October 27, 2009

Bhutanese Atlantans repurpose "the vine that ate the South"

Atlanta Bhutanese Refugee Support Group volunteers and friends have been promoting our new Bhutanese neighbors in a collective enterprise that helps them to feed their families. Here’s the recipe.
  • Step 1. Harvest local scourge, kudzu, growing around their apartment complexes.
  • Step 2. Using ancient artisan techniques, weave the vines into one-of-a-kind baskets, wreaths, and custom-ordered products.
  • Step 3. Sell the products at the Morningside Farmers' Market and other markets, fairs, houses of worship, community events, and shops.
Watch the video (4:31 minutes).

More information

See photos here and here of kudzu basket weaving demos and sales at the Morningside Farmers' Market. For basket orders and inquiries, send an email. For background on Bhutanese refugees in Atlanta, visit Bhutan > Atlanta.

Related posts and news articles
Cross-posted at Bhutan > Atlanta.

October 05, 2009

Happy Dashain, Bhutanese Atlantans!

Tika affixed to our foreheads, we are enjoying the festival performances
This year, we the Bhutanese in Atlanta, will do a common program and worship celebrating Dashain that we hope will strengthen our unity we had.
— Pabitra Rizal, a Bhutanese community organizer

On the heels of the recent Hindu Teej festival that I attended as a guest of Atlanta's new Bhutanese neighbors, Dashain gallops in, a celebration of good triumphing over evil (the short version). To learn about the Bhutanese refugee community, visit Bhutan > Atlanta.

Watch the video (4:50 minutes).

My related posts

September 25, 2009

Shanah Tovah! Country on a String: comedy toward dialog and change

I have been seeking a timely message this Rosh Hashana, Jewish New Year 5770. And, finally, with a Stetson-size hat tip to Checkpoint Jerusalem, I saw this birth announcement of twins, Humor and Hope, delivered by The Palestinian Saturday Night Live Version.

Watch the promo video here (4:31 minutes).

It's a Palestinian comedy shown on Palestinian TV, featuring Palestinian creators poking fun at themselves, each other, their lives, and sometimes desperate circumstances. In the tradition of the world's great self-mockers, this team is helping to beat depression, anger, even injustice in delivering its black-humor-laced episodes. And remedies are implied when not stated outright.

Laughing at myself helps lift me. And, usually, I find, in the laughing, roads leading to hope, change, and betterment.

This 5750, I salute my brave Palestinian cousins who pick up pens, not guns, and who look within and without in a bid for lightening and lighting the long way ahead for us all.

L'Shanah Tovah, Have a Happy New Year 5770!

My previous Rosh Hashana posts

September 10, 2009

In Israel's Golan, multitasking

"Noa is older than Noam but he is bigger
and sitting on a taller
seer [Hebrew: chamber pot]."

Shalom Tami,

Last week the whole family spent three days in the Golan. Everyone had a lovely time. As you can see from the picture, we were very much into toilet training in front of the zimmer [German: a room. Modern Hebrew: a country guest house]. Noa is older than Noam but he is bigger in size and sitting on a taller seer.

I just love the Golan, the landscape, the weather, the small settlements.

We are already back to work, and getting our act together for next year. . . . Your emails are so interesting. You are involved with important causes, always learning and doing!

Hodesh Tov [Hebrew: a good (new) month] & Shabbat Shalom,
— Gila

August 24, 2009

Bhutanese Atlantans kick off the Teej festival!

Sister-dancers Bhima and SanitaThapa-Magar sway and strut to Nepalese music in a dance they choreographed and performed for their community and guests

I loved that my new Bhutanese friends asked me to join them and a host of guests in dancing, singing, and sumptuous feasting on the first day of Teej. The festival of religious and cultural significance to Hindu women commemorates the reunion of the Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. Celebrants believe that observing Teej helps strengthen the relationship between husband and wife.

My instant makeover
When I arrived at the Odari home to help transport people to the Clarkston Community Center, the celebration venue, Mrs. Odari and her friends performed my instant makeover: They showered gifts of red bangle bracelets and a Nepalese yellow blouse that Mrs. Odari had purchased just days before they left the refugee camp last year.

Being fussed over (and loving it)
I relished my new Bhutanese friends' careful watch all day. Bishnu, Nirmala, Madhavi, Bhima, Tilchand, and Kamal hovered closely, making sure that I was enjoying myself and ate enough. (At evening's end, Bhima fixed a heaping plate for me to extend my feasting into the night!). My hosts explained the goings-on, translated speeches, and introduced me to their families — parents, grandmothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews plus families of their families, friends, and neighbors. I met fellow volunteers, resettlement agency workers, teachers, and other guests, and I caught up with Eve Calhoun, RN, of the DeKalb County Board of Health, and McKenzie Wren of the Refugee Women’s Network.

At day’s end, my camera battery was drained capturing the festive energy and infectious joy of the crowd as they sang, clapped, and swerved to the music, the Thapa-Magar sisters dancing in their specially-ordered Buddhist costumes, and the red-sari-clad Hindu women swirling while children bounced and spun — human tops in steady motion.

More about Teej
Hi Tamar,

We Bhutanese family are glad to know you, and we want u to come and enjoy with us Teej, the festival of Hindu women in August or early September [the Hindu month of Bhadrapad or Bhado].

