Commentary, Holidays, Judaism, justice, opinion, politics, religion, Social Justice, Society, Uncategorized

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.”

 

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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.

whoarethey1

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.

Talia_and_Alex_Frolkis_at_Maale

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.

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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:

Poupsie.jpg

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Up from the grave to denounce a naked emperor

Helen&Me.jpg

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. 

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Muslims, Jews, History, Cities: A Dispatch from Refugee Heaven

Grover_Says_Terrorist_Refugee

This is my kitten, Grover. Grover had been beaten pretty badly by a group of ferals when I got him, and still has scars. I chose this image because of that and because  everyone on the Internet loves cat pictures.

By now, everyone is probably experiencing what it is they experience after a major tragic event that ripples out from wherever it happened and into their daily routine.

The day after ISIL/Daesh shared its latest commentary on modern civilization, one of my friends posted this story. It’s dense, but worthwhile for anyone who wants a real understanding of what this movement is all about. If you’re too busy, here’s a six-word summary: “Let’s return the world to 630!”

Here, in my own backyard, I’ve been reading about US governors (my own included) falling all over each other in their haste to announce that Syrian refugees will not be allowed to enter their states.

I know that while many Muslims don’t hate Jews, some do, and would hate being compared to us. But there’s no way I can unsee what I’m seeing, which is a contemporary version of the run-up to the Holocaust with these refugees taking the role of the Jews, ISIL/Daesh playing Nazi Germany, and the rest of the world playing itself.

There’s a Canadian book on Jewish immigration policy during that period called “None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948.” The title comes from a comment made by Frederick Blair, then head of immigration for the Canadian government. It was his answer to the question about how many Jewish refugees should be allowed into Canada after 1945.

I was at a neighborhood meeting last night where two aldermen talked about the number of vacant city-owned houses available for sale. I’m sure mine isn’t the only city trying to figure out ways, in the wake of the foreclosure crisis, to deal with this issue. I’m sure it’s not the only city that would love to see those houses filled with hardworking people who would increase the tax base.

No one wants to invite the Angel of Death in for tea and cookies. I’m not saying people shouldn’t be vetted. I am saying that there are three million refugees who would probably think they’d gone straight to heaven if they could walk to the store without being blown up or shot or beheaded or raped or enslaved. Refugees who would be thrilled to pay taxes because it meant they were able to work and earn money.

Here we sit, in our cities full of boarded-up houses and empty apartment buildings. Here we sit, living in heaven and not even realizing it.

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Heading out of Egypt from Flyover Country: A pre-seder post

I’m a little late on this week’s blog post because I’ve been too busy doing things and not busy enough writing about them.

Tonight, 12 people are going to sit down at my dinner table and take a trip from Flyover Country to Egypt. Then we will flee from slavery there.

I’ve been listening to music all day and cooking, and it has been paradise. Cooking is one of the most relaxing things in the world, and little makes me happier than the prospect of cooking for people I like. I will only cook for you if I like you. You can pay me to write for you, but you cannot pay me to cook for you.

Some things are not for sale.

In the “things for sale” department, however, my most recent Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle story is out in the world. It’s about Amanda Miryam-Khaye Seigel, who grew up in Madison and now lives in New York. She’s this delightful singer/songwriter in her 30s, and she sings in Yiddish. She has this pure soprano voice and the expressive range of a whole theater company. So even if you don’t know a single word of Yiddish, you still have a pretty good idea about what she’s singing. Hard-core Metallica or Nas fans might want to skip it, but if you like show tunes, this will be right up your musical alley.

Anyway, back in the “things not for sale” department, here is what my Seder crew will be tucking into so far: halved and roasted Brussels sprouts with some olive oil and Brady Street Sprinkle from The Spice House, carmelized beets tossed in some espresso vinaigrette from Oro, chicken soup with matzah balls, veggie soup with matzah balls (for the vegetarians) gefilte fish, prime rib (which, when I saw how much it cost, thought, “We are eating my children’s inheritance for Seder dinner!”), eggplant parmesan (for the vegetarians), potato kugel, green beans and a salad (made by my wonderful Milwaukee Mom and cousin Carol).

