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.

Poupsie
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.”

 

Newsmakers make news, religious fanatics make trouble and Mom’s community hosts a Debbie Friedman event with a millennial twist

It’s been a terrible week for the news business. Brian Williams has been handed a suspension without pay for six months, or as I’m calling it, “book leave.” Jon Stewart is leaving The Daily Show to have dinner with his kids. And Bob Simon, whose latest stop in a distinguished career was 60 Minutes, was killed in a car accident.

Which is senseless, but not as senseless as those three Muslim kids in North Carolina who got shot by their neighbor. Over a supposed parking dispute? And somehow, we’re searching for an explanation. The alleged shooter – who has confessed, btw, was an….atheist. Which explains it about as well as a Christian or Jew killing them would. Which is to say, not at all.

Then there’s Kayla Mueller, the young woman from Arizona who died in Syria after more than a year in captivity at the hands of those people who are doing terrible things in the name of Islam. Other than returning the world to the time when we lived in caves and threw rocks at each other, it’s hard to figure out exactly what they’re after.

I am starting to think none of this religion stuff matters very much except as a veil for mean people to hide behind and decent ones to wear in order to try and make the world and their lives better. Based on news reports about them, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Kayla Mueller fell into the latter category.

Moving on – as best we can after change happens – a few weeks ago was Debbie Friedman’s yahrzeit – the fourth anniversary of her death. Her birthday is coming up in a couple of weeks. She would have been 64. Not a day goes by when my mother and aunts – who considered most of their kid pile one amorphous group of offspring – aren’t thinking of her.

Debbie might not have lived as long as her family and friends and the millions (I am not exaggerating here) of people who loved her music wanted her to. My sister and I were sure we would hang out being old ladies together with Debbie and her sisters. But she lived long enough to be remembered by people she never met. Some of those people work at the nursing home where Mom lives. One, the music therapist and activities person, Amy, approached me about six months ago with an idea.

“What would you think about having a concert of Debbie’s music around her yahrzeit? I was thinking it would be really great for your mother to help plan and be part of it.”

What did I think? I thought it would be great. The next thing I knew, Amy had Trish involved. Trish is the activities director on the assisted living side of the house, where Mom lived before she moved to the nursing home. Trish’s daughter Lauren and my Alex were playmates from the time they were about four. Now they’re both married – to Canadians – and living above the 48th parallel. Anyway, Trish is an activities genius.

So I told Trish about The Box. Mom has saved every scrap of paper from Debbie’s career that she ever acquired. I had it in a box to send to Aunt Freda for what will surely be some Debbie Friedman Archive somewhere someday that scholars will seek out. People will have to wear gloves to handle stuff that was jammed into various bags and between pages in books until I was tossing and sorting things in advance of her moves to where she is now. Trish was very excited about The Box, and started making noises about a display table.

She also made noises elsewhere. By the time Concert Day arrived, there’d been a squib in the local Jewish paper and a slew of local rabbis and cantors had signed on to take part.

Mom and I each got to pick a song to sing. She picked L’chi Lach, because she loves it.

I picked “Set me for a Seal,” because Debbie wrote it for my sister and brother-in-law’s wedding and we sang it together under the chuppah. She taught it to me, and then, intermittently for the entire weekend up to the wedding itself, my cell phone would ring and I’d pick it up and say hello.

“How does it go again?”

So I’d sing it for her.

Anyway, what with the Parkinson’s and all, Mom’s voice sometimes gives out. Also, I didn’t want her to have to stress about finding a key in which to sing. So we decided to do it with cello backup. That way, I could follow her around. Also, I played the melody through once, bowing, and then plucked so she could hear but the cello wouldn’t overpower her voice. It worked well.

Mom sings L'chi Lach. I pluck.
Mother/daughter bonding: Stillish life with cello. That’s Debbie on the movie screen. Mom was singing L’chi Lach. When she had her bat mitzvah in 2004, Mom led MiSheberach, Debbie’s setting of the healing prayer. Debbie stood behind her and played while Mom sang. At this concert, Rabbi Steve Adams did that prayer and he asked me to play guitar. I stood behind him the same way Debbie had for Mom. It was my quiet shoutout to both of them.

We were first, but before that was the best millennial part. Thanks to technology, I was able to get Aunt Freda up on FaceTime and she got to see the 200 people who’d showed up. I introduced her to the rabbis and cantors, showed her the display table and then shoved the microphone up to my i-pad. She thanked everyone for coming, and heard the audible gasp of disbelief when she said that Debbie was so afraid that no one would remember her music.

We lost the connection somewhere between the first and second song, but it was a truly lovely and meaningful afternoon, and I felt connected to Debbie, my family and the community in a way I hadn’t before.

Everyone was backing everyone else up – we had a bunch of guitars, a mandolin, a drum and the cello. Mom got invited up to play timbrel when Amy sang “Miriam’s Song.”

That's Mom on timbrel for "Miriam's Song." Amy the activities goddess is playing guitar. Behind her are Cantors Lauren Phillips, Karen Berman and David Barash (with his tabla).
That’s Mom on timbrel for “Miriam’s Song.” Amy the activities goddess is playing guitar. Behind her are Cantors Lauren Phillips, Karen Berman and David Barash (with his tabla).

