Blogging While Black: Yeah, It’s a Thing.

August 19, 2014

 :לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ

Do not stand upon the blood of your neighbor. – Lev. 19:16

Yesterday, I posted a link to a blog post by Michael W. Twitty from Afroculinaria.com. He titled it #Ferguson: My Thoughts on an American Flashpoint, and it is a moving piece. It began with an image someone sent via Twitter to him: a racist manipulation of the image of Michael Brown’s dead body lying on the pavement.

I’ve received a share of hate messages via social media. They were nasty bits of Jew-hatred, woman-hatred, or fat-hatred, and occasionally a rancid mix of the three. But none were as violent, as personal, as those sent to my friend. I deleted them and blocked the source, if I could. Then I tried to push the image, or the words out of my head: easier said than done.

But Michael Twitty took this ugly, hateful, personal image and used it as a starting point to talk about the dignity of human beings. He made use of his own experience as an illustration, but it wasn’t “all about him.” He took a very personal attack and turned it into a lesson on social justice. It was a raw, truthful piece of writing, his hurt and anger quite visible in it, and it moved me to some serious thinking about what I was going to do about the dignity of human beings.

Tonight I learned that in the first 24 hours after posting the piece, Michael Twitty has received death threats in response. One message suggested that he should be lynched.

What has happened to us?

The names keep piling up: Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Ezell Ford, John Crawford III, on and on and on. What they have in common is that they were unarmed and unresisting when they were executed. They had no due process, no trial, no appeals. They were assumed dangerous because they were African American males.

Fifteen years ago, in Oakland, California, I attended a meeting about a couple of break-ins on my street. My neighbors, mostly elderly and white, talked nervously about “those kids from the high school.”  The police had given us no idea whom to blame for the burglaries; the assumption was that “those kids” were to blame. No one needed to say “black kids” – that was a given. We discussed the pros and cons of hiring a security service, since the Oakland cops were never seen on our street.

I was on the fence – private security? really? – when an elderly gent leaned over to me and whispered, “Don’t you worry, honey, I see any of those black boys on our street and I’ll shoot them before they get to your house.” My stomach twisted. My sons had friends that came and went from our house, some of them African American.

“Don’t you dare,” I hissed. “They’re my sons’ friends. I swear I will testify against you if any such thing happens.”

That decided my vote. Naively, I thought it was better to have a private security service than to have Mr. Green running around playing vigilante. In retrospect, I see that instead I was voting to PAY someone to play vigilante. They were still going to be a danger to any young dark-skinned man who came our way. The sickness in our society runs very deep.

[Added note: At the time, I thought I was being a nice liberal person, pretending not to notice that everyone in the room was talking about black men, until someone said "black." I knew darn well what they were talking about, and I didn't say anything until it was unavoidable. By making that choice I was complicit in their racist talk and behavior. Mea culpa. That was wrong. I will not do that again.]

News flash, America: you cannot tell if a man is dangerous by the color of his skin. And even if he IS “dangerous” in your opinion, he has the same right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that every other person has. Until he breaks the law, under the law he’s exactly like you and me. And if he does something to break the law, then he’s still innocent until proven guilty.

We in the US seem to be able to hold onto those ideas when a person has fair skin. We seem totally incapable of it when a person has dark skin. Heck, we don’t even want a dark skinned man to express an OPINION. Hence the horrible mail that Mr. Twitty has been getting since he wrote that post.

The Holiness Code in Leviticus 19 tells me that I may not stand upon the blood of my neighbor. Look where we are standing, America: our shoes are covered in blood.


#Ferguson : My Thoughts on an American Flashpoint

August 18, 2014

rabbiadar:

I invite my readers to chew on the words of Michael Twitty. He never lacks for flavor, and this post is especially good, engaging as it does both the head and the heart.

Originally posted on Afroculinaria:

“…It was the corroboration of their worth and their power that they wanted, and not the corpse, still less the staining blood.”  James Baldwin, “To Be Baptized,” from No Name in the Street, 1972

I have been asked by many people to take a close look at the Michael Brown shooting case in Ferguson, Missouri and offer my opinion.  I felt it best to take a step back and really absorb all the circulating currents of opinion and matters of fact before I made any personal pronouncements.  This is my best attempt to answer that call, hopefully soberly, responsibly and with as much restraint as I can muster in the face of this deeply American tragedy.  This is inherently a blog about food and food culture, but anyone who regularly reads this blog understands that it also is a blog about social and cultural justice.  It is clear to…

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Slow Cooking Monday

August 18, 2014

cookerThere are people who are quick with ideas – maybe we could call them the Microwaves, since they can cook their ideas in a flash – and then there are folks who need time, maybe LOTS of time, to cook on an idea. When an idea is challenging I can be a slow-cooker.

