Archive for November, 2009

From Diamond Mine to Golden State

November 24, 2009

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

Rose Suttner Barlow grew up a Jewish girl in Apartheid South Africa, a minority within a minority within a minority. Her minority status as a Jew within the white population in overwhelmingly black Africa was obvious. Her minority status within the Jewish community was a result not of demographics, but of the traditionally limited role of women in Jewish life at that time and place. Years later, as the Apartheid system was dismantled in her homeland, Rose learned of a more diverse, inclusive Judaism and gained equal rights as a Jewish woman thousands of miles away in her adopted country, the United States.

South Africa

Rose’s Jewish journey has been a lifelong one, and it has paralleled her physical travels away from her childhood home in a   tightly knit Jewish neighborhood in Johannesburg to Cape Town,the DeBeers diamond mines, England, Scotland, and finally to Marin County north of San Francisco, where she has settled to raise her family. As Rose increasingly engaged in the wider, non-Jewish world and encountered diversity that was heretofore unknown to her, she shed many of the communal and ritual aspects of Judaism that had never fully or satisfyingly been incorporated into her identity. It was only once she became a mother and came to live in the liberal, diverse and tolerant Bay Area Jewish community that she found that there was a way back into Jewish life that provided her meaning and purpose.

In many ways, Rose has reinvented herself Jewishly, but she believes she had done so on the basis of a strong cultural foundation. “Even though I was alienated from Jewish communal life [for many years], I was never alienated from my Jewish self,” she says. Rose’s parents became baalei teshuvah when she was in her 20’s and her mother became ill with cancer (she died not long afterwards in 1986), but this was many years after Rose’s experiences growing up with parents who were at the time ethnically and culturally Jewish, rather than shul-going shomrei mitzvot.

A South African farthing from 1960, the year Rose was born

Rose was born in Johannesburg in 1960 to a mother whose intellectually inclined family immigrated to South Africa from Lithuania and Russia during WWI, and a father who came from a more business oriented family that had been in the country for three generations. Her father was a member of the first generation in his family to go to college, becoming an electrical engineer and going into the family business manufacturing car radios (founded by his father who had had no higher education). Rose’s mother, whose own mother had been accepted to medical school and father was a lawyer, studied social work.

As a school girl, Rose attended a whites-only public school with a large Jewish student population owing to the fact that the neighborhood was predominantly Jewish. Her parents did not send her to a cheder or afternoon Jewish studies program, leaving her formal Jewish education to the once a week session in which Jewish children were separated from the other students into their own class (for religious instruction) and given workbooks on Jewish topics from which to teach themselves. The Jewish Board of Deputies had worked out this arrangement with the public school authorities, apparently leaving teachers to instruct the children out of the plan.

Although Rose’s father’s parents went to synagogue regularly (a Modern Orthodox one, which was the normative form of Judaism at the time in this particular community), her parents did not. They did not keep kosher or regularly light the Shabbat candles, but Rose and her younger brother were kept home from school on every Jewish holiday and her brother officially marked his becoming bar mitzvah.

She did participate in the Habonim Zionist youth group for a short time, though she did not attend its summer camp. Nonetheless, Rose developed a strong attachment to Israel from her first visit at the age of thirteen and from her knowledge of her mother’s close relationship with a cousin and good friend who lived there. Her self-education on the Holocaust through reading works on the bookshelves at home also helped shape her identity.

Perhaps if President Obama had been leading the seders, Rose's experience would have been more positive. It appears that the President knows how to engage a crowd, even around a seder table.

The message Rose received from her family and her community was that she was expected to succeed in secular life, but that advancement as an adult Jew was not an option. She recalls sitting at the foot of the very long Pesach seder table year after year, unable to hear anything but the mumbling of the older men at the head. The most she could have hoped for would be her eventual move to the middle of the table, to the women’s section, once she was a mother. She characterizes her Jewish upbringing and identity formation as overall positive. “I learned by osmosis by having been placed in my formative years in settings where I was surrounded by Jews.” But she adds, “The gender message remained problematic.”

By the time Rose was in late elementary school and high school, she was aware of the political situation in South Africa and that among those standing up against Apartheid were many Jews, most of whom were very secular and on the extreme left (In fact, a distant cousin on her father’s side was imprisoned on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela). Many of Roses’s teachers were Jewish and exposed their students to the situation more than was done in other schools. Roses’s classes took field trips and was twinned with a school in Soweto. Rose herself, when she was an older high school student and in college, was personally acquainted with fellow young Jews who were members of the National Union of Student Leaders fighting against Apartheid, some of whom were conscientious objectors against the military draft.

