Category Archives: culture

What Race are You?

What Race do you identify with?

Marathon

((Rimshot))

Actually, that isn’t the opening joke in my lounge act, but part of an important recent conversation.

I was asked this question in the Red Cross Blood Drive pre-screening. The inquirer, an African-American, was completing the questionnaire and asked me to identify myself by race. There was a time when I would have responded Caucasian/White. But I uncomfortably paused and then quipped Marathon. We laughed and then we skipped the question. But, I actually do not know how to answer that question anymore.

I am not ashamed of what is now called my “white privilege.” As a Jew in America, the ability to call myself Caucasian/White is on some level a sign that we made it and have gained popular acceptance. But perhaps this acceptance remains elusive. This simple gathering of data for statistical tracking purposes has become a marker of something more complicated and fraught.

The dream of some, where we entered the melting pot of America and assimilated into a homogenous culture was a vision of many immigrants. This vision propelled many to immigrate to the land where Emma Lazarus and the Statue of Liberty beckoned. America was something new, different and better accepting all of us, and creating unbridled opportunity and equality.   That, however, was the myth for most. The reality was quite different for people outside the mainstream culture who were marginalized, persecuted and oppressed. Our national aspiration to realize our myth has been a slow and often painful evolution.

I am a Jew. I am a proud American. But I do not fit into the “white box.” Or maybe I am not comfortable residing there. I have become more sensitive to the racial issues in our country. Perhaps it is because the privileged position I have enjoyed has come under fire, not from the political left, but from the ugly anti-Semitic elements that have become emboldened and found their public voice in this new chapter of the American experience. My schools, my community centers, and my people have been the subject of a new round of persecution. Our cemeteries are desecrated; our houses of worship and community are vandalized. It is a wake-up call that the civil rights we fight for in this country are truly our own.

I am compelled to stand up for the things I believe in, the values that truly make America great, and a devotion to equality under the law and of opportunity for all. We have made great strides, but we have so much further to go. It is a marathon. Run with me.

 

Time to sit down for a beer

I need to talk about the current ad Heineken has produced and also the talk about the talk surrounding the current ad.

For starters, we all need to acknowledge the ad is designed to promote Heineken beer. With this disclaimer, we can proceed. Bottom line, I found the ad had a positive message (beyond Heineken is a good beer to drink with someone). I believe the message was that people operate according to preconceptions whether or not they are fully informed or people hold opinions that keep them from hearing another viewpoint, but it does not have to be so.

The ad was a message about building bridges across those divides, seeing that the other is not merely stupid or a threat, or perhaps something even worse. We can find ways to connect ways to create relationships where they did not exist before; we can find that despite the things that differentiate, our common humanity can be something that brings us together.

The ad is precisely that, a four-minute frame into which the message of building bridges and the selling a product are interwoven. It is neither Shakespeare nor the Bible; although interesting, it is not the best of plots, or cinematic artistry, or even acting. But it is an important message none-the-less, one deserving of notice and embrace, not ridicule or cynicism.

I am struck that because I hold this opinion, some call me out as stupid for liking the ad and even stupider for not knowing how stupid I really am. People are reacting in a way that feels extremely condescending, or just smug,  contemptuous of anyone who does not have the incisive clarity that this dangerous insidious ad requires.

The ad can be scrutinized and might actually be a starting point for some of the serious conversations we need to have, including what the ad omitted, the subtle prejudices it contained, what are the important issues dividing us, etc. But a conversation is hard to have when only one viewpoint is acceptable. It seems like some of the people so vocal in criticizing the ad would have been good “before” characters for the ad. Consider that as a working premise, we share our common humanity. Then over a drink, let’s sit together to talk and listen.

We will be Okay

Will we be okay?

What do I tell my kids?wethepeople

Those are two questions that have been asked since the nation elected Donald Trump as President of the United States last night.

The answer to the first question is: Yes. And we will tell our children the following: On November 8, our country elected Mr. Trump to be our next President. For many of us, he was not the person we wanted but our nation has spoken in a way that makes this country extraordinary. We voted and we decided. Our process worked. Despite our deep disagreements, we all have a President-elect.

Now it is time to find a way to move forward. We will pray our new President embraces the idea that he is the President of all people of the United States and that the United States has unique responsibilities because it holds a unique role in the world. Whether we agree with Mr. Trump’s personal or political views, we hope for his success as the leader of our nation. At the same time, we need to embrace our important place to fight for what we believe to be right especially given the circumstances that brought us to this place.

We have long relied on government intervention to address the issues and solve problems. However, for many in America, that did not work. They felt abandoned if not betrayed, with promises of protection broken and a system unresponsive to their needs. And for many others of us, we have been lulled into complacency and a false sense of security. This election is a harsh wake-up call and rouses us to action, not against the government, but aware of governments’ limitations to help the governed. It is up to us to create the change we seek now more than ever. Voting is only a first step in a process of engagement. Showing up at local meetings, petitioning Congressman, and holding the new president and every part of government accountable must ensue. Community organizing is vital. Our aspirations and goals are in our hands. We cannot relegate them to another’s care, certainly not now. Our community groups, both religious and civic, can use this moment in our history to reinvigorate and rededicate themselves, advancing important values of dignity, equality, and justice.

Yes, we will be all right.   The United States of America is strong and we her people are resilient.   But the future is in our hands. It is our work as Rabbis and other faith leaders to help guide and support the people as teachers, chaplains and champions of social justice and the values we hold dear. There is much to do and our work has never been more important.

