Na’aseh v’nishma: We will do and we will get it!

We have spent half the year with dysfunctional families, tyrannical rulers, great escapes, and dramatic treks through the wilderness. We have learned lessons from tales of sibling rivalry, marital relationships, and conversations with talking animals. Genesis and the first part of Exodus provide no end of learning opportunities.

This week, v’ayleh hamishpatim: These are the rules. Admittedly, some of the verses we read in Mishpatim are challenging. And yet, many resonate and inspire us, offering opportunities to expand our sense of justice and responsibility for the world we live in.

Some examples?

We are responsible. If someone owns an animal who is known to be violent, for example, and the animal kills someone, the owner must make restitution. Where I live, stories of children and adults who are mauled to death by dogs are not so rare as I would wish. Our ancient forbears knew about the problems that afflict human society – and they weren’t so very different from those that afflict us today. How do we make sure animals are protected and safe? How do we make sure humans are, too?

We are responsible. Do not carry false rumors. Our Torah not only warns us against uttering sheker, falsehoods and lies, but also lashon hara, slander. Say negative things about someone to those who have no practical reason to know of a person’s weakness, and you violate Torah. Even r’khilut, truths about a person that are not defamatory but communicated for no good reason constitute gossip. So much communication that goes wrong can go right when we are mindful, careful, open and generous. Why not try to be all those things?

We are responsible. For widows. For orphans. For the poor.  These laws remind us that justice must be meted out equally to poor and rich alike, that we are obligated to care for those in need – weren’t we once slaves in Egypt, Torah asks? “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 23: 9).

If we fear the homeless instead of housing them, if we ignore the growing disparity between poor and rich, if we ourselves never imagine what it is to lose our jobs and our sense of worth, to be desperate, to go hungry, then we can hardly understand what we need to do to build a just society. It’s not that hard to ignore real pain and feed apathy, self-indulgence, and disinterest.

When given the chance to take on the law – before they knew every last requirement, every last mitzvot, the Israelites all answered, the Torah says, with one voice: “We will do!” (Ex. 24.7).

Na’aseh v’nishma.

“We will do,” they said. “We will do and then hear, then understand.”

It is in the doing that we understand how to become the holy people God longs for. By noticing in our conversations when we can redirect complaints and concerns so that those who are hurt can benefit from an opportunity to understand – directly – when and why something has gone wrong, from making sure that all we do and all we own – from cars to dogs – are held and used responsibly, by doing the tikkun olam projects waiting for our active affirmation, by saying “we will do” each morning when we wake up and act upon our commitment each day – this is what will lead to our learning to be the kind of people that is, in fact, a holy one.

When our works exceed our wisdom, our wisdom endures.

Naaseh v’nishma.

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Va’era–An Amphibian’s Song

The Second Plague (Frogs)

The Torah will not admit one answer – not for anything.  Every part of the biblical scripture before us is filled with questions, metaphors, double meanings.  The name Yitzhak means laughter in one verb form.  But it can suggest mocking in an intensified form.  When Sarah looks out and sees Ishmael and Yitzhak playing in Genesis 21:9, she calls it just as she sees it, overlapping and punning on her own son’s name.  Ishmael, Sarah says, is “Isaacing.”  He is not only mocking my son, she says, he is impersonating him, he is usurping his place.

A generation later, just after Ya’akov has stolen his twin brother’s blessing, Esav queries his father, resentment and rage permeating his every word: Did you know that Ya’akov was going to grow up to be a trickster and a deceiver?  Is that why you named him Yaakov, sneak thief?  Esav is punning, albeit bitterly.  For indeed, the etymology of Ya’akov’s name can suggest that the boy is what his name seems to suggest: A trickster and a deceiver.

What hidden meanings are found in Va’era?  Among them, one is the matter of the frogs.

Why frogs in the first place?

The writer is assuming we are familiar with the mythologies of neighboring cultures – after all, the ancient Israelites were.  They would have known that the Egyptian pantheon included the frog-headed goddess Hepat, who was believed to assist women at childbirth. 

Let’s take a moment to recall the opening of Shemot, of Exodus?  Pharaoh, appalled at Israelites’ prolific birthrate, summoned the midwives to him.  Then he decreed that those whose business it is to help children come into the world assist not in the creation of life but in its very opposite: Pharaoh demands that the midwives kill male Israelite babies at birth. 

Is the appearance of the frogs designed to make Pharaoh face what he himself has tried to do to the forces of creativity and life?  Frogs, for Egyptians, symbolize fertility and birth.  Here the scripture tells us, they become the frightening specter of death and destruction.  No wonder some rabbis say the frogs were the worst plague.  The world has been turned upside down.  Lightness is darkness, love is hate, birth is death.

