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The Road Less Travelled: Authenticity in the Age of Indifference

Posted by E on January 6, 2016

loss

My mother died on December 2, 2015. She was 71. What was to be a joy-filled holiday season turned into a time of horror and desperate sadness for me. Not only because of the passing of my last surviving parent, but because of the indifference of people I’d trusted and held closest to my heart. Some of my closest friends, whom I’d counted on for emotional support in such a difficult time (mistakenly assuming they would reciprocate in empathy because I was always there for them) didn’t so much as phone me to see how I was, conversely finding enough time to post countless selfies and memes on Facebook.

indifference elie wiesel quoteI broke down. I blamed myself in a million ways – if I hadn’t insisted that my mother be hospitalized because of her advanced dementia, maybe she could have lived another year. Lots of studies state that living in one’s home prolongs one’s life – maybe I killed her in some way. Maybe it was my inability to visit more than once or twice per week (because I live out of town). Maybe because I still blamed her for the abuse I suffered as a child, for not protecting me when I needed her most. Maybe, maybe, maybe. I hated myself, I crucified myself….and in the end, I realized that the only person I was accountable to was myself.

My mother’s harsh death (she passed away in my arms, in a dimly-lit private room, after I told her that I’d forgiven her and that I loved her) and my friends’ shocking indifference taught me about the importance of being real – of authenticity and living in the moment, as raw and unfiltered as it might be. And, maybe because I’m still in shock or traumatized by the indifference of those closest to me, I realized that my first article of the year has to be about authenticity and integrity – especially in the golden age of apathy and indifference.

indifference wieselWe live in a time when technology has connected humanity more than ever, but paradoxically we have drifted apart in inexcusable ways – ways that will eventually lead to the decline of our humanity. We live in an age where we have the power to take to the streets and end the wars our governments wage against innocent nations in the name of oil, but we are too busy sharing Youtube clips of kittens, Drake songs and Kardashian “booty twerking”.

This is why I write this post, and this is why I am asking all of you to take a moment and reflect on your own authenticity. At the end of the day, what do you want to be known for? What would have been your purpose?

Are we really the people we think we are? Or have we deluded ourselves to think ourselves more capable and deserving than we really are? Have we really put in the time, sweat, blood and tears necessary to fulfill our dreams?

This piece, my first of 2016, is about the choice we all have to make – whether to be an impostor inside our own lives, or seize the days ahead and realize our potential with the authenticity and integrity needed to breathe life into our dreams.

I once knew a girl named Elizabeth Moore who was obsessed with Jews. At first she hated them, having become a neo-Nazi. Later on, after she left the hate movement and became a self-appointed anti-racist, she wanted nothing more than to be a Jew. She surrounded herself with Jews. She slept with Jewish officials associated with the Canadian Jewish Congress. She had years-long affairs that appear to have advanced her career, if her LinkedIn profile is anything to go by. She volunteered to be in films and documentaries that featured or were produced by Jews. She inserted herself like an insidious tapeworm into the Jewish community, going so far as to emulate me and issues I had discussed in prominent interviews regarding my role as a young girl who had actively helped to shut down the Canadian neo-Nazi movement.

Moore shown in Choose Your Voice, 2005

Moore shown in Choose Your Voice, 2005

We first became friends sometime in late 2012/ early 2013. At first I liked her – why wouldn’t I? We had lots of quirky interests in common. Elizabeth even declared publicly that I was her “soul sister” – perhaps because in our distant youth we had both made the mistake of joining (and eventually leaving) the same white supremacist hate group, the Heritage Front.

But ultimately we were nothing alike. At age 16 I was a runaway, often homeless MINOR from bullet-ridden Shuter Street in Regent Park who needed a family. By age 18 I had defected from the group, turned information to police and testified in court against dangerous neo-Nazis who had threatened me with death, leading to their eventual convictions.

Elizabeth, on the other hand, was a university-attending, 19-year old ADULT, the only daughter of an upper-middle class family who lived in the area of Pebblehill Square, an affluent part of Scarborough, Ontario. Unlike me, she chose to remain in the group until age 21 and did absolutely nothing to actively shut down (she didn’t testify in court or provide police with information as I had) or stop the neo-Nazis whose company she had once enjoyed.

Over the years, Elizabeth’s obsession with Jews eventually led her to marry a secular (non-religious) Jew. Then, after close to a decade of hanging around the now-defunct Canadian Jewish Congress (if her resume is any indication), she set upon getting an MFA from Toronto’s Ryerson University in documentary film-making. The MFA’s piece de resistance culminated with 2 years spent to produce a 20-minute film titled “In God’s Keeping” (the Vimeo trailer has since been removed) – the subject being none other than Moore capturing herself as a former neo-Nazi whose greatest desire appeared the wish to become a Jew.

Moore In Gods Keeping

Moore pictured in In God’s Keeping – image from Ryerson.ca

For her documentary, Elizabeth interviewed rabbis, synagogue staff, other potential converts, even top leaders of the Jewish community. She was keen, almost desperate to convert – or so it seemed. She made profiles on LinkedIn that included resume-building credentials with the Canadian Jewish Congress, although CJC officials deny she was ever in their employment. She sought to befriend big names on the Jewish scene, including community leaders and religious officials such as Tina Grimberg of the Darchei Noam congregation/synagogue.

Unbeknownst to Elizabeth, for the past decade I too had progressed on the path toward Judaism. I had already discovered that my father was Jewish and I wanted to return to the faith of my ancestors, and a DNA test taken through 23andme confirmed my Jewish heritage. Unlike her, I didn’t attempt to publicize or capitalize on my inner journey – I just studied and read as much as I could. Reaching out to media – much less before my actual conversion – would have been unfathomable (and embarrassing) for such a personal journey.

Naturally, as soon as Elizabeth told me of her intent and gave me a copy of her film, I was terribly excited that she too wanted to be a Jew. We spent countless hours over the following months comparing notes about conversion, discussing philosophical ideas and our pasts, questioning what our future identities as Jews would entail.

Across 2013, I began studying in earnest and enrolled in a Conversion to Judaism class. I read religious texts, classic and modern Judaic discussions, and joined a Jewish community. I struggled trying to make sense of the Hebrew alphabet. On December 17 (my actual birthday), I met with a three-rabbi Beit Din, immersed in a purifying Mikvah, and I became a Jew. Read about my moving experience that day in the entry Journey to Judaism: The Day I Became a Jew.

But did Elizabeth eventually go through with her conversion?

No. Of course not. Such a radical step would involve substance, and soul, and ardent desire; no publicity but an inner transformation of the spirit. In the end, Elizabeth’s obsession with becoming a Jew appeared in my eyes to have been more about appropriating a culture that wasn’t hers, ingratiating herself overtly with influential Jewish leaders, and benefitting emotionally and financially than about actually getting her feet wet and embracing a rich, millennia-old heritage. A culture that (in her own words in an email dated April 7, 2014) “can illicit PTSD responses”.

In February 2015, Elizabeth invited me over for dinner at her house and subsequently sold me her entire Jewish and Judaism-themed library (approx. 30 books) for $40. Actually, she had wanted to give me the books for free. I, on the other hand, didn’t feel right about accepting them without paying at least $1 per book, so I gave her all the money I had in my purse. Elizabeth’s reason for changing her mind about Judaism: she didn’t want to have to learn Hebrew.

Committing to weekly Hebrew classes was too tedious, she told me. She didn’t feel like attending weekly classes downtown for more than a year. Her husband hadn’t even had a Bar Mitzvah – he too didn’t see the point. And why should she? By then she’d already ingratiated herself in the Jewish community, by way of personal social media relationships with former leaders of the Canadian Jewish scene like Bernie Farber and Karen Mock. All this despite that she had done absolutely nothing for the Jewish community, other than arguably to exploit and monetize her connections with the CJC for close to a decade.

I can’t say I didn’t feel both saddened and shocked at her statement – here I was, having gone through more than a year of conversion studies, taking my choice to heart, while someone who was busy befriending people like Farber and Mock on social media and in real life (along with others in the close-knit Toronto Jewish community) seemed inwardly repulsed, or at the very least put off, by the thought of learning Hebrew, a core part of Judaism and its historical legacy.

star david peaceJudaism was still making Elizabeth Moore feel icky, deep down inside. It was making her break into hives much in the same way as the sight of a swastika. Jewish symbols were still “triggers” – along with neo-Nazi and Hitler regalia. In other words, although Jews had done absolutely nothing to her and she had been the anti-Semite, seeing a Star of David would be enough to send her into fits and panic attacks.

