ON BEING AN AMERICAN: WHEN HATE SPEECH HITS HOME

As I write this, it is the midterm elections in the United States. Nothing is more American than voting and I see myself as a patriotic American.

I have voted in every election since I turned 18. My first election, soon after my September birthday, was a presidential election. My candidate won and I was filled with a sense of hope for America. Since then, I have voted in every election that I could. Every primary. Every special election. Every regular election. I originally registered as an Independent, but soon changed my party affiliation to Democratic. As a New York City resident, the Democratic primary is often the election. Most years I vote Democratic. Sometimes there are candidates running against each other that I don’t like and I don’t vote for anyone.

As a Jew, I never saw myself in conflict with my being an American. When I was a kid, we used to ponder, “If Israel went to war with the United States, what side would I be on?” We didn’t understand what a ridiculous question this was, but we were kids. I never felt that my Judaism was in conflict with my being an American. (Even though I am a Hawk on Israel, I don’t agree with everything that that the current government does.) And I’ve never personally felt being a Jew in America was dangerous. That was until the election of 2016. That was until ralliers yelled, “Jews will not replace us.” That was until white supremacists marched with torches Charlottesville. That was until a gunman slaughtered 11 Jews on a Fall Shabbat morning in Pittsburgh.

As most of my friends and colleagues know, I am active on Facebook. I am not easy to find as I use a pseudonym. I post about all types of things. After the murders in Pittsburgh, a friend wrote that the President had blood on his hands. Someone asked why and I wrote that the deaths were because of the President’s ugly rhetoric. This person, whom I do not know, responded:

Of all the filthy Judenrat on the planet, you are by far the most evil. How anyone could call you a rabbi is simply sickening. I’d pay to see you fed to the hyenas.

You are why people had [hate] Jews you filthy pig.

There were a few other things and then a picture of a noose. I did not respond and my friend blocked him. Unfortunately, I did not take a screen shot of the post, but I did get one of the private messages he sent me with some of the same content. I’ve reported him and did not respond. I am not worried that this man that I do not know is going to come after me. I do worry that he is spreading hate across social media and causing fear in others. I don’t live in fear from my Judaism. But I do live in fear for where this country is headed.

I know that it has been said a billion times this season, but our only recourse is voting. Voting like our lives depends on it. Voting as if our future depends on it. Voting no matter how much our feet hurt.

Hillel taught “Al tifros min hatzibur, Do not separate yourself from the community” (Pirke Avot 2:5). We are not supposed to stand ideally by as our government moves. We are meant to be part of it.

Rabbi Yitzhak taught that “A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted” (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 55a). We need to be part of the community.

As I was writing this, I took a break to go vote. In the middle of the day, my Greenwich Village polling place had a long line. There are no really contested elections in my district. It would be shocking if the incumbents and Democrats did not win. But like me, my neighbors said, it is our job to stand up and make our views heard in our vote. As Jews were are required to participate in our government. As Americans we are too. Do your job. Vote!

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I’M ANGRY

angry calvin

I’m angry. I am so angry. And I’ve had it.

Shabbat is one of my favorite times of the week. Sometimes, I am teaching or leading some sort of service. Sometimes, as today, I can have a leisurely day. Avoiding the rain in NYC, I was enjoying my favorite kind of Shabbat. Not moving too fast. Drinking coffee. Reading the papers and magazines that built up from the week. And watching my favorite Saturday news shows. The greatest moment of conflict was sparring with my kitties over my bagel and herring.

What I had not planned on doing this morning was texting friends in Pittsburgh to see if they were alive, to see if their families were alive.

It was a great Shabbat morning until I learned that a man walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh with an automatic weapon. And if it ruined my morning, sitting in my pjs in the comfort of my home, I can only imagine what those in the synagogue felt. What could it be like to be chanting the Sh’ma or be hearing Torah when someone storms in with a rifle? What could it be like to celebrate your son’s bris, the ritual circumcision and naming on a Jewish boy on his eighth day of life, and have your joy smashed by the sound of gunfire, fearing he might not live to be nine days old? It is something that I hope we never know.

The President decried the violence and said that it would have been different if the synagogue had an armed guard. He said that the shooting had “little to do” with the gun laws. “If they had protection inside the results would have been far better,” the president said. “Maybe it could have been a very much different situation.” He said that stronger death penalties would stop this. Pennsylvania does have the death penalty and there is a federal death penalty. I guess that was not enough for this shooter.

