HOPE

It is almost impossible, now, to describe what it felt to be incalculably hopeful. Our idealism, in the sixties and seventies, was boundless. We believed absolutely and completely that we would change the world. And in some ways the world was indeed changed. The civil rights act, the voting rights act, ultimately Title IX, the rise of feminism and a tectonic shift in our culture; music, art, attitudes.

And idealism dies hard. All my life I have held fast to some idealistic notions of good and right. Not to mention my steadfast belief in constitutional democracy and the protections it should afford us.

Having said that, the hardest thing for me about where we are now is the erosion of hope, the loss of idealism. I find it damn near impossible to watch the news without becoming angry, or depressed, or just plain sad. I find it almost impossible to believe that we are where we are. That racism, fascism, anti-semitism and all forms of bigotry are on the rise. That we cannot agree that saving the planet and all the creatures on it should be a first and urgent priority. That the short view is always the prevailing view. That civil discussion and disagreement are no longer possible. These are the big things, the small things confront us daily. My town now only pretends to recycle, my social security is taxed, there are hungry homeless children in our schools; and on and on.

I was watching a fictional television show in which a leading character made an impassioned speech about the values we should all be holding dear. About the pure and fantastical notion of a government by and for the people. And geek that I am, it made me cry. Good,grief. And it reminded me of that hope, that beautiful boundless hope.

And all I can do, as I witness the destruction of decades of progress on the environment, the recission of regulations that protect our air, our water, our parks, our children, the poor, the disenfranchised, is try to see the good. I watch for those moments when the best in us is evident, when my neighbors help me with things I can’t do, when people band together to help the victims of some senseless tragedy, when a restaurant feeds those with no money. Just examples, but sparks of hope. As I said, hope does hard, so we have to fan those tiny sparks and pray, every day, that the flames can rise again and carry us forward. Maybe hope is contagious.

CULTURE SHOCK

Fooled you, I will bet you thought it was when I arrived in Southeast Asia. Sure, that had its own newness factor, but that wasn’t the shock.

All through Thailand and Cambodia, in multiple airports large and small, we queued and queued and queued. And while you might see frustration on a random face, people stood quietly. And politely. And generally without complaint. If you smiled at someone they smiled back.

My favorite queue was for an airport ladies room where I was engaged in a spirited conversation by a lovely Thai woman. We were, it turned out, the same age, both freshly retired, both traveling to similar places for similar reasons. Yes, it was a pretty long wait. She apparently decided I needed to go more and graciously told me to go first!

All through Thailand and Cambodia, even in the poorest neighborhoods, I found the people to be almost unfailingly humble, smiling, polite. And it was an extraordinary pleasure. In Thailand there is a word that doesn’t really have its own meaning, it is just an”politeness” you add to everything you say. Even if you can’t remember the word for thank you, adding a “kah” to your English “thank you” brought a smile and a return “kah”. And in Cambodia it is the cultural norm to SMILE.

On my return to the states I entered the U.S. at Atlanta where I had to go through passport control/immigration. As might be expected in one of the busiest airports in the world, it was crowded. Airport staff were working hard to control the flow of people and the lines were long. The airport staff looked like dogs that had been beaten, for some good reason. People in line were swearing, yelling, complaining in an amazing show of discourtesy and arrogance.

There is the culture shock, returning to America. We are one of, if not the, youngest developed country in the world. In France people experience individual arrogance from, for example, shopkeepers who don’t like your French accent or non French. But people bring their babies to street protests. It has been many years since I was in Germany (I will be there soon and will update) but my experience was one of politeness notwithstanding that German tourists on holiday can be a bit much. Overall we seem to be the brashest, most arrogant and rudest people I have experienced. How sad is that? And it is only getting worse. I was shocked.

I Remember

 

So here goes with another movie. The other night I went to see Bohemian Rhapsody. And I know that Rami Malik got some not so nice and pretty snarky reviews. Some were downright nasty. I, however, thought he was amazing. He utterly channeled Freddie Mercury and held the audience’s attention as if he were the real person. I imagine it is hard enough to play a fictional character, but to re-create a real person must be unbelievably difficult. And he made it look easy, the acting part. Being Freddie Mercury could never have been easy, in the movie or in life.

Of course the music was wonderful, and nostalgic, but that wasn’t what struck me most. Don’t get me wrong, as a musician, the story of any iconic musician is fascinating to me. What struck me hardest was the evocative power of the film to bring me back to those terrible early days of the epidemic. The dark days when the virus was an unknown and nobody understood what it was let alone what to do about it, how to treat it.

