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.
A few days ago I was on my way home from work on my bike when a passenger in a passing car yelled to me, “Are you trying to get yourself killed?” It was jarring. I was obeying traffic laws and being as hyper-careful and thoughtful as possible. I have learned that when you are cycling on the suburban New Jersey roads near my home, anything less is very risky and foolish. So what was this guy’s problem? He was more than just an obnoxious North Jersey driver. He was a member of a more selective club – offensive, selfish drivers who put the lives of cyclists at risk.
Once spring weather settles in, I tune up my bike and use it as a primary means of transportation, weather permitting. I not only love the experience of a good ride, but I feel that cycling helps me to live my values. While getting great exercise I am also taking my car off the road – burning less fossil fuel and doing my own little part in relieving the traffic that plagues our New York metropolitan area. The least I would expect from the motorists who pass me is that they allow me to share the road.
This morning I took advantage of beautiful weather and set out early for an extra long ride. Riding on the quieter, beautiful roads away from the main town roads, I was sad when an ambulance sped past. I said a prayer for the person who needed to be whisked so quickly to the hospital. A little while later, as I passed another ambulance, I worried once again for the wounded or sick person whose morning was broken with their emergency. But when I passed a third ambulance a while later, my imagination kicked in. I prayed that the person inside was not a cyclist.
Our rabbis taught that we must not say that we are relieved that we are not the victims in an emergency, since that implies that we are not sympathetic to the person who is truly suffering. So I rebuked myself for such a selfish thought. I prayed once again for healing for whomever was in the ambulance.
But I came by this fear honestly. Just a couple of weeks ago a 25-year-old man was critically injured while cycling (hit by a car) just a mile from my house on a road I often need to travel. We live in an area that lacks shoulders on many of the roads, and harried drivers speed by, sometimes carelessly. A distracted driver can, God forbid, be a disaster for a cyclist. Even as it has become more and more common to see bicycle commuters all over the area, motorists are no more sensitive to our experience.
Last year I was coming to a stop at a light near my house, along with a few other cars. Suddenly, a large rock landed in front of my bike. It had come from one of the cars stopping at the light, from which a guy whom I never saw shouted at me. Luckily it didn’t hit me and, since I was stopped, the rock didn’t obstruct my travel. This was the worst of what I have experienced, thankfully! But it is very common to be jarred by passing motorists who honk or yell because they don’t like sharing the road with a bike (even though the road is not blocked — as I ride far to the right.)
What values are they living? Surely, they lack an appreciation for the need to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (as we learn from this week’s Torah portion in Leviticus 19.) They are too self-absorbed to realize that the best way to build a peaceful, caring society is to “stand in each other’s shoes” and respect each other’s needs. I can only pray that these lessons aren’t learned through tragedy.
A local group is sponsoring the second annual “Bike to Work Challenge.” I proudly display my certificate from last year’s challenge on the wall in my office. Thankfully, there is activism for raising cycling awareness. But the power to change our society resides with everyone. Some kindness, compassion, thoughtfulness and patience would go a long way toward helping all of us.
To all of the motorists who give us space and share the road – Thank You! We are all doing our part in making our world better.
The annual Newsweek/Daily Beast list of America’s fifty top rabbis came out recently. Like many of my colleagues I always read it eagerly to see who got noticed and honored. I revel in reading the names of friends and colleagues whom I regard with the same awe as the Newsweek crew. I always wonder how they determine the list and think of colleagues who coulda/shoulda/woulda been on the list if I had written it. I shake my head at some of the choices, not sure what the reviewers had in mind – but who am I to know, I’m just a rabbi, not a consumer of rabbinic services. Then I shrug my shoulders at the whole exercise. I don’t know what it means, anyway.
But this year the list generated some interesting reactions among some of my colleagues and friends. Some have voiced criticism of the whole idea of honoring rabbis in this way. After all, aren’t rabbis supposed to be humble servants of the Jewish people? The idea of singling out rabbis to call them the “best” in some ways does dishonor to the whole community of rabbis who give their hearts and souls, and in many ways, the whole of themselves. We do this not for honor and fame, but out of devotion to God, Torah and Israel, to bring honor to the Jewish people.
