Passover, 5781

Passover, 5781

Tonight, marks the beginning of Passover, the Jewish holiday commemorating the freeing of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. As a child, Passover was a fun holiday with good food, relatives around the table, and the joy of hunting for the afikomen after dinner. Yet, amidst the fun, one line in the Seder stood out to me every year, “In every generation they have tried to annihilate us, but the Holy One, blessed be He, rescues us from their hands.” In every generation people have tried to destroy Jews, whether through genocide or ethnocide. Beginning with Bible stories, which may or may not be factual, and continuing with historical accounts, there have been attempts to kill of the Jews staring in approximately 1430 BCE with slavery in Egypt and the attempted destruction of the Jews by Haman, in the book of Esther in about 356 BCE.

The first historical account of attempted ethnocide of Jews dates to 138 BCE when the Greek government outlawed the practice of Judaism in Israel, which is detailed in the celebration of Chanukah. There were recorded massacres of Jews in 486 CE by Christian monks, in 624 CE by Muslims, in 1096 CE by Christian Crusaders during the First Crusade and in 1146 CE during the second crusade. Throughout the 13th century Jews were murdered with impunity all across what is now Germany and Poland after being blamed for causing the Black Plague (which is caused by a bacteria). In 1391 Jews were massacred across Spain. In the 16th century, Marranos were burned in Portugal and Spain as well as in Mexico and Peru. Between 1648 and 1666 Jews were massacred by Poles, Swedes, Russians, and Cossacks. In 1818 Jews were slaughtered in Yemen, and in 1840 in Damascus. During the Holocaust six million Jews were slaughtered.

In addition to outright slaughter, Jews have been expelled from many different countries over the centuries including France, Spain, Austria, and Portugal. During the Civil War, citing anti-Jewish stereotypes, General Ulysses S. Grant expelled Jews from the Tennessee territory. During the Holocaust Canada and the United States, along with many other countries refused to take in Jewish refugees.

If you’re reading this, you probably harbor some anti-Jewish notions, believe in some anti-Jewish stereotypes, have told anti-Jewish jokes. If you say you haven’t you’re probably lying. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been the target of anti-Jewish slurs, jokes, and stereotypes. There are times I’ve stayed silent, because I was afraid. There are times I’ve spoken up and been rebuked. There are times when others have stood up for me, and there are times when others have been silent. Every time someone has told me that “I jewed him down,” is “just a saying,” and I’m being too sensitive by objecting to it, I die a little inside. Every time someone says, “The Jews control the media,” “The Jews control Hollywood,” “The Jews control the worldwide banks,” “Jewish space lasers caused the fires in Northern California,” I die a little inside. But, I do not and will not renounce my Judaism.

I am proud to be a Jew. That is not something I’ve often said, but I am. As a child I was largely oblivious to anti-Semitism. It wasn’t until we moved to Pennsylvania when I was in sixth grade that I really learned what it was to be hated for who I was without someone even knowing me. Slurs were directed at me. I lost my two best friends, who stopped being friends with me the instant they learned I was Jewish.  Since then, I have been subjected to more anti-Semitic comments then I can count. I don’t write this, so you have pity for me. I don’t want your pity, or even your compassion. What I do want is for you to do your own work, to objectively and fearlessly examine the prejudices and biases that exist within you. If you claim you don’t have any, you are lying to yourself. This Passover, free yourself from your delusions. Wake up to your prejudices, because you have them. Stop lying to yourself, start being honest. You can’t heal what you won’t face.

Yes, You

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“That statement doesn’t reflect who I am.” “That wasn’t me.” “I don’t know why I said that, I don’t have a racist bone in my body.” “That wasn’t anti-Semitic. How could it be? My accountant is Jewish, I don’t hate Jews.” Actual comments made by people apologizing/not apologizing for racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic statements. I could add many more statements made by celebrities, other public figures and friends. What they all have in common is denial.
 
