Tag Archives: Inner-City

Havdalah as a Light to the Community


Reflections and Lessons from the Havdalah Circle of Boyle Heights

Dare to make anyplace a sacred space!

Havdalah at the 6th Street Bridge, overlooking the city. Dare to make anyplace a sacred space! Punk rock Havdalah with Shmueli Gonzales and Jesse Elliott. Los Angeles.

As Shabbat comes to an end, I always make my way back towards the town and people I love. Towards the arches which over the years have become know as my station and post. And leaning against the metal arches of the bridge, high upon the Los Angeles Sixth Street Viaduct, I bask in the final and lingering rays of the Sabbath’s sun. And then I wait. Wait for the sun to set. I wait, for my buddies to count the stars and declare that it’s time. “One… two… three stars… it’s time!”

And then out from my ubiquitous bag I take these items. A Hebrew prayerbook, a dried etrog and clove bundle as a D.I.Y. “spice-box,” a kiddush cup and a multi-braided havdalah candle.

Havdalah – the ritual for closing the Jewish sabbath – has always been one of my favorite Jewish traditions. And over the years I have always tried to make pause to observe it with the people I care for the most. There is something very warm and loving about the ritual. Something which has always captivated me, and has interestingly drawn my friends in along the way.

Indeed most of my local friends are not Jewish, and consider themselves firm atheists. I am one of the less than a half-dozen Jews who are currently connected to Boyle Heights. And among them few Jews, I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who is strongly religiously observant. Nonetheless my friends – Mexican-American, Anglo, African-American, Asian, and especially my older Jewish friends of mine who were born in classic Boyle Heights – they all encourage me to do Havdalah. And they also love to include themselves in this ritual, which is so part of my life. Even the occasional homeless Jewish person.

In a very fundamental way, over the past few years my adventitious return of Jewish rituals such as this back to this historical multi-ethnic neighborhood – one which itself has such a deep and rich Jewish history – has really touched people. These are symbols that the light of Jewish life and expression has not been fully extinguished here. It reminds the community that we haven’t forgotten those who went before us here, who also embraced these enrapturing acts.

"I will trust and not fear"

Hinei el yeshuati eftach v’lo efchad! – Behold G-d is my salvation, I will trust and not fear! – for G-d is my might and my praise – Hashem – and He was a salvation for me.”

A revelation of how much a part of my routine and how meaningful it has become to others came when I ran out of supplies recently, and my punk rocker friends went scavenger hunting to find me items to make havdalah with on the spot. Knowing that my joy would not be complete without this moment, they just had to find a way to improvise! A very sweet and revealing moment for me.

To say the least, I learned after that to never be caught without supplies again. This week we will use a new candle. A long bees-wax candle with nine wicks all braided together.

Standing at the observation point overlooking the skyline of Los Angeles. Lingering at what could well be considered the gates of the city, we make our stand. My prayerbook placed upon a decorative niche of the bridge as a shtender. As I stand there above the train tracks and the water of the river, suspended between heaven and earth. There I light the wicks. I wait for the flames to take hold, until it comes to a roaring flame like a torch. Before I hand it over to one of the guys, who are ready to take it in hand and hold it high.

Overlooking the city I can’t help but be reminded of the Talmud section from which we get this most ancient custom of using candles as a torch. In Pesachim 8a this conversation takes off with the sages calling attention to why we use bright lamps and lights, namely to search. Our sages draw from the prophets, on how G-d will search the city of Jerusalem with lamps, in order to punish the complacent; those who are indifferent to realities of good and evil. (Zepheniah. 1:12) With a light that is meant to search out for justice.

And furthermore the Talmud suggests to us that this light represents our need to extend a light to search out for other precious souls, drawing from the scriptures:

“The human spirit is the lamp of Hashem

searching all the most deepest parts of ones being.”

נֵר יְיָ, נִשְׁמַת אָדָם; |

חֹפֵשׂ, כָּלחַדְרֵיבָטֶן. |

Proverbs 20:27

So among this most motley crew of eastsiders, among the most unlikely of circles I make my stand, and I bless from this place. From this cultural corner of Los Angeles my heart calls home, I stand with other diamonds in the rough. Among other unique souls worth searching for. This tradition challenges me to search people out as with a penetrating light, looking deep into their souls to find their worth.

Havdalah itemsI love the symbolism of this candle. Braided it represents the separations between the spiritual and physical wolds, and mystically symbolizes how they come together; to be intertwined. It represents the separations between the sacred and the secular, and also how they come together. That they are both needed in our lives. A symbolism which is poignant as we step out of the sacred joy of Shabbat, and into the secular workweek which we have before us. As we stand at the cosmological gates between the sacred and the secular.

And it also represents the souls of people, who are distinct; we are each our own flame, but in unity we must intertwine ourselves for the purpose of a mitzvah. Together our small and single flame becomes a roaring torch; for we are much better together and united.

As we stand I see the flames of the candle reflected in the awe of the guys faces and in the twinkle of their eyes. As Jesse exclaims, “Look how brightly you can see it, even from far away! It really is like a torch!”

As he says these words I keep in mind what the Talmud further relates to us as to why this is the best way to make havdalah, with the use of a torch:

“Surely Raba said: ‘What is the meaning of the verse: “And his brightness was as the light; he had rays coming forth from his hand: and there was hiding of his power.” (Habbakuk 3:4) To what are the righteous comparable in the presence of the Shechinah? To a lamp in the presence of a torch.’ And Raba also said: ‘[To use] a torch for havdalah is the most preferable [way of performing this] duty.’”

והאמר רבא מאי דכתיב (חבקוק ג) ונוגה כאור תהיה קרנים מידו לו ושם חביון עוזו למה צדיקים דומין בפני שכינה כנר בפני האבוקה ואמר רבא אבוקה להבדלה מצוה מן המובחר:

Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 8a

The sages then call attention to our own souls, in the light of this mitzvah. It says to consider ourselves as though we are search lamps. But as for this torch, to consider it as comparable to the presence of G-d. That our souls are as bright as lamps, standing next the presence of G-d – in the most radiant light of the Holy One, blessed be He. As the true torch, the most beaming of lights, the Shechinah – it is as thought the surrounding presence of G-d is made manifest among us as we stand with this light.

When I extend the lights of this multi-wicked candle I am welcoming the presence of the Shechinah – the presence of G-d to this place. Welcoming the all-encompassing spirit and the life of all the worlds to this place. For a moment spirituality becomes an almost tangible atmosphere.

"Shalom and Son's," a kosher food and wine distribution business still operating in the Boyle Heights Flats

“Shalom and Son’s,” a kosher food and wine distribution business still operating in the Boyle Heights Flats.

The Talmud further instructs us upon this subject of havdalah. That we need to include at least three distinct blessings, but adding no more than seven; not more than the days of the week, whose cycle we are renewing with this act.

I take my drink in hand as the ceremony begins. Today we are without wine or kosher grape juice, which is a shocking thing. Considering that underneath us, and just a few hundred feet to the east of us, right in the Flats of Boyle Heights, on Anderson sits a kosher food and wine distribution plant with their Kedem trucks parked in their gates. One of the few present-day Jewish businesses of Boyle Heights is “Shalom and Son’s,” which by way of this neighborhood supplies so many Jewish tables in Los Angeles with this staple of wine as a liquid symbol of joy. Yet we are all out after days of celebrating, and they are closed for shabbos. So the wine-cup goes away and a beer is placed squarely in the palm of my hand.

And then I begin to rhythmically chant the words of the prophets and psalms which begin the ritual of havdalah (in the western Jewish tradition):

Behold G-d is my salvation, I will trust and not fear – for G-d is my might and my praise – Hashem – and He was a salvation for me. You can draw water with joy from the springs of salvation. (Isaiah 12:2-3) Salvation is Hashem’s, upon your people is your blessing, Selah. (Psalm 3:9) Hashem, Master of legions, is with us, a stronghold for us is the G-d of Jacob, Selah. (Psalm 46:12) Hashem, Master of legions, praised is the man who trusts in you. (Psalm 84:13) Hashem save! May the King answer us on the day we call. (Psalm 20:10)”

הִנֵּה, אֵל יְשׁוּעָתִי אֶבְטַח, וְלֹא אֶפְחָד, כִּי עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ יְיָ, וַיְהִי לִי לִישׁוּעָה. וּשְׁאַבְתֶּם מַיִם בְּשָׂשׂוֹן, מִמַּעַיְנֵי הַיְשׁוּעָה. לַײָ הַיְשׁוּעָה, עַל עַמְּךָ בִרְכָתֶךָ סֶּלָה. יְיָ צְבָאוֹת עִמָּנוּ מִשְׂגָּב לָנוּ אֱלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב סֶלָה. יְיָ צְבָאוֹת אַשְׁרֵי אָדָם בֹּטֵחַ בָּךְ: יְיָ הוֹשִׁיעָה, הַמֶּלֶךְ יַעֲנֵנוּ בְיוֹם קָרְאֵנוּ:

As we stand upon this massive chunk of concrete and metal, I chant the words in Hebrew. For me, the words become more alive here, at this spot and among these friends of mine. This is our “mishgav lanu” – this is our stronghold, our fortress, our hideout. It is only right that I come here to make such a mitzvah. The rain has just passed, so the river is filled with water. You can hear the faint rushing below, as my soul draws water with joy from the springs of salvation. The sights and sounds are all so vivid.

