Lot, the Subjective Stranger: A Call for Diversity

 Isaiahfamily2“Is she converting?”

“Clearly, she is not from around here, I wonder if she is even Jewish.”

“She must be someone’s nanny…”

These were not just the petty thoughts of those who saw me with my mother, but also at times the actual words spoken. Did these people aim to offend and to distance us? I pray not, but somehow and sometimes, the natural tendency of those who experience something foreign is to immediately cause distance for the sake retaining his/her individual comfort.

While our synagogue, school, corporate and communal settings include the value of diversity as a central tenet in their mission statements, it is all but natural to grow suspicious of the stranger and to create a distance, a separateness, and the “not me, not my problem,” mentality. Our mixed race family never asked to be objectified, and turned into a lifeless color scheme of browns and whites. All we wanted, and still want like others like us, is to dwell among our tribe(s) with respect, validity and with a communal concern for our well-being.

We see in this week’s Torah portion that Avram (later Avraham) recognized the need to distance himself from his nephew Lot, while making sure that he would remain a relevant presence; that a song of many notes not only can, but should exist in harmony. From the pathway of soulless objectivity to the recognition of pulsing subjectivity; from “someone else will welcome them,” to “I will welcome them!:”

“And Avram said… ‘Please let there be no fighting between me and you and between your shepherds and my shepherds, for we are men who are brothers. Is not the whole land before us, please separate from me, if you go left, I will go right, if you go right I will go left (13:8).’

Yes. Indeed, there are times when we must turn away from the other. When being around opposition does threaten our comforts and existence. For when that situation presents itself, it is in our very best interest to curl our backs; to skirt all potential communication and to distance ourselves…

But when? and how?! How do I harmoniously keep inclusion as a central value in my life, while also recognizing the need for boundaries? Should I debase the humanistic qualities of the other, like the Pharoah of Egypt, and the Haman and Hitler of yesteryear? No! Rabbi Yaakov Ben Asher (Cologne, 13th century) taught that allowing for borders and boundaries to exist is the recipe needed for containing and creating Shalom, it is what builds us up, not breaks us down.

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Troyes, 11th century) suggests, that the meaning of Avraham’s statement “please separate from me” is not to convey that there shall be an eternal severance between the two, but rather “where your dwell, I will not distance myself from you, and I will stand by you as protector and a helper.” That although we must remain separate, I will never objectify you, I will keep you close to me.

As we open our eyes to the other, let us remember that like Avram, it is OK to create borders with she who is different than you, but only, only when it does not objectify them. Only when who they are is so important to who you are. Where their border is your border; where their needs are your needs. Then it will be, that our hearts will soar and join, in the call for diversity.

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Posted on October 30, 2014

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A Jewish Jewel in the World’s #1 City

San_Miguel_de_Allende_sky4Recently, über-quaint San Miguel de Allende– named a UNESCO World Heritage city in 2008– was picked as the #1 City in the World by Condé Nast’s Traveler magazine. Yes, we beat out Paris, Prague, New York, Budapest, and Florence. But one overlooked jewel in this city is its Jewish community.

According to some estimates, there are perhaps 10,000 “gringos” living in San Miguel de Allende, (SMA) Mexico, which would mean Americans and Canadians make up a little less than 10% of the population of this small colonial city in the geographic center of the country. North Americans have been settling here since right after WWII, lured initially by the GI Bill /SMA’s art schools and its colonial charm, friendly locals, temperate climate, and relatively inexpensive cost of living (well, if you live on US dollars, that is). Artists, writers, and the “bohemian bourgeois” have flocked here in the past few decades, as well has hordes of tourists, both foreign and national.