Here’s the truth, if it came out of your mouth it IS who you are. You are what you say. It is impossible to change if you deny those parts of you you don’t like or don’t want to own. Pretending the icky bits of you don’t exist just prevents you from addressing those bits. No, I’m not talking about doing “shadow work,” a term that has been grossly misused. Shadow work supposedly is a way of dealing with those parts of yourself that make you uncomfortable. However, most people I’ve talked to who have gone to workshops or taken classes, have not worked with their hidden biases in any meaningful way. Rather, they seem to think acknowledging their “shadow side” gives them an out for any bad behavior.
 
A friend said to me, after making a bigoted comment that I called them on, “I didn’t mean it, it’s my shadow peaking out.” Well, calling bias your shadow doesn’t make it any less biased, and it doen’t absolve you of responsibility. Here’s a good rule of thumb to know when you are responsible for what you say; If you said, you’re responsible for it. Pretty simple.
 
Here’s the other truth, if you are a living, breathing human being you harbor prejudices, biases, and bigoted thoughts and feelings. Yes, you, you, me and everyone else on the planet. Pretending you don’t doesn’t make it so. Disavowing your own words doesn’t make it so. Ignoring it doesn’t make it so. Calling others “snowflakes” doesn’t make it so. Claiming you are not responsible for how others take what you say doesn’t make it so. You are prejudiced, you are bigoted, you, if you are white and living in the United States, have white privilege.
 
Awareness of a problem is the beginning of change, but only the beginning. Racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry won’t go away just with awareness; you have to work at it every day. You have to work against your initial reaction to people who are not like you. You have to work against ingrained teaching.
 
Here’s a good way to start. One of the most insidious ways we practice prejudice is the all of you game, the assumption that one member of a group knows ALL the other members of the group. For example, a couple of years ago, upon finding out I was Jewish and had lived in California (population roughly 39,000,000, with roughly 1,000,000 Jews) asked me if I knew Bob Goldfarb. “No,” I said. “Why?” “Well,” she said, “He lives in California.” “Oh, there a lot of people in California,” I said. “Well, he’s Jewish.” There you have it. Of course I know him. All Jews know each other, don’t we?
 
The other insidious way we play the all of you game is to assume that whatever group someone perceives you to be a member of, they assume that you will be interested in anything that has to do with that perceived group. Again, I can only offer examples from my own experience. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me about Fiddler on the Roof revivals, assuming I would be interested, but no one has ever told me about Porgie and Bess revivals. Well, you might say, I was just trying to connect. What this indicates is in your subconconscious lies an ever present awareness that this person is not like you. Why else would you bring up my Jewishness every time you see me? I’m guessing you don’t assume your white, Episcopal friends know all Episcopalians, or are interested in every revival of The Glass Menagerie.
 
And, no, before you go there, this is not a call for “color blindness” or any kind of difference blindness. It’s a call to own up to your own stuff. To be honest with yourself and call yourself out on your own biases and then work to quiet them. Work to appreciate, honor and love people for all of who they are. Do your own work.

Just Do It

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Monday night, during an interview with CNN, Anthony Fauci posed the following question, “How many deaths and how much suffering are you willing to accept to get back to what you want to be some form of normality, sooner rather than later?”
 
Ask yourself that question with a twist, “How many deaths of people I know and how much suffering of people I know am I willing to accept to get back to some form of normality, sooner rather than later?” Are you willing to risk the death of your siblings, your spouse, your partner, your parents, your children, your neighbors? How about your own death? People of all ages are dying, so if you don’t consider yourself “old” you can still die. Yes, even children and babies are dying. Now, increasing numbers of childrend are hospitalized with serious complications. Are you willing to kill your children? Your neighbor’s children? Think you are ok, because you don’t have any underlying conditions? Well, healthy people with no underlying conditions are dying. Right now, name the people in your life, people you are close to, that you’re willing to have die.
 
What I’ve noticed is that if people haven’t been directly affected they’re pretty cavalier about the risks. This is a human tendency; if we’re honest, most of us only care about things that directly affect us, we don’t care about strangers, or people who are different from us.
 
