For the Questions We Have Failed to Ask, O God, Forgive Us

Image: Intersection of 4th Avenue and Main Street in Franklin, Tennessee today, not far from the place where Samuel Bierfield was murdered. (ichabod via wikimedia, some rights reserved.)

This is a story about teshuvah: mine.

I grew up in Williamson County, Tennessee, a rural county south of Nashville. Today it is filled with suburbs and shopping centers, but back then there were few paved roads and no city water. We were acutely aware of the Civil War, because the countryside was littered with minie balls and other detritus from the battles.  People make pilgrimages to visit the Carter House, which is still riddled with bullet holes.  For the most part, what I heard from adults about “the War” was the standard Lost Cause story. There was little discussion of the institution of slavery and absolutely none of Reconstruction or the years that followed.

This situation is changing for the better.  I see on the Battle of Franklin Trust website that they have recently added a “Slavery and the Enslaved” tour to recall Frank Carter and the other souls who worked the land and built the economy of the area.  At its peak, in the 1850’s, the Carter House farm made use of 28 enslaved human beings. My thanks for that information to Kristi Farrow, a genealogist with the Battle of Franklin Trust. I am glad there are many people now involved in the holy work of remembering what should not be forgotten.

Last week I saw a CNN piece about the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice soon to open in Montgomery, AL. The museum has exhibits about slavery, about Reconstruction, and about Jim Crow. There is a memorial to the “more than 4400 African American men, women, and children were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, and beaten to death by white mobs between 1877 and 1950.” (Quotation from the memorial website.) I realized, not for the first time, that although I was raised in a place that was absolutely obsessed with history, there was a lot of history I didn’t know about the place I grew up.  On a whim, I googled, “Williamson County Tennessee lynching.”

I got an education.

I learned that there had indeed been lynchings in my home county.  I, who had written a history for a church in Franklin, who could at one time tell you reams of detail about Franklin life in the 19th century, had no idea that there had been public hangings from the courthouse railings. I had no idea how active the KKK had been in Williamson County. I had no idea that there were many, many lynchings in the town and in the green hills of the countryside. It had never occurred to me to ask questions about any of this; I was as guilty as everyone else who has failed to ask and failed to remember. 

Farther down the Google offerings, I found another surprise: the first Jew ever lynched in the United States was a man named Samuel Bierfield, murdered in the summer of 1868 on Main Street in Franklin. The whole story, with all its complications, is beautifully laid out in The Untold Story of the First Jewish Lynching in America by Paul Berger in The Forward.

In 1868, the county was in the first stages of Reconstruction, and Bierfield was undeniably a “carpetbagger” (new resident from somewhere north, with an eye to opportunities in the postwar South) and a “foreigner.” He moved from Riga, Latvia to Toronto in the late 1850’s. In 1866 he moved south to Franklin, TN in hopes of making his way in the world. His letters back to family in Toronto reflect the ups and downs of his dry-goods store on Main Street in Franklin. On July 6, 1867 he wrote a letter to his parents about his losses due to a riot the week before, a battle between white and black citizens on Main Street.

1867 was a volatile time in Middle Tennessee. Blacks who had until recently been enslaved were now free and had high hopes for a better life. Most white men were Confederate veterans who had thereby forfeited their right to vote in the renewed Union. There was devastation all around and a great anger in many people.  Where, exactly, Samuel Bierfield fit into that mix is uncertain; perhaps it would be more true to say that he likely did not fit in at all. He had an unusual accent and he wasn’t a citizen, although he applied for citizenship in 1867. He is known to have waited on blacks in his store, which would be evidence enough for angry whites to decide that he was the enemy. We have no record that the lynching was about his Jewishness. Rather, it was more likely over his friendliness to the freed men and women in Franklin.

So why write all this on my “Basic Judaism” blog? I am writing to say that it is absolutely imperative that we all keep learning. I was so certain that I knew “all about” Franklin and it turns out that I knew only the parts of the story that I had been told.

God gave us brains. We can continue learning past age 13.  Whether the conversation is about race in America or the situation in Israel, we have to keep our ears open for the story we have not yet learned. If we only listen to the stories we like, we limit ourselves and do an injustice to others. Instead of framing things as “our” side of the story and “their” side of the story, it is time we recognized that we are in all the stories – together. When the two “sides” don’t match, maybe there is still more to learn.