Nelson Mandela revisiting his cell at Robben Island in 1994

“You could not sit on the fence,” Rose says about Apartheid. “Either you were for it or against it.” Against it, Rose chose contribute to the cause through her profession. She studied at the University of Witswatersrand for two years and transferred to the University of Cape Town to finish her Bachelors degree in psychology and industrial sociology. Upon graduation, she went to work in industrial relations in the mining industry for five years in the mid-1980’s. Rose was a member of a team that worked as change agents at De Beers, making significant strides toward eliminating the culture of (white) managerial violence against (black) mine workers through the implementation and enforcement of newly developed policies.

A book of interviews with Jewish South African activists, edited by Rose's brother, Immanuel Suttner,

Proud of the impact she had made, Rose chose to leave South Africa with her fiance (now her husband) so that he could return to his native England to pursue an advanced degree. Although the couple left for personal-educational reasons, it is evident that the question of the quality of their future life in Apartheid South Africa was lurking in the background. Unbeknownst to them, secret talks that would lead to the dismantling of Apartheid were already underway as the two of them were packing up and departing for London.

Rose and her husband, who is not Jewish and has not converted, were married soon after they arrived in England. They remained in the UK for seven years, living in both England and Scotland, where Rose worked in human resources in the oil industry. Rose claims that although she was not associating herself with the Jewish community during those years, she “never lost touch with [her] internal Jewish clock.” When a holiday came around, it was if she had “an atavistic impulse to get off the merry-go-round to contemplate or celebrate.” In 1994, while living in Aberdeen which was devoid of Jews save for Rose, she suddenly had the desire to have a Pesach seder – just for her and her husband. So, she travelled all the way to Glasgow to buy the required pesadik supplies.

In 1996, Rose, her husband and their baby daughter left the UK to start the next chapter in their lives in California. Here, they had a second daughter, and both girls are receiving a solid Jewish education in day schools,synagogue programs, Jewish camps and youth groups. Her older daughter has already become bat mitzvah and her younger one is preparing for hers next year. The Jewish Community Center (JCC) nursery school in their town was the gateway to an active Jewish life involving not only education for the girls, but also plenty of adult Jewish educational programming and a variety of volunteer, philanthropic and lay leadership roles in the Bay Area Jewish community for Rose.

Madame A.F. Aude and her two daughters, 1899, Mary Cassatt

Rose always had the Jewish proclivity for analysis and debate, and she has applied this to her recent study of Jewish texts. She finds that her increased Jewish and Hebrew literacy has allowed her to really grow in her Judaism. Rose describes it as “a virtuous cycle. The increased literacy promotes increased engagement, which in turn leads me to yet more learning.”

Rose is very grateful to now live in a community where Jewish pluralism is celebrated. When she was a girl in South Africa, she had no inkling that the Jewish community could include anyone other than Lithuanian and Polish Jews. Similarly, she had not had the opportunity to establish close connections with people of different ethnic, religious and racial backgrounds until she went out into the challenging world of the mining industry to try to make a difference. It has been through her discovery of the other that she has been able to rediscover and re-imagine her Jewish self.

It is not uncommon for Jewish women of Rose’s generation to reconnect with their Judaism and the Jewish community through their children. It is an especially pointed experience for a woman who felt Jewishly disenfranchised as girl to be able to empower her daughters. Few women, however, have travelled as far as Rose has in order to come home.

© 2009 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.


Keep Portland Weird

November 23, 2009

Apparently it's not enough to just put it on a bumper sticker.

I have just returned from a weekend trip with my eldest son to Portland, Oregon. Apparently, the unofficial slogan of the city – which I could not find any mention of on the city’s official tourism website – is “Keep Portland Weird.” After spending two days there, I can sort of see why. It is a bit of a weird place, but it in many good ways. And it was only at the very end of our trip that I witnessed something that reminded me of just how important it is in some cases to go against the grain.

In keeping with my son’s love of public transit, as well as our travel budget, we rode the city’s cable cars and MAX light rail system everywhere. This was also in keeping with the “weird” theme in that it is unusual for a relatively small city like Portland to have such a highly developed public transit system. Furthermore, the New Yorker in me found it absurd that this all runs on an honor system as far as fare paying goes. Not once did an inspector check our tickets to make sure that we – or any other riders – had actually paid. And city government (in this city and others that utilize an honor system, like San Francisco) wonder why public transit is running a deficit? Maybe I’m just too cynical from years of riding the New York subway, but I think fare-beaters should at least have the decency to let the rest of us know who they are by brazenly jumping the turnstile.

Mill's End Park. The smallest in the world, it is easy to miss - especially if you are rushing along the busy expressway on either side.

Among the weird attractions in Portland are the smallest park in the world, the deepest train tunnel in North America, and the most non-family friendly looking donut joint I have ever seen. The minute I saw my eldest boy smiling proudly at being able to stand next to (note: not in) the smallest park in the world, Mill Ends Park, I knew he was truly his father’s son (for more about my family’s adventures in gardening on busy street medians, read my Adam in the Garden post).

