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!


Suffering is Not a Show

September 19, 2014
Puna district, Lava Flow

Map Showing Lava Flow and Population in Lower Puna District (Dr. Mark Kimura)

Dr. Mark Kimura of the University of Hawaii is on a mission. He wants (1) to empower the people of the Puna District of Hawaii by giving them information, and he wants (2) people “on the mainland” – that is, not living in Hawaii – to understand what is happening in the rural communities of the southeast corner of the Big Island. Kilauea volcano is erupting, creating new land and destroying everything in its path, and human beings are already suffering uncertainty and loss.

The trouble is that usually we folks on the mainland are not interested in such things until they become a show. In 1990, I remember watching the network news and seeing the homes of Kalapana burning up as lava from Kilauea volcano oozed through the town. The human beings who had only hours or days before evacuated those homes were not in the picture. They were not as photogenic as molten lava flow, glowing in the dark, setting houses on fire.

Twenty years after, I and a group of other tourists picked our way across the lava, on our way to see the steam and fire where the burning rock was now entering the sea. Someone casually asked our guide where he grew up, and he pointed across the lava field. “In Kalapana, about there,” he said. “But we had to leave in 1990.” Suddenly I realized that what I had seen on TV was someone’s home. I was ashamed that I had not understood that before.

This past June 27, the volcano began erupting in a new direction, towards the subdivisions around the town of Pahoa. The area around Pahoa is dotted with small farms and homes in subdivisions. It is a world away from the big resorts on the Kona Coast. Right now, the lava is flowing, and no one is sure exactly where it will go, only that sooner or later it could destroy homes and businesses, and sooner or later it could cut the highway that provides land access to the world outside. “Sooner” could be next week. “Later” could be anytime after that.

Sooner or later the photographs of burning houses and flowing lava could be on the news here on the mainland. Sooner or later those photos or photos of another spectacular disaster will be part of the flow of info into our TV’s, our computers, our smartphones. I ask that we all take a moment, when we see those photos, to remember that real people live there, that real people are losing their homes, that someday someone will point across a lava field and say, “My home was about there. It’s under the rock now.”

I will finish with Dr. Kimura’s words from the Facebook page he set up to inform others about the situation:

I wanted two things when I started this FB page: (1) people in lower Puna feel empowered (at least a little) by understanding the possible ramifications of the lava flow reaching the ocean; and (2) the rest of the world learns how serious the situation is and responds accordingly. This one is for the latter.

I don’t want people outside of Hawaii to just come here right before the lava hits a residential area (if it does) and simply enjoy the “show”. I want them to care. They need to know real people exist, not just the hot lava burning down the trees.

At the moment, the only place I can suggest to send funds to help is the Hawaii Chapter of the Red Cross. If I learn of other options, I will post them here.


We Measure Our Days in Various Ways

August 25, 2014

Yahrzeit candle

Yahrtzeit candle for Jewish mourning.

Oy. I just stumbled onto a new measure of how difficult this summer has been.

I get statistics from WordPress, the nice people who make my blog work, and discovered that one of my old posts has been getting a lot of traffic this summer: Baruch Dayan Emet – Why Do We Bless God when Someone Dies? 

It didn’t get much interest when I first posted it on December 7, 2013, only 7 views. Then it was mostly ignored until June 30 of this year, when suddenly it got 187 on-site views. It seems that when you Google “Baruch Dayan Emet” one of sites on the first page of Google is my post. Suddenly everyone needs to know what that phrase means and why we use it.

Death is persistent in the news this summer. It is with us in the news from Israel and Gaza. It is with us in the news from Missouri and Los Angeles and the Ukraine. It is with us in news about earthquakes and hurricanes. It is with us in news about murders and suicides. So Jews are saying “Baruch Dayan emet” more often, and hearers are going to the Net to find out what that means.

I think I need to post about some phrases for rejoicing, just so that those explanations are waiting for their moments, too.


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!


Just Before Shabbat: My Week

July 25, 2014

BH14_10th_Fundentity_v4_0This week I’ve been having an interesting time at the BlogHer ’14 Conference in San Jose. It’s the 10th annual gathering of women who blog, and it’s fascinating. I’m about to step back from it for Shabbes, but I thought it might be a good time to share a little of what I’ve learned.

1. I don’t get out enough. This is the first big event I’ve been to in years that was not specifically a Jewish event, unless you count the occasional Oakland A’s game. Now that I’ve got the scooter, I may be doing more of this kind of thing, since I’m interested in expanding my tech and social media skills.

2. There are some amazing women doing amazing work online. I’ve identified a number of women whose skills and savvy inspire me. Watch this space as I try to learn and grow from watching them.

3. The corporate world is looking to make money from women bloggers. Mostly this is good news – those amazing women I mentioned are making money on their blogs. And I love seeing women get respect. Also, I was grateful for the coupons for toilet paper and Skype and other goodies that I was given today, just for tweeting; on the other hand, I understand now that monetizing one’s blog comes with a price. I think I’ll stick with the “free” site from wordpress.org paid for by their ads, and forgo the responsibilities that come with monetizing.

4. Accessibility is an ongoing project. On the one hand, my scooter and I were able to go everywhere I needed to go. On the other, heavy doors are a real pill. The San Jose convention center is going to get a letter from me. Also, someday I’m going to lose it and blog about bathrooms and so-called accessible hotel rooms, but not today, because I’m in a good mood.

