Whistle long enough, dogs show up: Best synagogue shooting response? Weep. Mourn. Vote.

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This was taken at my niece’s bat mitzvah. Mom (z”l) is on the left; Phyllis & Pat (the other granny) are next to her. Taken in 2009, but could have been taken yesterday at Tree of Life Synagogue, or any other congregation.

File yesterday under “Days when you’re glad your mother and aunts are dead.”

File yesterday under “This is why I grapple with knowing that I look and benefit from being white but don’t ever feel entirely white.”

File yesterday under “What part of their part in this do Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Chuck Grassley, Paul Ryan, Jeff Sessions, Steven Miller and the rest of the administration not see?”

File yesterday under “You can’t spend three years whistling and act surprised when the dogs actually show up.”

File yesterday under: “Thank you to the library system where I work for taking the possibility of an active shooter seriously enough to provide training that may minimize the danger to us and our patrons if we’re ever unlucky enough to be in that situation.”

Pittsburgh is the first time it’s happened to my community. Reading the news as I sat behind the reference desk yesterday, my first thoughts were of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the nine people killed by the white guy who got a take-out hamburger in jail because he told the police he was hungry. I thought of the six people killed in Oak Creek at the Sikh Temple by a white guy who did it because he thought Sikhs were Muslims.

This isn’t just about Jews, or black people, or people who wear turbans or hijabs or whose first words were in a language other than English.

President Dog Whistle mused that had there been armed guards in the synagogue, perhaps the shooter would have been stopped.

He is wrong.

Had there been sensible gun laws in this country, perhaps the shooter would have been stopped. But that would mean standing up to Dylan Roof, Rob Bowers and Wade Michael Pages’ enablers. By which I mean the National Rifle Association, whose bullets include large amounts of cash aimed at legislators for sale.

Newsflash to President Dog Whistle and those legislators: All the guns in the world will not kill what’s coming. Thanks to you, Dylan Roof, Rob Bowers and Wade Michael Page were able to carry out their attacks using real weapons. Cesar Sayet, Jr. heard the dog whistle and was empowered to build and mail bombs that would have killed postal workers as well as people who’ve stood up for their beliefs.

But you can’t kill reality, any more than you can stop the 7,000 people who have left dangerous situations in Central America to seek refuge in the land that provided it to so many of us – at the expense of those who were here first, and those brought here in chains.

The country is changing. It’s less white. It’s less Christian. People like President Dog Whistle and his ilk are doing everything they can to ensure that real power and the money that preserves it remains in the hands of people who look and sound and think the way they do and have done.

That’s why income inequality. That’s why voter suppression. That’s why unevenly applied drug laws.

Change is hard, but it doesn’t have to be bad. Banding together for the sake of our shared well-being is our best shot at ensuring any kind of future for ourselves and those who come after us.

Which is why voting on November 6this so important. If you can’t vote because:

  • you’re not old enough,
  • you’re on paper,
  • you’re not through the citizenship process,
  • your felony record says that even though you’ve paid your debt to society we’re going to keep punishing you…

then be an enabler. Make your voice count by making sure the people in your life who can cast votes, do cast votes.

The future will thank you.

 

The 11 people killed in Pittsburgh. May their memories be for a blessing:

• Joyce Fienberg, 75, Oakland neighborhood, Pittsburgh
• Richard Gottfried, 65, Ross Township
• Rose Mallinger, 97, Squirrel Hill neighborhood, Pittsburgh
• Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, Edgewood Borough
• Cecil Rosenthal, 59, and David Rosenthal, 54, brothers, Squirrel Hill
• Bernice and Sylvan Simon, 84 and 86, married, Wilkinsburg
• Daniel Stein, 71, Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh
• Melvin Wax, 88, Squirrel Hill, City of Pittsburgh
• Irving Younger, 69, Mount Washington neighborhood, Pittsburgh

Together beneath the Abrahamic tree: Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom adventures

Two weeks ago Sunday, two carloads of my Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom chapter drove down to Chicago for an afternoon of camaraderie and training in how to engage in thorny discussions.

