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.


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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