At the Robertson Tunnel at the Washington Park MAX station, you can take the elevator (probably the fastest I have ever ridden in, save for the one in the World Trade Center z”l) 260 feet up to ground level to the entrance of the zoo. Only according to the floor indicator, you are not moving from the train platform to the surface, but between 16 million years ago and the present. I felt like snarkily screaming at the elevator, “I’m aging fast enough without adding another 16 million years on top of my recently celebrated 43, thank you!

You can pick up a pair of skimpy undies along with a dozen donuts.

A warning to those of you who can picture a donut shop only as a squeaky clean, bright, cheery, child-friendly place. You may not be able to handle VooDoo Doughnut, where the decor is what can only be characterized as grungy goth. The lighting is dark, the walls are covered in sexy underwear imprinted with the VooDoo Doughnut logo (for purchase), and the staff could all be models for covers of magazines on extreme tattooing and piercing culture. The shop’s slogan is “The Magic is in the Hole.” Need I say more? Nonetheless, the place was packed with customers, the line snaking out the door and around the corner. And the vegan glazed cake donut my son and I shared sure was delish. Who says you have to look like the little guy in the Dunkin Donuts commercial to make good sickeningly sweet pastries?

The world's largest bookstore looks deceptively small from the outside.

The weirdest place we visited in Portland was weird in the most positive sense of the word. Powell’s City of Books is not a misnomer. It is the largest bookstore in the world, and it indeed feels like a city when you are in there. I once wrote that I could see myself moving into an IKEA, but I am now convinced that I would rather live in Powell’s, where a book lover like me could literally spend the rest of my life reading and not even get through a tiny fraction of all that printed matter before either reaching the end of my natural life span or dying from my brain exploding from literary overload. The Judaica section, where I spent much of our four hours (divided over two days) in Powell’s, while not including every Jewish book ever published, certainly boasted many rare finds (some worth reading, others not). I got so woozy in the store that I almost considered spending $7000 on a proof copy of the first edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Thank goodness my son, who although he is an avid reader is also very frugal, was there to figuratively catch me before I fell into debt whose depth not even the greatest of all wizards could make disappear.

Once you're inside you understand why it's called a city of books.

On the MAX train on the way to the airport at the end of our stay, I witnessed a most weird exchange. It was weird in the sense that it is did not play out as I expected it to, and it touched my heart. Midway through the ride, a couple of skater dudes plunked themselves down across from a casually, yet expensively dressed man who looked to be a few years older than I. The man was holding and looking at his PDA, and one of the skaters leaned right up to him and said,

“Hey mister, is that the new iPhone?”

“Yes,” the man replied.

“What’s it called?”

“The 3Gs.”


“The 3Gs.”

The skater reached out his hand toward the iPhone and said, “Can I see it?”

My stomach clenched as I watched and listened from two seats away.

“Here, you can hold my skateboard,” offered the skater.

It was silent a moment as the man looked the skater in the eye.

“No need. Here, you can take a look at it,” he replied as he handed the skater the $500 phone.

The skater fiddled around with the phone a minute and handed it back to the man. “Cool. Thanks.”

A few stops later the skaters got off and the man continued his ride to the airport.

iPhone skateboard. Weird.

The true meaning of “weird” is something that is not natural. It has become natural not to trust others, especially if they appear different from you (as many in Portland do, owing to the rise in homelessness and living on the street due to extremely high unemployment in Oregon). Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 1:6) teaches us, “hevei dan et kol ha’adam l’chaf z’chut,” judge every man to the side of merit. In other words, we need to give people the benefit of the doubt. My visit to Portland, and the episode on the train, reminds me that we all need to work on looking beyond stereotypes and pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zones. We need to not always do what comes naturally.

As we enter the season in which we bring light into the darkness through our various holiday observances, and we wish for peace on earth and good will toward people, let us all strive to be a little weirder.

© 2009 Renee Ghert-Zand

Bear the K-9

November 17, 2009

The book that made Bear finally spill the beans about his past.

The jig is up for Bear. He realized that his cover as an average (well, maybe not so average) American dog was blown. As soon as Bear saw me reading the excerpt from Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s new book, Start-Up Nation, in the latest issue of Newsweek, he knew he had to come clean.

For the past year or so, we thought that all there was to know about Bear’s life prior to his joining our family was that he had been in and out of different living situations in the San Francisco Bay Area. Not the most stable of existences, his involved a couple of homes, a stint or two in a shelter, and the generosity and good will of a rescue organization.

And, of course, we also figured out he was Jewish (his facility with Yiddish gave it away). What we did not know, and what he failed to divulge to us until just now, is that he is not only Jewish, but also Israeli. Bear had a feeling that I, having spent a lot of time in Israel over the years, would start picking up on some of the signs, but he was sure that once I read Senor and Singer’s explanation for how and why “the Israeli  Army has become the most prolific innovation engine on earth,” I would put two and two together. The proverbial lightbulb did, indeed, go on, and it became instantly clear that Bear must have had a former career (aside from the Mitzvah teacher one) as an IDF K-9 in the elite Oketz unit.

