I grew up in Texas, like in most of the South, people in Texas greet each other warmly and a smile is always in place. During a typical run through a grocery store, I would get smiled at by strangers, smiled at and chatted up by the check-out clerk, and smiled at by the bag boy or girl who carried my purchases to the car. In Texas, no one lacks for a smile. They may hate your guts, but they will still smile at you.
Now I live in New York. Smiling at strangers is verboten. If a check out clerk tries to engage me in conversation, I get suspicious. If a stranger on the street smiles at me, I have learned to look the other way. The Northeast does not believe in a culture of smiling.
This leaves me stuck between two cultures, and it sometimes gets me in trouble, especially in professional situations. My natural Texan inclination is to smile. This works to my advantage when people experience me as warm and friendly. However, it works to my disadvantage when the person I am interacting with interprets my smile to mean that I am simply a sweet person whom they do not have to take too seriously. I smile in tough negotiations, and I smile when disagreeing with someone. Circumstances in which others, particularly New Yorkers, will most definitely NOT be smiling.
I have given serious consideration to trying to unlearn my smiling habit. But then I came across this saying in The Ethics of Our Fathers, a Jewish book of wisdom, “Receive every person with a cheerful countenance,” (Pirkei Avot 1:15) and it struck me that there is deep wisdom in smiling. To really smile at someone you must look them in the face. Doing so helps you see them as a fellow human being, someone who is like yourself, with their own thoughts, feelings and reactions. By smiling at someone you create a connection at a very human level which can span deep divides. One smile can heal a lot of hurt.
I decided that this is a person I want to be, a person who smiles and connects to others. My smile is no longer just an ingrained habit, but a conscious choice. I like reaching out to others with a cheerful countenance. I like the kinds of relationships this leads me into. I can disagree with someone and smile at them at the same time, communicating that we can be in relationship while standing on different sides of an issue. In our highly fractured all or nothing culture, there is great power in smiling and communicating that message. Consciously smile at someone and see what follows. Your smile holds great power.
This past weekend was Purim, a holiday full of laughter, parody and dress up. Fittingly, many Jewish groups release Purim videos and plays to tell the story of Purim in different fanciful ways.
One video stood out from the crowd this year, a video called “We Doin’ Purim” by a group called Bubala Please. The video, a parody, features Latino and African American Gangbangers from the LA ghetto rapping about Purim complete with four letter words, Yiddish sayings, and the objectification of women. On one level, the video is highly offensive. The F-bomb and the N-bomb are dropped several times, and there are very crude sexual references including a shot of “Esther” holding a large triangle shaped hummantashen over her (clothed) vagina.
But the discomfort the video elicits is not just because of these racial and sexual stereotypes which most liberal Americans will have a knee jerk negative reaction too. The video is discomforting because in some ways it gets at the dark underbelly of the Purim story. In most communities today, Purim is a “fun” holiday aimed mostly at children. They dress up, and for once get to misbehave in synagogue yelling out during services and dancing around. But if you look closely at the Purim story, it is not for children’s ears. This is a story about sex, violence, and the abuse of power. It opens with the King throwing a drunken orgy, moves on to his picking a girl out of his haram of virgins, and ends with the Jews rampaging and killing thousands of people. Telling the story through gangsta rap which embraces sex and violence is appropriate.
Then there are the power dynamics on display in both the Purim Story and this parody video. The story itself is the triumph of the lowly over the powerful. A commoner, Mordechi, and his niece, Esther, manage to over throw a powerful advisor to the King, and gain the king’s ear and political power. The underdog becomes powerful. Gangsta Rap, whether we like it or not, is a vehicle for the African American and Latino gang communities to show how the underdog has gained power though violence and domination of others. To have these rappers mixing in yidishisms and telling a Jewish story conveys this power to the Jewish community which historically is also seen as the underdog. Again the method of using Gangsta Rap to tell the Purim story of triumph of power makes sense.
I think the video is offensive, and smart, and funny all at the same time. For me the essence of Purim comes through. This video throws off our equilibrium – Gangbangers are rapping “Hommies Nashing Hummantashen – We Doin’ Purim!” What? Really?
Having been warned about its offensive content, watch the video if you choose, and make up your own mind, offensive or good fun?
Should rabbis talk about Israel? In years past, Israel was a subject which united people. You could always count on one of the rabbis High Holiday sermons to be about Israel, why she is important to us, what we should do to protect her, and why we should go visit. Israel captured our imagination of what could be – a more perfect country by and for Jews. No longer would we be the down trodden and persecuted people. We would rule ourselves and be a light unto the nations. Her existence was our hope and our miracle.
