My Love for my Sister on her Wedding Day

My sister, Emily, was married last week. There was so much love and joy on their special day. Here are my words for Emily and my new brother-in-law, Brett.

Photo Credit: Assaf Friedman | www.assafphotography.com

Photo Credit: Assaf Friedman | http://www.assafphotography.com

Emily, at your Bat Mitzvah, I think I gave the best speech of anyone in our entire family, when I sang to you my rewritten words to the Ricky Martin masterpiece, Livin La Vida Loca. Rest assured, I will not be reprising that spectacular performance today.

For the gorgeous bride, my beloved little sister, on her wedding day…

Emily, from the perspective of someone on the outside, you and I might appear to be some very interesting siblings. I have heard it said that a sister is the person who is most like you and also the person who is most different from you. Emily, this couldn’t be truer for you and me. When we remember our childhood together, the first thing we think about is almost always the time when at the age of four, you cut your own hair and blamed it on me. I was punished for weeks, and it wasn’t until mom and dad found your hair hidden in the corner of your room that I was found innocent.

It took a long time for us to calm down and get to where we are today. I think perhaps things started getting better when you stopped listening to the Spice Girls and Aqua, and started asking to borrow my Dave Matthews CDs. I’m so thankful for how we’ve grown closer together over the last decade, and how we now look forward to all the times we get to spend with each other. It’s especially a delight for me to appreciate great music together with you. I look forward to us getting to be the awkward older people at concerts. Maybe we’re already those awkward older people.

A little while ago, Brett showed up and started coming along to concerts with us. It’s interesting – I never really wanted a brother (sorry!) It was Emily who always wanted a sister, and she never hesitated to remind me how much she wanted – even how much she would have preferred to have a sister.

But now we find ourselves here today – I am blessed with a sister who is one of my best friends, and now I also get a new brother along with her.

This all started four years ago, when Emily came to me and asked if she and her friends could stay in my New York apartment over New Year’s Eve. Was I worried about four Toronto girls gallivanting around New York and having free reign over my place? Maybe a little. But I said “yes, of course!” and I am so thankful that I did, as it was on that trip to New York that Emily and Brett found each other.

Fast forward to around 18 months ago, when I was in Los Angeles for work. While in meetings all day long, I had turned off my cell phone. In the evening, I turned my phone back on. There were 7 missed calls from Emily, and a one-line text message: call me.

I was worried. Who was sick? What happened?

I rushed back to my hotel room and called Emily, out of breath. Without even letting me say hello, she screamed through the receiver: “I’M ENGAGED! I’M GETTING MARRIED!

While I knew that day was coming, it was such an unexpected surprise and a blessing of wonderful news. I’ve been looking forward to this day ever since then.

Emily – we are much more than just brother and sister. We don’t just share our wonderful parents. You and I share profound joys, difficult times, hilarious stories, inside secrets, a love of good music, blessings, and a friendship that grows stronger as the years go by. I am so blessed to call you my sister and my friend.

Brett, I don’t need to give you any warnings about my little sister, because I am continually impressed with the love and devotion you show to your bride. Today, it is my joy and delight to now get to call you a brother. And Emily, truth be told, I don’t need to give you any advice either, because while you may be my not-so little sister, it’s from you that I learn so much about creating a loving partnership. And I know how much that you and I have learned from having two parents who showed us how to nurture a loving, respectful, caring relationship.

Emily and Brett, separately, you are two special and remarkable people, but together you are complete. Your journey towards each other has overcome great physical distances, but was always one of two immensely close souls. In the immortal words of our mentor, Dave Matthews – “Turns out, not where, but who you’re with that really matters.” For me, I can’t wait for us to be neighbours in New York City, and to be close by as you and Brett start building your life together.

For you both, I wish you a life together where with each new step, with each new verse of your songs together, with every new adventure, you always know how blessed you each are to have someone with you that really matters.

Parashat Va’etchanan: Enduring and Faring Well in Israel

This is the d’var torah that I delivered this Shabbat at Kol Ami in Thornhill, Ontario.

The great Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, writes the following words in one of his most famous poems, Tourists:

…Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker.

“You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!”

I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

I must confess that when visiting new places, tourist attractions and cultural sites are not enough for me. I have taken a cue from Amichai’s impassioned charge in his poem. When traveling, I’m not content with the Disney World version of a place. I always feel as though I am missing out on something if I don’t get to peel back the layers of a society and try to understand the people I am seeing all around me. What are their values? What is the dominant public culture? What kind of government is chosen or enforced? How do people relate to each other? 

I’ve often also thought to myself: What would someone visiting Canada think are the guiding principles of our country? Earlier this summer, in what would prove to be an incredibly challenging time spent in Israel, I thought the same question: What would someone visiting Israel right now think are the guiding principles of the country?

As it happens – perhaps unsurprisingly – our own textual tradition has much to say about the guidelines and mores of establishing a functioning society. In the case of our ancestors the Israelites, these rules were remarkably detailed and covered all aspects of daily life. This Shabbat as we read parashat va’etchanan, we again encounter what is the most well known example of these rules – the aseret hadibrot – the Ten Commandments.

Now the idea of a societal legal code was not something new at the time of the Torah’s commandments. Certainly, the peoples of the Ancient Near East were already quite familiar with legal documents, including the idea of protecting such rights as human life, personal property, and familial relations. What was unique about our text – the text that would become the cornerstone of Jewish society and the foundation of much of Western Civilization – is that it framed a legal text in terms of a covenant with God. For us, establishing a moral, legal society is itself an expression of God’s will.

