Creating Community, Part 2: Better Than Couch Surfing

This on-going series will explore some of the ways that Jews have created a sense of kehillah (community), both traditional and modern.  Part 1 focused on a contemporary approach, the list-serve; in this article, I will explore the traditional method of hospitality; future articles will focus on Chabad, a group of Jews with phenomenal outreach as well as integral cohesion, and how one religious institution, Lower Merion Synagogue, has managed to send so many of its youth to make aliyah (immigration to Israel), and even to serve in Tzahal (the Israeli Army).

Recently, my daughter’s new apartment was burglarized, so I found myself making travel arrangements on short notice.  I couldn’t find hotel space close to her Lakeview neighborhood in Chicago, so I reserved the bedroom and bathroom offered by a young couple on the Airbnb website.  My daughter stayed with me there for two nights and it was perfect for our needs.  Later this month, I will return for another visit, this time with my teen daughter.  The very day I landed in Chicago, the New York Times ran a feature on Airbnb and its placement service in its Business section.

As comfy as were my accommodations– far better than couch surfing!– the placement service does not yet compare to the generous hospitality that I know in the Jewish community in my role as Hospitality Coordinator for my shul, Lower Merion Synagogue.  Orthodox Jews have such a strong sense of connection with other Shabbat-observant Jews that we can travel the world over and ask for (free) Shabbat and Yom Tov (holy day) hospitality from local Jews.  Usually, it’s because of work or non-Orthodox family celebrations that we find ourselves far from an Orthodox synagogue.  (We also get the occasional appeal from a shul member overwhelmed by the number of out-of-town guests for a simcha (religious celebration)).  But it is also when we travel for pleasure that we can ask for help finding kosher food and accommodations.

However, we Jews have been thinking a lot about trust and safety recently after the little boy, Leiby Kletzky, was murdered in Brooklyn, after he asked for directions from a man who looked legit, like someone who held the same values.  Similarly, Airbnb had to revise its policy after several hosts complained of paying guests who trashed their homes and stolen personal property.  A few days after my return home, I received a letter from Brian Chesky, the founder of Airbnb, stating their commitment to supporting their hosts with a newly instituted guarantee coverage for up to $50,000 in damages from paying guests.  So, how do we deal with the issue in my community?

Some people would say we’re crazy for opening up our homes to strangers.  I have even placed guests in local homes while the owners were away.  In one incidence, the guests were coming from London for a bar mitzvah, they later connected with their hosts, and the shul family’s daughter was able to stay with them while she was doing her semester abroad.  In a dramatic example of the Biblical quote from Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) that can be translated as “Cast your bread on the waters, for you shall find it after many days”,  this same host family found themselves in need of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests) this summer when they made a wedding for one of their daughters and their machatanim (parents of the other member of the wedding couple, in this case, the groom) asked for an empty house, because the groom’s father is wheelchair-bound and he has to use a hospital bed.  To my amazement, with my very first phone call, I was able to make the shidduch (match).  Another example came four summers ago, when I got a frantic call on a Friday afternoon.  A woman was stranded at the airport because her plane had been delayed and she needed a place to stay for Shabbat.  I made the shidduch, then because her luggage had been routed to Boston (where the rest of her family was headed), she wore her host family’s daughter’s power suit to shul the next day.  The only marvel to me was that she, a mature woman in her late 50s, was the same size as her host family’s 19-year-old daughter.

After the boy’s murder, my Rabbi gave a drasha (sermon) on Shabbat about reaching out to the loners in our midst.  He also reassured me that we were doing just fine with our hospitality placements.  I later consulted with my co-coordinator  about changes we might have to make, as we are not in a position to offer any monetary guarantees against damages.  We decided to continue with our modus operandus, by inquiring about the community that a prospective guest hails from and how did they find us, as a community referral is best.

We are not unique in our commitment to hachnasat orchim. The website Shabbat.com was created by a web designer in Monsey, NY in 2010 and, after the webmaster of LMShuls posted a notice about it on our list-serve, about 20 local families signed up as hosts that week.  We cannot make the bad headline news go away, but we can focus on building community in the way we know, one mitzvah at a time.

This series will continue in September.

The Locavore Movement and the Religious Jew

My favorite non-fiction book in 2007 was Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, written with her biologist husband, Steven Hopp, and their two children about their experiment in growing all of their food on their own land in rural southwest Virginia.  It also powered the growth of the locavore movement.  I found the memoir fascinating in its intelligence, its honesty (mistakes were made!) and the family’s sense of humor. My favorite anecdote was when Kingsolver quipped to her friends that when you’re ranked as “number 74 (on a Doomsday author’s book about the dangers of 100 people who were destroying America), you try harder,” as she endeavored to eviscerate a turkey.

