Thoughts on Chesed Shel Emeth

by Clare Kinberg

There’s a complicated story surrounding my feelings about the Feb 18, 2017 vandalism at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, MO. I’m not even thinking right now about the fact that my family buried my mother there last month, on Jan 5. Yes, I am very upset that the peace of the space around my mother’s fresh grave has been so unnaturally disturbed. But the seat of my feelings has other sources.

On Sept 5, 2016, 5 months before we buried mom in Chesed Shel Emeth, I visited a very different, historic cemetery in the rural and remote, rolling hills of Southwest Michigan; a sparse, church cemetery where my Aunt Rose, my father’s sister, lies buried in an unmarked grave. I found her resting place, after 40 years of looking for her, through determination and chance. She died in 1982; her obituary in the Cassopolis Vigilant says “there are no known survivors at this time.” Estranged from her family, including even her young son, Joe,  since the 1930s, Rose remained separated in death. Until this week, I’d fantasized about bringing her body home to the shtetl, which is, of course, Chesed Shel Emeth. Her mother and father are there, her grandfather, too. All three of her brothers and a sister. But Chesed Shel Emeth is not where Rose wanted to be. And now, I almost feel grateful that she isn’t there, that her rest is not disturbed like all the others. 

To be honest, the thought of bringing her home to Chesed Shel Emeth was only a passing thought. I’ve given serious thought, though, to the headstone I plan to order for her, to mark her space under the earth. Rose (Kinberg) Arnwine does have known survivors, and her extraordinary life will be noted.

Both Rose and I are the non-conformists of the family. But I can still claim Chesed Shel Emeth for my own. I’ve walked its narrow paths countless times. I love to stand in the midst of the gravestones and be enclosed into its familiarity. In 1897, my father’s–and Rose’s–grandmother was buried there, when she died ten days after giving birth to my great aunt Mary. It was in the first years of the cemetery, when they buried Russian Jews who didn’t have the money for a plot or a headstone. Chesed Shel Emeth is the shtetl, the home of the poor, and the very poor, all laid up next to the better off. There’s a plethora of peddlers, tailors, and junk dealers …and the jobbers they became.

With my mom’s papers, I find invoices and paid checks from my father and Uncle Leonard to Chesed Shel Emeth Burial Society, beginning in 1951, for “burial graves.” They paid on some sort of regular basis through the 1960s. Every name on a headstone in Chesed Shel Emeth echoes with the voices of our parents and teachers, our neighbors and schoolmates, the grocers and shoe salesmen, teammates, cousins, and friends. The families that moved from downtown on North 10th St. to midtown near Cates and Kingshighway, to Westminster, to Kingsbury in University City, to Olivette and Ladue and finally further west to Chesterfield. Of the 17,000 people buried in Chesed Shel Emeth, so many with families like mine, with generations buried there, I think I am connected, through marriage and proximity, to each and every one. I look at each headstone and think, I know you, I know you, I know you.

Aunt Mary, who grew up shuttled between the Jewish orphan home in Cleveland and various relatives, was the only one who stayed in touch with Rose. The shtetl was not entirely kind to either of them.

Rose’s son Joe married in 1952, to Joyce (who died just a month before mom, in Alabama). Everyone is at the wedding, except Rose: Aunt Mary and her grown children stand next to my mom and dad, Dad’s siblings and their children. Today, only my siblings Robert and Sheila from this picture are alive (I wouldn’t be born for 3 more years). Five of them are in Chesed Shel Emeth: Mom and Dad, Uncle Leonard and Aunt Ethel, and Tillie. The rest are scattered, New York, Chicago, California.

I wonder if Aunt Mary brought this picture to Rose. Was it among Rose’s things when she died, thirty years later? What did happen to Rose’s things when she died? The Cass County probate court has lost her record, but I haven’t given up the search. After all, I found her. Or at least the unmarked patch of grass where she is buried.

