Tag Archives: family

Dying to Talk

The spectacle of death

The spectacle of death

On a single day last week, we were stunned by news of the Charlie Helbo attack in Paris and a bomb going off at an NAACP office in Colorado. At the same time, this day was no different than any other: our media regularly saturates us with stories of death and violence. In her prophetic book All About Love, bell hooks describes this phenomena as a symptom of America’s death-obsessed culture. She says, “It may very well be that…the constant spectacles of dying we watch on television screens daily, is one way our culture tries to still that fear [of death], to conquer it, to make us comfortable.” Our culture’s efforts to comfort us and conquer our dread depict deaths that are sudden, faceless, and violent. This ultimately deepens our anxiety about death.

The day before, in my role as rabbi of the VNA-Hospice of Philadelphia, I gave a blessing to the social workers, nurses, administrators, and chaplains with whom I work. Words of blessing came easily as I beheld a roomful of people engaged in holy work. The hospice staff regularly facilitates family conversations about what is important to loved ones at the end of their lives, and does its best to care for the dying according to their desires. My coworkers and I often need to initiate these conversations because, as hooks writes, “The more we watch spectacles of meaningless death, of random violence and cruelty, the more afraid we become [of death] in our daily lives.”

We feed our anxiety when we only hear about death “out there” and deny it is also part of our story, and can even be a meaningful and peaceful part of our story. A 2013 survey says that 90 percent of Americans believe it is important to discuss the way we want to live at the end of our lives while we are able, but less than 30 percent of us actually have had this conversation: Parents don’t want their adult children to worry about them; children don’t want to think their parents will ever die. Locked into a mutual conspiracy of denial, families wish they had spoken only when it is too late. A recent Institute of Medicine report notes that most people nearing the end of life are not “physically, mentally, or cognitively able to make their own decisions about care.” According to many doctors, how we end our lives is the most important and costly conversation America is too afraid to have.

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Conversing about our wishes for end of life care does not have to be difficult

Fortunately, recent initiatives like The Conversation Project are shifting all of this. In collaboration with “Death Over Dinner”, adults of all ages have begun, over the last few years, to discuss their wishes for end of life care at a structured dinner party using guiding questions like, “How long do you want to receive medical care?”, “How involved do you want your loved ones to be?” and “What role do you want them to play?” Having these conversations over dinner, or tea – as long as we have them – improves our chances of receiving the type of care that we want, and helps decrease family discord should our families be called upon to make these difficult decisions for us. Perhaps, when we make the choice to confront our cultural anxiety and acknowledge the inevitability of our own death, we can give ourselves to love and to life more fully.

Posted on January 12, 2015

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

What Happened to Dinah?

Although we’re a bit beyond the portion, there’s been a lot of social media chatter about Dinah – possibly because of the December airing of a television version of the novel by Anita Diamant. I mostly ignored it until a friend asked me about Dinah’s age (without going too far into it, if you follow the timeline laid out in the Torah plainly, she must have been VERY young, possibly a child. She probably isn’t, though) – at that point, I somehow found myself drawn into thinking about this very disturbing story.

There are many difficult passages in the Torah, and the rape of Dinah is among them. Nevertheless, I find the idea of turning what is clearly a forced sexual encounter into some kind of love story (as Diamant does in The Red Tent) – to be very difficult indeed.

Dinah’s role story turns around the first four verses of chapter 34 of Genesis. It is clear from the text that Dinah was violated. In verse two it says,

וַיַּרְא אֹתָהּ שְׁכֶם בֶּן חֲמוֹר הַחִוִּי נְשִׂיא הָאָרֶץ וַיִּקַּח אֹתָהּ וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ וַיְעַנֶּהָ:

“He saw her, Shechem, the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land; and he took her; he lay with her; and he humbled her.”

What confuses the matter is that this verse is then seemingly followed a declaration of love:

וַתִּדְבַּק נַפְשׁוֹ בְּדִינָה בַּת יַעֲקֹב וַיֶּאֱהַב אֶת הַנַּעֲרָה וַיְדַבֵּר עַל לֵב הַנַּעֲרָה

“His soul cleaved to Dinah the daughter of Jacob and he loved the girl and spoke to the girl’s heart.”

