shabbat-candles

Candles hold a special place in my heart. In my mind, they’re a symbol of serenity, peace, focus, and prayer. They’ve stood as a testament to the flame one holds in their heart for a connection to the divine since I was a little girl. For as far back as I can remember, my mother would stand before the candles on Friday night, her hair covered and face solemn, as she covered her eyes and recited the blessing to invite the Shabbat into our home. I remember standing with her, or in the home of a friend on Friday night, all the women standing before the candles, covering their eyes to say the prayer.

‘Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha‑olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.’

‘Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to light Shabbat candle[s].’

The blessing of the Shabbat candles has stood out to me as one of the most humble, beautiful, and soulful practices of the Jewish faith. It ties Jewish women to a tradition meant for us alone, a task meant to usher in the twenty-six hours from Friday to Saturday evening when the family dedicates themselves to take time and rest, just as God supposedly did after the six days of creation. I grew up knowing that Jewish women for generations, going back into time immemorial, have been standing before similar candles the world over on Friday nights, putting their hands over their eyes to welcome in the Shabbat every week. I remember standing with my mother to learn how to say the prayer, covering my hair just like her, knowing I was a part of a long chain of tradition, held by the light of the candles and my faith.

WarBirds_Front_290416It’s been years since I was what you’d consider very religious, but the ceremony of lighting Shabbat candles has stayed with me. It’s so important in fact that I chose to write a Larp about it for my contribution to the War Birds anthology by Unruly Games. Keeping the Candles Lit tried to capture not only the importance of traditions like the Shabbat candles, but the relationship of passing those traditions down from one generation of Jewish women to another. I tried to capture that importance, that beauty, when explaining it to non-Jewish players, or even my non-Jewish friends.

And every time, I wasn’t sure I could. The practice couldn’t have the same meaning, and most of my friends had no cultural context, no experience with the practices I grew up with. And that was normally okay: I love the diversity of the people I know, how we come from such disparate backgrounds. But every once in a while, I wished my closest friends could understand that feeling the candles inspired in me, and understand my culture with the same familiarity I’ve been forced to understand Christian culture.

Living Jewish In A Christian World

By virtue of living in a predominantly Christian oriented society, I’ve become intimately familiar with the trappings of the religion. It dominates popular culture, the iconography of everything from our holidays to stores in which I shop. I know the story of Christmas and all the songs as they’re blasted over the airwaves every year, every year getting earlier and earlier. I know the story of Jesus, of the Apostles. I know about some of the saints, how they go marching in, and the difference between different Christian groups. I hear conservatives scream about wars on Christmas and how Christian values in America are being challenged every day. And I snort, because I was at least raised to believe America was a land for all, not one with an official religion.

I also grew up being told to keep my head down when I tried to voice those ideas. My grandmother once told me one Shabbat, “Non-Jews won’t want to hear that from you. They’ll put up with it, with you, but don’t forget – they don’t understand.”

I remembered that lesson as I grew up, and watched every game, every TV show, every movie, and its implicit western Christian bias. Its morals baked into every piece of art, every bit of our society. I remember wishing I could share my favorite music growing up with my non-Jewish friends, and realizing they wouldn’t understand a lick of it. I remember realizing when I heard music and it talked about faith, or God, or losing their religion, they weren’t talking about my faith. The icons were always of a man with his arms spread out, a lonely look on his face.

I remember being confused and a little heartbroken when I was told The Chronicles of Narnia was a Christian story and Aslan, one of my favorite characters, was really Jesus. I remember the Jewish holiday of Purim being called “the Jewish Halloween,” as if that represented the beautiful tradition at all. I remember being told The Ten Commandments was an Easter story, even it was literally the story of Passover being shown over that very holiday.

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Literally where the holiday comes from, folks. Moses did this, and we walked through some water, ate some really dry matzah and got away from that pesky Pharaoh.

Most of all, I remember the Shabbat and lighting the candles, and realizing so few people even understood what the Shabbat really was. And this was among those people I knew, forget about in the media.

And then, there were the exceptions. The beautiful, beautiful exceptions.

Finding Your Heroes

Claudia Christian playing Susan Ivanova on Babylon 5, who lit the Channukah candles and sat shiva for her father, all while being a commander on a 23rd century space station.

Felicity Smoak on Arrow answering her friends asking what she was doing on Christmas with, “Celebrating Channukah” and sharing cultural understanding with Ragman, a gay Jewish boy wearing an ancient, nigh sentient Egyptian burial shroud.