The Chesed Shel Emeth shtetl was no longer Rose’s home, but, oh, the home she did create. A stop on the Underground Railroad, on Paradise Lake, Vandalia, MI. When her East Texas-born African American husband bought 25 acres of farmland there in 1943, did it feel safe to them? Familiar, like the rural county he’d grown up in? Was it more like the Russian shtetl her grandfather came from than the brick duplexes of St Louis or the crowded Black Belt in the south side of Chicago? In Cass County, MI, Rose and Zebedee raised chickens and sold eggs. She was active in her church. She lived on the same piece of land for 40 years. Her resting place is quiet.

A Pledge

by AARC member Rose Benjamin

I am afraid to be trans today. I am afraid to leave my cocoon. I am afraid to leave Ann Arbor. I am afraid in Ann Arbor. I am afraid to walk around in a dress with my new baby. I am afraid to relax. I am looking over my shoulder. I am wondering who secretly wants to kill me, not for who I am but for what I represent, what I trigger. I am less open. I am less free. I am wondering whether to hide my transness. I am used to hiding it, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. I am frightened for my wife, for my child. I am frightened for my gay and trans friends. I am frightened that when we are together we will be shiny targets. I am afraid that all my doubts will come back, the ones that make me feel freakish and ugly. I have not been “out” for long; should I just go back in, I wonder. I am frightened to use the women’s bathroom. I am frightened to use the men’s bathroom. I do not take my estrogen with glee anymore. I take it with dread because every dose is another step in the direction of standing out. I am afraid to be trans. I am afraid.

But I should not, cannot, will not let this defeat me. I will remember that this is about so much more than me. I will remember that millions of Muslims, Latinos, African-Americans, women, immigrants, differently abled people, progressives, radicals, socialists, bi-gendered, un-gendered, fluidly-gendered, young, elderly, Jewish, Native, people, humans are feeling just as frightened, and much more so than me. I will remember all the privilege I have regardless of being a transgender, bi-ish-sexual, Jewish, radical fop without any savings. And I will remember how many people struggled and died in obscurity just so I could wear this dress at all, just so we could rant openly, just so we could stand up for something. And I will try to feel brave, I will take heart. But not because I am very strong. I will do so because you give me hope. And so I write this to give you hope. I am scared. But I am going to wear my lipstick. I will go to Detroit and march and I will do so wearing my pins and flowers and frilly hems. Because I trust you when you say you have my back and I want you to know I have yours. Because otherwise we are lost.

I am afraid to be trans. And this will not change. I was afraid to be trans long before I accepted I was trans. Because while being trans is scary so is being honest. So is being real. So is caring. So is “being there” in any kind of actual way. So is wondering whether you belong, wondering whether the dream is just a particularly unprofitable joke we’ve all played on each other with some very profitable help from The Beatles. Life is scary. These things have to do with us, with what we say and do, with how we behave when the nighttime comes. And I want you to know something: when I read some of the remarkably powerful and empowering things you say, I am less scared and I am more heartened. Everyone is righteous and brave when things are comfortably distant. Everyone says the right things about recycling and the failing schools and how much black lives matter (and of course these things matter in the biggest ways). But now is the time when that distance shrinks, when the gap between saying and doing closes, when the comfortable space between theory and practice disappears.

And so I am making a pledge to myself and to you. I am going to keep wearing this dress. As long as you keep wearing yours, whatever form that “dress” takes. If that “dress” is your race or religion, keep wearing it. If that dress is your sexuality, nationality, artistry, humor, or hair color, keep wearing it. If that dress is your belief that people should speak up against injustice, then by all means, now is the time to layer that shit. If your dress is your laughter or longing, if it is the way you treat your co-workers and friends, if it is your relationship, the way you hold your head, the foods you like, the hours you keep, the things you collect, your makeup or lack thereof, your mental or physical health, your poverty, your character, your deepest convictions, your doubts, your love, your soul, you just keep wearing that dress. In fact, you add a scarf and hat. You add some fancy shoes you got at the overpriced vintage store. You throw on a bow. You hang some beads. You do what you have to do to wear that dress, whatever it is. And you make sure your friends wear theirs. Because this is the very occasion we’ve all been saving that dress for.

