ISO Wholeness

Not long ago, my family and I were staying at a hotel in Southern California. I went to retrieve my rental car from the underground parking lot. As I approached the vehicle, I noticed a custodial employee methodically wiping down the exterior of a trash can. I found myself staring at the man for a long minute wondering what motivated him to pay such attention to detail. At first, I discovered myself dismissing the behavior as absurd – why would anyone bother to clean a garbage can? In a garage? Maybe his boss was overly fastidious? Or petty? Maybe the expectations for trash can cleanliness are different in California than in Maryland? But as I watched him, my thinking softened. Maybe he simply took pride in his work? Maybe he walked away from that trash can with a sense of fulfillment, knowing that before clocking out, when he scanned that garage with his gaze, every corner looked unsullied and tidy? 

So often we evaluate behavior, of ourselves and others, based on whether it’s good or bad. Jewish tradition certainly offers moral judgments; our God is a God of justice. But this is not the only lens through which to view the world. Often, a better question to ask ourselves isn’t whether some human act is right or wrong but whether it adds value, whether it moves someone toward a life of greater fulfillment.  

In his book Everyday Holiness, Alan Morinis cites Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, a seminal voice in the modern Mussar movement. Morinis: “…Luzzatto tells us that as humans we are all placed between wholeness and deficiency with the power to earn wholeness. Man must earn this wholeness, however, through his own free will.” It seems to me that religions too often talk about how we move on a spectrum between evil and goodness, wrong and right. This is useful in addressing ethical questions but falls short when addressing quality of life.  

Another paradigm is that of brokenness and repair. This paradigm also has its merits, but its shortcomings are two-fold. First, the repair of something broken brings it back to a previously functional state but does nothing to advance it. Repair is about reinstatement not improvement. But there’s a more insidious problem with the brokenness/repair model. Things can be broken and fixed. They don’t notice they are broken. They’re things.  

People who feel broken (or, frequently, who are made to feel broken) struggle to mend because feeling broken is constitutionally debilitating when, as Luzzatto taught, our souls crave wholeness. The same is true for communities and societies. When people talk about Baltimore as “broken,” it does little to make Baltimoreans feels good about our prospects for improvement.  

I once wrote a piece (cross-published in Jmore) about the tikkun olam paradigm, popular in Jewish justice circles but which I feel is problematic. “The tikkun olam paradigm,” I wrote, “means human partnership with God bestows upon us a nearly impossible task: to fashion wholeness from brokenness. We are less partners with God as we are entropy janitors, cleaning up a profound cosmic mess. Bereishit (Genesis),though, seems to understand creation as a process. The universe is unfurling before humanity. The world isn’t broken. It’s incomplete, unrealized.” 

This is why Rabbi Luzzatto’s paradigm of deficiency and wholeness is useful. Maybe the California custodian who meticulously wiped down that trash can isn’t an “entropy janitor” but on a quest for sheleimut, wholeness and fulfillment. Maybe more of us would thrive if we could see ourselves on a path forward and upward instead of feeling broken or breaking and in constant need of repair. Baltimore has endemic problems to be sure, but ours is not a “problematic” city. If only more would look at our city with at least the same sense of pride as I witnessed one day in a California garage.

A version of this post will appear in the February issue of Jmore. 

The Kindness of Strangers

As I write this piece, Baltimore City inches closer to a seventh straight year in which there were more than 300 murders. My own neighborhood of Reservoir Hill has seen a substantial decrease in violent crime in recent decades but is not fully spared the effects of the slaughter. For example, two days ago, 46-year-old Anthony Rollins was shot in his car two blocks from my home.

But murders aren’t the only crimes affecting Baltimoreans. Petty theft continues to be a problem as well. For example, I recently had $400 worth of contact lenses stolen from my front porch. The UPS truck dropped my mail-order prescription while we were out. 10 minutes later, long before we had the opportunity to collect the package, a man surreptitiously approached our front door, grabbed the small package, placed it in a plastic bag and walked away. This was a real problem for me considering I wear mono-vision lenses and I need my contacts both for distance and reading.

Weeks passed. Then, I got a text from a neighbor to me and someone whose number I didn’t recognize. “The other person on this text has your contacts,” it read. I quickly replied: “Really? That’s amazing!” The stranger, replied immediately: “I found your contacts along with an invoice that had your name and address. They looked expensive, so I thought you might want them back.” “Yes!” I replied.

