Longing for Return: Rabbi Alissa Wise’s Tribute to Tzedek Chicago

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Here are the words of tribute that were offered by Rabbi Alissa Wise at Tzedek Chicago’s recent 5th anniversary celebration. Alissa is my dear friend and colleague and currently serves as the Acting Co-Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace. 

Her remarks were made during the havdalah ceremony that marks the end of Shabbat. As everyone who was there will attest, it was a moving, memorable and joyous evening. 

Havdalah means separation – but also difference. So let us make this community different and new through this ritual of Havdalah, ushering you all into a new moment as you head into your next chapter. Let’s think of tonight as one big moment of l’chayim to all that makes Tzedek Chicago different and for the incredible contributions you are making to the future of Judaism in the US and beyond.

This past week we welcomed the month of Adar, famous as a time for us to increase our joy and to celebrate of the topsy-turvy holiday of Purim. The Talmud teaches “just as in Av, our joy decreases, in Adar, our joy increases.” Leave it to Judaism to mandate joy! it doesn’t come easy for a lot of us and for good reason. So thank you, Tzedek, for ensuring we got some joy tonight. Living our best Adar lives!

Tonight is a special moment of joy for me – to be able to bask in this groundbreaking synagogue, to schep naches and to kvell about Brant Rosen, my rabbinic partner in crime. This is also the first invitation I have had during my nine years at Jewish Voice for Peace to speak at synagogue. And tonight, my co-Executive Director Stefanie Fox is delivering a keynote at the annual gala for Kadima synagogue in Seattle led by JVP rabbinical council member David Basior – also a sign of the times. It means so much to be here. More Adar joy!

Tonight’s celebration is for all of us who imagine the end of Zionism and the rise of a Judaism that is, as it has been for millennia, a tradition of wrestlers, questioners and seekers: marking time by the rhythms of the moon, cycling through, again and again the ancient stories passed down to us from generation to generation, while at the same time telling our own.

This celebration tonight is in honor of a Judaism that is a framework for a vibrant inner ethical life that enables a relentless, resilient spirit of passion for justice for all people. A Judaism that understands and reckons with the trauma in our lines, the violence our ancestors have wreaked. The wrongs – and our response in honor of that history and in deference to it. It doesn’t hold us back, rather it inspires and enlivens us. While we are accountable to it, we are not laden by it.

I believe the liberation for all people that binds this community together is inevitable. This celebration tonight truly feels like an evening many will point to as the beginning of this new era – that a congregation can grow and thrive outside Zionism may not surprise us in this deli, and this is just the beginning.

I am not going to lie: I am deeply concerned with what happens for the majority of Jews who still currently hold to Zionism as the main way they identify as Jews. As Zionism and Israel evolve into a place of democracy, justice, dignity, and freedom for all the people that live there, it will be a trauma for many Jews, no question. That is why it is so critical that diasporic Jewish communities thrive and imagine and build spaces for all to come into when that break happens.

Our tradition can actually teach us in this process – both for ourselves and for Palestinians with whom we struggle in solidarity.

On the first day of my rabbinical school course on rabbinic civilization, in a course that explored the social and cultural surroundings of rabbinic literature, the professor assigned readings from a collection of talks given in the 90s at the NY Public Library on the concept of Exile. Called “Letters of Transit,” these writings were essential to understanding the emotional and psychological state of the Talmudic rabbis.

The essays brought to vivid life the profound, all-encompassing sense of loss that permeated the psyche of the Talmudic rabbis, and therefore our liturgies today. With an unquenching thirst, they pined for a rebuilt temple and the end to exile. Little did they know that in that yearning, they were creating the scaffolding for our religious and cultural heritage: an enduring heritage that has manifested differently throughout the world in countless ways, enduring despite expulsions, genocide, colonialism and extractive capitalism. The Judaism we practice today began in their imaginations and from their longing. And baked deeply into it is a profound sense of loss and torment at being in exile.

