I don’t love to speak about politics, but we live here. We eat and breathe politics.
—Dr. Sharif Sharif, archaeologist in Nazareth, Israel
Tattoos and Torah: One Woman’s Journey to the Rabbinate
by Robyn Carolyn Price, USC “Reporting on Israel” Journalism Student
Rabbi Rochelle Kamins has not always felt Jewish enough. No youth group or summer camp. She never did all of the things that young Jewish people were “supposed” to do. But she always wanted to feel like she fit, and that she could belong — tattoos, motorcycles, and all. Relaxed in her office at Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist Congregation in Pacific Palisades where she is the youth activities director, Rabbi Rochelle talks candidly about her non-traditional road to the rabbinate and why she doesn’t plan on conforming anytime soon.
“I think everyone has an image of a rabbi,” says Rabbi Rochelle laughing. “They think old white man with a beard and big hat. Just like when you ask most kids what God looks like, he is still the man on the cloudy throne in the sky.”
Rabbi Rochelle is a bit of an anomaly. Adorned with tattoos, albeit inconspicuously, she drives her Honda CBR F4i motorcycle through Los Angeles traffic en route to perform one of her rabbinic duties. Ordained in 2009 as a Reform rabbi, she has built an image on being different and welcoming people into Judaism that might not fit the mold.
Her goal is to make change in the Jewish community — in the way that Jews look at other Jews. She has a passion that stems from a lifetime of feeling like people were looking at her as if she could not be a part of the community, because she didn’t participate in all of the things that constituted being a “good” Jew. As a rabbi, she aims to help people foster connections within the community while being a reflection of what she believes are different, yet acceptable routes to Judaism.
She tells the story of a couple who asked her to perform their wedding on a Saturday, the day of rest in Judaism where working or getting married is against tradition. The couple grew up Jewish and were interested in maintaining a Jewish household, however were not currently connected to a synagogue. They shared with her horror stories of other rabbis who had refused to perform the ceremony and told the couple that they were not Jewish because of their decision to get married on Shabbat.
“I had a conversation with them and explained the tradition,” recalls Rabbi Rochelle. “The date and the place for their wedding was already set. Is it the worse thing in the world? No. The worst thing in the world would be if the next rabbi said no. And the next rabbi said no, and the next. Then they would be lost. Why would anyone come into a community if they feel like the door keeps getting slammed in their face?”
Raised in San Francisco by her mother, a more traditional Jew from the Bronx, and her father, an L.A. Socialist Jew, Rabbi Rochelle’s experience was anything but traditional. “How the two of them came together and created a rabbi is anyone’s guess,” chuckles Rabbi Rochelle.
Her upbringing, however, cultivated a sensitivity for Jewish people whose lives did not fit perfectly within the boundaries of traditional Jewish practice or thought. “My dad’s parents were basically communists,” says Rabbi Rochelle. “You know L.A. Socialists had meetings in their house. One of my grandparents’ good friends was a lawyer who was defending people at the Supreme Court during the Red Scare and all of that. My dad’s father was very anti-organized religion. He was all about science and reason. My grandfather was like, ‘Oh sure you can have a bar mitzvah, if you believe in that.”
Her father, who is in his sixties, never had a bar mitzvah until she performed it last November. “We had a deal,” says Rabbi Rochelle with a smile. “He said he would have a bar mitzvah when I could be the rabbi. It was pretty cool.”
Her mother shares that her daughter’s decision to become a rabbi came as a huge surprise: “I knew after she went to college that she would do something with kids and Judaism, but had no idea that she would take this route.”
Veering from the beaten path has become one of Rabbi Rochelle’s hallmarks. She successfully petitioned UC San Diego to allow her to create her own undergraduate major in Modern Israeli Society and Israeli Culture. And in rabbinical school she wrote her thesis on the question of tattoos in Judaism, “The Illustrated Jew: A New Jewish Perspective on Tattoos,” hoping to give a reference to people like herself that were trying to find a balance between the secular world and their Judaism.
“I did a ton of research before I got my tattoos,” she says. “And I eventually came to the conclusion that body art did not make God angry with me or make me a bad Jew. I am not a bad person and I live my life with integrity.”
Rabbi Rochelle’s body is adorned with two tattoos, although the second one can hardly be considered a single tattoo. It initially started off as a tattoo on her back that spelled the word “love” in the shape of a heart. It has since morphed into an olive tree, which makes the heart appear more like a carving in the tree. The olive tree has special significance in Judaism.
The word emet, meaning “truth” in Hebrew, is tattooed on her hip and was designed to look like it was written on her body with a black Sharpie. The tattoo’s placement was carefully chosen, as she wanted it to be a bit hidden, just for her, and to serve as a reminder to always walk in truth and integrity.
Walking in truth and integrity for Rabbi Rochelle has not always been an easy road to travel. Adopting the unpopular position that someone’s sexual preference, body art, or piercings has nothing to do with their spirituality has presented its fair share of challenges. She is aware that she might be looked at as a bit of an outsider, and is sometimes referred for jobs that quite possibly nobody else will take. Weddings on a Saturday. An interfaith wedding with a minister. She gets the impression at times that people refer these jobs to her because they think, “Oh, it’s Rochelle, she’ll do anything.” That just because she is open in some ways, that she has no boundaries or rules, that there is no method to her madness.
“So many people go through the motions,” says Rabbi Rochelle. “They go to religious school. They do the things, but there is no real connection. I want people to stay connected and to let people know that even if they feel different, like they don’t fit or they don’t belong, there is still room here. You know, they say that Abraham’s tent was open on all four sides, so that visitors or people coming from any direction — he could greet them. I really think that is what the synagogue should be and that is what a rabbi should be. A rabbi is like Abraham, open on all sides and ready to welcome anyone in when they are ready and from whichever direction they come.”
Robyn Carolyn Price is native of Los Angeles, California. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree from New York University, and studied in Florence, Italy. She is currently a Masters Candidate in the Specialized Journalism Program at the University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communications & Journalism. Her specialization is American politics and its effects on marginalized communities.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Palestinian-Lebanese Daughter Sings Despite Father’s Wishes
by Jon Dillingham, guest contributor
Camellia Abou-Odah was three months old the first time she ever sang: her mother says she belted out an impromptu tune to accompany her father, who casually filled the kitchen with Islamic melodies. Though it was her father’s extraordinary voice that first inspired her to sing, that few minutes in the kitchen was the last time they would ever share a song.
Born and raised in Kansas City to a strict Muslim father from Gaza and a self-described liberal Muslim mother from Lebanon, Camellia has struggled to stay true to traditional values while at the same time nurturing her passion for singing, which her father prohibits.
She’s now in the middle of recording her first songs with Grammy-winning producer/songwriter Danny Sembello, and she smiles confidently as we talk over Thai iced coffee near the University of Southern California in South Central Los Angeles. It’s casual sweatpants and sandals this afternoon, but it’s hard not to notice her boisterous brown curls and big smile when she walks in. She looks like a slender, young, Arab Chaka Khan. The ease and grace with which she speaks betray the fact that the long, arduous road to this point has broken family bonds and challenged her sense of self and identity.
Camellia’s father is often chosen to lead prayers at his local Islamic center in Kansas City thanks to both his piety and mellifluous voice. Her mother, Dr. Basimah Khulusi, says her ex-husband had even entertained notions of becoming a singer himself, before dismissing the idea as “a childish notion.” He came to America from a prominent family in Palestine but was far from a religious fundamentalist, until his daughter was born.
“When I met him, he was different, and then he flipped,” says Camellia’s mother. “He went back to the old traditions that he grew up with. Having a daughter was a driving force because in the Muslim tradition his honor lies in what ends up happening with his daughter.”
A Singing Career in the Making
USC Journalism Students Look at Religion, Ethnicity, and Coexistence in Israel’s Villages, Towns and Cities
by Diane Winston, special contributor
I teach at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Among my course offerings is religion coverage, an increasingly marginalized beat within a progressively problem-ridden industry.
Although religion is a key element in reporting on politics, culture, and society, cash-strapped news outlets are cutting back specialty beats to save money. Even more troublesome, legacy news jobs are fewer than ever, the news hole is shrinking, and the favored style of story telling is sensational, simplistic, and conflict-driven. Nevertheless, my goals remain the same: helping students to write clearly, think critically, and probe religion’s role in social and political trends and events.
For the last two years, I’ve pursued those goals by focusing on the fault-lines in the coverage of global religion. Using the Israel-Palestinian conflict as a starting point, I’ve asked students to find alternative frames for the conflict along with new voices to lift up and unsung stories to tell.
In 2010, students explored the nexus of religion, politics and gender in Israel and the West Bank. In 2011, the class will look at religion, ethnicity, and coexistence In Israel’s Arab villages, mixed towns and Jewish-majority cities. Students report across multimedia platforms with the goal of seeing their work in outlets ranging from the Washington Post to Global Post.
This class’ 13 graduate students represent a cross-section of races, religions, regions, and ethnicities. Some are in their 20s; others in their 30s. Many have traveled widely, but only one has visited Israel. They’re all interested in politics and international relations and see religion as an integral part of coverage.
Diane Winston holds the the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. A national authority on religion and the media, her expertise includes religion, politics, and the news media as well as religion and the entertainment media. A journalist and a scholar, Winston’s current research interests are media coverage of Islam, religion and new media, and the place of religion in American identity. She writes a smart blog called the SCOOP and tweets too.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Hollywood in the Classroom
Nancy Rosenbaum, Associate Producer
Students who enroll in Diane Winston’s “Religion, Media and Hollywood” class at USC get to watch a lot of good TV. Even better, some of the best TV writers and producers in the business visit their classroom to discuss the influences, themes, and ideas undergirding their shows.
Fortunately for the rest of us, many of these guest lectures are videotaped. Take this 2007 talk by Ronald D. Moore, executive producer of the sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica. He spoke to Winston’s students about the religious influences embedded in the original 1978 version of Battlestar Galactica, including Mormon theology, numerology, and the signs of the zodiac. Moore talks about his development of the mythology of the 2004-2009 version of Battlestsar Galactica to reflect modern concerns around religious fundamentalism and a clash of civilizations propelled by different beliefs.
You can also check out other videos from Winston’s class, including House and Nancy Miller, creator and executive producer of Saving Grace. Both of these shows were mentioned in Krista’s conversation with Winston for our upcoming broadcast, “TV and Parables of Our Time.”