Married women observe Teej to honour Lord Shiva and for longevity of their husbands and married life. Unmarried girls observe Teej for good husbands. Traditional dances and songs are features. Red is considered auspicious so most women dress up in red saris and wear glass bangles and heavy ornaments.
  • FIRST DAY: Dar Khane Din (special food). Celebrations continue till midnight after which a 24-hour fast begins.
  • SECOND DAY: Fasting. Women visit temples to offer prayers to Lord Shiva and pray to the Lingum (phallic symbol of the Lord), offering flowers, sweets, and coins, and seeking blessings of divine spirits. They light an oil lamp… and [keep it] lit all night to avoid a bad omen if it goes out.
  • THIRD DAY: Rishi Panchami. Hindu Gods are worshipped to cleanse all sins of the previous year. Women take a holy bath with red mud on the roots of the sacred tree and with the leaves. They come out purified and absolved from all sins. After, they sit in a semicircle and chant devotional prayers.
The program starts 11:30 am but we want you to come at 10:00 am at Biren's house. Bishnu and Nirmala will ride with you to . Thank you very much.

— Madhavi Regmi

My related posts

August 21, 2009

It's Elders For Health Care Reform Day

One hand rests on my dad's Israeli cousin Drora, and
the other holds a grapefruit from her garden.
Israeli citrus and
affordable universal health care
are helping
Drora to keep well. Americans need such care.

For more than five years, from the Portland, Oregon, condominium she shares with Ollie the Cat, Ronni Bennett has been championing sanity, honesty, integrity, fairness, fun, and bold-faced facts on her blog, Time Goes By: what it's really like to get older.

Today, Ronni, this American "evangelist for old people, intent on challenging the status quo in regard to elders, and to show what’s out of whack with our cultural attitudes toward aging," has done something special, even by her standards.

She has declared it Elders For Health Care Reform Day, and called all elderbloggers and allies to showcase essays by elders who have followed the American health care reform debate, who have informed themselves, and want to make a thoughtful contribution.

Visit the post, It's Elders For Health Care Reform Day, and from there, link to the essays. You'll find here a portal to facts, not myths, and access to real people's narratives, not special interest groups' marketing tactics and disinformation campaign slogans.

Then, bookmark Time Goes By, and come back for all this:

TGB is a complex mix of reporting on every aspect of aging: health and medical issues, ageism and age discrimination, media, technology, politics and public policy, culture, marketing to elders, the importance of language, love and sex, friendship, post-career careers, retirement, family, the prospect of death and, certainly, humor.
— Ronni Bennett

August 04, 2009

Atlanta’s Bhutanese refugees and their new neighbors

Three generations of Craig Gilbert's Bhutanese
neighbors share bounty from his organic garden

What began with my post on a profile in courage —  Son of Bhutan: A Georgia First, has evolved into a series of community portraits. This community comprises Atlanta’s 4,000 Bhutanese refugees and asylees and their more than 5 million new neighbors.

I have been documenting them with photos, videos, and text in blog posts, and including my associations with each subject and what drives me to choose it. I care less about facts and more about spirit. And I try to lift up the refugees and asylees who are often reduced to mispronounced names, demeaning (to the speaker) stereotypes, and platitudinous phrases by bland statistics, demographics, caricatures, and hollow, disconnected sound bites. And I like to tip my hat to Atlanta Bhutanese Refugee Support Group volunteers and others who are partnering with our new neighbors on multiple fronts, daily.

Community member in focus:
A tzadik [Hebrew: righteous person]

While he refrains from name-calling and shuns labels to describe people, I publicly defy here my pal Craig, a tzadik.

צַדִּיק, כַּתָּמָר יִפְרָח; כְּאֶרֶז בַּלְּבָנוֹן יִשְׂגֶּה, the righteous man springs up like the palm tree, like the Lebanon cedar he towers.
— תהילים צב, Psalm 92:13

The image of the righteous as a flowering tree suits this tzadik, whose hands are in the earth growing organic veggies, and whose head and heart are in "doing" our Jewish faith through what our Christian cousins would call “good works.”

Standing on the eighth rung of Maimonides' Ladder of Charitable Giving, Craig guest blogged about Joe Franco (1909-2008) here, celebrating the long, loving life of his late father-in-law and a beloved community leader. Drawing on life lessons Joe taught by example, Craig imparts Joe's wisdom to a new generation of foreign-born residents — newly arrived in a time of disastrous economic conditions, as Joe was nearly a century ago.

Craig's letter to his new Bhutanese teen friends

I got all your email addresses from Tamar who sent the photos of our workday [clearing vines from trees in the park]. You are wonderful young people with very bright futures. You were fun to work with, and I am happy how well we did trimming vines from trees in four hours, doing such hard work. [Craig's award — a carton of mango juice for the hardest workers went to both young women in the group!]

Rita (my wife) reminded me that her father [Joe Franco] came to this country when he was 20 years old. He graduated high school in Greece, got a job in Africa, and then came to the United States in 1929, which was the year of the Great Depression. Business was terrible, and people were hungry and poor. Despite that he made a wonderful life for himself, lived to be 98, and had five children. All are educated and have their own homes and live comfortably.

I believe the keys to his success were his education, his good and honest nature, and his willingness to work. All of you excel in these areas. May good things continue to happen for you.

We will work in the park again when it is cooler. And I will be thinking of things we can do or ways to work together! Tamar is a good friend, so I know I will be seeing you soon.

— Craig

After a sweltering summer's workday followed by lunch, Craig relaxes with Eliana, his daughter; Rita, his wife; Nirmala and Bishnu, who captured the prize mango juice; and the guys, who later posed for individual photos with the machetes that they used to trim the trees.

Related posts

July 27, 2009

Maimonides and the Ladder of Charitable Giving

With Bhima at the makeshift distribution center

"It’s our anniversary!" Bhima announced when we embraced at the distribution center outside her first home in Atlanta.

