20 November 2014

But They Did

A couple years ago, just before Mom died, the girls gave her a call.  They wanted to say good-bye before heading off to camp--with the painful awareness that we would lose her during the summer. This awareness of death, unavoidable but carefully managed, is part of what it means to be human and certainly what it means to be a parent.

The home I grew up in did death at a half-time rate.  Dad, the Jew, talked about it.  Mom, whose father's life was cut short by a murder in 1939, plowed under her grief, buried it out in the yard, as it were, and kept it very much to herself.  Like the plants she kept cultivated on the window sill of the kitchen and living room, there was a solitary, lonely and dark, unresolved, tragic beauty to her suffering that burst forth into bloom once a year when I'd catch her crying at the window, a distant gaze in her eyes out into the yard and beyond--to her own childhood, unredeemed.  A mysterious gift, this grief; like a present you don't ever really want to open, I carried it with me throughout my own life until Dad died of a heart attack in 1983, leaving me at the crossroads of a road less traveled.  I chose to talk about the loss (at times even to him) to express it fully, to go, however haltingly, toward death; and to discover what I wished Mom could have known--that staring it in the face has its own redemptive power.

Anyway, there were the girls, on the phone with their Nana, she in a bed in Milwaukee, at the precipice of the valley of the shadow of death; they, in the full bloom summer of their youth in Brooklyn, saying goodbye, with love.

"What did you have for lunch today, Nana?" one asked.

"Uch," she began.  "A bland turkey sandwich and some really shitty pea soup.  I don't know how you can screw up pea soup but they did."

Laughter.  Thus a memory is born.  And along with it a value laden lesson in facing death, in grieving together, in laughing at the absurdities of the time we're allotted in this world.

Last spring I buried a man who had stopped eating for the two weeks before he died but then, to celebrate the resolution of a family conflict over funeral and burial plans, was fed frozen chips of Pinot Grigio--his favorite five o'clock drink--raised his brow in one last mischievous gesture of agency before the Throne of Inevitability, and days later expired.

I shared these stories with a friend who called it "eating into death," a new way of thinking about the desire for dignity at such moments.  It made sense immediately.  I remembered the back and forth to Wisconsin during those two years of Mom's dying; the plane to the car to the apartment and then to the hospice.

"How you doing, Ma?" I'd ask.

"If I see one more bottle of Ensure I'm going to shoot someone," she'd say.  She'd add a big eye roll for effect.  And then I'd poach her some eggs, roast some potatoes and asparagus, dole out the medical marijuana to get the appetite started; and she'd eat and wax rhapsodic about pulling up wild asparagus at the roadsides of her youth.  Comfort food.

Someone recently told me about how, back in the 80s during the AIDS crisis, he was working in a hospice for homeless men with AIDS which lost its funding and was shut down.  In an act of uncommon and unheralded heroism and generosity, the six men were divided among six homes where each man went to die.

"If my guy didn't like what I'd cook for him, he'd really yell at me!" he said.  "And when I protested that I was doing the best I could, he'd say, 'This is the last bit of power I have in the world!'  It was powerful."

Totally.

Maybe it was yesterday's cold weather in the City; or the catastrophic snow in Buffalo; or the incessantly disturbing backdrop to our lives of the least fortunate, digging through the trash for food, quietly suffering in hunger in cold apartments on cold nights, losing taste and losing hope.  We barely notice them, almost gargoyle-like in the social architecture of our cityscape.  You have to really stop and look.  And take note.

That's the moment.  Terrifying because it's evocative of the death we all avoid but in the engagement, it's reifying, hopeful, even redeeming, if we choose to act.

In families the act of feeding can heal.  In communities it can shatter the frozen, glacial anonymity between those who have and those who lack and scatter the darkness of despair with light.


18 November 2014

If Only This Were Achievable

It's a story that doesn't need images.

It's images, after all, we Jews are meant to destroy if true love among neighbors is to reign.

