The Banana on the Seder Plate

bananabanana.jpgThe moment I saw artist Nicole Eisenman’s seder plate at the Jewish Museum gift shop in New York, I had to have it. Its simplicity gives way to cheekiness. Its bold black lettering and mud-red glaze give it a funky vibe. And the symbols on the seder plate are described in a straightforward, childlike language. My favorite description calls the charoset—the edible stand-in for the material the enslaved children of Israel used to make bricks—“cementy stuff.”

The most declarative symbol on the plate is the bone—the place for the zeroa, or roasted shank bone. That particular object is there to remind seder participants of the 10th plague—the killing of the Egyptians’ firstborn sons—and it screams for attention on this seder plate.

Nicole Eisenman Seder Plate with Pouch

And while this is a dream of a seder plate, there are newer ritual food objects to join the old standbys. The first is an orange. This is a tradition that goes back to the 1980s, when an early feminist Haggadah suggested the radical act of placing a crust of bread on a seder plate in solidarity with Jewish lesbians. Unfortunately the message was that gay Jews were made to feel as if they violated Judaism, like eating bread at Passover. So Susannah Heschel came up with the idea to replace the bread with an orange. In an essay she wrote a few years ago for the Forward, she explained:

“When we eat that orange segment, we spit out the seeds to repudiate homophobia and we recognize that in a whole orange, each segment sticks together. Oranges are sweet and juicy and remind us of the fruitfulness of gay and lesbian Jews and of the homosociality that has been such an important part of Jewish experience, whether of men in yeshivas or of women in the Ezrat Nashim.”

A relatively new tradition on my seder plate is the inclusion of cashews. This is the brainchild of Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz, senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Newton. A few years ago, Rabbi Gardenswartz saw a sign in CVS asking customers to buy bags of cashews for our troops in Iraq. A CVS employee, whose son was on his second tour of duty there, spearheaded the idea. She explained that salted cashews kept the men and women serving in a desert climate hydrated. The next Shabbat, Rabbi Gardenswartz urged his congregation to honor our troops by including cashews on their seder plates.

Now comes the year of the banana. For 3,000 years the Haggadah has reminded us that we were once slaves, and it commands us to experience the Exodus from Egypt as if we had actually gone through it ourselves.

This is where the banana comes in. Like the slaves we were in Egypt, so too are we Syrian migrants fleeing for our very lives. We too are the parents of the little boys—brothers who were 3 and 5—who drowned on an Exodus gone horribly awry. Their mother drowned with them, but their father survived the harrowing journey. In his grief this father remembered how much his boys loved bananas.

Bananas are not easy to come by in war-torn Syria, but every day this father brought his boys a banana to share. Its sweetness was not only a treat, but also a symbol of his deep and abiding love for them. Is this man so different from us? Is he so different from our ancestors wandering in the desert? Did the Israelites make life a little sweeter for their children on their traumatic journey with bits of hard-to-come-by fruits?

In the spirit of Nicole Eisenman’s original plate, what would an updated seder plate convey about these new and sacred ritual objects? Here are my suggestions and their meanings:

  • Orange: cherishing one another
  • Cashews: solidarity
  • Banana: we are all migrants

What would you add to your seder plate?

The Empty Seder Plate by Judy Bolton-Fasman

I cook the way I speak Spanish, which I describe as a “kitchen Spanish.” My accent is intact, but my fluency comes and goes. I learned the basics of the language from the women in my mother’s Cuban family, whom I watched as they peeled and fried and roasted their way to an improvised repertoire of Cuban infused Sephardic Jewish food. I think of the ropa vieja that my Abuela—my grandmother—made. She sautéed shredded beef in tomato sauce, onions and garlic. The dish was then studded Sephardic style with raisins—small bursts of sweetness swimming in an oily broth. A gift from one culture to another.

Abuela’s cooking genes bypassed my mother to be inherited by her younger sister, Tia. But my mother could not abide Tia doing anything better than she did. Mom anointed herself the prettier sister. “All of my cousins wanted me to be in their weddings,” my mother bragged. “I had a beautiful figure,” she said outlining the shape of an hourglass.

My mother eventually vanished into a mental illness that blurred my teen years with fear. “No one will believe you,” she once said to me when I threatened to expose her after she threw a milk bottle at me and bloodied my head. These days a crippling arthritis mires her in loneliness and maroons her in a wheelchair. But before that she was, as my father used to say, crazy like a fox. As a child I intuited that my mother was not so much smart, as she was wily. I would learn much later that she pretended to have a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Havana.

