Posts Tagged ‘Congregation Sherith Israel-San Francisco’

UNITED HOW?

I’m a citizen of the United States of America but have trouble defining United. As—when—the coronavirus pandemic winds down, how will Americans define the word?

During Congregation Sherith Israel’s Zoom Shabbat service last Friday night, Rabbi Jessica Graf asked what will our country be like post-COVID-19. It’s a good bet we’ll be facing a great many changes no one could have imagined as we rang in 2020.

But let’s start at the beginning.

Over the near-244 years of our national existence, some Americans have interpreted United as the bond between semi-sovereign states joined mainly by the need for a common defense. After all, the British returned to our shores in 1812. Beyond that, they see fifty states marching to their own drummers.

United still inspires debates about the Constitution regarding the extent of powers granted to the federal government and those not and so left to the states. States’ rights advocates long have sought to tilt the balance from Washington to state capitals. Their political ideology supported segregation for a century after the Civil War until Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Many states’ rights advocates continued to resist Washington’s imposition on their “way of life.” Many still do.

Other Americans take a broader view of United, promoting legal and ethical standards that transcend state boundaries. They want to give Washington increased latitude, particularly to protect minorities.

The coronavirus pandemic has heated up this conflict. Responses have varied from state to state. That’s understandable. New York City, population 8.3 million, is not Deaf (pronounced Deef) Smith County, Texas, population 18,700. In a nation as large and diverse as ours, state and local initiatives proposed by people who know the territory may work faster and better. But guidelines put out by the White House then ignored by the Oval Office in its zeal to open the economy should still be something that, forgive the pun, unites us.

The pandemic will end. Many people are, or soon will be, proposing specifics either to retool America or leave it the way they found it. Or take it back to the time of their grandparents. Any discussion must first address our interpretation of United.

Does our cherished freedom—if we know what that means—demand that states go their own way even when, in many cases, they ignore sound public health policy or privilege some citizens over others? Should states refuse to follow directives from Washington not because they’re wrong but because they fear the “slippery slope” leading to the erosion of “freedom”? If so, can states match the power of the federal government to anticipate and mitigate public-health challenges, stimulate the economy and support the unemployed?

In essence, are we “one nation under God”? (Does God have anything to do with it?)

I’m skeptical that enough Americans will pull together rather than separate themselves by region, state, county, city or town, even neighborhood. As the late House speaker Tip O’Neill (1912-94, Dem.–Mass.) famously remarked, “all politics is local.” I get that.

But as New York Times columnist Roger Cohen recently wrote, “To bet against the human tendency to relapse into old bad habits is foolish. Tragedy tends to foster expressions of idealistic unity that prove fleeting.” I get that, too.

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DEFINING FAMILY

Two recent pieces in The New York Times speak to the new populism that threatens the United States. I find part of the solution within my family and my synagogue.

David Brooks’ June 28 column “Revolt of the Masses” quoted David Vance, author of the book Hillbilly Elegy. Vance writes about the Kentucky and Ohio coal regions in which he grew up and the value of intense family loyalty that’s not always healthy. Brooks quoted Vance: “We do not like outsiders, or people who are different from us, whether difference lies in how they look, how they act, or, most important, how they talk.” Such loyalty also forbids revealing wrongdoing, which lets some family members prey on others. And it generates a parochialism that can isolate families from their community, state, nation and the world.

On July 11, Robert P. Jones in “The Evangelicals and the Great Trump Hope” pointed out that white Christians—Protestants and Catholics—no longer make up a majority of Americans. They’re now 45 percent of the population, down from 54 percent in 2008. This drop is highly visible. When I was a kid in the 1950s, movies, TV shows and advertisements rarely portrayed other than white Christians—almost always Protestants—except as maids, shoeshine boys, train porters and humorous “ethnics,” including Irish, Italians and Jews.

Populism, which spawned Donald Trump’s presidential nomination, is not new. Populism has an economic agenda: spread the wealth, which tends to get sucked out of working-class regions. But it traditionally has constituted a movement to keep white Protestants in power. Now, pushed into a corner, many populists accept white Catholics as allies. Where populists once sought to keep white Americans on top of the pecking order, they now want to return white Americans to dominance. Ironically, the majority of the nation’s business and political leaders are white Christians. Still, “ordinary” people remain distanced from them while feeling threatened by a perceived lack of standing in a nation increasingly multi-ethnic, multi-religious and increasingly secular.

