02 October 2015

A Million in Washington for Sane Gun Laws

This is my late grandfather, Norman.  I never met him.  He was killed in 1939 in a workplace shooting.  A disgruntled and mentally ill man with a gun shot him before turning his gun on himself.

I've told you about this before.  But like traumas both experienced and inherited, one lives it and shares it, in ever renewable ways, when the wounds are opened against our will.  Like when other mentally ill people take guns into workplaces or schools and slay the innocent.

So here we go again.

I was with President Obama in spirit yesterday as I watched his press conference.  His disgust and remorse and seething anger.  I couldn't have been the only person watching and thinking about his Anger Translator, Luther.  He could have used an Exasperation Translator, too.

Because like many of us, we're exasperated, disgusted, and, as Bryan Stevenson teaches us in the context of the broader struggle for justice and equality in America, we are "tired, tired, tired," which of course is the kind of exhaustion that gives us pause, then more energy to fight the fight.

But we are nowhere near the end of this struggle.

So it's time to kick it up a notch; raise our game.

We need a million people in Washington, DC to send a message to the world that a majority of Americans have had enough of the cowardice in Congress; have had enough of the immoral hold that the N.R.A. and gun manufacturers have on our elected representatives; have had enough of the ludicrous misreadings of the United States Constitution that insists, erroneously, that a "well-regulated militia" includes allowing mentally ill people to buy weapons and use them on their own delusional, murderous rampages.

When we had finally had enough of slavery, we had a war.  When we had enough of racism and the abuse of civil rights, we put our bodies on the line and changed the law of the land.  The 1963 March on Washington, the year I was born, has long been seen as a critical turning point in the fight for the passage of meaningful legislation.  In 1987, I rode in a car from Madison to DC on the eve of Mikhail Gorbachev's summit with Ronald Reagan and joined 250,000 Jews in calling for the freedom of Soviet Jewry.

These powerful displays of solidarity do have an effect.

There is enough wealth to build a movement.  There are enough people to fill the Washington Mall.

We can either sleep through this moment in history or we can wake up and save future lives.

A Million for Sane Gun Laws.  Let's go.