It’s hard to guess how many Jews live here in SMA, especially since many are part-time residents, and the vast majority are not affiliated with anything overtly Jewish. But let’s say a conservative estimate could put it at about 10% of the foreigner population; that would easily place us within the top 10 largest Jewish communities in Mexico (there are 45,000, of which 90% live in Mexico City.) Most of the Americans and Canadians are retired folks, here to take Spanish and/or art classes, do yoga, soak up the sun and tequila, and enjoy the myriad cultural activities available here. It would be fair to state that the majority of Jews here don’t come to San Miguel to identify with Judaism. And yet, for many years there has been a core of ex-pats who met for a Hanukkah party, prayed together on the High Holidays, and celebrated Passover at a local restaurant. This had eventually morphed into “Shalom San Miguel de Allende”, a group of 30-40 members who formed a legal asociación civil to promote Jewish culture and religious services in our adopted town.

tallasim2About 6 years ago a most unexpected thing happened: a few Mexican nationals started to come to services. We didn’t think twice about it; our doors were naturally open to everyone. We had no real idea how difficult it was for non-Jewish Mexicans to be accepted into a synagogue or Jewish event here in Mexico. Some claim Jewish ancestry (hard to prove, and often not matrilineal), and others are simply drawn to Judaism intellectually and/or emotionally. For whatever reason, these dedicated young people were seeking to learn more about Judaism, be accepted into a welcoming Jewish community, and many wanted formal conversion—something not well accepted in the mainstream Mexican Jewish communities. Our first wave was taught for several years by lay-leaders of our community, and eventually 3 Conservative rabbis, including Bechol Lashon’s very own Rabbi Juan Mejía, came down from the US to form a Bet Din to formally and halachically convert 7 people.

Since then, Rabbi Mejía has taken the initiative to educate and guide the conversions of subsequent candidates, and in total has helped 36 souls in our neck of the woods to find their spiritual home in Judaism. Aside from doing this great mitzvah for the sake of the gerei tzedek, these young people have greatly enriched and re-vitalized our aging demographics. Although there are still a few cultural and language barriers to be negotiated, the integration of these newest members of the community has proceeded well. Diversity is, was, and will always be a wonderful strength of the Jewish people everywhere!

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Posted on October 28, 2014

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A Call for Diversity: The Tower of Babel

languages2While driving down Route 95 on the East Coast, one has the ability to survey hundreds of billboards along the way. They aim to tell the passerby that life without their product is a life that is incomplete. Without that specific phone, insurance plan, TV show or washing machine, one may run the risk of being an outcast, unaffiliated, and simply on the wrong train. All too often, the sole intent of the advertisement company is to draw one away from their current status of living and suggest that uniting with their agenda is the best way to succeed in the world, denying diversity, for the sake of uniformity.

In this week’s Torah portion (Genesis 11:1-9) we read about the demands of the nations to create a world of sameness and uniformity: the Tower of Babel.

“And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech… And they said one to another: ‘Come, let us build a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth… And the LORD said: ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do; … So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth… Therefore was the name of it called Babel…”

Rabbi Ovadia S’forno (Italy, 16th century) comments that these nations desired to create a world of homogeny because they believed that Man’s ability to proliferate as a species (remember we weren’t that old yet) would only be possible with universalized speech and thought, hence never causing separation and differences to surface. Surely there have been times where we may strongly relate to these nations’ desire for uniformity. By nature, avoiding conflict is one of the basic tenants set out by Anna Freud in her work on defense mechanisms. Granted, placed there in order for us retain our peace of mind, but this was not the intention of our Creator. God did not want us to look the same, speak the same or act the same, and thus the call for diversity caused the tower of exclusivity to crumble.

In the words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 19th century), “Mankind must be scattered, must distribute itself among all the different regions of earth in order that the most divergent and contrary faculties of the human mind may find in nature the needed opportunities of development, in order that experience become full and complete…” We learn here that the Torah does not only welcome diversity, but insists on it. Though we may have been scattered to the far ends of the earth, our ability to create our own borders, languages, and theological premises, has been the gift that allowed for civilization to thrive economically, culturally, and intellectually from Noah until now.

It is our duty as Jews to not only welcome-in the other because it “feels” like the right thing to do, and more so, because God’s intentions were never to produce a world of uniformity, but strengthen us to call far and near for a world of diversity.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Posted on October 23, 2014

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Our Dreams of Home

BitolaHouse4

When I think of home, I imagine the physical space I return to at night, the one with the white-washed façade, the apple trees in the backyard, and of course my daughter’s contagious toothy grin waiting for me inside. But I also feel home, that indescribable sense of peace, safety and grounding.

