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Once Upon a Time, on a Board

This is a small story. It so happened that, for a short time, my wife (I still can’t say “late wife” and suspect I never will) and I were on the board of The Jewish Federation of Brevard and Indian River Counties. My wife and I. That makes this an ancient story as well.

For a short period of time, Lee and I fit that stereotype the world often holds, and holds against, Jews – we were professionals who had our own business and were, seemingly, doing well for ourselves. A stereotype held by much of the non-Jewish world and, in my experience, held onto by many American Jews as well. As a child, in a temple in Charleston, South Carolina, a city with the oldest reform temple in the United States, there too, not fitting the stereotype, we were reminded, constantly, even I, a student of ten years old, that we were not really members – we were there by the grace of the board and my father laboured weekends on the grounds, on the building, to gain entrance for my brother and I to Hebrew school, and for our tickets to the High Holy Days. But, now, now were were in. We were courted. We were voted onto the board. It didn’t last long.

This came to mind as I was party to a conversation regarding a menorah lighting, for Chanukah, in Viera. It could not be held where it has been for the last few years. In a large rotunda in the middle of a shopping area, two hundred people would be too many. It is a hazard. The Christmas tree lighting, we were told, only attracted sixty-five. Maybe that’s because Christmas trees are everywhere. Christmas is ubiquitous. But one has to strain ones neck, squint ones eyes, ask for field glasses to find a menorah.

That same area has a Night of Lights parade, or called some such thing, that blocks the traffic in several directions, detours people over four miles, results in congestion and accidents. I know this as I was stuck in that traffic, detoured, and crawled past the accidents. They have this every year.

And so someone asked if there was not a Jewish Federation which could speak to this. Perhaps talk to the powers that be and ask them to look at this fairly and logically. Here was my reply.

Brevard and Indian River. Jewish Federation. Unfortunately, that group, and their board, are as filled with hate as many other groups. I used to be on their board and eventually resigned in protest.

Here is that story.

We did much, while were were there, and maybe we were on the board for a year, to build the food pantry and make it accessible to everyone. And to promote the yearly Jewish Festival. After, a visible, welcoming group, a group that opens the door to understanding, even if it chooses to hold on to traditions, is less frightening, less mysterious. Create your own narrative so others don’t create it for you.

Then, at one meeting, charity came up, as it often did. This was after a long discussion about how to make the Federation into something that more people would want to join, and donate yearly, to. Yearly memberships were down. I suggested this was because people felt the Federation wasn’t doing anything for them, was not something that benefited their lives or that they could see benefited the lives of others. What were we doing so that people could see their money was being used well?

The discussion moved from that to making calls to past members, instead of just letters. That would do it, was the thought. That would increase donations.

Then, charity. A request to have a fundraiser for a charity in Israel. An open ended charity. No specific plan for the money. They would do with it as they saw fit when the need arose.

I asked if there was not at least a focus for the charity. Medical? Educational? Why did I want to know?

Why? I wanted to make sure the charity, our money, wasn’t going to be building houses in the West bank, or buying ammunition. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t going to be used to shoot Palestinians.

I recall there were twelve people on the board. I recall being stated at intensely, quizzically, unbelieving, by at least four. Then, a reply. “Why? It’s not like they’re people.”

I do not recall what Lee said. (Here I am tempted to say, “She of blessed memory,” as is cuswakemeuptom, but I do not want her laughing at me.) I do not recall because I was shocked and collecting my own thoughts but I remember she spoke at length, angrily, with heart, and tore into them in a way, considering their faces, they were not accustomed. We resigned that night.

At the core, here, I believe is a problem with what it means to be Jewish. And not just for me, but what it really means. Chosen. Not chosen because we are better. Not chosen to hold our noses high. Chosen by God, if you believe in such a thing, because we can do the hard work of bringing Tikkun to the world. Tikkun Olam. To make a heaven of Earth. To collect the shards of kindness into which the world has been shattered and bring them back together to recreate the vessel of heaven. Right action, Buddhists call it. Repair the world. Which is why a Jew should stand up for everyone. Which is why Jews were at the forefront of civil rights, why there are six Jews listed among the dead on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery. Freedom Riders. Which is why Rabbi Heschel marched to Selma right next to Martin Luther King. Which is why we should not be for war. Which is why we should stand against poverty, against violence, disenfranchisement, and hate of all kinds, against all people. Tikkun is worth giving your life for.

This stand, and such is the pity, does not make me welcome in many temples. It often leaves me feeling lonely not just as a Jew in the United States, but also among my own tribe. And while I do not necessarily believe in God, or a god, I hold that concept in my heart. Tukkun Olam.

And that is a story from ancient history.

 
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Posted by on December 17, 2016 in Culture, philosophy, Religion, Social

 

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Collecting Stones

Collecting Stones

Today is the day I collect stones.

Years ago, far away, Jews, before they were Jews, back when they were a wandering tribe of anthropo-theists who believed in a single god that they insistedGrave 1 was unlike any other, met the Canaanites, who believed in no such thing. Before they merged, even back then, we buried our dead in the ground. At first this was in caves. Then, in the ground itself. In areas that were too hard to dig, too rocky, a body would be placed on the ground and stones would be heaped on and around the body. The community would bring stones and the more people who attended, the more stones would be piled. One could tell how important, or how loved, and they are not the same, by how high the pile of stones was.

Still today, the tradition continues. One can walk through a Jewish cemetery and see graves with stones on them. Someone comes to visit and leaves a stone. “I was here.” “People still care about this person.” Over srtre gravetime, the piles grow.

