Towards a new Tu B’Shvat (a new zine)

Content warnings: Discussions of death, genocide, state violence

The cover of a zine with black text and a drawing of a tree on the cover. The text reads "Towards a New Tu B'Shvat"
The cover of “Towards a New Tu B’Shvat”

I made a short zine exploring new ways to observe Tu B’Shvat, which you can read on my Twitter or grab as a PDF. There are both print and screen-friendly copies of the PDF at that link. Please note that I wrote this recently enough that I have not been able to run it past a sensitivity reader yet — all errors are my own and I fully expect to have a new version in time for Tu B’Shvat 5683.

If you’re interested in reading further on the topics I mention in the zine, here is a list of websites, articles, and videos that I recommend, broken down by topics. The sources I used to create my zine are included here, along with those covering details I couldn’t fit into just eight pages.

​What is Tu B’Shvat? History and origins

New and evolving ways to observe Tu B’shvat

  • Shvat: Moon of Interdependence” (article) — This article from Dori Midnight discusses historical connections to communities of care. It also includes practices for connecting with trees for the month of Shvat and links to a playlist of Tu B’Shvat songs.
  • Tu B’Shvat? Why Not?” (article) — Linda Gritz, from the Boston Workmen’s Circle, documented the process of creating a secular observance of Tu B’Shvat.
  • Tu B’Shevat in the Age of Ecofeminism” (article) — This article includes several ways to observe Tu B’Shevat while considering both climate change and feminism. Writer Steph Black highlights options like a Reverse Tashlich ceremony to clean up rivers.
  • Tu Bi’Shevat” (website) — Ritualwell has an entire section of their website devoted to meditations, liturgy, and other suggestions for observing Tu B’Shvat.

Resources on Indigenous land return

  • Remothering the Land” (video) — Patagonia produced this 10-minute film to discuss the concept of ‘rematriation’ (or ‘remothering’ the land) using sustainable agriculture techniques with William Smith, land steward of the Village of Huchiun, and Nazshonnii Brown-Almaweri, land team member of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust.
  • #LandBack is Climate Justice” (article) — Restoring stolen lands to Indigenous sovereignty counteracts climate change, as documented by the Lakota People’s Law Project.
  • Braiding Sweatgrass (book) — Robin Wall Kimmerer’s collection of essays on Indigenous ecological knowledge provides a foundational guide. At the time of compiling this list, I haven’t finished reading Braiding Sweatgrass but I already find it informative enough to recommend.
  • Landback U (website) — The Landback Movement created a series of courses on land struggles in different locations to build a foundation of knowledge about Indigenous sovereignty. The organization accepts donations to continue their work.
  • Land Reparations and Indigenous Solidarity Toolkit (guide) — This guide from Resource Generation goes through methods for paying land reparations and returning land to tribes.
  • Native Land Digital (website) — You can look up the Indigenous tribes native to specific places on the Native Land Digital map.
  • The Myth of a Wilderness Without Humans” (article) — This piece is actually a chapter from Mark Dowie’s book, Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict Between Global Conservation and Native Peoples, which looks at the harm inflicted on Indigenous people by many conservation efforts to date and showcases the importance for following Indigenous leadership.

Resources on Jewish relationships with Indigenous sovereignty

  • How to Come Correct” (article) — This guide from the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust clarifies how non-Indigenous people can respectfully support Indigenous movements and listen to Indigenous leadership.
  • Jews on Ohlone Land (website) — Jews on Ohlone Land is an organization building Jewish community solidarity on on traditional Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone lands. The organization directly supports the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust.
  • Tu Bishvat: Dish with One Spoon” (article) — Mazon Canada published this article on the Haudenosaunee concept of ‘the Dish with One Spoon,’ a way to discuss the interconnected relationship between humans and land. The article also links to a video where historian Richard Hill covers some aspects of Haudenosaunee culture and history that’s worth watching.
  • Being Jewish and Owning Privilege” (article) — Rabbi Dev Noily writes about balancing their experiences as a white Jew unpacking personal privilege.
  • How Tokenism Affects Jews of Color and 5 Ways Allies Can Interrupt It” (article) — The Jews of Color Initiative works for racial equality in Jewish communities, including for Indigenous Jews. This article is an important reminder to avoid tokenizing Jews of Color in our communities and includes steps we can take.

Resources for planting trees

Resources for working in nature, including agriculture

  • Cultivating Culture 2022 (conference) — This upcoming conference includes sessions on Jewish relationships to agriculture and food. Tickets start at $36.
  • Crops of African Origin of African Diffusion in the Americas” (article) — Michael W. Twitty has long influenced my thoughts on what Jewish food is. He wrote this article to highlight the use of crops native to Africa in American cuisine. Twitty’s book, The Cooking Gene, goes deeper into the creation of Southern food culture, including the impacts of slavery.
  • National River Cleanup Organizer Handbook (guide, PDF) — If you’re interested in organizing a river cleanup in your area, American Rivers provides a step-by-step guide to creating a successful event.