Rufus on Supernatural telling Bobby Singer he couldn’t dig up a dead body yet, because it was still the Shabbat. (Okay, and maybe taking advantage just so he wouldn’t have to dig).

 

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Chanukah shared by many of Marvel Comics’ most famous Jewish characters including The Thing, Shadowcat, Sasquatch, Songbird, Wiccan, and Moon Knight. 

Kitty Pryde in the X-Men wearing a Star of David and proudly declaring herself Jewish, comparing the discrimination against mutants with the discrimination faced by Jews.

 

Magneto, a Holocaust survivor, standing tall and villainous against the bigotry that ended his family’s lives so long ago.

Willow Rosenberg on Buffy straddling the line between growing up Jewish and embracing the Wiccan inside to become one of the most powerful magic users in the Buffyverse.

And yet these were characters on TV shows and in comics, amazing and affirming as they were. I was looking for real life media figures who could tell me that Hollywood wasn’t just full of stereotypes of Jews. We weren’t all Woody Allen or Barbara Streisand. We weren’t comedians and nerdy people, known for lack of athleticism and a cynical, dry wit. We weren’t The Nanny and Annie Hall. I kept looking for more Ivanovas, more Felicitys, more Willows. I found Natalie Portman and discovered Sarah Michelle Gellar and Alyson Hannigan were both Jewish. With some Googling, I found a list of Hollywood actresses who were Jewish.

And yet, in their interviews, in press junkets, I didn’t hear anything about their identities. While other celebrities thanked Jesus non-stop, I didn’t hear anything so outward about these women. In the age of social media and celebrity openness to the world, these women’s media image was so devoid of anything indicating they were Jewish I had to go Googling to find notable Jewish women in Hollywood. And that was okay, because their choices were their right, and their right to privacy was absolutely valid. But still, in a world saturated by the Christian identity, I yearned for something I could identify with.

And then, I saw an Instagram photo of Gal Gadot.

Representation Matters

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In the photo, she stood in front of a pair of candles along with her little girl. Both of their hair was covered as they prayed before a pair of Shabbat candles.

Gal Gadot, who would be Wonder Woman.

They say representation matters in media. They say it’s important for people to be able to see those who look like them in the media. For a Jew, that issue can be a complex one, as many Jews of Eastern European descent largely blend into the overall white population. And though Jews were not considered as white until very late in the US and world history (we’re talking somewhere between the 1940’s and the 1970’s), we receive the same advantages in many ways as those who are perceived as white by the population at large.

Instead, Jews face different oppression based on our religious backgrounds, called anti-semitism, which has remained a constant and insidious form of discrimination throughout history. But at the end of the day, those Jews of largely Ashkenazi descent (meaning those whose ancestors migrated during the Jewish diaspora to Europe and got way, way pastier than our brethren who settled elsewhere) are perceived as and grouped into being white, with all the baggage and privilege and advantage that comes with it.

Still. Representation matters. And we all want to see someone in our media who is like us. As a little Jewish girl, I wanted to see characters in things who were Jewish. I cheered when I found out there was an Israeli-Jewish super hero in Marvel Comics called Sabra, a kickass woman super-soldier who defended Israel against her enemies. I worshiped the character of Susan Ivanova as a model for a strong Jewish woman on television. And I looked for actresses who showed me you could be Jewish and be a media star and still have a proud, public relationship with your culture.

And then that photo. Gal Gadot, in front of the candles, with her daughter.

Gadot’s Jewish Identity And Controversy

I remember my eyes filling with tears as I read a quote from Gadot, stating:

“I was brought up in a very Jewish, Israeli family environment, so of course my heritage is very important to me,” she said in an interview with Totally Jewish. “I want people to have a good impression of Israel. I don’t feel like I’m an ambassador for my country, but I do talk about Israel a lot — I enjoy telling people about where I come from and my religion.”

Here was an Israeli-born woman of Ashkenazi descent (her family was from Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Austria), who was proud of her heritage. She spoke openly about her religion, her culture, her home. And yes, that included speaking up about Israel and her feelings about the politics there. That has drawn heat from many pro-Palestinian groups, including BDS, who have called her out for supporting the military actions of her home country and for serving in the Israeli military.

