A documentary on Indian-American artist Siona Benjamin’s journey back to her roots.
Hello, Tumblr! I want to share this amazing project with you.
Blue Like Me is a documentary about the art of painter Siona Benjamin and the compelling thematic elements contained in her work. Born and raised in a Bene Israel Jewish community in the predominantly Hindu and Muslim society of India, and currently living in the US, Siona focuses on the themes of cultural, religious, feminine, and personal identity based on her experiences.
Her work draws inspiration from everything from traditional Indian miniature paintings, to illuminated manuscripts, to modern pop art. The result is vibrant, iconic compositions with powerful narratives about finding a sense of home and self.
Producer Hal Rifken and his team, the creatives behind the making of the documentary, have set up a Kickstarter to help fund the project. Their goal is to reach $20,000 by the end of July, and as of now they’re at about $3,500, so there’s still quite a way to go.
If you could make a pledge, it would be hugely appreciated - but if you can’t, please at least pass this post along to your followers! Please help this great project become a reality!
“In both cases the destruction of the old values in the cataclysm of redemption leads to an outburst of antinomian tendencies, partly moderate and veiled and partly radical and violent; in both cases you get a new conception of “belief” as the realization of the new world of Salvation, and in both this “belief” involves that latent polarity of even more startling paradoxes. In both cases, finally, you get in the end a theology of some kind of Trinity and of God’s incarnation in the person of the Savior.”—Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (via jayaprada)
This may be what I’ve been looking for since December of last year.
I’ve talked about this before, and definitely last December I posted about this, but I’ve struggled with my Jewish identity. It’s something that not only can’t I deny on a genetic and socialization basis, but a culture that I’ve felt I’ve lacked. It’s a personal narrative that has been consciously cut off by my grandparents and an identity I attacked out of an anti-theism that denied the possibility of a Jewish cultural identity without a Jewish religious identity.
But in December I was in Washing DC and went to the Natural History Museum, where they had an exhibit on race and ethnicity. The two were practically used as synonyms, and there was mixed in an element of culture and socialization. I enjoyed the exhibit but felt out of touch with it - they did not talk at all about Jews. Understandable in a sense because Jews are not really a race. But we are a distinct ethnicity, a distinct culture, which left me feeling distant from the discourse about whites in this exhibit. Yes I have white privilege. But I do not have a white cultural upbringing.
So since then I’ve been thinking about how I can keep the culture without the religion. I have no desire for religion, I am hostile to the idea of organized religion (though not going to oppress anyone who is religious or whatever I just disagree with the practice of religion), and I certainly don’t believe in any god. But Judaism as a culture is historically tied to the religion and it’s been very difficult in finding a way to sever the tie.
Humanistic Judaism might be the key. It’s a “nontheistic alternative in contemporary Jewish life. It defines Judaism as the cultural and historical experience of the Jewish people and encourages humanistic and secular Jews to celebrate their Jewish identity by participating in Jewish holidays and life cycle events (such as weddings and bar and bat mitzvah) with inspirational ceremonies that draw upon but go beyond traditional literature.” (according to wikipedia)
Humanistic Jews Affirm That…
…A Jew is someone who identifies with the history, culture and future of the Jewish people.
…Jewish identity is best preserved in a free, pluralistic environment
…Jewish history is a human saga, a testament to the significance of human power and human responsibility.
..Judaism is the historic culture of the Jewish people.
…We possess the power and responsibility to shape our own lives independent of supernatural authority.
…Ethics and morality should serve human needs.
…The freedom and dignity of the Jewish people must go hand in hand with the freedom and dignity of every human being.
I agree. Now that I have found this I am not sure what to do with it. But at least I have found it.
I know none of you know me from Adam, but can I just jump in and say that, as a Jew, I absolutely hate that people pussyfoot around the word like it’s a bad thing?
Yes, in some contexts, some people can use it pejoratively, but you can do that with anything.
I am a Jew. This is a wonderful thing, to be a Jew; it’s not offensive.
To me. I’ve heard that older people don’t like it and, like people said above me, don’t call people things they don’t want to be called, but it’s not a bad word.
Anyway, I appreciate people asking and wanting to do the best thing, that’s very admirable.
