Taking the Queer Road

Two memoirs are out just recently from people I admire: Jeanne Córdova’s When We were Outlaws and Kate Bornstein’s A Queer and Pleasant Danger. I’ve had a chance to read Córdova’s book, but my e-copy of Bornstein’s book is still on its way through cyberspace to me. Both are stories about dangerous journeys, and it occurred to me that they are totally appropriate reading for Omer-time, since we are in that period of travel from Passover to Shavuot, from freedom to Torah. Just as Am Yisrael had to deal with Amalekites and their own demons, these two women have been through their own wildernesses, external and internal.

When We were Outlaws is about a short period in the 1970’s when lesbians began to see themselves as Lesbian Nation, but the Establishment, especially J.Edgar Hoover, saw them as another bunch of Commies, enemies of the state.    (I say “them” because I didn’t come out until ’87.) Those were scary, heady times, when the radical Left in America was feeling its oats about the exit from Vietnam, but painfully aware of what had happened to the Black Panthers.  Córdova was a leader in the lesbian community in Southern California during that time, and she talks about not only the external battles but the internal ones as well.  She was (and is) both a lover and a fighter, and breathtakingly honest about it, to boot.

A Queer and Pleasant Danger is about another sort of journey. I met Kate Bornstein after she had stopped being Al and had become Kate, but before I became a Jew named  Ruth.  She was the first person to explain gender in a way that made sense to me.  The binary division of the world into “us” and “them” had always seemed like a gross oversimplification of something much more interesting, but I never had words for it. Kate embodies it: she occupies her own township on the landscape of gender, and has spent much of the last twenty years as a kind and outrageous tour guide and den mother, writing and performing her art to communicate the truth of that landscape to the rest of us. I look forward to reading her memoir, as I have enjoyed her other books; I know I will learn something not only about her, but about myself, before I put it down.

I admire these two writers because they have followed the truth where it took them, and they have the guts to talk honestly about the sometimes messy adventures and mistakes along the way.  It’s one of the qualities I love about Jewish holy books, that they include some of the unholiest episodes imaginable, letting us know that all of life can become  holy.  It’s only when we are willing to really tell the truth that we can learn something worthwhile.  It’s only when we can embrace the mess of being human, that we can allow ourselves to be embraced by God.

Advertisements

7 Ways to Taste Shabbat

Shabbat meal
Shabbat meal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What if, for one day, we were slaves to nothing and no one?  How would our lives be different?

That is the premise of Shabbat:  the seventh day, the day of rest, the day when even God rested from the work of Creation.  The problem of Shabbat, often, is that many of us are intimidated by the idea of a full-on shomer Shabbat experience.  It’s just too much change, all at once, if you are starting at or near zero.  

Instead, I’m offering you seven options for letting a little Shabbat into your own life.  These are things that have worked for me and for my family.  They may need to be modified for you and your family.  You may only want to try ONE of them, or one of them may inspire you to your own path to Shabbat. That’s OK.

[For a more traditional set of information about Shabbat at home, there are excellent articles on My Jewish Learning.]

1.  SHABBAT DINNER.  What is dinner like at your house on an ordinary day?  What would make it better? The answer to that will differ from one household to another. What if there were candles on Friday night? What if there were agreement ahead of time that there would be no criticizing or  nagging? What if there were guests? What if no one had to cook, if it were all take-out?  What if you used the good dishes? If any of these things sound like “work” to you, don’t go there, at least at first.  Do something that makes you feel that you could say, “Tonight we are slaves to no one and nothing.”

2. TURN OFF THE CELL PHONE. Have you ever ignored someone right in front of you, perhaps someone you love, because something on the cell phone was Very Important Right Now?  Not everyone can turn off their cell phone.  Some are doctors on call, after all.  But if you can, consider turning off the cell phone and try some old-fasioned conversation.  Or just look and listen.  Rabbi Micah Streiffer wrote recently about Shabbat as a remedy for Information Overload.

3. REACH OUT TO FAMILY. Shabbat can be a great time to reach out to family who are distant, maybe even as a routine. Do you have a child at college? A sister or a parent in another city? A brother with a busy life on the other side of town?  If family is in town, but you never get together any more, maybe get together for a meal.