I don’t have much to offer you today.  I’m cooking on something complex AND I have a bunch of promised work that must get done today.

Have you ever just had to stew on an idea for a while?


Washington and the Jews

August 16, 2014

George WashingtonOn August 17, 1790, President George Washington visited Newport, Rhode Island on a goodwill tour celebrating the adoption of the Constitution of the United States. While he was there, he was given a letter from the “Hebrew Congregation of Newport,” written by the warden of the congregation, Moses Seixas. The letter expressed the hopes and dreams of the Jews of Newport for a true home in which they need not fear religious persecution.

President Washington answered the letter with a gracious letter of his own which marked a milestone in the American separation of church and state. In Europe, Jews had been outsiders, unwelcome and at best tolerated, and they did not hold citizenship.

Washington wrote:

…The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity.

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid…

There would be severe challenges ahead to this liberal doctrine. (if you are wondering about that, Google “General Order No. 11” or watch the film Gentlemen’s Agreement.) But it set a tone and an expectation quite different from that in other western nations. Jews were to be part of America, not a separate and despised class of foreigners.

 


This Shabbat, I’m grateful.

August 15, 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor the last several weeks, every time we’ve gotten to Shabbat I’ve thought, “WHEW! Glad that week is behind me!” and I’ve thought naively that surely next week will be better. Here I am again, with the WHEW, but I find that I’m learning to find the things for which I am grateful even if they are small.

I am grateful that Captain Ronald S. Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol has shown such humanity and genius in his approach to the people of Ferguson. May we all learn from him!

I am grateful for cease fires in Israel, Gaza and everywhere, however long they can last.

I am grateful for journalists, even though they inform me of scary stuff.

I am grateful for my opportunity this past June to meet Rivka Selah z”l, a beautiful soul who departed this week, mother of a dear friend and mother-in-law of another.

I am grateful for all the small blessings of the week: for the gorgeous sunshine pouring in my windows, for the cucumbers and tomatoes growing in my garden, for the hummingbirds who put on a continual carnival in the back yard. I am grateful for zinnias and milkweed and those weird strong tendrils that help grape vines climb.

I am grateful for the friends who got in touch after reading my blog post on depression. I am doing OK, and all those caring friends are a part of that.

I am grateful for a number of things that confidentiality bars me from posting anywhere public. I am grateful for work that I love, and for students who learned from me, and who taught me wonderful things.

I am grateful for my sons. They rock. And for my beloved spouse, and for the little dogs who snuggle and dance and make us laugh.

I am grateful for my synagogue, Temple Sinai, where I will go to services tonight and count more blessings, and hear familiar words, and sing familiar songs with people I’ve known for years.

I am grateful for the blessings I haven’t noticed yet. May the peace of Shabbat make them apparent to me.


Shabbat shalom!


Reading List: Basic Judaism

August 14, 2014

Jewish Shelves

Looking for some basic reading about Judaism? Here are some of the best bets around:

Settings of Silver, an Introduction to Judaism by Stephen M Wylen – This is the book I use for my Intro courses. I chose it because the information is solid, it includes a brief history, and it has a good index.

Living Judaism: The Complete Guide to Jewish Tradition, Belief, and Practice by Wayne Dosick – Another good basic text, used by many rabbis.

Basic Judaism by Milton Steinberg – Published in 1947, this is still a classic work. It’s small but powerful.

What is a Jew? by Morris N. Kertzer – This book has a Q&A format and it’s extremely basic. If you are looking for just some basic facts without details, it might be the right book for you.

These are not holiday or “how-to” books – I’ll post a list of those soon.

Do you have a favorite basic Judaism text?

 


My Friend is Depressed: Now What?

August 13, 2014
Van Gogh "Sorrowing Old Man" 1890

Van Gogh “Sorrowing Old Man” 1890

What can Jewish tradition teach us about helping people who are depressed?

REACH OUT – Make contact, either by phone or in person. There is a beautiful story in tractate Berakhot 5a-b of the Talmud about three rabbis. The first rabbi, Chiyya bar Abba, fell ill. Rabbi Yochanan went to see him, and asked him if he welcomed his suffering. Rabbi Chiyya said no. Then Rabbi Yochanan reached out his hand, took the sick rabbi’s hand, and raised him up.

Rabbi Yochanan fell sick. Rabbi Hanina, his teacher, went to see him. He asked the same question, and got the same answer. Then he took Rabbi Yochanan’s hand and raised him up. The text itself asks then, why couldn’t Rabbi Yochanan heal himself? It answers itself, saying, “The prisoner cannot free himself.”