  • Abraham as a youth breaking idols.
  • Moses as an enraged youth, slaying a slave-driver; and again as a liberator, grinding a golden calf to dust.  
  • One might argue that those Jews who suffered persecutions under Greeks, Romans, and Christians refused to succumb to, bow down to, the image of Man or Christ as God.  

And the early Zionists, fed up with the homelessness and powerlessness of Exile, destroyed the image of the Wandering Jew by forgoing the theological mandate to wait patiently for the Messiah and chose instead to kickstart a new Jewish narrative by redeeming the land themselves--even with their own blood.

But re-entry to the stage of history has not been without its complications.  Zionist historiography, for those dispassionate enough to assess it as honestly as they can, has not explained away the sins inherent in the execution of contemporary power--and laudably, faced it head-on.  Criticality, self-reflection, taking responsibility for the unfortunate and sometimes abhorrent results of conflict and violence is what ought to differentiate us a species between those who more often choose good than evil and as a Zionist--even one who at times disagrees with the policy or direction of any particular Israeli governmental majority--this ability to allow for open disagreement, opposition, and dissent.

I don't know why I need to say any of this anymore--this Apologia for the Jewish right to live in freedom wherever we are:  Belgium, London, Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, New York and again, today, horrifically, tragically, bloodily, in Jerusalem.

But here we go:  When Baruch Goldstein walked into a mosque in 1994 and killed 29 Palestinian Muslims worshipping God, Jewish and Israeli leaders condemned loudly and forcefully this abhorrent crime.  When Mohammed Abu Khdeir was kidnapped and murdered this summer in Jerusalem, Jewish and Israeli leaders condemned loudly and forcefully this abhorrent crime.  So why is it, yet again, so difficult for Palestinian allies to condemn openly and unequivocally, the massacre that took place today in Har Nof?  Why the constant moral equivalencies?  Why the disgusting celebrations that are not then condemned by moderate Palestinian leaders and their friends?

Why, despite our perceived power and control of banks and media (as the anti-Semites love to say) is Jewish blood still so cheap, even in a city we have rightfully claimed for more than three thousand years?

The hypocrisy is stunning--if ever so briefly--because frankly, we're used to it.

As one such typical leader among so many in the Jewish community, do I really need to temper my condemnation of the murder of praying Jews this morning with an equally forceful condemnation of Israeli settlement policy if, as the record will show for so many of us, we have been demanding a two-state solution, tolerance, and co-existence, for our whole careers?  

There is blood hatred in the land.  There are Palestinians who hate all Jews and there are Jews who hate all Palestinians.  This, to our great shame and ultimate challenge, may never end.  Our job, in what brief time we have allotted to us on Earth, is to condemn, resoundingly, when it occurs, the unjust, senseless and brutal murder of innocents whenever it occurs.  Full stop.

Just look at this statement by those who dare call themselves the "Jewish Voice for Peace:"
Jewish Voice for Peace is deeply alarmed at the crisis building in Jerusalem over the last several weeks as terrible violence mounts. We mourn all the lives that have been lost, both Palestinian and Israeli. Early this morning, four Jews at prayer were brutally murdered in a Jerusalem synagogue and on Sunday a Palestinian bus driver was likely lynched.
It's always one for the other.  Four brutal murders equal one likely lynching. It's never enough to simply say that murder is wrong.  Period.  Everything gets weighed against everything else.  Had there not been the lynching, there would not have been the murders.  Am I exaggerating?