The number of disturbing things about this story start multiplying rather quickly here:

A man kidnaps and rapes a young woman, possibly a very young teen; he then, after forcing her, tells her he loooves her and has his father make an offer for her. Her brothers are outraged. They come up with a plot, telling Hamor that they can’t give her to the uncircumcised and that they’ll let his son marry her only if everyone circumcises themselves. Hamor sells this to his fellow citizens by noting how rich they’ll all get if they intermarry with this wealthy clan. The brothers of Dinah wait until the men of the city are weak from their surgery and then slaughter them, taking their sister home. When Jacob complains that their actions make him look bad, they respond, “הַכְזוֹנָה יַעֲשֶׂה אֶת אֲחוֹתֵנוּ” – Shall he make our sister like a whore?

The “modern” take on this story is that it is about the disgust for exogamy. But a closer reading reveals something different.

It seems unlikely that Shechem was that besotted by a young girl – even a young woman – with whom he was unlikely to have had much interaction. And in fact, he clearly doesn’t “love” her before he violates her. The son of the prince may want her for the moment- but not, probably, because he loves her, but rather because abductions are a tried and true way to marry someone whose family won’t consent (in many cultures- some even today). He wouldn’t have known much about Dinah – but he – and his father – clearly knew whose family she was a part of. And there is some confirmation from the text itself (which a number of commentaries pick up on) that it was not just Shechem, but the entire city, who are implicated in this vile crime: “Jacob’s sons came upon the slain and plundered the city that had defiled their sister. (34:27)”

Note also the focus on family in the verses:   “Shechem the son of Hamor, the Hivvite, the prince of the land” and “Dinah the daughter of Jacob” – even though the story begins by calling her “Dinah the daughter of Leah.” As the daughter of Leah, who is not, of herself, wealthy, she is not too interesting. As the daughter of the wealthy Jacob, however, she is someone the son of a prince might be interested in acquiring. So he takes her. And he does it in such a way that – in the Hivite culture- makes her impossible to take back. She’s now someone – they presume – that her family must get rid of, because surely they can’t give her to anyone else now.

But the brothers of Dinah don’t hold that view. To them, she isn’t a pawn in a family dynasty, perfect for cementing an alliance between the city and a wealthy clan that can bring in a lot of money. To her brothers, she is not to be sold. Her brothers may be awful – and there’s a case for that – but clearly they cared about their sister. They didn’t say “shall our family name be blemished?” or “Shall our line be tainted?” but “shall our sister be treated as a whore?”

In other words, they refused to let her body be a pawn for financial exchange. Her brothers, unlike the Hivites, are saying that they don’t care what the state of her virginity is, they won’t stand for this behavior, and won’t write her off as ruined. Remember, the circumcision is a ploy. They have no intention of leaving her there, regardless. And they know that Hamor wants this deal, and will do whatever it takes to get them to settle there because he wants not their family, not their God, but their wealth.

Compare this episode to those of Dinah’s paternal grandmother and great-grandmother. Both were claimed as sisters in order to avoid the threat to Isaac and Abraham that might have been posed by the local prince desiring them. In the case of Sarah, in fact, Avimelech does take her. One might even think of Dinah’s brothers’ actions as a corrective to these earlier episodes. In the case of Sarah, God has to rescue her: and perhaps, indeed, Dinah’s brothers do one better – in Sarah’s case, God goes to a great deal of trouble to make sure that Sarah isn’t defiled by Avimelech – in Dinah’s case, the brothers make it clear that they don’t care – she is their sister, regardless.

Our society also has its Shechems – we read in the news constantly about the ways in which womens’ bodies are treated as objects, and not a month went by in the past year without a story of how a high school or college student was sexually assaulted – and how it is the victim, not the perpetrators, who so often pay the price. In that atmosphere, I find it troubling to turn a story of rape into a romance.

The story of Dinah is still one of its time: we never hear what Dinah thinks, or feels; we don’t really know what happens to her beyond the speculation of the classical midrash. But we know that at the very least, her brothers care enough to protect her, and go against an entire society – and indeed their own father- to bring her home.