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Along with the Wisconsin contingent (Milwaukee and Madison), women came from Illinois (Chicago and beyond) and Iowa (Quad Cities).

Our facilitators did a great job, and the hours passed quickly.

The following week, my story about my own experiences pre-dating and since joining the group ran in the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle. So, in the spirit of “well, maybe we can’t all just get along but damnit, I’m not gonna stop trying,” I’m posting it here.

It was interesting to write, because I’d just been told to “write a first-person piece” about the group. Looking at where I’d come from and how I’d ended up as a SOSS member was the most respectful way to accomplish that without accidentally violating the privacy of my chapter sisters.

The journeys for all of us are so different. I’d love to see an anthology of personal journeys to chapter membership.

But that’s another story for another day.

Click here to see mine: Click me!

 

 

 

 

Insanity dressed up as ‘Peace:’ a random Jewish person’s take on Jerusalem

On this day, less than 24 hours after President Trump’s reckless decision to toss a lit match into a dry forest, metaphorically speaking, I am so grateful for my Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom Sisters.

Because of them, I am able to continue hoping that we can somehow surmount all the crazy and horrible that’s drowning out the important thing we need to remember – that we’re more alike than different. That by standing together, we can poke giant holes in the lies of those who want to divide and conquer us for their own selfish reasons.

This past January, we met for the first time – a bunch of Jewish women and a bunch of Muslim women.  Some of us knew each other intra-religiously. Except for Jan, no one knew any of the women who weren’t from the same religious community. All of us were traumatized by November 8th. The Muslim women talked of having to soothe and comfort their children, who feared deportation, even though they were US citizens. That meeting left us all wanting more, and over the past year, we have arrived at the place where we are now – getting ready to do something as sisters for the larger community. A couple of us won’t be there the actual day because of Christmas-celebrating family commitments.

The rest of us will be serving dinner at a local organization, Repairers of the Breach. It serves and is governed by homeless individuals. But we’ll all there in spirit, and we’ll be showing up with some gifts of our own. A large part of our last meeting was taken up with discussion about the finer points of travel-sized toiletries and toothbrushes.

As to the Elephant in the Room, or to put it another way, Jerusalem, I wrote what you will see below six years ago in response to something that was happening on the Israel/Palestine front.

Today, it’s what I’d write if I wasn’t at work, dashing this post off on my laptop in the breakroom at lunch. The big difference is that back then, I didn’t have any Muslim pals off of which to bounce this, and now I do. Also there wasn’t a nihilist in the White House.

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Donald Trump, demonstrating his lack of respect and awareness regarding anything having to do with other humans.

 

“Ugly and frightening pretty much sums up the latest chapter in Israel’s relationship with the rest of the world.

It’s hard for me to talk about Israel in general, because I love it so much and want it to thrive and be safe; and I also want to hear the Palestinian National Symphony and see the Palestinian National Dance Company perform before I die, because that will mean that there is a Palestine that’s taking care of itself and its people.

My views on the situation aren’t popular with anyone. My conservative friends think I’m a sellout for not marching to the beat of “Everything Israel Does is Right.”

My liberal friends think I’m a fascist for thinking that Israel has a right to exist at all.

The truth is that Israel needs to exist, and Palestine needs to exist. There needs to be two states – side-by-side and the Palestinian state needs to be contiguous. Both sides need to respect the borders and safety of each other and live like decent neighbors.

And Jerusalem, which is holy to both Jews and Muslims? Sorry, dudes. You need to share it. And I get the whole not wanting to share things. I am an oldest child. I don’t want to share anything. But I am practical. Plus, I have a younger sister. So, bad news, Israel and Palestine. You each have your own country, but you still have to learn to share. You are not only children. You are siblings. Get over it

My latest scheme to institute Peace in the Middle East involves feral cats. I have no idea how, but it seems that trying to solve the feral cat problem has caused as much anguish for some people as the Middle East situation has for others. And there are other similarities. Feral cats are stubborn and difficult to deal with. Dealing with them requires a great deal of finesse and patience. And there are no guarantees that you’ll get the results you’re looking for – trust, affection and a chance to get them neutered or spayed and the chance to love them the way they deserve to be loved.”

