Category Archives: Current Events

“When Does It Stop?” When It Stops.

Today on Facebook, a friend of my uncle’s asked him, in all (apparent) seriousness:

“So what, a statue comes down, that person was a racist, they don’t deserve to be memorialized. But what next? A town is named after the same guy, do we change the name? Does it matter?

“Jefferson owned slaves, do we tear down the memorial? Rename the capital of Missouri? Void the Declaration of Independence?

“It sounds absurd I know but isn’t it the same thing? And if it’s different, what makes it that way?”

I’ve heard this before. The “Well, but where does it stop?” slippery-slope argument, which is a bullshit argument if ever I heard one. So I asked him if he had any friends who were Jews. He allowed as how he did. I should note that I give credit for the analogy I used to Kayla M. Cooley (you can find her original comment with this analogy here).

I said: “Let’s assume your Jewish friend Jacob’s daughter, Ruth, has to go to Himmler High School, which is located on Third Reich Boulevard, every single day. She was also a student at Eichmann Elementary and Mengele Middle School. And her house is located on Hess Avenue.

“There’s also a big, big statue of Hitler over on Main Street, and another statue of Goebbels in the park up the street from her home.

“Should we rename the streets and take down the statues? Remember, the Nazis lost the war, right?”

His response was that of course those things should come down, but where do we stop? At what point will it be enough?

I asked him to consider this: Ruth is every black kid who has to go to Robert E. Lee High School or live on Stonewall Jackson Boulevard. She’s every black kid who’s had to look at a statue of a Confederate general or plantation owner as they walk down that street to school. And their parents. And grandparents. And great-grandparents. That’s how far back this shit goes.

So at minimum, you rename the streets and take down the statues honoring people who wanted to harm or kill our citizens. If you have to, put the statues in a museum, and label them appropriately in several languages to underscore the shamefulness and horror of what they did to Americans.

But at no time do you make the lame-ass excuse of the slippery slope or “where does it end?” It ends when you’re not honoring people who enslaved other people and fought a war to preserve that system. It ends when those people’s memories are shamed, not revered. It ends when the black kid is walking down Malcolm X Boulevard past a statue of Reverend King.

He asked then why statues of slave owners who founded the country (i.e. Jefferson and Washington) are “okay,” but slave owners who tried to leave the country (i.e. Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson) are not “okay.”

My response: It’s a fine hair to split, but are statues of Jefferson and Washington being used to create situations where blacks are reminded that they should be slaves in the eyes of the statue-makers? No. So that’s not a valid line of argument.

The statues that are being taken down were erected in two time periods: during Jim Crow, and during the Civil Rights movement. No statues of Washington or Jefferson went up during those time periods.

Someone else in the thread then said “Yeah, well, what about California? Why isn’t it renaming Santa Ana?”

Cute whataboutism, and nice attempt to derail. And sure, derailing or not, that’s a good point, but it’s not the main one right now. Sure, I’d like to see every statue to the Spanish who hamstrung their Native slaves torn down and put in a museum. I’d love to see Columbus Day removed from the calendar for good.

But this fight is the more important one right now. Right now, the flashpoint is not Cristobal de Colon or the Spanish missionaries. We’ll get to them eventually.
Right now the flashpoint is white people who wish that they could still own black people and who want to maintain monuments that were designed to intimidate and frighten black citizens.

As to “where does it stop?” Well, how about when blacks don’t have to worry about getting shot during a traffic stop, because the guy who pulled them over was raised in an environment that regretted the harm done by the traitors who fought on the Confederate side? How about when the United States takes the same route as Germany has, and requires all schoolchildren to visit former plantation sites, lynching trees, slave market sites and other such historical horrors, to drill it into their heads that “this is who we were, and it is not who we want to be, and you must call out and shame anyone who tries to make it something to be proud of.”

That’s when it stops. When it actually, you know, stops.

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“A Wasted Yom Kippur”

The High Holy Days are just over a month away. The time of the New Year and, ten days later, the time of repentance at Yom Kippur are almost upon us.