This is no longer the case. Many rabbis I know are afraid to talk about Israel with their congregations. The topic is simply too divisive. If the rabbi comments on the success of Israel’s technology and innovation sector, perhaps mentions the company Soda Stream as an example, then congregants will quickly respond with a torrent of criticism about Soda Stream building its factory in the West Bank.
Even words will get you in trouble since they signal your political leanings. Do you call the land east of Jerusalem “The West Bank,” “The Settlements,” “Judah and Samaria?” Are the Israeli settlers reclaiming their own land or occupiers stealing the land? Any single word could lead to trouble.
Given these realities, what is a rabbi to do? Many have simply stopped speaking about Israel altogether. I understand why. No one likes being attacked. However, I don’t think this is the answer.
As Jews we are connected to Israel whether we like it or not. Our sacred texts, liturgy, and history all speak of Israel. Instead of trying to disassociate ourselves, we should strive to better understand each others complex relationship and feelings about Israel.
How do we open a conversation that is this divisive? There are no easy answers, and no answers that will work in every situation. But I would begin with the personal. As a rabbi, I would share my own complicated relationship with Israel, and then ask people to share theirs. I would encourage individuals to truly listen to what others are saying particularly if they feel differently. Perhaps if we could all agree to listen to one another, and stop the name calling which happens on all of the different political sides, we could actually have a conversation.
How can we possibly hope to solve the peace process when American Jews can’t even talk to each other if they sit on different sides of the political aisle? We need to start this conversation at home, now.
Tell me, what do you love about Israel? What do you dislike about Israel?
I will start: I love the idea of a Jewish homeland. I love thinking that if my life were threatened here in the US because I was a Jew, there is someplace I can go. I dislike the control the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has over religious life in Israel. As a woman and a liberal Jew, I could not practice Judaism the way I like to in Israel.
I look forward to hearing your answers to these two questions and starting a conversation where all views are heard without judgment.
The Jewish community needs to gain some self-confidence. We are like the beautiful teenage girl who looks in the mirror and only sees blemishes and imperfections when in reality everyone turns to look at her because she is so pretty. We are no longer a despised minority.
Take a look at two items from popular culture that made the rounds of Facebook posts and Twitter last week. The first is a series of costumes that Walmart is selling so that children can dress up like “A Jewish Rabbi” or “A Jewish High Priest.”
My Jewish friends were amazed that Walmart, the great American retailer would sell such a niche product to the Jewish community. But they are not selling these to the Jewish population of the US, but to the greater American population. The average American, and in particular evangelical Christians, will buy up these costumes. To dress as a Jew is cool. In his book about religion in American, American Grace, Robert Putnam quotes a statistic from his research that Judaism is one of the most favorably viewed religions in the US today. This is hard for many Jews to accept since we grew up in a post Holocaust Era thinking that everyone hates us. We see only blemishes where others see beauty.
Then look at this clip from a new TLC reality show, Sisterhood, about 5 wives of Atlanta pastors. The clip is of a conversation between Pastor Brian, and his wife Tara and their plans to have a Christian Bar Mitzvah for their son. I watched this clip with a combination of horror and fascination. At first glance, I see why Jews might be offended. Pastor Brian grew up Jewish and converted to Christianity. His actions and comments in the clip are the most jarring. He almost seems to make fun of his Jewish heritage by singing Hava Nagila and playing with a tallit, the prayer shawl. But his African- American wife is taking this bar mitzvah very seriously. She has done her research and knows they must have a cake in the shape of a Torah as part of the party. (Yes, I laughed out loud at that.) She honestly wants to honor her son’s Jewish heritage. She is proud of this part of her husband’s past. At the same time, they both want to affirm their Christian faith in the context of the bar mitzvah. They are accurate when they call it a “Christian Bar Mitzvah.”
The more I reflected on this clip, the more I realized that instead of being offensive, this clip show how much Christians like and admire Judaism. Isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery? They want to use a Jewish ritual to add meaning to their lives, to mark a lifecycle moment in their son’s life. Isn’t that the root point of a bar mitzvah, to celebrate a child’s movement in to adolescence? Continue reading
First we cry, then we act.
The murders that occurred on Friday at the Sandy Hook Elementary School are beyond my comprehension. How could something like this happen? As a parent of a seven year old, I just cried a upon hearing the news. The sadness I felt was overwhelming.
As a rabbi, I cannot even begin to offer a pat theology of why bad things happen to good people. There is simply no explanation. Instead I raise my voice and my fists at God and yell, “Why? How could this happen?” I say angry, hateful things to God. I feel safe doing this because I know God can take my anger. God is the receptacle for my emotions, my deep sadness, anger, and terror, it all goes there. Why not? It has to go somewhere.