Portland-specific resources

A Hanukkah zine update, in time for Hanukkah

A couple of years ago, I made a collection of zines for Hanukkah as a way to talk about what the holiday commemorates and how it fits into the American winter holiday season. Those zines are available on Gumroad (embedded below the post) as printable files for whatever price you’re able to pay.

Miranda Sullivan, New Voices’ columnist covering Jewish zines, wrote a kind review of my zines: Start Preparing Early for An Anti-Nationalist Hanukkah: A Zine Review. Here’s a snippet from Miranda’s review:

For the most part, Bram presents a collection that prompts the reader to create their own modern commentary rather than presenting a monolithic view of the holiday. After reading these zines, to me it’s clear that Hanukkah is being used by today’s American politicians to punch a hole in their “I’m not discriminatory I have (fill in the blank) friends!” card. It also made me think about the close relationship between Zionist settler-colonialism and the United States’ military industrial complex.

Miranda Sullivan

Having this review in New Voices means a lot to me, because one of the first pieces I ever wrote about my Jewish experiences was for New Voices. The publication is written by college students and way back in the day, when I was still in college, I wrote an article about Jewish life at the University of Tulsa.

That article doesn’t appear on the New Voices website these days (which is for the best; I have both progressed as a writer and in my ability to think critically about religion and education). If you really want to see how much my writing has improved, I suppose you can look at this copy on the Wayback Machine.

Honestly, though, you’d be better off checking out Miranda’s other columns on Jewish zines, especially the review of The Jewish American Princess Zine, which dives deep into the racial politics of the Jewish American Princess stereotype.

The Whys and Hows of “A Haggadah of Our Own”

TL;DR

I’m excited to present A Haggadah of Our Own, along with an accompanying Host’s Guide. I’m making it available to download. You’re welcome to download it for free here. If you’re inclined to support the project monetarily, you can pay whatever you feel comfortable with.

This is the culmination of close to six months of work, including the Kickstarter I ran in December. I’m considering doing another print run in time for Pesach next year (2020), so keep an eye out for that later this year.

For those who are interested, here’s a deep dive into how this Haggadah was developed.

The words "A Haggadah of Our Own" with an illustration of a green olive branch bracketing the words

Choices

The goal of A Haggadah of Our Own is to offer an inclusive Haggadah for as many readers as possible in one volume. Inclusion is a broad term: Within inclusion, we can talk about what can prevent a person from accessing the contents of a Haggadah. We can also talk about whether the story of Pesach is told in words that make a reader feel excluded or disconnected.

I say “as many readers as possible” because different readers have different needs. Throughout the process of developing A Haggadah of Our Own, I had to choose which needs I could meet. This article lays out some of those choices and the context around them, as well as details about the processes I used to make those decisions. This is going to get pretty meta.

This article is also going to cover where I’d like this project to go in the future. A Haggadah of Our Own is not the last Haggadah I expect any of us to buy (though it will last you a while). Some of the approaches in A Haggadah of Our Own are experimental — as results and responses come in, I fully expect to be able to improve on this initial version. In the meanwhile, though, we’ve got a more welcoming Haggadah.

One of those choices was the level of religiosity in this religious text. Rather than perfectly parsing Jewish law, A Haggadah of Our Own focuses on the participation of all attendees. It’s primarily in a vernacular language (English) and offers alternative blessings for Jewish humanists. It’s not the Haggadah for some readers, of course: for some Jews, precise observances of Pesach traditions are a higher priority. The priority here, however, is inclusion. No one should have to prove that they are Jewish enough to participate in Jewish life.

A Haggadah of Our Own includes traditions from all over the world but has a bias towards those from Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities. The availability of Pesach materials from different Jewish communities reflects underlying divides among those communities. Frankly, Ashkenazim have a sort of Jewish cultural hegemony that routinely erases other Jewish identities. I worked to minimize that primacy within this Haggadah but was limited by the resources (especially research materials) I had. Furthermore, I’m Ashkenazi and favored Yiddish over Ladino, along with transliteration that reflects Ashkenazi pronunciation. I can justify that decision by saying that I’m more familiar with Yiddish and could find more editorial support, but I know that it’s a weakness in terms of our inclusivity and an area I want to improve in.