Shmueli Gonzales and Jesse Elliott, Havdalah with Los Angeles in the backgroundAside from the sound of an occasional train below and the rush of a bus at our side, the only other sounds are from the cars passing over the bridge to and from downtown. And the faint and distant rumbling of the freeways which are integral to this viaduct. Though this is the choice spot to observe this city from the eastside, we are among the few people who come here, as mostly its just locals and homeless people. More often these days the occasional hipster does come out of the arts district, but sadly they usually take one look at us edgy punkers standing upon the bridge and nervously turn around instead.

Indeed, this viaduct it is the most picturesque location in the city. But for those people who are more of a boutique style of urbane, this is not a regular destination. It’s a wild adventure, because its lodged right in between the infamous Skid Row and the much ignored ethnic community of Boyle Heights. We are standing on the main artery through the “rough neighborhoods.”

But still we hold the torch high, and with full conviction in my voice I declare in the holy tongue: “Hinei el yeshuati eftach v’lo efchad / Behold G-d is my salvation, I will trust and not fear!”

And for a moment, walkers take pause as they pass. And the drivers who are weary, my friends say they can catch a glimpse of the awe on their faces as well as they pass. No fear nor even dreary eyes for just a moment. Just awe and wonder as people witness this amazing sight. As we perform the ceremony cars honk at us as they go, joining in like urban “amen”s.

I can hear Zero-Renton say, “Look, those westsiders standing at Mateo are pointing towards the torch! They see it all the way over there!”

And then we continue with the next words, which I say in Hebrew and English. These words which are meant to be repeated by the participating crowd. An all-inclusive and universal phrase which extends the light and joy of Judaism to all who dare to embrace and befriend it:

For the Jews there was light, gladness, joy and honor (Esther 8:16), so may it be for us!

“I will raise the cup of salvations, and I will invoke the name of Hashem:”

לַיְּהוּדִים הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה, וְשָׂשׂוֹן, וִיקָר. כֵּן תִּהְיֶה לָּנוּ:

כּוֹס יְשׁוּעוֹת אֶשָּׂא, וּבְשֵׁם יְיָ אֶקְרָא:

So I then lift my drink. Today day we need to brown-paper bag it, since we are out of the kosher grape juice. We will have to exchange out one the blessing for wine with the appropriate blessing for beer (she’hakol).

As I lift my drink and at the right moment along with the words of the ritual. And I say the words of respect and reverence: “Savri maranan ve-rabanan ve-rabotai / By your leave my masters, teachers and gentlemen…” Words which ask permission of my guests for me to bless before them.

Photo Credit: Zero-Renton Prefect

Photo Credit: Zero-Renton Prefect

But also mystically, when we say the savrei maranan – it is meant to symbolize a deferring of reverence to our Jewish sages, rabbis and masters who have gone before us. We acknowledge that through their teachings and traditions they gave us, that they still are living to us and with us. I show respect to them before I proceed.

Standing here I raise my drink as I also make a toast to my friends, family, my city and the historical Jewish heritage of Boyle Heights. And as I say these words, even my non-Jewish friends show their comfort and familiarity with this custom and respond with the traditional response: “L’Chaim! To life!”

Now it is the Jewish custom to bless, over a cup which is filled as near as we can to overflow. So that our joy should be the same, spilling and running over. (Psalm 23:5) And it really seems to, as I say the blessing over the drink.

Next we take the bundle of spices. Made from an etrog – an Israeli citron used during the Sukkot holiday for the mitzvah of Lulav right here in the eastside community – which was dried with cloves, as a spice-box. I say the blessing over the basamim; the fragrant species, the spices and herbs.

The Jewish tradition says that an extra soul is given to each Jews for the celebration of Shabbat, an additional soul to have twice the joy! But when the sabbath leaves us, so does this extra soul. This transition from the hight of joy to the lowly place of mundane life can be deflating. But in order to awaken our spirits anew, to rouse them to attention we use these spices. They are our traditional smelling salts, but they are instead intended to help arouse our common soul to life once again. Pleasantly reanimating us after our long day of Shabbat celebration. We each take a moment to deeply inhale this fragrance, passing it around the circle.

Next Jesse draws the candle low, within reach of us all, as I say the next blessing; “borai morai ha’aish.” As I bless G-d who creates the illuminations of fire. Tradition says that fire was created on the first Saturday night, at the end of the week of creation. (Pesachim 53b) When G-d gave Adam, the first man, the knowledge to rub stones together and create fire. We recall this act now, commemorating that very moment in order to reenact the wonders of creation, in which we are also active partners. I meditate upon this hope now, that G-d may likewise continue to give us the knowledge to continue to do awesome works of creation in this world.

20141220_174405And now near the flames we all hold our hands close and cup them, to see the light passing through the tips of our fingers. Not between them, but shinning through the translucency of our fingertips. For a movement I consider how the spiritual world and the Divine, it is hidden from view. We can only merely perceive this realm of spirit as a flame, the reality of which shines through from within our own holy being, as through good deeds this holy light emanates outward from within us all.

So for a moment I again make a mystical reflection as I look at these hands which I try so hard to use for good deeds. The Zohar, the main mystical text of Kabbalah which interprets the Torah, it tells us that when G-d first created man we were beings of pure light, translucent bodies which were “clothed in light.” And that from the depths of us, our souls would shine brightly to the surface from within. But that after the sin of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the consequence was that people lost their vestiges of pure light and became beings of mortal flesh. However, this tradition tells us that G-d let humans keep a reminder of our former state, in the translucency of our fingertips.

When I hold my fingers close I remind myself of this truth, that I am a being of light. A light in this world and this community, a light which will shine through to the outside world through my tireless work I perform with these very hands. This is a truth I strive never to forget.

The streaming passers still taking notice as we huddle together into a warm circle for these moments. Then once again we raise the candle and the cup high! And I begin the concluding words of the ritual (which are the same in all traditions, Ashkenazi and Sephardi):

Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the Universe, Who distinguishes between holy and secular, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six days of labor. Blessed are You, Who distinguishes between holy and secular.”

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, הַמַּבְדִּיל בֵּין קֹדֶשׁ לְחוֹל, בֵּין אוֹר לְחשֶׁךְ, בֵּין יִשְׂרָאֵל לָעַמִּים, בֵּין יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי לְשֵׁשֶׁת יְמֵי הַמַּעֲשֶׂה, בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, הַמַּבְדִּיל בֵּין קֹדֶשׁ לְחוֹל:

I really consider these words deeply each and every time. The word that stands out to me is the key word of this ceremony, hamavdil. The word hivdil – in Hebrew, it means to distinguish.

Shmuel Gonzales, Havdalah flames and downtown Los AngelesWe draw our understanding for this word from the Torah, from the book of Leviticus which contains the holiness code; there we are told to be holy, and to be distinguished people. There we are told to separate ourselves and stand apart, to be holy by keeping the Torah laws which keep one sanctified (i.e. keeping kashrut; Leviticus 20:25; 10:10; 11:47). This word likewise brings to mind how on Shabbat the Jewish people are to separate from the world’s secular activities and all its toils and embrace the joy of the sabbath. That it is as different as the difference between light and dark, this embracing of the sacred over the “profane.” And so too, as a people who keep these ways we are distinct and unique because of these practices.

Lately, I feel that far too many times when religious people speak regarding this they focus far too much on the idea of separating themselves from that which they feel is “profane.” From people and a society which they feel are less than kosher; less than sacred. But I don’t believe that is what it should actually mean to us, here and in this place. In this place with this mixed assembly of people; Jews and non-Jews, religious and secular, cultured and counter-culture.

The word hivdil means to distinguish. It’s often used in everyday speech to contrast one thing to another, not to really compare as there is no real comparison. As they aren’t really meant to be compared against. But it doesn’t just mean that, it also means that you can tell something apart from the rest. You can tell what it is, as it stands apart and is recognizable for what it is. I remind myself that I am special as a distinct person as a Jew, and so is each of these friends of mine distinct in their own way.

Punk Rock Havdalah Circle

Zero-Renton Prefect, Shmueli Gonzales, and Jesse Elliott.

Again, I bring our attention back to the candle. To recognize that life and the world is like this braided candle. There are certainly distinctions in the world and between people, but in our own ways we are unique lights in the world; just like each wick upon this braided candle. Though we must allow ourselves to be intertwined! Just like Shabbat is intertwined with the work-week, we must have one in order to have the other! We need to have a partnership between the sacred and secular. We could not have the joy of the sacred, without the labor of the week and its secular duties. So too, the sacred and the secular both have their place and their time to shine.

But now as this joy of Shabbat must come to an end, we must hivdil – we must separate – from the radiant light of a most holy Shabbat and begin our toils anew. And as the blessings of havdalah come to an end, I drink from the cup and I extinguish the candle with a pour of drink over the flames. Putting out the light of Shabbat until next week.