Dessert is pignolis, chocolates made by the culinary arts students at Large Midwestern Technical College – those students make the best-tasting homework ever – and fresh fruit.

Passover, pignoli & plagues

Pignoli, and a couple of plagues. The plagues will be around next year. The pignoli, not so much.

I’d like to stick around and tell you about Wednesday night, when my friend Rick, Sweetheart and I went to see Judith Claire Mitchell read from her amazing new book “A Reunion of Ghosts.” She read from the book, but she also gave us a look behind the curtain at the life of Fritz Haber, who synthesized chlorine gas, and his wife Clara, the first woman to get a Ph.D. in science in Germany. Her dreams of doing cutting-edge (or any) research got washed away when she married Fritz.

Anyway, it’s time to head back into the kitchen. Those apples and nuts are not going to turn into charoset on their own.

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The Great Millennial Mashup Family Seder of 2012: A story of deliverance from slavery

Friday is the first night of Passover, one of the bigger holidays on the Jewish calendar. I’ve been hosting since before Mom moved to Milwaukee, but since she’s been here there’s no way I’d ever be able to think of not hosting.

This will be the first Seder in years I haven’t had at least one of my daughters here. But that doesn’t mean I won’t have a full table. There’ll be 11 of us, including three relatives (parent types) and friends who are part of a Seder community I’ve gathered over the years. There’ll be some new faces at the table, too.

I’ve got most of the menu planned, and will spend the next several nights cooking – chicken soup, pignolis and roasting a beet (to sub in for the shank bone on the Seder plate) and a hard-boiled egg. Thursday night I’ll do a bunch of heavy-duty other prep – the charoset (I make Ashkenazic, because I like it!) and whatever else I can get done.

I’ve also gathered up the Haggadadot (the books we need to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt) and my box of plagues, which I’ve been adding to from year to year. A big box of plastic spiders I found on a post-Halloween sale rack will be making their Seder debut this year.

Passover items

A few Passover things – matzah, matzah cover, a Haggadah and, of course, my Box o’ Plagues!

There have been a lot of memorable Seders in my life, but one stands out. I call it “The Ultimate Millennial Mashup Blended Family Seder.”

My children’s dad and I split when the girls were 2, 4 and 7. Not surprisingly, his family wasn’t overly thrilled with me after that. Two years later, Ex remarried Dee, a widow with three children. She was also not thrilled with me. We all had that in common, at least. I wasn’t thrilled with me either, though for very different reasons.

That was more or less how things stayed, until Ex died in October of 2006. Along with having to deal with being widowed a second time, Dee was dealing with her father’s final illness. So I took to calling my former father-in-law Sidney every week to let him know how his grandchildren were doing, and also to check on how he was doing. That detente led to a genuine friendship, but I wasn’t prepared for what happened in late winter of 2009.

“What are you doing for Seder?” he said.

“I don’t know,” I answered. “I guess I’m having one.”

“Invite me.”

I thought I’d misheard.

“What?”

“Invite me.”

“Sidney, would you and Mrs. Sidney like to come to my house for Seder?” I said.

“We’d love to.”

I’d started the conversation in one universe and ended it in a parallel one, a universe in which my children’s grandfather and his wife of 30-plus years were driving 75 miles and making a hotel reservation to spend the holiday with the woman who’d divorced his son more than 20 years prior.

A few years later, the requests got even more surreal. By the time they stopped, my Seder table was 21 people strong and included my husband, my mother, my children, three of my cousins, Sidney and Mrs. Sidney, Ex’s sister and brother-in-law from Texas, my wife-in-law (if you have a better term for the woman who marries your ex-husband and makes him happier than you did, I’m all ears) and two of her three children, including one who flew in from Israel. There were also the three or four orphans my youngest brought home, along with a friend from synagogue who I was sure would never come back but has every year since.

The Passover Seder is a celebration of freedom. Once we were slaves in Egypt, and now we are free. The Mashup Seder celebrated deliverance from a different kind of slavery. At that seder, we moved from a past chained to feelings that had separated and diminished us into one where, together, we celebrated a shared present and a hopeful future.

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