We were in front of a theater-sized screen with an image of Debbie on it. As the last song, we sang “T’filat Haderech (The Traveler’s Prayer).” But it was Debbie singing on the screen, and we all picked her key and played our instruments and sang with her. I was very involved in making sure I was in tune, in time and listening to the other musicians (this was our first and dress rehearsal as well as the performance) so it wasn’t until the song was over that I looked over to find Mom, crying her eyes out and pretty much a mess.

For a second, I felt like the worst and most selfish person in the world. Here I was, sawing away on my cello while my mother was falling apart five feet away and I hadn’t noticed.

Then, I realized that it didn’t matter. Trish, Amy and other people she knew and loved were there, comforting her and lifting her up. If Debbie could have seen it, she would have hugged those women and invited them to dinner.

Years ago, Debbie had given me one of her “This is how it is” talks about how Mom shouldn’t be living on Cape Cod anymore because the climate was bad for her Parkinson’s and she should be in California with her mother and Aunt Ann and she was trying to get her to move. All I could think was “Do you want to kill her? Because if you take her away from her community, that’s what will happen.”

I said something like “Good luck getting her to leave the Cape,” adding a silent “Let me know how that works out for you.”

By the time Mom was at a point where she had to move, Debbie was dead. Mom chose Milwaukee. We all loved the idea of Mom & her sisters together, but California wasn’t practical.

Debbie would have hated it too, and agreed. She would have been a regular presence in Mom’s life, calling, visiting, singing and comforting. What I realized in the moment after catching sight of my weeping mother, surrounded by so many loving women, is that even death hasn’t stopped Debbie from that.

The rabbi’s kids and Christmas trees: A tale of forbidden lust

When we were little, my sister and I really wanted a Christmas tree.

We did not want Christmas.

We had no problem with Christmas, but we were perfectly happy with Hanukkah. We liked being Jewish. We loved potato latkes and we got eight night’s worth of presents. So we never felt as if we were missing out on that score. Plus, as a religious minority, we got to partake in a fair share of Majority Culture’s fun. We sang Christmas carols in the school concert and participated in classroom gift exchanges.

Outside of school, Mom let us stand in line so we could sit on Santa’s lap (we always told him we were Jewish and he always wished us a Happy Hanukkah). And our parents took us on an annual nighttime ride around the city during which we oohed and ahhed at houses and houses dressed for the season. They’d pull over, leaving the car running and the heat on, giving us time to take it all in – block after block of lights stretched across houses and dripping from gutters, lit crèches and nativity scenes, rootop Santas and pine wreaths on front doors. If the curtains were open, we might get a glimpse of the family’s tree, festooned with ornaments, boxes piled below.

Then we’d go home to our darkened house. Debby and I never talked about how desperately we wanted a tree. Not to each other, and certainly not to our parents.

We never spoke of it.

It seemed too – blasphemous. Which was not a word either of us knew at that point in our lives. But Debby and I understood that a Christmas tree had no business in the rabbi’s living room, no matter how much the rabbi’s daughters wanted it. And boy, did we want it. A big ol’ fir tree strung with lights and popcorn chains, dripping with silvery strands of tinsel and delicate glass ornaments and maybe even candles you could really light.

We were about seven and eight when we solved our Christmas Tree Lust problem to my satisfaction. (I had a genuine “shock and awe” moment when I learned much later that Debby had, for years, also been decorating a triangular tree-like object she kept hidden on a shelf in her bedroom closet).

Mom & Dad regularly threw us out of the house on weekends.

“Go out and play!” they’d say. It was cold and inside was nicer. But they were in charge.

So we’d put on coats, hats, snow pants, mittens, scarves, grab sleds or whatever and head off looking for what to do and other kids with whom to do it.

One of those days there was just us. We’d walked the neighborhood looking for other kids, but everyone was busy or not home. I’m not sure who got the idea first, but it was just past Christmas. Discarded trees were everywhere.

The perfect tree for my family!
Christian families’ holiday discards were the answer to our childish Jewish prayers!

I looked at her. She looked at me. We looked around, and chose. For the next two or three post-Christmas seasons, we would set out, hunting for the perfect discarded tree. We knew nothing of shape, or symmetry. We looked for tinsel, and types of needles, and whether we could get our hands around the trunk to drag it home. Then, we could imagine it had been in our living room, decorated with popcorn garlands, strung with lights, hung with tinsel and dripping ornaments.

Even though I only imagined one tree inside the house, there was usually more than one laying in the road outside our living room window. We’d see one that was just too perfect to resist (particularly if it still had tinsel slung over the branches) and add it to our collection.

My sister and I never talked about it. My mother and father never brought it up.

Decades later, after my father was long dead, I finally asked my mother what they’d thought about it all.

“We’d laugh,” Mom said. “And then, the night before the garbage truck came, your father would go outside after you were in bed and drag the trees next door to Dr. Cantor’s house.”