^^ Yeah, there you go. That’s what I meant, that he word “Jew” in and of itself is not offensive — I mean, it’s only the English form of the Latin Iudaeus and Greek Iudaios. But I’ve heard it used derogatorily so often that I prefer to avoid it unless someone tells me otherwise. But basically it’s like any other ethonym or indicator of identity: respect how that person describes hirself. And yeah, you’re probably right about older generations’ attitudes toward it as a descriptor, kind of like older LGBTQ people’s attitude toward the word “queer.”
And being a convert probably affects how I see things… I don’t know, I find that we tend to be more sensitive to the use of language, which can be a good or a bad thing.
For two decades, Aron Aronov has transported embroidered garments, oil portraits of rabbis and other examples of traditional Bukharian Jewish culture from his native Uzbekistan to a small museum in New York.
"Here is all my money, all my life, all my time," Aronov, 71, said as he unbolted the door to the crowded, three-room Bukharian Jewish Museum, which he said is the only such museum in the world.
It tells the 2,500-year history of the Bukharian Jews of Central Asia, where they lived as a pious, insular ethnic community until leaving the region in droves in the early 1990s after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
They come mostly from Uzbekistan, and were concentrated in the Uzbek city of Bukhara.
"This museum is a desperate attempt to stop time," said Aronov, gesturing to an elaborate display of a Bukharian yard, including a wooden sofa covered with colorful rugs, cooking pots and an outdoor stove. "I don’t want all this to go."
Bukharians had lived in relative harmony with their Muslim neighbors, but fled Central Asia as soon as it became possible to leave the Soviet Union, whose secular policies had long frustrated pious Bukharian Jews.
Now, they are struggling to protect an ancient culture they fear could vanish. Unlike some other ethnic communities in Queens, New York City’s most ethnically diverse borough, Bukharians have no real homeland.
Most of the estimated 300,000 Bukharian Jews have settled in Israel but the second-largest concentration of about 50,000 live in the Queens neighborhoods of Rego Park and Forest Hills - earning the area the nickname Queensistan.
Only a few hundred remain in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, local leaders say.
Today, a stretch of Queens Boulevard is dotted with Bukharian synagogues, restaurants and cultural centers. There is also a theater staging plays in Bukhori, a Jewish dialect of Farsi, a newspaper, a cemetery and the museum.
Malika Kalantarova, a Bukharian from Tajikistan, was a celebrated dancer in the Soviet Union and now operates a dance studio in a Queens subway station.
"It’s like a new Bukhara in New York City," said Itzhak Yehoshua, the head rabbi for Bukharians in America, a reference to the Uzbek city that gave Bukharians their name.
Bukharians attribute their success in keeping their heritage to their strong tendency to marry within the community and stick together. Of the 500 Bukharian weddings registered in 2007, Yehoshua said 400 were among Bukharians, 60 were between Bukharians and other Jews and 40 were between Bukharians and non-Jews.
"By the way, we hate the word melting pot," Aronov said.
The mayor of ‘Queensistan’
Aronov, often called the mayor of Queensistan, is leading the effort to collect and preserve cultural artifacts. He travels frequently to Central Asia and has brought back a wooden carriage, traditional jewelry, and dozens of silk robes in brilliant shades of pink, purple and orange.
Billionaire diamond dealer Lev Leviev owns the Queens yeshiva where the museum is housed rent-free. Still, Aronov dreams of opening a more impressive facility.
"Some people come in here and they burst into tears because they recall their lives," said Aronov. "When we came into this country, we lost our social status in one second."
Aronov came to New York in 1989 and used to think about returning to Uzbekistan. Some Bukharians here say they plan to move to Israel.
"I don’t think this is our homeland. Israel is," said Emma Rafailov, 25, as she walked with her husband and two children through the neighborhood. "All of us are getting just a little too comfortable here."
On Saturdays, the Tandoori Bukharian Bakery fills after sunset as Bukharians end the Sabbath. Musicians play traditional Bukharian instruments; the doyira drum and the rubob, a two-string guitar. Patrons feast on lagman, a spicy noodle soup, cumin-scented rice called plov, grilled meat on skewers with raw onions and crusty bread from a tandoor oven.
On the wall, the restaurant’s Bukharian owner has posted the address placard that once marked his home in Uzbekistan.
