Perpendicular Play (Part 2): Structures and the Unstructured

This has been an exciting time in Reservoir Hill.  Any neighborhood, particularly one whose diversity is somewhat rare in a largely colloquial city, must navigate any number of competing interests or concerns: Shall we focus primarily on safety or beautification?  Which is preferable: commercial property or green space?  Is school reform a priority? 

This is why I was so pleasantly surprised by the near universal goodwill generated by our recent push to build a state-of-the-art playground in the heart of our neighborhood.  There are literally hundreds of children in Reservoir Hill and a dearth of clean, safe and beautiful outdoor spaces in which they can congregate.  These children need a place to play energetically and imaginatively, where they can meet their neighbors and build lasting relationships.
The irony of playgrounds is that they are, quite literally, the perfect blending of structure and boundless exploration.  Slides, swings and sandboxes, the equipment of play, help to channel the energy of childhood, the wood, metal and plastic raw materials of these structures providing a common and unspoken language of meaningful youth interaction. Playground rules emerge organically, developed as needed amidst the shifting numbers of children present on a given a Saturday afternoon.  In other words, play done “right” lives in the tension between the “structures” of play and the unstructured manner in which playing is done.
In a way, playgrounds are also a wonderful metaphor for Jewish living.  Judaism is about as structured as any culture or faith tradition can be!  Our holidays are replete with ritual, our prayer books chock full of fixed liturgies composed and assembled across the centuries.  And yet, Jewish living is hardly an exercise in simply “going through the motions.”  The upcoming festival of Passover is a great example.  The holiday is stuffed with ritual much as the Seder’s participants are stuffed with brisket and matzo meal.  But no two Seders are alike.  Families create their own rituals, developing meaningful customs which evolve over time.  Within the framework of Jewish observance is a reminder that the “structures” of Jewish life – the texts, songs and stories of our tradition – are meant to be interacted with and played upon.
A vid-cap taken by the film crew of Good Fellas of Baltimore which lent their talents to our efforts to build a new playground in Reservoir Hill.
Let’s rip up the concrete and build something our community can be proud of!  (Photo by Howard P. Fink)
Hanging out at our German Park “play party” (Photo by Howard P. Fink)

Perpendicular Play

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Two Things Noble reader…
1.  This week, I share my article from the Baltimore Jewish Times which references this blog and addresses a largely urban challenge of responding to (or better yet anticipating) the needs of our neighbors. 
2. A set-back today for those of us who hope the State of Maryland will legalize same-sex marriage.  Though I wrote the piece below before today’s disappointing news, I would humbly suggest that aspiring to more “perpendicular play” means first being able to truly see the other.  This is a deeply “religious” value in the New Jewish Neighborhood.
Parshat Vayikra
March 11, 2011
Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg
Special to the Jewish Times
Recently, I mentioned in a blog post, “Some move to the suburbs to have more space. People like me, who grew up in the suburbs, move to the city not to have space, but to share it.” It seems to me this is a great challenge of societal living: how to fulfill our individual or parochial interests while discovering and fostering points of overlap that benefit our broader communities?
While living in our Chicago three-flat, my morning ritual involved shuffling downstairs in my bathrobe and slippers to grab the morning paper. Bleary-eyed and caffeine-ready, I would often take our upstairs neighbor’s paper as well, leaving it outside his door. He, in turn, would do the same for me. Our actions were not overly magnanimous — neither of us went all that far “out of the way” for the other. But that simple act of retrieving each other’s newspaper helped us to establish a more meaningful and “neighborly” relationship. I would claim that each of us hears (and because we’re tired or time-pressed so often ignores) that voice of conscience calling out to us. Simple, yes, but being intentional with our neighbors is a hallmark of successful urban or suburban living.
Those of us who are religiously-minded tend to equate that voice of conscience with the voice of God. In this sense, the Torah portion this week explores a similar question: Where and how do we hear God’s voice, and what might God be telling us to do? The parshah begins, “Vayikra … The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting (Ohel Moed), saying, ‘Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them …’ ” (Lev. 1:1-2). Rashi (11th century, France) explains the Ohel Moed was designed in a way as to cut off sound precisely at the entrance to the tent. Moses, then, was the only one capable of hearing God’s call. In a way, this is how all of us experience God — individually, in prayer, meditation or in the unexpected moments of everyday living. We hear God’s voice internally, limited to the confines of our “tents.” But the parshah reminds us that God’s call must not end where we begin. The Lord calls out with instructions, not indulgences. We are meant to stretch beyond our heads, hearts and even living spaces.
There is a concept in childhood development called “parallel play.” Parents and psychologists understand that a critical stage in the socialization of young children is that time when they play not with each other but near each other. Until recently, our 3-year-old did exactly this, but now has begun to engage more directly with his peers, creating imaginative games, sharing stories and toys as children are apt to do. A great challenge of urban living in particular is that many adults engage in a similar type of “parallel play.”  We appreciate living in closer quarters, sharing parks, coffee shops and gyms, but we rarely reach out in meaningful ways. Still, the voice of conscience, the voice of God, calls to us to do more.
God may speak to us individually, but there is a charge that accompanies divine inspiration, a “calling” that ought to follow a “call.” According to Rashi, Moses, having experienced God’s “call,” speaks to the people, and says, “For your sake, God speaks with me.”  We live in a time without prophets and priests, but I believe we can still hear God’s voice. If we listen closely, perhaps we can determine for whose sake God is calling to us.

Gay Marriage Bill – A Cause for Religious Celebration!

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While in Chicago, our neighborhood and shul had the dubious distinction of being a targeted by Fred Phelps, his family and their vitriolic message of hate.  The Westboro Baptist Church is a particularly stark example of how one purportedly religious family can claim religious support for a message of deep intolerance.  But, there are plenty of other leaders in the faith community who, while never resorting to such extreme tactics (or beliefs) as the Phelps’, still hold that religion and gay rights are mutually exclusive.
Today, the  House of Delegates will consider making Maryland one of the few states in the union with legal same-sex marriage.
As a religious leader in Baltimore, I have been saddened by the rhetoric and vehement opposition to this bill among some of my colleagues in the faith community.  Surely, this is an historic moment in Maryland’s history and one that ought to be cause for celebration! The Bible teaches that each human being is created in God’s image and that finding a partner with whom to share life’s journey is a great religious value.
In a nation where so many struggle with isolation and loneliness, where attention spans are shorter and where technology pulls us in so many different directions, here is an opportunity to honor the desire of gays and lesbians to make life-long commitments to one another, to raise children and to enjoy the same benefits that have long-made marriage a core American value.

The courage of religious conviction should not be limited to those who take one particular view of our sacred texts, traditions and beliefs.   In my view, this is not a moment for religious excuses, but religious affirmation