You decide:
We call on the Israeli government and its supporters to cease further calls to incitement and collective punishment. The international community must bring pressure to bear on the root causes of ongoing violence. Israel’s continual system of occupation, dispossession, and discrimination against Palestinians by its very nature puts the lives and dignity of all people in Israel and Palestine in jeopardy. 
The Israeli government continues to escalate state violence against Palestinians, as well as enabling  increasingly aggressive actions of settlers. In Abu Dis, Issawiya, and Silwan, to name just three neighborhoods, mobility is severely restricted, and residents are subject to collective punishment as homes and schools are covered in skunk water, which makes them almost unbearable to enter.  Last week a mosque and holy Qur’ans were torched in the West Bank village of Al Mughayir by Jewish individuals. The Israeli government continues to declare its intention to build more settlements; the Third Temple Movement, backed by government ministers, continues its provocations at the Temple Mount; laws that mandate 20 year sentences for stone-throwing and to declare Israel a Jewish nation-state, and threats to withdraw the citizenship of Palestinian citizens who protest are being proposed at the highest levels. 
Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s declared intention to further entrench Israeli control over all of Israel/Palestine and pursue the collective punishment of Palestinians will bring neither peace nor quiet. Palestinians, whether inside Israel, in East Jerusalem, the West Bank or Gaza, face a future of continued inequality, discrimination, home demolitions, land expropriation, and military violence. A true and just peace for both peoples will only come when Israel is willing to commit to equality, freedom and justice for all people.  
The logic is clear:  Jew-hatred be damned.  It's all Israel's fault.

So goes the "Jewish Voice for Peace."  Cue the Orwellian laughter.

In the meantime, it won't be long before a kid breaks a tooth on candy being handed out to celebrate the murder of Jews and his dentist says, "Those Jews and their candy!"

It makes me sad to have lost friends on the Left these last few years; but their inability to simply see the hatred of Jews for what it is--even in the face of some Jews behaving badly or doing unjust things--is plain and simple inexcusable.  And a damn shame on them.

Our imageless Torah demanded long ago something I still have faith is true:  We are to love our neighbors as ourselves.  If only this were achievable in our increasingly intolerant world.







09 November 2014

Being Present As Neighbors Together

Guest Sermon
Old First Reformed Church
Delivered for their Consecration Sunday
November 9, 2014


My teacher Rabbi Stanley Dreyfus, of blessed memory, always demonstrated to his students the need to love words.  Study sessions with him were often opportunities to relish the construction of language and the varieties of evocations that words brought forth from we mere humans in our hopefully humble and sometimes, all too often hubristic seeking of the Divine.

Consecration.  Now there’s a word.  The shared experience of the sacred.  The “being present with another” for the experience of “the holy.”  Consecration.  

Its meaning is clear to us from the Scriptural readings you have chosen for today’s service here at Old First.  The Psalmist’s aspirational language--to articulate the past so that future generations might know the face of God--makes the claim that in the mindful and persistent telling of the story of the deeds of our Mothers and Fathers, in their awareness of the goodness and the kindness of the God of our Ancestors--we reify, we make real again and again and again, the covenant of Truth and Justice and Peace.  

Consecration.  Being present with the past, in the present, for the sake of those generations which will arise in the future.  

This idea is rooted in the reading from Joshua as well.  Lofty, heroic, battle-tested Joshua.  A man who actually knew Moses, obeyed his command, and received from Moses, who would lead the people to the border but never enter the Land of Israel, therefore necessitating the generational passage of leadership, the gift of ordination, the consecration of service, the duty to demand of Joshua, the next generation, that which they are obligated to do.  In Judaism we call this the Shalshelet--the Chain of Tradition.

Joshua’s time, like ours, was a transitional time.  He was aware that the project of Freedom, Justice, and Redemption was at a critical moment.  A crossing over from slavery to freedom was one thing; developing a society rooted in such values and therefore worthy of God’s continued blessing was quite another.  Whether it is the Biblical Exodus from Slavery to Freedom; the Dutch Reformed Church of Brooklyn’s role in the Underground Railroad; and the call to address poverty, hunger, homelessness, education equality, access to housing and work in our own day--it is what we do with the world we inherit that is the very measure of our lives.  Maybe they got it wrong in that movie, “Field of Dreams” when Kevin Costner heard a voice that said, “If you build it, he will come.”  Joshua offers another view, saying, “We came.  We’re here.  Now we must build it.  And therefore, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.”  

“WItnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.”  Boy, if that doesn’t capture one of the quintessential spiritual challenges of our age, I don’t know what does.  Choice.  An an embarrassment of riches of choice.  An App for every impulse and desire.  From the endless varieties of choices available to us during every waking moment, Joshua reminds us that we have agency, we have power over our choices; and in choosing the right path, to serve, together, one another, those in need, and the God who animates our very existence, in choosing the right path, the covenant is renewed.

