The Stealth Rabbi Strikes Again

Image: Nine Jews demonstrating against Trump’s racism. Three people in this photo are rabbis – can you tell which ones? Photo courtesy of Bend the Arc, a great social justice organization.

If you say “rabbi” to most people, the image that comes up is a bearded man. I don’t look like that rabbi.

Actually, I look like my grandmother: Irish-American, round, soft, motherly, maybe grandmotherly. My haircut (a buzz cut) disrupts the effect a bit, but it doesn’t make me look more like that mental image of a rabbi. I usually wear a hat, which might be a kippah (looks like a rabbi) or an A’s baseball cap (not so much.)

As a result, I often surprise people; I’m a stealth rabbi. “What do you do?” someone will say to me, as Americans do, and I will reply, “I’m a rabbi.” If they identify as Jewish, this may produce a panicked response:

“Oh! I’m Jewish. Well, I’m a bagels and cream cheese Jew, you know, not religious. Seinfeld. …” And then they will tell me why they haven’t been to synagogue, or what’s wrong with synagogue, or who drove them from synagogue… I listen. Usually it’s a long speech.

 

 

They think I’m going to pass judgment upon them, and I’m not. Depending on the story, I’m sad that Jewish community didn’t work out for them, or appalled at what drove them away. Mostly, I’m sad that they have no idea what Judaism is for; their Jewish identity is a ball and chain they drag along through life.

What I’d like to say to them, if we had longer for a real conversation, is this:

I’m not here to judge you. As a rabbi, it’s true, I sometimes function as a judge, but only in very limited situations. Mostly I’m a teacher, because learning is at the heart of Jewish life. So relax: I’m harmless!

Would you like to take that ball and chain, and turn it into something a little easier to carry around? Maybe into a walking stick, something to support you when you are tired and afraid? Or maybe into a beautiful box of treasures, an inheritance of marvels?

All you need to do is open your mind and heart to learn. You pick the topic: what’s bugging you about life? There’s are several Jewish approaches to it, I promise you. Or, if you are really adventurous, what about Judaism bothers you? Let’s look critically at the tradition, and find new bits of it. Let’s debate! Let’s play with it, have a good time!

There’s the wide world of social justice work that Jews have been doing forever. There are great organizations just waiting for you. Whatever is your passion, you can pursue it as a Jew, with other Jews, amplified far beyond your social media or letter to the editor. You can tap into the riches of the tradition to support you in that work, too.

If food really is at the heart of Jewish identity for you, let’s look at that. There’s more than bagels out there for you to enjoy. There’s the myriad of Ashkenazi and Sephardic cuisines, and Middle Eastern food. There are chef/scholars like Michael Twitty, who explores the places where African and Southern and Jewish foods intersect. There’s Tami Weiser, who will give you beautiful recipes and invite you to think about them.

My role as a rabbi is to be a resource. I have spent years cramming my head and heart full of Torah, and learning the sources so that I can make them available to you. Some rabbis, congregational rabbis, create and maintain environments where Jews can be Jews – where you can be Jewish. Not all those environments are like the synagogue you remember. Some rabbis are chaplains, committed to hanging in there with people who are suffering. I’m a teaching rabbi: I am here to help you learn.

And yes, we’ll have bagels.

Throwing Myself Into the Arms of Shabbat

Early this morning, after staying up to hear the news about the UK voting to leave the European Union, I posted this message to friends on Facebook:

This (Brexit, Trump) is what comes of the obsession with deficits post-2008 and the growing disparity in incomes. The 90% feel enraged and abandoned, looking for someone to blame, voting their fears.

I don’t know when I have felt so pessimistic. Time for Shabbat.

Then I did a bit of housework, always good therapy. I saw messages from friends, including an exhortation to “Look for the good, it’s still there” from a friend who sees much more of the trouble in the world close up than I do, a nurse who spent much of the last week watching over the victims of Orlando.  These good angels made me rethink my bad mood.