In Wednesday’s New York Times (its Dining section being the highlight of the week for me), readers learned what the family has been doing since their milestone year.  They wanted to expand the lessons learned to their blue-collar, Appalachian community.  First, they contemplated creating a year-round farmers’ market but the growing season is short.  So, Hopp decided that a restaurant would be more viable, one in which the produce, meat and cheese would be sourced locally.  As reported by Jane Black, “Coffee and tea would be allowed because they are dried, but they should be organic, fair trade or both.”

How has the Harvest Table, as Hopp’s restaurant is named, fared since it was launched in October 2007?   It’s been difficult, and they have yet to make a profit.  This isn’t a “progressive, urban enclave” such as exists in Brooklyn or Berkeley, so most of their neighbors have not even bothered to step in, thinking the meal would be too expensive.  As for attempts to reaching beyond the choir (of like-minded folks), you first have to get them in the door.  And the labels, “farm fresh,” “organic” and “local” do not muster the excitement they do in urban communities where entrepreneurs (food impresarios, I call them) charge up to $200 for a dinner served in the fields (as I heard reported on NPR last week).  So, they keep the prices low (comparable to Applebee’s though the reporter noted that the portions are larger in the chain restaurants) and the profile humble, the opposite of the marketer’s urge to scale up in sophistication.  Black gives an example: “What might be called “fennel pasta with pecans” in Brooklyn and served with a detailed description of the vegetable provenance, is “pasta primavera” here.

But Hopp’s quote that hit me personally was this: “We are always trying to figure out how to educate people more, but with the recognition that most people don’t want a lecture.”  I’ve just returned from a visit with my daughter in Chicago, where I stayed in the lovely home of a young couple found through the Airbnb lodging-rentals website.  My host was a New Zealander (with an American wife) and he’d never  met a religious Jew before.  He was curious about some tenets of the Jewish faith.  So, do we give the short, flippant answer or do we attempt the more thoughtful and accurate explanation but risk losing our audience?  My daughter has been through the cauldron of fire before when we transferred her from a religious high school to our local acclaimed public high school (the beloved alma mater of basketball star Koby Bryant) and it was during the social studies freshman unit on the Middle East and she was called upon to explain all of Jewish past, present, and future.  Trying to educate and defend Israeli politics is a challenge far beyond most 14-year-olds.  But, she did engage her peers and she’s matured into a thinking, articulate adult.

So, we found ourselves having a more engaged conversation about faith and ritual with our host than is encountered at the usual Shabbat table.  What struck me anew is that every Jew must conduct herself as a diplomat, a model representative of her people (forgive my use of the distaff (feminine) possessive pronoun).   The people you encounter may not have ever met another earnest, committed Jew before.  You may have this one opportunity to give them not only a positive impression of Yiddishkeit (Jewishness), but you may also have the privilege and challenge to un-do and clarify erroneous impressions conveyed by others, who were less careful, less knowledgeable, less sophisticated.  Would you pass your test?  This may have been our test for The Three Weeks of introspection as we Jews head towards Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, which falls on August 8th this year.

Book Chat

As a Chinese-American, I am neither white nor black and I am privileged to observe the nuances of race relations in this country as a bystander (except when my own racial heritage is a source of grievance).  I wonder if an academic awareness of an issue allows one to appreciate the inherent complexities?

I read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and I was riveted but very perturbed by its central issue of race relations.  Set in 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi, a young white woman interviews and edits the painful narratives of black maids about their relationships with their white employers.  I wanted to identify a black perspective.  A friend cautioned me that I cannot generalize to all blacks, as African immigrants and people with Caribbean roots do not share the same experience as those descended from slaves brought to America.  No, indeed, but I was sure that a black person would respond differently to the book.

I spoke with a black staffer at my local library, someone whom I’ve known for the 21 years that my family has lived in this community.  She did not enjoy the book as did the white readers who have praised The Help, launching it onto the bestseller lists.  She could forecast how the plot would go, and she skipped over parts.  Her niece was bored by it and never did finish the book.  I asked her if it would have been a better book if it had been written by a black author, but she demurred at that.

Could the difference lie in perspective?  Events resonate more when they become personal, as Jews are instructed to imagine that they themselves are leaving Egypt during the Passover seder.  Issues become more painful.  It took me a few years before I could follow a friend’s recommendation for Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, because the central character, a child, dies from an epileptic seizure and my child has the same disorder.

I’ve read that people like horror films because they find it cathartic, a vicarious experience that leaves them relieved to be safe and ordinary.  I wonder if readers of The Help become more understanding?  Are some readers smug that they are not racist and do not harbor any prejudicial intent?  Or do they have a renewed sensitivity to insults to human dignity?  Do they speak out in protest?  My Rabbi has noted that we do not feel pain to the same degree when a tragedy, a violation,  happens to someone else.  However, the challenge is in the striving to maintain sensitivity and that is a hallmark of a compassionate person.

