FROM COUSCOUS TO KASHA: Reporting From the Field of Jewish Community Work

FROM COUSCOUS TO KASHA: Reporting From the Field of Jewish Community Work
    Price: $20.00

    FROM COUSCOUS TO KASHA: Reporting From the Field of Jewish Community Work

    by Seymour Epstein (Epi)

    Hardcover, 171 pages, with 21 b/w photos 
    Urim Publications, 2009
    ISBN: 978-965-524-017-7

    From Couscous to Kasha is a memoir by Dr. Seymour Epstein (Epi), who, during his eighteen years of service in the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (Joint), worked with Jewish communities all over the world. After his service as a pedagogic consultant for the Joint in Morocco and serving for three years as a regional director in Paris, he went on to work in the former Soviet Union as the Iron Curtain began to lift. He eventually ended his career at the Joint as its world director of Jewish education and a country director for the various time zones of Siberia.

    This humorous and often moving account of Epi's international adventures deals with the role of community in late-twentiethcentury Jewish life. It explores the disintegration of North Africa's rich Jewish past alongside the spontaneous development of new Jewish communities in Russia. These stories contain profound lessons that, it is hoped, can be applied to Jewish community life worldwide.

    About the Author:
    Dr. Seymour Epstein (b. January 3, 1946, Toronto, Canada) has been active in every aspect of Jewish education, formal and informal, for more than thirty-five years. He worked at United Synagogue Day School in Toronto, helping to found an experimental high school there in 1971. From 1973 to 1978 he was an assistant professor at McGill University, where he directed the Jewish Teacher Training Program of Montreal. He also directed Camp Ramah in Canada for three summers.

    In 1981, Dr. Epstein moved to Morocco in order to become the educational consultant for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Casablanca. Since then, he has been involved in JDC work in Morocco, Western Europe, and the former Soviet Union. He served as the JDC's Director of Jewish Education and was responsible for community development in Siberia, Russia. Having returned to Toronto, Dr. Epstein serves as the senior vice president of the UJA Federation Centre for Enhancement of Jewish Education.

    He and his wife, Cheryl, have two children, Yoni and Sarit.

    Praise for From Couscous to Kasha:
    "Dr. Seymour Epstein has created (perhaps against his will) a club of "Epi fans," and as a member of this club I should not write about this book. If allowed by the rules of the club, I would say that even though I found the discussion of many subjects instructive, still, the stories and anecdotes are not only more memorable, but also far more important. The advice and predictions may prove right or wrong, but the memories always sound right, true and illuminating... worthwhile reading."
    - Rabbi Adin Even Israel Steinsaltz

    "Seymour Epstein's good fortune placed him in the midst of an era of historical change: the fall of the Soviet Union and, in its wake, the dawn of a new era for Jews and Jewish life. Stationed first in Casablanca, Morocco, Epstein fell in love with this Jewish community, its warm hospitality and biblical traditions. When the Iron Curtain collapsed, he was assigned to a new challenge: helping the "Jews of Silence" to transform into a vibrant Jewish community. In his travels across the USSR from the Baltics to Siberia on behalf of the Joint Distribution Committee, Seymour Epstein took part in a Jewish awakening of colossal dimensions.
    Twenty years later, he provides us with a fascinating narrative. A talented writer, he blends personal memoirs, historical anecdotes and sober insight into that historical period.
    Exciting and inspiring."
    - Ralph Goldman, Honorary Executive Vice President, Joint Distribution Committee

    "Seymour Epstein's From Couscous to Kasha is a touching memoir recounting his 18 years of experience as an American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) professional serving in Morocco, Paris, and the former Soviet Union (FSU). Epstein utilizes a combination of vivid storytelling and detailed analysis to present a book that is at times emotional and personal, while at other times critical and policy-oriented.

    Throughout the memoir, Epstein harnesses his expansive Jewish knowledge base by interspersing references to Jewish texts and Jewish history that relate to his experiences in the field. Epstein successfully conveys many of the philosophical challenges confronted by the JDC, and as a Jewish educator and educational consultant in the field, he devotes much of the memoir to discussing Jewish education as it plays itself out in different regions around the world.

    As the book's title hints at, From Couscous to Kasha focuses on Epstein's two most formative JDC placements: Morocco and the FSU. While he served first in Morocco and later in the FSU, he does not write about his experiences linearly. Instead, hew weaves together his experiences, frequently comparing and contrasting the two communities.

    Epstein served as a Jewish educator in Morocco at a time when the community was struggling to maintain Jewish life in the wake of mass Jewish emigration beginning in 1948. In contrast, he worked in the FSU during a time when the Jewish communities there were just beginning their process of revival and renewal during perestroika and glasnost.

    Juxtaposing these two regions, he describes Morocco as "an ancient, once-great, disintegrating community," while characterizing the FSU as "a lost community that was soon to rediscover itself." Further highlighting the sharp contrast between these communities, Epstein includes memos he wrote while in service, as well as an article he published in 1993 comparing Jewish Education in both regions.

    Given my personal background as a Russian immigrant, and my current position as a year-long JDC Jewish Service Corps volunteer stationed with my husband in Odessa, Ukraine, I was keenly interested in Epstein's experiences in the FSU, and his commentary on the JDC's role in this region.