“One year ago, on July 26,” she and her family arrived in the “Big Peach” with thousands of others from United Nations-run refugee camps in southeastern Nepal. Bhima is a refugee from Bhutan, from where 100,000 people were driven out 18 years ago in an ethnic cleansing operation. Forced to live in the squalid camps, many are being resettled in Atlanta and elsewhere in the USA (and in a few other countries).

Bhima’s and her extended family's journey from homeland to here is a story of survival, courage, intelligence, pluck, resilience, and good fortune during nearly two decades' experiencing torture, terror, and deprivation. We first met at the recent Day of Interfaith Youth Service, a program of Emory University's Candler School of Theology. In her feedback on that experience of American pluralism in action, she wrote:

… I taught about my religion, Buddhism. ... Also, I shared about my years living in a refugee camp. They were very interested to learn about life in the camp. …
— Bhima Thapa-Magar, age 18

Yet our reunion was not to reminisce. Neither was it to meet her mother, aunt, and sister in Bhima's spotless home adorned with family photos and traditional art objects. Nor was it to taste the yummy (spicy!) dish she had prepared.

We met to join with other volunteers of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Bhutanese Refugee Support Group. The group, which is not affiliated with CDC, had brought to the newest comers in Bhima's apartment complex essential clothing, furniture, kitchen equipment, household items, toys, and back-to-school kits. And on this sweltering summer day, the refugees found new friends bearing goods, cheer, and hope.

Getting a toehold on the Ladder of Giving, and climbing up
The concept of giving anonymously without knowing the recipient can be traced back to ancient Israel. In his Ladder of Charitable Giving, where each of eight rungs, or levels of giving charity, represents a higher degree of virtue, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) writes of the eighth rung:

“Anticipate charity by preventing poverty; assist the reduced fellow man, either by a considerable gift or a sum of money or by teaching him a trade or by putting him in the way of business so that he may earn an honest livelihood and not be forced to the dreadful alternative of holding out his hand for charity. This is the highest step and summit of charity's golden ladder.”
— Maimonides, 12th-century Jewish philosopher, physician, rabbi

On the seventh rung of the Ladder, the anonymous donor expects nothing, not even recognition, and doesn’t know the recipient’s identity. At the lowest rung, the reluctant donor "gives with a frowning countenance."

The refugees joined volunteers to unload from a caravan of cars, vans, and trucks donations from people all over Atlanta. And the array elicited the refugees' initial wonder and amazement, then laughter and polite negotiations.

I watched Jonathan's dishes carried away with exquisite care, and blonde Stephanie's petite-size tops and slacks clothe smiling brown-skinned beauties. (Some local donors are "putting [the refugees] in the way of business so that [they] may earn an honest livelihood.")

Charity as justice
Tzedakah is a Hebrew word commonly translated as charity, though it is based on a root meaning justice (tzedek). In my tradition, tzedakah refers to the obligation (not an option) to give charity and to do philanthropic acts. And this teaching, which corresponds to similar ones among people in other faith communities and none, has been unleashing infinite rewards for thousands of years.

Get a toehold on the ladder, y'all, and keep climbing up.

My related posts

July 23, 2009

Day of Interfaith Youth Service: American pluralism in action

Atlanta teen refugees from Bhutan and Nepal
and immigrants from Pakistan and India
relax after a day of interfaith dialog and service work

Birendra Odari
| Bhutan
At Emory University, I learned about differences between religions, such as that some are monotheistic and some are polytheistic. My religion, Hinduism, is polytheistic. That means that just as a family has more than one person, we believe there is more than one god.

Bhima Thapa-Magar | Nepal
Our day at Emory was really fantastic. It was my first time with that kind of thing in the U.S.A.: doing volunteer work, being with such good students from other states and different religions, and talking about it. … I learned that Muslims pray on Fridays, and that students are excused from class during prayer times. I taught about my religion, Buddhism. We pray to Gautam Buddha as a God, our Book is called Tripitaka, and the place of prayer is called Gumba (stupas). Also, I shared about my years living in a refugee camp. They were very interested to learn about life in the camp. …

Sabah Khan
| India
I learned many things, and the main thing is volunteering, as I haven't been to any volunteering locations until now. …

I taught that during the Muslim holy month Ramadan, Muslims fast the whole month from dawn to dusk without water and food. The entire Quran (Muslim holy book) is recited in mosques and all over the world with the five daily prayers during Ramadan. During this month, which provides an opportunity for Muslims to get closer to God, a Muslim should try to — See not what displeases Allah (the name that Muslims call God), Hear no evil, Do no evil, and Look to Allah with fear and hope.

Bishnu Odari | Bhutan
This is my first time in the United States to meet these many teenager friends. I am really glad to be with them. They are such great and friendly people, which I never thought would be. When I first met the students at my school, some of them laughed at me and the other new students and it seemed they didn't want to be my friend. So I thought it would be the same at Emory. But these people were not that way. I met Saehara from California. She was with me the whole day and shared lunch with me. She was like my best friend whom I miss a lot. I also met Cody, our group leader, who was the funny one, and Brian, a group member who shared a lot about Christianity and wanted to learn more about Hinduism and other religions. …

I learned that Christians of the different branches of Christianity have different and opposing feelings about their religion.

I explained that Hinduism is polytheistic and mainly believes in the three-in-one God known as "Brahman" that is composed of Brama (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the Destroyer). The Hindu religion has millions of Gods and Goddesses, and these three are only the beginning. I also shared that the Hindu people believe in their "karma" — that doing good begets good, and doing bad begets bad. And with good karma, a person can be reborn into godhood, and with bad karma, a person can be reborn in a bad condition or even as an animal in their next life.

