Monthly Archives: May 2012

Orthodox Black Rapper Celebrates life out of the Closet

“Last Shabbos, because of me more people were talking about gay rights around the the Shabbes table, and it’s a good thing.” So explained Yitz “Y-Love” Jordan.

Rapper Yitz "Y-Love" Jordon

Jordan, whose mother is Puerto Rican  and father is Ethiopian, has been Jewish for 12 years and involved with Judaism for more than half his of his life. But only recently he decided to publically come out of the closet about being gay.

Growing up in Baltimore, Jordon did not have a strong Black identity. His diverse group of friends and his interest in punk rock – he shaved his head and sported a Mohawk for a while- set him apart from other black kids. But even as a young kid others identified him as gay and bullied him. Yet as a teen, when he was drawn both to drag and to an observant life, he felt he had to choose between his identities. And so being gay was not officially part of the equation for many years. Ironically, as he became more observant and involved in the hassidic community, being black became more central to his sense of self. Eventually, however, hiding part of himself, meant that he felt less able to fully embrace the mitzvot that originally drew him to Judaism.

So for Jordan, coming out is a coming together of all of the elements of his self. Speaking by phone he explained, “Prioritizing identities, that’s a concept does that does not exist, I am never more one thing than another… now I am able to express myself fully.”

While there are those in the Orthodox world who have condemned him for coming out, the reaction has been overwhelmingly supportive. Both the hip hop and Orthodox worlds have reputations for being homophobic but Jordan’s experience since coming out publically in Out Magazine suggests that the world is changing. Last week rap impresario Russell Simmons reached out and so did some prominent Orthodox rabbis.  It makes him wish he had taken this step years ago.

Y-Love has long been a role model for Jews of color, advocating for diversity in the Jewish community.  Now he has added the LGBTQ community to the list of those he seeks to motivate and strengthen. “I’ve heard from a trans woman who says I’ve inspired her to continue studying towards conversion to Judaism and from other rappers who say they wish they had my courage to come out,” says Jordan clearly gratified that his choice to come out is inspiring others.

 

Posted on May 31, 2012

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Remembering and Keeping Memorial Day

I was thinking today about a Memorial Day breakfast I attended a couple years ago at the home of a friend who happens to live along her town’s parade route. It was a sweet gathering of friends, enjoying the marching bands and town notables as they passed by.  It felt patriotic in a low-key way, but it was not especially sad, in a memorial kind of way. I thought about that on this Memorial Day, as I made a point of watching ceremonies for the day on TV. For example, on watching the ceremony on the National Mall in Washington, DC, we were gripped by the testimony of a young widow whose story of constant and enduring loss was a shocking reminder of the personal cost of war. I felt sad, and also privately embarrassed for all of the Memorial Days gone by when I have failed to mark the seriousness of the day. As a memorial, it is about people, families and communities, after all. It is about the cost of war and all of its complexities. It is about America, and all its greatness and accomplishments, and its weaknesses and mistakes.

I have thought about the comparison between Memorial Day here in America and the parallel Yom Hazikaron (Day of Remembrance) in Israel.  On that day, the sadness pulses through the air.  The sirens that begin the evening of Yom Hazikaron sound at the same time throughout the country and everyone stops in their tracks to stand in silence in memory of those who gave their lives for the country. Memorial observances are widely attended, and the TV shows are suspended so that only memorials can be viewed. Shops and restaurants close – this is no day for fun. It is a day to honor memory and embrace one another in mutual support. The mood is appropriate for a Day of Remembrance.

It is not always so here in the suburban USA in which I live.  The stores lure shoppers with grand sales; the beaches and pools are full with the start of the summer swimming season on Memorial Day. Backyard barbeques bring friends and neighbors together in a celebration of the season. But the “memorial” part of the day is little more than a distant idea. Even Memorial Day parades do little to capture the sadness of loss and the pain of war.

The truth is we are very separated from the current day experience of war unless we have a family member or friend who was lost. Few in my community have that connection. Most Americans live their daily lives happy to ignore the fact that our country has been at war for 10 years. We face our challenges of daily life, but we do not hold in our hearts those who are currently in the Armed Service, or their families, or those who were lost, or their families. We may hear news about a battle, an attack, a downed helicopter, or an ambush. But that seems so far away, like a distant reality that belongs to someone else.