As to my family and synagogue, we open ourselves to others. We understand that while there’s nothing wrong with the Jewish, heterosexual home or congregation, these can be—going back to David Brooks—parochial. When Carolyn—a white, lapsed Catholic—and I decided to marry in 1967, we called my parents. Sight unseen, my father Morris welcomed Carolyn into the family. My mother Blanche flew down to San Antonio. She brought Carolyn a potato grater and a jar of schmaltz (chicken fat). It was love at first sight. Carolyn became a major non-Jewish Jewish mother.

When our youngest, Aaron, married Jeremy, Jeremy became our fourth son. Our fourth because our middle son Yosi was once Rachel. Yosi is transgender. Our love for Yosi remains unchanged. So, too, Congregation Sherith Israel boasts Jews of all genetic backgrounds and sexual identities. Maybe we don’t always “look” Jewish. We just do Jewish.

In the book of Numbers, Moses sends twelve spies to scout the Promised Land. He asks them to report whether Canaanite cities are fortified. A midrash offers commentary: A city surrounded by walls is weak. An open city is strong because its inhabitants aren’t fearful. We might look to Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself!”

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SO WHAT WAS MOSES THINKING?

Last Saturday, I led Torah Study at Congregation Sherith Israel. We read Vayelech—which means and (Moses) went. This short portion presents the prophet’s last address—one more warning to forswear false gods—before the Israelites cross the Jordan River into Canaan. He is 120. He is about to die. He will be left behind. I wondered how he felt.

Moses childhood no doubt was confusing. Born into a despised Hebrew family—Pharaoh has ordered all Israelite male babies to be put to death at birth—he’s raised in court by Pharaoh’s daughter. But he remains a Hebrew at heart. As a young man, he sees an Egyptian taskmaster beat an Israelite. He hits and kills the Egyptian. Someone sees him. Moses flees east to Midian and becomes a self-professed stranger in a strange land.

God has plans for Moses. Moses isn’t interested. At the burning bush Moses asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11). He has, he says, a speech problem. Still, Moses makes a speech Fidel Castro in length that fills the Book of Deuteronomy forty years after the Exodus. It is Moses who, with help from his brother Aaron, brought Egypt to its knees and has kept the fractious Israelites together in the wilderness. Yet Moses is a watchword for humility. “Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth” (Numbers 12:3).

He’s great. He’s humble. Oh, he’s also irascible. While Moses is atop Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, the Israelites demand that Aaron make a visible “god” for them. Aaron produces a golden calf. When Moses comes down, he’s furious. “He took the calf that they had made and burned it; he ground it to powder and strewed it upon the water and so made the Israelites drink it” (Exod. 32:20).

Problems with anger management? Moses is only human. Exodus 11:3 refers to him as “Ha ish Moshe”—the man Moses. When the Israelites thirst for water in the wilderness, Moses blows it. Rather than speaking to a rock to draw water as God commands, Moses strikes the rock with his staff (Numbers 20:11). Yes, water flows. But God punishes Moses severely. He will never be able to enter the Promised Land.

So here we encounter Moses on what appears to be his last day. He finally seems resigned to his fate. He’s just passed leadership on to Joshua. He’s about to give Israel a song of faith and a blessing that will outline the future. Then he’ll see Canaan from Mount Nebo before being gathered to his ancestors. So what is he thinking?

I hope Moses has measured his life carefully and has a sense of perspective. That while he recognizes his failures—it seems he didn’t circumcise his younger son Eliezer (Exodus 4:24–26) as required by Israelite law—he appreciates what he’s accomplished.

We are all frail. I’d like to believe that Moses’ last thoughts tip the scales in his favor. Jews long have revered him as Moshe rabbeinu—Moses our teacher. More than three millennia removed, Moses’ life informs us that people with common weaknesses and failings may do uncommon things. May we see this possibility in ourselves.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

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TWO WOMEN IN BLUE

I recently met two women I can associate with my favorite color, blue. The very different experiences pointed out the fragility of human nature and the ways in which our society struggles to achieve the ideal of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Last Friday night, I took the bus home after Shabbat services at Congregation Sherith Israel. While I was reading on my iPhone, the voice of a young woman assaulted my ears—and everyone else’s. I tried not to listen to what she was loudly declaring to her friends, but I did make out something about pictures or photos and “I can be that bitch, I can be that ho.”

I might not have paid attention to whatever idiocy the young woman was disclaiming if she’d kept her voice down. She didn’t. Since no one attempted to talk to her—including the driver—I got up and approached her. She appeared to be a high-school student. She might have been a bit older. Her hair was electric blue. Three or four metal rings pierced her lower lip. But her appearance wasn’t an issue. I told her that none of us was interested in what she was saying. I wish I’d been cleverer, but I’m still developing my skills for these situations.

