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.
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.
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.
When I applied to rabbinical school in 2001, they told me to take the GRE (Graduate Record Exam.) On the opening screens of the test, it asked demographic questions, including a question about disabilities. I had never used that word to describe myself, and I started to click past. Then I remembered: oh yeah, the learning specialist I saw made me go see an audiologist, and I’m hard of hearing. OK, I’ll click that.
And as my eye moved on, I realized with shock that I had other boxes to click. Learning disabilities? Uh, yes. That was why I’d seen the learning specialist. Mobility problems? I eyed the cane propped against my chair. Yeah, I guess. I quit reading and clicked to the next screen, where it fed me back my demographic info, including the words “multiple disabilities.” I felt queasy, clicked past, and shoved the whole thing out of my mind to take the test.
That was the first time I admitted to having ONE disability, and I will admit now that I read “multiple disabilities” as “object of pity” which I had no intention of being. I spent the next year proving I could keep up with my twenty-years-younger peers, in class and out, and by the end of the year I was on antidepressants (for one of the other little issues I hadn’t mentioned) and my body was a wreck. I was deep into chronic pain territory, and determined to deny everything.
Because, you see, I had two problems with this multiple disability thing: first, I looked down on disability, so I couldn’t possibly have one (much less lots of ’em) and secondly, my disabilities weren’t legitimate. Other people had worse disabilities so I couldn’t possibly take up room in that category. Or something.
It was years before I finally owned the category of “disabled,” thanks to the encouragement of friends whose disabilities I regarded as legitimate. Then, and only then, was I willing to take the blue placard the doctor offered me, which has made life so much more manageable. There were more years, and more isolation, before I was willing to step up and get myself a scooter so that I could go places that required more than 10 minutes of walking or standing. And I must confess that to this day, I spend more energy than I should worrying that someone will think I am using the scooter because I’m fat, and they’ll judge me, and — what? I’ll die? I will eventually grow up and quit worrying about that, too, I hope.
So why am I yammering about this on a Jewish blog? To start, Torah covers all of life: there is no subject about which there is no Torah. I needed to learn to accept the body I’ve got, to regard it as holy, and I’ve made strides in that direction. But even more, there’s this legitimacy thing. I was hesitant to accept a handicap placard for the car because I didn’t see myself as legitimately needing it. In the same way, I remember my longing for Jewish legitimacy: the thrill when I stepped out of the mikveh, the struggles I had every time someone questioned my legitimacy as a Jew, because no one questioned it more than me. And then eventually I learned the truth: I would be a real Jew when I acted like one.
So here I am, 100% Jewish and definitely disabled. Also fat, lesbian, Southern by birth, Californian by choice. Pretty smart in some subjects, remedial level in others. A work in progress.
I believe that every human being has a spark of the Divine. I have very little trouble believing that, except when it comes to myself.
I gather a lot of people feel that way. So to all of you (and myself) I will say: Wake up! Life is marvelous, terrifying, a gift we have only for a short time. Figure out how to make the most of yours, and do what you can.
As for legitimacy – well, more about that later. I’m on a roll.
Anyone who spends much time with me hears about Green Stamps. Once upon a time, the Sperry & Hutchinson Company printed these stamps. Back in the 1960’s we received them as a premium at the grocery store and various retailers, and if we saved enough (usually by pasting them in special saver books) then we could trade the Green Stamps for all sorts of goodies: toys, housewares and other loot. I don’t know what happened to Green Stamps, but they are a fine metaphor for one aspect of my life.
I’ve got multiple disabilities: I have hearing problems, I am prone to cyclical depressions, and as if that weren’t bad enough, I’ve got mobility and pain problems as well. The actual diagnoses are not important (and frankly, not for the Internet) but the effect on my life is that I have to pick and choose carefully how I spend my energy. When I talk about “saving up my Green Stamps,” that’s what I mean.
Recently I ran across Christine Miserandino’s Spoon Theory which is a similar concept, brilliantly expressed. (Stop now, and click that link. It is an almost perfect expression of a very important concept.) The bottom line is that for some of us with chronic troubles, every choice has to be weighed and considered, because when we run out – whether it’s spoons or Green Stamps – the day is OVER. If we somehow get into a deficit, Heaven help us, because it will take weeks or months to recover.
I write about this not to whine but to say to you: this is how some of us live. If you see me or someone like me parking in a “handicap space,” don’t stop me to fuss at me.* You (1) can’t see my disability and (2) I am not going to stop, because if I stand there for more than 5 min I will break out in a sweat and eventually fall down and never run my errand. Don’t tell me that if I lose weight it will be all better. Don’t tell me about herbal supplements, meditation, medical doctors, or the miracle surgery your Aunt Flossie had. Trust me, I’ve heard it all.
But you want to help! I understand that. Here’s how you can help: When you see me, or any other person disabled by chronic illness, don’t try to fix things. Assume that my medical affairs are my private business (just as yours are your private business) and behave as you would to anyone else. Invite me to join you, and then don’t take offense if I tell you I really can’t. Because it’s not personal: believe me when I tell you what I need and don’t need: I know exactly how many Green Stamps I’ve got in my pocket.