In the end, after two decades of obsessions related to Jews, sleeping with Jews, marrying Jews (in a Christian-style, non-denominational ceremony), being prominently featured in Jewish documentaries and a CBC feature that earned her $12,000 despite being partly based on my life story, even getting a degree that culminated in a documentary that depicted her ardent desire to be a Jew – she gave up the dream because she was loathe to learn the Jewish language.

I learned something powerful from Elizabeth Moore last year – that in this day and age, the act of going through the motions, the pretense of wanting to be something, is enough for people to convince themselves that they have what it takes – and the line between living an authentic life or forging a false, self-deluded existence becomes increasingly blurred.

To Thine Own Self Be TrueYou’ve met those people – the girl in yoga class who recites motivational quotes about positive thinking because she watched “The Secret” but takes no real steps toward actually applying for the job she claims she desires. The hipster dude who tells everybody he’s a genius poet – the next Bob Dylan, the next Rimbaud or Bukowski – but prefers playing the part of disturbed bard at the local watering hole, charming gullible coeds over flowing pints of Guinness, than over writing any actual verses.

We all know these types. We went to school with people whose unshakable confidence and self-assurance made our own self-esteem shine less brightly. People who seemed higher-than-life and more important than us merely because they had played the part to perfection. But in the end, substance faltered beneath the enormous weight of their ego’s illusion.

The idea of being a Jew – making films about becoming a Jew, associating with the Jewish community while holding mixed feelings about Jews themselves – was more attractive to Elizabeth than the actual pursuit of studying Judaism. Telling everybody she wanted to be a Jew held more significance, in the end, than truly understanding the plight of a people who were forced to give up their language, customs and very identity on threat of death for half a millennia.

So for the New Year, I encourage all of you to pursue your dreams and truly commit to whatever you most desire – because you don’t want to be one of those sad individuals who live an entire lifetime unable to distinguish between the fantasy of being something – say, a writer – and the actual gruelling, painful process of transforming yourself, your soul and your art into the real thing.

integrity memeLet’s all be real, people. Let’s be authentic, to ourselves and to the world surrounding us. Money, media connections, this life is all temporal. Only too late do we realize that we don’t need to impress anybody – this brief moment on earth is about surpassing our worst fears and inadequacies and being authentic to our soul’s purpose.

Holding my mother in my arms as she faded away taught me the importance of looking past the illusion. What illusion? All of it. The world we live in is an illusion, and the only thing that matters is how much we loved. How authentic and empathetic we were. And as the Jewish saying goes, that our memory becomes a blessing onto others.

In this New Year, practice acts of radical kindness. Believe in your ability to transcend the pain that surrounds us all.

To be honest, I struggled over the publication of this piece. I didn’t know whether I should disclose Elizabeth’s secrets (particularly involving the intimate affairs that earned her publicity and media exposure). Perhaps her intention of becoming a Jew had been genuine, once upon a time, and had dissolved along the way, or perhaps it had been fuelled from the beginning by a persistent need for attention and financial gain. I’ll never know for certain.

In the end, my concern for authenticity (as well as the Jewish community who might be manipulated and deserves to know about this matter) won out – I now believe it is my hard-won duty to tell the truth, as harsh as it may be. Because the act of truth-telling is both redemptive and illuminating, leading to a road that might benefit all of us collectively as a species.

Don’t be ensnared by your own delusions. Face the bitter road ahead – the sweat, the tears. The triumph. To borrow Robert Frost’s timeless words, take that road less travelled by.

It will make all the difference. That’s how we’ll unearth the roots of our humanity.

robert_frost_two_roads

Posted in anti-semitism, authenticity, canada, elizabeth moore, indifference, journalism, media, politics, religion, sarah polley, white supremacy, writer, zundel | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Journey to Judaism: The Day I Became A Jew

Posted by E on August 10, 2015

Elisa Jerusalem cropped

I became a Jew on the day I was born, December 17. Thirty-eight years had passed between the moment my mother gave birth to me in Romania and the day I was formally accepted as a Jew by rabbis in a North American synagogue.

After I’d completed a year of study, my mentor rabbi informed me that I was ready to take the next step toward conversion – writing a formal essay explaining why I wanted to embrace the Jewish faith, and meeting with a Beit Din. For those reading this who are unfamiliar with the term, a Beit Din is a rabbinical court assembly made up of three observant Jews (at least one of whom is a rabbi) who decide if a convert is fit to be accepted for conversion to Judaism.

Embracing Judaism was the last step along a journey of self-discovery that had taken me many years to explore, and I wanted to do this right – it was important to me that I should have a conversion process that followed the halacha (Jewish law) closely, which meant having a Beit Din made up of at least one rabbi, followed by a ritual immersion in a synagogue mikvah – a pool of water derived from natural sources.

It was the beginning of December and with my birthday right around the corner, it was only natural that I would schedule my Beit Din and Mikvah day on my birthday. How could I choose any other date? What better day to experience a spiritual rebirth and be formally acknowledged as Jewish?

The sun was shining brightly when I woke up early in the morning – too early in fact. The excitement and nervous butterflies churning in my stomach made it impossible to go back to sleep. ‘This is the last day I’ll wake up and not be Jewish,’ I thought. I busied myself by having a long shower, brushing and flossing my teeth, washing my hair and scrubbing my fingernails and toenails free of any traces of nail polish – there was to be no barrier between the body and the Mikvah water.

Brilliant sunshine illuminated the path toward the Beth Hillel synagogue where I would be formally interviewed. I knew it would be a beautiful day, and it turned out exactly as I’d imagined – how could such an important day ever be shrouded in clouds?

The rabbis met me in the lobby of the synagogue at noon. My Beit Din was composed of three ordained rabbis, all active members of the Rabbinical Assembly, although one had retired from his congregation. After everyone arrived, we walked over to the meeting room in the back of the synagogue. A long conference table split the room which could have seated twenty. The three rabbis sat on one side of the table, and I took a seat across from them.

“As we begin, I’d like you to tell us what brought you here and why you want to become Jewish,” Rabbi Levine said.

I summarized some of the key points that I wrote about in my conversion essay:

“The feeling that propels me toward Judaism isn’t as simple as breaking it down into words. It’s a feeling, an echo of something within myself that I am just now recognizing and giving voice to.

I feel that I have always been a Jew. I was born in the mid-1970s in communist Bucharest. Under Ceausescu’s dictatorship, Romania didn’t prioritize religion, choosing instead to indoctrinate their people to worship the State. I don’t remember either of my parents being religious in any way. We never went to church. I identified with my father’s family much more than my mother’s side. I stood out among my maternal cousins by being the black-haired, dark-eyed child who didn’t fit in. People said that my father and I ‘looked Jewish’.”

 Iosif Hategan age 15 Iosif and Ana

Above: me at age 11.  Centre: my father Iosif (Josef) at age 15.  Right: My father and grandmother Ana.

We emigrated to Canada when I was 11 years old. My father subsequently decided to return to Romania and died there when I was 13. I never had the opportunity to ask him all the questions I would have liked to know – Why did he hide his own heritage? Why did he feel ashamed of who he was?

I’ve had people tell me, Why bother to convert. Your father was a Jew, you don’t believe in Jesus as the messiah, so what’s the difference? But it bothers me that I am not recognized by all Jews as a fellow Jew because of my patrilineal descent, and I feel the need to undergo this formal process so that I can both learn much more about Judaism, and to feel like a “real” Jew.

In my soul, heart and mind, Judaism is more than a religion for me. It’s a shared history, a family and a connection that has always been there, just outside the realm of my consciousness and yet was always there. Like a pulse that cannot be subdued.

After my father’s death, I lived in a rough low-income neighbourhood with my mother. As time went by, she grew increasingly abusive and I had no choice but to run away. Between the ages of 14-16 I lived in several Children’s Aid homes. In time, I ran away from an abusive foster home and returned to my mother’s apartment. At age 16 I was friendless and desperate. Eventually I became recruited by a neo-Nazi group, the Heritage Front. They became the family I felt I’d never had, and looked after me at a time when my only choice was to live on the streets. They also put me in touch with an internationally-renowned Holocaust revisionist and Hitler sympathizer, Ernst Zundel. Zundel gave me a job working in his basement printing press, fed me and looked out for me.

