Monthly Archives: March 2009

A Rally for Harmony

by Mimi Schwartz (Princeton, NJ)

As an American Jew—the child of German refugees—overt anti-Semitism was my parents’ old world, not mine. There’d be an occasional remark here and there, but everyone gets that in multi-ethnic New Jersey. No big deal, I thought, until 500 anti-Semitic flyers were posted on the walls and kiosks of the college where I’ve taught for twenty-two years. That was a shock. Some had swastikas leaning on Jewish stars. Some had a picture of Hitler and of an Israeli soldier, both of equal size. Its caption read: “How many millions must die?” Some had the Christ-like figure of crucifixion paintings, but instead of the expected cross, the arms were draped over a Jewish star, evoking the imagery of Jew as Christ killer. The caption read, “Stop the Murder. Free the Palestinians.”

The flyers were taken down quickly (someone said they’d been posted “without going through school channels”), but a Rally for Harmony was organized in response as way of saying communally: “Hey! You can’t do that around here.” I expected good campus support, especially from those, both Jew and Gentile, who were involved in the school’s Holocaust and Genocide Program, because a central question of those courses has been: “What would you do if…?” Until the flyers appeared around the college, the need to answer had seemed hypothetical.

“Anti-Semitism like that is gone now!” students in my Holocaust through Literature and Film course proclaimed three months earlier while examining a Nazi flyer, circa 1934. It showed a black-haired, fat man with a long hooked nose handing candy to two blond children, and the translated caption read: “Jewish sex fiend passes out sweets with sinister intent.” People don’t believe such rubbish anymore! That’s what the majority of my class (who were white, Christian, early twenty-ish, and first-generation college) had assured me.

They repeated this conviction (although more tentatively) after watching “The Long Walk Home,” a film about the African-American bus boycott in Montgomery, 1955. And again (although with even less conviction) after “School Ties,” a movie set in a rich New England prep school in the 1950’s, where the kids turned against a newly imported football star once they found out (after a winning football season, their first) that he was Jewish.

I show these movies interspersed with Holocaust films to connect past with present. Otherwise it is too easy to be self-righteous about what those Germans did way, way back then. Gradually, student platitudes about tolerance give way to personal stories about bigotry: from not being served as a Black at Denny’s after the prom, to picking on a Jewish roommate who hogged the refrigerator with Kosher food, to shrugging off Polish jokes from fraternity brothers when you are Polish.

The initial tellers are African-American, Hispanic, or Jewish, but then everyone jumps in, sharing injustices they have observed, been victim of, or taken part in. The conversation becomes less guarded. We argue about harmless joking vs. ugly prejudice, moral responsibility vs. risking your life, and what would you do if it happens again. As long as I can keep honesty mixed with civility, everyone keeps listening to one another.

A second shock, regarding the flyers, was that my friends on the political left were boycotting the rally. The 500 flyers were, they said, a non-issue. The real issue was Israel as “The Occupier” with a totally unjustifiable policy. Citing the right of free speech, they were more upset with the college administrators, whom they accused of oppressing the students who posted the flyers.

One colleague—and friend of twenty years—said that taking the flyers down was an outrage, a conspiracy. (I suddenly hear “Jewish conspiracy.”) “All the flyers did was display Palestinian suffering,” she said, practically spitting the words out. “So what if they didn’t get official permission, a mere technicality, an excuse meant to appease the Holocaust powers who were organizing the rally.” ( I suddenly hear “Jewish power.”) She wasn’t going near the rally, which, she said, would be “totally controlled and scripted.”

“But this rally at least admits to a college problem,” I said, swallowing anger. She shrugged. “You didn’t find the flyers offensive?” No response. “The Jew as Christ-killer, the ways the arms are spread out, as if nailed to a cross?”

“Gee, I didn’t get that!” she said, her eyes widening on an earnest face. “I saw it as the figure in the Pieta, you know, a mother suffering for her dead son, like Palestinian mothers.”

This is a professor whose walls are lined with history books. Are you really that naive? I wanted to yell. And what about Israeli mothers who are suffering? And don’t the Israelis have the right for self-defense?

We were saved from the end of friendship by the bell ringing for the next class. “Well, many people here feel the flyers are anti-Semitic,” I said and backed away, feeling betrayed. So this is why my Dad left Germany, I thought, hurrying off, my heels echoing on the red floor tile. People like me, cautiously silent. People like her, self-righteous and unpredictable.