Posted on January 4, 2015

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

How the Tragedy of an Infant’s Death Can Bring About Mitzvot

Buddy Bench in Memory of Rylan Foster GelbToday will be a difficult day for my family. And for me. We should be celebrating the first birthday of my nephew, Rylan Foster Gelb, but sadly his brief life was cut short on his eleventh day from a rare genetic disease called Galactosemia.

I never had a chance to meet Rylan or to hold him. And that makes the grieving process all the more challenging for me and for my young children who never met their first cousin. In the months following his death, my sister-in-law Stephanie, while deep in her own grief, desperately searched for ways to keep Rylan’s memory alive. She came up with a few wonderful ways for people to perform mitzvot and acts of loving kindness and then pay those good deeds forward. Stephanie and her husband Hylton have used the tragic death of their newborn son to improve the lives of thousands of others in such a short time.

I was thinking of this last night when I learned about an easy way to support the cause of Pancreatic Cancer research by purchasing Hanukkah candles on Amazon.com. My colleague and teacher, Rabbi David Wolpe, posted a tweet on Twitter with a link to buy a box of purple Hanukkah candles for $20 on Amazon and 100% of the money goes to Pancreatic Cancer research. With a couple of hours left in “Giving Tuesday” I quickly clicked the link and ordered candles in memory of my uncle, Jerry Gudes, who died of Pancreatic Cancer in 2009. After I ordered the candles, Amazon asked if I would like to post my purchase to Facebook and Twitter to let others know about this product (and charitable cause). When I posted to Facebook with appreciation to Rabbi Wolpe for the tip, I mentioned that Rabbi David Wolpe and his brother Rabbi Dan Wolpe lost their father, Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, to Pancreatic Cancer. This led Rabbi Dan Wolpe to also click the link and buy Hanukkah candles in his father’s memory. Talk about paying it forward!

My sister-in-law and brother-in-law have created several initiatives to encourage people (young and old) to make the world a better place and pay it forward. The first thing that they created was the Kounting Kindness website in memory of Rylan. This is a place where individuals or families can share their stories of how they were kind to others in honor of Rylan. Just this week, a friend shared that he paid the bridge toll of the car behind him in memory of Rylan and later heard that this act of paying it forward went on for many cars thereafter. One woman posted, “I brought our new neighbors muffins and welcomed them to our street. They were so grateful.” It’s also become a forum for leaving stories of ways that others have been witnessed being kind. “A woman leaving as I was driving up to a space gave me the rest of the minutes in her parking ticket!” posted a woman.

Stephanie and Hylton Gelb have also set up a new scholarship fund at The Galactosemia Association of Midwest America (GAMA) to financially assist families with conference or evaluation expenses. The Galactosemia Foundation organizes a conference every other year in various locations around the country and this scholarship fund will help families pay for conference registration and offset travel expenses. The goal is to help families become more educated and make lifelong connections with other families. The second goal of this memorial scholarship is to financially assist families to be evaluated by a medical professional specializing in Galactosemia because there are currently only a few specialists around the country who have experience in the treatment of Galactosemia.

Finally, my sister-in-law and brother-in-law, together with our family and friends, have donated a Buddy Bench. The purpose of the Buddy Bench is simple. It is placed on an elementary school playground to eliminate loneliness and foster friendship among the young children. The Buddy Bench helps spread the message of inclusion and kindness. Stephanie chose to have the custom designed Buddy Bench placed on the playground of Forest Elementary School in Farmington Hills, Michigan, which is the same school that both she and my wife, Elissa, attended as children. What’s so special for me about this Buddy Bench is that it can be seen from the windows of my home. Already in the few short weeks since it was dedicated, I have seen many children taking advantage of the Buddy Bench to let other children know they are lonely and need a friend, and also for children to include others in their activities at school recess. The Buddy Bench has the opposite effect of bullying because it strongly encourages children to be inclusive and kind to others. Just this past Shabbat, a six-year-old girl approached my wife and I to let us know that she found a new friend by going over to the Buddy Bench when she saw a little girl sitting there waiting for someone to approach her. What a significant way to bring more kindness into the world.