Now is the time to care about people other than yourself. I understand this is hard. I understand people are out of work. My income has dropped. I’m not denying there has been suffering as a result of stay at home orders. But ask yourself, is it worse to lose income, or is it worse to die? Especially for those of you who are desperate to have your nails done, or get a haircut, or have a facial. Is your vanity really more important than people’s lives?
 
Wear a mask, keep your distance, wash your hands.

Where is your place?

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It’s Thursday, somewhere in Quarantine time. States are moving to re-open, the fear is ratcheting up. I notice I am missing the ocean. Not just any ocean, the pacific ocean off northern Calfornia. Quiet, remote beaches, big rocks, bigger waves, cold water, low overcast, drizzle, salt spray, seagulls overhead, the familiar hump of sea lions in the water.

Some mornings here, when it’s overcast and drizzly, I imagine the ocean is just over the hills. I can smell the mix of salty and fishy at low tide. Crow caws become seagull shrieks, the train whistle a fog horn. For just a moment I feel like I’m home, the home of blood, the home of memory, the home of youthful adventures, the home of infinite possibility.

I love my adopted Kentucky home, but there is a piece of me that will always long for the ocean, for the imagined possibilities of its vast expanse, for the wild and uncontrollable nature of the waves that will not be tamed, for the delight of being truly one with all that is in a way I’m not anywhere else.

Where is your place? Where is your home of blood, of memory? Where do you go in your mind that brings you joy?

It’s Not About You

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It’s Thursday, day I’m not sure what of “Healthy at Home” here in Kentucky. The governor is talking about a phased re-opening of the state. He keeps emphasizing that it will be a new normal, we will not go back to the way we used to do things. Physical distancing will continue, mask wearing is suggested, but not required. However, businesses can refuse to let people in if they are not wearing a mask. Additionally, there are many requirements businesses have to fulfill before re-opening and he emphasizes not opening your business if you don’t feel comfortable doing so.
 
To be honest, the thought of going into a retail establishment when they open at the end of May scares me even if I’m wearing a mask. While the majority of people in Kentucky are being sensible, there are those who are not; people who refuse to wear a mask, because it infringes on their right to be free; people who refuse to self-quarantine when they have tested positive for COVID-19 because no one can force them to stay inside; people who insist on having parties because they’re friends are “safe.”
 
Some of this reminds of when I was the project manager for a research project focusing on HIV prevention in teen parents. Over and over I heard, “I only sleep with people who are clean.” “I wouldn’t have sex with the kind of person who was HIV positive.” Here’s the thing, anyone can have HIV, it doesn’t discriminate and it makes good sense to take precautions, because you can’t tell by looking at someone whether they’re HIV positive. The same is true of COVID-19, anyone can have it and more and more studies show the majority of people who have it may never show any symptoms. So, the person you think is “safe” may have just passed the virus to you, or you may have passed it to them.
 
As you’re thinking about flouting the guidelines, because you want to be with friends, ask yourself this question, “Who am I willing to have die, because I want to do what I want to do?” Pick a family member, pick a friend, pick a co-worker. Who would you like to infect? Who you would like to die? Let me be blunt. If you insist on having people over to your house, if you insist on gathering in groups, if you think your own rights supercede those of others, you are a narcissist and, the truth is there is probably no hope for you. What makes a society work is when we care more for each other than for ourselves. Let’s work to make that a reality.

If You’re sad and you know it, let it be.

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Be careful, especially now, about those people who want to try to make you stop feeling what you’re feeling. Be careful of those people who want to cajole you out of sadness, who tell you to find the bright side, look for the good in everything.
 
Grieving is an inevitable part of living. We grieve not only death, but all kinds of loss. We grieve even in the midst of happy occasions. We often think of grieving when someone dies, when a relationship ends, when something bad happens. However, it’s common for people to feel grief after graduating from school, getting married, leaving a job for a better one, receiving an award. We grieve what was and wonder about what will be. Grief is normal, natural and helpful. It allows us to process experiences. Grief comes with all kinds of feelings, sorrow, joy, anger, despair, confusion, apathy, fear.
 