I’ve notice that our pro-gun politicians never say it is the guns. According to them, it’s not the guns that kill people. It’s not the bullets that are propelled by the guns. It’s either that the shooters are mentally ill, or anti-Semitic or something else. But never the guns. However, if you don’t have an automative weapon, you cannot kill anyone with bullets. Sure, there are other weapons. But there is nothing like an automatic weapon to cause maximum death and mayhem. There is no other purpose.

I know there are those who think that teachers should be armed as a way to counteract the murdering of children in school. Maybe we should arm clergy. Let’s think about how that might work. I can imagine being on the bimah when someone comes in who is disturbed. Do they have a gun? Maybe? Off I go, Rabbi Rambo, protecting my flock. I could pull my weapon out from under my robe and fly off the bimah. Would I get to him before he gets to me? (I say “he” because this kind of violence is usually done by men.) How many people in the congregation would pull out their guns? Would bullets fly in every direction? Would I know who the “good guy with the gun” is? When the smoke cleared, would we still have a minyan?

Or, we can have an alternative reality. If we don’t have guns, no one can kill someone with one.

NO GUNS = NO GUN DEATHS

Our tradition tells us:

Lo yisa goy el goy cherev.

Lo yil’medu od milchamah.

Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.

Neither shall they learn war any more.

Maybe if we stop learning how to shoot guns, people will stop dying. I would love to hear a politician talk about that.

On Shabbat, when we return the Torah to the ark, we sing:

It (Torah) is a Tree of Life to those who hold fast

and all of its supporters are happy.

Today, that happiness was shattered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

 

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Eliza, Coming Out of Mitzrayim

There is nothing like good art. Art that makes you think. Art that has nine lives.

Last week we saw the new production of My Fair Lady at the Lincoln Center Theater, here in NYC. It was wonderful. This story may be on its ninth or tenth life. The musical is based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, which itself is based on the Greek legend. I remember seeing the movie years ago. Rex Harrison’s Henry Higgins seemed like an old man compared to the young and beautiful Eliza Doolittle created by Audrey Hepburn. In the shadow of the MeToo movement, it now seems  downright creepy. This is especially true at the end where the new, refined Eliza returns to Higgins, handing him the slippers that she had once thrown at him.

In this production, Lauren Ambrose’s Eliza is a worthy adversary to Harry Haydon-Patton’s Higgins. For those unfamiliar with the story, it depicts an uneducated flower girl who comes to Professor Higgins, and by extension, his colleague Colonel Pickering, for lessons to learn how to speak properly. She is a girl who lives on the street and pines for a warm room, a place to stay. She wants to change her trajectory in life. Mired in Mitzrayim, she meets Higgins and sees him as her way out. She is willing to do the work to walk through the sea and come out free on the other side.

Mitzrayim, the biblical word for the land of Egypt, literally means “the narrow place.” At our Passover seder, we are told that each one of us should see ourselves as if we each came out of Mitzrayim. As if we each came out of the narrow place.

In today’s life we are all squeezed. While we may not feel as if we are coming out of slavery, or living on the street, many of us can feel as if we are walking through the Sea of Reeds with the water holding up on each side. Work stress. Family stress. Life stress.Will the walls of water fall before we get to the other side? Will we make it to dry land? And when we get there, what will find?

For Eliza, she works hard and transforms herself into a new person. Higgins opens the sea for her and provides her with a path to change her destiny.  She works hard every day, Unfortunately, Higgins himself has no clue that he himself is deep in Mitzrayim. He is so strangled by his own ego, he loses out on the best thing that has ever come his way. His mother, played by the marvelous Diana Rigg, can see what Henry can’t see.  When it comes to the male ego, even his mother can’t help him.

[An aside:I first saw Diana Rigg as Mrs. Peale on the Avengers on tv. She was kicking bad guys before this Eliza was even born. Her bio noted that over her career she’s played both Eliza and Mrs. Higgins. She seems like a woman who knows how to stay out of Mitzrayim.]

As we sit down at our seder tables this coming weekend, many of us will already feel like we have come out of Mitzrayim. For some it has been an exhausting time of kashering kitchens, shopping, cooking, and creating beautiful tables. For others, it has been a time of study or a preparation for seeing ones family.  Whatever your Mitzrayim is, I pray you all emerge with a new found sense of freedom.