I arranged to swing by her place the next morning. She lived a mile and a half from my home, on North Avenue near the BCPS headquarters. She explained she had found the contact lenses in a plastic bag discarded in one of the planters near her home. I was amazed. It was one thing to find the lenses. It was quite another to somehow track down my neighbor and ask if he could put us in touch. It was yet another level of generosity and trust to invite a stranger to your home address to recover his possession.

Deuteronomy 22:1-3 teaches: “You shall not see your fellow’s ox or his sheep scattered and hide yourself from him; you shall surely bring them back to your fellow. And if your fellow is not near you or you do not know them, then you shall bring it home to your house, and it shall be with you until your fellow seeks it…. So shall you do with every lost object of your fellow which they have lost and you have found; you may not remain indifferent.”

It’s clear that Jewish tradition holds us responsible for returning lost objects, even to strangers. A later rabbinic source (Pirkei Avot 5:10) explains there are four moral orientations among people. The first of these says, “what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours in yours.” One sage suggests this is an “average” orientation. Others, however, argue this is “the way of Sodom.” Sodom was of course that infamous city whose inhabitants were wholly dismissive and cruel to one another.

How can one set of behaviors be seen in such radically different ways? One perspective is that each person’s claim on their own property is normal, average and unremarkable. Another is that such behavior is corrosive and destructive. This text seems to suggest that the roots of injustice can be found as much with inaction as with the wrong action. When we remain isolated from one another’s life experiences, when we insist there’s no reason to get involved in someone else’s business, we perpetuate indifference. A community of bystanders makes for a morally impoverished citizenry where every person is left to fend for themselves. In such a society, basic social cohesion and trust are sacrificed on the altar of independence and self-reliance.

I’m sure the woman who found my contacts had other things to do, obligations to people she knew and loved that required her time and attention, obligations to herself. Nevertheless, she felt obliged to a stranger and empathy for my loss. There are so many reasons to be cynical about people these days; we’re beaten down by crime statistics and the constant barrage of bad news. But, as I was reminded, there are plenty of good people who look for opportunities to do right. These are the people whose moral compass points away from Sodom, a city so morally detestable it had to be destroyed, and toward cities of accountability and even holiness.

A version of this post will appear in Jmore

Fighting for Justice Means Fighting for Us Too

In a recent episode of her provocative podcast “Adventures with Dead Jews,” Dara Horn unpacks the wildly successful 1947 film Gentlemen’s Agreement, arguing Jewish acceptance into normative Christian society is conditional. A scene from the film helps to underscore Horn’s point. In it, Gregory Peck’s character Phil Green, pretending to be Jewish to write an exposé about American antisemitism, has a conversation with his young son Tommy. Tommy asks his dad: “What are Jews anyway?” Phil’s reply: “…Remember last week when you asked me about that big church, and I told you there are all different kinds of churches? Well, the people who go to that particular church are called Catholics, and there are people who go to different churches, and they’re called Protestants, and there are people who go to different churches, and they’re called Jews, only they call their churches temples or synagogues.”

The problem with this framing is it subsumes shuls under a Christian category and ignores the reality that synagogues are authentic expressions of Jewishness, not “Jewish churches.” I write a lot in this column about Beth Am’s Reservoir Hill neighborhood where I live. But, in my neighborhood, which I love and whose residents are generally supportive and appreciative of our presence, from time to time I encounter two forms of Jewish minimization. The first is seemingly benign: people do refer to our building as “the Jewish church.” Whenever this happens, I simply correct people. “Churches are Christian,” I say. “Synagogues are Jewish sacred places for gathering.” Most of the time people are happy to be corrected. Sometimes, they’re clearly perturbed they must learn a whole new word when the word they previously knew to describe all houses of worship is shown to no longer be sufficient.

But, sometimes this minimization equals full-on erasure of Jewish identity and self-determination. I was reminded of this recently when a nearby neighbor who identifies as a Hebrew Israelite began to shout and shame Jews outside the shul. To be sure, the Hebrew Israelite ideology doesn’t necessarily equal hate, but the Southern Poverty Law Center does designate four specific Baltimore-based “Israelite” groups as hate groups. This man’s toxic views, expressed belligerently and without any regard for the humanity or dignity of his neighbors, must be called out for what it is: antisemitic.

