When I see the word “Palestine,” a number of images come to mind: questions regarding borders, refugees, the city of Jerusalem, and more Middle Eastern musings. But from now on, when I read or hear the word “Palestine,” I’ll think of something else as well. I’ll think of a small town – Palestine, Texas – and a man named Sam who owns a diner there.
This Friday, I was on my way to Waco, Texas to visit Congregation Agudath Jacob. Around 1:00 or so, my fellow Education Fellow Allison Poirier and I saw the official “Welcome to Palestine” sign on the side of the road! Needless to say, we were quite pleased with the name of this town. We made a few other nerdy Jewish Educator jokes related to the town’s name, but we soon realized that we were quite hungry. We decided to stop at the Dogwood Diner for lunch.
After ordering, a man walked over to our table. As occasionally happens for me, since I wear a kippah every day, he exclaimed: “That’s a Yarmulke, right?”
I replied that indeed it was! I always enjoy interactions like this, where I get to briefly explain why it is meaningful for me to wear this funny-looking Jewish hat, but I was in for a surprise this time around…
This man was Sam, owner of the diner. He explained that his ex-wife was Jewish. Years ago, Sam sent his children to a Jewish school in Dallas. Sam knew all about the Jewish community of Palestine, TX. He told us about a Jewish cemetery located right down the road, explained that there had been a congregation nearby until about a decade ago, and had a number of other interesting stories to share with us.
But Sam left us with more than just stories. He provided us an important insight as well. After a few minutes of conversation, Sam said to us, “Ya know, I grew up Muslim, reading the Qur’an. Then I married a Jew and learned about the Torah. And recently I’ve learned more about Christianity, and I’ve read the Bible. They’re really not so different.”
I did not realize that, upon walking into the Dogwood Diner, I would hear such important words of wisdom. We get bogged down in the differences between some of our religious traditions sometimes. And let’s be clear – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and every other world religion really are unique, and to say simply “they’re all basically the same” would be misguided. But we do share quite a bit in common. Monotheism is a common tenet, and Moshe (or Moses, or Musa) is viewed as a prophet by all three.
It is easy to lose track of our similarities sometimes, as we focus on what separates Jews from other religions – and even what separates one particular group of Jews from another. But we really do possess a number of common characteristics with other world religions. Sometimes we just need someone to remind us of that. Thankfully, I had Sam.
We find wisdom in unexpected places. Of course, somebody had inspired me with their thoughts about religion while I was in Palestine, Texas. With a town-name like that, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised.
We’re nearing the end of Mensch Madness, sports fans!
There is a palpable sense of history here in our arena, as two underdogs – Devorah and Hannah – match up against one another for a place in the Mensch Madness championship. Since both come from the WIN Conference (Women in Nevi’im), they are quite familiar with one another. Over recent years, the instant-classics that Devorah and Hannah have participated in have created a strong rivalry, up there with the likes of Duke-North Carolina, Ohio State-Michigan, and Cain-Abel.
We’re spotting some basketball yarmulkes in the crowded stands. The intimidatingly-named “Hannah’s Horde,” the raucous fans that flock to all of Hannah’s basketball games, all seem as excited as ever – we even spotted one holding a sign reading “Hey Eli, who’s drunk now?” Eli made headlines earlier this season for accusing Hannah of drunkenness during the game. Hannah insisted that she was not drunk, just full of intensity for her mid-season run of success, and the Breathalyzer tests backed up her claim. Eli did not even make Mensch Madness this year, and to add insult to injury, he was embarrassingly eliminated from the first round of the Mensch Invitational Tournament by Balaam’s donkey.
Devorah’s supporters have fewer signs – but they seem to be a fairly musical bunch. Their mascot, a giant bumblebee, chosen because it is the meaning of Devorah’s name in Hebrew, is conducting the entire crowd in a unified rendition of Judges Chapter 5! “Uri, uri, D’vorah” (Awake, awake, O Deborah!) and “Uri, uri, dab’ri shir” (Awake, awake, strike up the chant!) echo through the arena in a deafening roar.
But alas, there is basketball to be played, and the game will be won on the court – not in the stands. The game tips off, and Devorah takes control. She instantly summons 10,000 men from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun to execute a full-court press, and Hannah is no match for them. By halftime, Devorah has notched a 37-21 lead, and Hannah is unsure what she can do to start a comeback.
