Abuse Survivors: Surviving the News

Image: Person sitting on a bench. (Ryan McGuire from Pixabay )

Whenever there is a high profile case of sexual crime in the news, those of us subject to bad memories may have a rough time of it. Even if the news is good (justice is done) our reactions may pose a challenge, bringing up a round of anger, distraction, anxiety, or numbness.

I try to remind myself that I’m having a normal reaction to an abnormal set of experiences. In other words, my emotions are not some sort of failure on my part. They are the same emotions that kept me alive and that brought me to this day, and as such, I respect them. Any fault lies with the person or people who caused my injuries, not with me.

It’s up to me to cope with the situation in the present. Here are some strategies for dealing with a survivor’s responses to sex crimes in the news:

  1. Turn off the TV, the radio, and social media. We are not required to be 100% informed about every aspect of the news. There is no quiz coming. It is healthy to turn off the news when it is upsetting. Much of it is framed in a way to keep us tuned in (“After the commerical, we’ll interview so-and-so” ) but you already have the basic information, so turn it off.
  2. Make use of the comforts that work for you. Hug your pet. Curl up with a favorite blanket. Watch reruns of shows you find comforting. Exercise. Go outdoors. Walk the dog. Pray. Focus on work. Play empowering music. Do the things that have comforted or strengthened you in the past.
  3. Reach out. If you have a therapist, check in with them. Tell your spouse or partner what’s going on with you. Tell a good friend you are having a rough time.
  4. If you want advice, ask for it. If you don’t want advice, say so. The people who love us cannot read our minds. Speaking up about advice – either way! – is a way of taking control of our lives, and of being responsible for our emotions.
  5. Express your feelings. Write, make art, make music, dance, exercise, put those feelings out there in the world, instead of leaving them to fester inside. Don’t worry about grammar or making art for the ages, just express yourself. If a masterpiece accidentally results, wonderful, but right now just focus on getting what is inside OUT.
  6. Be wary of self-medication. Some things masquerade as “comforts” but don’t serve us very well. Be aware that alcohol is a depressant drug, and some cannabis can evoke paranoia. Many prescription drugs can be useful if used according to directions, but they are harmful if misused
  7. For spiritual resources, see Jewish Resources for Abuse Survivors. For many of us, the damage is spiritual as well as physical or emotional, so spiritual healing is part of the larger process of recovery.
  8. Finally, if you feel an urge to self-harm of any sort, REACH OUT. Call a therapist, or call the National Sex Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (800-656-4673) or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255.

There is a Jewish saying for times like these: Gam zeh ya’avor – “This too shall pass.” The news will change, the world will go on, the past will keep receding into the past, and with effort and support, healing can take place. Today is not forever.

A Pre-Shabbat Mitzvah?

Image: Box of food for the hungry. (135 Pixels / Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Pirkei Avot is a section of the Mishnah which is full of pithy advice. Pirkei Avot can be translated “Verses of the Fathers” but I prefer to think of it as “Advice from the Uncles.” (Alas, there are no women quoted in it!) Here’s one of my Top Ten from the book:

Ben Azzai said: Be quick in performing a minor commandment as in the case of a major one, and flee from transgression; For one commandment leads to another commandment, and transgression leads to another transgression; For the reward for performing a commandment is another commandment and the reward for committing a transgression is a transgression.

Pirkei Avot 4:2

This verse is the foundation for Living on the Mitzvah Plan, the plan for living I use when depression knocks on my door. It reminds me that our lives tend to spiral in whatever direction we choose to aim them: if you choose a good path, it will go up and up, but a bad path will lead to compounding disasters.

This time of year, there is lots of winter cold left, but the donations and goodwill of the December holiday season are past. Consider looking up your local Food Bank and sending them a buck or two; they will turn every small donation into an astonishing pile of healthy food for their clients. According to the Alameda County Community Food Bank, they turn every $1 donated into SEVEN DOLLARS worth of food!

Here in the Bay Area of California, housing is expensive and many people are going without food — or with less healthy food — in order to keep up with rent or house payments. You may have neighbors who are food insecure and hiding it. By supporting the local Food Bank, you help the working poor eat better, and you may help keep a neighbor from sliding into homelessness.

Linda and I support our local food bank, the Alameda County Community Food Bank. If you don’t know who helps the hungry in your area, check this link: Find Your Local Food Bank.

Friday is a great day to give a little tzedakah (money to relieve suffering or deprivation) since we are just about to enjoy Shabbat. Consider sending any amount to your local food bank, to spread the joy of Shabbat!

