Sunday, April 24, 2005

I spent a little time browsing the MAZON website this evening. MAZON calls itself "the Jewish Response to Hunger" and they've got a lot of interesting facts on the site.

These facts about hunger in Israel shocked me:

22% of Israeli citizens – approximately 1,100,000 people – are food insecure.

Of those Israeli citizens who are food insecure, 60% are Jewish, 20% are Arab, and 20% are new immigrants.

According to the National Insurance Institute, nearly 30% of Israeli children – approximately 690,000 – live below the national poverty line.

Over 20% of Israel’s elderly live below the national poverty line.


If you want to do something about hunger in Israel, or hunger anywhere else, check it out. This is another way to include a stranger at your table this Passover.
It's that time of year again: I miss my grandmother.

Mary Fulghum Menefee died in April of 1974. You'd think, after 31 years, I'd be able to handle her yahrtzeit (the anniversary of her death) in a calm and collected way, but the truth is that I never know how it's going to hit me. Some years, I just feel sad. Some years, I fall apart.

My earliest memory of her is of sitting in her lap, on the front porch of the house on Otter Creek Road. We were in the big white rocking chair, rocking back and forth to a mostly tuneless little song she used to sing on such occasions: "Loving time, loving time, loving time, loving time..." She had a soft, cushy lap and I liked to curl up in it and abandon myself to the rocking while I sang along with her.

She loved to rock in that chair. Sometimes she'd rock so enthusiastically that at the "top" of the rock there would be a moment of weightlessness, as if we were going to launch into flight and sail over the geraniums and fly off over the hills of Brentwood, maybe to do circles around the WLAC radio tower on the next ridge. She used to tell me that one time, when I was too small to remember, she got a little carried away on the "rock" and we tipped over backwards; she held me up in her arms so that I didn't hit the ground, and I just laughed as if it were a game. I don't remember that, but I believe it. Meme loved to fly in planes, to drive too fast in cars, and I don't see why the rocking chair would have been any exception.

Meme was a religious woman, one of those Irish-Catholic ladies for whom Sunday Mass was an opportunity to say a rosary and talk to the Blessed Mother. She and the Blessed Mother had intense conversations, I gathered, judging from the tightness of her jaw and the way her fingers pinched when she prayed the beads. It wasn't until years and years after her death, at another family wake, that I finally got a clue what all those prayers might have been about. The person who told shouldn't have, so I won't repeat it. I'll just say that my grandmother didn't have an easy life.

She always wanted to travel overseas, especially to go to Ireland, and my grandfather wanted none of it. I had a secret plan that when I was grown, I'd take her to Ireland, but she died before that was possible, carried off by pancreatic cancer. I know it is useless to hate a disease, but I hate that disease: it made her miserable, it destroyed her dignity, and it gave her an awful death. As a good Catholic, she believed that suffering on earth would be rewarded and made right in heaven. I watched her suffering, and at 19, I could not understand. I am not a good Catholic. The only way I can make any sense of that good woman's pain and misery is to say that it makes no sense to me at all.

She's still around. I can see little bits of her in my children, and it is consoling to know that those bright blue eyes seem to be a strong element in our DNA. Mine have faded to green, but theirs are as bright as hers. I think of her when I see scarlet lipstick, or a fancy hat, or when I hear "Ave Maria" played on a violin. I think of her when I set the table with my good china; we picked it out together at the Cain-Sloan Department Store when I was about twelve. She's where I got my stubbornness, and my love of words.

It's that time of year again.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

I'm doing laundry tonight, which fragments time and concentration. Instead of working on my paper, I'll blog about it while I'm waiting for the washer to wind down.

I'm working on a project near my heart right now, a theology of Jewish peoplehood. The questions behind it have been bubbling away for a while now.

I became a Jew at age 41. The rabbi who worked with me, who was my midwife into the Jewish People, warned me that many Jews of the world won't accept a Reform conversion. I had noticed already that the Jews of the world don't agree on much of anything, so I wasn't too troubled by that idea. My resolution was that if there was a problem, it was THEIR problem, not mine. I still find that that's a good working atittude: My reality or validity or authenticity does not depend on a poll.