What the Spies of Shlach ask us about ourselves

There is a TV commercial that distinguishes between simply monitoring and actively preventing identity theft. A violent bank robbery is in process. The monitor surveys the situation as the customers fall to the floor imploring this uniformed man to take action. He responds that he is merely a monitor; taking action is not his job. And yes indeed, there is a bank robbery underway.

shlachThe story of the spies in Parshat Shlach seems similar. Twelve men were selected and sent out to survey the land of Canaan and report back. They did what was asked and reported what they believed they saw. An insightful rabbi taught me that the answer to a question depends on the question you ask. It also depends on the nature of the respondent.

These were twelve men, “…one man each from his father’s tribe; each one shall be a chieftain in their midst” (Num. 13:2). They were leaders within their respective clans, but were they capable as conquerors? The Hebrew word is Nasi, or Prince. They were princes of the individual tribes but not necessarily the top dog, or the General of the Army to use a military term. So were these spies conquerors or bureaucrats, men of action or fearful men of complacency and conservatism?

Had the idea of freedom and freedom’s responsibilities permeated this new Israelite society? It

Spies Scout Out the Land by Yoram Raanan

Spies Scout Out the Land by Yoram Raanan

seems not; for only two spies, Caleb and Joshua believed they could actually overcome their foes and possess the land. It is possible that a deliberate selection of strategists and warriors as the twelve spies would have yielded a unanimous joining of Caleb’s assessment that they could vanquish the Canaanites. However, the spies’ ability to sway the people indicated that the Israelite people were not yet ready to enter the Land and receive the promise and responsibilities that go with it.

We also, both individually and collectively, need to ask ourselves which are we? Are we agents of change like Caleb and Joshua, or agents of the status quo? Are we willing to find ways to achieve lofty goals or fearful of the risks and unwilling to reach for more hoping to preserve what we have? Often, trying to maintain the status quo is riskier than taking the chance to make something better.  Although we should always be grateful for what we have, when it comes to values such as human rights, peace, justice, equality, and security, we can always aspire to something greater. The question remains, Are we willing to take the risk?

 

Every Leaving Always Late

Modesty and a seat too far

seating chart The current seating spat aboard El Al planes reminds me of seating elsewhere in the Jewish world. When planning the wedding, the seating chart seems to rank as important as the Chuppah. Aunt Sophie wont sit with Uncle Benny who would be upset if he didn’t sit next to cousin Terri who is rooming with Sophie’s daughter. The brouhaha about certain men refusing to travel next to a female other than his wife on a plane seems easy enough to overcome long before there is a confrontation on the airplane. This on board argument helps reinforce the old expression that EL AL was an acronym for “Every Leaving Always Late” and is an unfortunate commentary on our ability to get along.

 This is an issue for the men in question, not the rest of the passengers. The easiest solution is for men who have this need to be required to buy the seat(s) adjacent, if other El_Al_Boeing_777-200such observant men do not also book seats. Preflight booking can ask if this seating issue exists. If the yes box is checked, then a new level of scrutiny is developed. If the box is not checked, there is not consideration. The seating chart can be developed using computer algorithms. Alternatively, sections can be set aside for the observant. If seats are not available, the section can be expanded or the plane listed as sold-out for that section.  Maybe business class could be reserved for all women who find they are bearing the brunt of this bad treatment. Maybe we do a first come first served approach. The balagan that is the El Al boarding process would look much the same as it does now.

 There seem to be a multiplicity of solutions available long before boarding takes place. For a land touted as among the technology centers, this problem seems far from daunting.  To create an argument on the plane or make some passengers feel unwelcome seems to be the worst possible alternative.  My guess if that if the airline were held accountable, a workable solution would be quickly found. Maybe the pending lawsuit is the needed catalyst.

Nisiyah Tovah!

The Greatest Nation on Earth is greater than its Fears

circle-line-cruisesI keep repeating that thought as I hear Americans clamoring to shut the doors to Syrian refugees.  It is about fear of terrorists infiltrators I have been told.  I am fearful too, but I am fearful that we risk losing our way and our fear for our security are making us xenophobic and racist in ways not seen since the Japanese were interred in American Concentration camps and Jews were returned to Germany for extermination.  I am fearful that we risk losing the moral bearings that have been our guiding star.  I am fearful that the principles upon which our country was founded are becoming empty words of a time gone by.

We cannot let fear overwhelm us.  We claim the words of Emma Lazarus, immortalized at the Statue of Liberty. We welcome the tired and poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free.  The Syrian refugees certainly fit that description and so did we.  We were once considered the refuse of the world, each of us with an ancestor who came here for the chance at a better life. When lives are hanging in the balance, how can we turn our backs?  The US has a very robust process in place to screen immigrants and the total number of people who endure this almost two-year procedure is small.  We are more than able to absorb these people.  We can save their lives.lazarus1

There is a war underway.  And war is a frightening prospect.  There are extremists who view us as an enemy to be destroyed.  Our defenders have done an amazing job protecting us thus far.  There will be attempted attacks on our soil, and some may even be successful.  We need to be cautious and alert in defending ourselves. They can hurt us, but they cannot defeat us.  Only we can do that.  If we turn our backs on our own core principles, these extremists win an important victory.  If we no longer believe in what makes us great, then we are great no longer.  I fear that more than anything else. 

I urge everyone who believes in our nation to write both Congressperson, Senator and Governor and urge them to defeat measures that close us off from helping refugees.  Support a robust vetting process that is already in place and support groups like HIAS who are dedicated to helping refugees get started here in America.  Then we can still hold our heads up high and ask that God Bless America.