I also chose to include gender-expansive blessings throughout the Haggadah. The decision to do so was one of the hardest decisions I made during the development of this material. There are many different factors at play here:

  • Hebrew is a gendered language, meaning that words are grammatically masculine or feminine. Spanish is another example of a gendered language, which is evolving to provide more options. “Latinx,” for instance, is an alternative to Latino (which is masculine) and Latina (which is feminine).
  • While there are many proposals on how to update Hebrew, there isn’t yet a standard on how to do so. All of the options I reviewed are effectively experimental linguistics.
  • Hebrew’s linguistic history is complicated: By 400 CE Hebrew was only used for communication between Jewish communities and religious purposes. In the 19th century, Zionists revived Hebrew. Modern Hebrew is used in Israel today. Hebrew is the only successfully revived dead language. That means that each update to Hebrew must navigate millennia of history and bias.
  • I received conflicting feedback from sensitivity readers about relative comfort levels with these blessings. It was a crucial reminder that communities aren’t monoliths and required me to make a decision that addressed all of the feedback I received.

The result is that I expect to need to update these blessings in the future. As new approaches to updating gendered languages become available in the future, Jewish communities will develop new norms. In the meanwhile, though, we can’t ignore the discomfort of trans and non-binary attendees. I chose to include gender-expansive blessings after research and feedback, while adding context and linking to criticism within the Host’s Guide.

Lastly, I decided to keep the Haggadah itself as clear as possible, so that it can easily be used and expanded by as many communities as possible. Suggestions for implementation are in the Host’s Guide, because so much of that material is relevant in planning a seder, rather than conducting a seder.

Research

During the research process, I read dozens of Haggadot. I prioritized reading materials created by communities over those prepared by publishing houses because many of the professionally published Haggadot are similar.

I also spent a lot of time Googling the word “haggadah” in combination with different communities, accommodations, and negative experiences. I spent a lot of time looking at bad examples and reading criticism about how to fix those issues. Those updates were low-hanging fruit and I’ve listed the articles and authors in the bibliography below.

As useful as all of those research materials were, though, talking to actual people about their experiences around the seder table was crucial.

When researching and developing appropriate accommodations, I have to give specials thanks to Elea Chang and Melissa Chavez. I’ve worked with them on several projects and I’ve tried to reflect their dedication to accessibility best practices in this Haggadah.

Writing + Editing

Developing A Haggadah of Our Own was more about editing and updating than writing new material. On the other hand, the Host’s Guide is all new writing.

The Kickstarter allowed me to work with amazing editors and sensitivity readers, who really helped me bring this project to a level I couldn’t hope to reach on my own. If you ever get a chance to work with any of these folks, you should grab that opportunity. Check out their projects at the links below

A special thank you to my partner, who has helped at every step of this process, from crafting artisanal HTML to make my EPUBs work properly, copy edited basically everything, and doesn’t get financial compensation. In fact, he backed the Kickstarter, so he kinda paid to get to work on the project… that’s definitely true love.

Design

Because different people need different types of accommodations, I had to decide what needs to prioritize when designing the print and digital book. I knew from the start that I wanted to create a Haggadah that worked with screen readers. I also chose to focus on making the print version of the Haggadah visually acceptable.

The font used in the Haggadah is APHfont, a font developed by the American Printing House for the Blind. The font’s features include:

  • More even spacing between letters.
  • Higher crossbars.
  • No serifs.
  • Wider letters.
  • Heavier letters.
  • Underslung “j” and “q”.
  • Letters more open.
  • Larger punctuation marks.

I went back and forth quite a bit, debating whether to use a font developed for readers with dyslexia, but APHfont offered the best all around accessibility. I would like to offer at least digital copies adjusted to meed different accessibility needs, such as a version optimized with that font developed for readers with dyslexia.

Laying out a Haggadah comes with some special design issues, by the way: the only way I was able to correctly layout Hebrew text (which flows right to left, rather than English’s left to right) was by downloading the Middle Eastern version of Creative Suite. As it turns out, the standard edition doesn’t allow for flowing text right to left.

Hebrew and other non-Latin alphabets also present a challenge when using screen readers. Many screen readers don’t support non-Latin alphabets and those that do have some quirks. VoiceOver on Mac, for instance, does support Hebrew — but that means reading off each individual letter, rather than words. Within the ebook, those screen readers that don’t support Hebrew use transliterations. The pronunciation isn’t ideal, but that’s a future project. VoiceOver presented some other issues, as well, requiring a version of the ebook optimized just for VoiceOver.

I also originally planned to include more design elements. I underestimated the time I’d need to commission and layout art. I hit a point where either I could get art or printed copies and I chose to make sure I could send out printed copies. I hope to create a new version with added art in the near future.

Printing + Shipping

Printing locally is important to me, partially because I can go over and look at proofs. The locality is important because every project faces delays and usually winds up a little tight, so being able to go physically get the books and mail them is nice. Morel Ink, a Portland, Oregon-based printer, printed the Haggadot. In addition to being easy to work with, Morel is a women-owned, union shop that values community. They support local non-profits and community organizations, making me happy to give them money. And a special shout out to Libby at Morel, who made miracles happen.

