The Courage to Stand Up, With Love

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I gave my sermon "live" on Zoom in realtime, and also pre-recorded this version to go live on my blog around the same time I was offering it at Zoom services. If you want to watch the video, it's embedded above and is here on YouTube. Or, if you prefer to read it, you can read on, below...

 

Do you remember how you felt when you heard the news about the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting?

I remember feeling shock and horror and disbelief. I remember feeling grief. I remember our synagogue sanctuary filled with members of the Northern Berkshire community who came together for a vigil in grief and remembrance.

And I remember coming to shul the very next Shabbat -- with a prickle of anxiety running through my veins -- and stopping short when I saw the "graffiti love-in" all around our front door.

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I knew it was coming. Someone I did not know had reached out to me earlier that week, saying that a group of non-Jewish allies wanted to organize a show of support for us. They didn't want to surprise us in a way that would compound our feelings of un-safety, so they asked first.

But even though I knew they were doing something, I couldn't picture what it would be. I didn't know how it would feel to drive up to our shul one week after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre and be greeted with chalk art and signs and cards and banners proclaiming that the North Adams community values us and wants us to be safe and wants us to be here.

Their gift made me weep tears of joy -- because we are seen, and cherished, and uplifted. And not just by other Jews but by non-Jewish people, by people who are not part of our community or part of our covenant. But they saw that we were afraid, and they stood up for us and said, "you matter; we want you here; we've got your back."

There's a reason that the most oft-repeated commandment in Torah instructs us to love the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Thirty-six times Torah tells us to love the stranger, the immigrant, the refugee, the vulnerable population, because we know how it feels to be in those shoes. The instruction is in the plural: v'ahavtem et ha-ger, y'all shall love the stranger. This isn't an individual commandment: it's a communal mitzvah. Together, we love the stranger because we know how it feels.

We know how it feels.

And that's why I have two signs on my condo front door. One is a blue mogen David that says "Chai Y'all!" I want it to be clear to anyone who drives by that I am Jewish, I am here, I am visible, and I am welcoming! (And I say y'all.) The other is a sign that says Black Lives Matter.

I know that some Jews are uncomfortable with the Black Lives Matter movement because of real or perceived connections between BLM and pro-Palestinian sentiment. I empathize with that discomfort. And there are many intellectual conversations we can have about BLM and Israel / Palestine. But I believe that Jewish values call us to stand up for Black lives even if we feel some discomfort. We need to "de-center" ourselves, because right now this isn't about us -- it's about standing up for the victims of prejudice and violence. And that's work we do with our hearts and our souls, not just our intellect.

The Black Lives Matter movement is a grassroots coalition of many organizations, focused on saving the lives of Black people and people of color by changing how we do public safety and policing.

The vast majority of people protesting or holding vigils or putting signs on their lawns are not thinking about international issues (including the Middle East). They're thinking about George Floyd who died gasping "I can't breathe" to the officer kneeling on his neck. They're thinking about Eric Garner who died gasping the same thing to the officer holding him in a chokehold. They're thinking of Tamir Rice, killed at twelve because an officer mistook his toy for a gun. They're thinking about Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and Atiana Jefferson and Stephon Clark and Botham Jean and Philando Castile.

And maybe they're thinking about the Greensboro Four, brutally beaten for daring to sit at a Woolworth's lunch counter. Or Emmett Till, lynched because someone thought he smiled at a white woman. Or the countless Black souls ripped from home and brought to this nation in chains. Or the reality that Black people are dying of covid-19 at rates far higher than white people. Or 400 years of communal experience and communal trauma showing them just how little Black lives have mattered on these shores.

Just as we need non-Jewish allies to stand up for us when there are attacks on Jews, Black people in this country need allies to stand up for them when they are under attack. 

And it's not an either/or. There are many Black Jews who feel keenly both of these forms of oppression, both antisemitism and racism. Not in our little rural community, but in the broader Jewish community. We owe it to them to stand up for them.... and we need to stand up for non-Jewish Black lives, too.

Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein, who serves as a police chaplain, expresses the needs of this moment with a policing metaphor from Sergeant Dan Rouse: "If we get a call about a domestic violence incident [at a particular address], we don't stop at every other house along the way. If you go to a fundraiser for breast cancer, you don't stop at every other fundraiser along the way and say all cancers matter. Right now, Black lives are hurting." That's the call we need to answer.

Remember how it felt to see those signs of support on our synagogue doors? I hope that's how it feels for Black people to see a Black Lives Matter sign. It signifies that someone who sees their trauma and their fear is willing to stand up in the name of their safety. It means that someone who maybe doesn't look like them nevertheless wants for them basic human rights and human dignity.

I mentioned earlier the discomfort that I know some of us feel around the connection between Black Lives Matter and support for the Palestinian cause. I honor the discomfort, and I understand it. And... I think our discomfort is part of our spiritual work in this time of American reckoning with institutionalized racism. I think part of our work as white-skinned Jews is saying: what you're enduring is untenable and we stand with you against it, and any disagreements we might have about politics can wait.

We need to stand up for each other even when we feel discomfort. Safety and basic human dignity are the birthright of every human being, no matter what -- or at least, they should be, and if they're not, then we have work to do. And standing up for one another's safety and dignity is a moral imperative more important than any political disagreement.

In her book Braving the Wilderness, social scientist Brene Brown notes that the English word courage is related to the French coeur: heart. Having courage means having heart. Having courage means listening to the heart and acting from the heart.

It takes courage to stand up for our fellow human beings when they are under threat. It takes courage to stand up and say: I will fight for your human rights and your dignity and your right to live safely. Even if your skin looks different from mine. Even if your politics are different from mine. 

Standing up for Black lives is an act of hope that we can build a better America, an America where everyone truly enjoys the rights that our Declaration of Independence enumerates, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Of course, when that Declaration was written, the only people who merited those rights were white men! Thank God our laws no longer enshrine those injustices. But those injustices persist, and our work is not complete.

Standing up for Black lives asks us to confront our own stuff that might get in the way. It asks us to do our own inner work, and to learn how to be actively antiracist -- to resist and change the subtle and pervasive racism that's baked in to our nation's history and its present.  That kind of inner work is exactly what this season of teshuvah, repentance and return, is for.

Remember the kindness our non-Jewish North Adams neighbors extended to us after Pittsburgh? Standing up for Black lives is how we can "pay it forward."

Torah asks us to love the stranger, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt and we know how it feels. We know how it feels! And we know how it feels when our neighbors stand up for us. May our knowledge move us to stand up for Black lives with hope and courage and heart.

 

 


For further reading: from the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, Black Lives Matter, American Jews, and Anti-Semitism: Distinguishing Between the Organization(s), the Movement, and the Ubiquitous Phrase [pdf] 2020.

 

This is my sermon from Rosh Hashanah morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi Blog.)


Approaching Tisha b'Av in a year that feels like Tisha b'Av all the time

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Tisha b'Av, Jewish tradition's communal day of mourning, is coming soon.

It usually feels disjunctive to take Tisha b'Av's deep dive into grief and exile in the midst of the summer, the season I love most in the year. Many years it takes some intention and some spiritual work to connect with loss and destruction at this time of year. But this year is different. This whole pandemic year feels to me like Tisha b'Av.

On Tisha b'Av we mourn brokenness on a spiritual level: tradition says this is the date when Moses shattered the first set of tablets of covenant, enraged by the people's worship of the golden calf. We mourn brokenness on a historical level: on this date the first Temple was destroyed by Babylon, and the second Temple was destroyed by Rome, and the Crusades began, and the expulsion from the Warsaw Ghetto, and other tragedies besides. And we mourn brokenness in our own day: including, this year, the profound suffering caused by coronavirus... refracted through human prejudices that have enabled over 145,000 deaths in our nation alone, most of them people of color, and 618,000 deaths around the world.

That's so far, as of this writing. Those numbers will continue to grow.

I wrote to my synagogue community this year that "the fall of the Temples may feel like ancient history -- but with our beloved building closed, we may feel a new resonance with our ancestors who could no longer gather together in prayer. The hatreds that led to our many historical traumas may feel like ancient history -- but prejudice, including antisemitism and racism, still festers. There is so much to mourn. And tradition regards this day of mourning as the springboard into the spiritual uplift of the journey through the Days of Awe. We have to feel what's broken in order to rise up from it..."

