The Problem of Legitimacy, Part 1

On my scooter.
On my scooter.

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.

The Rabbi and her Green Stamps

Remember Green Stamps?
Remember Green Stamps?

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.

Veterans’ Day

Our son, in his whites, 2004
Son and Grandson of Sailors, 2004

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.

This Veterans’ Day: let’s not be cheap.

A Bad Memory, and a Question

100% Jewish
100% Jewish

A memory came back to me today.

I was still a brand new Jew, practically wet behind the ears from the mikveh, and I was at my first Big Jewish Event (the sort that had hundreds of Jews who weren’t from my congregation – wow!)  I was big-eyed and surfing the learning curve, drinking up the fact that it is a Big Jewish World and I was now a part of it.  I was deliriously happy to be a part of the Jewish world I saw around me.

I was walking along a hallway at the convention center with a senior member of my congregation when it happened. The guy (I’ll call him Dave, not his real name) was a macher, someone who knew lots of people at the convention, and who had been on many committees. I was proud to be walking along learning from him. Then he said to me, out of the blue, “See that rabbi over there? You’ll never be as Jewish as her little finger.”

My euphoria crashed in a ball of flame. I couldn’t speak, couldn’t respond, couldn’t move the muscles in my face. I could hear my heart beating. Shame rose in me, and I wanted to disappear through the floor.

I continued walking along beside this man, but I couldn’t look at him. And I never told my rabbi about it.

I have no idea what was going on with Dave, who before and after that awful statement was very nice to me. Today, more secure in my Jewish identity, I might ask him what the heck he was thinking. I would challenge him, because certainly the tradition says that a person who chooses Judaism and goes through the long process of conversion is every bit a Jew. But because I was new, and shy, and intimidated, I said nothing.

When I tell this story to others who became Jewish as adults years ago, they answer with their own stories. It seems to be a rather common experience, so much so that when I work with adults in the process of conversion, I feel it necessary to prepare them for the ambivalence in the community about adopted members of the tribe. It’s not a constant thing, but every now and then an otherwise perfectly nice person burps up a statement that says, “Nope, not one of us. Never will be.” There are ways to handle it, both conversationally and internally, but it isn’t pleasant.

Now, I have been around the Jewish block long enough to know that this is an extension of that popular pastime “More Jewish than You” – that for whatever reason, we Jews seem to have a need to reassure ourselves that someone out there is less Jewish than we are.  But when I hear the wailing over the recent Pew study and the angsting over the declining membership in congregations, I want to say, “Well, what do you expect? If we hit people with sticks, they will run away. Duh.”

And I know that isn’t the whole answer, but when I meet people who have left congregations because someone was nasty to them, I just have to wonder: how would the Jewish world be different, if we all acted as if each Jew were precious and non-replaceable?

How would the world be different if we treated every  human being that way?

“my teacher said im not jewish”

English: Google Logo officially released on Ma...

Sometimes I get inspiration from the search terms people use to find this blog. And sometimes I get angry.

I hope that the child who searched Google with this string found some comfort from a real live human being, but just in case anyone ever Googles it again, I’m writing this blog post and titling it “my teacher said im not jewish.”

To anyone who has Googled this:  There’s another blog post here that will explain why some Jews get excited about who is “in” and who is “out.” That is theoretical stuff. You are dealing with real stuff, not theory. If someone says to you, “You are not Jewish” or “You are not really Jewish” here is what you can do:

1. First of all, ask yourself, “Do I feel a part of the Jewish People?” or “Do I love Judaism?” If the answer to either of those is “yes,” then:

2. Go to a rabbi and say, “My teacher said I am not Jewish. But I feel a part of the Jewish people!” or “I love Judaism!”  then ask:

3. In our community, how do we fix this situation?

The reason that you ask it that way is that different Jewish communities will approach this in different ways depending on the specifics. Maybe the teacher was just wrong and out of line. Maybe the teacher was correct about some technical matter of halakhah [Jewish Law] but forgot he was talking to a real human being. Most importantly, if it is a Jewish legal thing, then there’s a way to fix it.

I’m not going to make pronouncements here on a blog about what exactly should happen, because I am not your rabbi.

If you are reading this because this happened to you long ago and you no longer have a rabbi, you need to GET a rabbi. I have a blog post for that.

Do not be discouraged by this “technically, you’re not” business. Your rabbi (once you get one) has tools for making things right. You may have to work with him or her to make everything kosher. That is just how Judaism works – we are a religion, and a people, of doing.

To anyone who has made a pronouncement about someone else’s Jewishness:

1. Are you a rabbi? My colleague, I understand that you were conveying necessary information. I pray that you always consider the Jewish values of chesed and rachamim when you choose your words. Hurtful words have consequences for all of Am Yisrael.