(I would point out that military service in Israel is mandatory at the age of eighteen for everyone who is able. Gal served her two years as a fitness instructor, teaching gymnastics and calisthenics).

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Woman of Valor

Many have called for boycotts of the Wonder Woman movie because of her pride in her homeland. Many have pointed to the Wonder Woman movie as being fairly white washed and lacking in diverse representation. And while those issues are very, very valid (I’ll point to this article expressing some very serious issues about the lack of or poor representation of women of color throughout the film), I’ll point out there is one minority who did get to be represented in Wonder Woman in a real and fantastic way.

Shattering Records and Expectations

You’d have to be living under a rock to have missed it, but Wonder Woman has defied the Hollywood trend of bad women-led comic book films. It has come away with critical acclaim and a massive fan response. And it has catapulted Gal Gadot from little known actress into a household name all in the span of a few weeks. This insta-fame has brought much of the aforementioned controversy into the limelight. And though I’m all for discussing political questions and issues of representation, I’ve had a foul taste in my mouth when looking at the way Gal Gadot’s actions and media presence has been scrutinized. In the end, the only thing people have been able to find to diss her portrayal is that she served her country as a soldier in mandatory service, that she looked like a model, and that she is part of a film which has sadly stereotyped people of color and other nationalities.

And while I acknowledge all those issues as valid to discuss, I also acknowledge that a film can have problematic issues and still have a supremely important contribution to the representation of another group. In this case, Jewish women. And that contribution is profound and important and cannot be ignored.

Because somewhere, there are little Jewish girls able to point to Gal Gadot in her tiara and silver bracelets, holding her sword and shield and lasso, and say there, there is our Jewish warrior, there is the ashet chayil (in Hebrew a “woman of valor”) we sing about every Shabbat. There is a powerful feminist actress who is proud of her heritage, passing down our traditions to her own daughter, who trained to fight and did her own stunts in both Wonder Woman and the Fast and the Furious franchise. Here was a woman who is proud of her heritage and who is representing our people, an often forgotten minority group, as one of the world’s most recognizable and lauded super heroines in a film that has shattered movie release records in its opening week.

Wonder Woman is a hit, and Wonder Woman’s actress is Jewish. My inner little girl is so proud I can barely express it. Because when I point to the screen during Wonder Woman, I can say now: see, see there, we aren’t all the yente and the nag, the funny girl and the nerdy weakling, the shady lawyer and money grubbing business person, the Jewish American princess and homely intellectual. We aren’t the hidden, overlooked group, our celebrities laughed at when they go to a Kabbalah Center or talk about their kosher cooking in public. See, in that woman, an ashet chayil at last, a proud, powerful woman, standing tall on the screen.

And somewhere, little girls can see that and believe they can be proud Jews, standing tall to be whatever they want to be while still being part of the traditions of our people. Representation matters to Jews too, and Gal Gadot has given us that representation, complicated as it might be in terms of politics and other problems with the film. And from everything we have seen in the media she is a positive role model both as Princess Diana and in her own life, a true ashet chayil in so many ways.

I am proud to be around to see my comic book idol played by such a woman of valor. Because I’ve finally seen representation that gives me hope that we Jewish women can be seen, really seen, in all our facets and strengths and traditions at last.

And all it took was one Instragram photo to instill that hope, that pride in me too.

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A man went to the store the other day to pick up challah for the Sabbath. Challah is the traditional bread Jews eat for the Sabbath, and pretty much any other time you can get away with it because the stuff is delicious. Families cut up the braided bread and share it together as part of the end of the week Sabbath and holidays. Mothers make it with their children, a tradition passed down for generations. Or else if you don’t make it in your kitchen, which is (as my mother would say in Yiddish) a lot of potchka (annoying planning and trouble), you go and buy it from a store.

So a guy was running to a store to get his Friday groceries. He got everything he needed and rushed out of the store, and got to his car before he realized he forgot his challah. He ran back to the store only to find a woman shuttering up the windows and locking the door. He begged her to let him back in to get his challah, but she warned him away. Then from inside, a voice ordered the man into the store. That’s where the man was confronted by a hostage taker, who took him into the store and shot him dead on the spot. Because he was looking to pick up his challah for the Sabbath.