This year we'll observe Tisha b'Av at my shul in two ways. On the eve of Tisha b'Av we'll gather -- socially-distanced and masked -- at the labyrinth outside of the closed synagogue building. In silent meditation we'll walk the labyrinth, slowly, allowing ourselves to feel the grief that comes with our building being closed and our community being scattered to our separate homes for safety's sake. Because the pandemic renders singing in person unsafe, we'll hear a recording of Eicha (Lamentations) as we walk in silence. The psalmist asked how he could sing God's song in a strange land, but in this pandemic moment we can't sing together at all. It's another loss in a year of so many losses, and it's one that hits me personally in a painful way.

And late in the day on Tisha b'Av, we'll gather over Zoom for a conversation about racial justice. Tradition says that moshiach -- the messiah, or the transformative energy of hope -- will enter the world on the afternoon of Tisha b'Av. On the year's darkest day, the seeds of hope for change begin to sprout. We'll connect with that energy by coming together on Zoom to discuss a pair of NPR interviews from On Being with Krista Tippett (one with Resmaa Menakem, one with Resmaa Menakem and Robin DiAngelo) that folks can listen to in advance. And we'll talk about the work of teshuvah (repentance / repair) and the spiritual work that dismantling racism calls us to do. 

I'm finding it difficult to face Tisha b'Av this year, in part because every time I read the newspaper feels like Tisha b'Av. There's mourning and grief and loss everywhere I look. Hospitals over-filled. Not enough respirators or PPE. The covid-19 pandemic spreading like wildfire. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and so many more. Increased awareness (among white people like me) of racism and how horrific and insidious it is. The realities that the pandemic disproportionately kills people of color and that police disproportionately kill people of color and that our world is set up to disproportionately kill people of color and that in my own unconscious racism I have been content to ignore those things.

What I take from the teaching that moshiach is born late in the day on Tisha b'Av is that in our time of greatest grief we can (we must) find seeds of transformation. We have to find the seeds of something better in this awful year, and we need to water them and uplift them and bring them to fruition. In that second On Being episode I linked above, Krista Tippett cites John Lewis z"l (may his memory be a blessing) and his idea that we need to work with what is, even as we hold in our hearts the dream of the "as-if," the world repaired, the world we want to be working toward. We have to work with what is, to be with what is, to learn about what is, and be working with toward a world repaired. A world redeemed. A world no longer broken as it is now.

It's almost unimaginable. But we have to imagine it. We have to work toward it. And the first step is resisting the impulse to turn away, resisting the impulse toward spiritual bypassing, and letting ourselves feel everything that hurts. It's Av: our time to mourn...and then our time to begin to rebuild.

 

Image: Destruction of the Temple by Francisco Hayez, overlaid with a mass covid-19 gravesite.


Dissonance

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Herbs on my mirpesset on a cloudy summer morning.

 

Sometimes I sit outside on my mirpesset on a Shabbat morning and drink iced coffee and listen to the birds. My mirpesset is just the right size to hold a 4' x 6' sukkah in the fall. In summer, it holds two chairs, a little table, a barbecue grill. Pots of herbs -- rosemary, mint, chives, parsley, thyme. A hanging basket of brightly-colored petunias. It overlooks an expanse of green lawn, a stretch of trees (including a couple of wild apples that bloom in late May), and off to one side the road. It's quiet here. The birds have the most to say in the morning and at twilight, but someone is singing or calling out to its fellows almost all the time. I've put up a couple of strings of solar-powered lights, so at nightfall my mirpesset is ringed with little globes of gleaming light.

It's peaceful, and green, and lovely. Just as it was last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. At moments, I can almost forget that nothing is normal this year. That my son has no summer camps, because it's not safe for children to gather. That we need to mask up before leaving the house. That the pandemic is raging like wildfire now across the South and the West. That there are people screaming for the right to go mask-less because they somehow think the masks are an attempt at sinister governmental control rather than the best tool we have to combat viral transmission. That every day we learn about another instance of police brutality against Black people. That racism flourishes, and we need to stamp it out. That the world is on fire.

I'm fiercely grateful for this little oasis where I can escape the sounds of the television and the Minecrafting and my child's video playdates with friends. (I'm grateful for the tv and the Minecraft and the video playdates, too, but their constancy is wearying.) I'm grateful to be able to sit outside and listen to birdsong. And I feel guilty that I can sit outside and listen to birdsong while the world is on fire. While hospitals are filling up, prisons and meatpacking plants rage with infection, polling places are being closed and voters of color are being disenfranchised, Black people still aren't safe. I feel grateful and guilty. No, not guilty: what I feel is responsible. "In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible," Heschel wrote. Repairing the world is our responsibility.

And yet it's Shabbes. Shabbes is the day to set down the burdens of constant labor. To be a human being instead of a human doing. To live in the as-if -- as-if the world were already redeemed. As-if we had already repaired all of those broken places, disease and racism and systemic inequality. This is my tradition's deepest tool for spiritual nourishment, and in these times of pandemic I need that nourishment more than ever. So I sit with the cognitive dissonance on my mirpesset on Shabbes morning. So much is broken. And yet in this little place with my herb plants and the birdsong -- in this oasis in time, the one day each week when I don't read the Times or the Post -- I can seek for a moment to be at peace.  It's okay to seek for a moment to be at peace. 


Wholeness, justice, and peace

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A d'varling for Pride Shabbat and Shabbat Korach.

 

In this week's Torah portion, Korach, there's a rebellion. Korach stands up against Moses and demands power. He cloaks his demand in words that sound nice -- aren't all God's people holy? -- but it becomes clear that he doesn't want to democratize spiritual power, he wants to claim it for himself and his sons. So, the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his followers.

Korach insists he deserves to be in leadership, but he really wants power. He doesn't want to be a public servant, he wants to be a bigshot. Torah offers us this fantasy: what if the earth swallowed the power-hungry? Imagine what a world we could build if all of the Korachs just disappeared! We can't rely on that. But maybe it can help us envision what ethical leadership really is.

God instructs Moses to take a staff from the leader of each of the 12 tribes and put them all in the Tent of Meeting overnight. In the morning, Aaron's almond-wood walking stick has flowered and borne fruit. With that, the rebellion is truly over. Everyone can see who God has chosen to be in spiritual service to God and to the community. The question for me is: why Aaron?

Pirkei Avot 1:12 says, "Be like the students of Aaron: loving peace and pursuing it." During homeschooling earlier this year, my son and I read some Pirkei Avot together. I asked him what he thinks the difference between those two things might be. "You can love something, but not do anything to make more of it," he said. "Pursuing it means running after it, trying to make it happen."

Tradition holds that Aaron pursued shalom (peace) and shleimut (wholeness). That's why his staff was blessed to flower: because he actively pursued shalom. But what is peace, really? It can sound kind of wishy-washy. It can sound like a band-aid we put over community divisions and injustices in order to ignore them. That's a false peace, a spiritual-bypassing peace. 

Shalom and shleimut don't mean the absence of war, and they don't mean that false peace, the band-aid that papers over injustice. They mean integrity, living in alignment with what's right. In Rabbi Brad Artson's words: "Shleimut, wholeness, means offering to the world the fullness of who you are at your best: your beauty as you are, your greatness as you are."

Reading those words this week, I was struck by how right they feel for Pride Shabbat. Coming out likewise means offering to the world the fullness of who one is. And as Rabbi Artson continues, shleimut also means inviting others to live out their truest selves too. When we stand in our truth and let our authentic selves shine, we give others permission to do likewise. 

Aaron pursued peace. That verb also appears in the verse, "Justice, justice shall you pursue." As my kid reminds me, pursuing means taking action. When we act for justice, we lay the groundwork for peace. Today's protestors say "No justice, no peace." I've also seen signs that say, "Know justice, know peace." When we know justice inside and out, then we'll know shleimut.

Justice means equal rights for everyone: for people of every gender expression and sexual orientation, people of every race and ethnicity. Justice means safe access to healthcare for everyone: including queer and trans people and people of color. Justice means equal treatment under the law for everyone: for queer and trans people, and for people of color, and for all of us. 

