Coalition and Redemption

What does change taste like?

How do we know whether we’re really getting out of that narrow place of servitude or just dragging the whole of that mythical Egypt with us but calling it change? This year, approach Passover with some new imagery, focusing on how we build coalition and move together toward redemption. It starts, this short book suggests, in being honest about how the “millstone that is Egypt” affects different populations differently: In the fight for racial justice in the U.S., we are NOT all marching together from the same starting point — that millstone has been weighing differently on Black and brown and white populations for many decades.

Exodus and Exile: Thoughts on Coalition and Redemption focuses on what it means to leave a place, people, or ideas behind and head out toward something that works better for everyone. It is meant to prompt some new thinking, particularly around racial justice issues.

A PDF download is available here, free of charge. UPDATE: Print copies are now available (See below). If you are able to contribute to the cost of this project, please consider doing so through the “A Song Every Day” Support link.

The book will be challenging to some for different reasons. It was challenging to me for many reasons, too. I am still considering this a BETA version with the hope that a fuller work, including additional perspectives, will develop in time. Comments and suggestions are welcome.

Some Essential Connections and Thanks

Thanks to Rabbi Gerry Serotta, director of the Interfaith Council of Greater Washington, for much support and teaching over the years and, in particular, for encouragement and ideas that helped shape this project. Thanks to Norman Shore, independent teacher of Torah in the DC area, for his support and teaching over many years and, in particular, for encouragement and corrections as my thinking evolved on the blog, “A Song Every Day.” Thanks to Rabbi Hannah Spiro, of Hill Havurah, for her enthusiasm and detailed comments on an earlier version.

Thanks also to Barbara Green, Bob Rovinksy, Norman Shore, and others who have supported “A Song Every Day” financially. And thanks to readers of earlier versions for comments and corrections and to those who contributed thoughts over the years, on the blog and via Facebook or other platform, on related topics.

I am also deeply appreciative of the work of every author quoted here, living or not. I am in particular dept to Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Phyllis Trible, Galit Hasan-Rokem, Rabbi Shais Rishon (MaNishtana), and Marc Dollinger. I am also grateful to DC’s Cross-River (Black-Jewish) Dialogue for helping hone my thinking.

All errors of interpretation, spelling or grammar, or any other kind are mine.

ORDERING AND DOWNLOAD

Download Exodus and Exile: Thoughts on Coalition and Redemption. (PDF HERE)

Print copies are available for a contribution of $6 or more, to help defray printing and other hard costs. Please use Support link and be sure to include your postal address. If your synagogue or other group would like multiple copies, please contact me — songeveryday (at) gmail(dot)com.

Also look for adapted excerpts at Open Siddur.

We have met the enemy, and…

Psalm 30, begins its emotional roller-coaster ride with praise for God who has “lifted me up, and not let my enemies rejoice over me.” The whole concept of enemies requires attention, both in general and in the specific context of Jewish communities in the U.S. today. For a start: When, in the name of security, Jews make visitors to their sanctuaries feel unwelcome, that is a shameful cutting off our noises to spite our faces; when we do the same to other Jews, we should just declare, “We have me the enemy, and he is us.”

Showing Up for Shabbat

I was blessed with two powerful, community-celebrating experiences this past Shabbat. My experience on Saturday morning was so positive, in fact, that I wrote to our neighborhood paper praising the supportive feeling that I believe reflects so well on our community. But I was heartbroken to read a first-hand story of a very different experience that began with “Are you invited to be here?” and went downhill from there:

Today, I stood up for myself. I let my tears be seen. I voiced my pain. I flatly rejected the notion that I am the one who doesn’t understand what is going on.

And, then I left. Because, I told the really kind, well-meaning woman who tried to get me to say, leaving was an act of self-love.

We Jews have a problem. Because we still think that moments like this AREN’T racism. And I am still being told that I don’t understand what is really happening.
— from a Jew of Color attempting to “Show Up for Shabbat”
full story below

I joined worship services in two congregations which had prominently advertised their participation in Refugee Shabbat two weeks earlier.