I attended a book discussion along with my friend who grew up in the South.  She found the novel realistic, and told me later that the others (all white women) did not appreciate the fact that though the overt theme of the book was racism, the same kind of prejudice and peer control exist in other times, other places, including our own.  I attempted to point out that the new theory on bully-behavior management, is not to address the bully directly, but to educate the silent majority, that they can take control of a situation by speaking up.  The queen bee, Hilly, from the novel could not have continued in her role, if the others did not let her do so.  However, most people were too afraid, ignorant, or blind to the racial divide in a society in which they had a comfortable perch.  I wonder if readers would become more conscious and sensitive to injustice around them?  I made a reference to To Kill a Mockingbird, which is now a classic.  Did readers of the time immediately take to its message?

The film version, starring Emma Stone as the ingenue reporter, Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, Viola Davis as her source, a black housekeeper named Aibileen Clark, and Bryce Dallas Howard as their nemesis, the controlling Hilly Holbrook, will open in the local cinemas on August 10th.

Who Infuses Klezmer and Jazz Music With An African Beat?

The e-mail came on a Friday afternoon via my publisher.  It was the cultural attaché for the Israeli Consulate here in Philly and she wanted me to cover the event they were sponsoring at the Art Museum as part of its Art After Five program.  The problem?  The concerts are held on Friday evenings and I observe Shabbat the traditional way.  When I told my family about the prominence of the guest artist, Israeli-born Oran Etkin, they encouraged me to cover the event.  What I ended up doing was to complete my Shabbat preparations by 5, drove down to the Museum in a pouring rain, attended the concert, and was back home and ready for candle-lighting before any other member of my family.  The interview with the soft-spoken artist was conducted the following Monday by Skype.

What excited us was the reputation Oran has as a clarinet player and a teacher, lauded by New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff and PRI‘s internationally syndicated radio show, Afropop Worldwide.  His music fuses traditional West African (Malian), Jewish, and Middle Eastern melodies with modern jazz, creating what The Boston Globe dubbed a “hypnotic balance between straight-ahead jazz and world music.”  He’s performed across the world with musicians ranging from jazz guitarist Mike Stern to rapper Wyclef Jean.  His music has been featured on a Grammy-nominated album, Healthy Food for Thought, alongside tracks by Russell Simmons, Moby, and Sweet Honey In the Rock.

Oran is also an innovative teacher and the creator of the popular Timbalooloo music classes.  His first CD for children, Wake Up, Clarinet!, has won awards from the Parents Choice Foundation, NAPPA (the National Parenting Publications Awards) and the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Seal.  It features Jason Marsalis from New Orleans on drums, Fabian Almazan from Cuba on piano, Curis Fowlkes from Brooklyn on trombone, and Garth Stevenson from Canada on bass.  His debut album, Kelenia,was recognized as the “Best World Beat Album” at the Independent Music Awards.  Oran has performed at the Blue Note, Central Park SummerStage, Joe’s Pub, the United Nations and numerous other venues in the United States, Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and the Middle East with musicians including Jason Marsalis, Wycliffe Gordon, Lionel Loueke, Mandingo Ambassadors, Airto Moreira, Toumani Diabate, and Killah Priest of the Wu-Tang Clan.

How did a Jew, an Israeli, learn to play traditional African music from Mali?  Oran had a teacher in college- his alma mater being Brandeis- whose uncle played the kora, also known as the African harp or lute.  This teacher, Joh Camara, brought Oran to visit his family in Mali and Oran fell in love with the people and their music.  The two African musicians who’d performed at the Art Museum had the same surname, Kouyate.  Did this have a cultural significance, as Cohen connote priestly descent for Jews?  Yes, the West Africans have an oral tradition by a griot or a jeli who relates the history of their people through music and song.  People bearing the Kouyate surname are descendents of the original griot family.  They traditionally perform at milestone ceremonies and Oran has been privileged to participate in some of these festive occasions.  Richard Freedman, professor of music at Haverford College, reminds me that these griot lineages have broken down somewhat in the wake of sound recording (which allows others to copy the style), and of course, of social change in Mali, emigration, etc.  In fact, you can even study kora in the United States!

Two non-Western instruments were performed at the concert– in addition to Oran on the bass clarinet and saxophone and Marcos Verela on the double bass– the balafon and the calabash.  Yes, you read correctly- it was a giant egg-shaped half gourd, measuring almost two feet in diameter with a hardened shell that was about half an inch thick.  The drummer, Makane Kouyate, produced such a diverse blend of sound with his instrument that I was sure he had a steel drum hidden behind it.  No, it was only the calabash with a microphone tucked underneath on a regular table.  When the drummer beats the instrument from the side, it evokes a click sound, and when he bangs it from the top, while standing, it sounds like a bass drum.  Played by Balla Kouyate, the balafon is a percussion idiophone of West Africa and it looks like a wooden xylophone.  It was carefully and lovingly made by its owner, as these musicians take pride in making their own instruments.  The drummer had also stretched goatskin for his other drum, the djembe.  I learned from Wikipedia that according to the Bamana people in Mali, the name of the djembe comes from the saying Anke djé, anke bé which translates to “everyone gather together in peace” and defines the drum’s purpose.