This Shabbat, I want to examine what I think is a unique and often overlooked aspect of our Ten Commandments, and God’s will within it. The fifth commandment reads:

כַּבֵּד אֶת אָבִיךָ וְאֶת אִמֶּךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוְּךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְמַעַן יַאֲרִיכֻן יָמֶיךָ וּלְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ

“Honour your father and your mother, as Adonai your God has commanded you, that you may long endure, and that you may fare well, on the land that Adonai your God is giving you.” (D’varim 5:16)

This is the only commandment that specifically includes a justification or added benefit for the performance of the duty – we are to honour our parents, so that we may have a prosperous existence in the Land of Israel.

Now this is peculiar to many – why is this the only mitzvah to have a benefit attached? Aren’t they all fairly important? And why is this the benefit that is included. Why not “Honour your father and your mother so that you may have all your needs met”? or “…so that you may live a safe and healthy life”? Moreover, why is this particular mitzvah the one to receive the benefit? Would it not be more appropriate, perhaps, for this benefit to be included in the commandment more connected to our ritual observance of Shabbat? Or why not attach such a benefit to belief in God’s eternal singularity?

This commandment pushes us to consider: what is relevant about the attached benefit being related to the Land of Israel? This mitzvah beckons us to ask: what is the connection between honouring our parents, and enduring and thriving in the land?

 

I believe that here we find one of the Torah’s most salient examples of what kind of people we are meant to be. In this one commandment, a direct line is drawn between our moral behaviour and our very existence. Our Torah is made up of a very long journey to reach the Promised Land, and here we are told that our time in the Land is dependent upon the performance of one singular mitzvah. Not belief in God; not observance of Shabbat or kashrut; not the Holiness Code’s laws of ritual impurity. Our life in the Land of Israel is indeed predicated upon our fulfillment of this mitzvah – upon our honouring of our parents.

Indeed, in the Mishneh Torah, the commandment to honour one’s human parents is compared to honoring God, and the Talmud teaches that since there are three partners in the creation of a person (God and two parents), honour showed to parents is the same as honour shown to God. (BT Kiddushin 31)

According to the prophet Malachi, God is the very one who makes this analogy!

“A son honours his father, and a servant his master. If I am a father, where is the honour due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?” says the LORD Almighty. (Malachi 1:6)

But is God really just dangling a carrot in front of our faces with this commandment? Is life in Israel just a form of positive reinforcement to get us to observe mitzvot? I cannot believe this. I believe that we honour our mothers and fathers not in order to receive the reward of the Land of Israel; rather our sustainable existence in the Land of Israel is itself based upon our living a life of honouring. Our existence in Israel is based upon the creation of a just and moral society – one where we give honour to those who gave us life and raised us. As the performance of God’s mitzvot is an attempt to become closer to the Divine holiness, we can only truly thrive in the Land if we are ourselves as holy, as moral, and as just as we possibly may be.

One clue towards this idea is the location of this commandment itself. The first five are often understood as being בין אדם למקום (between a person and God), while the second five are בין אדם לחברו (between one person and another). But this one – the fifth Commandment – can be interpreted as belonging to both groups.

Our parasha this week asks us to consider – What are the guidelines and mores of establishing a thriving society? This remains a struggle for us today as much as it was for our Israelite ancestors. Every day, the modern State of Israel faces innumerable challenges in its efforts to be a moral, just, and hopefully a holy community. If our State of Israel is meant to be one where our people can long endure, where we can fare well, as we are clearly meant to do… it must be a society that continually strives to attain holiness; it must be a place that creates laws and legal codes in an attempt to bring about a more just and righteous existence. It must be a place where honour is given to each other – not merely out of hope for some divine reward, but because this is the path to creating a long enduring community.

I was considering these ideas yesterday while reading a poignant commentary by Israel’s prolific Rabbi Donniel Hartman. Writing about the ease with which Israelis optimistically tell each other “hakol b’seder” (everything is okay), he had this to say about Israel’s current state of affairs in its war against Hamas:

“Everything is not OK when in striking distance of most of our citizens lies a terrorist organization with a charter which calls for our death and with the means and the desire to terrorize half of Israel whenever they so will it. Everything is not OK when our only avenue for defeating them will entail an unacceptable amount of casualties on both sides.

Everything is not OK when the only way we can fight Hamas is at the expense of innocent non-combatants behind whom they take cover. Everything is not OK when the only deterrent at our disposal is to wreak havoc on their society. Everything is not OK when we are forced to impose a blockade, with its horrific humanitarian and economic costs, simply because we want to limit their access to missiles and explosives that will be aimed at our citizens.

The paradox of Israel is that the only way for us to be a Western society is for us to embrace some measure of instability along with “hakol b’seder.” The only way for us to be a Jewish society is to embrace our values despite the danger. Everything will never be OK. The challenge is what to do when one recognizes this.”

What are we to do? What is Israel to do? In an intriguing twist in the Torah, the earlier reading of the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus only includes the line “that you may long endure on the land…” (Shemot 20:12), not yet receiving the idea in Deuteronomy that we “may long endure and fare well on the land.” Apparently there is a difference between mere endurance on one hand, and endurance coupled with faring well on the other.

I think this duality is at the heart of what Rabbi Hartman is writing about. Yes, Israel is blessed with the Iron Dome missile defence system, a powerful army, a strong democracy, and somehow an eternally optimistic people. Despite the dangers of war, we will long endure in the Land.

