Category Archives: Judaism

Home: from StoryWell, July 20th

David’s instructions, with the invitation to participate in this event, are to share a story worth telling, and in this moment, I stand here unsure that anything I could say is “worth telling.”  

I went to a vigil the night after we watched Philando Castile die, two nights after Alton Sterling was murdered, a week after the anniversary of last summer’s hate crime that killed 9 in one of our country’s oldest African American churches, and two weeks after 49 mostly queer, mostly Latinx young people were killed in a targeted, premeditated attack. At that vigil, a woman spoke of hope, and from the crowd a sob erupted.

I listened to that strange dissonance between hope and tears and was reminded that though the story goes that out of depression comes hope, hope offered to soon sparks rage, desperation, and grief.

Though the evil made so evident these last few weeks hurts me to the core, the plain truth is that the black and brown bodies that are falling are not my own; their stories not mine to tell; my grief for their deaths, though honest, is distant. But in that moment of juxtaposition between hope and hopeless, I recalled a moment in my story, a moment when I too found the suggestion of hope offensive, insulting beyond comprehension. It is that moment that I return to as a source of empathy, and as such, I hope it is worth telling.

………………………………………..

No one was around when I got back to campus, so I made myself comfortable on the futon mattress wedged between a dresser and an extra-high bunk bed, sinking in atop Ruth’s pile of Tibetan throw pillows. No one locked their doors, and this was a room we all floated in and out of as we pleased. Ruth and Elly would have it no other way. They entered the room a little while later as if on a wave of laughter, story overlapping story of Thanksgiving dinners cooked and shared, of reuniting with siblings as co-conspirators in mischief, of old loves kissed after those long first months apart. I listened, burrowing deeper into the comfort of the blankets and the company. But as it grew later and the stories were retold with the arrival of each friend, I felt a gap widen the floor between us. Wrapped in their stories of home and a hand-quilted blanket, I fell asleep.

Later that week, feeling as if I was on the other side of a cliff, I pulled Elly aside and blurted out something like: “But I didn’t have fun. My brother threw dinner at me. I left.”

Elly, being the patient person that she is, urged me to go on. I tried to explain, but I didn’t know where to begin.

At 8 years old, my younger brother Steven had been diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome, which finally explained the severe facial and auditory tics he had always had. As he got older, at 11 and 12 and 13 years old, his tics became more extreme and often dangerous, and other diagnoses piled on: Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and something then called “Neurological Storms.” It sounds innocuous, but I googled it recently and found out that these are now referred to as “rage attacks” – a name I can get behind, a name that packs a punch, a name that explains that during my high school years I lived amid unpredictable, uncontrolled and undesired, personified, rage.

But I don’t think I told it to Elly like that.

I think I must have said, well, I had been home for a day or two, and everything had been fine. Calm. My brother and I were getting along-ish – which was a miracle in those days – My mom, newly vegetarian, had asked me to marinate tofu for us for dinner. So as I sliced through the squishy white block and dropped pieces into a bowl, my brother, then 15, came in and stood opposite me at the table. I don’t remember the details of our conversation – Were we arguing? Maybe. Was I barely faking interest while he excitedly told me about his construction plans for a new telescope? Just as likely. What I do remember is that I had let my guard down. As I dropped hunks of tofu into garlicky soy sauce, I was not thinking “Watch out! Be ready! Watch his hands! Anything could happen! ” Three months away must have quieted that voice, so when he suddenly grabbed the bowl and sent those soft white cubes flying, when I felt a splatter of sticky brown sauce as it rebounded off the wall to my right, an old feeling awoke in my chest.

I’m sure I yelled, cursed him, lunged for a paper towel, but I don’t remember.

What I do remember is grabbing keys off the counter and making a bee-line for the door without changing my shirt. What I remember is my mom thrusting a wadded up ten dollar bill in my hand as I stepped out the door, with the words, “Get some dinner.” I left without closing the door, tears streaming down my face as I backed the car down the steep driveway. I cursed myself for being so stupid to not think that would happen, for coming home for Thanksgiving in the first place, for believing there was life beyond these outbursts.

I spent the ten dollars at a noodle shop, trying to read a Creative Loafing.

But the headlines blurred, and my mind filled with the sound of the screams I remembered, while closed safely away in my darkened bedroom, as my brother compulsively slammed his arm against the hallway wall, my dad’s grunts as he tried and tried again to get between his 12 year old son and the wall, to soften the blow with his own skin.