28 August 2015

When Truth Is Cruel We Talk Our Way to Justice

I shared this D'var Torah with the BYFI list.  Enjoy.  Shabbat Shalom
Reading through this week's Torah portion, Ki Tetze, with the many commandments and injunctions about proscribed behavior in wartime as depicted through the perspectives of our ancestors, one is reminded of the Tradition's unique capacity for remaining totally relevant to our own lives.  While the words of Torah are ancient, its ethical dimension is eternal and ever-renewable.  Though spoken long ago atop Mt. Sinai, they still matter today.  How could they not?
The human capacity for cruelty ought to humble, if not shame us; and so at the very least our Torah seems to be teaching us that given the reality of our existence, we ought also to create rules for engagement, not just in the best of times but the worst of times.  Sure, wouldn't it be great if our most sacred book was only wonder and poetry and beauty and peace!  Alas, we come from a people who count among their greater contributions to religious discourse the ability to wrestle with what it means to be human and to strive for justice and righteousness as an act of covenantal responsibility as Jews.  
Edgar Bronfman's famous story about learning Talmud for the first time, later in his life, comes to mind.  At first glance he found the laws described in this week's parsha to be outmoded.  Who cares about oxen and asses or birds in their nests?  How is this relevant to us?  But as Edgar plowed deeper into the dialogue, he found himself facing ultimate questions of justice.  And as a non-believer, he often said that this gave him entree to generations of teachers and students who asked similar questions on the journey of building a better world.
I got to share that story again this summer on Bronfman with the 2015 Fellows against the backdrop of a particularly wrenching summer in Jerusalem.  From the first moments of orientation to our last goodbyes at Ben Gurion Airport, we were never far from the sounds of the world calling out to us, to our identities, to our history, demanding a response.  We arrived still in the shadow of Charleston and the cruel legacies of race and violence in America; we encountered speaker after speaker throughout the summer weighing in on and trying to come to terms with the many dimensions of the Iran deal and what it would mean for Israel, for America, for the Jewish people; and perhaps more than any other summer in my own experience as a Bronfman faculty member, we heard and shared the anguished thinking of Jews and Palestinians on the Right and on the Left, struggling to find the language and maybe even a new paradigm for the seemingly interminable impasse on the road to an ever-elusive peace.
In typical Bronfman fashion, we listened, argued, opened up ourselves to new perspectives, and pushed our boundaries of comfort and ease with who we were as Jews in an effort not so much to know but to understand; not to be right but to be judicious; not to win but to be kind.  If you think I sound pollyannish, that's okay.  All I'm saying is that when you see twenty-six Fellows' souls grow over the course of a summer, you have faith in the system and the ways in which its purposeful ambiguities spur us on to new depths of understanding.  To quote Rabbi Jim Diamond, of blessed memory, "If you're not confused, you're not thinking straight."  
If a man as great and successful as Edgar Bronfman could be confused about his relationship to the Tradition but then digs in, engages, and learns, it seems a worthy aspiration for us as well.  
Of course, and tragically, there are then times in which there is no confusion.  Times when the clear, blinding light of morality calls out for our voices to be lifted up, even as our hearts are torn in grief.  Because besides the stroke of genius in building BYFI around learning and dialogue, BYFI is centered in Israel, in the roiling, boiling living laboratory of Jewish history and identity.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no mere abstraction.  Its tenuous borders are within our grasp; a taxi driver's opinion about Iran or Obama or Bibi can be as nuanced and relevant as that from some of the most skilled diplomats. Plurality, diversity, triumphs and grievances all play out in loud and messy ways.  And while most of the time this dynamic serves a wonderful pedagogic end, at other times it shocks us into clear-eyed declarations of right and wrong.  No playful Bronfman ambiguity but hard truths that demand declaration.
A 16 year old girl, Shira Banki, was stabbed and killed marching in the Jerusalem Pride Parade.  That dark and cruel act was a gut-punch to the Fellows and the Faculty.  It stunned us into silence, sadness and shame, provoking anger that, through talking, we turned into love and the reified commitment to continue the struggle for the right to love as we love despite the twisted theologies of those who kill in the name of God.  And of course, no sooner did we begin to wrap our minds around the tragedy of the Pride Parade than we were forced to confront the outrageous and disgusting murders of Ali and Saad Dawabshah by Jewish extremists, hell-bent on terror and havoc wreaking.  Jerusalem yet again became the place where we as a people are commanded to explore not only the lofty, spiritual aspirations of our souls but the cruel evil expressions of our humanity as well.  
It turns out that when the Torah speaks of how one behaves when one is at war or conflict, it is, in the words of the Sages, "speaking human language."
And so it was, with human language, that we kept up our talking and learning and understanding, even with tragedy in our midst, because to quote Bryan Stevenson, who quoted Martin Luther King, who quoted Theodore Parker, "The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward Justice."  We weren't meant to figure it all out this summer; but for BYFI, we know that the more we talk and the more we learn and the more we understand, the closer we get to where we need to be going.
Isaiah seems to intuit this in the Haftarah for Ki Tetze.  "In slight anger for a moment I hid My face from you; But with kindness everlasting I will take you back in love."
It was a meaningful summer; it had moments of depth and beauty and hilarity and yeah, even cruelty.  But the journey we took together, the road we traveled, was one constructed on a commitment to upholding one another's inherent integrity and individuality, as part of a people, rooted in a Tradition that demands, especially in the face of abhorrent acts of evil, that we show our faces to one another in kindness and love.  
It seems to me to be a legitimate way to get to justice.  But hey, that's me.  Feel free to argue.  That's the Bronfman tradition.
Shabbat Shalom

15 August 2015

From Shore to Shore

This morning's NY Daily News carried the alarming news, recently released by Mayor de Blasio's office, that complaints about the homeless to the city are up 59%.  This number reflects data from 311 calls to the city's information line and is comprised mostly of calls made by city residents' own objections to illegal encampments or homeless people in need of assistance.  There are disputes among officials about whether homeless is going up or down in the city and as the article states, the city hopes to take a census later in the summer to determine this more definitively.  And long term there is the structural attempt to create more shelters and more affordable housing, which will require a joint city and state effort--hopefully not too herculean a task, given the oft-times tense bickering that moves up and down the Taconic between Albany and New York City.

Stories like this flesh out in more focus the complications inherent to so many cities and articulated as cogently as usual by the News' Harry Siegel, in a piece he wrote this week called "The Architecture of Segregation," where Siegel decried the painful and shameful reality that the "poor are getting poorer," especially in the smaller cities of America.  This creates a situation, Siegel writes, "which often means bad schools, lousy services, and a lot of crime and policing."  He backs up his argument with data and analysis from the Century Foundation.  It's worth a look.

It's true, isn't it? -- that we don't just live where we live but in fact we live, with some perspective, in an ever expanding circle of connectedness.  Choosing to know the brokenness of others' lives requires a willful opening of the eyes, hand and heart.  Easy as it may be to ignore -- to look the other way, to close our hands and harden our hearts, is an ignorance we exercise at our own peril.