Finally, Rabbi Eleazar fell ill. Rabbi Yochanan went to see him. He finds the rabbi lying in a dark room and crying. Rabbi Yochanan asks some questions about Rabbi Eleazar’s sadness. When Rabbi Eleazar says, “i am weeping because you are going to die someday.” Rabbi Yochanan says, “Yes, that’s very sad” and then they both cry for a while. Then Rabbi Yochanan says, “Do you welcome your suffering?” and Rabbi Eleazar says no, and Rabbi Yochanan takes his hand and helps Rabbi Eleazar up.

What can we learn from this? First of all, it is good to visit people who are sick, whether they are physically or mentally ill. We don’t know exactly what was wrong with Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba, but Rabbi Yochanan visited him, expressed his care, and helped him get better.

Second, we learn that people can’t heal themselves. Never tell a person with depression to “snap out of it.” Instead, ask how they are feeling, listen, and if you can “give them a hand,” literally or metaphorically, do so. Few of us can heal miraculously like Rabbis Yochanan and Hanina, but friendly contact can help.

The case of Rabbi Eleazar is particularly interesting. In his case, it’s clear that the illness is depression. So one thing we learn is that the ancient rabbis saw overwhelming sadness and “lying in a dark room” as a genuine illness. Secondly, Rabbi Yochanan treated Rabbi Eleazar’s sadness with respect. He didn’t say, “That’s silly, everyone dies sometime!” He agreed that it was sad, empathized with his student, and then helped him up.

OFFER COMFORT – In 1 Kings 19, the prophet Elijah hears that Queen Jezebel wants to kill him. Initially, he runs for his life, but after a day’s journey into the wilderness, he sinks down to the ground under a tree and says, “I just want to die.” Then he falls asleep. After he sleeps for a while, an angel comes to him and sets down food and water, saying only, “Get up and eat.” Elijah does so, then lies back down to sleep some more. The angel comes again, bringing more food and water, and says, “Get up and eat; the journey has been too much for you.” Elijah eats and drinks and feels stronger – he is able to travel ahead to Mt. Horeb, where he has an encounter with God.

The angel brings food and water to Elijah. He offers sympathy (“the journey has been too much for you”) but no advice or analysis. He doesn’t scold or tell Elijah to snap out of it. And he is not impatient when Elijah says nothing, just eats the food and goes back to sleep.

The angel is an example of one way to help a depressed friend. Don’t ask “what can I do?” because that requires thought and decision making. Simply bringing by a bit of comfort food, and delivering it without demanding much social interaction can be very helpful. A brief bit of human (or angel!) connection can be helpful. If you decide to bring food, bring it in a disposable dish. That isn’t very “green,” I know, but washing dishes takes energy. It also doesn’t have to be a whole meal. It can be a slice of cake or a bowl of soup to heat in the microwave.

The same is true for some small errand or chore. Don’t do housework (that may feel like criticism) but visit briefly and bring in the newspaper or the mail that has collected on the doorstep. All of these things say, “I care about you.”

The important thing is to keep it simple.

Finally, we have an example of the wrong thing to do for a depressed person:

DO NOT GIVE ADVICE - The Book of Job offers some powerful examples of “how not to help.” Job suffers one misfortune after another, and when his friends come to see him, they focus on their belief that he must have done something to bring his misfortune upon himself. He needs to repent his sins and get right with God! (Job 4-27)

When our friends are distressed, we are distressed. The desire to fix things can be almost unbearable, especially if we think we know a remedy. We want to point out the obvious and give advice. We ache to tell our friend to get some exercise, to eat right, to see a better therapist, to snap out of it!

Just as it was for Job’s “comforters,” this impulse is worse than useless. Many depressed individuals are already mired in a swamp of “shoulds” and “oughts,” and the depression has paralyzed them. Giving even the most well-meaning advice can make them feel worse. If they want help finding a therapist or getting some exercise, that’s different – but pushing unwanted “solutions” will be unproductive.

GET HELP: If someone in your community is depressed, tell your rabbi! He or she wants to know and will know how to contact the person.

Finally – this is very important! - If a person talks about suicide, take it seriously. Call a suicide hotline or their doctor. Never assume that talk about suicide is “kidding” or attention seeking. If there was anything at all to the talk, it’s important that they get help immediately. Even if later they say they didn’t mean it, you can’t take that chance. The principle of pikuach nefesh – the preservation of life – demands that we take such talk at face value and react.

Being a good friend to a person with depression is a mitzvah. It is tempting to stay away from people who are in pain – pain is unpleasant, after all. But reaching out, checking in, offering food or simple help – those things can make a huge difference. Be a mensch!


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