The only way to work with grief in a way that is life sustaining is to feel all the feelings, all of them. Too often, out of their own discomfort, well-meaning friends and family will try to get people to stop grieving. “You know your mother wouldn’t want you to be unhappy. Think of all the good things in your life.” “You’re young, you can have another baby. Focus on that, not the baby you lost.” “Just get another dog, that way you won’t be sad.” “Don’t be sad, you don’t look pretty when you frown.”
 
Feel your feelings, all of them and know it’s okay to feel whatever you feel. I remember a time when I was very young–it was either in nursery school or kindergarten. I felt sad. I don’t remember why, but I remember feeling sad. Our teacher had us sing the song, “If you’re happy and you know it.” Well, the rest of the class sang, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands,” and then dutifully clapped. I remained silent and did not clap. The teacher stopped the song and asked, “Why aren’t you singing and clapping?” “I’m sad,” I said. “The songs says if you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands. I’m not happy so I didn’t clap.” “Well, you should be happy. You’re too young to be sad. You will sing. We’re all singing. You don’t want to ruin it for everyone else do you?” Lesson learned. I shut up and sang. It didn’t make me feel happy.
 
That teacher taught me, and probably most of the other children in the room, that sadness is bad and should be hidden, that we should pretend we’re happy all the time, even if we aren’t. It took me a long time to get over that early programming. Unfortunately, our happy, happy, joy, joy culture doesn’t support feeling anything but happiness. Sorrow, sadness, anger, fear are demeaned as “negative” emotions that should be avoided, or if not avoided than quickly “processed” and tranformed into joy and happiness. Doing this doesn’t actually make people happier, it just makes people feel like failures because they can’t be happy all the time. The truth is no one is happy all the time. No one. Nope, not anyone. We all experience a full range of feelings. Yep, you too. You who say, “I don’t get angry, it’s unproductive.” You who say, “I only see the good in the world, I refuse to see the negative,” You who say, “I refuse to give in to negative emotions.” All of us, every one experiences the full range of emotions. We only get into trouble when we reject our feelings and emotions and try to shove them down, pretend they don’t exist, or spend our energy “transforming” them to something more comfortable.
 
This week, pay attention to how often you try to avoid feeling feelings that are uncomfortable. Pay attention to what you do to avoid feeling. Pay attention to how you feel inside if you share your feelings with another and they try to cajole you out of your feelings. Pay attention to how often you try to get other people to not feel what they’re feeling, because you are uncomfortable with their feelings.

Which are you?

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Hello Monday. We’re still in quarantine time. A new world, one which I never fathomed. When I have extra time on my hands, my mind wanders and wonders. This morning what came to mind was Erik Erikson’s idea (I’m simplifying here, so don’t get your knickers in a twist) that early experiences have a profound influence on later life. He noted two distinct types of people; those who had positive early experiences and came to believe the world was basically good, and those who had negative early experiences and came to believe the world was basically bad.

While I don’t agree with everything Erikson wrote, I believe there is validity to this. Interestingly, I see it played out in my cats (yes, I told you I had a lot of free time right now). We have two cats, Earl Scruggs and Leon Russell (and now you know my musical taste is eclectic).

We adopted Leon from our local humane society. We went there in search of a dog, but there were none that sparked our interest. On a whim, I said, “Let’s just look at the cats.” We’d lost one of our cats about six months earlier. Spike was a special cat and I hesitated to get another, but Birdie cat was bereft. She wandered around the house howling forlornly. So, we looked. My eyes were caught by a short-haired tuxedo cat who was curled up in his bed in his shelter cage. Spike was a tuxedo cat and I was fond of the color pattern. I asked to see him. The shelter volunteer brought Gabriel (his shelter name) into the cat introduction room, where he immediately curled up in my lap and started purring. We found out he was relinquished by his previous owner. Whoever owned him had treated him well. He is sure of himself, calm, loving, mellow. He is a cat who likes to be carried, held and loved. It appears his early life experiences were good.