Tilchand Mapchhan (Naresh) Thapa | Nepal
Thanks for a chance to help others, share views about religion, make friends, and work together. "United we stand, divided we fall" is the main point I learned. Religion is a way to pray to God, and it is [usually, not always] a strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny. All religions are the same [in some ways] but praying and believing in God is different in each religion. …

If we have to make the day better than yesterday, we have to be united to do work. We did that in friendship and cooperation to help African students who need books for their schools, and the U.S.A. donates them. If you don't know anything, ask others, and if you do know, share with others and help them. … I hope we will again have the same type of program to help and get together to make others happy. Emory Day of Interfaith Youth Service was really great because to help others is a great thing in human beings. And if we help others, they will help us when we need help.

Kamal Dahal | Bhutan
It was an opportunity to learn many new things. Every moment I spent is now a remarkable memory. Meeting people from various backgrounds and states was like drinking salty water, which makes me more thirsty the more I drink. I got to learn about worshiping styles and beliefs people have about their gods. All holy talks are blessings for me. They pave my way to giving service. The lessons each religion teaches are the heavenly path, where we can kiss the summit of greatness and success.

Beyond the great knowledge I got, I had a golden opportunity to give my time to people who have a keen interest in learning and in exploring this world. I shared my heart and soul with other kindhearted fellows in sorting books for Africa.

Nirmala Regni
| Bhutan
I was so happy to see people from different countries and listen to their feelings and thoughts about religion. This is my first time taking part in an International Faith Day. … It was really interesting to sort books in the book storeroom where we all danced together. Later, we all played soccer, which was another interesting part of International Faith Day.

Many people asked about Hinduism. And I shared that it is the oldest practiced religion, with the third largest following after Christianity and Islam. More than a billion followers practice and 90% live in South Asia, particularly India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan. From the Indian subcontinent, it spread by migration, not conversion and evangelism, which are absent from Hinduism. Hindus also live in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Mauritius, Fiji, Suriname, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the U.S.A.

The back story
Since 1993, the Candler School of Theology has run a three-week residential summer program — the Youth Theological Initiative (YTI) for Christian rising seniors nationwide. Rooted in the Christian tradition, the program of justice-seeking theological education includes a “Day of Interfaith Youth Service” when participants engage in dialog and service work with Atlanta teens from other faith communities.

This year, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim voices of newly arrived refugee and immigrant students at Atlanta's Druid Hills High School added to the mix of local participants from the Jewish Community Center of Atlanta and the Islamic Speakers’ Bureau.

The refugee and immigrant students' participation was a project of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Bhutanese Refugee Support Group, which helps ease the transition of our new neighbors to Atlanta. The students' ESL teacher, Smaranda Livescu, identified them to me and to Leslie Sokolow, who spearheaded the volunteer group, which was recently featured in the CDC newsletter (April 2009): CDC Volunteers Aid Bhutanese Refugees.

Sharing traditions: Hindus, Buddhists,
Jews, Christians, Muslims, and an agnostic

The day featured much dialogue among the participants (total: about 75, including me and the other chaperones). In small mixed “home groups,” they shared their religious traditions, and how each tradition regards doing service for others.

As participants shared stories about their backgrounds, the refugees’ experience in refugee camps (some were born there and others lived there 17 of their 18 years) and the perspective of their beliefs, traditions, and values captured the interest and imagination of their peers (most of whom were born in America or grew up here).

Hands-on learning
(interrupted by spontaneous dancing)

The afternoon off-campus service project, sorting warehoused books to be donated to Africa, was an ideal hands-on application of the morning discussions.

One new Bhutanese neighbor was excited about the books they were allowed to take from the warehouse recycle bins. His collection, carefully culled: an English dictionary, an SAT preparation guide, and M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled. ("What drew you to the book?" I asked Birendra. "It is the title of the Robert Frost poem I learned in the refugee camp school," his sensible reply).

Heartfelt thanks
On the way home after dinner and soccer ("We won!"), these ambassadors of courage, optimism, and tireless hard work uniformly expressed “heartfelt thanks!” to the organizers and hope to “get such an opportunity next time, too.” They also thanked “everyone who shared their thoughts about religion.”

My related posts

July 04, 2009

July Fourth picnic with Atlanta's new Bhutanese neighbors

Celebrating our nation's independence:
4-year-old Ryan, first-generation
son of Bhutanese-born parents

The CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) Bhutanese Refugee Support Group honored our new Bhutanese neighbors as we celebrated our nation’s 233rd birthday together.

From the refugee community, Emory, CDC, the public schools and the Refugee Women's Network, folks came to Tobi-Grant Park loaded with cheer, American flags and decorations, and yummy food featuring vegetarian delights. My friend Craig, wearing his Abe Lincoln T-shirt, brought two dozen roasted ears of corn, home-grown organic cherry tomatoes, two benches, and ideas on sharing from the wisdom of George Washington's father, Frederick Douglass, and Uncle Abe, for whom the preamble to the Declaration of Independence represented a moral standard for the United States.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, 1863

Flag-waving sweet Ryan's daddy, Tulasi Ghimirey, shared his thoughts on this holiday and on "this great nation where until today, nobody asked me from where I came, and why I'm here... where human rights and democracy are respected."

Watch the video (1:33 minutes)

My related posts

About Bhutanese in Atlanta
About July 4, American Independence Day

June 06, 2009

Son of Bhutan: a Georgia first

Kamal Dahal: "Every Bhutanese refugee
is hoping to become a U.S. citizen."

He was born 18 years ago to a Hindu family in the Kingdom of Bhutan, between India and Chinese-ruled Tibet at the eastern end of the Himalayas mountain range. Buddhism is the state religion. In the 13th century, the Tibet-origin Bhutanese welcomed Kamal's Nepali-origin ancestors to construct buildings and monasteries, and grow oranges.