And as we make our way back home to the eastside over the bridge I begin to sing the traditional songs. Among them are “Am Yisrael Chai” and “David Melech Yisrael.” Songs of life! And as we pass the old Jewish sites, we remind ourselves that the works of the Jewish people and the joy of Jewish life are still flickering to life here. And keep in mind that the spark of this Jewish heritage needs to remain alive, to continue to contribute to the diversity which has enriched Boyle Heights for the past century. To show some continuity in the community, where change and modernity seems to quickly be making many things around here all but a memory.

The canopy of beams and girders of the Sixth Street Bridge, by daylight. She is set for demolition in 2015.

The canopy of beams and girders of the Sixth Street Bridge, by daylight. She is set for demolition in 2015.

But sadly, even this last-stand act of havdalah is going to change for my circle in the near future. After all these years of hanging out at the Sixth Street Viaduct, I’m sorry to announce that the bridge is being demolished.

This iconic bridge which has graced the Los Angeles landscape since 1932, she is suffering an alkali-silica reaction in the concrete (called “concrete cancer” by engineers). This reaction creates cracks in the concrete, which are now seen covering all over the body of the structure. With a 70% probability of coming down in the next major earthquake, this most famous of Los Angeles sites is being demolished. It will be closing this Spring of 2015 and demolished in the following months, to make way for a newly designed bridge which is expected to open in late 2019.

So where will we perform havdalah in the future? I don’t know. Now, it’s not that we haven’t tried other spots for havdalah. But they don’t feel the same, and this is where people know to come and join in if they want to. It’s going to be interesting to see if I can recapture this spirit elsewhere.

A Touching Personal Experience from This Past Week

Let me give you one last precious story, from this past week. A special havdalah which really touched me.

This past week my dear friend Irv Weiser calls me while I’m on the bridge. He calls right as the boys are heading back, because as non-Jews they had plans for a ham related holiday feast! Oy, what a dilemma! I was sure I was gonna miss havdalah on the bridge this week, the ceremony which closes the gates of Shabbat. In the face of the rare occurrence of not having any participants, I was thinking I’d have to do it back at the house on my own.

Punk Rock Havdalah, in Los Angeles. Photo Credit: Zero-Renton Prefect

Punk Rock Havdalah, in Los Angeles. Shmuel Gonzales and Jesse Elliott. Photo Credit: Zero-Renton Prefect

But Irv calls me and says to stick around. That he was just a few blocks away having coffee with a Mexican Jewish man, a homeless friend of his from the eastside. They were wondering if they could join me for havdalah. So we went up and they said the blessings of havdalah with me.

Irv, was born and raised Orthodox Jewish in the neighbourhood of Boyle Heights. And educated at the Breed Street Shul and local yeshivot. He says he’s agnostic now. But as I begin the ceremony he starts to join in the Hebrew prayers. And tell me touching stories of his parents, who were holocaust survivors and who came to Boyle Heights after the war to join a relative already here. He related to me how his parents used to perform the ceremony, and how they pronounced the words in their Eastern European accents.

He then takes a look at the skyline and across the bridge, which he hasn’t seen that way since he was young… now he’s in his 60s. But all the more he’s in awe of the sight after all these years.

For a few moments I also got to talk about the significance of the ritual up there on the bridge with this new friend I’ve met through him, as my buddy Irv gets thrilled by my knowledge and passion. And willingness to take the time. (And in a caring manner nagging me why I don’t study for the rabbinate already, that’s the story of my life!)

As we completed the ritual with song and stories, Irv thanked me for keeping Jewish tradition alive here in this way. As a means of keeping the memory of the legacy of classic Boyle Heights alive, even today after the once predominate Jewish community started migrating away from the neighborhood some 50 years ago.

Irv also expressed his gratitude to me, for investing myself into nurturing the future Latino Jewish community on the eastside. A growing community of Jewish Latinos, who are noticeably becoming integral to the future of Jewish expression here and in our local synagogues.

Irv’s been texting me since. And he keeps telling me, interestingly and touching coming from a self-proclaimed “cynical” and “bored” Jewish agnostic, “Havdalah… the prayers… and that place on the bridge. Now that is really spiritual, and most memorable.”

How to perform Havdalah with alternative items:

  • Though it is most common to make havdalah over wine or grape juice which requires the blessing “pri ha-gafen,” (fruit of the vine) one may also say havdalah over any type of pleasant drink if kosher grape juice is not available; anything except for water or a common drink like soda (according to Rav Moshe Feinstein), which is meant mainly to quench thirst. One should pick a drink which is considered a sociable drink. This can include even coffee or tea (with or w/o milk), or other fruit juices. However, Sephardic rabbis such as Rabbi Ovediah Yosef suggest that the use of intoxicating drinks such as wine, beer, etc. is choicest. One should say the appropriate blessing for what ever drink you choose, in place of the blessing for “pri ha-gafen” (fruit of the vine) when noted in our siddurim.

  • If you do not have a havdalah candle, all you need to do is find two candles and hold the wicks together. Pick a couple of friends out and have them hold the candles with the wicks touching through-out the havdalah ceremony. This is also a great way to physically display how our individual lights are so much stronger when people come together in unity.

 
1896912_10152650980936110_1390575560_n About the Author: Welcome to Hardcore Mesorah! My name is Shmueli Gonzales, and I am a writer and religious commentator from Los Angeles, California. I dedicate the focus of my work to displaying the cultural diversity within Judaism, often exploring the characteristics and unappreciated values of Chassidic and Sephardic Judaism. Among my various projects I also produce classical liturgical and halachic texts for free and open-source redistribution.

I am a proud member of Congregation Beth Shalom of Whitter – a modern-traditionalist Jewish congregation – where I also teach “Introduction to Judaism” and coordinate Spanish language programming for our growing Latino Jewish community here in the Los Angeles eastside and the San Gabriel Valley.

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Parshat V’Zot haBerachah (5775)


The Security of Dwelling on Your Own, Under Your Own Vine And Tree

We have now entered into a new Jewish year, and we today find ourselves in the middle of the holiday of Sukkot. The year is over but we still have some more Torah to read.

The Hollenbeck home, La Villa de Paredon Blanco, from Thompson and West's history of Los Angeles County (1880). This one one of the first residences  east of the river here in the paredon, the bluffs.

The Hollenbeck home, La Villa de Paredon Blanco, from ‘Thompson and West’s history of Los Angeles County (1880).’ This is one of the first residences east of the river here in the paredon, the bluffs.

However, normally this parsha does not get the same attention that we give the other parashiot. This Torah portion is regularly reserved as a final reading, meant to be paired with the start of the Torah cycle as we start over again at the beginning with Genesis. We don’t want this Torah learning to end, so we save this last reading for when we start over again with the celebration of Simchat Torah.

But consider for a moment how this reading is not honored or regarded among the weekly readings. It is often overlooked as utilitarian, something that just gets us from one point to another. To critical scholars, this final Torah portion is just a chance for the scriptures to wrap-up loose ends. It’s not treated as all that special. It’s the one most often overlooked, and purposely so. So every year I make sure to give special attention to this parsha, and dedicate it to those who feel ignored or left out. This one is for you. This is also further dedicated to my community, which often feels so ignored.

Today we will focus on the 6th reading, which is the second to the last reading. This reading is so short, it only contains three verse. We will focus on the middle verse, which is the second to the last spoken line attributed to Moses in the Torah. This is among the last words Moses gives us before he dies and the people move forward towards their destiny without him:

“And Israel dwelt in safely,

the fountain of Jacob alone,

in a land of grain and wine;

also, his heavens will drip dew.”

| Vayishkon Yisrael betach

| bedad ein Yaakov

| el-eretz dagan vetirosh

| af-shamav ya’arfu-tal

Deuteronomy 33:28

This statement is one of the closing lines after Moses gathers the people together and blesses them just before he dies. Just as Jacob – also named Israel – blessed his children on his deathbed, so too Moses blesses these children of Israel before he passes away. This connection is hinted at in his words, as well as through our rabbinic commentators who also relate this back to the similar blessings of Jacob.

However, here we have a break neck statement presented in this single line of the Torah. The first parts seems to be talking about something extending to them from the past, that Jacob dwelt safely and alone. Hinting that so too will they also be so blessed.

But then there is a statement about being blessed with life-sustaining dew from the heavens, that clearly appears to be talking about the future. That G-d will continue to bless them with the moisture of the dew they so badly need in their dry environment, to help sustain their crops.

I don’t want to get too much into this topic of tal just yet – of dew; but we are just coming out of the summer season where we pray for tal (dew). Now starting after the harvest days of Sukkot, we instead being praying in expectation of the coming of earth renewing ruach (wind) and geshem (rain).

We all know what the scriptures tell us regarding these things. We read it along with the Shema at morning and night, and with our prayers everyday. We are told that if we do what the Torah asks of us we will have all these things in their proper seasons, and be blessed with the resulting sustenance by our G-d. (see the Second Paragraph of the Shema; Deut. 11:13-21) I’ll touch on that again in closing, so keep this close in mind.