It can make all the difference between living in a society rooted in a sense of blessing or mired in the dissonance of curse.  The world we live in today often seems to suspend us in that place, between the starkness of the good and evil everywhere and especially when, powerless as we may feel in the face of it, we don't know which way the scales will tip.  There is so much work to do.

The blessings and curses of faith are made manifest when extreme fanaticism and the desire to do good collide.  While I'm all too aware of the justified skepticism out there for the certainty of religious truths in an age of rising and violent fundamentalism, I'm also a strong believer in the power of faith and religious narratives to do enormous good.

"If there be among you a needy man, one of thy brethren, within any of thy gates, in thy land which the Eternal your God gives to you, do not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your needy brother; rather, you must surely open your hand to him and lend him sufficient need for that which he lacks," warns Moses in Deuteronomy 15: 7-8.  He continues, "For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, saying, 'You shall surely open your hand to your poor and needy brother in your land.'"

It's a curious challenge, isn't it?  A seemingly perfect God creates a land to be inhabited by fallible human beings who, by definition, will always have poor living among them.  Is it as simple an equation to posit that the main reason there are poor among us is because of the choices we make as people?

Stay with this notion:  Poverty is a choice--for those who are poor and for those who live among the poor.  Each of us bears responsibility for changing the situation.  One cannot simply lift oneself up and out with a helping hand; and when can not simply bestow largesse and expect an instantaneous transformation from destitution to success.  It takes two, back and forth, together, in an endless, ongoing commitment to the continual commitment to eradicate injustice from the world.

"The poor shall never cease out of the land."  So don't get tired.  Or rest up when you need to.  We're in this for the long haul.

The Rabbis embrace this notion.  They understand, in most commentaries to this section of Torah, only in a perfect world, with everyone doing good deeds all the time, is the eradication of poverty possible.  We humans, they long concluded, are responsible for our own souls as well as making up for the lack of generosity in others.  I'm reminded of a great story Bryan Stevenson tells in his book Just Mercy about sitting with Rosa Parks and talking to her about all he was going to do bring justice to those mistreated or wrongly accused.  Expecting her praises for his ambition, he was humorously humbled by her pronouncement that this work would make him "tired, tired, tired."  Johnnie Carr, another woman who organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott, added, "And that's why you've got to be brave, brave, brave."  You can watch Bryan's Ted Talk here.

It's takes an act of moral courage, daily, to open one's hand and heart to the poor.  It requires an exercise in muscular control to open a fist, to allow for warmed blooded flow of compassion to keep our hearts soft and responsive.  It begins within and emanates outward.

Maimonides, who famously conceptualized giving and the creation of justice in society as a ladder of progression, wrote about these verses in his Mishneh Torah, "The poor person who is in your family takes precedence over all others who are in need and the poor person of your house takes precedence over your town and the poor person of your town takes precedence over other towns, as it is said, 'to your brother, to your poor, and to your needy in your land."

It's a brilliant and challenging read on an already challenging text.  Charity--or the establishment of justice--begins at home, some say; but the Rambam would argue it only begins at home--it then moves, in ever expanding circles, outward to the rest of the world.  Like waves in an ocean, deeds of goodness, kindness of open hands and hearts, beating back poverty from shore to shore.

12 August 2015

Skeptically Enwrapped

During the High Holy Days of 2013, I decided to share a personal sermon about the ways in which I struggled mightily with my faith during the year that my mother died after a seven year fight against cancer.  As an experience, it was easy to write and hard to deliver, so weighted with emotion and an inner terror that I was revealing too much to those in attendance who, on the holiest day of the year, look to their rabbis for stability, promise, and depth of faith.

But I knew I couldn't stand before them and "confess" as the tradition demands of us as the service leaders; I knew I couldn't represent the community with integrity, through the agency of liturgical drama, without total honesty.  After all, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem in ancient days, the High Priest would confess his own sins before God along with those of the community and so one of the sacrifices I needed to lay on the altar of our community's offering was my own doubt.  I knew, both intuitively and from numerous conversations with members over the years, that doubt plagues all of us.  Many look right past it and build structures of meaning in their lives beyond faith; others double-down on faith in order to crush or silence the doubt; and still more look into doubt's face, call God into question for the experience of His seeming absence and decide, as I had, to fight back.