Justice means fundamental human rights and dignity for everyone, because we're all created in the image of God. These are core Jewish values. Our world doesn't quite live up to them yet. We still have a lot of work to do before everyone can safely know shleimut, the wholeness that comes from offering the world the fullness of who we are. That work is our calling as Jews.

Korach said we're all holy, but he really meant: I want more power for me and those who are like me. We can be better than that. We can build better than that. And when we do, then we won't need to fantasize anymore about the earth swallowing the power-hungry. And then structures that had seemed wooden and lifeless will flower and bear fruit. As Judy Chicago wrote in 1979:

And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind

And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another's will

And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many

And then all will share equally in the Earth's abundance

And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old

And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life's creatures

And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Zoom Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday night, (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


A sign upon my arm

As I slide the little box of my tefillin shel yad to nestle beneath the sleeve of my guayabera shirt, I remember the old men in the weekday minyan where we went to pray after my grandmother died. Some wore bolo ties. Some had sportcoats hanging off of one arm, sleeves rolled up. And some wore guayabera shirts like these. Like my grandfather wore on that lonely morning as he began to drift, unmoored, away from us. Mississippi had just ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, finally agreeing to the abolition of slavery in the year 1995. Today pandemic jostles for headline space alongside police killings of Black people. Look how far we haven't come. My grandfather was a thoracic surgeon. He fled the Nazis in 1939. Dare I hope that he would stand up for the right of every Black human being to walk, play with toys, jog in a park, drive a car, sleep on a sofa, listen to music, drink iced tea, birdwatch, and carry Skittles, without fear of a cop or armed vigilante or garden-variety racist stealing their breath?

 

 


In the cloud

Cloud"When the cloud lifted, they would break camp..." (Numbers 9:21)

This week's Torah portion, B'ha'a'lotkha, describes, again, how the children of Israel would stay put when the cloud of God lingered over their encampment, and when the cloud lifted they would break camp and resume their journeys. Wait, didn't we read this back in March? (Indeed we did: the end of the book of Exodus contains strikingly similar language.)

This repeated motif -- the cloud, the journey, the waiting -- gives a sense of timeless time. (A bit like what many of us have been feeling in recent months, unmoored from regular schedules.) When the cloud is here, we're fogged-in. Is it March, or is it June? Is it then, or is it now? When will we be able to start moving again? How long are we going to be waiting like this?

Am I talking about the Israelites on their journey, or about us in the midst of turmoil and pandemic?

The image of the cloud makes me think of "the cloud of unknowing." (That's the title of an anonymous work of Christian mysticism, written in the fourteenth century.) The author of the Cloud of Unknowing argues that the way to know God is to give up on trying to understand. It's in surrender to not-knowing that we meet the Infinite.

In our moment, we need to surrender to a lot of not-knowing. We don't know when the pandemic will be over. Whether we were exposed to the virus on that most recent trip to the grocery store. Whether the Black Lives Matter protests will result in the kind of sustained, systemic change that our nation so sorely needs. There's so much that we don't know.

The haftarah portion assigned to this week is also assigned to Shabbat Chanukah, probably because this week's Torah portion speaks of the golden menorah that stood in the mishkan. It's from the book of Zechariah. And here's its most famous line. In Debbie Friedman's singable translation, it's "Not by might, and not by power, but by Spirit alone shall we all live in peace!"

Not by might, and not by power. That feels like a message for our times, both on a macro scale and on a personal one. How do we reach wholeness and peace? Not by grasping for control or imagining that we're in charge. Not with military might in any of its forms. Not by pretending the pandemic away or pretending systemic racism away. Not with platitudes or false certainty.

The path to shalom and shleimut, wholeness and peace, is through spirit. And this week's Torah portion offers a road map. We get there by recognizing that all of life is spiritual life -- both the times of waiting and the times of action. Times when the cloud is low over the camp and we have to shelter-in-place, and times when the cloud lifts and we can be on the move. 

We get to wholeness and peace both by pursuing justice with all that we are, and by surrendering to everything we can't know about how we're going to get there from here. It's not an either/or: it's a both/and. If we wait until we feel fully ready we might never act at all, and, if we imagine we know all the answers we're guaranteed to be wrong. We need humility and chutzpah.

"Not by might and not by power, but by spirit." The Hebrew word for "spirit" here, ruach, can also be translated as breath. I find a message in that for our current moment too. We reach wholeness not through pursuing power, but through ensuring that everyone can breathe freely. When all of God's children can breathe, that's wholeness and peace. 

Eric Garner's last words were "I can't breathe." George Floyd's last words were "I can't breathe." Racism, like coronavirus, steals the breath. Just this morning we sang nishmat kol chai -- "Breath of Life, the breath of all that lives praises Your name." We name God as the Breath of Life. When a human breath is diminished, it's as though God were diminished. 

We don't know when the cloud will lift -- when justice will roll like thunder and righteousness like a mighty stream. (Amos 5:24) We don't know when the cloud will lift -- when the pandemic will end and it will be safe to return to the world again. We only know that right now, we're in the cloud. It's hard to see how we get there from here. But that doesn't exempt us from trying.

Our task is to protect ourselves and each other during these pandemic times. To end racism in all its forms. To cultivate the chutzpah of believing we can make the world a better place alongside the humility of knowing that we don't have all the answers. When the cloud lifts, we move forward. When the cloud doesn't lift, we do what we can to build justice right here where we are.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my synagogue's Zoom services this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) 


Vigil

101302854_10222099677938914_743372806447693824_nSmall bamboo stakes with tiny flags on them were placed six feet apart, all along the north side of route two, from First Congregational Church to Thompson Memorial Chapel.

We gathered with our signs, each person or household to a flag. Most of the signs were homemade, made on posterboard or on cardboard recycled from boxes.

"Black Lives Matter."

"Stop systemic racism."

"Covid + racism = mourning in America."

"Lord have mercy."

"Seeking justice."

"Black lives matter."

"We stand with you.”

The church bells tolled. When they were done, a bagpiper stood on the steps of First Congregational and played somber songs.

As cars drove by, from one side or the other, we turned so our signs would face them, like sunflowers moving with the sun.

Most cars honked in support as they drove by. A few big rigs drove by and honked as they passed us. One bicyclist pedaled slowly by, reading each sign in turn.

A light rain fell. We stood in quiet solidarity with the victims of SARS-CoV-2 and the victims of systemic racism around our nation. When the clock tower rang for 5:30, we quietly went home with our grief.

 


Lament, grief, rage - and change

LamentI wrote the following for my congregation. I share it here in case it's helpful to you too.

 

Today has been declared a National Day of Mourning and Lament. And oh, there is so much to mourn. 

Right now we're living both with the unthinkable tragedy of the global pandemic and with the reality of of racism and violence toward people of color.

More than 100,000 human beings have died from covid-19 in our nation alone, and many more worldwide. And we know that the pandemic disproportionately impacts poor communities and people of color. The systemic racism that is part of American life makes the pandemic worse for communities of color than it is for communities that are white.

Last week George Floyd z"l (may his memory be a blessing) became the latest in a long line of Black people killed by police. Perhaps you have seen video of the officer kneeling on his neck as he gasped, "I can't breathe." It's an act of horrific violence. In response, waves of brokenhearted and furious protest have raged nationwide.

Many of you have asked me what to do with feelings of lament, grief, and rage about all of these things.

My first answer is that we need to feel them, as painful as they are. And my second answer is that our lamentations, our grief, and our righteous anger must transform our actions. Authentic spiritual life asks us to feel the full spectrum of human emotions, from the highest joys to the lowest griefs. And Jewish life and practice invite us to use those emotions, both the bitter and the sweet, to fuel our pursuit of a better world.

In our spiritual calendar, the summer season includes a period of communal mourning called the Three Weeks. That season of mourning reaches its low point with Tisha b'Av, the darkest day of the Jewish year. And Tisha b'Av, in turn, is our springboard into the season of teshuvah, introspection and change that leads us to the Days of Awe.

Right now it feels like our whole nation is living in the Three Weeks. (Maybe the whole world.) Our hearts may feel shattered by the enormity of the pandemic and the tremendous suffering it has caused -- and also by the enormity of systemic racism, which has tarnished the soul of our beloved country since the days of human chattel slavery.