There is something really powerful in their chaotic, terse, neurotic text that resonates for me deeply as a Palestine solidarity activist: it is their dream of return. I have found that reading the rabbis is an important fuel for my activism. I feel my empathy and ability to relate to the desire and dreams of return that I hear from Palestinians more deeply by immersing in their world – and likewise a celebratory embrace of Diaspora. I learn from that longing for return that emerges from every page of Talmud.

In one of the writings from that book, Andre Aciman, a Jew from Alexandria, Egypt reflected on the comfort of a park in Manhattan where he often went to sit and ponder and yearn and feel his exile. He identified a feeling of being lost in the world as a state of exile, but he also found comfort in the park – in “being lost in the same place every year.” He begins the story with alarm – this precious park is being torn up, and was now a chaotic, hazardous construction site. But at the end the park was just being rehabbed – its statue was removed to be restored, the benches to be replaced, the walkways to be made more accessible.

It made me think of our Torah and holiday cycle and the spaces and communities we build to revisit them together year after year. What a tremendously generous and loving gift you are giving to yourselves and each other in creating a space to get lost and be lost in year after year. If we are open to it, diaspora expands the idea of home. It invites a more responsible relationship with the planet. It not only rejects but renders meaningless borders and technologies of separation.

As an example, let’s look to how the Talmudic rabbis engaged with the upcoming holiday of Purim as their discussion of it is illuminating the mindset of exile and the possibilities of diaspora. Some important backstory/context: During Purim, the liturgy does not include the reciting of Hallel – the collection of psalms of praise and joy that are included in the liturgy at the pilgrimage festivals and other holidays commemorating miracles.

In the tractate of Talmud called Megillah, the rabbis ask: if we say Hallel for going from slavery to freedom during Passover, why not for going from death to life in Purim? The first answer offered: because the miracle of Purim took place outside of Eretz Yisrael.

Things are already interesting for us, right? It is important to note here that we must be careful to not read this a-historically and assign Zionism to this line of thinking. Eretz Yisrael, as your core value of “a Judaism beyond nationalism” notes, has played an important role in Jewish tradition, liturgy and identity. I believe it is both possible and a sacred responsibility of ours to confidently and ethically relate to land without bringing to it a colonialist or extractive or violent ownership. How radical this would be for our planet as it undergoes climate catastrophe!

OK, so the miracle took place in diaspora, no Hallel, the first rabbinic voice offers. But another rabbi challenges this by pointing out that Yetziat Mitzrayim – the Exodus from Egypt – also took place outside Eretz Yisrael! And here it is important to also note that Mitzrayim was likewise exile. Eretz Yisrael was not just the promised land for the Israelites who fled from slavery to freedom, but was the original home of their ancestors who fled that place due to famine. It already was special before Mitzrayim.

Then another rabbi retorts: well, that was before entering Eretz Yisrael, so it doesn’t count – but miracles that take place after we entered Eretz Yisrael are not valid for singing Hallel. So this is interesting: in some ways the rabbis forget that the exile they were suffering through and their yearning was for a second return – because it was after the Exodus that the Israelites were led to Eretz Yisrael by God’s hand and will. And it was there that the Temple stood.

And though this position is what was held – that it is not traditional to recite Hallel on Purim – the dialogues closes with a final dissenting opinion– Rav and Rav Nahman both agree that after the exile, all lands are again fit for reciting Hallel for miracles that happen with them.

A Judaism beyond Zionism for today shares this same Torah: a miracle is a miracle. Praise is praise. All land is sacred, all people are holy.

As the late activist, writer, feminist Melanie Kaye Kantrowitz wrote:

Celebrating dispersion, Diasporism challenges the Edenic promise: once we were gathered in on our own land, now we are in exile. What if we conceive of diaspora as the center: an oxymoron, putting the margin at the center of a circle that includes but does not privilege Israelis?

I love this idea of diaspora as the center. Imagine what would be possible if we were to flip it all around: that the multitude of Jewish experiences, languages, rituals made up the bubbling, expansive center of Jewish identity. What then?

We have it all over our tradition already: think of the tabernacle that traveled wherever the Israelites went during their wanderings in the wilderness. Think of the home rituals of Hanukkah, Shabbat and Pesach. The moon guiding our months and holidays, the sun beginning and ending our days. The moon and sun belong to our planet and to all beings.