Consecration.

In Emden, a founding city of the Dutch Reformed Church, Jews were welcomed by Dutch authorities.  Many Marranos, those who had fled persecutions and the Inquisition in Spain, found refuge there.  In fact it wasn’t really until the annexation to Prussia in the 19th century when Jews faced persecution in Emden; and in Kristallnacht in 1938, the beginning of the Holocaust, the synagogue of Emden was burned and destroyed.  In the Berlin of that time, Rabbi Dreyfus’ grandfather-in-law, Rabbi Leo Baeck, head of the Berlin Jewish community, was facing deportation to Theresienstadt.  As he was led away by the Nazis, a Christian neighbor, at risk of her own life, stepped out of a line of witnesses and gave bread to Rabbi Baeck for the journey.  Years later, when his rabbinical students asked him how he could go back to Germany, which had been so cruel to our people, he said, “If there was only one good person willing to do good, that’s reason enough to return.”  

The consecration of shared service in suffering; of being together in times of great need; of being witnesses against ourselves for doing what is just and right and true.

I remember the first time that I met your Reverend Daniel Meeter.  I had just assumed the pulpit at Congregation Beth Elohim and in my first week in the job, Daniel invited me to lunch.  “Let’s be friends,” he said.  We shared Mexican food and prayed together before we ate agreed to serve as witnesses against each other in our own traditions of making the sacred real.  When it was clear that as New York City continued to grow and thrive in wealth certain sectors but that many countless others continued to suffer, increasing homelessness across the city, our houses of worship opened temporary respite shelters.  When our ceiling collapsed at Beth Elohim, Daniel was standing on our front step, offering us your sacred space for our holy days worship.  When your ceiling collapsed--prompting from your rabbi the only appropriate response--”Jesus Christ!  What is happening here?” Beth Elohim offered your church its worship space for the holy days.  And when Sandy struck our city, we cooked, delivered and fed thousands upon thousands of people across Brooklyn and Queens because together, in consecration, our communities held each other accountable, as witnesses, to do what is right and just and true.

From the simplest of meals to the most sublime spiritual service, our friendship together bears witness to what we are called upon to do.  And each of our communities here in this ever-renewing spring of eternal hope, in one of the most fortunate neighborhoods, truly, in human history, the voices of our ancestors calling upon us to serve so that we may be, in awe and humility, that spring of inspiration and hope for future generations to carry out deeds of lovingkindness and peace in their time as well.

The rabbis of our Tradition, more than two thousand years ago, in the shadows of the Great Temple that stood in Jerusalem, conceived of the notion of what they called the “Mikdash Me’at--the Miniature Temple.”  This was the true, intimate place where men and women would find God--at the locus of the most Intimate Divine.  On the Bimah of neighborhood synagogues and the Pulpit of neighborhood churches, to be sure.  But not only there.  The Mikdash Me’at was a table where a meal was served and blessings were spoken.  Where learning was shared and where family and friends and neighbors could articulate their loftiest of dreams and aspirations for better lives and a better world.  “Where two or more sit and share words of learning,” our Sages taught, “the Shechinah--the Divine Presence dwells.”

God the Most Intimate.  God who dwells in us and among us.  Who connects us, Who binds us in Covenants of Love and Peace, Who consecrates us, together, as One.

May this Sacred Community of Old First Reformed Church and its pastor, Reverend Daniel Meeter, know only blessing and goodness from its neighbors as witness to the goodness and blessings that emanate from this house of worship; and may this sacred community know and receive God’s abundant gifts of kindness and love.

Amen.

