I AM

“Let us dress ourselves in the garments of G_d – compassion for the needy, embrace of the stranger – and then spread the canopy of peace over all the world.” (From the Reform prayerbook Mishkan T’filah.)

"Let us dress ourselves in the garments of G_d – compassion for the needy, embrace of the stranger – and then spread the canopy of peace over all the world." Click To Tweet

I am a Jew. I came to it a bit later in life, accepting the heritage of my father’s family. Some would consider me not a Jew, a fault of my maternal heritage. But I am a Jew.

Anti-semitism has apparently become the topic du jour, not that it ever went away. But in a thread on Facebook that I was following that was begun on the topic of racism, I read something that I had to read more than once. The writer say he was a Jew but had never been touched or “flinched from” anti-semitism. He went on to say that perhaps progressive Jews were more sensitive to such bigotry.

This last statement is so loaded with problems it is hard to know where to start. To begin, I have no idea what he meant by progressive Jews. Contextually the implication was that somehow the liberal snowflake Jews would take more offense, bringing us into the more overtly political. And then to infer that it is just a sensitivity of uber political correctness to be offended by anti-semitism. Finally to imply that more sensible (less liberal politically) Jews would not be bothered by bigotry. Fallacious notions all.

When my son was young and we lived in sub-urban New Mexico, he experienced a great deal of prejudice. I concede that it was primarily born of ignorance not of hate, but it was painful nonetheless. And those who acted on their prejudices could not have cared less what branch of Judaism we practiced, or what our political beliefs were. We were Jews, we were alien.

And the current social media war that rages over whether Jews can be real Americans if they are Democrats, or whether Democrats can be supporters of Israel is despicable. I am a liberal Democrat, although I try to be a thinking independent as needed. I am a reasonably religious and observant Jew. I am a supporter of Israel although not in every action that they take. I have always been hopeful for a peace that seems farther from our grasp than ever. I am deeply offended by the notion that any of these things are mutually exclusive and that our divisive and combative national dialogue has now made my religion an issue of patriotism. I love what this country should be, and I am a constitutional nerd. I also believe in the values embodied in the quote I started with. But my religion is not, or should not be, a political issue. My politics are grounded in the values my religion teaches; a very different matter.

Where I live now it is astounding how many people do not know what a Star of David represents. Most have no idea what Judaism is, what our beliefs or values are; despite the fact that they embrace the old testament as part of their own various faiths. To many we are still money grubbing baby killers. People always seem surprised to learn that I am Jewish, as if a pleasant 60 something woman should be somehow other than.

“Judaism is a doing which can be grasped only by the heart.” Julius Lester

Why

As we walked the rough cobblestones of the death camps some of the elderly among us struggled with the uneven terrain even as they struggled with memories of lost family and broken connections and betrayed heritage. I watched her walk beyond the limits of her ability because this is was why she came .

At Auschwitz I, the docent took us through buildings that were still standing, explaining the function of each. The eugenics, where terrible experiments took place. The original rooms that served as “barracks”, people packed on the floor with no space to walk. The “punishment” cells where the SS experimented with ways to kill. And many more.

Although the buildings were relatively close together, it was hard going. Those that had been utilizing wheelchairs were unable to do so on these unforgiving paths. And the docent, sensitive to the limitations of some in our group, suggested places that folks could rest and wait for us to meet up with them. Many did just that – they rested, they waited, unable to go on.

One of the most moving things I witnessed on this trip was one elderly woman. Overweight, swollen legs, short of breath. She was offered many opportunities to rest, to stop, to end the tour at each camp. I watched her struggle on, slowly, well behind the pace of the rest of the group. But she would not give up. Being on this sacred ground, where her family died, was the most important thing. Walking these paths, looking for their names on the recording pages, this was everything. She would not give up, she would keep going the whole way, no matter how painful or how difficult, because this was why she came.

BEING THERE

My shoes are grey with the ashes of the dead

it rains as we leave Auschwitz-Birkenau

A reflection of how I feel.

The hems of my trousers are splattered

with the mud of the bones, a sacrilege to wash.

The old folks always said don’t buy a Mercedes

now I feel why.

Every step is to walk not only over a grave, but

to walk the last meters that numberless thousands walked;

to view the last view they saw before they became ashes.

