Archive for July, 2012

A Burning Question

July 19, 2012

This article was first published in The Times of Israel.

Sybil Sage’s personalized mosaic urn. (photo credit: Courtesy)

PALO ALTO, California — When Elizabeth Stone’s mother Ann died last year in San Mateo, California, attendants from the University of California-San Francisco Medical School came quickly to pick up her body. The same thing had happened 11 years earlier when her father Daniel died.

“They came to take the bodies immediately and sent a thank you letter saying that their bodies would be cremated at some point within several years, but that there would be no notification and no possibility of claiming the ashes,” she said.

While her parents’ decision to be cremated, in addition to donating their bodies to science, might have shocked some Jewish daughters, Stone was unfazed. Her German-immigrant grandparents had been cremated, and she herself plans to follow the family custom.

A 20-minute drive south, one can see the cremated remains of Sandra Slater’s deceased parents and sister stored in wooden boxes in Slater’s home in Palo Alto. Some of her sister’s ashes were also scattered in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and put into a sculpture that Slater made of her.

“My mother, father, and sister were cremated,” she said. “There was really never any question that that’s what would happen.” Slater, an environmental consultant, plans on also choosing cremation (or perhaps liquefaction, should the technology be properly developed) when her time comes. Burial just doesn’t appeal to her. “My dead grandfather was in a closed coffin,” she recalled. To her, “that was creepy.”

To the surprise and disdain of many Jews, less than 70 years post-Holocaust, cremation appears to be a new Jewish family tradition. Increasing numbers of American Jews are choosing — contrary to age-old Jewish practice — to have their remains burned, rather than buried. In many cases, once one family member opts for cremation, it becomes an acceptable choice for many, if not all, of the others.

Lest one think that this is only something happening in the historically more liberal, less affiliated Jewish community in Northern California, Doron Kornbluth, a Canadian-born Israeli educator and speaker, provides some staggering statistics in his new book, “Cremation or Burial? A Jewish View”(Mosaica Press, 2012). According to Kornbluth, a full one-third of American Jews are now opting for cremation.

Click here to read more.

© 2012 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

How ‘Hava Nagila’ Became A Global Hit

July 13, 2012

This article was first published in The Forward.

One day, in the summer of 2008, the question “‘Hava Nagila’ — what is it?” popped into Roberta Grossman’s head. Although she was familiar with the ubiquitous song, she was clueless about its origins. Thus began the filmmaker’s four-year quest to investigate the Jewish standard’s century-and-a-half journey, from Ukraine to YouTube. The result is her new documentary film, Hava Nagila (The Movie),” which premieres at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on July 19.

“It turned out that ‘Hava Nagila’ is an amazing portal to 150 years of Jewish history, culture and spirituality,” the Los Angeles-based Grossman told the Forward in a recent telephone interview. “Once we started sticking our toe in the big Hava river, so to speak, we realized there was a lot out there.”

Grossman had always thought of the song as a touchstone of her own culturally Jewish childhood, but until she began researching it, she had no idea of its reach and effectiveness. The quest to understand “Hava Nagila” turned into an inquiry into her own American Jewish identity, as well as into why certain songs have such staying power.

Click here to read more and to watch a video of Danny Kaye and Harry Belafonte singing Hava Nagila.

Stopping Violence Against Women

July 10, 2012

This post first appeared on The Sisterhood blog at the Forward.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky

Representative Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois, recently sponsored a new bill aimed at curbing violence against women globally.

The International Violence Against Women Act of 2012, which was co-sponsored by 47 other Democratic members of Congress, would establish an Office of Global Women’s Issues within the State Department and provide funding for gender-based foreign assistance programs.

In particular, it would: require the U.S. to develop a comprehensive strategy for reducing and preventing violence against women and girls; coordinate existing assistance programs and make grants to non-governmental and community-based organizations; ensure accountability of the United States’ response to violence against women and girls internationally; enhance training of foreign military and police forces and judicial officials on violence against women and girls; and create educational and economic opportunities for women.

Schakowsky listed “staggering” statistics. One in three women worldwide (1 billion women) is beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused over the course of her lifetime. The U.N. reports that among women aged 15-44, acts of violence cause more death and disability than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war combined. In some countries, 70% of women and girls are affected by violence.

Women living in areas of war and conflict are particularly vulnerable. Schakowsky cited a recent trip she made to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, “where rape has been used for over a decade as a low tech, low cost and horrifically effective weapon of war.”

Click here to read more.

© 2012 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.


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