Teaching While Afraid

I have learned to fear my students – their unknown past and what might inhabit their present is worrying me.

My love of teaching is under assault.

A year ago, I taught a lecture course on religion and magic to about 120 first-semester and transfer students at UNC Charlotte. Our lecture hall was dark, without windows. The entrance was at one end of the long room, opposite the stage.

The subject of gun rights came up early in the semester. A student introduced the issue during a lecture on the term “religion.” He wanted to compare the challenges of definition I described to the difficulty he faced defending gun rights.

I tried to return us to our lecture topic. Another student raised his hand and made a second comment about protecting gun rights. Most Americans misunderstand the nature of an assault rifle, he said.

It was a strange, disconcerting moment.

A couple of months later, on October 29, I walked into class both fragile and fearful. It was just two days after eleven people were murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. The shooter’s social media profiles included an account description that read: “The Jews are the children of Satan” (John: 8:44).

I was to lecture on how magic had become associated with the devil in medieval Christian thought. The lecture would explain how the depiction of Jews as the devil’s offspring had led to labeling Jews as evil magicians and sorcerers.

I mentioned the shooting. Then, I looked across a dark lecture hall filled with people I didn’t know. “I am afraid of you,” I said. “I am afraid to give this lecture.”

Though we spoke about those fears together for a few minutes, I never went into the classroom again without anxiety. My students knew I was Jewish. Some knew I was a rabbi. I’d walk up the stairs to the stage and think wryly what an easy target I could be. I tried to stand behind the podium instead of pacing across the stage, as I usually do.

That fear never went away. Exactly seven months later, on April 29, I went to teach just days after the Poway Synagogue shooting in San Diego. I wondered on the drive to campus: Was I putting my students at risk by teaching a course on the history of European antisemitism? Would a student look up courses on Jewish history and pick up an assault rifle?

Two hours later UNCC was put on lockdown. A shooter killed two of our students and injured four others.

There is no evidence that the shooter harbored any antisemitic views. But he showed how easy it was to bring a gun on campus and to murder people. Simple, really.

This fall, a student in my online course on Hebrew Scriptures (read: Tanakh) wrote me an email suggesting that dropping the course might be necessary. The student wanted to make sure it wasn’t “Jewish-based.”

It was the week Donald Trump called Jews ignorant and disloyal if they voted for Democrats.

Had I been searched online? Had the student discovered I was an ordained rabbi? What kinds of websites did my correspondent like to frequent? Where did the student come from?

I was afraid to provoke by asking what was meant by the comment. I was afraid to do anything more than I did, which was to write explaining that the class material was taught in a secular, academic environment.

For the first time in my life I have gained a semblance of understanding for the kind of courage teaching can require.

I want to thank the teachers of this broken world. I am certain that most of us only want to bring good things into this world.

Dear students: Here, with us, you can learn that the world is beautiful, complex, extraordinary and precious. Here, with us, you can find that humanity can create literature that lasts millenia, art that transcends its time, music that can move each and every soul. Your classrooms are playgrounds for your minds, for your hearts, for your future.

You can learn to love your world and find humanity in our classrooms. If you do, there will be no reason for fear.

Share

Oath of Disloyalty – by Irwin Keller

The poem below was written by Irwin Keller: rabbinic student at ALEPH Ordination Programs, friend and colleague:

I am a disloyal Jew.
I am not loyal to a political party.
Nor will I be loyal to dictators and mad kings.
I am not loyal to walls or cages.
I am not loyal to taunts or tweets.
I am not loyal to hatred, to Jew-baiting, to the gloating connivings of white supremacy.

I am a disloyal Jew.
I am not loyal to any foreign power.
Nor to abuse of power at home.
I am not loyal to a legacy of conquest, erasure and exploitation.
I am not loyal to stories that tell me who I should hate. 

I am a loyal Jew.
I am loyal to the inconveniences of kindness.
I am loyal to the dream of justice.
I am loyal to this suffering Earth
And to all life.
I am not loyal to any founding fathers.
But I am loyal to the children who will come
And to the quality of world we leave them.
I am not loyal to what America has become.
But I am loyal to what America could be.
I am loyal to Emma Lazarus. To huddled masses.
To freedom and welcome,
Holiness, hope and love.