 

Anthony Weiner sentenced at an interesting time….

Weiner_Wikipedia

Yesterday’s New York Times featured a story about Anthony Weiner, the former congressman who decimated his family and career by engaging in virtual sex with random women and a teenage girl.

In November, he will report to prison to begin serving a 21-month sentence, after which he has to register as a sex offender.

There’s no need to go into the details here. That’s not the point of this post. Suffice it to say that they’re easily obtained elsewhere (not that I have done a ton of looking).

The whole mess is sad on multiple levels. Weiner was married to an accomplished and beautiful woman. Their son was very small when the first scandal broke and 15 months old when the second became public. I know that last because evidently the baby was in the room with him when he was engaging in behavior I would rather not think about. So that bit was mentioned in the news stories at the time.

This morning it hit me that Weiner is Jewish. I don’t know how or even whether he connects religiously with that. But he was sentenced during the Ten Days of Repentance. That got my attention at a much deeper level than it would have had the sentence been handed down at any other time.

Between Rosh HaShanah (the Jewish New Year, which was last Thursday) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement, coming up this Saturday) is a 10-day period when we examine ourselves and our behavior and are judged accordingly.

I was going to look for something succinct to explain it, and then remembered that I wrote a story about it for our local Jewish community paper. In it, I interviewed two rabbis and a rabbi-in-training about what they do during that period, and what we can do.

Here’s me, quoting myself:

“The period is seen as a time when every Jewish adult is on trial. But rather than taking place in a court of law before a jury of our peers, the setting is inside ourselves, and God is the judge. In synagogue, we engage in communal prayer and communal confession.”

Outside of synagogue, we think about ourselves, not in a narcissistic way, but in a way that hopefully allows for us to be better people.

I spend this period examining things I’ve done over the past year of which I am proud and not so proud, and consider ways to do better moving forward. I also make a point of seeking out anyone I have upset or who has upset me and either apologize or forgive, as the case may be.

There is a passage in the holiday liturgy we repeat more than once that basically says for wrongs committed against God,  the Day of Atonement atones. But for wrongs committed against other people, the Day of Atonement does not atone.” Or, to put it another way, we need to take care of our own apology and forgiveness business. (There’s an interesting article about it in Psychology Today.)

It can be awkward, but it’s also purifying. This year, I have upped the ante a bit. Yesterday, I focused some apology/forgiveness mojo on a work aspect that’s sometimes made me feel at sea. I don’t know if the person I spoke with quite understood the timing, but we came away with a better understanding of the other’s point of reference, and that will affect the way we work moving forward.

So, in all this introspection and focusing on self, the timing of Weiner’s sentencing didn’t hit me until this morning. I don’t know what, if anything, it means to him. But it brings to mind, for me, the second paragraph of the Unetanah Tokef, a part of the liturgy on which Leonard Cohen (z”l) based his song “Who by Fire.”

Here is a translation I found on wikipedia:

“On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed – how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die after a long life and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity annul the severe Decree.”

 

An open letter to American Muslims and Anyone Else Unsettled by the US Election: a Dispatch from the Land of Trumpelstiltskin

Dear American Muslims and others feeling unsettled by the possibility of no longer being safe in your own country:

There is no delicate way to say what I am about to say, so I am just going to say two things that have been running through my mind since Tuesday night.

  1. I am so sorry for what you are all going through. My heart is with you.
  2. You now understand, in a way more visceral than any Jew of my generation, the reason for the creation of a Jewish homeland – which, although originally posited for anywhere available, ended up as the State of Israel in the Middle East.

Regarding the current state of Israel, its prime minister, its issues around settlements and all the other complications and messy realities of statecraft and daily life, please set it aside for purposes of this discussion. Not because those aren’t valid topics for conversation – they absolutely are – but because it’s not the issue I’m addressing here.

