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From Lavan to Kristallnacht to Pittsburgh: A History of White Supremacy

Today is Kristallnacht which commemorates a pogrom against Jews throughout Nazi Germany on 9–10 November 1938. The name Kristallnacht comes from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after the windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues were smashed. On one hand it is crazy to realize that is has been 80 years since this happened. In the larger context it is strange to realize that it has only been 80 years and it seems that this day finds it natural home in our collective Jewish calendar already riddled with antisemitism. It is scary to realize that every year we rehearse the “they tried to kill us, let’s eat” as if it is normal or at the least expected. Why do we introduce our children to Antisemites throughout history every year as if it is normative?

For me the most interesting example of this happens during Passover. Every year on the Seder we read, “Go and learn what Lavan the Aramean sought to do to our father Yaakov. A Pharaoh made his decree only about the males, whereas Lavan sought to destroy everything.”  Long before Hitler, Haman, or even Pharoah, there was Lavan who wanted to kill us all.

Given that today is Kristallnacht and the events in Pittsburgh two weeks ago where a White Supremacists went in and killed 11 Jews in a Synagogue I have grown curious at the long history of Antisemitism. That search brought me back to Chaye Sara, last week’s Torah portion. There we meet Rebecca’s brother Lavan. If we accept the premise set forward in the Hagadah that Lavan is paradigmatic Antisemite, what do we learn from Lavan about the origin of Antisemitism?

There we read:

Now Rivka had a brother whose name was Lavan, and Lavan ran to the man outside, to the fountain. (Genesis 24:29)

From this we do not see anything so horrible. Quoting the Midrash Rashi explains his running:

and Lavan ranWhy did he run and for what did he run? “Now it came to pass, when he saw the nose ring,” he said, “This person is rich,” and he set his eyes on the money. — [Gen. Rabbah 60:7]

Lavan is not being hospitable but rather interested in filling his pockets with wealth. This is obvious counter-distinction to his sister’s emulation of Avraham’s generosity toward strangers in looking after the needs of Eliezer and even his camels. Where Rivka was clearly in line with the hospitality of Avraham, her brother was running after his own interests.  On this the Or HaChaim has another opinion. He writes:

The fact is that Lavan was sincerely concerned about his sister’s innocence, suspecting that the gifts to her of the jewelry by a total stranger could have been the beginning of an immoral relationship between them. The Torah here describes Lavan as if he were a righteous person because it acknowledges his concern for his sister’s chastity. When the Torah states: “it was when he saw,” this shows that Lavan reacted first to what he saw and subsequently to what he heard. As long as he had not yet heard what transpired between the two he put an ugly interpretation on the manner in which he thought his sister had obtained the jewelry, suspecting Eliezer of seducing Rivka. ( Or HaChaim on Genesis 24:29)

At first glance Lavan is Rebecca’s brother. He even seems to be hospitable, but according to Rashi he really is just motivated by self-interest. According to the Or HaChaim Lavan is worried about a stranger taking advantage of his sister. On the surface this does not seem so horrible. This is not remotely at the level of many of the other Antisemites from our history.

And than I got to thinking about the meaning of his name.  Lavan means white. Here we are discussing the Rabbinic origin of Antisemitism and Lavan’s name means white. This demanded some exploration. My mind jumped to last summer’s White Supremacists’ Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville. On the evening of Friday, August 11, a group of white nationalists gathered for a march through the University of Virginia’s campus. They marched towards the University’s Lawn chanting Nazi and white supremacist slogans, including “White lives matter”; “You will not replace us“; and “Jews will not replace us”. Their hate seems to spring from a fear that Jews who they define as non-white will replace Whites. On one level the fear of being replaced is in reference to white power, privileged, and money. On another level I cannot help read “Jews will not replace us” as a reference to Jared Kushner. This mob of white men are disgruntled that this Jew has replaced them in being married to Ivanka, the first daughter and their model of Teutonic blond beauty. The myth of the noble defender of our women’s honor against the raping foreigner is not something new that Trump has created. It is but a thin veil of valor to cover over the cowardice of xenophobia and the ugliness of hatred.

Image result for Jews will not replace us

Recently my wife sent me an amazing article Skin in the Game: How Antisemitsm Animates White Nationalism by Eric K. Ward.  There he writes:

American White nationalism, which emerged in the wake of the 1960s civil rights struggle and descends from White supremacism, is a revolutionary social movement committed to building a Whites-only nation, and antisemitism forms its theoretical core. That last part—antisemitism forms the theoretical core of White nationalism— bears repeating.