We love our country a lot and we can even
die for our motherland. We are patriotic. 
When Kamal was three months old, his family fled political, social, and religious persecution in a violent mass exodus to United Nations-run refugee camps in southeastern Nepal. Living in squalid makeshift huts of bamboo and plastic, the stateless victims endured 17 years' struggle and poverty with their 100,000 fellow exiles. They dreamed of a new beginning, to live in freedom and dignity as productive members of a society.

And, while they could not return to their beloved Bhutan, the chance to seek resettlement to a third country under the United Nations Third-Country Resettlement Program for Refugees reversed their fortunes. Eleven months ago, as part of one of the world's largest resettlement efforts, Kamal and his family — traumatized by their decades-long ordeals, were relocated to Atlanta, Georgia; the USA will resettle some 60,000 Bhutanese in a five-year span.

From southeast Bhutan to southeast USA

In the refugee camps, lights and cooking stoves were kerosene-powered, and cell phones and personal computers were unheard of. Still, Kamal has mastered these technologies in his first year here. This summer, in a coveted internship with Amnesty International (AI), he is helping to calculate budgets for human rights projects and to prepare presentations on AI activities in the USA.

Kamal is a top-performing student, the first Bhutanese in a Georgia public high school. His gentle manner, self-reliance, initiative, and can-do approach have earned him high marks from teachers, classmates, and volunteer groups. I was drawn to a support group spearheaded by a family at the Young Israel of Toco Hills synagogue whose daughters attend high school with Kamal. The family has galvanized scores of volunteers, including fellow-employees at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to help our new neighbors do what my tradition calls tikkun olam (Hebrew: world repair).

Rebuilding shattered lives,
Going from strength to strength
As a key go-to problem solver and troubleshooter for his juniors, peers, and elders, Kamal often dedicates days and nights addressing such issues:
  • Evictions on account of scarce jobs to earn rent and utilities costs
  • Emergency medical crises unattended for lack of insurance
  • One-bedroom apartments without electricity where newly-arrived large families were brought
  • Lack of technical skills and training suitable to apply for work opportunities, and lack of exposure to jobs requiring existing skills
  • Limited orientation to local customs and resources, promoting inactivity and isolation
During this worldwide economic downturn, national, state, and local governments and resettlement and social services agencies lack sufficient resources to carry out their missions properly during the long and stressful resettlement process. "Agencies are overburdened, which pinches us, especially when we have emergencies or see trouble ahead," Kamal explains.

Like the native among you shall be the sojourner who sojourns among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. (Leviticus 19:34)
The plight of refugees does not elude me, and my tradition teaches that we lift up our kin, especially strangers in our midst. My grandparents came to these shores, too, from Russia via Europe in the previous century. They, too, were escaping persecution, seeking refuge, bringing optimism and hope, and working nonstop to address the persistent challenges of being and belonging in a new land.

Earlier this spring, in a public park near the Central Bus Station in south Tel Aviv I participated in the Passover Freedom Seder for Israelis and African Refugees and Asylum Seekers. The magnitude of the African communities' burdens and needs, which they shared in our conversations (in English or, through a quick-learning Hebrew-speaking child) nearly undid me. I can't shake the voice of Johannes (shown in the photo with me) as he replied to my dumb question, "Why come here?" As I probed my Eritrean witness, with his permission, the narrative of his suffering unfolded. "I came through the way that Moses and his people, your people crossed. Help us, please help us get out of this suffering," he pleaded.

In Kamal, as in Johannes, I caught a glimpse of something I don't often see: the unabashed vigor of life, the courage and stamina to confront longing for home, loneliness, language barriers, fears, and the unknown. And I felt their drive to go forward, embracing all possibilities despite risking more danger or greater loss.

Encounters with such heroes pull me up out of the pettiness and stupidity of daily life. And I know that almost anyone can meet these kinds of heroes any day. Just pay attention, listen, and be present.

My related posts

June 03, 2009

Love-Hate: Brits and E. Indian Patriots

We struggled to encapsulate the vast subject into a short, catchy, meaningful title suitable for searching key terms on You Tube, Vimeo, and Google. Not possible. So, Tel Aviv Cinemateque Librarian Dr. Dror Izhar and I titled this post and the embedded video hoping at least to suggest the core of his fascinating doctoral dissertation.

When Dror first rattled off his dissertation title to me a few years ago, I reeled(!) on this mouthful: "The Indian Patriot Image in British Commercial Film and TV (1956-1986)." Yet when we videoed his brief lecture on the subject last spring, the title immediately struck me as deceptively complex. Because while he covers a vast collection of related themes (as examples, British Post-Colonialism; India 1820 to 1947; and History, Film, and the UK), Dror's eloquent storytelling provides not just a synopsis but a context, and reasons why the subject is timely and important.

Watch the video (8:17 minutes).

While we hope Dror's lecture interests lay and professional film and history audiences, he also seeks publishers (and others who might suggest venues) to develop his dissertation into a book. Please write your suggestions and questions in the comments section here or to dro@netvision.net.il (Skype: Dror1954).

May 28, 2009

Q&A on U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor

But let justice well up as waters,
and righteousness as a mighty stream — Amos 5:24
וְיִגַּל כַּמַּיִם, מִשְׁפָּט; וּצְדָקָה, כְּנַחַל אֵיתָן — עמוס ה:כד

To whom do I turn for brilliant analysis of matters legal-political in the U.S. (and often beyond these topical and geographic borders)? My own private consultant who proudly claims her immigrant "fishmonger" roots has garnered a mile-long list of honors, including teaching the rule of law in China, serving as Director of the National Association of Women Judges, and holding memberships in numerous bar associations. My housemate during our twenties, she has been an Associate Justice in a state court system the past two decades. And, she cooks superb dishes featuring Kimchi, the national Korean pickled cabbage dish.