4. REACH OUT TO FRIENDS. When did you last hang out with your best friend?  What about inviting them (and their family?) for dinner and board games?  What about a Saturday afternoon bike ride, or hike in the park? If you have friends who celebrate Shabbat, ask them if you can join them for part of it, to get a taste of it.  It really is OK to ask, as long as your are willing to take “no” for an answer.

5. GET SOME SLEEP. According to the L.A. Times, 75 million Americans do not get enough sleep. A Shabbat afternoon nap will not make up for a week of 4 hour nights, but it can go a long way to bring some shalom, some wholeness, back into life.  Or instead of staying up to watch Leno or Ferguson or any of those late-night comics, turn in early on Friday night!

6. MOVE FOR JOY. Go to a park and play!  Ride your bike!  Play tag with your kids! Roughhouse with your dog! Get outdoors, find some nature, or unroll the yoga mat for a leisurely session of pure catlike pleasure.  Get back in touch with your body.  Get back in touch with your spouse’s body.  We are created beings, physical beings, and it is not good for us to live in our heads all the time.

7. GATHER WITH OTHER JEWS. Gather with other Jews for Shabbat, at synagogue or the Jewish Community Center.  If your town doesn’t have a synagogue or JCC, find out where the Jews gather.  If services don’t speak to you, try Torah Study – many  synagogues have a Torah Study group that meets on Shabbat, and it is often a group of friendly people who enjoy a bagel and a good discussion.  Jewish life and Jewish learning is always richer in company.

These are just seven little possibilities.  Follow your heart, follow the hearts in your household.  Every family keeps Shabbat in its own way; if you begin the journey, something wonderful awaits!

Still counting!

Cash register "National".
Cash register "National". (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s the 20th day of the Omer and I am still counting.  Back at the beginning, I asked Why Count the Omer and listed some reasons I gleaned from reading.  I hunted around on WordPress and other blogging sites, and found more wisdom about the Omer (also some great bloggers):

Don’t Forget to Count the Omer with Homer   (link to a fun Omer counter)

Count of the Omer (lots of detail on the traditional / proper way to count)

Counting the Omer as a Form of Global Prayer (powerful reason to count!)

Counting the Omer, Dancing in the limbs of the Sefirot (a different way of counting, from a community and rabbi in the Rockies)

and then there’s also Rabbi Denise Eger’s blog Walking Justly. Seeking Justice. Living with Hope. in which she’s counting day by day using the traditional sefirot as a framework.

These are far from the only sources online with counting or thoughts on counting, but they offer a taste of the variety available.  Jewish learning really IS bigger than the sea.

But back to counting: I’ve been meditating on the word “Count.”  In Hebrew, “to count” is לספור, “lispor,” and the root is ס.פ.ר, samech, pey, resh.  Hebrew roots connect entire families of words, in this case:

  • sippur, story
  • l’saper, to tell
  • sefer, book
  • sifriyah, library
  • sofer, scribe
  • mispar, number
  • sefirot, emanations (the ten attributes or emanations of God, according to Kabbalah)

There’s plenty to think about there.  There are also the uses in English of “count”:

  • Counting the days.
  • Called to account. (That one doesn’t work in Hebrew, but it sure is evocative in English.)
  • Making the day count.
  • Can people count on me?
  • Does his opinion count?
  • Count up your points!
  • Let me recount the tale…

So….

  • What am I counting this month, besides the days to the barley harvest?  (I’m not sure I’ve ever even seen it growing.)
  • Am I making these days count?
  • What am I writing in the scroll of my life during these days between freedom and covenant?
  • If I was written in the Book of Life last High Holy Days, what am I doing about it now?
  • What am I doing to make the days count?
  • Whom I am not taking into account?
  • Can people count on me?
  • Upon whom or what can I count?

All excellent questions!  What does “count” or “ס.פ.ר” bring up for you?

#BlogExodus: The Jewish Future

Passover Seder 013

I will see the Jewish future tonight,

around a seder table:

children, young people, and adults

with mikveh water still behind the ears,

telling the story to the fogies, the regulars.