04 November 2014

Look Toward the Future

When I was a kid growing up in Milwaukee, my dad preferred to drive from the East Side to the West Side of town by the street and not the highway, mostly for sentimental reasons.  His sentimentality, mind you, was a many headed hydra.  One was wistful and memory laden, almost romantic about his own childhood in the twenties and thirties, when he'd visit his grandparents who had started on the East Side, in the ghetto, and then moved west of the lake to the more wide open expanses near Sherman Park.  He'd point out landmarks like old delis and grocers, parks and playgrounds where legendary games were played, and always the Kilbourn Reservoir, a wooded hill, fenced off and overgrown, the locus for a twenty million gallon tank which provided that section of Milwaukee with its drinking water.  The decrepit nature of the reservoir; its location in heart of the once Jewish and then African American ghetto, symbolized for him, in our passes around it, a city and a world in transition, the proverbial, prophetic waters dried up, chained off, in a state of decay.

This indulged Dad's most cynical calculus.  The mathematical formula for the Unmovable, the Insurmountable.  He voted as one who knew "something should be done about it" but was never counted among those who actually had any skin in the game for determining which steps could or would actually be taken.   And by "it" I mean the inexorable march toward the distinct separations between black and white that was coming to increasingly signify America--fueled by white upward mobility, the flight to the suburbs, vast disparities in educational and economic opportunities, the taken-for-granted belief in the future.  Already by the late 1960s and early 1970s, one could see and experience the steady and then precipitous decline of whole neighborhoods into depression and poverty as well as the bottomless pit of their fleeting, addicting salves, substance abuse and violence.

Dad had enough trouble keeping ahead of himself.  His anger and at times fragile emotional state were the challenging counterforce to his brilliance, humor and charisma, the latter qualities always the source for a great story.

One story he should have told was the story of the last ten years of his, a tragic descending spiral toward death that I tell; but there have been so many times in which I wish I could have heard it from his perspective.

In 1973, his father died.  In 1974, Mom filed for divorce.  In 1975, he moved out.  In 1976, he lost his job with CBS.  From 1977 to 1979 he failed as a real estate broker.  From 1980 to 1983, he was the assistant manager of a shoe store in town, a job he hated, except for the 40% discount he got on socks for everyone he knew.  Seriously.  The guy came to really love socks.

When he died of a heart attack in the cold, early spring of 1983, it was a surprise to no one but a shock nevertheless.  It's like he willed it to be the way Houdini would do a trick.  Mind over matter. The Reservoir, he must have figured, had gone dry.

But the measure of a man, at least as I've come to understand it, is how he tells the story of his life (particularly when he has the opportunity, the time and the perspective) from the spot where one can look back down into the pit--having pulled himself out of it--and reflect upon what that journey meant.

From the Biblical patriarchs to Ulysses and Heracles and on throughout the Western canon, there is a long tradition of the triumphant narrative, of great risk in the face of tragedy and enormous suffering but in the telling, in the survival, a kind of victory.  Primo Levi, in his dedicatory page to his book The Periodic Table, deployed the Yiddish proverb, "Troubles overcome are good to tell."  As Levi explained to Herbert Mitgang in a 1985 New York Times interview, "Life is a texture of victories and defeats.  If you haven't experienced at least a victory and a defeat, you are not a full-grown man."

Dad was two years gone by the time I read that and I was off on my own journey, seeking wisdom from other father figures, still living.  Neither fully formed nor fully aware of the dimensions at play, I slowly chronicled my dad's downfall as it was happening, knowledgable of its impending reality but never a real believer in his inevitable end.  After all, imagine being told as a kid:  these will be the last ten years that you will know this man.  How would you map out those conversations?  For me those the years between the ages of ten and twenty.  What the hell did I know?  It wasn't cancer, after all.  It was just life happening.

So I saved the pictures and the stories; the postcards, the letters, and the impressions.  And the driving routes, from east to west to north to south.  The short-cuts and scenic paths of his own past that before he could fully make sense of them himself he was already passing them on to me.  His life, his gift to me, a big box with a surprise at the bottom, musty, dusty and overflowing with half-finished drafts of a man's life: the beginning, the middle and then, like Buster Keaton stepping on a rake, hit between the eyes with the suddenness-of-death-at-the-end.