The brokenness is everywhere. It's so vast that words of hope and comfort feel inapt and almost inappropriate. How can I say that everything will be all right when right now nothing seems "all right" at all?

But I can say this: it's our job to repair what is broken. In our society, in our civic life, as Americans and as Jews it is our job to care for those who mourn and to work for a world of justice for all. I welcome your suggestions on how we can do that as individuals and as a community.

May we emerge from this pandemic season of communal grief with strengthened resolve to build a world of greater justice and love. 

As always, I'm here if you need to talk, and I'm holding all of you in my heart.

Rabbi Rachel

 

For further reading:


I don't have words.

I struggle to find words right now.

The virus has stolen life and breath from so many. Systemic racism has stolen life and breath from so many more.

What words could be equal to the murder of George Floyd? To the unthinkable horror of a police officer kneeling on a man’s neck until the life leaves him?

And we know that the pandemic disproportionately kills people of color because of the same systemic racism that causes police to arrest, and to kill, people of color in disproportionate numbers. It’s injustice heaped on injustice.

I pray for all who are protesting for justice, and I fear the wave of covid infections that might follow.

I don’t have wisdom to offer in this moment. I am grieving and angry and praying for justice and for safety.

And I’m thinking a lot about what I can do, and how I can use the white privilege that comes with my skin to work toward justice.

 


Rosh Hashanah: Come, Whoever You Are

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In 1939, my mother, of blessed memory, emigrated to the United States on the SS President Harding. She was three years old. She and her family made it out because her father, my grandfather, had an American birth certificate. He was born in New York in 1908 to Russian parents who returned to Europe when he was a baby. He and his wife and child fled Prague in 1939. I don't need to tell you what became of those who remained behind.

Also in 1939, a ship called the MS St. Louis -- carrying 900 Jewish refugees, many of them children -- attempted to seek refuge on these shores. They were denied entry and had to turn back. Some committed suicide rather than face concentration camps or death camps.

That same year, Congress rejected a bill that would have allowed 20,000 Jewish children to be rescued from the Holocaust. The bill's opponents took an "America First" approach to immigration, arguing that America should care for "our own" rather than serving as a safe haven for outsiders. The President's own cousin testified that "20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults." US immigration policy at the time had strict quotas. A senator -- who would later become one of the nation's leading segregationists -- amended the bill so that the 20,000 refugee children would count against the quota of Germans allowed to enter the country. As he intended, that killed the bill.

Seven weeks ago, at Tisha b'Av, we heard the haunting words of Lamentations, the scroll of the Hebrew scriptures that describes the destruction of Jerusalem and our people becoming refugees in 586 BCE. We heard it interspersed with some contemporary lamentations: "We are kept in a cage. It is very crowded. There is no room to move... We have to sleep on the cold, concrete floor. The lights are on all the time... My sisters keep asking me, 'when will mommy come get us?' I don't know what to tell them."

As of now there are countless migrants and refugees in custody at our nation's southern border. (I literally couldn't find out how many.) At least 2,654 children have been separated from their parents (at last count). Migrant testimonies describe heart-rending realities: children weeping for their parents, use of the hielera (icebox) as a punishment, inedible food, lack of adequate sanitation. A pediatrician who visited the border camps decried the inhumane and unlivable conditions as "comparable to torture facilities."

This is not okay. It shouldn't be okay with anyone. And it especially shouldn't be okay with us. 

Not just because within living memory, Jews were denied entry into the United States, and were sent back to the hellish persecutions from which we were trying to flee, and suffered horrendously, and died. (Though all of that is true.) But because our nation's current immigration policies and response to refugees, especially as unfolding on our southern borders, are profoundly counter to Jewish values.

Seeking asylum is not illegal. It's a human right, guaranteed by international law -- law that was written partially in response to the Jewish experience in the Shoah. And yet, today's migrants and asylum-seekers on the southern border are treated like criminals.

Meanwhile, those seeking to enter via means other than the southern border are also being turned away in numbers that are unprecedented in recent history. The United States has drastically reduced the number of refugees we accept each year. In 1980 we took in 200,000 refugees. The average in the last decade had been 70,000 a year. Last year, the number of refugees allowed into the United States was only 30,000. And now the cap has been cut to 18,000, a shameful historic low.

It's easy to think that this doesn't impact us directly. After all, we're not refugees. But the national climate impacts everyone -- whether it's a climate of welcome, or one of closed doors. And to say "hey, our people made it out of a burning building, it's not our problem if someone else's home is on fire" is inhuman. That is the opposite of Jewish values.

Besides: the same language being used to target refugees and asylum seekers is also used to target us. Last month, the El Paso shooter released a manifesto that said, “this attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” That word invasion reminded me of the manifesto released by the shooter at Chabad of Poway in April, which said that Jews are "invading" this nation, and that it was his white nationalist Christian obligation to kill us on sight. The shooter in Pittsburgh last November also accused Jews of being "invaders." 

This is the hateful language of white supremacy. White supremacists see immigrants and refugees and people of color as "invaders" taking jobs and homes and resources that are rightfully theirs... and they see Jews the same way, regardless of the color of our skin.

And all of this brings echoes of something we've heard before. Maybe you're thinking of Nazi rhetoric and propaganda that spoke of Jews as invaders and vermin infesting the Fatherland. But this is far older than the 20th century.

In Torah we find this language in Pharaoh's mouth. Pharaoh describes the children of Israel as vermin, overrunning Egypt, a danger to his land. Our ancestors had come into Egypt as starving refugees escaping famine. Maybe you remember that story. It began with Joseph being sold into slavery. Through a long and twisting series of events he wound up as Pharaoh's chief vizier, helping him prepare for a time of famine. And when the famine came, Joseph's family went down into Egypt as migrants, as refugees. But then a new Pharaoh arose who saw us as an infestation. He ordered the wholesale slaughter of our sons, and then he ordered us enslaved.

Speaking of any human being as though they were part of an infestation is antithetical to Jewish values.  Torah teaches that every human being is made in the image of the Divine, period. And speaking of migrants and refugees in this manner is even more antithetical to Jewish values. That's the dehumanizing rhetoric of Pharaoh, who said the children of Israel "swarmed" like vermin.  Pharaoh is Torah's exemplar of evil, craven power gone awry. Pharaoh is exactly what we don't want our leaders to be.

Meanwhile, the commandment most often repeated in Torah is "love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Torah says this thirty-six times. Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Love the stranger. Love the stranger.

Maybe Torah says this over and over because it's a difficult commandment for human beings to follow. It can be hard to love someone who's not like us. To love people who don't look like us, or dress like us, or talk like us, or pray like us? To welcome people who are fleeing trauma and seeking safety and a better life, when we might fear there won't be enough jobs or resources here for us? Sometimes that's a tough ask.

But that's exactly what Torah demands. Torah demands the spiritual practice of loving the stranger, the Other, the one who is Not Like Us. Torah demands the spiritual practice of protecting the welfare of the widow and the orphan and the refugee. In the Biblical paradigm, those were the people who were most vulnerable to mistreatment and abuse. Maybe today those who are most powerless are the migrant, the transgender person, the person of color... and, still, the refugee. That one hasn't changed.

What our nation faces today is not new. It did not arise overnight. And the fact that I wasn't this horrified about it five years ago is in part because it's genuinely gotten worse, and in part a testament to the rose-colored glasses through which I used to see our country.

Racism and xenophobia have been part of the United States for as long as there has been a United States. Tragically, our nation has a history of mistreatment of non-white peoples. It began with violence against the Native inhabitants of this land. It continued with centuries of human chattel slavery, which literally regarded Black people as subhuman. And then there were laws restricting immigration. And rhetoric painting communities that were not white or not Christian as un-American and antithetical to American values. And all kinds of legal discrimination, including laws aimed at keeping certain kinds of people out: Chinese people, or Irish people, or Jewish people.

Discrimination has often been the law of the land. It was legal to own slaves. It was legal to turn back the MS St. Louis, sending Jewish children back to the inferno. It was legal to keep non-white immigrants out. These things were legal, but they were never right.

It's tempting to say "this isn't America." No: this is America, or part of it, anyway. But it doesn't have to be. We can make our nation better than this.