When I was done crying, I picked my daughter up early from a play date and got ready for Shabbat. Shabbat gave me a break from listening to the news and Googleing the latest information. I had some time to sit with my emotions. It helped.
The minute Shabbat was over, I was ready to act. The Ethical Culture Society in my town organized a vigil to end gun violence Saturday night. My husband and I canceled our plans for a fun night out, and joined the vigil. Sunday morning, I spent time signing petitions being sent to the president and my representatives in Washington calling on them to enact legislation to strengthen our gun laws. I donated to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence . We must outlaw semi-automatic weapons. There is no reason they should be in our hands. We must make it harder for a person to purchase a gun. I am all for background checks, waiting periods, licensing, continuing education in order to hold on to your license, and high taxes on guns and bullets. We enact many regulations to enforce public safety. It is past time that these regulations apply to guns as well.
If it were up to me, I would outlaw all hand guns. Unfortunately I know that will not happen. And I know that no matter how many laws we put in place people who really want guns will get their hands on them. But this should not stop us from making it harder! There are more gun deaths in the US than any other developed country. This is simply unacceptable.
I believe that we live in partnership with God. We both impact events. God was not able to stop this shooting from taking place. But God is here as a support structure to help us get through the aftermath. My role, and your role, is to do what we can on this earth to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. Organize locally, call Washington, let’s do our best to get guns out of our homes and off our streets. It is time.
Memories can play such tricks on our minds. Last night, I returned to a synagogue where my husband had served as an assistant rabbi for 5 years. We were there to celebrate the installation of the new senior rabbi who is a good friend. People from different parts of our lives swirled together, past congregants from the synagogue, current friends, and colleagues who we looked forward to meeting. All of this taking place in this synagogue building which holds such an important place in my life. I was married on the bimah, celebrated my wedding reception in the ballroom, watched my husband bloom from a rabbinic intern in to a full fledge rabbi, and taught my own first adult education courses. The five years I walked in and out of that synagogue mark the years I grew up and became an adult.
All of this came flooding back as I sat in the pews and walked the halls. But one emotion hit me in the gut, regret. Walking down the hall a picture of the cantor my husband worked with, Cantor Renee Colson stared down at me from the wall. The minute I saw her tears came to my eyes. The last time we were in the synagogue was seven years ago for her funeral. She was diagnosed with cancer and died within two years of our leaving the synagogue.
Her eyes seemed to follow me as I walked down the hallway. And I remembered… I remembered having to cancel a dinner date I had made with her because a work commitment got in the way. She was already very sick at the time, though I did not realize how sick. I was surprised, when I called to tell her I couldn’t make it, when she said, “Well it doesn’t matter, since I can’t eat anyway.” She wouldn’t, or couldn’t reschedule. Her words stuck with me like an arrow in the gut. I meant to reach out again, but then I heard she had died. To this day, I regret that I cancelled our dinner date.
I know that having dinner with her would not have changed the course of her cancer. But I feel like I let down a friend in need. Today I do not remember the work commitment I had that night, but I remember where I should have been.
It is easy to spout aphorisms about living each day to the fullest and spending less time at work and more with family and friends. But it is hard for us to follow them. I wish my priorities had been in the right place that night.
I will always remember Renee being full of life and voice. Every Rosh Hashannah certain songs bring her to mind. Her high notes still ring in my ears and her memory lives on in me.
Sitting in the sanctuary last night, as I celebrated my friend’s new beginning as the rabbi there, I remembered. For a moment, the past, present, and future all combined. I sat in the moment with both joy and pain in my heart.
I hope I will not make a similar mistake in the future. May Renee’s memory teach me to celebrate with friends in the good times and be with them in the bad, for life inescapably brings both.
Interesting question, I thought. As a hospital chaplain, I served the needs of people of all religious persuasions. I recited prayers for healing, brought religious ritual objects to patients, and in one case said last rites for a patient when a priest could not get there in time. All this time, I was acting as a rabbi with a grounding in my own tradition. Others acknowledged my standing as clergy and saw me as a conduit through which their religious needs could be served. The fact that I was a rabbi, and not from their faith tradition, did not matter.
Why then would it matter if two people who were not Jewish wanted a rabbi to marry them? It is starting to happen more often than you might think. A few years ago a non-Jewish friend of mine asked me if I would officiate at her wedding. In the end, she bowed to parental pressure and went with their minister, but she confided in me that it would have been much more meaningful for her to have me, a close, friend officiate than someone she really did not know. Several people I know have gotten on line “ordination” as a universal life minister so that they could marry friends or relatives. Remember the TV show Friends? Joey does this so he can marry his friends Monica and Chandler. Having a personal connection to the officiant is becoming more important than having an officiant from a particular religious tradition.