More conundrums.  God threatens a plague of frogs.  They shall sharatz, teem and swarm over the country, God says.  Frogs will swarm in the bedchambers, in the ovens and in the kneading bowls.  But when Aharon raises his arm, scripture announces the arrival of one: both noun and verb are singular.  God threatens a plague of frogs.  But only one stands on the banks of the Nile; only one covers the land.

The sages explain, of course.  Rabbi Eleazar says that this one frog bred prolifically and filled the land. The original frog called upon its brethren to join him (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 67b.)

Are there other explanations?  Let’s reconsider: One frog, one representative of what was, for the Egyptians, the symbol of fertility, the symbol of birth.  This one frog arrives, symbolizing the opposite, the destructive potential.

When we represent the positive, we are unified, joined together in common purpose.  When we become resentful and destructive, we split apart.  The land teems and swarms with hatred, ill-feeling is everywhere.  Our multiplying resentments crowd us at night, sit down with us at our meals, give us neither rest nor relief.  The creature representing hope becomes the spreading specter of terror.

Scientists tell us that this little creature is the very sign of the survival of ecosystems – if frogs disappear, beware.

Interestingly enough, our ancient commentaries and legends suggest that even the sages knew that the frog was a very particular gift from God.  Indeed, the “beautiful singing” of the frog silenced the psalmist, King David himself.  The story goes that when King David finished the book of Psalms, he became boastful, saying to The Holy One: Master of the universe, is there any other creature You created in Your world that utters more songs and paeans of praise than I?  In that instant, so the tale tells us, a frog happened upon the king: “David,” the frog said, “don’t be so boastful.  I utter far more songs and praises than you.”

According to Perek Shira, an ancient text which lists eighty-four elements of the natural world, the song of that selfsame frog was then revealed to David.  What song does the frog sing?  Baruch Shem K’vod Malchuto L’Olam Va’ed.   Blessed is the glorious Name of God, God’s is forever.  This line appears between the first sentence of Sh’ma, which declares the unity of God, and the first paragraph which reminds us to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and resources. 

The frog, we know, sings twice daily, morning and night.  It knows just when to begin its chant, and it sings that which we whisper during our recitation of God’s oneness, God’s is-ness.  The frog knows creation and knows to praise it. 

The frog makes each sound deep in its throat.  The Hebrew word nefesh, the word so often translated as soul, life force, means, originally: throat.  Our is-ness comes from our throat.  In the first cry of each child born into the world we hear the raw sound of life.

One last mystery; one last possibility.  In verse eight, the text reads that Moses cried out “in the matter of the fogs”.  But the text reads vayitzak Moshe el Adonai al d’var hatzfard’im.  Read this literally, and you will read these words: Moses cried out to the Lord upon the word of the frogs.  The frogs spoke, says Exodus Rabbah 25:27.

What did they say?

With one voice, they reminded us: Blessed is God.  God is forever.  Sing with purpose, with one voice, with the hopeful force that leads you to create life, not destroy it.

Keyn y’hi ratzon.

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Update: The State of the War on Christmas

“You know,” I said to my husband, Ralf, “the war against Christmas is not going well.”

After all, where I live, Christmas ornaments and decorations fill the stores after Halloween. Christmas music sounds from every store speaker after Thanksgiving. Even a few days before the New Year, folks at stores are still so attached to the past that they invariably ask me how my Christmas went.

Obviously, I tell myself, these are folks who don’t know I am Jewish.

I suppose any one of them could say, with some justice, that I don’t “look Jewish,” though that would cause all sorts of internal discombobulation in my head. But no matter. This is about the war against Christmas.

It’s going badly.

Ralf went shopping just before Christmas. This is a dangerous thing to do. Folks start casing the aisles, desperately looking for items on their shopping list that they never otherwise buy. This is due to mad attempts to make some new kind of cookie. The recipes discovered in the newspaper or online almost always require exotic, unknown ingredients which might be located in the baking aisle but could just as well be found in the “international” aisle. The stress makes folk a bit emotional.

Be that as it may, Ralf remained calm. He found all the items on our list. At checkout, he met an old student of his working at the grocery store. (This happens to both of us, which is worrisome, of course. One prefers to imagine one’s students being gainfully employed after graduation and not struggling to make their own ends meet in the produce section.)

“Merry Christmas!” the student said.

Sometimes, we don’t bother, but since Ralf knew the person in question, he did.