“Okay, okay, I may be over-reacting,” I conceded over lunch to another colleague who dismissed my analogy to Nazi Germany as Jewish paranoia made worse by my parents’ narrow escape. True, I was haunted by whether I’d be as smart as my father who saw the danger signs early enough. The story of how he’d attended a Hitler rally in 1931 and told my mother that night, after seeing thousands of arms raised in adoration, “If that man gets elected, we leave!” had been repeated to me, over and over, as a survival guide. And here were 500 “signs”—posted!! So why weren’t my friends seeing them?

“You can be against Israeli policy and not be an anti-Semite,” said this colleague evenly (he happened to be Jewish), as we ate tuna sandwiches, his bushy beard catching a few crumbs. Weaned on anti-war rallies of the sixties, he has been re-energized by what he sees as another version of the injustice of Vietnam: the same military/industrial complex, the same First World capitalism vs. Third World poverty. Only now Israel is the colonial oppressor. “The Israeli leaders have no credibility, not when they keep building Jewish settlements on Arab land,” he said quietly.

“No argument about that!” I replied. My belief in the security and safety of Israel doesn’t make me pro-settlements, a distinction that keeps getting lost in the ‘for-or-against’ polarization. “So are you coming to the rally?” I offered him my bag of chips as extra enticement, now that we’d found common ground.

“No, it’s a fraud,” he said.

“But not having a rally is worse.”

“The flyers weren’t anti-Semitic in intent, you know. One of the two kids was in Jewish Studies.”

I wanted to shout: Would you say that if those who had hung the Willie Horton posters said, “It’s okay. One of our publicists is Black!” But I thought reason might still make him come to the rally, scheduled in thirty minutes. “Well, if we don’t support a harmony rally, the extremists rule—whatever their stand,” I said.

He shook his head. “No one will say what he really thinks!” and he stood up to go. “Besides,” he said, turning to walk away, “I have a class, a review session.” He waved.

“So bring them!” I called. His was a social history course, after all.

I headed for the rally, thinking about Saul Friedlander’s book, Nazi Germany and the Jews. One of its main premises is that the early silence of the universities as a moral guardian of society helped to make Hitler feel he had “a green light to proceed.” I would send my colleague the quote that struck me most:

“… When Jewish colleagues were dismissed, no German professor publicly protested; when the number of Jewish students was drastically reduced, no university committee or faculty member expressed any opposition; when books were burned throughout the Reich, no intellectual in Germany, or for that matter anyone else within the country, openly expressed any shame.” (P.60)

I always wondered what those German professors told themselves in order not to act. Was it some rationalized sense of justice that let them ignore the images of Jew as sex fiend for a higher cause? And do my colleagues ignore images of Jews as Christ killers for some similar impulse of Right?

The new flyers that appeared on the kiosks were of Palestinian women weeping for their sons, daughters, and the lost land that was their birthright. No swastikas and Jewish stars (someone nixed that), but they made a strong case for justice for the Palestinians without knee-jerk images of hate. That, to me, is what free speech on a college campus is all about: the right to argue your position without the crutch of insult that prevents real listening. Free speech is not hate speech, I tell my classes whenever someone uses fag, Jap, cunt, kike, fatso, to make a case. And everyone seems grateful, as if the venue for open expression is safer with limits.

Only sixty or so (out of 5,000) gathered for harmony in the D-Wing Circle on a blue-sky day before finals week. A Muslim student in T-shirt and jeans came to the open mike to say, “We need to think of ourselves as human beings first, not as Jew, Christian, and Muslim first.”

A Jewish student with a yarmulke stood up to proclaim, “We are all God’s children.”

An African-American woman said, “We must overcome our differences and treat each other with respect.”

A man with a turban said, “We are all Americans who seek peace.”

After each speech everyone applauded vigorously, despite words that sounded like Hallmark cards. We knew the alternative from other campuses—shouting, pushing, even fistfights—and that 7,000 miles away, the lack of commitment to these words of harmony keeps feeding the tragic spiral of Israeli/ Palestinian violence.

There were students from the Jewish Student Union, the Muslim Association, the Hellenic Association, the Asian Student Association, the International Club, the Women’s Coalition—fourteen groups in all. There were two-dozen administrators and faculty members —some acting officially; others, like me, representing one citizen. Five of my students showed up, which was better than none, I suppose, given upcoming exams and that many probably never saw the flyers before they were taken down. The President didn’t show either, a delayed Board meeting, someone said.

Around the concrete wall of the circle were colored signs—Civility, Freedom, Communication, Dignity, Respect—the kind we hang in kindergarten classrooms to teach young children about how to behave. For six-year-olds, they are new words to be taken seriously, executed daily. For adults, their worn, tired repetitions make us impatient. Yes, yes, yes, but….

