I guess I am not a rainbows kind of person. Maybe I am just missing something. Maybe I just can’t stand symbolism over substance.
I am trying to answer all of those questions I have been asked.
A few weeks ago, I was doing some Sunday morning shopping. While puttering abound the store, I noticed a lady was sort of following me around the store. This is not completely unusual when you are identifiably Jewish. A lot of people have questions about Judaism and they ask them in unusual places. Sometimes it is in the copy room, the clothing department or even the frozen food section. I finally turned to the lady, greeted her and asked if I could help her. I mistakenly assumed she had a question about something kosher. Instead, she asked my name, took a deep breath and said, “You did my niece’s tahara.” I am certain there was an audible “crack” as my jaw hit the floor. I am used to odd questions and unusual conversations, but this was a first.
Rewind. Five years ago, I received my first assignment as a math teacher. It was in a rural county and the test scores were the “second lowest” in the state. It was one of those places where people made a living from growing tobacco and cotton and where a full set of teeth was as rare as an Ivy League education. My commute was nearly two hours away and I would stay at least one night a week at the home of a fellow teacher. My classroom was in the basement. It was the old shop room, and when I spoke, the echo was so bad, my voice could be heard in the next county. Of course, I was the only Jewish teacher, something that became clear by the days I took off, the way I sped out of the parking lot on Friday afternoon and the book of tehillim on my desk. One of my collleagues was a minister, whose mentor used an ArtScroll tanach to help deliver his sermons. He would come to me with his “old testament” religious questions. I have always wondered why I wound up in this district, but now I think I know the answer.
Fast forward. Since the frozen breakfast aisle was not the place to continue this conversation, I invited the aunt to a coffee shop. For the next two hours we hugged, cried and held hands. She told me her niece had long ago left behind her Jewish identity and her family. She settled in the same community where I was a teacher. Several months ago she found out she was ill, and contacted her family. They had not heard from her in years. As the end came, she decided against cremation, but didn’t want to be dressed and made-up either. She said she wanted to die as a Jew although she had not lived as one. My former colleague was a neighbour who visited her during her illness. She told him she wanted a Jewish burial, and he gave my name to the funeral director. He didn’t know anything about Jewish burial. He did not know that I had been a part of a Chevra Kadisha since I was 20. These are things that do not enter polite conversation. He just assumed that as a practicing Jew, I would know what to do. Like a lot of non-Jews, he assumed just being Jewish makes you an expert on your religion. We should be so lucky.
After I was called, I drove two hours away on an erev yom-tov to meet a group of women. We had one purpose. We were to quietly assist a woman whose Hebrew name was Chaya Sarah leave this world and enter the next.
As we drank coffee and shed tears, I was afraid that Chaya Sara’s aunt would ask me specific questions I couldn’t answer. Fortunately, she sensed that modesty, privacy and dignity were all a part of the process and left it at that. I was grateful for that. All she wanted was someone to listen to her. I could do that. During that time, I remembered something the Rav who oversaw my conversion told me. All Jews are ambassadors for our people. That precedent, he said, was set by Sarah imenu. I was very uncomfortable, but for better or worse, I was now an ambassador. It was my job to make sure she appreciated the people she belonged to. We talked about life and death, religion and philosophy. For a while I forgot that I had not completed my lesson plans, or finished my Spanish homework. The laundry would wait and the Challot for next Shabbat would rise without my nudging.
When we parted, we hugged and I invited her for a Shabbat meal. I have checked with her a couple of times to see how she was doing. We how have a dinner date.
I am writing this because it has been on my mind all week. This week’s parsha is called Chaya Sarah, even though it begins with her death. The parsha recounts the “days” her life. Sarah was irreplaceable. She converted the women as Avraham converted the men. She was not just the wife of Avraham and the mother of Isaac. As a Jewish woman, she taught us that we have a role beyond wife and mother. We are ambassadors, a unique role within the Jewish people. Sarah was taken from her comfortable home, and from her comfortable world. She was placed on a journey that led her to set the world on fire. She left her comfort zone to reach out to the world. In doing so, she reminds us that the “world” is relative. Sometimes it is as close as the neighborhood coffeeshop. May her memory continue to be our blessing.
Have a peaceful week.
As I write this, the Yazidis in Iraq are facing genocide, Israel and the Jews are being blamed for everything from anthrax to zoological catastrophes, and I am wondering if Jews have a place in the U.S. let alone anywhere else. Thank goodness for Shabbos. For 25 hours, I just get to be a Jewish woman. During that time, I get to meet people and be a person who makes a meal, entertains and gets to be “Sarah” (Sarah, Abraham’s wife was known for her hospitality). Nothing makes me happier than getting a text or phone call asking me if I can host someone for a meal. Bringing a little bit of Jewishness into a person’s soul for just a few hours is what I think I was made for. I may not have a cure for Ebola, but creating a good challah has its place in the world too!!!