At my mother's funeral, the pianist played three songs that she had requested. One was "Taps," in honor of the bugler that she married. The other two were "Jerusalem of Gold," because she loved Israel and the promise it represented, and "America the Beautiful," in appreciation for this nation that welcomed her when she fled Europe in 1939.

I grew up on the Ashkenazi Jewish immigrant story of America as the goldene medina, where we can be full citizens, where we can be who we are without fear. I still cherish that dream. I cherish the dream of this nation made stronger by its diversities. I cherish the dream of the United States as a beacon to the world, a place where human rights are upheld and uplifted. I cherish the promise that Emma Lazarus evoked when she wrote, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free!"

Some have said that "give me your tired, your poor" should be amended to indicate that we only want wealthy immigrants, or perhaps white immigrants. I believe that statement is profoundly counter to Jewish values, and it betrays the core of what I understand the American promise to be.

Our theme for the Days of Awe at CBI this year is "Come, come, whoever you are." Of course this is a spiritual teaching. Whoever we are, no matter what our relationship with Judaism or with God, we are welcome at CBI now and always, and the covenant of Jewish life and practice is open to us now and always. 

And of course "Come, whoever you are" is also political. Not partisan, taking one side or the other, "red" or "blue." Political means "having to do with the polis," the community. To say "come, whoever you are" is to say "the doors of our community are open because we seek to embody the Torah's imperative to love the stranger."

Our theme this year is a reminder of Torah's repeated refrain of welcome. Torah demands that we love the stranger for we were strangers in the Land of Egypt.  Torah reminds us that we know the heart of the migrant and the refugee, because that's been us, that's been the Jewish people time and again.

But we say "come, whoever you are" not only because our people's story has been one of migration and refugee status over and over for thousands of years. We welcome the stranger because that's the moral and ethical compact that Judaism asks of us.

And that means we have a moral and ethical obligation to grapple with our nation's civic life today. It's not my job to tell you which politicians are best-suited to uphold Jewish values. You should do your own research and reach your own conclusions on that. But it is my job to tell you what Jewish values are.

Jewish values tell us to love the stranger. Jewish values tell us to protect the immigrant and the refugee and all who are vulnerable. Jewish values tell us that every human being is made in the image of God and that our diversity is part of God's creation.

Jewish values call us not to separate ourselves from community, not to turn away from our nation's challenges. Talmud teaches, “When the community is suffering, one must not say, ‘I'll go into my home and eat and drink and be at peace.’” (Taanit 11a)

Jewish values call us to seek justice and pursue it. Jewish values call us to embody an existential welcome, like the patriarch Abraham, famous for his tent that was open on all sides. May our Judaism live out that promise, now and always.

 

Come, come, whoever you are

Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving

Come, come, whoever you are

Ours isn't a caravan of despair.

 

It doesn't matter if you've broken your vows

A thousand times before: and yet again,

Come again, come, and yet again...

בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:

נָע וָנָד, מִתְּפַּלֵל, אוֹהֵב לָצֵאת.

בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:

אִין זוּ שַׁיָירַת יֵיאוּשָׁה.

 

מַה נִשְׁתַּנָה שֶׁנִשְׁבְּרוּ נְדָרִים

אֶלֶף פַּעֲמַיִם לִפְנֵי כֵן,

עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב - בּוֹא שׁוֻב, בּוֹא.

עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב ...

 

This is my sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Cultivating hope

That's a tweet from Representative John Lewis. (If somehow you don't know his story, I recommend the graphic novel trilogy March, which he co-wrote with Andrew Aydin and is illustrated by Nate Powell -- it brings the Civil Rights struggle to life.)

Many of us are reeling this week at the Supreme Court's upholding of Trump's horrendous and unethical #MuslimBan, followed by the news that Justice Kennedy is retiring. I'm hearing a lot of grief and fear and despair. (I too am feeling those things.)

I have two suggestions to offer. 

The first is: take care of yourself. There is no merit badge for enduring anxiety and panic. If you have a spiritual practice, strengthen it. If you don't have one, consider taking one up. The work at hand is immense, and our overwhelm helps no one. 

The second is: once your head is above water, find something you can do. If you have funds, donate. If you have time, volunteer. Register people to vote. Make phone calls to voters who might make a difference. And above all, do not lose hope.

I know that may sound naïve. But hope is not a luxury: it's a necessity. Without hope, life loses its brightness and despair settles in. Hope is quintessential to Jewish spiritual life, and I suspect that's true not just in my own tradition but across the board.

Raymond Williams wrote, “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, not despair convincing.” (I learned that from a talk called Applied Hope, in 2016.) Here's a thread I read on Twitter this morning that gave me a bit of hope to cling to:

I take heart from that reminder. The Supreme Court's rulings should be expressions of real justice, but there have been times in our history before when SCOTUS has ruled unjustly. With hard work and persistence we can move toward justice anyway.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg tweeted recently "This is a relay, not a marathon." If you can carry the baton forward, then do so. If you can't, then take a break: have a Shabbes, turn off the news, spend time with a friend, whatever replenishes your well.

And then tag in and pick up a baton again when you can. The work of repairing the world is infinite; it will always be there for you to return to. When you feel depleted, pause and recharge so that you can rejoin the relay strengthened and full of holy fire.

Above all, do whatever you can to maintain hope in the better world you want to see. Dream it, so that you can work toward it. We may not see a nation (a world!) of compassion and justice in our lifetime, but we need to do everything we can to build it.


#FamiliesBelongTogether, and what we can do

This is the note I wrote to send to my synagogue community this week. I'm sharing it here in case it also speaks to those who are not part of my local community but are part of my broader online community.

Many of you who have spoken with me this week have described your despair at current policy of stripping children from parents in order to deter immigration. You've spoken to me about your shock and heartbreak, about the emotional and spiritual impact of that news recording of children crying out for parents they may never see again, about the known traumatic impacts of separating young children from their caregivers.

Recent public discourse has included the suggestion that immigrants are "infesting" our country -- language which should deeply trouble us as Jews: it's the language the Nazi party used to justify what we now know as the Holocaust, and it's also the language Pharaoh used in Torah to describe our spiritual ancestors before setting the enslavement of the Israelites in motion. I know that many of you are troubled by this language too.

Like many of you, I am descended from immigrants who came here seeking asylum from state-sponsored persecution, which gives me an extra sense of connection with today's refugees. Like many of you, I have been gutted to imagine what those children are going through -- and to imagine the anguish their parents now face. Like many of you, I have felt sometimes paralyzed by the enormity of the injustice currently on display.

I am writing to you today to urge you not to give in to that paralysis or to its psycho-spiritual sibling despair. The need is too great. The work of creating a more just world is work in which all of us are obligated as human beings and as Jews. The call to "love the stranger, for [we] were strangers in the land of Egypt" is repeated in Torah no fewer than 36 times. Separating parents from children is the very opposite of showing love.

The ADL recently sent Jeff Sessions a letter, co-signed by 26 American Jewish organizations, arguing that taking children away from parents is unconscionable and that as Jews we understand the plight of immigrants fleeing danger and seeking asylum. On this, every branch of Judaism -- the Reform movement, the Conservative movement, the Reconstructing Judaism movement, and the Orthodox movement --- is in agreement. 

Bend the Arc, a Jewish organization that works toward creating a more just world, has established a petition declaring a state of moral emergency.  As of this writing, more than 14,000 people have signed it. Here's a secular petition as well. Signing a petition doesn't "do" much, but it can break the personal sense of powerlessness. Reaching out to elected officials is another small act that can begin to create change.

There is a custom of giving tzedakah before Shabbat in order to prime the pump for blessing to flow into the world over Shabbes and in the week to come. My tzedakah donation this week will go to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a Texas-based nonprofit organization dedicated to providing immigrant families and refugees (including children) with affordable legal assistance.

Another possible place to direct your tzedakah this week is the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, which advocates for the safety and well-being of unaccompanied kids arriving in the United States. The organization recently announced a project specifically dedicated to helping children separated from their parents at the border. You can learn more about the program's efforts and how to donate here.

I believe that as human beings and as Jews we are called to speak and work and act against injustice wherever it arises. Separating parents from children is injustice. Please do what you can to encourage our government to end this inhumane policy now.