Does anything in Jewish tradition forbid a rabbi from officiating at non Jewish marriages? Not really. Until now, no one would have asked a rabbi to do such a thing. As a rabbi, I would make some changes in the traditional Jewish ceremony so that it would apply to the situation at hand. But my power as clergy in the US still makes it a legal wedding under US law. It may not be a valid wedding under Jewish law, halachah, but since these are non-Jews, whether or not it is valid according to Jewish law does not pertain. Many of the symbols of a Jewish wedding translate beautifully in to any wedding – a marriage contract where the two parties spell out their commitment to each other, a wedding canopy signifying the new home being created, a series of blessings for the new couple, and a broken glass to remind us of their commitment to each other in good times and bad.
So do I think that a rabbi can officiate at a marriage between two non-Jews? My answer is a resounding yes.
Let the celebration begin. Mazal Tov!
Recently a Freshman at Harvard wrote about his first experience at the Harvard Hillel in a op ed to The Harvard Crimson. In his piece, he describes how out of place he felt at the Shabbat dinner table surrounded by a group of Orthodox Jews. As a Reform Jew, he referred to himself as “an endangered species.”
For me this was a painful op ed to read on many levels. I connected to the young man’s sense of “otherness.” Who has not walked in to a room expecting to find people to connect with and felt totally out of place? It is a horrible feeling. Yet, I found his anger at the Orthodox population to be extremely troubling. He gives several examples of where the Orthodox community has behaved badly and used their political clout to harm surrounding communities. In addition, he calls their thinking “medieval” and expressed outrage at how they treat women.
Orthodox bashing has become vogue for many secular Jews, and I find it increasingly problematic. I am not an Orthodox Jew. I too disagree with many political positions, and practices the Orthodox community engages in. But I am a pluralist. I believe there is space for many different kinds of Judaism. I can observe Judaism the way I choose to and you can too. Somehow this message is not being taught to our children. Each community is so concerned about educating our children about “our” kind of Judaism be it Reform, Conservative, Orthodox or other, and are so concerned with keeping the kids in their particular fold that the concept of “Clal Israel” of the entirety of Israel formed of different tribes and different ways of doing things has fallen by the wayside.
I am a Conservative rabbi married to a Reform rabbi. I have had a shockingly large number of people ask me how we manage it. How are we able to talk to each other let alone live together? The answer is, very well, thank you.
I understand the fear of the other. I had never walked in to Reform synagogue until I started dating my husband. I grew up in a house where there was only one right way to do Judaism. I too remember my first Shabbat in college at the Vassar Jewish Union. There was a female rabbinical student, the adviser to Jewish students on campus, leading the prayers, and a fellow female freshman handed me a kipah as I walked in. Shocked, I looked at her and said “Women don’t wear kippot.” She smiled and said, “Yes, they do.” I felt as out of place in that environment as the Harvard student felt in his. Yet, I was open to learning. I was curious about this different way of doing Judaism.
We need to instill this curiosity in the next generation of Jews. There is no one way to do Judaism. And though there are differences between us, we are all part of one family. I know it is often hard for families to get along. We are sometimes too close to one another. And in my work, I have found that intra-faith dialogue can be much more difficult that inter-faith dialogue. But it is time for us, all of us, in every denomination of Judaism to step up and introduce our children to each other.
Walking in to Hillel that first Shabbat on campus, freshman should be prepared to meet members of their extended family. They should know that their cousins may look different, dress different, and talk different, but we are all Jews and all connected to one another. Bashing each other is not the answer.
On Sunday I read a very moving Op Ed in the New York Times by Larkin Warren entitled, “I Was a Welfare Mother.” I was brought to tears by her story about being a single mother trying to complete college and get back on her feet. During those difficult years, she needed government aid to help her get basic supplies and food for herself and her young son. She describes how without food stamps and a monthly check rom the government she never would have made ends meet. After graduating college she got a job in her college’s English Department and went off welfare. She went on to be a writer and editor.
She concludes by saying, “Judge-and-punish-the-poor is not a demonstration of American values. It is, simply, mean. My parents saved me and then — on the dole, in the classroom or crying deep in the night, in love with a little boy who needed everything I could give him — I learned to save myself. I do not apologize. I was not ashamed then; I am not ashamed now. I was, and will always be, profoundly grateful.”