By the time I turned 18 I knew that what the group was doing was wrong. I wanted out of the organization but they were possessive of me and I didn’t know of a way out. I attempted suicide and eventually I turned to an anti-racist activist, who put me in touch with the director of a think-tank on extremist right-wingers. He, in turn, asked me to spy on the Heritage Front and Ernst Zundel and collect information that could be turned over to the police.

defection 1994-2Hategan articleMetro Toronto

For half a year I gathered as much information on illegal activities, weapons and dangerous persons, as well as stole Ernst Zundel’s national and international mailing list, which consisted of people all over North and South America and Europe who had sent in money to fund Zundel’s Holocaust revisionist projects. In 1994 I testified in court and sent 3 Heritage Front leaders to prison, effectively dealing a serious blow toward dismantling the group.

I was only 19 years old. I lived in hiding and attended university in Ottawa under an assumed name. Upon graduating Magna cum Laude with a Criminology and Psychology double-major, I taught ESL in Seoul, South Korea and subsequently travelled throughout Europe the following year.

I spent some time in Krakow and visited Auschwitz and Birkenau. Something stirred in me that summer – an inexplicable familiarity, a sense that I was connected to those places in some undefinable way. When I first heard Ladino songs, it was as though I could almost recognize them. The music seemed familiar somehow. Then there were the places in the south of Spain, as well as in Poland and Hungary that I visited – they felt as though I’d been there before. In Debrecen, the city my father was born in, I allowed my feet to take me where they wanted to go, and I ended up on a narrow, cobblestoned street, in front of a half-burned synagogue with smashed-out windows.

It felt like I had been there before. The feeling was strong, palpable, like a childhood memory – a memory that was just outside the realm of my consciousness.

I eventually returned to Canada and tried to lead a normal life. But something always clawed at the back of my consciousness, pushing me toward a Jewish path. I lived along Bathurst street, in a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood. I began to read books on Judaism and spirituality. Ten years went by since I first thought of undergoing a formal conversion to Judaism, but something always held me back – I first wanted to discover the truth about my father, my family’s past. I had to know our own past in order to go forward.

During a visit to my paternal grandmother’s village in Transylvania, I tracked down relatives, old family friends and neighbours, and asked questions. At my uncle’s house, among my deceased grandmother’s possessions, I discovered a box of mementos and photographs that I’d never seen before. The box was marked with the Jewish surname “Kohan” – the Hungarian version of Cohen. I finally began to believe that my suspicions had been true, and that my father had actually been Jewish.

Back in Canada, I ordered a DNA kit from 23andme, sent in my saliva sample and waited for a month to receive my results. When they came in, it was a surreal experience – one of the most significant days of my life. To realize that after so long, what I had suspected was actually true! I burst into tears of joy, knowing that I was no longer alone – at last I had a past, a history. And well over 20 relatives in the 23andme database with the surname Cohen, some of whom offered their help in piecing together our common ancestry.

23andme EH profile  23andme EH profile2 

Part of my conversion essay:

In my soul, heart and mind, Judaism is more than a religion for me. It’s a shared history, a genetic memory, a family and a connection that has always been just outside the realm of my consciousness, yet was always there. The more I learned about Judaism through my study, the more I felt my bond to the past grow stronger.

My father’s denial of his religion and heritage was like an invisible wall that kept me from my past. But with each day and each hour, the wall becomes increasingly transparent. The bricks fall apart and I begin to see a glimpse of something beautiful and mystical on the other side. The shadows of those great-grandparents and the whispers of their lives comes through to me, through me, and out into my very own existence.

I have had thousands of Jewish ancestors from Poland, Russia, Galicia, Ukraine and Romania, whose truth, lives and stories have been wiped off in only two generations. One hundred years. That is all it took to wipe out my family’s connection to their own lineage and heritage.

I look at the world and wonder how many others walk around unaware that the blood of Sephardic conversos or Ashkenazim forced to hide their religion runs through their veins.

I aim to reclaim that heritage.

“Please read your Declaration of Faith for us, Elisa.”

I stood up and read the piece of paper which I had practically memorized over the past year.

declaration of faith Iosif and Elisa Anna-Philip

Left: my declaration of faith. Centre: my favourite photo of me & my father.  Right: grandmother Ana with her husband.

Afterwards, they asked me to sign it and I did so, then handed it back to them. I answered several questions related to holidays and ritual, and recited a couple of prayers. Then one of the rabbis asked me more about my father’s family. “Did you know the biggest group of immigrants to Israel after the war were from Romania?”

I hadn’t known this, and he smiled at me warmly and told me a story about his friends who had come from the same part of Transylvania as my father. Then our conversation touched on the Holocaust, and I mentioned the profound experience I’d had in my twenties when I visited Europe’s biggest concentration camp, the largest mass-murder site in the world.

Rabbi Fertig sat up. “You were at Auschwitz?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“What was it like?”

I gazed into the distance, recalling the summer of 2001 when I had backpacked across Europe, and how my journey to find my roots had led me to Auschwitz. “I went in the summer, when the grass was this high.” I said, lifting my hand to indicate waist-height. “It was a sunny day. A very beautiful day. The sun was high up in the sky, and there was such a vivid a juxtaposition of life and death. The grass was buzzing with crickets and frogs, filled with life….right up among those terrible barracks at Birkenau. I walked inside the barracks and felt that emptiness….the void, the echoes of the lives that had been lost there.”

Rabbi Levine stared at me for a long time. “So many millions perished in the Holocaust – and now you are returning to the fold.”

“I am but one drop,” I said quietly, my eyes filling with tears.

We all fell silent. After some time, Rabbi Brief asked me, “Have you chosen a Hebrew name?”

There was never any doubt in my mind what my Hebrew name would be – Elisheva, of course. The Hebrew version of my own given name. Better yet, it somehow ‘fit’ me. It felt more right than anything else.

“Elisheva Sarah.”

Rabbi Levine cleared his throat. “I am obliged to inform you that although a Conservative Beit Din is accepted by all conservative and affiliated denominations, some Orthodox will still refuse to see you as Jewish.”

I nodded. “Yes, I know this.”

“Do you have any questions for us?”

I hesitated. “Do you think….will I be accepted by a Reform synagogue?”

The rabbis looked at each other in amusement. “They’re going to love you,” the oldest of the rabbis answered. “Reform already recognizes you as a Jew because you have a Jewish father – so just based on the fact that you still went through this when you didn’t have to.”

Rabbi Levine peered into my eyes. “I read your conversion essay and I have to say it really moved me. You’re a very good writer. A very gifted writer.”

Something stirred inside me. Trying to fight back the knot in my throat, I said, “I’m working on a book to preserve the memory of those in my father’s village who have been forgotten. I want to do this for them – I’m the only one left who still carries their stories. Everyone else has passed.”

He nodded, and his eyes communicated such a deep empathy, such a sense of recognition and understanding, that I had to bite my lip to keep from tearing up. My eyes swept the room – the other rabbis were nodding, acknowledging me. I felt, in that moment, that they were seeing the real me – that part of my core I had kept hidden for so long. The vulnerability. The sadness and the truth of what I’d always known to be true. The real core of me.

Rabbi Levine pushed back from the table. “I am ready,” he said. He looked to the others: “I know it’s cutting this short, but I’m satisfied with this. I’m ready to make this woman Jewish.”

my Mikvah my mikvah2

We walked out of the synagogue and around to the side of the building, where another door stood open. A tall, thin woman waited for us there, her hair covered under a beret-type hat. She beckoned us in and we shook hands. “Welcome Elisheva,” she said, smiling at me. “You can leave your coat and stuff here. I warmed up the water really well for you, and have everything set up for you. Come and let me show you around.”

I smiled back at her, and Carol’s eyes glided to my hair. “You have long, gorgeous hair,” she said with a smile, and I instantly read between the lines. The hair was going to be a problem. Making sure there were no tangles was going to be challenging enough. But then she added, “I’m concerned that it might float up when you submerge. Every strand has to go underwater.”

The rabbis sat down on a small bench in the narrow corridor that led to several rooms, including the one where Carol was leading me. It turned out to be a small but perfectly clean bathroom with a shower stall and all the toiletries one could imagine.

She closed the door behind us and pointed out everything, careful to inspect that I wasn’t wearing any nail polish. I started to remove my earring studs and put them in my backpack while she explained what I already knew – I was to scrub off everything once again, wash my hair thoroughly and brush it so there were no tangles anywhere. Then, when I was ready, to walk through another door wearing little bootsies to keep from slipping and only the towel.