Bear had not shown off his insignia upon arrival to our home.

Bear had apparently been afraid that we wouldn’t have liked him as much had we known that he had served in the army. He figured an American family, one with somewhat liberal tendencies, would want a cute and cuddly pet, not a tough, battle-tested military veteran. We are sorry that Bear was under this mistaken assumption, because it his special life experience – apparently some of which has taken place in Israel – that makes him unique and us love him so much. Besides, we are not proponents of a “don’t ask, don’t tell policy, ” whether it be in the military or in regard to canine back-stories. Inquiring pet owners want to know.

I wonder if the IDF is aware that its military training constitutes a boot camp for not only new tech entrepreneurs, but also dogs such as Bear who are innovative in finding ways to achieve their goals. Just like those human guys who come out of the army after their required service period, Bear has emerged a real problem solver. He, too, has been able to put the benefits of the unique structure and operation of the IDF – informality and an anti-hierarchy ethos, a mixing of people from diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, and the thrusting of responsibility onto and development of leadership among men and women in their late teens and early 20’s – to work to his advantage.

One of Bear's army buddies who served with the Paratroopers. Note the special crimson boots and beret (on the human).

Like the IDF soldier he once was, Bear follows commands when necessary. At the same time, he has done his utmost to cultivate as much of a flat organization as possible in our household. “Hey, we’re all animals of one sort or another here,” he says. “No need for any hierarchies. Except for where Fudgie is concerned.” It seems that when it comes to our pet guinea pig, Bear is more than willing to pull rank.

Bear has shown no compunction in letting us know if he doesn’t like how we are doing things, or if he has suggestions for how to do them better. For instance, just today, Bear decided that his regular meal/snack schedule and menu were no longer satisfactory. He did not hesitate for a moment in letting me know this, being very vocal (and jumpy) about wanting to be fed more kibble more often. His strategy for effecting change also included tactics such as stealing my son’s Cheetos, hiding them under his pillow, and chowing down on the whole bag while no one was looking. You can tell he’s had training for stealth operations.

To our dog, age, rank or status mean very little, if anything. Bear is the star of the dog park where my husband takes him every morning for canine socialization. Everyone wants to play with him, and he seems to get along well with all breeds and sizes. If his mission is to run, play, fetch the ball and mooch treats off other pet owners, then he is prepared to cooperate with anyone and everyone in that enclosed field of dirt in order to accomplish it. “We’re all in this together,” he encourages his puppy pals. “Come on guys, be all that you can be.” Hey, any Israeli has watched enough American TV via cable or satellite to be able to quote a song from a Disney blockbuster or a slogan from a US Army commercial. The special US-Israel relationship plays itself out in may ways.

Bear's military training has prepared him for handling these kind of dog park scuffles and refocusing his fellow canines on the mission at hand (ie. getting nearby pet owners to offer treats).

You can tell from the way that Bear motivates his dog park buddies that he is a real leader. Owing to his K-9 experience at a young age, he is now comfortable with making quick, yet effective, decisions. He is able to size up a situation and decide which course of action to follow. The Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan has told us (on his own and by way of the chapter on him in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, What The Dog Saw) that dogs are very astute observers and interpreters of human expression, stance and movement. So, when Bear sees one of our boys come home all shlumpy looking because he had a rough day, he immediately comes up to give him a big, consoling cuddle. And when he sees that my husband or I look like we might have gained a pound or two (say, from one of those many delicious Shabbat and holiday dinners), he stands at the door indicating that he is ready and willing to go for a long exercise walk with us to work off those extra calories.

This is monument and the grave marking of Oscar, a K-9 buried in the Oketz cemetary for dogs who die in the line of duty.

The most important thing Bear has taken from his IDF days and made part of his life with us is the concept of “Acharai!,” (Follow me!), which is what characterizes the attitude and actions of an IDF commanding officer. You can just tell that Bear must have distinguished himself among his fellow canine recruits and achieved high rank. Since Bear now resides in California he does not go to miluim (reserve duty) with his unit. Bear is glad to have a break from being called up every year, but he sure misses his army buddies – both human and canine. As things stand, he is not in a position at this time to lead his soldiers into battle (or even into simulated battle in a training exercise).

But once an IDF soldier, always an IDF soldier. His beret retired and army days behind him, Bear is now in entrepreneurial mode and working on his new Silicon Valley start-up (He’s thinking of calling it His civilian mission is to show us, his new chevreh, how wonderful it is to have a dog. Keep an eye out for an IPO, because Bear has already established a hugely successful track record in improving our family’s life on many fronts.

© 2009 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.