As a Jew by choice who will be officially a member of the Tribe only sixteen days before Rosh Hashanah (if I’ve counted correctly), and who had a powerful, meaningful experience at last year’s Yom Kippur, the High Holy Days will probably hit me hard every single year.  Last year, part of what hit me so hard was that we aren’t getting singled out for our sin. We are all confessing, communally, as a community, to grave sins.

This is on my mind today partly because of an article in this morning’s New York Times.  This article is talking about the recent murders of Shira Banki and Ali Saad Dawabsheh by Jewish extremist fanatics. I could quote from all kinds of places in this article, but I think this is probably one of the best ones, from Donniel Hartman, an Orthodox rabbi:

“The interesting question for all of us is, ‘Is this going to be a growth moment or is it going to be another wasted Yom Kippur? Oh, we’ve sinned, and we feel so righteous for saying we’ve sinned.’”

Mouthing the prayers is not the same as meaning them. It’s not even close. It’s the difference between keva (saying the words) and kavanah (feeling the words). And although I have seen many Christians mouth the words of repentance and then turn around and hurt people (what are sometimes called Sunday-only or Christmas and Easter Christians), it never occurred to me that many Jews might do the same thing.

So what is Yom Kippur about? Repentance and atonement? Or feeling prideful that you’re at the service, and fasting, and look how impressive you are? That’s not attractive to me. I doubt that anyone at my shul does this, but I don’t know for sure. And I’m going to be remembering what the words mean when I say them on Yom Kippur, because on that day the community confesses together:

Ashamnu: We have trespassed.
Bagadnu: We have dealt treacherously.
Gazlalnu: We have robbed.
Dibarnu dofi: We have spoken slander.
He’evinu: We have acted perversely.
V’hirshanu: We have done wrong.
Zadnu: We have acted presumptuously.
Hamasnu: We have done violence.
Tafalnu sheker: We have practiced deceit.
Yaatsnu ra: We have counseled evil.
Kizavnu: We have spoken falsehood.
Latsnu: We have scoffed.
Maradnu: We have revolted.
Niatsnu: We have blasphemed.
Sararnu: We have rebelled.
Avinu: We have committed iniquity.
Pashanu: We have transgressed.
Tsararnu: We have oppressed.
Kishinu oref: We have been stiff-necked.
Rashanu: We have acted wickedly.
Shichatnu: We have dealt corruptly.
Tiavnu: We have committed abomination.
Tainu: We have gone astray.
Titanu: We have led others astray.

A couple of those are general enough that a lot of sins can fit into them. V’hirshanu, for example. Tainu, as another example.

And frankly, this year, given what happened to Shira and Ali, in a nation where the police could have stopped the man who killed Shira and the men who killed Ali, all of Israel should be admitting “Hamasnu, Tsararnu, Tiavnu.” Because those murders were violence, they were oppression, and they were abomination.

Now, as a Jew in the United States, do I bear a share of the responsibility for those murders? Yes. Every Jew does. Every Jew should be saying “The murderers were Jews, and how horrifying and shameful that they were Jews.”

But if we simply say “that was shameful and horrifying,” and mouth the Ashamnu on Yom Kippur, have we changed anything meaningful? Or are we just feeling righteous for saying we’ve sinned?

I don’t know how I can help as a non-Israeli Jew, but there has to be something I can do to bring about tzedek (justice).

Justice is one of the things that brought me to Judaism. It has to be one of the reasons I continue in it.

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Dismayed and Disillusioned

I just found out about something that has me so shocked that, for a few hours, I couldn’t quite form words about it. Right now I feel like all I can do is quote what others have said better than I could.

First, here’s the situation, in a quote from Laura Antoniou on her Facebook page:

A romance novel where the hero is a concentration camp commander, redeemed and forgiven for his role in torture & genocide. Nominated for the most prestigious genre award in the field. Where he and his “blond haired and blue eyed Jewess” girlfriend convert to Christianity and…I can’t even. 

Yes. You read that right. A book that does a lift from the Book of Esther (supposedly) to pair a she-doesn’t-look-Jewish Jewess with a high-placed Nazi, during the Holocaust, who somehow redeems him, and then they both convert to Christianity at the end of the story. Happy, happy, joy, joy.