But, most conditional acceptance (and therefore tacit rejection) of Jews is much more subtle. From the annual Christmas tree at the public Baltimore School for the Arts where my daughter attends High School, to de minimis attempts at interfaith gatherings to provide food I can eat, to prayers offered at these events which non-Christians cannot affirm because they are offered in Jesus’ name, being Jewish in practice is a consistent challenge.

One final example. I was asked by a Baltimore interfaith clergy consortium of which I’m a part to host an in-person retreat at Beth Am. I explained that the two days they were considering, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, were important Jewish holidays and simply wouldn’t work for us. “The following week would be fine,” I indicated, “and we’d be honored and delighted to host.” The response: “Hi Rabbi Burg! It seems like September 28th is when the majority of members will be able to attend, several will be out the first week of October…. I hope you can attend!” He then informed me a Bishop from the group had graciously offered to host. When I replied that I would be leading services and would be unable to do so, I received no response. The gathering proceeded exclusively with Christians.

The late British Rabbi Lionel Blue is said to have quipped, “Jews are just like everyone else, only more so.” The joke, of course, is that so much of the time we have to work harder to be accepted, because others work so little to accept us. Gone are the policies that excluded Jews from universities, from jobs and from neighborhoods. But what remains are the small indignities, the ways the majority culture encourages our having to pass, to abide by their gentlemen’s agreement.

A version of this post will appear in Jmore

Cities of Kindness

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov says, “If you believe something can be broken you must also believe it can be fixed.” Many of those seeking a more just society feel fatigued right now. As the pandemic rages on and new variants rear their ugly heads, as climate change exacerbates global droughts, floods, fire and famine, as systemic racism continues to infect American culture and policy, there is simply so much brokenness. It can all feel overwhelming. This makes Rebbe Nachman’s message even more important. The promise of repair can be a salve for the persistent pain of injustice.

One way to refresh ourselves in such a climate is to focus on good that can be done, compassion which we can access and share. Consider this story (as detailed, among other places, in US Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy’s book Together) which begins with tragedy, with the family of Edward Jaievsky fleeing Nazi Germany for Argentina and then emigrating to the United States, and settling in Anaheim, California. And then more tragedy: Edward, who had become a doctor of holistic medicine, was on vacation with his family when a car accident claimed the life of his six-year-old daughter Natasha. The family was overcome with grief, but when they began to go through her things, they found drawings and writings about compassion, rainbows with messages like, “put your heart into kindness.” Natasha’s father, Edward, created a poster and hung her colorful art all around Anaheim with the message “make kindness contagious.”

A city councilman named Tom Tait who saw these posters and was struck by their simplicity and beauty. No corporation had sponsored or branded the message. The only attribution was the scrawl of a child’s handwriting at the bottom: “My wish is to help people.” – N.J. Tom did some investigating and discovered that N.J. was Natasha Jaievsky, and he learned her story. He was touched by the little girl’s message, particularly against of a backdrop of political discourse that was becoming increasingly vitriolic. Six years later, there was a vacancy in the mayor’s office. Tom decided to run on a platform of kindness – and won by a substantial margin. Tom’s contention was that cities could heal through the power of kindness.

Tom’s vision of a city animated by kindness proved both viable and effective. He launched the Million Acts of Kindness initiative in the Anaheim school district. When they met the district-wide goal of one million acts of kindness, the demonstrable results of Tom’s efforts were clear: Bullying in the schools was dramatically reduced. Suspensions were cut in half.

“Everything gets better if everyone is a little bit kinder,” said Tom.  His efforts to make Anaheim into a city of kindness led to visits around the world with mayors of other cities looking to tap into the power of compassion to keep their communities safe and resilient. The US State Department even invited him to speak on behalf of its Bureau of Counter Terrorism to officials in Germany. The topic was (not kidding) countering extremism through kindness. Tom recalls one conversation with a former neo-Nazi in Dusseldorf who explained that while it was his search for connection that led him to join a white supremacist group in the first place, it was unexpected acts of kindness by the very people he had been taught to hate that convinced him how wrong he had been.