It’s remarkable how the tragedy of an infant’s death can bring about mitzvot. These acts of kindness have helped to bring a touch of joy to the memory of my nephew Rylan. It’s a challenge to find ways to turn such a negative event into many positive initiatives — especially during the grieving process — but I give my sister-in-law and brother-in-law tremendous credit for what they have done. The kindness that Rylan Gelb has brought into this world is exponential and will only continue to grow. May the short life of Rylan continue to bring blessings into our world and make it a kinder place for us.

Posted on December 3, 2014

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

Digging Wells for Generations

Two Israelis were stabbed last week, Israeli military and police response has continued, and leaders within Fatah have begun talking about a third intifada. There’s no rational response to the heartbreak and fear the Jewish people are feeling right now toward circumstances that threaten our connection to a place we call home. Indeed, we are a people who has historically been forced, in a state of fear, to flee from land to land, deprived of the luxury to think of any place as home.

Today in the US, not only the Jewish friends I have, but also most people I am in contact with, no longer move from place to place out of fear, but propelled by promises of prosperity, or perhaps by the force of history. Whether I am in Israel, or in the US, I feel the pain of being uprooted again, and again. Of not being indigenous to any of the lands I’ve lived on, nor knowing any longer what “home” means. Having just moved to a new city, I am grieving the people and places I will forget as I depart for a new place and meet new people.

This week, in Parashat Toldot, we read that Isaac is thriving, despite losing contact with his father after Abraham attempts to sacrifice him on a mountain. The Torah says, “Isaac sowed in [the] land and reaped a hundredfold the same year” (Gen 26:12). But one day, as Isaac tries to get water for his household, he finds that “the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham” have been stopped up with earth. Then king Abimelech tells him to go away (26:15-16). This, according to commentator Nehama Leibowitz, is “the first expulsion” of the Jewish people, foreshadowing millennia of exile, persecution and wandering. Our feelings of uprootedness start here.

Powerfully, however, Isaac does not flee.  Instead, he settles there and “dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham.” A midrash sees Isaac’s act of uncovering the wells as representative of yishuv ha’olam, settling more deeply into his world. Not only does he redig these wells, but “he gave them the same names that his father had given them” (Gen 26:18). In his act of naming, Isaac places himself in relationship with his estranged father, and the history of his family in that particular land.

My great-great-grandfather, Rabbi Jacob Lavitt’s book. Photo credit: Jason Lavitt.

According to psychological research, “The more children [know] about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” Despite all our displacement, this research tells us that in order to thrive, we need to reclaim our sense of belonging – wherever we are. Can we, like Isaac, begin to uncover the wells of our ancestors? How do we settle more deeply into the feeling that we belong, whether we consider ourselves to be living in a promised land, diaspora, or exile?

As we drink the water from these wells, the stories of our ancestors give us perspective on our daily experience. Learning these stories, we become more resilient. For me the water is the book of midrash my great-great grandfather wrote, the journal my great-aunt kept, and the family tree my mother has been assembling. As I open the covers of these wells, I prepare to nourish my roots, and ground myself more deeply in the soil of this moment of my life.

Posted on November 17, 2014

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

Who Are Your Heroes?

What Makes A Hero?Rabbi Harold Kushner once wrote, “Ask the average person which is more important to him, making money or being devoted to family? Virtually everyone will answer “family” without hesitation. But, watch how the average person actually lives out his life. See where he really invests his time and energy. He will give away the fact that he does not really live by what he says he believes.”

Our tradition is practical. We are judged by our actions, not our intentions. We all have impure thoughts but as long as we don’t act upon our baser instincts we have no need for guilt or atonement. As long as our actions are good so are we. However, this works both ways. While we are not held responsible for the sins we only wish to commit, we don’t get credit for those things not begun. No matter how good the intention, if we don’t actually take the time to be with our children, we are not parenting.

I am reminded of the story of the little girl who asked her mother,  “Mommy, where do we go when we die?

Her mother answered, “Everyone goes to heaven.”