So what’s my teshuvah plan? I’m going to keep learning for my own knowledge, but I won’t stop there. I’m gathering information about how best I can support education about the journey from slavery to freedom, so that the next generation will be less ignorant than I was.

For all the questions we have failed to ask, O God, forgive us! Let us go forward seeking both shalom (peace) and tzedek (justice.)


Traditions of Judaism: Online Class Starts Sunday, 4/8

Image: Ethiopian Israeli Jews celebrate the holiday of Sigd in 2008. (Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jews, some rights reserved.)

The Spring term of  Intro to the Jewish Experience class starts Sunday at 3:30pm Pacific Time.

This segment of the class is “Traditions of Judaism.” We will learn about many of the communities and traditions within Judaism today, and how they came to be distinct. We’ll look at Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi traditions, the Movements (Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Renewal, etc), American Judaism, Jews of Color, the Prayer Book [Siddur] and the service, and finish up with Jewish food customs.

Here is a list of topics, by week:

  1. Welcome & Shabbat
  2. Synagogue & Siddur
  3. What’s Going On in the Service?
  4. Sephardic Judaism: History & Culture
  5. Ashkenazi Judaism: History & Culture
  6. Mizrahi and Other Jewish Communities
  7. North American Judaism
  8. Judaism & Food Traditions / What’s Next for You?

The class is also available by via recordings if you are busy on Sunday afternoons. Lectures are only a part of the class; we use a Facebook group for discussions and all students are welcome to schedule online one-on-one sessions with Rabbi Adar.

To sign up for the online class, go to its page in the Lehrhaus Judaica catalog. If you are interested in the offline Wednesday night class in Oakland, CA, it has a different page in the Lehrhaus catalog. Those links will also give you more specific info on tuition, scheduling, and locations.

This class (either on- or off-line) is the Spring portion of a three part series that can be taken in any order. Every class also works as a stand-alone entity, for those who already have some knowledge of Judaism but want to enrich their learning on a particular area. (Fall: Lifecycle & Holidays, Winter: Israel & Texts, Spring: Traditions of Judaism.) The course is not a conversion class; it is open to anyone who is interested in learning more about the varieties of Jews in the world and their traditions.

I love teaching “Intro” – it’s my passion. If diversity of Jewish experience interests you, I hope you’ll join us!

Staying Sane in the Age of Trump

Image: The word “stress” written in red pencil.  (pedrofigueras/pixabay)

A publication called Student Loan Hero reported in January that 60% of Americans are feeling stressed over the Trump Administration. Their survey was limited to questions about people’s financial fears. Add to that all the people worried about the future of democracy, those fearful of nuclear war with North Korea, and all those worrying about the wild stories circulating in the news, and it’s a stressful, stressful time.

How can we possibly manage all this stress?

I am a firm believer in the wisdom of the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.  – Reinhold Niebuhr

There are many things that I cannot control right now. One way to lower my stress is to take each thing that worries me and ask: “Can I do anything about this?” If the answer is “no” then I will be happier if I set it aside for a while. (I find, when I’m in a worrying mood, that telling myself I’m setting things aside “for now” is one way to assure myself that if the situation changes, I can get back to worrying about it.)

So, the next thing: are there mitzvot I can do?

This is only a partial list – there are lots and lots of mitzvot that can fill my life with holiness and meaning, and make the world a better place in the process.

We learn from our blessings that God “sanctifies us with mitzvot” – that is, that doing mitzvot properly will make us better people. I like to think that each mitzvah I do helps build me up for the day when I am called on for a larger, more difficult mitzvah. Each mitzvah is a little soul-workout that makes me stronger.

When the moment comes that I will need “the courage to change the things I can,” I want to be ready. So in the meantime, I will do mitzvot!








A Jewish Halloween?

Image: Two jack o’lanterns grinning in the dark. (fotomek/pixabay)

There’s a big bag of candy in my refrigerator, so it must be the week of Halloween.

Before I was Jewish, Halloween was one of my favorite holidays. I loved wearing a costume, and I loved handing out candy at the door. After I became a Jew in my 40’s, it took me a while to sort out what I was going to do with Halloween.

