Archive for September, 2009

The High Price of Fruit

September 30, 2009

The other night, while my hands were busy folding something like ten loads of laundry (just a regular wash day in our household), I occupied my mind by coming up with what I thought was a cute pun. I was thinking to myself that given the fact that I was slaving over all this laundry, my Hebrew name should be changed from Rachel Shifrah to Rachel Shifchah, shifchah being the biblical Hebrew word for what is politely referred to as a maidservant. What if there were a facebook quiz called “Which Biblical Shifchah Are You Most Like?” I wondered. Would I be most like Hagar? Or maybe I would be more like Bilhah or Zilpah. I was chuckling to myself and thinking I was oh, so clever.

Sarah dismissing her maidservant Hagar (from a painting by Tissot).

Sarah dismissing her maidservant Hagar (from a painting by Tissot).

Then I realized that I had made a very tasteless joke and that referring to myself as an indentured servant actually wasn’t funny at all. All my extended punning came to a sudden halt the moment I remembered an article I had recently read in the Palo Alto Weekly about the guys I had seen around town standing on street corners selling flats of strawberries. It turns out that the eved ivri, the indentured servant (the shifchah is the female counterpart to the eved ivri), rather than having disappeared with ancient times, is in fact alive and well and living in the Silicon Valley. At least in the Torah and Rabbinic literature there are laws governing the treatment of the eved ivri and providing for his liberty at the sabbatical and jubilee years. From what I read in the article in the local paper, it appears that the fruit sellers, smuggled in from Mexico and Central America by coyotes, are totally under the control of their keepers who take every penny of their earnings, make them live in squalid accomodations, and deny them even the most basic of decent working conditions.

Sometimes the hidden costs are in human terms.

Sometimes the hidden costs are in human terms.

I am not so naïve as to be unaware of the plight of illegal, undocumented immigrants to this country or of the enormous tragedy of human trafficking around the world. One would have to totally cut oneself off from today’s ubiquitous media to be ignorant of these issues.  In fact, many of us have learned about them due to the tireless efforts of journalists like Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times. But to recognize that these issues are literally staring you in the face, standing there in broad daylight in the form of a lone fruit vendor on a corner in your upscale suburban neighborhood is a real shock. It is a wake up call of biblical proportions.

© 2009 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

What Did You Just Call Your Mother?

September 30, 2009

“So Joseph, what would you like me to call you?… Joseph? Joe? Joey? Yossi? Yossele?”

“Oh, I don’t care. Call me whatever you want…Just don’t call me late to dinner.”

I used to love that joke when I was a kid.  I thought it was funny, and I guess I still do. It encapsulates how I feel about my last name now, which is different from how I felt when I first got married. Back then, I was adamant that people use my hyphenated last name. But now I don’t really care if people call me Mrs. Zand in non-professional situations (though I prefer Ms. to Mrs.). Better people should call me using my husband’s name than not call me at all.

"Imma" page of children's Hebrew primer published in Tel Aviv in 1949.

"Imma" page of children's Hebrew primer published in Tel Aviv in 1949.

When it comes to what my children call me, though, I am not as indifferent.  I am Imma. Not Mom, Mommy, Mum, Mummy, Mama or Ma. The fact that my sons call me Imma makes me the odd (wo)man out in our extended families and among our friends and neighbors where we currently live. Back when we lived in New York, at least half of our kids’ friends had Hebrew names like them and called their parents Imma and Abba, but that was several years and 3000 miles ago. Now, usually the only time I hear a cry of “Imma!” on the playground is when it is coming from a child of an Israeli family.

Interestingly, our boys automatically taught themselves to “code switch” when talking to the outside world about their parents. Somehow, they decided on their own, without any consultation with us, to refer to us as “my mom” and “my dad” when referring to us in conversation with people outside our family. But when talking to us directly or about us among themselves or with members of our extended family, they use “Imma” and “Abba.” They even refer to us as Imma and Abba when talking to our dog, Bear, as though he really knows the difference.

What your children call you is, at least in most cases, the only time in your life when you can choose your own appellation. This choice is a weighty one that consciously, or unconsciously, makes a clear statement about both your connection to the past and your aspirations for the future. It also reflects your sense of identity at the moment you become a parent. To a certain degree, my husband and I took a radical step away from our families’ traditional naming practices and  strong and identifiable allegiances with American and Canadian life and culture when we not only named our children Hebrew names (without any parallel English names), but also declared ourselves Imma and Abba. The hushed cooing of, “Come say hello to your Imma and Abba,” that emanated from my lips as the nurse handed our swaddled newborn to us was concurrently a resounding announcement that we intended to raise our children strongly connected to Israel and comfortable with Hebrew language and culture. Although we were venturing into terra incognita, we felt we were not rejecting our past, but instead building upon it and widening the Jewish embrace of our new family.