This is not the time to succumb to the blues. There is important work to do in this world. There are things that CAN be made right. We can fix our broken institutions here in the U.S. It isn’t too late to have a functioning Supreme Court, a Congress where they actually vote on bills that matter, and an economic system that brings a decent life to everyone, not just to the wealthy. 

I am tired right now. That SCOTUS non-result that has hurt immigrants hurt my heart. Brexit hurts people for whom I care very much. The reaction of those well-meaning people at the local Republican HQ – “Trump isn’t ours, please go away” – chilled me. Orlando shocked me to my bones.

And yet:

Last weekend I saw my youngest married to a good woman. I saw a new generation of my family begin. I saw that my sons are grown and they are good men. So I refuse to give up hope in the world.

Last weekend I was reminded what a precious and wonderful “family of choice” I have. The people who have chosen to love me and my children are a tribe of our own, built from what seemed, 30 years ago, to be the wreckage of my life. I have children of my body and adopted children, a brother I adore and adopted siblings who would walk through fire for me, ex-in-laws who have been dear to me ever since I met them in the fall of 1973. I have my beloved and beshert, Linda, and to our mutual amazement, we are legally married! So I refuse to give up on the world.

Last week I saw an outpouring of support for the gay men and other Q people and allies murdered in Orlando. There were a few haters. There were people who used it as another opportunity to demonize Muslims. But the vast majority of people saw those gay men as human beings, and saw the shooter as what he was: a hate filled individual who used Daesh/ISIS as his excuse. Even ten years ago, the reaction would have been quite different. So I refuse to give up hope in the world.

Last Monday night I was the guest of Muslim neighbors at their iftar. I saw the earnest seeking after true spiritual growth. I felt the welcome of generous spirits, and I listened to fears and worries that were very much like my own. I am convinced that the Holy One at the center of our attention is the same One. Their love for our country is the same as mine. I refuse to give up hope in the world.

I’m going to keep Shabbat, and let Shabbat keep me this week. Shabbat shalom, my friends. We will still do good in this world, whatever happens.

You cannot tell from appearances how things will go. Sometimes imagination makes things out far worse than they are; yet without imagination not much can be done. Those people who are imaginative see many more dangers than perhaps exist; certainly many more than will happen; but then they must also pray to be given that extra courage to carry this far-reaching imagination. But for everyone, surely, what we have gone through in this period—I am addressing myself to the School—surely from this period of ten months this is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never-in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. –Winston Churchill, October 29, 1941

Some Queer Thoughts after Orlando

Image: Rainbow flag, tattered, from Pixabay.com.

I wrote a post about the Orlando massacre (Stop the Hateful Cycle.)But I have to say that when I first heard the news about the shooting I wasn’t thinking about Torah. I heard the news as a person who’s been out as a lesbian since 1987, and it kicked me in my LBGTQ kishkes [Yiddish for “gut.”]

I heard the the news just as I went to bed. I deliberately switched off the radio and went to bed because I could not bear to hear about another shooting in a gay club. I knew that if I listened for even one moment I’d be up all night at the television, identifying with the people in the club and the people who love them. It was Shavuot; I had no business at the TV. It was Shavuot, and anyway I could not bear it.

I came out as a lesbian after I had children, so I was never much of a partier at clubs. But I knew the power of those places in the gay rights movement, how none of us were taken seriously until a riot at the Stonewall club in NYC, how many of the lesbian leaders in San Francisco met at Maud’s back in the day. I knew that the clubs had bulletin boards long before the Internet. They had a long history as places where lesbians, gay men, and everyone under the umbrella of “queer” could come to organize or just try to figure things out.

Bars and clubs have always been a hunting ground for the people who hate us. Watch the film Before Stonewall for more about that, or read Let the Faggots Burn: The Upstairs Lounge Fire by Johnny Townsend. My reaction last night came from a sick feeling that I’d seen this movie so many times, so many times that it would break my heart to hear it again. Usually the victims were “just” one or two individuals leaving a club, murdered by some coward in the bushes who’d decided he go get some of us because he thought the Bible said we deserved to die. Usually those murders didn’t make the broadcast news, and I heard about them much later from the LGBTQ press.

