I grew up in a ‘typical’ middle class Jewish American family. I went to Yeshiva as a young child, then while in public school did the Wednesday and Sunday Hebrew school thing – teaching me about the festivals and to read and write Hebrew, but not speak it! A bit like my parents – both second generation Americans whose parents came from eastern Europe (Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus) to New Jersey and the Bronx in the early 1900’s along with millions of other Jews – they spoke Yiddish at home when they didn’t want the kids to understand. So I never learnt to speak Yiddish or hebrew, but certainly grew up with yiddishkeit as my dad was a comedy writer and constant kibitzer.
I went to Israel as part of my first OE in 1979, spending 4 months on kibbutz, retaining the ideals of Israel and Jews (including the optimism of the Sadat-Begin peace treaty) which still persisted from the ‘glorious’ victories in the 6 day and Yom Kippur wars. However as my political, social and environmental consciousness developed, I was struck by the incongruity of the annual reciting of the Passover story while we, who were once slaves, were now oppressors of the Palestinian occupants of modern Israel. No longer ‘a light among nations’, successive Israeli governments extended policies of repression, land confiscation and provocations that jarred with my “Jewish values” of tolerance, welcoming the stranger, and support for the downtrodden – i.e. the socialist/unionist equality dreams of my grandparents who were in the Bund and the IWW (Wobblies).
I emigrated to New Zealand in 1981, found a supportive extended family at Temple Sinai, but in time the comfort of Jewish ritual changed as I related less and less to God and Israel at services. I still celebrate Shabbat at home, and some of the festivals, and of course chicken soup and matzo balls – a cultural and culinary Jew. In 2002 I was a founding member of the Klezmer Rebs Yiddish/Eastern European ethnic folk band, which I still lead. I still love spreading the joy of klezmer and the Yiddish language at festivals, concerts, and Jewish cultural and religious events.
An activist since being on an underground newspaper in high school, I have participated in politics in NZ since Jeanette Fitzsimons (oleh hashalom) invited me to join the Greens in 1996. As a political band the Rebs always supported progressive causes including anti racism, Palestinian rights, and the somewhat infamous speaking out against Israel’s bombing of Gaza to the Israeli ambassador at a public Hannukah celebration.
I have long felt that the organisations claiming to represent NZ Jewry – e.g. the NZ Jewish Council and Wellington Jewish Council (for which I question their mandate and provenance) – don’t represent me. They support the Israeli government line without question, and won’t permit dissenting views by Jews in public. It is the old Bush #2 binary position: either you are with us or with the terrorists! (in this case Hamas, which I also criticise for human rights abuses and violence against innocents).
That’s why Alternative Jewish Voices/Sh’ma Koleinu is needed. I can love Judaism, care about peace in Israel, argue ferociously about politics (as they do in Israel) and then sit down and have a falafel with my co-religionist. Jews are not monolithic – we are diverse in our views. Don’t speak for me. I can speak for myself.