Five years after the revolution in Iran, when Bibi was a teenager, her family went into hiding. An arrest warrant had been issued for her father, the well-known and well-loved poet Siavosh Kasrai. The family moved from house to house, not wishing to put friends and supporters in danger.

“My family had helped the Jews, the Baha’is and royalist friends escape, but now it was our turn,” she writes in The Spice Whisperer. “My mother came up with a plan to hire smugglers that would hopefully take us to France where all our European dreams would come true; except we ended up in Moscow via Afghanistan.”

Before they left Iran, as a last refuge when they had nowhere else to hide, her maternal grandmother took them in, saying, “If they are going to take you, let them take all of us.”

“My grandma was comfort,” Bibi recalls. “She was pure love…. Even when she wanted to teach a lesson, she was mild. Like she would say to me, ‘Bibi, you have a hot temper. When you get really angry take a glass of water and hold it in your mouth.’ I asked, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘Because when water is in your mouth, you cannot say anything.’”

Read the entire article on The Guardian

Plum Chicken photographed by Sanam Salehian