But can we endure without faring well? At what point do we begin to compromise so much that our endurance comes at the expense of our faring well? The progression of the Torah teaches us that endurance on its own is not good enough; we are meant not only to long endure, but to long endure and fare well.

Rabbi Hartman enjoins us to remember “the only way for [Israel] to be a Jewish society is to embrace our values despite the danger.” I believe for us, in our observance of the violence in Israel and Gaza; in our viewing of local and international media; in our conversations on Facebook and Twitter; it is often far too easy to consider only the danger. Far too often, we are preoccupied only with Israel’s endurance. But hidden just beneath this surface in our parasha this week is the powerful reminder that endurance alone is insufficient. Endurance must be coupled with faring well. Likewise, combating danger on its own is insufficient. We must also be concerned with the perpetual embracing of our values.

The connection between a righteous existence in Israel and honouring ones parents goes one level deeper. What do we mean when we say honour? The Hebrew word כַּבֵּד (ka-bed) comes from the same shoresh (root) as the Hebrew word כַּבֵד (ka-ved), meaning “heavy.” The only difference is a dot in the second letter. Our duty is a heavy one, and we must treat it with the gravity it demands.

Israel – Medinat and Am (State and People) – must remember this. I pray that those making decisions in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv read this week’s parasha and are reminded of the heaviness of this duality. I pray that we, too, do not forget this powerful charge in our relationships with Israel. Yes, we should read and watch the news with a keen eye. We should share commentary and media online. We should dialogue with friends and colleagues. But our goals should not be limited to endurance. This Shabbat, may we now and always direct ourselves towards an existence in which we long endure, and in which we fare well with each other.

Talking about Gaza, Held by the Balls and Throat

Writing before the outbreak of the current war with Hamas in Gaza, Israeli author Ari Shavit had the following to say:

I am haunted by the notion that we hold them by the balls and they hold us by the throat. We squeeze and they squeeze back. We are trapped by them and they are trapped by us. And every few years the conflict takes on a new form, ever more gruesome. Every few years, the mode of violence changes The tragedy ends one chapter and begins another, but the tragedy never ends.

My Promised Land, by Ari Shavit (pg. 236)

It seems to me that much of the writing and commentary about the current war between Hamas and Israel seems to follow this pattern as well. One group of people make their statements, while the others respond with an oppositional view. We yell back and forth, squeezing each other in a cycle of fruitless argumentation that is only aggravated by the proliferation of the “Share on Facebook” button. I myself, stand guilty as charged.

As such, it is not my goal at this point to add any new political, military, or ethical commentary on the fighting. After nearly a month of physical violence, I have accumulated so much commentary in my head that I fear we will soon reach a critical mass and most will simply choose to tune out the background noise of the rocket fire, the drone strikes, and the exploding booby-trapped schools.

Rather, I wish to note the emerging pattern of commentary that can be found online, in print, and on television new. It seems to me that those who wade into discussions/commentary/yelling about the war largely (almost exclusively) tend to base their arguments on one of five general paradigms. I outline them below, noting the key features, providing examples, and noting how they risk contributing to the downfall of meaningful engagement and understanding. At close, I’ll offer a suggestion of how we might further advance our conversations.

 

1. The “My-Side vs. Your-Side” perspective

Unsurprisingly, this tends to be the most common approach to talking about Gaza/Israel. See all the media coming out of the IDF’s social media outlets, and all those who gratuitously repost everything on Facebook. Ditto for those lambasting Israel at every opportunity on op-ed pages around the world. Ditto for those lumping all Palestinians in with Hamas. We’ve reached the age where 140 characters isn’t enough, you can now follow a war on Instagram.

Those who write from this paradigm are essentially cheerleaders trying to drown out the noise from the opposing team. Unwilling to hear or understand the viewpoint of others, these people troll through the comment sections of website, spewing out tired talking-points and ad-hominem attacks. They thrive in the echo-chambers of Facebook walls, and contribute no real substance to the conversation.

 

2. The “Must be understood in context of the larger Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” perspective.

See David Grossman’s An Israel Without Illusions and Roger Cohen’s Zionism and its Discontents for two excellent examples of how it is impossible to divorce this current conflict from the wider state of affairs between Israelis and Palestinians.

Those who write from this paradigm attempt to explain the circumstances of this war in Gaza in light of those operations in 2009 and 2012, how the unresolved conflict between Israel and Palestine fuels the current state of affairs, what Israel’s role is in this context, and how in truth these are not separate stories, but one large story.

It seems to me that while those who write from this paradigm are correct to search for a larger unifying narrative, this approach often minimizes the degree of Hamas’s culpability at the expense of crafting a neater, tidier story-arc. This approach tends to place most focus on the longer story of Israel and the Palestinians, with less focus on the more recent arrival of Hamas on the scene.

 

3. The “Must be understood in context of a more regional geo-political perspective” perspective

See David Brooks’ excellent piece, No War is an Island for an example of this concept. Those who write from this paradigm are not merely content with a localized, Israeli-Palestinian context for explaining this war. Instead, they turn to the wider Middle East, with particular attention paid to divisions within the Sunni-Islam world. Comments are frequently made on the states of relationship between Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, Palestine, and Israel.