My mother never let her lack of credentials get in the way of her achievements. In the afterglow of Betty Friedan’s, “The Feminine Mystique,” she went back to school. It was the mid-1960s and my mother was among the first wave of women returning to higher education. I was five when she applied for a Master’s degree in Spanish literature. She talked her way into the program, claiming that her wedding gown and her diploma were trapped behind Castro’s clanking iron curtain.

I learned a lot about my mother during her graduate school years. But what struck me most about that time was that my mother was as slow a reader as I, her kindergarten daughter, was. She bought a cookbook holder to read Don Quijote constantly as she stirred a bubbling stew on its way to burning the bottom of the pot. “Burnt food doesn’t have any calories,” she said as she ate her charred dinner away from us over the kitchen sink. She drenched tuna fish in Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup and baked the thick concoction until it left an exoskeleton imprinted on the Pyrex pan.

In the meantime Tia had achieved near perfection and total adulation from us kids with her American-style papitas fritas. She also excelled at making bourequas, Sephardic style knishes that we couldn’t get enough of. She pickled and cooked a cow’s tongue—the biggest block of meat I ever saw—and paired it with tostones and arroz y frijoles. Tia had transplanted tropical Cuba to freezing Connecticut with her culinary acrobatics. The recipes she used were never written down. Her dishes were an oral history of my family’s migration from Turkey and Greece to Cuba.

Witnessing Tia’s success in the kitchen, my mother stepped up her game and made what turned out to be the driest paella in the western hemisphere. To give the dish a kosher sensibility, she substituted hotdogs for sausage and exchanged bits of salmon and flounder for shellfish. Her rice glowed neon yellow from over seasoning with saffron and, of course, there were raisins mixed in with peas and peppers. My mother over-baked the whole enterprise until the rice was beyond crispy. Her chicken was similarly desiccated—the skin of the bird crumbling to the touch, the meat as flavorful as a tongue depressor.

When my highly assimilated Americano father took over making school lunches, he slipped American cheese in between pieces of deli turkey until he worked his way to packing us soggy ham sandwiches. An unspoken rebellion, this sign of marital discord also marked the beginning of what was a very slippery slope with respect to kashrut. I don’t remember how it happened, but one Sunday morning my mother was frying bacon. Her dark hair coming out of its bun, her reading glasses askew as she read a novelita propped up in her cookbook holder. “You’ll learn that sometimes you have to please a man,” she sighed. My dad, sturdy and intimidating in those days, slathered the BLTs she made him with mayonnaise. No one said a word about the equally treyf rubbery clams that appeared in the smoky paella my mother served for Shabbat dinner.

Tia was more faithful to the laws of kashrut. She kept milk and meat separate in her cooking, and the meat she used was succulent and kosher. In a nod to our Anatolian heritage she made tishpishti—a Turkish cake drenched in honey. She also made biscochos—sweet dough baked in the shape of donuts. In addition to making Sephardic delicacies, Tia also perfected her Ashkenazi mother-in-law’s recipes for gefilte fish and chopped liver. My mother attempted to make her own mother-in-law’s chopped liver, but it was eggy and garlicky and swimming in mayonnaise. Her swampy version came up short on chicken liver, which pleased my kid’s palate.

The Passover holiday, though, belonged to Tia. Her unleavened foods were indistinguishable from the ones she made the rest of the year. The Passover bourequas would rival the regular ones and her tishpishti was as spongy and flavorful as the “chametz” version. The tongue would sit alongside the brisket Tia learned to make in America. My mother knew she had no part in this veritable feast. And so she dragged the spotlight from Tia by doing what she did best: she threw a temper tantrum. This one was over the fact that Tia’s husband, Tio, was not wearing a tie to the Seder. Tia stood at the threshold of our back door, brisket and bourequas in hand, only to be sent away. The sisters stopped speaking to each other.

sederplate

The next Passover, a former student of my mother’s—Mom had gone on to teach high school Spanish—now a reporter for the local newspaper, contacted her about a story she was writing on Passover cuisine. She remembered my mother as vaguely exotic—a Cuban Jew with roots in Turkey and Greece. Along with drilling her students in stem changing verbs, my mother also unfurled her personal history in the classroom. Here was a chance for my mother to expand her audience beyond the teenagers she taught. By then I was in graduate school studying writing and modern literature. She called to tell me that she was excited about the opportunity to tell the Greater Hartford metropolitan area she still had the key to her apartment in Havana. If she had to offer some holiday recipes in return for the attention, so be it.