Get ready to breathe free!

 

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The Year of Repairing Gail: My Adventures in Healthcare

When I was young, my parents were not big on attending doctors. We went for our annual exams for school, but they didn’t run for every ache and fever. Take an aspirin and go to school was their philosophy. While a little frustrating at times, we all grew up relatively healthy. One brother had his appendix out. The other, his tonsils. I sprained my ankle. Other than that, I don’t remember anything much happening. My parents’ jobs both provided healthcare insurance for the family and what wasn’t covered by one was filled in by the other. (On the other hand, I’ve had lots of dental work, but both of my parents had dental coverage with their employers and I currently have it with my package.)

As an adult, I went for my routine exams. Mostly I go to my doctors for my allergy pill and mammogram prescriptions. My first serious interaction with the health can system was about ten years ago. I did something stupid and cut a tendon in my left middle finger. At that point, St. Vincent’s Hospital still existed. (Now it is condos for the rich.) I walked down the block to the emergency room. They called a surgeon. I needed occupational therapy. I remember that the hospital bill was $50. As it turns out, the surgeon was not on my insurance plan, although I was not told this in advance. I received a $1200 bill which I negotiated down to a tenth of it and wrote a check. The OT was mostly covered by insurance.

About five years ago on the morning of the first seder, I burned my arm significantly. I went to urgent care, paid my copay and was fixed up. I needed a prescription which was a few bucks since I have a good prescription plan. I also needed a lot of bandages and such. They were not covered, but I could afford them. I’m not sure that the urgent care was the best and thankfully, a doctor friend managed my recovery for free and my partner changed my bandages. There is no scar, much to my doctor friend’s amazement.

Recently, I began to feel as if I was falling apart. I went to my doctor around Thanksgiving. I had a bit of spotting which required testing, a visit to my doctor and a specialist, and some minor surgery. My doctor was $20, testing $20, specialist visit $30, hospital expenses $200. We’ll see if there are further doctor bills, Less that $300 seems quite reasonable to deal with a pre-cancerous situation. All is well.

I also had a problem with my back and foot. My doctor sent me for an X-ray ($20) and it was determined that I needed physical therapy ($20 a visit for 16 visits). For my foot I went to a physiatrist ($30) and received instructions for my PT.

At the same time I was also suffering from a stomach problem. My physician had put me on some medicine previously but suggested that I visit an ENT ($30 a visit) who diagnosed me with reflux. Off the medicine and onto an over-the-counter product only available from England. (It’s about the same price as the prescription.) She also had her allergy specialist do a full testing on me ($30).

The good news: six months later I am feeling well, moving faster, and as a result, have even lost a few pounds. But really, the actual good news is that I have health insurance. Good insurance. And that is only because I am married. I do not receive insurance through my employer. (The state of benefits in Jewish education could be an entire series of posts.)

Let’s review, It’s A Wonderful Life-style, what life might have been like without health insurance:

  • I would probably not have had the tendon surgery, which means the tip of that finger would not move and I wouldn’t be able to play guitar for my work or pleasure.
  • I would likely have a big scar on my arm, needing to be extra careful in the sun.
  • I would continue to walk around achy, avoiding stairs.
  • I might have a pre-cancerous condition and be uncomfortable.
  • I would still be consuming Costco-sized bottle Tums.

If you think this is unrealistic, read Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenerich, still the most accessible view of the working poor.

As our nation’s leaders consider cutting our nation’s healthcare, I can’t help thinking how fortunate I am to have not just access to the care, but the ability to use it. Today I heard a GOP lawmaker saying that people who live good lives are healthy and don’t need care. Hmm. I wonder what Ronald Reagan did to deserve Alzheimer’s disease? (I could think of a lot, but I doubt that Republican would agree.) I’ve heard a lot of double-talk about how people will be able to access healthcare. I can reach out and touch a lot of things; that doesn’t mean I can take them all home. Meanwhile insurance companies make record profits. I simply do not understand the concept of making money on our health and well-being. And it is worth noting that any health insurance that I’ve ever had is due to someone being employed fulltime, either a parent, spouse, or me.