At the Vostok bookstore, a group of Bukharian men said while Bukharans are happy here they are fighting assimilation.
"Our history does not die because we have good people taking care of it and we are very close," said Sam Yakutilov, 37. "What we used to have there, we brought here."
In Calcutta, the distinctive home ritual carried into the synagogue. Instead of one special Selihot service the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah, Sephardic and Oriental Jews conduct Selihot, the special set of penitential prayers—all through the month of Elul. On erev Rosh Hashanah, a pre-dawn Selihot service began at 4 a.m., followed by the morning service and a visit to the cemetery.
Though I was too young to remember the synagogue observance, my parents have described Rosh Hashanah in the Maghen David Synagogue in Calcutta. At 6 a.m. on Rosh Hashanah morning, the synagogue, draped in white, began to fill with people, men dressed in white sharkskin suits (a shiny, heavy, polyester-like material). Women also wore as much white as possible. The entire service was chanted aloud, and did not end until 1 p.m. The centerpiece of the service is a poem by Judah Samuel Abbas that describes the binding of Isaac. The shofar blasts also differ from the traditional Ashkenzic blasts: “teruah” is one long blast instead of nine short blasts. After the Torah reading, the solemn mood of the service shifted to that of an auction, as the aliyot, ark openings and other honors for the second day of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur went up for grabs. Honors for the first day were auctioned off the previous Shabbat. Though the auction prolonged the service by almost an hour, nobody seemed to mind. Only the people interested in the bidding—about half the congregation—remained in the sanctuary, laughing and joking among themselves, but still paying very close attention. Much of the bidding was done in increments of 26—the numerical value of God’s name—until the bidding reached 101, the numerical value of the guardian angel Michael’s name. The opening of the ark on Kol Nidre night and reading the haftarah traditionally drew the highest bids. Parents bid on honors for their children as well. When the Torah was taken out, a special haftarah scroll accompanied it; this light scroll was usually carried by a child. It was also a child’s job to point to the beginning of the Torah portion with a yad, or pointer.
On Rosh Hashanah afternoon, many Calcutta families opened their homes to others for the traditional reading of the Book of Psalms, accompanied by a light meal of sweets and fruit. While the distinctive Calcutta lifestyle has vanished with the dispersion of the community, my family follows many of the Calcutta customs, including the Rosh Hashanah seder. We continue to greet family and friends on Rosh Hashanah with the traditional blessing: “Tizku l’shanim rabot:” May you merit many years. The response is: “Tizke ve’tihyeh:” May you merit, and may you also live.
An interview with Rosy Moses Solomon, a long-time member of the Jewish community in Mumbai, India.
Q: India is home to one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities. Tell us how Rosh Hashanah is celebrated there.
A: The celebration begins with the lighting of oil lamps and recitation of the b’racha before sundown. We hold New Year seders two nights, attended by close family and Jewish friends; in my case, around 25 people. The elders explain the significance of the seder components—fish, lamb’s head, apple and honey, beet root, pumpkin, cluster beans, fresh garlic with leaves, pomegranate, Kiddush wine, challah (two flat chapattis, roasted crisp), dates (Ha’etz), and bananas (Ha’adama).
Before starting the service on the first night at home, we distribute the special Rosh Hashanah halwa. We have a hearty meal together, consisting of jeera rice, chicken or mutton curry, potatoes, kofta (meatball) curry, potato patties (stuffed with mince), and salads.
We attend synagogue services starting at 7 am, most importantly to hear the Shofar, and then go home to do the Kiddush and Hamotsi, eat and rest a little. At about 5:30 pm we attend tashlich prayers near the sea where we would meet a lot of friends and family who go to other synagogues in Mumbai; this is a popular time for matchmaking and introducing young boys and girls. We then rush home for the second evening seder with our family.
Q: We loved your halwa recipe. Can you tell us about your other favorite dishes for the Jewish New Year?
A: The nankhatais (cookies)! We break the Fast of Gedalia (the day after Rosh Hashanah) with rice kheer—coarse basmati rice cooked with jaggery and coconut milk—after reading the Yizkor service (remembering the departed souls of close family).