In the locker room, Hannah consults with her assistant coaches – her husband Elkanah and son Samuel the prophet. They have some sound advice! Many years back, when Hannah was desperate for a son, she made a deal with God. She said that “If You will look upon the suffering of Your maidservant and remember me…and if You will grant Your maidservant a male child, I will dedicate him to the Lord for all the days of his life; and no razor shall ever touch his head.” She was rewarded with her son Samuel.
So Elkanah and Samuel advised her to make a similar vow today. Hannah summoned her strength. She closed her eyes, moved her lips, and stated “Oh God, if you will look kindly upon me and weaken the strength of Devorah my opponent, I will dedicate this court to the Lord, and no mop or broom shall ever touch its floor.”
God hears Hannah’s cries. God listens to every word, and God……reaches out a mighty hand…and…AND…God shakes God’s mighty finger at Hannah.
“Many years ago, your desire was for good. You wanted a son so that he may serve Me and serve My people. Today, your desire is for yourself. You wish Me to bring harm to Devorah so that you will win…a BASKETBALL GAME?! This thing is not good. Also, to refrain from mopping or sweeping such a court as this is unsanitary and a desecration of My name. This thing is not good. And you shall not win. ”
Despite the vigorous apologies from Hannah, Elkanah, and Samuel, Hannah returns to the court for the second half with little hope – and sure enough, Devorah comes away with a 72-50 blowout victory.
Who will win the FINAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME?! You’ll know when Monday, when Mensch Madness reaches its exciting finale!
 Judges 5. Jewish Publication Society Hebrew-English Tanakh. Philadelphia, 1999 (527).
 Judges 4. Ibid 520.
 1 Samuel 1. Ibid 572.
In the late 1970s, my Uncle Eric Rofes marched in a gay pride parade in the Boston area with a paper bag over his head.
Why would he do this? What reason did he have to hide his identity as he sought to make equal rights for LGBT individuals a reality?
His reasons were practical, and heartbreaking. He was a teacher, and at the time, it was completely within the realm of acceptable activity to fire teachers if they were “discovered” to be homosexual. Allowing his face to be seen could have consequences.
Later in the year, he decided that he no longer could hide this aspect of his identity. He decided he would inform the school that he was gay. He would no longer bring fake “girlfriends” to school functions, and, if asked by his students, he would talk with them honestly about the fact that he is attracted to men and not women.
Upon learning this, the school fired my Uncle Eric.
My uncle went on to become an accomplished activist, working tirelessly for equal rights for all, regardless of sexuality. He made a lot of headway. But what is clear to me today is this: there is so much work left to be done, and for me it starts right now here in Mississippi.
Today, a vote on Senate Bill 2681 will likely occur in Mississippi. If passed, it would give businesses the right to deny service to individuals if their reason for doing so stems from a “sincerely held religious belief.” This would give businesses the right to deny service to LGBT individuals without any consequence. A classic example is that of a gay couple going to a bakery to purchase a cake, perhaps celebrating the anniversary of their first date (or of their wedding, if they traveled outside of Mississippi to a state where there is marriage equality). This law would mean that businesses could kick those individuals out of the store. It is the equivalent of a “straights only” sign in the window, reminiscent of a Civil Rights era that I had hoped we had moved past.
This bill (popular because it would also add “In God We Trust” to the state seal) would formalize that someone can be turned away/denied service based on a “deeply held religious belief,” and these days that’s often veiled language for LGBT, though clearly it can extend to discrimination among many other groups, and smacks of segregation language pre-civil rights, using religion to justify discrimination.
As a Mississippian, as a human being, and, for me, as a Jew, I must stand up and do what I can to defeat this bill. I refuse to sit back when a law may pass tomorrow that would mean citizens of my state, today, would have to hide their sexuality just as my uncle did decades ago.
For those looking for a “sincerely held religious belief” in opposition to this bill, I have a very simple one. It is, perhaps unexpectedly, from Shammai, a man noted for being significantly less open-minded than his counterpart, Hillel the Elder. He states, in Pirkei Avot, a Jewish ethical tractate:
“Hevei m’kabeil et kol ha-adam b’seiver panim yafot.” Receive every person with a cheerful countenance.
It doesn’t say receive some people with a cheerful countenance. It doesn’t say, accept some people cheerfully, but those others, well, you can give them the cold shoulder if you don’t agree with them.
Our society will suffer greatly if we do not live up to those words. For my sake, for your sake, for my Uncle Eric’s sake, and for the future of Mississippi – let us fight against discrimination, and embrace the “sincerely held religious belief” that we should receive everyone with a pleasant face, an open door, a cheerful countenance.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.