This approach is crucial, as it explores over a century of history which plays a vital role in understanding the various nodes of conflict that have emerged. Yet as with the previous paradigm, it seems to me this perspective risks shifting its focus so wide, that it almost completely misses out on the human cost when it comes to civilian deaths in Gaza and impact on civilian life in Israel. When speaking of international Sunni relationships, it is far too easy to lose sight of the individual lives which are touched and lost in this war.

 

4. The “Moral Equivalency” perspective (which itself has two sub-paradigms):

a. The “All death is immoral, and all parties are equally culpable” perspective:

For those with this viewpoint, the only measure of morality (or immorality, as it were) in war is the rising death toll. Death = bad. From this vantage point, no nuance or context is possible, as the value of human life is reduced to a mathematical equation. The war is simplistically reduced to infographics (I’m looking at you, New York Times), and it becomes conviniently “easy” to make arguments without any wider context. “Israel and Hamas are both causing death, ergo Israel & Hamas are equally bad,” goes this argument, and it is easy to feel as though one has made a morally sound comment on the war. However, this perspective ignores its partner…

b. The “There is no moral equivalency between Hamas and Israel” perspective:

This is also known as the The “Hamas’ intentions are immoral in that they intentionally target civilians, while Israel’s intentions are moral in that they don’t” perspective. Those speaking in this light are right to make a moral distinction between Israel’s and Hamas’s modus operandi, however I find that this viewpoint often becomes a barrier to further conversation. For these interlocutors, it is as if the fact that Hamas is a murderous terrorist organization while Israel is (for now) a (reasonably) liberal democracy exempts Israel from any culpability whatsoever for its actions in war.

This perspective takes a step in the right direction by making a nuanced moral distinction, yet misses the mark by not extending that distinction to the continued actions of Israel and Hamas.

Some of those speaking from this viewpoint also make the poignant argument that many criticizing Israel have been conspicuously morally silent when it comes to other wars in the middle east (cough, cough… Syria). See Chloe Valdary’s punchy piece in Tablet, To the Students for Justice in Palestine, a Letter from an Angry Black Woman, which calls out the smug sententiousness of many who have waded into this conflict.

 

5. The “We must dialogue with each other AND try to ask questions to better understand what is going on” perspective

This includes internal conversations amongst Israelis, Zionists, and/or Jews (these are not all the same!), and Palestinians and Arabs (also not the same!); as well as conversations across religious/ethnic/ideological boundaries. Makom is leading the way on the Israel-centric side of this paradigm, with their question-based curriculum exploring ideas of peoplehood, power, and responsibility.

From an educational perspective, this approach is certainly the most worthy, as it encourages critical thinking and nuance in an attempt to engage people in a deeper and less superficial way. That said, as it is a value-based approach, it risks missing out on the historical context and real-world implications of daily life in Gaza and Israel. In truth, it is often more focused on the opinions and egos of the observers, rather than on the realities of the war itself.

 

There is quasi-sixth perspective –  the one which states: “I am sick and tired of the fighting. Why can’t they just get along with each other?” This is also known as the “crunchy-granola, hippy-dippy” perspective. Sometimes those with more hawkish viewpoints will pejoratively call this perspective “naive.” In any event, those holding this viewpoint are largely apathetic to the realities of the war in Gaza and Israel and don’t really have any meaningful engagement in the conversation. They can and should be invited in, however they aren’t contributing to the “noise” out there, and as such there is not much else to say about them here.

 


 

A solution?

I would argue that any writing or conversation about this war which does not begin with an understanding that the stated objectives of Hamas and Israel are on entirely different moral grounds leaves little room for continued conversation. Any conscionable person must acknowledge that Hamas aims first and foremost to murder innocent Jews and Israelis.

That said, the conversation must not stop there. It is not enough to say that Hamas are terrorists and Israel is a democracy. This may be true, but it does not make a cogent argument. We must continue the conversation.

Without an understanding of how this war does not exist in a historical vacuum and must be understood both in light of the two previous Gaza wars/operations, as well as in light of wider regional conflicts, it is challenging to say anything of critical value. We must not ignore larger narratives that continue to play a very real role in unfolding events.

But we must not extend our perspective so far as to lose sight of the very real human element. The conversation must not be limited to a cold geopolitical analysis.

Humans must not be reduced to numbers and infographics. Conversations should include a deeper understanding of the very-real human tolls both in Gaza and in Israel; tolls which manifest themselves in very different ways.

With a balanced understanding of history and humanity, we can honestly begin to consider moral implications. Any argument absent of the previous components heavily risks coming off as moralizing from a standpoint of unfounded superiority. And while it is easy to argue that Hamas and Israel stand on entirely different moral grounds, any commentary which ignores questions of the moral implications of Israel’s actions is also missing a significant component of the story. In our commentaries and conversations, no party should be permitted to act with impunity.

It is woeful and egregious that very little commentary – certainly of the kind that pervades Facebook and Twitter as of late – honours the complexity of this situation. The current state of conversation serves mostly to push most people away from having any meaningful understanding of the events.

Whether by reducing humans to numbers and statistics, or by reducing questions of morality to terrorism vs. democracy, we are not allowing room for real critical knowledge. We are lying by omission.

Anyone who makes the choice to wade into this situation – either from the pulpit of the New York Times; from the echo chambers of Facebook; or from WordPress, that bastion of democratic writing  – bears responsibility for the outcome of their words.

We must choose our words carefully, allowing room for emotion, but not in the absence of context and history. And we must be careful not to choose one history over another. Too often, we are missing an understanding that the topic of our conversations is that of very real human lives.

