Out of My Comfort Zone

November 30, 2014
Not Funny.

Not Funny.

I am a conflict-avoider. Hateful speech scares me for reasons I can’t fully explain, even if I’m not the target of the speech. I have decided I have to get over that pronto, because of a conversation last week.

I was in a room where someone began talking about the terrible synagogue murders in Israel, and they used the words “Muslim” and “animals” in the same sentence. Another person in the group spoke up, someone married into a family with Muslim members. I had been making my usual polite distressed noises, which made no impression at all on the speaker. I was ashamed of myself: why did I not say something? Because I was nervous? Since that encounter, I have decided “never again.” I am going to be direct when I’m in a conversation and someone uses hateful language, no exceptions, unless I am quite sure it’s dangerous to say something.

Since my resolution to be more direct and vocal about hateful talk, the stuff seems to be everywhere. Yesterday, someone on Twitter made a very big deal of my objection to an offensive word in her bio: “Georgia native and former liberal with eyes wide open. Blocked by several notable libtards including…”  [Emphasis mine.] I sent a message privately that I was getting set to “follow” her when I read the bio. “That word is offensive,” I wrote, “And while it’s there, I am not going to follow you.” She didn’t reply directly to me, but from the public messages she broadcast after, it was clear that I’d just given her something new to brag about.

I’m not accomplishing much, especially in the toxic soup of political social media, but at least it’s practice. I need practice, because I need to get better at this. (And yes, I needed to be more specific that what I was objecting to was the “-tard” part of “libtard.” I’m still too quivery-Southern-lady polite to be useful. Working on that.)

It’s important that we speak up, especially for groups to whom we don’t belong. “Do not stand by the blood of your neighbor,” we are told in Leviticus 19:16. In the Talmud, the text says that it would be better for a person to allow himself to be tossed into a furnace than to willingly embarrass another person [Bava Metzia 58b.] We are also commanded to engage with someone who does something wrong, a mitzvah I wrote about at more length in the post, “The Mitzvah of Rebuke.”

I share my difficulties in living up to my resolution because I know I’m not the only conflict-averse person around. Many of us are conditioned not to upset others, and we have to override that conditioning to confront someone about hateful words. We may be tempted by rationalizations: “What difference will it really make?” or “It’s just going to be something else for him to brag about.” However, I know what it is like to have to say, “Look, I’m Jewish, and I didn’t care for that joke.” It is horrible to feel like both the target of the speech and the only one who will say something.

The problem applies to people on both sides of the political divide. I know good people who are conservatives who’d never use a word like “retard” or use it in a portmanteau like “libtard.” I also have heard liberals say some ghastly things, often involving some use of “nazi,” which is always offensive unless you are talking about actual members of a Nazi organization. I’m determined never to let such things pass again, no matter who says them. Words that dehumanize and words that demonize have no place in our public discourse. The fact that they have become common is only evidence that it is time for people of conscience to speak up.

So yes, it is awkward. And yes, it is worth doing. Nothing will get better with silence.


Shabbat Shalom!

November 7, 2014

rest area

It was quite a week.

I had another near-disaster on the freeway. The alternator died, with the result that by the time I was able to get off the road and stop, it was just me, 2 tons of car, and the laws of physics. Still a good day because I lived to tell about it.

Friends have had unhappy things happen: serious bicycle accidents, skunks under the house, car accidents, failures of technology with consequences, illness.

The Jewish People have had a hard week: violence in Jerusalem, rising anti-Semitism in Europe, nasty stuff on the internet. We remembered a very difficult week 19 years ago, when we lost Yitzhak Rabin, one of our heroes.

We are coming up on an anniversary this weekend: the 76th anniversary of Kristallnacht.  If you don’t know about it, or are only vaguely clear about it (“a Holocaust thing”) then follow the link and read about it. We should reflect upon it before slinging around the word “Nazi.”

Many heavy burdens to carry, but tonight the sun will go down, and we will welcome the Sabbath in all her glory. Let those burdens drop from our shoulders, take a deep breath, and let us welcome the peace, if only for a little while.

If we make our best effort to experience the Sabbath, perhaps we can carry some of that peace into the week that follows.

Kein y’hi ratzon: May it be the will of the Eternal. Amen.


