Ruth’s Cup–A New Addition to the Seder

Cmky-Goblet-Wine-Glasses-Rose-Red-1988845-729x486.jpgThis Passover there is a new ritual to adopt at the Seder—Ruth’s Cup. The brainchild of Rabbi Heidi Hoover, the presence of Ruth’s Cup at the table honors converts to Judaism as well as Jewish diversity generally.

I am a Sephardic Jew and Ruth’s Cup will have a special place at my Seder. My mother is from Cuba and throughout my childhood I remember people—Jews at my day school or my temple—were amazed that there were Cuban Jews and even more amazed that some of them did not speak Yiddish.

My mother and grandmother spoke Ladino, a 15th century Spanish studded with Hebrew, Arabic and Turkish words. My mother told me stories of fellow Jews doubting her Judaism when she first came to this country. The idea of a Jew with forebears who came from Turkey and Greece and traced their lineage to the Spain of Maimonides and Yehuda Halevi was at best fantastical to some and at worst disingenuous to others.

Hoover, who is a convert to Judaism, recently told JewishBoston that the presence of Ruth’s Cup at the Seder highlights the magnificent diversity of the Jewish people. “In this country we don’t always recognize the diversity of the Jewish people. Jews of color frequently encounter people who express doubt about their Jewishness or assume that they are converts. Not all Jews conform to the Ashkenazic stereotype of the white Eastern European Jew with Yiddish speaking ancestors,” noted Hoover.

She went on to add this caveat: “There is nothing wrong with being a convert, but we should not assume that because someone isn’t a white presenting Jew they must have converted; it isn’t so. People who convert to Judaism frequently have experiences that make it clear that many of those born Jewish think converts are inferior in some way.”

Diane Kaufmann Tobin, founder and executive director of Be’chol Lashon—an organization that describes itself as advocating for the growth and diversity of the Jewish people, told JewishBoston over email that, “Adding Ruth’s Cup to a Seder reminds us that since ancient times the Jewish community has welcomed those who have chosen to be Jewish. The dedication of those who actively choose Judaism is inspiring and offers opportunities for growth and renewal.”

Embracing Ruth’s spirit at the Seder is also a lovely way to segue to the Shavuot holiday, which is celebrated seven weeks after Passover. Rabbi Susan Silverman says that there is a “palpable yearning” to Ruth the Moabites’s words to her Israelite mother-in-law Naomi. “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God, my God.” (Ruth 1:16) Silverman proclaims that Ruth’s words are “the first recorded statement of conversion to Judaism.”

For Hoover, Ruth’s Cup also calls to mind the image of all Jews standing together at Sinai and “recognizing who will be there and realizing that it’s all of us.” Hoover says the cup conveys the tenet that, “we fully recognize every Jew regardless of race, ethnicity or how they became Jewish as completely Jewish. We need to shift assumptions in this country about where Jews come from or how they became Jews.”

During the Seder, Ruth’s Cup is often coupled with Elijah’s Cup. But whereas Elijah’s Cup brings to mind the messianic age, Hoover says that Ruth’s Cup communicates that we are meant to try and “perfect things in the here and now. We can treat Jews better who look different or became Jewish differently before Elijah comes.” As far as the timing of Ruth’s Cup in the Seder, Hoover emphasizes that it can be added after Elijah’s Cup or anytime in the Seder.

The following ceremony is adapted from an unpublished Haggadah Hoover edited to honor the experiences of Jews By Choice.

Leader

At Passover we fill a cup with wine for Elijah and open the door to welcome him to our Seder. Elijah symbolizes our hope for the Messianic age, when the world will be perfected, and all people will live in harmony and peace.

We also fill a cup of wine for Ruth, the first Jew by choice and great-grandmother of King David. We open the door to signify our welcome of Ruth and all who follow in her footsteps—those who become part of our people, part of our diversity.

