Wednesday, September 22, 2004

On Western Civilization

If you’re easily shocked, please sit down now.

Despite the fact that I am a twenty-something progressive educated Canadian feminist, I don’t hate America. Or Israel. Or Western civilization.

These days, it seems fashionable to sit in York classes (science, humanities, social science, etc.) and talk about how much we hate Western civilization. American arrogance is bad. American culture is bad. Western “colonialism” is bad.

Give me a break.

Newsflash: Despite its flaws, Western civilization is the best thing that has ever happened to this world. Though, like every civilization, it has committed injustice in the name of ‘progress’, it has also given birth to the most free and enlightened period in history.

At their core, Western democracies are founded upon principles of equality that by their very nature cannot exist under any other form of government. It is only in democracy that every person has equal say, vote and rights simply because we are all born human, regardless of age, ethnicity, religion or class.

As a woman, I am grateful to Western civilization for recognizing that I am as valuable as any man and have all options available to me. I can attend university, travel freely without a man, choose whom to marry and when (if?) to marry, whether or not I want children – options many of the women of the world don’t have available to them.

Similarly, the multiculturalism and diversity as well as the freedom of Western states such as Canada, the United States and Israel are based on fundamental respect for human rights of all people, something that many people in this world are denied. And of course, the freedoms we Westerners have, espouse and protect are despised by those whose “alternate world views” tell them that murder – intentionally taking the lives of civilians – is a legitimate way to achieve their goals.

Unfortunately, we need look no further than our own backyards for examples of how, in our own day and age, basic human rights are under attack. Abroad, over 300 schoolchildren in Beslan, Russia were massacred by terrorists only a few days after two bombers killed 16 people on buses in Beersheba, Israel. Closer to home, the 9/11 terrorist attacks shocked Americans who were certain they were immune from the hatred of their “liberty and justice for all.”

What is most appalling, of course, is that the United Nations, the body charged with defending the downtrodden has made itself irrelevant while 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered with machetes just a decade ago. Even now, they look away while the black African population of Darfur, Sudan is being targeted for ethnically-motivated murder, just as happened in Rwanda.

And if we stand by and do nothing, we become the guilty bystander, culpable for our inaction. Yet act we must.

There are those in this world who think that it is progressive to want to overthrow Western civilization for real or imagined transgressions. Perhaps, instead, we should lay off the one society that grants us the freedom to criticize it and take up the case of the truly oppressed people of the world, who, unlike us free Canadians, are targeted for discrimination, violence, rape and murder simply because they were born to the “wrong” group.

- Editorial by Aliza Libman, News Editor, published in York University's Excalibur on September 22, 2004.

YFS files multi-million dollar suit (abstract)

The York Federation of Students (YFS) has filed a statement of claim against the Canadian Federation of Students, the National Students Health Network and two private health and insurance companies, alleging that while York students were enrolled in the CFS-operated National Students Health Network, the CFS and its affiliates allegedly cost York students hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The lawsuit asks for damages of $1.4 million from the CFS "for breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, negligence, negligent misrepresentation, improperly holding itself out as an insurance broker and return of commission payments."
The statement alleges that during the years between 1995 and 1999, when the YFS was using the CFS's health plan, the CFS and the companies which it worked with, misused a health plan surplus, inflated commissions, and were negligent in their fiduciary responsibilities. The claim further alleges as a result of the York students paid premiums that were higher than need be.
The statement of claim, as procured from the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, is dated August 23, 2004, and states that notice of action was issued on July 23, 2004.
However, CFS national chairperson George Soule claims that CFS was never contacted about the lawsuit and has not been served with any claim.
First published September 22, 2004. Excalibur only received a copy of the claim as we were going to print and could not investigate fully. Further details about the lawsuit will be printed in subsequent issues.

Monday, September 06, 2004

On modern Yiddish culture

I owe my late grandfather an apology. About a year before his untimely passing last fall, we had a conversation over Sabbath dinner where the status of Yiddish culture and language was debated. It was his contention that Yiddish language, originally the vernacular of European Jewry, was flourishing. In the minds of my “progressive”, “educated” siblings and self, Yiddish was a dead language, relegated to the occasional exclamation in a Billy Crystal or Mel Brooks movie.

Lord was I wrong. Toronto’s annual Ashkenaz Festival, now in its fifth year, is the largest celebration of Yiddish culture in the world, and while it might be a tiny bit different than life in the stereotypical Polish shtetl (village), it is clear that in the modern world, Yiddish is alive and well.

As all old cultures must do to stay relevant, modern Yiddish culture is a wacky fusion of old-world tradition and new-age values. Taking place at Harbourfront over Labour Day weekend, Ashkenz highlighted the contrast and melding of the old and the new. Film offerings took note of the ever-present change rocking the culture, with the 1923 silent film East Meets West examining the need of Jews in the roaring 20s to update themselves to modernity. Later, crowds packed the auditorium for a screening of the award-winning documentary Klezmer on Fish Street, a film that examines how vibrant modern Jewish culture is in Poland today – despite the fact that Poland has almost no Jews. Wisecracked an interviewee, “They used to ask, ‘Can a white boy play the blues?’ Today, they’re asking, ‘Can goyim (gentiles) play the Jews?’”

One of the hallmarks of Yiddish culture is in fact the Klezmer music of the film’s title. Originally played at shtetl weddings, Klezmer bands are historically composed of fiddles and other light string and wind instruments – if only because Jews living under persecution in medieval Europe figured it was easier to pick up a fiddle and run than a piano, quips my dad. Dozens of Klezmer bands rocked on the many stages the festival had running, with most events being free to the hundreds of devotees in attendance. With four to eight events running simultaneously, the hardest part of the festival was figuring out what to do when, and what to skip.