You know… I never thought there would be a book that would make EL James look like a competent writer, but this book’s choice of topic, choice of setting, choice of story… Yeah. 50 Shades beats this dreck by a country mile and a half. Even with EL James’ bad writing, her story was better chosen than this, because it didn’t appropriate another people’s culture and tragedy.

Sarah Wendell wrote a scathing letter to both the RWA and Bethany Press, the book’s publisher. Rose Lerner deconstructs some awful 5-star reviews of the abomination. Katherine Locke rips into it and tears it a new one. You should read all of their reviews, but here’s Katherine’s money quote:

Part of this is evangelical Christianity’s relationship with Jewish people (not with Judaism, let’s be clear) and Israel. Let’s be clear: we are people. We are not anyone’s tickets into heaven. We are not your Chosen people.

Yes. That.

But I think the commentary that has me nearly in tears is this one, from Jennie at Biblio File: 

Even today, I deal with too many people that think the way for a Jew to find happiness is a renunciation of faith in order to turn to Jesus. They come to my door and interrupt me at home. They come into my work. They leave literature on my car.

And they scare me, because that version of Happily-Ever-After means a world where everyone has converted to Christianity. That version of Happily-Ever-After means a world with no more Jews. It’s not physically violent, but it’s still terrifying. It’s not inspirational.

Other commenters on other posts and discussion I’ve read about this have said that the RWA membership is (unfortunately) largely white, Christian, conservative, and female. They’re also apparently tone-deaf (which is ironic when you’re talking about writers, don’t you think?) and have written a response to the outcry about this atrocity that just confirms their tone-deafness. It’s not the first time the RWA has crossed my Facebook page with negative reviews – apparently at their most recent convention, they did a lot of stupid, bigoted things. For example, a writer of my acquaintance, Rose Fox, whose gender is “they,” was repeatedly misgendered even after they explained to people that their gender is “they.” (That may be a microaggression, but it’s awfully aggressive when you’re on the receiving end!) Generally speaking, RWA has a diversity problem.

Okay, but it’s just a romance novel, right? Why do I have my knickers in such a twist about this particular incident of anti-Semitism?

Simple. My husband is a published romance writer. He was outraged tonight while reading to me and my best friend about this book and what’s happened (even though, thank God, it didn’t win the award it was nominated for).

But it also shocked him because it doesn’t fit his experience. His local group of RWA writers, whom he meets with once a month or so, is also really diverse. There are gay people, Asians, African-Americans, Latinas, old and young men, straight men, straight women – and they are the hope for the future of the RWA. They are the future of the RWA. This approval of an anti-Semitic cultural appropriation with a convenient Christian conversion story is just the last gasps of an RWA that is clinging to a time when that kind of thing was okay. (Makes you think of the Tea Party, doesn’t it?) I know that with this public outcry, things will have to change.

But I have to admit that right now, I am dismayed and disillusioned. This anti-Semitism may not be the anti-Semitism of the SS, the Gestapo and the Aryan Nation, but it is the anti-Semitism of the people who stand by and do nothing. It is the anti-Semitism of the people who say “I’m not racist, but you know that Jews are [fill in your favorite stereotype here]”. It is the anti-Semitism of the evangelicals that want Jews in Israel not to be Jewish there, but to be their ticket to the return of a Jewish rabbi who they’ve made out to be the son of God by being forcibly converted or killed.

No, I have zero interest in reading this book. Reading the reviews was bad enough.

This has not made me decide against conversion – or what I’m beginning to think of as confirmation, because in my heart I became Jewish a long time ago. What it has done is strengthen my resolve.

She’asani Israel. I am a Jew. 

And I may be worried, but I refuse to be afraid. I do and will wear my kippah and Mogen David every day, and I’m not going to hide for someone else’s prejudice.

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Every picture has its shadows, and it has some source of light

“Shadows and Light” is the name of a song by Joni Mitchell. This is her live performance of the song during her Mingus tour of 1980:

It’s worth hearing.

But the music all aside, the words are profound, and given what’s been happening in the world this week, I need to put the lyrics here and then talk about them.

Every picture has its shadows, and it has some source of light,
Blindness, blindness and sight.
The perils of benefactors, the blessings of parasites…
Blindness, blindness and sight.