This past weekend, while canvassing for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Wisconsin, I walked up to the Kilbourn Reservoir to look out over the city where my dad raised me.  I looked south and a bit west where his grandparents settled after escaping Minsk for a better life in America; I looked east to where my grandfather opened his medical practice and where my dad excelled in school; I looked north toward where he he raised his family and then, slowly, year by year, toward the places where his life came apart.  Down the hill, at the base of the reservoir, aged oak trees and their drying leaves swayed slowly, like they were singing a memorial prayer.  And up on top, near where I stood, were saplings, newly rooted and hopeful, drawing from the waters that once were.

"Look away from the camera, son," I could hear Dad say.  "It looks better that way."  And so I looked, toward the future, just as he taught me.








03 November 2014

Every Step of the Way

A few weeks ago, I reflected Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's attempts to suppress voter turnout through the agency of the oft-discredited "Voter ID" law, which was fortuitously overturned by US Federal Judge Lynn Adelman.  Judge Adelman pointed out that the law would disproportionately and unfairly single out the poor, the elderly, African Americans, Latinos and immigrants--many of whom are without a drivers license or the means of easily obtaining photo IDs.  Voter suppression has long been a strategy of conservatives seeking to move elections in their direction and with the assist from judges like Adelman and defenders of democracy like the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU, reasonable Americans are beginning to recognize that there is in fact negligible voter fraud in the United States and that the right to vote, while under attack, is one of American democracy's sacred secular rites.

I flew out to Milwaukee over the weekend with my friends Harriet and Lester Yassky to canvas in Milwaukee's Riverwest neighborhood, a gentrifying area near the Milwaukee River with an interesting mix of longtime African Americans and whites, immigrants and gentrifying hipsters.  It was a classic "get out the vote" effort, aimed at knocking on doors and engaging people in the conversation about why their voices needed to be heard.  Basic issues separate the Wisconsin governor from the candidate Mary Burke, who seeks to unseat him:  living wage; funding for the Milwaukee Public Schools; more than $100 million in federal aid for state health insurance for the elderly; and the fact that job growth in Milwaukee remains relatively low compared to elsewhere in the nation.

The campaign office out of which we worked was a perfect tapestry of lives from every segment of the spectrum of background and age.  There was a united sense of purpose, a cheerful optimism, a sense of adventure for the long road there is to travel to make things right.

One quick walk around a random block and it became apparent that many of these people were hurting.  For every few encounters with eager voters--especially those who had taken advantage of early voting (which is of enormous benefit to working people and the elderly)--there were those who had simply given up on the system and were not planning to vote.  Often these conversations hewed to racial lines.  African American citizens questioning the benefit of a governmental system that had regularly ignored, under-funded, or failed to engage them as equals was simply not worthy of their time.

Obviously, those were rich, complicated and powerful encounters.  The insidious trap of failed efforts--poorly funded schools; lack of adequate jobs; decreased governmental services and assistance--combined with broken families, drug abuse and violence--makes for an overwhelmingly potent challenge to overcome.  I was thrilled by how much hope and resilience I encountered from young and old, those who can see the horizon, however distant; and humbled by the challenge of being asked to defend a democratic system that had often left the poorest of the poor on the outside looking in.

One homeowner argued with me loudly, telling me the whole system was corrupt and not worthy of his time.  His wife disagreed, prodded him, asked me for help in getting him to vote.  I noticed a scar on her chest from a chemo stent and thinning hair and explained that during my mom's last summer, we had administrative hurdles placed in front of us by Governor Walker's decision to refuse federal aid for BadgerCare, the Wisconsin medicare program.  The husband rolled his eyes at me in exasperation and said, "Alright.  I'll do what my wife tells me to do."

On another block a man very politely answered the door, kept up his cellphone conversation, apologized and said quickly to me, "You'll forgive me if I don't vote.  I'm tired of it all."  And then he closed the door.

A crowd of Latino immigrants scrambled when I walked nearby, despite my attempts to assure them I wasn't there to report them to immigration authorities--just as another man approached with a wad of cash, waved it toward them, and recruited three guys for a job.  In the shared backyard of three row houses, chickens roamed, kale grew, and three beehives buzzed with activity next to a large compost pit.  Urban organic hipsters, fired up to save the planet.  They had already voted the prior week.