2. Oh, you aren’t a rabbi? You are just a helpful person teaching others about Judaism? Understand this: You are out of your depth. You do not know as much as you think you know. The words you carelessly sling around may make you feel important, but you may have chased away the parent of one who would have been a tzaddik. You may have caused hurt that could someday have terrible consequences for the Jewish people. The correct answer if someone asks you a question as important as “Am I Jewish?” is “Let me give you the phone number of a rabbi.” Even if you are really pretty sure they aren’t Jewish, just say, “Go talk to a rabbi.” If they are your student in Hebrew school, do not injure a child’s budding Jewish identity with your cruel self-importance, talk to the rabbi yourself.

I work at the edges of the Jewish community with people who are not affiliated with a synagogue. Usually they are not affiliated because they have a story to tell: a story about hurt feelings, a story about someone who rejected them or neglected them. Often what they were told was wrong, or it was delivered in such a way that they misunderstood, or it was delivered with cruelty so that they ran away in pain.

Anyone who is concerned about the survival of Judaism should be concerned about this matter. After the events of the 20th century we cannot afford to throw away Jews or potential Jews. Even without the terrible events of the Shoah, we still have the fact that all human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.  When the great rabbi Hillel was asked by an impertinent questioner to summarize the Torah while standing on one foot, he said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. Go and study.” Kindness, chesed, is at the very heart of Torah!

May the person who made the original Google search “my teacher said im not jewish” find kind and knowledgable help in pursuing his or her Jewish destiny. And may all of us be part of the building of Klal Yisrael [all of Israel] and not part of tearing her down.

Teaching and Learning and Joy, oh my!

I’m happy. I launched two classes this morning at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA. I think it’s going to be a very good year.

Even with classes I teach again and again (this is my third round with “Exploring Judaism”) the people in the class make the experience different. Jews don’t do a lot of solo learning; we learn in groups and in pairs, noisily. When I see a room full of people (19 of them!) and I think about all the Torah I’m going to learn, I get happy. Beginners are fantastic, because they ask questions I’m too routinized to ask for myself.  Beginners are a precious resource.

“Money & the Mensch: Jewish Ethics and Personal Finance” is especially exciting. We’re not sure whether it will happen as an official class yet, since we have low numbers, but they’re excited and I’m excited and I’m going to give them the class reader anyway next week. This was the topic of my rabbinic thesis, and I’m practically itching to teach it, because it is a wonderful, practical subject with some great stories in it.  We’re going to learn about the terrible Men of Sodom and Maimonides’ Torah Scholar and Munbaz II of Adiabene and some other interesting tales.  We’ll use those stories to figure out the questions we need to ask about money: how to give charity wisely and well, how to make choices about investing and consumption, how to decide when a boycott is a good idea.  We’ll have a blast.

I love to teach. It’s what I do.

Why Do Good?

British Library Add. MS 59874 Ethiopian Bible ...
British Library Add. MS 59874 Ethiopian Bible – Matthew’s Gospel (Ge’ez script) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why do good?

Recently I read a wonderful post by John Scalzi on his Whatever blog about Matthew chapter 6 (New Testament), the famous Sermon on the Mount. In it, Jesus is critical of those who do good in order to be seen doing it, arguing instead that a wise person will “lay up treasures in heaven” rather than pile up treasure in this life, or collect goodies in the form of other people’s approbation. Scalzi, who sometimes uses his blog as a soapbox for promoting causes, questions his own motives in doing good. Finally he concludes:

I want to be seen as good. Matthew chapter six reminds me how much better it would be to actually be good, first and always.

All this led me to ask myself, why do I do good? Why do I “observe mitzvot” [keep sacred duties], as we Jews put it?

I do not think an afterlife very likely, and should I wake up in either heaven or hell I will be very surprised to do so. However I do believe  that we have it in our power to make heaven or hell here on earth, during our natural lives. Some of us have the power to make this life heaven or hell for those over whom we have a measure of power: children, employees, or dependents. All of us can make life heaven or hell for those who are stuck with us: family and neighbors.

When I choose to do good, like giving money to the food bank, I expand the reach of the heaven I make. I put food in the mouth of someone I do not know. When I give blood to the blood bank, I share my health with some unknown person.

When I choose to be polite or kind to the harried checker in the grocery store, I expand the reach of heaven to them: it is a measure of heaven to be recognized and respected as a human being.

When I choose to vote in such a way that I believe the greatest good will be served, even if it is at the expense of my own interest, I expand the reach of heaven on earth.

None of this requires metaphysics.

My understanding of Torah is that it is a body of teaching about the best methods for making the world better for myself and everyone else. The scroll itself is not always clear on the details or the execution.  We are still engaged in the struggle to apply it all properly, but it is the system that makes the most sense to me, whether or not there is an afterlife, whether or not there is a person named That Name We Don’t Say.

Why do I try to do good? Because suffering is lousy.  I will sleep better if I honestly believe I am at least trying to reduce the suffering in the world.

When asked to teach the whole Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. All the rest is commentary. Go and study.”

All the rest is commentary. Go and study.