On other fronts, my heart remains in the East – the news from Israel saddens and scares me. Honestly, it’s been a relief to think about something else, but it never entirely leaves me. I am deeply disturbed at the anti-Semitism rising around the world, and at the horrible words aimed at some of my colleagues. Even at the conference, when people saw “Rabbi” on my name tag, some wanted to talk about Gaza and some clearly wanted to avoid talking about it.

Shabbat shalom, folks. May the Sabbath bring us all rest and recovery, insight and wisdom to deal with a very difficult world.


Fragments

April 3, 2014

My heart is too full for me to post anything coherent. Some disjointed thoughts:

• I love my brother. I feel loved by my brother. I love and feel loved by his wife. I wish I knew how to communicate to him what a blessing he has been and continues to be in my life.

• I am proud to be a Reform rabbi.

• Chicago is my city of revelation. I have no idea why, but something about this Midwestern city lifts me towards growth.

• Shaving my head really opened it up. I feel new breezes blowing, literally and figuratively. What that means I am not yet sure.

• I love my home. I love my spouse. I love my sons. I love my friends. I love my dogs. I miss them and I want to go home.

 

 

 


We’re About to Stop Praying for Rain

March 22, 2014
Food grows where water flows in the Central Valley of California.

The Central Valley of California:
food grows only where there is water.

This was going to be the Year of the Garden. When I moved into the new house, I had great plans for a garden of California native plants, plus vegetables and fruits and a few old favorites. So I paid some nice folks to dig everything up, enrich the tired soil with compost, and cover the lot with some wood chips that will gradually decompose into the earth.  By the time it was all done, it was clear that we are in the midst of a terrible drought in California, and it is simply not responsible for me to go planting a bunch of tender new stuff that needs gallons of water. 

So the California natives and the iris and the day lilies will have to wait for next year. I’m getting ready to plant a little vegetable garden in barrels (easier to protect from wildlife and small peeing dogs) and I’ve got my two new baby figs. They are leafing out nicely, the little leaves looking like tiny hands that uncurl and reach for the sun. I’m glad I ordered the fig trees before I knew about the drought. Soon I’ll have the cukes and ‘maters and okra going, too. I’ll water them by drip and they’ll feed me and my family and maybe a few others as well.

I feel embarrassed to whine much about my little garden, when so many California farmers are trying to figure out how to survive this terrible drought. Water is expensive for them even in good years, and this year it sounds like no amount of money will buy the water they need, because the Sierra has little snow. When I served a congregation in the Central Valley, some of my congregants were small orange farmers. Their families had grown citrus for generations, and it was a beautiful thing to see the labor of the farmers and the natural wisdom of the trees come together to make a harvest of glowing fruit. Now they and others like them in the Valley are having to do a dreadful calculus: how many trees can they afford to irrigate? How many trees will be lost?

Over the months ahead, food will be more expensive for everyone in America, because the farmers of the Central Valley don’t have water. One third of all the produce grown in the United States comes from the Valley, and this year is a drought year.  That means that more people in America will eat less, and that much of what they are able to eat will be lower in quality, because fresh fruits and vegetables and meat will see the worst price increases. Drought means that there will be less work in the Valley, where poverty already runs rampant among the farmworkers, the people we all depend upon for our food.

Living a Jewish life pushes me to pay attention to these connections. The movement of the sun across the sky determines times for prayer. The sun sets at a different time every day, but its setting marks the beginning of a new day. From Sukkot to Passover, we pray for rain three times a day; soon we’ll change that prayer to a prayer for dew, which is the most an Israeli or California farmer can hope for between Passover and the High Holy Days. We Jews are tied to the natural world by our prayer cycle and our calendar; no matter how urban our lives, the connection is inescapable.

And that is a good thing, because we  – not just Jews, all of us! – need to remember that our lives and well being are linked with the lives of others. When I say motzi before eating a meal, I remind myself that bread doesn’t grow in the grocery store, or in a bread machine. It comes from the earth, it comes from all the creatures that fertilize the plants that went into it, it comes from the people who harvested the plants, it comes from the people who transported it and who worked in the factories that processed and packaged it. It comes from the people who stock the shelves, it comes from the checker who rang it up, it comes from a million parts of creation. Every bite of bread is holy.

So folks, it’s time to pray for the Valley. Time to pray for the people who live there, the people who work there, the bees that pollinate plants, for the earth itself. It’s time to pray that the politicians can find a compromise (that is what they do, when they’re doing their jobs) that will make it possible for find water to route to the thirsty plants before all the fields fall idle. It’s time to pray not just with our mouths, but with our hearts and hands and email and telephones, to insist that ways be found for vulnerable farmers to survive a bad year. It’s time to give money, or volunteer at the Food Bank, because the 49 million Americans who were hungry last year are going to be hungrier this year, because food prices will go up and up and up.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously spoke of “praying with his feet” when he marched at Selma. We are the hands and the feet of God in the world. God is not sitting idle, waiting for the right words to be spoken that will cause magical rain to fall from the heavens. God waits dormant within us, waiting for us to get off our collective tuchus and act.

This is a season of drought. It’s time to take care of one another.

Image: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Adam Reeder


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