I believe that healthcare is a right for all. As an American, I believe this is a fulfillment of what “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” means. As a rabbi, I could probably find several textual references to prove my point, but for now, I just Googled “Jewish texts, health care” and found:

  • Leviticus: Do not put a stumbling block before the blind.
  • Talmud: Save a life and it’s as if you’ve saved the world.
  • Rambam: Healthcare is the first thing that a city has to offer its residents.
  • Shulchan Auruch: One who has medications, and another person is sick and needs them, it is forbidden to raise their prices beyond what is appropriate.

For me, the imperative comes right up front in the Torah. In the creation story we learn that we are created in God’s image. We must treat each other as if each one of us is Godly, a klei kodesh (holy vessel.) That’s the bottom line.

Most times, I might conclude a blog post like this with a prayer ending with the words kein yihi ratzon – may it be God’s will. But in this case, God is only our partner. We are expected to do our part and not just say that we can all access Gan Eden – the Garden of Eden.

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My Grandmother’s Bilkalach

One of my warmest childhood memories is of the time that I spent at my grandmother’s house in The Bronx. On Sundays, after Hebrew school, we gathered with aunts, uncles, and cousins for all sorts of special foods, lively conversation, and a good game of cards. There were a lot of us! But as the youngest of the youngest, my time to shine was on Passover, when from the end of the last bridge table I stood, with all eyes focused on me, to chant the Four Questions in the traditional learnensteiger motif. I also had a seat closest to the kitchen where the real action was. My grandmother’s kosher kitchen was abuzz for days before the seder and I was there to help with chopping of the liver, grinding of the fish for gefilte fish, and the making of my favorite, the bilkalach.

My grandmother’s bilkalach were a Passover version of potato knishes which I have adapted from memory. I have a dairy house, so mine are stuffed with browned onions. My grandmother stuffed hers with chopped liver and other sorts of meat too.

Note: I have never really thought of the proper proportions for this recipe. So feel free to play around with them. There should be twice as many potatoes as onions.

Ingredients
2 lbs white potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 lb yellow onions thinly sliced
4 Tbsp canola oil (or other light oil or margarine/butter)
¼ C matzah meal (more if needed)
3 eggs
ground salt/pepper to taste

1. Prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper or grease of your choice.

2.. Brown sliced onions in 2 Tbsp of oil in large frying pans. Look for carmelization. (You can add a little sugar if you like.) Add more oil if necessary. When cooled, blot extra oil with paper towel.

3. As onions are browning, boil potatoes in large pot until soft.

4. When potatoes are soft (test with fork) drain and return to the pan.

5. Preheat oven to 375 deg.

6. While still warm, mash. Add one at a time: 2 eggs, remaining 2 tbsp of oil, matzah meal, salt & pepper. Mix together.

7. When potatoes/onions are cool enough to touch, wet hands, scoop out some potatoes and shape like a hamburger. Holding it in one had, create a well on top. Place the onions in the well and mold the potatoes to enclose the onions. When your potato-burger is smooth all around, place it on your sheet pan and repeat.

8. Using last egg, mixed with a few drops of water, brush the top of the bilkalach.

9. Cook for about 90 minutes, until tops are golden brown.

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Blogging the Torah: Parashat Chayei Sarah, Matriarchs Galore

 

gilmore-girls-netflixThanksgiving weekend seemed an appropriate time to think about the matriarchs in our lives. First, there were the matriarchs at many of our Thanksgiving tables. At mine their were two, my mother and my brother’s mother-in-law. Then there is Sarah, the matriarch of us all. The Torah portion that bears her name was read in shul the same weekend.. And lastly, there is Emily Gilmore, perhaps the most formidable of them all, and the one who may just have the most surprising journey.

You would have to be living under a rock without wifi to not know that this past week, long-awaited additional episodes of the Gilmore Girls dropped on Netflix. The Gilmore Girls debuted in October of 2000 on the WB and ran for 7 seasons. I was not the right age demographic for the show when it debuted, but I caught up with it a year or so ago, binging my way through. gilmore-girls-mini-series-s650It tells the story of Lorelei Gilmore and her relationship with her daughter Rory whom she gave birth to at 16. Their relationship was closer to that of friends than mother-daughter. The other Gilmore girl is Lorelei’s mother, played by Kelly Bishop. (Fun Fact: I saw Kelly Bishop in the original cast of A Chorus Line way back in 1976. She won a Tony for that role.) In the tv show she is the wealthy, DAR member, bitchy, take-no-prisoners wife of the late Edward Herrmann as imagesRichard Gilmore. In the 7 years of the tv show, she seemed to go through a different maid every episode, negotiated every move at the country club, was constantly angry at her daughter, and only showed a bit of weakness her granddaughter. She was the stereotyped rich Connecticut matriarch.

