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Cyclamen for Rosh Ha-Shana October 9, 2016

Posted by Keren Fite in Jewish Holidays, Rosh Ha-Shana.
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The sages of the Mishna and the Talmud said “a sign is an omen”, suggesting there is meaning in signs and symbols. The first meal of the New Year is filled with dishes that express our good wishes for the coming year. We don’t have to settle with food alone, why not add flowers to the Rosh Ha-Shana table? A Cyclamen is a good start.

The name Cyclamen originates in Greek, meaning a circle (probably because of the round shape of the tuber).

The flower grows in harsh conditions, therefore symbolizing perseverance and love. In ancient times it was used to bake wedding cakes, as a symbol of ever-lasting love and fertility. It was also used in love spells.

Prior to modern medicine, the Cyclamen was used as a potion given to women in the birthing chamber, to ensure a fast and safe birth. The belief in the power of the Cyclamen was so fierce, that people believed that a pregnant women who treads on a Cyclamen will suffer premature labor.

From this we can infer that the Cyclamen symbolizes the cycle of life – death – rebirth. The flower was consecrated to the goddess Hecate, the goddess of crossroads, the wise woman who knows the cycle of life, who is familiar with medicinal herbs and poisons.

Gaius Plinius Secundus, also known as Pliny the Elder (22-79 AD), lived in Rome and devoted his life to the study of nature. His book Naturalis Historia is a 37 volume encyclopedia that encompasses all the knowledge of his time. One of the volume, dedicated to botany, says about the Cyclamen:

“It ought to be grown in every house, if it be true that wherever this plant grows no noxious spells can have effect. This plant is also called an amulet”

Shana Tova 2016 ENG-VR

In Jewish tradition the Cyclamen, with its downward facing head, is considered a symbol of modesty. Its modest posture inspired King Solomon’s crown. According to tradition, Man was created in Rosh Ha-Shana, therefore the holiday is a day of inner observation; a day in which we humbly accept who we were in the past year, and bravely aspire to who we can be in the coming year.

Shana Tova!


Modern Day Slavery: Descent Based Slavery in Mauritania March 22, 2015

Posted by Keren Fite in Jewish Holidays, Passover, Slavery.
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An estimated 20% of Mauritania’s 3.4 million people are enslaved for life. In 1981 Mauritania became the last country in the world to abolish slavery. However, the vast Saharan nation didn’t make slavery a crime until 2007. To this day, activists are arrested for fighting the practice. The government denies it exists. Only one slave owner has been successfully prosecuted.

This is Moulkheir Mint Yarba heart wrenching slave narrative:

Moulkheir Mint Yarba returned from a day of tending her master’s goats out on the Sahara Desert to find something unimaginable: Her baby girl, barely old enough to crawl, had been left outdoors to die.

The usually stoic mother — whose jet-black eyes and cardboard hands carry decades of sadness — wept when she saw her child’s lifeless face, eyes open and covered in ants, resting in the orange sands of the Mauritanian desert. The master who raped Moulkheir to produce the child wanted to punish his slave. He told her she would work faster without the child on her back.

Mauritania Slavery Edythe McNamee Trying to pull herself together, Moulkheir asked if she could take a break to give her daughter a proper burial. Her master’s reply: Get back to work. “Her soul is a dog’s soul,” she recalls him saying.

Later that day, at the cemetery, “We dug a shallow grave and buried her in her clothes, without washing her or giving her burial rites.”

“I only had my tears to console me,” she would later tell anti-slavery activists, according to a written testimony. “I cried a lot for my daughter and for the situation I was in. Instead of understanding, they ordered me to shut up. Otherwise, they would make things worse for me — so bad that I wouldn’t be able to endure it.”

Slaves in Mauritania are told that under Islam their paradise is bound to their master and that if they do what the master tells them, they will go to heaven. This is a powerful mechanism of control which teaches those who are enslaved to follow orders and accept their fate or they will be forsaken by God and live outside of Islam. Without access to education or alternative means of living, many believe that it is Allah’s wish for them to be slaves when in reality Islam dictates that a Muslim cannot enslave a fellow Muslim.

Moulkheir Mint Yarba escaped slavery in 2010. She has asked the Mauritanian courts to prosecute her slave masters. “I demand justice,” she says, “justice for my daughter that they killed and justice for all the time they spent beating and abusing me.”

Sources for this post:

Anti-Slavery: Today’s Fight for Tomorrow’s Freedom

Mauritania Slavery’s Last Stronghold, John D. Sutter, CNN

Image photographer: Edythe McNamee

Modern Day Slavery: Bonded Child Labor in India March 22, 2015

Posted by Keren Fite in Jewish Holidays, Passover, Slavery.
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One major difference between slavery in the past and contemporary slavery is the price of slaves. The price of human beings during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was about 40,000 dollars on average. Due to population explosion, the average price of a human being today, around the world, is about 90 dollars.