And yes, there will still be that nagging feeling of loss and that’s OK. In his memoir “Out of Egypt,” Andre Aciman wrote:

Why spurn my home when exile is your home?
The Ithaca you want you’ll have in not having.
You’ll walk her shores yet long to read those very grounds,
kiss Penelope yet wish you held your wife instead,
touch her flesh yet yearn for mine.
Your home’s in the rubblehouse of time now,
and you’re made thus, to yearn for what you lose.

This is the project I see in Tzedek: a place to be lost. A place to accept and expect and embrace that feeling of loss. To nurture and support Jews ready to embrace and envision a world without Zionism. Those who are at that place now and those that will be in the coming months and years

It must also a place that can provide safety to ask and answer the hard questions we need to ask to be as creative, emergent, visionary partners and organizers. For example, in what ways as Jews who are in solidarity with Palestinians in their demands of not just rights but return – how are we healing ourselves and our past through this work? How much does it quench your longing for home and an end to exile to imagine a free Palestine?

How ready are you to be the majority voice in the Jewish community in a post-Zionist era? How will you embrace and nurture and care for the minority, fringe voices?

Already Tzedek is at a place of enormous power. I want to invite you to let it. Let this struggle heal you. Let it transform you. Let Tzedek be a place that you all tend to in order to do this critical work. Let yourselves indulge in it. Demand in it all you need and more! Let it be a place where you can be vulnerable and show your hurt, feel your loss. let it seep out, let it heal not just ourselves but everyone. Let it inform how we respond to antisemitism and Islamophobia, to racism and transphobia. Let the end of exile for Palestinians take an edge off that stubborn feeling of loss within us. Let your project be a way to do the holy work of remembrance and return.

And as you all know, your leader here at Tzedek is an ideal guide for you on this path. Brant: you are doing an incredible job at being the best Brant Rosen you can be. This celebration is not about you, it is about Tzedek, but please indulge me for a moment.

You and I have had such an incredible relationship, Brant. We are colleagues, comrades, friends, confidantes, and mentors to each other. When I was a rabbinical student figuring out how in the heck to get ordained as an out, queer anti-zionist, you sought me out to learn from and with me.

I recall that it all begin in 2007 at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association conference in Florida, where we spent countless hours talking about the limits and failures of Zionism, the stranglehold it has on the Jewish community. You taught me how to live in the real world of Jewish institutional life and how to not let that restrict or define you. I invited you in to the urgent obligation of challenging Zionism despite the costs it will mean to our professional lives.

In the years I have known you Brant, I have been floored by your willingness and capacity to face and feel the loss you feel. This is part of what makes you such an incredible rabbi for our time. You know how to feel the pain and the loss of our exilic condition. And you know how to then take the next, most courageous step – to change your life, take a stand, vision forward, refuse to accept.

Brant you are Nachshon. You are willing to the step that to so many seems foolish and dangerous, only to see that a beautiful miracle awaits if you have the courage and chutzpah to not just believe but to act. It has been an honor to walk beside you Brant on this journey away from Zionism and toward the fulfillment of your highest spiritual and rabbinic calling by realizing Tzedek Chicago with all of you.

As a leader of an organization myself, I know it is a mistake to give all the credit to the paid leadership. Each and every one of you is making a contribution to a future of Judaism we can all be proud of. It is because you want it, you are willing to work for it, you demand it, you need it, because you love Judaism and Jewishness.

Look around – here we are in this Ashkenazi-inspired deli in public celebration of our tradition and the future of not just Jews but everyone. It is in this bold commitment to safety through solidarity that we’ve been taking to the streets that we separate from the Jews-only logic of Zionism.

The enormous and generous contribution Tzedek Chicago is making to the future of Jewish life – not just in the US but worldwide – is simply incredible. You are a model of a thriving Jewish diasporic community. I am so so grateful. Thank you, thank you, thank you Tzedek Chicago. May you go from strength to strength!