In the coinciding Torah portion (not that I think the Gilmore Girls team coordinated this in any way, although it would be fun to think they did), the matriarch Sarah dies. More exactly, the portion opens with the line “Now Sara’s life was one hundred years and twenty and seven years, (thus) the years of Sara’s life” (Everett Fox translation.) This is how the week’s reading starts. It seemed like it was just last week, or a least in the previous portion, that she gave birth to Isaac. Her behavior in casting out Hagar is not exemplary and the biggest adventure that she had was playing Abraham’s sister in the presence of the King Abimelech. If she has a journey, we do not hear about it. We can surmise what it might have been like to raise a child after praying for one for so long. We can wonder about the division of weekly parshaot. Why is the opening line not tagged to ending of the previous portion? The main storyline before the break is the Akeda, the binding of Isaac. I’ve heard it suggested that Sarah followed Abraham and Isaac up that mountain and saw the near death of her son. The son that she waited all her life for. Unfortunately the matriarchs are not really fleshed out in the Torah and even the commentaries are lacking. So we are left to wonder about her journey.

images-1Back to our other matriarch. Fast forward nearly ten years to the new episodes of the Gilmore Girls and we find Emily, shaken by the loss of her husband. While the younger Gilmore girls stay pretty much the same, just older, Emily is the one to go through a true transformation. Spoiler alert: Emily sheds her shell that hardened over the years, leaves her cold mansion behind (but not her money), to find herself near the ocean on Nantucket. Along the way, she picks up a new family, her maid and her husband, cousins, children, etc. Emily literally calls BS on the DAR and creates a new world for herself.

Let’s, just for the fun of it, compare Emily Gilmore to Sarah Imanu (Sarah our mother). Perhaps, ironically, the pathway to comparing these matriarchs is through their maids. Sarah was jealous of her maid’s ability to bear Abraham’s child. Once she was able to bear her own, Sarah had no use for Hagar and threw her out. (Worse yet, she had Abraham do it.) At no point did she seem to evolve. Emily, the biggest curmudgeon of all, always concerned with her place in the community, is able to evolve and even become the caretaker to her maid and their family. Perhaps if Sarah had lived in the 21st century she might have been able to evolve too.

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Blogging the Torah: Parashat Vayeira, Ishmael, Isaac, and the Rabbi’s Bathroom

pipes-bursts

A few weeks ago a pipe burst in the ceiling above our tub. The building quickly repaired it and covered it up for a few weeks. When it came time to make sure that the pipe was holding, we decided that this was a good time for the contractor to fix the hole and paint the entire bathroom. So on Tuesday morning, the contractor sent his painters, Ishmael and Isaac. How could it be that on the week that we read Parashat Vayeira in our Torah reading, the week that we read about the birth of Isaac and the banishment of Ishmael (and his mother Hagar), two painters by the same names walk into our apartment? It must have been bashert: meant to be..

This parsha is packed with drama. If it had been written by J.K Rowling, it would be at least two volumes, maybe three. To recap, in the previous parsha, Lech L’Cha, God told Abram that it was finally time to leave his parents’ house. He and Sarai get a name change and start their adventures. Our story opens when Abraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent at the heat of day (really, the heat of day) when three strangers appear from somewhere. Abraham rushes to greet them and tells Sarah to prepare some food. (We will pass by without a spewing of feminist outrage.) It turns out that they are messengers of God and they tell Sarah that she is going to become a mother. The nearly-90-year-old Sarah laughs, probably saying, “What the _____?” I’ll let you fill in the blank.

In Act 2, the men set off to the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah. God shares some news with Abraham that the towns are about to be destroyed because they are doing some terrible stuff. Abraham tries to bargain with God to save the cities: “If I can find 50 decent people in the city, would you save it?” Abraham pleads. Unfortunately he has to plea-bargain down, not even being able to find a minyan of innocent people. It seems that the place was a real cesspool.