And please take care of yourself emotionally and spiritually as you work to better the world. For some of us that means taking a Shabbat respite from the news, or entering into spiritual practice to replenish our hearts and souls for the work to come. Creating a more just world is fundamental to who we are as Jews -- and it's work that calls us also to self-care, so that we can be here to keep doing the work in all the tomorrows to come.

Blessings to all --

Rabbi Rachel

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.


When words fail

I keep trying to write something about the current state of affairs in my country and being too daunted to begin. My words fail me. What wisdom can I possibly offer about migrant children torn from their parents and held in cages? All I have is heartbreak.

But the fact that I am stunned and horrified and sickened by what's happening in my nation is no excuse for my silence. If I can't find words of my own, the least I can do is point to words by others. Here are five tweets I've signal-boosted in recent days (the first one of these is a thread -- click through to read the whole):

 

 

If you want to know what you can do to make this better, here's a list of seven groups supporting children at the border that need our help. Donating to organizations like these doesn't feel like enough, but if the choice is between "doing something insufficient" and "doing nothing at all," I believe the former is better than the latter.


Pastoral care in tight places

Cf62b1ee-de67-4cd2-8d7e-333a273d112fRecently  I got an email from a dear friend who teaches at Knox College, asking, "Is there any chance you can come to Knox in the next few weeks?"

The Jewish community at Knox has been navigating some tough stuff around racism and antisemitism. (I don't want to give that stuff energy by linking to it; if you're interested, Google will enlighten you.) And there's no Jewish chaplain or campus rabbi to offer pastoral and spiritual support as the Jewish community navigates these tight places. 

So I'm going to Knox for a few days. While I'm there I'll join the chair of the religion department for a few of his classes, and I'll give a poetry reading. But the primary purpose of my visit is to offer care to the campus Jewish community. I'll hold "office hours" for anyone who wants to talk, and I'll offer a Jewish contemplative practice opportunity that will be open to all. 

My visit to Knox is pastoral. I'm not coming as an expert in antisemitism or racism. (The College is looking into having an actual expert in those areas come to campus in the fall -- hopefully a Jew of color.) I'm coming to be a chaplain, a "non-anxious presence." I hope my visit will offer some comfort to Jewish students/faculty/staff. Those who are in tight places need care. 

What's unfolding at Knox is part of a much larger phenomenon. People and organizations and institutions are beginning to grapple with the far-reaching effects of both racism and antisemitism and how different forms of oppression can mirror, intersect, and collide with each other. There's an opportunity for tremendous learning here -- and also a need for inner work to prepare the soil so that the seeds of that learning can bear fruit.

Many Jews with white skin don't think much about how our skin benefits us and how we partake in white privilege by virtue of our skin. And we may also be unconscious of how horrendous and pernicious are the impacts of racism in this country. America still hasn't reckoned with our legacy of chattel slavery or how that legacy persists in structural racism of all kinds, including police violence against people of color, mass incarceration of people of color, and widespread prejudice against people of color.

Many people who are not Jewish don't think much about the legacy of centuries of antisemitism: from ancient hatreds that led to exile, to Church teachings about deicide, to pogroms and mass slaughter (from Lisbon to Kishinev), to the Holocaust: the 20th-century Nazi attempt to eradicate the Jewish people from the face of the earth. And they may also be unconscious of how even light-skinned Jews fear the antisemitism that's built into white supremacist worldviews, and of the trauma we carry as Jews.

(I spoke about these issues at length in my Rosh Hashanah sermon last year: After Charlottesville.)

And, not all Jews have white skin. It's easy to frame the tensions at Knox, or the recent tensions around whether or not the ADL should participate in Starbucks' anti-bias training, in terms of the colliding worldviews of Jews and people of color -- but that framing erases altogether the presence of Jews of color. And... I don't want to make Jews of color responsible for educating the rest of us -- for sensitizing their Jewish community to racism, or sensitizing their community of color to antisemitism. 

We all need to take responsibility for educating ourselves, even when (especially when) that learning is uncomfortable. There's so much that we all need to learn about each other... and when we're feeling attacked or traumatized or activated by an incident of hatred or bias, it's incredibly difficult to do that learning. When we're feeling attacked, emotionally and spiritually we shut down. It's a valuable defense mechanism. We need to honor that and give it appropriate time before we can move beyond it.

As I prepare for my visit, I'm working on the practice of cultivating compassion for everyone who feels afraid and marginalized and attacked in the current American political climate as incidents of hatred continue to mount. I'm reminded of the teaching that no one gets to tell a member of another group whether or not they're experiencing oppression: we need to listen to each other and honor each others' experience. I'm thinking about how rarely we give ourselves space to pray, reflect, and heal.

I'm thinking about how important it is that our communities come together to work against hatred, prejudice, and bigotry of all kinds. I'm thinking about the work we can do together when we find the places where our yearnings and politics align -- without demanding complete mutual understanding or ideological perfection, because if we demand complete understanding from our allies before we can begin to work together, we'll never get to the kind of justice that the world so desperately needs.

And I'm thinking about the need to replenish ourselves as we work toward that more just world. Sometimes in order to have the strength to have the difficult conversations about how someone else's unconscious "stuff" hurts us, we need to turn inward first. We need to notice, and balm, our own aching places before we can build bridges or coalitions with others -- especially when our interactions with those others have re-activated those aches. We need to be kind to ourselves as we process and heal. 

May I be an instrument of balm and comfort for those in need.


Michael Twitty's The Cooking Gene

The-cooking-gene-book-coverI just finished Michael Twitty's book The Cooking Gene. It's a deep exploration of southern cooking, African cuisine, slavery and its continuing impacts, and how food shapes our sense of where we come from and who we are.

I'm an outsider to the African American cultural history this book chronicles. But I know good memoir when I read it, and this is good memoir. It's also a rich, complicated exploration of race and history and memory. And from time to time it's also a meditation on Jewishness and food, and on those subjects at least I feel some reasonable semblance of expertise. Twitty chose Judaism as a young adult, taking on the mitzvot and the Jewish people's long history along with the histories of his genetic ancestors. (In addition to being a culinary historian, he's also a Judaic studies teacher. Wow do I wish I could bring him to my shul to teach my b'nei mitzvah kids.)

*

I read this book on my phone, on airplanes to and from my own birthplace in south Texas. If I'd read it on paper, I would have annotated the heck out of the volume: there would be underlined passages and exclamation points in the margins at the passages that moved or surprised me most.

As it is, I don't have quotations to share with you. I can only reference some of the passages that have stayed with me: the part where he writes about cooking on a plantation using his ancestors' tools and ingredients -- the part where he traces ingredients from Africa, transplanted along with the people for whom they were familiar -- the part where he writes about tracing his white ancestry (because white slaveholders raped the women they "owned," and therefore he is descended from slave owners as well as slaves) -- the part where he offers quotations from historical sources about the "Middle Passage" and what slavery actually entailed -- the part where he's teaching seventh graders about the Holocaust, and slavery comes up, and one of the kids tells him it was a long time ago and he should "get over it" -- the part where he writes about picking cotton and almost glimpsing the ghosts of his ancestors around him, noting that the ashcake they ate in the fields was truly the bread of affliction. (I will hear echoes of that this Pesach when I take my first bite of matzah.) The conversations with Low Country chefs and experts who are preserving Gullah food and culture, and with southern "good old boys" who are Confederate re-enactors -- and the agony of not being able to trace his whole family tree, because during slavery families were broken apart and records didn't preserve data because these human beings were considered chattel, not human beings... 

What moves me most is Twitty's combination of love for where he comes from, and willingness to approach his history (which serves as a synecdoche for African-American history writ large) with generosity. He celebrates soul food without ignoring its roots in slavery and scarcity. He doesn't turn a blind eye to the horrors of slavery, nor the ugly ways in which those horrors still shape the relationship between whites and people of color in this country today. And, he makes the conscious choice to pursue connection, even with the descendants of those who enslaved his forebears, without spiritual bypassing or pretending away the damage done to African American communities to this day.  Maybe that's why this book feels redemptive to me. 