My thoughts went like this:

I love Halloween! I am not going to give it up!

Halloween has its roots in both pagan practice and Catholic practice – it’s not for Jews.

— But I love Halloween!

Halloween is a holiday when we basically license people to do mischief – not very Jewish!

— But I love Halloween!

We have Purim for costumes, without the whole “trick or treat” protection racket.

— But I love Halloween!

… and so on.

I had no problem whatsoever letting go of Christmas, partly because it carried some bad memories, and partly because the religious aspect of it was quite real to me. Halloween was a lot harder to give up, because I had a lot of great Halloween memories, both as a child and as an adult, and its religious content was not as immediate to my experience.

However, I could not escape a simple fact: It isn’t a Jewish holiday, and there are things about it that are simply not right from a Jewish point of view.

After a lot of years of study and thought, I decided to celebrate Halloween as a time for hospitality. I don’t dress up. I don’t decorate. However, the kids who come to my door know that they can depend on me for some really high-quality candy – stuff that they like, or can trade to others for things they like more.  And I let my non-Jewish friends know that they are welcome to bring their children by for a safe treat. I admire their costumes, I hand out the goodies, and it’s a day of goodwill all around.

But come Purim – look out! You never know what crazy thing I’ll wear!

Who IS this guy?

Help the Jews of Charlottesville, VA

Image: Photo of Congregation Beth Israel, from their page.

Congregation Beth Israel of Charlottesville, VA stands one block from the park in which the alt-right/white supremacist rally began last weekend. The synagogue building is undamaged but faces a new set of problems. Because of its location near the now-notorious park, they face a completely new and unbudgeted security situation.

From the page of Congregation Beth Israel:

The synagogue, one of the oldest continually operating in the South, was not damaged during this past weekend’s events though CBI is only one block from the park in which the alt-right rally began. Services continued as usual on Friday evening and Saturday morning, with congregants coming together to worship and share.

CBI’s rabbinic leadership were active participants in the planning and completion of the local faith community’s response to the events. They are both safe and are helping the community process what happened, especially as it mourns the three lives lost so senselessly. One CBI member was injured by the terrorist who used his car as a weapon, but is recovering at a local medical center and is expected to do so fully.

Your generous desire to help financially is also sincerely appreciated. Your gift will be applied in part to defray increased security costs and in part to fund CBI’s social justice and social action functions. You may send your gift to CBI, P O Box 320, Charlottesville, VA  22902 or use this site for making your gift online.

I have contributed to the fund, and I invite my readers to join me. If you know of other Charlottesville institutions seeking assistance, I hope you will share them and the appropriate links in the comments.

Wilderness, Again

Image: Joshua Tree National Monument, an American wilderness. (nightowl/pixabay)

The book of Numbers is known in Hebrew as Bamidbar.

The word bamidbar means “in the wilderness.” It is in the first verse of the first chapter of Numbers:

And the Eternal spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying: – Numbers 1:1

Midbar is a key word in the Jewish view of the world. We spent 40 years in the wilderness of Sinai.

Notice that the verse specifies a particular wilderness, the wilderness of Sinai. It implies to us that there are other midbarim, other wildernesses, as well.

Midbar is a place with no security and few signposts. Midbar is a place where our imaginations can get the best of us. Midbar is a place where many wild animals live, but few human beings. Midbar both draws us and repels us.

The midbar in the photo above is not midbar Sinai, but the Joshua Tree National Park – you could call it midbar Joshua, I suppose. As you can see, it is a brutal landscape, full of rocks and spiny plants. And yet it is also a place of great fascination and a deep beauty. When I felt overwhelmed by my studies in rabbinical school, I would drive out to Joshua Tree and spend Shabbat sitting on a rock, soaking up the midbar.  If I sat quietly, I would see many of its denizens: birds, snakes, lizards, and bugs.

I remember joking to someone that it wasn’t all that different from Los Angeles: full of strange creatures, hot in the summer and dry nearly all the time, except when it rained, which was always a disaster.