Silk Industry Child Labor Thanthoni-2 Debt bondage is the use of slavery as a means of repaying debts. In India, harsh poverty drives parents to sell their children into debt bondage. At least 350,000 debt bonded children are working in the Indian silk industry. Mature cocoons are transformed into silk thread through a process of reeling and twisting. Children are cooking cocoons, picking out the dead worms, twisting the filaments into thread, and helping with odd jobs.

Three Indian children tell their slave narratives:

P. Kattaraman‘s parents sent him to work when he was around six years old in exchange for a Rs. 3,000 (U.S.$63) advance to pay for his sister’s marriage. He worked for five or six years at a silk twisting unit: “The conditions of working were very difficult… When we took too long or if the thread broke in the middle, we would get beaten… There was no rest for eating. We ate while working. We paid Rs. 2.50 [U.S.5¢] for a meal from the hotel. This was cut from our wages.”

Yeramma S., eleven years old: Before I came here I went to [a government] school, but after one year I withdrew from school because of a problem–my sister’s illness. After my sister got sick, we took her to the hospital, but the doctor said we had to pay more money, so my parents bonded me for Rs. 1,700 [U.S.$35]. I was seven or eight years old. I did winding [unwinding the cocoons]. I didn’t like to work, but I was forced to by my parents. They said I couldn’t go to school but had to work… At 4:00 a.m. I got up and did silk winding… I only went home once a week. I slept in the factory with two or three other children. We prepared our food there and slept in the space between the machines. The owner provided the rice and cut it from our wages–he would deduct the price. We cooked the rice ourselves. We worked twelve hours a day with one hour for rest. If I made a mistake–if I cut the thread–he would beat me. Sometimes [the owner] used vulgar language. Then he would give me more work.

Silk Industry Child Labor Thanthoni-1 Mayekalai J., ten years old: I worked in the silk unit. I worked with thread and then sometimes cleaning and sweeping. When I first started working, older children were there, and they taught me how to do the work. I started work when I was about seven years old. I got a Rs. 2,000 [U.S.$42] advance–it was less because I had no experience. I didn’t get any wages because I was young. Later my wages went straight to my parents, and I don’t know how much it was. Once a week I got Rs. 10 [U.S.21¢] from my parents for pocket money. I spent it on small balls, snacks–chickpeas and chocolate, sweets… I wanted to play with children, and sometimes I was unhappy. I would see the neighbors’ children going to school, and I would think, “What am I doing here?” Sometimes I thought about running away. Once I escaped from the silk unit and went home. The owner came to my house, and my parents convinced me not to leave again without their permission, so I went back with the owner.

Slave narratives are from: Bonded Labor in the Silk Industry, India

Images by S. Thanthoni, from Frontline: Behind the Bright Silk

This Passover Tell the Story of Modern Day Slavery March 22, 2015

Posted by Keren Fite in Jewish Holidays, Passover, Slavery.
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The estimated number of contemporary slaves is 27 million. During the entire three hundred year history of the transatlantic slave trade, 12.5 million Africans were brought in chains to the new world. This means that there are approximately twice as many slaves today as there were Africans transported across the Atlantic.

The rise in population, combined with harsh poverty, social discrimination, and lack of legal protection lead to the continual exploitation and abuse of modern day slavery. Although slavery is illegal in countries worldwide, the practice of human enslavement endures clandestinely.

This Passover, when you read the Haggadah, tell the story of modern day slaves. You can find three modern day slave narratives in the following three post series.

Modern Day Slavery: Sex Slavery in the Philippines

Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world. At least 20.9 million adults and children are bought and sold worldwide into commercial sexual servitude, forced labor and bonded labor. About 2 million children are exploited every year in the global commercial sex trade. Almost 6 in 10 identified trafficking survivors were trafficked for sexual exploitation. Women and girls make up 98% of sex trafficking victims.

The commercial sex industry includes prostitution, pornography, strip clubs, or other forms of sexual entertainment where money or other items of value are exchanged for a sex act. Sex trafficking – whether within a country or across national borders – violates basic human rights, including the rights to bodily integrity, equality, dignity, health, security, and freedom from violence and torture.

Alma tells her slave narrative:

During the 1980’s, Olongapo City was a thriving U.S. military base. I was a single-mother of two young children struggling to support my family. The clubs were always busy when the military ships came in.