I realize that not everyone is comfortable with abandoning family traditions in this way. Most women (among them American Jewish women) who called their mother “Mom” will want their own children to call them the same thing. It just feels more natural that way. But at the same time, it is pretty ironic that wanting to be called something that links you more strongly to your cultural roots and and constitutes an expression of an even older history and tradition is considered the more radical choice. (Hey, as a geeky, straight-laced student who grew up to be a serious Jewish educator, I had to find some way to rebel.)

I expect (and hope and pray) it will be quite a few years before I will have to decide what I want my grandchildren to call me. One might logically assume that if my children call me Imma, then I would want my grandchildren to call me Savta (Hebrew for Grandmother). But I’m not sure how I will feel about it when the time comes. On one side of my family, grandparents have always been called (the Yiddish) Bobbe (or Baba) and Zaida, and on the other they have always been Grandma and Grandpa. That is why my children call my parents the somewhat odd sounding combination of “Grandma and Zaida.” Maybe when I am older, family tradition will count for more than it did when I became a mother at the relatively young age of 28. Or maybe not.

Or just maybe I’ll let my grandchildren call me whatever they want, provided they make me happy by remembering to call me every once in a while.

© 2009 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

What’s In A Name…

September 27, 2009

This is the first report for my How Do You Jew? project on Jewish identity.


What’s in a name?  A lot. Especially when it represents a point in time in the evolution of an individual’s Jewish identity, and when it serves as a metaphor for one’s relationship with one’s Jewishness.

Eileen Soffer, married with two grown children and living in the San Francisco Bay Area, says that she lets the world know that she is Jewish “by allowing it [Judaism] to be a part of my identity that I share freely.” But it wasn’t always that way, and it was a decision she made about her name many years ago that Eileen realizes was emblematic of the contrast between the attitude she held toward her Jewish identity at that time and the one she holds now.

Eileen was born in Rochester, NY and grew up there and later in Los Angeles as the youngest of four daughters in a household headed by a single mother, following the death of Eileen’s father when she was just one year old. There was no single moment in time in which she became aware of being Jewish.  Eileen always felt Jewish and surrounded by the comfort of Jewish culture and practice in her family and community. Vivid memories of annual Passover seders at the home of Israeli friends in Rochester stand out for her, especially the use of Hebrew and the lively Israeli dancing around the house to keep everyone energized and awake.  According to family lore, little Eileen stayed up all night, even as a toddler in a highchair. When she reflects on it today, Eileen realizes that those seder experiences encapsulated “what it meant to be Jewish  – family, friends, ritual, celebration, deep thinking and food.”

Today, as a mother and educator active in community affairs and lay leadership, Eileen’s Jewishness is central to her life and identity. One would be wrong to assume, however, that a completely straight line can be traced between her childhood perception of  “the whole world being Jewish” and her active involvement in the Jewish community as an adult.  Indeed, there was a major blip around the time she left LA and moved north for college, and it registered for her that, in fact, Judaism and Jewish life was not on the radar of the vast majority of her peers at Berkeley.

It was at that point that Eileen started to be less open about her Jewish identity with people around her. As she puts it, she “never stopped doing Jewish,” but she “stopped talking Jewish.” She was never embarrassed or ashamed of her Judaism, nor was she ever afraid because of it. “I just did not offer it up freely,” Eileen says, in regard to how she interacted with non-Jews.  Now that she was in an environment very different from the Jewish community of LA, she decided that she did not want to be judged by others “based on that information [the fact that she was Jewish].”

So, when Eileen married her husband, she decided not to adopt his and to keep her own.  Her decision was made partially on the basis of a strong devotion her own family and a desire to honor the father that she never had the privilege of knowing. Furthermore, it was quite common at the time for women not to take their husbands’ names for feminist reasons. But it also had to do with the fact that her last name, Soffer, somehow represented how she felt about her Jewishness at that juncture in her life. Soffer is a Hebrew word meaning “scribe” or “writer,” usually referring to a scribe of religious texts.  Unless you know Hebrew, however, you would not necessarily assume it was a Jewish name. Her name was a metaphor for her Jewishness – it was out there in the open for the discerning eye to see, but Eileen wasn’t deliberately drawing attention to it. Hamevin yavin – he who knows, knows.

Being in the know has been, in one way or another, a trope throughout Eileen’s life. When she was growing up, it seemed that everyone was either Jewish or knew what being Jewish was about. As a young woman and newlywed, Eileen wasn’t  “talking Jewish,” so only those who recognized her “doing Jewish” knew of her Jewish identity. Finally, as a mother and a person with a more mature outlook, Eileen knows in a profound way the importance of living out and sharing her Jewish identity with others.

True to her name, Eileen is writing her own Jewish life story – one chapter at a time.

© 2009 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.