I suspect that I am not the only one who has felt a little ungrounded lately. In a world that has been marked recently by so much violence and insecurity, and one in which so many people have been physically displaced, it is no wonder that many of us are feeling that lack of “home.”

AroesteMezuzahThe times in my life when I have most often struggled to retain that feeling of being grounded, I have turned to music. It is not coincidence that the first song I ever wrote is about a young girl trying to find her way home. The song, “Chika Morena” is about the iconic Sephardic girl who has been kicked out from her homeland, and has been searching the world over to return home. Along the way, she simply longs to be guided by her ancestors to return to the comfort of her roots.

Working in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), a language and discipline that is, sadly, disappearing, I have extra inspiration to grapple with my feelings of connectedness. I believe that in this globalized world today, in the end we are all just searching for our identities and to understand from where we come. “Chika Morena” is, for me, a way to express this deep desire to connect with the Sephardic heritage of my past.

I recently visited with my last remaining Ladino-speaking relative, and I discovered that she was in possession of the mezuzah to my family’s ancestral home in Macedonia. On the eve of WWII when my family had to make a quick escape, a friendly neighbor held on to the mezuzah (pictured here), and returned it to my cousin following the war. I never knew about it until now. I Google-mapped the address of the house, and what I saw was a modern café that lacked all traces of my family’s former life. It looked so foreign to me. But in the end, I know that home is not the physical space. It is the comfort attached to it.

In “Chika Morena,” the protagonist, with the help of memories and family mementos, does find her way back home. May we all as well.

TRANSLATION:
I am the dark beauty
The one with the long hair
And the strong eyes
But with a happy heart.
I have lived more than 1000 years
I have crossed seas and borders
One day I will return to my land
Where the warmth of my mother awaits me.

Chorus:
They call me the dark beauty
But I was born quite fair
Parading about
I have lost my color

I am the dark beauty
Who has abided by many kings
Climbed ladders of gold
Married into the world and lived.
I have kissed the feet of my children
And the hands of my brothers
I am following the voices of my ancestors
To return to the garden of my mother.

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Posted on October 21, 2014

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Gluten-Free Indian Treats Sweeten Torah Celebration

NoreenI was born and raised in a traditional Jewish family in India. My father Dr. Samuel Solomon was a professor in the College of Agriculture, Pune where I spent the first 16 years of my life. On Simchat Torah morning, the gardener used to bring a basket of jasmine buds and roses as a gift. I would spend the morning making garlands of jasmine and roses for our living room doors and windows. By evening, our rooms were full of fragrance of the jasmine blossoms. I made a special thick Venitraditional Indian garlandsof jasmine buds for my long braids.

Simchat Torah was one of my favorite holidays. I could wear new clothes with some of my mother’s jewelry. My mother would make Sat Padar (see gluten -ree recipe below) stuffed with fresh coconut and jaggery, which I would eat to my heart’s content.

We would go the Succath Shlomo synagogue early in the morning. It was a custom in our community to raise funds by auctioning off various honors related to the holiday and to collect the money after the holiday was over. My daddy would bid for honor of having my two brothers carry around the small Torah. This honor was always seen as particularly important and raised a premium for the community. As I watched my younger brothers carry that beautiful little Torah in red velvet case and silver crown, I envied them. I used to be in the women’s gallery with my mother and gave flying kisses to the Sefer Torah being carried around in a circle with song and dance. In general, my parents insisted that three of us should share everything. Why couldn’t I carry that Sefer Torah for a little while? I asked my mother and she simply said: “Girls are not allowed to carry the Torah.”

We moved to Bombay to live with my granddad Solomon Moses when I was 17 years old. While my maternal grandfather Dr. Elijah Moses was Orthodox, my paternal grandfather was Liberal. The Liberal prayers had a lot of English and women participated along with the men. Rabbi Hugo Gryn and Rabbi Naativ changed the sequence of prayers and celebrated Simchat Torah on Shemini Atzeret eve.

During the sixth and seventh circuits, women made a circle and the Torah was passed from one woman to another. I cannot describe how emotional I felt when I held the Torah for one minute in my arms. I kissed it, said a prayer for my family’s well being and embraced it tight. A shiver went through my spine and tears welled up in my eyes. I felt truly blessed to be so close to the holy Torah.