One morning, unaware of the obvious tension and anger coursing through my hands and arms and head -- the wrapping hands, the leathered arm, the in-between eyes squinting into the glare of endless questions bound up in obligation to God -- but cognizant of my place at the frontline of this battle, the leather strap of the tefilin snapped in my hands.  I pulled so hard at that tenuous connection that it broke.

I rooted the rupture in an incident 18 months earlier.  My brother and I were bathing our mother from the devastation that the chemotherapy had wrought on her fragile body.  I felt radically loving toward her and furious with God.  The tear of the tefilin straps represented for me true doubt.  Here's what I wrote:

That’s when my Atheism crept in.  

I began to allow myself to rebel.  My brother was silent and devoted and I was furious at God for allowing such a kind and decent person to suffer.  Not just now at the end of her life but at the beginning.  And in the middle.  The famous Talmudic legend of the Messiah cleaning and bandaging the wounds of the sick at the gates of the city fell flat.  I took off my Tefilin.  I stopped praying.  I felt like a fraud and a fake leading services on Shabbat.  I wondered if families knew?  If there was a Golem like ALEF on my forehead, seen by all.  “Mi chamocha be’elim?”  Who is like you among the gods? sang Bnai Yisrael after their escape from Egypt.  But the Sages, having witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, said, “Mi chamocha be’ilmim?”  Who is like you among the deaf?  You, God, ignore suffering.  You’re powerless to stop it.  And I joined that accusation.
It was there I remained.  If not atheist, certainly agnostic.  Too wounded to speak to God.  The bindedness of obligation a shadow, at best.  The funeral I ran on fumes. The high of seeing family and old friends, of the absorption into sympathy.  I said Kaddish at my grandparents shul in Milwaukee and came back to Brooklyn to the embrace of this generous and remarkable community.  The outpouring of support was fundamentally beautiful and restorative.  But my faith was shattered.

The torn Tefilin strap from the arm; the ש for God's name on the head Tefilin transformed to the monstrously destructive א of the Golem.  I was in new, terrifying territory.


My friend Rabbi David Kedmi told me at Shiva that "when our parents die, we still have Moses our Teacher to talk to."  And that line sustained me.  Teaching and doing deeds of lovingkindness were the floor beneath my feet.  My friend Mishael Zion reminded me that sometimes our job is not to wait for God to seek us out but for us to demand for God's presence in His absence.

I weighed these two ideas in the balance for the better part of two years and then finally decided this summer in Jerusalem that it was time for a new set of Teflilin.  I met a wonderful Sofer named Steve Bar Yakov Gindi, a member of the Syrian Jewish community from Brooklyn who has been living in Israel for many years now.  We spent the better part of two hours together over three visits, talking, laughing, and, at his urging, creating the Tefilin together.

There was something so irreducibly reparative about fulfilling this mitzvah, of helping to write and sew together the material that would then, after a three year absence, bring me back in to conversation with God.

Here are couple of photographs from our sessions.

Adding crowns to the letters of the Shma

Securing one scroll with calve's hair

The finished product
On the day the Sofer delivered to me the Tefilin, an oppressively hot Jerusalem Tuesday, with our staff and Fellows still reeling from the horrific killings at the Gay Pride Parade and in the Palestinian village of Duma, each of us searching high and low for God in what seemed like an exceptionally cruel world, I began to share with the Bronfman Youth Fellows this story of the Tefilin.  And while sitting in front of these outstanding, searching, kind-hearted seventeen year olds, I remembered back to my own youth, to a story that Abraham Joshua Heschel tells in his book about the Hasidic masters Baal Shem Tov and Menachem Mendl of Kotzk and their divergent views about God's nearness to man.  The book is called A Passion for Truth.

Heschel tells the story of his friend "Mr. Sh. Z. Shragai," a Jewish Agency representative who traveled back to Poland and German after the Holocaust to facilitate the movement of Jews from Displaced Persons Camps to either Israel or other places willing to take these refugees from the horrors of the war.  Shragai described to Heschel that a poor Jew, with a small sack, joined him in his train car as they traveled from Warsaw to Paris.  Each evening and morning, Shragai would pray but the poor Jew refused.  When asked why he said, "I am never going to pray anymore because of what happened to us in Auschwitz...How could pray?  That is why I did not pray all day."

But when Shragai woke up the following morning, he noticed that the man had gotten up first and was wearing Tallis and Tefilin, saying his prayers.  When Shragai asked what happened, he replied, "It suddenly dawned on me to think how lonely God must be; look with whom he is left.  I felt sorry for Him."

How lonely God must be.  With our disdain for his absence and those among us whose disdain for others absence Him.