Judge and punish the poor in not an American value, and not a Jewish one either. Jews are required to give tzadaka, charity to help the poor. Time and again the Bible admonishes us to take care of the poor, widowed and orphaned in our midst. Many laws were created to ensure the poor got communal support. Farmers were instructed to leave the corners of their fields unplowed so that the poor could come and harvest the grain for themselves. Everyone was expected to give one tenth of their income to support of the poor.
The highest level of giving to the poor according to Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher, is to help a person help themselves. In the story Larkin relates, the American government serves this purpose. The money she received from welfare helped her to help herself. There is no greater mitzvah than this, and no better use of our tax dollars. I found this story to be particularly poignant this week of Yom Kippur. The Yom Kippur liturgy clearly states that “Repentance, Prayer, and Charity will avert Gods severe decree. “ Charity, supporting those in need, is just as important as personal repentance and prayer. Think about the import of that for a moment.
According to Jewish law, we have a responsibility to take care of one another. And as Larkin’s story demonstrates, you never know when just a little bit of help will allow someone to survive and then flourish later on. We all need help of some kind at some point in our lives. For some it may be financial, for others emotional, or physical. We do not live in isolation. We cannot always lift ourselves sup by the bootstraps and be independent. We need people around us to support us in our lives.
This week of Yom Kippur, while you are reflecting on your year and the things you want to repent for; Think too of the future and the way you can support someone else. Make plans to give of your time, money, or expertise to help another. You can have a profound impact. As the Talmud teaches, “To save one life is to have saved the world.”
I have loved watching the conventions ever since I watched the Democratic Convention in 1988 and heard my fellow Texan, Ann Richards, skewer George HW Bush. She gave the keynote address at the convention that year, and become famous for her biting sense of humor. She made the famous quip about George HW Bush, “Poor George, he can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” I was honored and excited to campaign for her for Governor of Texas in 1990, and cheered her victory at her inaugural ball where she came to the podium and said, “I know men invented high heels because otherwise they would not hurt so much.” Standing with aching feet in high heels myself, I cheered and hollered for this sassy strong woman.
My fascination which conventions continued when I was fortunate to attend both the Republican and Democratic state conventions in the summer of 1992 as an intern for the American Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). I staffed the AIPC booth, handing out flyers and answering questions about Israel. President Bush was at the Republican Convention and soon to be President Clinton spoke at the Democratic one. The great state of Texas brings in star power! I remember checking out the other booths and chatting with the volunteers as a sense of excitement swirled around us. We were part of something important.
I watched with tears in my eyes four years ago when Obama accepted the nomination. “We Shall Overcome” kept playing in my head. I had HOPE. I was ready for CHANGE. Our first African American President, proof that progress has been made.
So, unlike Rabbi Amy Small, who wrote last week about her lack of interest in watching the political conventions this year. I was excited to tune in. Even though it has been a tough, even brutal, four years, I wanted to feel that old sense of excitement again. Not surprisingly, I did not get it from the Republican Convention. The messages did not speak to me. But the Democrats delivered. Watching Michelle Obama, I wondered why she has not run for office. While not as biting as Ann Richards, her speech reminded me of my old friend. Here stood a strong woman making her case clearly and articulately. She exemplified women’s power. She was feminine in her presentation, a gold, grey, and deep pink dress with hair and makeup expertly done. Yet, her arm muscles displayed a physical strength and her words a mental one.
Bill brought it the next night combining facts and statistics with humor and stories. And of course President Obama himself commanded the stage and had me wanting to stand up and shout “Four More Years!”
I am looking forward to the debates and the rhetoric to be shared over the next 2 months. I wish more people enjoyed the back and forth as much as I do. The back and forth of arguments is part and parcel of Jewish tradition going back to the Talmud where the rabbis argued about the best policies to live by. Like the presidential candidates of today they expressed differ worls views and wanted to shape society to adhere to their own viewpoints. One of the things I love best about the Talmud is reading the ridiculous ways the rabbis try to one up each other. Sometimes playing fast and loose with Biblical proof texts just as some politicians play with facts. Not surprisingly, throughout history Jews have been active in political movements look at the student activist of the sixties, the women’s movement, civil rights movement, and the gay rights movement. Jews held leadership positions in all of them. Political activism is in our blood. It is part of our inherited tradition whether activists make that connection or not.
So this fall, be a good Jew. Get active in one of the campaigns and fight for an issue that means something to you. One week before Rosh Hashanah is a time to think about the future and what we want it to look like. We each have the power to make that vision a reality. Raise your voice, stand your ground and usher in a New Year that will live up to your dreams. Shannah Tova!