Earl was a feral kitten. His mother, Tuxy, had been a feral kitten as well. We’d managed to catch Tuxy’s mom, Stubby and get her spayed after she had Tuxy. We were unable to catch Tuxy, but we fed her and provided an insulated doghouse on our patio. She was friendly enough that she would come up to the screen door and rub her head on it, and she wouldn’t run when we put food out, but we couldn’t catch her. Soon, she was pregnant. She gave birth to six kittens in the doghouse on our patio. We started touching the kittens early on, when she left them, so they would get used to being handled. But, they were still feral. Once they are about three weeks old, she began moving them from place to place to keep the kittens safe; sometimes they would be on the patio, sometimes they would be gone. One day I watched her move the kittens to another location; all but one, an all-black short haired kitten. I left him out there, figuring she would come back, but she didn’t. After a few hours, I realized she might not come back for this kitten, so I brought him inside and Soni called our local cat rescue, which came and got Earl and gave us instructions for how to get the rest of the kittens and Tuxy. Well, the little black kitten sat curled up on my neck for two hours before the cat rescuer came, so I knew he was going to come back to us when he was old enough. Within a few days we were able to catch the rest of the kittens and get them to the cat rescue and shortly after that we caught Tuxy who was spayed and released. All but one of the kittens survived.

The black kitten returned to us when he was about three months old. Now known as Earl, he is loving to us, but tentative around people he doesn’t know. He is easily startled. His early life was uncertain.

The difference between the two cats is obvious when it comes to breakfast time. The cats are free-fed dry food, but they also get a little wet food every morning, around 7:30. At about 6:30 Earl starts meowing. He runs back and forth between the kitchen and wherever we are, letting us know he needs to be fed. Leon, on the other hand is usually sleeping, or lying somewhere, chilling. When I get the cat food can out, Earl starts meowing loudly. He gets on his hind legs and reaches up toward the counter, trying to get the food. Leon is still asleep. As I lower his bowl to the floor, Earl is trying to grab it with his paws. As soon as it hits the ground, he eats it as fast as he can, making sure every bit is gone. After I put his bowl on the floor, Leon lifts his head and saunters to his bowl. He eats what he wants, and then walks off. Leon never worries that there isn’t enough, he never doubts his good is coming. Earl, on the other hand is always worried that his good either isn’t coming, or if it comes, he worries it will be taken away.

I love both cats and I wouldn’t want either of them to change. They are who they are. Today, can you be authentically who you are and allow others to be who they are? Can you give others grace knowing that who they are today is a result of all their life experiences?

How do you think of others?

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It’s interesting to see people’s posts on Facebook and to read commentary in the media. There are 331,000,000 people in the United States, so it’s not realistic to expect to agree with everyone. Healthy debate about ideas is a good thing. It’s okay to believe your view is the correct one and to disagree with other people’s views, that’s how most of us operate. However, it’s important to remember that just as strongly as you believe your view is right, someone else believes their view is right and, it’s always important to keep in mind the adage, “I could be mistaken.” Knowing that I could be mistaken allows me to continue learning, reminds me I don’t have all the answers and encuorages me to keep asking better questions.
 
What I see often, especially in social media posts, is people dismissing the message by attacking the messenger. Someone posts something you don’t like? Well, that person is stupid, uninformed, idiotic, moronic, etc. It’s possible to disagree with someone and still realize they are a full, complete, complex human being with needs, wants, hopes and desires. Name calling might make you feel better in the moment, but it contributes to devaluing others and when we devalue and demean others it makes it easier to mistreat them. This has long been a tactic of opposing armies. Rather than refer to combatants on the opposing side by appropriate names, they are often referred to by dehumanizing slurs. Humanity has a long and ignominious history of using slurs to refer to other groups of humans. We do this at a cultural level, at a governmental level, at the level of religious denominations, and at an indivual level.
 
Pay attention to your thoughts and to what comes out of your mouth. How often do you assume someone is stupid, ignorant, idiotic, evil because they disagree with you? Even if you couch their different opinion in what you think is positiver terms, it’s still demeaning. Terms like misguided or confused may sound kinder, but they’re not. Allow other humans to be fully human. How does it feel when someone else doesn’t see the full human you are? It doesn’t feel good does it? So, why do you do it to other people?
 