That’s a far cry from the experience of Israelis for whom that reality belongs to everyone. True, Israel is a small country where most citizens have an obligation to serve in the army, and it has faced decades of war.  The experience of loss is close and personal.  The American experience of war is at a far greater distance in many ways and for all kinds of reasons. But our collective failure to feel the effects of war is not to our credit. Our failure to be engaged by the reality of war’s devastation enables us to be distant from the responsibility for the war itself. We don’t see it as “our” war.

Unlike the days of the Vietnam War when the newspapers and TV news were filled with stories and images from the front, our news is quite sanitized. When President Bush ruled that we were not to see the returning body bags and coffins from Iraq, a new stage was set. Grief would henceforth be personal and not communal.

America has lost more than 6400 human beings in the ten years of war since 9/11. Their families grieve in a darkened world.  But we have lost more than the precious gift of their lives – we have lost the sense of shared responsibility and support that is a hallmark of a strong nation. Those who died for America deserve to be honored and grieved. Their families deserve to be supported and cared for by a compassionate nation that appreciates their sacrifice.

In respect for those who gave their lives, their limbs and their well being, let us not turn away. We owe them better.

Posted on May 28, 2012

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Not My Concern…

President Obama’s comments on gay marriage provoked much comment and consternation.  In the Jewish world, while one national Democratic leader endorsed it under a rubric of tikkun olam, others reacted publicly against it. Both the Orthodox Union and the National Council of Young Israel issued short but forceful statements against the President.

Adding to the mix were two additional responses in the Orthodox community. One was an article in Tablet by a law professor and the other a petition of Orthodox Jews who were disappointed by the statements of the Orthodox Union and Young Israel. As the petition stated: “However, we remind the OU and NCYI that same-sex civil marriage is a legal and not a religious issue.” Professor Levin in Tablet wrote:”For good reason, then, American Jews and Orthodox Jews in particular are usually reticent about imposing our religious values and views on others….Same-sex marriage does not threaten any aspect of Orthodox Jewish religious beliefs or practices. Orthodox Jews should decide whether or not to support it on purely neutral, secular terms, and we should reconcile ourselves to our detachment from mainstream culture just as we always have.”

I am not going to enter into the fray of the gay marriage debate. However what I do fine striking in the Professor’s and petition’s response is the retreat from having Judaism say anything about this question to the broader American community.

As a participant in RWB, one challenge made very clear to us was that Judaism and the wisdom of our tradition has much to offer beyond the borders of our community. While I am personally very committed to defining appropriate borders and maintaining real ritual and social boundaries, is this retreat from a public discussion of this question really the way to go? While one may disagree with the formulations of the Orthodox Union and NCYI, is not a definition of marriage a serious moral question that our tradition has much to address? Would we exhibit the same reticence to discuss our understanding of tzedakah, Shabbat, stem cell research, and medical ethics in the public square? Are we embarrassed to acknowledge the genuine conflict between our tradition and this gay marriage question? Do we feel our moral voices do not in this case fall on the side of our tradition and so we radically divide Judaism from the society in which we live in order to simultaneously maintain our Jewish and moral commitments?

What do you think?

Posted on May 24, 2012

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Reciprocal Receiving on Rosh Chodesh

The Western Wall beckoned at the beginning of the new Hebrew month of Kislev, 5760.

I was studying at the Conservative Yeshiva for a month and residing at the Ratisbonne, a French Catholic monastery in the heart of downtown Jerusalem. My neighbor for the month was a sixty year old nun from South Africa named Trudy.

Although I had lived in Israel and visited there many times, I had never ventured into the Holy Sepulchre where the Tomb of Jesus resided. Trudy, who had been in Israel nine months, had never experienced the Western Wall, known in Israel as the Kotel. We made a deal on that rainy early morning in December that we would share each other’s holy places.

Trudy and I  awoke before dawn and started the 30-minute walk to the Old City. We wanted to be present for the Rosh Chodesh morning prayers that are being sustained  by the Women of the Wall, an organization of religiously and socially diverse women who come together once a month on the New Moon at the Western Wall. We reached the Kotel and immediately gazed at the gathering of women on the separated women’s section of the Western Wall. In lullaby hush tones we heard the singing and chanting of some sixty women. We drew closer to this monthly prayer circle. We lingered with them in a bittersweet prayer cocoon for twenty minutes. Like pregnant women getting ready to give birth, they packed their prayer books and the Sefer Torah (the Scroll that held the Five Books of Moses) in anticipation of their journey towards motherhood.