“We celebrate Hanukkah,” he said as his student continued stacking spinach. The two then chatted about various items of interest. We like talking to sales people; they are invariably the most cheerful folk we get to meet out in public. That’s the nature of capitalism: Make sure all your underpaid employees behave like happy underpaid employees.

“Merry Christmas!” the student said again as Ralf wheeled away the cart.

“Crazy,” Ralf told me later. “Like, I had just told him we were Jewish…”

But I can top Ralf’s experience easy.

On my desk are those stickers we all get as freebies when people want our donations. You know, the one with your name and your address next to some cute design? Animals, if you donate to wildlife groups, flowers and fields for environmental one,… you get the idea.

The ones on my desk feature Christmas ornaments, poinsettias, and other wintery motifs. And this is what the text reads: “Rabbi Barbara Thiede….(plus address).”

Everyone celebrates Christmas. Jews, too, are celebrating Christmas. Even ordained rabbis are celebrating Christmas.

Look, I get it. The vast majority of Americans are Christian. Add up Jews (1.9%), Muslims (.9%), Buddhists (.7%), Hindus (.7%) and “other world religions” and “other faiths” you get a grand total, according to the grand Pew-ba, of 5.9% non-Christians. (See “Religions” at http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/ )

No one ever actually says who is waging the war against Christmas. I’m guessing it’s not the tiny 5.9% of folk who are representing minorities who are so minor that you can hardly tell they are there.  Nor am I sure that the war is being waged by the “nones” who likely have Christmas trees just because they are sparkly and fun.

Obviously, the war isn’t going well.

That’s fine, really. It’s not New Year’s Day just yet, and there were still Christmas melodies playing on one public place I visited yesterday. I can listen to another rendition of “Let is Snow” or “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Or other Christmas classics authored by nice Jewish boys. Why not?

Rabbi Thiede wishes (most of America) a Merry Christmas.

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Must I Ask? In Response to the Pittsburgh Shootings

Tree of Life Synagogue – Pittsburgh

October 27, 2018

Dear friends,

Please consider speaking to your congregants about the murder of 11 Jews today while worshiping on the Sabbath.

Please consider pointing out that in 2017 antisemitic incidents have increased 57% — the largest increase in any given year, and please note that the increase in antisemitism we have been seeing is, in considerable part, related to the 2015 presidential campaigns and the hateful antisemitic rhetoric that year which was then and continues to be made permissible in this country by dog whistles, by acquiescence, and by deployment of false equivalencies (“good people on both sides…”).

In grief,

Barbara

Many of my Christian colleagues wrote back last Saturday night, with great kindness and compassion.  Some, I know, did speak from their pulpits to the horror of the Sabbath Jews had endured. Some added wisdom that could deal with the murder of two black people in Louisville by a man who then announced that “white people don’t kill white people.”

The next day, I posted on Facebook.

Last night I wrote to my every Christian colleague to ask them to please speak to the horror of antisemitism from their pulpits this morning. I appreciated every loving response. But as a teacher of the history of antisemitism, I know: We are still asking. We will still be asking. I do not think we will know what it is to live in a world in which this request is no longer necessary. 

I spent the day grieving.  I have gone from one church to another, given one presentation after the other, led adult study and bible study, spoken with, prayed with, tried – again and again – to embody the deep ecumenism that Reb Zalman espoused.

I am asked to speak about Torah – and that’s often just exactly what I do.  I am asked to share Jewish ritual and tradition and prayer practice, and I do.  I have learned with Christians, prayed with Christians, shared my heart with Christians of all kinds.

But in all these years, no congregation has initiated a conversation about antisemitism, though most church communities I visit know that I teach that subject.

I have often asked myself: When will white people examine their history, collusion and complicity in enslaving, controlling, subjugating, imprisoning and even murdering black people?  This past week I asked myself a like question: When will my most compassionate and dear Christian friends understand that loving statements about the evil of antisemitism will not suffice – not when the overwhelming majority of Christians neither know nor understand how their traditions and texts contributed to its creation?

If I am honest, I must admit this: even if those many church communities were to ask me to teach their congregants about the history of antisemitism some part of me would ask: “Why not do this yourselves? Must a Jew explain Jewish pain – yet again?” It’s not as if there are not texts to study (David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism, for example).  I’ll share the curricula I’ve used.

Three years ago, during the 2015 campaign, when right wing extremism and members of the current administration stepped out in public to begin their close, intimate dance, I told my husband and son: Jews will die in America.