The Hebrew word for pebble is tz’ror—a word that also means bond. In the memorial prayer, El Maleh Rahamim, we ask the deceased be “bound up in the bond of life”—tz’ror haHayyim. By placing the stone, we show that we have been there, and that this person’s memory continues to live on in us, through us. And the practice is not kept to just Jews who have passed, but one may see pebbles on the grave of any beloved or respected. If you see pebbles, you know a Jew has been there. You know the person is loved.

Tomorrow I bury my father. Unlike my grandmother, whom I myself buried, my mother—and soon my father to join her—is buried in a “waterproof” concrete casket buried in the ground over which a concrete lid is placed over which a marble lid is placed and secured with four large bolts. I shooed the workers away and secured the bolts myself. It was not the same, one shovel after another, but it was some closure. Tomorrow I will do the same.

bernstein graveWhat strikes me about this cemetery, other than the non-Jewishness of keeping a body from the elements, securing it from the waters, protecting it from the natural process that brings it back into the Earth, is this—a nearly complete lack of stones. Oh, the graves have stones. They are brought in, small ones, in pockets and handbags and baggies. But there are none to gather—as though the ground had been cleared, swept, scraped free. There should be a sign. “There will be no gathering of stones here. No. We have made sure of it.”

First breath. Last breath. In between, we collect stones.

And, so, today I collect stones.

 
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Posted by on July 6, 2015 in Culture, Family, Religion

 

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Recognizing Kali in a Young Girl

This is the first poem of mine I had ever heard read aloud. I had wondered about my poetry, whether it was any good or not. Whether it was worthy of publication in any way.  I had been reading the works of my favorite poets, Piercy and Ciardi and Millay, wondering if I would ever like my own work as much. No, I was sure. No.

One late night, after a campfire and dinner with friends, driving from Jonesville back home to Gainesville, Florida, the radio on a local station, we listened to a show with a variety of music and poetry and prose. A poem came on, introduced not at all, without a title, and I listened, mind fixed solidly on the words and rhythm. This, this, I said to Lee, this is what I wish my work sounded like. I wish I could write like this.

A stanza or two in, I said this. Lee elbowed me, said, “but,” and I asked her to let me finish listening to it first. She elbowed me again and said, “That IS your poem.” I believe this was followed by an eye-roll.  And, yes, indeed, it was.

And it was as I wanted it to sound. Said what I wanted a poem to say. I had written something I would want to listen to.

And there went my excuses.

Recognizing Kali in a Young Girl

Sitting here by the side of a two-lane
watching no cars go by
and steam rise in plumes
from the gaping hood of my automobile,
my daughter and I on this lonely shoulder
sitting, waiting for help.
Waiting for assistance.

Standing to stare into the engine
in a testosterone ritual predating cars
and trucks and carriages,
carts and wheels,
I imagine an early progenitor of my gender
staring intently into the mouth of a horse
checking teeth, gums, breath,
looking at the legs and feeling he wanted to kick something
but having no tires available
grabbed the beast’s cannon bone with a sturdy hand,
checking for splints.

Bubbling and boiling,
maybe this car will never move again
and I’ll have no reason to sit within its space
confined with hope of forced conversation with the little girl
too old to want to talk with her father
and too innocent to know why.

Turning away from the beast
I look to the field:
wildflowers blooming
tall, short, colored like air and sun,
water and earth, dancing in the wind
with my daughter, swaying and swirling
with my daughter.

The old rabbis have said,
or so the Hassidic recount,
not a blade of grass grows,
not a leaf falls
that an angel does not make it so.
Classes of angels,
Cherubim, Seraphim,
cloud angels and insect angels,
grass angels and tree angels.
Angels, then, for sunlight and rain
and for home cooking and pizza joints.
Angels for taxes and funerals and sex.
Angels for car engines.
Angels for little girls.

And there she is,
crouching among the blooms,
picking iris and narcissus.
Harvesting angels.

(This poem, along with many others, can be found in various anthologies as well as my own book, The Phoenix and the Dragon: Poems from the Alchemical Transformation (Smithcraft Press), available, along with my other books, Tellstones: Runic Divination in the Welsh Tradition, and Bud the Spud, at your local bookstore, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and elsewhere, for you reading needs, whether you like to hold books in your hands or read them on tablets or phones of Kindles or Nooks or, goodness gracious – so many options.  You can find my author profile on Amazon and please find me as well at GoodReads.)

 
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Posted by on February 7, 2013 in Culture, Family, Poetry, Religion, Social

 

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What do Jews do on Christmas?

What do Jews do on Christmas? Well
in the United States,
at least,
we take walks,
move,
find a park
We go out to the few open businesses,
movies theater, Chinese food,
and know that most everyone we see will be Jewish,
or Atheist (though they may still follow comfortable family tradition)
or what have you, but not Christian.

Here, the temperature is in the 70’s
and we had a beautiful solstice under the stars
(we could see though the city-glow)
in our shirtsleeves
and on the 25th
we are at my sister-in-law’s
(Mother-in law, father-in-law, wife, daughter and son)
because she doesn’t want to be the only Jew at her home
as she gathers her husband’s family-
Southern Baptists all
and very concerned for the souls of the children.

We are there with my mother-in law
who was born Jewish
but who is sure America has made Christmas
a national holiday
we have to celebrate
or incur a terrible social wrath.
She wants to know if we are going to heaven.
(How the hell should I know?)
(Is it full of people just like this?)
Then the party is over,
everyone wishes each other Merry Christmas
over piles of presents given each other
in honour of the Christ child
and we gave one or two but look at all that stuff! And say goodbye.

 
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Posted by on December 25, 2007 in Culture, Family, Poetry, Religion, Social

 

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