Before Yom Kippur we prepare Kalna puris—like a flaky pastry stuffed with lightly fried fine semolina, nuts, and raisins and deep fried in ghee. The afternoon before Yom Kippur we read the Yizkor service and eat the Kalna puris, coconut-stuffed puris, and sandans. Before sunrise the day after Yom Kippur (Simhat Kohanim), we make gharis (like donuts). Between Yom Kippur and Hoshanah Rabah, we visit our relatives and friends to ask forgiveness for any wrong we may have done to them.
Q: Can you tell us more about your family’s history in India? And any special holiday traditions that you have?
A: We had a house in a village named Galsur, a sea port in Maharashtra. We had rice fields and an oil press—operated manually by a bullock—that extracted oil from peanuts, sesame seeds, mustard seeds, and other herbal oils. We grew vegetables and fruit trees, and had poultry as well. Water had to be brought from wells, and we washed our clothes at a river or stream. There was no electricity then. Our house was a gathering spot for lots of our family during school vacations.
My in-laws lived in this house, with other retired family members. We, the younger generation with children, relocated to Mumbai much earlier, where we worked in offices and factories while our children attended recognized (and often English) schools where they received a superior education to that which was possible in the villages.
Many of us Bene Israelis got our surnames from the villages our families had settled in hundreds and thousands of years ago. Later, family names were modified as people relocated to Mumbai.
Q: In your experience, what is the importance of JDC’s role in India?
A: JDC has helped the Bene Israelis a lot, especially in bringing them closer. JDC supports the community’s Jewish holiday celebrations, which includes sending people (through the JDC-supported Evelyn Peters Jewish Community Center in Mumbai) to conduct High Holiday services and seders in villages with synagogues such as Pen, Panvel, Alibag, and Nagaon.
Young and old are involved in JDC’s activities: they created a Jewish old age home, gatherings for seniors, have year-round Torah and other Jewish classes, Gan Katan (kindergarten) for kids, and get-togethers for teenagers and young adults, who are also sponsored by JDCto take part in seminars in Israel and in Europe. This not only gives them a chance to learn a lot and mingle with other youngsters around the world, but now the world has started learning about Jewish life in India, too….
Q: What would you like readers to know about Jewish life in India?
A: The Bene Israelis are peace loving people, characterized by strong family bonds and real caring. We have always been friendly with Hindus, Muslims, Catholics, Parsis; we never experienced any anti-Semitism. We observed and did not work on Shabbat. We walk to our synagogues, distance permitting; eat kosher food; and hang mezuzahs on our doorposts. We were known as Shanwar Tellis (oil pressers who did not work on Saturdays).
Though the Bene Israelis have a small prayer hall for the Reform or Liberal Jewish Congregation in Mumbai, the majority of the community still chooses to visit Orthodox synagogues because we love the melodious tunes that convey the essence of more than 2500 years of Jewish life in India. We, the Orthodox community, have several synagogues—I believe 8—in Mumbai. Prayers are conducted every day, morning and evening (including Minchah and Ma’ariv services). On Shabbat, we have a minyan and a bigger crowd, but many have to use the public transport or drive because of the distance.
Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews represent two distinct subcultures of Judaism. We are all Jews and share the same basic beliefs, but there are some variations in culture and practice. It’s not clear when the split began, but it has existed for more than a thousand years, because around the year 1000 C.E., Rabbi Gershom ben Judah issued an edict against polygamy that was accepted by Ashkenazim but not by Sephardim.
Who are Ashkenazic Jews?
Ashkenazic Jews are the Jews of France, Germany, and Eastern Europe and their descendants. The adjective “Ashkenazic” and corresponding nouns, Ashkenazi (singular) and Ashkenazim (plural) are derived from the Hebrew word “Ashkenaz,” which is used to refer to Germany. Most American Jews today are Ashkenazim, descended from Jews who emigrated from Germany and Eastern Europe from the mid 1800s to the early 1900s. The pages in this site are written from the Ashkenazic Jewish perspective.
Who are Sephardic Jews?
Sephardic Jews are the Jews of Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East and their descendants. The adjective “Sephardic” and corresponding nouns Sephardi (singular) and Sephardim (plural) are derived from the Hebrew word “Sepharad,” which refers to Spain.