Since the religious municipality that governs the Wall prohibits women from chanting directly from the Sefer Torah’s scroll, the women journey half a mile to a more secluded and less public space known as Robinson’s arch.

The ancient space offered a stone carved table for our precious Sefer Torah. Several women unwrapped the scroll from a large blue duffel bag, and like a newborn baby, they placed her gently and lovingly on this changing table.

The rain turned sun reigned on us; the chatter turned silence shone inside.  Trudy and I watched and waited for the next prayer chapter.

As the women prepared the sacred scroll for the reading, they asked if anyone would like to come up and receive an aliya, an honor.

I scanned the women’s faces, absorbed the question and hesitated before I answered.  “Yes, I would like an aliya.”

The woman standing next to me was wearing a special “Women of the Wall” tallit embroidered with the names of the four matriarchs on each corner.

“May I borrow your tallit for my aliya?” I asked this stranger pleading as I spoke.

“Yes, but of course,” came her quick unequivocal reply.

The tallit made my aliya complete. This slow holy motion moment remains in my memory.

I returned to my place next to Trudy and removed the tallit from my shoulders. I thanked this beautiful lady for her generosity.

“What a wonderful way to inaugurate my  new tallit with your blessings.  This is my first time wearing it. Thank you.”

“You are the blessing,” I said.

Sometimes what we need someone else has to give.

Posted on May 23, 2012

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JP Morgan, a Prostitute, and the Talmud

And to be clear, in the following analogy, Chase is the prostitute.

At a time when two-income families struggle to make ends-meet, 50% of Spanish young adults are unemployed, much of Europe is bucking austerity measures, and a generation closer to home questions the the financial value of higher education, I think it a timely service to provide a solution to very public multi-billion dollar losses: Very long tzitzit for Wall Street bankers (be they Jewish, non-Jewish, male or female).

Sure Chase can take the hit, but we’re talking about earning back the hearts and minds of the the 99% to boost back consumer confidence, so trust in big banks still matters. As a quick reminder, Tzitzit are the knotted dangling threads tied to each of the four corners of a garment (either on a prayer shawl, tallit, or often on the undergarment). The tzitzit are meant to remind a Jew of the 613 commandments enumerated in the Torah. A talmudic analogy is in order; this might take a moment, and to be clear, in the following analogy, Chase is the prostitute:

There was once a man who was meticulous in the observance of the mitzvah (commandment) of tzitzit. He heard that there was a prostitute in a faraway city who charged four hundred gold talents for her services. He sent her the exorbitant fee and set an appointed time to meet her. When he arrived at the appointed time … she prepared for him seven beds, one atop the other — six of silver and the highest one was made of gold. Six silver ladders led to the six silver beds, and a golden ladder led to the uppermost one. The prostitute unclothed herself and sat on the uppermost bed, and he, too, joined her. As he was disrobing, the four fringes of his tzitzit slapped him in his face. He immediately slid off the bed onto the floor, where he was quickly joined by the woman.

“I swear by the Roman Caesar,” the harlot exclaimed, “I will not leave you until you reveal to me what flaw you have found in me!”

“I swear,” the man replied, “that I have never seen a woman as beautiful as you. However, there is one mitzvah which we were commanded by our G‑d, and tzitzit is its name… Now the four tzitzit appeared to me as four witnesses, testifying to this truth.”

“I still will not leave you,” the prostitute said, “until you provide me with your name, the names of your city, rabbi and the school in which you study Torah.” He wrote down all the information and handed it to her.

The woman sold all of her possessions. A third of the money she gave to the government, a third she handed out to the poor, and the remaining third she took with her — along with the silver and gold beds — and she proceeded to the school which the man had named, the study hall of Rabbi Chiya.

“Rabbi,” she said to Rabbi Chiya, “I would like to convert.”

“Perhaps,” Rabbi Chiya responded, “You desire to convert because you have taken a liking to a student here?” The woman pulled out the piece of paper with the information and related to the rabbi the miracle which transpired with the tzitzit. “You may go and claim that which is rightfully yours,” the rabbi proclaimed.

