The Class I Hate to Teach

April 24, 2013

English: Antisemitic graffiti in Venezuela

English: Antisemitic graffiti in Venezuela (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I enjoy teaching basic Judaism: it’s my true love, my mission, my passion. “Intro,” done well, can make it much easier for outsiders to become fellow travelers in Jewish community, whether they are Gentile relatives of a Jew, or Jews who got no Jewish education, or someone looking to become a Jew.  It has to be more than facts and how-to’s, because Judaism isn’t just a religion, it’s a vast array of ethnicities, customs, history, and culture – as Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan famously titled his book, Judaism is a civilization. As an “Intro” teacher, I’m a tour guide, den mother, demystifier, and spiritual director.

But there’s one class in every series that I hate to teach. Not coincidentally, it is the only class specified by the tradition as a requirement. Rabbinic tradition is rather vague about what converts to Judaism must be taught before they go to the mikveh, but it is adamant that they understand that Jews have been a despised and persecuted people. In other words, they need to be acquainted with anti-Semitism.

It’s the one class to which I bring a printed-out lesson plan, because I know I will go off-topic like a giddy puppy at the first opportunity. I march through the list: the misgivings about Jews in classical civilization, Christian attitudes about Jews that took shape in both church doctrine and in civil law, and the obsession with Jewish ancestry that surfaced in Spain in the 16th century that presaged full-blown ethnic hatred of Jews in the Western world.  I talk about Herzl’s realization, as he covered the Dreyfus affair, that the Jews of Europe faced something terrible. I talk about all of that as a prelude to the Shoah. And then we talk about the “New” anti-Semitism.

We talk about the memes that have dogged Jews through history: blood libel, moneylending, court Jews, conspiracy, communism, socialism, anarchism, pinko-Commie-whatever-ism. I tell them about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  I tell them about the origins of the term “Anti-Semitism,” that it was invented by a German journalist as a sophisticated-sounding substitute for Judenhass, Jew-hatred.

Some students who have been engaged Christians at some point in their lives practically writhe with discomfort. I name those feelings, and acknowledge that when you’ve got one foot in each community, this can be very hard listening. I share the fact that it was hard for me, when I took the class long ago. Some Jewish students look distant, and I suspect they are running through unpleasant memories and feelings. Maybe, like me, they just hate the topic.

My impulse is to comfort. I bring cookies. I reassure. But I march relentlessly through that lesson plan, because it is important that they know this stuff. I have a duty to see to it that they understand that when you sign up to be a Jew, you sign up for this, too. For Gentiles in the class, it is important to know why Jews seem “sensitive” about some things, why some topics are funny only if you are a genius like Mel Brooks and can take them all the way off the deep end.

Usually the evening ends off topic: I get to the end of the list, and we trail off from “Jews run the media” into jokes and trivia about Hollywood and Jews. If I’m artful, we’ll leave on an upbeat note.  But I’m always relieved when the evening is over, because I hate this topic.  I hate, hate, hate it.


Time for Shabbat, already!

April 19, 2013
shocked

(Photo credit: apdk)

I do not remember the last time I was this desperate for Shabbat.

This has been a dreadful week, beginning with the bombing of the finish line at the Boston Marathon. Even though I did not know anyone present, the images that came streaming at me from the television, the computer, and even my smartphone were pixillated nightmares. Even though I was nowhere near Boston, have only been to Boston a few times in my life, it felt personal.  I got angry, and made an appointment for a blood donation. I needed to act, rather than simply stew in stress hormones.

Random bits of horror in the news kept poking at me: ricin, the Senate’s choice about the gun loophole, news about local violence. It seemed to never stop.

Then, Wednesday night, when I got in my car at 9:30 pm after a class, I turned on the radio and  learned about the factory explosion in West, Texas. A dear friend is the rabbi in Waco, just 20 miles distant, and I had no idea where she actually lives. I worried about her until she posted on facebook that she was OK.

That relief lasted only a few minutes, when the other details about the disaster began to sink in: 5 city blocks destroyed in a tiny Texas town. Volunteer firefighters were probably trapped in the exploding factory. Why was there a nursing home across the street? Why schools nearby?

I donated blood. This, I can do.

Then late last night, after another class, more violence, more weirdness, in Boston. I turned off the electronics and cleaned house.  I thought about my sermon for this evening. I kept forgetting and turning something back on – and would turn it off again, because honestly, I’d had enough.