But within the walled circle for harmony they seemed to frame what might explode. A colleague who loves Plato and Aristotle came up to me and whispered, her face red with anger: “I’m here to support anyone who tells Israel to get the hell out of Palestine!”

“Hey, this is a harmony rally,” I reminded her, managing to swallow Jerk! “We are here to put salve on some wounds.”

“A waste of time,” she said, and left.

I thought how her rage, like mine, if spoken into the open microphone would turn the Rally for Harmony into Cable TV cross-fires of yelling and sound-bite slogans of good and evil that force you either to cheer, boo or change channels in disgust.

At least words like “We must treat each other with respect” keep people connected like bonds of communal prayer or the daily “I love you’s” we tell our mates even when we feel wronged. By themselves these words do little except to hold off permanent damage; but without them, there is little chance to lay the foundation that might turn self-righteousness into something more meaningful, as happened in my class.

I was about to leave when my lunch friend, the activist, showed up. He was “only passing by,” but wanted me to know that he was planning a series of real forums next semester to discuss the Middle East and its repercussions. He and another faculty member were drawing up a list of speakers to lead discussions on the history of the region, American policy options, religious and cultural differences, Zionism vs. Racism, first amendment issues.

“Great!” I said, feeling more optimistic.

‘Forum’ in the Greek spirit of the word suggests ‘insight,’ not to ‘incite’ as a rally does–even a harmony rally. And in a forum-style atmosphere, I could try again to convince my colleagues of their blindness to those anti-Semitic flyers. And maybe Muslim students would be more open about bigotry against them on campus. And we could debate free speech vs. hate speech. And Israelis and Palestinians could be invited to describe their respective homeland’s needs and suffering and fears.

I was on a roll of optimism, imagining people becoming reasonable.

But then the harmony rally ended, and someone began ripping down the bright pink, green, and yellow signs. “Stop! I’ll take them!” I yelled, knowing that wherever we meet, we’ll need to hang those signs again– Civility, Freedom, Respect, Dignity and Reason—and to keep looking at them.

Mimi Schwartz is the author of Good Neighbors, Bad Times – Echoes of My Father’s German Village, which won the 2008 ForeWord Magazine Book Award for memoir (and soon to be released in paperback). Other books include Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, a marriage memoir, and Writing True, the Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction (with Sondra Perl). Her short work has appeared in The Missouri Review, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, The New York Times, Tikkun, Jewish Week, The Writer’s Chronicle, and The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, among others. Six of her essays have been Notables in Best American Essays and she just won a 2008 Pushcart Prize in nonfiction. For more information, go to http://www.mimischwartz.net/

This essay, which appeared in slightly different form in Tikkun Magazine, is reprinted here with permission.

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Shma Israel

By George  Oscar  Lee (Aventura, FL)

Hear O Israel…
This time O Lord You listen!
Did You, God, see the smoke from Auschwitz
Made of innocent souls?
Or read the sign Arbeit Macht Frei?
Did You hear the moans of murdered children?

Shma Israel, Adonoy Eloheynu
God in heavens!
Where are the millions of your chosen?
Soil covered their mass graves,
Unburned remnants of holy Torahs
The wind swept with wilted leaves.

Shma  Israel, Adonoy Eloheynu, Adonoy Echod
You are our Sovereign, look at Treblinka
At stones with engraved names of the cities,
Those are countless fingers.
Fingers pointing at Your cold skies
In mute accusation of J’accuseJ’accuse… J’accuse!

Shma Israel, Adonoy Eloheynu, Adonoy Echod
Echo of our offering ricochets
From our earthly globe
To the whole universe.
Instead of Shma  Israel
We hear only Kaddish… Kaddish… Kaddish…

_____

George Oscar Lee was born in Drohobycz, Poland. In June, 1941, he ran away to Russia, just ahead of the invading German troops, and was arrested by the NKVD.  Eventually, he was released as a Polish citizen, joined the Polish Army at the end of 1943, and participated in the Liberation of Warsaw. The author of five books, many short stories, and poems published in The Forward, Bialystoker Shtime, Slowo  Zydowskie, and Ziemia  Drohobycka, he lives in Aventura, FL.

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Shema: Hear! Listen!

By Gloria Scheiner (Sarasota, FL)

We signed the Shema today.

We cupped our ears and raised one finger to show the Lord is One.

It was Tot Shabbat at my daughter Elana’s temple, and everyone was called to listen.

The Lord is One, and we were one Jewish community.