“Kindness is Contagious” read the poster created by Dr. Edward Jaievsky. A simple and pure act of a six-year-old girl inspires her grieving father to share her message of compassion with their city. A politician struggling to move that same city toward a sustainable and achievable vision of collective responsibility stumbles upon the posters and runs for mayor. Over several years, a city is transformed into a safer and more compassionate place. That same politician travels to Europe and meets a young man whose toxic worldview had been challenged by kindness – the same place which Natasha Jaievsky’s family, two generations earlier, had had to flee because of that same ideology. As Anne Frank, another girl who died tragically and too young, once wrote: “In the long run, the sharpest weapon of all is a kind and gentle spirit.”

A version of this post will appear in Jmore.

Re-Sourcing Druid Hill Park

Rosh Hashanah literally means “The Head of the Year.” It’s about pointing us in a direction from the top down or from the source, the fountainhead, to courses beyond. This summer, my family and I took a trip out West to explore a number of national parks. Our travels took us along hundreds of miles of the Colorado River from the Rockies down to Arizona. We were amazed that this iconic river, one that over millions of years could create a geological formation as wondrous as the Grand Canyon, was so modestly small near its source.

Our encounter with the Colorado reminded me of a walk I’d taken a few months prior in Baltimore County to the source of a stream I know well. My family and I live near the Jones Falls for which the Jones Falls Expressway was named. The river itself originates far north of Baltimore and eventually empties into the Patapsco River at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

My walk was an unplanned excursion after taking my car to the mechanic on Reisterstown Road. With time to kill, I went exploring and discovered two things. First, Baltimore County is not set up for pedestrians; I walked along the shoulder of Garrison Forest Road stepping into drainage ditches or bushes to avoid oncoming traffic. The second thing I discovered is that my neighborhood stream originates near the intersection of Caves and Garrison Forest. In an insignificant trickle of water bubbling under a tiny road aptly named Sprinkle Lane, the Jones Falls gurgles through overgrown brush past a dilapidated fence and creeps east and southward toward the city.

The Jones Falls at its (very modest) source

A number of branch streams join the Jones Falls along its eighteen-mile route. One of them was dammed in 1865 to form a boat lake five years after Druid Hill Park was established on 746 Acres of land formerly occupied by the Native Susquehannock and later the Nicholas Rogers Family Estate. In 1863, the Baltimore City Council approved a loan to construct a billion-gallon capacity reservoir in the new park. The stream flowing from the boat lake used to snake its way through a yawning ravine into the river valley. This geological feature made it possible to create a vast reservoir. When completed in 1871, the earthenware dam that produced Druid Lake was the largest of its kind anywhere in the world. The resulting reservoir covered 55 acres averaging 30 feet deep (with a maximum depth of 94 feet!).

Recently, our Reservoir Hill community and the other surrounding neighborhoods of Druid Hill Park have been engaged in a visioning process to reimagine Druid Lake, the result of a post 9/11 security requirement that requires the city to bury two enormous holding tanks (one setting a new world record) for the city’s drinking water supply under one-third of the lake’s previous footprint. We’re sad to lose so much of the lake, but new possibilities have emerged for recreation and beautification. Ideas range from arts and performance spaces to swimming, boating, perched wetlands, and walkways that take pedestrians out across the water.

One exciting concept includes creek restoration, retrenching the stream that used to run from the northwest into the old ravine. I took a walk along the old creek bed and began to imagine how fun it would be to take a kayak (or gondola) from the original boat lake (now the Maryland Zoo’s Waterfowl Pavilion where Beth Am regularly holds its summer Services in the Park) along the re-sourced stream down to Druid Lake.

The history of Druid Hill Park includes racial segregation, slavery and displacement of native populations. Worthy discussion around urban renewal means being mindful of that history even as we enjoy the city’s many amenities. For example, reinvigorating the park requires that we mindfully invite surrounding neighborhoods previously cut off from the park back into our city’s premiere urban oasis. (A recent recommendation to convert the Big Jump into a permanent cycle and pedestrian track along Druid Park Lake Drive – based on a DOT evaluation – is an important step in this direction). Likewise, resourcing Druid Lake should include re-sourcing, reestablishing some of that which was suppressed a century and a half ago in the name of beauty and progress.

Rosh Hashanah, the head of each New Year, asks us to look backward in order to move forward. So too we might consider the origins and paths of the mighty Colorado River – and the less mighty but still iconic Jones Falls. Restoration of a modest Druid Hill Park stream could help visitors to better appreciate the history and natural topography of one of America’s oldest city parks. Right now the park is enjoyed by foot, car and bike. Meandering through tree stands and grasses from one boating lake to another could be very exciting indeed.