Still, I've had experiences that challenged my resolution. El Al security didn't like my WASPy name or my Irish American face, and my story didn't make any sense to them. (You became Jewish just because you wanted to? What, are you nuts?) I wish I had a nickle for everyone who has said, "Gee, you don't look Jewish." One of the downsides to being a student rabbi is that the snappier comebacks to that one are now very unprofessional and not an option!

On the more professional side, I can quote chapter and verse on the requirements for conversion, and on
the elements of Jewish law that say that with a very few exceptions having to do mostly with marriage (a convert may not marry a Cohen, a member of the priestly families). Jews are Jews, whether they come through the waters of the womb, or the waters of the mikveh [ritual bath, part of conversion.]

This winter, when I read that Franz Rosenzweig defined Jewish peoplehood in terms of "blood," I felt my dander rising again. It's one thing to hear this stuff from an am haaretz [ignoramus], it's another entirely to see it written in one of the great Jewish philosophical texts, The Star of Redemption. Worse, this isn't a slur on the Reform movement, or my rabbi's semichah (ordination), it was a bald statement that if you don't have Jewish blood, you aren't really Jewish. Reading it, I felt angry and repelled -- it looked racist, and it also looked like the undertow to all the comments on my face and name. I asked my teacher, Dr. Adler, about it. "I wondered if that was going to bother you," she replied.

It bothers me. I don't want it to bother me, but it bothers me. It happens that for her class, I am supposed to write a paper in which I hash out some of my own theology. I decided to take this thing on, and wrestle it to the ground: I'm writing a paper about theologies of Am Yisrael [The Jewish People] and specifically, MY theology. I want to know precisely where I stand on this, and my gut feelings of connection to Am Yisrael are as much a part of the data as anything I think about it. I know that nothing I write is going to change anyone else's mind, but that's not the point: I want to be clear in my own mind.

I am a Jew. I've been a Jew since June 17, 1996. My soul feels like it's been Jewish forever (which it turns out, is part of this equation, at least according to some of the theologians.) The question is, exactly what does that mean? How am I a Jew? What does it mean to be a Jew?

Stay tuned.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

This past Thursday there was a gathering of rabbis and rabbinical students at Congregation Valley Beth Shalom, in honor of the birthday of Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis. We were told that it was the largest such gathering in Los Angeles history, with rabbis from all the movements of Judaism, and teachers from the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements. I had the privilege of listening to Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, and then hearing a panel of Rabbi Greenberg, Rabbi Schulweis, Rabbi Harold Kushner, Rabbi David Hartman, and our own rosh yeshivah (head of our rabbinical school at HUC) Rabbi David Ellenson.

All of the speakers were wonderful. I always have the urge, when I see Rabbi Ellenson, to point and declare loudly, "He's MY rosh yeshivah!" but that day, I was grateful to have all of them as my teachers. Rabbi Hartman, particularly, helped me refocus my heart on the rabbinate. It's so easy to get lost in the assignments and the schedule and whatnot -- in the minutiae of filling requirements -- and sometimes it is good to pause and think again about what I am doing and why.

His speech was one I expect to see published someday, and I cannot do justice to it here, but one idea particularly struck me. The Jewish way to mend the world is to create little microcosms of the world as it can be: Shabbat, for instance. We live them the best way we can, and hope that all the participants will carry away a little bit of olam ha-bah (world to come) into the ordinary days and activities of their lives. We start small, and work on the faith that if we do our little bit well enough, it will spread.

This week I kept Shabbat more carefully than I have in a while. I set the table, and had an assortment of folks to dinner. We lingered and talked, enjoyed each others company, prayed and laughed. I woke up with my back out (something about putting the leaf in the table the day before, I think) so I didn't get to services, but it was a lovely contemplative day nevertheless, with phone calls to and from my kids and friends, a day of leftovers and love.

I'm glad that Rabbi Hartman reminded me why I started this crazy plan: I really do want to change the world, and I believe that the best way for me to do it, is to do Jewish. Keep Shabbat, clean for Passover, learn Torah, teach Torah, tune my eyes to see the b'tzelem Elohim -- the image of God -- in everyone I meet. That's why I'm in school, that's what all this is about.

Nice to remember.