Threatened by all things – Devil of cruelty,
Drawn to all things – Devil of delight.
Mythical devil of the ever-present lines
Governing blindness, blindness and sight.

Suntans in reservation dining rooms, pale miners in their lantern rays –
It’s like night, night and day.
Hostage smiles on Presidents, “Freedom!” scribbled in the subways –
It’s like night… and day.

Threatened by all things – God of cruelty,
Drawn to all things – God of delight.
Mythical God of the ever-present lines
Governing day, day and night.

Critics of all expression, judges in black and white,
Saying it’s wrong, saying it’s right.
Compelled by prescribed standards, or our own ideals, we fight –
Wrong, wrong and right.

Threatened by all things – men of cruelty,
Drawn to all things – men of delight.
Keeper of the laws, the ever-broken laws
Governing wrong, wrong and right.
Governing wrong, wrong and right.
Wrong… and right.

Now, I no longer believe God is mythical (obviously). But I think the God we build up in our heads often is. We attribute attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors to the God in our heads which don’t really belong to God at all. I don’t think the God that the Haredim believe in is really God. I think that it’s the Haredim’s excuse for their behavior – and their behavior is often vile and without excuse.

I think a lot of our world’s problems do happen, as the song says, because we are compelled by prescribed standards or our own ideals, and we fight. I can’t imagine how the stabbings (and eventual murder of at least one young woman) at the 2015 Jerusalem Gay Pride parade, or the murder by arson of a Palestinian 18-month-old by Israeli settlers, can be seen any other way. What drove the Haredi murderer at Jerusalem Pride? Prescribed standards. What drove the murder of that baby boy? Someone’s cockeyed ideals.

When can we get beyond prescribed standards and ideals and look at what’s right for the world? When will we achieve tikkun olam? Will we ever?

Do we even want to, or is it just something to which we’re paying lip service?

I have clinical depression, as I’ve already talked about elsewhere. I have a natural tendency to only see the shadows. Where is the light in any of this? Is it the international outrage against the violence? Is it the Jewish groups in the United States who are now calling on Israel to get the extremists under control? Where is the light?

I admit that today I’m having trouble seeing the light in these situations.

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Friday Feature: Special Edition

I am thankful.

I am thankful that I am (about to be) a Jew.

I am thankful that I am part of a liberal tradition.

I am thankful that my marriage is recognized by my family, my friends, my co-workers, my employer, my state, my religion, and now my nation.

I am thankful that five Justices of the Supreme Court chose to take the moral pathway. I am thankful that they prevailed. I am thankful that I can now go to any state in my country with my husband and that we will still be recognized as husbands to each other.

I am thankful for this: Jewish groups celebrate Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage nationwide

Oh, I don’t doubt that there will still be pitfalls. I’d rather not be in a small town hospital in Alabama or Kentucky with him if something goes wrong, for example. But for now, just knowing that he and I are equal to the rest of the people in this nation is really hitting me hard.

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melech ha’olam,
Shehecheyanu, viki’yimanu, vihigi’anu, lazman hazeh.

Shabbat Shalom, everyone. Shabbat Shalom.

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The Rules Lawyers

Michael Benami Doyle said, in his description of his conversation with the beit din, that there is a prophetic element to being a Jewish convert. I’m experiencing that this week since the Women of the Wall managed to actually read from the Torah and dance with it at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh Iyar 5775.

One of the jobs of a prophet is to draw attention to what’s wrong and how it can be repaired. Prophets are often disliked when they do this; people don’t like being told that what they’re doing is wrong.

And yet. And yet.

It is still wrong to deny Jewish women the right to pray at the Kotel, as the Haredim continually try to do.

It is still wrong to deny Jewish women access to the Torah at the Kotel, as the Haredim continually do.

It is still wrong to harm anyone who helps Jewish women have access to the Torah at the Kotel, as the Haredim did on Rosh Chodesh Iyar, when they beat Charlie Kalech and Alden Solovy.

This Haredi man continued insisting "sefer sheli!" (my book!). Yeah, no. The Torah belongs to ALL Jews.

This Haredi man continued insisting “sefer sheli!” (my book!). Yeah, no. The Torah belongs to ALL Jews.