High points were many, of course. The festival grounds were veritable eye candy, decorated with kitschy banners proclaiming in English and Yiddish, “love”, “respect”, “sing”, “dance” and many others; bright Yiddish letters adorning the dock posts; and 20s era shop signs reading “Switzer’s Delicatessen” and “Jewish Old Folks Home”. The world café offered not only traditional Yiddish foods, but also Middle Eastern fare. The vendor fair offered Jewish art, books and memorabilia. The bands were rocking – I felt as though this was the only festival where you might hear a musician say “Is there enough bass on this accordion?”

It was the kick-off, of course, that made the most impact, with the traditional opening parade being to the theme of the biblical tale of Noah’s ark. Stilt-walkers in animal costumes, doves, an actual ark with cardboard animals that were later given to the children, and flag-bearers waving rainbow flags to commemorate the rainbow the rainbow the ended the flood – all served as a reminder of the diversity that is modern Yiddish culture. It was this theme that welcomed the spectators of all ages and all cultures. Said a parade leader decked out in a blue-and-green bird costume atop a pair of stilts, “We enrich the world by our differences, and we are enriched by the world’s differences.”


- Published in the York University Excalibur on September 8, 2004

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

On Jewish education

When you type the term “Jewish education” into the search engine Google, the first organization to pop up is CAJE (the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education). As a CAJE member for my entire college career, this makes me very proud. But when CAJE executive members tell me that half of North American teachers will retire in the next decade or so, this makes me very nervous.

Who will teach the students of the future? This is the question. The answer seems perfectly clear.


Well, not just me, but sometimes it feels that way. Too often, people tell me I’m too smart to “waste my brain” becoming a teacher. I think I’d be wasting my heart if I didn’t.

So when CAJE sent me a mailing about the Schusterman College Program(SCP) which would be held at its annual Conference on Alternative in Jewish Education (also CAJE), I jumped at the opportunity to go.

There I met people who thought differently, acted differently, taught differently and defined “Jewish education” differently than me. But our shared passion was what we all brought to the table.

“This program seeks to unite the totality of Klal Yisrael,” says participant Michael Fel. “Rather than focusing on our differences we focused on the similarities.” Michael, an Hispanic Jew, introduced himself to the group as being from “the voting-impaired city of Miami.”

Michael was the first Argentinean Jew I’d ever met. Judging from everyone’s reactions to me saying “kilometre” and “eh?”, they hadn’t met too many Canadians.

A primary goal of the 26-student program was for us to work together and talk together and experience community. Talking after the program concluded, third-year Columbia University student Mara Berde mused that “it was my first real experience in a pluralistic environment.”

Pluralism means different things to different people. To some participants at CAJE, pluralism is a theory that believes that we grant the validity of other religious denominations as well as our own. To keynote speaker Richard Joel, former director of Hillel International and current president of Yeshiva University, “pluralism means I am prepared to honour your right to be wrong.”

But pluralism isn’t a theory. It’s a practise. It’s asking ourselves whether the prayer services will have separate or mixed seating. It’s asking whether there will sing-a-long kumsitzes on Friday night with or without musical instruments. It’s asking ourselves how we accommodate those who are different than us.

One participant expressed dismay to me, because she found out the graduate school she was planning on attending did not accept openly gay students. During our “Think Tank”, where we shared lesson plans on Jewish topics, we explored this topic as we pondered teaching Jewish responses to homosexuality. We also contemplated how to teach about Jewish identity, Jewish music, cults and Jews for Jesus in classrooms, youth groups and camps. We grappled with the question of how to maintain tradition in a world rocked by change.

I answered that question in my vociferous pursuit of methods for the use of drama in my Torah classroom. I attended drama workshops, bought drama books and wondered whether re-enacting the splitting of the sea would make my students relate to it as a piece of their history. I was lucky that CAJE decided to invite representative of Storahtelling, a non-profit group that injects drama and storytelling into ritual services, such as the Shabbat Torah reading.

It's important to bring life to such an important part of Jewish ritual,” says SCP co-chair and JTS student Lauren Twigg, who was attending her third CAJE. “The Torah is read every week, over and over again. Most of the time people zone out and don't pay attention.”

As students of Jewish education, it is easy to get discouraged. We feel that the community is zoning us out. We think no one is paying attention. At CAJE, it’s clear that that’s wrong.

The truth is, the passion I feel for Jewish education is alive in other people, too. It’s alive in the 1400+ people who came to CAJE this year. It’s alive in the 26 students of SCP who left CAJE vowing to come back next year. It’s alive in Lynn Schusterman and the Schusterman foundation, who believe that education is so important, they’ll bankroll our program.

The secret of Jewish education, of course, is that the material, the texts, the information is not enough. There has to be something more, something that makes parents pay tens of thousands in tuition and drag their kids to Hebrew school at nine on a Sunday morning.

That something more means that I am charged with much more than teaching words on a page. I am charged with teaching students – human Jewish souls who are holy no matter what their nationality, sexual orientation, ability or disability. And I define success by smiling and soul-searching, not dollars and cents.

So I’m glad that when searching for Jewish education, I found CAJE.

Aliza Libman is a fourth-year student of education at York University. She attended her first CAJE in August 2004. First published in the Canadian Jewish News on September 1, 2004; reprinted in the Jewish Educational News in Spring '05.