She ended up marrying the man. Those very beds which she originally prepared for him illicitly, she now prepared for him lawfully. – Talmud Menachot 44a

 

Could We Imagine JP Morgan Chaste?

Some will argue that as long as Chase doesn’t need government money to cover its loss than it shouldn’t matter – investors understand the risks. But if that is so, than Chase shouldn’t have needed the practically free $55 billion loan from the Treasury to buy-out Bear Sterns or the $25 billion TARP money. If only Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase, and his Wall Street compatriots took the MBA Oath. Back in his time at Harvard’s Business School there was no need to make statements such as: “I will report the performance and risks of my enterprise accurately and honestly.”   Instead it seems that  many on Wall Street went to the same university as a past congregant of mine. Behind his desk the old high school dropout, who became a very successful hardware manufacturer proudly posted his diploma from Screw U.

If corporations such as Chase insist on being treated (when it suits them) as individuals (such as during campaign season), than when they break the trust of the public, they should do Teshuva (repent). The initial step in true repentance is refraining from the previous errors (this should be followed by contrition, confession before God, and a responsibility for future action). What already seems clear is that the stench from Chase’s recent $2-5 billion dollar loss is that it smells a lot like the security swaps that finally collapse the teetering world economy just a few years ago.  Wall Street has learned nothing.

Pinky: "Gee, Brain, what do you want to do tonight?" The Brain: "The same thing we do every night, Pinky—try to take over the world!"

 

 

A Talmudic Solution to Chase’s Embarrassing, Cringeworthy, and Irresponsible $2 to 5 Billion Dollar Loss.

It would be nice to feel trust that Chase, and other banks, were not just waiting us out so that they could go back to their goal of world domination.  I for one would feel reassured if all the Wall Street bankers would wear really long tzitzit to remind themselves not to screw us again. If that seems distasteful, perhaps too religious, let them take the route of the righteous prostitute in the story above. Let Chase take their total wealth (approx. $380 billion in total cash or cash equivalence) and distribute it as she did:  One third to the government (for creating and then taking advantage of loopholes), one third to the poor (because ultimately, the profits made were on the backs of the 99%), and only then should they be allowed to keep the remaining third.

Posted on May 22, 2012

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Tomorrow’s Rabbi Today

What does the synagogue of the future look like? Today synagogue affiliation rates are dropping, as are affiliation rates across all religious denominations in America. This fact combined with the current economic climate is causing many synagogues to close or merge. Rabbis and lay leaders across the country are trying to reinvigorate their synagogues and attract new members. Much of the conversation focuses on the rabbi. What skills do rabbis need today to lead a successful synagogue? How do rabbis acquire those skills? What new roles can rabbis find outside of the synagogue walls?

Hayim Herring’s new book Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today strives to answer these questions. Rabbi Herring does an admiral job of describing the changing context of American synagogue life and exploring the issues synagogues must look at to strengthen their core functioning. He advocates using social networking and collaborative programs to increase a congregation’s reach. His assessment of how to create a strong organizational system is right on target. He then goes on to address the question of the rabbi.

Here, I think Rabbi Herring gets a lot right, but also makes a few missteps. I agree whole heartedly with his assertion that rabbis today need to be passionate leaders who can speak to the issues of the day and enhance our understanding of our world by using Jewish wisdom. I also agree that today’s rabbis need to be entrepreneurs. The Rabbis Without Borders program, which I direct, focuses on giving rabbis the skills they need to be entrepreneurs. We need rabbis who are thinking out of the box and using Torah in new and creative ways which will help people make meaning in their lives. I was turning each page of the book, saying to myself, “yes, yes, you got it right,” I then hit a page which surprised me.

The heading on this page is “Reducing Some Current Rabbinic Roles.” The first role listed is: pastoral counseling. What? I was so shocked I had to stop reading for a few minutes to absorb the thought. Rabbis should do less pastoral counseling? Rabbi Herring writes, “This is one area where they can scale back. Rabbis can partner with Jewish Family Service (JFS) counseling staff or develop a “train the trainer” approach, and train Jewish metal health professionals to provide a Jewish spiritual dimension to their counseling.”