On Simchat Torah day, my mother did not go to work in her clinic. We would rise early to shower and to have our breakfast of gluten-free pancakes. My mother always bought a bright colored sari for me for Simchat Torah. She used to braid my hair and decorate it with a string of jasmine flowers or chrysanthemums. I was allowed to wear my mother’s jewelry.

After getting me decked up, mummy used to take me to my granddaddy’s room. “How does your granddaughter look today?” she would ask him. He would say: “Very nice. Put a black dot under her foot to ward off the evil eye.” She would follow his suggestion.

We would first go to Magen Hasidim Synagogue to see a couple of circuits of Sefer Torah and the dancing by young and old men, and to socialize with mummy’s relatives and friends. Some of them would glance at me and ask: “What does your daughter do?” Mummy would answer: “She is studying in college.” Then we would visit the Eli Kadoorie School where the celebration of Simchat Torah attracted big crowds. It was like a fair with stalls for different types of vegetarian and non-vegetarian food with soft drinks and ice cream. I remember eating biryani and samosas and drinking Roger’s raspberry drink. “Meet my son so and so, he is studying to be … or working for …,” I would hear from time to time. I had to follow mummy’s instructions: “Be nice. Don’t show an attitude. Your manners reflect on my upbringing.”

Soon I would be complaining to my younger brothers: “Tell mummy that we are tired. Let’s go home.” One of my younger brothers would take up my cause: “Mummy I am feeling tired. Tomorrow we have to go to college. Granddaddy must be waiting.” On the way back home, mummy would be muttering to herself: “Once a year Simchat Torah comes. We get an opportunity to meet people of our community. With this attitude you will either remain a spinster or you’ll get married to a non-Jew and break the Jewish line of past so many generations.” Well, neither of my mother’s fears came true. I married my second cousin and have continued the wonderful legacy of our religion and customs. I have passed on the baton to my children. I hope and pray they pass it on to their children too.

Ingredients2

Sat Padar: Gluten Free Coconut Pancakes

This version of Noreen Daniel’s recipe is adapted for American style kitchens. It is naturally gluten free and delicately sweet.
Makes 8-10; Can be doubled.

For the pancakes:

Ingredients:
1 cup rice flour
1 cup water
1/4 coconut full fat coconut milk (or whole milk can be used if making for a milk meal)
3 eggs
Vegetable oil

Directions:
Mix ingredients until all the lumps are gone and the batter is smooth.
Heat, over medium heat, an 8 inch pan over medium non-stick heat and grease lightly.
Pour batter into the pan, it should be slightly thicker than a crepe.
Cook briefly until pancake is firm and easily removed from the pan.
Place the finished pancake on a plate and repeat until all the batter has been used.

For the Filling:
Ingredients:

1 cup sweetened coconut flakes
3/4 cup sliced blanched almonds soaked in hot water
2/3 cup raisins
2/3 cup dark brown sugar
½ tsp ground cardamom (or to taste)

Directions:
Mix ingredients except raisins together in a bowl.
Heat a 12 inch non-stick pan over medium heat.
Place filling in pan and gently stir until coconut is brown and fragrant and sugar is melted.
Remove and cool slightly.
Put half the mixture in food processor or mortar and pestle and pulverize until a paste.
Add raisins to chunky half.
Recombine to halves of filing until uniform in texture.

To Assemble
Place small amount filling in the middle of pancake.
Gently fold pancake in four.
Serve.

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Posted on October 12, 2014

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Eating Ashkenazi-Sephardi Style at Sukkot

Baklava2Sukkot appears to be one holiday in which the Moroccan and Ashkenazic customs and rituals are fairly similar. We both use the lulav and etrog and we both build a sukkah. I imagine that the sukkah building materials might have differed in Morocco than the materials my family used in London, England and before that in Russia and Poland.

One thing that do I know was different was the temperature outside when sitting or sleeping in the sukkah. My husband, Motti, is not sure about whether families slept in their sukkot during the holiday back in Morocco though the average temperatures in Casablanca during the months of September and October range from 66 – 73 degrees Fahrenheit (I checked!) so it does seem possible. He does, however, remember once sleeping in the sukkah as a kid in Beersheva, but it did not seem to be a family tradition.