Meanwhile, Abraham’s brother-in-law Lot is sitting at the gate of Sodom when two messengers arrive. He brings them home quickly, to get them away from the violence. (But yet, he was sitting outside at the entry way to town?) Soon, the evil townspeople find out that they are there and come for the strangers. In a truly disgusting act, Lot offers his two virgin daughters to the men. Nice, huh? He was ready to give up his daughters in exchange for the strangers. Thankfully, the messengers turn everyone blind so they can’t even find the doorway. The messengers/angels tell Lot to leave town with his family. (Sounds to me like Lot probably belonged with the townspeople.) In the morning, the angels saw Lot and his wife and the two daughters out of town. God destroyed the town with such fury, Lot and his family were told not to look at it. But his wife turned back and turned into a pillar of salt. (When you take a tour near the Dead Sea, the guides will point to a pillar of salt and claim that it is Lot’s wife.) Lot ends up in a cave with his two daughters. Thinking that he is the only man left on earth, they get him drunk and “lay” with him on successive nights. From their children come the Moabites and the Ammonites. Scene closed on Lot and his lot.

Now, back to Abraham. He and Sarah end up meeting the King Abimelech. Abraham tells Abimelech that Sarah is his sister. Abimelech has a dream where God sets him straight and then next day he sends Abraham off with all sorts of goods and riches. Really? And don’t blink! Abimelech will fall for this again soon enough.

And finally, we are at the main event. Abraham is 100 and Sarah 90 when she gives birth to Isaac. Now that she had a son of her own, Sarah casts out her handmaid Hagar and her son Ishmael. Remember, Ishmael is also Abraham’s son. God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah, just one of the many events in his life that will not lead to good father-son bonding. Abraham gives Hagar a bit of water and bread and sends her and Ishmael out to the desert. God has been following them and has sent out another messenger, this time to save Hagar. (The angels are working overtime in this parsha.) God says Ishmael will become a father of a great nation and a well appears before them.

Believe it or not the portion is not over yet. We have the story of the Akeda, the binding of Isaac. That could be a blog post, a novel, and a Ph.D. thesis of its own.

Last week in school, I showed my 5th graders the BimBam.com video of this portion, which focusses on Ishmael and Isaac. After they saw the video and I answered their questions, I asked them, “So why should we care about the Syrian refugees?” We had previously talked about the refugee crisis, the election, and our President-Elect’s desire to ban Muslims from this country. Although it took some pulling and prodding, the students finally realized that if Ishmael and Isaac are really brothers, and they give birth to the Arab and Jewish peoples, then we are all related. Don’t we have a moral obligation to care for our cousins no matter how far back we go?

We live in strange and scary times. I learned a few things this week. It’s a good thing that when the bathroom is out of commission, the YMCA is only two blocks away with its nice showers. Even fifth graders can understand the enormous possible consequences that this election will bring. And if Ishmael and Isaac can spend four days in this rabbi’s tiny bathroom working together (for a while, our handyman Jose was in there too, working on a pipe), there is hope for this world.

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Blogging the Torah: Parashat Noach, From Shelach to Lecha

2016-11-04-09-20-07

This weekend I was in my happy place, singing with 75 of my closest friends at an annual program called Shabbat Shira held in the woods of Wisconsin. Held at the URJ’s camp Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute, this is the kind of magical space everyone should be able to have. A place to recharge. A place to renew old relationships and form new ones. It’s the kind of place where you see someone once a year and it’s as if you have never been apart. We sing, we laugh, we learn, we stretch. It is as judgment-free a space as you can find in these turbulent days before this election.

On Shabbat afternoon, Julie Silver’s workshop on the creative process gave us ways to express our ideas through painting and writing, through prompts and sharing. It was, with a paint brush in my hand that I thought about the morning’s parsha. Shira Kline, our Storytelling Maven for the morning, talked about Noah the man. Drained, ready to leave the ark, he opened the window and sent out a raven, and then a dove, to assess the status of the flood. The Torah repeats the word “vayishlach – and sent.” Sh’lach! He sent a messenger. Sh’lach! He sent a lifeline. Sh’lach! He needed hope that their would be life beyond the smelling ark.

As I sat and looked at my blank piece of paper, first with a paintbrush, and then with a pen in my hand, I couldn’t help thinking how our story moved so fast. Just last week we were reading about the creation of the earth and now this week, God is already talking about destroying it. How is it that we get from Noah to Abraham in just one parsha? Even though “Shlach” and “Lech L’cha” have different roots, the there is an audible connection. We go through the building, the flood, the family separation, and the Tower of Babel which leads to the confusion and more separation. Were Adam and Eve and their lot, and now Noah and his lot just the trial run for the main story to come? And so I painted. And I wrote perhaps the first poem of my adult life.