Today, become aware of the times you fail to allow others to be fully human, especially those with whom you disagree, those whose world view is diametrically opposed to yours. Your insistence that the world conform to your view, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is bad and wrong, isn’t righteous, it’s petulant and petty. We can never grow if we refuse to try understanding other people. Try it, you might like it, even if you don’t like it, you might grow and stretch a little.

What’s your number?

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Hello Thursday, the fifth Thursday in quarantine time. Last night, while Governor Beshear was giving his daily briefing, a group of protestors outside the building made noises and chanted. He didn’t get flustered, he didn’t attack, he simply noted they were out there, indicated they had a right to protest and noted that we all need to pull together to get through this. He is the epitome of grace under fire; a steadfast, comforting presence in these uncertain times, and I’m grateful for his leadership.
 
Some of the people protesting indicated they thought it was more important to have businesses open than to worry about the health of people; that it’s okay if people die, because they would die anyway. While it is true we will all die, that is not the issue. The issue is if we just allow the virus to run rampant, so many people will get sick and die at the same time our health care system will be overwhelmed, which will cause many more people to die than would die otherwise. Already the morgue and mortuary systems are being overwhelmed by bodies. Gruesome stories are coming out of hospitals overwhelmed by sick patients.
 
Think about this, the 1918 influenza pandemic (sometimes incorrectly called the Spanish flu) killed 50 million people worldwide between 1918 and 1922. 675,000 died in the United States alone. The novel corona virus is more contagious than the influenza virus and appears to be more deadly. As of this writing more than 2,100,000 people worldwide have been infected with novel corona virus in just 4 1/2 months and 136,900 people have died. In the United States as of this morning there are more than 644,000 known cases and 28,500 deaths since the beginning of March. We know these numbers are low, because there are not enough tests available and only the sickest people are being tested.
 
This virus is affecting people everywhere, urban and rural areas. The latest clusters are in North and South Dakota, linked to meat processing plants where workers are in close proximity and lack adequate protection. Those of you who want the country opened up immediately ask yourself how many people are you willing to have die? What is your number? How will you feel when your spouse dies? Your children? Your siblings? Your parents? Will you then say, “Well, people die anyway.” What will the economy look like after mass deaths? Where will you get your cheap meat after the low wage workers who process factory farmed meat die off en masse? Where will you get your produce after low wage farm workers die off en masse? Where will you get your health care after health care workers die off en masse? Where will you put your surviving parents after all the low wage nursing home aides have died off en masse?
 
What number of dead is acceptable to you? That’s the question you have to ask yourself. How many people do you want to die? How many so you can go to the gym? How many so you can shop at Hobby Lobby? How many so you can go to a Nascar event? How many so you can go to a concert? How many people are you willing to kill off so you can stop being inconvenienced? What if one of those people is you? Are you okay dying so your neighbor can play golf? Ask yourself how many deaths are acceptable.

Where are you right now?

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Hello Wednesday. It’s the fifth Wednesday in quarantine time. Isolated in our homes it’s easy to despair. It’s easy to slip into apathy, to feel uninspired, to feel there is no point to anything.
 
When I slip into apathy I find these words from Jon Kabat Zinn helpful: “Try reminding yourself from time to time: ‘This is it.’…Remind yourself that acceptance of the present moment has nothing to do with resignation in the face of what is happening. It simply means a clear acknowledgement that what is happening is happening. Acceptance doesn’t tell you what to do. What happens next, what you choose to do, that has to come out of your understanding of this moment.” From Kabat-Zinn, Jon Wherever you Go There You Are, p. 16.
 
From time to time during the day ask yourself, “Where am I? What am I thinking?” Take a few moments to become aware of your thoughts, feelings and emotions. Pay attention to the sensations in your body. Don’t try to change anything, just be aware. Again and again throughout your day, come back to this now moment, breathe, ask the questions, let go of judgment. You’re doing the best you can. This is a new reality, one most of us have never experienced before. Be gentle with yourself, be gentle with others. We’re all trying, even if you don’t agree with the way someone else is doing it, be gentle, be kind.