My paternal great grandfather, on the other hand, did sleep in the sukkah and had an ingenious way of dealing with the London rain. He had a retractable roof which he used when the weather was not cooperating. Apparently he always slept outside during the holiday which is remarkable when you consider the rain and the chilly temperatures (55-61 Fahrenheit on average – yeah I checked that out too!).

Here is New Jersey, we do not sleep outside, but we do have an annual gathering in our sukkah on the second day of Sukkot in which we tend to play, “Can we outdo ourselves again this year?” Perhaps I’m a little insane, but I have kept track of my guests and menus for all Jewish holidays, plus Thanksgiving, for about the last 12 years or so. Subsequently, although my friends may not recall what was for dessert on Sukkot 2012 or 2013, I know and often don’t want to repeat myself so soon.

At the same time our guests have also developed a fondness for certain dishes such as Motti’s vegetable soup (a self-created item that technically is always changing!) and his myriad of Moroccan/Israeli salads including, but certainly not limited to, roasted peppers and various eggplant dishes. Our friends look forward to our Sukkot lunch and can name certain favorites that they hope will top the menu this year. I too have made some dishes along the way which are also enjoyed by our guests including Moroccan fish and baklava, the latter perhaps not so Moroccan, but passed along to me by my Tunisian sister-in-law Shosh and made by other family members. Please take note that it is not as difficult to make as you think as long as you are not planning to make the filo dough yourself.

This year we are bringing out a few of the old time favorites and trying some new dishes. We will see what works and what if anything makes its way into the Benisty top ten. In the meantime, I recommend trying the roasted peppers and baklava when you get the chance. You won’t regret it!

 

roasted pepper2Roasted Peppers

Ingredients
8 pepper of varying colors
Juice from ½ a lemon
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, sliced

Directions
1)    Grill the peppers until soft. This can be done on an outdoor grill, over an open gas flame or under the broiler. Make sure the skins are blackened all over.
2)    Place the peppers in a paper bag while warm and close. Leave to cool to aid in peeling. Then peel skins off the peppers so that no skins are left.
3)    Peel the blackened skins off the peppers and slice the peppers into ½ inch strips.
4)    Mix the peppers with the lemon juice, olive oil, sliced garlic and salt.
5)    Refrigerate any leftovers.

Note that this dish will keep for several days.

Baklava

Baklava appears as a favorite dish through the Middle East. Filo dough one of its essential ingredients can be found in many grocery stores and specialty markets but be sure to check the date to assure buying fresh products.

Ingredients
1 package filo dough (20 sheets) return any left over sheets to the freezer
2 sticks margarine, melted
1 pound chopped walnuts
½ cup sugar
1-tablespoon cinnamon
4-5 ounces of honey

Directions
1)    Defrost filo sheets/leaves as per the instructions on the box.
2)    Grease an oblong pan or baking sheet
3)    Brush half the leaves (ten) completely with the margarine one at a time on one side only. Arrange them one on top of the other in the pan.
4)    Mix together walnuts, sugar and cinnamon
5)    Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the prepared filo sheets.
6)    Repeat step three with the rest of the filo sheets.
7)    Freeze for one hour.
8)    Remove from freezer and cut completely through dough making diagonal lines in both directions so that little diamond shapes are formed throughout the dough.
9)    Bake in a 400 degree oven for about a half hour, but check after 20 minutes to make sure that the dough does not begin to burn.
10) Remove from oven and pour the honey over the diagonal cuts in the pastry. Let honey absorb, cool and serve.

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Posted on October 7, 2014

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Finding Jewish Camelot

SionaSukkah

Artist Siona Benjamin teaching art in the Sukkah

Celebrating Sukkot on the Canadian shores of Lake Ontario, as I did as a child, was fraught with complications. Evening temperatures often necessitated hats and heaters and our hot soup cooled before it had a chance to warm our insides. But the thrill of the holiday, the opportunity to sit out on nights it did not rain, under the green and the stars made it worthwhile. We lived in a middle-sized city with a small Jewish population but on our block there were two other families who sat in Sukkot. Our differing approaches to religion meant that we rarely shared meals but sitting out in the back yard we could hear each other repeat the same blessings and sing the same tunes and with that, our community felt expansive, our medley of practice seamless, and being Jewish was perfect.