So I’m gonna keep wearing my pumps. I’m gonna keep wearing the foundation I got conned into buying by that lady at Macy’s. I’m gonna keep talking to people I don’t know, I’m gonna keep returning smiles even when there was nothing to return. I’m gonna keep wondering who needs help, gonna keep crying. I’m gonna keep my heart open even though it hurts. I’m gonna keep laughing. I’m gonna keep hoping. I’m gonna keep feeling and looking like a damn fool because no matter how much I want to give in, I just can’t be that person. And the reason I can’t is you. The things you say, the things I know you are willing to do to keep the frost from swallowing the garden reminds me that I am not alone.

I am afraid to be trans today. And I will continue to be afraid, more afraid than before. But I am also utterly resolved not to let this fear win. And after this week and month, after the initial shock and rage wear off, I will need you to keep reminding me of that resolve and I promise to remind you.
I am afraid. And I’m putting on my dress. And I’m going outside. And I’m not gonna avert my eyes.

I love you, friends,
Rose

 

Post election: What are you doing?


Collage created by members of the Diversity Peer Education Team at York University in 2013, lifted from the blog Inclusivity Zone by Margaret

At last Saturday’s Human Rights Shabbat, Margo led a discussion about the emotional impact of the election and its implications for human rights. Many of us found the service cathartic, and it was inspiring to hear about the activities of our members.

With the hope that activity can be an antidote to despair, let’s try using this post to collect the list of constructive actions people are taking part in locally. As a start, refer to Margo’s post for a list of  ways you can get involved building bridges with people in prison.

What are you doing? If you’re volunteering or helping or organizing or protesting, add a comment to this post briefly describing what you’re doing and how others might get involved. Thanks!

 

Bridging the distance between here and prison

bird-and-prison-barsInternational Human Rights Day (and Human Rights Shabbat) is December 10, which prompted me to put together this post.

Ronald Simpson-Bey and I led a workshop on Yom Kippur about solitary confinement and building criminal justice institutions that encourage t’shuvah.  Many of the workshop participants asked for more information about how they could get involved, and I promised to post some ideas.  So here goes:

I’ve asked many people from many organizations: this post brings together their thoughts on getting informed and building bridges.  There’s also a prayer for those in solitary, at the bottom.  If you’re interested in working further on this issue, or learning more, please sign up here.  

  1. Get informed.
  2. Reach out.  Building bridges from prison to the outside is enormously gratifying, and key to reintegrating prisoners productively into communities.
    • Some quick ways to reach out:
      • Leave a supportive note on one of the blog posts at Between the Bars (the note will be printed and anonymously mailed to the prisoner).
      • Write a short holiday card to someone at Prison Inmate Penpal. For the return address, if you’d like to remain anonymous, you can use the address of Fair Shake Reentry Resource Center at: Fair Shake, PO Box 63, Westby, WI 54667.
    • Prison Creative Arts Project (UM) — a fantastic organization, which is doing a training for new volunteers on Jan. 8.  let them know you’re interested here.  (And don’t forget to sign up with us here, too.)
    • Michigan Criminal Justice Project, American Friends Service Committee.  They have a program called the Good Neighbor Project, which pairs free-world and prisoner folks.  Here’s some info.  There are periodic trainings–and if there was enough interest (again, sign up here), they would do a special one for us.  The same organization also relies on volunteers to do advocacy work.  If anyone is interested in either of these, use the signup, and I can either link you to the right person or (if there is enough interest) we can coordinate something for our community.
    • Here are some ways to get involved in a visiting or pen-pal program for prisoners.  Ideas from T’ruah.
    • Solitary Watch, Lifelines to Solitary.