It has been three years of dread, living an awful expectation.  And now, just as black leaders did after Dylann Roof murdered nine black congregants of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in the summer of 2015, so am I doing.  Just as they explained and explained to white folk – yes, racism is still alive — so I find myself saying, “see?  Yes, antisemitism is still alive.”

We will not rid this world of either one until the worlds which spawned them take up the work of eradicating them.

May we live to see such a time.

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In the Beginning (in Honor of Sexual Assault and Abuse Survivors)

[E]verything I know of God… must find an ethical expression. … The attributes of God are given not in the indicative, but in the imperative. The knowledge of God comes to us like a commandment, like a Mitzvah.

To know God is to know what must be done.

Emmanuel Levinas

 

A week ago, I was at our university library, in a room with several female staff members. The Brett Kavannaugh hearings came up. “Without any one here saying a word,” I say, “we could assume that a good number of the women in this room have been sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, or sexually abused. And we would be right.”

Those two sentences elicited one story after the other. In the end, three-quarters of the women present said that they were among the victims. There was the young black mother who didn’t say exactly what had happened to her. There was the middle-aged white woman who described her assault in detail. There was an older white woman who confirmed: she, too.

In how many such rooms are we finding out, yet again?  There was that relative… There was that classmate. There was that doctor, that lawyer…

A few days ago, I stood in a university hallway with colleagues. The conversation turned to the Brett Kavannaugh hearings. Both my colleagues wryly admitted that they had had to make appointments to talk with a counselor. Both are victims. There were grief-filled attempts to joke about the number of counselors compared to patients. “How are they finding time to fit everyone in?” one colleague asked.

My students include survivors of sexual assault. How many have I spoken with about sexual harassment, sexual abuse committed by family members, being raped by a college classmate and not believed? Students who had been harassed, students who had been sexually abused as children and minors, students whose parents and friends blame them for the violence done to them. They spoke (sometimes) this past week.

Sexual assault victims know well how memory works – and doesn’t. They remember the fear, the panic, the unmitigated horror and the terrible, seemingly unerasable shame. Not one can forget those things. They know that if they speak, the details they can’t recall will be used against them.

They know that they will be dismissed.

Today, Senator Orrin Hatch told sexual assault victims who approached him to “grow up.”

A rape victim asked me this past week how not to despair.

This Shabbat is Bereishit. In Genesis 1, we are afforded verse after verse of beginnings, of new light and new green and new life. Everything is magic; everything belongs on the good earth with the heavens above.

God is in the midst of a sweet, bursting creation. Nothing is not right. Everything is complete. Each part belongs to each other part. The world is whole. It is very good.

In that moment of mystical, perfect time, God’s power fills every green thing, every swarming thing, every flying thing, every swimming and crawling and walking thing. Reading, verse to verse to verse, the creation of the world is nothing less than a divine incantation, a prayer of being and becoming. There is light everywhere, starry and silvery light, blinding and brilliant sunlight, light rippling through seas and green leaves and grasses.

I crave this light.

I crave beginnings.

I crave an incantation of such divine power that it can heal the wounded and heal those who wound.

We have been given this world and all the life in it. Only we can write the words, invoke the purpose, create the incantation that will bring us a beginning of lasting light.

I understand despair. I feel it. I know it.

There is no answer to despair but the imperative. We must know what must be done.

 

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Broken to Whole – An Elul Story in Three Parts

Part 1: Naming What is Broken

About two years ago a young woman arrived in my life and irrevocably altered it.

CALA Demonstration

For the past two years, I have watched this young woman grow from strength to strength. She went back to school to acquire skills to help her understand and combat systemic oppression. She spends most of her energy in community activism and organizing.

She serves as secretary and grant-writer for the board of the Community Activism Law Alliance of Chicago (CALA), an award-winning organization that brings lawyers and activists together to offer free legal services to marginalized individuals and communities. CALA fights for workers, for victims of sexual and domestic violence, for immigrants of all kinds. CALA offers free workshops and free legal representation, advice, training, and pro bono support to those who are not simply underserved, but utterly isolated.

Dream Riders cheering each other on with Serafina Ha in the most amazing green pants I have ever seen.

She also brings her indefatigable spirit to her work as a community leader, filmmaker, interviewer and publicist for NAKASEC, the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium, a grassroots organization working on behalf – especially – of Asian immigrants. This past summer, NAKASEC has been sending its young people out to demonstrate, to speak, to bike for more than a month across the west coast to help make the gifts and hopes of immigrants real for those willing to hear their voices.

