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The Gospel about wandering Jews and wicked stereotypes

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Religion

The Jews may have wandered through the desert for 40 years after escaping slavery, but that’s not where the term “wandering Jew” originates. In fact, it’s an antisemitic trope that’s been used throughout history to justify the persecution of the Jewish people.

Now advertising guru-cum-author Lynn Joffe has used her novel, The Gospel According to Wanda B. Lazarus to collapse the myth of the wandering Jew. While she has spent most of her life in South Africa, Joffe grew up in Scotland.

“There weren’t enough Jews even for a minyan where we lived,” she says. “It was a very secular upbringing, and I wasn’t sure what being a Jew was.” So, when a classmate asked her, “Are you a Jew?” little Lynn had to go home and ask her mother.

Just seven years old at the time, Joffe was traumatised when the same classmate told her, “You killed our Lord.” A confused Joffe replied, “I wasn’t anywhere near your Lord!”

The myth of the wandering Jew, in fact, goes back to this – the crucifixion of Christ. On his way to the crucifixion, legend has it that Christ was taunted by a Jew who was then cursed to walk the earth until the second coming. And so, this mythical immortal man, the wandering Jew was conceived. It soon became an integral part of medieval folklore.

In later years, the figure of this solitary wandering Jew began to be associated with the fate of the entire Jewish people as they sought freedom and fought to live in the promised land. Yet while the myth has undergone various iterations over the centuries, at its core it’s a damaging depiction of the Jewish people. It’s been used to garner support for some of the greatest atrocities our people have ever faced, even becoming a part of Nazi propaganda.

“This myth of a smelly, hook-nosed outcast who was eternal and wandered around infecting the crops, poisoning the wells, and killing babies was like a horror story,” says Joffe. “It’s been re-engineered, going backwards and forwards in time to blame the Jews for every ill in the world, including the crucifixion itself.”

The antisemitism underpinning this legend bothered Joffe, who decided to tackle it when she began her Masters in Creative Writing at the University of the Witwatersrand. “I’ve always been sensitive to the antisemitic jibes that happened throughout my childhood,” she says. “When I did the Masters, I wanted to tackle a big theme, and I thought that this idea – what if the wandering Jew was a woman – would have changed the whole picture.”

And so, the foundation of what would eventually become The Gospel According to Wanda B. Lazarus was conceived. Spanning almost 2 000 years, the book tells the story of a foul-mouthed, free-spirited outcast, Wanda. Cursed with immortality, Wanda travels through seminal moments of history in pursuit of her goal of becoming the tenth muse – a reference to the nine muses of Greek mythology.

“I wanted to take a very serious theme and deal with it in a very light way,” says Joffe. “In a sense, the wandering Jew is a universal antisemitic symbol. As a Jewish person I wanted to satirise this to reveal its utter ridiculousness.”

Sprinkled with laugh-out-loud humour and a large dose of Yiddish, the book has resonated with readers, Jewish and non-Jewish. “Ironically, my first chapter is set during Pesach,” says Joffe. “The whole idea of the original sin, of having singled out the Jews for killing Jesus, came in the story of Pesach because that was when he was crucified.” Here she writes of Rov Yossi (aka Jesus) and “his chevras” who were “invited over for that last supper”.

Joffe aims to make people laugh, think, and feel while reading what’s essentially a disintegration of dangerous stereotypes. In presenting a feminist take on the wandering Jew, Joffe also reflects on the way that women have been blocked from fulfilling their destinies and blamed when things go wrong, from thousands of years ago to today.

She may shock and at times upset sensitive readers, but it’s all in pursuit of a greater goal. “Laughter is a form of recognition,” says Joffe. “I’m telling a fictional female character’s story of the most dreadful scapegoating in history,” she says. “I’m using fiction to expose a fiction.”

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Religion

Slave to the Omer – why counting makes us free

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We are in the midst of counting the Omer – a commandment to count the days and weeks from the second day of Pesach until Shavuot.

Interestingly, the very first commandment we perform, marking our transition from slavery to freedom, is to count time, to count days.

Why is this? Rabbi JB Soloveitchik, in his essay, “Sacred and Profane”, offers a profound insight, as follows:

“The basic criterion which distinguishes free man from slave is the kind of relationship each has with time and its experience. Bondage is identical with passive intuition and reception of an empty, formal time stream.

“When the Jews were delivered from the Egyptian oppression and Moses rose to undertake the almost impossible task of metamorphosing a tribe of slaves into a nation of priests, he was told by G-d that the path leading from the holiday of Pesach to Shavuot, from initial liberation to consummate freedom, leads through the medium of time. The commandment of sefirah was entrusted to the Jew; the wondrous test of counting 49 successive days was put to him. These 49 days must be whole. If one day is missed, the act of numeration is invalidated.

“A slave who is capable of appreciating each day, of grasping its meaning and worth, of weaving every thread of time into a glorious fabric, quantitatively stretching over the period of seven weeks but qualitatively forming the warp and woof of centuries of change, is eligible for Torah. He has achieved freedom.”

A slave owns no time of her/his own. Every second of life is owned by a master, and therefore a slave can have no concept of responsibility because they have no ultimate choice of action. A slave may “choose” to go for a walk at 17:00 on Friday only to have that choice countermanded by the master at 16:59. Inevitably, a slave has no concept of their own time, their ability to choose to act in one way at a particular time, and to take responsibility for those actions in the fullest sense of the word.

So, the Jews needed to learn to own time, to feel its contours and use it so that they could learn responsibility.