A prayer for justice

From a space of narrow tightness we call to the Eternal, and God answers; from the belly of death we cry out and You hear our voice.
Our brothers and sisters have been cast into the depths of solitary confinement; so many waves and breakers have buffeted and drowned them.
We, too, feel their pain, and reel from the impact of this injustice.
They are cast out from the public eye, but we will not let them be forgotten.
May the One Who was with our brother Joseph in the pit and in prison, and with our sister Miriam when she was isolated from the camp for seven days—
Bless and heal all those who are imprisoned in solitary confinement.
May the Holy Blessed One be filled with mercy for them, strengthening them and keeping them from all harm.
May God speedily send them complete healing of spirit and of body and grant our society the wisdom to find a more fair and humane system soon, in our day. And let us say, Amen.

[Assembled from this and this.]

How we are still a havurah.

by Margo Schlanger
Margo Schlanger

Margo Schlanger

As co-chair, this was my congregational welcome on Yom Kippur this year:

L’shanah tovah. I am Margo Schlanger; I am nearing the end of my time as board co-chair for the Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation, which has been a very great privilege. It’s also my privilege to welcome both members and friends to this service, whether you’ve been a part of our community for its full 23 year history, or are new to us today, or something in between.

This is a community that is very dear to me, and I want to tell a little story that captures a small part of why. It’s about our ner tamid, our eternal light. You may notice – we don’t have one. That’s because we don’t have a stationary ark. Our ark travels; it lives in our closet at the JCC, and comes out for our Torah services. So how could we have a ner tamid? Well, it turns out that ours is far from the first travelling ark. And so, many learned rabbis have debated the question: how do you fit a ner tamid to a travelling ark. They’ve come up with the sensible answer that the ner tamid needs to be out, and lit, with the ark – but it need not be out or lit when the ark itself is put away.

So for our ner tamid, we realized we need something that can be out, and lit, for something between an hour or two at minimum, but about a day, at maximum.

AARC started as a havurah – a lay-led fellowship. Volunteer solutions are in our DNA. On this one, it turns out we have a great amateur electronics maven, Dave Nelson. So Dave figured out a way to run a battery-chargable LED light for a day at a time. This took considerable experimentation and adjustments to the electronics, but Dave finished that a few weeks ago. And now comes the fun part: we can, as a community, create a sacred object. Like our Ark, Torah Table, Tapestries, Yad, Torah Cover. All are created by members, inspired by their aspirations for what our community means. The ner tamid will be the next such object, and like the others, will symbolize our Jewish community as well as the objects it depicts. Many people will have a hand in making it. Some will pay for precious materials; some will do work; some will kibbitz about design. We’ll all together enjoy the result.

LED light that Dave has made into the guts of our Ner Tamid

LED light that Dave has made into the guts of our ner tamid

Another synagogue's portable ner tamid.

Another synagogue’s portable ner tamid.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And as you must have expected, here’s the point; the ner tamid is real. But it’s also a small metaphor for our community as a whole. We need many people to have a hand in making it, and we need everyone to bring both their talents and their resources to bear. This is a transitional year for us, as we hopefully bring our rabbi search to a close. If you’re a member, and have already renewed your membership, thank you. If you’re a member and haven’t done that yet, thanks for doing it very soon. Either way, please think about how you can help enable our community to flourish, so it can give you and others what it is they need. And if you’re not a member, please consider yourself welcome to all our events, and please consider joining us more officially. It’s easy, and we’re very nice people. Or, if you prefer, consider supporting these ticketless open services. There are donation envelopes at the welcome table out front. Please support this community—your community—as generously as you can.

L’shanah tovah!

 

Is memory important?

Zichronot/Remembrances: Is memory important? 
Rosh Hashanah 2016 Talk by Nancy Meadow
Judith Tendler , Dec 30, 1938 - July 25, 2016

Judith Tendler Dec 30, 1938 – July 25, 2016

I have loved and lost many women in my family to dementia or Alzheimer’s.

My maternal Great Aunt Sarah who, in dementia, read the same novel for ten years and loved ice cream.

My paternal grandma Alice who, in dementia, swore like a sailor and loved ice cream.