In 70 CE, the Romans dispersed most (not all, but pretty much all but the equivalent of a tiny rural village’s worth) of the country’s Jews. From then until 1948, we were an itinerant crew, depending on the hospitality and governmental vagaries of the countries to which we managed to hie ourselves.

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I think these two are my great-grandparents, who brought my then six-month-old  grandmother over from Russia in a valise. From what I understand, he was, to paraphrase our incoming president, “Not their best.” His offspring were better. Bobby married a peddler. They saved money, bought a farm and raised dairy cattle, cash crops and five children. My mother was the first to graduate from college.

 

It’s not a happy history. There’s a joke that so many Jewish kids played violin because you could pick one up and run when you got kicked out of whatever country you were living in.  Jews got really good at languages, because they had to learn so many. When we were allowed to live in a place, we were often made to keep to a restricted part of town, and wear visible clothing that marked us as different. (Note: It was a thing WAY before Nazi Germany.)

My lifetime has been a period of what is best described as a golden age for Jews. I live in a country where, for the most part, we’ve been pretty welcome. (Exceptions exist, but again, not the issue I’m addressing here.)

Some of that is due to what happened in 1948, when the Jews got what no generation for more than 1,000 years had had – a place of our own, a country of refuge in which we would never be “other.” A country where national holidays would be our holidays, our shared culture and religious observance would be the norm and not the exception, where we could raise our babies and care for our elders without having to explain what “kosher” entails. Most of all, it was a country where we never wondered when a mob would burn our neighborhood, round us up and run us out of town, arrest and/or kill us.

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The great-great grandchildren of the people in the photo above. This picture was taken in Israel, with Shelli the Labrador retriever. The great-great granddaughter on the left is in medical school, the one on the right is getting ready to apply for Ph.D. programs in biology.

 

Everything else aside, it’s a terrible thing to feel unsettled in your own home, whether that means the space on the furniture-filled side of your front door or the space beyond it, the public space.

I live in the United States because my grandparents fled Russia and Ukraine. I don’t want my country to be a place where those of us who are different are made to feel “less than.”

That said, I’m not gonna lie. Knowing what  – and that – my forebears sacrificed to try and create a place that would take me and mine in without question  gives me a sense of place and security.

It requires something else too. Because of my history, I have an obligation to do as much to ensure the physical, emotional and moral safety of those around me. Whatever happens over the next four years, for better or worse, I’ve got your backs. We’re in this together.

The straight line connecting Donald Trump’s new tallit to “Christians for Islam,” and a best practices suggestion

On my morning Facebook rounds, I caught this post by one of my offspring:

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Clearly, my Photoshop skills are the equivalent of those of a four year old with an easel and finger paints.

 

In the way of Facebook, I could see beneath her post that a few other friends had posted articles about it, too.

At this point, shocking and seemingly inappropriate behavior is kind of the norm for this year’s GOP Presidential Candidate. (His cheerleaders and supporters are the ones who really scare me.)

I tried to imagine the reasons Donald Trump would be wearing a Tallit on Shabbat in a church. The best I could come up with was that maybe he was with a Messianic Jewish congregation. “Messianic Jews,” or as I refer to them, “Christians,” believe that Jesus is the messiah. As I understand it, that’s the foundation of Christianity – that Jesus came, died for our sins, was resurrected, rose to heaven, and will return. The righteous will be raptured and taken to heaven, the rest left on earth to a fate that is not fabulous.

Jews are still waiting for the Messiah to show up. S/He will establish heaven right here. We are supposed to help prepare for that time by doing what we can to help establish an earth that is as close to heaven as possible for mere mortals. That’s why you see so many Jews involved in social action, even those who don’t connect with the religious aspects of Judaism. Also, for Shabbat-Observant Jews (the ones who hew to keeping the Sabbath by not engaging in the 39 forbidden acts considered work), that time represents a taste of every day on earth in the Messianic Age.