They will be shy at first

because there are Professionals at the table

but if we play it right

they will seize the story from our hands.

They will cast it, laughing,

beyond our reach, and we will pretend

that we don’t know what Judaism is coming to.

Secretly we will gloat

because the stories will not stop here.

—–

This post is part of the Blogging the Exodus project.   A group of rabbis are blogging from the 1st of Nisan to the beginning of Passover on Passover topics.  My sincere thanks to Rabbi Phyllis Sommer,  the imabima,  for instigating and publicizing this effort.  If you want to discover some great rabbinic blogs, or some interesting things to ponder as you clean up the chometz, you can locate these blogs via the Twitter hashtag #BlogExodus
.

Do You Ask Enough Questions?

“This is probably a stupid question…”

That line prefaces a good half of the question asked in my Intro classes. Students say it and pause, looking at me for the go-ahead, and then after I nod reassurance, they ask.  It often precedes a really good question, either something basic that should be answered in the class, or my favorite kind of question, something that opens up a good discussion.

I think I understand it. Nobody wants to look stupid, but if you’re the first to say it, it lowers the risk. It also generally gets reassurance from a teacher, and most of us like to be reassured and told that something we’re doing in class is good. And granted, Judaism is intimidating to people who perceive themselves as outsiders or ignorant.

One way I reassure students is to tell them that Jews ask questions. It’s what we do, whether we are the most sophisticated Talmudist or the most rebellious fourteen year old.  We celebrate questions, and put them at the center of the Passover seder, one of the holiest events in our year. The writers of the Haggadah were so concerned that we ask questions that they put four (or is it really one?) of them into the text, to model the behavior of questioning.

One good question to ask ourselves is, am I asking enough questions?

HOW ARE YOU?  is a question we ask, and generally it is assumed to be the social equivalent of white noise. But how often do we ask it again, with real concern?

WHAT CAN I DO?  is a good question to ask myself when I see something wrong happening before my eyes. Am I accepting something I should not accept?  One of the big problems connected with bullying is that too few people question hurtful behavior. We can ask that question to another person, too:  what kind of help do you want from me?

WHY ARE YOU TELLING ME THIS?  is a fine question to ask when someone brings you information you do not need (e.g. gossip).  Listening to information about others that we do not need to know is lashon harah [evil speech] just as much as being the informant.

WHAT ASSUMPTIONS AM I MAKING?  Am I asking myself questions about the assumptions I make?  Why do I assume that one person walking towards me on the sidewalk is more of a threat than the other people?  Is an article of clothing or a tattoo or a way of dressing a reason to be suspicious in this situation?

There are also the grand three questions for editing out improper speech:  IS IT TRUE?  IS IT KIND? IS IT NECESSARY?

And then there is the grand old question of activists everywhere:  DOES IT HAVE TO BE THIS WAY?

What questions would you like people to ask more often?  What questions do you not ask often enough?

Is there any new question you plan to ask at your Seder this year?

 

 

#BlogExodus: In the Midst of Chaos

NO CHAOS
NO CHAOS (Photo credit: alles-schlumpf)

Plagues.

I’ve heard many interesting drashot on the plagues, but to me the unifying factor of all plagues is that they are chaotic.  In the Creation narrative, the world is tohu vavohu, “formless and void,” some translations say, but fundamentally, chaos.  God hovers over it all, and speaks, and by speaking, separates dark from light, one thing from another, until the world is organized and peaceful.

Now, in Exodus 8 and 9, here come the plagues:  water turns to blood, frogs swarm out of the Nile, then die and stink.  The dust that is everywhere turns to lice, tormenting man and beast, followed by flies, which bite and swarm and carry filth everywhere.  Then disease:  first the cattle begin to die of anthrax and hoof-and-mouth disease, and their meat and milk are no longer good, then human beings are struck with boils that erupt everywhere on their skin.  The sky goes crazy, raining hailstones that cut the crops to shreds, and locusts gobble up everything that’s left.  Then the sun and moon fail, and the chaos seems complete:  all is dark, itchy, sticky, dis-eased, and there is nothing decent to eat or drink. And then the human promise of a future is erased:  firstborn children die.  Tohu vavohu:  Creation is unmade and all is chaos.

