Posts Tagged 'Jewish'

In Our Kishkas: Jacob’s Ladder

In VaYetzei, this week’s Torah portion, we see a rich image of Jacob’s ladder. There we read:

And Jacob went out from Beer-sheva, and went toward Haran. And he lighted upon the place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep. He dreamed and saw a ladder standing on the ground and its top reached up toward heaven. God’s angels were ascending and descending on it (Genesis 28:10-12)

Jacob’s Dream by William Blake (c. 1805, British Museum, London)

What are we to make of this image? What is the meaning of this ladder? The Midrash explains that this ladder represented the future empires that would rule the world (Pirkei D’rebbi Eliezer ch. 35) In many ways this is seeing the ladder through the lens of “Ma’aseh Avot Siman L’Banim- Everything that happened to the patriarchs is an indication for their children( Bereishit Rabba 40:6) Jacob was a sleep during the comings and goings of all of our collective diaspora’s. ( More on this sleep)

On another level I am intrigued to think about Jacob’s Ladder in the context that it itself might be indicative for later generations. I was thinking about it in the context of this great article on epigenetics I read in the Guardian. The article reported in a study by Rachel Yehuda that showed

Genetic changes stemming from the trauma suffered by Holocaust survivors are capable of being passed on to their children, the clearest sign yet that one person’s life experience can affect subsequent generations. (The Guardian)

Jacob was running for his life, what if that trauma has been communicated to us his descendants through our genes? In this sense, things that happened to our ancestors actually indicate things for us their children. It really gives new meaning to the image of Jacob’s Ladder itself looks like the  double helix  ladder of  atoms that make up our DNA. Image result for DNA

While we are often depicted as a religion it is clear that we are also a people; it is in our very kishkas.

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Let My Voice Know No Bounds: An Unorthodox Lesson in Race and Respect

I have only very fond memories of Esther Meyers z”l. She was an African American housekeeper who came to our house in the suburbs every day from her home in Southwest Philadelphia to take care of me. She was always kind, caring, and nurturing. She raised me as she raised my three siblings. And before working for my parents, she had worked for my Oma and Opa, German grandparents, raising my mother and my aunt in West Philadelphia. To the best of my memory, I believe Esther was the daughter of a sharecropper from South Carolina. But my memories are incomplete, being the youngest of my generation.

One of my earliest memories growing up is something that Esther said to me. I could not have been older than seven at the time. She had prepared egg salad on rye bread as she did throughout my childhood. I was about to eat and she called out, “Put that thing on your head. Show some respect up in here sugar.”

Today I am an Orthodox Rabbi with my requisite beard, four-cornered garment, and of course the signature head covering. I can quote you many ancient, medieval, and modern texts to explain why a Jew should wear a Kippah, a traditional head covering. But to be honest, it is not the voice of my tradition that I hear commanding me to wear a Kippah, rather it is Esther’s sweet voice calling me to “put that thing on my head”. Over 30 years has passed since Esther said these words to me, but to this day it is the proud voice of a god-fearing African American woman telling me, a white boy of privilege, how to show respect that influences how I see the world and, in turn, how the world sees me. Esther’s voice commands me to show respect by recognizing the privileges I have. I may or not be conscious of it, I have race, class, education, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity, all on my side. I understand that it means I have a great deal of responsibility in our fractured society. Am I, as a German Jew – – am I white? I find the question of Jews being white or not to be largely academic. If I want, I can closet my identity to ensure that I do not lose my white privilege. But, choosing to wear a Kippah essentially problematizes the pristine racial construct of being white in America. I decide to reveal this about myself every day.

This makes me think about the biblical character of Joseph. At beginning of Parshat Vayigash, this week’s Torah portion, where we read of Joseph’s reconnecting with his brothers after they had sold him into slavery so many years previously. There we read:

Then Joseph could not refrain himself before all them that stood by him; and he cried: ‘Cause every man to go out from me.’ And there stood no [Egyptian] man with him, while Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he [Joseph] wept aloud; and the Egyptians heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard. (Genesis 45:1-2)

It was not just that Joseph passed for an Egyptian, he married into the priestly class of Egypt and his brothers did not recognize him. In his closeted identity, he enjoyed every privilege in Egypt. Joseph cleared everyone out of the room, but that did not include his brothers. Despite his being the second to the king, he had internalized the xenophobia and felt that he needed to clear the room to share his hidden identity. When Joseph did find that voice, it could know no bounds. Everyone heard about it.

In all of my world travels, when I meet someone else with a Kippah I experience a filial bond. But I am not satisfied with this being a sign of my religion, group pride, or nationalism; rather I want our head coverings to reveal both the positive and negative lessons of Joseph. During the years of famine under Joseph’s administration Pharaoh sold the stockpile of food to the Egyptian people. First Joseph took their money, then their cattle, then their land, and ultimately themselves as slaves (Genesis 47:15- 26). Essentially, Joseph created a large class of Egyptian sharecroppers. Only the Israelites and the Egyptian priestly caste were spared.

We cannot be complicit with a system of oppression in order to give our brethren preferential treatment. As we learn from Joseph and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. Ultimately the system of slavery that Joseph helped create came back around to enslave his descendants. I want my Kippah to remind me and others of our joint responsibilities to our people and the larger world. In wearing a Kippah I aspire to be a dreamer like a young Joseph before he experiences his own slavery. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” I wear a Kippah to create a certain kind of consciousness. I want to identify with and be identified by the holy calling “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.

