Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
EVERYWHERE I GO
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
Everywhere I go, I will be Black. Glory Aganze Barongozi
It was a small story in the “Washington Post” in May 2015. The author spoke of his time in Baltimore, a refugee from Uganda, and how ready he was to leave as his high school graduation neared. He felt small in Africa. He felt smaller in Baltimore.
Contained in his seven-word existential truth are two very different pieces of wisdom. One of them is an affirmation, the other a lament. Both of them proclaim an essential aspect of life: the importance of embracing who you are.
Even a narrow reading of Barongozi’s words is profound. For a poor person of color, disadvantaged in societies that privilege lighter skin, higher caste or economic affluence, there is no escaping the biases that pursue darker skin and emptier wallets. It has taken me a long time – much of a lifetime – to understand the immutable truth of his observation in a world in which the content of character is secondary to the color of skin. The truth of it is evidenced by the fury with which it is challenged. There is even now an organization that calls itself “liberal” that rejects the notion that race matters beyond overt racism. (Ironically, the potential to compromise hard-won Jewish privilege is their Exhibit A.)
Many years ago, I was responsible for inviting Rev. Jesse Jackson to speak at the convention of my rabbinical association. I was his “body man” at the convention, and therefore sat in on an interview with a talented Jewish reporter with a very identifiably Jewish surname. She pressed him on his emphasis on race in his politics. Seemingly as a non-sequitur, he asked her, “How do I know you are Jewish?” Flustered, she said, “Well, I told you.” “And how do you know I am Black?” he asked. While she stammered for a second, he placed his forefinger on his cheek.
So many communities, my own included, invest an exhausting amount of energy to persuade ambivalent members to be more open, more “out” about their immutable identities. For more than forty years, I have worn a kippah (yarmulke, skullcap) in public as a message that I choose for you to encounter me as a Jew. But all I have to do to recede into anonymity is reach up and swipe a piece of cloth into my pocket. It does not change how others perceive Jews – good, bad, or indifferent. It indeed changes how others perceive me.
Inherent in Barongozi’s words is the understanding that what is organic for him is a disadvantage. Even in the celebratory reading of his words – which, I reiterate, he did not intend – is the notion that his skin color makes him different. He will always be noticed first for how he looks, especially here in the United States, and will have to contend with another person’s biases before he opens his mouth, extends his hand or reaches into his pocket. Does a White person contend with perceptions as well? Yes, full stop. But no matter who you are, if you consider that an equivalency, you are playing a game of sophistry.
So it may come as a surprise to you that I want to conclude with a defense of the positive meaning of this statement in two different senses. First of all, I endorse the value of always being your whole self. I know how popular it is with some people to emphasize that the amount of difference from each other in our DNA is statistically insignificant. Look at nature, they say – one honeybee is essentially unrecognizable from the next, two blue jays are indistinguishable, a trout is a trout. Never mind that we don’t look at a penguin with a penguin’s eyes; it is precisely those tiny differences that allow us a sense of uniqueness. Mr. Barongozi deserves, no less than any human being, to encounter the world and be encountered by it with the fullness of who he is. As a person of faith, I will add “as God intended him to be.” Everywhere he goes, he should be Black.
And secondly, I endorse the practice of making others uncomfortable with their biases. I will admit that part of my advertising my Jewishness is something of a dare. Even if I run the risk of provoking a bigot into antagonism, I still want to make it clear that their prejudice will not define me. Indeed, if by confronting their own inclinations they are forced to reconsider them, then the world around me is a safer place for me and Barongozi both. And you.
It is fair to ask, then, why is it that I sometimes hide the symbol of my Jewishness in my hip pocket. I think that anyone who presents in a non-conforming way will understand: sometimes, I am just tired. (My wife can often spot someone who notices my headgear and starts heading toward me. She leans into my ear and says, quietly, “Incoming.”) It is an opportunity not everyone has. But it doesn’t change the fact for me or for anyone else. Everywhere you go, you will be who you are.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
That’s the trick of parenting – you can’t always lead by example. Reya El-Salahi
Recently, I became the oldest person in my immediate family, which is to say my mother died. My father is gone more than thirty years, cheated out most of the rewards of being a grandparent. My mother was more fortunate. She saw her three children and seven grandchildren in happy families of their own, and she met all (so far) eight of her great-grandchildren. She lived to inches short of 93.
Because of the circumstances forced on us by the covid pandemic, I spent a lot more time alone during the week of mourning prescribed by Jewish tradition than I might have in less complicated circumstances. And one of the things I spent time doing was thinking about parenting.