*

Reading The Cooking Gene, I found myself thinking a lot about the foods with which I grew up as a white (Ashkenazi) Jewish woman with immigrant grandparents in south Texas, and the foods I've embraced as an adult seeking a more multicultural approach to cooking and eating, and how race and history play into all of these.

I was particularly struck by Twitty's tracing of West African ingredients and flavors into American forms. I learned to love (and to cook!) Ghanaian food thanks to my ex-husband Ethan. He lived in Ghana for a year on a Fullbright grant right after college, and has returned there often since then. I only went to Ghana with him twice, but those trips impacted me. (See Dancing with the widow, an essay from 2000.) Our son has a Akan day-of-the-week name, and was blessed with Ghanaian moonshine and a libation poured to the ancestors at his naming ceremony where he also received his Hebrew name.

My two trips to Ghana don't make me an expert on anything, but they give me a personal connection with the place and the people I met while I was there. That feeling of connection intensifies the awfulness of reading Twitty's words about slavery. (On my first trip to Ghana I visited Cape Coast Castle, one place where slaves were loaded aboard ship to sail across the sea in unthinkable conditions toward even more unthinkable futures.) And that feeling of connection intensifies my delight at recognizing African ingredients transplanted into the southern American culinary vernacular, and recognizing the indigenous and African roots of some of the foods I grew up eating. (Here's a blog post from Twitty about the Colonial roots of southern barbecue -- a story that you can also read, in somewhat revised form, in the book.)

If you are interested in food, memory, race, or American history, this book is absolutely worth reading. (And if you are not yet interested in the culinary traditions of the African diaspora, I expect you will be by the time you finish.) I recommend it highly.

 

Posts by other folks:

 


If we will it... (on #HolyWomenHolyLand, #MLK, and hope)

26230028_10213916856688417_2297923387648617796_nRecently I've been following a series of stories online, hashtagged #HolyWomenHolyLand -- written by a group of six rabbis and five pastors (all women) who have been traveling together in Israel and the Palestinian territories. 

Their updates have been heartbreaking and awe-inspiring. They've met with parents from the Bereaved Parents Circle, with Women Wage Peace -- Jewish, Christian, Muslim, religious, secular, settler, Arab, Israeli. They've met with leaders and activists and ordinary people on all "sides" of the conflict. They've visited holy sites together. They've eaten and prayed and wept and learned together. 

And one of the messages that keeps coming through, in their tweets and their Facebook status updates and their essays, is that women in Israel and Palestine insist that they do not have the luxury of losing hope. In the words of Maharat Rori Picker Neiss:

It's easy to look at the state of the world and despair. It is far more radical to cultivate hope -- and to take action toward the world of our hopes instead of the world of our fears. But that's the call I hear emerging from the rabbis and pastors who went on the #HolyWomenHolyLand trip...

...and it's the call still emanating from the words we just heard from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King z"l, who dared to dream that some day the sons of slaves and the sons of slave owners would sit down at a table of brotherhood. 

Our own core story, unfolding in Torah even now, teaches that we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt and our enslavement left us with kotzer ruach, shortness of spirit, such that we couldn't even hope for better. We got hammered down, like bent nails. (Here's a beautiful sketchnote illustration of that by Steve Silbert, based in a d'var Torah by Rabbi Sarah Bassin.)

Dr. King was talking about the literal descendants of slaves and slave-owners, not about the mythic, psycho-spiritual sense in which each year we recapitulate the journey from constriction to freedom. I don't want to elide or ignore that difference.

But I think there's a way in which in America today many of us have that kotzer ruach, that constriction of spirit, that Torah says our ancestors knew. There's injustice everywhere we turn. How do we cultivate hope when our own spirits may feel worn down by sexism and racism and bullying and gaslighting and bracing ourselves to hear the next horror story in the daily news?

Last week's Torah portion told us that our ancestors cried out in their bondage, and their cry rose up to God, and God answered. The first step toward change was crying out. When we cry out, even from a place of hopelessness, we open ourselves up. Maybe just a little bit, but in that little opening, the seeds of hope can be planted. We can tend those seeds in each other. 

Theodore Herzl famously taught, "If you will it, it is no dream." The quote continues, "If you do not will it, a dream it is, and a dream it will stay." The first step is to dream of a future that is better than what we know now. The second step is to will that future into being -- to build and bridge and act to bring that future into being -- so that what now is only dream will become real.

We can't afford to lose hope, any more than our sisters and brothers in the Middle East can afford to lose hope. Dr. King's vision calls out to us: it is as necessary today as it was the day he first penned the words. May we be inspired to live in his legacy and to build an America, and a world, where everyone can be free at last.

 

This is the d'varling I offered this morning at CBI (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

I offered these words after chanting excerpts from MLK's "I Have a Dream," set to haftarah trope by Rabbi David Markus, which you can glimpse as the image illustrating this post. Deep thanks to R' David for sharing that setting;  you can hear a recording of the whole thing and see the annotated haftarah on his website.


After Charlottesville: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah

RHOne Saturday last month I was sitting by the pool after services, watching my son and his friends swim, when my cellphone started to buzz with messages from friends. I picked it up, and I watched in horror as white supremacists marched in Charlottesville.

Angry white men with flaming torches had stormed the university campus on Friday night. On Shabbat they marched through the city, some of them carrying swastika flags and giving Nazi salutes. They shouted the old Nazi slogan "blood and soil." They shouted, "white lives matter."

Of course I knew that hatred of Jews existed. But I've never encountered it in my daily life. I thought of Jew-hatred, along with Nazism, as a largely defeated ideology of the past. On the day of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville I recoiled in horror. This hatred of us is real, and I was completely unprepared. And it's not just hatred of us: it's hatred of everyone who doesn't fit the white supremacist mold.

Nazis and white supremacists must be stopped. And the fact that some people draw a false moral equivalency between the Nazis and the counter-protestors also horrifies me. But on this day of remembrance and introspection, I want Charlottesville to spur us to do some inner work... and the first step in that work is acknowledging that we weren't the only ones triggered, or targeted, by Unite the Right.

The Nazi chants and swastika flags in Charlottesville were badly triggering for many of the Jews I know. And the mob of angry white men with burning torches was badly triggering for many African Americans. Their communities carry the memory of of Ku Klux Klan attacks and lynchings, just as our communities carry the memory of pogroms and the Shoah.

While many of my white friends were as shocked as I was by this display of bigotry, none of my non-white friends were remotely surprised. Sad and angry, yes. Surprised, not at all.

In recent months, when I've had cause to say, "this isn't the America I thought I lived in," my non-white friends have said, "...this is the America we've always known." And they've pointed out that the fact that I'm surprised by this kind of ugliness shows that I've never had to walk a mile in their shoes.

Continue reading "After Charlottesville: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah" »


After Charlottesville

20729549_10156463202964307_4929406110392764934_nI spent Shabbat in an increasing state of horror about the white supremacist march in Charlottesville. Chants of "blood and soil," "white lives matter," and "Jew will not replace us;" white men carrying torches or wielding swastika-emblazoned flagsthe death of a counter-protester at the hands of a maniac driving a car -- all of these led me to a heartspace of commingled grief and fury.

Watching this ugliness unfold was not a "Shabbesdik" (Shabbat-appropriate) way to spend a day when we're meant to live as if the world were already redeemed. Ordinarily I ignore the news on Shabbes, and seek to inhabit a different kind of holy time. But it felt important to bear witness, both to the white supremacist protests that blended the KKK with Nazism, and to those who bravely stood up to offer a counter-message.

Throughout the day I sought strength and hope in the fact of rabbis who traveled to Charlottesville to stand against bigotry alongside clergy of many faiths, "praying with their feet," as it were. I took comfort in the number of people I saw donating to progressive causes in Charlottesville (per Sara Benincasa's suggestion). But the weekend made clear just how much work we have to do to root out the cancers of racism and prejudice in this country.

Bigotry and xenophobia are among humanity's worst impulses. White supremacy and antisemitism are two particularly ugly manifestations of those impulses (and they're clearly intertwined -- I recommend Eric Ward's essay Skin in the game: how antisemitism animates white nationalism, which is long but is deeply worth reading). After Charlottesville, I recognize that there is far more hatred than I knew.