She declared her indignation. Quiet down? “This,” she screamed, “is MUNI!” The young woman apparently believed that anyone has the right to disturb the peace on San Francisco buses. Understanding that an argument would be meaningless and wanting to give her a way to save face, I went to the front of the bus and sat. I noticed that the back of the bus had grown quiet.

By the time I reached my stop, the young woman was talking to her friends but moderately. Did I feel victorious? No. I felt concerned. This young woman might need better parenting. I also reflected that it often does take a village, although my fellow passengers didn’t want any part of that. Was I angry? Again, no. I wondered if the young woman had problems at home, if her rudeness and self-directed ugly comments indicated abuse.

Sunday—Mother’s Day—offered something different. Carolyn wanted to go the drag brunch at the Starlite Room at the Sir Francis Drake hotel. I took her, along with my son Aaron and son-in-law Jeremy. The food was good, and the show was great with enough energy to light Union Square. The emcee, Donna Sachet, changed dresses three times. Her second dress was blue. And she sang a very moving song, “Be Kind.”

Sexual identity covers a broad spectrum. San Francisco enables people, drag queens included, to live their lives as they choose as long as they don’t harm others. Other parts of the nation often fail to let their sons and daughters express who they really are. Leviticus 19:18 instructs us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Too often, the Bible’s calls for love receive only lip service.

So there you have it. Two women in blue. I wish I’d found a way to be kind to the high school girl. I hope that the world will be kind to Donna Sachet. Kindness costs so little. It does so much.

The blog will take Memorial Day weekend off and return on May 29.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

 

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MUSLIM IN AMERICA: PART ONE

Showtime’s Homeland offers something unusual this season. The CIA employs a young woman savvy in technology and banking to entrap a senior member of Iran’s intelligence service. The character Fara Sherazi (Nazanin Boniadi, born in Tehran, raised in London) is a Persian-American Muslim who wears a hijab—a headscarf. This Hollywood tale about Muslim bad guys in which F. Murray Abraham plays the CIA’s Dar Adal—Muslim by suggestion—reveals that Muslims are also good guys.

Muslims constitute part of the fabric of American life. Ask Ameena Jandali. In October and November, she co-led a course on Islam and Judaism, One God, Two Paths, at San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel. Ameena serves as director of content development for the Islamic Networks Group in San Jose. A non-profit, ING counters prejudice and discrimination against American Muslims by teaching about their traditions and contributions in the context of America’s history and cultural diversity. It also builds relations between American Muslims and other groups.

Ameena was born in a small university town in Colorado. Her father came to the U.S. from Pakistan to earn a Ph.D. in statistics at the University of North Carolina. There he met her mother, a practicing Episcopalian before moving away from religion as an adult. Ameena’s mother converted to Islam several years after marrying. “Due to the scarcity of American Muslims at the time, it took her a while after conversion to figure out what Islam was really about,” says Ameena.

Growing up Muslim in Colorado presented challenges. “I was a brown-skinned kid in a town of mostly white people.” She also had a strange name. Difference caused embarrassment. Ameena couldn’t decide whom she wanted to keep from school more—her mother, who wore a headscarf, or her brown-skinned father.

Her Muslim identity grew as she encountered other Muslim youth. Still, one of her best friends was a devoted Baptist; there were only one or two other Muslim kids in her grade. Inspired by a younger friend, in high school she began wearing a less obvious version of the Islamic hijab—a bandana over her hair. That seemed strange to other kids, some who didn’t know she was Muslim and others who did. Further, her Muslim faith came with prohibitions. “I couldn’t have a boyfriend or go to school dances.”

College—Ameena earned a BA in history at the University of Illinois Chicago Circle— provided a better experience. She started wearing her headscarf in the more traditional manner. Shortly after graduation, she and her husband moved to the San Francisco area. This required adjustment. Chicago had a bigger Muslim community. There was no mosque where they lived. But the East Bay, multicultural and progressive, quickly became home. Ameena took advantage of world-class UC Berkeley and earned an MA in Near Eastern Studies.

In 1993, nearly two years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ameena joined a new organization, ING, focused on dispelling stereotypes about Muslims. “There was a sense that Islam was a new enemy replacing communism,” she says. Following the Gulf War, she felt a growing prejudice. Over the next few years, Ameena worked with ING to educate Americans about Muslims and their faith in a variety of venues and institutions.

In 2001, Nine-Eleven confronted Ameena and American Muslims with serious new challenges.

Part two will appear next Friday.

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Give great reading for the non-Chanukah portion of the Holidays—the novels SAN CAFÉ and SLICK!, the latter named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the 25 Best Indie Novels of 2012. See for yourself. Read the opening chapters at davidperlstein.com. Order at Amazon.com, bn.com or iUniverse.com.