The Rainbow and Beyond

Sh’lach L’cha

How do we get from Shlach to Lcha?

 

The dove becomes the rainbow.

The rainbow brings confusion.

The confusion brings the journey.

The journey brings the adventure.

The adventure brings

clash,

sacrifice,

acceptance,

family,

separation,

repeat.

 

The journey continues.

Lech L’cha

It seems to me that Noah and Abraham have much in common. They both reach a precipice and have the faith to keep them going. Noah may have built the ark to protect himself and his family, to take cover. But it was through the opening of the window and the “shlach” that he took the leap into the future. He sent himself just as Abraham will in next week’s parsha. “Hineni,” Abraham will say. Here I am.

Today as a nation, we stand on a precipice. The day before the most important election of my lifetime. Whether we like it or not, we must open the window. We must answer the call to keep our country going on the right path. For me the choice is clear. To vote for the candidate that will keep us on the journey to freedom and equality. To vote for the candidate who already has the faith that we are great. To vote for the person who has always said “Hineni.” Here I am. Time and time again. Now it is our turn to open that window. Can we stand with the party of vision and kindness? Or will we succumb to the calls of hatred and bigotry? Hineni. Heed the call!

Thank you Shira Kline for the inspiration.
Thank you Julie Silver for the means to express it.
You are both my inspiration.
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IN MITZRAYIM: ON THE BANKS OF DENIAL

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On the rare occasion that my spouse and I encounter someone who just doesn’t get it, whatever “it” is, we might say to each other, they’re in Mitzrayim, the biblical word for Egypt. We don’t even need to use the punchline, “on the banks of denial,” being punny for the similar sounding “the Nile.” I couldn’t help thinking about this after seeing the wonderful movie Denial, based on Deborah Lipstadt’s libel trial that ensued after the publication of her 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust. It is based on her experience of being sued by David Irving for calling him a Holocaust denier in this book. His belief is that the Holocaust never happened, so how could he deny it. It was clear to us that he lives deep in Mitzrayim! I am old enough to remember the case and cheered when she was found to be exonerated of libel. As her character says in the movie, some things are just true: The earth is round. Elvis is not alive. The Holocaust happened.

imgresWhen Lipstadt wrote the book, when she was sued in 1996, when they went to trial in 2000, and even when they began working on the movie which surely took a few years, she could not have envisioned how relevant its 2016 release would be to today’s election. She could not have envisioned a candidate, a person, like Donald Trump. David Irving and Donald Trump have much in common. They both seem to work in an alternate universe that could be Mitzrayim. They do not seem to accept universal truths. In the movie, David Irving’s character explains away aspects of Auschwitz as not characteristic of a death mill but a cleansing machine. He takes facts and says that the exact opposite is true. In this campaign, I have witnessed Donald Trump do the exact same thing. He will take an aspect of his campaign and say it’s really part of his opponent’s. He is not the hater, she is. He is not the racist, she is. He denies that he is a misogynist, homophobe, racist, etc. He lives in Mitzrayim. He is incapable, at least publicly, of recognizing universal truths of how one should act and speak.

What better day is there to think about truth than on Erev Yom Kippur, the eve of the Day of Atonement. In this week since Rosh HaShannah, the Jewish New Year, we are asked to confront the universal truths of our relationships. Are there wrongs to others that we need to repair? Are there last minute phone calls to make? Are there truths that we need to face, regardless of how uncomfortable or difficult they are? On Yom Kippur, we face God, we face ourselves, and deal with our universal truths as part of a society.

I always notice that as part of our list, we say, “we are xenophobic.” (I think it is that because the first time I noticed the word, I didn’t know what it meant and I had to look it up.) In the English, it is always at the end of this alphabetical list. This list of our collective sins. This list of our collective truths. We personally may not have been xenophobic, but as part of the collective, as part of the world, we have been. How? By not speaking out about xenophobia when we hear it, when we see it, being complicit by saying nothing. Yes, we are responsible for what this world has become and we are responsible for fixing it. Somehow, most of us understand this when it comes to environment or helping the poor. Busee-something-say-something-imaget when it comes to being responsible for the rise of public figures, this is a difficult leap. As one who is rarely at the front of protest lines, I too am complicit. (I am more likely to be angry on social media from the comfort of my home.) But I understand that I am complicit and in my small world I do what I can to change minds. As Hillel said, “If not now, when?”