The first order of business was to make up with Tia. This was tricky, since my mother never apologizes. Instead, she lets time pass and then pretends that nothing has happened. She called Tia betting that she would inevitably forgive her. My mother’s proposal was straightforward: Tia would make the Passover food for the photo shoot and my mother would praise her sister’s culinary abilities in a very public forum. Tia agreed.

My mother looked beautiful for the photo session. She had traded up to contact lenses and wore her long hair in a pretty flip. The former student arrived with a photographer and asked my mother about the Passovers of her childhood. Tia was late with her food delivery. The dining room table where my mother and her reporter-student chatted was as barren as the desert into which the Israelites were liberated.

The photographer was getting antsy and my mother assured him that the food would arrive at any moment. She told her guests that she and her sister had cooked at Tia’s house to keep things tidy for the photo shoot. Two hours later there was still no food. My mother hoped her sister had been in a car accident.

The photographer decided to take pictures of my mother anyway, posing her at the dining room table with an empty Seder plate in front of her. It turned out that my mother was featured with two other Sephardic women who stood behind their food-laden dining room tables. Undeterred, my mother had offered her own recipes for Passover biscochos and something she called “Pink Rice.” Always the teacher, she pointed out that Sephardic Jews, unlike their Ashkenazi counterparts, were allowed to have rice on Passover.

In keeping with my mother’s culinary capabilities, the biscochos were made with matzah meal and orange juice. There were no baking instructions. Pink rice—arroz rosado—got its coloring from canned tomato paste and according to my mother “melted” in one’s mouth. As usual, my mother bypassed reason and credibility yet was still taken seriously. “Weren’t you embarrassed that you didn’t have any food to show?” I asked her. “Of course not. Your Tia is a sin verguenza”—an offensive phrase I knew from my kitchen Spanish to mean “without shame.” But in the end we both knew that Tia was the true winner, preserving her dignity while my mother, quietly disgraced, never mentioned the incident again.

A few years ago I was packing up my mother’s house for her move to an assisted living facility and I found a copy of that long-ago Passover article in her jewelry box. It was yellow like her saffron rice and crumbled to the touch like the skin of her chicken.

A Letter to President Obama from the Daughter of a Cuban Exile

Dear Mr. President:

Your trip to Cuba is a dream, a miracle, a revolution to me. Never did I dare to fantasize that in my lifetime a sitting U.S. president would be shaking hands with Cuban officials at José Martí Airport — the airport my family used to escape Fidel Castro. Yes, Mr. President, I am a child of refugees. Although my Cuban mother came here just before Cuba’s iron curtain clanked shut, the same desperate, fierce homesickness that claimed my refugee relatives overtook her as well.

As a teenager, my uncle left Cuba two months after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Although on the older side, he was part of the Pedro Pan rescue operation — a CIA undertaking that arranged to airlift children out of Cuba. Many of them were placed with American families. My uncle was lucky. He had an older sister, my mother, waiting for him.

But he almost didn’t make it to America. He was on a Pan Am flight that was suddenly grounded by the Cuban military who claimed there was a draft dodger on the airplane. We’ll never know if it was my 19-year-old uncle they were after, because the pilot declared the aircraft sovereign American territory and took off without permission from the tower. My uncle shakes each time he tells the story.

I was born in my American father’s hometown in Connecticut in December of 1960 as diplomatic relations with Cuba were deteriorating. My grandmother, my Abuela, arrived from Havana to care for my mother and me. She adjusted to the Connecticut winter mostly by rocking me and singing me lullabies in Spanish and her native Greek. (Yes, Mr. President we are a family who hopscotched its way to the United States, but Cuba is where we left our hearts). After three months, she decided it was time to go back to Cuba. My mother pleaded with her to stay and family lore has it that she took the last Cubana Airlines flight out of Idlewild Airport.

I can’t begin to tell you how often I heard my mother softly cry, Hay Cuba, como te estrañò — Oh Cuba, how I miss you, how I long for you. That longing for Havana, for its sea wall along the Malecón — it colored my childhood. I finally walked the Malecón four years ago.

I was overwhelmed with emotion when I arrived at José Martí Airport. The ghosts of my grandparents, who finally left Cuba for good two years after I was born with one small suitcase between them, haunted me. I thought about how they shut the door of their home on almost three decades of life and set out for yet another migration. I went to their house in old Havana. I finally saw the marble stairs I had heard so much about. I saw the heavy wooden door my grandfather still had the keys to in his last exile. He carried those keys until the day he died, believing he was going back to Cuba. The current occupants were kind enough to let me in for a look. They wouldn’t take the money I offered them for their hospitality. They told me this was my home too, and I broke down and cried in front of them. Hay Cuba como te estrañe — Oh Cuba, how I missed you.