Books about Jewish History

Image: A stack of books, with flowers and an apple. (congerdesign /Pixabay)

“What’s a good book about Jewish history, Rabbi?” I get that question several times a year, and the answer is, there is no single definitive history but there are a lot of good books out there. Here are some books I recommend to my students:

Johnson, Paul. A History of the Jews. This is a comprehensive history of the Jewish People, written in a very accessible style. It’s probably the most exhaustive one-volume history currently in print.

Potok, Chaim. Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews. Potok is a master novelist, and this very readable history is a good introduction to Jewish history. It’s available as a used paperback.

Schama, Simon. The Story of the Jews, Vols. 1 “Finding the Words” and 2. “Belonging.” These volumes (with a third volume expected in the near future) are a cultural history of the Jews written by an art historian and scholar.  These are companion volumes to Schama’s PBS and BBC series. Schama tells this history differently than a rabbi would tell it — and I think that’s the strength of this series.

Scheindlin, Raymond. A Short History of the Jewish People: From Legendary Times to Modern Statehood. This history is brief and very readable, by a distinguished scholar who is also a Reform rabbi. Used copies are easily available online and sometimes in local used bookstores.

Mack, Stan. The Story of the Jews . This history is written in graphic novel format. Reviewers have pointed out a few historical inaccuracies in it (for example, the specifics of Hitler’s rise to power are incorrect.) On the plus side, it does a good job of describing a lot of the Jewish story and putting things into a chronological framework. This one is a very easy read, but it still has lots of good information.

Not a history per se, but a great resource:

Barnavi, Eli. A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People from the Time of thePatriarchs to the Present. This is an excellent historical resource, especially if you are drawn to pictures, time lines and graphics.

Is there a book you recommend that isn’t on this list? I’d be delighted if you’d share it in the Comments.

Justice, Truth, and Peace

Image: Statue of Lady Justice. (Alexander Kirch/Shutterstock, all rights reserved)

Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel used to say: on three things does the world stand: On justice, on truth and on peace, as it is said: “execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates” (Zechariah 8:16).

Pirkei Avot 1:18

This quotation from Pirkei Avot stuck in my mind last night, as I watched the impeachment trial of the president on TV.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel was the president of the Sanhedrin during the First Revolt against Rome, and his life ended in martyrdom: he was beheaded by the Romans, along with the High Priest, Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha, just before they destroyed the Temple in 70 CE. For his entire life, Roman Judea had been in turmoil.

Shimon was the son of Rabban Gamliel, another president of the Sanhedrin, and his great-grandfather was Hillel the Elder. The family traced their lineage back to King David. They were as close to royalty as the rabbis ever got.

Here and now in the 21st century, things are looking grim. In the impeachment trial, over half the “jurors” (Senators) have signaled a disinterest in justice or truth by voting again and again for a trial without witnesses or evidence. The Senate Majority Leader has said explicitly that the Republicans in the Senate are coordinating their votes with the White House — that without witnesses or evidence, the matter is already decided. Serious charges are being brushed away as if they are a meaningless nuisance.

The world stands on “justice, truth, and peace.” One might also say that those three qualities are interdependent: it is impossible to have any two of the three without the third. If we want justice, then we need to know the truth of a situation. If we want the truth, then we must hear from witnesses and see the evidence. If we want peace, then we need a process for justice that sorts out what is true and that meets inequities with just solutions.

At this moment, the situation seems dark. The world feels like it is falling apart (nuclear threats from rogue nations, climate change and its terrors, growing inequities of income and resources, to name but a few.) Over half of our people have serious concerns about our leadership, specifically the President and the people who work for him.

What is the righteous person to do at such a time?

Whatever our political ties, we can remind our lawmakers that we are watching this process and taking notes. We can write, fax, or call them and say, “We are watching.” We can demand that they seek the facts. If the facts are in the president’s favor, then he need fear nothing. If the facts are not in his favor, then the Senate will have to take action.

We can, each of us, individually choose justice, truth, and peace:

  • We can conduct our disagreements in just and fair ways, arguing the issues, not the personalities.
  • We can seek truth, not the “post-truth” that privileges emotion and personal belief.
  • We can be relentless in seeking honesty in ourselves.
  • We can ask, “Where is the evidence?”
  • We can refrain from name-calling and mockery.
  • We can seek to connect with the person on the other side of the argument.
  • When it gets to be too much, we can withdraw and recharge rather than burn down the house.
  • We can be humble about the things we do not know, and honor the learning and expertise of others.
  • We can choose hope over despair. I may feel like all is lost, but I must behave as if there is still some hope for improvement.