Other colleagues reacted to the slights they perceived on the list. One rabbinic friend started his own campaign to nominate America’s top rabbis using Facebook. (I learned about it when my name appeared on the nominated list, which just made me laugh.) MyJewishLearning.com launched a campaign for nominations and votes for the top rabbis, egging on possible competition between congregations or organizations to get “their” rabbi up there in the ratings.
So what’s going on here? I think this is a very real sign of a gaping hole in our culture — we desperately need heroes. We are starved for strong, inspiring, talented, transformational leaders. Living in a challenging time, filled with rapid change, and so much cultural, political and religious divisiveness, we are all seeking the comfort and hope that a strong leader can offer.
Many Jews feel a deep need for spiritual nourishment that they have not found in synagogues. In a culture that notices and honors those who achieve celebrity status, it is appealing to have celebrity rabbis who might just give us hope and direction.
Psalm 121 pleads, “I lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come?” We need leaders cast in the mold of Moses and Miriam — courageous, visionary, creative, innovative, nurturing, and also human.
The Newsweek list of their choices for the top 50 rabbis represented leaders in this mold. I am grateful for their leadership and happy to honor them. But it surely must go beyond this. The reactions to “the list” reminds us that there are many heroes of lesser fame and stature whose contributions to the lives of many people are equally as noteworthy, and perhaps even more impactful.
And still we need more — first, by stepping back from the mentality of celebrity and super-human expectations that we learn from our culture. We need to give encouragement and support to emerging leaders. And most importantly, we do best honor to all of our leaders by joining them in the task of transforming our world.
I was recently in an awkward social situation. My husband and I were invited to dinner at the home of friends along with third couple whom we didn’t know. As introductions began, I asked the new acquaintances where they live. I mentioned that I know their town pretty well. “How?” they wondered. I explained that many members of our synagogue live in that town. They asked which synagogue we were from and that launched them into a long discussion of their experience in synagogue life. I assumed from this conversation that they knew that I am a rabbi, but soon learned that I was wrong.
The couple shared lots of reactions to things their rabbi and cantor (but mostly the rabbi) had recently done, and their critique was expansive. It wasn’t an angry conversation, but more like banter about their disagreements with their clergy. I mostly listened, but when the reflections circled back to one particular grievance regarding a change in the synagogue worship, I said that surely that change had been vetted with the leadership and the board (meaning –it is not only the rabbi’s responsibility.) Our dinner companion then turned to me and said, “What…. are you a synagogue president or something?” I said, “No, I’m a rabbi.”
This created some confused and embarrassed sputtering and apologies for gossiping about rabbis. I diffused it quickly by telling them I was amused by the conversation, even as I wondered to myself what my congregants would be saying about what I had done that day as they sat at dinner parties. I laughed it off and the subject was quickly changed (for a while at least, until the “Well, you’re a rabbi, can I ask you….? started up.)
I could have been critical. I could have told them about about the challenge of leadership of the American synagogue, especially during changing times. I could have chided their criticisms as selfish. I could have cited Jewish texts that command us to refrain from speaking ill of others and gossiping. But none of those responses would have been constructive. Instead, I chose to support them for taking sufficient interest in their congregation as to want to talk about it.
While gossip can indeed be breed negativity and divisiveness, I chose to see this exchange not so much as about gossip as being like a Talmudic exchange. In the Talmud, the rabbis who shaped the Judaism that we inherited speak in a discourse of disagreement, often quoting their colleagues to support their own positions. It is in the dialogue that Jewish ideas, values, beliefs and practices take shape. The Talmud sets the stage for a long tradition of questioning and critical thinking.
One of the greatest gifts left us by Talmudic sages was the Passover Seder. They managed to create a very structured ritual that is designed to be an open educational experience. They understood that the best way to learn is to ask questions and vigorously discuss ideas and lessons from every angle. They wanted us to enter the world that they modeled for us, where dialogue, debate and personal opinions open worlds of possibilities for growth.