“The Mikvah is completely private,” she assured me. “The rabbis will only listen to the submersion and I will be the only one in the room with you. They will hear you say the prayer, but they cannot see you. I am here to make sure your privacy is respected and I myself will not look at you – when you descend into the Mikvah I will hold up the towel and respect your privacy. You can rest assured that your privacy and modesty will be respected at all times. So take as long as you need to get ready, and I will be on the other side of that door.”

After she left, I tried to keep myself from shaking. To think that I was so close to the Mikvah I’d read so much about, so close to the completion of a journey that had taken me years to achieve!

The bathroom was spartan and super-clean. A shelving unit ran beside the sink, and everything I could possibly have forgotten was there: nail polish remover, cotton balls, extra soap, toothpaste, shampoo, dental floss, even a small vial of Air d’Temps perfume that I planned to spritz on after the ceremony was complete (but forgot to, in the ensuing excitement). As Carol had promised, two different kinds of combs lay ready to tackle my difficult hair. I chose the one with the wider-spaced teeth and bravely stepped into the stone shower stall.

The shower itself was as I’d expected, with the worst part being – of course – running the brush through my well-shampooed (but not conditioned) curls. Needless to say, when it was all said and done I lost more than my usual amount of stray hairs, possibly because I was so excited, nervous and emotional about the ritual to follow that I brushed a bit too impatiently and managed to snap off some more split ends.

The last thing to go were my contact lenses. The Mikvah rules were that nothing could stand in the way of the water immersing the body, not even contacts. I placed the case carefully on the sink ledge and wrapped the fresh white towel around my body.

Then I reached for the door handle and stepped into the other room.

The room was low-lit, with several pot lights illuminating only the water – which was as blue as the sea. The Mikvah was larger than I’d imagined, much larger than a Jacuzzi but not quite the size of a swimming pool.

Am I really here? Is this finally happening? I wondered, gazing in awe at the water that would soon immerse every bit of my being. It’s so beautiful.

I kicked off the bootsies and held still while Carol the Mikvah Lady inspected me in order to pick off any stray hairs that may have fallen down my back. I checked myself also and found an additional long hair that I handed her.

After she discarded the loose hairs, Carol came back and stepped behind me. “You can give me the towel and go in now,” she said, holding the towel I handed her up in front of her – as promised, to protect my modesty. Although I’d wondered what it would feel like being completely naked in front of a stranger, I realized that I didn’t feel embarrassed at all – this felt like such a perfectly natural, even maternal process.

I walked toward the Mikvah and began to descend the seven steps that led down to the main pool. I held the railing and stepped down the seven steps–each one representing a day in the Creation story. Then an unexpected challenge arose: by the fourth step I could already tell that the water was too deep. As in, over my head. I’m not a swimmer by any stretch, and have never managed to hold my own in the deep-end of a swimming pool. I would never be able to touch the bottom.

Over the past year I’d researched anything I could find about other people’s accounts of their conversion ceremonies, but had never read about the situation that confronted me now – being only 5’2” tall, by the time I reached the lowest step I was already immersed up to my chin.

I gazed into the shimmering depths of the main pool and realized, not without a fair amount of trepidation, that I would never be able to stand upright in it. The water was high enough to go over my head. Although I love splashing around in water, I’m not a swimmer and have never managed to tread water in the deep end of a swimming pool.

An irrational fear seized hold of my mind. Has anybody ever drowned in a Mikvah? I wondered, cringing inwardly at the ridiculousness of the question. Worst case scenario, Carol the Mikvah Lady was here, along with three rabbis on the other side of the wall partition. Surely somebody would pull me out if I didn’t resurface after a while, right?

My desire to become a Jew was now confronted head-on by my fear of drowning. The combination didn’t make for a particularly mystical experience. Did I want to convert badly enough to risk drowning? Would you rather live as a Christian or risk drowning to become a Jew?

The answer came hard and fast: YES. Yes, I wanted it that badly. Badly enough to jump off into the deep end, where the water towered above my head – not knowing if I would bob back up or sink right to the bottom.

Over the months that led up to this ceremony, I’d imagined this day to be a peaceful, holy, life-changing process. In a way, this was still partly true – with that tranquil blue water so warm and lovely, lapping at my skin, an aura of serenity had surrounded me. But suddenly another part of me was seized with fear. As anxiety mounted in my chest, I realized that in order to become a Jew I would have to conquer my terror.

I took a deep breath and tried to balance myself on the lowest step, which was really hard because the salt water makes you buoy about, making it impossible to keep your feet firmly planted onto the tiled ground.

“Are you ready?” Carol’s voice resounded behind me. “Take your time. When you’re ready, I want you to take a deep breath and jump away from the step. When you’re fully immersed under the water, lift your legs up so that you don’t touch the bottom to make sure that for an instant, you’re floating free.”

I sucked in a deep breath, steadied myself….and then stepped off the ledge. Water flooded into my eyes, mouth, over my head, and suddenly I was up again, sputtering and flailing toward the metal rail in the corner. I seized hold of it and clambered up onto the last ledge again.

Carol looked at my ungainly flop and smiled sympathetically. “We’ll have to do that one over again. Your hair didn’t go all the way under.”

Strands of my hair had floated to the surface since I hadn’t sank deep enough. “Does this happen a lot?” I asked her.

She nodded. “You’re very buoyant – we all are – so what you’ll need to do is really let go and try to jump up a little when you step away from the stairs. The force of you jumping up will ensure you submerge all the way down.”

I took another deep, shuddering breath, and felt determination flow through my entire body. I hadn’t come this far to allow fear to stop me now. I thought about my father, my grandmother, about our family friend Steve Bendersky and the relatives he’d lost in the war, about the numbers tattooed on his arm, about the heritage that had been denied me. I thought about the people who had been killed over the centuries for being a Jew, about all who had walked down this path before me as converts and embraced their Jewish neshama.

I had come this far. I was ready.

It still felt scary, taking that plunge – but I no longer cared about drowning. I wanted to leap as far into that water as I could, to take it all into my heart, to let it remind me of my strength and ability to survive anything.

I was enveloped in a cocoon of blueness and warmth – the perfect heat of a womb made of nature’s own waters that seemed to have always existed in and around me. I opened my eyes underneath the water which coated every pore of my being and thought, This is the day I was born. Back then, and then again today.

No sooner did that realization hit than a force propelled me upwards – the force of my own buoyancy. I hadn’t drowned after all. In fact, I felt stronger than ever.

Carol’s voice echoed throughout the small room: “Kasher!”

I repositioned myself on the last step, filled my lungs with air, and leapt up again. I sank down into the depths of the Mikvah and didn’t fight it this time – I gave myself to it in body and soul.

When I bobbed back up, Carol called out “Kasher” for the second time.

I half-swam back toward the steps, found my balance again and turned to face the blueness. This would be my third jump. When I came back up again, I would be a Jew.

“Take your time,” Carol said softly. “If you want to take a moment to say a silent prayer – just for yourself.”

I closed my eyes and felt tears brimming behind my eyelashes. I mouthed the words of the Shema silently, for everyone before me, and then again for myself – that I be worthy of that painful, beautiful legacy and that I might contribute toward making the world a better place.

And then I took the biggest leap of my life into the waters that had always waited there for me. I lifted my knees up to my chest and spread my arms out to my sides, and the Mikvah embraced me.

And as I came up to the surface as a Jew, Carol called out for the third time, “Kasher.”

My voice shook as I spoke the words of the final prayer, Shehecheyanu, a prayer uttered by Jews for two thousand years: “Barukh Ata Adonai, Elohenu Melekh Haolam, Shehecheyanu, Vekiyimanu, Vehigiyanu, Lazman Hazeh.”

As soon as I said the last word, “hazeh”, voices all around called out “Mazel Tov!” I heard the rabbis break out into applause from the other side of the partition carved in the wall, congratulating me.

I turned around and emerged out of the water slowly, its warmth following me. Carol was beaming at me, holding out the towel. “Mazel Tov, Elisheva.”

I pitter-pattered back to the bathroom where I was shaking as I toweled off, got dressed as quickly as I could, and put in my contact lenses once again. I was too impatient to take the time needed to blow dry my long hair, and as a result I was still dripping water when I re-emerged into the little room where everyone was waiting for me.