The parents recited the blessing over their sons and daughters, and, of course, Elana, Michael, and three-year-old Chloe sneaked in a special prayer to include their miniature dachshund, Otto.

The Shema urges us to hear, to listen!

I listen.

I listen to my forty-year-old son, Adam, when he calls me each morning at 7:20 am on his way to his office.

I hear all about his day’s plans, his stories about the kids, the challenges of raising a family in today’s world.

I listen.

I listen to his six-year-old.

“Grandma,” he says, “I have to go to a listening class every Sunday. Everyone wants me to listen but nobody wants to listen to me.”

I listen to him.

I listen to my forty-three-year-old son, Jac.

He shares his excitement about his partnership, his books, his music, his recipes, and sometimes even his dates.

“Hey Mom, I completed Sunday.”

Who else but someone who has listened to him could share that excitement?

Because I listen, I know what he’s excited about: the Sunday crossword puzzle.

We listen to each other because we love each other. We love each other more because we listen to each other.

“Listen, Glo. I’m furious. Why do I have to bla,bla,bla…?”

I listen to my sister’s frustration. The more I listen, the more I connect.

It’s so easy to love and be loved. Just listen!

The Shema tells us to hear, to listen, even when it’s a challenge to listen to a loved one when Dr. Alzheimer interrupts his speech and flow of thoughts.

It gets more difficult every day, but I am determined. I am pledged to listen.

Some days are better than others. Yesterday was not one of the better ones.

Tomorrow I will have my hearing aids checked.

I want to listen.

Gloria Scheiner is a member of “The Pearls,” a group of six women who meet every Monday in Sarasota to write. “We choose a word and write for about ten minutes. If we like it, we are free to expand it, edit it, or just hone in on a particular phrase or idea. What I love most is how one word evokes such a different chord in each of us.”

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Caring For Our Parents

by Rena Y. Polonsky (New York, NY)

It is a short, shocking story:

“Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a cloth, placed it against both their backs and, walking backwards, they covered their father’s nakedness; their faces were turned the other way, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness.” (Genesis 9:22-23)

Noah becomes drunk and reveals himself, acting in a way that does not seem fitting for a man who is called righteous. And it is Noah’s children who are there to witness their father’s bizarre behavior, and care for him when he is incapable of caring for himself.

This strange story of uncharacteristic behavior and role reversals may sound all too real and true for a person whose parent has Alzheimer’s or Dementia. In what seems like a moment, our parents change before our eyes, doing things that seem incomprehensible for them, and we are left to care for these people we hardly recognize.

Our parents are our first role models. While pop culture and media provide us with idols and icons, our parents are real examples of strong people who do incredible and profound things–even when they are small acts–right before our very eyes.

Our parents are the ones who teach us to care and love. They are the people we expect to have answers and advice, even when we don’t want to hear it. Our parents are who we want to care for us when we are sick. But what do we do when they can no longer care for themselves, let alone us?

What happens when our parents can no longer care for themselves, but instead require us to take on the role that they have longed filled in our lives? What do we do when the parent we know is no longer the person sitting next to us? How do we explain to ourselves that the person we are caring for is still our beloved parent even if they don’t remember us all the time?

Noah revealed his own nakedness. He was intoxicated and shamed himself. Ham merely walked in on his father acting in an immature and disgraceful manner and then reports it to his brothers. The Eerdman Commentary states that “…since Shem and Japheth remedy their brother’s mistake simply by covering Noah up without looking at him, it is unnecessary to posit any acts of sexual intercourse by Ham.”

However, Shem and Japheth’s reactions do insinuate that Ham has done something wrong. Ham leaves his father in the vulnerable state and then reports to his brothers what he saw. Sarna comments that, “Ham compounded his lack of modesty and filial respect by leaving his father uncovered and by shamelessly [gossiping] about what he had seen.”

Ham sees his father in a state that we don’t normally see our parents in. Ham enters his father’s tent and is completely dumbfounded at seeing his father not only drunk, but acting in a dishonorable manner, and responds to the shock by blabbing to his brothers. Ham does not know that even though he has seen his father fall from “hero” to a regular man that he must still treat him with the greatest of dignity. And while, as the Etz Chayim commentary points out, “We lose a great deal if we come to see our parent or teacher as just another person,” we are still responsible for taking care of and honoring our parents, maybe even more so now that they have fallen from grace a bit.