I thought some about the parenting I received. It is inevitable, of course. Aside from my own direct experience, conversations with my younger brother and much-younger sister were exercises in understanding how differently children in the same family are raised. It shouldn’t be such a surprise. Circumstances change. I was an only child for close to three years while my sister was the only one at home when our parents could see the light at the end of the childcare tunnel.
But mostly I thought about the parenting I gave. And I mean “I,” not “we.” I have nothing but admiration for my wife’s career as a mother. My self-evaluation as a father is a little less consistent. I think that I am like most parents when I admit that I hoped my kids would turn out better than I did and have an easier time getting there. Some of that is ego, I know, even if it is disguised as altruism. But some of it, too, is an honest appraisal of my internal landscape to know what mistakes I made.
For me, the hardest part of being a father was knowing how important it was to allow my kids to make their own mistakes while at the same time meeting my responsibility to keep them from unnecessary suffering. I know the consequences of wrongheaded behavior, and I also know the tactics to divert attention from it. I used to say to my kids, “You can’t lie to me, because I’ve done whatever it is you are lying about, and I will see right through it.” Even when I said it, I knew it wasn’t true (they could indeed lie to me, as all children do to their parents, and I was nowhere near as delinquent as I pretended to be).
But there were times that my experiences as a little kid, a pre-teen, a teenager, and a young man were indeed relevant to my offspring’s behavior. Sharing my personal history, that is, leading by example, was often not the right choice. In fact, it was often the very wrong choice. When I offered advice or discipline, implicit or explicit was always the question, “How do you know that?” And if you are a parent, I don’t have to tell you twice that you don’t always want to answer that question. In fact, you almost never want to answer that question.
Why that is I can only surmise. It is some combination of shame, embarrassment, insecurity and, again, ego, I am sure. But whatever it is, as El-Salahi says, that’s the trick of parenting – you can’t always lead by example.
Eventually, you discover how effective you have been as a parent. In the large sense, you see your kids living out the values that they have internalized. They may not live the life you would have chosen for them (okay, they NEVER live the life you would have chosen for them), but the way they live their life is their distillation of what you have communicated. That fact sometimes makes you feel good, and other times not so much.
I learned this lesson all over again when I made a wrong decision for what I convinced myself were the right reasons. My children were not having any of it. And, as I might have done to them when they lived under our roof, they confronted me about it. Dealing with some combination of shame, embarrassment, insecurity, and ego, I was pretty defensive. Eventually (and it was not a very long eventually), I came to recognize that just because you can’t always lead by example, it doesn’t mean you can never lead by example.
There’s a very famous story in the Talmud about the rabbis in the study hall ganging up on God and using God’s own instruction to reject God’s argument in a debate. As the legend goes, an eyewitness in the heavenly realm was asked what God’s reaction was to losing. “My children defeated me,” was the proud response.
I’m not God, but I had some small sense of the lesson God learned, if you can say such a thing. You can’t always lead by example. But, as it turns out, mostly you do.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
We care for people not because they are Catholics, but because we are. James Cardinal Hickey
My professional life has been in the interfaith world for a number of years, and if this short essay doesn’t prove it, nothing will.
The word “davka” is Hebrew and defies explanation. It was the first word I struggled to understand in seminary, where my teacher translated it in the Talmudic text as “specifically” and the dictionary offered “exactly.” In usage, however, it is best spoken while holding your index and middle fingers together on one hand and making a circle in the air, ending with an emphatic point in front of you.
The most misunderstood faith community in America, in my opinion, is the Sikh community. First of all, we pronounce their religion to rhyme with “peek” because the actual pronunciation – rhymes with “stick” – confuses us. Their ritual devotion includes unshorn hair, turbans, and the presence of a symbolic sword (kirpan) always on their person, which the uninitiated and TSA consider to be threatening. And because of stereotyping, uneducated Americans frequently mistake them for Muslims, with sometimes fatal results, putting all of us in a double-bind explaining they are not Muslims, but so what if they were.
To me, the most admirable aspect of Sikh religion is radical hospitality. Anyone who is hungry will find a meal and welcome at a gurdwara, a Sikh temple. Millions of people are fed regularly by Sikhs around the world. They do not do so because the hungry are Sikhs, but because they are. Davka.