“Daddy can’t go, he won’t leave the office.”

Children model their parents. This means that as parents we must take an active roll in our children’s education. We must also be educators. For this we have to leave the office. We have to be clear as to our values.

The Giraffe Project teaches that the fundamental questions in each child’s education should be, “Who are your heroes?” If you asked your children to list five of their heroes, who would make the list? Would it be sports figures, rock stars or actors? Would it be the people who adorn the teen magazines and Sports Illustrated? For that matter, who are your heroes? If their list would not satisfy you, would your list satisfy you? And, would your children know who your heroes are?

People often confuse the word “hero” with the word “star.” The dictionary tells us that a hero is “a person admired for their achievements and accomplishments, a person who shows great courage.” A star is a person who “is widely known and referred to often.” A star is a person with unique talents, someone who can perform feats that very few can duplicate. They become celebrities because of this talent. But, they are not heroes.

As a congregational rabbi I often find myself sitting with families who have lost a loved one. As I listen to their stories I can see the legacy of love and values that will survive the loss. But far too often my experience is different. Sometimes there are no stories or values to be passed down. I have stopped counting how many times an adult child has regretted their inability to have been able to talk to their parents, how many times the parent/child bond was defined by watching football on Sunday afternoons or talking sports, buying clothing and dressing up. I have heard too many lives encapsulated as being “impeccably dressed” or “classy.” In too many cases this is all the survivors are left with; the deceased has left behind no stories or memories. For what will they be remembered? What footprints have they left behind?

Posted on November 16, 2014

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

Abraham is From Mars, Sarah is From Venus

Abraham is From Mars, Sara is From VenusSarah our Matriarch passes from the world in this week’s Torah Portion, Hayei Sarah. It is a good opportunity to examine the legacy of her relationship with Abraham her husband.

Only three times in the whole Torah does Sarah our matriarch speak to her husband Abraham. All three instances are in contexts of frustration or conflict in which Sarah is deeply perturbed. In all three cases Abraham does exactly what Sarah asks of him. And in all three cases we find modern feminist commentaries suggesting that Abraham could have reacted very differently than he actually does!

In the first instance, after Abraham and Sarah have suffered decades of barrenness, and ten years since God has promised to make of Abraham a great nation, Sarah says to her husband “Consort with my slave girl; perhaps I shall have a son through her”. Our matriarch has seemingly despaired of ever bearing a child in her own womb – she is indeed 75 years old at this point! – and selflessly offers her maidservant to Abraham as a surrogate mother. “And Abraham heeded Sarah’s request”.

Sarah’s maidservant Hagar conceives … and Sarah is unexpectedly devastated. She is humiliated by the protruding belly of her servant, while her womb is still empty. She feels denigrated by the intimacy between Abraham and Hagar that is broadcast throughout the camp by the pregnancy. Her feminine identity takes a terrible beating, and she lashes out at Abraham, irrationally proclaiming “The wrong done me is your fault! I myself put my slave girl in your bosom; now that she sees that she is pregnant, I am lowered in her esteem”. The patriarch dutifully responds to his wife saying “Your slavegirl is in your hands. Deal with her as you think right.”

In the third dialogue between husband and wife, Ishmael, the son born through Hagar, is already on his way to becoming a young man, and is described as mocking Isaac, the young child that God has in the meanwhile miraculously brought forth from Sarah’s own womb. “She said to Abraham, “Cast out that slave girl and her son”. And here again, despite his pain and misgivings, the patriarch arises early the next morning to do exactly what his spouse has demanded.

Should we – and here I am speaking to our male readers – learn from the example of Abraham, immediately acquiescing to what our wives have asked? Perhaps not!

In Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, author John Gray suggests that men ought to remember that women talk about their problems and suggest avenues of possible action, in order “to get close and not necessarily to get solutions.” They may not want a fix but rather a sympathetic ear and a sincere validation of their emotional struggles. Men and women at times speak different languages.

