American Jerusalem

LeviStrauss
Levi Strauss & Co. on Battery St. in San Francisco

Normally I save my writing about film for the Jewish Film blog, but I want to alert readers to a new film I saw this past week.  American Jerusalem tells the story of the first 66 years of Jewish settlement in Northern California, specifically in San Francisco.

The Jewish community is unique in Jewish history, in that nowhere else in the Diaspora were Jews in the majority during the early settlement period of a city. The Jewish community developed differently as a result of this, without the need to buttress itself against anti-Semitism until a much later period. Jewish families were “society” in early San Francisco, and they did not eat or live separately from their gentile neighbors. Even today, Jews in San Francisco have a curious mix of firm Jewish identity with a low rate of synagogue and other Jewish institutional affiliation. While some outsiders look at the demographics and say, “Wow, Judaism is in trouble in San Francisco,” in fact the Jewish community there is vibrant and diverse. It was influential in shaping the past of the city and continues to be engaged with San Francisco’s future.

The filmmakers were extremely selective in their choices, which may leave some old San Franciscan families wondering, “What about my ancestors?” but I think the choices allow viewers to appreciate the forest without losing their way in the trees. Certainly American Jerusalem is a tantalizing springboard from which one can launch into deeper reading (Fred Rosenbaum’s book, Cosmopolitans, a Social and Cultural History of the Jews at the San Francisco Bay Area would be a great next step.)

If you want to see the film, you’re in luck. DVD’s are available through the film’s website, and screenings are coming up at the Tucson Jewish Film Festival, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, the Center for Jewish History in New York City, the National Museum of Jewish History in Phildelphia, PA, and at the East Bay Jewish Film Festival.

Image: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 FoundSF.org

Report from Rabbi Camp

I’m sorry I haven’t been posting. I have been engaged with something my spouse once called “Rabbi Camp.” Once a year the Reform rabbis on the Pacific Coast and thereabouts meet in the desert in Southern California. We don’t camp. We stay in a hotel, we eat, we pray, we study, we sleep, we schmooze, and we catch up with old friends. That’s what I’m doing.

The first night here I sat up all night and chatted with my usual roommate here. She’s another rabbi who teaches Intro classes, and we have marathon conversations about all sorts of things. There’s a lot of professional stuff, and also discussions about our dogs.

This morning, at breakfast, I saw a dear friend from my ordination class, and we had a lot of catching up to do, since we hadn’t seen each other in almost six years. She’s back on the West Coast, so she’s here at PARR (Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis). Yay!

We did some text study this morning as a group, and more study sessions later on, along with some plain ol’ schmoozing later. Prayers, of course. And then more connection.

When we are rabbinical students, we’re like puppies in a litter – we live in each other’s laps. Then after five or six years of that, suddenly we are scattered all over the country, some of us even farther than that. And suddenly folks who were part of every single day for years are no longer around. Also, most of us have little time to spend learning with other rabbis. We teach, we officiate, we counsel, we study with our students – but study with other rabbis is very precious.

So this is a special time, getting all “filled up” with new ideas and old friends. I’m not posting much now, but just you watch, lots of good stuff is coming soon. Because I will be renewed!

Reframing Privilege

Simple laboratory scales for balancing tubes

 Hillel said: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?  – Pirkei Avot, 1:14

I’ve read some powerful writing about privilege this year: white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, economic privilege, and so on. The most recent was When Life Hacking is Really White Privilege, which does a great job of explaining the gulf between those who have privilege and those who don’t. Another great article, a little older, is Straight White Male, the Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is by John Scalzi.  However, one thing has bugged me about a lot of these great articles: so…. what? What is the person with privilege supposed to do, besides feel badly? Is anyone listening to this preaching other than the choir?

I’d like to reframe the discussion slightly: What privilege do I have, and how do I use it?

 

Take an inventory: what advantages and disadvantages do you have in your life? No fudging: almost everyone has something in each column.  Here is my account:

 

Advantages (Stuff that comes with privilege): Financially secure upbringing, financially secure present, white, healthy, Jewish, cisgender.

 

Disadvantages (Stuff that increases the difficulty of the “game,” to use Scalzi’s analogy): Multiple disabilities, lesbian, fat, female, Jewish.

 

It’s good to acknowledge both. I’ve written before about my difficulty with accepting some of my disadvantages. Sometimes it can be awkward to accept one’s advantages in a world where privilege sometimes gets equated with villainy.  Let’s assume for the moment that the fact of being male or female, white or not, etc is morally neutral. Most of these things are the luck of the draw, in terms of who gets what and how society values it. (If you disagree regarding wealth, ask yourself, have you through your own labor risen in socioeconomic status in your lifetime? If so, ok. But most of us who are financially secure were born to financially secure parents, and we got a leg up.)

 

Depending on the how this all settles out, we may have some very legitimate gripes about what our disadvantages have brought us. The fact that I am disabled is morally neutral, but it feels unfair when the only way into a building is up a flight of stairs, and I hate it when people just walk away from me when we’re walking in a group. But for now, let’s concentrate on the advantages we have.