I must respectfully disagree with Rabbi Herring on this point. Not all rabbis have a talent for pastoral counseling, and those who do not, are well advised to refer people elsewhere. However, pastoral counseling is an incredibly strong tool for a rabbi to use in making a significant impact in both an individual and a communities life. I experienced this first hand when I was the Director of the MetroWest Jewish Health and Healing Center in West Orange NJ. The program was a join program between the JCC, JFS, and local chaplaincy group. In my role, I was available for pastoral counseling for the community at large. After introducing myself to the area rabbis, and leading a few workshops with the social workers at JFS so that they could understand my role and how it differed from theirs, I expected referrals to start coming in, which they did. Social workers are not trained to handle spiritual matters. In fact they are advised to steer clear of them. Even after conducting in service trainings with them, most of the JFS social workers were uncomfortable adding a spiritual assessment to their intake or addressing spiritual issues in their session. Several started referring clients to me for counseling. Together we were able to serve many individuals and help them work though mental and spiritual issues. In addition, rabbis, who did not feel comfortable counseling also, referred their congregants to me. My partnership with the area rabbis also worked well. I could serve their congregants needs, but not steal them away since I did not lead my own congregation.

But the greatest surprise came from the number of unaffiliated people who called me for counseling. A good 80%-90% of the people I saw for counseling were unaffiliated Jews. These were people who needed to a rabbi about an issue which brings up spiritual questions like bereavement or illness and had nowhere else to turn. Because I was based in a JCC, and not a synagogue I was easily accessible. Once I met with someone a whole host of questions and needs would be presented. I was able to skillfully introduce people to Jewish prayers, texts, stories, and meditations which could help them. Clients were amazed that Judaism had so much to offer. And in many cases, after meeting with me they expressed a desire to learn more and be connected to the community. I was then able to match them up with synagogue communities, or other leaning opportunities.

Pastoral counseling is a means to growing the larger Jewish community. There are some questions about the meaning of life and death which cannot be found through a Google search. Pastoral counseling is a unique skill and training which some rabbis and other clergy possess which is markedly different from what a mental health professional can offer. Rather than dismissing pastoral counseling as a skill rabbis can do without, I would instead argue that rabbis should receive better training in pastoral counseling and chaplaincy. When a rabbi is able to connect with an individual at a time of need, then that individual will have an emotional connection to that rabbi and by extension the Jewish community which will last a lifetime. We need to find entrepreneurial ways for rabbis to offer more pastoral counseling not less.

Posted on May 21, 2012

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Pick a Destiny, Any Destiny

David Blaine’s street magic specials are always fun to watch. If you haven’t seen what he does, this is a great example.

Now, if you’re anything like me, your immediate reaction was, “Oh my God – how did he do that?!” It almost felt like he was reading that woman’s mind, since it looked like she had the choice to have “picked a card, any card.” But in fact, where magicians like David Blaine are truly masters of illusion is in creating the best illusion of all – the illusion that we have free choice.

One of the reasons magicians are able to “know” what card we’ve picked is because they have already determined what card they wanted us to pick – it was never really actually “our” choice in the first place. Their trickery lies in their ability to lead us to feel invested in “our” decision.

Stephen Macknik and Susanna Martinez-Conde are the authors of the book Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About our Everyday Deceptions, and they argue that the reason we feel like we were the ones who actually picked the card was because “[o]ur minds will go to surprising lengths to preserve [our] sense of agency and choice.” (pp. 171-172) In other words, our brains sometimes lie to us, leading us to believe that we have much more control over our situations than we actually do.

And yet that’s actually not all that surprising. We know in our own lives that we do not have unlimited choice – there are very real limits to what we have the freedom to do. We can not simply “choose” to get a million dollars – we have to work hard at a high-paying job, and even then, luck will play a big role in whether or not we succeed. We cannot just “decide” to lose weight – we have to diet and exercise, and even then, our metabolism or our willpower may make it challenging to meet that goal. Our genetics, our environment and our past decisions all restrict our choices to an extent. While we may want to believe we have total and complete free will, when we reflect on it, we recognize that we are not nearly as free as we think.

Rabbi Akiva’s Magic Show

This question of how much free will we truly have is actually a very old one, and it’s one the Rabbis grappled with, as well. And perhaps the most classic statement comes from Rabbi Akiva in Pirkei Avot, when he said, “All is foreseen, but freedom of choice is given.” (Avot 3:15)

But how does that work? How can there be free choice if God has foreseen everything?