Perhaps Sarah was really not so naive as to believe that her husband could be intimate with her maidservant without the whole structure of their marriage being shaken. Perhaps she really didn’t countenance her husband actually acceding to her request to go in to Hagar. She just wanted to talk about it, to explore her feelings with Abraham, to let him know how terribly bad she felt that her childlessness was preventing him from realizing God’s promise to him. She desperately wanted to be understood. But Abraham did not understand.

And ditto when she blames Abraham for the mess created by the pregnancy of Hagar. She does not want action and she does not want advice. She simply wants to be heard, for Abraham to feel and acknowledge her pain. “Deal with her as you think right” is no solution at all, for it nips in the bud the intimate conversation that Sarah is so much in need of.

And that brings us to the third case. Perhaps Sarah really did not want Hagar and Ishmael sent out into the wilderness. All she wanted and all she needed was empathy. But to her absolute horror, Abraham took her literally, expelling the boy and his mother and abandoning them to possible death, the last thing in the world she would have wanted.

But in this last of the three instances there is a catch. God himself says to Abraham “listen to her voice”. Perhaps in this instance we must abandon our interpretation, and accept that if God tells Abraham to do as Sarah demanded, that certainly indicates that Sarah had already decisively made up her mind that Ishmael and Hagar must be banished. That may be. But there is another way, radical but plausible. It has been suggested by Marsha Pravder Mirkin that when God says “listen to her voice” what God meant is to listen closely to the emotions behind her words … but not to actually perform the act that she had requested!

So perhaps we are to learn that men ought to listen differently to women than they would to men, with attention to the pathos of the inner world rather than focusing on immediate solutions in the practical world. And this advice may be exactly God’s message to us through Abraham: “Listen to her voice.”

Posted on November 14, 2014

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

#AmReading

Living in a house full of readers, I often find my book—the book that I reserved from the library to read on Shabbat afternoon—sitting on someone else’s nightstand with someone else’s favorite bookmark peeking out from the pages, a clear signal that someone else has staked a claim to my book. I am annoyed, though only until I remember the many times my spouse has warned me away from a book that he knows I won’t enjoy.

bubbe_cover_final webThere is only one genre about which we tend to disagree: biography/memoir. He’s a scientist who prefers non-fiction and literary fiction, while I’m an artist who is hungry for personal narratives that demonstrate the writer’s source of inspiration. That’s why I was surprised when he devoured Bringing Bubbe Home: A Memoir of Letting Go through Love and Death, by Debra Gordon Zaslow. He finished it in a single afternoon and insisted I read it next. “You’ll love it,” he assured me.

I did.

Bringing Bubbe Home is so personal that I immediately feel as if I’ve known Debra my whole life. She is a gifted storyteller and writer, and she shares her story of the decision to bring her 103 year old grandmother home from an assisted living facility—to care for her until her death—with unwavering compassion and honesty.

The book stayed with me long after I’d finished reading the epilogue; hours after the havdalah candle was extinguished and the peace of Shabbat had departed from our home, I was still thinking about Debra’s family. I wanted to recommend the book to my spouse, but realized that he’d already read it. I considered giving it to my friend, with whom I swap books regularly, but she is still in the first year of mourning her mother and Debra’s detailed account of Bubbe’s death might be too painful for her to read right now.

So I recommend it to you. If you read only one book during Jewish Book Month, please let it be this one.

Posted on November 13, 2014

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

Explaining the Unexplainable in Minsk

sacred books“Yes,” I told the baffled American immigration official, “I was in Belarus for a roots trip.” But this in no way captured my experience of touring in the environs of Minsk with a German speaking group out of Austria.  One of the challenges for me starting the journey in Austria is the automatic connection I feel with the place. I was very close with my grandmother who was born and raised in Vienna. She spoke German, ate Austrian foods, used cosmetics that had a European appeal. As complex as it is, I resonate strongly with the smells, flavors and sounds of Austria. Austria is one of my “homelands.”

By contrast Belarus, which was home to so many many Jews, is completely foreign to me personally. I spent 5 days in Belarus, which was 4 days more than my great grandmother. Reisl Hanni Brody was deported from Vienna, September 14th, 1942.  Four days later she arrived in Minsk, was taken to Maly Trostinec and together with all the other Jews in her transport shot. The language and the culture of Belarus do not resonate with me on an individual level. The only thing that connects me to this place is pain and death. This distinction is profound. When I am in Austria I feel compelled to better understand this culture from which I come, in Belarus I felt largely disconnected. Ironically, this disconnect was part of what made the overwhelming and challenging content of 5 days of Holocaust touring, bearable.