There is a lot of work to be done to repair the racial divide in this country. This is not a black problem. I know that I can always put my Kippah in my pocket or under a hat; Esther could never hide her skin color. Those of us with privilege need to be vigilant about standing up for those who are marginalized and oppressed. Like Joseph we need to find our hidden voice and courageously speak out for freedom and justice for all.  All I know is when I fail to cover my head with a culture of consciousness I am not showing the appropriate respect. Thank you Esther.

 

Dr. Seuss and Being a German Jew

It is clear throughout history that the Jewish people have contributed so much to the world. And I believe that the best is yet to come. There is still so much more that we can contribute to make the world a better place. With the rise of radical Islamic forces and the reemergence of the garden variety European antisemitism on one hand and Jewish disinterest and assimlation on that other hand, it is scary to think that we might disappear. We might be killed by those who hate us or we might forget what it means to love ourselves.

I think being a German Jew, as I am, I am proud of the many aspects of my identities. As Jews, we were always in the avant-garde of Jewish expression in Germany. Being German, we are associated with the brand standard of antisemitism. I think we are in a league of our own in terms of loving to hate ourselves. I was thinking about this recently when our 8-year-old son Yishama asked us a question. He said, ” Is Dr. Seuss anti- symmetric?

 

 

As you can see in his artwork Dr. Seuss was clearly anti- symmetric, but was he  antisemitic?  It seems that Theodor Seuss Geisel was a complex, talented and passionate man. I found a PBS article that said:

[He] struggled to remain hopeful inspite of the “dissemination of stupidity” he saw all around him. Above all, Dr. Seuss and his work were intrinsically political. A self-proclaimed master of “logical insanity,” the author of such fanciful tales as Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat devoted much of his considerable talent and influence to advocating political and social change. From condemning isolationism and attacking anti-Semitism to his later works for literacy, the environment, and against the arms race, Dr. Seuss’s most popular works reflect his passion for fairness, democracy and tolerance.

So it seems that  Dr. Seuss was not antisemitic. But what do I do with the fact that our 8-year-old thinks it is as normative as Dr. Seuss to hate the Jews. To confront antisemitism we will need to understand the the source of their hatred. Anything short of this would not create a lasting solution or worse it would deny them their humanity. How can we get to the bottom of that this without losing our own love for ourselves? I ask this as a German Jew who just loves symmetry.

The Examined Yarmelke

Recently I was doing hazara on, reviewing, Let You Down by the Dave Mathews Band. What a classic? If you look at the lyrics it is hard not to connect.

The chorus goes:

I have no lid upon my head
But if I did
You could look inside and see what’s on my mind
You could look inside and see what’s on my mind
I let you down, oh, forgive me
You give me love

 I have been wearing a lid upon my head for more time then I can remember. OK- So that is why I connect. So what does it mean for someone like me?

In Ekev, this week’s Torah portion, we read:

12 And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all God’s ways, and to love God, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul; 13 to keep for you good the commandments of the Lord, and God’s statutes, which I command you this day? 14 Behold, unto the Lord your God belongs the heaven, and the heaven of heavens, the earth, with all that therein is. 15 Only the Lord had a delight in your fathers to love them, and God chose their seed after them, even you, above all people, as it is this day. 16 You shall cut away the barrier of your heart, and no longer be stiff-necked.” (Deuteronomy 10:12-16).

About this Rashi comments:

The barrier of the heart this means the blocking of your heart and it covering.  ( Rashi on Deuteronomy 10:16)

The Yarmelke is a sign of my being a Yareah Malchut Shamayim, one who fears the Kingdom of Heaven.  But I do not wear my Kipah out of fear. I aspire wear it as a sign of love. I want to remind myself to walk in all God’s ways and to serve the world with all of my heart and  soul in keeping the commandments. Or even in moments of doubt I am filled with love of the Jewish people and I want to remind myself that I represent our larger family.

While the Kipah, Skullcap, or Beany has come to be synonymous with being of a close minded or clannish,  maybe it should imply the opposite. In many ways I  cover my head so that I can regularly ” look inside and see what’s on my mind”.

As a modern Orthodox Jew, I do not pretend to exist solely within my little projection of a Torah world. My Kipah is  a reflective tool. While it is a life long commitment, putting it on is something I do every day. And with my lack of hair it is something I have to do many times a day.  It is an incessant reminder to me to explore my motivations and the examine my daily choices.

As a father is gives me “delight” to see my children make these choices. Socrates is right, ” The unexamined life is not worth living”. I think that wearing a lid is a great way to look inside.

Path in the Sand

blog footprintsOne night I dreamed I was walking along a path on a pristine beach. Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.

In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand. Sometimes the path was well worn, other times it seemed that I took the path less traveled, and still yet other times I had blazed my own trail. What bothered me was that I noticed that during the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could see that the otherwise clear path was muddled and unclear. So I cried aloud, “What about the promise that if I followed the path, it would always guide my way. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there has no clear path in the sand. Why, when I needed guidance most, I was left alone with no direction?”

And then I was quiet and I heard a still small voice reply, “The years when you could not see a path is when we wrestled, we are always together Yisrael.”

Adapted for Parshat VaYishlach from Mary Stevenson, 1936


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