Douglas Rushkoff‘s new book, Present Shock, describes what has been going on with  me this week. Events come pouring in faster than we can process them. Narratives fracture before they are even formed. Conspiracy theories multiply and divide.  Email, facebook, twitter, the radio, the news, the news, the news demand my attention and in a bad news week it WILL make me crazy.

I’ve been reading Rushkoff’s book this week, too, and that’s why I finally turned everything off and began scrubbing the bathroom.  My baby-boomer brain as well as my baby-boomer heart and soul were overwhelmed. I recognized myself in his pages and declared, “TIME OUT!”

Of course, I had to start all over again this morning, wake up to more strange “breaking news” un-narrative from Boston, along with assorted bits nearer to home. The people in Texas seem to have dropped off the news cycle, which sort of worries me – will anyone remember to check on them?

But today, at sundown, Shabbat will come. I don’t know if she’ll be wearing bridal white or a nice nurse’s outfit this week, but she will come and gather us in her arms. The electronics will be off. The buzz will be busted for a while. We will catch our breath. We will gather our strength.

Blessed are you, O Holy One, Ruler of Time & Space, Master of the Now, Maker of  Shabbat.


Responding to Terror

April 15, 2013
Tikkun Olam

(Photo credit: AjDele Photography)

“He [Hillel] used to say, a boor cannot fear sin, nor can an unlearned person be pious. A bashful person cannot learn, nor can an impatient one teach. Those who are occupied excessively with business will not become wise [in Torah]. In a place where there are no human beings, endeavor to be a human being.” (Avot 2:6)

I am horrified at the bombing that took place in Boston today. Instead of assigning blame, spreading rumors, or ranting, I’m going to take positive action in the world: I’ve made an appointment to donate blood.

I challenge you: if you are feeling strong emotion, DO SOMETHING: give blood, give to the food bank, take some other action to relieve suffering. All the nattering on social media and all the pontificating on the TV will accomplish nothing, but the actions of a few good people could make the world a better place.


Lechem Oni / Matzah

March 16, 2013

Matzah

 

Matzah is the paradox
at the heart of Passover.

At the center of our Passover feast,
this poor bread, lechem oni, scatters crumbs everywhere.

We place it among mounds of food:
poverty in the midst of plenty.
Now who among us has seen that?

Surely God called us out of Egypt
For something better.


A Comment on Comments

December 27, 2012

English: Groucho Marx & anonymous blogging

Dear Readers,

I’m on vacation for the moment, just checking periodically to clean up spam comments.  I’ve noticed a trend on my blog of people leaving comments that have nothing to do with the topic of the blog entry. They’re basically using the comment section as a little soapbox. Some opinions I agree with, some I don’t. Some are expressed rudely. Some have such poor spelling and grammar it takes a major effort to figure out what they are saying and even then, it’s a puzzle.  Thank goodness, wordpress does a nice job of weeding out the commercial comments before they even hit the board.

Today I went through and un-approved the rude comments, the totally off-topic comments, and the unreadable comments, and it occurs to me that perhaps I should articulate a policy about comments, since now I’m deleting some things.

Here’s the deal:

1.  I love a good discussion.  Feel free to disagree in the comments, or to question what I’ve written.  That is the best possible use for comments.

2. I don’t love off topic rants.  If you want to reach a wide number of people with your soapbox, go build your own blog and build your readership the hard way. Comment on the topic at hand. If there’s a topic you wish I’d address, put that request in the comments – that’s fine. But don’t just post an essay out of the clear blue sky, because it’s wasted effort – I’ll delete it. I do this not because I disagree (or agree) with you, but because I want to be respectful of my readers’ time and interest.

3. If you are rude, talk about “idiots,” or attack another person or group of persons with your words, I will delete the comment the moment I see it. Do that stuff somewhere else, please. Doesn’t matter if we agree or not, it’s gone.

4. Not everyone is a ba’al hadikduk [master of grammar] but please do try to make your message intelligible. If English is not your first language, just do your best and that’s OK – I do understand. However, if I can’t make it out at all, I’ll delete the message whether English is your mother tongue or not.