Part of faith, I have come to realize, is comprised of the component pieces of explaining things to ourselves and others, and building worlds upon those bricks, those truths.

If God was anywhere when my mother suffered, He was in the hands and hearts of her daughters and sons and family and caregivers who helped usher her, compassionately, to the door of death.  If God was anywhere when Shira Banki was stabbed and killed in the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem, He was present in the moral outrage at the murder, at the civic failure in not tracking a dangerous, fanatical man; and in the fearless expressions of hope and love for all those who love, regardless of who they love.  And if God was anywhere when members of the Dawabshah family were killed by fire at the hands of evil youth deluded in their thinking that they were fulfilling God's will, God was in the still small voices of compassion and love and condolence as well as in the moral outrage that justice must be done.

To carry out such acts in the name of Torah is to erase God's name from our holiest of books.

Having come back in to conversation following a three year protest, my faithfully fragile certainties are bruised and battered.  But wrapped in words worn and spoken by those who generations came before me, provides a humbling comfort.

One of the verses from Torah in Tefilin speaks of placing the words of God's oneness "on" our hearts, not "in" our hearts.  The Kotzker Rabbi, writes Heschel, explained that it is absurd to think one can have Truth "in" one's heart--given that our hearts are often such compromised and troubled places. Rather, he said, Truth should be like a stone "on" our hearts because there were moments when the heart opened up and if the Stone of Truth was there, those words might seep in.  Heschel said, "One could become a different person, one realized what to do, what to correct...and the words were absorbed into one's very being."

The Stone of Truth on my heart demands an expression of gratitude for friends, family and teachers, who listened, as we all must, when one seeks repair.  The Stone of Truth demands as well, especially for those in our world whose hearts are hardened in hatred and who do acts of evil in the name of their god, that Truths are spoken neither thrown, whetted at the end of a knife, or set ablaze by delusion. I pray, skeptically enwrapped, with words again on my heart, that we may merit finding a path to peace.

24 July 2015

On Why Jews Should Read Ta-Nehisi Coates

In case you missed it, my oped on why Jews should read Ta-Nehisi Coates new book ran in the Forward and you can also now read it here.

The publication of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s stirring and pained “Between the World and Me” might just provide the kind of watershed moment for redefining the Black-Jewish relationship in the United States. Jewish leaders should seize it by encouraging their communities to read the book and talk about its implications for us both as Americans and Jews.

As the leading black voice in American journalism today, Coates’ book is a letter to his teenage son, explaining race, identity and America in the wake of the Michael Brown case in St. Louis. Bearing witness to the police killing of another unarmed black man prompted Coates to pen what we might call an ethical will to his child. It reads as sermonic jeremiad and epic confession — a soul-baring the likes of which is virtually unknown to the current generation of Jewish readers. He says to his son after the lack of indictment in the death of Brown, “What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.”

Though America is a relatively safe place for the Jewish body, recent surges in anti-Semitism in Europe and ongoing conflict in the Middle East means that broadly speaking, the Jewish body isn’t safe either. But while well into the mid-twentieth century the black-Jewish alliance was built upon a shared struggle for equality, in the past generation those partnerships have faded.

We are reminded by Coates, and others like Bryan Stevenson and Michelle Alexander, that there are systemic injustices toward blacks in many American cities, in schools, in the workplace. These facts, combined with an alarmingly high and disproportionate incarceration rate for black men (“60% of all young black men who drop out of high school will go to jail”) demand a Jewish communal response.

He is brutally honest in his analysis of the American economy, with its twisted roots in slavery, an institution whose rejection is the very foundation of the Jewish story of freedom and justice. “As slaves we were the country’s first windfall,” Coates writes, “the down payment on its freedom.” What would it mean for us Jews as a community, so fortunate in our relative success within one century of a mass migration between 1880 and 1920, to begin again at the beginning by acknowledging who in fact built this country? We were slaves in the land of Egypt. If it’s true for us each year at Passover, how much more so must it be true in America for our black neighbors?

But if it is true that in broad terms American Jews have achieved admirable success, taking advantage of the many privileges and opportunities American democracy offers, we also know that we are never far from the Exodus narrative told each year at Passover. “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” This commandment, paired with the mandate to be kind to the stranger precisely because we were strangers in the land of Egypt, ought to serve as the moral underpinnings for a new American Jewish engagement with the most urgent issues in the African American community.

For Jews as for blacks, the Book, and reading, along with the subversive power of the pursuit of learning, comprise the fulcrum of identity formation.