Speaking of Muslims, in a Virginia community not so far from where I live is a guy named Qasim Rashid. He has run for office unsuccessfully couple of times at least as much because he is a member of the minority party in his jurisdiction as anything else. But as a “public Muslim,” he was prepared for the kinds of attacks on his identity that are some voters’ idea of appropriate political discourse. One such correspondent’s condemnation was among the grotesque (Rashid’s word) messages he received. Rashid looked into his antagonist’s public declarations and discovered that among the objectionable messages was a GoFundMe campaign to pay off more than $20,000 in medical debt. Rashid made a contribution and encouraged his followers to do the same. The debt was retired.
Did he win the guy’s vote? The answer is irrelevant. A faithful Muslim’s response to suffering is to offer mercy and support. He provided comfort not because his offender was a Muslim, but because he is. Davka.
Among the groups in our various coalitions are those that represent avowed secularists. For some of them it is a matter of principle and for others the equivalent of faith. That is to say, some of them believe our American statutes and practices should be entirely neutral toward any and all religion, and others are atheists. They are among the staunchest defenders of the First Amendment rights to conscience and separation of government and religion in the interfaith community. And they do so even for religious folks who would disqualify them from certain kinds of discourse and service to the country. They do so not because their critics are accurately reading the Constitution, but because they are. Davka.
All of these examples are admirable to me, and I hope to you as well. They are more admirable to me still because none of the folks whom I describe has anything to gain for themselves by their conduct. In fact, just the opposite is true. Sikhs could retreat into their quiet life of making a living and cultivating a calm sense of place in the universe. Muslims, not only Qasim Rashid, could more than occupy themselves with prayer five times a day and less outward-facing upholding of the five pillars. Secular activists could devote themselves to securing their own rights and take the weekends off. The vast networks of Catholic charities that tend to the impoverished, marginalized, disenfranchised and lonely could use those resources to rehab crumbling churches and hire more teachers in parochial schools.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner described love as the willingness to act for another’s benefit against your own interests. When I look at the adherents of the 75 or more communities of faith and no faith on whose behalf my professional life is devoted, it is what I see wherever I look. They offer their time, talent, and treasure on behalf of others because that’s what their belief system demands of them – their God, their Scripture, their philosophy, their mentor. Not always, of course. Not only, of course. Not to the unmitigated satisfaction of others or even themselves, of course. But also, not because there is something in it for them.
They care for people not because those people are just like them. But because without that caring, they themselves would not be authentically who they are. Davka.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
If we can’t learn from our mistakes, we’re not a living tradition; we’re a bad habit and we ought to disappear. Rev. Terry Kyllo
There is a natural resistance to change among those who uphold a culture of tradition. And since most of us uphold such a culture in one context or another, there is a natural resistance to change for most of us.
Our traditions ground us, and even when we recognize that parts of it run counter to the values we want to uphold, snapping off a piece of that infrastructure can feel like we have betrayed something that has been unshakably loyal to us, or like we are denying to those who follow us that which has sustained us.
For example, generations of traditionally observant Jews have faced a dilemma in observing Shabbat. Especially in colder climates, the strict prohibition of lighting or maintaining fire held the potential to threaten life and well-being on frigid Saturday afternoons. The solution was to engage a non-Jewish neighbor to stop by after lunch to stoke the hearth each week and partake of some of the food kept warming. In that way, the neighbor was not violating the additional prohibition against forcing others to conduct impermissible labor, just meeting their own needs and generously including the Jewish household. In addition to physical warmth, the result was social warmth between the two communities. Frequently, especially in the American urban centers that succeeded the European villages, the non-Jew, often a young person, was given a coin or two during the week in appreciation. Many an unlikely Yiddish-speaker (like Gen. Colin Powell) also got a bilingual education.
The person, called a “shabbes goy,” by right should be a phenomenon of the past. So much of life has become automated – I don’t know a home without a thermostat – that exploiting an outsider to enable sacred conduct is really no longer necessary. Yet, there remain practices among contemporary traditionally observant Jews that facilitate the violation of Shabbat restrictions by counting on the good will (and expectation of compensation) of non-Jews. I understand the logic, but not the result.
This ritual workaround probably feels quaint. And other than a perception, accurate or not, that the non-Jews have the misfortune of not enjoying the blessings of a full day of rest, no one is really harmed.
But it does seem like the flip side of medieval times when money-lending within a community by Christians was similarly prohibited (based on the Bible), and so Jews were imported by feudal lords to handle such transactions. The result was not simply a practical banking system that preserved one community’s claim to piety. It also produced some of the most damaging perceptions of Jewish character values that persist to this day.
I believe that the “less-than” perception of the shabbes goy is a similar phenomenon.