This week we had 33 people in our house for supper and lunch. We had people who have been a part of the frum world since they exited the womb, people who found Judaism as adults and people who were just starting on their discovery. It was heaven. No one cared who wore skirts or pants, no one cared about hair coverings, no one cared about who drove or not. We were just a group of Jewish people, enjoying each other’s company, good food, and bring the peace that G-d says accompanies the Sabbath in our lives. The best part came when someone leaned over to me and said, “Do you know what an impact you are having on people’s lives?”
A home made challah, some kosher wine, chicken and baklava can go far.
Have a peaceful week.
Judaism abhors indifference. Read the list of founders and donors of any organization that protects human, animal or ecological rights and the list has an overwhelming number of Jewish last names. Mr. Goldberg might not write a check to help Jewish children get an education, but he will bet the farm on a children’s museum or hospital. Organizations like the Peace Corps have an inordinate number of Jewish volunteers. Jews make up a high number of Nobel Prize recipients. That is because, as a stiff-necked people, we like to shake things up. We try to change things for the better.
When people convert to Judaism, they give a lot of reasons for doing so, but the love of justice and compassion, the aversion to indifference ranks right up there. No one says, “I converted because I want to give up 26 hours of my life a week to keep the Shabbat” or “I just hate shrimp.” Behind every Jew is the belief that, “I can make this world a better place.”
This has been an awful week for the Jewish people. As a nation, we plunged into the depths of mourning as parents buried Eyal, Naftali and Gilad. We were sickened as an Arab teen, Mohammad Khdeir, was kidnapped and killed in revenge. Our reactions are different, and that is what makes the Jewish people different. It took the discovery of the three bodies (one of the boys is an American) before president Obama made a weak statement. He called Mohammad’s death heinous, a strong word he refused to use when the victims were Jewish and American. All of their deaths were heinous. Our president is the spiritual and political descendent of Jimmy Carter. He believes that Jewish blood can be spilled like water, and cares nothing about the death of an American at the hands of terrorists. He is indifferent.
As a people and nation, the Jews of Israel were sickened by this act of vengeance. We are angry, and we are demanding the lawless individuals who took this boy from his family be found and punished. The words, “justice shall you pursue,” is seared into the Jewish psyche. We know we are better than that. As I write this, his murderers have been arrested. This is because, in the end, the uncle of Naftali Frenkel said it best. “Murder is murder. One should not differentiate between bloods, be it Arab or Jew.” His words echo our heartfelt beliefs. Of course, the murderers of the three boys remain at large, protected by their sick and twisted community and ideology. No one in Mohammad’s family condemned the murder of Jews, because by their very existence, Jews deserve to be murdered.
We are different. The value we place on life is different. Islam may be the religion of “peace,” but words and practice are two different things. Their leaders, at least at this point of time, elevate death and place no value on life. It is an affront to believe that Allah sanctions the murder of people based on their religion. People who really believe this are atheists. They believe they are G-d and can function in that role. We cannot be indifferent to suffering. It is not part of Jewish belief. It has no place in the Jewish mind. It cannot be part of the Jewish soul.
The final phone call from Naftali Frenkel has been released. I cannot bear to hear it, but I read the transcript in Hebrew. Each boy was told, “head down” and a muffled gunshot followed. After their murder, there was jubilation. It was the same reaction from the same community that danced and gave their children sweets upon hearing of the deaths of 3,000 people on September 11th. They are indifferent to the suffering of others, we are not; we refuse to be indifferent. No matter how estranged from Judaism we may be, that demanding little sliver of G-d in our soul does not allow us to be indifferent.
I am a teacher in an alternative school. Although I mostly teach math, I also teach U.S. history, including the civil rights movement. There are similarities between the deaths of the three boys, and a young teen named Emett Tillman.
Emmett Tillman was a black teen from Chicago who was visiting relatives in Mississippi. An outgoing young man, no one told him he was not allowed to talk to a white woman. Her husband and a relative kidnapped him, gouged out his eye, shot him, wrapped him with a weight around his body, and threw his body into a river. His body was found a few days later. Like the community in the West Bank, the people of Mississippi knew who killed this young man. Those who killed him were never properly brought to justice, because their leaders were indifferent. In their sick and twisted hearts and souls, they justified his death because of the colour of his skin. The followers of hamas (I don’t justify them with a capital “h”) justify the murders of Gilad, Eyal and Naftali, and thousands of others on the basis of religion, or on failing to adhere to the tenants they impose on religion. Their murderers think out of the same brain. America is not a perfect country, but Jews have worked hard to fight indifference and we have been successful. Jewish volunteers worked hard for change during the civil rights movement. They still work hard today. They were also murdered because they felt their brothers had the right to vote and participate in the American dream. American Jews worked hard to change indifference into compassion and action.
I know all of the perpetrators will face justice. Mohammad’s will face it first because we do not tolerate this kind of behavior from our own people. We are not indifferent. We will not and do not stand idly by as the blood of our brother, no matter what his religion, colour and background is shed. The “pintele yid,” that little sliver of G-d that presents itself to us makes us care. It makes us act. It appears to us no matter how far we stray. It is a pain in the ass. It also prevents us from being indifferent, and when properly nurtured, can help us change a world.