In one of the last blocks I walked, as the sun set on Saturday afternoon, I looked down at a list of five names all at the same address and all of voting age.  When I got the address, I saw the burnt out remains of a house and no door to knock on.  Upon closer examination, the upper floors were bore fresh beams--perhaps a slow comeback was in play.  It seemed like a metaphor for our democratic system.  Despite the persistence of millions in outside campaign money--anonymously infused into these elections--and a tiring and juvenile discourse lacking in thoughtful, intelligent debate, I saw a real hunger for making this country better.

I'm not sure if my candidate will win in Wisconsin--I certainly hope she does.  But either way, I came away from the weekend deeply moved by what I saw and heard, reminded that the road is long and hard but worth traveling, every step of the way.


27 October 2014

As If He Were Green

I heard a good story recently and wanted to write it down.  To share it, so it could be remembered.

A short time after his survival in a work camp during the Second World War, a Jewish immigrant to the United States, who had lost most of his family in the Holocaust, was brought out of the Displaced Persons camp where he was placed immediately after the war's end and then transported to America with his wife and son by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.  

American Jewish communities in virtually every part of the United States participated in this highly coordinated effort to relocate refugees and allow them an opportunity to begin life all over again, an often devastatingly difficult endeavor, given all that had been lost and destroyed.  "Since one starts with absolutely nothing--no family, no town, no history--one had to decide who one would be." 

Some transcended the destruction with a will to begin again--vibrant, hopeful, alluringly engaging, reflecting the notion that every breath of life is an expression of good fortune, a blessing.  Others remained in place, if not in unavoidable decline, shrouded in the darkness of death, mired in the shadowed valley.

One such man, yeshiva-trained in Poland, fiercely intellectual, destined for a higher education and an exemplary professional life, emerged from the war never quite able to break free from its bonds.  He would have no such luxury.  His pride and dignity bolstered his refusal to take "charity" once he was brought to America and with no time to devote himself to getting the university training once he was distributed and settled into a small, southern Jewish community, he set out to find whatever work he could.  He wouldn't aspire.  He would merely work.  But his Jewish principles remained rock solid.

He saw an ad for a job with the designation, "Colored Only Need Apply," so he applied.  
"I'm Colored," he declared.  After all, he explained, everyone kept calling him "Greenhorn" when he arrived.  The application was for a driving job and the man who taught him to drive was an older African American, who graciously accepted him into his world.  Others, seeing the Jewish survivor driven around town by a Black man as he received his lessons asked what he was doing with a "Colored person."  "I'm Colored," he said.  "I'm Green."

As I heard this I was reminded of a story I once read about Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a German Jewish refugee himself who was a rabbi in Berlin before serving with distinction in Newark, New Jersey. American Jews often refer to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in near iconic terms, from his stand against the Vietnam  War to marching with Dr. King during the Civil Rights era; but it was Prinz who preceded King on the dais at the March on Washington in 1963.

You can find and listen to his speech here.

In 1937, Prinz also went south for a time following his arrival in America; and as the story goes, was on a speaking tour in Atlanta, raising awareness of the Jewish plight in Europe and for the Zionist cause.  One of his first stops in Atlanta, then still deeply segregated, was a visit to Dr. Willis Jefferson King, an African American Bible scholar.  Prinz had actually met King the prior year in Jerusalem at an academic conference under the auspices of the American School for Oriental Research.  

After their visit, explained Prinz in his autobiography, he invited the professor for a drink and dinner in his hotel.  "We should eat in your room," said Dr. King, fully aware of the racially divide, taboos against inter-racial amity, and the undergirding assumptions and racist barriers of "southern etiquette."  

Later, on the same trip, Prinz was in a Jewish home when his host expressed shock that he had broken bread with a Black man.  "I simply did not understand nor had I known that Jews, the classical victims of racial persecution, could themselves be racist," wrote Prinz.  "I said that what was evidently happening to the black people of America was the very same thing that was happening to the Jewish people in Europe."  The argument ensued and to break the tension, the host offered Rabbi Prinz a drink.  Hoping for a stiff whiskey to ease the impasse, he was passed a Coca Cola.  It would be the first and last time in his life he'd drink a Coke.  "Coca-Cola was for me a symbol of hatred and prejudice with which I did not want to be identified."