A version of this essay will appear in JMore

Pilgrimage is Power

Standing outside Billie Holiday’s childhood home.
Mural on the block where Billie Holiday was raised

Tisha B’Av is not a pilgrimage festival; observed this year on July 18, it’s the inverse, a reminder of pilgrimages that were once possible until the Temple was destroyed on this Hebrew date in 587 BCE. When Jewish communities mark the 9th of Av and mourn the absence of the Temple, we are also lamenting an interruption of Jewish history, the end of a certain way of Jewish being.

Pilgrimage in Jewish tradition was largely focused on the Temple, Solomon’s First Jerusalem Temple or its successor which stood until 70 CE when it was destroyed by the Romans. But since then, we have other experiences of pilgrimage. Hassidic Jews regularly travel to graves of Hassidic masters or early mystical thinkers, like Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai at whose grave 45 people tragically lost their lives in a crowd crush on Lag B’Omer this year. Jewish travelers of all kinds make pilgrimage to important Jewish sites around the world from the first ghetto in Venice or Death Camps in Germany and Poland, to Maimonides’ synagogue in Cordoba, Spain, to Independence Hall in Tel Aviv where, on May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel, eight hours before the British Mandate of Palestine was due to end.

Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Trethewey captures, in her poem “Pilgrimage” (2006), the multivalence of journeys to sites of memory:

Here, the Mississippi carved
            its mud-dark path, a graveyard

for skeletons of sunken riverboats.
            Here, the river changed its course,

turning away from the city
            as one turns, forgetting, from the past—

the abandoned bluffs, land sloping up
            above the river's bend—where now

the Yazoo fills the Mississippi's empty bed.
            Here, the dead stand up in stone, white

marble, on Confederate Avenue. 

The poem describes a trip to her hometown of Vicksburg where a battle was fought that marked a turning point in the Civil War. And yet, Trethewey laments the ease with which subsequent generations ignore the painful history of the antebellum south: “We sleep in their beds, the old mansions hunkered on the bluffs, draped in flowers – funereal – a blur of petals against the river’s gray.”

The obliviousness of many current Americans to American history compounds our obliviousness to the ways systemic racism is manifest in our day. Pilgrimage is about bearing witness to the past, in the present, while gazing into the future.

Working toward justice in Baltimore is becoming better acquainted with its history. Recently I had some extra time after meeting some friends for a drink, so I walked up S. Durham Street where Billie Holiday was raised. After Chadwick Boseman died last year, and my kids were devastated for his next Black Panther movie that would not come, we watched Boseman’s Thurgood and then made an aliyat haregel, a walking pilgrimage that Shabbat afternoon to 1632 Division St., Justice Marshall’s childhood home, which is less than a mile from our house.

There are numerous African American historical sites in Baltimore and throughout Maryland. Some are well known and painstakingly maintained. Others are less distinguished in appearance but no less important. A simple rowhome in West Baltimore can remind us of where (to paraphrase the poet) the torrent of Jim Crow, in the capable hands of a young civil rights attorney, began to “change its course.” A visit to Port Discovery Children’s museum can also be an opportunity to pause and pay homage to abducted Africans who were once sold at auction on that site.

Some of these historic places are easy to find at Explore Baltimore or Visit Maryland. Others require a bit more digging. Some of these sites instill pride, like the location of The Royal Theater Marquee at 1329 Pennsylvania Avenue where Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Etta James – all the greats – performed. Other sites impart horror, like the 44 places throughout Maryland where white terrorists lynched Black men, women and children between 1854 and 1933 – including 15-year-old Howard Cooper in Towson.

Against a tidal wave of states and Republican lawmakers banning classroom instruction on the impact of systemic racism, we must continue to make pilgrimages – to all the places they insist have no relevance to ongoing 21st century injustices.

A version of this post will appear in Jmore.

Relationships or Death (May 2021)

As I write this, Minnesota awaits the results of the Derrick Chauvin trial after his lynching of George Floyd even as that state and the country are once again reeling from the murder of another unarmed Black man. And in Virginia, a uniformed Black and Latino man was shown the business end of a deadly weapon and pepper sprayed after officers failed to notice his lawfully displayed temporary tags. Vaccine access remains challenging for communities of color who, frequently experiencing victim blaming, are labeled “hesitant” when hesitancy among white evangelicals outpaces any other demographic. Justice in America is elusive as always.