My mother, RoseAnna, who in dementia was not at peace unless she was ‘creating something’– even if it was folding the same two washcloths for hours on end. And who liked to mix her raspberry sherbet with potato chips.

My mother’s best friend, Sarah, who in dementia was tortured by interactive visions of evil people and deeds her clients suffering from trauma had shared with her over decades of a career in social work.

My mother’s sister, Aunt Judith, a beyond brilliant writer and academic who in her dementia would not stop walking even when her body could no longer do so, who corrected people’s grammar long after she could hold a conversation, who was not at peace unless she was holding a book/journal/few sheets of paper in her hands … and who loved ice cream.

I watched the disease slowly but relentlessly steal every single memory and every single piece of knowledge from their beings. Every bit they had spent a lifetime collecting. First to go was often words. Not all of them, but the beautiful, specific ones that communicated just exactly who they were, what they were thinking, how they felt, and what they wanted. As the memory pillage continued they lost the ability to sequence, connect, and feel safe in space. This is when trouble with keys, locks, codes, and doors began. Then difficulty with transitions began, small transitions like walking from tile onto carpet or through a door way, and big transitions like choosing a different route home or a new doctor. As the battle for memory marched further forward they lost names of people they loved, they knew. Every single one. From today, from yesterday, from generations before. Then the ability to care for their most basic needs, then their own name, then the ability to swallow, then to breathe.

When I was young, and I lost family members who were two generations older than me, I thought about how sad I was and how wrong it was that I could not have them in my life anymore. When I was an adult and lost my mom I thought about what mental habits I could adopt, ASAP, that might help me escape such a cruel death.

Then I lost mom’s best friend, and then Aunt Judith started to fail. Through Judith, I lost many beautiful people I fell in love with, those who lived with her while she was in an assisted living facility and then the Memory Care Ward. Then, this past July, I lost Judith – the last of her nuclear family.

Now I presume I will die from Alzheimer’s or some other dementia. I already love ice cream. The doctors object to such certainty, and perhaps it is the raw grief, but after witnessing all these strong, smart, feisty women fall who am I to think I could escape it?  

So I am here today, asking: why do we place such value on memory? Is it really so important?

When my grandmother was living with us the last six months of her life, I remember sitting on the couch with her for hours looking over family scrapbooks. I remember how happy I could make her by rattling off the names of dead friends and relatives I had never met but were in those picture books. I remember sitting at the piano with her while she played and sang a particular song from her Eastern European childhood over and over – drilling the melody and words into my childhood memory bank. My mother was caught up by the genealogy bug. She “found” over 1,500 relatives and took me on a roots tour that included visiting a shtetl in Ukraine, a street in Antwerp, and a sleepy town in Norway. My mother and grandmother clearly thought it important to remember the past.

Since my twins’ birth, I have told the story to Mollie and Isaac about how their great-great grandparents escaped from Ukraine–and who begat whom–until we get to their own birth story. I’m doing what I am supposed to do, passing along the history. But I am sure I don’t have all the facts “right,” and now there is nobody left to tell me the “real” story. I watched my mother and aunt spend decades arguing over whose version of what their parents did and thought was “correct.” I know that my sisters and I have very different ideas about people and things that happened in our common past. We each have our own versions.

So, here I am today, asking: is memory important?

Human Rights Shabbat — Saturday morning, December 10

December 10 is International Human Rights Day, and so we’re making our second Saturday service a Human Rights Shabbat service.  I’ll lead the service, at the normal 10 am time.  We’ll do some of the regular Shacharit service, but have a discussion rather than a Torah service.  In this difficult week and month, I’m still thinking through how to approach this.  My plans from a week ago suddenly seem inadequate.  But I hope many of us can gather and share hope and community.  So save the date.

The Shofar blasts:  Waking up to something in a new way

a Rosh Hashanah talk by Patti Smith

patti-smithDespite a lifelong love of being the center of attention and performing, I am actually a very shy person. I am one of those unusual folk who would rather be in front of dozens or hundreds of people than talk one to one with someone. One-to-one makes me nervous. It is out of my comfort zone.

