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

What More Do You Need

Eikev is this week’s Torah portion; the word has too many meanings for me to really understand or expound on. Suffice it to say that it can mean “heed”, “hear”, “follow” and “heel”, among other things. The portion is always named for the first word so Eikev it is.

Moses, who will never enter the promised land with his people, reminds them of the covenant, the b’rit, that G-d made with them. But he also reminds them that they must be observant and follow the “rules” faithfully for G-d to maintain that covenant. He proceeds to remind them of their bad behavior, of their “trespasses against G-d”. He reminds them that although they will inherit the promised land from the idolatrous, they are far from virtuous.

This portion tells us that the promised land, Israel, will be a “land of milk and honey” if and only if the people obey the commandments and teach them to their children. What a metaphor for our time. If we were to obey the commandments, those basic social rules, we would be in a world at peace.

You have heard the idea that everything you need to know you learned in kindergarten. You didn’t learn the basics to build a rocket, or a building, splice a gene or write computer code. You did, however, learn the basic rules of how to live in the world, how to treat other people, how to share and how to care. You learned to be nice, to be polite, to stand up for those less fortunate, to tell the truth, not to take or destroy other people’s things, not to cheat, to respect differences and to respect proper authority. As an aside you also learn to “tell on” improper authority figures. All of these values, if we were to actually translate them to adult behavior would make the world a much better place.

We do teach these values to our children, or at least many of us at home, and many of our schools and houses of worship do. But somewhere along the line we seem to forget these values and instead of what we learned as children persisting, we start learning from others, adults, who have also forgotten those values. We have stopped thinking for ourselves. We have stopped standing up for the less fortunate. We have forgotten how to look past our differences. We accept cheating. We have forgotten how to share.

So you may not have learned all you need to know in kindergarten, you definitely learned what you need to know about human interaction. But you have forgotten it. According to the Torah, G-d gave Moses the basics and instructed us to… Click To Tweet

So you may not have learned all you need to know in kindergarten, but you definitely learned what you need to know about human interaction. I think in the main we have forgotten it. According to the Torah, G-d gave Moses the basics and instructed us to follow them faithfully. And the promise is that if we ever manage to do that we might globally take a turn for the better.

Shabbat Shalom

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.

What Now?

It is morning, the sky is blue, the clouds are fluffy and I feel oddly anxious in this strange unstructured life. I seem always to have something to do and I wonder how that could be. Are these things that I simply ignored when I was working, things I chose to be in denial about or that I just put off until now? Maybe they are the things I filled my nights and weekends with so that I felt that I never had a day off.

How strange to be able to say, “I can do that tomorrow” or “there is no urgency”. But I still find myself thinking I must do it now. A lifetime of structure – I need to rewire my brain.

I am off to Germany and Poland in a few days and people keep saying to me “have fun”. Although I think this trip will be interesting, spiritually fulfilling, educational and emotional, I am not sure it will be exactly fun. It is a trip to visit the places of the holocaust, that horrific time that many people choose to deny or forget just as we forget or ignore the many many genocides that have taken place in our time. There are so many, Kosovo, Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Nanking, the Ukraine under Stalin, Armenia all in the last 100 years and many in my lifetime.

I am honored to be able to say Kaddish at the places my people died. I am filled with gratitude to be able to carry the memory of my Grandmother who, as a child, fled Russia with her mother and seven siblings to come to America. And I am proud to know that in a family of mixed and little faith, I carry the faith of my ancestors and represent them at a time critical in the survival of Judaism in America.

I am proud that I recently took a group of young Jewish students on an overnight trip the central purpose of which was to visit a small but powerful holocaust museum about three hours from our home Temple. We had fun too, but the impact it made on some of those young people was stunning.

So, in my unstructured life, I sat down at my computer to write, told Alexa to play some bebop and this is what I wrote.

Shalom