Me: Your opinion on the nominee are most welcome.

She: Hi, T. From all I read in the New York Times and hear on NPR [National Public Radio], it is a brilliant choice both legally and politically. Apparently she is not a flaming liberal who would rekindle the culture wars but she would clearly be a counterweight to Scalia/Roberts/Thomas/Alito. And to choose a Nuyorican is a political masterstroke. I had originally mistakenly thought that she was a decade older than she actually is and age is definitely a factor where it's a lifetime appointment and those geezers tend to hold on too long, but fifties is a good age to go on the Court. I hope her diabetes stays under management so that she will be with us for a long time. Hope you are well. Off to the legal salt mines. Love,

April 29, 2009

Tears of sacrifice; joys of independence

Today, Israel is 61-years-old-and-young

And here and abroad, we are celebrating this modern miracle: the rebirth of the state of Israel in its ancient cherished homeland, the land of Israel.

I am typing not ten minutes from the modest building on Rothschild Boulevard
where Prime Minister David Ben Gurion read the Declaration of Independence, May 14,1948 (5 Iyar, 5708). (The declaration was followed by an invasion of the new state by troops from Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, starting the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, known in Israel as the War of Independence.)

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
Attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but also to Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, and many others

Everyone here understands intimately the daily struggle to maintain independence — a life, a homeland, and normalcy. (Not by accident does Memorial Day for Israel's fallen soldiers and victims of terror immediately precede Independence Day.)

For now, the national flag — flapping in the spring breezes, flies from cranes, rooftops, cars, windows, and thoroughfares. Today's air shows, family barbecues, and educational broadcast programs follow a night of dancing, singing, and fireworks — welcome pauses in forgetting the existential reality for a few precious hours.

Happy Independence Day!
!יום עצמאות שמח

April 17, 2009

At Tel Aviv's Chinky Beach, Singing the "Song of the Sea"

“Then sang Moses and the Children of Israel” [Exodus 15:1] at the miraculous splitting of the Re[e]d Sea, which we commemorate on the seventh day of Pesach.

This year, in a small Tel Aviv cove facing a sunset view of the Mediterranean Sea, the city's four liberal Jewish congregations met at Chinky Beach and sang the "Song of the Sea."

Watch the video (2:52 minutes).

My related post
In Tel Aviv: The orange on the seder plate

March 31, 2009

Shawarma: A taste of pure Israel

At Manah va-Khetzi [Hebrew: portion-and-a-half], loyal patrons join a fast-moving line to order shawarma, the house specialty, with trimmings of their choice — served with signature local hospitality and blaring radio.

Manah va-Khetzi is sandwiched among small low-cost fast-food shops on Yohanan Ben Zakai Street, on the edge of Jerusalem's southwest Katamonim (neighborhoods built in the 1950s for Jews who made aliya [ascension] to Israel from Arab countries and Iran).

My friends Judith and Jeff drove us straight to the kosher certified eating place after we left the joyous, deeply moving 90th birthday celebration for Rabbi Jack J. Cohen at its conclusion. They were hungry (at 11 PM!) for a taste of pure Israel, for better or for worse — shawarma.

I had no desire for food of any kind at that hour. Yet I quickly developed a hearty appetite to capture the scene, and aimed my camera at the black and red decor, brown and red meat, and mostly silent eaters exchanging token words on selections, condiments, and payment.

A perfect ending to a perfect evening.

Watch the video (2:33 minutes).

March 29, 2009

Happy 90th birthday, Rabbi Jack J. Cohen

Dearest Jack,

I was not yet twelve years old when my beloved father, Dr. Israel S. Chipkin, died. Minutes before his funeral, I stood in your study with my mother and sister, and my father's siblings. Your kind face, gentle manner, and soft voice helped soothe my shock, turmoil, and pain.

And then, you recited the blessing:
"Baruch... dayan ha-emet" [Blessed is the judge of truth]. I had never heard anyone say these words or discuss the blessing. 

Frozen and bewildered, my inner voice demanded, How could this wonderful rabbi, my father's beloved friend and student utter words so stinging, so cruel? Minutes later, the funeral — a word soup of eulogy and "el maleh rachamim" [God full of compassion] prayer for the dead was a bad blur even while "Baruch... dayan ha-emet" stayed stuck in me
. A decade passed before I could begin to understand the blessing, and I have been wrestling with it continuously to this day. 

Thank you, Jack, for your enduring guidance, kindness, friendship, and example. Mazal tov and happy birthday!
Who is Rabbi Dr. Jack J. Cohen?
And why did I share with him this earliest memory?
Nearing his 91st year, Jack's family and friends celebrated last week, in Jerusalem, his rich life and long distinguished career as a spiritual leader, educator, author, public servant, and champion of religious pluralism and social justice in Israel and the USA. Jack's children invited guests to share personal memories for inclusion in an album they presented him during the celebration. (The photo at the top of this post captures Jack and me during the celebration.)

Today, Jack is the Emeritus Director of the Hillel Foundation of the Hebrew University. Before making aliya in 1960, he was Rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ), in New York City, where he was a disciple of Rabbi Dr. Mordechai M. Kaplan. (Dr. Kaplan, who founded Reconstructionist Judaism and cofounded the SAJ, opened his eulogy of my father, a pioneering American Jewish educator — "He was dearer to me than a brother.")

NOTE | Writing this post, I found most helpful Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman's scholarly and creative discussion on "Baruch... dayan ha-emet"the "el maleh rachamim" prayer for the dead.