There is an enigmatic story in the Haggadah, the book we use for the Seder. It tells of a group of rabbis sitting up all night learning — discussing meanings and ideas. Historical analyses aside, this story is so cryptic that we have no choice but to wonder out loud, “What were they doing?” “What were they thinking?” “What does this have to do with me?”
If we skip this opportunity for open discussion, we have missed the point of the seder. Just as our dinner acquaintance wanted a forum for discussing the “what was he thinking?” question relating to their rabbi, and no doubt these conversations happen in many a synagogue parking lot, our sages gave us a nod of encouragement to engage.
I hope we use the dinner table of the Seder to banter, to discuss, to question, and to think. “What were they thinking?” becomes “What are we thinking?” It’s more than entertaining; it’s about meaning. I wish you an engaging, enlightening, meaningful Pesach/Passover.
Do Not Separate Yourself from the Community
When a standing-room-only crowd shows up for a township meeting in a quiet, relatively affluent suburban community, you know something important is happening. Not only did neighbors fill the township hall seats and spaces along the walls and doorways, but they also filled the room next door that had been equipped with closed-circuit TV for the overflow crowd to be able to be full participants. It was quite a lesson in democracy and politics.
My town is embroiled in a zoning battle, prompted by a request of a major international corporation whose headquarters are locally based. The company has a large open-space campus with offices and research facilities in the center. It claims that the changing business environment has rendered its usage of the facility increasingly obsolete and rather than rebuilding or redesigning the corporate space, it wants to commercially develop the open space. The plan would give developers a chance to build townhouses and a sprawling continuing care senior facility.
It wouldn’t be a bad idea if it weren’t for the fact that the local roads have already become maddeningly congested at peak hours, with no solution in sight. And there are potentially serious environmental issues with the property that have not yet been resolved. And the property is the one last tract of open space in the area. And the proposed new master plan would be locked in for 20 years – without legal means to change course if the community so desired. Most significantly, the dense population of this area would dramatically change our neighborhoods.
So our community organized and hired a lawyer and a planner and rallied to attend meetings. It was important to be there.
The town planner presented a theoretical framework that justified a new plan. But from the citizens’ perspective, many real-life concerns were not taken into account. The public listened respectfully, awaiting our turn. It was such a polite expression of democracy in action.
The lawyer and planner for the citizen’s group took up the floor. The stark distinctions between the citizens’ concerns and the theories of the town planner were laid bare.
The democratic process is a blessing even though it isn’t always pretty. The property owner has a right to ask for these changes. And we have a right to voice our opposition. And I’m proud of the unifying community spirit that this cause has engendered in our town.
The great rabbi Hillel said, “Do not separate yourself from the community, and do not trust in yourself until the day of your death.” (Pirke Avot 2:5) This wisdom is remarkably powerful for moments such as this. To the corporation, who has made this town its home for 70 years, I would say, “Do not separate yourself from the community!” Your responsibility to your community should guide your hearts. We ask you to honor a basic value of neighborliness: Do No Harm.
And to our community, we must then say, “Do not trust in yourself until the day of your death,” meaning: have humility. The greatest breakdown a community can have is in its inability to recognize the “right” in each other. I was exasperated when we got home very late from the planning board meeting and I exclaimed to my husband, “This is our community and they can’t be allowed to ruin it!” He was more level-headed than I was at that hour, and he simply said, “they have rights too.”
Do not separate yourself from the community. Both Hillel and American democracy got it right.
These days the pundits and analysts say that the peace process is over. Remember Oslo? Remember the Roadmap for Peace back in 2002? It is now one more memory on the heaping pile of “almost” peace deals. Now, 10 years later, as much has changed as has stayed the same, including the fact that some of you will surely disagree with me about even that statement.