Irwin Keller
August 21, 2019
#loyaljew #disloyaljew

Share

Who is the Snake? A Biblical Immigrant Story

She clutched him to her bosom, “You’re so beautiful,” she cried
“But if I hadn’t brought you in by now you might have died”
She stroked his pretty skin again and kissed and held him tight
Instead of saying thanks, the snake gave her a vicious bite
“Take me in, tender woman
Take me in, for heaven’s sake
Take me in, tender woman,” sighed the snake
“I saved you,” cried the woman
“And you’ve bitten me, but why?
You know your bite is poisonous and now I’m going to die”
“Oh shut up, silly woman,” said the reptile with a grin
“You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in
“Take me in, tender woman
Take me in, for heaven’s sake
Take me in, tender woman,” sighed the snake

He read the poem again. He read it despite the protestations of the author’s family members who are well aware that the author would been horrified to find his work used to incite hatred. But that is our president and this, in part, is our America.

Today, the day after Donald Trump once again compared immigrants to treacherous snakes, I began a three-part series of classes with a local church group on the Book of Ruth.

The Book of Ruth is a narrative of immigrant experience. As such, it cannot be a mere idyll. In three verses we learn that an Israelite named Elimelech emigrates to Moab with his family to escape famine in Bethlehem only to die in a foreign land. His widow, Naomi, is “left over.” Her sons marry Moabite women, but they, too, die in Moab. The text hammers the point home again: she is “left over,” a remnant of sorts.

Naomi is an immigrant. There is no evidence that she is mistreated by the Moabite locals. She does not leave with her sons after her husband’s death. After they marry, she clearly grows to love Orpah and Ruth, her daughters-in-law. While the narrator defines them according to their marital status, Naomi calls them b’notai, my daughters.

Places can define us. But relationships can change everything. After they lose their husbands, Orpah and Ruth plan to stay with their beloved mother-in-law. They insist that they will “return” with her, accompany her as she goes back to Bethlehem (1:10). As her daughters, they believe that her home is theirs.

Naomi protests. Perhaps she is afraid for them. Moabite women could hardly expect a warm welcome from Israelites. So she tells them they should return to their biological mothers. She has no more sons to give them, she says.  Dreaming of the apparently impossible, she adds that even if she were to remarry and, miraculously, have more sons, it would be unkind to expect her daughters to wait for them to grow up.

Naomi does not just send Orpah and Ruth away; she believes that going “home” is their best choice. But not before desperately – even hopelessly – imagining what it would be like if she could offer them shelter, security and hope. Naomi did not wish to be separated from the women she called her daughters.

The first chapter in the Book of Ruth includes a number of variants on one Hebrew root: shin-vav-bet. Lashuv, tashav, shavah, nashuv, shov’nah… in twenty-two verses one or the other character is turning, returning, or told to turn around. Naomi will return to Bethlehem. Orpah and Ruth plan to return with her. Naomi insists they turn around, go, essentially back-wards. Ruth insists that to do so would be to leave Naomi, and she begs her mother-in-law not to make her turn back.

Is our identity generated by the place of our birth or the places we adopt? Do the kin we are born to or the kin we embrace define who we are and who we wish to become? Turn, and you become a different person. Return, and you will find that  those you missed have changed. You are a different person, too. Naomi discovers that her fellow Israelites will greet her and leave her.  It is the widow’s Moabite daughter-in-law who sees she is fed, not her former neighbors. Ruth, in turn, will be treated as a cipher by those same Israelite women though they also extol her service to her mother-in-law: Ruth, they say, is better to Naomi than seven sons (4:15).

One wonders how Ruth endured being passed over as Obed’s mother and simultaneously praised for the decency with which she tends to Naomi, the Israelite. As an immigrant she seems to exist primarily to ensure that Israelite society and royal lineage is secured. All she has to do is brave a potentially dangerous nighttime encounter, marry Naomi’s choice for her, bring a son into the world and hand him over to the Israelites. They will call him their own. They will name him. They will say he belongs to Naomi.

If there is a snake in this story, it sure isn’t Ruth.

America does well because we use immigrant labor without regret, concern, or thanks. Immigrants are our farm workers and our school janitors. They are small business owners who employ American citizens. They work as computer scientists, nurses, and doctors. Without immigrants in this country, America will not have the workers it needs to pay to keep Social Security and Medicare solvent in the decades to come.

Immigrants work for privileged Americans hoping to be accepted and understood, imagining what it would be like to give freely, safely, and openly to their new home. Like Ruth, they are enterprising, interested, energetic.

And we citizens do as the ancient Israelites did to Ruth. We live off their labor, their contributions, and their taxes. I must ask the leader of the Free World, who is so quick to demonize the immigrant population in this country: Who is the snake?

Share