Absent a more just and honest framework, all we continue to do is grasp each other by the balls and throat, squeezing back and forth in an endless cycle. In our own way, we are contributing to this never-ending tragedy.

Back in the U.S.S.R.

DSC_0948

Ascending our friend, Vladmir, in the streets of Minsk

This Pesach, I had the privilege to travel to Belarus with HUC-JIR to support Jewish communities in their celebrations of Pesach. I had hoped to write regularly about my experiences there, however the country remains politcally oppressive in many ways, particularly when it comes to freedom of speech and criticism of the State. As a result, I was considerably cautious in what I posted online – not wanting to jeopardize myself or the communities that I was working with. Over the next few days, this will instead be something of a retrospective of my time there. I’ll have much to say about the experiences we had in individual communities across the country throughout Pesach – I’ll update each of them in their own post. For now, I’ll begin with some observations from my initial encounters with the people and places of Belarus.

* * *

Belarus is a difficult country to describe. As I walked the streets of its cities, towns, and villages, I often felt as though I was traveling backwards through time and space. The country is not so much a confluence of East and West, as is Israel. Rather, Belarus appears to be a country that confronts a confluence of the worlds outside of and the inside of its borders; wanting desperately to reap the benefits of the wider modern world, yet exerting extreme pressure to keep its citizens in a very specific place.

Belarus is the last Soviet country remaining in the world. One president has presided over the country for two decades, changing the rules of democratic voting to suit his own needs. Oligarchs rule the country, and there is little question of the imposing power of socialism that still grasps the land. Yet the Adidas and Levis stores are footholds of American-style capitalism, and the iPhones in the hands of its youth are a sign of the relative freedom of access to international media. This is certainly not Turkey, with its shuttering of Twitter and clamping down on the internet. Yet criticizing the government in the press is a criminal offense, and while freedom of speech exists, it is clearly limited. When speaking about the government, people either proudly proclaim their love of “our father, the president,” or speak in hushed tones, looking over their shoulders to see who might be listening.

Landing at the airport, anyone of us would be forgiven for thinking that we had stepped back in time to the 1960s U.S.S.R. We were given immigration papers that we were required to have every hotel stamp, in order to track where we were traveling within the country. We were informed that each community we visited was required to verify that we had spent time with them, and indicate what we were doing there. Stepping out of the airport into the pouring rain, I was once again confronted with the clichéd image of Eastern Europe as a cold, grey, landscape.

In some places, Minsk feels like a cosmopolitan city, with streets lined with cafes and boutiques. But then you gaze upwards and see the imposing, brutalist architecture; the looming presence of Lenin, immortalized in iron statues on corner after corner after corner; the hammer and sickle emblazoned on red stars high over head. The KGB (yes, it still exists) occupies a fortress on the main thoroughfare. While it is certainly a beautiful city, its beauty is propaganda, a tool designed in an almost sinister way to ensnare the minds and hearts of those who walk its wide streets.

DSC_0964

Victory Square, in downtown Minsk. The red letters on the buildings read: “Heroic deed of the people is immortal.”

Early one morning before sunrise, in a taxi on the way to the Minsk train station, Arseni – our Interpreter – was conversing with the driver in Russian. Like in Israel, taxi drivers in Belarus are often a wealth of knowledge and insight, sages on wheels. They seem to be quite open to frank conversations, immediately speaking with anyone who will listen. From my severely limited grasp of the Russian language, I could tell that they were speaking about the upcoming International Hockey Tournament taking place in the city, and the infrastructure improvements that were taking place. Later, Arseni relayed to us that the driver had told him how disappointed he was in the selective nature of these upgrades, only in places that the international media was going to see. He said, “I want to live in the country that I see on the news.”

On our train ride from the metropolis of Minsk through the countryside to the city of Babruysk, we asked Arseni about the role of music in the country. “Yes, we have a lot of talent,” he told us. “Maybe it comes from not being allowed to express ourselves publicly. This builds up inside us and comes out in music.” I was struck with a powerful blow by the eerie poetry of his words. Sitting in the suffocating train car, I immediately felt a profound sense of confinement; wanting to get up and express some iota of freedom, even if only by walking around. An odd feeling to have, given that were were in the country specifically to celebrate the freedom of Pesach.

DSC_0598

Walking the “streets” of Babruysk

Arriving on the train to Babruysk, I can only describe my first sight of the city as something out of the film EuroTrip – its stereotyping of the Eastern European countryside frighteningly accurate:

While Babruysk and its sidewalk-less streets was a challenging city to navigate, our next destination – the picturesque town of Grodno – could easily be mistaken for any old European city, complete with cobblestone pedestrian walkways, pristine buildings, and inviting parks along the river. It is stunningly beautiful, spared from destruction by the Nazis “thanks” to their swift conquering of the region. But much of this beauty is superficial: one night, after leaving the darkness of a cellar pub, I learned that walking on the grass in Grodno is prohibited, a punishable offense. Enter said pubs, and you learn that foreigners are often viewed with suspicion – leered at and seen as prime targets for scamming and cheating.

DSC_0806

Grodno’s park, with grass you are not allowed to walk on

Belarus – the difficult country to describe – was also a difficult country to spend time in. As challenging as it was, our time with the Jewish community there was still a resounding success. It was astounding to observe the differences from our visit to Lithuania the week before. Lithuania – a modern, advanced country and member of the EU – has a comparatively minuscule (yet incredibly optimistic) Jewish community.