All rise, face the open door, and read together:

We declare that we do not have to wait for the Messianic age to make sure that every Jew feels fully comfortable and integrated into our people, no matter what their skin, hair or eye color is; no matter what their name sounds like; no matter how they became Jewish—through birth or through conversion, as a child or as an adult.

Close the door and be seated.

A version of this article was posted on JewishBoston.com

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A New Documentary Tells the Story of Ankara’s Jews

The opening shot of “Hermana: The Untold Story of Ankara’s Jewish Community” — an award-winning film from Turkey — is an aerial view of what director Enver Arcak calls the “Albukrek House.” “Hermana” is a 28-minute documentary that concisely relates the rich history of Ankara’s Sephardic Jewish population.

My interest in the film is personal. My grandfather, Jacobo Alboukrek, (the “o” was added to the name when he immigrated to Cuba) was born and raised in Ankara until he became a bar mitzvah. His story in Turkey is a mix of Jewish history and family lore. He used to recount that his family fled to Havana after he witnessed a Turkish soldier murder an Armenian man circa 1918. My grandfather said his father reasoned that if the Armenians were being killed, the Jews were next. Soon after that my Albukrek family was on a ship heading west. Happenstance had it that it was going to Cuba, all the better for the Albukreks who spoke Ladino and could easily pick up modern Spanish.

I tell my grandfather’s story to Arcak who says it’s plausible, but points out that at the time there was virtually no anti-Semitism in Turkey. He tells me that the history of the Jewish community of Ankara can be traced back to the Roman times. Jews back then, he says were called Romaniots, who lived in Ankara and other parts of central Turkey. Centuries later, thousands of Sephardic Jews arrived in Turkey after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Others, like my grandfather’s family, came a few generations later from Portugal and the Netherlands.

Ankara’s Jewish story is also one that is reflected in its stark numbers. In the 1930s the community peaked at about 5000. Arcak says that today that number is fewer than 30 people, and most of them are not native to Ankara. Their ranks include diplomats and UN officials. Arcak, who is not Jewish, was born and raised in Ankara. He is an historian of archeology who dedicated himself to documenting this disappearing remnant community. “I started researching ‘Hermana’ seven years ago, following the immigration of Ankara’s Jews to the United States, Israel and Istanbul. I interviewed hundreds of people to compile an oral history and a visual archive of letters, diaries and religious papers. It’s a deep subject and this documentary is the result of putting all those things together.”

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Arcak says the community began to dwindle noticeably in 1942 after the Turkish government placed a wealth tax on its Jews, Armenians and Greeks. The fee was exorbitant and few people, including Jewish communities throughout Turkey, could afford to pay it. Caught in an economic boondoggle, Arcak says that after the Second World War many Turkish Jews went to the new State of Israel. Turkey was neutral during the Second World War and the community was saved from the Nazis.

Arcak’s sepia-tinged history picks up again in the 1960s and 70s. By then Ankara’s Jewish population barely numbered 600 Jews. Nevertheless, “Hermana” shows it to be a lively community in words and pictures—a community which celebrated milestones and made sure to educate its youth in Judaism. However, by 1968 the number of Jews had steadily declined. According to Arcak, Ankara’s last rabbi immigrated to Israel in the 1980s. He says that in the wake of a military coup in 1980, the community sent most of its Torah scrolls to Israel for safekeeping. According to Turkish Jews in Israel those scrolls went missing and have never been recovered.

Arcak interviewed over 50 Jews from Ankara for the documentary, most of whom have relocated to Israel. There are also the recollections of Jews who live in Istanbul. Istanbul, the largest Jewish community in Turkey, is estimated to be upwards of 17,000 people. Just over a thousand Jews live in Izmir. But Arcak says those communities are also shrinking. The failed coup of 2016 sent more Jews packing to Israel. Of those who remained, many obtained Spanish and Portuguese citizenship after those countries passed legislation offering citizenship to the descendants of Jews who were expelled during the Inquisition.