Of course, both things are rationalized by a devotion to a culture of tradition. Can you chip off the noxious piece without undermining the positive and pervasive infrastructure? And, more to the point, if the practices are justified by some perception of divine authority, are modern perceptions determinative if they run counter to that culture of tradition?
A living tradition is one that is not ossified by the practices of the past. Even among those who believe in the literalness of divine instruction, there is a post-revelatory moment (almost always hundreds or thousands of years later) in which the struggle to interpret that instruction is deemed no longer legitimate. But that moment is too late; it affirms we will never progress beyond the past. And we, in our age, who see the evidence of bad habits with religious imprimaturs, ought to have the integrity to do something about it.
Name your issue: slavery, status of women, sexual identity, equality, mental health, equity…the list is extensive. In the name of faith and faithfulness we have developed bad habits, sometimes out of ignorance and sometimes out of cultivated malice. Anything living is dynamic – it changes, difficult though it may seem. And anything that does not change is not living.
The phrase “the custom of our fathers is in our hands” is used in Jewish tradition to rebut the notion that we should do things differently, even where change is indicated. It is only valid when it brings our forbearers honor.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
Home is not where your grandparents are buried. Home is where your grandchildren will be raised. quoted by Namira Islam Anani
Most adults in the United States remember a close relative who was not born here. My family emigrated from the region alternately claimed by Ukraine, Poland, and Russia. Yours may have come from Italy, Morocco, Guatemala, Ghana or, like Anani, Bangladesh. They brought with them more or less of their material wealth (I’m guessing less), but a heart filled with memories.
Mostly, those relatives were grateful to be here. Even if they did not arrive while fleeing persecution, they came expecting opportunity. And not including those whose immigration was involuntary, most did not regret that decision.
But the Old Country is hard to let go of. Everything there is familiar, even the pain. So it is not unusual for new arrivals to America to hold fast to what they left behind even as they find their way into the new normal. For my Ashkenazic Jewish ancestors (according to 23-and-Me that’s 100% of me), that included Yiddish and synagogues that followed European customs and “benevolent associations” (in Yiddish “landsmannshaften”) that existed for mutual support and social opportunities.
But where was home? The answer to that question is not as easy as deciding where you would prefer to live. Lots of speculation peppers culture on the subject. Some would claim home is where the heart is (Pliny the Elder). Some would declare that any place I hang my hat is home (Arlen and Mercer). Some would insist that home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in (Frost). When I am asked about my hometown, I don’t answer “Alexandria,” where I have lived for more than half my life, nor even “Wilmette,” my address through most of my childhood. The answer is “Sweet Home Chicago” (Johnson, then Les Freres Bleus).
I think that people associate home with authenticity. That doesn’t necessarily mean the place of personal origin, but it does mean the ethos in which a person feels most real. Especially here in America, my home sweet home (Berlin), where the government of the people, by the people and for the people (oh, you know that one) does not have deep roots, we have recreated the gardens in which our roots are deep. Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago is almost as Polish as Warsaw. San Francisco is first among cities in which Mandarin is spoken among neighborhood businesses. The Portuguese population of Danbury, Connecticut was eventually supplanted by the Hmong community. And if there is a less likely place to find a fully formed Somali culture than Minneapolis, I’d be hard-pressed to name it.
There comes a time when a home like that is only a memory. The Chicago of my first grade does not exist anymore, even less so the Horochow or Mozir of grandparents and their grandparents long since dead. And even if there is still a town called Berdichev, or a city named Lviv, the stories handed down of when those places were actually, really home can no sooner be replicated than Mr. Simon, the old greengrocer on Devon Avenue, can reach into a tall glass jar and hand me a foot-long pretzel stick.
Expressing a longing for the best of what used to be is natural, but the context has evaporated. The decision to leave behind that used-to-be home – one that many make geographically, and all make temporally – creates a void that needs to be filled. Even if you go back, you have to start again.
Namira Islam Anani is contending with a situation every American has faced, save those who are native to this land. Blessed though we are, eyes look with longing and expectancy to the place we believe is authentic, the place we call home. The immigrant community into which she was born as a United States citizen is grateful to be here, but it is hard for them to let go of the Old Country. The advice she heard her imam offer his Bangladeshi community is just as true for the contemporary descendants of the passengers on the Mayflower.
One more observation, perhaps not so small. The pleasures of home are not outside the trials and tribulations that push us all into our new worlds. Sometimes, when we can’t find familiar pleasure, we look for familiar pain. That’s a memory for a different day.