Mr. President, you will undoubtedly notice that Havana is like an aging beauty queen. So is my mother who is now marooned in a nursing home wheelchair. When she calls me to tell me that you are in her city, she can barely contain her excitement. Wistfully, she asks me if she will again see a Havana without a Castro in power before she dies. All I can tell her is that you made a return to her country feasible. No matter how remote the possibility that her health will allow her to go back, you have given her hope. Se lo agradezco, and I thank you with all my heart and soul that you have opened up prospects for peace with Cuba for my children.

Felicitaciones,
Judy Bolton-Fasman

This essay originally appeared on Cognoscenti, the ideas and opinion page of WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station — http://cognoscenti.wbur.org/2016/03/22/obama-in-cuba-judy-bolton-fasman

Barbie: New and Improved? by Judy Bolton-Fasman

I’d like to think that Mattel’s introduction of three new body types for the iconic Barbie doll — Petite, Curvy and Tall — is the company trying to make amends for the emotional tsunamis thin, busty Barbie has caused over the decades. To further diversify her, Barbie will also come in seven skin tones and sport 24 new hairstyles. There will be a redheaded Barbie, a curly-hair Barbie and even a Barbie with long blue locks. Yet according to a recent Time magazine cover story on Barbie’s transformation, in little girls’ minds, Barbie is still Barbie and they overwhelmingly identify her as blonde and thin.

The cynic in me knows that Barbie’s makeover was mostly a business decision. Barbie, pardon the very bad pun, is a cash cow. According to the Time article, she does a billion dollars in annual sales across more than 150 countries, and 92 percent of American girls ages 3 to 12 have owned a Barbie at some point.

I … was a short, chubby girl who wouldn’t dare to imagine even coming close to looking like Barbie. It didn’t make me sad exactly, just resigned.

But in the last four years, Barbie has seen her sales lag. In October, Mattel announced a 14 percent global drop in Barbie sales, the eighth consecutive quarter in which profits fell. Barbie’s poor performance is somewhat explained by the fact that Lego has introduced toys aimed at girls who are aspiring engineers and Hasbro has cornered the market on Disney Princesses; two years after “Frozen,” Elsa continues to be a top moneymaker for the company. Also, figure in the negative impression that many millennial moms have of Barbie.

Barbie and I go way back. She came into my life when I was 6-years-old and bedridden for three months. She was a gift from my aunt who also gave me some of Barbie’s exquisite miniature outfits. I went on to collect dresses, bathing suits, and my favorite — a bridal gown. I kept Barbie’s clothes in what I thought at the time was the most gorgeous wardrobe in the world — a small black patent leather case with a handle to transport her and her clothes anywhere and everywhere.

Barbie didn’t look like anyone I knew. That was not a surprise considering she had impossible measurements, perfect hair and immaculate makeup. I, on the other hand, was a short, chubby girl who wouldn’t dare to imagine even coming close to looking like Barbie. It didn’t make me sad exactly, just resigned.

This file photo provided by Mattel shows a group of new Barbie dolls introduced in January 2016. (AP)

Barbie was born fully grown with a checkered past in 1959. She was the invention of Ruth Handler, who named her after her own daughter. Barbie and Handler courted controversy from the beginning when Handler based Barbie’s body on a curvaceous German doll named Lilli. Lilli was often handed out at stag parties as a gag gift. Among Barbie’s other controversies is a book that accompanied her in 1963 entitled, “How to Lose Weight,” which included explicit instructions not to eat. Ten years after playing with my first Barbie, I took that advice and subsisted on Popsicles and saltines for a year.

I have no doubt that I was similar to the subjects in a comprehensive 2006 study of young girls 5 to 8. Researchers found that “early exposure to dolls epitomizing an unrealistically thin body ideal may damage girls’ body image, which would contribute to an increased risk of disordered eating and weight cycling.”

Bingo.

Barbie’s body transformation comes on the heels of a chameleon life in which she has had over a hundred careers ranging from rock star to presidential candidate. She’s been a medic in Operation Desert Storm. She’s been black, Hispanic and even a devout Jew. But after all these years, I still don’t see myself in any of those versions of Barbie. Like the little girls who test drove these new Barbies, I still identify her tiny waist and her perfectly coiffed blonde tresses as hallmarks of the Barbie I know.