That expansive safe inclusive feeling is essential to Sukkot. The holiday, which follows the hopefulness of Rosh Hashanah and the solemnity Yom Kippur, has us sitting in huts for seven days of ‘our joy,’ as our tradition calls this holiday. Sitting in Sukkot is supposed to remind us of the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land. Though the people of Israel complained pretty much non-stop during the trek, it was in many ways a pretty wonderful time. Despite living in temporary dwellings, throughout, they were guided by God’s presence; they were provided with ample food and drink in a dry, sparse dessert landscape. Outsiders attacked them but God assured their safety. And those who wandered in the wilderness knew God through miracles and revelation. Temporary and rough though it might have been, in many ways it was a time of joy and possibility like no other. Jews of many tribes lived together in peace, they had deep sense of the holy in their midst and their basic needs were more than adequately take care of. Being Jewish was perfect.

As the celebration of Sukkot nears, I’ve been thinking about what it takes to make a perfect Jewish spaceeven if only a temporary one. For my daughter that place has been summer camp. For my son, it is his school fall retreat. I’ve been blessed over the years to have many temporary Jewish spaces that capture the expansive, inclusive, joyful feeling that Sukkot is meant to inspire but one that has gained particular meaning for me in the last few years is the Be’chol Lashon Family Camp.

Every fall, Be’chol Lashon organizes a weekend of Jewish learning, living and sharing in the rolling hills just north of San Francisco. Like the Sukkot singing of my childhood, the diversity of this community helps me experience the Jewish world as inclusive and accepting. There are people of all ages, races, sexual orientations, family configurations. Some people come alone, others come with several generations in tow. There are many different kinds of religious Jews and secular Jews too. The scholars-in-residence have ranged over the years from Indian-American artist Siona Benjamin, to chef and Afro-culinary historian Michael Twitty, to this year’s Rabbi Gershom Sizomu from Uganda. This range embodies my belief that there are many ways to be a Jewish leader and help me to see the full vibrancy of modern Jewish life. Black, Asian, Latino and white Jews share meals having serious conversations about race as well as fun and silly discussions about pop culture. It is a safe space and one in which Jewish life is inclusive, expansive and vibrant. And though it is temporary, like Sukkot, the retreat gives me hope and inspires me for the complexities of daily Jewish life.

Literally and figuratively Sukkot are essential for Jewish life. We all need oases where we feel the pure joy of being Jewish in an accepting, inclusive safe environment. Just as the holiday of Sukkot gives us hope during the somber High Holy days, having a Jewish space that lives up to your vision of Jewish communityeven if temporarycan fuel the fullness of Jewish life at other times. Creating or finding that space, can be as challenging as wandering in the dessert or sitting in a Sukkah with a space heater, but making the effort is definitely worth your while.

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Posted on October 5, 2014

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Confronting Murderers and Finding Forgiveness

WashingtonVI think about the nature and concept of forgiveness literally on a daily basis. As a lawyer, my practice consists solely of defending persons facing the death penalty; my clients are either facing the death penalty at trial or they have already been convicted and are in the state appeals process. Persons on the outside would be astonished to learn how much justice, forgiveness and peace color the many decisions my clients make that impact their future.

At some point after a death penalty trial is over, but before pronouncement of sentence, the accused have the right to make a statement; to allocate to the court, jury, and gallery. During these statements, I have never had a client asked to be spared. The lawyers ask for it, families weep for it, but my clients do not. For the first time in a long process they get to speak freely and they use this time to say, “I am so sorry.” They blame no one, and offer no excuses. They believe in their heart of hearts that Justice requires their life in return for the one(s) they have taken.

Rabbi Milton Steinberg once wrote that “the upshot of the Jewish teaching on what I owe my fellows: I owe them the right, the just, the equitable.” I represented a man who was implicated in a double homicide that occurred 25 prior to his arrest for it. He spent that time of his life in a haze of drugs and alcohol. But one thing he maintained was that if he did those things he deserved to die. For him, the only way he could atone was to give his life in return. He was one of many persons I have met that are willing to give their life in return for the one they took. In other words, they too strive to give what they believe they owe their fellows.