She listens to the stories of those who have been hurt and harmed; she imagines any way she can to help heal and free those she serves. And then she builds those ways and makes them concrete.

Part 2: On Broken Things

If you love a musical instrument you own, you do not want it baking in a car or freezing in the hold of an airplane.

I needed a guitar I could travel with – for teaching and for leading services. But the guitar I wanted was – at least for me – a rather expensive endeavor. For good reason: it was made with an inventive technology that allowed its owner to take its neck from its body and pack it up into a package so neatly that it could be placed in an overhead bin on an airplane.

I listened to the demos of guitar players far more skilled than I on and off for many months. I put aside money. Finally, I contacted James Brawner, owner and partner at Journey Instruments to think through my options. We talked about the guitars, music-making, even a bit about what we were doing with our lives.

Just a day or two before the guitar was about to arrive, James wrote me an email. He had received a note about the guitar indicating that it had suffered some small nicking on the wood near its neck. But I was leaving on a trip for which I really needed the guitar for a service I was leading. I wasn’t sure what to do – send it back? Take it anyway?

I grew up in a world of broken things. Having a newly-made guitar arrive in even a slightly damaged state triggered unhappy memories. I called James and confessed my uncertainty. He generously told me to take the guitar on the trip and pray with it. We would work it out when I got back.

I took the little guitar to ALEPH’s 2018 smicha week, where I was teaching. Then she helped me lead Kabbalat Shabbat services.

I returned from my trip and called James. I was still uncertain, still fighting the childhood memories of having things harmed and broken, of knowing harm and hurt. I could send the guitar back, James said. He could also offer me a discount if I decided to keep her.

I called James back. “James,” I said, “I want the discount.”

Part 3: Transforming Brokenness into Wholeness

I explained. I had prayed with that guitar. After all, I said, all of us have been harmed and hurt and even broken.

I wanted the discount not because I needed it, but because I wanted to give it to organizations offering hope and strength and help to those who have been harmed and hurt and broken. My little guitar wasn’t perfectly whole, but, in the end, her small hurts could be the agency of healing.

James was so delighted that he told me he would match the money he was sending to me and give it to organizations he loved.

I got the discount last week. Today I added a little money to the discount so I could round it up. Then, I sent half to CALA and half to NAKASEK.

In honor of the young woman who walked into my life two years ago in Grant Park, Chicago. In support for the work she does. In the name of those she serves.

This blog post is dedicated to Serafina Ha.

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Repurposing, Renewing, Revisioning Judaism — The Work of Our Hands

I made my first tallit out of an embroidered shawl. I shook when I put it on for the first time.

I had grown up in a world in which only men wore prayer shawls. A part of me felt as if I were transgressing.

That was eighteen years ago. And I’ve been making kippot and tallitot ever since.

I resisted turning my hobby into any kind of business. My practice was, for years, to make my work into gifts for friends and colleagues. But after repeated requests to sell my work, I eventually created Not My Brother’s Kippah and put my things up on Etsy.

I began to meet people I would otherwise never have known. I learned about their lives. I found that what I designed and cut and sewed was a wholly new way to bless – even to heal.

In the past year, three women purchased tallitot from me. One of the women had two different p’sukim she was thinking about for the atarah, the embroidered neckband of a Jewish prayer shawl. Which should she choose? “Go and sit with the verses,” I told her. “Just hold them in your heart. You’ll know which one.”

About an hour later, she wrote back to tell me that she did know, after all.

She had become, she said, her mother’s courage during her “early departure.” The verse she chose brought her mother back to her again: Al tirah ki imcha ani. Fear not, for I am with you (Isaiah 41:10).

There was a second client who wanted a tallit that would speak both to her Chinese and her Jewish heritage. I learned a life story in our correspondence – how her parents had escaped from danger, how she had learned to make her life in America, how she had, over three decades, framed every aspect of her Jewishness in the tikkun olam work she embraced.

And then there was a young Jewish-Vietnamese American woman who contacted me in December of 2017. We engaged in months of consulting and negotiation about colors, patterns, and texts. We needed fabric with a lotus pattern but had to be sure to avoid anything white – especially touching her head. White, she told me, is the color of death in Vietnamese culture. So though her kippah was made of fabric that included a creamy white, I lined it with lilac silk.

On her atarah, she wanted Genesis 18:27: “Here I venture to speak to my Lord, who am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). She knew the tale of Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Pershyscha, who carried two slips of paper in each of his pockets, one of which read: “bishvili nivra ha’olam” (for my sake the world was created) the other v’anokhi afar v’efer” (I am but dust and ashes). At her suggestion, I embroidered the two phrases on the inside corners of her tallit. To be clothed in humility and surety in perfect balance – that was her kavannah.