I was reflecting on this when I recently had a chance to see my favorite singer-songwriter, Israeli superstar David Broza, in New Jersey. It was a unique setting – just about 100 people in a small, informal performance space at the NJ Performing Arts Center (NJPAC.) More than a performance, it was a “conversation with the artist”, conducted by the director of the arts program at NJPAC, who brought the audience into the conversation as well. For long-time Broza fans like most of us in that audience, it was a thrill to sit at the master’s feet, so to speak. Here is why: Broza is not only a beloved and influential popular artist for two generations of Israelis. He not only earned an international reputation for his music, but he is one of us. He is not only an incredibly talented singer, composer and master of his guitar, he is also a living example of a commitment to peace that one can only wish the politicians should learn.
As his website, rather humbly, I think, says:
More than a singer/songwriter, David Broza is also well known for his commitment and dedication to several humanitarian causes, predominantly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Beginning in 1977, Broza has been working to bring the message of peace to the masses by joining peace movements, and singing what has become the anthem of the Peace process, his hit song, Yihye Tov.
In a recent project, Broza has written and recorded with the Palestinian music group, Sabreen, the song ‘Belibi’, that featured Broza and Sabreen’s Wissam Murad, and two children’s choirs, one from each side of the conflict. In Search for Common Ground presented awards to both artists in November of 2006.”
Broza’s music is inspiring, and made that much sweeter when you meet the artist in person and learn his story. By working on behalf of tolerance, justice and co-existence, Broza is an example of “lived” Jewish values that we look to Israeli society to represent as its very raison d’etre.
A few years ago I made his song “Yihye Tov” the ringer on my IPhone. I wanted to remind myself to never to give up hope that the world can be healed, that things will be better, and that we must keep our dreams of peace alive in our everyday moments. The song movingly envisions:
“I look out of the window and it makes me very sad, spring has left, who knows when it will return. The clown has become a king the prophet has become a clown and I have forgotten the way , but I am still here. And all will be good yes, all will be good , though I sometimes break down but this night oh, this night, I will stay with you.
We will yet learn to live together between the groves of olive trees children will live without fear without borders, without bomb-shelters on graves grass will grow, for peace and love, one hundred years of war, but we have not lost hope.”
A few years ago we heard Broza perform at NJPAC, and while he gave a fabulous performance of a wide range of his music, he left me sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for “Yihye Tov” in vain. We were fortunate that night to be invited to a “chat with the artist” after the show and, of course, a fan hastened to ask Broza why he hadn’t sung his signature song. He said, sadly, that he was a bit tired of it. There is still no peace. I left with such a heavy heart.
But I refused to give in to despair. Like a prayer, I have sung the song many, many times since then. And I continue to support and engage in Arab-Israeli peace projects, though I have been called naïve, or worse.
This time, when Broza was asked to sing “Yihye Tov”, he happily obliged. I smiled thinking about how he had brought the song back to life this past summer with new words for the Israeli “social justice” protests that swept the country. Yes, I felt, there is hope, things will be better.
After the show I had an opportunity to personally say hello to David Broza. I reminded him of that show a few years ago when he didn’t sing “the” song. He didn’t remember that until I reminded him of it. Not bad, I thought, that his hope has so overcome his sadness that he doesn’t even recall that moment. That made me happy. I so appreciated the very human, open-heartedness that Broza brought to the stage, and to our conversation. I’m grateful to him for yet more inspiration.
Yihye Tov. It’ll be good – we have not lost hope.
Last summer when I made my first tentative foray into camping in the wilderness, I was shepherded by my three very able young adult children, who were more experienced, savvy and courageous than I had been. They’d done this before. Our four days of hiking together on a segment of the Appalachian Trail was very intimate — our mutual trust made our ability to help one another flow naturally. It was not only comfortable, but comforting, to share our two small tents, each only large enough for two people to lie down and stay still.