On Saturday morning, I participated in a basement havurah that meets in a church. Except at high holidays, there is no security personnel or system of “greeters” at the door. The idea of what makes us secure, as Jews and as a wider community arose, as it happens, in the course of our Torah study before services.

On Friday night, I attended a large synagogue with its own building, clearly identifiable as Jewish. I was greeted before entering the building by several new (temporary?) security guards, as well as one regular. I did hold my breath for a moment wondering what they would make of my “Justice for Zo” hat (implicating special police officers in a young man’s death) and the “Black Lives Matter” sign attached to my backpack. (The backpack itself would flag me at some synagogues, a separate security story: No, I don’t a car where I can keep it; and, yes, I need it, coming straight from work). But no one stopped me. Beyond the presence of security personnel, I didn’t see anyone stopped or treated in an unwelcoming way in the short time I was in or near the entryway.

The journalist in me wants to emphasize that I am a regular in both congregations described, while my Jewish sister reports going to a synagogue where she was not know. But I must also stress that, while I don’t “look Jewish” to many eyes, I have gray hair and skin pale enough to sunburn inside of 15 minutes. The former has, over the years, prompted MANY suspicious looks, rude questions, and a sense of being held apart in some Jewish gatherings; the latter, however, seems to neutralize any sense of threat on the part of security personnel or informal synagogue greeter/guards.

Showing Up for Each Other

I have been part of numerous conversations about security in recent years, often over what it means to choose particular security measures when we know the consequences of increased policing on our wider communities and the dangers, in particular, for black and brown people. Those issues are of grave and urgent concern, part of how we let ourselves become “the enemy.”

In the story posted below, however — and in way too many incidents, stretching long before the recent shootings — it was not security personnel who failed to welcome our sister. It was her own people, the folks designated, in a terrible mockery of the word, as “greeters.” (I am trying to determine if and how the greeters were trained, a post for another day.) There is much to do in our individual Jewish communities to ensure that we are inclusive and welcoming.

I was tempted to say “more inclusive and welcoming,” but I think that’s like saying it’s OK, or maybe even “normal” to be a little bit racist or homophobic or able-ist, etc. In addition, we all know that many of our communities are all too willing, regardless of “inclusive policy,” to say, as someone last Shabbat told a fellow Jew: “You have to understand. People are scared. And we don’t know you.”

So, instead, I’ll ask every one of us who recites Psalm 30 in the morning to pause and ask: In what ways am I letting myself be the enemy? How am I contributing to making others feel like they’re in Sheol or the pit? How can I work to help turn our mourning into dance, in a truly collective way?

And, whether we recite this psalm every day or not, let’s find other ways to ask these questions, individually and collectively.

3 of 30 on Psalm 30
As a National Novel Writing Month Rebel, I write each day of November while not aiming to produce a novel. This year I focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) in the hope that its powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community. Whole series (so far)

In Her Own Words

This came to me via the Facebook page of MaNishatana. Here is the post in graphic, followed by the full text of the post.

embed Manishtana

Full text of post:

It seems, despite my very pointed posts, people *still* did not listen. A story of one JOCs experience [over] this past Shabbat that I came across on a colleague’s news feed, in her own words:

Today, I went to Shabbat morning services.

“Are you invited to be here?” they asked when I arrived.

“I am a Jew and I am here to pray,” I said.

“You’ve never been here before.” “Do you live here?” “Why did you come here?” All questions of me asked before I found my way fully into the sanctuary.

When I stood in line to get a siddur, the greeter stared at me.

“Shabbat Shalom,” I said. And I held out my hand for a prayer book. I was greeted with a blank stare.

“I’ll take a siddur please, I said. SHABBAT. SHALOM.”

And he feebly replied in kind, and I took a prayer book.

When I spoke up about it to three different people, the responses were universal.

“Well, I’m sure that you mis-understood.” – I am sure that I did not. And each time this is the response, it casts me as the person in the wrong. Only pouring salt on an open wound.

“I’m sure that they didn’t meant it THAT way.” – Again, casting me as the person who needs to be more understanding.

“You have to understand. People are scared. And we don’t know you. We have never seen you before.” – What is about me that is so scary? Really.