So, my take on “Messianic Jews,” is that they can call themselves anything they want, but for Jews like me (who are still waiting for the first appearance of the Messiah), they’re Christians. My only real problem with Messianic types is when they go to small communities where there are no Jews and make presentations in churches to Christians who have never met a Jew in person. I saw this a lot when I was working as a religion reporter in a small community. I had never been able to articulate why I felt so viscerally offended at those press releases (which I ran, but only after I’d had someone else do the editing because my gut inclination was to round-file them, which went against my other gut inclination of everyone having equal rights to media access).

Then, when visiting one of my favorite United Methodist pastors at his church, which was one of the more conservative-leaning  (those UMs are a wide-ranging group – a true “big tent” denomination that swings from far left to far right), I saw one of those Messianic announcements on the church bulletin board.

I felt comfortable enough with Paster Kerry to tell him how I felt, and he felt comfortable enough with me to be genuinely interested, even though he didn’t understand what I could possibly find offensive.

And then, call it Divine Inspiration. Call it just plain inspiration. Call it Fred if you want. I looked at Pastor Kerry and said this.

“Imagine a kid from your church who’s been baptized, gone through your Sunday school and been confirmed,” I said. “Now, imagine him coming to see you during his second semester of college, all excited.

‘Pastor Kerry! Pastor Kerry!’ he says. ‘Did you know that Allah is the One True God and Muhammed is his last Prophet? I am going to keep the Five Pillars! I pray to Mecca five times a day, and I eat halal and observe Ramadan. But don’t worry. I’m going to still celebrate Christmas and Easter, because I’m a Christian for Islam!'”

Watching him make the connection was like one of those time-lapse films of a flower opening, only faster. The emotion with which he delivered his three-word response was a study in understated power.

“I get it,” he said.

But, I digress. Absent what I wrote above, when it came to Donald Trump and a Tallit on Shabbat in a church, I had nothing.

So I clicked on one of the articles. The answer was that Bishop Wayne Jackson of Great Faith Ministries in Detroit gave it to him as a gesture of love and hope.

“This is a prayer shawl straight from Israel. Whenever you’re flying from coast to coast — I know you just came back from Mexico and you’ll be flying from city to city — there is an anointing. And anointing is the power of God,” Jackson said. “It’s going to be sometimes in your life that you’re going to feel forsaken, you’re going to feel down, but the anointing is going to lift you up. I prayed over this personally and I fasted over it, and I wanted to just put this on you.”

There had been some speculation on Offspring’s thread that the Tallit might have been connected to Donald’s daughter Ivanka, who is Jewish. I could labor over a snappy ending to this post, but will go lazy by copying and pasting what I wrote (verbatim) on Offspring’s wall:

“Now, at least, it makes sense, even if it makes me kind of squishy and uncomfortable. I mean, what if Pastor Jackson had given Trump, say, I dunno, a Native American headdress? Or some other religious symbol from some other faith tradition? Maybe Jared & Ivanka will be able to explain the reason that a lot of Jews might find it a little … off-putting.

“That said, the spirit in which Pastor Jackson gifted it was pure, and he was probably reaching back to the roots of his Jesus, who lived and died as a Jew and so he probably feels some ancestral pull that way.

That said, it’s not something conventionally associated with Christianity and the Twister-like moves one needs to perform in order to explain it make it a poor choice.

“That said, The Donald complicated matters greatly by putting it on, when his best move would have been to have simply said thank you and brought it home to put away for his grandson’s eventual bar mitzvah.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Up from the grave to denounce a naked emperor

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Helen and me. I was so happy to get to see her, and I think she was happy to see me, too. Maybe even happier than she would have been to see Donald Trump. (Actually, I’m pretty sure she was happier to see me.)

Donald J. Trump is a man his supporters would avoid like gay pride parades if he were saying the things he says while unshaven and pushing all his worldly possessions in a shopping cart.

But he wears bespoke suits and lives and works in buildings with his name on them. So instead of being called out for what he is – the emperor with no clothes  – his rants are miraculously elevated to the level of worthy discourse. It would be lovely to live in a world where his call to bar Muslims from entering the US would signify the beginning of his being exiled from public life. Sadly, I know better.

I don’t often put words in the mouths of dead people. But I’m pretty sure that Helen Sperling, who died last week at the age of 95, would have excoriated Mr. Naked Emperor.