And the new Barbies will not pierce her plastic mask of perfection. She still has no paunch, no wrinkles and no thick ankles. Damn her!

And the new Barbies will not pierce her plastic mask of perfection. She still has no paunch, no wrinkles and no thick ankles. Damn her! Only her wide hips constitute body diversity — hips that are the norm for most women. A number of commentators have noted that Barbie’s feet have finally been leveled off so she can now wear flats as well as stilettos. No doubt that will add to the over one billion pairs of shoes she has owned.

I imagine a day when we’ll see Barbie in a wheelchair, or using a walker, or walking on a prosthetic leg. But I suspect she’ll never need a hearing aid or an insulin pump. Her hair, all 24 versions of it, will never frizz. She will never have a pimple or even a freckle. Despite all the angst she’s caused, she remains maddeningly aloof. And she reminds us that women will always find something wrong with their bodies.

 

This essay originally appeared on Cognoscenti, the ideas and opinion page of WBUR, Boston’s NPR news stationhttp://cognoscenti.wbur.org/2016/02/04/barbies-new-body-judy-bolton-fasman

First They Came for the Muslims by Judy Bolton-Fasman

If things become absurd enough, out of control enough, and quite frankly tragic enough, then my friend N and I have a date to register as Muslims together. It will be my only acknowledgement of Donald Trump’s racist mandate to humiliate our Muslim sisters and brothers, our fellow Americans by asking them to wear a metaphoric armband.

The Holocaust continues to teach us lessons about inhumanity. It was not so long ago—in fact in many of our parents’ lifetimes—that Jews were required to come forward in Germany and then throughout Europe. What followed in just a few short years was one of the most horrific ruptures in history.

N and I met at the all-boys private school our sons first attended in seventh grade. Beyond the classroom, our sons gravitated to each other in the debate club, on the soccer field and in chorus. That was the year that my son, one of the few Jewish boys in the class, soloed ‘Deck the Halls’ in the annual Christmas Concert. N and I laughed at the irony. On the soccer field we talked about peace in the Middle East. N, originally from Pakistan, said how much she wanted to see all of the religious holy sites in Israel. Although I understand the rationale behind it, I didn’t have the heart to tell her that if we traveled together to Israel she would be searched and I would not. Perhaps she, in turn, didn’t want to think about the reception my Israel-stamped passport would receive in Pakistan and other Muslim countries. We were simply friends, confidantes and mothers. On Christmas, our boys were among the minority of the minority, not celebrating the holiday. They went to the movies and played video games at N’s house on Christmas Eve.Our boys are now freshman at large universities. But during those early soccer games, N and I wondered out loud if their friendship was a tiny step towards peace.

I tell you this not to demonstrate my liberalism, but to share my humanity. I panic when I think of the kind of world Trump and others want to impose on my children, on N’s children. I think of the plight of Danish Jews during the Holocaust. Contrary to popular legend King Christian X and his subjects did not wear a yellow Jewish star, but neither did the country’s Jewish citizens. No one was labeled.

I just came back from Israel. My time there was in the midst of a terror spree. N texted me to make sure I was safe. That is what our friendship is about—we put aside stereotypes and engage with each other as sisters, as mothers, as women. We’ll often bring up customs in our respective traditions that challenge us. N only covers her head in the mosque. I try and figure out the world through my egalitarian Judaism. N and her family spend Rosh Hashana and Passover with us—it’s a holiday that brings back to her special memories of her beloved elderly neighbor who taught her how to make gefillte fish. We’ve both tasted the bitter herbs of our traditions as well as the sweetness of hope that we find in them.

A writer once described herself as “complicated with Judaism.” I am also complicated with my Judaism as well as with N’s Islam. I repurpose Rev. Martin Niemölle’s famous, poetic speech about the cowardice of Germans who failed to speak against the Nazi persecution of the Jews to my own time. If I do not speak up for my Muslim friend, who will be left to “speak up when they come for me.”

This op-ed originally appeared in the December 11, 2015 issue of The Jewish Advocate

Introducing Abby Stein by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The first thing that Abby Stein wants the world to know is that she did not leave her ultra-Orthodox community solely to become a woman. Since she came out this past August, Stein has been garnering attention as the transgender ex-Hasid. Although she acknowledges that the two events in her life are “intertwined,” she says her initial leave taking from her Hasidic sect “had to do with beliefs. I was done with Judaism, and for over a year, I had nothing to do with it.