Bearable however, is a relative term. Over the 5 days, I heard so many horrid things that my capacity to distinguish between mass murder, horrid brutality and interesting fact has eroded. For example, from Vienna to Brisk, the urbane Jews of Austria travelled in the relative comfort of passenger trains. This helped Jews buy into the imagined hope that they really were,as the Nazis promised, relocating. Only after days of disorientation and hunger were they transferred to the cattle cars that carried them to their death. By this point they could barely protest. Apparently this ‘interesting fact,’ out of the context of other things I learned (which makes it seem kind of mild), comes across more on the horridly brutal when shared over a cup of tea.

Even the positive day of our trip offered little relief. We saw first hand the 200 meter long tunnel dug in 1943, which allowed 250 Jews to escape from a prison work camp near Novogrudok.  The work, perseverance and imagination this took is astonishing. Miraculously, most made it to the woods and were able to the join Bielski resistance detachment made famous in the movie Defiance. I am inspired by the acts of heroism in face of horrific odds and grateful for every life that was saved, but the suffering and horrific circumstances and that led to the need for heroism cannot be redeemed.

There is so much that will never be recovered. Belarus sits between Ukraine and Poland, in a place where borders were not so fixed. Nearly the entire Jewish population was destroyed. Some of the greatest Yeshivot, such as the Mir Yeshiva and the Brisk Yeshiva were located here. This was the birthplace of Marc Chagall. Historian Lucy Dawidowicz put the number of Jewish dead at 375,000.

The Jewish devastation is an important piece, but nonetheless only one piece, of the destruction that took place in Eastern Europe during WWII. While there is no consensus on the total numbers of the general population that died, it is estimated  one third of the total population-Jews and non-Jews- lost their lives. Those who survived often did so by collaborating. Old ethnic tensions were excuses for violence that the Nazis were all too glad to exploit. The property damage was extensive. Almost nothing remains of pre-war Minsk. It was all destroyed at the start of the war by the Germans. These types of scars do not heal easily. We see them on show today in the Ukraine.

Those of us whose relatives lived in this part of the world, and took the chance emigrating in the 1880 or thereabouts, should be eternally grateful.

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Posted on June 26, 2014

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On Mother’s Day

no_flowersYet another holiday about which I am ambivalent, Mother’s Day seems this year to have engendered rather more commentary than I can remember in past years. I have read several moving essays from women whose infertility has made Mother’s Day painful, as they are forced to watch the omnipresent cute pictures of babies and advertisements directed at heteronormative families seemingly composed of clumps of gooey gazes of young, pretty, thin (and mostly white) women at their offspring, neatly clad, and freshly scrubbed.

Aside from the commercialism of it all,  aside from the very real pain of women who want children and have not  been able to bear them, I wonder if this is the best we can do for women. While honoring one’s parents is a Jewish value, I’m not sure that Mother’s Day offers any real honor.

Of course I wouldn’t dare not show up at my own mother’s house, but as for me, I’d rather see our society make genuine changes to the way we treat women. I would consider it a far greater honor to make sure that no girl need fear rape in her high school or college than to get some paid-for gift every year. It would be a lot more clear to me that our society cares about mothers and motherhood if it made more effort to feed the children of all the mothers in it, and pay women the worth of our work—equal to what a man would make.

Of course, that’s sort of the point. It takes a lot less work to show pretty once a year, and make a few grand pronouncements about how motherhood is the most important job than it does to actually honor women. That would require some big changes in the way we do business, in how we live our lives, and would require more than one day’s consideration.

And I will say this, too. You can’t truly honor mothers if you don’t have genuine respect for all women: before, during, and after the years of her fertility, whether or not she chooses to bear children, whether or not she is able.