Ward argues that Antisemitism fuels the White nationalism which is a genocidal movement now enthroned in the highest seats of American power. Fighting Antisemitism cuts off that fuel for the sake of all marginalized communities under siege from the Trump regime and the social movement that helped raise it up.

To Ward’s conception Whites hatred of Ashkenazic Jews is a clear case of the narcissism of small differences, they are both white. Ashkenazic Jews are white just as Rivka was Lavan’s sister. Like Rashi these Whites Supremacists and Lavan are both in pursuit of the privileges and money they believe they are due. On another level we can read Or HaChaim’s understanding of Lavan expressing his paternalistic fear of preserving the sexual purity of his sister as an age-old slur of maligning a marginalized group as rapists. We can see that Whites Supremacists and the Rabbis’ reading of Lavan might argue that their hatred and violence is legitimate or even virtuous. We see from it origins White Supremacy is just an expression of self-interest and unfounded fear-mongering.

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Looking for a Place to Rest: A Meditation in Response to the Pittsburgh Shooting

As a Rabbi, a Jewish professional, and a father, this past week has been difficult both personally and professionally.  After a long and intense week, I am ready for a peaceful Shabbat at home. Or at least I thought I was, until a colleague asked me how I was going to talk about the events of  last Shabbat with my children. Shabbat has always been a meaningful practice for connecting as a family and with the Jewish people. Last Shabbat, however, during what should have been a peaceful celebration of the creation of the world, 11 members of the larger Jewish family were taken from us, and their worlds violently destroyed. My colleague’s inquiry raised questions in me: Will Shabbat ever feel the same for our family, and for the larger Jewish community? In the wake of what has happened, how do we find comfort in Shabbat this week and in the future? I suspect other people share the same concerns.

I realized that I needed to go back to the foundation and think about all of the aspects of what has made Shabbat meaningful to me. One idea that has comforted me this week has been singing the chorus to Yom Shabbaton, which is one of my favorite Shabbat Zemirot– songs. Written by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (1075 – 1141), this poem describes the complete rest and peace of Shabbat. As we sing in the chorus:

Yonah matz’ah vo manoach v’sham yanuchu y’giei choach.

The dove does find her rest, and there rest those whose strength is spent

On one level, the dove that rested on the Shabbat day is instantly identifiable as Noah’s dove. Seven days after the dove was first sent from the ark to check if the flood was gone, it found rest on the dry land (Genesis 8:12). Hidden in the chaos of a world that is destructive and painful far too often, the Shabbat is a small island poking out from the vast sea of chaos. While the world still needs to be rebuilt, this small perch for the dove is the first glimmer of hope. In seeing how many Americans of every creed and color have shown up to support the Jewish community in Pittsburgh, I find hope – a safe place to land and rest before we begin the work to rebuild our broken world.  

We can also interpret the  chorus as a reference to the Jewish people, who are often symbolized by the dove. Throughout time, we have been forced to move from place to place due to cruelty, oppression,and violence at the hands of others. Like the dove, we desperately seek a place to rest. While America has always been a relatively safe haven for the Jewish people, the events of Pittsburgh this past Shabbat force us to recognize that the long history of anti-Semitism – and its existence in contemporary America – is far from over.

Throughout history, gathering to observe Shabbat has been a revolutionary act, a public affirmation of our ideals of peace, life, and community in the face of oppressors who’d deny us all three. It may seem contradictory, but in creating a weekly space to find rest despite the events in the world around us, we actively reject anti-Semitism and bigotry. By gathering together to observe Shabbat, we connect to the shared cultural history in which Jews have observed Shabbat throughout challenging and difficult times, and physically reaffirm our commitment to Jewish values.    

“Birds in Flight”, photo of stone cut from my parents’ home

In both interpretations of the chorus, Shabbat manifests not only as a weekly time, but as a sacred space as well. Shabbat is not just an aspiration, but a destination. All I can do – and all any of us can do – is fill the space of Shabbat with love, peace, and hope for my nuclear family, my larger Jewish family, and the world. My plan for this Shabbat is to hug my children a little tighter, invite others to join us in this holy space, and share this song of hope with the world.

-cross-posted FJC blog

Siyum Mishna for James Joseph Orlow z”l

As part of mourning process for the passing of my father I arranged a group of people to learn the entire Mishnah in his memory.  While Shloshim technically came to an end on Rosh HaShannah, over Sukkot we will mark 30 days since his passing. I wanted to thank all of the people around the world who joined in this noble cause of lifting up his neshama, soul, during this period of time. A full list of the people who joined in this learning project can be found here. Thank you, this effort means the world to me and my family.