For much of my life, my parents did their best to protect me from all of this. When I was a child, my father would tell me that if people stare at me when we go, it’s because I am beautiful. And they can’t help but stare. We both knew that wasn’t why people were staring, but I let him believe that I believed him.

For much of my life, I would sit, stoic after being “received” this way at synagogue. I did not cry. I did not move. I stayed.

Today, I stood up for myself. I let my tears be seen. I voiced my pain. I flatly rejected the notion that I am the one who doesn’t understand what is going on.

And, then I left. Because, I told the really kind, well-meaning woman who tried to get me to say, leaving was an act of self-love.

We Jews have a problem. Because we still think that moments like this AREN’T racism. And I am still being told that I don’t understand what is really happening.

I pray that those of you who “showed up for Shabbat” today felt the sense of love, strength, pride and community that I longed to feel. That I long to feel everyday.

I pray that there will come a day when I’m not scary to MY OWN PEOPLE simply because I am a different combination of beautiful things than other people might be. And I AM beautiful. Exactly as I am.

I pray that there will come a day when our synagogues will truly be SAFE SPACES – in every sense of that term.

Today, for me, was not that day. But perhaps there will come a day. We sing ani ma’amin – which means “I believe.” And I do. I believe in love. I believe in hope. I believe that we CAN be better than this. I believe that we must be better than this. All of us. Together.
End of Post

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You are ALL standing, with Ariel Samson: Freelance Rabbi &Co

“You* are standing this day all of you before the LORD your God: your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, even all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and your stranger that is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood unto the drawer of your water…
— Deuteronomy 29:9-10 (see note on masculine plurals below)

As we head into the new year, this week’s portion (Nitzavim, Deut 29:9-30:20) offers some dire warnings to ponder: how easily blessings turn to curses when we forget the Source of Blessing, how severe the consequences should we fail to actively choose life, how heaven and earth are called to witness against us this very day. And it all starts with that statement that we standing, all of us, together before God.

In recent decades, and over the centuries, Jews have worked hard to read that masculine language more inclusively, so that women and men can see themselves as standing together before God. We’ve got a ways to go, especially in regard to including people whose gender is not so binary or who otherwise have felt excluded. And we have a much longer way to go than some of us would like to think when it comes to ensuring that we really see people with various skin colors, ethnic backgrounds, and other variousness as truly among all those who “are standing this day” together.

With this in mind, hasten to get your hands on Ariel Samson: Freelance Rabbi by MaNishtana.

It’s Not So Far Away

The author is “100% Black, 100% Jewish, and 0% safe,” an African-American Orthodox Jewish writer and rabbi who takes direct aim at issues of racial and religious identity. Ariel Samson: Freelance Rabbi is semi-autobiographical. The work is a compelling, very funny, and extremely sharp — in many senses of this word — fictional look at the ways in which our workplaces, neighborhoods, and Jewish communities fail by making assumptions and then sticking to them, all evidence to the contrary. See Publisher’s blurb below for a brief look at the story.

Although I have not yet finished the tale, I’m told that it, perhaps unsurprisingly, comes around eventually to touch on this week’s portion. I won’t spoil the ending for myself or other readers. Instead, I’ll take us back to the portion in my own way: MaNishtana is offering a tremendously generous gift by helping to open our eyes, as individuals and — as the book is discussed amongst us, I hope — as communities in an entertaining, clear way.

An important blessing is in front of you, and failing to take advantage of this fun and thought-provoking gift is a grave mistake…. yes, I know, it’s a novel, but it’s an opportunity to choose life for ourselves and our communities. So do that.

May we all be inscribed, together, for a better year.

ArielSamson_Rabbi_web

 

Publisher’s Blurb and Ordering Info

Ariel Samson is just your run of the mill anomaly: a 20-something black Orthodox Jewish rabbi looking for love, figuring out life, and floating between at least two worlds.

Luckily, it gets worse.