As a child I dreamed of becoming an accountant. When my brother promised to help pay my tuition, I left Manila for Olongapo City where he lived. Once I arrived though, he admitted that he had no intention of helping me attend college. Instead, he hoped I would “strike it lucky” and marry an American serviceman so I could support our family. After a few months there, I grew frustrated by the lack of jobs and finally agreed to waitress near the U.S. Naval Base at Subic Bay. My brother tried to force me to accompany the servicemen when they requested my company, but I refused.

lisa_kristine_sexual_slaves One day, a serviceman offered the manager a “bar-fine” for me. I refused, saying that I was just a waitress. The manager told me that if I didn’t go, I would lose my job. He threatened to withhold my transfer documents, papers releasing me from his employment and allowing me to work elsewhere. I was scared that my children and I would end up homeless and hungry, so I reluctantly agreed. The American wanted to rent a hotel room, but I told him to give me the money he would spend on a room and accompany me home instead.

I sent my children to my parents because I did not want them to see what their mother was doing to make a living. I tried to avoid doing this again, but my daughter fell ill and I needed money for her medical expenses. During my four years at the club, I had about 30 American “boyfriends.”

In the early 1980s, there were no health programs and nobody knew how to use contraceptives. The Amer-Asian child population boomed. I gave birth to my third child knowing he would never meet his father. Around that time, we started hearing about AIDS. The American guys would line up for condoms before disembarking their ships. However, some of them would just blow the condoms into balloons and toss them around. We couldn’t require a customer to use a condom because he would say, “I paid good money” and get his way.

In my country, women are not given equal opportunities for employment or education, their options are limited and they grow desperate. Because women are often viewed as powerless sex objects they are constantly driven into the sex industry. At times, I too believed that I only existed for men’s pleasure.

Alma was released from sex slavery and co-founded Buklod ng Kababaihan in 1987. The organization is dedicated to raising awareness against prostitution, empowering women and children who were victims of prostitution and trafficking. Buklod is a Filipino word meaning a bond which brings people together.

Alma’s Story was taken from Equality Now

Image by Lisa Kristine

Lisa Kristine photographed the women in Kathmandu, Nepal. They work in “cabin restaurants,” euphemism for forced prostitution. Sexual slaves – women, along with young girls and boys, some as young as seven years old – are forced to provide clients with sexual entertainment, while encouraging them to buy more food and alcohol.

Lisa Kristine TED Talk: Bearing Witness to Modern Slavery

To Buy or Not To Buy That Is the Question May 12, 2013

Posted by Keren Fite in Jewish Holidays, Shavuot.
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We had an iron rule that one should never buy anything imported, anything foreign, if it was possible to buy a locally made equivalent. Still, when we went to Mr. Auster’s grocery shop on the corner of Obadiah and Amos streets, we had to choose between kibbutz cheese, made by the Jewish cooperative Tnuva, and Arab cheese: did Arab cheese from the nearby village, Lifta, count as homemade or imported produce? Tricky.

True, the Arab cheese was just a little bit cheaper. But if you bought Arab cheese, weren’t you being a traitor to Zionism? Somewhere, in some kibbutz or moshav, in the Jezreel Valley or the hills of Galilee, an overworked pioneer girl was sitting, with tears in her eyes perhaps, packing this Hebrew cheese for us – how could we turn our backs on her and buy alien cheese? On the other hand, if we boycotted the produce of our Arab neighbors, we would be deepening and perpetuating the hatred between our two peoples. And we would be partly responsible for any blood that was shed, heaven forbid. Surely the humble Arab fellah, a simple, honest tiller of the soil, whose soul was still undefiled by the miasma of town life, was nothing more or less than the dusky brother of the simple, noble-hearted muzhik in the stories of Tolstoy!

Could we be so heartless as to turn our backs on his rustic cheese? Could we be so cruel as to punish him? What for? Because the deceitful British and the corrupt effendis had set him against us? No, this time we would definitely buy the cheese from the Arab village, which incidentally really did taste better than the Tnuva cheese, and cost a little less in the bargain. But still, on the third hand, what if the Arab cheese wasn’t clean? Who knew what the dairies were like there? What if it turned out, too late, that their cheese was full of germs?

Germs were one of our worst nightmares. They were like anti-Semitism: you never actually managed to set your eyes on an antisemite or a germ, but you knew very well they were lying in wait for you on every side, out of sight. Actually, it was not true that none of us had ever set eyes on a germ: I had. I used to stare for a long time very intently at a piece of old cheese, until I suddenly began to see thousands of tiny squirming things. Like gravity in Jerusalem, which was much stronger then than now, the germs too were much bigger and stronger. I saw them.

A little argument used to break out among the customers in Mr. Auster’s grocery shop: to buy or not to buy Arab cheese. On the one hand, “charity begins at home,” so it was our duty to buy Tnuva cheese only; on the other hand, “one law shall there be for you and for the stranger in your midst,” so we would sometimes buy the cheese of our Arab neighbors, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And anyway, imagine the contempt with which Tolstoy would regard anyone who would buy one kind of cheese and not another simply because of a difference in religion, nationality, or race! What of universal values? Humanism? The brotherhood of man? And yet how pathetic, how weak, how petty-minded, to buy Arab cheese simply because it cost a little less, instead of cheese made by the chalutzim, who worked their backs off for our benefit!