In my mind, I heard Steven barking like a dog in the back of a crowded shul, I heard my silent prayers that no one turn and stare, and my gratitude that the boy I was sitting next to – the once ring leader of the Hebrew School Bad Kids – didn’t move a muscle, didn’t even flinch. (I was so grateful, in fact, that I even went on a date with him.)

As if in front of me now, I saw the hollow-eyed anger of someone who isn’t really there, lunging at me with a sharpened pencil.

I heard my mother’s whisper that the Hebrew School Director had told her he’d said, “I can’t go on like this.” The unspoken truth that none of us knew how to go on.

My dinner left an aftertaste that lingered, one I couldn’t describe: the complete inability to explain these events, their significance to me, over a mug of tea in a warm common room at Earlham College, with the person who was becoming my best friend.

“Why do you think you reacted like that after your brother ruined your dinner?” Elly asked, ever the mediator. “It’s just food.”

I remembered the stories I used to read – the inspirational kind of stories teenage girls often get given as gifts: stories of older sisters who stay by the side of the disabled younger sibling,  stories of families settling into normalcy with a renewed sense of hope after tragedy. In the light of day I used to snicker at the suckers who fall for that inspirational bullshit, but at night I used to read those stories and sob, because at 16 years old I couldn’t stretch my imagination far enough to see our family so full of light.

My solution had been to move 500 miles from Georgia to Indiana, to a private liberal arts college smaller than my high school, where people eat organic food, fight for social justice, talk about “spirituality” rather than “religion,” and practice living simply. Where we didn’t even lock our doors.

I had let – if not exactly hope – some calm – seep in at the edges of my world. I’d gotten comfortable in it, came home softer, and for that, I’d paid the price in a blotchy soy sauce stain and a re-amped voice in my head reminding me to: Watch out! Beware! Don’t be stupid enough to hope for anything different!

This was a voice I didn’t need in the shabby-but-peaceful dorms of Earlham College, a point made resoundingly clear by the way words failed every time I tried to explain why I returned from vacation more hollow, more suspicious, more relieved, than seemed appropriate.

In the years that followed, I set my sights on shaping my life around the values we lived into during our time at Earlham. Honesty. Listening. Simplicity.  I learned to feel safe in the homes we built. I travelled back to Atlanta by car or greyhound bus – never a plane – the nine or sixteen monotonous hours on the road giving tangible shape to the impossible-to-quantify distance between my two homes.

I learned and re-learned and re-learned to trust calm. At the time, I would have told you “hope” was naive, useless. Hope had hurt me, and I wasn’t about to let it knock me down again.

But in retrospect, it was during those years that, unbeknownst to me, hope shifted allegiances. Hope stopped being about how other people and other places would get better, and became a dream of the home I would create: a place of sunlight, and simple beauty, and peace.

And eventually, hope invited me to come home.

 

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Emanuel, God is With Us

Last night I dreamed of a sanctuary packed tight with Jewish people – religious and reform and culturally connected, some with tattoos and some covering their hair, some with long payis and some with partners of other faiths, some with family who’ve made aliyah and some who’ve divested from Israeli companies, united in mourning the loss of 9 African American community pillars in Charleston. The room in which we gathered had simple wooden walls, we stood in front of angular wooden benches, this shul had no police presence, no security guards, no video surveillance system buzzing in the background. We felt safe. On each person’s lips the words of the Mourners’ Kaddish, in each person’s mind the names of those killed at Emanuel AME Church this week by a white supremacist, and the memory of Denmark Vesey and the 34 other African slaves and former slaves affiliated with this same church, murdered two hundred years ago. In our collective memory, a contradiction, that of knowing the trauma of white supremacy and of knowing the privileges of white America. And it is this contradiction that sits in our hearts, that propelled us to stand for the Mourners’ Kaddish, to declare these murdered men and women our family, and to remain standing as the #blacklivesmatter movement and social media continue to force this country to look itself in the mirror, to see what so many have long refused to see. It is no longer enough to be sad. Our mourning must mark our solidarity. It starts with our standing up.

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Angry at the trees, unable to see the forest: Where do you stand, Atlanta?