Finding himself the spiritual leader of a dying synagogue, and accidentally falling into viral internet fame, Ariel is suddenly catapulted into a series of increasingly ridiculous conflicts with belligerent college students, estranged families, corrupt politicians, hippophilic coworkers, vindictive clergymen, and even attempted murder. (And also Christian hegemony, racism, anti-Semitism, toxic Hotepism, and white Jewish privilege. Because today ends in “y.”)
— publisher’s blurb

Availability update: Book is now (as of 9/15/18) available at Barnes & Noble and appeared on Amazon in ebook or paperback the Friday before Rosh Hashana.

If you are in the DC area and interested in participating in bulk purchase, please contact me off-blog at ethreporter at gmail (dot) com. If you are somewhere else and interested in bulk orders, you can contact MaNishtana through his Facebook page.
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NOTES:
*Atem is masculine plural, and most of the possessives are masculine plural, with two masculine singular. The plurals could be understood to include all, as any men in the group turns a plural masculine; the singulars might be understood in the now thoroughly old-fashioned way in which we were once taught to use masculine for any undetermined person. However, it still seems unlikely that a group including women would be addressed about “your wives.”
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Trouble to See #2: Beyond Central Casting

further thoughts and references on Jews and Racial Justice….

“Bernie Sanders Looks Like Everyone’s Jewish Grandpa…,” read a headline on the Jewish Daily Forward website earlier this election season. But Sanders doesn’t look anything like these Jewish men, some of whom are probably grandpas, or like many Sephardic grandpas. He doesn’t look like the grandparents of many Jewish children in the United States. Bernie Sanders looks like Jewish grandpas from only one part of the world.

The blurb was meant to be cute, sure, but it still promotes an extremely limited view of who “looks Jewish.” (Sadly, the Forward lets the same sloppy “Jewish looks” idea inform news stories as well.) This, in turn, helps validate widespread challenging of anyone who doesn’t look like “a Jew” Central Casting might send.

Jews of color, in particular, report being frequently singled out and questioned about their background — despite that fact that this is contrary to a number of Jewish teachings.

This is just one way in which Jewish communities have work to do, more than most of us would like to admit,
in the area of racial justice.

(How) Are You Jewish?!

Not all Jews of color are Jews by choice. But the Talmud’s specific stress on not embarrassing a proselyte or child of a proselyte (Baba Metzia 58b) seems apropos. As does Jewish law forbidding differentiating between Jews by choice and Jews by blood (see, e.g., Yebamot 47b).

More generally, Jewish tradition teaches “verbal wrongs”
are more serious than monetary ones
and that shaming a person in public is the same as shedding blood
(Baba Metzia 58b, again).

It is sometimes argued that people are “merely curious” and not attempting to shame a person who looks “different.” But this ignores what Jews of color, and others who don’t necessarily resemble Ashkenazi Jews, have repeatedly said: Being harassed with demands to explain yourself and your connection to Judaism is not welcoming; it is exhausting to be singled out all the time and demoralizing to have one’s identity challenged.

Micah810_53Michael Twitty, an African American Jew, describes how other Jews regularly question his presence in Jewish space and often demand: “Were you born Jewish?” (Jews United for Justice “Racial Justice Seder“)

MaNishtana, “100% Black, 100% Jewish, 0% Safe,” has his identity challenged so often, he says, that he finally penned a book entitled Fine, thanks. How Are You, Jewish?

In her famous poem, “Hebrew Mamita,” Vanessa Hidary speaks about a man complimenting her with, “You don’t look Jewish. You don’t act Jewish.” Eventually, she develops this  response:

Bigging up all people who are a little miffed
‘cuz someone tells you you don’t look like
or act like your people. Impossible.
Because you are your people.
You just tell them they don’t look. period.
listen here

Jewish Diversity and Racial Justice

One organization that has been working for years to “foster an expanding Jewish community that embraces its differences,” is Be’chol Lashon: In Every Tongue. Among their offerings are research, resources, and diversity-celebrating materials.

Recognizing and celebrating diversity within Jewish communities also means addressing the discrimination and risk that fellow Jews face because of their color. See, e.g., “#MyJewish and Why It Matters.” This is another crucial element in the story of Jews and Racial Justice. (more soon)

NOTE

The same publication has made factual errors in the past based on assumptions about who “looks Jewish.”
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