Once she wrote, “I’m going to pass this down to my great-grandchild with all the blessings you’ve prayed OVER it, that I’ll pray IN it.” I finished it just before her thirtieth birthday. She celebrated by leyning Pinchas in shul that weekend.

A sari tallit
Made from a sari

Recently, I decided to heal as I created in a whole new way; I began making tallitot out of gently used saris.  I want to repurpose, reuse, renew.  Each sari has its own story.  As each becomes a tallit, it binds traditions and cultures together in a wholly new way. And why not celebrate diverse worlds coming together? We could use more of that in our time.

Connections emerge, take life, become unexpected gifts.  This past month I have corresponded and talked with the mother of a boy whose bar mitzvah is a year away; I’ll be talking both with the young man and his rabbi at some point. Just this past week or so, after he bought four kippot of mine, I began corresponding with a young man in Munich, whose story becomes increasingly tender and beautiful with each email.

My life is inordinately busy with classes to teach, administrative work to accomplish, research to complete. I never have the time I would really like to have to sew as much as I long to do. And I usually think of my teaching and research and writing as the most important work I do to nourish the tribe.

Maybe it is. But I have also learned that the renewal of all we know and the discovery of all we have yet to realize about Jews and Jewish life – these are things, it turns out, that can be found in cutting, stitching, and blessing.

May the work of all our hands serve such aims.

Note: This post is in honor of my son, Erik Henning Thiede.  He had the idea for using the saris to make tallitot so that I could become a more environmentally aware fabric artist.

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So Much for Deuteronomy: The Trashing of Overbrook Estates

Some of the trash from Overbrook Estates

We’ve lived in our little house for twenty-five years. For a quarter century I’ve tried to nourish the land we are living in, to plant native plants and to offer increasing cover for insects, birds, and small creatures. This piece of land is as holy as any other on this earth; it deserves my care.

The people who drive by our house are generally headed for Overbrook Estates, a wealthy residential neighborhood that abuts our modest little circle of ranch houses. There’s been no other way to get to Overbrook most of the time we’ve lived here. The construction of another wealthy neighborhood added another side street but traffic past our own house remains minimal and mostly local. People drive past our home to get to theirs. Aside from our short strip of straight road which leads to the entryway to Overbrook Estates, all the other roads are windy, curvy, and hilly.

For twenty-five years folks have driven the short straightaway that is our street and dropped plastic bottles, cans, candy wrappers, cigarette butts and more on our lawn.

But that was not the cause for the frustration I brought home this morning.

I like to walk.  Last Monday I decided to walk around Overbrook Estates. I don’t usually walk there because it the road is so windy and hilly; cars won’t see me until they are practically at my feet or my back. There are no sidewalks.

But I had less time for the walk than usual; walking there would take me a little more than half an hour. So I chose that route.

Overbrook Estates features homes that are worth up to ten times the value of our little ranch house. Because homes are placed in large plots of land, they are often set back and high above the street – far away from the little creek that runs on one side of the road. The yards are landscaped and the lawns are neat. That morning, I passed by both lawn service and maid service cars and vans.

As I walked through the neighborhood, I saw multiple signs. One had to do with saving our local school, another asked dog owners to clean up after their pets. There was a sign that read “Thank you, Jesus!” and another that asked people to drive with children in mind.

What’s to see in Overbrook Estates? Immaculate homes, well-manicured lawns, full-grown trees, and signs about good behavior and offering gracious thanks.

And garbage. Cans and bottles and plastic bags. When my hands were full, I put two plastic bottles on the driveway they lay next to. That, I thought, would ensure that at least they would be recycled.

Yesterday, I walked the same way – this time, armed with plastic bags and gloves.

I picked up cans, glass bottles, plastic bottles and straws. I found cups from McDonalds, Bojangles and Starbucks. I gathered plastic bags, candy wrappers, old Christmas decorations and even a stuffed animal that was sodden and ripped apart. After thirty minutes, my two bags were filled.

People went in and out of their driveways and passed me by. Though residents drove past me and my plastic bags, though some saw me picking up in their neighborhood, none stopped to thank me. Even the driveway where I’d left plastic bottles two days earlier had – you guessed it – the same two bottles lying where I’d put them.

I walked around one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in my town. What I gathered during that time was a fraction of the trash I saw; some had fallen into the creek and was simply unreachable given that I was in tennis shoes.