But for a moment I would like us to back up here and look at this first part of the verse: “Vayishkon Yisrael betach badad / And Israel shall dwell in safety and alone.” We really need to ask ourselves some questions. What type of blessing is this? And what are the implications?

There is one word that stands out to me, one that catches my attention because this whole verse can mean something different based on how we perceive this word badad – which simply means “alone.”

But this word not only means alone, the same root word in everyday speech means to be “insulated.” Do we seem to be talking here about being insulated and separate from others? We can see an example of the word used this way elsewhere in the Torah, when the wicked Balam says of Israel collectively:

“For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: look here, it is a people that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations.”

כִּימֵרֹאשׁ צֻרִים אֶרְאֶנּוּ, וּמִגְּבָעוֹת אֲשׁוּרֶנּוּ: הֶןעָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן, וּבַגּוֹיִם לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב.

Numbers 23:9

These are the words of Balam, the wicked prophet of sorts. Who didn’t have anything against Israel, but didn’t necessarily have anything for them either. Nonetheless in his many statements he shows how astonished and impressed he is with these people. Several times he mentions how lovely they dwell. (Numbers 24:5) Here in this statement he notices that this people dwell well on their own and alone among the nations, as they are destined to so dwell alone.

He makes the observation many people have made about the children of Israel, that they are not like everyone else and they are people prone to keeping to themselves. They live off on their own. People make this observation both positively, and sometimes negatively as well. But I would dare say, that while the Jewish faith empowers people to build a distinct sense of community, it does not encourage people to be isolated and devoid of pluralism. It demands we welcome and even love the stranger. (Leviticus 19:34)

So why does the Torah use this word here? Isn’t it a negative thing for a people to be “alone”? Is it really healthy for a nation of people to be alone and insulated from other peoples? Is that what the Torah is asking of us here? Is that what we are to be in pursuit of? Is happiness found only when people are just left alone?

In our verse we read that according to this promise of Moses we are to dwell, “betach, badad / in safety, and alone.” Betach means securely, peacefully and tranquilly. That we should dwell securely and alone. But there is one question that I can’t help but ask myself continuously as I consider this text, is peace and security only found when a people dwell alone? Is that what these scriptures are trying to tell us?

There are some who might actually read it this way. Certainly there are some people who do think this way, and who in light of their feelings cannot seem to help but read a verse this way. Projecting their isolationist sentiments in to their understanding of this text. That in order for their own people to have safety, be it physical safety or the security of resources, this people must dwell separate and alone. That the best way to be at peace and in tranquility is to be alone, without the bothers of clashing interaction and the threats of competition. Being at peace, by virtue of the absence of all others.

Now most of us notice that a lot has changed since the time of Yaakov, there are a lot more people in the world today. And the regions in which we live are now heavily populated. Most of us dwell in urban centers, filled with a diversity of people. We cannot be like Yaakov, all off to ourselves. We have to dwell with others. But in the desire of some people to have this sense of security of being “alone,” some people unfortunately do negatively voice how they prefer their vicinity to be made of people all like themselves; thus they are alone, and left alone by others.

Living Examples from the Community of Boyle Heights

Let me us give some real-life examples of this tendency in action, and at the same time address the needs of my community for a moment if you will. Because this topic hits home for me.

This is a theme which comes up often as I do community work in the local barrio of Boyle Heights, my most beloved neighborhood. People often talk with me about how our insulated, predominately Latino community, does today and has historically at times had, ethnic and economic related tensions. But going back further into our history, in the earlier half of the 20th century this was a place of tolerance and diversity for our residents, a blending of cultures found almost nowhere else. A tight historical bond of cooperation and camaraderie between diverse ethnic groups was modeled here in the classic era of this community.

So why now all the focusing on negativity of the past by the disgruntled locals? It’s just that today, more than ever, people feel threatened; both in the housing and job market as other races and classes slowly consider migrating towards our Latino working-class area we live in, with the fear of them displacing our own people. Economics is fueling a sense of isolationism. A bitter fight against gentrification, and also against any sort of progress or upgrades which would possibly make the neighborhood “too fancy” for us Latinos to sustain a future in. People threatened by new potential home owners and skilled labor, which many of our immigrant people are not. As our people badly need the home they rent and the livelihood of their unskilled mom-and-pop storefront job they have, plain and simple.

But being alone has its consequences, being isolated – today 98% Latino in demographics – has its downsides as well and comes with many negative elements. And with this in mind, a local man was pining upon the past of Boyle Heights as a mixed community. He outright asked in a public forum, when are we as a community going to be ready to return to that type of diversity and brotherhood? To make this place somewhere we can challenge the barriers once again.

I kid you not, it was a local preacher’s wife who was the first to chime in, “¡Chale! There’s too many of us here already.” That people need to leave our community alone. Followed with an us vs. them, nationalist argument. And a dismissal to the tune of, “I have nothing against them, it’s just economics.”

So as you see, even when people claim they have faith in G-d they can still have a lot of problems having faith in humanity. There are many people, who no matter what their persuasion, can still cling on to hardened ideas of tribalism. And we still have a lot of cultural religionists around here, who just don’t have faith in those of other cultures. I find that unacceptable, and totally against the scriptures.

So how do we help address these problems for people who feel like they lack a sense of security? For people who out of fear want us to be alone, and desire to build a bulwark around our community? I believe that the scriptures do give us some examples if we are willing to listen and learn.

The Security of Being at Home, Under Your Own Tree

Now as we turn back over to our scripture which we are studying today, I asked us to once again draw our attention to these words: “betach badad / in safety, and alone.” Remember how betach is also understood to mean securely, peacefully and in tranquility.

And again I ask the question, is peace and security only found when we dwell alone? Now I ask us an ever more direct question in this vein. Is security only found when we are amongst our own? Is our safety only secured by sheer numbers? When we are surrounded among our own kind in order to avoid the risk of all others? Our rabbis would say, no. That that is a sign of insecurity! That is a very sure sign of a community in danger.

If we look at our ever-present commentary by Rashi, he defines being secure and alone a much different way:

Safely and alone: Every single individual [will dwell safely] – each man under his own vine and his own fig tree. [And their security will be so sound, that] they will have no need to live together in one group, because of the enemy.”

בטח בדד: כל יחיד ויחיד איש תחת גפנו ותחת תאנתו מפוזרין ואין צריכים להתאסף ולישב יחד מפני האויב:

Rashi, Deuteronomy 33:28

Rashi describes security as a person being at home under his own vine and fig tree!

Then he also draws us a picture of what insecurity looks like, it’s when a people are forced to live together huddled in a group. “Yachad miphnei ha-oyeiv / together as one because of an enemy.” When people must be amassed and concentrated together for security, because of the risk of rivals or opponents.

Bario White Fence History as told by the gang themselves: White Fence is consider the mother of all Chicano gangs. The one most often modelled and portrayed in movies, videos and books. Indeed most of all popular cholo values and style originates from this very local gang. Notice how in their version of history, gangs were formed to protect themselves from the other minorities and whites who abused them. Still in the absence of these competing groups today, the violent impetus to keep others out still remains.

Bario White Fence History as told by the gang members themselves: White Fence is consider the mother of all Chicano gangs. The one most often modelled and portrayed in movies, videos and books. Indeed almost all of popular cholo values and style originates from this very local gang. The author contends,”I am not attempting to glamorize the hood or gangbanging but present an accurate picture of real and true barrio history.” Notice how in thier version of history, gangs were formed to protect themselves from the risk of other larger ethnic groups and the whites who abused them. To protect their small and isolated barrio (neighborhood). Yet still, these many years later even in the absence of any of these competing groups today, the violent impetus to keep others out still remains.

I can tell you for a fact that our rabbi here is correct, as I witness this type of reality in my own community. Indeed that is one of my biggest challenges, trying to stir our local people out of a collective nightmare in which our barrios were huddle masses of scared minorities and whose only reprieve from outside harassment was through the prevalence of racial gang violence which threatened outsiders away. It’s disheartening that even today, some people still tactically accept this as the cost worth paying to avoid cultural and demographic dilution. But the persistence of this for the past century has offered no security, quite the contrary.

Again, Rashi describes security as a person being at home under his own vine and fig tree! When a person is not stuck with the wagons circled. It’s under the shade and sustenance of a fruitful vine and fig tree. But if you consider it, there is one precondition to us having the benefit of such things. You need to have land! You need to have a place to plant your vine and fig tree, in order to persist and see them grow to fruition. One needs their own homestead, to put down roots. Where each man dwells in the safety and shade of his own home and livelihood, though a direct connection with his own land. Reaping the direct benefits of land ownership, which grants one self-dependence and the means for self-determination. With the security of living on one’s own, that’s how we should read this passage here.

All people need this sense of security. Especially here in this community where it is lacking, we need to turn our struggling renters into home owners. Helping find adequate housing for people in this crowded neighborhood, where often times even more than one family may struggle to live in a single unit already.

We need to help the anxious make a home for themselves, so as not to be blown around the neighborhood by the winds of the markets or tossed around at the whims of absentee landlords. Educating people on their rights and options.