This is a story I read online after the tragic events that took place at the Hyper Casher kosher supermarket two weeks ago. The article did not attribute which of the hostage taker’s four victims was the origin of this story. Was it 22-year-old Yohan Cohen? No, he was reported to have tried to stop the hostage taker by trying to get the man’s gun away from him and was shot in the process. So, it couldn’t have been him. Maybe it was Yoav Hattab, 21, the son of the chief rabbi of Tunnis. Or perhaps it was Philippe Braham, 40, or Françoise-Michel Saada, a man in his 60’s. Whichever of the four men were killed for leaving behind their challah, they were all killed for another reason they had in common.

They could all say #JeSuisJuif – “I am a Jew.”

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Except saying that, identifying as a Jew in Europe, has never been more dangerous. The attack on the kosher supermarket is being reported as just as deadly as the 2012 Otzar HaTorah school in Toulouse, which killed 4. Amazing how it is that we have statistics now of which attacks are more deadly, they happen so often. We have one horror to compare another horror to, as if this was some kind of competition. It’s no wonder that out of the 600,000 French Jews, 7,000 left France to live in Israel with another 50,000 having made inquiries as to how to make aliya (immigrating to Israel). That number is staggering when you think about it. 50,000 people are willing to uproot their lives in France to get out and head for Israel, a place they see as safer for Jews. And they’re not alone.

The Anti Defamation League claims that of those surveyed in 100 countries between July 2013 and February 2014, 26% indicated anti-semitic leanings. (Their findings can be found at ADL Global 100). And while they are the leading research group on Anti-Semitism, their conflation of numbers (listing more than 1 Billion people being extrapolated as Anti-Semetic based on their small sample survey? Er, not sure I’m behind THAT) makes me suspect to take their word for it. So how about this FBI chart that tracked anti-Semitic attacks from 2002-2012 (source: BBC). They indicate that in certain places, attacks are in the thousands while elsewhere (Sweden) we’re talking lower numbers every year.

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Still, thousands of attacks? Can’t really wrap your head around it? Neither could I. I grew up and live in New York, where being Jewish is sort of a badge of pride. Everyone knows New York is the largest enclave of Jews living anywhere outside of Israel. And even in New York I’ve run across people who were anti-Semitic. You run into preachers on the subway, jerks on the street, and even folks at your college who want to tell you to convert, who want to tell you that you need saving, that you have no soul, that they’d beat you to death if they could. I’ve run afoul of each one of those anti-Semitic asshole examples myself. But I’ve never been on the receiving end of a beating, a stabbing, a bullet. I’m lucky. Other people, elsewhere in the world, are not. Now thousands of Jews are considering fleeing their home country to go to Israel, a place rife with political strife, because in the end it’s better there where Jews are accepted than in a place where you wonder if you’re going to get knifed-

Oh wait. People get knifed in Israel for being Jews all the time. Or blown up. Or shot.

Hang on, and that happens in the US too.

Attacks in the past year have been reported in Belgium, Russia, Canada, the United States, England, and Germany to name just a few. In other countries, community centers and synagogues have been attacked or shot at, and individuals have been harassed with nazi graffiti and slurs. It seems it’s not a great time to be Jewish anywhere. But then honestly, when has that NOT been the case.

I grew up an Orthodox Jewish girl and then woman in a religious household. My family was rife on my mother’s side with people who fled the Holocaust, and the ghosts of those who did not escape the genocide of Europe followed them to Brooklyn. There wasn’t a time when I wasn’t aware that my grandmother’s family had lost so many, that she herself escaped Auschwitz to marry my grandfather, who had lost two children and a wife to the gas chambers. My grandmother would not speak of the Holocaust to me much until the end of her life, even though she practically raised me after school while my parents both worked. I grew up in her house not knowing why she’d hide money away everywhere, or why she convinced me that it was important that I stay in good health. I one day plucked up all my courage to ask. She looked at me with this haunted, serious face and said, “Because you never know when you’re going to have to run.” When she passed away, there were hundreds of dollars in rolled up bills found all over the house. She was ready, in case someone came for her again.

Sounds paranoid, right? But does it sound any more paranoid then thinking you’ll go shopping in your neighborhood grocery store and have a man bust in with a gun to shoot you dead for being a Jew? It’s scary to think what the mindset of Jews must be like living under that kind of threat. In New York, you might get spat at every once in a while, called a kike, or a dirty Jew, but at least you’re usually safe. Right?