While there was great Jewish heroism during the Civil Rights movement, there were also pockets of Jewish racism and Prinz's story has always been an inspiring one.  The insidious associations to color and race in American history is an ongoing, ever-unfolding burden that each of us continue to bear as citizens obligated to uphold the greatest values embedded in our democratic ideals.

In his speech to the March on Washington in 1963, Prinz said, "America must not become a nation of onlookers.  America must not remain silent.  Not merely black America but all of America.  It must speak up and act, from the President down to the humblest of all, and not for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the black community but for the sake of the image, the idea and the aspiration of America itself."

He knew that truth--from heart to his bones to the surface of skin.  And it showed on the surface.  As apparent to all as if he were green.












23 October 2014

The Best Answer

Some time ago I called Mom on a rainy day in November, just as the Holiday Season was kicking in to gear at the Bay Shore Mall in Milwaukee where she worked.  Intrepid, hard-working, a cheerful demeanor for her customers always hiding the jaded perspective she hid well beneath the surface, she brought me up to speed on the goings on at Boston Store.  

"Some genius went to the bathroom in the changing room yesterday," she sighed.  "Such is the nature of the work.  I put on gloves and cleaned it up."  

I was silent on the other end of the phone.  Seeing public defecation in New York isn't exactly news. However the relative anonymity of the city tends to often veil us from this excremental reality, other than its malodorous intrusions or, God forbid, an unfortunate misstep.  Additionally, in the heart of Baby-Centric Brooklyn, one's day is often punctuated by moms and dads changing kids in all sorts of venues--coffee shops, restaurant benches, beneath the arboreal canopy of the park, on a subway seat, what have you.  So, you know, everyone poops.  

But there was something particularly violative of changing room poop.  It conveyed, what?  A lack of self-control; a malevolent intent; mental illness; a political statement?  Against malls?  

Mom was unmoved.

"I'm a wage earner," she explained.  "This is the kind of shit we deal with."

We laughed, but not uproariously.

Yesterday, after a meeting in a nice Midtown office, speaking about the loftiness of Jewish values, identity and Israel engagement, I jumped over to Macy's to buy some socks.  I needed socks. After making my selections--solids and a few trendy stripes (when did stripes get so trendy?  everyone's wearing striped socks)--I went to ring up.

The man behind the counter was in his early seventies.  He was wearing nice slacks, a grey shirt and a floral patterned tie.  We talked about the book I had set on the counter (Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns) just next to my umbrella, and the incessant rain.  I politely declined his invitation to apply for a Macy's card and as he totalled me up, I could sense the next customer in line tensing over our conversation and the salesclerk reading the awkwardness, if not the yearning, for more such encounters, the social grease of capitalism's "weal" that is perhaps a dying art in our click-to-shop material culture.  When he asked if I wanted my receipt emailed or in print, I said, "Give me the paper," and he generously placed it in the plastic bag, at rest among the socks.

As I walked away I thought of Mom--how could I not?--and back to man, wondering what rooms he'd clean that day; what customers would look right past him, down into their phone, their wallet, the exigencies of their own transactional lives.  Would he work Black Friday, folding and refolding the piles of clothes left on the floor in the mad rush of sale shoppers?  Would his packed lunch sit uneaten, lost in time to too much work on the floor?  And when he went home at night, would he have a kid to call and recount the day's work to, the din of late night television in the background, the newspaper out on the table next to dinner, a story, a laugh?

Earlier that day I had gone down to our corner grocer to get some laundry detergent and conscientious Brooklyn consumer that I am, had taken my cloth bag, to avoid the plastic.  At the end of the day I went back to get some popcorn kernels and seltzer as an after school snack for the girls.  I forgot the cloth bag as I approached the cash register.  The clerk from the morning was still there, ringing people up all day.  

"What happened to your principles?" she asked with a wink.

"How was your day?" I responded.  It was the best answer I could come up with.