I could not bear to hear about one once again, and I couldn’t do anything about it anyway, so I went to bed.

The first good thing I heard the next day was in President Obama’s speech from the White House:

“This is an especially heartbreaking day for all our friends — our fellow Americans — who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The shooter targeted a nightclub where people came together to be with friends, to dance and to sing, and to live. The place where they were attacked is more than a nightclub — it is a place of solidarity and empowerment where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds, and to advocate for their civil rights.” – From President Obama’s speech, 6/12/16

I love that the President gets it that a “gay nightclub” is not just a place to drink and dance. I love that he or someone in his Administration knows our community and its history that well, and that he’s willing to talk about it on a day when the news media seems obsessed with ISIS.

Most of all, I love that with his speech the President reminded me that this is not the same old horrible movie once again. The FBI is investigating. The news organizations are reporting. No one is publicly crowing that the victims deserved it. (Well, nobody except Daesh/ISIS, who are busy trying to take credit, they who are in the business of hate.)

My rabbi and mentor once told me that the real test of whether to worry about local acts of antisemitism was to watch for the response from local law enforcement: did they show up? Did they take it seriously? Did any local politicians dogwhistle about the Jews bringing it on themselves? He said that if the cops responded, if they took it seriously, if the politicians talked solidarity and walked their talk, then it was upsetting but not to panic.

Now there has been an awful event – a mass murder at a gay nightclub – and I see the responders. CNN and all the news services are covering it. I see local law enforcement showing up promptly and taking risks to save gay lives. The FBI is on it. Political leaders (yes, even Senator Ted Cruz!) are taking it seriously. The President gives a speech in which he clearly cares, clearly understands the context that makes this especially horrifying and triggering to the victims’ community.

We have come a long way. We have a long road ahead.

This week, we mourn our dead.

Stop the Hateful Cycle

Image: Sign with “Violence” and “Hate Speech” with “No” symbols over them. Photo by John S. Quartermansome rights reserved. Cropped for use here. 

I’ve been listening to the news organizations do their endless “special report” drill on the massacre in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando Florida. I finally turned off the television.

The so-called news had devolved into a cycle of speculation: hate crime? terrorism? domestic? ISIS? wash-rinse-repeat…

Let’s get something straight (pun intended): Hate leads to Terror. The magnitude of this particular act of violence is unprecedented, but there is ample precedent for the hate that inspired it. Someone failed to teach the murderer that violence against anyone is unacceptable. Maybe his parents tried to teach him, but over the years acquaintances listened to his verbal violence against LGBTQ folks and said nothing. Someone heard homophobic words and said nothing. Others encouraged him, all those voices that said “someone ought to do something” or that said that “killing LGBTQ people is God’s will” bear responsibility. That includes ISIS, along with voices closer to home.

I believe in free speech and I also believe in the absolute necessity of challenging hateful speech, whether it is justified with a quote from the Bible, from the Quran, or from someone’s sainted grandma. It doesn’t matter how it is justified: it’s still hate. 

 לֹא-תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ, לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ

Do not go slandering among your people. Do not stand upon the blood of your neighbor. – Leviticus 19:16

This verse has two parts. (1) Don’t slander. (2) Don’t stand on the blood of your neighbor.

These two commandments are side by side because they are related. Hateful speech leads to violence, and when we listen to hateful speech and do not challenge it, we stand in the blood of another human being. We do not remain clean.

(By the way, if anyone is thinking about arguing that “slander isn’t slander if it’s true,” please stop right there. Rechilut, the Hebrew word in question, may also be translated “gossip.” It may be either true or false.)