 

If you don’t have any advantages, then this article isn’t for you. If you are poor, sick, disabled, transgender, perceived to be female, and a racial minority, then you have enough problems without me picking on you. Move along, nothing for you to read here.

 

However, if you don’t qualify on ALL those fronts, you’ve got something going for you. It may not be much, and depending on the subtleties of how these things interact in your culture, the advantages may add up to a disadvantage (being black, male, and able brings its own difficulties in U.S. mainstream culture, aka all the people who are scared of black men). Some things, like “Jewish” may carry both privilege and problems depending on context. But in general, advantages work in your favor, and my question to myself and to my reader is, What are we doing with our privilege?

 

In my case:

 

  • What am I doing with the power that my relative wealth gives me?
  • What am I doing with the power that my white skin color gives me?
  • What am I doing with the power that my health gives me?
  • What am I doing with the power that comes from being Jewish? (No, not an “in” with international conspiracies, but a grounding in Torah, and a perception by a lot of people that I’m smart and well-connected, whether I am or not.)
  • What am I doing with the power that comes from being cisgender?

If you are reading this and thinking “What power is this crazy rabbi talking about?” then here’s what I mean:

 

  • I have free time that I would not have, if I were working 2 or 3 jobs.
  • I have disposable income, that is, I have choices that I would not have if I were constantly worried about making the rent, or worse, where I would sleep or how I would eat.
  • I am accepted without question in a lot of places that I would not be otherwise, because I’m white. I am assumed innocent, because I am white.
  • I am not sick, so I have have energy and attention I wouldn’t have if I were sick. Also, I do not have big medical bills to pay.
  • I feel grounded in Torah, and confidence comes with that.
  • I am perceived by some people as smart and well-connected, a perception which can be useful even when it isn’t true.
  • I am cisgender, so I don’t have to worry about being beaten up or otherwise messed over because they “can’t figure out if I’m a she or a he.”

So now:  what am I doing with my time, my choices, my acceptance, my health, my confidence, and others’ favorable perceptions of me? What am I doing with these privileges I have?

 

As Hillel famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”  (Pirkei Avot, 1:14) It is fine to be “for myself,” to enjoy the good fortune in my life. It’s OK to enjoy being who I am. But I must also look to see who is not benefitting – are my goodies coming at someone else’s expense? And if it isn’t fair, I need to say so and I need to take action.

 

  • If I have free time, am I using some of it to benefit others?
  • If I have disposable income, am I contributing enough of it to tzedakah?
  • If I am healthy, do I make use of my health to benefit others?
  • If my gender or my sexual orientation or my race give me advantages, can I use those advantages to work for a fairer world? For whom shall I speak up? How loudly? Can I share my advantages? Am I willing to let go of some advantage in the interest of fairness?
  • If I have abilities, do I notice who is disabled in the ways I am abled, and do something about lack of access for others?

If we all played to our strengths, if we all used our positions of relative privilege to make this world better, it would be a revolution… a revelation… a miracle. But making that leap requires that we all take an honest look at who we are and what we have.

 

If not now, when?

 

 

 

 

Shave for the Brave: My Pledge

Sammy Sommers z"l
Sammy Sommers z”l

When someone dies, we say, “May his (or her) memory be for a blessing.” Sometimes we mean that we hope that the family and friends will be comforted by good memories, that the person will be long remembered, and so on. But it can mean a lot more than that.

“May his memory be for a blessing” can mean “May he leave a legacy of blessing.” In Jewish terms, that might be the very best thing that you can wish for a person, that long after they are gone, the goodness of their lives will go on doing good in the world.

A little boy died this past Saturday morning. He was only 8. He had a short life, and there were many things he never got to do. The unfairness and the sadness of it is heartbreaking. Sammy Sommers‘ life was cut short by leukemia and he will never … I can’t bear to make the list, but make it for yourself. What good things have happened to you since you were eight years old?

Sammy leaves a legacy of love already – his sweetness and that of his family have touched a lot of people. But some of us who are heartbroken for him and for his parents would like to do more. We’d like to leave a legacy to bless all the other Sammies, children who will be diagnosed with one of these terrible diseases and who face a limited set of treatment options. We want to raise at least $180,000 for research to give them more and better treatment options.

I’ve already posted once about this: I’m one of 36 rabbis who will shave our heads on March 31 to raise money for pediatric cancer research in Sammy’s memory.  Our joint goal is $180,000. My personal goal is 1/36 of that, $5,000.

My total has been stuck at $878 for a few days. I’m very grateful to those who have donated thus far, but I intend to make my goal, so I’m saying here and now: I will shave my head March 31, and I will not let it grow back until I have raised $5,000.  

So now, take your mouse, CLICK ON THIS LINK and donate $5, or $10, or $50, or $100 to pediatric cancer research through St. Baldrick’s. If you don’t have a credit card, don’t worry, they’ll take a check. If you really can’t afford $5, or if you’d like to do more than donate, pass this link along to someone else. But please, do something.

Too many children die of cancer. Too many families suffer as the Sommers family is suffering. We can do something about this, in Sammy’s memory.