The tent is a place of safety and care. This reminds me of the Torah’s story of a welcoming tent, when three visitors came to Abraham and Sarah’s tent. Genesis 18:1 tells us how Abraham was sitting at the entrance of their tent on a hot day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. He ran to greet them and, bowing to the ground, begging them to stay to be refreshed. Abraham prepared a feast and water for his unexpected guests. He became our model for the value of hospitality. In Jewish imagination Abraham’s tent signifies graciousness and openness. In today’s modern ethos, we imagine this tent as a welcoming place for inclusive, pluralistic Jewish community.
Yet, it seems that our Jewish communal tent has shrunken in size, with its sides nearly closed, keeping out unwelcome conversation about uncomfortable topics. At the top of the list: Israel.
It has become impolitic, unwelcome, and sometimes relationship-altering to express opposing views when traveling between the camps of the right and the left. The JCPA’s “Civility” campaign was an attempt to turn down the temperature of the heated differences within our community. But beyond that there is a demonization that has become acceptable among many communal leaders, targeting those of “the other camp” as immoral, ignorant, naïve, and worse.
That was why I was so encouraged by the program at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America this past November. There were several sessions at the convention that addressed the environment of our “tent” – and how we can have a “big tent.” There was a concerted effort to re-expand the tent. I felt hopeful that this would re-humanize the conversation, returning the spirit of generosity and grace that we celebrated in the years when “We are One” was the motto of the organized Jewish community.
It was a good start, but we have a long way to go. In the three months since the GA, I have experienced and observed more painful demonization, labeling, name-calling and hostility relating to conversations or views about Israel.
Why do we need a big tent? For generations our ancestors shared a sense of mutual responsibility that was borne out of an understanding that they were one people, a kind of extended family. It was a key to our survival and our accomplishments as a people.
Today that feeling of familial mutual responsibility is fraying. Many Jewish leaders are worried about this. And here we are, tearing the fabric apart by defining who is”in” and who is “out”. It’s not good for the Jews.
I know that I have an overly romantic view of the unity of the Jewish people in the past. I like that aspiration. Aspirations are really important to what we choose to do with our resources, our words, our relationships and our efforts.
As my own children are leaving the “nest” of our home, I aspired to share something mature and real with them in our newly adult relationships. Hiking up the mountain, sleeping in those tiny tents, we could enjoy our relationships, trusting each other and the mutual love that sustains us. That was all that mattered.
The tent of the Jewish people should be a place of safety and refreshment, nourishing and cooling us when we come in from the harsh, dry air of the wilderness. To be a Jew is to be a descendant of Abraham and Sarah, open and welcoming, hospitable and generous. I dream of a big, open tent. It’s cozy inside the tent – come on in.
I began making frequent trips to Israel during the second intifada, in August 2001. I became accustomed to the security guard at public places, having my bag checked at entrances to restaurants, markets, malls, etc., which made me feel secure.
Yet, it can still be a little bit jarring to transition in when I arrive in Israel and have my bag checked or go through metal detectors at shops and other public venues. I am now in Jerusalem for a two week stay, and my first stop was the supermarket. At the SuperSol, the now familiar guard, a young Ethiopian man who could be the age of my son, sits at the entrance and asks, in Hebrew, “Madame, do you have a weapon?” I can’t help it, I laugh, and answer, “No.” He looks in my bag in a cursory way and lets me enter.
I laugh for several reasons, I suppose, as I think about it later. One reason is that it is still so surprising, even after all these visits, to be asked this question. I wonder what would happen if I said “yes”. I wonder who carries a weapon in their bag. I also laugh at the thought that if I did carry a weapon, why would I want to tell him? But that’s a scary thought, not funny at all, and so totally absurd for me — I could never imagine even touching a weapon, no less carrying one around. I laugh because of the momentary nervousness generated by the horrible reason that the guard is asking me this question in the first place. And then I grab my shopping cart, consume myself with the delight of being in this place, feeling secure because of the presence of this guard at the entrance.