Well, think about a magic trick, but think about it from two different perspectives — from the point of view of the magician who is orchestrating the trick, and from our point of view, experiencing it. For the magician, “all is foreseen” — he knows what is going to happen, and has planned everything out meticulously. But for us, it feels like “freedom of choice is given,” because we feel we could have picked any card at all. And that’s the point. For the trick to work, we have to believe that we are the ones in charge — even if that’s not really the case.

So that realization can also help us understand Akiva’s statement — except this time, let’s think of our lives from two different perspectives — from God’s and from our own. Now, we may believe that God has foreseen everything, or we may not. I think it actually doesn’t matter which one is true, because as imperfect human beings, we will simply never be able to know objectively one way or the other. The crucial belief for us to hold onto is that “freedom of choice is given” — and it’s crucial for us to hold onto that belief, even if that, too, is not always the case.

And that’s because if we simply feel invested in our choices — even if sometimes they aren’t always ours” — we can then own them and take responsibility for them. If our only belief is that God has foreseen everything, that could easily lead us to abdicate our own sense of responsibility. But if we believe we are the ones in charge of our lives, then we can take pride in our ideas, celebrate our accomplishments, and become accountable for our decisions — regardless of how much they really are “ours.”

So whether or not “all is foreseen,” it’s much more important for us to act as though “freedom of choice is given,” because that’s how we feel a sense of ownership of our actions, over ourselves and our own lives. Because whether or not “all is foreseen,” and whether or not “freedom of choice is given,” we know from experience that there is great value in feeling like we can pick our destiny — any destiny we choose.

(originally published on Sinai and Synapses)

Posted on May 17, 2012

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Conquering the monsters beneath our bed… where the Wild Things really are

I want to share the chorus of one of my favorite Indigo Girls songs with you:

So we’re ok, we’re fine, baby I’m here to stop your crying
Chase all the ghosts from your head,
I’m stronger than the monsters beneath your bed
Smarter than the tricks played on your heart,
we’ll look at them together then we’ll take them apart
Adding up the total of a love that’s true,
Multiply life by the Power of Two (Indigo Girls, ‘Power of Two’)

This has been something of a theme song in my life, these past 11 or 12 years. Ever since I met the woman who, two years ago, became my spouse. In fact, we even incorporated the last two lines of the chorus into the Ketubah that we crafted with an artist-friend.

This past week, a great deal in the flow of the news cycle has caught my attention. Thinking about the monsters beneath our beds, or perhaps ‘where the wild things are’, it was notable that Maurice Sendak passed away this week at the age of 83.  Hearing the news, I went online and watched his PBS interview with Bill Moyers from a few years back, and then the very different but quite entertaining interview that Stephen Colbert conducted with him just a few months ago. It was in the PBS interview that Sendak explained that the wild things were somewhat inspired by his first generation immigrant Jewish relatives – the aunts and uncles who had escaped Europe while they could still get in but, to a young child, were grotesque caricatures.

I know the ones he meant – they were probably just like the great-aunts and cousins, once-removed, that I remember –the ones with the lipstick that was painted so high that it almost touched their nose, the bright blue eye shadow and long, red nails. And the great-uncles with the hair growing out of their noses and ears. While Sendak lived his life as a secular Jew, he was clearly informed by that family history.

He speaks with Moyers about the courage it takes for a child to look the scary things in the eye and, in so doing, to be able to take back control not only of one’s fears, but of one’s anger. He had an uncanny ability to write from within the psyche of a child and paint the inner landscapes of their minds in vivid detail that they could so deeply relate to.

In the interview that Sendak gave recently with Colbert he mentions that he is also a gay man. Colbert, in his tongue-in-cheek but straight-faced manner, exclaims, ‘they won’t let you be a Boy Scout leader, but they’ll let you write children’s books?!’