Somewhere in my parents’ attic, there is a cardboard, moth-eaten box full of sharply angled crayon drawings and flecks of glitter. In that box, sticky with time and crumpled with the weight of preschool memories, is a pile of certificates – Jewish National Fund (JNF) donations in the amount of $18 each, commemorating trees planted in honor of a birthday, a newborn baby, a loved one recently lost. At three and four and five years old we counted pennies, and with our change clanking in those blue and white tin boxes, we bought trees. A desert, they told us – land deserted – that was up to us, to our pennies, to save, to make beautiful. And our tzedakah boxes filled and our small hearts overflowed with the knowledge that we were helping make the world a better place.

I was 20 years old before I saw a cactus in bloom, before I understood that the desert is as beautiful as it is sharp. I remembered the neat rows of saplings pictured on the JNF videos we saw as children, the narrator commenting on the advanced irrigation system, the arrival of life.

I began to wonder about the consequences of planting a forest in a desert.

The JNF forests are not the sprawling, fruiting cactus of a desert.  They are not the short and stubbily desert grass that flowers white blooms sharp as a cactus’s spike. The JNF forests are not olive groves, do not offer hope of an income to future generations of desert families.

JNF forests are made up of invasive, rapidly growing tree species. These forests are planted soon after homes are destroyed, ostensibly covering the tracks of bulldozers and the evidence that here, a community once grew. The JNF, although generally known as an environmental organization, is destructive to the natural ecosystem it purports to enhance.

But the biggest misconception of all is the belief that the JNF is a non-profit organization – that making charitable donations is philanthropy – when in fact, the JNF has been formally a part of the Israeli government since 1961. As such, the JNF is the official landowner of all Palestinian land acquired by the state of Israel. The organization is charged with transferring these blocks of land from private (Palestinian) ownership to collective ownership of the (Jewish) citizens of the state of Israel, and thus creating parcels of land throughout the country that are effectively a combination national park, socialist illusion, and segregation-era country club.

The once satisfying rattle of that blue and white pushke echoes in my ears, the sound of ignorance, denial, myth: “a land without a people for a people without a land.”

The JNF, as collaborator with the Israeli government and in the interests of the United States, has created a refugee crisis that has lasted more than 60 years. Yet public criticism of the JNF continues to be met with glares, accusations, and anger.

That is, until a few weeks ago.

In March, the JNF’s Atlanta office announced this year’s recipient of its “Tree of Life” award. The winner? The well-known, sometimes infamous Southern Baptist minister known for broadcasting his sermons on TV, homophobia, and blindly evangelical support for the state of Israel – Charles Stanley.

After decades of playing an active role in the displacement of 1,500,000 Palestinian refugees to 58 refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza, Atlanta’s progressive Jews are finally expressing collective outrage at the JNF’s behavior: How dare the JNF honor this virulently homophobic pastor???

To those who are upset and hurt, I ask: Why do you expect this organization, which has destroyed so many homes, livelihoods, and human lives, to make an ethical selection in its choice of honoree?

Moreover, to those who have spoken out on social media, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and via formal complaint to the JNF, How can we live this experience of hurt and disappointment and use it to further develop our empathy for all people who have been harmed by the JNF’s practices?

Last week, Jewish communities observed the holiday of Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust remembrance day. Across the world, there were vigils, prayers, and memorials for the victims of Hitler’s terrible regime, as well as shared stories of the strength of survivors and the resilience of our tradition, pushed further into diaspora but not into disappearance.

As a child, I was taught that we remember the Holocaust so that we will never again fall victim to its horrors. Yet my work as a teacher of refugees and my habit of listening to the NPR news remind me that holocausts happen again and again, in every corner of the world. We are a people who have a holy day dedicated to the remembrance and prevention of genocide, but we refuse to acknowledge that those coins, rattling around in the blue and white tin box, have been used as weapons against another ethnic minority.

It doesn’t matter if the JNF rescinds its honor of Charles Stanley or if – as is most likely – it proceeds with its awards ceremony this week as planned. What matters is that the rest of the world know where we, progressive Jews, stand on issues of human rights. What matters is that we, progressive Jews, hold the JNF as accountable for contributing to the destruction of Israel’s Palestinian communities as we are for this casually lobbed insult to Atlanta’s liberals.

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As You Are

As a child, I was envious of my Christian friends, who went to church on Sunday in jeans and ratty Chuck Taylors, while I was stuck attending synagogue in scratchy stockings and pointy patent-leather shoes.