Lithuania carries some curious historical baggage when it comes to its relationship with its Jewish community. Having been occupied by the Russians during and after the Second World War, there is a fair amount of animosity among Lithuanians towards anyone who sided with the Soviets, even if it was against the Nazis. Of course, the Jews of Lithuania allied themselves with the Russians, and as a result, the current Jewish community finds itself in the unfortunate place of being stuck between an allegiance to its Lithuanian home, yet thankful to the Russians for helping end the Shoah. As a result, Judaism has found a significantly more comfortable home in Belarus, and is thriving there. As one of the Jewish scholars we met in Vilna joked, “there are plenty of rabbis fighting with each other in Belarus.

I was fascinated by this sociological paradox. Stephanie poignantly remarked to me, “even when we’re on the right side of history, we’re on the wrong side of history.” Fortunately, our time in Belarus was a clear indication of how the Jewish community there has emerged on the right side of history. In more places than we were able to visit, over 1,500 Jews celebrated Pesach with Belarus’ Progressive Jewish communities.

Over the next few days, I’ll share more thoughts on our experiences in the communities we visited. For now, as I stare out the window on our flight home to Israel and I count down the minutes until I will again be surrounded by the sounds of Hebrew (as abrasive as they may be at the airport), I am profoundly thankful to have had these experiences in the country that gave birth to my great grandfather.

The Absence of Presence

We landed in Vilnius after midnight in the pouring rain, further bolstering the picture of Eastern Europe as a dark, cold, rainy place that is not-so hospitable to the Jews. Fortunately, I’ve discovered that this is a mostly unfair image of what is actually a pretty vibrant place these days.

A short bus ride, and we arrived at our apartments for the week. Or rather, we arrived near our apartments for the week. The bus could not fit down the street, so we had to disembark (after midnight, in the pouring rain), and carry our luggage down a dark, winding alley (the streetlights were out). It looked exactly like what you might picture a winding, Lithuanian street to look like after midnight, in the pouring rain, with no illumination.

After searching for the address “Skäpo Street, between 8 and 10,” we were greeted by the proprietor, who promptly apologized that the street lights were out. “The city is trying to conserve energy,” he informed us.

And with that, our group was ushered into the courtyard, where we waited for our room keys (in the dark, in the pouring rain). Luckily, Lithuania is in the same time zone as Israel, so there was no jetlag to combat. I quickly fell asleep, only briefly admiring the Soviet-style decor of our room.

Awake the next morning (yesterday), I went out in search of coffee. I met the Lithuania that isn’t cold, dark, and wet, wandering the streets looking for the address that Foursquare had pointed me to for the recommended coffee shop. Turns out that Lithuania – or Vilnius at least – is fairly serious about their coffee, and I was pleased when the barista responded to my awkward pointing to the word on the menu that looked like coffee, asking in near-perfect English “which roast of freshly ground coffee would you like?”

Coffee in tow, I made my way back to our residence, noting the architecture that our guide has described as “Soviet-Style, also known as no-architecture.” It’s an intriguing mix of interwar generic Eastern European buildings with soaring pagan-influenced meeting places, but is mostly brutalist – typical of places which Communism has reached out and touched. I felt like I was in a pre-Pierce Brosnan James Bond movie.

The day was spent visiting places where the once-vibrant Jewish community of Vilna thrived. With virtually nothing left after the Nazis stormed through the city, the experience was more about seeing non-places. It was an encounter with the absence of presence – and the presence of absence.

An interesting question was posed to us – “given the opportunity, would you rebuild any of the great synagogues that were here?”

Perhaps an answer will come later after I have more time to reflect on the wider experiences. For now, I will only share that part of my own reflection on that question took place as I drove through the streets of Vilnius in a taxi cab, after getting lost from my group.

More on that later, as well.

This is About as Amateur Anthropology as you can Possibly Get

One of the highlights of this year living in Israel has been the Israel Seminar that takes place all day every Wednesday. In this class, we are engaged in the continual process of peeling back the layers of Israeli society, politics, history, and culture. As part of this class, I was recently sent with a team of fellow students out into the field to interview Israelis about their thoughts on local and national issues of importance.

Early in the morning a couple weeks ago, we boarded the train, taking the same route that the Ottomans used over a century ago to get to Jerusalem. We travelled to Beit Shemesh – a city about 30 km from Jerusalem – which over the past decade has been the focal point of tensions surrounding gender issues, immigrant rights, political corruption, and the relationship between Haredim and secular Jews.

Our goal was simple – speak with a diversity of people, ask them questions about their thoughts on the pressing issues of the day, and get it all on film. As our instructor slyly put it, “this is about as amateur anthropology as you can possibly get.”

You can watch our sheepish attempt at amateur anthropology (in Hebrew) up top. I’m working on getting English subtitles soon.

We F*cking Won

A week ago, 2,400 kilometers from where I normally spend Shabbat these days, I found myself in Krakow’s progressive shul for Kabbalat Shabbat. I was spending the week in the Czech Republic and Poland as part of my training to be an Educator/Tour Guide this summer, and had just spent the entire day at Auschwitz and Birkenau. Needless to say, the arrival of Shabbat was a welcome respite from the downtrodden atmosphere of the morning and afternoon.

Beit Krakow meets in the Galicia Jewish Museum, which houses a collection of stunning photos of Krakow’s Jewish past and present. Singing the psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat, we were surrounded by pictures of the former glory of this city, and of the destruction that took place there.

