Don’t Forget the T’s!

June is almost gone, and I haven’t written about Pride yet.

We’re waiting for a big Supreme Court decision that will be a big deal for lesbian and gay rights, the question about whether same-gender couples should have the right to marry in the states that haven’t yet proclaimed that right. (I am sure a lawyer could have put that more elegantly.) What I want everyone to notice that if this does come through, it will be great for the L’s the G’s, and maybe the B’s. It isn’t going to do all that terribly much for the T’s. Life is still very, very hard for transgender folk, and that hasn’t really been changed all that much by a certain transwoman appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair.

How is it hard? Transgender persons face discrimination in school and in the workplace. It’s a little better than it was, but it’s not good. Come out as transgender if you aren’t already a celebrity, and you’re going to have a hard time finding work, even if you’re very good at your job. Once you’ve got the job, then you have to navigate bathrooms – bathrooms! – and a million other details. You will have to navigate a web of discrimination when you seek housing, a driver’s license, immigration, even prison. In all these areas, you will have to deal with people in random positions of petty power pulling rank on whatever simple thing you are trying and insisting that no, you cannot have what you want until you tell them about your genitals. Then maybe you can have whatever it is or maybe you can forget it.

In fact, you can’t have a conversation with quite a chunk of America without that topic coming up: what do you have, what do you no longer have, did it hurt, and oh WHAT do you do in bed? (We lesbians used to get that last one all the time, and boy, did it get boring. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have strangers inquiring about specifics of the plumbing on a regular, casual, social basis.) People, this stuff is Not Our Business.

I hope and pray that whatever happens with the Supreme Court, we don’t act like a bunch of [insert rude word here] and tell our transgender neighbors that they are on their own. Because they are us, and they are threatened daily by violence and oppression. Transgender women of color are the most vulnerable: those statistics should break the hardest heart.

How can you help? Glad you asked. There’s an organization doing fantastic work on transgender rights, the Transgender Law Center in Oakland, CA. They have excellent leadership and they make every dime stretch to its limit. They have an impressive list of accomplishments for an organization that has existed less than 15 years. (Click on the link and see!) If you want major bang for your tzedakah buck, TLC is a great investment. I have been a supporter for a decade and I think the world of them.

How can you help if you don’t have any money? Don’t make jokes about transgender people, and discourage such “humor.” Don’t ask about people’s privates, and explain to others who speculate that it really isn’t cool. DO treat a trans person with the same respect and courtesy that you want for yourself. And when and if you have an opportunity to support legislation that makes things more equal, show up and vote.

That’s my Pride message this year.

A Visit to the Contemporary Jewish Museum

The_store_front,_Contemporary_Jewish_Museum

Today Linda and I had a business meeting over in San Francisco. I’ve been dithering forever about taking BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) on my scooter, and I figured today was a great opportunity, since we were going together.

BART is great for reading San Francisco without having to park or fight traffic on the Bay Bridge. It is less than lovely in some other ways, namely, the hard-to-find elevators and the sometimes-rude riders. I practically had to run over a guy to get him to allow me my wheelchair spot on the train.

After our business meeting, we stopped to get a sandwich and then traveled a few short blocks to the Contemporary Jewish Museum. I am embarrassed to say this was my first visit, since mobility fears had kept me away.

The facility is truly beautiful and wonderfully accessible. I never once had any problem accessing anything, and the security guard was extremely pleasant. Architecturally, the building is a fabulous mix of old and new, the old Pacific Gas & Electric Jessie Street Substation with a dynamic contemporary structure by architect Daniel Libeskind.

Exhibits at the CJM are staggered so that there’s always something interesting to see. We toured Bound to be Held: A Book Show by Josh Green. It was an intriguing combination of elements: a collection of books donated by famous and private individuals, with personalizations (“Read by Famous”) and The Library of Particular Significance, a lending-library of 1,000 books significant to the people who donated them, with which viewers could interact via post-its or by (imagine that!) reading them. It was both fun and thought-provoking.

The current work on view in In that Case: Havruta in Contemporary Art was somewhat less engaging for us. Bay Area visual artist Anthony Discenza collaborated with New York-based author of horror novels Peter Straub to present a piece on Das Beben, a nineteenth century artistic movement who apparently managed to have themselves and their work burnt up in not one but two catastrophic fires. None of their actual work survives; we were apparently supposed to imagine it from the descriptions. We were mystified and left feeling a bit stupid, but we tried!

We are now members of the museum and will return to see other exhibits soon. It’s a wonderful building and clearly the curators are looking to challenge visitors. If you are in the Bay Area or planning to visit, I recommend it!