During Shiva many people in their community remarked how they really got to know my parents at their Shabbat and Holiday table. While my mother gets all of the credit for inviting the people and cooking the food, my father sure enjoyed himself. While my father was a genius in his field of study, he never let his lack of knowledge hold him back from getting into a rich argument.  As part of this siyum of Mishna in his memory  I got to learn Perkei Avot with Yishama. There we learned:

 יוֹסֵי בֶן יוֹעֶזֶר אִישׁ צְרֵדָה אוֹמֵר, יְהִי בֵיתְךָ בֵית וַעַד לַחֲכָמִים, וֶהֱוֵי מִתְאַבֵּק בַּעֲפַר רַגְלֵיהֶם, וֶהֱוֵי שׁוֹתֶה בְצָמָא אֶת דִּבְרֵיהֶם

Yose ben Yoezer says, “May your house be a meeting-house for Sages, become dirty in the dust of their feet and drink their words thirstily.” (Avot 1:4)

In many regards this captured my father at his best at the head of the table filled with sages. Like his namesake Yaakov who wrestled with the angel, my father enjoyed getting dirty in the dust of their feet ( Genesis 32:25). While he was always thirsty to learn more, like Yaakov he never this these guest get away so easily. At these salons everyone had a voice and everyone needed to defend their point of view. My father always taught us to be curious and confident. We should learn from everyone and know that each of us had a seat and a voice at the table.

Orlow Family Passover Seder mid 1980’s

Thank you again to all those who joined in this Siyum Mishna in the memory of Yaakov Yosef ben Avraham v’Leah.

May the memory of James Joseph Orlow z”l be for a blessing.

Sukkot Gets Real

Everyone warned me that the High Holidays would be hard after the recent passing of my father, but in truth, it was just not the case. My father did not especially connect with these holidays. He was not a religious Jew in any conventional way. He did not grow up with much Jewish ritual in his life. At the same time, he was a deeply spiritual person. He spent close to 60  years of his life immersed in the study and practice of law, but I do not think he connected to the idea of a court on high in which we would be judged. Almost his entire career and life was committed to immigrants to this country, but in many ways in the place of the synagogue he himself was an alien.

While my dad was a genius and spent an extraordinary amount of his time and energy in his formidable mind, he loved to build things with his hands. When it comes to my mourning process, there is a big part of me that is expecting the shoe to drop on Sukkot. Some of my favorite memories of my father are of his building things. For him, building a Sukkah made more sense than the more abstract Jewish rituals.  This Sukkot, I pause to contemplate the nature of the Sukkah, in memory of my father.

The Talmud records a difference of opinion between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva regarding the nature of a Sukkah. Rabbi Eliezer teaches that the Sukkot of the desert experience were “clouds of glory,” which hovered over the Children of Israel for forty years in the wilderness. Rabbi Akiva disagrees saying,  “The Sukkot were real booths that they built for themselves.” (Sukkah 11b) Did either Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva think that when they entered into a Sukkah in their own era that they were actually sitting in the imagined reference point? Either way you cut it the Sukkah is a symbol. Does this symbol represent a metaphor to the Divine presence or does it represent something akin to what we were using in the desert?

Clearly these two Rabbis would eat in each other’s Sukkot, so what are they disagreeing about? At one level we could understand the disagreement between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva to be one of understanding what it means to be Jewish. Is being Jewish a religion ( “clouds of glory”) or a nationality (real booths they used post Exodus in the desert)? The Sukkah is a tangible and real structure formed by human hands. And at the same time it is it a spiritual space that connects us to God. The Sukkah can be a symbol of our experience as a people in a physical and historic way, while simultaneously offering  a religious manifestation of our metaphysical relationship with God.

While at first glance I think that my father might agree with Rabbi Akiva, I truly believe that he connected to Rabbi Eliezer as well. He found  deep spiritual fulfillment in creating a space for his family to meet and be together. While, the Sukkah is immersive metaphor we get to really enter our national and religious memories, it is also the place we build to hold family memories. 

I’m reminded of the many ways in which camp is like a Sukkah, an  immersive metaphor we get to really enter. Camp is a community we create with our own hands, yet it is a mystical and meaningful place that transcends the physical space in which it’s located. Like a Sukkah, camp is temporary, but the brevity of our time there endows it with a special sense of holiness all year-long. Additionally, while a Sukkah is an enclosed dwelling made up of four walls to keep us safe, we are supposed to cover it with branches to ensure that we can still see the stars above. Camp also functions this way: while it takes place in a specific space and time and is safe and secure, the lessons we learn and the friends we make transcend these limitations, providing a light that shines through the year – and for the rest of our lives. For many of us camp friends are really like family. 