While I certainly appreciate the joke, I found my mind considering the juxtaposition of Sendak’s ‘where the wild things are’ and another story that we saw being played out in the cultural and political sphere last week when first Vice-President Biden and then President Obama voiced their personal support of the GLBT community and of same-sex marriage. Sendak’s most famous children’s story can provide a means for young children to look at the monsters and many other things in life that scare them and, perhaps, to realize that they are not really scary after all. While for Biden, we might be amused by the influence of Will and Grace to make the scary and unfamiliar into something accessible and much more normative, it is the President’s words that most effectively demonstrated how we combat homophobia and those who feel strongly that civil equality should not be afforded to those whose love is not of the heterosexual kind:

‘I have to tell you that, over the years, as I talk to friends, and family, and neighbors, as I speak with my own staff who are in committed and monogamous same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think of those soldiers, or airmen or marines, sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf, and yet feel constrained, even though ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is gone because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I’ve just concluded that, for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.’

The President voices what we know to be true about many things in life, and not only same-sex marriage: so often, fear is born out of ignorance. Once we get to know someone who is different from us, whether it be difference due to a physical disability, a religion, an ethnicity, and so on… we find that the world is a much more complex, colorful, and diverse place. We learn to see the partial truths in multiple perspectives. We learn, and in learning, like Max who stares into the yellows of the eyes of the wild things and does not blink, we confront our fears.

Some of the fears that have been voiced about permitting same-sex marriage include fears about how children are raised, fears about how the institution of marriage is understood, fears about the authority of some churches and other more traditional branches of religious faith groups. But, with the exception of the strongly held beliefs of some faith groups whose legitimate concerns arise out of their understanding of their faith teachings, getting to know people – people in our families, our communities, it becomes abundantly clear that these are not the monsters beneath our bed – these fears are not grounded in reality.  And for those who are guided by a faith that appears incompatible with the President’s personal statement, it is important to consider whether such beliefs should be applied to civil rights on behalf of the entire population, many of whom are guided by different (and sometimes also religiously-informed) beliefs.

But I have other fears. My fears are borne out of conversations I’ve had with both adults and, even more heart-wrenching, with teenagers, who have shared their pain when they believe that society has taught them that their sexual identity and their religious identity or spirituality are incompatible. They’ve told me that the message they’ve received is that God hates them. Parents who tell me that they fear for their children and are so terribly afraid that their lives will be that much more difficult because they are homosexual. Some of these fears, too, are based on not knowing, and we can confront and learn to crown ourselves king over these too. But I am so terribly saddened that these are some of the messages that have been internalized from our political and cultural landscape.

This is why it is so important that the President and Vice President made the statements that they made. It is why it is important for people to speak out, and write articles, affirming the holiness of being true to our innermost selves, showing that faith and love do go together.

When Max realizes that he has conquered the wild things, he gets back in his little boat and returns to his bedroom, where he finds a hot meal is waiting. What stronger symbol of the unconditional love between a mother and her child can there be? For, once we have conquered the monsters beneath our bed, we come to understand the Power of Two – its all about looking each other in the eye, its all about relationships, and its all about love.

Posted on May 16, 2012

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In Pursuit of Learning

Yesterday was a big day for our family. My daughter graduated from college. She was the fourth of our five children (in our blended family) to graduate with academic honors. The youngest, now a college junior, is headed there. It was a day for all the pride that parents feel at college graduation. I couldn’t wipe the memory of her pre-school graduation out of my mind as I watched this poised, beautiful young woman in cap and gown take her place in front of the audience as she was recognized for her accomplishments. She told of her areas of academic interest in her double major of Comparative Literature and Women’s and Gender Studies and was applauded for it. Her yellow cord hanging down the front of her academic gown announced her achievement for high grades. Her Phi Betta Kappa pin completed the outfit. Her modest smile was the same as the one she wore on the day of her pre-school graduation, and I teared up.

I’m not telling you this to brag. My daughter’s achievements were well earned; she worked very hard for four years. In fact, she worked hard for the 12 years before that too. She had earned this moment of pride. It belongs to her.

Her favorite professor told me softly how wonderful my daughter is. “She is really talented. She is such a great thinker, with wonderful questions, and she writes so well!  I’m watching her.”  I asked her if she had discussed future pursuits with my daughter, and she enthusiastically reveled in being an advisor to my daughter. She hastened to add that she would stay in touch and continue to be there for her.

We – parents and professors — had all done our best to give my daughter (and all of our kids) the tools to succeed as learners. She grew up in a home that valued education, one filled with books, journals and discussions. She was encouraged and supported, including our commitment to pay for her undergraduate education, as we did for each of our children. I realize that we were blessed with the ability to do this, even though it was not easy (this is a story for another day.) I was determined that my children should not have to struggle to be educated as I had when my parents didn’t provide for my education.  We encouraged our kids to study subjects that interested them – to engage with the world through the ideas, questions and knowledge that would fill them with possibilities and prepare them to chart their future.