The percussionist had his two young children sitting contently up front behind the “stage,” a cleared space at the bottom of the grand staircase inside the Museum, with a huge cloth curtain drawn across the back of where the musicians performed.  Oran confirmed that the balafon player was their father, noting that this was “the natural way of understanding music.”  When children learn at a young age, music comes to them naturally; they do not have to learn the rules as one has to endure learning the grammar of a foreign language.  With his Timbalooloo classes, the next generation is being exposed to world music with “real people playing real music, attending to each other,” and in the process, they learn to appreciate each other through their music.

In the past two years, his touring has increased and been brought to another level.  There is much interest in Europe, where it is said that they appreciate and value jazz music.  Oran says it’s true in certain aspects as a cultural, artistic, and intellectual achievement.  But then, he would hate to generalize, as he only sees a certain subset of a music audience.  He now lives in the United States and he sees people who do not know or value jazz music.  Maybe, it’s because jazz started in this country, mused Oran, “so people here take it for granted and not value it as much.”

For the concert, Oran wore a slim black jacket over a collared white short-sleeved shirt (which was exposed when he took off the jacket when the music got “hot”) and jeans.  The bassist wore black, but each of the two Malian musicians wore a blue or gold flowing wide-sleeved African robe called a boubou or a bubu. Why did Oran not wear something similar?  It would not be authentic.  Oran elaborated thus: they understand and respect each performer’s own identity and integrity.   According to Professor Freedman, “They are mixing the traditions while attempting to preserve the uniqueness of each layer.”  Oran continued, “It adds more value when meeting other musicians when you bring who you are and make something new.” It enables a wider message.

While Oran is not observant of Jewish religious tradition, he is a modern-day Israeli.  Hebrew was his first language and he still speaks it with his family.   In addition to language, he claims an Israeli identity in the way he relates to other people, a more casual way of friendship than is demonstrated by Americans, who do not drop in on their friends un-announced.  He has felt more at home with other immigrants, through their multiple identities.  As with music, so it is with his social life.

Before his maternal grandmother’s death when he was eight, he and his elder brother recorded her memoir.  They made 10 audiocassettes of the family’s oral history about the uncle who left Poland/Russia for Ethiopia (and became close to the Emperor Haile Selassie) and she who’d emigrated alone to Israel in the 1930′s.  The grandmother, Mina Nadel, later earned a doctorate at the Sorbonne and became head of the biology department at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.  Oran plans to write music one day based on her stories.

Was there musical talent in his family?  We do not know if it was so further back in time that the Etkin clan was musical, but in his immediate family, there are no professional musicians.  His mother played the piano at home.  His father played no instruments but he was very musical and he sang around the house.  He taught him the importance of melody, said Oran, as “jazz musicians can get so caught up in the notes that they get away from the melodies.”  He was obsessed by Louis Armstrong from the age of nine and he discovered jazz on his own.  His parents then took him to New Orleans to hear the real stuff in his early teens.

Oran also has a sister who’s much younger by 10 years.  In caring for her and teaching her how to read and do math, she taught him how to teach.  His playfulness and inventiveness come across in his children’s CD.  Teaching is in the family: His brother, Amit Etkin, has both M.D. and Ph.D. degrees, and is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Oran’s goals are to play more and more music.  A bachelor, he likes to wake up and make music with people whom he likes and trusts.  He will continue to tour and meet people who are interesting to him socially as well as musically.  His Timbalooloo ventures will also expand, with more CDs and also children’s books.  Watch for news of his proposed television program and you can check out his websites,  www.oranetkin.com for the jazz and world music (including Kelenia), and www.timbalooloo.com for the program for children.   He has taught other people his pedagogical method and when touring, he also teaches classes on site.  Parents hear by word-of-mouth and they gather their children to meet him around the world, whether it be in Paris or Los Angeles for the Grammy awards ceremony.  My 2-year-old niece and her family will be moving to Edinburgh, Scotland this fall, so I hope that Oran would plan a gig there.

Kelenia, the title of his debut album, means “the love between people who find each other.”  Today is the Fast Day of the 17th of Tammuz and as we Jews begin the Three Weeks of semi-mourning culminating in the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, Tisha B’Av, the rabbis remind us that the ancient first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by sinat hinam, senseless hatred.  May the trust and acceptance that comes through a love of shared music inspire us for a future of peace.