The rabbis surrounded me and put their hands on my shoulders, breaking into song. As they sang, said their blessings and gave me all the official conversion paperwork, tears started to course down my face. They sang the old traditional Siman Tov/Shalom Aleichem song and I just folded my arms across my chest and bit my lip to unsuccessfully stop myself from crying. The oldest rabbi, probably close to eighty, wrapped his arm around my shoulders in a way a father might comfort a daughter and as he held me while I cried, I felt the warmth of his joy – I had come home.

Elisa and rabbis my menorah

Above: me with rabbis after the ceremony.  Right: a beautiful antique menorah – my conversion gift

In April 2015, a couple of years after my conversion to Judaism, I left for Romania in order to research my newest book, Remember Your Name. Because Bucharest is only a two-hour flight from Tel Aviv, I decided to make my first journey to Israel. I also fulfilled a secret wish I’d carried since my conversion – to go to the Western Wall and recite the Mourner’s Kaddish for my father.

IMG_9298 Jerusalem arches IMG_9131

It took me a lifetime to realize that my parents had been a by-product of their time – they had suffered so immensely that they had absorbed their oppression and passed it onto others. They made others suffer because that was the only way they could relate, after the pain they had endured. They hurt me because they themselves had been hurt. And then I too, as a child of their hatred, had tried my best to keep that light of hate alive – because I’d never known another way. So many scarred, wounded people have created the world we live in today, where suffering and oppression breeds brutality.

When I was in Israel, a new understanding flooded me – that my story doesn’t end with dissecting my own family’s hatred and buried identity. It doesn’t end with me converting to Judaism. I’m also digging back further into the history of hidden Jews and forced converts in Europe, and the internalization of hatred, the transformation of victim into oppressor. We see this everywhere today – oppressed becomes oppressor, persecuted people turn the brutalization they suffered into outward brutality – from the peasant workers’ 20th century revolutions that turned into communist dictatorships, to the Jewish-Arab conflict in the Middle East.

It’s all a vicious cycle. A cycle where hatred and religion-fueled intolerance supresses the spark of divine essence, the oneness, that connects all beings. A cycle of hate and judgemental intolerance so brutal that it’s pushed me toward feelings of worthlessness and thoughts of suicide for most of my adult life. Until I realized that the future of humankind doesn’t rest with governments and profit-driven policies but within us – that love is stronger than hate. Unity is stronger than division. Kindness reveals much more courage than brutality. That is where everyone’s G-d resides. In deeds of loving kindness. In recognizing our mistakes and showing forgiveness to those who harmed us. And in understanding that our differences are nothing in comparison to the beautiful light that shines within us all.

Elisa TelAviv sunset yad vashem vista

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Posted in anti-semitism, family, hate, identity, jewish, life, news, religion, romania, thoughts | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

Rumania, Rumania…lost like the song

Posted by E on May 21, 2015

field haystacks

I’m writing this post while listening to the old Yiddish song, Rumania Rumania. It’s full of nostalgia for a homeland that has been lost and now forgotten, for its sweet wines, hearty cooks and pretty girls – I’m including a YouTube link to the song at the bottom of this post.

My birthplace. My original homeland. The apex of so much pain, grief and longing. A place that has suffered a thousand years of wars, invasions, pogroms, oppression and terror, and is still in transition. Where it will end up in another century, I have no idea. It is a place I love and hate all at the same time, for so many reasons that are all intertwined so tightly in my heart that I could never fully separate the individual strings and emotions which, like arterial veins, crisscross my connection to this place.

Elisa AteneuElisa haystack Romania2015

Romania is a painfully beautiful, lost country. From the moment you set foot within its borders, everybody from taxi drivers to people sitting on a park bench will tell you about the endemic government corruption, how the rich have ransacked the country and left the poor to despair. But what they don’t tell you, as they cling to the Orthodox religion with hateful fervour, is how religion and xenophobia has poisoned their own hearts.

Bucharest’s Gay Pride parade is on Saturday and already the hate and frenzy has begun online – on several blogs I’ve read people suggesting plans to attack the demonstrators in the name of Jesus and morality. Ever since the Revolution of 1989, the Orthodox Church has been growing in influence and, not coincidentally, so has hostility toward any change in humanitarian rights. Homosexuality has been legalized only since 1996 and to this day (despite having been part of the EU since 2007) Romanian courts still have not granted any form of recognition toward same-sex couples. Forget marriage – they don’t even acknowledge the union between a same-sex couple. Gays can’t adopt. Gays can’t donate blood. For all intents and purposes, gays cannot exist as gay without violent opposition.

I found it telling that, in contrast to North American Pride parades that celebrate fun, diversity and having a great time, the local brochure printed by Accept Romania to describe the march is focused on preventing attacks: after the march, make sure to walk away in pairs. Don’t wear things that can identify you for attack. Meet and leave via the metro, rather than on foot. In Romania, taking part in the Pride Parade is an act of defiance, of insurgency, of rebellion. It is the very definition of courage.

LGBT people here are literally prepared to fight for their rights, to risk being filmed on television and fired the next day, to risk being struck with stones and boots – something that we in the West take for granted. The Stonewall riots of 1969 are hardly on our minds as we walk down the street holding hands with our lovers, shoot our water guns and wear rainbow-coloured necklaces during our Gay Pride weekend street parties. It reminds me of the early days of suffragettes – where women who fought for the right to vote were assaulted on the streets and demonized in the press.

Stonewall-Riots-June-28-1969 

anti-gay protesters romania anti-gay-manifestations-romania

The Romanian public’s rampant hostility and religious fervour, along with the idea that “We’re not the sinful West, we don’t have many of THOSE kinds over here” (actual words I’ve read on a blog today) is partially fed by ignorance. They don’t realize that gay people are everywhere, including in their own families, because most gays and lesbians rightfully fear coming out to their families and coworkers. How can they, when they live in a country where gays are often called “sodomites” by people who also refer to Jews as “jidani” and openly express contempt toward those of a different ethnicity (i.e. the Roma people). People here have been beaten, assaulted, sentenced to prison and murdered for their right to love.

On a personal level, it disturbs me how many of my own relatives are so brainwashed by dogma that there is nothing left between us. It’s disturbing how a cousin told me a long time ago that she’d prefer if one of her sons died than become a “poponar” (a derogatory term for gay males). Why should it matter to someone, who I love and choose to live with? Who I sleep with is none of her business – just as I don’t care whether she still has sex with the ugly, irascible, xenophobic husband of whom she often complained. Why is her opinion, anybody’s opinion in fact, more important and valid than mine – who appointed her judge and executioner? How can love for your own child be overwritten by such deep-seated hatred for homosexuality that you’d rather he or she died than be free to love whoever they want?

It’s disturbing how easily the previously oppressed have become oppressors. It’s a process I am still working on capturing in my new book, a process that was recently featured on Romanian news.

So for the record, for the sake of any relatives or former classmates who stumble onto this page: I am and have ALWAYS been gay. I love my partner deeply and I am also proud of my East European background. I am not sick, nor am I confused. The abuse (from both genders) that I experienced as a child has nothing to do with my sexual orientation as an adult. And I promise you that I’m not the only lesbian you’ve ever met. In fact, there are people in your own family, at work, sitting on the bus next to you, people just like you, who are attracted to the same sex.

In the end, I will ALWAYS side with love over hate. I will ALWAYS choose love and human rights over allegiance to blood and nation. And if you’d rather choose Jesus over accepting me, my life, my Jewish religion and my chosen spouse, then I am sorry for you but don’t need your judgement in my life. I don’t want to lose hope, but feel that it will take several generations to wipe out the hate I’ve witnessed over here.

Posted in hate, history, homosexuality, ignorance, love, news, personal, religion, romania | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Heal your Wound, Transform the World

Posted by E on May 6, 2015

By now it seems that everybody in the world has seen yesterday’s Toronto Star article, which featured me and my journey toward understanding hate and its visceral, personal roots. I’m very grateful that Rachel Mendleson, a journalist at Canada’s largest-circulated newspaper, saw value in what I am trying to accomplish and worked so hard to share it with others.

Metro Toronto Screenshot 2015-05-06 2

The sad and painful truth is this: I have had hundreds of hits on my blog and website yesterday, but not many donations to the book campaign mentioned in the Toronto Star article. Which is the whole crux of the matter – for the last two months I’ve begged, borrowed and bothered people in order to fundraise for a project that I truly believe will make a difference in this world. But, with the exception of a few close, dear friends and a handful of people who believe in me, it’s all gone on deaf ears.

