Voices from the Field
Brett Kopin has recently edited a volume written by his grandmother – Jewish educator and author of The Tattooed Torah, Marvell Ginsburg – in preparation for its publication as an e-book. This "Voices" piece is a reflection on the Chapter on Shabbat and is inspired by the real-life traditions that made Shabbat with his "Bubby" special as a child.
Repetition – whether weekly, monthly, or annually – links thoughts and feelings to space and time. Though traditional Judaism houses rituals in every holiday, their richness is so often enhanced by particular family rituals, usually ones that come about organically, as a consequence of the different personalities interacting around the dinner table. For many years, my family’s weekly Shabbat table was incomplete without "Bubby cookies."
The white box they came in was lined with translucent paper and had grease spots staining the outer corners. My favorites were the purple ones; my brother’s – the ones with tiny rainbow sprinkles. Pareve and freezer-burned: the centerpiece of every Shabbat meal. Not even my mother’s mushroom barley soup or savory London Broil could evoke the same emotion.
Bubby had a Friday ritual of her own. After getting the same lovely hairdo from the same lovely beauty shop, she proceeded to Chaim’s Bakery for a fresh box of cookies (if she had run out of her frozen stock). There was something special about getting the fresh box on select Friday nights, but the freezer-burned ones were equally appreciated. These, after all, were "Bubby cookies."
The family counted on Bubby to bring these cookies week after week for years – until one fateful Friday when I was 12 years old. Bubby came over and told us that she had driven by Chaim’s that day and it was closed. Like, for good. She only had a few boxes left in her freezer, and after that, well...
It took me a moment to process this: “You mean we won’t get any more Bubby cookies?” A lump was forming in my throat, and she felt my pain. “Brett, you need to write the story down.” I did not follow her advice at the time.
When I was visiting her in the hospital last year, I reminded her of the cookies and the fact that she had told me to write the story.
“Did you write the story?” she asked.
“No, Bubby, I never did.”
She frowned, and said very soberly, “Write it! You write that story down!” I told her I would. This, after all, was a tradition worth remembering.
Flash forward to May 2015. A friend and I went to pick up dinner at Hungarian Kosher Foods, a place in Chicago I had never been to but had heard so much about. Upon walking in, we turned left at the checkout counters and behold, reclining in their own display case, were the "Bubby cookies"! I was in disbelief. They even had the purple ones. The lady behind the counter gave us each a free sample, and with that first bite years of nostalgia were quenched.
Standing there, it amazed me how a simple taste, a texture, an appearance, could instantly bring back the feeling of the childhood Shabbat table – its consistency, its warmth, and especially the lived experience of having shared so many of those meals with Bubby. As I mentioned in my Mother’s Day post, I have been working on editing a curriculum guide she wrote in 1970 called Teaching Holidays to Young Jewish Children. Her first section (linked at the top of the page) is on teaching Shabbat and creating a Shabbat environment for children and their families. I hope Bubby, through her teachings, will inspire some of her readers as she inspired my family just by being at the table, week after week.
Shabbat Shalom, Bubby.
The days since the quake have been, without a doubt, some of the most terrible I've experienced, and also some of the most inspiring – it's been a roller coaster of emotions. I've had to become something of a self-salesman, inserting myself into as many relief projects as I can.
In the days immediately following the quake, I helped a team of Israeli doctors by translating for their Nepali patients into Hebrew. High school Ayal studying Hebrew at Niles North couldn't ever have imagined that this was one of the moments for which he was preparing. I have also spent some time helping build shelters and toilets in rural districts, and organizing teams of volunteers to go out and work.
On the side, I've been photographing and listening to survivors’ stories and posting them on Facebook. Initially, my thought was to share their stories with friends and family with the goal of helping make Nepal and its current struggle relatable and personal, to “meet” real Nepalis (should sound familiar to an iCenter audience).
It's also become a therapeutic project for me – meeting Nepalis who have lost quite literally everything except for their own lives, yet keep on living, not holding themselves as total victims, is humbling.
Nepal will rebuild itself. It will need a LOT of international aid, and a lot of time, but life will continue here.
About a week after the quake, I came to the IDF army hospital in Nepal to help with a bit of translation (the IDF literally flew in a fully functioning hospital, X-Rays, operating rooms, everything. It was the best hospital in Nepal for the two weeks it was here). Anyway, I was later called into the search and rescue/pikud ha'oref tent to help them understand the situation in one of the cities near Kathmandu, the one I had been in when the first quake hit. I walk in, and the soldier sitting there gives me a look and says, "Ayal!"
The Israel world is a small place but I did not expect to meet someone who I knew, davka here, davka now. So, I turned around to see if there was another Ayal in the room. There wasn't...