Like generations of Jews, Coates’ own redemption was in education. “I shared…a deep belief that we could somehow read our way out,” he wrote, recounting for his son the transformative and liberating powers of learning. “My history professors thought nothing of telling me that my search for myth was doomed, that the stories I wanted to tell myself could not be matched to truth.” Education, in the fullest expression of its potential, cleared the mind for action. “History is not solely in our hands,” Coates tells his son. “And still you are called to struggle not because it assures you victory but because it ensures you an honorable and sane life.”

I read the book while boarding a plane to Israel earlier this summer. I left behind a growing and gentrifying Brooklyn in which young millennials were examining their own sense of responsibility to the neighborhoods they were moving in to; President Obama had just delivered his extraordinary eulogy at Emanuel AME Church; and news reports of revived anti-Semitism in Europe collided with troubling stories of internal Israeli discrimination against Ethiopian Jews. The self, identity and nation, it seems, are all the rage. For younger Jews there is a particular urgency.

Jewish history, it turns out, has something to teach us. Most broadly, the mass of our ancestors who came to America fled classic European anti-Semitism and pursued economic opportunity. America represented that chance to get ahead, along with the shocking reality that at least here, blacks had it worse.

And since the early years of the twentieth century, many American Jewish organizations and Jewish philanthropists were committed to alleviating the scourge of racism and discrimination against blacks, in part as a bulwark against anti-Semitism and in part as building a shared platform in support of equality and civil rights for all Americans. The Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress (to name a few) all shared a commitment to defending black civil rights and Jews were among the early founders and funders of the NAACP.

Civil rights activists, Freedom Riders, crusading rabbis like Joachim Prinz and Abraham Joshua Heschel fill in an almost mythic narrative of a once golden age of the black-Jewish alliance that in recent decades has fallen away from the center of the American Jewish communal agenda. Given recent events, it ought to be clear to us as Jews that now is precisely the right moment to start again.

And so I want to propose that American Jewish communities take up the challenge.
Coates’ story of growing up black in America is both nuanced in its exploration of the self in the face of a hostile collective and an account of one man’s refusal to turn away from racism’s dehumanizing face and to testify for the need to be present and to respond — not with violence but with the mind and soul.

Just as one might travel to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington or the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, Jewish communities across the United States should commit this year to read Ta-Nehisi Coates “Between the World and Me.” If a prior generation of Jews saw its own American redemption bound to the civil rights struggle of American blacks, our current age, reclaiming the urban habitats once left by our predecessors, will find in Coates a brotherly manifestation of the Jewish condition since Emancipation — between the world and the self.

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me; and if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Read more: http://forward.com/opinion/spirituality/312118/an-eloquent-message-about-race-that-jews-need-to-read/#ixzz3gmafq32Y

28 June 2015

On Oren and Obama

I don’t pretend to expertise in diplomatic and nuclear negotiations .  But I do know something about identity, particularly in the context of the American Jewish and Israeli communities.  And I have to say, after reading the much talked about Ally by Michael Oren’s (which prompted me to re-read President Obama’s Dreams From My Father) I have reached one very important conclusion:  In an effort to serve his policy arguments with the President, Oren over-stepped and articulated foolish, if not even bigoted sentiments toward Obama.

Ally has at its core the perfectly legitimate political and diplomatic goals of preventing the United States from making concessions to a nuclear Iran that Oren believes are an existential danger to Israel.  But he undermines his credibility by rooting the argument in a deeply flawed characterological attack on the U.S. President’s identity--made all the more troubling because as an American Jew and Israeli, Oren ought to know about living in two different worlds.  

Oren lays the foundation for what he describes as an Obama personality rooted in “sangfroid” and a “cold-blooded need for control.”  His reading of Obama’s 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father demonstrates from an accomplished historian at best a clumsy and cursory examination of a young man’s complex bildungsroman and, at worst, a rash, offensive and disingenuous attack on Obama’s character, focused on his broken home and his Black, “Muslim,” international otherness.  

It’s a particularly hurtful and egregious attack coming from an American Jew, who, by his own admission, came of age in the 1960s, was reared with a deep and pained consciousness of the Holocaust, understood and celebrated the triumph of the creation of Israel, empathized with the black struggle for civil rights and protests against the war in Vietnam.  He’s even married to a former Deadhead from San Francisco.  He’s supposed to get that our identities are formed in the cauldron of our youth well on into adulthood.  And that we many of us also make choices different from those choices made by those who raise us.  