5. Finally, if you’ve made it this far, don’t let this fussy post of mine prevent you from commenting and questioning my posts.  I really do love a good discussion, and we can only get there with a comment.  Disagree, question my assumptions, ask questions, whatever – mazal tov!  I love that stuff.

As 2012 comes to an end, thank you for reading my blog. I appreciate the readers who follow me regularly, and the people who follow tweets and other breadcrumbs to come check me out. In the coming year, I will try to post more essays and “tips for beginners” of interest, and make the time you spend reading my blog worthwhile.

Blessings to you in the secular New Year!

– Rabbi Ruth Adar


Speechless, and a Modest Proposal

December 17, 2012
Cover of "The Shootist"

Cover of The Shootist

I’ve been trying to think what to write in the face of events in Newtown, CT.  Words fail me. I remember being the age of those children; I remember having children that age. First graders are among the most innocent creatures on earth – in many ways they are humanity at its sweetest. I just have no words for their murders.

What I do have is some thoughts about the pattern of murder/suicide that repeats and repeats across America. When it’s “just” a man murdering his girlfriend or wife and then shooting himself, it barely rates a mention on the news, so accustomed have we become to this pattern.

Here’s my proposal: let’s quit referring to these guys as “shooters” or “gunmen.” Both of those words call up images of the Old West and of John Wayne.  One almost gets the feeling, from those words, that it’s just the manly thing to do.  News flash: there is nothing “manly” about killing the people you love or other helpless souls and then sidestepping consequences by shooting yourself, too. It’s an act of either supreme insanity or cowardice, or both.

So let’s call them what they are: cowards.  No more news reports about “the shooter” please: refer to him as the coward who shot himself when he heard the cops coming. Refer to them as “criminals.”

I believe we need to take a hard look at gun laws, and a hard look at the resources available to the mentally ill, but in the meantime, let’s call this what it is: a criminal act, a cowardly act. Such an act is not romantic and it does not “send a message.” Yes, we will remember – because we refuse to forget the victims, but let’s assure future perpetrators that we will remember them only with disgust.

May the souls of all those injured in this and every other act of gun violence this week be comforted in the arms of God, and in the love of friends and family.


What is Hateful

November 30, 2012
Intro1009-10

An Intro class photo. I’m wearing the red jacket, in the middle.

What is hateful to you do not do to any person.  All the rest is commentary. Go and study. – Hillel (Talmud, Shabbat, 31a)

Let me ask you, my intelligent reader, one simple question: do you like it when random people tell you what they perceive to be the error of your ways? Do you in fact hate it when people do that? How about when people make fun of you, or people like you? How do you feel about that?

What is hateful to you, do not do to any person.

I am a fat woman.  I’ve spent an amazing amount of my life and money trying to be a thin woman, and folks, it is not going to happen. And no, I’m not open to arguments: if a diet was going to change my body permanently, if exercise were going to change it permanently, I would be thin.  And I’m not. (Nor am I alone. Did you know that the most extensive study of weight loss diets ever done revealed that 5 years out, 95% of dieters regain whatever they lost? That over 41% wound up heavier than they began?)

In my personal life, I am blessed with friends and family who love me as I am. I think they are mostly relieved that I finally let the dieting go and have settled into a routine of regular exercise and healthy meals.

But let me turn on a TV, or the computer, or for that matter, go out in public, and I and other fat people face a world that never heard the words of Hillel and certainly never heard of kindness. They think it is perfectly fine to moo at a woman exercising outdoors. They write hateful things to us and about us. They think it is perfectly fine to make TV shows about the humiliation of fat people.  You know. You’ve seen it, too.

So here’s all I have to say: What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. If you see a fat person, you don’t need to be extra nice. You just need to be as polite as you’d be to anyone else. Making jokes or giving advice, under the guise of “humor” or “for their own good” is just cruelty in a clown suit or a fake white coat.

If you are tempted, just remember the last time someone said something useless, ignorant or cruel to you.  Re-live the feeling. Then find something else to talk about. Your words will not help any more than the latest fad diet will – in fact, they might do a great deal more harm.

Just for today, try saying nothing hateful about your own body or anyone else’s.

What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. All the rest is commentary. Go and study. 


Can We Talk?