I cannot do this without your help. I’m not just talking money here – although without it, the research involved in this book simply cannot take place. But even dropping a word of encouragement. Sharing the story with others. Telling people on Facebook. Or just believing in me.

Anything at all.

But until now, everybody – yes, even YOU reading this – is probably thinking, Hey, this sounds like a cool project, so SOMEBODY’S going to help out. But the reality is, nobody will. We live in an age of indifference and self-absorption, where a guy on Kickstarter gets $50,000 to buy ingredients for a potato salad, and worthwhile projects and causes are bumped from the limelight in favour of potato-salad-guy or kong-fu-baby. It’s the reality of our time, where the trivial and the insipid have come to dominate social culture as we define it today.

So that somebody you’re thinking might be able to help me, after you leave this blog – well, that’s YOU.

There’s nobody else. If I had a dollar, even five dollars, for everybody who has checked out my blog over the last month but didn’t contribute anything, my book would have been funded by now.

There is just me. And you. And this moment – where you can decide to help me or you can walk away. This is, after all, your choice. But please don’t diminish that choice by assuming that there’s somebody else in line to help me out.

Because there isn’t.

If you DO decide to walk away, I don’t resent you. In fact, I’m kind of wishing I could walk away from it also. But the thing is, I can’t. My entire childhood and my adolescence was filled with hate, abuse and continuous trauma, and I realize today, in my 40th year, that running away from ugliness changes nothing. It’s cosmetic surgery of the heart, but doesn’t repair the wound inside your soul.

My wound goes deeper than my own childhood – it goes into the lives of my parents, and grand-parents, and great-grandparents before them. An epigenetic history of hate, oppression and suppression of the self. I carry in my blood the genetic memory of six hundred years of hatred, pogroms, wars, abuses and oppression. It’s a huge family tree of despair and longing to be remembered. Hence the name of my book.

remember meme

In Remember Your Name, I’m digging back into the personal transformations of innocents into monsters, as well as digging back further into the history of hidden Jews and forced converts (Sephardic conversos) in Europe, and the internalization of hatred and the transformation of victim into oppressor.

We see the consequences of this legacy of hate everywhere today – oppressed becomes oppressor, persecuted people turn the brutalization they suffered into outward brutality – from the peasant workers’ 20th century revolutions that turned into communist dictatorships, to the Jewish-Arab conflict in the Middle East. Whether it means torching a police car or turning around and inflicting violence upon someone else, we as human beings are collective beings – which means that, even at our worst, we cannot constrain our emotions. They will spill out, for good and for bad, and impact the universe around us.

Right before I converted to Judaism in 2013, I had to write an essay for the rabbis at my Beit Din (Rabbinical Council) to explain why I wanted to become a Jew. This is a segment of that essay:

“My father’s denial of his religion and heritage was like an invisible wall that kept me from my past, but with each day and each hour, the wall becomes increasingly transparent. The bricks fall apart and I begin to see a glimpse of something beautiful and mystical on the other side. The shadows of those great-grandparents and the whispers of their lives comes through to me, through me, and out into my very own existence.

I feel terribly sad that I have had thousands of Jewish ancestors from Poland, Russia, Galicia, Ukraine and Romania, whose truth, lives and stories have been wiped off in only two generations. One hundred years is all it took to wipe out my family’s connection to their own lineage and heritage. I look at the world and wonder how many others walk around unaware that the blood of Sephardic conversos or Ashkenazim forced to hide their religion runs through their veins. But I aim to reclaim that heritage.”

By reclaiming this heritage, I reclaim the pain and the beauty of everyone whose blood gave birth to me today. Maybe I’m being idealistic or naïve, but I keep feeling that if I could SOMEHOW depict how pain and oppression, innocence and brutality, are so closely intertwined, then I might be able to show that there is no such thing as black or white in this world.

There is no ME or YOU. There is no Jew, Arab or Christian. We all laugh, we all cry. We all bleed.

We are ONE. Your pain is my pain, and my memories are your memories now.

Within each and every one of us there is the potential to be a victim and a victimizer, a tormentor and a tormented soul. There is love, and there is hate. And it is the uniqueness and beauty of our human experience which allows you to make that choice – the choice to get involved, to show kindness and compassion, or the choice to walk away.

Ultimately, it’s your choice.

Posted in ancestry, canada, commentary, hate, heritage front, history, jewish, journalism, love, media, news, racism, religion, revolution, romania, toronto, writer, writing | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

A year of new beginnings

Posted by E on January 1, 2013

new year

May this year bring all of us the fulfillment of all our dreams and ambitions. I will be mostly absent from this blog over the next little while. I am embarking on both a new manuscript and a new exploration of my family’s past — and these two paths will hopefully interact in some significant, as-of-yet unknown way.

My results from my DNA test at 23andme have returned with a bang — something I have always known within myself, yet never had any confirmation of before now — that I am indeed of a Ashkenazi Jewish background. I have over a hundred cousins with the Cohen surname from the 2nd-3rd cousin level and up. Several other spellings of Cohen, Kohen, Kuhn and Kahan also pop up, as well as similar variations. (Also related to a significant portion of Kaplans, Friedmans and Rosenbergs). Although I’ve always known I was Romanian (born there, after all!) and Hungarian on my father’s side, now I have just discovered that I am of Polish and Russian Jewish backgrounds (with some German thrown in)….as much as 40%.  From the levels of my matches, the Jewish connection comes from BOTH of my parents, which is a shock given how anti-semitic and racist my mother has been throughout her life. But sometimes the strongest persecutors are those who have something to hide. There is also notable Southern European percentage that traces back to the Iberian/Spanish peninsula, and leads me to believe there’s an influx of Shephardic blood in my dna as well.

Like I said, it’s a confirmation of what I’ve always felt — and yet to see this in person, like this, decades after my father’s death, just made me weep. I just found out a couple of days ago….transferred my raw data to FamilyTreeDNA last night, so in another couple of weeks hopefully I will have more family matches. I strongly believe in genetic memory, and after the reaction I experienced in Kracow, Poland 10 years ago, and once again in Budapest and Debrecen, Hungary, it all begins to make sense. The fog is clearing, and it feels surreal to finally catch a glimpse of the truth that lies beyond the window that was obscured to me all of my life.

So the question remains — with nearly all of my 985 relatives on 23andme bearing Jewish surnames, and both the sides of my family descending from a Jewish line, does my heritage reside in my DNA, blood and ancestry, in my dreams and my senses, in my deja vus and my physical appearance, or in what a rabbi declares I am (or I am not)?  The answer, at least to me, is pretty obvious. And such is the way of the future, both for Israel and for the notion of what makes one a Jew.

Posted in ancestry, belonging, history, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

How to Start your own Cult

Posted by E on September 26, 2008

Over the years I’ve met so many people who are gong-ho about spirituality to, in my honest opinion, an unhealthy degree. I have my own beliefs which I keep private, but overall I am and have always stood staunchly against organized religion. If there is one thing I believe, it’s that Christianity, Islam and whatever else are just further along the chronology ladder than Scientology and assorted cults. History alone has given more credibility to so many “conventional” religions that have used force, torture and heretical laws to wipe out millions of opponents.
A war rages today, between conventional religion and those freakish marginal movements that are scattered everywhere and are more common than we would like to think.

Almost anybody can become a cult leader, from an average redneck in a small town to a leader of a national Democratic political party. Cult behaviour does not discriminate. Nor does it need religion to call itself “The One” and demand that we should believe in its transformative powers.

The simple answer is this: Religion is the root of all “evil”. There are many other “truths” out there, but we have to start with this one.

Yes, society needs to be bound by common social rules and regulations, but these need not be backed by threats of supernatural punishment or retribution. Just look at dictatorships throughout history, communist and national socialist alike – they were efficient enough at massacring and persecuting millions without installing fears of eternal damnation. But they too had their party rules, and if you refused to obey, you were labeled an outsider.

You will not discover The Truth in mind-numbing fluff like The Secret, or by getting swept up in Oprah’s latest fetish with The Power of Now groupies, or by tying a red string around your wrist, changing your name to Esther and eating kosher.

Anything that defines reality by a set of rules and regulations is to be avoided. Reality is mutable, is ever-changing, is malleable and up to the interpretation of every individual being.