These roads are filled with the spirits of the unnumbered,

unnamed, uncounted, unknown.

Oh! Those Germans were meticulous record keepers

except in their haste to rid the world they neglected to count

and record…

more than we will ever know, rushed to the gas chamber

At the moment of arriving if they still lived.

The pollen falls like ashes as we stand

in the crematorium at Dachau

breaking my heart in ways for which I have no words.

Standing in these places of unimaginable horror

I can only touch the walls with the palm of my hand

and whisper”we remember” “we will not forget”.

I feel your spirits.

We can only remember, honor, teach;

somehow know what cannot be known.

My brain is full of history,

my eyes cannot hold any more horror.

With reverence and tears I spoke the Kaddish

in these holiest of places

and remembered…all the genocide, not just of these

but of our human history…ongoing still.

Love and Family

This week’s Torah portion is, as always, chock full of things and covers quite the span of time. Significantly, Moses is born and his life is defined early on by acts of compassion and love, first by his mother who fears for his life and next by Pharoah’s daughter in defiance of his order that all Hebrew boy children be killed. Pharoah’s distrust of the Israelites is formed essentially by the fact that they are multiplying, that their families are growing and so he attempts to limit them by killing them off.

A great deal else happens in this very first book of Exodus but I think, at this season, we should talk about compassion, love and family. I listen to the news and read a Facebook feed and I hear people talk and I see bumper stickers and I am overwhelmed by the division, contempt, ignorance, rudeness and downright hatred. This to the point that I can barely stand to be part of the world.

And then, a package from one of my brothers arrives and in it is a canvas shopping bag inscribed large and in bright red “Be Optimistic”. Now that is a reminder. So I stop and think about my aging mother who loves me. About my brothers and their children who love me. I think about my friends who love me and who show me compassion when I am unlovable. I think about my students who I love. I think about my amazing son and his equally amazing fiance who love me and who I love more than anything. I stop and think about my life and how blessed I am.

The Torah portion reminds me of the sacrifice it takes to be a true leader of integrity, intelligence and courage. It reminds me of how dear our families and friends are. It reminds me that it takes great faith to do great things and that sometimes compassion is all that is needed to send someone on their way. It also reminds me that great faith and adherence to principle sometimes also demands great sacrifice and great courage.

I think in this season of many holidays that what is needed is not an argument about how we greet one another but that we act towards one another with compassion and love. We are, in the end all the same, united in the common bond of humanity. Be gracious, be grateful, love your family and those who matter, tell them often, look up at the moon and know we are all looking at the same beautiful sky. Whatever your faith, compassion, love and courage will carry us through.

The Star ~

In the last weeks we have seen the face of the rise of overt antisemitism in this country. We have seen innocents murdered at prayer in their house of worship. We have seen homes spray painted with swastikas. We saw a man buy a ticket to Fiddler on the Roof so he could yell Heil Hitler! and Heil Trump! in the middle of the performance.

I am not so naive as to believe that antisemitism is really growing, it has been there all along. Just like racism and xenophobia of all kinds. I don’t think people’s feelings have really changed. What I think is that over the last decades, at least for a while, it became socially unacceptable to express those feelings in public, to act them out in overt and destructive ways. And so at the least overt expressions of hate, to some extent, went underground.

What I think is that the current leadership, or lack thereof, of our country has created or at least affirmed the “rightness”  of a culture of the expression of hate. It has become okay, or normal, to express racism, antisemitism, hate of Muslims, etc. in public and out loud.

My mother is not Jewish, and for some in my community that means I am not. My father is Jewish and in my Reform community that means I am Jewish if I say I am. I was asked once how I determined that my identity was Jewish. I thought about my answer carefully and my answer is this. If I had lived in Germany in the early part of the 19th century, I would not have been asked if my mother was Jewish or not or what my identity was. I would have had a star sewn to my coat, I would have been herded into a ghetto and ultimately a cattle car and sent to my almost certain death. It has always seemed to me that if I would have died for being it, I should be willing to die to defend being it.

For a long time I stopped wearing my Star of David, or anything around my neck, for reasons related to vanity. But seeing these expression of anti-semitism becoming socially “acceptable” or at least part of some new normal made me re-think that. Now I need to wear it, every day and visible outside my clothing. Because I can.