For me I expect that my mourning will get real during Sukkot.  I find comfort, however, in the nature of the Sukkah itself. A Sukkah is all at once a metaphor for the tangible, mystical, and familial. 

James Joseph Orlow z’l and Libi Frydman Orlow his 14th grandchild

 

Cookie Thief: Meilah and the Blessing of Yom Kippur

As part of mourning process for the passing of my father I arranged a group of people to learn the entire Mishnah in his memory.  Yes, there are a few masechtot left if you want to grab one before Sukkot. Among other masechtot that I learned I got to learn Meilah.  This masechet deals with the laws concerning the trespass-offering and the reparation which must be made by one who has used and enjoyed a consecrated thing (Leviticus 15-16). Or in other words what does it mean to lift/steal from God?

I was thinking about this recently when my shul’s rabbi shared the The Cookie Thief by Valerie Cox. The poem reads:

A woman was waiting at an airport one night, with several long hours before her flight. She hunted for a book in the airport shops, bought a bag of cookies and found a place to drop.

She was engrossed in her book but happened to see, that the man sitting beside her, as bold as could be. . .grabbed a cookie or two from the bag in between, which she tried to ignore to avoid a scene.

So she munched the cookies and watched the clock, as the gutsy cookie thief diminished her stock. She was getting more irritated as the minutes ticked by, thinking, “If I wasn’t so nice, I would blacken his eye.”

With each cookie she took, he took one too, when only one was left, she wondered what he would do. With a smile on his face, and a nervous laugh, he took the last cookie and broke it in half.

He offered her half, as he ate the other, she snatched it from him and thought… oooh, brother. This guy has some nerve and he’s also rude, why he didn’t even show any gratitude!

She had never known when she had been so galled, and sighed with relief when her flight was called. She gathered her belongings and headed to the gate, refusing to look back at the thieving ingrate.

She boarded the plane, and sank in her seat, then she sought her book, which was almost complete. As she reached in her baggage, she gasped with surprise, there was her bag of cookies, in front of her eyes.

If mine are here, she moaned in despair, the others were his, and he tried to share. Too late to apologize, she realized with grief, that she was the rude one, the ingrate, the thief.

Like the thief we are all very quick to see ourselves as the victims and we often overlook all that we have done wrong to others. Interestingly, after the Temple was destroyed and the idea of trespass of consecrated offerings was irrelevant, the Rabbis borrowed from this idea to explore how we might create meaning in our daily lives. We learn in the Gemara:

The Sages taught in a ToseftaOne is forbidden to derive benefit from this world, which is the property of God, without reciting a blessing beforehand. And anyone who derives benefit from this world without a blessing, it is as if he is guilty of Meilah– misuse of a consecrated object. (Berachot 35a)

Interestingly with this Rabbinic conception, without an expression of gratitude in the form of a blessing we are all cookie thieves.

I was thinking about all of this as we prepare to enter into Yom Kippur. This holy day is meant to repair our relationship with God for all of the cookies we have taken in the year, but it does nothing to repair the relationships we have ruptured between ourselves by acting poorly or judging each other unfairly.  May we all be blessed with much gratitude, many blessings, and a commensurate amount of cookies in 5779.

Gmar Chatima Tova

Changing Lives, Saving Lives

L’chaim! To life! In Jewish culture, we give small gifts in multiples of the number 18. This may seem arbitrary but in Gematria (an ancient and esoteric method of interpretation in which the numerical value of words can be found in their constituent letter values), “chai” – meaning “life” – is equal to the number 18. In an act that is part gratitude and part mindfulness, we give multiples of the Jewish ‘lucky number’ 18. We take a conscious moment to recognize how fortunate we are for this life we have been given and the blessings in it. While Gematria is a game of sorts, a type of Jewish numerical poetry that has become embedded in the culture, there is no doubt that we as Jews we take life very seriously. We believe that small, symbolic acts like this are habit-forming and ultimately create a life of great character. For Jews, the goal is to live as a Mensch.

Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) is celebrating a special chai benchmark – the 18th bone marrow transplant found and facilitated by the Gift of Life Marrow Registry from a member of the FJC Gift of Life donor circle. Through our partnership to grow the donor registry, one quick and painless act – swabbing your cheek to enter a public bone marrow and blood stem cell registry – can result in a match and a transplant for a child or adult suffering from a life-threatening illness, including leukemia, lymphoma, other cancers and genetic diseases. For Jewish camp counselors that sign up with Gift of Life, this is one small act of many, is part of a pattern of kindness and caring for others.