Please.

Frequently Asked Question

image

Some people ask if the Coffee Shop Rabbi has a favorite coffee shop. This is it: Cafe Sorriso in San Leandro, CA. The Vietnamese coffee is jet fuel, the atmosphere is mellow,and they serve killer won ton soup. Best of all, my little friend Gabi can keep me company if we sit on the porch.

The East Bay is home to many great coffee shops. This is just a personal favorite.

A Pre-Thanksgiving Treat

A deep-fried turkey.
A deep-fried turkey. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kitchens around the country are warming up: Thanksgiving is coming. Chanukah is coming.

(Deep-fried turkey, anyone?)

Around some tables, there will be talk about Pilgrims and Indians. And around some tables, we might talk about our ancestors and Thanksgivings past. Perhaps at some tables (I hope!) there will be conversations about the unique relationship between the United States and its Jews, and about what Chanukah might mean here. And here’s another view of the Thanksgiving holiday, shared by Michael Twitty (@KosherSoul) an expert on the foods and lives of enslaved African Americans.

If you are about to click away nervously, thinking that you don’t want a load of guilt dumped on you — don’t. Really. Mr. Twitty is not about guilt. He is about enlightenment and education, and fascinating facts.

Read and enjoy: An African American Thanksgiving Primer

The Problem of Legitimacy, Part 2

I read a great blog post on PunkTorah.org last week on the issue of Jewish legitimacy. Rabbi Patrick Aleph held an event at OneShul in Atlanta where they wrestled with the idea of Jewish legitimacy, and it emerged that each individual felt that he or she lacked legitimacy relative to “everyone else.” Rabbi Aleph concluded:

The bottom line is simple: we are so obsessed with legitimacy and looking like we know what we are doing that is keeps us from doing amazing things in Jewish life. We are terrified that someone is going to call us out for doing things wrong, that for some of us it’s easier to hide in the corner and do nothing.

But I’m here to tell you something: hiding in a corner is a terrible place to die.

This was the point at which the lightbulb went on over my head; I have become a rather stubborn cuss when it comes to my legitimacy as a Jew, but I’ve struggled with legitimacy and disability. Now I see that they are the same issue: it’s the old “I’m not worthy” thing, the fear of being called out as a fraud.

I feel legitimate as a Jew, even though I am aware that there are Jews in the world who would disagree. I am not disturbed by that, because when the question comes up, my mind immediately produces evidence of my legitimacy: I think of the rabbi who oversaw my conversion, and certainly I see him as legitimate! I have studied Hebrew, lived in Israel, observed countless mitzvot. I feel legitimate as a Jew, because I am part of a Jewish community. I get feedback from fellow Jews that I’m the real deal enough of the time that I can  discount the ones who don’t agree.

But there was a time when I looked desperately for legitimacy, when I was just learning how to be a Jew. I remember longing to wear a kippah [skullcap] but being afraid I was presuming (and the joke of that is, you don’t have to be Jewish to wear one.) Then my study partner clapped one on my head one day, and voilá! A little piece of legitimacy fell into place. It was only by logging time and experience in owning my Jewishness – and by feeling the acceptance of my Jewish study partner –  that I was able to rest easy with that small piece.

A supervisor at one of my internships in rabbinical school asked me about my conversion and then indicated that he didn’t recognize it. I went back to my school and asked for guidance. My teachers there bristled to my defense. They saw me as legitimate and saw him as an outsider who was looking a gift horse in the mouth. Their response said to me, “Yes, you’re the real deal. Now act like it.”

Legitimacy comes from a sense of belonging, and of security in community, and we get that from the feedback we receive (verbal and nonverbal) from others in the community.  My students who are just beginning Jewish paths need to “do Jewish” day and night, spending as much time in the Jewish community as they can. They need reassurance and support, not just from their rabbi, not just from their teacher, but from other “regular” Jews that they are becoming one of us. They need to hear about it when they do something well, whether it is saying a blessing or helping to set up chairs.

And for me, I need to accept the fact of being a person with disabilities, and continue to build relationships with other people who identify as disabled. My dear friend and study partner in school is deaf, and she was the first to say to me, look, ask for the accommodations you need! Initially I was not sure about this, but her reassurance that she saw me as having legitimate needs helped me to ask for things I needed. Later, another colleague whose disability I recognized as “real” asked me why on earth I didn’t have a handicap placard for the car, when I obviously needed one – and she was right, and I finally accepted it from my doctor.

There will always be critics. But why pay any attention to the jerk at Home Depot who sees me on my scooter and says I wouldn’t need it if I lost 50 lbs? Why am I giving him so much authority? Why give some busybody self-appointed expert the authority to shame me? Because the words are his, but the shame is mine. I can accept it, or I can reject it. It’s just that rejecting shame requires resources: I have to own my situation, and know that my community sees me a particular way to have the gumption say “phooey” to the ignoramus.

The enemy is shame. The cure is community – loving, supportive community, that knows the importance of nurturing the newbies and the shaken.

Hiding in a corner is a terrible place to die, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Part 3 tomorrow.