I’ve written for this column on relational justice which I define as the linchpin of social justice.

My contention is that without relational work, addressing policy as a lasting solution to injustice is illusory. From slavery to reconstruction to Jim Crow to redlining to mass incarceration and police brutality, human beings have a way of ignoring, undermining and sabotaging progress as we nurture the inexhaustible human proclivity to scapegoat, marginalize and harm the other. Systemic solutions must be fought for and achieved. But hateful policies will always prevail when there are hateful people calling the shots.

Recently, Terry Gross (Fresh Air) interviewed Palestinian cookbook author Reem Kassis. Kassis told this story:  When she published her first book, she sent a copy to Michael Solomonov, noted chef of Zahav, James Beard winner and fellow Philadelphia resident. Along with the book, she shared her story of eating at his restaurant years before and having both positive feelings about the food which reminded her of her mother’s cooking and somewhat negative feelings about why the best Palestinian cuisine she had tasted in America was being served in an Israeli restaurant. 

Solomonov was touched by her story and invited her to meet for coffee. The two became friends. Kassis reflected on the friendship. She had assumed that as the “face of Israeli cuisine,” he must be anti-Palestinian or at least deny the origin of the food he serves. It turns out this wasn’t the case at all. “Once you get to know someone on an individual level,” she said, “you realize how many misconceptions you probably hold of that person.”

One important thing to keep in mind: Simply getting to know someone (or multiple someones) of a different race or nationality doesn’t bring about justice. There’s always the danger of tokenism, thinking a person is exceptional, viewing that person as, in the words of local activist Dayvon Love, a “special negro” instead of a “helpless negro.” Both, of course, are deeply problematic. Michael Solomonov or Barrack Obama are exceptional people to be sure. But if they are exceptional as a Jew or an African American we’ve missed the point. Just how many people from another identity group does one have to know to avoid tokenism? That’s not really the issue. Most men and boys in their lives know multiple women and girls quite well, and sexism is hardly vanquished. The difference between inclusion and diversity is “how” we know, not whom.

But here’s what I think is clear: There are far too many folks in Baltimore, Maryland, and the United States who have neither the opportunity nor the inclination to do the work of relational justice. What’s the outcome? In her book The Sum of Us, Heather McGhee points out that when white communities around the country were forced to integrate their public swimming pools, many of them drained their pools rather than comply. When the enfranchised and disenfranchised don’t know one another, when those with power don’t have relationships with those who have been stripped of power, they will often hurt themselves rather than help someone else. That, of course, erodes our essential and shared humanity, hurts everyone to some degree and helps no one.

The Talmud (Ta’anit 23a) underscores both the importance and high stakes of relationship building when it teaches “either relationship or death.” That humans are social beings is no surprise. That those relationships can be the instrument of our collective salvation is a fundamentally Jewish teaching. Why relational justice? Because relationships and the empathy they foster are an essential ingredient in the recipe for achieving sustainable pro-social change.

A version of this post appears in the May 2021 issue of Jmore

Contrary Winds (Mar. 2021)

The philosopher Baruch Spinoza wrote, “…we are in many respects at the mercy of external causes and are tossed about like the waves of the sea when driven by contrary winds, unsure of the outcome and of our fate” (The Ethics, Part III, Prop. 59). I suspect this is how many of us feel throughout much of our lives. I feel this way on a recurring basis, particularly as my life and career have meant navigating complex race and class dynamics in my own neighborhood. Just when I think I have my bearings, I’m reminded there is so very much to learn, and I am so very ignorant. This isn’t false humility, and it’s hard to admit, particularly for someone to whom others frequently look for guidance and direction.

I am motivated to share this having recently read author and activist D. Watkins’ reflections on his own insecurity and perceived failure with regard to 46-year-old Dante “Tater” Barksdale, the Safe Streets violence interrupter who fell victim to violence on the streets of his beloved city. “I know enough to know,” writes Watkins, “that the world around me doesn’t want to see the hurt I have for Dante and the dozens of other friends I’ve lost over the past few years. The world doesn’t want to see it about as much as I don’t want to share it, so we all continue to perform instead.” Watkins mourns performance as a coping strategy for trauma and grief. Barksdale, he says, was “…one of the few people who would tell the truth about the things you don’t want to hear.”