Jews and American Politics

October 27, 2014

Vote!One of the major stereotypes about American Jews is that we’re all political liberals. There are in fact many prominent conservatives who are Jewish: Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, Eric Cantor, Ken Mehlman, Michael Savage, and more.

What is true is that American Jews tend to be politically engaged. We vote, and we get involved in political campaigns. Our engagement goes way back; I have written before about the letters of congratulations four congregations sent to President Washington and his reply. In 1790, American Jews were acutely aware that this new form of government offered a new hope for minorities like ourselves to live in peace.

In 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant’s office issued General Order #11, a decree which summarily expelled all Jews from Mississippi, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Cesar J. Kaskel of Paducah, KY immediately set out on a Paul Revere-like ride for Washington DC with a copy of the order, and persuaded a congressman from Ohio to take him to the White House so that he could show it to President Lincoln. The President immediately wrote to Grant, ordering that General Order #11 be revoked.

When General Grant ran for president in 1868, he was faced with a Jewish community who wanted answers about General Order #11, and assurances that no such thing would happen were he elected. He, too, repudiated the order, and later called it “his greatest regret.” (For a readable and complete account of G.O. #11 and its aftermath, I recommend Jonathan D. Sarna’s book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews.)

Ever since then, American Jews have understood that it is important to our survival to be engaged in the political process. We don’t agree on the right candidate, we don’t always agree on the right policy, but we understand that without engagement in the process, we lose our voice in the public arena.  Many Jews understand voting as a way to do tikkun olam, to make the world a better place. Again, there’s no consensus: how any one Jew defines “better” is individual!

We’re coming up on an election in the United States. In many places, the polls have already opened for “early voting” and many absentee voters have their ballots in hand. Voting is not required by Jewish tradition, but it is a great Jewish American tradition. Whatever your politics, I hope that my American readers will honor this tradition and vote!


What is the Blood Libel?

August 4, 2014

An old, terrible lie has resurfaced. 

The video above is part of an interview with Osama Hamdan, head of international relations for Hamas. on the Lebanese Al-Quds TV channel on July 28, 2014.  In it he makes the assertion that Jews have a custom of killing non-Jewish children and using their blood to make Passover matzah. 

The belief that Jews kill people, usually children, and use their blood in rituals or to make matzah is called the Blood Libel. It is a lie. It is a particularly baffling lie in that Jewish dietary law forbids the eating of any blood: blood is drained from animals before butchering, and meat is salted to remove any stray drops of blood. 

The Blood Libel has been around a long time. Apion, a Greek who hated Jews wrote about it in the first century CE.  It then pops up periodically, but the first major European case was in 1144, in Norwich, England. In the Middle Ages, these accusations followed a pattern: a body was found, or a child disappeared, and the Jews were accused of the crime. Elaborate fantasies about the supposed rituals were imagined and written down by the accusers, which then became fodder for the next case. For more detail about it, there is an excellent but heartbreaking article in the Jewish Virtual Library.

The Blood Libel has continued in the modern era. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is an anti-Semitic document that was distributed by the Russian secret police in 1905. It is a catalogue of all the ancient lies about the Jews, repackaged for the 20th century. Henry Ford distributed it in the United States. It included the Blood Libel as well as other medieval stories about Jews poisoning wells, spreading plague, and so on. It was used by the Nazis to justify the Holocaust. And now, in the 21st century, it continues to circulate on the internet, and it has surfaced in Islamist talking points.

The important thing to know about the Blood Libel is that it is a lie without any kernel of truth. Observant Jews do not eat blood of any kind, ever. All Jews categorically reject human sacrifice. And despite what Mr. Hamdan says, the Blood Libel is not in any of our books. It is only in the books fabricated by sick minds to poison the world against Jews.

I really hate this topic. I hate teaching it and writing about it, but tragic experience has taught us that these lies are extremely dangerous. May the day come, and speedily, when all such horrors are finally behind us.


Resource on Anti-Semitism: The ADL Global 100

May 13, 2014
Graffito in a restroom at the University of Chicago

Graffito in a restroom at the University of Chicago

I’m preparing to teach a class on anti-Semitism. It’s an important class for my Intro students, even if I don’t like talking about it.