I did something this past summer that is also out of my comfort zone—I went to camp for the first time. Unlike most people raised in the same circumstances as me, I had never gone to camp. I was quite sickly as a kid and going into the woods with no air conditioning or access to doctors was not really possible. But I’ve grown up and medicine is better, and air conditioned cabins are now a thing, so I got a scholarship and off I went to a dance and arts camp in the woods.

The nerves started a few weeks before camp did. I casually mentioned to my husband that maybe I shouldn’t go. I only knew a few people by sight, and wouldn’t know most of the 120 campers and maybe I should stay home. He reminded me that I had gotten a scholarship that I had to honor.

I set off on a Sunday in August. As soon as I arrived at camp, my nerves started jangling—I didn’t know anyone and they wanted us to sit together at meals. I had to make small talk with complete strangers, most of whom were quite a bit older than me and who all seemed to know each other. I held my own but my stomach jumped all over like it always does when I have to talk to people one on one. I found a Wi-Fi signal and messaged my husband, suggesting that maybe I should come home. He replied by wishing me a happy evening. Drat!

At breakfast and lunch the next day, I felt the same uneasiness that I always have. I started to message my husband again when I heard a woman make an announcement. She was looking for people to perform at the daily gathering, the time just before lunch when campers could sing, dance, tell jokes, lead a sing-a-long, or otherwise show off their talents. I erased my message to my husband and went up to the woman.

“I’m Patti from Ann Arbor,” I said. “I do storytelling, if you could use me tomorrow.”

Her face lit up. “I’d love it! You can go first!”

The story I selected was called The Plant People, the theme of which is me being a very literal and very naïve child who literally thought that the plant people were going to come and eat us all.

So I got up there the next day and told my 5 minute story. It is very rare that I say this, but it really hit all the right notes. I normally sort of black out when I’m up there, but I was really in the moment and it went great.

And then something happened. People started talking to me, and I had something to talk to them about. The theme of naivety and childhood hit a chord with people who told me about their very literal son or their sheltered niece. By telling my story, I had empowered other people to share their stories. And in doing so, we had opened a door into a territory of common life experiences. Now we had something to talk about! And my shyness melted away.

Because I got up there and told that story, I met people who I probably wouldn’t have otherwise even met. We have all friended each other on Facebook and next year at camp, we will have lots of stories to share!

patti-smith-warrior-queenPatti will perform her storytelling on Novemeber 10th in “HERsay: An Evening of Performance Art” at Pointless Brewery & Theatre 3014 Packard St, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48108

It is already sold out, but may be a good topic to talk to Patti about next time you see her!

Refugees and Returning to Our Best Selves

deb-fieldYom Kippur talk by Debbie Field

The Avodah service during the afternoon of Yom Kippur has its origins in an ancient temple ritual where the high priest sacrificed a bull to atone for the sins of himself, his household, and the world as a whole. In a radically reconstructed version of this service, I want to talk to you about a project of mine that engages all three levels of the Avodah: self, community, and world.

But before I describe that project, I want to reassure everyone here on two accounts. First, I am not going to talk about sins, but about atonement. And I am using the understanding of atonement that Rabbi Nathan provided in his talk on Rosh Hashanah; that is atonement as teshuvah, as a return to our best selves. Second, I have not redefined myself as high priest, and I am not speaking from an exalted position of holiness. Instead, I want to frame this talk with the line from Pirkei Avot/Sayings of the Fathers that many of you know: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work of creation, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.” So, I’m speaking to you simply as somebody trying not to desist.

I’m going to start with a story. I teach at a small college a little south of here. I have a very nice colleague in the chemistry department who is originally from Syria. One day a few years ago, he stood up in the faculty meeting and asked us all to pray for his country. And everybody said, oh how sad, how sad and then we went back to our lives.