Watkins may be too hard on himself, as he is someone who makes a living pointing out uncomfortable truths, but that’s hardly for me to say. I suspect what he’s really getting at is a question of integrity. Is it phony, it is failure, to lead different private and public lives, to hide our pain from the world? The sage Rava suggests it might be when he says, “Any Torah scholar whose insides do not match his outsides is no scholar at all” (Bavli Yoma 72b). And another Talmudic tractate (Pesachim 113b) suggests God is said to despise three types of people, one of them being “a person who says one thing but means another.”

So, D. Watkins feels he’s failing his late friend when he puts on a happy face or glosses over his pain in his writing. I feel something similar when I write in this column with pride about our shul’s relational justice work but avoid sharing some of the more painful personal stories. Like my friend and neighbor for whom I would provide frequent support of various kinds until I tried to put him off while spending time with my kids and he sent a series of antisemitic and hurtful texts. Or a woman who lives on my block and who is still nasty to me when I see her because, nearly a decade ago at 2 a.m., exhausted and anxious about not sleeping on the eve of Yom Kippur, I called my next-door neighbor and left a passionate voicemail insisting he deal with his incessantly barking pit bulls. He and I eventually worked it out. I apologized for my tone. He did better dealing with the dogs. Then, he moved away. But the woman (a friend of his) still ignores me when I say hello or mutters hurtful things under her breath.

What keeps me going, though, is both a sense of duty to work toward a more just society and an inner voice, honed over many years, reminding me not retreat when things get uncomfortable and hard. As theologian Reinhold Niebuhr prayed (and which was later adapted into AA’s Serenity Prayer): “[God], give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.” Seeking justice isn’t easy because the struggle is fundamentally born out of resistance to complacency and discomfort. Integrity requires vulnerability, to be sure, but true failure is only when one determines the arduous journey toward greater fairness and equity is no longer worth taking at all.

A version of this post appears in the March 2021 issue of Jmore.

White. But Trying Not to Be. (Feb. 2021)

Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg famously quipped about Jewish denominationalism: “I don’t care what denomination you belong to, as long as you’re embarrassed by it.” I’ve always taken his words to mean that, while Jewish denominations are useful in clarifying theological positions or practice, too much energy is put into what divides us. And when we focus so very much on what separates us, we run the risk of forgetting what unites us. Greenberg thinks we should be embarrassed about that.

But there is something that unites us that we should also be embarrassed about: race. Somewhere between 80-90% of American Jews are white. This wasn’t always the case. While it’s true that Jews were considered “free white persons” by the 1790 Naturalization Act (and therefore granted citizenship), we were regularly discriminated against as a class. There were neighborhoods in which we could not live, restaurants and clubs from which we were banned and quotas at major universities, including here in Baltimore. In the post WWII era, Jews were increasingly accepted into the majority in a process that has been called “becoming white.”

During the Trump era with its stunning rise in antisemitic rhetoric and violence, some Jews question whether we still belong to the white race. But Jews with white skin consistently reap the benefits of whiteness, despite the very real threat antisemitism poses. David Schraub of UC Berkeley uses the term “Conditional Whiteness. “…An American Jew whose grandparents immigrated from Austria might unambiguously benefit from White privilege when passing a highway patrol car, but not enjoy it in any way whatsoever when White supremacists are looking for a target to harass.”

Traub’s observation was driven home for me January 6 when the US Capitol building was ransacked by a mob of white supremacists. They fashioned nooses, carried and shouted racist slogans and wore clothing with abhorrent antisemitic messages. This was whiteness taken to it most brutal and sordid extreme – a brash and violent assertion of power by members of what they considered a superior race. This behavior on behalf of and in the name of whiteness was made worse by its having been incited by the president himself, leading to his historic second impeachment.

Given the legacy of white supremacy in this country, I’ve been thinking a lot about how Jews who look like me ought to feel about our whiteness. My answer? We should feel embarrassed. While there are many virtuous white people, whiteness as a social construct is no virtue. James Baldwin makes this point in his essay “The White Man’s Guilt.” “The record [of white supremacy] is there for all to read…. It might as well be written in the sky. One wishes that Americans, white Americans, would read, for their own sakes, this record, and stop defending themselves against it…. The fact that they have not yet been able to do this – to face their history, to change their lives – hideously menaces this country.”