Talking Amongst Ourselves: Voices of Torah

Image: Voices of Torah, Volumes 1 and 2.

Every quarter, I write one or two divrei Torah (words of Torah, short reflections on a bit of Torah) for the newsletter of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR.) Many other rabbis write similar short articles, bringing their learning and insight to the other portions. Rabbi Amy Scheinerman edits each piece, making it much better, and then it appears in a little rabbis-only newsletter. And for years, that was that.

Now the CCAR Press has collected these words of Torah into Voices of Torah, Volume 1 and Volume 2. They are arranged by Torah portion, from Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8) through V’Zot Habrachah (Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12,) with a few additional pieces for holidays (High Holy Days, Purim, Passover, et al.) I’m honored that several of my little pieces were included in Volume 2.

Each short d’var Torah (word limit 250 words! practically Haiku!) is written about a specific Torah portion. Each was written by a rabbi for their colleagues: for rabbis, by rabbis. Some of them are little gems. The editors have polished them up for a lay audience, de-obfuscating the jargon and translating the rabbi-speak into Standard English. It is now a nice resource for someone seeking insight into a particular Torah portion, or someone who needs to give the d’var Torah for a meeting.

The books are for sale directly from CCAR Press or from other online bookshops, including Amazon and Powell’s.

Tu B'Shevat Approaches!

Image: A snowy landscape with bare-branched trees. (Ina Hoekstra / Pixabay)

Tu B’Shevat this year (2020/5780) will begin at sundown on February 9, and end at sundown on February 10.

Because our history goes so far back, many Jewish holidays evolve over time, but this one has changed a lot since its inception, when it was the beginning of a fiscal year for fruit farmers. To learn more about the holiday, check out Tu B’Shevat for Beginners.

It is sometimes called The New Year of the Trees, one of four days that mark a new year for the Jewish people. For more about the other new years, see Four New Years Every Year?!

In this era of worries about climate change, some of us are cultivating a new respect for the trees. Have you ever planted a tree? Saved a tree? Been saved by a tree? Please share your stories in the comments!

Please Don't Tell Jews How to be Jewish

Image: Annoyed woman with steam coming out of her ears. (Pixabay)

Lately I’ve noticed an uptick of comments and questions from gentiles that come in the general format:

“Why aren’t you Jews conforming to my ideas of how to be Jewish? Doesn’t that make you a bad Jew?”

Usually they are folks who seem to have read the King James Version of the Bible, and nothing else, and they are bothered that the real live Jews around them aren’t acting like Biblical Jews. Alternatively, they’ve picked up some of the antisemitic tropes about Jews, and they want to know why we don’t act in accordance with those tropes. Or — a third, friendlier possibility — they’ve seen Fiddler on the Roof or Yentl and want to generalize from those Hollywood musicals.

Biblical Judaism is not Rabbinic Judaism. Since the Romans destroyed our Temple in the year 70, Judaism has gone through some massive changes. We don’t sacrifice animals (no Temple!) and the Kohanim, or priests, do not make their living running the sacrificial cult any more. Our clergy are rabbis, who are primarily teachers, and cantors, who are experts on worship. If you want to know more than that, I recommend a good book or a Basic Judaism class.

Antisemitism is a bunch of bad information with a hateful agenda. A lot of it is lies, a lot of it is misinformation or twisted information, and it’s hateful. Again, if you want to learn about us, read a good book or take a class. If you want to learn a little about antisemitism, here’s an article.

Fiddler and Yentl are fantasy. So is most of what Hollywood releases on every subject, for that matter! Watching The King and I is entertaining, but it is not a good way to learn the history of Thailand. It gives you a fantasy about a snapshot in time – a particular monarch and his court in the 1860’s, through the lens of 1956 Hollywood. Most movies that include Jewish information – and there are a lot of them! – have some accurate info and some that is sadly inaccurate. If that interests you, check out my website Rabbi At the Movies, where I try to sort the real from the fantasy and the accurate from inaccurate.

Jews in the 21st century are a wildly assorted lot. Some are religious, some not. Some are traditionally observant, some not. Some are educated, some aren’t. Some are Zionists, some aren’t. Some are capitalists, some aren’t. Some are good with money, and some aren’t. Some are smart, some aren’t.

I love a good question, and I love to teach. Bring me genuine curiosity, and I’ll sit and chat all day. But: lecture me on how to be a Jew, when you clearly know nothing about it, and I will get pretty cranky, pretty fast.

Shavua tov, y’all. Have a good week.