Nothing excuses the behavior of the Haredim in these instances. They are fundamentally wrong. They are extremists, and they are damaging the Jewish faith far more than women who pray at the Wall, wear tallitot and tefillin, and read from Torah. They are, to borrow a term from gaming, rules lawyers.

Rules lawyers miss the spirit of the law by adhering so hard to the letter of the law. They never see the bigger picture.They never win in the long term, but they do a lot of damage in the short term. The Haredim are harming themselves and don’t know it. They are harming Judaism and they don’t know it (or perhaps they don’t care).

Regardless of their justification for their actions, I cannot see Adonai supporting the behavior of the Haredim towards the Women of the Wall or the men who helped them. Adonai is not a petty God who needs defense against people who want to worship him. If their God is, well – then the only conclusion I can draw is that their God is not Adonai.

Lo yisa goy el goy cherev, lo yil’madu od milchamah. 

Perhaps the Haredim should look at that verse and think about their behavior.

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In Praise of the Women of the Wall

I found myself singing along.

Yasher Koach to all these brave women and the men who stood in solidarity with them, and shame on the Haredi man who tried to stop them from praying and reading Torah.

A religion that does not change is a religion that will die out. The Haredim are just hastening the death of Orthodoxy with their behavior.

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On Religion, Humor, and Extremism

I believe it was Ray Bradbury who once said that God has to have a sense of humor. After all, God invented the ostrich, the platypus, and humankind. If that’s not a sense of humor, then I don’t know what humor is.

Judaism has a long tradition of humor that includes, to some extent, humor about God. Leo Rosten, Hershey and Linda Friedman, the inimitable Mel Brooks, and many others have documented and created Jewish humor that includes laughing at and/or with God.

Unfortunately, there are those who believe that any humor about God (or religion) is the same thing as blasphemy.

Today, three armed terrorists entered the Paris, France office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, shouted “Allahu akbar!” (God is great!) and murdered twelve people, injuring eleven more. Among the dead were four cartoonists for the magazine, a guest, and at least one law enforcement officer. Statements made by surviving witnesses say that the attackers said the attack was in retribution for cartoons the magazine had published that depicted Mohammed, the Prophet of Islam.

Let’s go over that again. Twelve people were murdered today, over a few cartoons.

CartoonsYou know, drawings? On paper?

And these cartoons were enough of a threat to these murderers that they felt they had no choice but to murder people over them.

Those of us who live in the West have immense trouble wrapping our minds around this. Freedom of speech is such a central and paramount value in our culture that the idea that there are some things that must not be said is a foreign idea to us.

But let’s also make this quite clear. This wasn’t about religion. This was about control. This wasn’t about cartoons. It was about tyranny.

This was about people who are so uptight that if you shoved coal up their rear ends, you’d have a diamond in a matter of minutes. This was about people who are using a religious system as an excuse for their anger, hate, and fear. This was about people who cannot handle difference. This was about people who are ideological to the point that they cannot see outside of their ideology. They live in an echo chamber, not the real world. So when that echo chamber interfaces with the real world – as it must – their inability to deal with the collision results in violence against the real world.

The terrorists who murdered 12 people at Charlie Hebdo today in Paris, France, are not Muslims. They are just extremists, and all extremists fit into the same box regardless of their ideology. They can claim to be Muslims, but they are no more Muslim than the Westboro Baptist Church is Christian. They’re just extremists using a religion as an excuse for their extremism.

It is the flaw of the overly-serious and overly-ideological – the extremists – that they cannot bear being made fun of or laughed at. And sadly, their reaction is too often an overreaction, like this one was – out of proportion to what happened and, sadly, often fatal.

I grieve for the twelve people who were murdered by these extremists. I hope the Paris police catch them and bring them to justice. I pray for their families. Baruch dayan emet, and may all their memories be for a blessing.

But let’s not forget that their murderers are extremists – and because they are, they are just like the Ku Klux Klan or the Westboros or any other group that attacks instead of talking, that refuses to see any way but their own.

The only way to fight extremism is to refuse to become like the extremists – to value difference and diversity and ideas that we don’t like as much as those we do.

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