The recent menacing attack on our democracy is only one, albeit stunning, reminder of how important it is for white Jews to paradoxically accept and reject our whiteness. Jewishness should be a source of pride. As should Gay pride. As should Blackness for African Americans. But whiteness exists only to marginalize, disenfranchise and do harm to non-white people. For this reason, describing our whiteness thoughtfully is key. How best to do so?

“White Jews” is accurate but unnuanced. “Ashkenazi Jews” doesn’t take into account Jews of Color whose familial and cultural traditions can derive from Eastern Europe. “Jews with white skin privilege” is better because it honors our Jewishness while acknowledging the unearned benefit which we are afforded. The only problem is that this term says nothing about our Jewish responsibility to help dismantle racism. So, lately, I’ve been leaning toward another phrase, one that is equally honest about who we are and the America to which we should aspire:

Jewish and also white – but trying not to be.

A version of this post appears in the February 2021 issue of Jmore.

Character Matters: Reflections on the ’20 Presidential Election (Dec. 2020)

My family and I were recently volunteering for the nonpartisan group Baltimore Votes at the Highlandtown Pratt Library early voting site. A Black man walked out of the polling place, and we offered him some refreshments and a sign to put in his window. He declined, clearly in a hurry.

My son called out, “Thank you for voting!” As he was walking away, the man briefly turned toward us and said, “Thank you for not suppressing!” I thought to myself, “Is the bar really that low?”

Unfortunately, I think it is.

Against the backdrop of the pandemic and many sins of the outgoing president and his administration, a silver lining has been the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the MeToo movement, the Women’s March, the youth-led March for Our Lives and, overall, more widespread grassroots advocacy than this country has ever seen in its 245-year history.

Each of these movements and more have (rightly) demanded we move beyond calls for basic civility toward the need for structural and systemic change. Many Americans have become more sensitized to the ways politeness, colorblindness and liberal do-goodership have been complicit in maintaining systems of oppression against women, LGBTQ people, Black and brown people, Jews, the disabled and more.

Civility isn’t enough. Civility can actually be part of the problem because it can mean avoiding confrontation and essential truth-telling. To dismantle racism and sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism, we need to go deeper; we need to work harder.

I think this is why I was so taken aback by CNN commentator Van Jones’ widely shared emotional speech after Joe Biden was declared to be the next president of the United States. Speaking through his tears, Jones said, “It’s easier to be a parent this morning. It’s easier to be a dad. It’s easier to tell your kids that character matters. It matters. Telling the truth matters. Being a good person matters.”

Jones was speaking an essential truth: civility is also important. In Yiddish, if you want to describe someone truly admirable, you call them a mentsch, a fundamentally good person. Being a mentsch isn’t about fighting for justice vs. speaking and acting with compassion. It’s about both.

Provocation without compassion can be cruel. And cruelty should be no one’s aspiration. As my late father used to say, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

I didn’t hear Van Jones live, of course; I was in the middle of leading Shabbat morning services. But I did get word about the election outcome soon after CNN called it. I had just finished teaching a section from the Babylonian Talmud about minhag s’dom, the practices for which, in the rabbinic imagination, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah needed to be destroyed. Many crimes are listed but for me, the most upsetting was the way even kindness was weaponized.

“When a poor person would come to Sodom, each and every Sodomite would give him a dinar [a coin], and the name of the giver was written on each dinar. And [then] they would not give or sell him bread. When he died [of hunger], each and every person would come and take his dinar” (Talmud Sanhedrin 109a).

It’s one thing to systematically withhold assistance. That, in of itself, is unacceptable as an expression of basic cultural mores. But to provide assistance as a false flag and then deny human beings the dignity of acquiring vital sustenance is brutality on a different order of magnitude.

The emotional release Van Jones experienced when he learned a man known for pettiness and cruelty would no longer occupy the White House was a catharsis felt by many on Saturday morning, Nov. 7.

The work ahead of us, though, is daunting. In the coming months and years, we’ll need to rediscover our societal compassion while resisting the complacency that allows civility to mask the need for truth, reconciliation and justice. 

A version of this posted appears in the December 2020 issue of Jmore