We need to educate and empower people to put their money to use in gaining them equity as home owners, which also grants them security and resources in time of need. Helping people buy homes in this neighborhood of theirs. Instead painfully watching money slip through their fingers season after season, and year after year in the cost of rent. And of course more importantly, so a person can feel that they have their own place in the world and all the sweetness that comes with.

We also need to do more to help create new housing opportunities for low-income and struggling families. With new development which offers more safe housing options for all the various working-class people of this diverse city. Building new opportunities together, and restoring old alliances. Working together to fight displacement, homelessness and overcrowding!

What we really need around here is dedicated people who are less interested in descending into revolution, and more dedicated to bringing this community to fruition. People who are willing to bring this community together in peace, to reap the benefits of investing in our own community. Investing with both our resources and our efforts.

Closing the season of dew, entering the seasons of rains

I asked you to keep a thought in mind a while back there. So I want us to just touch on this in closing, this topic of tal. The future promise that is given to Israel by Moses, that we will have heaven-sent tal – G-d will send us His life-giving dew.

As I said we are just coming out of the summer season were we are asking for tal (dew) in our prayers, when it is much-needed to help sustain our produce with essential water and moisture through the summer heat. And now we will transition for the season and begin to ask for ruach and geshem, wind and rain; for the wind that will scatter seeds and pollen, and the rain that will water it. And likewise we are expected to sow, in line with the times and seasons. So that months from now in the spring we will see the results of this natural cycle of renewal of the land, when the spring harvest comes.

Blessing comes in the right season. But it comes through a mixture of action on our part, and living with a sense of promise and hope that we are aided by the blessings of our G-d. A mixture of effort, and faith.

We need to encourage people with the promise that our G-d will also help sustain us in our undertakings. As with the life-giving dew through which we and nature find ourselves sustained by our G-d. He will preserve us with His blessings, with His “tal” sustaining us in mercy. He will help us make this investment blossom and bear fruit when the season is right. But its time for us to get ready to sow!

I choose to encourage people with a message of hope, instead of resorting to fear and hysteria. I choose to embolden people to make this land their own and make it blossom for their families. I choose to stand apart from the people sounding like prophets of doom around the barrio. Hysterics talking of the coming changes with anxiety and disseminating a sense doom for our district.

I instead choose to raise the prophetic voice of the Jewish tradition, as found in the bible. I draw upon the words of the prophet Zechariah, one of the most dramatic of all the prophets. Yes, he was among them that foretold of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and exile of his people during the First Temple Period. But he also spoke in surety of the promise of their salvation, and with certainty of the restoration of his people. Zachariah gave hope, because that is what a prophetic voice is for! As the scriptures read:

“For the sowing is for peace. The vine shall give forth its fruit, and the earth shall give forth its produce, and the heavens shall give forth their dew – and I will cause the remnant of this people to inherit all these things.”

כִּי זֶרַע הַשָּׁלוֹם הַגֶּפֶן תִּתֵּן פִּרְיָהּ וְהָאָרֶץ תִּתֵּן אֶת יְבוּלָהּ וְהַשָּׁמַיִם יִתְּנוּ טַלָּם וְהִנְחַלְתִּי אֶת שְׁאֵרִית הָעָם הַזֶּה אֶת כָּל אֵלֶּה:

Zechariah 8:12

I ask people to sow into this community, both the Latino and Jewish people who love this neighborhood. Help us sow in peace, so we can cause the remnant of this people to inherit and fruitfully develop this land.

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Experiencing INTERSECTION: Artists at the Breed Street Shul


Celebrating Art Culture in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles

After being extended a second week due to the excitement surrounding this exhibition, the latest open house of the Breed Street Shul Project cheerfully closes as a great success. Running from May 31st through June 13th, this gorgeous art show featured local Jewish, Japanese and Latino artists – representing three of the foundational historic communities of Boyle Heights.

"Nigun for Peace" by Lori Shocket and Seigfried Knop

“Nigun for Peace” by Lori Shocket and Seigfried Knop. With the mostly holy Jewish confession, the Shema written in Hebrew cursive script

This stands out as a major milestone in what has become a nearly 20-year restoration and revitalization effort at this historic site. With their hard work now being realized with such gorgeous and stunning results.

In recent years the Breed Street Shul Project has been celebrating the historical roots of the community of Boyle Heights through a series of special events ranging from lectures to historic banquets. And in celebrating life by hosting special events ranging from bar mitzvahs to pre-Grammy celebration parties. And welcoming festivities ranging from Israel Independence Day events like Fiesta Shalom, to the revelry of the Dia de los Meuertos celebrations. As well as giving guided tours of the historic eastside immigrant community.

This latest installment of Boyle Heights culture focused on art, and resulted in the stunning temporary transformation of the Beit Midrash – the original 1915 wood-framed study hall which first housed the synagogue, in the back – into a stunning art gallery. Professionally balanced in both light and tone.

The range of art and the subjects of inspiration also masterfully balanced. This show presented amazing pieces of mixed media art and fine painting. Using touching and striking images, to present the glory and  the tragedies of the Boyle Heights experience.

Portrait of Breed Street Shul, imaged upon recycled pages of Jewish prayers

Portrait of Breed Street Shul, imaged upon recycled pages of Jewish prayers

Immediately on display, viewers are greeted by a large portrait of the Breed Street Shul. One of the oldest known images of the larger brick synagogue which graces the front of the property. This larger sanctuary opened for services in 1923. The shul is shown in all its original splendor, before southern California’s notorious earthquakes destroyed the ornamental brickwork and cast stones. However, if you look closely at the portrait one will see the portrait has been imaged over recycled Jewish liturgical texts by artist Lori Shocket.

This show, which ran up until the Father’s Day weekend, touchingly displayed the collaborative work of physician Lori Shocket, and her artistically acclaimed father and holocaust survivor Seigfried Knop.

The duo’s “partnership paintings” are breathtaking blends acrylic and pastels. Each baring the timeless words of the most holy Jewish confession in Hebrew script, “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Eloheinu, Hashem Echad / Hear oh Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One.” (Deut. 6:4) Each depiction is of the grand stained glass windows of the shul. The abstract “Diffraction,” the somber “Defacement,” and the bright “Niggun for Hope.”

"Prayer for..."As impressive as the painting are, their mixed-media presentations also offered deep Jewish cultural and religious themes that should not be overlooked.

“Prayer for…” breaks the concept of canvas as a box display of the Kotel – the most holy Western Wall in Jerusalem. With a crack in the wall filled with prayers, as is the custom of the site. The surface of the wall is in the hue of Jerusalem Stone, met with a faint representation of a section of closely toned Torah Scroll parchment. This work pulls in the viewer, almost daring them to leave a hope and prayer of their own.

613 Mitzvot“613 Mitzvot” reminds us of the 248 positive and 365 negative commandments of the Torah; the do’s and do not’s of the scriptures which govern Jewish religious life. The partially covered magen david – the star of David – reminds us of the grand window of the shul once again. Raised from the canvas is the expression of a tallit – a ritual prayer prayer shawl. The four-cornered garment itself bearing a light display of handwritten Hebrew text, with the Torah prescribed tzitzit tasseling off the canvas. The four-cornered garment hints at the concept of being wrapped in the holy thoughts of Torah, whereas the tzitzit represent the commandments of Torah put into practice and action. We must have both the meeting of thought and action to accomplish mitzvot – good deeds.

Local Latino artist and muralist Fabian Debora also connects with the Jewish character of the site in the truly amazing and richly painted “Graffittied Rabbi,” which layers themes of urban Jewish life and barrio artistry. The chassid facing a wall of graff-styled Hebrew.

"Graffittied Rabbi" by Fabian Debora

“Graffittied Rabbi” by Fabian Debora. The art of this exhibit so nicely blending in with the historic art surrounding the bima and the Torah Ark

Fabian Debora was raised in Boyle Heights and created his first artwork as a young gang member on the walls of the Breed Street Shul itself. He has since grown, rehabilitated himself and gone on to become one of most well-respected of the local artists to take their inspiration from the Chicano muralist tradition. In addition to his professional artistry he is also active with Homeboy Industries Inc., as a drug counselor and helping others also emerging from the hardships of gang life. It seems only right that his evolution as an artist and resident is celebrated in this exhibition. And that his art once again return to these halls in a positive way.

It is important that viewers take notice that it was not just synagogue and Jewish themed art which took the spotlight at this art show.

Fabian also joined fellow Boyle Heights resident Mike Saijo in delivering themes apropos to the surrounding neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Some of these works bringing to remembrance times of hardship and social upheaval significant to all members of this community.

Mike Saijo is a well-respected and recognized local artist, as well as the artistic brainchild who helped bring this group of diverse artists together for this unique show. Siajo’s work often touches on issues of diversity and racial prejudice, focusing on the experiences of the Japanese, Jewish and Latino communities circa WWII. He once again delivers a wonderful presentation of ethnically diverse themes.