As we approach the Yom Kippur, this year as in previous years, I think about lessons learned from the people I encounter in my line of work, killers and victims alike. I recall a mother looking at my client and saying with conviction, “I forgive you,” and that client breaking down and saying over and over, “thank you”; I think about the father who looked at one client and said, “I pray every day to find a way to forgive you, but I’m not there yet” and that client nodding his head in understanding; I think about the mother who looks at yet another client and says, “ I will never forgive you”, and he flinched as if struck. For one man, the gift of forgiveness; for the other, the hope of forgiveness; for one the despair of forgiveness denied.

My clients have also displayed an amazing capacity to forgive. To forgive the mother for turning tricks in front of them, to forgive the father for brutal beatings, to forgive the rapes; the tortures; the things no child should have to endure. Those clients who look at me and say “what I did is not their fault”; “she is still my mother and I love her”; “she had it rough, I understand.”

I once asked my rabbi, “how can you tell when you have forgiven someone”? and he told me, “when you can begin repairing the relationship.” So, when I look around a court room and death as a sentence is on the table, I see mothers who have never been at the side of their child before this time—are now standing there beside them. They are standing there with full understanding that the world knows about their faults, their failures, their transgressions against their child; and yet, they are there. When they get a turn to speak, they ask for forgiveness: they turn to my client and ask for forgiveness; they turn to the victim’s family as ask for forgiveness; and they turn to the jury and ask for mercy. I see the transformative power of justice and forgiveness. When you have those two, peace is sure to follow.

I once met a man named Billy Moore. Billy spent 24 years on Georgia’s death row for a crime he freely admits to committing. Immediately after the murder during a robbery gone bad, Billy was so eaten up by remorse he confessed, led the police to the murder weapon, and the meager proceeds of the robbery. Despite his sincere regret and remorse, he was sentenced to death. While on death row, he wrote to his victim’s family expressing his sorrow and apologies. The family had compassion and forgave him; and they wrote each other for over 16 years. That family was instrumental in getting Billy’s death sentence commuted to life and ultimately led to his parole.

When I met Billy, I was struggling with my own inability to forgive a loved one’s bad decision that indirectly led to my grandson facing many years in prison. Billy told me something I will never forget. He said, “you have to remember forgiveness is not for the other person, it is for you. Forgiveness sets you free to find peace. You must not forever link your grandson to another’s failures. You must love him independent, look at him and see love, not another’s mistakes. When you look at him and see only him, you will know peace.”

So as I struggle, I remember a promise: “Insomuch as ye have come before me in judgment and departed from me in peace, I do reckon it unto you as if ye have been created anew.” I’m working on it, but I’m not there yet. Shalom.

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Posted on September 30, 2014

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Prayer for Diversity

shutterstock_193243367Change is difficult. It can only happen when we reflect on the present and imagine different possibilities for going forward. In the ten days between the welcoming of the New Year, Rosh Hashanah and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, Jewish tradition encourages to do just that. There are many prayers that serve as meditations on change. What follows is an adaptation of a traditional prayer meant to help focus our minds on the ways in which we might work to make the world a more tolerate of “others” and engage in the positive celebration of diversity. It wrote this piece with the assistance of Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder and hope you will print out a copy and bring it with you to synagogue or share it as a conversation starter with friends. May we all be inspired to create a better and more inclusive world.

ASHAMNU: We have been guilty. In the past year, I discounted the contributions that people unlike me could make to my community. Next year, I will actively search for ways that those people can be involved, constructively, in our communal efforts.

BAGADNU: We have betrayed. In the past year, I have betrayed my commitment to the mitzvah, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Next year, I will work to love my own “differences” as well of those of my neighbor.

GAZALNU: We have stolen. In the past year, I said things that stole away from other’s sense of legitimacy. Next year, I will find ways to bolster other peoples’ respect and acceptance in my community.

DIBARNU DOFI: We have been hypocritical. In the past year, I have held people unlike me to a standard to which I do not hold myself. Next year, I will work at equalizing those standards, either by raising my standards for myself, as well as relaxing them for others, or by relaxing my personal standards as well.