November 18, 2012
Children in Town Under Fire by Rockets from Gaza

Children in Town Under Fire by Rockets from Gaza (Photo credit: Israel Defense Forces)

I walked out of a movie this afternoon (Lincoln, it’s good), flipped my phone back on, and was greeted with a personal message on Twitter:

“All nations regret that they cannot exterminate 15m jews 40 times for killing 600m their nationals in all wars and revolts”

I had to read it a couple of times before I could understand what it said. I run across anti-Semitism all the time on the web, but it is not often addressed personally to me. When I investigated further, I realized it wasn’t personal, not really: the person sending it had sent the same message to dozens of Jews or Jewish-sounding people on Twitter. I reported him and blocked the account. Yuck.

It’s been a rough week. I lived in Israel for a year, ten years ago, and I formed an attachment to the country and its people that will never leave me. I was there at a hard time – the 2nd Intifada – and that cemented my respect for Israelis. They live through times that most of us cannot imagine, and the vast majority of them carry on their lives with grace. I listen to Israeli radio, and was aware of the rockets raining down on Sderot and other communities in the south, and noticed that no one in the media outside of Israel seemed to give a hoot. The BBC never mentioned it, CNN never mentioned it, and it was not mentioned on Al Jazeera, either. Were I not “tuned in” to Israeli sources, I wouldn’t have known about it, because no one else cared to report it.

Then, ten days ago, the Israelis finally retaliated. Had France been shelling Britain for months, we’d have seen some fireworks from the Brits before now. Had Mexico been shelling Texas — well, it’s Texas. Of course they’d shoot back. But when the Israelis finally shoot back they’re the bad guys?

For more about Pillar of Defense, better thought out and with great links, take a look at Rebecca Einstein Schorr’s A Few Thoughts About Operation Pillar of Defense.

For ten days now, I’ve been watching Jews argue over this and my heart is breaking. I listen to Jews call one another names, fail to give each other the benefit of the doubt, and read things into each others words. If one says he’s praying for peace, there are half a dozen folks ready to have his head because he wasn’t enthusiastic enough about war. If she speaks up for Israel’s right to defend herself, a different half dozen are ready and waiting to descend with words of flame.  And all I want to do is scream, “STOP IT!”

My fellow Jews: we do not need to be enemies against one another. There are plenty of people in the world that hate us, like the creep who sent me that tweet. He has read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other lies, and he’s ready to exterminate us all. He doesn’t care whether we belong to AIPAC or J Street. He doesn’t care if we love Israel or deplore its existence. He just hates Jews.

If you want to talk about your position, I will listen. I may not agree, but that is not a condition of my listening. If you want to talk about your position, will you listen to me as well? Can we talk about our fears? Can we talk about our hopes?

I love the Jewish People. I really, really, really like Jews. And this is breaking my heart.


Recognizing the Good: Veterans Day

November 12, 2012
Joseph Ambrose, an 86-year-old World War I vet...

Joseph Ambrose, an 86-year-old World War I veteran, attends the dedication day parade for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982. He is holding the flag that covered the casket of his son, who was killed in the Korean War (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

הכרת הטוב, Hakarat Hatov, means “recognizing the good.” It’s the Hebrew phrase we use to convey the concept of gratitude. Our tradition encourages us to appreciate every bit of good is in our lives, no matter how many legitimate complaints we may have.

November 11 was originally designated Armistice Day because it was the day that the hostilities of WWI stopped. The Treaty of Versailles would not be signed for months, but the people of every nation involved in that war had learned to recognize the goodness of peace. One of the causes of the war had been the tendency of international leaders to forget that war is horrible: they were focussed on potential gains, offended honor, and on their alliances. WWI was a terrible lesson, with more terrible lessons to follow.

In 1958 in the United States, President Eisenhower changed the name of Armistice Day to Veterans Day, in order to include the veterans of WWII and Korea in the appreciation. It became a day to recognize the good in each of those individuals, and the goodness of their gift to the rest of us. When a soldier is drafted or enlists in the military, he or she takes the oath of enlistment:

I, (NAME), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.

This oath effectively limits the exercise of many constitutional rights that ordinary citizens enjoy. A soldier in uniform cannot criticize the President or the military, and must be careful about doing so out of uniform. A soldier must follow all lawful orders (and must be prepared to justify in court why an order was not lawful if he does not follow it.)  Search and seizure are perfectly legal on a military base. Most Americans would chafe mightily at these restrictions and others under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  Military service requires the voluntary relinquishment of freedoms the rest of us take for granted.