Being a caregiver is never easy. We are constantly being asked to give of ourselves, with little time to take a breath and sort out our own emotions. We are overrun with the big and the little, never knowing which should take more precedence. We feel silly and dramatic worrying about how the health and well-being of another will affect us, yet knowing that it does change our lives. Being a caregiver to a parent only raises the ante on all of these emotions and questions.

When our loved ones are vulnerable, we must help to cover them and learn to accept them as human beings, just as weak and helpless as we sometimes are. Our parents and teachers are still our elders and honorable, even when they are no longer infallible. And, if we try hard enough to accept them as imperfect human beings, we may be able to see them as even greater heroes than we had before.

What’s more is that our parents are just as afraid and unsure of how to respond to their own vulnerability. Noah’s actions seem to not fit with what we know of him. Perhaps he responds to his changing status and his aging by heavily drinking because he does not know how to confront what is happening to him. Just as we must learn to accept our parents’ vulnerability, so too must we help them to adjust.

When we switch roles generously with our parents, when we become the caregiver and care for the one who has always cared for us, we have the potential to bring the greatest honor and respect to our parents.

As Ecclesiastes 3:12-13 reads: “My child, help your father in his old age, And do not grieve him as long as he lives. If his understanding fails, be considerate. And do not humiliate him when you are in all your strength.”

We honor our parents and raise them up, even when they can no longer do this for themselves.

Rena Y. Polonsky, a fourth-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR, serves currently as the rabbinic intern for the URJ Department of Jewish Family Concerns.

A slightly different version of this essay originally appeared at Jewish Sacred Aging, an online forum for the Jewish community offering resources for exploring the implications of living a long life. It is reprinted here with permission.

You can visit Jewish Sacred Aging at: http://www.jewishsacredaging.com/Home_Page.php

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A Miracle In Rhodes

by Helene Kroll Gupp (Sarasota, FL)

It was September, after Rosh Hashanah, and we were on the island of Rhodes searching for a synagogue to spend the most sacred of all our holidays–Yom Kippur.

Along with another couple, we had flown to Athens, then to Mykonos, and now we were in hot and blindingly sunny Rhodes.  Somehow, we had located an old synagogue, down a dusty street, practically hidden from view.  Through a series of disjointed verbal expressions and elaborate hand illustrations, we got our message across to some local townspeople that we wanted to pray at the synagogue.

We were directed to the synagogue’s caretaker, an elderly woman with numbers on her arm.  She instructed us to come back the next day for services at 9 a.m.  Obediently, we did just that.  But 9 a.m. Greek time means “whenever!”

The synagogue had a strong Moorish feel to its architecture and an even stronger odor of dust and mold.  When my husband and our friend, Arnie, each put on a tallis belonging to the synagogue, they kept sniffing until they realized that the scent encompassing them was one of layers and layers of dust.  Obviously, a tallis was used but once a year!

Slowly, a few people started drifting into the synagogue.

A young woman, employed by a cruise ship docked at the port, told me she was Jewish on her father’s side but that in her heart she felt Jewish and wanted to be part of this holiday.

A few tourists rudely rushed in, snapped some pictures of the bimah, and ran out as quickly as they came.

Then three Israeli soldiers on holiday strode in.  Young and vibrant, they filled the synagogue with their exuberance.

Since it was an Orthodox service, the women sat on one side.  And because the young men were also Orthodox, they would not consider including women in the minyan that was required to hold a proper service.

One of the soldiers offered to act as rabbi and hazzan, and patiently waited with us for a quorum of ten.

All in all, there were nine men present; not enough for a minyan.  We all sat around in that stuffy synagogue, waiting to start the service.

Suddenly, a tourist, dressed uncomfortably in a suit and tie, rushed into the ancient building and breathlessly asked, “What time does the service start?”

“Now,” we all exclaimed.

He was our tenth man!

In that moment, thousands of miles away from our home and our temple of three thousand people, ten men and four women celebrated Yom Kippur.  We had our minyan. And for another year the Day of Atonement was observed anew in Rhodes.

I will never forget that holiday in Greece.  It taught me how important every Jew is.

Of all the High Holidays I have spent in my hometown synagogue, none will equal that experience of being part of the continuation of an ancient tradition.

And I will always remember that little synagogue and the miracle I witnessed there: the miracle of one minyan that preserved Yom Kippur for another year on the island of Rhodes.

Helene Kroll Gupp came to Sarasota in 1994 from her hometown of Rochester, New York where she enjoyed a thirty-two year career in public relations and development, including stints with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, State of Israel Bonds, Jewish Home and Infirmary, and lastly, Jewish Family Service. A life member of Hadassah, she is active in Women’s American ORT, Gulfside Chapter.

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