In fact, while describing in Ally a clarifying moment about his own character development and upbringing in New Jersey in the 1960s, Oren writes that Jewish nationalism became for him not merely a matter of survival for the Jewish people.  “Zionism was not merely a reaction to discrimination,” he writes.  “But an affirmation of what I felt from an early age to be my fundamental identity.  For deep-rooted reasons, Zionism defined my being.”  Heck, I related to that feeling too!  One must note here, that Oren writes of himself that he didn’t go to Israel until he was 15, became a citizen at 24, and only recently gave up his American passport--in 2009.

But he doesn’t seem to apply that same tolerance for “finding oneself” to the President.  In a section of the book entitled “Obama 101,” Oren takes aim at Obama not for being “anti-Israel.” (After all, he as well as anyone knows that the Obama Administration’s support for Israel--in Congress, in the Pentagon, at the U.N.--is equal to or greater than any other American administration.  Those are facts.)  

Rather, it’s character, a curious assertion, if not comical in its awkwardness.   

Oren draws upon Dreams From My Father in order to contrast two young boys’ first experience of the hunt.  For readers of Obama’s memoir, one may recount the mystery and exoticism as well as the reflections on self and otherness that Obama was cognizant of as a young boy being raised by his mother and grandparents first in Hawaii and then in Indonesia (before his return to Hawaii.)  In Indonesia his time was complicated but formative, as one expects it to be.  There’s the street life and extreme poverty mixed with a hybrid Islam and animist culture, all against the backdrop of his mother’s determination to raise him, educate him and advance her own career.  Among the many issues he touched upon, Obama struggles mightily with his relationship to and understanding of his biological father, his step-father, and his own growth as a young man. As this last week showed in his demeanor and comportment on the historical stage from Washington to Charleston, Barack Obama is anything but cold.  It seems to me he turned out alright and pretty well integrated, as the shrinks like to say. I fail to see how this is anything other than totally admirable.

“Most people form their identities in childhood, but Obama learned who he was and what he stood for relatively late, in his twenties. His early years were plagued by instability; he was raised by a twice-divorced mother and a grandmother Obama later described--dispassionately--as a ‘typical white person.’  That same sangfroid characterized a chilling chapter in the book in which the nine-year-old Obama sees his Indonesian stepfather decapitating a chicken.”  

Oren then goes on to quote a passage from Dreams From My Father that, to my reading, was more attuned to Gabriel Garcia Marquez than the clumsy and inartful misappropriations that Oren seems to be hinting at with his allusion to cold-hearted decapitations.  Obama’s grandmother was a “typical white person?”  That sentiment is simply not found in the book.

Anyway, “decapitate,” is a loaded word these days, isn’t it?  We Jews, you see, piously swing chickens over our own heads, absolving us of sin, before a shochet or ritual slaughterer “chops” their chicken heads off and donates the proceeds to charity.  Am I over-reading?  

Read for yourself.

“The fact that the young Obama was dazzled by this grisly sight revealed a remarkable degree of emotional detachment.  At a similar age, I went fishing with my father and watched as he caught a carp and mangled it.  But instead of being fascinated, the experience traumatized me.  Years passed before I could even look at seafood.”  

To be clear, carp is kosher.  Seafood is not.

The cold and calculating nine year old Obama in the jungles of Indonesia, drawn in his detachment to the shedding of blood--perish the thought!  But the schlemiel father of Oren, mangling fish and scarring a traumatized son from even looking at seafood (not to mention aquarium tanks in all those New Jersey trips to the dentist’s office.)  The nerd as hero who overcomes his fears and joins an army, serving his nation; while the calculating internationalist unfeelingly decides our fate.  I don’t buy it.

Speaking of wrapped fish, the carp bought by my father-in-law’s grandmother, in Depression era Williamsburg, symbolized, as it did for many of that generation, the romantic memory of his Bubbe clubbing and then gutting a carp each Friday morning to make gefilte fish.  Eighty years later there is no better taste, he claims.  Then again, my father-in-law was a Betar-nik from the tough streets of Brooklyn.  In those days, different Williamsburg clubs mattered.   

Besides his concern with Iran, Oren criticizes Obama’s affinity for an “idealized” Israel based on the very disagreements that stand at the core of Israeli society today, namely, whether or not the settlement project in Judea and Samaria undermine the long-term legitimacy of a Jewish and democratic Israel.  Walking close to the line of some of the toxic discourse coming out of the Knesset today, Oren suggests that to criticize the settlement project in general, as he claims Obama is doing, is to do so out of his affinity for a post-colonial mindset and an affinity for Palestinians. “Repulsed by the colonialist legacy he encountered in Kenya, he may also have shared the sense of identification felt by some African-American--among them Condoleeza Rice--with the Palestinians.”