Add to that the hazards of serving a nation at war: the physical and mental toll of battle, the stress of living in a war zone for an extended period of time, the strain on family relationships and friendships, and the challenge of return to civilian life, and it’s obvious that we owe our veterans many thanks.

Where we fail, though, is that often all they get is thanks. “Thank you” will not provide health care, education, housing, or mental health care. “Thank you” is cheap, but all those other things are expensive. We and our politicians are quick with thanks and lip service, but not so quick with the rest.

When I am writing a check for taxes it is easy to think about all the things the government does that I  don’t want. (I’ll spare you the list, but trust me, it’s long.) Hakarat Hatov, recognizing the good, demands I look further than the things that are bugging me. It demands that I recognize the good that those men and women have done for me, and that I make sure that enough of my taxes go to at least ameliorate their lost health and lost opportunities.  (If you think that we already take good care of our veterans, I suggest you read this earlier blog post of mine, or this article about veterans and suicide.

In Pirkei Avot 4.1, Ben Zoma says, “Who is rich? He who appreciates what he has.” The question for us each Veterans Day is, do we appreciate what we have? Do we appreciate what these people have given us? And if we say we appreciate it, what are we going to do about it?


Mar Cheshvan, Indeed!

October 16, 2012

Anat Hoffman

Update is at the bottom of the page.

I just got word via the Women’s Rabbinic Network that Anat Hoffman was arrested again last night at the Kotel, the Western Wall, when she was there with a group from Women of the Wall and another group from Hadassah. Since I can’t find any more information on Ha’aretz to corroborate the details I’m not going to say more than that.  She’s been arrested, again. I wish I were surprised.

Anat Hoffman is executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel. She is also the chair of Nashot HaKotel, the Women of the Wall.  She was elected to the Jerusalem City Council and sat on it for fourteen years. She has been tireless in her efforts to seek fairness and justice for all in Israel.

In the recent past, women have been arrested at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh for wearing a too-traditional tallit, for wearing a tallit in a manner too much like a man, and for similar ridiculousness. If this is a place that belongs to the whole Jewish people, why are women not allowed to pray there? Why must women be silent and meek there? Why is only one expression of Judaism acceptable there?

Some will say that this is an unimportant matter.  Who cares what the haredim do at the Kotel? What about Iran? What about security? What about the Situation with the Palestinians? What about the Arab Spring?

But you see, this is not really an issue about women praying at a wall, or women wearing shawls.  This is really a question of the humanity of women. Women’s images are disappearing from public view in Israel, because one group of Jews sees all women’s images, faces, voices, and presence as immodest.  A group of men spat upon a young Orthodox girl, walking home from school, because her (very modest) clothing did not meet their standards of modesty. As with the Civil Rights Movement in the United Statesbuses have become a battleground: do women have to sit in the back? may they ride at all?

So it is not a trivial matter  that a group of women are insisting on their right to pray at the most famous holy site in the Jewish world. This is not about the Wall. It is not about shawls. It is about women’s right to be visible without molestation or repression.

The facts are not all in regarding this latest arrest. I hope that Anat is all right. She is in my prayers tonight. But not just in my prayers: I am joining other members of the Women’s Rabbinic Network in sending a donation to the Women of the Wall in honor of her, and to help cover the legal expenses of this work.

If you would like to join me (please join me!) you can donate funds to either of these organizations.  Just click on the link, and it will take you to the donations page.

Women of the Wall

Israel Religious Action Center

The month of Cheshvan is sometimes called “Mar”Cheshvan, Bitter Cheshvan, because there are no holidays or rejoicing in it. I am sorry to say that Anat’s arrest and the continuing assaults on women’s rights in Israel make this Cheshvan bitter indeed.  Let us hope that the time is coming when women can again stand at the Wall and pray, as we have done for centuries. Let us hope that some future Cheshvan is sweet.

 

Update:  10:58 pm, PST, Oct 16:   The Women of the Wall report on their facebook page that Anat was still detained at this writing, and they show a photo of her being taken away in handcuffs.  At their regular morning prayer time, two other WoW leaders, Director Lesley Sachs and board member Rachel Cohen Yeshurun, were also arrested.  (Now would be a very good time to “like” their page on facebook, if you use facebook.)


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