"The Portrait of Natsuhara Family" by Mike Saijo

Portrait of Natasurah Family,” by Mike Siajo

Saijo’s work “Evergreen” is a framed piece of layered mixed-media art, depicting the eerie beauty of the Japanese section of the local Boyle Heights cemetery just blocks away. It is one of the most beloved of cemetery sections in the local community.

The piece “Portrait of Natasurah Family,” is a gleaming and classy presentation of mixed-media art. The handsome family portrait is imaged over the pages of “Story of an Issei Pioneer.” This piece gives us a small glimpse into the lives of the people who struggled as first generation Japanese-Americans from the 1880s through the 1940s.

Fabian Debora delivered another homage to the Japanese community of Boyle Heights, while touching on one of the most darkest points of this community’s history; the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. His use of canvas and paint to carry this story is nothing short of tremendous, here in his pieces titled “In Torment.”

Story of the interment of Japanese-Americans

“In Torment” by Fabian Debora, tells the story of the internment of Japanese-Americans

The internment of the Japanese-Americans. It cannot be overstated just how much this event scarred those who lived through it, and how this episode tore at the fabric of our community. Especially traumatizing the youth of the community who saw their classmates taken away and placed behind fences. Calling into question for each immigrant group their own safety, by seeing people as American as themselves taken away under suspicion.

This historic tragedy is something many people in Boyle Heights still discuss, as for some this event still calls into question the veracity of ones own American citizenship to isolate them from injustice and xenophobia. However, so traumatic and so great were the losses of both pride and property that I know local Japanese families who do not ever talk about their experiences with their children so as not to cause them to think ill of the USA. Not all the wounds have healed yet.

The Japanese community here was never fully restored to its former glory after the war, and is much smaller yet today. It’s important we do not forget them and tell their story. And that we express just how shared this pain was for the rest of the Boyle Heights community.

This is not the only shared pain which is vividly presented in this art exhibition, Mike Saijo present us with, “Orpheum (Theater of War).” He uses a mixed-media once again, along with mechanical motions, to tell the brutal story of the Zoot Suit Riots which ripped through the minority communities of Los Angeles 1943.

While the riots are part of the oral history of the area, and central to the foundation myths of the Chicano street culture, few young people today understand the details of this deeply traumatic time for both Latinos, and the many Jews of Boyle Heights.

"Orpheum (Theater of War)" by Mike Siajo. This talented Japanese American artist touches on the Zoot Suit Riots

“Orpheum (Theater of War)” by Mike Siajo. This talented Japanese-American artist touches on the Zoot Suit Riots

In this piece we get to peer into the pages of history, to see the horror of US servicemen attacking Mexican pachucos in the historic Orpheum Theater. A shocking spectacle of violence inspired by populist rhetoric. Servicemen of the day were regularly incensed by the appearance of the lack of support in uniform by Mexicans during WWII, all the while accusing Mexicans of making out well financially in industrial jobs they were called up to fill as the war raged. It only took the rumor of a gang stabbing and petty crimes to set in motion a brutal wave of violence against these young Latinos. (see “Fighting over the American Standard of Living, 1943-1945: Zoot Suit Riots, Wildcar Strikes, and the Supremacy of the Soldier.”)

The Zoot Suit Riots. As displayed in this piece, servicemen undressed and beat their victims. Defrocking Mexican youth of their infamous baggy dress suits and tearing them to shreds as a protest to the supposed appearance of excess and opportunism during the lean times of war. An orgy of violence against those they perceived as draft-dodging and disloyal, which spilled into all the minority communities of Los Angeles.

This series of brutal attacks were so severe it likewise traumatized Jewish community of the area, as many regarded the unrest and targeting of Mexicans as reminiscent of the pogroms inflicted against themselves in Eastern Europe. For this reason the Jewish community felt a great affinity with the cause of Mexican-Americans and for this reason threw their strong political support behind this other immigrant rich community.

The first vestiges of a viable Latino civil rights movement would emerge from the aftermath of the riots. The political unions made with progressive Jews at that time would also later help propel Edward R. Roybal to city council as the first Mexican-American council member of the City of Los Angeles in 1949. Kicking off a season of progressive advances in housing, education and healthcare access for the overlooked minority communities.

"I'm a Pachuco Bastard" by Fabian Debora

“I’m a Pachuco Bastard” by Fabian Debora

But at the same time this period also sparked the birth of the modern street-gang culture we know today. The pachuco gangs being the precursors to the cholos we know today. The lingering sentiments after the riots would further propel the rebellious impetus for national self-identity within the street-gang culture. A need to self-define and stand distinct in response to one’s feeling of otherness, which is still present in gang life today just as much as then.

Fabian Debora vividly and credibly takes us into an even more sublime thought. In his work “I’m a Pachuco Bastard,” which also looks back to the Zoot Suit Riots. His work is more than just a bold affirmation torn off the slur. It takes a look at one person, and tells a classic Mexican-American story of conflict for him. Conflict with the society which one would hope to embrace him, and the fear of being the victim of that society as well. As we all ask the same questions looking at this piece, is he going to be embraced or is he being handcuffed? And which does our subject really want for himself anyhow? Does his face show sadness, hardness or indifference?

Both “I’m a Pachuco Bastard” and the final piece of this collection titled “Meet on Brooklyn Avenue,” beautifully display how well Fabian can intertwine the elements of high art with graffiti texture. And he’s even more exceptional at using his images to tease a story into the imagination of the observer. As in this final piece, with the meeting of three men whom we cannot identify except by a cropped view of their suits. We are left to start building a story: is this a pachuco, a chassid and Japanese man on good old Brooklyn? And what do we think the news of the day was for the corner gossip? We are drawn into wanting to ask so many questions. This is one of the many reasons I find his work so captivating.

Now I’m not an artist, and I don’t really have any artistic knowledge. I’m just an eastide boy who knows I like and what moves me. I really think that all the pieces of this show are just bursting with sentimental feelings of heritage to share. I appreciate being able to go on this artistic journey through the history and spirit of Boyle Heights with these fine artists.

"Meet  on Brooklyn Ave" by Fabian Debora

“Meet on Brooklyn Ave” by Fabian Debora

As I did my walk through I got a chance to grab a chat with Breed Street Shul Project Executive Director Sherry Marks, and she shared her deep excitement to finally see an art show at the shul. As this is one of the most expressive and dynamic of the events in this open house series. She also expressed how hopeful she is as they branch out into new areas of art and cultural expression as well. She mused of the idea of even possibly hosting drama and theater here one day! As there are so many wonderful possibilities that will open up for this site as it continues to be renovated to serve as a community cultural center.

Visiting the Breed Street Shul is always an exciting time for me. But I think more that just being appreciative of the beauty of the site and its rich history, I think one of the draws for me is how much I learn from the community interaction to be found at these really spectacular events hosted by the project. This site draws so many different people together. It is a meeting spot where both old and new Boyle Heights folk get the chance to exchange heartfelt stories and memories about the neighborhood they love.

One of the reasons we need the Breed Street Shul is this site charmingly brings people together and remind us that our various minority groups have been in this boat together for a long time. And that our historical pains, they have been shared pains. And this site also bears witness to how much we have all benefited from the diversity of our glorious past. And these events here, they help us remember and retain the multiculturalism and diversity of that Boyle Heights experience.

…To be continued, with a story of the Wabash Saxons Reunion! For more images or the art, see video below!

Recommended articles and points of interest:


Parshat Bamidbar (5774)


Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

Nationalism: How do you feel about flag waving?

 A Mexican-American student (left) is bullied by nationalist students for carrying the American flag while showing support of immigrant rights. When do you feel that use of national flags and symbolisms become excessive and unsavory? Have you ever felt “anti-flag?”

A Mexican-American student (left) is bullied by Chicano nationalist students for carrying the American flag while showing support of immigrant’s rights. When do you feel that use of national flags and symbolisms become excessive and unsavory? Have you ever felt “anti-flag?”

What do flags mean to you? Are flags uniting symbols, or are they emblems of division? It is obvious to us all that most often, to the people who hoist them, flags embody a symbol of nationalism. How do you feel about that? Because, as for myself, I’m not so sure sometimes.

Even when not used in the context of the actual nation-state, people often utilize state flags for other nationalistic reasons, such as ethnic and cultural nationalism. Can you think of some examples where these symbols are used well, and examples of when they are used poorly?

It is not that I am against people showing pride in their homeland and culture, but I do not believe in using these symbols as weapons. Furthermore, I do not believe in utilizing them in a way which does not call attention to a diverse fabric in that flag. As I completely stand against ethnic nationalism.

This is a topic that comes to mind in relation to current events, and upon reading our parsha for this week. First, let’s take a look at the text here:

‘The children of Israel shall encamp with each person near the banner which has his paternal family’s insignia; a good way off shall they pitch round about the tent of meeting.”

אִישׁ עַל דִּגְלוֹ בְאֹתֹת לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם יַחֲנוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִנֶּגֶד סָבִיב לְאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד יַחֲנוּ:

Ish al-diglo ve’otot leveit avotam yachanu benei Yisra’el mineged saviv le’ohel-mo’ed yachanu.