So if you really want to honor your mother this weekend, get off your duff and go make the world better for every girl, for every old woman, for any child born of woman, boy or girl. Go on: then you can be the hero your mother always told you you were. And that would be the best Mother’s Day present you could give her.

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Posted on May 7, 2014

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

My Children Won’t be Jews Like Me

Jews Like MeI’ve done everything “right”: given my children Jewish education, sent them to Jewish camps, spent time with them in Israel and modeled engaged Jewish living. But with the celebration of my second child becoming a bat mitzvah and officially beginning her journey as a Jewish adult, I can now say with certainty that my children will not be Jews like me.

That this was ever a consideration is on many levels absurd. Happily, from the moment a child first rolls over on its own, children work mightily to dispel the arrogance of parents who misguidedly assume their offspring exist to replicate their values and approach to life. They refuse to eat reasonably, they sleep on their own schedule, they make their own friends, choose their own clothes, challenging us at each step until we understand that while they absorb much from us, children will make their own way in the world.

And yet, when it comes to Judaism (and sports or alma matter affiliation which are like religions to many- but that is another article) people somehow expect continuity and are surprised and frightened by change. In no small part, I believe that this comes from a vision of what religious tradition is or is meant to be. As Jewish tradition teaches, God gave Moses the Torah as Sinai and Moses passed it to Joshua and Joshua to the elders, the same words the same Torah passed down generation to generation. We change and religion remains eternal.

As a historian, I know this was never true. Judaism has survived in no small part because of its ability to adapt and change. I will cede that in the past change was less possible, because of external limitations, and slower to occur because of the limitations of technology. But with the emancipation of the Jews and the industrial revolution, change has become the reality. If we presume that our children should replicate our vision for the Jewish future, we will be disappointed.

Absurd then. It should not even be a consideration. And yet. And yet, what is the point of investing in Jewish education if they will not guarantee continuity? And yet, how can we not feel like we have failed? I hear these questions frequently from parents who have done all that they thought “right’ “are now launching children who are “walking off the path” and making different Jewish choices than their parents would envision for them. Some are becoming less religious, others more so. Some are more left wing, others lean more to the right.

As a rabbi, I understand where they are coming from. On the day I was ordained, a rabbi I respect greatly, placed his hands on my shoulders and entrusted me to pass on the tradition to the next generation. But even as I gladly took on this challenge, I was keenly aware that my children’s Judaism could not be my own –for in an era of change each generation will have to find its own.

There is loss and uncertainty that comes with letting go. Some of the institutions and customs, which I have long benefited from and loved, are loosing relevance and others will undoubtedly disappear. And it can be painful and scary. The fluidity of religious life in America means that experimenting is inevitable. Some of the experiments will be ones that will disappoint me and others in my generation personally and collectively.

Over thirty years ago, my parents pushed the envelope of what was Jewishly possible by finding a synagogue that would allow me (albeit under my father’s blessing) to read from the Torah. It was a move that must have both puzzled and bothered their parents and one that ultimately opened the door for me to become much more religious than they ever imagined.

I am not alone. It is hard to imagine a more committed and creative group of rabbis than the ones who populated my community of Rabbis Without Borders. Going around the table with the first cohort, it turned out to our surprise that only a small fraction of the rabbis represented same denomination of Judaism as in which they grew up. Commitment yes, continuity yes, but also real and meaningful change.

Today, there is a Jewish creative cultural renaissance that is showcasing Jewish themes and values in every aspect of artistic endeavor. There is a renewal of Jewish learning that is taking new forms. A sense of global Jewish life is being renewed with the help of technology and travel. As a community, we are more inclusive and diverse than we have been in decades. Some of this I could and did imagine, other aspects were beyond my own envisioning. Without a willingness to change and challenge the received Jewish wisdom, none of this would have been possible.

Launching children onto the path of adulthood is bittersweet. As they make their own path, children will make their own choices many of which will not be your own. But there is also tremendous hope and possibility that comes from allowing the next generation to imagine and then create their own truth and reality. Both as a parent and as a rabbi, I look forward to seeing how the next generation takes the tradition they receive to create Judaism that will in time be passed down and transformed.

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Posted on January 9, 2014

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