As Jews know, sometimes the world is a midbar, a place of no guarantees. We may think that we’ve put our bit of it in order, but then a storm comes and – midbar! We may think our family safe and secure, then there’s an accident or illness and – midbar! We may assure ourselves of an outcome and then something else happens – midbar! We may reassure ourselves that racism, or anti-Semitism, or lawlessness is something somewhere else, and then – midbar!

We are living in midbar times right now, times when things we once took for granted seem no longer assured.  Perhaps it is time to recognize that those things are never assured, that we can never take them for granted.

What tools do we have? We have what we have always had: Torah and mitzvot.

Even when it seems that everything has changed, nothing really changes. We are still traversing the midbar, bearing the tablets in our arms.

Humor and Jewish Survival

Image: Mask with glasses, nose, and mustache. Photo by nito/shutterstock. Rights reserved.


Twice in the last week, someone near me has questioned the value of comedy as a tool for resistance in the current political situation. The first was my son, who argued that people are too busy laughing to take a constitutional crisis seriously. The second was a colleague, who questioned how much good the comics were really accomplishing.

This set me to thinking about Jewish humor and Jewish survival, two topics that I am convinced are closely linked.

According to William Novak and Moshe Waldoks in their introduction to The Big Book of Jewish Humor, Jewish humor tends to be mocking. As they write:

Jewish humor is usually substantive; it is about something. It is especially fond of certain specific topics, such as food (noshing is sacred), family, business, anti-Semitism, wealth and its absence, health, and survival. Jewish humor is also fascinated by the intricacies of the mind and by logic, and the short if elliptical path separating the rational from the absurd….

Jewish humor tends to be anti-authoritarian. It ridicules grandiosity and self-indulgence, exposes hypocrisy, and kicks pomposity in the pants. It is strongly democratic, stressing the dignity and worth of common folk. – Introduction, p xix

The Jewish Bible is full of humor. The late scholar J. William Whedbee examines six books of the Bible in The Bible and the Comic Vision. He argues that we cannot truly understand some stories in the text unless we appreciate the humor in each tale.

The king in the Book of Esther is a drunken fool. He staggers from one drinking party to another making a mess of things until he is rescued by the same Jews that his evil courtier, Haman, wishes to kill. Then, via the holiday of Purim, he became a convenient stand-in for every tyrant who followed him in persecuting the Jews.

Modern American Jewish humor has its roots in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, where much of life seemed hopeless and there was little way to fight back against the vast power of the Czar. Still it was possible to laugh at the man, despite his almost (almost!) godlike power, as these lines from Fiddler on the Roof remind us:

“Rabbi, may I ask you a question?”


“Is there a proper blessing… for the Czar?”

“A blessing for the Czar?  Of course!  May God bless and keep the Czar… far away from us!” – Fiddler on the Roof, book by Joseph Stein

Jews have been a stiff-necked people since the time of Moses, and one expression of those stiff necks is a propensity for making fun of the great and powerful. Whoever the oppressors, Pharaoh, the Czar, or one’s in-laws, one way to remember that they are not God is to laugh at them. As Mel Brooks says:

By using the medium of comedy, we can try to rob Hitler of his posthumous power and myths. – Interview in Der Spiegel, March 16, 2006

That is also why the great and the powerful hate humor directed at them: it cuts them down to size and undermines their power over us. Given the power arrayed against the Jewish people for much of our history, it’s a good thing we learned to laugh at tyrants.

Beyond tyrants, Jewish humor takes aim at tyranny: the tyranny of propriety, of hypocrisy, of all the unfairness in life. It can aim at money and political power:

Why is it that if you take advantage of a corporate tax break you’re a smart businessman, but if you take advantage of something so you don’t go hungry, you’re a moocher? – Jon Stewart

Or at our own vanities:

“I’ve had so much plastic surgery, when I die they will donate my body to Tupperware.” – Joan Rivers

Or even at death itself:

I intend to live forever, or die trying. – Groucho Marx

I don’t think that comedy can change the things that are wrong with the world. I have faith that it can focus our minds and insist that we pay attention:

The ‘what should be’ never did exist, but people keep trying to live up to it. There is no ‘what should be,’ there is only what is. – Lenny Bruce

Comedy at its best is courage: courage to face the things that are really, really hard, no matter how scary they may be.