I didn't recognize her initially, but she quickly reminded me she had been at the iCenter's Masters Concentration in Israel Education seminar in January of 2014 – Tom Shay, from Kibbutz Lochmei Ha'getaot. After catching up over couscous, hot dogs, and tehina in the dining tent (I was pumped about the tehina, a hard to find commodity in Nepal), she explained to me that there's a Nepali man who works on her kibbutz whose family lost everything. The kibbutz members pooled a sum of money to help the family rebuild and get through this difficult time. They had asked Tom to deliver it to his family, but she was not allowed to leave the base for security reasons and also didn't know Kathmandu. Obviously, I offered to help. Later that day I made contact with the family in Kathmandu, now homeless and living in the back yard of a distant relative. I met up with them, they invited me for tea, and I delivered the money. It will help them a lot.
I never thought that my time at the iCenter would connect me to helping hand out relief money in Nepal, but the world works in funny and sometimes wonderful ways.
More about Israel in Nepal
To quote a fellow Israeli traveler, "In these uncertain days after the quake, I would be scared NOT to be Israeli." She was referring to everything that Israel did to help Israeli travelers. There were dozens of search and rescue experts hiking up into the mountains to locate and save Israeli hikers who had been stranded due to ongoing landslides and avalanches. Helicopters were acquired to help in this effort even when they were near impossible to find. The IDF brought in a fully functioning hospital to help injured Nepalis (and travelers as well). The Chabad here was keeping a list of all Israeli and Jewish travelers who were accounted for, and those still missing. They, even more so than the embassy, are the experts in search and rescue here; unfortunately this isn't the first time there have been disasters with hikers in the Himalayas. Also, for the three or four days following the quake, the embassy allowed Israelis (and those like me who snuck in by speaking Hebrew) to sleep on the grass of the embassy to have a safe place to stay outdoors, away from hazardous buildings. In the midst of an already emotionally trying period, processing all of this pride in what Israel was doing to take care of its own, and also of Nepalis, was incredible. It got me rethinking my current situation of having one passport. But that's a story for another day...
Ayal’s passion for Israel was cultivated early on from his home life and quickly became a major part of his life independently. He graduated from Brandeis University with a BA in Environmental Studies and International and Global Studies, and a minor in Hebrew Language. Prior to joining the iCenter team, Ayal lived in Jerusalem as a JDC-BBYO Jewish Service Corps member. His work focused on utilizing community gardens as a way to empower low income communities across the country as well as organizing leadership programming for at-risk Ethiopian Israeli youth. He loves photography, playing music and being outdoors- and likes doing these things especially so in Hebrew and while in Israel.
I first learned the song Ani v’Atah at a Kibbutz ulpan during the first segment of a year-long service program for young adults around the world. I never imagined it would later become the anthem for a public school I would found with a diverse cohort of Jewish and African-American Washingtonians. But last week in Northeast Washington, DC, 80 children at Sela Public Charter School, including my own son and daughter, sang their school anthem with Miki Gavrielov, visiting Israeli rock star, and shared in Hebrew their own plans to change the world. The special event came together when Miki Gavrielov requested to visit the school, after seeing it featured on Israeli news Channel 10, singing the song he popularized. The program, which was livestreamed around the world, featured a whole school effort to integrate the social change message that permeates Sela and its sister Hebrew immersion charter schools, across the country.
Sela is part of the Hebrew Charter School Center's network of schools that teaches about Israel and global citizenship through a curriculum focusing on the vibrant current and historical contributions of Israel. Students learn about Israel through the lens of culture, language, the arts, technology and music. Miki’s visit allowed the children to use their Hebrew language skills and knowledge in an authentic setting about Israel and with its people: Miki and his entourage. This educational contact point provided Sela students an opportunity to take their Hebrew language skills and express them through music and conversation.
In Hebrew, the children told Miki how they planned to change the world: pick up the trash, guard the animals, cherish their teachers, help other people, and be a better friend. In preparation for their annual Israel fair, the children will soon make their own passports and boarding cards. Although we live in an international city, many of the children who come to Sela have not seen such things before. The foundation we are giving them is a genuine passport to a world beyond their neighborhoods, a world that, because of their primary school education, I am convinced they will be able to change.
Jessica Lieberman, PhD, has over 15 years experience in human rights, intercultural exchange and international affairs. She has worked for a number of Human Rights NGOs in the Middle East and the United States and has taught at the George Washington University, Elliot School of International Affairs. In her current position, she is deputy director of the Office of Global Programming in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the US State Department, where she supervises a team of program officers responsible for managing over 100 million dollars in U.S. foreign assistance. Dr. Lieberman is founder and Board Chair of Sela Public Charter School and lives with her husband, daugther and son in Takoma, DC.