I read those passages in Exodus 8 and 9, and I think of all the suffering people and animals. Pharaoh and the Hebrew God have their confrontation, and I am angry at both of them.  They are like politicians talking about eggs and omelettes.  “You have to break a few eggs, etc.”  — NO.  I understand that I am supposed to root for God, and cheer, and I just can’t bring myself to do it.

In a bad year, on a bad news day, we can feel the chaos all around.  Two days ago a crazy man shot and killed seven people at a little college in the city of Oakland.  I’ve been involved in a conversation on my local Patch.com site (San Leandro) about the fact that little San Leandro seems to be in the midst of a plague of violent crime that has become so commonplace it doesn’t even make the news.  People are angry.  We feel helpless.  We feel like Egyptians.

What are we to do?  I keep thinking of the line from the Mishnah:  In a place where there are no human beings, be a human being.  (Pirkei Avot 2:6)  In the midst of the mess, whoever made it, we have only our humanity, our ability to connect to other suffering beings.

So let’s reach out.  Let’s talk.  Let’s touch.  Let’s quit fantasizing about how great the world would be without plagues and instead, reach across the mess to one another.  I don’t know how else we can navigate, in a time of plague.  We have the example of God in Creation:  the power of words.

Somewhere in there, we seek holiness.

—–

This post is part of the Blogging the Exodus project.   A group of rabbis are blogging from the 1st of Nisan to the beginning of Passover on Passover topics.  If you want to discover some great rabbinic blogs, or some interesting things to ponder as you clean up the chometz, you can locate those blogs via the Twitter hashtag #BlogExodus.


The Miracle of Parsley

This is a curly leaved parsley plant (the comm...
Petroselinum hortense (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“That stuff has to go visit the devil nine times before it comes up,” grumbled Mrs. Smith.  She pointed to a row of plants in her herb garden, or rather, a row that had been marked as seeded.

“What is it?” I asked, thinking it must be something awful.  Henbane, hemlock, foxglove: one of those plants that can knock you dead, maybe.

“Parsley,” she said, “It’s too valuable not to plant, but it is a slow one.  I planted new this year, and it’s taking it’s own sweet time.”

I had that conversation thirty years ago, one summer when I was living in the Cumberland Mountains, a spur of the Appalachians. Mrs. Smith was a herbalist who had learned her art from her grandmother, back when there were no doctors in that part of the mountains.  She had strong opinions about many plants, but parsley‘s devil-connection made it instantly memorable.  (I’m pretty sure she meant it only as a sort of verbal garnish — pretty sure.)  Certainly I could never again see Petroselinum hortense without remembering Mrs. Smith and her garden.

It’s true that parsley is slow to germinate.  It is slow, and sometimes doesn’t come up at all.  However, once you plant it, it’s difficult to get rid of it, because it has a long tough tap root that goes deep into the soil.  While it is officially a biennial, in the mild climate where I live, once you have it, you have it.  If you don’t want it, tough.  It will just keep coming back, so you might as well pick some and eat it.

Besides being pretty and green, it’s highly nutritious:  high in vitamin K, vitamin C and flavonoids.  It’s also a source of iron, vitamin A, and folate.  Long before the Greeks began using it as a food, they used it for medicine.  It lowers blood pressure and has a chemical in it called apigenin, which inhibits the growth of tumors.   Eventually, though, someone discovered that it was pretty tasty, too, and the result is a panoply of Mediterranean dishes, including my favorite, tabouleh.

Which brings us back to the dinner table, and the seder plate.  I know that we include parsley as karpas, greens, but it is so much more than just green!  Its roots are deep.  It takes nutrients from the soil, and builds life-giving, life-preserving compounds.  Give it a warm patch of dirt and some water, and it will feed you generously.  Some varieties are quite bitter to the taste, and some are mild.  Dry it out, and it will still flavor food.

It is a stubborn little plant, not unlike a certain stiff-necked people.  This Friday night, when I sit at the seder table, and dip my bit of parsley into the bowl of tears, I will remember Mrs. Smith and her aggravation with the blessing that is parsley.