Contemporary Jewish Museum
736 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
415.655.7800

Approaching the museum from Mission Street, with the old PG&E substation on view.
Approaching the museum from Mission Street, with the old PG&E substation on view.

In a Time of Anger and Hurt

Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar used to say: Do not appease your fellow in the time of his anger, nor comfort him while his dead lies before him. – Pirkei Avot 4:23

On the face of it, this saying makes no sense. Why shouldn’t we appease someone who is angry? Why not comfort a person when he is bereaved?

The clue to Rabbi Shimon’s meaning is hidden in the second clause. In Jewish tradition we do not attempt to comfort a mourner until after the burial of the dead. The stage of bereavement before burial is called aninut. During that time, mourners are relieved of all Jewish responsibility except the responsibility of providing for a proper funeral and burial. We do not speak to them unless absolutely necessary and we do not bother them with comfort. This is not a cruel practice, but a kind one: we understand them to be in terrible pain and to be carrying a great burden (the funeral.) Anything we might say would only be a distraction.

So the teaching here is: don’t try to comfort people until they are in a position to take it in, until it is time.

Then we can look at the first part and make more sense of it:

Do not appease your fellow in the time of his anger.

Rabbi Shimon is advising us that when people are very angry, they can’t listen to reason, any more than a person who has just lost a loved one can be comforted. Appeasing an angry person won’t work, and arguing with them definitely won’t help matters. In both the case of the mourner and the angry person, the only thing that will help is time.

As time passes, the mourner will bury the dead, and will gradually become ready for comfort and human connection. The angry person, too, may have a chance to cool off and have a genuine discussion (unless, of course, they choose to work themselves into greater and greater anger.)

Over the last months, as the discussion on racism and America has heated up on social media, many good people have been very upset. African Americans have very literally had to mourn their dead, and they are legitimately angry about the way too many of them have been treated. Some white Americans have felt attacked by things that African Americans and other whites have said. Some whites have been taught to fear African Americans, too, and that feeds the evil of racism. Attempts at communication have gone awry. Angry words have flown.

So when I happened to read Rabbi Shimon’s words today, I was glad to be reminded of Jewish teachings about grief and anger. Shimon is saying that we do not get anywhere when we tell people how they “should” feel. When emotions are high, it’s a time to listen, not to argue. If listening is impossible, then it’s a time to step back.

Now some readers may be thinking, but rabbi, didn’t you just write that whites need to challenge one another on racist talk? I did write that, and I’m not backing down from it. Rebuke can be a mitzvah when it is properly done. There are better and worse ways to go about it, all informed by Jewish tradition:

It is important to treat every person with dignity. The rabbis tell us that embarrassing a person is no different than shedding their blood. Take a person aside to say privately, “Are you aware of how your words sounded? The words “x,y,z” sounded racist – surely you didn’t mean it that way!” Calling a person racist is just going to enflame the conversation, but pointing out words or behaviors gives them something they can change. Maybe they need help hearing themselves. And maybe, if the words were angry, they need time to cool off before they can hear anything at all.

Name calling never helps. We get farther if we talk about racist behavior and language, rather than racist people. Calling people names never won their heart. Pointing out behavior is different than calling names. People can do something about their behavior.

Leave politics out of it. So many insults have been hurled between Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, that we’re all walking wounded. When someone says to me in a spiteful tone, “That’s just like you liberals,” I feel that nothing I have to say will get a hearing from them. I am sure, from what conservative friends tell me, that the converse is also true. For our own sakes, we need to lay off one another, no matter what the folks at Fox News and MS-NBC do. Let’s drop the insults and name-calling: have you ever known it to add to a fruitful discussion?

Give each person the benefit of the doubt. Actually, that’s another quotation from Pirkei Avot. When it is time to rebuke someone in private, assume that they meant well. Maybe they did or maybe they didn’t, but how can anyone know for sure?

Finally, when we are beside ourselves with strong feelings, it’s time to take a step back. It is only natural sometimes to feel angry or hurt, especially if we feel that we’re doing our best and we are not understood or appreciated. There is no shame in saying, “I am too angry/upset/tired to have a conversation right now.”

None of us are perfect. Torah calls us to love the stranger and who is stranger than the person with whom we disagree?  Let us embrace this difficult task together, and work towards a day when

…everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid. – Micah 4:4

The Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam

Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam

The Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam is located in the midst of the Jewish Cultural Quarter, near the Portuguese Synagogue. This is the historical Jewish quarter; I gather that most of Amsterdam’s Jews live in other parts of the city today.

Here's the wheelchair entrance. Yes, the woman on the scooter is me.
Here’s the wheelchair entrance. 