But as the news got worse and the refugee crises began to intensify, I kept thinking about his plea for our prayers. There are lots of different kinds of prayers and ways to pray; for example, when Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel got back from marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, he was asked if he had had time for prayer and he answered, “I was praying with my feet.” As Jews, we are obligated to help refugees: in the Torah there are 36 separate reminders that we must help the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. So, as a feet praying kind of Jew, I asked myself how I, as an individual, could pray for my colleague’s country and the people escaping from it. I also wondered how I could engage my campus community.

My first attempt was to suggest that our college house and feed a refugee family, as campuses around the country have started doing as part of a movement called Every Campus a Refuge.  I wrote a proposal that met with a curt refusal, so I redirected my energies. Eventually, the solution I came up with was to design a new course on Refugees in Modern History, which I am teaching this semester. The class includes a service learning component through a fledgling nonprofit organization called Paper Airplanes Tutoring. My students are tutoring Syrian refugees now living in various countries using Skype and Facebook. The goal is to help the Syrian young people improve their English so they can pass the language exams required for university admission. But Paper Airplanes Tutoring, and my class, also have broader goals.

According to the UN, there are 6.6 million refugees internally displaced within Syria, and over 4.8 million refugees outside of Syria, totaling over 11 million Syrian refugees. The United States has taken in just over 10,000; by contrast there are 2.7 million in Turkey. Last November after attacks in Paris, a Bloomburg News poll showed that 53% of Americans were against admitting any Syrian refugees, with an additional 11% saying they supported admitting only Christian Syrians. In the face of this huge refugee crises and our country’s opposition to helping, my aspiration is to change attitudes.

I have learned through many years of teaching that you can’t change people’s minds by railing at them. But through reading, discussing, and the investment in teaching one particular refugee, I hope that my students will see Syrian refugees as products of particular historical circumstances not of their own making, like the other refugees we have been studying in class: Jews and Palestinians, Vietnamese, Somalis, and Bosnians. More importantly, I hope my students will make individual human connections with their tutees and that the sympathy and understanding that results will ripple outward as they talk about their experiences with their friends and their parents and their communities.

I think this has started to happen. In her teaching log, one of my students described how surprised she was at how much she had in common with her student and she admitted she had assumed his culture would be alien and backward. She wrote: “We are so quick to judge others even though they are so much like ourselves; usually it is a mere difference in circumstances. I wish more people could see things this way, but I am glad that this opportunity of talking with my tutee has provided me with the human element to reevaluate my beliefs and change my current assumptions about other groups of people.”

What I’m doing is quite small. It comes out of my own desire to pray, if not with my feet, then with my syllabus, so that what I do every day can be part of repairing the world. There is so much broken in the world, but this Yom Kippur, I am trying to hang on to hope that my small, individual, pedagogical teshuvah is reaching outward to campus, community, nation, and world.

paper-airplanes-logo

Humility/Sovereignty by Anita Rubin-Mueller

by Anita Rubin-Mueller
Humility/Sovereignty: Rosh Hashanah Drash, 2016

anita-rubin-muellerBeing asked to talk about humility in the context of recognizing God’s sovereignty returned me to my spiritual roots, Al-Anon, 1981. In the 12 steps there is a clear relationship between humility and God. Step 1, admit we are powerless. Step 3, make a decision to turn our lives and our will over to the care of God. Step 7, humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings. And isn’t that exactly what this time of year gives us the space to do? Beginning with the new moon of Elul and culminating as the gates close on Yom Kippur, we are invited to deeply know ourselves, the whole truth of ourselves, and bring that truth before the Holy One of Being, whom our prayer book calls “author of creation, teacher of truth” whose sovereign power hopefully empowers us. Humility is about being in right relationship with ourselves and thereby being in right relationship with God.

There are many ways to approach this time of searching within. Sometimes we set out determined, with a particular structure of meditating, journaling, sharing. And sometimes awareness arrives in the midst of our pain, our suffering our challenges. And that can feel like a gift or a curse.

Here’s the story: I can’t remember what happened before, but if you were peeking in on us in the moment of the outburst, it would have appeared that my husband and I were fighting over something to do with a box of crackers. Whatever it was that was really happening, the result was an emotional explosion on my part that had me leaving the house in anger at 9pm to take myself on a walk.