UPDATE April 17, 2012 |
.קהילת מבקשי דרך מרכינה ראש ומודיעה בצער רב על פטירתו של הרב דר' יעקב (ג'ק) יוסף כהן, יקיר הקהילה
ההלוויה תתקיים היום, יום שלישי, כה' ניסן תשע"ב, 17/04/12 בשעה 17:30 בבית העלמין "ארץ החיים" ליד בית שמש. הסעה תצא מהקהילה בשעה 16:00 בדיוק. השבעה תתקיים בבית של ירמי וגילה כהן, רח' בר כוכבא 45/10.

יעקב כהן היה רב ומורה מן הדגולים שבדורו ובן אדם שרוח הבריות תמיד היתה נוחה הימנו. לפני כשנה, כשגיל הגבורות היה עשור ויותר מאחוריו, פרסם עוד שני ספרים מקוריים וחדשניים. לזכותו תעמוד גם העובדה שעלה לארץ לפני 50 שנה -- חלוץ אמיתי בין שורות הרבנים המסורתיים בארץ ומחשובי הרבנים הרקונסטרוקציוניסטיים בעולם. יהי זכרו ברוך.

In deep and profound sorrow, Kehillat Mevakshei Derech mourns the passing of our dear friend Rabbi Dr. Jack J. Cohen. The funeral will be held today, April 17, at 5:30 p.m. at Eretz HaHayim Cemetery near Beit Shemesh. A bus will leave from the Kehillah promptly at 4 p.m. The Shiva will take place at the house of Yermi and Gila Cohen at 45/10 Bar Kochba St.
‫ ‬
Jacob Cohen was among the great rabbis and teachers of his generation; he was an easygoing man with whom everyone felt comfortable. About a year ago, when he was already past age 90, he published two more original and innovative books. To his credit, he made Aliya 50 years ago — a true pioneer among Masorti rabbis in Israel and leading Reconstructionist rabbis worldwide.

May his memory be for a blessing.

March 23, 2009

Rabbi Y.M. Lau on Purim in the Nazi camps

During the recent joyous open-air Purim celebration in Tel Aviv, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau spoke to the whimsically-costumed multigenerational crowd. At a pause in the Megilla reading, he described an amazing occurrence in a Nazi camp on Purim, and then drew parallels between the ancient Purim story and modern-day challenges.

Watch the video (6:08 minutes).

Note While Rabbi Lau speaks in Hebrew, I added occasional captions in English to guide non-Hebrew speakers.

I dedicate this post and video to dear friends Yehudit Liman (Tel Aviv) and Rabbi Dr. Michael Berger (Atlanta) whose enthusiasm for Rabbi Lau's depth and accessibility inspired my efforts.

My previous Purim posts

March 07, 2009

Reading Amos Oz — אל תגידי לילה, No digas noche

אל תגידי לילה in one hand and No digas noche in the other

My friend Elisheva/Isabel is visiting me in Tel Aviv for a few days. She arrived by train from Haifa, where she's completing a degree in Hebrew Language and Literature at Haifa University. (There, the native French speaker who is also fluent in Spanish has been polishing her Hebrew and learning Arabic and written Aramaic.)

During infrequent pauses in our itinerary, my polyglot friend has been reading Israeli writer, novelist, and journalist Amos Oz's novel Don't Call It Night in the original Hebrew. Rather than check dictionary translations of the occasional word or phrase she doesn't know, she holds the Hebrew volume in one hand, and the Spanish translation in the other.

We have been enjoying marathon conversations (reminiscent of happy hours among Israelis discussing Hebrew literature class), Kabbalat Shabbat services at Beit Tefilah Israeli (a Jewish spiritual community that combines Jewish and Israeli identities), a spontaneous Shabbat dinner (complete with a guest!), and a sing-along of Israeli Golden Oldies led by Nachum Heiman (one of Israel's most beloved composers of popular songs) at the Tel Aviv Cinemateque.

Despite my linguistic limitations (our conversations are restricted to Hebrew and English), we communicate perfectly.

February 17, 2009

Mt. Tabor, Israel — lessons and gifts

Last spring, I spent a day at Mt. Tabor, north of Tel Aviv. Something about this mound of earth at the junction of ancient strategic highways — "the battlefield of the nations" (Mark Twain) captured my imagination. And the months following the visit, I felt a compulsion to learn more...

Now that I'm back in Israel, I'm looking forward to catching up soon with many people you'll "meet" here (5 minutes).

February 05, 2009

An Israeli Arab "Profile in Courage": Marwan Amer

With my "cousin" Marwan in Beersheba, in southern Israel
We met last spring at a celebration of families whose children attend the Hagar Arab-Jewish kindergarten in Beersheba. I traveled from Tel Aviv to meet the students, their parents, and community — an oasis of hope trumping ignorance, cynicism, and despair. My digital story Jewish-Arab Kindergarten relates part of their heroic tale.

Within minutes, Marwan and I discovered that we share a deep affection for my cousin Khanan, principal of Jerusalem's largest primary school. Marwan, an interfaith leader and trained facilitator for the Adam Institute for Democracy and Peace, has worked with Khanan and other educators to break down stereotypes and teach nonviolent methods of conflict resolution in schools.

When Marwan introduced me to his wife, Sarah, she immediately said, "stay with us as long as you like" or to join them most weekends in Kafr Qasem, their hometown in northern Israel. We pledged to meet again.

Seven months later, Operation Cast Lead broke out
Beginning in December 2008 and ending in January 2009, Israel launched a military campaign in the Gaza Strip aimed to stop Hamas rocket attacks on southern Israel and target Hamas members and infrastructure. It achieved little of value for anyone.

During the military campaign, I couldn't imagine life for Marwan and his family — dodging Hamas rockets while many fellow Jewish Israeli citizens are hostile toward Israeli Arab citizens. I was worried sick and called or emailed Israeli family and friends daily. At first, I hesitated calling Marwan, unsure whether a conversation might feel awkward for us or add to his stress.