By the time I was a teenager, I had learned how to work around the wardrobe restrictions, sewing scraps of sari fabric into ankle-length skirts, hiding late-90s platform Mary Janes under long ruffles, passing myself off as both “shul appropriate” and “artsy.”

I don’t go to synagogue anymore. In fact, as one half of an inter-religious duo, I now occasionally go to church. And what do you wear to church? Anything.  A T-shirt? Yes. Torn jeans? Sure, if you’re a teenager.  Flip-flops? Emphatically, yes. A few weeks ago, the pastor was wearing flip-flops. They’re utilitarian if you’re going to be baptizing people.

I don’t think that much about clothing anymore. I don’t fear being “inappropriate,” but I’m also more willing than I was as a teenager to learn the rules of whatever setting I’m in, and to accommodate them.  The truth is, I had completely forgotten about my childhood jealousy of “church clothes” until last weekend.

Sunday, I woke up at 8, kissed my beloved good-bye (she was headed to church, where she would be singing in the band), and headed to meet up with a rabbi I’ve been trying to connect with. I waited a while, but she wasn’t there, and after getting good and mad about it, I checked my email and found out she’d gotten terribly sick.  Hungry, disappointed, and mad at myself for having gotten mad at a sick person, I realized I could still make it to church in time to catch a song or two.

So I went. I showed up 30 minutes late, carrying a Tupperware of oatmeal, wearing my jeans and my flip-flops.  No one, of course, thought twice about any of this.

That’s when that old anger crept back in. How wonderful it was to be welcomed with hugs and how are you’s, despite the fact that I hadn’t eaten breakfast, hadn’t planned on being there, hadn’t put on fancy clothing.  Jews could really use a lesson in welcoming people as they are, I thought.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about the theology behind the dress codes.  I have, clearly, always identified with – even idolized – the Christian perspective that God doesn’t care how you look; that your presence, your prayers, your actions, and your desire for spiritual connection take precedence.

In comparison, Jewish insistence that I wear skirts, shiny shoes, and jewelry sounds nothing but vain. For years, I could see only two options. A: Jews believe in a God who judges us based on the state of our manicures. (But I don’t… and most of the Jews I know don’t…) or, B: Jews and Christians both believe in a God who cares more about ourselves than about our outfits, but we Jews have woven our superficiality, our assumptions of wealth and success as expressed in our clothing, into the very fiber of our culture. Ugh. That’s even worse.

Until yesterday, I believed option 2. Believed it, and despised it, and let it fuel the fire of my discomfort with Judaism.

And then it dawned on me that I’d been looking at the whole thing from the wrong angle.  (Comparing always leads to trouble….)  I asked myself simply, Why does how you look at synagogue on Saturday matter to Jewish people?

The answer has nothing to do with what God thinks of us, and everything to do with what we think of God.

Jewish people welcome the Sabbath by lighting candles and welcoming the “Sabbath bride” into our homes. A bride. A metaphor for the day being as holy as a woman on her wedding day – a person who, in Orthodox tradition, literally gives blessings to members of her community. I don’t know about you, but if someone holy were coming to spend 24 hours in my house, I would scrub the toilet and hide the dirty laundry.  I’d set the table, and use my nicest dishes. Not because I’m trying to show off, and not because I think my holy visitor will judge me based on what I have. Simply because she’s holy, and I want to honor her.

This concept of the Sabbath naturally extends to the house of worship. The instruction that I wear my finest clothes is not about me. It’s exactly the opposite. It’s an expression of my respect for the holiness of the day – a day set aside from the rest of the week – for praising, welcoming, and honoring the presence and the holiness of God.

Suddenly, I’m ok with Judaism’s don’t come as you are policy. Live as you are. Be who you are. And one day a week, shabbos, step outside of yourself. Carry your reverence for the holiness of the day on your person.

To my surprise, I feel as though despite my resistance, I have understood this intuitively the whole time.

Throughout the many years in which I’ve distanced myself from the “requiredness” of Judaism and immersed myself in a new world of cultural Judaism, I have always felt something lift in me in the moments between holiday preparation (the frantic attempts to stuff clutter behind closet doors, sweaty from challah baking in a hundred-degree kitchen) and the arrival of guests.  In the few precious moments stolen for a shower, for changing into cleaner, nicer, clothes, is a feeling, a breath, that separates this moment from the rest.

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