Anything that dictates in no uncertain terms how you should think, what to say and what to believe is to be questioned and taken at face value. The answers to all questions lie within yourself, and the inner voice that tells you right and wrong. If you have to consult a religious book, a political candidate or ask a guru for the answer, you have already lost yourself.

Posted in culture, election, freedom, politics, propaganda, religion, thoughts | Tagged: , , , , | 7 Comments »

Copyrighting God: celibacy, wealth, and the gluttony of the Catholic Church

Posted by E on March 2, 2008

vatican.jpg 

I’ve had the privilege to visit the Vatican and its sprawling museum twice so far in my life: the first time, as a dusty student backpacker through Europe, sunburned and with skinned knees, accompanied by a girl I met at my cheap hostel – an exotic wavy-haired brunette I found so temptingly attractive that I agreed to have her tag along on my various expeditions through Rome. She wore a long tan sleeveless dress cinched around the waist with a gypsy shawl, and she was awfully bohemian – I’ve always had a soft spot for the artistic, bohemian type, though as much as I would like to pretend, I am far too reserved and self-conscious to carry on the same way. She was in town with a friend from back home, but when she heard that I was going to the Vatican, she insisted that she come with me, and I didn’t have the heart to say no.

We walked through the Vatican together and designated a spot just outside the St. Peter Basilica gates to meet up – then, the immense and unrelenting beauty of the place took over, and before I knew what happened, I had lost her. But I didn’t care anymore. The artist in me was transfixed, enraptured, transformed.

vatican-city2.jpg

The expansive marble corridors and colourful frescos infused my senses with a fierce ache – whenever I see something so beautiful that the act of having been borne of human hands defies logic and reality itself, like when I was in Florence and saw Michelangelo statues half-emerging from their stone prisons, my breath stops suddenly and I feel a deep aching in my chest. That’s what it was like traversing the museum on that day, entering opulent room after room dissected by serpentine corridors of marble and granite.

Wondurous alabaster and granite sculptures by long-forgotten masters sat piled on top of one another, too crammed together to be truly appreciated, in the Animal room, the one I dubbed as the War spoils room – countless works of genius shoved in corners carelessly, too many of them to display carefully anymore.

To see the Catholic Church’s massive, mind-blowing conquest of all the riches of Europe for centuries – the see the magnificent silk tapestries, the gold sculptures, the jewels and alabaster carvings, even the mummies stolen from their Egyptian conquest – just took my breath away. Even the center of the Vatican state is adorned with a sky-piercing column brought back from Egypt by Caesar’s soldiers – a landmark that speaks wordlessly of the countless centuries of conquest, of murder, of barbarism that have stained the threshold of Christianity a deep red.

The second time I returned to Rome was four years later, now a little older and just slightly more sophisticated, accompanied by my partner who had wanted to experience my favourite places in Europe with me. We had just arrived from Paris via Barcelona, and I insisted that we could not leave Rome without a visit to the Vatican. “It is exhausting, I’m warning you,” I instructed her, “and it’s like a labyrinthine maze – unlike any other museum, once you enter, you can’t exit again until you run the entire course – this place is funny that way.”

I’m not sure if she thought I was joking until we were finally in there, and as exhausting as the trek through the museum was, there was no getting a break. Unlike the Louvre or any other museum I’ve ever visited in Europe, here were no places to meditate and quietly reflect. No, the Vatican museum would not permit its visitors to draw their eyes even momentarily away from its displays of luxury. No benches lined any of the corridors – you were forced to walk from one grandiose room to another, your vision exhausted by the gluttony of spoils and the sheer obscenity of riches. And I knew then as surely as anything that no matter how many times I would return to this museum and admire it’s war spoils and magnificent opulence, that at the end of the day I would have the same tacit reaction: a bitter taste in my mouth and a deep revulsion for the Catholic church.

I knew from my passionate readings of European history that so much of the Catholic church’s decisions were based solely on control of the masses and to keep all riches for themselves. Celibacy itself was never a matter of faith but of money. So many would like to advocate that it was based on Christ being celibate. The reality is that this decision was strategic and financially-motivated.

The first pope, St. Peter (after whom the Vatican basilica is named) and countless other clergy were in fact all married men who fathered plenty of children and led fairly normal lives. In the early Middle Ages, however, (11th-12th century) it became clear that priests who led their churches would come into possession of great riches and moneys, that instead of going back into the church upon their deaths, were inherited by their families.

The decision became, then, to ban priests from marrying and pass a rule to keep all the moneys and riches obtained from donations and confiscations (these were times when people were tortured and murdered by the Church, after all) within the Church. Celibacy and the obvious lack of priests’ descendents brought great prosperity to the church, and invigorated its powerful hold over the masses.

Celibacy never had to do with refraining from sex because it was bad or impure – why would God see physical love between people and/or procreation inherently as evil? Doesn’t a passage from the Bible say to be fruitful and procreate? No – this was simply about money.

You might ask why I am revisiting those memories from a few years ago and just writing about it now. The answer is, I haven’t been able to shake the disgusted feeling that has been creeping up over me since I read an article last year about how the Vatican region has decided to copyright all Papal speeches – in effect copyrighting the word of “God”. I have been asking myself since – if the Church believes that a Pope speaks for God itself, and therefore is His/Her voice – so if that voice is now copyrighted, so is God?

According to a Times article from 2006, the Vatican has decided that:

“Publishers will have to negotiate a levy of between 3 per cent and 5 per cent of the cover price of any book or publication “containing the Pope’s words”. Those who infringe the copyright face legal action and a higher levy of 15 per cent.
Officials said that newspapers would be free to publish extracts from papal documents without charge once they were officially released, but only by “prior agreement”.

If the Roman Catholic church believes that the words of the Pope are the very words of God, then they are not claiming to copyright the words of a mere man, but of God Himself. The implication is that by copyrighting what are claimed to be the words of God, the Vatican appears to be claiming that the Pope is God. Otherwise, why do those words need extraordinary protection as afforded by the copyright law?

I suppose these questions are a mute point since the Bible itself is a series of books channeled by various people hundreds of years after a series of supposed events took place – and as such, is marked by the societal, cultural historical filters and norms possessed by those people. How is it different than any other work “channeled” by New Age writers who invoke the spirits of Atlantis and ancient Mayan warriors? All the Bible has had on its side has been two thousand years of bloodshed and powerful forces intent on destroying any opposing or disagreeing factions. That’s one hell of a publicity campaign.

So how does the issue of celibacy tie in with that of copyright? It’s simple. Now that the numbers of seminary students has dropped so drastically because of the celibacy issue and pedophilia scandals that the Catholic Church is on its last legs and depends on foreign converts (Latin Americas, Africa and south Asia, i.e. Philippines being some of the fastest-growing regions for fervent Christianity) – and the number of religious people donating funds is dropping astronomically – they have to ensure that money is still coming in.

So how do they do that? Well, the Church’s best bet for fund-raising is to copyright God – hey, if the Dianetics guys have made millions of dollars from copyrighting and trademarking their products and getting celebrities on their side – why can’t the Vatican?

The spoils will continue, one way or the other.

Posted in art, catholic, christianity, copyright, culture, egypt, gay, museum, news, religion, vatican | 8 Comments »

Reflecting on my visit to Cuba

Posted by E on December 25, 2007

So I’ve been back from Cuba for about two days now, which is just about how long I’ve needed to get over the vacation, sunburn and trauma of leaving the sunshine behind and being air-packed like a Polish sausage into the tiniest airplane seat I’ve ever sat in…and this is coming from me, the queen of budget airlines.

The vacation itself was sunny and lovely, this being my first time visiting Cuba – of course I fell in love with the azure blueness of the Caribbean sea, as much as I fell in hate with the system of unabashed oppression in this country.

People made due, of course. They adapt under any circumstances.

Late at night, hotel staff snuck into the Internet room to check world news and their emails; on a sunset walk on the beach, we came across another employee carefully clipping out articles from an international newspaper some tourist abandoned on the beach. Earlier in the day, we bought bootleg rum from the bar server – who snuck us into the back of the bar and sold us a tall bottle of Havana Club for four pesos.

Everyone tries to make their way through a system that now has decided to attack its own people with its advent of the cuban peso convertible – an odd, makeshift currency that simultaneously attempts to copy the euro, take advantage of tourists, and rip off its own citizens. Nowadays, waiters, bartenders and chambermaids make more in a month, after tips, that doctors, lawyers and government officials do.