HE’EVINU: We have caused others to sin. In the past year, I have put up barriers to allowing others to participate fully in the Jewish community and tradition. Next year, I will help lower the barriers to participation in Jewish life.

V’HIRSHANU: And we have made others wicked. In the past year, I persuaded others, in my teaching and my speech, to shrink their boundaries. Next year, I will share messages of inclusion and expansiveness.

ZADNU: We have sinned intentionally. In the past year, I have behaved in ways that exclude others, knowing that what I was doing was exclusionary. Next year, I will listen to the whispering voice of my conscience and act on it, so that I do not exclude others.

CHAMASNU: We have been violent. In the past year, I have let the ends justify the means, ignoring the hurts that result from the methods I used to achieve my goals. Next year, I will pay attention to the process as well at the outcomes.

TAFALNU SHEKER: We have lied In the past year, I have ignored truths in order to maintain my social connections and status. Next year, I will speak truth and work to change opinions of those around me.

YATZNU RA: We have given bad advice. In the past year, I have not taken the time to give counsel those who really need my help. Next year, I will use the breadth of my experience to the best possible advantage.

KIZAVNU: We have been deceitful. In the past year, I lied to myself, saying that I was excluded for my differences, relying on my sense of exclusion, rather than relying on the ways that my actions contributed to difficulties. Next year, I will attempt to judge others favorably, giving them the benefit of the doubt, before placing all the blame on their shoulders.

LATZNU: We have mocked In the past year, I have laughed with discomfort, rather than engaging uncomfortable situations. Next year, I will venture into uncomfortable territory with curiosity, while having compassion on my own discomfort.

MARADNU: We have rebelled. In the past year, I have rebelled for the sake of rebelling, not always with an eye to the consequences of our actions. Next year, I will challenge myself to rebel constructively, in ways that enhance my community.

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Posted on September 22, 2014

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Honoring Dad, Forgiving Myself for Rosh Hashanah

The Jewish month of Elul is a month of contemplation and introspection leading up to Rosh Hashanah. For Victoria Washington it has meant coming to grips with loss and learning to forgive herself. Her inspiring story reminds us all that generosity and love are essential for renewal. -Be’chol Lashon

Washington_VictoriaphotoMy parents divorced when I was six and my mother remarried the man who would raise me. I consider this man my father in every single sense of the word. My biological father was still very much a part of my life, but he did not raise me per se. He died of complications from Multiple Sclerosis when I was 25.

My dad, the man who raised me, was the strong and quiet type. He was also dedicated to preparing me for the world I would face as a black, gay woman. He once told me he knew I was gay when I was 5 years old. He let me buy jeans and sweaters and sneakers for back to school, whereas my mother tried to dress me less “tomboyish.” On more than one occasion, I eavesdropped as he told my mother alternately to “leave that girl alone” or “let her make her own decisions.”

He was everything to me growing up. He always said, “excuse me” if he cussed in front of me, never failed to take my hand when we crossed the street even when I was an adult. He taught me what it meant to be valued as a person. In short, he was the perfect father. Although we weren’t blood, when he and my mother were having marriage problems and divorce seemed a possibility my mother related that he told her, “you can walk out that door, but you are NOT taking my child.” Me. He loved and valued me just that much.

My mother once told me, “although I carried you, God created you for him”.

Two years ago, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. March, 2012. April 12th he fell and broke his hip. He went downhill very, very quickly and hospice was called in to help us. He wouldn’t take food or medicine from anyone but me. I would just sit by his bed and read or hold his hand.

May 4th, 2012 I was holding his hand, his grip tightened, he took one last breath and his grip slackened. The man who never, EVER let go of my hand did. I haven’t forgiven him for letting my hand go and leaving me here without him. Without his steadiness, his calmness, his confidence in me; leaving me without his buffer between me and a “challenging” mother.

When he died my mother looked at me and said, “please ask him to breathe. He will breathe for you. He will breathe for you. Please ask him to breathe.” I told her, “I can’t mom. I can’t.” I don’t think she has forgiven me for not asking him to breathe.

Some days I haven’t forgiven myself for not asking him to breathe, but then I realize that I loved him more than enough NOT to ask.

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Posted on September 16, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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