Deuteronomy 2:2

I don’t want to overwhelm us with commentery this week, but I want us to just quickly discuss the interesting points made by Rashi, the master commentary. But it’s essential we first connect to the discussion of the ages.

Rashi in his commentary makes sure we know what we are talking about, these otot – these signs, these symbols – he understands them to clearly mean flags. Notice how Rashi also describes these flags, pointing at their construction, he referred to them in Hebrew as mapa – meaning a tablecloth. This is what these “standards” were. Colored banners of cloth with symbols embroidered into them, hoisted on polls.

Rashi describes the background of the flags, saying that the color and hue of each was inspired after the color of their corresponding stone in the Breastplate of the High Priest. Thus each flag had distinctive colors, according to their distinct tribal identity. As each of these twelve stones were different, so too were each of the flags.

12 Shevatim Flags, MosaicThen Rashi gives us further details as to the appearance of the flags, and why they are called otot here – why they are to be understood as signs, and what the symbols mean. Rashi explains that each of the flags had a symbol placed on them. What type of symbol? Rashi says it was a symbol given to each tribe by Yaakov Avinu (באות שמסר להם יעקב), before his death in Egypt at the end of Genesis. (see Genesis chapters 49-50)

I was recently reminded of this lesson after a friend asked me to review some pictures of the historic Breed Street Shul, in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, California. Some have noticed that around the interior of the main sanctuary there are 12 symbols circling the entire sanctuary. Upon first glance, one cannot help but notice that most appear to be zodiac symbols, yet some figures do not seem to exactly fit this theme. This is not a unique depiction in this shul, it is actually quite common in classical synagogues as well.

Midrash based on this week’s Torah reading sheds some light on this subject. Our traditional folklore credits Avraham Avinu – Abraham our Father – as being among the first to assign symbolism to the zodiac. He, and Yakkov his grandson, are said to have correlated the symbols of the classical zodiac with the descriptions of these 12 tribal patriarchs given at their time of blessing. This is something that is reaffirmed as a long-held belief even in the classical age, as accounted by 2nd century Hellenistic writer Vettius Valens.

However, these signs are not all so obviously connected to the heavenly constellations they correspond to today. Instead the midrash explains them slightly different at times. For example, Zevulen is symbolized by a ship, Naftali an olive tree, Binyamin a wolf, etc. Each of these were to symbols useful to describe something about the nature of those tribes and what they were good at. As with Zevulen whose tribe is understood to have become great sea merchants, thus the ship.

And then at the center there was the flag of the Levites, whose ensign was a depiction of the multicolored breastplate which represented the 12 tribes of Israel. Their multifaceted emblem understood to be a symbolic representation of all the many colors of the Israelites.

Even today, in synagogues like the Breed Street, you will see depictions of the Twelve Tribes in the form of these traditional symbols which are only loosely related to the Zodiac. Instead what they really are present for, is to symbolize the balance and harmony of the tribes of Israel, each dwelling peaceably with their own clan as described here in this week’s parsha. (see diagram at the bottom)

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Inside the historic Breed Street Shul, Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, California. The symbols of the Twelve Tribes still remain. In fact, the round Star of David stained glass pieces are just place holders for 12 original pieces depicting the 12 Tribes of Israel. They are being kept in storage for safekeeping during the restoration. Please see more images and a correspondence chart below.

As described in Rashi’s commentary for this verse, Yehudah leads in the east, along with Issachar and Zevulen. The tribes are further laid out in orders of three. Three tribes in the east, three south, three west, three north. With the Levites then leaning towards the middle. This symbolizes each dwelling harmoniously in their camp, each tribe at peace with each other. The flags they originated from are a thing of the past, but their symbols remain enshrined in Jewish art and architecture.

Before we move on from addressing the actual text here, I would like us to take notice of one other important point that cannot be missed. We need to understand why these groups and tribes did not fall into isolation.

The answer is found in explaining why the tribes were matched with each other, three tribes placed at each side of the Israelite encampments. The tribes were purposely made to dwell with other tribes as part of a local community and unit. Sometimes the matches were clearly ideal, like Issachar and Zevulen – who according to Jewish tradition were historical partners in enterprise and learning (see “The Torah-Business Partnership” at Chabad.org). So at times we can see the tribes paired together according to their natural alliances.

Sure these groupings were often based on fraternal feelings, in the most literal sense. Example, the tribes born to mother Leah are all placed in the east and the south. Those tribes alloted inheritance through Yosef – including Ephraim and Menasheh – were encamped together, thus all the descendants of Rachel were placed in the west. As we can see, the tribes most often – but not always – were grouped to camp with those they were most related to.

But like all nations and communities, the people of Israel were not just a grouping of like people and families. No, they were a composite of naturally distinct people who were expected to come together as a unified people.

This is a good thought to have in mind as we consider the often sung words of the psalms, “Hineh mah tov umah naim, shevet achim gam yachad / Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1)

Though the individual tribes of Israel had their own distinct characteristics and autonomous camps, they were still united as one people. They dwelt not just as brothers among themselves in completely isolated communities, but also as extended brothers in unity as one complete nation – one united people. They are thus named Am Yisrael – the nation, or literally, the people of Israel.

So now that we got all the smart stuff out of the way, what does this all mean? And how do we actually feel about this?

Let’s really think about this here, and vent some of the natural criticism that us Jews have for this text.

We see the tribes abiding by their flags. Camped and grouped according to paternal line – but also by maternal lineage in division, each person and family among their own clan. Sure we agree that they dwelt harmoniously, thus enabling them to not just encamp in their formations but also move forward in their desert migration as a cohesive unit. But nonetheless, for most of us modern people, today most have a problem with a description of people dwelling in such communities, that by todays standards are quite restrictive. We have a problem with the appearance of segregation.

And even more so, many people have a problem with the suggestion of the scriptures and midrashic tradition praising vexillophilia – which is just a long word for the love of collecting and studying flags. Yet our texts seemingly does. Indeed our texts call the tribes to fashion them, after their own identity. And then to dwell by them, encamped by tribe underneath them. This does not sit well with many, be they progressive or orthodox.

Actually it’s interesting that I bring up the Breed Street Shul, mostly because I recently had an argument with a lifelong friend of mine after he started bemoaning the presence of the American and Israeli flags in that complex, which is today being used as a cultural center. It should be noted that the Breed Street Shul was the first location in Los Angeles to hoist the flag of the newly recognized State of Israel, upon the UN recognition of the Jewish state. The connection to the Zionist cause historically runs deep in this community. I felt the symbols to be wholly appropriate and historically accurate, in face of objections.

I heard what he was saying though. The arguments he made were familiar ones which are quite common among many young Jewish people today. His arguments were slightly modified versions of anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism, mixed with his own theoretical sense of universalism – as opposed to restrictive nationalism.

Of course, our conversation came to an impasse when I could not condone the disparaging of the democratic tradition of America and the State of Israel. And more specifically when I would not trash the flag, nor be bullied into decrying the local custom of showing such symbols in public meeting halls and houses of worship.

But I’ll tell you the truth, the conversation set off a different journey of self-exploration on how I feel about flags and nationalism. Being challenged on this topic by someone I know very well, he appealed to my natural character to be opposed to nationalism. As I have always been a most aggressive opponents to ethnic nationalism and racism. Often finding myself verbally and physically opposing racial discrimination wrapped in a flag. He had a point that has been pricking in my side ever since.

Especially in the past few weeks. My own conflict on how I feel about nationalistic symbolism and their appropriateness was displayed in my feelings over recent communal celebrations in the area, such as Cinco de Mayo and the Israel Day Festival. On one had, I feel cynical regarding the celebrating Cinco de Mayo here in the USA. [It could be possible that my ill sentiments of Cinco de Mayo festivals are most derived from my childhood experiences, from before the city shut them down because of the violence at places like Lincoln Park, events which were often marred by the venting of racist nationalism of the worst nature.] Yet at the same time I do tend to feel somewhat welcoming to the recognition of Israeli Independence Day when it comes around. You would think as a Mexican-American I would feel the other way around. Or at least be consistent, and be completely opposed to the recognition of either celebration in diaspora.

I’ll admit, the inconstancy is something that has perplexed even myself. Even as I waved my little Israeli flag at the festival. I really thought about what it meant to me, and how it might also appear to outsiders who cannot internalize my love and support for the Jewish state. How can I seem to essentially promote Jewish nationalism? Does this not appear to compromise my core values which oppose exclusivity, racism and xenophobia?

I let my mind and heart wrestle with this, in hopes of coming to peace with this. Hopefully before the Fourth of July rolled around and I found myself struggling with this topic yet again. Before I unfurl the American flag and again begin to struggle with similar nationalistic sentiments and conflicts.

There is no way to avoid a certain truth about employing such symbolisms. When people begin to wave flags, most often they are making clear nationalistic statements. And nationalism seems to almost naturally have a tendency to result in chauvinism, which further leads to racism and xenophobia.