Watching even the fictional story of a man dying of AIDS brought to mind all those I lost and all those we as a country, as a culture, lost. And it brought to mind the fear and ignorance, intolerance and distrust with which victims were treated. I remember people sick and dying with no human touch because of irrational and baseless fear. I remember the sorrow I felt and the helplessness, all I could do was hug the ones I knew.

And remembering what that fear and ignorance did to hundreds or thousands made me think of what fear and ignorance are doing to us now. If only there was a cure. But it was a wonderful cinema experience despite all that.

 

 

Can You Still Believe In Magic?

I wrote on Vayeira, this past week’s Torah portion last year and what struck me was that it is full of magic and miracles. Although there was much punishment and destruction, there was still magic and miracles.

It is hard to write, today, about magic and miracles. Saturday, in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Jews were gunned down as they prayed their Sabbath prayers. They were not gunned down by Muslim extremists or other “imported” terrorists. They were gunned down by a homegrown anti-Semitic extremist who believed that Jews were somehow “alien” and a threat to his way of life. In Pittsburgh. He was known on extreme web sites as a virulent anti-Semite. He posted, essentially, what he planned to do, that he had had enough of us. And eleven innocent people are dead.

So it’s hard, today, to write about magic and miracles.  I taught religious school this morning and we talked about how you believe, how you have faith, in a world where bad things happen. We worked hard at this, at finding the path. These are 12 and 13 year olds, trying to find their path in so many ways. And then they have to think about and deal with things like this.

Why would they want to be Jews when Jews are targets? Why would they want to believe in a world where they can be shot down in school, in shul? I don’t think it is my place as a teacher to tell them what or how to believe. I can share what I believe, I can try to help them see a possible path, but everyone, teen or not, needs to find a way to faith on their own.

In the end I can’t promise them safety in their Jewish identity, we can only talk about the courage and self worth involved in being and standing up for who you are. We can only talk about living life not in fear. And that’s where faith comes in. We finally agreed that probably G-d does not create or cause bad things; life happens. Faith is what helps us through those things. The stories of the G-d of Genesis, testing and testing, are meant to instruct us but we need not take them literally. We work to find the lessons, everyone has to find their own path to belief. It would be wonderful if we could wave a magic wand and disappear the evil, the scary things, but alas we cannot. What I do know is that despite the evil in the world it is truly still full of magic and miracles – you just have to believe, and know where to look.

Really, We Are All The Same

 

Nitzavim – You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your G-d.  And it means everyone, from the lowliest to the highest and all those in between.  I love this, it makes everyone equal, it makes all of us the same, at least within the house of Israel.

As always, there is a two edged sword, a little threat with the promise.  Even as Moses tells the people that G-d will not forsake them, he does tell them there will be punishment if they are idolatrous.  There can never just be a promise, but that is another story.

As we are nearing the end of the story, as the generations are looking to the promised land, as the people have become a people, this leveling happens.  Community is a process, in this case forged over many trials, travels and tribulations. Today as well, community building is a process, a labor of love and work.  And in that work, we become equal. Although teams have leaders, good teams work on a level playing field no matter the assigned or adopted task of each team member.

In our current world we have forgotten what team is.  We have forgotten what community building means, from the lowliest to the highest, it takes us all.  Someone needs to adopt, or volunteer, for every task no matter what it is.  In this way society works and all the jobs are accomplished, the rewards are reaped by everyone in some proportional way.  We seek these days to eliminate those that would do the tasks we do not wish to do but have no plan as to how those tasks will be done. Nor do we wish to pay for those tasks in a way commensurate with the necessity for the work.

So to, in families. That community needs to be built as well. All the tasks need to be accomplished and some agreement needs to be reached as to who will accomplish them and how they will be accomplished.  Respect, trust, equality, fairness, love, sympathy, empathy and faith.  All are necessary to the task of building community.

So in Nitzavim we are told we are all equal, and in standing equal we will all be rewarded. The reward of course is figurative for us, we won’t all be entering the promised land. The reward is the community, the respect, trust, equality, fairness, love, sympathy, empathy and faith.  And as we approach, in mere days, these most holy of days in the Jewish calendar, we indeed stand equal before G-d and one another . There is still time to correct what needs correcting and return to those values of community building. And one more, most important of all, forgiveness.