It’s a curious assertion Oren makes, especially in light of the President’s recent interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, in which Obama asserted, “There’s a direct line between supporting the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland and to feel safe and free of discrimination and persecution, and the right of African Americans to vote and have equal protection under the law. These things are indivisible in my mind.”  

What Obama says is indivisible Oren just goes ahead and divides?  Why?  How?

(Obama’s interviews with Goldberg, as an aside, are perhaps his most cogent and well-reasoned thoughts on Jews and Zionism.  The admiration is deep and apparent.  I’d recommend reading them.)

Sometimes it seems that our discourse about Israel is so debased, with the Right and Left spending far more time demonizing one another rather than rationally and yes, dispassionately, trying to find common language and common ground in order to safeguard and preserve the Jewish state we dreamed for and built.

In my own work in the Jewish community, I have seen over and over again from this President an admirable ability to laugh at himself--especially in the face of the some of the most vile and egregious racism that, painfully, is very much alive today.  As a man and as President, Obama is hated more broadly and more viscerally precisely because of his black otherness.  Oren the American Jew and Israeli knows otherness and vile hatred as well.  This small but significant passage is embarrassing and detracts from his larger and more legitimate argument.  

President Obama has increased military funding and cooperation with Israel even while disagreeing about settlements; he stands by Israel in the U.N. and on the world stage; he says that if he can’t get the deal with Iran (that he agreed Congress should review)  he’ll walk away and reserve the right to use of force himself.  Obama has made mistakes in his relationship with Israel (I wish he's gone to Jerusalem right after Cairo) just as Prime Minister Netanyahu has in his relationship with the United States.  But the alliance is strong and unbreakable.  It should be treated that way by its most prominent diplomats. So knock off the personal attacks. They don't even make sense.

One expects from an ally the qualities one seeks in a friend--loyalty, reasonableness, kindness in the face of conflict, and above all, humor.  Hopefully we will see more of each from Oren in the days and weeks ahead.   

01 June 2015

Thrilled To Join the 92Y

photo by Stefano Giovannini
June 1, 2015
14 Sivan 5775

Dear Friends,

I write to share with you the exciting news that beginning in July, I will be the Director of Jewish Content and Community Ritual at the 92Y, historically one of New York City’s and America’s most important Jewish cultural institutions.  I am thrilled to be working with Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, Senior Rabbi Emeritus at Central Synagogue and the director of the 92Y’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Life, as well as the 92Y’s executive director Henry Timms.  This will be an extraordinary opportunity to build on the work we did together here in Brooklyn and expand throughout New York City the conversation about Jewish values, literature, culture, social justice and Israel.

When I made the decision to step away from the pulpit last year, it was to pursue Jewish and social justice issues more broadly throughout our city.  The broader questions of race, education and equity in our city and nation animate my commitments as never before.

During the past year I have met with inspiring leaders, educators, activists, politicians, entrepreneurs, and daring investors.  I have been so moved by these leaders’ mission-driven work in making the world a better place for all - from community school activists in the Bronx, Harlem to criminal justice reformers in Red Hook and Crown Heights.  I plan on deepening my commitment to these causes at home and very much look forward to sharing this journey with you.

Rachel and I and our girls are staying here in Brooklyn, our home now for more than 25 years - many of those spent with you in the Beth Elohim community.  We have raised our children together, shared life’s triumphs and tragedies together, and along with you and so many others, created a fabric of meaning and connectedness that has enriched so many in the synagogue and broader Brooklyn community.  

I have been privileged to have had two periods of service to CBE, each of which were enormous sources of personal growth and evolution and will always have special meaning for our family.  Together we have dramatically strengthened our synagogue and deepened our engagement with the broader Brooklyn community.  We can all take pride in the challenges we have faced, the lessons learned, and our accomplishments together, setting the stage for continued success under the leadership of my new friend, Rabbi Rachel Timoner, who will succeed me next month.

Let me close by expressing my thanks to our talented and dedicated clergy leadership team, Cantor Josh Breitzer and Rabbi Marc Katz, as well as the entire inspired staff at CBE; to our devoted lay leadership and to the countless members of our historic and sacred synagogue community who have given so much to our success together.  Thank you for your friendship, partnership and support in helping me lay the groundwork for this next chapter of Jewish life for all of us.  

Finally, Rachel joins me in inviting you to please celebrate with our family on Friday night June 12 at a special service and Oneg Shabbat at 6:30 pm.   We will pray, sing, and drink l’chaim as we go from strength to strength!

In friendship,

Andy Bachman