It’s sick.

The country is turning topsy-turvy, with the elites being those who work in the tourism trade, and the intellectual professions becoming less paid, and less regarded as something to strive toward. One of our waiters had been a Spanish teacher for seventeen years and confessed that he had always wanted to teach and worked hard to achieve that distinction. However, he chose to don a waiter’s outfit in order to make significantly more money, though the hours are long and he has to commute for many hours while working six days a week.

The ones who suffer the most in Cuba are the people who are not associated with tourism, who do not have access to the new “cuban convertible peso” currency, which is 25 to 1 the rate of the regular people’s peso. Those people see the nike shoes and brand name clothing being purchased by rich Cubans from specialty shops, and are getting angrier.

We took trips into local towns and the poverty is sickening. I predict the Cuban government will fall in the next 2-3 years. Maybe sooner. Who knows if Fidel is even alive? I have my doubts – nobody has seen him since his health problems last year. I don’t believe that the propaganda writings of Che adorning the walls of the sugar and tabacco factories we visited will hold back the masses of dissafected youth who hang out on the streets, find ways to access the outside world through internet and word of mouth, and ache to travel outside their suffocating little island.

I felt like crying, because I knew, I totally knew that if I had been born in Cuba, I too would follow those who desperately do anything to escape – in rafts, in boats, in anything that would get me out. Cuba is such a beautiful country, but if you are trapped, unable to think or travel anywhere, even paradise can become a horrifying place.

I remembered the oppression of growing up in Romania, and how we left just two years before the Revolution. But even in Romania, people could sometimes travel. I cannot fathom a more oppressive government than Cuba – excluding of course the Middle Eastern nations who would rather stone a woman to death than allow her to go to the market by herself, or have a strand of hair show through the burke.

Religion and ideology are the same. The opium of the masses, the poison of free thought, the exile of humanity from this world.

Posted in censorship, commentary, communism, cuba, freedom, life, politics, propaganda, religion, revolution, romania, thoughts, women | 6 Comments »

My Correspondence with a Tibetan Nun

Posted by E on August 8, 2007

tibetan-dolmakp.jpg

In light of the recent arrests by the Chinese authorities of a couple of Canadians who dared unfurl a Free Tibet banner at the Great Wall, I thought I would share the first letter in my ongoing correspondence with a 20-year old Tibetan nun.

I could write several articles on my thoughts about the Chinese government and their treatment of those who dare possess dissenting opinions. But many other bloggers are doing just that. So instead, I will let Dolma’s words describe the peaceful nature of the oppressed Tibetan people.

Dolma (not her real first or last name)  is a Tibetan refugee now living in a Buddhist nunnery in India. I began to sponsor her through a private arrangement where I send a small amount of money over to her twice a year. The yearly $120 covers her basic meals and necessities since she is all alone, her family living back in Tibet.

We write to each other whenever possible. This was her first letter, received at the beginning of this year.

My dear sponsor Elisa,

First of all, I am so thankful to you for accepting me. I am fortunate to get a new sponsor. I received your lovely letter and am so glad to hear about [.I am removing this part since it contains private details about myself.].

Regarding myself, I am Dolma ****, 20 years old. I have 12 family members. My father Lobsang is 45 years old. My mother Narwang is also 45. They are Nomads. I have one elder brother and eight youngers. Five of them are boys, and three girls. My all family are in Tibet. In summer, they live in a tent and in the rest of the years they live in a house. They have animals like – yaks, sheep, and goats.

In Tibet, our town is so beautiful. There are high mountains with beautiful flowers and rivers. The climate is so cold in winter, all the rivers become ice, etc.

How I decided to become a nun is…when I was a child, I listen and learn much on Dharma from our high guru (teachers) and my parents. When I became 15 years old, I thought it’s the best thing to learn and practice religion (Dharma) for whole life, to purify one’s mind and to help others through spirituality. So, I decided to become a nun.

But back in Tibet, we Tibetans have no rights to practice religion because the Chinese have banned everything. So I heard that in India, people can get opportunity to study and practice religion so I thought to escape to India.

I came to India by walk. It took 23 days to cross the high Himalayas mountains and to reach India border. On my way to India I faced much difficulties. Of course, I was afraid because, if once we were caught by the Chinese then they will imprison us for life. We walk whole night and when the sun rise we hide under a small cave waiting for night to fall. We crossed high snow mountain by walk. And most difficult was that after many days, our food which we carried from our home was finished and we have to go without food for many days. And on high rocky mountains sometime we didn’t even get a drop of water.

I came to India in Jan.2006 and first I went to Dharamsala to get blessings of his Holiness the Dalai Lama, and then I came to South India. I am now studying at First Standard, which is called 1st year of Dialectic, and we debate and study on that. Our annual exam is approaching, it is in June. After the Exam I will send you my result sheet. And tell you how it was.

My daily life in India is like: in my nunnery, we nuns study Buddhist philosophy, Tibetan grammar and poetry, Prayer memorization, English. Every day we get up at 5:00 am to attend Morning Prayer Ceremony. Then we go to Philosophy class; after that we play Debate in Debate yard for 2 hours. We eat lunch at 11:00 am. We take nap for 1 hour and after that we go for Tibetan Grammar class, then English class, and we do self-studies.

We take dinner at 5:00 pm, and at 6:30 pm we assemble for Prayers. At 8:30, we again play Debate for 3 hours altogether. Then we go to room, and revise our studies and we go to bed at 12:00. This is my routine.  My hobbies are: feeding animals, reading Tibetan stories.

Lastly, I will cease here with all my love, prayers and best wishes. I pray for your good health, success and happiness. May your heart be filled with all joys, and mind with peace. I’ve enclosed one picture of mine.

Take care and I am thankful for your kind help. Do write me if you get time. And send me your sweet letter. I am so happy to hear from you. Thanking you,

yours sincerely,

Dolma

If Dolma or any of the others would have been caught trying to cross into India on the mountains, they would likely have been shot to death.

On October 20, 2006, news reports out of Khatmandu described a horror scene witnessed by many Western mountain-climbers. Reuters Press wrote: “Foreign climbers described on Tuesday the horror of watching Chinese guards shoot at a group of Tibetans high in the Himalayas, killing at least one of them.

Three climbers from Britain and Australia told Reuters they watched the incident on September 30 in Chinese territory, close to Nangpa La, a mountain pass in the Mount Everest region. At least 10 Tibetan children were also taken into custody by Chinese authorities, one climber said.

‘We felt a bit shocked and upset because we came to climb the mountain and here we are watching people being shot,’ said British climber Steve Lawes, who was at the advance base camp on Cho-Oyu — at 8,201 metres (26,906 feet), the world’s sixth highest mountain. The area is about 20 km (12 miles) west of Mount Everest. There has been no official Chinese comment about the incident.”

The total disregard that the Chinese government has toward human rights within China itself and in Tibet requires condemnation – not an Olympic event and international whitewashing.

Since China began its occupation of Tibet in 1951, over one million Tibetans have been murdered in a genocide that continues to this day. Poisoning of crops and animals in order to drive away farmers, people taken away in the night and made to “disappear”, forced abortions and sterilizations of Tibetan women and gang raping of Tibetan nuns while in police custody, are just some examples of the ongoing crimes against humanity taking place in Tibet to this day.

A small number of Tibetans have been able to escape to India, Nepal and Bhutan, where they are free to observe their culture and practice their religion.

China has begun an aggressive plan to eradicate the remaining vestiges of Tibetan culture by relocating millions of ethnic Chinese into Tibet. The cultural genocide will ensure that within a few generations, the “Tibetan problem” will once and for all be a fleeting memory for the Chinese leadership.

Sadly, the West is helping to finance this genocide. China enjoys a significant trade imbalance in its favour that helps maintain and advance its military infrastructure. Multinational corporations have lobbied hard to prevent the issue of human rights abuses in China and Tibet from being a topic at trade talks. The politicians have obliged by turning a blind eye to the oppression and persecution of the innocent.

The only way that China will be forced to deal with Tibet is if human rights is made an issue at trade talks. It will then be in China’s own interest to deal with Tibet in a humane manner. However, as long as the international community puts profit above human dignity and freedom, the destruction of a vibrant people and their ancient culture will continue.

Posted in activism, buddhism, canada, censorship, charity, china, commentary, culture, freedom, globalization, india, letter, news, politics, press, religion, revolution, tibet | 6 Comments »