    Epstein includes JDC internal memos as they were originally written, giving unique insight into thinking at the time of his service. He notes in a 1989 memo about the FSU that, "ironically, freedom may dampen motivation and the ability to learn."

    Epstein's prediction, to some extent, rings true here in Odessa. I teach children who were born during the post-Communist era, a period in which opportunities for Jewish education abound. For this generation of youngsters, the novelty of freedom and unfettered access to Jewish education has worn off, and the numbers of engaged Jews seems to have reached a plateau.

    Moreover, as a refusenik myself, I was in shock when I discovered that some young adults here-born during Communism-did not know the word refusenik, nor were they aware of world Jewry's fight to free Soviet Jews. For this generation, the opportunity to engage in Jewish life was never in doubt.

    Epstein accurately suspected that freedom would cause a loss of mystique surrounding Jewish learning, and a decline in passion and motivation. Though many in the FSU are still eager to learn about Judaism, the nature of that interest has certainly transformed over the past two decades.

    Epstein's genuine reflection and self-criticism is refreshing, and his honesty about the JDC's mistakes gives the memoir credibility. In the JDC's early years of involvement in the FSU, it had many difficult decisions to make-decisions that often needed to be made in the dark. Epstein includes a memo he wrote in 1989 exposing JDC's mistakes in the early years of its work in the FSU. As Epstein notes, the mistakes were largely a result of a discrepancy between the vision that JDC had for educational goals and the "post- Communist realities which followed."

    In From Couscous to Kasha Epstein raises the sensitive issue of the JDC as a powerful, foreign organization that must be extremely cautious as it navigates its relationships with local communities. Also, models and structures that are common and accepted in America may not always work in foreign countries.

    As Epstein points out, implementing American ideas may even be counterproductive. Epstein describes a situation in which adopting an American pay scale model to Moroccan Jewish schools in order to increase teacher salaries simply would not work given the drastically different contexts.

    Likewise in my work in Ukraine this year, I have come across similar scenarios emphasizing the importance of cultural context. For example, while the concept of volunteerism is ingrained in American Jewish children from a young age, in the FSU volunteerism is a foreign concept that must be taught and developed. A volunteer-based program such as visiting the elderly-widespread in American Jewish communities-would be a monumental achievement in the FSU.

    Epstein really brings the book to life with a number of poignant anecdotes. He describes his sense of helplessness following a visit to an elderly Siberian woman who was caring for her nine-year old epileptic grandchild-a youngster Epstein describes as "far more ill than he needed to be."

    In Casablanca, Morocco, Epstein was expected to participate in a Jewish mourning and burial ceremony in which the family and friends of the deceased wrap the body in shrouds. Realizing that refusing to participate would have been an affront to the whole community, he began wrapping the deceased's arm in shrouds-albeit not without difficulty. Epstein's experience at that funeral aptly illustrates his years with the JDC: encounter unfamiliar situation, tackle it with aplomb, and reflect on said experience. Certainly, those who care about the future of global Jewry could stand to benefit from internalizing Epstein's successful recipe.

    NOTE: The views expressed here are my own and are not meant to reflect the opinions or positions of the JDC."   
    - Dina Adelsky, Mifgashim Newsletter

    "This is a moving memoir by a veteran representative of the Joint Distribution Committee. It is an intimate record, told with humor and sensitivity, of adventure and exploration by an energetic, talented, creative, and committed Jewish educator who was assigned to assist the Jewish communities in Morocco, France, and the former Soviet Union.

    The author, known as Epi to his friends, describes the declining but proud and ancient Moroccan Jewish community. With the fall of communism, he assisted in the rebirth and growth of the Jewish communities scattered across eleven time zones of the vast former Soviet Union. He movingly recounts sparks of life and hope and a thirst for knowledge among Jews working together to build viable communal institutions and organizations. The JDC and its representatives sought to provide material aid and promote self-respect and local leadership without being overbearing, know-it-all foreigners. Epi also remarks on the differences between how secular Israeli and how Diaspora Jewish fieldworkers understood the new world of former Soviet Jewry.

    This is a book that should be read by all who marvel at the stubborn survival of isolated ancient Jewish communities and the rebirth of Jewish life after communist suppression, and by those interested in conscientious, effective foreign aid that does not suffocate or disrespect communities in need. Glossary, photographs." 
    - Robert Moses Shapiro, Jewish Book World

    "Dr. Seymour Epstein worked with Jewish communities all over the world during an eighteen-year career with the American Joint Distribution Committee. As an educational consultant he helped communities in many countries set up schools and learning programs. His memoirs provide a glimpse of his work as well as a view of Jewish life in contrasting regions. Morocco has a thriving Jewish community with deep roots, but the majority of its members made aliyah, while Jews in the countries of the former Soviet Union have been deprived of the opportunity to learn anything about their religion. Dr. Epstein spent time learning about local cultures so that he could work with community teachers to create programs that were effective. Whether working to discourage corporal punishment, establishing teacher training institutes in the former Soviet Union, or trying to find a way to encourage more student engagement, Dr. Epstein is respectful, creative, and delighted with his work. Students of education as well as those interested in Jewish cultures will enjoy reading this book. It is appropriate for academic and synagogue library collections." 
    - Barbara M. Bibel, Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) Newsletter