Eighty to ninety percent of what I gathered was recyclable. I know, because I spread it all out when I got home, sorted it, and recycled everything I could.

It’s been pretty annoying to clean up after those who have tossed their garbage onto my lawn for the past twenty-five years. I like to think of my little plot as a holy space. But it felt a lot worse to walk around a neighborhood where people pay for maid services to clean their homes and lawn services to trim their bushes but appear to care less about the earth they built upon than the grand homes they inhabit.

We’re filling our oceans with garbage, we’re eradicating species, we’re paying little attention to the way our earth cries out to us for relief from our selfish, self-centered behaviors.

It’s the time of year when Jews read through the Book of Deuteronomy. And in this book we are reminded not to destroy trees, to be certain to give from the land to the poor and vulnerable, and to offer the land itself a sabbath rest from human desires and needs.

Dear neighbors everywhere: All the earth is holy, including that which supports your homes. Please treat it as such.

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Getting Outside the Ashkenazi-Normative Box: On Jewish Identity and Jewish History

Ethiopian Jews celebrate Sigd (Photo AP).

What can we be sure of? What constitutes an unchangeable, indelible, essential marker that makes a person Jewish, that defines what we can call Judaism?

Twelve students and I joined together to consider these questions at the ALEPH Ordination Programs’ annual retreat (otherwise known as smicha week). I was teaching a class entitled “Judaism without Halakha and the Holocaust.” We had gathered to consider how these two elements had been deployed as identity markers and, just as importantly, what Jewish communities looked like when neither were primary factors in their practice.

I had peppered our reading with a set of wide-ranging data points that could take us beyond our mostly Ashkenazi-normative, rabbinically influenced education. For example…

  • Sometime in the century or so before the Common Era, a Jewish man survives a shipwreck.  His inscription of thanks survives – in a Temple of Pan, one of multitudinous pieces of archeological evidence demonstrating that our ancestors regularly worshiped other deities.
  • Who is leading synagogue life during the so-called “rabbinic period”?  Women, for one.  Gentiles, for another. (Really!)  In his article “Epigraphical Rabbis,” historian Shaye Cohen points out that “[t]he Jewish community of Rome alone left behind over five hundred inscriptions, many with references to archisynagogues, archons, gerousiarchs, grammateis, patres synagogae, matres synagogae, exarchons, hyperetai, phrontistai, prostatai, priests, teachers, and students, but not one with a reference to a rabbi. Not only did diaspora Jewry have no Rabbis of its own, it also did not look to Israel for Rabbinic leadership.”

During the course, my students learned that some Jews still practiced polygamy in the twentieth century – and slavery, too.  They discovered festivals they’d never heard of (Sigd).  They read about practices that intrigued them (Kaifeng Jews reciting Torah barefoot and with veils over their faces).

We asked ourselves: What does it mean for us to think about Judaism as a genetic inheritance when Jewish communities in some parts of the world have practiced matrilineal descent (European), others patrilineal descent (Kaifeng, Karaites) and still others have found their way to Judaism through forced or voluntary conversion (the Idumeans of the ancient world and the Abayudaya of ours)?

What about texts?  Must Jews at least know of the existence of Talmud, and rely on rabbinic texts for their practice to be legitimate?  If so, a number of Asian and African communities would be exiled from Jewish history.  If we assumed Jewish communities have to have Tanakh, would that mean casting out the Lemba, whose Torah was an oral tradition of biblical stories?

At one point, I asked my students: What, if anything, about Judaism could you do without?

Lex Rofeberg, rabbinic student, wrote this:

Here is a list of some of my favorite elements of Judaism:The Book of Numbers

  • The Book of Numbers
  • Shavuot
  • Emma Goldman
  • Mishnah Nedarim
  • Reb Zalman
  • The number 18
  • My mom’s brisket, on Passover

I love these pieces of Judaism. They add incredible, deep meaning to my life. And yet…any one of them, or all of them, could disappear from Judaism, and it would still be Judaism.
Because it’s not about me or my preferences. It’s not about any of us. There is nothing – no holiday, no practice, no language, no community, no belief, no symbol, and no book – whose absence would transform the something that we call ‘Judaism’ into a something that is no longer ‘Judaism.’
Many of the somethings that our ancestors would have said define Judaism are already long gone. Not just our ancestors from millennia ago, like Moses and Miriam, but our literal grandparents! Some of the core pieces of their Jewish experiences have disappeared from our collective memory.
And yet there is still a something that we call Judaism. And I like it! Despite the absence of so many rich treasures of our past, this Judaism thing is still pretty great!
Because of that, I have a question that I commiserate over. More than asking what I couldn’t bear to live without, from Judaisms that exist today, I ask myself: ‘What doesn’t exist yet that my children will one day consider an inalienable, necessary, uncompromiseable piece of the thing called Judaism?’ That they could never imagine losing? How can we invent it? How quickly?
That question, regarding our Jewish future and those who will inhabit it, should loom large at the core of what we do. May we be blessed with many diverse answers to it. We need to be checking our rear-view mirror frequently. But the road in front of the windshield beckons us too. Let’s keep our eyes there as much as we can.