Staying alive, together
Marwan's young daughter answered the phone. (He later told me that she watched on TV her school hit by a rocket.) When he came to the phone, he gasped. I stammered, weeping, "I am so terribly sad. For everyone. How are you?"

He explained that initially, he and Sarah brought their three young children to their grandparents in Kafr Qasem to escape Hamas rocket attacks in the south. Two weeks later, the children and parents missed each other terribly, so the children returned home to Beersheba. With local schools closed and rockets raining steadily, the family mostly stayed inside.

Peace work does not stop for war
"How are you, Marwan?" I pressed. "What about your peace work while escalating violence threatens the dream?"

And with his reply, Marwan, an unstoppable force for good, captured my Profile in Courage Award.

The Greater Beersheba Arab-Jewish teen group is continuing to meet. While the Jewish families would not allow their kids into Arab villages since the war, all the parents gave permission for the group to travel to Tel Aviv to meet [1.5 hours distance and requiring vehicles, fuel, and logistical arrangements]. There, in the Israel Boy and Girl Scouts Tel Aviv troop building, the teens are discussing the situation and how they feel and think about it. Our peace work has not stopped. And it will continue.

Related Post
Jewish-Arab Kindergarten

January 28, 2009

Blessing for Tamar and Helen

Helen came for lunch today. Earlier, when we had confirmed our visit, she volunteered, "I wrote a blessing. I wrote it for you and me," she hinted.

My friend, the gifted liturgist (she served on Emory University's Candler School of Theology faculty from 1981-1999) arrived bearing a copy of her recent book, "Mother Roots: The Female Ancestors of Jesus" (the opening chapter: "Tamar: A Woman Who Sought Justice"). Helen also brought a copy of the blessing and too many yummy desserts.

When she recited the blessing, Helen spoke the Hebrew word ruakh twice. In this context, ruakh means soul, spirit, essence.

Watch the video (3:57 minutes).

January 23, 2009

From Abby's place: Hail to the Chief!

Abby's evite to the
Inauguration-viewing brunch bunch

The scene: Abby's art-and-book-filled sunny home with to-die-for views.

The crowd:
A merry band of 32 adults, one middle-schooler, and three rescue dogs.

The gifts: One friend brought three vases bursting with yellow and red tulips. Another gave Abby an Obama Action Doll (shown in the photo) that she clutched tightly, posed with, and waved.

The activities:
FOAs (Friends of Abby) mingled, flowed — sometimes seemingly floating, always eating, usually transfixed at the Temples of CNN (headquartered in the living room) or PBS (my religion) in the den.

The mood:
Severally and together, bursts of joy, relief, disbelief, pride, oohs and ahhs, tears, smiles, shouts, laughs, human growls, and doggie speak.

The food: Oh, the food. And, those mimosas.

The call: The day after a national holiday — Happy birthday 2009, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when America inaugurated its first African American President in an astonishing celebration, we were riveted to President Obama's call [transcript and video here] to embrace the hopes, challenges, opportunities, and responsibilities upon us.

Photo credit: Susan Walsh/Associated Press

January 14, 2009

And the "Smile Project" 2009 winner is . . . me

With Bren Bataclan, holding my prizes
at New York City's South Street Seaport

I wish I could say that I have been steadily Smiling at random, from Atlanta to Jerusalem with the Smile Project. In that post, I blogged on my pledge to do so after I spied, then plucked Bren's bright painting of a colorful, happy, whimsical creature atop a boulder in front of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta. Winning the 2009 award (for the best feedback entry) has pricked my conscience, triggering my pledge renewal.

A note taped below the painting read that for the mere pittance of a promise to smile at random people more often, and to send Bren feedback (guidelines here) on where I found it, the painting was . . . mine.

The next month, I brought it to my cousins in Jerusalem, spreading smiles across the ocean.

Feedback from Jerusalem to Boston
Teen cousin, Daniel (shown holding the painting), emailed Bren (through me) the requested feedback (in English, Daniel's second language after Hebrew).

Hi Tamar, How are you? I wrote a feedback [below] to Bren, the man that painted the cute thing... I just don’t know how this sweet creature named. I hope that it’s fine. (There are many words that I’m not sure if they need to be fixed...)

° ° °
"Dear Bren, I was amazed to see your lovely painting. In fact - he coused me to smile. I glad that there are people like you - carring other people like you - carring other people to be happier. — Daniel Zohar, דניאל זוהר"

Then, I invited Daniel to join in a brief Q&A.

Me: Where did you hang the painting?
Daniel: Over the shelf in the living room.

Me: Are you smiling at more people?
Daniel: Yes though I don't know if its because of the picture.

Me: Do others in your family smile at random more often?
Daniel: Same answer... and they express more joy.

Me: How old are you, and in what grade?
Daniel: 15 years old, in 10th grade.

The painting over the shelf in the living room

New friendships, worldwide
While finding the painting in Atlanta has been bringing smiles in Israel, finding it also launched my friendship with Philippine-born, U.S.A.-educated Bren, who began The Smile Boston Project in 2003, his street art project to brighten spirits worldwide.

After months' intense planning and detailed scheduling, last September, Bren (from Boston), I (from Atlanta and Tel Aviv), and Daniel's brother Dear Israeli Soldier, Dear Aviah (from Jerusalem) met in New York City to celebrate The Smile Project and the painting that linked us. (In the photo, an iPod classic with Belkin microphone attachment is capturing Bren's answers to our questions.)

Pay attention
Wherever you go, be alert. The Smile Project might be on your path — a painting and this invitation: