(JTA) — Cantor Philip Sherman’s biggest audience might have been for his role as a judge on the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.” But his most prominent role was as one of New York’s most in-demand mohels, performing, by his own estimate, more than 26,000 circumcisions during his 45-year career.
The tally included the offspring of celebrities; babies born in far-flung countries; and his own sons and grandsons. “My record is 11 in one day – [two pairs] of twins and seven others,” Sherman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2014, in an article naming him one of “America’s Top Mohels.”
That record stood for the rest of his life. Sherman died at 67 Wednesday in New York City. The cause was pancreatic cancer, according to his family; optimistic and determined throughout his yearlong battle, he had announced a six-month sabbatical in June.
“It was always family first” for Sherman, his daughter Nina Sherman Green told JTA, even as he participated in the formative moments of thousands of Jewish families. She recalled the hours he spent teaching her and her two brothers the skills he considered essential: how to read from the Torah, how to root for the New York Giants and, perhaps most of all, how to drive.
The last was in some ways pragmatic: Sherman’s work had him ping ponging across New York City and its suburbs daily, from early in the morning until dusk. (Circumcisions must be performed during the day, according to Jewish law.) There was lots of time to practice, and many places to be.
His children learned to navigate the city’s highways and side streets. He also demanded that they be able to parallel park in 20 seconds. Sometimes, though, their job was to wait in the car and fend off parking enforcement as Sherman raced inside, wearing his signature bow tie, to perform the ceremony that Jewish tradition considers essential to bringing baby boys into a covenant between them and God.
“He would run in, run out because it was important to him to cover as many brisses as he could,” said his son Elan Sherman, who was with him on the record-setting day. “He wanted to leave that mark on the Jewish community, that he was really there as much as he could be for all Jewish babies.”
Green noted that her father would emphasize to parents that they should not be deterred if they or anyone else they knew could not afford his fee.
“He did many on the house, and it was something that he was really grateful that he was able to do,” she said, adding, “Living day to day, knowing that he was doing mitzvot for everybody, that gave him a lot of pride.”
A typical Phil Sherman bris was fast and funny. He was known for adding levity around a procedure that often induces great anxiety. But he was also deeply proud of his part in carrying on a tradition that dates back to the Bible.
“I’m there to fulfill a Torah commandment, to educate, let them know what the significance is, briefly, appropriately, tastefully,” he once told the New York Times about a procedure that would take him between 15 to 20 seconds to perform. (He believed that doctors who work as mohels, increasingly the norm in some Jewish communities, unnecessarily add discomfort for babies and their parents.)
In the same article, Sherman also listed the celebrity offspring for whom he performed the procedure, including the grandchildren of two Israeli prime ministers, the sons of movie stars and other celebrities, including actress Rachel Weisz, and the son of the then-Manhattan borough president, Scott M. Stringer.
Sherman was himself a celebrity of some note. Articles about the modern, pager-carrying mohel appeared in local media by the early 1990s, and the creation in 1997 of his website — emoil.com — occasioned an “Only in New York” brief in the New York Post. (His vanity plate had the URL.) A profile in the New Yorker followed two years after that. That was also the year that he stood alongside Whoopi Goldberg in an ad for a short-lived online currency called Flooz. In 2009, New York Magazine featured him as “the busiest mohel in New York” — complete with a photograph showing him surrounded by 30 babies he’d recently circumcised.
A member of the Screen Actors Guild, Sherman played rabbis in small roles on TV and film and consulted with creators who wanted to get the Jewish details right. In 2011, he was cast in “Our Idiot Brother,” the Paul Rudd vehicle. “I played a mohel, but the scene was cut,” Sherman told JTA. “How ironic.”
He played a character billed as “Aliyah Man” in an episode of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” In “Orange is the New Black,” about a women’s prison, he had a brief scene as a judge presiding over a trial involving one of the prisoners.
“The really amazing thing about that is that it’s a real part in a real show, where I’m not playing a rabbi or cantor or some Jewish guy,” he told JTA at the time.
Sherman grew up in Syracuse, New York, where his family had little money or connection to Jewish practice. Inspired by the religious observance of his grandparents on the Lower East Side, he enrolled in the joint program at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, graduating in 1979 with degrees in music and Bible. While still an undergraduate, he received training and certification as a mohel from the former chief mohel of Jerusalem, the late Rabbi Yosef Hakohen Halperin.
“Cantor Sherman was a beloved friend and colleague,” Cantor Mark Kushner, one of the mohels to whom Sherman directed families during his leave, told JTA on Wednesday. “We trained together in Jerusalem over 45 years ago. We spoke nearly every day. I will miss him dearly.”
Adept in leading prayer according to both the Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions, Sherman also served as cantor at a number of Manhattan synagogues, including Park East Synagogue, Lincoln Square Synagogue and Congregation Shearith Israel-The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, where he worked full time early in his career and returned on a part-time basis more recently.
Sherman boasted about being the only motorcycle-riding rabbi in the actors union, and his love of driving — and steering others on the right path — remained a constant of his life and work.
Even in his final weeks, Green said, Sherman was offering driving pointers on his way to hospital appointments. “He was still directing me,” she said. “He was still being a backseat driver in the front seat, which was his role. He was still navigating … and making sure I knew which lane to be in.”
Sherman is survived by his children; their spouses; and six grandchildren.
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A queer Israeli textile artist’s Lavender Diaspora sukkah explores identity in Brooklyn
The sukkah, created by queer textile artist Hilla Shapira, was unharmed: Its light purple walls were made of ripstop, a lightweight and water-resistant fabric. Its soft and pillowy decorations — which included Jewish symbols like hamsas as well as depictions of the four species — were made of dacron, a durable, polyester batting that held up in the deluge as well.
Shapira said the project — titled Lavender Diaspora — was meant to channel her identities as a queer person who grew up in a religious household in Israel, and also as an immigrant in the United States, where she studied art in Michigan before moving to Brooklyn.
“I try to find parallel relationships between what it is to be queer and Jewish, and to be a person from Israel,” Shapira, 33, told the New York Jewish Week. “It’s especially relevant when we’re talking about Sukkot, which is a holiday that the Jewish people were celebrating in the in-between space, between Egypt and Israel — they were on the way somewhere, but in something that is temporary and stuck in this kind of forever nomadism.”
Speaking at a Shabbat dinner hosted by The Neighborhood: An Urban Center for Jewish Life, the Brooklyn-based organization that commissioned the sukkah, Shapira said she had designed her structure to celebrate communities that find themselves on the outskirts of society.
She was speaking on the first night of Sukkot, the weeklong holiday in which Jews build a temporary structure called a sukkah, meant to commemorate in part the structures that the Israelites lived in as they wandered through the desert from Egypt to Israel. Throughout the holiday, which ends at sundown on Saturday, Jews eat, pray and even sleep in the sukkah.
The Neighborhood has partnered with 12 other Jewish communities and organizations to celebrate and host events in the unique sukkah, including Romemu Brooklyn, Lab/Shul, Jews of Color Initiative and the Prospect Heights Shul.
“We were really excited to think about not just a sukkah as an art object, but really also as a place to bring different communities and groups of people together in this temporary structure,” Rebecca Guber, the founding director of The Neighborhood, told the New York Jewish Week.
“We also thought about what were some different perspectives that we could bring into this stuff,” she added. “We wanted something that brings in young families, that would be comfortable if you’re a more observant Jew and that also feels kind of wild.”
Located in the courtyard of Luria Academy, a Jewish day school in Prospect Heights, students will use the sukkah for their meals and programming during the day. In the evenings and on the weekend, The Neighborhood will use the sukkah for its own programming, which includes the launch of a Sukkot zine in partnership with Ayin Press, a family-friendly music jam, a dance event and more.
As a queer woman who grew up in an Orthodox home in Israel — as well as an immigrant to the United States — Shapira said she’s often searched for a sense of belonging. “The sukkah I tried to create is a space that is offering an alternative, or making a suggestion for a communal space for all the ‘shoulders’ of society,” she said.
Lavender, the color of the walls of the sukkah, is a symbol of LGBTQ resistance and activism. The other half of the title, Diaspora, refers to both the dispersion of the Jewish people as well as the feeling of marginalization experienced by Jews, LBGTQ people and other minorities — the sukkah is meant to be a temporary space that alleviates that feeling.
The Neighborhood is a community hub that primarily partners with other Jewish organizations to create innovative Jewish cultural and spiritual events for Jewish life. The Lavender Diaspora sukkah was funded by UJA-Federation New York. (UJA-Federation is also a funder of 70 Faces Media, the parent company of the New York Jewish Week.)
“What really resonates for us is the way that this sukkah welcomes everyone in — whatever position you feel you occupy in the Jewish community — maybe some people feel like insiders, other feel like outsiders, we really hope this can be a place where many different people can feel welcomed, and that their perspectives and identities are being honored,” Guber said.
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Displaced by ethnic violence, India’s Bnei Menashe Jews construct sukkahs nonetheless
(JTA) — The temporary shelters that Jews erect during the holiday of Sukkot are meant in part to recall a time when Jews had nowhere permanent to live. In Northeast India, that symbolism is heavy with additional meaning this year.
That’s because large numbers of Bnei Menashe, the Jewish community that lives there, have fled their homes in the state of Manipur since ethnic unrest broke out in early May.
According to the Israeli organization Shavei Israel, about 2,000 people from the Jewish community have been displaced. A different nonprofit that works with the community, Degel Menashe, cites a smaller number, 700.
But either way, the community has been ravaged, with three locations that have been home to large numbers of Bnei Menashe decimated in the violence. Synagogues and homes have burned to the ground, and the number of displaced people has only grown with time.
Now, as the conflict enters its sixth month, what many believed would be temporary displacements in the Manipur hills or the neighboring state of Mizoram are becoming permanent.
“Despite these challenging times for the Bnei Menashe and even in the farthest reaches of northeastern India, they have continued to uphold the ancient tradition of building Sukkot in honor of the festival,” said Michael Freund, chairman and founder of Shavei Israel, which helps “lost tribe” communities return to Israel.
Shavei Israel distributed pictures showing members of the community constructing sukkahs out of bamboo. Their efforts come as their own safety in their areas where they live is in question — or already compromised.
“[For] the Bnei Menashe and the rest of the people who have left Imphal, I don’t think there is any chance of them returning back because there is no security,” said Isaac Thangjom, the Israel-based director of Degel Menashe, which assists Bnei Menashe communities in Israel and India, referring to Manipur’s capital city. “If you ask me honestly, the separation is complete.”
The Bnei Menashe identify as descendants of a “lost tribe” group, tracing their origins to the Israelite tribe of Menasseh. In 2005, a chief rabbi of Israel affirmed their identity as a “lost tribe” group with historic Jewish ties, but researchers have not found sufficient evidence to back the claim. Bnei Menashe Jews began immigrating to Israel in the 1990s, and because of their “lost tribe” status, they all undergo formal Orthodox conversions upon arrival. Around 5,000 remain in the states of Manipur and Mizoram today, and about 5,000 have already immigrated to Israel.
Many have struggled to gain entry into Israel over the past two decades, and they are now asking the Jewish state to expedite the immigration process to help them escape the violence.
Israeli authorities have yet to comment publicly about the situation and did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Israel has recently been seeking to advance its relations with India.
Conflict erupted in May when tribal groups in Manipur launched a protest against the ethnic majority Meitei’s demand for Scheduled Tribe status, which is traditionally reserved for minority tribes. The Bnei Menashe Jews belong to the minority Kuki tribe.
The Kukis (about 16% of the population and majority Christian) say the Meiteis (53% and majority Hindu) already have outsized privilege and political representation in Manipur.
According to local reports, unofficial “but very real” borders have been drawn between what have become Kuki and Meitei areas. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been criticized for failing to control the situation. In August, opposition lawmakers called for a no-confidence vote over Modi’s handling of the situation, but it was easily defeated.
Some 190 people have died in the conflict since May, according to local media, including at least one Bnei Menashe community member. Over 60,000 are displaced.
Several other Bnei Menashe Jews are hospitalized with injuries, according to Shavei Israel.
In the face of displacement, the Bnei Menashe Jews have remained religiously observant, even as some fled with nothing more than their prayer books and the clothes on their backs, a Mizoram Jewish community member told JTA in June.
“It was so sudden,” said Ariella Haokip, a Bnei Menashe community member taking shelter in Thingdawl, Mizoram. “Funds were sent to us to buy special items for Rosh Hashanah and now for Sukkot. In spite of our misery, it is comforting to think that we are remembered.”
Some are currently staying at government shelters, others at schools and homes of other community members, or rented homes paid for by nonprofit groups. In Thingdawl, Mizoram, one young member has begun organizing Hebrew classes for displaced members, said Thangjom.
Both Shavei Israel and Degel Menashe have been working since May to provide continued support to the Bnei Menashe Jews through donations of food, mattresses, mosquito nets, infant formula, medicines and other necessities. Both organizations have arranged shelters for displaced families. Additional financial support has poured in from Jewish and Christian organizations in the United States and Israel.
For some, the High Holiday season also represents a new beginning, as Degel Menashe races to construct homes for several Bnei Menashe families. Lalam Hangshing, chairman of the Bnei Menashe Council-India, donated a piece of land of about 200 acres in Churachandpur on which nine homes are being constructed.
“It was hoped that it could be ready by Rosh Hashanah but there were some unforeseen delays and challenges,” said Thangjom. “Each family will be allotted a piece of land to grow or raise something of their choice so that it can be a source of livelihood for them.”
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Alice Shalvi pioneered religious feminism in Israel. Everyone else is still catching up.
(JTA) — I first met Alice Shalvi, the mother of religious feminism in Israel, in the mid-1990s during a meeting of ICAR, the International Coalition of Agunah Rights, a coalition that she founded to advocate for women denied a religious divorce by their husbands. She was in her early 70s at the time, and had been fighting for agunah rights for 20 years.
I was in my mid-20s, and new to the cause. I was there as co-chair of Mavoi Satum, which a group of us founded in 1995. This coalition was meant to be advancing systemic solutions to this awful problem. But, of course, we were stuck. As stuck then as we are now.
At one point in the meeting, Professor Shalvi started to cry. “I am 72 years old. I have been talking about this for so long,” she said, “and nothing is changing.” She was crying because the suffering of women didn’t seem to matter to our people. Then she turned to me and said, “It’s up to you and your generation to fix this.”
At the time, I felt her passing the mantle, and I didn’t want to let her down. But I’m sure I did. At least on this front. On others, too, despite our best efforts.
Shalvi, who died Monday morning in Israel at age 96, fought crucial fights decades before the rest of the world caught up with her, before the religious community had any kind of language for what she was doing, before there was any kind of feminist movement to speak of in Israel.
She pioneered feminist ideas in Israel in the early 1970s when there were only a handful of women doing such work — Marcia Freedman, Naomi Chazan and a few others. And she was the only one coming from the religious world, and able to see the need and potential for change before everyone else.
Starting in 1975, Shalvi began running the Pelech School for Haredi Girls, a religious feminist school, before Orthodox feminism existed as a movement — before Women of the Wall, before women’s tefillah (prayer) groups, years before Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and Kolech, Israel’s Religious Women’s Forum, existed, before anyone even dared to put the words “feminist” and “religious” together in a sentence. Before even the Conservative movement had women rabbis. Everyone else is still catching up.
She also worked in the non-religious arena, creating, in 1984, the first feminist lobby in Israel, the Israel Women’s Network, which still pioneers on many fronts.
She also dared to work on issues of peace, taking positions that were considered pas nisht, or “unsuitable,” in the religious world — and for the most part still are. She dared to see Palestinians, especially Palestinian women, as equal human beings. This was not a position that religious Israelis, or Israelis in general, were comfortable with. It’s still an uphill battle. She spoke and acted from a place of humanity first.
And she could remarkably work on a multitude of fronts, all at once, including education, academia, advocacy, politics and peace.
Alice Hildegard Shalvi was born in Essen, Germany, on Oct. 16, 1926. She, her mother and brother joined their father in London in 1934, and she later earned degrees in literature and social work. She immigrated to Israel in 1949, taught at Hebrew University and led efforts to create an English department at Ben-Gurion University. Denied the deanship because she was a woman, she mobilized female faculty members in protest.
Professor Shalvi was my formal mentor when I was on the Jerusalem Fellows, a program in Jewish education. We would meet regularly and talk about feminism, politics, religion and Israel. It was a privilege to spend those hours in one-on-one conversations. Prof. Shalvi always talked to me with complete honesty, passion and belief in what she was working for. She entrusted me with her vision, and made me feel like she believed that I would hold it for her and continue to birth it in the world.
By the time changes started to take place in Orthodoxy for women — evidenced by Shira Hadasha, a Jerusalem congregation dedicated to halachah (Jewish law) and feminism, and Orthodox women in clergy roles — she had already moved on to the Conservative movement, serving as rector of what is now the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, a graduate school and seminary associated with the movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. She needed to go where her vision was valued and welcomed and celebrated, instead of where everything was a fight. She was highly criticized for that decision and was treated by some as a sort of traitor to the Orthodox feminist cause. But she deserved to be in a place that supported her and brought her comfort and respect, and she had earned that right.
She offered words of support for me when I took a similar leap and enrolled in Reform rabbinical school. Even though I am no longer in rabbinical school and do not associate with the Reform movement in any meaningful way, I do not regret the decision to step away from an Orthodox version of feminism and try on other hats. She inspired me and so many others to take leaps, be courageous, live from the heart and ignore the haters.
I am so glad that she found her well-deserved place in the world, and that she received many well-deserved honors and accolades along the way, including, in 1991, the Ministry of Education’s Education Prize in 1991 for teaching Talmud to girls and insisting that Pelech alumnae serve in either the IDF or the National Service. In 2007, she won the Israel Prize for her life’s work, and in 2019 a National Jewish Book Award for her memoir, “Never a Native.”
She left an incredible legacy of activism that has birthed generations of change agents in Israel.
I have often thought over the years that I wanted to be Alice Shalvi when I grew up. I loved her unstoppable courage, her ability to wear many hats, her resilience in standing up to the haters and naysayers, and her constant belief that she could make a difference. I’ve tried to follow that kind of path, though I have not had nearly the kind of strength and fortitude — and successes — that she had. But her personality and vision continue to have a permanent resting place in my heart. And I will continue to endeavor to carry her torch in this world.
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