When most Jews conjure up an image of Poland in their head, I would imagine that it is dark, grey, and grainy, and looks something like this:

battle_holocaust8

This is certainly the image that I had long had inside my own head. That is, until I travelled to Poland for the first time two years ago. The fact is, Poland – Krakow in particular – is experiencing a Jewish cultural revival, where the country is re-embracing its heritage as a center of modern Jewish vibrancy. In truth, when we think of Poland, the image in our minds should look something more like this:

2013-07-17-JewishCultureFestivalinCracow

Krakow Jewish Culture Festival

On Shabbat last week, as I prayed, surrounded by members of the Krakow Jewish community, mere steps away from where the mass genocide of Jews once took place, the image of Poland as a sad, grey place was further pushed from my mind.

As the rabbi chanted Shema and arrived at the paragraph about tzitzit, she walked over to a young boy – maybe two years old – who was sitting on his mother’s lap. She handed him her tzitzit. He gathered them in his hands, brought them up to his lips, and kissed the fringes.

I nearly lost it. Inside my head, a voice called out, “WE WON! You tried to kill us, but we are still here, vibrantly celebrating Judaism on the very spot where you tried to exterminate us. WE WON!”

Having spent a considerable amount of time at Auschwitz, at Birkenau, at Terezin;  seeing the remains of Judaism in Europe, I don’t minimize the importance of remembering the dark, grey history of our past there. But I don’t believe that memory of the Holocaust needs to be based solely on a dark, melancholy view of the past.

We must also look to the present and the future. Survivalism is not a compelling framework for Judaism – we have to offer meaning in the here and now. Young Jews should travel to Poland to see the death camps. But they should also see the Jews who bring their children to shul on Friday night. The should see Krakow’s Jewish Cultural Festival. They should see the JCC there, with its young, new rabbi. Doing this, it becomes more difficult to keep that grainy, grey image in our head.

And that’s a good thing. If we’re going to have an identity based on the Holocaust, it should be one where at the end, we get to rejoice and shout out for all to hear… They tried to end us. But we f*cking won!

Shards of Memory

We Jews have a long memory.

There is a kabbalistic teaching that before we are born, we possess a complete memory of human existence. We have a full understanding and a full knowledge of the world. And once we are born, emerging into this world, this magical gift vanishes. From birth, we have forgotten everything, and must begin to remember everything.

This Shabbat Zachor, we are enjoined to remember what the nation of Amalek did to us on our exodus from Egypt – how they ruthlessly attacked us from behind, targeting the weak and undefended. Our parasha ends with the striking commandment – lo tishkakh! Do not forget!

Yosef Yerushalmi, in his book Zakhor, writes that we are the only people on earth who elevated the act of remembering to a religious imperative. We are commanded constantly to remember this, remember that, don’t forget this, don’t forget that.

Joshua Foer, the journalist and 2006 USA Memory Champion, teaches that there is scientific research that reinforces the value of our Jewish idea. At the neurological level, the act of remembering involves re-actualizing. Every time we recall a memory, we are actively re-engaging that memory at the level of the neuron and re-contextualizing it ever so slightly in light of who we are in the present.

Foer draws attention to how we are commanded to re-engage with our Jewish memory in the present context of who we are today: We don’t just eat matzoh, we are commanded to have a conversation about what it means to eat matzoh. We don’t just put the Shema in mezuzot and in tefillin, we also put in the paragraph from V’ahavta, which reminds us to put these very words on our doorposts and in our tefillin.

“The instructions on how to remember are so holy that we have inextricably paired them with the line that we are supposed to be remembering.”

We don’t just remember what Amalek did, we read the reminder not to forget what Amalek did. In this way, we are ritualize the learning of why this evil was so bad, and the imperative to prevent this type of evil from ever occurring again.

At the same time as we ritualize and re-actualize our memories, remembrance becomes a way to prevent unwanted recurrence. Rabbi Irving Greenberg teaches us that naiveté and amnesia always favor the aggressors. He focuses on the importance of Shabbat Zachor as an opportunity to prevent this naiveté and amnesia:

The Amalekites wanted to wipe out an entire people, memory and all; amnesia completes that undone job… [this is why] it is a special mitzvah to hear this Torah reading.

And yet, as Rabbi Greenberg notes, Zachor is a mitzvah that has made modern Jews uncomfortable. Our modern, progressive thinking encourages us to forgive and forget, to move on and be happy.

But when memory – through re-actualizing and re-engaging – is directed towards the present and the future, it becomes upended, and radically transformed into something new. The innovation of Jewish memory – very much unlike other types of memory – is that it has never been about the past, rather it is about who we are now, and who we have the power to become.

Through the religio-biological examples of Joshua Foer, we learn that part of our obligation as Jews and as humans is to build up our minds, Just as it is our responsibility to gather up the kabbalistic shards of creation and return the world to completeness, it  is also our job to collect all of the shards of our memories.

Rabbi Google & Emergent Jewish Leadership

rabbig

“In an age when innovation is increasingly a group endeavor, [Google] also cares about a lot of soft skills — leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn and re-learn. This will be true no matter where you go to work.”

Thomas Friedman, How to Get a Job at Google

Many of my fellow rabbinical students will often jokingly quip that we are training to enter an already redundant field, given how easy it is to google the answers to many Jewish questions, without the need to learn with or consult a rabbi in person.

Yes, Google has changed my job, making it more challenging in some ways. But Google is a visionary organization, and I’m not going to rant about how the internet has destroyed Jewish community life. Truth be told, the Jewish world could learn many lessons from Google’s forward-thinking perspective.