For a while the anger stayed and my thoughts were oriented towards “he does this, and he does that, and it will never change, etc.” Then I remembered myself. That is to say, I realized that this angry, resentful woman was not the person I wanted to be. I remembered the soothing power of self-compassion and placed a hand on my heart as I walked and gently noted my pain. And then I got curious.  Why did this hurt so much?

In her newest book, Rising Strong, social work researcher and TED talk celebrity Brene Brown describes a 3-step process meant to guide us in rising from our fall, overcoming our mistakes, and facing our hurt. She gives a name to what I went through when I went for my walk after the fight with my husband: The Reckoning. Her name for the next step, The Rumble, is indicative of the wrestling that ensues when we are opened in curiosity and compassion to explore our self-justification and habitual stories and find what is really going in our mind and heart and soul.

As I settled into this calm and curious state, a wiser awareness arrived: this was about my 5 year old. Again. Often when I know that I am hurt, instead of feeling angry I am brought there: to the child needing loving attention, to the child needing to know she is lovable, to the child wanting to be held. Recognizing her presence then gave me an opportunity to soothe her and to listen more deeply to myself. I so desperately wanted to be “big” enough to go home, apologize to my husband and move on. But as I continued walking, I realized that my awareness could not yet translate into skilled words and that the best I could do was to say calmly that I didn’t have words yet, and helplessly go off to the basement couch to sleep.

One of the ways I experience humility at this time of year is recognizing that what I release into the river at Tashlich tends to repeat itself. So, as I awoke the next day I was quite aware that last year at this time I had vowed to love my husband as best as I could and for sure this meant giving up the idea that he should do what I do, want what I want, value what I value.  And that introduces the other player in this tale, the self -righteous teen who pops up to protect against the hurt, the sorrow and disappointment of the 5-year-old feeling unloved. She has always been harder for me to embrace, but at least the embrace does come.

To quote Brene Brown again: “The irony is that we attempt to disown our difficult stories to appear more whole or more acceptable, but our wholeness – even our wholeheartedness- actually depends on the integration of all our experiences, including the falls” She calls her third step in the process of coming home to ourselves “The Revolution” and describes it as being able to write a new ending to your story based on the learnings from the process of  The Rumble.

So I awoke to find Roger and my words.

In a letter from the Ramban to his son, quoted by Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs, he writes of humility: ”Let your voice be gentle and your head bowed. Let your eyes be turned earthwards and your heart heavenwards. Let every man seem superior to you in your own eyes. God alone knows the true worth of a man.”

As Roger and I took a morning walk and I tearfully shared my apology and realization, my pain and my hope for a different outcome, I could feel my whole being soften, lean in to this man that I have loved imperfectly for 30 years. And without asking, he shared his insights as well and we came to better understand the dance we have done for so long of triggering each other’s vulnerabilities and acting protectively in response. There is a saying in the Tai Chi principles: 4 ounces displaces 1,000 pounds. When I am corrected during morning practice it is often minuscule, but feels like a miracle, a small adjustment creating a significant shift.

I was sure this shift was here to stay, but “never again” are not the words of humility. Just last week I had yelled at my husband “I need you to meet me halfway”  and found myself heading for the basement couch again, where I looked up the Biblical definitions of humility and found this: “the quality that lets us go more than halfway to meet the needs and demands of others.” I picked up my pillow, returned to our bedroom, and snuggled in, grateful.

Humility is knowing that no matter how hard I try I will never be perfect. It is trusting that the Holy One of Being will have a lot more patience with my repeated mistakes then I tend to have. It is finding lessons mysteriously delivered in unexpected places.

I end with the wisdom of folksinger Steve Earle from a song called “God is God”

God, in my little understanding don’t care what name I call.
Whether or not I believe doesn’t matter at all.
I receive the blessings that every day on Earth’s another chance to get it right.
Let this little light of mine shine and rage against the night.
I believe in God and God ain’t us.