Nationalism, while it’s aims seem honorable in seeking to establishing people-hood and the building up of sound nation-states, it can also be a used as a very dangerous force. Nationalism can become a divisive and restrictive force. Often setting up barriers between regions and peoples. This is because nationalism is concerned with my people and my country – mine and not yours. Nationalism most often displays itself through regional struggles for resources, and even in senseless expansionism. And in senseless exclusion and persecution of others, simply for not being part of your tribe or people. Because your needs don’t really matter as much as mine, I can’t help you if I can’t help myself. That is how nationalism translates in the minds of many.

So how do I intellectually justify my own feelings of nationalism? How do I justify my own pride in and love for my country? Why not decry these structures all together?

I justify my support of the state in the same manner everyone else before me has, simply because that is the way things are. For now, this is the only way things can be. And like most citizens, I identify with the values and virtues of my country. I also accept the fact that at times nations must rise up to give life to their unique virtues. Nations and people seem naturally intended to rise to prominence to actualize a dream, and once accomplished they fade into the background. Disappearing into the larger fabric of history. That is how most of us understand the nature of nationalism.

Simply put, I support and identify with the western democratic tradition of American and the State of Israel because their vision and dream is still in the making. They are both young counties, who have yet to accomplish their goals before retiring themselves to the history books.

But even this intellectual justification does not completely set my mind at ease. Because I cannot deny the reality that nationalism can be a harmful force in any country or people.

On the walls of the public housing near the entrance of the parking lot, facing Lorena near the corner of Olympic Blvd. Estrada Courts.

On the walls of the public housing near the entrance of the parking lot, facing Lorena near the corner of Olympic Blvd. Estrada Courts.

And this is probably where I’m going to upset everyone, but I must be honest. My own life experience, especially in light of the history of my community, makes me leery of nationalism.

Its well-known that I’ve traditionally been known to be an aggressive opponent of white nationalists – a.k.a. “skinheads,” but more precisely “white power” Nazi punks. Living my life in the punk rock scene it has been something that I have always had pushed in my face, naturally I’ve resisted and fought against such forces in the scene. In light of this it seems logical why I would so strongly oppose such things as ethnic nationalism. Because it’s an obvious offense to minorities such as myself.

But my opposition towards nationalism actually comes from somewhere closer to home. It is formed from my observations of nationalism gone awry in my own community – in the Latino community of Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles; with “brown power” neo-nationalism. This is how I can say any type of nationalism can go wrong, even among disadvantaged minorities. My distaste for nationalism comes from seeing its divisive employment in my own minority community – among Latinos.

This topic comes to mind again, as recently racial and nationalistic tensions are once again begun to surface within this predominately Latino community (demographically, the area is 98.9% Latino). Most recently in the firebombing of four pubic housing units occupied by African-American families. (for details, also see: “Ramona Gardens Firebombing has some black residents fleeing the area,” LA Times)

I’m also finding it hard to ignore the obvious racism and chauvinism that is also being shown even more increasingly in the way people discuss the topic of gentrification and urban-renewal, along with the “white people” and minorities this is expected to attract to our communities. In the face of a perceived threat, some Latino people are once again trying to rebuild 1970s style nationalist protest movements to show dominance in this area.

ChakaArtist

Here we are talking about tribal and national symbols. Let us reflected on the growing tensions in Boyle Heights, and really consider how intentionally divisive and racially charged ways art, murals and nationalist symbols have been utilized in the eastside. How they are purposely employed to intimidate others out other races and nationalties out of our vicinity. We really need to reflect on how and why we need to move beyond this racial extremism, exclusivity and cultural hegemony. Notice it didn’t take long for this most infamous of the local graffiti inspired artists to validate my claims and understanding of this rhetoric for all of us.

As people of other races move in to the area one can’t help notice the rush to cover everything with a Mexican flag, armed revolutionaries or the Virgin of Guadalupe increases. Joining outdated slogans like, “Viva la raza” (meaning, long live our race) and the like which still theme this area. This all sits really badly with me, and I’m not at all quiet about it.

I challenge people on this. How can we attempt at being an open community in Boyle Heights when we cover our public housing in those areas exclusively in nationalistic and racially charged Chicano art? And by constantly covering everything with a Mexican flag? It’s not that I’m opposed to our ethnic art and cultural symbols being expressed in public. But I ask my people to consider if we are not being foolish in hollowing throwbacks from the most radical points of the civil rights movement. Could it be that nationalistic excesses in this art is sending a message that all other races and nationalities are not welcome here? Would it not be better for us as we grow as a community to mature into more inclusive tones? Is it not time that our nationalistic sentiments finally retire themselves, as the greater society moves beyond the ethnic divisions?

I must begin to speak up, not just for my own community. But also out of concern and communal solidarity with the African-American communities who are being violently targeted and squeezed out of their historic neighborhoods in Los Angeles by nationalist Latino gangs. (see “Racial Hate Feeds a Gang War’s Senseless Killing” and “Attack on family in Compton latest incident in wave of anti-black violence”) On behalf of the concerned members of the Latino community, I challenge the embedding of nationalism into our communities, because it’s unwise and divisive.

This is especially relevant for our community here in Boyle Heights, just as much as it is in most other inner-city communities. In fact, the way our racial and ethnic problems is being played out on the eastside is being modeled elsewhere, as the gang lifestyle and themes export themselves from our neighborhoods to build syndicate gang franchises in the inner-cities across the country. Its essential we tackle this issue here, and now. (see “Ramona Gardens Overcomes Past,” for some background on local racist sentiments and those who are working to overcome it.)

I think it is also important for us Latinos to employ new symbols of pride, which are sensitive. As us Latino quickly become the majority by sheer demographic growth in this country many among us are talking about what the future of the country will look like in generations to come. But we need to do some really good thinking. We need to decide if we are going to embrace people-hood with the other tribes of this country, or if we are going pursue cultural chauvinism and dominion.

This is what is running through my mind as I read these words in the Torah portion for this week, “The children of Israel shall encamp with each person near the banner which has his paternal family’s insignia.” (Deut. 2:3)

When we read about this topic of each tribe camping under their flags and tribal symbols in the Torah, I don’t see it as just majestic and lovely. On paper it looks nice. But I can also see where in the practical world, this can all go very wrong. When the use of flags and symbols is used to divide and distinguish, and not just as a mere symbol of pride. But can we tell the difference? I think that’s the problem, that sometimes people cannot.

Yes, I have a problem with the way some people in my community brandish the Mexican flag. Furthermore, I don’t just passively accept people reviving talk of a Mexican-American claim to the southwest and the expectation of social entitlement. This is the view which is most often paired with Mexican neo-nationalism. Along with a message for outsiders to stay out because this is ours, we should not have to share resources. This is the message being sent by many who aggressively embed the Mexican flag in our area. For me, this is wholly inappropriate, I just cannot do it. I cannot promote this type chauvinism in my community. From this, I feel I must have to abstain.

So how do I find it possible to raise other kinds of flags? Is this not hypocritical of me?

One of the reasons I can hold the American flag high is because I am an American. It is right for me to show my love for my own country, and in my own land. I see no problem with nationalism when properly expressed within the context of that nation. And because I stand proud in my identity as an American, which is not defined by any one color. We are all immigrant people, a nation of mixed heritage. A patchwork of cultures is sewn into the fabric of this nation. This flag does not just represent a sole nation built through the pooling of people of the same culture regionally, but of the gathering of people of many different traditions and origins to become a more perfect union. It is a country build upon the coming together of many people who value liberty, freedom and the pursuit of happiness.

Likewise I can also proudly hold high the flag of the State of Israel. Because that flag is a symbol of the national aspirations of the Jewish people, who are not one color or specific race either. It is the flag of a state which is a refuge and home to Jews of many origins and ethnic backgrounds. It is the historic homeland and the modern refuge for many Jews, established through democratic and political realities. I can support and defend the fineness of that vision. I can show solidarity with this civilization grounded both in faith and culture; all of which is above color, race and national origins. A country which also promises full civil rights to all the various non-Jewish minorities – the people of the historic Arab, Muslim, Christian, Armenian, Druze communities – who also take shelter in her.

In their own merit, I feel both the flags of the United State of American and the State of Israel are two symbols, which when used in their proper spirit and place, can be used as symbols of inclusivity and diversity. I sincerely believe that these symbols still speak of national hopes which are above race and ethnicity. If only people would aspire to fulfill those values embodied therein.

Discussion: When do you feel that use of national flags and symbolisms become excessive and unsavory? Have you ever felt “anti-flag?”

Pictures of art from the Breed Street Shul, with correspondence chart:

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The_Breed_Street_Shul_in_Boyle_Heights,_Los_Angeles

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The following chart is an original creation, for a study I made on Jewish mysticism relating to the tribes and months. This at displays the corresponding meditative thoughts and sequences, taught by Lurianic Kabbalah. It also lays out the exact order for the different signs displayed on the walls of the shul:

This chart is an original creation, designed for a study I once did many years ago on Jewish mysticism – relating to the traditional meditations (kavannot) upon the tribes and months. This displays the corresponding meditative thoughts and sequences, taught by Lurianic Kabbalah (mysticism as explained by the Ari z”l). It conveniently lays out the exact order for the different symbols displayed on the walls of the shul, and the meditative elements which relate to them.

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