If you want the short version of what I teach in class, you can read it in another blog post. But today, as I was preparing, I discovered a great new resource online, the ADL Global 100. For the first time, the Anti-Defamation League commissioned an independent research firm to survey adults in over 100 countries. (Previously, their survey covered only the U.S.)

The survey itself was interesting. People were read 11 statements, to which they responded “true” or “false.” If they answered “true” to six or more of the statements, they were counted as having anti-Semitic attitudes. The complete list along with the methodology is on the website, but to give you a feel for it, here are six of the statements:

  • Jews only care about their own kind.
  • People hate Jews because of the way Jews behave.
  • Jews are responsible for most of the world’s wars.
  • Jews have too much power in the business world.
  • Jews are more loyal to Israel than they are to the country they live in.
  • Jews have too much control of the U.S. government.

To count as having anti-Semitic beliefs, they have to answer “true” to six of eleven statements similar to those. Again, the complete list of survey statements is on the ADL Global100 website.

So what were the results? 26% of adults world-wide have anti-Semitic beliefs, as measured by the survey. Nine percent of adults in the United States hold such beliefs. Before Americans congratulate themselves, remember, that translates to 21,000,000 people.

You can click around on the survey and find out the percentage for each continent and for each country. It’s fascinating reading. For instance, why is it that in the U.S., men and women have anti-Semitic beliefs at the same rate, but in Australia and New Zealand, men have those beliefs at a higher rate than women? Why does Panama far outstrip all other countries in the Americas, with a rate of 52%? What would account for the low rate in the Philippines, only 3%?

Perhaps if we could answer those questions, we might be on the way to ending it.

Image by Quinn Dombrowski, some rights reserved.


A Pile of Stones

April 27, 2014

194306927_c188cdc26f_z

Somewhere in the sand

between the Sea and Sinai

there is a pile of rocks, a memorial.

Every year I stumble against it

trip over it

and the sharp stones hit a nerve.

I’ve only lately finished the matzah

only lately begun picking the soft white manna

from the grocery shelves again

enjoying my freedom

and then

wham!

I trip over those damned rocks again.

They recall all those souls, ground to gravel

Reduced to ash.

I cannot bear to think of them

And I cannot bear to forget them, either.

So I sit on the sand

aching

re-stacking the stones.

Image by Nick Brooks, some rights reserved


What is Yom HaShoah?

April 26, 2014

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Yom HaShoah (Yohm Hah-show-AH or Yohm Hah-SHOW-ah) is Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was established in Israel as Yom HaZikaron LaShoah v’LaGevurah, Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day.

Yom = Day
Zikaron = Remembrance
Shoah = Catastrophe (refers now to the atrocities against the Jewish People in WWII.)
Gevurah = Heroism.

It began in 1953 as Israel’s day for remembrance of the 6,000,000 Jewish men, women and children who were murdered in the 1940’s in Europe, established by Israeli law as a Memorial Day. Increasingly it has been adopted as a day for remembrance by Jews the U.S. as well. It is a memorial for our dead and for the heroes among them.

The originators proposed the date for the 14th of Nisan, which was the date of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, to underline the fact that there was also Gevurah (heroism) involved, to counter the myth that Jews were passive victims.  However, that is also the day immediately before Passover, so that was impractical. Instead, it was set for the 27th of Nisan, except when that day falls immediately adjacent to Shabbat, in which case it is moved by one day, forward or back as appropriate.

Like all Jewish days, it begins at sundown and ends at sundown. In Israel, it is marked with solemn assemblies and flags at half mast. TV and radio stations play classical music and documentaries. At noon, everything stops in the country: people even stop their cars on the street, and get out of them, to stand for a moment of silence.

In the United States, Yom HaShoah is marked with community memorial ceremonies and educational programs. If survivors of the Holocaust are available as speakers, they tell their stories. With the passage of time, that is more and more rare.

Not all Jews observe 27 Nisan as Holocaust Remembrance Day. Some Orthodox and Hasidic groups include Holocaust remembrance in the Tisha B’Av memorial of the disasters to the Jewish People.

Upcoming Dates of Observance in the Gregorian calendar:

2014 April 27

2015 April 16

2016 May 5

2017 April 24

2018 April 12

Image: Abel Francés Quesada, some rights reserved.


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