AbbyStein

Abby Stein

Stein chronicles her transgender experience and her religious transformation on her moving blog, The Second Transition. In one of her first posts she wrote, “[t]here is something amazingly relieving about ‘knowing’, knowing and coming to terms with the reality I have been trying to run away from for years — I am a girl.”

The Last Chapter by Judy Bolton-Fasman

This week in Jerusalem a new normal has taken over the city. It’s a tenuous calm that prevails until I notice a lone man walking towards me with his hands in his pockets and I instinctively pick up my pace. But friends here don’t see the new normal as a nod to peace. One woman tells me that she is more frightened now than she was during the second intifada when buses were being blown up. She could better calculate then the risk she was willing to take by shopping in a crowded market or riding the bus home from work. This time, there is no obvious calculus for safety. It is a time fueled by the arbitrariness of panic and adrenalin.

This was also the week President Clinton was in Tel Aviv to remember his friend Yitzhak Rabin on his 20th yahrtzeit. Clinton spoke in the square that commemorates the late prime minister—the square where an Israeli Jewish zealot gunned down Rabin. The various estimates I’ve seen of the crowd’s size for the memorial—numbers that range from 40,000 to 100,000—tell me that many Israelis not only mourn Rabin, but also mourn the dashed hopes for peace in the wake of his death. Clinton’s charge to the crowd— “to decide when you leave here tonight…how to finish the last chapter of [Rabin’s] story”—was pointedly singular in its directive.

Clinton’s words especially resonate during this current rash of violence—a violence that is both blurry and distinctive for its randomness. These polar states of fuzziness and clarity are also the underpinnings of coexistence in Jaffa, a mixed town at the southern edge of Tel Aviv. The Arabs call this very old city Arous al-Bahr—the bride of the sea. Arabs and Jews have always lived here together. Pre-statehood the majority was Arab, but in the beginning of 1948, even before Israel’s War of Independence, Jaffa collapsed when its wealthier Arab residents and community leaders sought refuge in places like Lebanon and Syria. Jaffa surrendered and was taken over by a Jewish majority. Today the city is part of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality.

Coexist

Coexistence in Jaffa is neither violent nor friendly. There are no knives here, nor are there any olive branches. Jews and Arabs live alongside each other leading parallel lives, except for the Jews who step out to eat the famous hummus on Abu Hassan Street. Soldiers on furlough comfortably stroll the cobbled streets. The old flea market here has given way to trendy clothing shops and art galleries.

I brought an Israeli friend with me to Jaffa. He jokingly calls himself my fixer, which means he acts as both tour guide and steadfast translator during my afternoon in the city. We walk the streets of Old Jaffa taking in the sea, eating the freshest hummus I have ever tasted, and making our way to the Arab Jewish Community Center (AJCC) in the Ajami section of Jaffa. It’s a 20-minute walk from the city center and along the way we see another kind of blending—ramshackle houses just yards away from expensive condominiums.

AJCC2

Founded in 1993, the AJCC is a cornerstone of this Arab neighborhood. It aims for the look and feel of an American Jewish community center. It offers school children and teenagers after school programs called chugim or electives that range from dance, gymnastics and martial arts to tutoring in the newly constructed library.

The AJCC,, which also aims to undo the de facto segregation of Israeli society, is not unique in that quixotic goal. What is different is that the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality underwrites part of the center’s expenses. According to a staff member at the center no other overt peace initiative has that kind of city government funding anywhere in Israel.

In addition to the various chugim, the AJCC sponsors classroom exchanges between Arab and Jewish schools, a youth parliament that focuses on diplomacy and three choirs that perform their own ecumenical outreach. Numbers are important in these endeavors. The activities are purposely populated with an equal number of Arabs and Jews, and tolerance is the watchword associated with them.

It may just be a matter of semantics, but I bristle at the word tolerance. I hope and pray Israelis and Arabs go beyond tolerance to loving kindness and ultimately peace. But for now tolerance is how people survive in Jaffa. Still I give the AJCC credit. Its policy of tolerance encompasses a celebration of differences too. Children who would normally not interact with one another come together here. And the center also fills in a vacuum for Arab schools that lack the facilities and funding for extra-curricular activities.

As I left the center I fantasized that the philosophy behind the AJCC’s programs could one day be part of a different, better new normal in Israel. And as I reflect on President Clinton’s words, I think that maybe this is also the place to begin the last chapter of Yitzhak Rabin’s life story—a story that has yet to unfold.