Shame! Shame and disgrace! Either way, shame and disgrace!

The whole of life was full of such shame and disgrace.

From: Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness. Translated by Nicholas de Lange

Sometimes, it is quite challenging to do the right thing. Doing right by one, seems to harm the other. In Megillat Ruth, Naomi urges her widowed brides to return to Moab, and not accompany her to what seems like a future of poverty and destitution: “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house… Turn back, my daughters, go your way; for I am too old… it grieveth me much for your sakes, for the hand of the Lord is gone forth against me.” Orpah decides to leave and return to Moab. This seems like the logical thing to do given the circumstances. Yet, Ruth remains with Naomi.

When Ruth seeks out a way to redeem Elimelech’s field, and by doing so secure a dignified future for Naomi and for herself, Boaz approaches the near kinsman only to receive a refusal:

‘What day thou buyest the field of the hand of Naomi–hast thou also bought of Ruth the Moabite, the wife of the dead, to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance?’

And the near kinsman said: ‘I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I mar mine own inheritance; take thou my right of redemption on thee; for I cannot redeem it.’

The near kinsman points out that Ruth might be barren, since in ten years of marriage she has not produced any children. Moreover, as Moabite her children might not be considered Jewish, and he will mar his own inheritance. Again, this seems like the logical choice given the complexity of the circumstances. Yet, Boaz marries Ruth and becomes redeemer.


In the passage from Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness, the intellectuals debate righteous deeds only to end up with shame and disgrace. Over-intellectualizing has a way of sinking us deep in the mire of our thoughts.

Compassion is not the outcome of an intellectual debate of pros and cons, but rather the willingness to open one’s heart towards the other. The characters, who chose the reasonable, conventional path, are the ones who slip out of Megillat Ruth’s narrative. The ones who strive beyond the obvious redeem not only themselves but the nation entire.

Happy Shavuot!

You Shall Tell Your Daughter (2): Charoset March 17, 2013

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Women are obliged to drink four cups and perform all the laws of the Seder because they took part in the miracle and redemption. Moses is ordered “thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob.” Rabbi Tahlifa of Caesarea interprets that Moses is obliged to tell the women first, for “if I do not call upon the women first they will nullify the torah” (Exodus Rabbah)

marc chagall song of songs-iv-1958

There are two interpretations for the custom of eating charoset at the Seder table. Rabbi Yohanan says, in memory of the mortar the Israelite slaves used to paste the bricks. Rabbi Levi says, in memory of the apple. Rashi interprets, “for they gave birth to sons with no pain so the Egyptians will not know them, as it was written ‘under the apple-tree I awakened thee'”

At the Seder table take some charoset and say together:

Why do we eat charoset? Because of women who are redeemed from Egypt today. From now on, in every generation, let every woman see herself as if she was redeemed from Egypt:

“Thou shall tell your daughter,

On that day it is for the sake of this that God did for me when I left Egypt”*

*Adapted from Yalta’s Women Seder

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You Shall Tell Your Daughter (1): Miriam Cup March 17, 2013

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Miriam, Moses’ sister, was a prophet in her own right. According to tradition, she predicted Moses’ birth and his role as redeemer of Israel: "a son you shall have my mother and he will deliver Israel." Miriam led the women’s dance after the miraculous crossing of the Red sea. Thanks to Miriam’s righteousness a wondrous well of living water followed the people of Israel during their forty years of wandering in the desert.

Miriam represents life, renewal and female leadership. In recent years a new tradition evolved: adding Miriam Cup to the Seder table.

How to Create Your Own Miriam Cup

Creating your own Miriam Cup is a wonderful occasion of renewal and creativity.



What you need:

  • Glass wine glasses
  • Glass paint
  • Paint brushes
  • Good will and enthusiasm





While creating your own Miriam Cup tell the stories of Miriam, Yocheved, Pharaoh’s daughter, Shifra and Puah – the women that take part in the Israelites redemption from Egypt.

During the Seder Ritual

Pour fresh waters into Miriam’s Cup and say

זֹאת כּוֹס מִרְיָם, כּוֹס מַיִם חַיִּים, זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם

This is Miriam’s Cup, a cup of living water,
in memory of our redemption from Egypt




Since this is a new tradition there are several options for incorporating Miriam’s Cup in the Seder. Miriam’s Cup can be introduced either in the beginning of the Seder, or after counting the ten plagues, or at the end of the Seder parallel to Elijah’s Cup.


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