Throughout the summer at camp, the youngest campers are taught to share responsibility with and for their bunkmates by caring for one another and working to keep their communal space clean. They learn kindness and service are Jewish values. Approaching the age of 13 (bnei mitzvah and beyond), even more trust and training is instilled in the camper, who takes on responsibility for leading Jewish traditions at camp and helping younger campers. As counselors at the age of 18, they are trained to nurture the safety, well-being, happiness and Jewish identity of their campers. At this young age they are charged with caring for a bunk of campers, to teach and model these small acts that make Mensches. It is also at 18 that counselors becoming eligible to test – swab – to join the public bone marrow registry to save a life.

Since the founding of FJC’s partnership with Gift of Life in 2010, 4,298 people have swabbed at FJC network camps, providing 120 matches, and recently the 18th transplant. These are extremely high rates of matching and transplants, due in-part to the uniqueness of Jewish DNA, which – like all minorities – is currently underrepresented in the national bank. A non-Jewish Caucasian person has a 98% chance of finding a match in the national bone marrow registry. In 1991 when the Gift of Life was founded, there was only a 5% chance for an Ashkenazi Jew to find a match. With each drive for the registry at Jewish camp, we increase the likelihood that a Jew will find a life-saving match. Thanks to Gift of Life, Ashkenazi Jewish people now have a 85% chance of matching.

We still have much more work to do to ensure that everyone in our family – regardless of ethnic or biological origins – can find a DNA match if they need it. Jewish family extends far beyond the DNA of Ashkenazi Jews, to include Sephardic Jews, Jews of color, Jews by choice, Jews who join their families by adoption and others. Family is not simply an identity, or DNA – it is an act, a behavior, and practice in giving and gratitude. No matter what our genetic makeup, we care for each other and show up to help. Jewish camp is a family.

A DNA match is necessary – but not sufficient to facilitate a transplant. What must really be celebrated as the true success of this program, is the consistency with which former and current Jewish camp counselors answer the call to care for others, help someone in need, and donate. In order to match, facilitate a transplant and share that gift of life you need to first be willing to act. At Jewish camp, we are training one generation to look after the next.

We all know how much Jewish camp changes people’s lives; we do not always think about how it could actually save someone’s life. With this 18th transplant, we celebrate Jewish camp for all of the small, symbolic actions that make up this kind, giving, life-saving family.

Contact Lindsay Katz at lkatz@giftoflife.org to schedule a bone marrow registry drive for your staff.

Reposted from ejewishphilanthropy.com

The Depths of Tisha B’Av

On Saturday night we will start the observation of Tisha B’Av, commemorating many other calamities that have befallen our people throughout history including the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. For thousands of years prior to 1948 the Temples represented the seat of the autonomous Jewish state. The Sages famously asked why were the Temples destroyed? The logical answer would have been that it met the needs of our oppressors subduing and conquering our ancestors, but our Rabbis went in another direction. In the Talmud we learn:

Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of three evils in it: idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed . . . But why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that during the time it stood people occupied themselves with Torah, with observance of precepts, and with the practice of charity? Because during the time it stood, sinat chinam, baseless hatred, prevailed. This is to teach you that baseless hatred is deemed as grave as all the three sins of idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed together. (Yoma 9b)

While the rites of the Temple and what it signified for our people seem very distant and irrelevant to modern life, strangely the issues of baseless hatred discussed in Tisha B’Av seem rather prescient to our current social and political environment.

Given our long history of struggling with issues of  baseless hatred, what might Jewish thought offer us today? To this I share the oft quoted teaching of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine. He wrote:

The depth of the evil and its greatness of its roots are found in the depth of the good, we find there that the depth of the hatred is commensurate to the depths of love. If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love.(Orot HaKodesh vol. 3, p. 324)

Our society in embroiled in a very dark chapter of baseless hatred, what does it mean that we need to face this with the depths of baseless love? Like many millions of people around the world I could not stop reading and watching the emergent story of rescue of the Thai soccer team and their coach.  They were literally stuck a mile underground and three miles through a flooded cave. People from around the world rushed to put themselves at risk in order to save these people who they never met. I think that the truth of Rav Kook’s comments comes from the literal meaning of his figurative flourish of the word “depth”. The measure of the communities we build are how we create environments where people regularly dig in deep, give of themselves, and share their baseless love with people the do not even know. We clearly have a lot of work to do. On this Tisha B’Av we need to reflect on how we need to invest in building  less walls and more communities.

Image result for new yorker cartoon thai rescue


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