Sephardic Jews are often subdivided into Sephardim, from Spain and Portugal, and Mizrachim, from the Northern Africa and the Middle East. The word “Mizrachi” comes from the Hebrew word for Eastern. There is much overlap between the Sephardim and Mizrachim. Until the 1400s, the Iberian Peninsula, North Africa and the Middle East were all controlled by Muslims, who generally allowed Jews to move freely throughout the region. It was under this relatively benevolent rule that Sephardic Judaism developed. When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, many of them were absorbed into existing Mizrachi communities in Northern Africa and the Middle East.
Most of the early Jewish settlers of North America were Sephardic. The first Jewish congregation in North America, Shearith Israel , founded in what is now New York in 1684, was Sephardic and is still active. Philadelphia’s first Jewish congregation, Congregation Mikveh Israel , founded in 1740, was also a Sephardic one, and is also still active.
In Israel, a little more than half of all Jews are Mizrachim, descended from Jews who have been in the land since ancient times or who were forced out of Arab countries after Israel was founded. Most of the rest are Ashkenazic, descended from Jews who came to the Holy Land (then controlled by the Ottoman Turks) instead of the United States in the late 1800s, or from Holocaust survivors, or from other immigrants who came at various times. About 1% of the Israeli population are the black Ethiopian Jews who fled during the brutal Ethiopian famine in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
What is the difference between Sephardic and Ashkenazic?
The beliefs of Sephardic Judaism are basically in accord with those of Orthodox Judaism, though Sephardic interpretations of halakhah (Jewish Law) are somewhat different than Ashkenazic ones. The best-known of these differences relates to the holiday of Pesach (Passover): Sephardic Jews may eat rice, corn, peanuts and beans during this holiday, while Ashkenazic Jews avoid them. Although some individual Sephardic Jews are less observant than others, and some individuals do not agree with all of the beliefs of traditional Judaism, there is no formal, organized differentiation into movements as there is in Ashkenazic Judaism.
Historically, Sephardic Jews have been more integrated into the local non-Jewish culture than Ashkenazic Jews. In the Christian lands where Ashkenazic Judaism flourished, the tension between Christians and Jews was great, and Jews tended to be isolated from their non-Jewish neighbors, either voluntarily or involuntarily. In the Islamic lands where Sephardic Judaism developed, there was less segregation and oppression. Sephardic Jewish thought and culture was strongly influenced by Arabic and Greek philosophy and science.
Sephardic Jews have a different pronunciation of a few Hebrew vowels and one Hebrew consonant, though most Ashkenazim are adopting Sephardic pronunciation now because it is the pronunciation used in Israel. See Hebrew Alphabet. Sephardic prayer services are somewhat different from Ashkenazic ones, and Sephardim use different melodies in their services. Sephardic Jews also have different holiday customs and different traditional foods. For example, Ashkenazic Jews eat latkes (potato pancakes) to celebrate Chanukkah; Sephardic Jews eat sufganiot (jelly doughnuts).
The Yiddish language, which many people think of as the international language of Judaism, is really the language of Ashkenazic Jews. Sephardic Jews have their own international language: Ladino, which was based on Spanish and Hebrew in the same way that Yiddish was based on German and Hebrew.
Tennen, a 19-year-old sophomore at MSU, was at an off-campus party in the wee hours of Sunday morning in East Lansing, Mich. According to reports, two college-aged males approached him and asked if he was Jewish. When Tennen said indeed he was, the men made the Hitler salute and said they were part of the Ku Klux Klan.
Then Tennen was attacked, punched in the face which knocked him unconscious and broke his jaw. While Tennen was out, WDIV-TV and The State News report, his mouth was stapled shut while about 20 people watched. No one attempted to intervene.