When we listen passively to anyone (elderly uncles included) talk about what “ought to happen” to a group of people, we stand in the blood of those human beings. This is equally true whether the targeted group is a group we like or a group we don’t like at all.

Let’s resolve to speak up every time we hear hate speech against:

  • LGBTQ people
  • People of color
  • Jews
  • Muslims
  • Christians
  • Palestinians
  • Atheists
  • Mormons
  • Persons with disabilities
  • Fat people
  • Thin people
  • Mentally ill people

… and anyone else.

To do less is to stand in the blood of another.

Addendum: I write this as much for myself as for any reader. I, too, have let hate speech pass when I have written off the speaker as beyond learning. I was wrong to do that. I teach not only with my words but with my silence. Whenever I let hateful speech pass unchallenged, I teach the speaker that I think it is OK. I was wrong to do that.

 

 

 

Vote!

Do you live in California, North Dakota, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, or South Dakota?

Have you voted today?

Well, why the heck NOT?

Voting is our opportunity to voice our opinions, not only about candidates for president but for all the downticket issues and potential leaders.

Those state reps, local judges and yes, small town mayors make a big difference in our everyday lives. Bodies like the School Board are where the big politicians get their start.

Some will say, “It doesn’t make a difference” but I assure you, when people vote, it does make a difference. The best evidence I can offer for that is the energy that certain parties and politicians have put into keeping certain groups from voting.

So VOTE!

 

 

Men, Women, and the Toilet

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Image: A sign designating a women’s restroom. Public domain.

I was once followed into a bathroom by a man, back in the 1990’s.

It was a ladies’ room in a shopping mall, a small room tucked away between the parking structure and the shops. I heard the door open behind me and I glanced back. A man was coming in, looking straight at me, and the look on his face made my blood curdle. I ran right at him and ducked beneath his arm on my way out of the door. I began screeching, hoping that someone, anyone would hear.

I screamed all the way into the mall. He did not follow. I heard him laugh.

I had forgotten all about it until the recent spate of laws aimed at keeping transgender folks out of bathrooms. Like many women, I have a list of scary memories I try to avoid. If I dwelled on them I would never leave the house again.

I tell this story to point out the great flaw in the bathroom worries: men who are up to no good don’t need to say they are transgender to go into the ladies’ room. They just walk in. They always have.

As for the discomfort issue (I suspect, the real issue) there are many women with whom I’m uncomfortable in the bathroom. The ones who pee all over the seat and leave it that way; the ones who hog the sink while they get their makeup just so; the ones who sit in the single handicap stall and play games on their phone while I sit on my scooter outside, hoping I won’t have “an accident.” Oh, yes, and there are the ones who wear perfume as if it were a chemical weapon!

I don’t like them. I don’t want to share with them. But I do because they need a place to pee, too.

Trans women are no danger to me. In the men’s room they are in deadly danger.

There are no cases, ever, anywhere, of a man  posing as a woman to get access to women in the toilet. That’s because they don’t need to do that: if they are up to no good, they waltz right in.

Blow Up Yer TV

Image: Foot about to step on a banana peel. Photo by Adriano Gadini. Public domain.

Oy, oy, OY!

I love teaching. And I’ve learned to love teaching online. But some days the tech just drives me bonkers. Today was one of those days.

I wound up scaring the dog with audio feedback howl, dumping a bunch of students in the bit bucket, having to split the recording in two, and losing my train of thought. I am never, ever, going to hit that particular button again!

When I have a very frustrating day with my computer (BAD computer! BAD, BAD, BAD computer!) there’s a song I like to sing. It might have something to do with the fact that I can never remember anything but the chorus, and the chorus begins “Blow up yer TV.”

After I sing the chorus a couple of times, I can’t resist listening to the maestro himself playing it, which always cheers me up.

Are you familiar with Spanish Pipedream, by John Prine?

(Yeah, yeah, I know that bit about Jesus sounds funny when a rabbi sings it, but this song heals my soul.)

What do you do to cheer yourself up from frustration overwhelm?