Helen was the first Holocaust survivor I ever met. I don’t remember not knowing her. But until a Sunday School morning when I was 12 and 60 or so of us sat on the floor in the Edelstein Room at our synagogue while Helen sat on a chair and told us her story, I only knew her as Paul and Franny’s mother.

Helen was the mother with the musical laugh and long hair worn in a braid down her back. My mother had short hair and a short fuse. I wanted the mother with the musical laugh and long hair. I loved being at the Sperlings’ house. I spent a lot of time there because Paul was one of my best friends until we turned 5. His sister Franny was two years older. She was beautiful and way too sophisticated to hang out with four-year-olds.

One day, which I only can tell you about because it became the stuff of legend for the mothers involved, Helen served a lunch that consisted of pretty much none of my preferred menu items. (In Helen’s defense, I was a pretty strange eater. I didn’t like peanut butter. I didn’t like jelly. I didn’t like tomato sauce. I didn’t like sweet things.)

But I had been taught to be polite, and to be a good guest. Good guests did not ask for food that wasn’t already on the table. Good guests did not say “I don’t like that!”

So, when Helen called Paul and me into the kitchen for lunch and sat us down, I evidently surveyed the repast and looked up at Helen.

“These,” I said, eyeing up the contents of one of the serving plates, “are the friendliest cucumbers I’ve ever seen.”

I know that Helen must have laughed and laughed in that moment, because she and my mother both laughed every time one (or both) of them recalled it – right up to last year, when I was in Utica for my Aunt Bessie’s funeral and had time either to go to the cemetery and see my dad or go hang out with Helen, who was 94.

I called Franny to make sure Helen was up for visitors. Sadly, Paul and I never re-established our pre-kindergarten bond (there’s always hope, and we do have our memories), but when I was 15 and Franny 17, we got close. Ten years ago, we reconnected. Aside from being a generally fabulous human being, she is is also an amazing aerialist, and my hero and inspiration in all things flying.

Helen was as full of life and as feisty as ever. That she needed oxygen to breathe and wasn’t so good at getting out of a chair did absolutely nothing to diminish her vivacity and power.

She exclaimed over the cream puff I had brought for her (“My favorite! How did you know?” What I didn’t say: “Because Franny told me when I called her to see if you’d be up for a visit.”) and lamented that she didn’t have anything to serve. I’d bought frozen fish sticks; Helen was thrilled to let me use her oven.

We yakked like girlfriends. I told her about my experiences as a reporter in Central Wisconsin, where a Holocaust denier had taken possession of a good deal of Public Square real estate. The denier used local media to broadcast her message, got herself invited to an eighth grade classroom to talk to students, and even arranged for a public talk at the local two-year university center. I spent three years there, I told Helen, and was most proud of two things I’d done. One was connecting a local coffee shop to Colectivo, a Milwaukee-based coffee roasting company, making it possible to get a great cup of coffee in the (relative) middle of nowhere. The other was getting a Holocaust survivor to come to talk to those eighth graders, and to give a public talk at the university center.

We talked about getting old and dying. She was ready, but as long as she could, she said, she would tell her story. I asked her if she’d recorded it.

“Yes,” she said, “I spoke with the Spielberg Foundation. (The disc is) in a vault, because until I’m dead, I want people to hear it directly from me.”

She told me about the bracelets she gave every attendee at the end of every talk. Blue, and engraved with the words, “Thou Shalt Not Be A Bystander.”

“I don’t have any here,” she said. Then, she remembered that she was wearing one. She took it off and gave it to me.

Helen was a staunch supporter of Israel. She also loved the United States, and the best of what both countries aim to be and represent.

There is no way she would have stood by while a well-dressed, charismatic political wannabe spouted religious hatred. She knew exactly where that led. Which is why she spent her life doing everything in her power to make sure no one would ever have to go there again.

Note: Even though Helen didn’t want any video of her telling her story while she was alive, I did find one – on one of her many visits to Union College, her talk was videotaped. Click here to see it.