What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. All the rest is commentary; go and study! – Rabbi Hillel
*If you think someone is abusing a handicap space, you can (1) leave them a note on the dashboard or (2) report them to the police. Just remember that you might be wrong.
Last night I attended a memorial service in Fremont, CA. It’s just down the freeway from my home, but I have only been there a couple of times, and I was completely dependent on my GPS getting in and out. I passed lots of places that meant absolutely nothing to me. Eventually I arrived at my destination, attended a beautiful service, and then did the whole thing again going home.
It’s different when I drive around Oakland. I lived in Oakland for almost 20 years, and now I live in the town next door. When I drive anywhere in Oakland, every street corner has a memory. I used to drive down Grand Ave, by the Lake, to take the kids to school. When I drive down Piedmont Ave, I am reminded of lunches with my old study partner. When I drive up Redwood Road, I remember the scary time I was trying to take the kids home and the road turned into a river of muddy water around us. And so on.
Attending religious services is like driving in a town. If I attend a Unitarian service, I have no idea what’s going on. I’ve only been to one service and I was lost the whole time. I could tell that the people around me were “into” it, but I didn’t know what was going on, and there were no memories connected with any of it. It was like driving around Fremont, clinging to the GPS.
But in the familiar Jewish service, I meet memories at every corner: that prayer comforted me when my friend died, this prayer was taught me by a beloved teacher. One prayer annoys me, and another prayer always thrills me. I remember when new things were added (sort of like remembering what was on Lakeside Dr. before the Trader Joe’s went in) and I feel at home.
There is only one way to get that kind of homey familiarity with a town or with a service: you have to live there for a while. Maybe not 27 years (I lived in Jerusalem only for a year, and it is full of memories) but you have to show up, and get lost, and get found, and stumble around. That messy stage of finding one’s way is an integral part of the process.
So the next time you are in a service and you feel like, gee, when am I ever going to feel at home with this? – consider the possibility that maybe you need to go more often, or more regularly. It’s only by logging the miles that the place will really become home. The good news is that as that if you put in the time, it’s inevitable. That mysterious service will be well and truly yours.
My father was a veteran of the Korean War. He spent that war serving in Europe, assisting with the reclamation of Holland and other Allied projects. He refused to talk very much about that time in his life, but he always made clear that he hated everything about the Army, except for the opportunity to experience French culture. He’d been drafted, he didn’t want to go, and he did not have a high opinion of anyone who signed up voluntarily.
That was pretty much the sum of my exposure to the U.S. Military until I fell in love with and eventually married a Navy vet, the daughter of a Navy vet who served in three wars. Later our son celebrated his 21st birthday by enlisting in the Navy.
Listening to Linda tell her stories about her years in the Navy was a new perspective for me. By the time Aaron enlisted, I was proud that he did so. The funny thing about that is that Linda’s Navy experience was in many ways pretty awful, at least as bad as my father’s Army experience. She and every other woman dealt constantly with sexual harassment, and she had a secret: she was a lesbian, and if anyone caught wind of that, she faced dishonorable discharge and jail. Eventually, she realized that her pay was terrible, she had very little future, and she’d be better off in civilian life – so she went to work for the U.S. Government in law enforcement, as an inspector in the U.S. Customs Service for 33 years. There she helped break up drug smuggling operations, seized endangered animals and birds that people were trying to traffic, and protected the patents of U.S. companies. (I bet you didn’t know they did all those things.)
Linda served both in the Navy and in Customs because there is a deep, genuine patriotism in her family. She usually insists that it’s about job security, but I can see through that smoke screen: in both cases she was in jobs where her orientation left her anything but secure. She believes in the United States of America, she understands that she is lucky to live here, and she insisted on giving honorable service to her country. Illness prevented our son from completing his term of enlistment, and he did not serve in wartime, but patriotism and a desire for service were the reasons he enlisted and fought hard to stay in the Navy as long as he could.
There are some other military folk on the edges of my life. One thing all of them share is that they may talk a great line about doing it “for the money” or for “security” but for most of them, patriotism is an important part of it, too. They want to serve, and to do so honorably. The words “service” and “honor” mean something very specific to them, something that cannot be bought cheaply with talk.
As near as I could tell, what my father hated about the Army was that for those years, he lost most of his freedom. He was at the call of the country, like it or not, and he didn’t like it one bit. That’s fair; not liking it is legitimate. He was drafted, after all; he didn’t sign up.
But thank heavens Linda’s Dad served aboard Navy ships, fighting Hitler and Tojo. Thank heavens he came home safely from Korea. Thank heavens Linda was willing to serve on a land-locked base in Nevada, working with the vets addicted to drugs and sick at heart, returning from Vietnam. Thank heavens for all the vets who served their country – who served you and me.
There’s a lot of talk flying around today from politicians and others (like me) about “gratitude” and “service.” Talk is cheap. “Thank you for your service” is cheap. It’s so cheap that perhaps we should shut up until we are willing to do more, willing to do something that corresponds to the service given.
What we were given was priceless – real years of real lives. Let’s push our elected officials to do more for the men and women who have served this country – to skip the cheap chat and instead, actually take care of those who have given years, and in too many cases, health and sanity to serving us. None should have to wait years for approval to see a doctor, or to get therapy. None should be without a safe home. None should be hungry. And yet far too many are.