I was thinking about weapons that night of my return to Jerusalem. Coincidentally, just a block away from the SuperSol is Jerusalem’s Independence Park (Gan Ha’atzmaut). That night there was a huge demonstration of the Israeli Ethiopian community, protesting racism in Israeli society. The streets were all blocked, traffic was at a stand-still as I arrived at my short-term apartment just a few blocks away. Shortly after the demonstration, I could see some signs still left there as I walked past the park. I watched the news that night and heard one protester sum it up: “You brought us here. Now what?”
There are a lot of seam-lines in Israeli society. Racism is one of them. Tolerance, respect and inclusive democracy are all hot button issues. Yet, while Israel’s social problems are in sharp focus for the occasional visitor like me, it also strikes me that we are not so perfect in the USA either. I wish there were more protests addressing the social problems in our country, actually, when I see the Israeli activism.
It occurred to me that these are the weapons we have — words. That had been the first thought that had made me laugh at the guard’s question. What went through my mind was, “Of course I have a weapon! It is my voice. It is my words.”
A couple nights later I walked past the park and noticed an elaborately decorated car parked nearby. The car was covered with banners, signs, bumper stickers and painted words, all promoting the Bretslover Chasidic sect. The words proclaim G-d’s love. Echoes of the protest still linger, perhaps this is one of them. Here is one kind of weapon against hate, captured in words. I wonder how we get from slogans to actions — how we can do a better job of loving each other with acceptance, respect and compassion.
As I walk down the street I am consumed with thoughts of protests, activism, tolerance and mutuality. I notice a slightly familiar person walking past me, now in front of me. It’s the young Ethiopian guard from the SuperSol. His pace is quick — but I want to catch up and tell him that I DO have a weapon. It’s my words. It’s my actions. It’s OUR activism.
Of course, I don’t bother him. But I think about how we need to do a better job of revealing our best weapon against hatred, inequality and violence. And I am grateful to him for his unknowing inspiration.
Photo by Itta Werdiger Roth
Potato chips can be absolutely addicting. The marketing of processed foods in America has brilliantly caught us in our weakness for tasty, addictive foods. Most of us have been there – when we really couldn’t eat just “one” of those crunchy, starchy, salty snacks. And we live to regret it.
Starch, sugar and salt – all staples of the American diet, have attached themselves to us, as addictions and excess body fat. The more sugar and starch we eat, the more we want it. And it is not just “junk food” — pasta and bread made of processed white flour, and cereals made of highly processed grains and lots of sugar have weakened our willpower. Low in nutrition, these “foods” fill us up but don’t feed us, leaving us wanting more, and more, and more.
The problems with the American food system are numerous, but the challenge to our health and well-being begins with our addiction to foods whose quantity and quality are not good for our bodies.
It’s a hard problem. It’s easy to say we should have willpower. Getting there is another thing.
I was raised in a 1960-70’s household that, like my peers’ homes, fully embraced the glory of processed foods. My mom was very petite, nicknamed “the bird” by my paternal grandmother because of the small portions she ate (defying my grandmother’s understanding.) But my dad, who had shot up to six feet tall in adolescence, never shed his teenage boy’s appetite. As a result, he packed on the weight until he was diagnosed with diabetes in early middle age. I got my father’s genes, never petite like my mom’s side, and always struggling with weight like my dad’s side. Of course, I didn’t realize how much the deck was stacked against me by the food choices that were regular in our household.
As a young adult I was drawn to Jewish observance, and kashrut in particular – the system of Jewish dietary laws. I sensed that a discipline of holiness would make a significant impact on my life. I gave up one food after another – Philly cheesesteaks, bacon, shrimp, and other treyfe (forbidden foods) that were a staple in my childhood home. As I did, I felt strengthened by the experience of the discipline. Eating became more thoughtful, more mindful, and more deliberate.
Along the way I learned that the experience of discipline that I enjoyed in keeping kosher helped me in my life in lots of ways. Among them was a sharper sense of willpower.
Ultimately, I have come to eat a restricted diet based on nutrition and health, and kashrut. I find it very empowering. It doesn’t hurt that it is reinforced by how great it feels to be healthy.