So here’s just one (or a few, really…)

The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman has a great piece outlining how Google goes about interviewing and selecting prospective employees [see: How to Get a Job at Google]. These are the things Google looks for:

  1. General Cognitive Abilitythe ability to process on the fly
  2. Emergent Leadershipthe ability to step in and out of leadership
  3. Humility & Ownership – the ability to embrace boldness, responsibility, and others’ ideas
  4. Intellectual Humilitythe ability to embrace failure

The number-one thing that Google doesn’t look for? Expertise.

Surprise! While much of the North American professional world is otherwise obsessed with stacking up institutional leadership experiences and traditional resume-building, Google’s model upends this notion. It is one from which the Jewish world could learn much. Here’s what I think we can borrow from them:

When Google speaks of General Cognitive Ability, they don’t mean how smart one is in terms of I.Q.; they’re looking for “the ability to process on the fly… to pull together disparate bits of information.” This is a great perspective on the power of liberal, progressive Judaism. There is value and power in learning from our texts, but Jewish leadership should not be solely concerned with amassing as much knowledge as possible; we must also be able to find meaning in all of the “bits” of modern existence, and quickly respond to the needs of our constituents. More on this, and the tension with accumulating knowledge, later…

Google presents Emergent Leadership in opposition to traditional models of leadership, which valued answering questions such as “Were you the president of the chess club? Were you the vice president of sales? How quickly did you get there?” Google doesn’t care about these things; they care about how one is able to face problems with the ability to step in and out of leadership roles appropriately. In this light, we should be less concerned with how quickly one rises to become Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, and more concerned with how quickly said Executive Director is able to make room for others to lead within the organization. We should be less concerned with filling traditional institutional roles just for the sake of maintaining continuity, and instead concern ourselves with the divine Jewish concept of tzimtzum – the ability to step back and make room for others to lead.

Moshe Rabbeinu – the Jewish leader exemplar – is our prime model of Humility and Ownership. Perhaps Google turned to him for inspiration, when they wrote about their valuing “the sense of responsibility [and] ownership to step in… and the humility to step back and embrace the better ideas of others.” Anavut (humility) goes hand-in-hand with the previous value of tzimtzum. We should be bold in our leadership, fostering personal and communal ownership of the role of Judaism in our lives. But we must also be humble, acknowledging that we do not have all the answers, and that there is a vast ocean of good Jewish ideas being brought to the world. Liberal Judaism doesn’t have all the answers to how to live life Jewishly; there is much we can learn from the ownership models of Orthodox Judaism and organizations outside the bounds of our own religion.

It seems to me that humility really drives much of Google’s model of leadership. Friedman’s article notes that Google isn’t just looking for humility in how people make room for others, they are looking for Intellectual Humility. Laszlo Bock, the Senior Vice President of People Operations for Google, aptly quotes that “Without humility, you are unable to learn.” Bock points to the fundamental error that many successful people are prone to: “If something good happens, it’s because I’m a genius. If something bad happens, it’s because someone’s an idiot or I didn’t get the resources or the market moved…”

How often do we rush to blame others for our own failures? As a result of his own greatest failure, Moshe Rabbeinu doesn’t get the greatest reward – the ability to enter into the Promised Land. But he ultimately embraces his failure and doesn’t try to blame others. Bock teaches us Google’s model of intellectual humility:

“What we’ve seen is that the people who are the most successful here, who we want to hire, will have a fierce position. They’ll argue like hell. They’ll be zealots about their point of view. But then you say, ‘here’s a new fact,’ and they’ll go, ‘Oh, well, that changes things; you’re right.’ ” You need a big ego and small ego in the same person at the same time.”

This embraces the same dichotomy of ownership and humility – we need Jewish leaders with big egos to present radical ideas on behalf of their communities. At the same time, we need these  leaders to be balanced with small egos so that when they fail, they can be open to failure, change their mind, and keep going.

How about Google’s least important value – expertise? In this respect, Google’s model sits in tension with Judaism, where we place great emphasis on learning and amassing untold amounts of textual knowledge. Google says:

“The expert will go: ‘I’ve seen this 100 times before; here’s what you do.’ Most of the time the nonexpert will come up with the same answer… because most of the time it’s not that hard.”

This doesn’t square well with Judaism’s focus on specific textual and ritual knowledge. As Jewish leaders, it is our responsibility to teach others how to become experts in their Jewish lives; how to maintain ownership of their Jewish lives. This most certainly involves encouraging expertise and excellence.

But we can take Google’s understanding of traditional expertise, and reframe it in a model of Jewish leadership that shows us how to approach those who are not yet experts. We can and should value Jewish expertise and hold it up as an aspirational value. It’s just that how we encourage others to get there is not via the traditional way; it is through Google’s four-pronged approach to hiring.

We should not merely encourage Jews to amass a resume full of textual knowledge. The old trope of “this is what Jews do” is increasingly meaningless to most Jews. We need more Jewish leaders who understand this, and who embrace a model of leadership that speaks to the ways in which Jews search for answers today.

Jewish spiritual leaders should embrace the concepts of a holistic, progressive paradigm (General Cognitive Ability),  tzimtzum (Emergent Leadership), anavut (Humility and Ownership), and the character of Moshe Rabbeinu (Intellectual Humility). 

In this way, we will encourage visionary ways of living Jewishly that can’t simply be found from Rabbi Google.