Getting there: The museum itself is in a complex of buildings at 1 Nieuwe Amstelstraat, and the closest tram stop is Waterlooplein. The entrance for visitors on wheels is a door to the right of the main entrance; ring the bell and a guide will come to assist you in navigating to the ticket counter. They were happy to let me take my scooter everywhere I wanted to go.

The museum seems like a huge disjointed puzzle, but there’s a reason for that. It is actually a complex of four historic synagogues, the New Synagogue (1752), the Great Synagogue (1671), the Obbene Shul (1685), and the Dritt Shul (1778). All four were Ashkenazi synagogues and they were active until the 1940’s, when the Nazis closed, looted, and gutted them. Today Amsterdam is still home to many Ashkenazi Jews, some of whom pray in new synagogues built since the war, and some of whom are completely secular.

The permanent exhibits are impressive: one can get a good feel for the history of the Jews of Amsterdam from them. I thought I understood how important these people were to American Jewish history but half way through the exhibits realized that there are connections I never imagined. (More about this in a future post!)

The museum’s planners took advantage of the layout of the Great Synagogue to assemble the best exhibit on Jewish religion I’ve seen anywhere. The bimah has been restored, so that visitors can stand on the bimah and see an open Torah scroll (under glass.) Exhibits around the periphery explain Jewish holidays, the Jewish life cycle, the calendar, and home observance. All is brought to life with various artifacts and objects, some on loan from families and some on loan from the Portuguese Synagogue.

There is also an impressive exhibit on the secular lives of Amsterdam’s Jews, from the first arrivals in the early 17th century until the present day. I got a sense of a vibrant community that was merely tolerated when it first arrived, but which would have had few choices without that tolerance. The city fathers of Amsterdam were adamant from day one that the Jews must take care of their own and contribute to the prosperity of the city. This stricture was tested when the Ashkenazim arrived later in the century, fresh from the pogroms of the Ukraine and nearly all penniless. With the help of their Sephardic cousins, they eventually did well and built the four synagogues which make up the museum today.

What I did not realize before I visited the museum was that not all Jews in Amsterdam were prosperous. Some were almost unimaginably wealthy, but others were desperately poor. I followed the exhibits with interest and am still very curious about the economic disparity and how it played out in their communal life. I look forward to learning more about this in future, even if I have to learn to read Dutch to do it.

It’s a great museum. One sad thing: we visited on two separate weekdays, and both times had the museum largely to ourselves. Tourists, even Jewish tourists, seem to visit the Anne Frank House and the Portuguese Synagogue and then feel that they have “done” Jewish Amsterdam. For me, this museum and the Holocaust memorial at the Hollandishe Shouwburg were the highlights of my visit. I look forward to writing about the H.S. in a future post.

I could write for a very long time and not tell you everything about the Jewish Historical Museum. I recommend the website very highly for a “virtual tour” of the facility.

Texts for Father’s Day

Here in the U.S., today is Father’s Day. Some texts from the Bible:

Honor your father and your mother – Exodus 20:12

Hear, my son, the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the teaching of your mother; For they shall be a chaplet of grace upon your head, and chains about your neck. – Proverbs 1:8-9

He who fears Adonai has a secure fortress, and for his children it will be a refuge. – Proverbs 14:26

As a father has compassion on his children, so Adonai has compassion on those who fear him. – Psalm 103:13

And from the Talmud:

Our Rabbis taught: A father has the following obligations towards his son: to circumcise him, to redeem him, if he is a firstborn, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a craft or a trade. And there are some who say that he must also teach him how to swim.– Kiddushin 29a

Our Rabbis taught: What is reverence and what is honor? Reverence means that the child must neither stand nor sit in the parent’s place, may not contradict a parent’s words, nor do anything that harms a parent’s interests. Honor means that a child must give a parent food, drink, and clothing, and provide transport. – Kiddushin 31b

The folk saying goes: What the child says out in the street comes either from his father or his mother. – Sukkah 56b

Do you have a favorite text about fathering or parenthood?

Shabbat Shalom: A Visit to Kehilla

Today was an especially sweet Shabbat, exactly when I needed it.

My dear friend Rabbi Robin Podolsky is visiting town, and we joined up to attend services at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Oakland this morning. Their website proclaims:

Kehilla is a community of social progressives and spiritual seekers:a  participatory, musical, celebratory and democratic congregation of all ages, identities and family constellations.

I have experienced them as a Renewal community that is serious about both social action and spiritual growth, and it was a treat to daven with them this morning. We didn’t quite have a minyan (a lot of the regulars were away at an event) but the prayer was nevertheless sweet and the Torah study led by Rabbi David Cooper was inspiring. Our welcome from all attendees was warm and very personal.