I was thinking of this when I recently heard an interview on WNYC, the New York public radio station. The subject was “willpower,” talking about the annual ritual of January New Year’s resolutions, and how to keep them. The guest was Roy Baumeister, co-author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Baumeister made this essential point: willpower is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. The more you exercise willpower, the easier it is to have self-control with all aspects of life.
Avoiding addictive processed foods helps. But the real trick to health and empowerment, is the regular exercise of willpower. One step at a time, and it is within our reach.
This, after all, was the wisdom of Jewish sages who gave us the disciplines of Jewish law. They understood that the “greatest human strength” of willpower is what helps us to fully access our human potential. It is an empowerment that animates the Divine spark within us.
(Image from: 1stclasssleep.wordpress.com, via Google Images)
As the eight days of Chanukah wind down, I am thinking of a question I posed as the festival began – who is the real hero of the story? When I asked this question of a class at the synagogue, I was not surprised at the first response: the oil. We then had a spirited discussion about the other possible heroes and realized we didn’t have a clear-cut conclusion.
Now, a week later, I realize why.
First, let’s talk about the oil. How could the oil be a hero? I admit to frustration for the way this story is told and passed from one generation to the next. With such a powerful story of Jewish survival, resting on guts and smarts and passionate commitment to the Jewish people, the watered-down version of the story that leaves out the essential message is more than a disappointment. It is a huge missed opportunity to reinvigorate pride and commitment to covenantal Judaism and the Jewish people.
Then there is the obvious second choice for the hero: Judah Maccabee and his band of warriors who fought valiantly to defeat an oppressive tyrant who threatened Jewish sovereignty in the land of our ancestors, and crushed Jewish learning and devotion during a time of confusion and change. “The Maccabees”, as they came to be known, saved Torah and the Jewish people. While this heroism inspires our generation, it still does not define us. Jews outside of Israel do not take up arms to defend the right to be Jews. And we pray for a time when Jews in Israel no longer need to do so as well.
There are the mythic heroes, not as often recalled. Hannah and her seven sons, a story of a mother who witnesses the martyrdom of her sons one after the other until her own death, has been an inspiring story for generations of Jews who were disempowered and persecuted, sometimes facing martyrdom themselves. Given the choice between eating pork/worshipping idols or death, Hannah’s family gives their lives rather than giving in. Visiting a typical “Jewish deli/kosher style” restaurant (as is common in Northern New Jersey) that boasts matzah ball soup alongside bacon and eggs, it seems clear that few Jews are motivated by Hannah’s sons’ passion for keeping the commandments as such. Nor are American Jews afraid that we must be prepared to give our lives to save Judaism itself.
Then there is the mythic Judith of the extra-biblical Apocrypha, who single-handedly saves the Jewish community by seducing and then beheading the general Holefernes, whose army is threatening the Jewish community. Judith’s story is great fodder for feminists at this time of year, the counterpoint to Judah Maccabee, and indeed an inspiring heroine. But with the memory of physical threat to Jewish survival fading for younger Jews, Judith’s courageous story (though a bit barbaric) is relegated to an interesting past with little connection to the present.
For American Jews, a new model is needed. Who is our hero?
In North American today, the hero of Chanukah is the person who raises Jewish children in a secular world and teaches them to love and cherish the blessing of being a member of the Jewish people. This hero uses the American blessing of individual empowerment to better the Jewish experience for their family and for all Jews. Embracing both the American and the Jewish civilizations in which they live, this hero teaches their children to recognize and honor the integrity of Jewish distinctiveness. This hero appreciates and honors the value of other religious traditions and people of faith, but cherishes the primacy of their Jewish identity. This hero demonstrates love for Jewish wisdom and ideals, culture and customs, by creatively, lovingly, energetically, and thoughtfully infusing contemporary Judaism into their home.
This is our new Chanukah hero, fighting against the forces of assimilation by embracing and shaping Judaism for themselves and the next generation. As I look around at my community, I see many Chanukah heroes. And that is the miracle of Chanukah.