I also owe special thanks to Audrey Eschright, who let me copy and paste The Recompiler’s shipping process. In case you’re wondering why return labels listed The Recompiler, Audrey printed my paid postage labels. While my printer offered mailing services, packing and shipping the books myself was cheaper. And when I say myself, I need to include my amazing sister who told jokes and put books in envelopes in between work shifts.

Copyright

Copyrighting a Haggadah is kinda silly given that most of the material is sourced from millenia-old stories, especially given the importance Judaism puts on sharing knowledge as widely as possible. But then again, I find a lot of copyright law pretty silly. Both A Haggadah of Our Own and the Host’s Guide are licensed under Creative Commons, allowing anyone to use this material for non-commercial uses without needing to ask first.

I chose a non-commercial license not because I’m against the idea of other people using this material in commercial settings, but because I want to be aware of such projects and can ensure that they have the same sort of ethos.

Money

I’m never going to run a Kickstarter again. I said that after the RCSG Kickstarter campaign, but this time I mean it.

I ran the Kickstarter because paying contributors of all kinds is super important to me. I did wind up with a little extra budget, due to not being able to integrate the art I was hoping for. As a result, I increased pay rates for sensitivity readers and editors. I also have a little money left over (after setting aside money for taxes) which I plan to use as the seed funding for a future edition with more art.

Future

I’d like to do an update for 2020. I’m not sure yet what that means. In particular, I’ll only do another print run with a pre-order sale. I do have some goals:

  • I’d love to be able bring in more people, with more perspectives
  • Make available in more formats. I’m hoping to just keep adding to the versions of this Haggadah that are available, such as a version that better accommodates readers with dyslexia.
  • Bring in Ladino — this is going to require money because I definitely need to bring in a subject matter expert with editorial experience.

Partial Bibliography

Articles

Dunn, Mason. “Four Questions About Trans Rights.” JewishBoston.com.

Gross, Lior. “Nonbinary Hebrew Project.” NonbinaryHebrew.com.

Shalev, Asaf. “When Israel’s Sephardic Black Panthers Used Passover to Decry Racism.” Forward.com.

Takács, Bogi. “Nonbinary Hebrew.” Twitter.com

Twitty, Michael. “I’m Dreaming of an … African American … Passover.” Afroculinaria.com

Ungar, Eli. “My First Racist Haggadah.” Jewschool.com.

Books

Angel, Marc. A Sephardic Passover Haggadah. KTAV Publishing House.

Barenblat, Rachel. The Velveteen Rabbi’s Haggadah for Pesach. VelveteenRabbi.com.

Biber, Benyamin. The Machar Haggadah. Machar.org

Broner, E.M. and Naomi Nimrod. The Women’s Haggadah. Harper San Francisco.

JACS. The Anonymous Haggadah. JB FCS.

Jewdas. The Jewdas Cut and Paste Haggadah. Jewdas.org.

JFREJ. #BLM Haggadah. JFREJ.com.

JFREJ. Juneteenth Haggadah. JFREJ.com.

JFREJ. Mixed Multitudes: Nobody’s Free ‘til Everybody’s Free. JFREJ.com.

Pearce-Glassheim, Elizabeth. Haggadah for Jews and Buddhists. Modern Haggadah Distribution Company.

RTI. The Revenge of Dinah. DePaul University.

T’ruah. The Other Side of the Sea. Truah.org.

Waskow, Arthur. The Freedom Seder. The Shalom Center.

Websites

Haggadot.com

RitualWell: Passover. RitualWell.com.

My Jewish Learning: Passover. MyJewishLearning.com.

Chabad: Passover. Chabad.org.

L’Shanah Tovah!

It’s 5768 now, and I’ve got some questions for all you freelance writers. What days are important enough to shut down the computer?

A lot of people are taking a couple of days off to go to the synagogue, but how many are actually not working at all on those days? And Ramadan falls during this time as well — the holiday practices don’t prohibit work, but Muslims are expected to focus on religion during this period. And with Christmas not so far away, it’s worth talking about for everyone.

In these days of mobile offices and constant work, I don’t feel comfortable taking even a full day away from my computer. At the very least, I’ll log on in the morning before I go to wherever I’m headed or in the evening after I get back. That doesn’t really work with the idea of the Sabbath of any variety, does it?* I haven’t figured out a way to reconcile it, personally. It’s an important issue, too, because there are all those notorious freelancers who tote a laptop along to the beach, family reunions or wherever else they’re headed for vacation. It seems like we’re all courting burnout here. I’d like to argue that we’re not — that we work every day, but for shorter times, and on projects we actual enjoy. But I don’t have much data on it either way.

*There’s an odd corollary to the religious aspect here: what about the appearance of work? I may not work on Shabbat, but I might have queued up an automatic update on my blog. It would appear that I’m still working. I may need a rabbi’s advice on this one, because it’s way out of my religious league.