Y’know, until someone busts into your synagogue where you’re minding your own business and stabs you while you’re just trying to study Torah. That happened in Brooklyn, at 770 Eastern Parkway, the seat of Chabad-Lubavitch Judiasm around the world. If you’re not familiar with the Chabad organization or the Lubavitch sect, I’ll just say that they’re all about helping people out and celebrating God in joy and happiness. No joke. They’re a religious sect who are all about helping Jews by opening up kosher kitchens and accommodations around the world so that Jews can have food and housing along their travels. They’re fucking harmless.

Dude walked in and tried to stab ’em to death, tossing around anti-Semitic slurs. Cops shot that guy dead.

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But hey, synagogues are going to attract the worst attacks. How about this one, at Temple University? Where there have been reports of anti-semitic issues for ages, and a kid was attacked. I got a few more but I think you’re getting my point.

Can I ask a simple question?

What the HELL is going on here?

The world has been rough on everyone for the last few years. We look around and for every victory, there seems to be another hardship, another war, another economic depression, no jobs, no upturn, and less hope than there ever was. And yet so many spend their time fighting for safer spaces, safer words, more equality, better times ahead. So I wonder now: when do our better times begin? When can Jews stop being afraid? Will we only be safe when we’ve hidden away our Judaism, made ourselves the same as everyone else, homogenized into popular culture so as to be inoffensive, indistinguishable? Will Jews then be safe from hatred lurking out there?

Hate to tell you. It ain’t lurking. It’s out there for all the world to see.

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It sounds paranoid. People say “anti-Semitism isn’t still a problem, you’re making a big deal out of nothing.” But only one look at the statistics, at the events going on around the world, and you can tell that it is ignorance to minimize the affect anti-semitism has had on Jews the world over. And just because it’s not comfortable to talk about hatred against Jews doesn’t mean that it’s going away. Just the opposite in fact. Just because it’s not politic to talk about anti-Semitism at cocktail parties doesn’t mean it’s going to go away by itself.

My grandmother used to tell me that nothing would change in this world for Jews. That Israel was the only place where Jews would be able to live in safety. Of course we know that the situation there is complex, that safety there is not assured for Jews at all and never has been. But I used to tell my grandmother that I didn’t believe that the world was such a dangerous place for Jews. I believed that as we got older, we would strive as a world to combat the bigotries and hatreds we had to build a future where we could all be safe. And she’d look at me with that same haunted, dark look that said she knew better. I never wanted to believe her. I still don’t entirely believe her. And yet. And yet. Let’s look at the last few years and say, ‘and yet.’

The politics of Israel have been sited as a reason for the rise in anti-Semitism around the world. Driven by the rage at what has happened to the people of Gaza and the West Bank, rallies around the world have spoken up for the Palestinian cause and in solidarity for the civilians whose lives have been so horribly harmed by the violence in Israel. Yet often those very discussions are couched in language that holds anti-Semitism side by side with Palestinian freedom, that blames Jews overall for what has happened and not a political regime in Israel in an unbelievably complex situation. It’s unfathomable to me how people could blame all Jews the world over for the actions of a political party in command of a country where most of us do not live, whether we support Israel or no. It boggles me how we can all be tossed in the same pot, ready to be boiled alive by the hate flowing around in the name of people who have been maimed and hurt and disenfranchised. People marry the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the identity of Jews everywhere and, in doing so, erase all nuance to the conversation and link anti-Semitic hatred to the battle for national identity for two warring groups.

Jews are not combatants. We are people living our lives the world over, with as much right as anyone to our freedoms. We are not ‘Christ killers’ or people whose souls need to be saved. We are not second class or less than. We are not part of some ridiculous secret plan to control the dollar, or Hollywood, or the world economy. We are not the heart of your conspiracy theories or your political gripes. We’re people going to work, trying to create lives for ourselves.

We’re a guy going to the store on a Friday to get challah for the Sabbath. We are people who want to be able to say #JeSuisJuif and not be afraid for our lives, like our ancestors had to be in countless countries and countless eras.

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I am a Jew. I say that proudly. And I watched my grandmother be afraid all her life that someone was going to come and kill her family. And suddenly, today, I don’t think it’s that paranoid after all. And how fucking sad is that?

UPDATE: The article was adjusted after more research into the ADL Global website survey indicated that the more than 1 Billion people number indicated on their page is an extrapolation based on their actual survey data. In other words, it’s not actual hard data and very misleading. The problem is bad enough, we don’t need to make it seem THAT much worse.