As John Donne said, “No man is an island.” Let’s be sure that this year, we are not the ones in Mitzrayim. I’m not sure that we will enjoy the banks of denial.

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WHO REALLY MATTERS?

I have a confession. I was one of those people. When I first heard “Black Lives Matter” I thought, what do you mean? All lives matter. Unlike some of our former elected officials, I kept my mouth shut until I was able to process it and figure out what people were saying. People I respected supported the movement, so I thought it must be meaningful. I heard leaders speak on TV and they seemed bright and well-spoken.

And of course, I always thought black lives do matter. My heart would ache every time a news story would pop up about the death of a young, and not so young, black man or woman by the hand of a police officer. With each video that would pop up, I would see a policeman shooting a man in the back, I would see a woman being pulled out of a car by her hair and tossed around –- this I would see more than once. I would hear stories about men being handcuffed in the back of vans, see beautiful faces shot by someone “standing their ground,” and see videos of cops shooting to kill. I would rail on social media about the need for restraint and better training of police.

I am guided by the biblical words, Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof – Justice, justice you will pursue (Deut. 16:20). So it didn’t really matter whether I fully understood words because I believed in the sentiment. I was struggling to think of an analogy. Then I remembered an incident when I felt marginalized. When I felt that my struggles and the struggles of those before me were smoothed over for ease of discussion.

A few years ago I was at services during Hebrew school. The rabbi leading services asked the students to share something about their Pesach seder. One student talked about having an orange on his seder plate. When the rabbi asked what the purpose of the orange was the student said that it was to recognize women. At that point, I thought, NOOOO!!!! It’s not to recognize women. It’s to recognize gay and lesbian Jews who have felt marginalized in our communities. (See below for a more detailed explanation.) I had an email exchange with the rabbi later, explaining the meaning. When he said something like, I’m not sure what I would have said, meaning, how would I have explained that it was for GLBTQ people, as if that was a bad word. I responded, that is our challenge, isn’t it?

I realized that when he agreed that it was for women, he erased the challenges that GLBTQ folks like me have had throughout the generations. And when we say All Lives Matter as a response to Black Lives Matter, we are doing the same to black people. So Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean Blue Lives don’t matter.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I conceived this article before The Movement for Black Lives published their platform. There is much to digest there and to be sure, there is much to grieve. However, I am sorely disappointed that the platform sought to involve the “Palestinian people.” This section which is include below suggested that Israel is complicit in genocide and “Israel is an apartheid state.” I vehemently disagree with these points and find myself conflicted here. I still don’t want to see young black men and women dead. This has not changed. But I am staunch in my support for Israel. This is unwavering. I find anti-Israel sentiment and BDS (boycott, divest, sanctions) movement is becoming a rallying call for growing antisemitism.

Yes, Black Lives Matter. But so to do Jewish Lives Matter.

So, who really matters? We all do.

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Orange on a Seder Plate

Orange: Many families and congregations have begun adding an orange to the Seder plate as a way of acknowledging the role of people who feel marginalized within the Jewish community. Professor Susannah Heschel explains that in the 1980’s, feminists at Oberlin College placed a crust of bread on the Seder plate, saying, “There’s as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate.” Heschel adapted this practice, placing an orange on her family’s seder plate and asking each attendee to take a segment of the orange, make the blessing over fruit, and eat it as a gesture of solidarity with LGBTQ Jews and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community. They spit out the orange seeds, which were said to represent homophobia.

The Movement for Black Lives

The US justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people. The US requires Israel to use 75 percent of all the military aid it receives to buy US-made arms. Consequently, every year billions of dollars are funneled from US taxpayers to hundreds of arms corporations, who then wage lobbying campaigns pushing for even more foreign military aid. The results of this policy are twofold: it not only diverts much needed funding from domestic education and social programs, but it makes US citizens complicit in the abuses committed by the Israeli government. Israel is an apartheid state with over 50 laws on the books that sanction discrimination against the Palestinian people. Palestinian homes and land are routinely bulldozed to make way for illegal Israeli settlements. Israeli soldiers also regularly arrest and detain Palestinians as young as 4 years old without due process. Everyday, Palestinians are forced to walk through military checkpoints along the US-funded apartheid wall.

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