“It is written in the Torah: ‘O son of Man, if you “empty” yourself (i.e. disengage yourself from all other preoccupations to make yourself available) for My worship, I will fill your heart with richness and I will not abandon you to what you seek and long for. And it will be upon Me to close the door of poverty upon you and to fill your heart with awe for Me. And if you don’t “empty” yourself for My worship, I will fill your heart with preoccupation with the world and I will not close upon you the door of poverty and will abandon you to what you seek.”—Al-Kulayni, Usul al-Kafi, ii, “kitab al-‘iman wa a1-kufr’, “bab al-`ibadah”, hadith no. 1. (via abustaif)
Gersholm Scholem’s main focus is to discuss Walter Benjamin’s fascination with the painting Angelus Novus, by Paul Klee. He shows how Benjamin’s interpretation follow a dialectic between mystical intuition and reason. His main discussion revolves around the first two drafts found in a notebook in Benjamin’s literary remains in Frankfurt written August 12th and 13th, 1933, named “Agesilaus Santander.” In it Benjamin discusses the relationship between a Jew and their secret religious name, an allegory for his relationship to Angelus Novus that Scholem exposes. The examination takes a route of literary and philosophical analysis accompanied by the author’s stance that he knew Benjamin on a very personal level.
According to Benjamin in his first interpretations as described by Scholem, Angelus Novus strives after “true actuality”; comparing it to the throng of angels created every moment to sing God’s praise and then disappear into nothing. He sticks to this Talmudic conception of an angel that exists for a fleeting moment, and pays less attention at this time to everlasting angels and Lucifer. Combined with this was his view that each human has a personal angel, represented by their secret name of mature moments, as discussed in “Agesilaus Santander,” that is for a fleeting instant joining in the choir of God’s praise. The heavenly part of every human sings God’s praise, and Benjamin saw Angelus Novus as the depiction of his angel.
By 1933 Benjamin had expanded his interpretation to include his observation that the expression of the angel contains “satanic features- with a half suppressed smile.” Scholem comments that this came after Benjamin smoked hashish for the first time, going through what he described as a “satanic phase,” where he smiled with an “expression of satanic knowing, satanic contentment” and “satanic serenity”. Dialectical thought evolved his view of the angel as time progressed, with deeper meanings being revealed. Thus in “Agesilaus Santander” he captures this with an anagram to the name of the Klee painting, a technique Benjamin was fond of, in the name Angelus Satanas. That the angel was also a devil had foundation, says the author, in its “claws” and “sharp wings”.
Since Benjamin’s discussed piece is written while he is a refugee, away from his family and his favorite angel picture, he realizes that the angel is both what he is in essence and what he is not. At this point Benjamin sees his angel as coming from the future, to bring the chosen at whom the angel is staring with it. He said that the Angel’s movement means that to return home is precisely the way into the future.
The Angel of History is Benjamin’s final comment on Klee’s Angel is a culmination of his life experience and philosophies. He refers to the Angel in his essay on historical materialism. Even though the Angel is reflective of Benjamin’s personal view, it makes the switch from being his Angel to the Angel of all of History. The Angel is now representative of all historical progress. The essay was written in 1940, the last year of his life, after he had lived in exile and experienced the numbing terror that was Nazi Germany. The Angel has made the switch from being a patient lover to a storm from paradise. The Angel of History does not posses the previous hope of the other angels. The angel is not even capable of looking toward the present; the catastrophe of the Holocaust requires its full gaze. The Angel of History is one of melancholy, but at the same time it ties in the theological aspect of Benjamin’s work.
According to Scholem, the Angel of History shows Benjamin’s understanding of the dialectical relation between the Christian baroque and the Jewish mysticism. The Christian view is that history is a “process of incessant decay.” (Scholem 85) The decay is the wreckage, pile of bodies, and general catastrophe that the Angel is not able to turn away from. The opposing view, that of Jewish mysticism, is the belief that according to the kabbalah it is not the angel’s responsibility to make whole the catastrophe of history, it is the Messiah’s responsibility.
Benjamin stipulates that historical materialism, the subject of his “Thesis on the Philosophy of History”, cannot be successful without the Messiah. The historical materialist’s way in which to move into the future is problematic because even if it does take the past into account and consider humans as historical beings, it does not and can never redeem the catastrophe of the past. When historical materialism constructs “an act like redemption or revolution, continues to have about it something of that leap into transcendence which these theses seem to deny but which is even then implied in their materialistic formulations as their secret core” (Scholem 84). This is where Benjamin makes the leap to the messianic belief. The past is so horrific that even if one is the ideal historical materialist that will not redeem the past it cannot penetrate the “secret core.” For Benjamin, the only way the redemption can come is from the Messiah.