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

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.

CAMBODIA

Cambodia took my heart in ways I can barely understand let alone properly articulate. And I will probably write much more about this entire life changing trip. But I wanted to write this before the rawness of these particular feelings begins to fade away.

Our tuk tuk rattled away from the New Hope Cambodia NGO free school with the children’s voices still ringing with I’ll Be Seeing You in my head. I could still feel the love in their hugs and hands as we said until we meet again. They have so little but have so much gratitude for the little we could do for them.

And I cried at the killing fields and at the Khmer/Kamai museum that gave the history of the genocide that was inflicted on the people by the Khmer Rouge. A country of eight million reduced by two million and a million more in the aftermath. A city, Phnom Penh, of over a million reduced to forty thousand in three days. And at the displays showing the twenty five or so million tons of U.S. Ordinance dropped on Cambodia during the Vietnam war.

Cambodia leads the world (and there are fifty nine other affected countries) in land mines and in the number of amputees. They are clearing them but it is slow and many people, including many children are still very much at risk. There are a huge number of minefields and additional unexploded ordinance littering the country.

Cambodia is an ancient country that is only twenty years old. It is reinventing itself in every way. There are virtually no natural resources and they are dependent on volunteers and NGO’s for practically everything. Nothing is wasted, everything can be used. If you walk and drink a water or a soda, hand the can to a mother sitting by the street, it is money for her. She won’t ask for it but will take it with thanks.

We had the privilege of seeing not only the beauty of places like Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and ton le sap, but also the lives of the real people, their real lives. I never heard a single person complain. Children in dirty hand me down clothes gave me their precious candy to share. Everywhere people were gracious and friendly.

My words cannot describe the beauty of a people determined to rebuild a place they clearly love. Every project or destination has a greater purpose – to educate the children and sustain the community beyond the scope of the project or attraction. In a country whose recent history is soaked in a river of blood and death they say only: that is the past, we only look for solutions for the future.

As our plane rose from Siem Riep airport, I again inexplicably had tears in my eyes. On the outside it is in many ways not a beautiful place but it’s spirit is one of the most beautiful things I have ever had the privilege of experiencing. Until we meet again.