I was appalled by the ugliness we witnessed this weekend, and I know that's a sign of my privilege. I haven't had to face structural racism. I imagined that modern-day Nazis were laughable, and that the moral arc of my nation would bend toward justice without my active assistance. No longer. These hatreds are real, and alive, and playing out even now. They will not go away on their own.

The work ahead is long, but we must not give up. We have to build a better nation than this: more just, more righteous, concerned with the needs of the immigrant and the refugee, cherishing our differences of origin and appearance, upholding the rights of every human being to thrive regardless of race or religion or gender expression, cherishing every human being as made in the image of the Infinite One.

In offering that core Jewish teaching, I don't mean to parrot the "all lives matter" rhetoric that erases the realities of structural racism. Every human being is made in the divine image. That doesn't change the fact that in today's America, we don't all have equal opportunities or receive equal treatment. In today's America, racism is virulent. So are other forms of bigotry and hatred. We have to change that.

We have to mobilize, and educate, and hold elected officials accountable, and combat voter suppression, and give hatred no quarter. Those of us who are white have to work against racism and the malignant rhetoric of white supremacy. We have to combat antisemitism in all of its forms. We have to recognize that all forms of oppression are inevitably intertwined, and we need to work to disentangle them all.

This is a marathon, not a sprint. We won't all be able to participate in this holy work in the same ways. Some will be able (for reasons of gender or skin color or finances) to put their bodies on the line in direct action and protest. Others will participate by calling congresspeople, running for office, writing op-eds, or teaching children how to be better than this. But it's incumbent on all of us to do what we can.

I've often heard people muse aloud that we wonder how we would have reacted if we'd been alive during the Shoah, or the Civil Rights years, or any number of other flashpoint times of crisis and injustice. Would we have protected the vulnerable? Would we have spoken out? Would we have been upstanders? This is a time of crisis and injustice, and the only unacceptable response is doing nothing at all.

 

Some links:

 

Cross-posted, with some additional framing material, to my From the Rabbi blog.


More gun violence; more racism; more grief

Once again, horrific violence. A white gunman named Dylann Roof entered a Black church in Charleston, SC, and killed nine, including a pastor who was also a state senator. (New York Times: Charleston Church Shooting Leaves 9 DeadNew Yorker, Murders in Charleston by Jelani Cobb.)

According to witnesses who survived, the gunman asked for the pastor, sat next to him during Bible study, and then shot him, saying "I have to do it; you rape our women and you're taking over our country." The church in question is one of the oldest Black churches in the United States.

When I think about the racism and the hatred which underpinned this act of terrorism, I am beyond words.  I react like a child: this shouldn't be possible. But it is all too possible for people to be steeped in hatred and fear of those who look different from them, and for that hatred to lead to murder.

Tomorrow is Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. There is a horrible confluence in that remembrance and this latest act of hatred against Black people. And that the shooting took place in a church, a house of worship and peace, just makes it more awful still.

The victims and their loved ones are in my prayers. You can send your support and prayers with the members of Mother Emmanuel church here, and if you would like to send a donation to the church and/or the families of the victims, here's the church's website.

A a white woman witnessing this horror from afar, I feel called to teshuvah, to soul-searching. What can I do to change the reality in which this kind of hate crime is possible?  I want my nation to be better than this. I want humanity to be better than this.

May the Source of Comfort bring peace to all who mourn, and comfort to all who are bereaved.

 

Worth reading:

  • "Where did this man, who killed parishioners in their church during Bible study, learn to hate black people so much?" -- Anthea Butler, in the Washington Post
  • "There is something particularly heartbreaking about a death happening in a place in which we seek solace and we seek peace, in a place of worship." -- President Barack Obama, remarks
  • "A hated people need safe spaces, but often find they are scarce. Racism aims to crowd out those sanctuaries; even children changing into church choir robes in Alabama have been blown out of this world by dynamite. That is racism’s purpose, its raison d’etre, and it has done its job well." -- Jamil Smith, in the New Republic
  • And here are words from one of my rabbinic colleagues: "What we need is a passionate and healing response to our national pain and fragility, one that unabashedly calls out the racist undertones of media reporting, which, it seems, differentiates by label between white, black and brown criminals and victims." -- Rabbi Menachem Creditor, in the Huffington Post

 


Kedoshim: Holiness and Baltimore

This is the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) An abbreviated version of these reflections were published on Friday in The Wisdom Daily.



"Y'all shall be holy, for I -- Adonai your God -- am holy."

At first blush, this seems like a pretty tall order. I get that we're supposed to be holy because God is holy, but to compare ourselves to God seems like a recipe for falling short.

But the Jewish mystical tradition offers a different view. Rabbi Moshe Efraim of Sudlikov teaches that when we're holy, our holiness percolates upward and enlivens God. There's chutzpah for you: to think that our actions and choices give strength and holiness to divinity on high!

In a funny way, it means that God needs us. God needs us to be striving toward holiness, so that the energy of our striving will enliven the highest heavens. And we need God as our beacon, our reminder that holiness is possible. We need God, who needs us, who need God. Holiness unfolds and grows in the space between, that space of relationship.

Whether or not you believe that God's holiness derives from ours, it seems to me that God manifests in the world through our actions and our choices. What should those actions and choices be?

This week's Torah portion gives us some suggestions. Feed the hungry. Treat your parents with reverence. Keep Shabbat. Don't render an unfair decision; treat both rich and poor as equal human beings. Don't hate your fellow in your heart. Love your fellow as yourself.

This week as I've been studying the Torah portion, I've also been reading stories about the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Freddie locked eyes with a police officer. Freddie ran, but the officer pursued him and caught him, then radioed for a police van for transport.

By the time the police van reached the police station, Freddie had three broken vertebrae and a fractured voice box. He died of spinal injuries shortly thereafter. It seems clear that the injuries took place while he was in police custody, in the van; his death has been ruled a homicide.

In the wake of Freddie's funeral Baltimore burned, though already a coalition of local leaders, clergy, and even gang members are working together to end the violence. I've seen some people decry the rioting. For my part, I empathize with the viewpoint that riots can be an expression of hopelessness and grief, and that we should be angrier at those responsible for Freddie's death than at those who have smashed windows in despair.

I find myself thinking about Eric Garner, who died in police custody in New York after being placed in a chokehold and gasping "I can't breathe." I find myself thinking of Michael Brown, shot by police while walking down the street in Ferguson, Missouri. I find myself thinking about what it must be like to live in this country without the privileges with which my skin rewards me.

It's facile, and often problematic, to claim that Torah justifies any given political position. People can and do use scripture to justify every political stance. But I do think that this week's Torah portion can speak to us today.

"You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger." Fifty percent of those in Freddie Grey's neighborhood are unemployed. There are whole communities living at or below the poverty line, and a disproportionate number of those living below the poverty line are non-white. Do our social systems provide for them the way the Torah's system of gleaning aimed to do?

"You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich." Do residents of Freddie Grey's neighborhood trust the police and the justice system to live out that instruction?

"Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow." What can this instruction mean to those who fear that no matter what they do, they and their fellows will still be systemically mistreated and undervalued because of the circumstance of their birth or the color of their skin?

"You shall love your neighbor, your Other, as yourself." This verse is at the heart of the Torah, both metaphorically and literally. This week's Torah portion instructs us to be holy as God is holy. If this passage is a set of instructions for that process, then holiness means loving others as we love ourselves; wanting for them all the things we want for ourselves; ensuring that they live within a social system and a justice system which are as dedicated and lofty as we would want for ourselves.

In the original context of Leviticus, the word רעך -- "neighbor" or "other" -- meant Israelite neighbor, your fellow who is like you and is part of your tribe. But I think this moment calls us to live in a spirit of post-triumphalism. Ours is not the only path to God, and in this interconnected world, we are all neighbors.

Every citizen of this country is my neighbor, deserving of equal rights and equal opportunities. Every citizen of this world is my neighbor, because each of us is enlivened by the same spark of divinity, and because the myth of our separateness has long been dispelled: what happens on this part of the planet impacts that part of the planet, and vice versa.

May the Torah's voice call us to an honest accounting of our obligations to one another, and may we work toward the day when all human beings are truly afforded respect, dignity, and justice. Kein yehi ratzon.