Regardless of our viewing direction, we need to ask questions that nourish, feed and sustain what we call “Judaism.”  For our future’s sake, we will be required to think beyond what we think we know is Jewish. From Asia to Africa to Europe and beyond.  From ancient Israelite to modern Karaite.  From all that is now to all that is yet to come.

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An Artist’s Eye for Love: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Hector and Ricky Baker on the run.

Ricky Baker is angry. He arrives at a ramshackle house and barn in a police car. A stern and equally angry woman climbs out of the car with the boy. Paula represents Child Services, the agency that is delivering Ricky to Bella, a scruffy, middle-aged, hopeful foster mother. Paula doesn’t mince words: the boy has run away from previous homes, he’s been caught “stealing and graffiti-ing.” He’s no good.

Bella greets the child cheerily, and despite the boy’s efforts to escape that very night, relationship-building is on.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is situated in New Zealand and directed by Taika Waititi (also known as Taika Cohen). Waititi is of Te-Whanau-a-Apanui and Jewish descent. The film is a tender, hilarious narrative of love.

When Bella dies suddenly, her taciturn husband, Hector, receives a letter. He hands it to Ricky and orders him to read it out loud. Paula, Ricky reads, will be coming to collect him.

Ricky refuses to go back. He’s just turned thirteen; he’ll just end up in juvenile detention. Hec is uninterested; he didn’t want the boy to begin with and doesn’t much care to have him now. He is grieving for his wife.

After resistance and accidents of fate make it impossible for Hec not to protect Ricky, the two go on the run. Their escape attempt sparks a national manhunt to save Ricky from a presumed “molesterer.”

Hec and Ricky have nothing to tie them together except their knowledge of Bella’s love and their grief for her loss. They don’t much like one another, but faced with happenstance, they throw in their lot together.

The two struggle through the bush; they scramble for food and shelter. Their effort to survive feels tight, even claustrophobic. Climbing through the dense foliage requires one arduous step after another. Suddenly, they break into a summit treating the viewers to panoramas of mountain and lake. Hector, takes a long look around.

Hec: Pretty majestical, aye?
Ricky: I don’t think that’s a word.
Hec: Majestical? Sure it is.
Ricky: Nah, it’s not real.
Hec: What would you know?
Ricky Baker: It’s majestic.
Hec: That doesn’t sound very special, majestical’s way better.

It’s not a word then. But it becomes one.

No scene in this film is without a measure of grace. Boy and man learn to love one another although the child is an insatiable reader and the man is wholly illiterate.

Ricky is fond of haikus. At the outset of the film he tells Bella that a counselor told him to write them to express his feelings. He offers one of his first efforts: “Kingi you wanker / You arsehole, I hate you heaps / Please die soon, in pain.”

There are a few more choice examples. But Ricky, the heavy boy who struggles to run more than a few steps, is a boy who can love. One night he tells Hec he’s written a new haiku. “It’s personal,” when Hec asks him to recite it. Ricky gives in: “Trees. Birds. Rivers. Sky. / Running with my Uncle Hec / Living forever.”

Their run ends as it must – badly. Ricky calls Hec a traitor for giving in and then claims he is, in fact, a “molesterer.” Hec ends in jail yet again.

It’s easy to kill human beings. It’s hard to kill love. In a last meeting, Hector recites his own haiku: “Me and this fat kid / We ran we ate and read books / And it was the best.”

We are living in an America where babies of eight and ten months are separated from their parents. We have been shown terrified children, desperate parents.

No amount of phone calls to our representatives or donations or demonstrations can wipe away the trauma our government has inflicted on families; nothing we do will ever change the ugly and violent and heartless history we have witnessed.

Still: the work we can do must be done. But to be able to do that work, we must find places of relief, of healing, and of hope. We must reacquaint ourselves with the knowledge of humor, of tenderness, of our human capacity to give.

For all my colleagues and friends who are exhausted and worn, please watch Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

You are in need of an artist’s eye for love. Such a narrative could not be created if such a thing did not exist.

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