One of the signs of real maturity is this time-responsibility awareness – just think of a child saying they will clean up their room “later”. Children lack a sense of true responsibility because they feel that there is always an infinite “later”, a period in which every wrong can be righted, every desire fulfilled, every mistake corrected.

A free adult recognises that they own a very limited amount of time, and that the gift of freedom is the choice of how to use that time. The burden of that self-same freedom is the responsibility for the consequences of that choice.

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Religion

Finding faith in the hippo

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This week’s parsha details the laws of kashrus. The Torah makes a brave statement by enumerating the one and only animal that has split hooves but doesn’t chew the cud. It’s a “brave” statement, because if a human being wrote the Torah, how would they know that the pig is the only one on the “face of the planet” with this characteristic?

Moses was born in Egypt, spent some time as a fugitive in Ethiopia, and died somewhere near modern-day Jordan. If we presume that he was the author of the Five Books without any divine inspiration, and he sucked the whole thing out of his left thumb, then how could he be so confident that there wasn’t a marsupial or wallaby in the furthermost corners of the planet that didn’t have at least one of these characteristics? This was almost 3 000 years before anyone even knew there was an Australia. If he was inventing the whole religion, he would have taken the more prudent course of being rather vague. He wouldn’t have blatantly listed the only four exceptions “from all the animals on the earth”.

With this great piece of Torah veracity in my mind, my faith was shaken when, on a trip to London’s Natural History Museum, (I know, it’s a pretty nerdy thing to do), I discovered that there was a hoofed animal, classified by zoology, that seemed to be an exception “overlooked” by the Torah – the hippo. It’s classified as an “ungulate”, a split-hoofed animal without a ruminant stomach that isn’t listed in the Torah as another exception!

I thought about this problem for a while, and then the solution came to me. Why should we allow zoology to dictate the classification of animals? The more I thought about it, the more I realised that hippos don’t have hooves like a pig or cow, they have toes (like camels). I know it’s more fancy to talk about ungulates, phylum, and genus. It even makes us look clever, but if we are really honest with ourselves, we won’t let zoological classifications stand in the way of our emunah in Hashem and His Torah.

Shabbat shalom

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Religion

Let’s start talking about Pesach

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For the past few weeks, my family and I have been doing something really special. We’ve been getting together every Sunday night, sitting around the table, and going through the Pesach Haggadah.

It’s just me, Gina, and our children – our eldest, Mordi, his wife Avigayil, and Levi, Shayna, and youngest Azi. We have supper together, and then we get stuck into the Haggadah, discussing, debating, sharing as a family, covering everything from the four sons, the four questions and the ten plagues, to matzah, maror, and the four cups of wine.

It has been a truly memorable experience. We started this family tradition a few months ago, setting aside the Sunday night slot to connect as a family and share Torah ideas. It’s an open forum, a space for every member of the family to express their thoughts, ideas, and opinions. We’ve covered the Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith and the weekly parsha, and now, most recently, the Haggadah.

Going through the Haggadah, which tells the story of the Jewish people and goes to the very heart of who we are as Jews, has been particularly special. We’ve fine-tuned our understanding of the story, and gained so many new insights and ideas. Just as importantly, we’ve grown closer as a family, and feel more connected to each other and Hashem. Now, as we head towards Pesach, we all feel that this is going to be a dramatically different seder experience. Our mindset is different.

The Pesach seder is perhaps the formative Jewish experience. The seders we had as kids seem to stay with us. Even as we grow older, we recollect them fondly and vividly. It’s so much more than a ceremony, a procession of rituals, it’s the rich soil in which our families and our very Jewish identity are formed.

Of course, as we grow older, there’s the temptation, given how familiar the story is, to slip into autopilot on seder night. But if we prepare, we can avoid this and enter the seder charged with inspiration and filled with rich new perspectives. In doing so, we can transform it into an incredibly powerful spiritual and emotional experience that changes us, that truly frees us from our tired routines and habits and brings us closer to one another, to G-d, and to our true selves. A rebirth in the deepest sense.

That’s why I would like to call on all of us to start these meaningful family conversations in preparation for Pesach, to discuss the ideas and themes and get a deeper understanding of the seder itself. Of course, we need to prepare our homes – cleaning and cooking are incredibly important because they help us to fulfil all the mitzvot of this special chag and ensure we have a proper, kosher Pesach. But the seder, too, needs preparation, and the more we prepare for it, the greater the experience is going to be.

There’s something that can help you get the process started. My family and I were so excited and inspired by our Sunday night learning sessions, we decided to record our Haggadah discussions. We’ve turned these recordings into a special Pesach series, called The Goldstein Family Podcast, which you can access via my website or wherever you get your podcasts. The sessions have been cut and edited into eight episodes ranging from 10 to 30 minutes each to make them as accessible as possible.

There’s not much time left before Pesach, but I would like to encourage you to devote some time to preparing for the seder, and our podcast can be a good place to start. Even just a couple of hours can make all the difference to your seder.

Especially at this time, after a year of being battered by a pandemic, we need the healing, the meaning, and the deep inspiration of the seder more than ever – the message of faith in Hashem, connection to generations past, the sense of rootedness it gives us in an uncertain world.

Let’s take this opportunity to prepare so that we can connect with the ancient words of the Haggadah – with the great origin story of our people – in ways we’ve never done before.

Gina and I wish you all a chag kasher v’same’ach – a beautiful Pesach – and deeply meaningful, enriching seders.

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