Our family’s Jewish values had taught us the value of learning. The primary tool for Jewish engagement is the discursive nature of Talmud study. Our sages of the early generation of the Talmud spoke repeatedly of the importance of learning; for example, exhorting us to, “Acquire for yourself a teacher.” (Mishnah Pirke Avot 1:6)

There is a lot of talk these days about a perceived failure of a liberal arts education to prepare young adults for careers in the real world. Many twenty-somethings are un- and underemployed. It is a frightening problem for a parent of three young adult children who relish their learning in the humanities. But yesterday I remembered why I encouraged my kids to pursue their interests. As my daughter’s professor reminded me, the ability to ask good questions, the interest to pursue knowledge and the skills to organize and integrate thoughts and write well are significant life skills for success in any pursuit.

Yesterday’s front-page story in the New York Times documented, in sad detail, the sharp decline in public funding for college education and the enormous burden of student debt that has become a national crisis. The problems are vast and deep: the cost of college education is rising faster than is sustainable; it is becoming unaffordable for most Americans. Americans families will have an increasingly difficult time justifying the investment – sadly, many who are burdened by sizable student loans are already proof of this. Without a doubt, our country needs structural change. We must recover our foundations as a nation that offers opportunity for all.

I celebrate the blessing that education offered my children and me. Congratulations to the class of 2012 – our future leaders, teachers, and great minds. There is no telling what you will accomplish.  Don’t let our nation off the hook – it is our responsibility to preserve what we taught you – that education shapes our future, together.

Posted on May 14, 2012

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The Jewish Way In Saying Goodbye

It is that time of year again in the life of the academic environment. During the course of several years relationships are cultivated and built and friendships deepened. You know in the back of your mind that at some point people will part ways and move in different directions. The university is utterly unique in its development of serious, passionate and meaningful temporary community. It is so meaningful that the reality of its transience escapes from the mind during the course of the several years you are all together. Yet, the finality of late May and early June start slowly creeping up on you and finally they arrive and you need to embrace the end and begin the process of saying goodbye.

How do Jews say goodbye? The Oxford English Dictionary places the origins of the word goodbye as a contraction of “God be with you,” with its usage dating to the 1600s. One can imagine a person turning to their fellow unsure if they would ever see them again as they departed for an uncertain voyage and summoning up their courage and their faith utter “God be with you.” This conveys a sense of closure and of finality.

In contrast, when we turn to the traditional statement uttered by Jews upon completion of study of a sacred text, and we ritualize a form of goodbye to that text, we recite Hadran Alach, we will return to you. A goodbye is never final in our lifelong engagement with Torah. We may have completed that chapter or that tractate and we may be moving on to a new chapter or a new tractate far removed from the subject matter we just completed but when that time comes to part ways, we hopefully and prayerfully say, we will return to you, Hadran Alach.

Perhaps it is worthwhile to explore the ways in which this traditional expression can be applied to moments of departure from our friends, colleagues, students and loved ones. If every moment of human interaction and every relationship nurtured is a journey in deepening our own life wisdom and experience then each completion of a time in the trajectory of a relationship is not that far removed from a completion of our interaction and engagement with Torah, which continuously deepens and transforms our lives.

When we say goodbye to a person we are not wholly leaving them and they are not wholly leaving us. The experiences shared and the lessons learned together will remain with both people throughout the days of their lives. We have the opportunity to return to those experiences and lessons at any point we wish to. Furthermore, the blessing of our ever-connected world enables us to quite actually return to the person whenever we wish through the multiple technological methods. The departure does not need to be final.

This year during graduation season my feeling of Hadran Alach is only increased as not only will I watch with joy and pride as the Class of 2012 graduates in just a few short weeks, but I too will be transitioning and moving from my position here at Harvard to a new life and a new community in Denver, Colorado. To all my students, colleagues and friends in this vibrant, intellectually and spiritually rich community: Hadran Alach, my prayer and hope is that I will return to you and you will return to me throughout the years and decades to follow.

Posted on May 11, 2012

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