It was a particular pleasure to learn with Rabbi Cooper, since he was one of my first teachers of Torah, back when he was the proprietor of Afikomen bookstore in Berkeley. I was exploring Judaism, not yet ready to talk to a rabbi. He was just a bookstore guy, as far as I knew, and he had a knack for picking out good reading for me. Those books are still in my library; many of them have been lent again and again to other explorers.

At the simple kiddush meal following the service we chatted about lots of things, then Rabbi Cooper gave us a tour of the newly-decorated sanctuary and we chatted for a bit about the Pope’s new encyclical Laudato Si. Then I returned Robin to the home where she is staying and I returned home to a nice Shabbat shluff [nap.]

So, nu, how was your Shabbos?

For Whites Only: After #Charleston

This post is for my readers who are white citizens of the United States. If you are not a US citizen, or if you are a person of color, this isn’t meant for you. Nothing to see, move along, move along; please refrain from commenting, also.

If you are Jewish and wondering if you are white or not, has anyone at synagogue mistaken you for a janitor or a babysitter? If not, for purposes of this conversation, you’re white. Welcome.

I will post again soon for everyone, I promise.

***

Ever since the Charleston murders this past Thursday night, I have heard a phrase repeated by several people: “This is not who we are.” I wish I could give you citations, but most of it was on the radio, and anyway, I think you will recognize it. We’ve heard it all so many times.

We want desperately to separate ourselves from a mass murderer. That’s relatively easy to do when he doesn’t look like us, but when he could be my son, my brother, my nephew it is harder. That blonde kid with the bad haircut entering the church in his gray sweatshirt is terrifying to us because he looks like us.

So we say, “This is not who we are.”

“This is not who we are.” We say this because of the horror of his deeds, because of his picture on Facebook with the racist flags on his coat, because of the hateful rhetoric he apparently espouses. We point out every detail that separates us from his ideology: our ancestors, who arrived after the war, our own birth dates, long after 1865, our membership in a group the white supremacists also hate. We assure ourselves that we do not say the N-word. We assure ourselves of our African American acquaintances and friends, maybe even of our votes for an African American president. We are not that man with the gun!

I feel it too: I feel the urge, when there’s a discussion about racist behavior, to point out that not all whites are bad, and that I was just a kid during the civil rights movement. I feel the need to point out that Jews were in the civil rights movement too, that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched at Selma, that white supremacists hate Jews, that … you know the routine. And it’s all true.

But there is a line in the Torah that bursts through all this defensiveness, all this, “Who me? That was not me!”  The line is from Leviticus 19, verse 16:

לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ

This phrase, pronounced, “Lo ta-a-MOD al dahm ray-EH-cha” means “Do not stand on the blood of your neighbor.” The “your” in it is singular: this commandment is the responsibility of each individual who hears it. We can’t delegate it. We are commanded to act.

This week, nine African American human beings were murdered in cold blood by a white man with a gun as they sat in a meeting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Those facts are not in dispute. What does seem to be in dispute is each of our responsibility in the face of this crime.

If I am not to stand upon the blood of those nine individuals, then my question must be: What have I done this week to end racism in America? 

  • Do I vote? (Why not?) If I vote, do I know the record of my candidates on issues of race?
  • Have I ever contributed to the campaign of a candidate of color?
  • When did I last donate to an organization that works actively against white supremacy hate groups? (ADL, SPLC, ?)
  • When did I last notice the hiring practices at my workplace? Do I have any co-workers of color? Where are they in the hierarchy at work?
  • When did I last let a friend or co-worker know that racially tinged humor was unacceptable to me? Did I tell them so in so many words?
  • When did I last challenge someone spouting racist language?
  • When did I last question my own behavior and views?
  • If I assure myself that I have friends of color, when did they last eat in my home?
  • When did I last use a phrase like, “I don’t see color”? Do I understand how not seeing it is also a problem?
  • If my child dated a person of color how would I react? Does the particular color matter? Have they dated anyone of color? Would they know how I’d react?

If I am not actively doing something about racism, then I am standing upon the blood of my neighbors. America has a 400 year old love affair with racism. It did not end with the Civil War or with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. It did not end when we elected an African American Miss America or a President with brown skin. There are some people who act as an excuse for the rest of us to do nothing, because their behavior is so much worse that we can pat ourselves on the back and say, “That’s not us.” But as long as we do nothing, we are standing upon the blood of our neighbors.

What have I personally done this week to fight racism? What will I do in the coming week?