As for my personal quest to find the Albukreks of Ankara, Arcak says that there is a member of the Albukrek family who still lives in Ankara who has been assembling a family tree. I’m anxious to see if Jacobo and his forebears are on it.

A version of this article appeared on JewishBoston.com

Barbie Gets Another Makeover

barbie-inspiring-women-today-180306-tease_31efde7741ce291ab1d34d9e4599e4d7.fit-860wBarbie is back totally retooled and just in time to commemorate International Women’s Day on March 8. And this time she’s based on real life “sheroes”—a portmanteau of the words “she “and “hero” that refers to positive female role models—who include Amelia Earhart, Frida Kahlo and Katherine Johnson. Johnson was portrayed in the movie “Hidden Figures.” This makes the ever chameleon-like Barbie the first woman aviator to cross the Atlantic Ocean, a famous artist and activist and a mathematician who smashed gender and race barriers to work on sending the first United States manned flight into space.

The dolls will come with educational materials documenting the contributions that each of these women has made to the world. Johnson had major input in creating and designing her doll, ensuring that the resemblance was based on her real appearance.

By the time Barbie’s maker Mattel is done rolling out the entire series, 17 women will be honored. Little girls and boys will meet Chloe Kim who won an Olympic gold medal in snowboarding this year, British Boxing Champion Nicola Adams and Patty Jenkins, director of “Wonder Woman.” These Barbies are no longer my sister’s or my Barbie dolls. They’re not even my 23-year-old daughter’s Barbie dolls—dolls who had just begun to venture into the world as a doctor, an astronaut and a presidential candidate. Although 45 different nationalities claimed Barbie as their own, she was still the doll with the impossible measurements and the stiff rosy-lipped saccharine smile.

These new Barbie dolls are the happy result of a survey Mattel conducted of 8,000 mothers from around the world. It showed that 86 percent of these women worried that their daughters were not exposed to appropriate role models. Here is where I would like to point out that our sons should be exposed to those same role models. Barbie is not just for our daughters. She’s iconic, and her transformation has broken down gender stereotypes that must be equally impressed upon on our boys.

In the last three years, Barbie has undergone a sea change in both appearance and relevance. In 2015 Mattel introduced 23 new dolls with different skin tones, hairstyles and clothing. Most notably, Barbie had flat feet for the first time in half a century. She no longer had those pointy feet that could only fit into uncomfortable high heels. Barbie was going places.

In 2016, Barbie gained weight. She was now available in three new body types. She no longer had a cinched waist, a large chest or stick thin legs. Barbie was beginning to look like a real woman.

In 2017, Barbie donned a hijab. She was based on the Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad. The 31-year-old athlete was the first Muslim-American to win a medal at the 2016 Summer Olympic games. She was also the first American woman to wear a scarf while competing. Muhammad tweeted her thanks to Mattel and said, “I’m proud to know that little girls everywhere can now play with a Barbie who chooses to wear a hijab! This is a childhood dream come true.”

As excited as I am about the new Sheroes series, my first brush with this kind of Barbie occurred in the early 2000s, when she wore a pair of tefillin and a tallit or prayer shawl. She was dubbed “Tefillin Barbie” and I loved her. So did my daughter who was attending a Jewish Day School at the time. Mattel, however, did not manufacture Tefillin Barbie. She was the one-of-a-kind creation of Jen Taylor Friedman, a soferet or female scribe who writes Jewish holy texts by hand. It was so thrilling to see Barbie exemplify that there were no limits placed on how a woman practiced her Judaism.

A recent statement from Lisa McKnight a senior vice president at Mattel and the general manager of Barbie resonates for me. My only critique of it is that it once again bypasses the boys. “Girls have always been able to play out different roles and careers with Barbie,” said McKnight. “And we are thrilled to shine a light on real life role models to remind them that they can be anything.”

Amen to that and to the highest honor that Barbie now confers—a unique doll that resembles a real woman.