Rights = Responsibilities

fdr listAnother way of putting this, for those who get their knickers in a twist over the language of “rights” vs “responsibilities,” looks like this: All Americans share the responsibility to maintain a society in which all of their fellow citizens have 1) a job, 2) an adequate wage and decent living, 3) a decent home, 4) medical care, 5) economic protection during sickness, accident, old age or unemployment, 6) a good education. These are basic responsibilities to one another. We have a duty to each other to use all effective and appropriate means, including and sometimes especially, government, to carry out our shared responsibilities to one another. This is what love your neighbor looks like as a social contract in a modern wealthy post-industrial nation.

Extreme individualism is not a Jewish value. We are our brother’s / sister’s / neighbor’s keeper.

Advertisements

Aretha Franklin will save America

So last year sometime, this happened – this tribute to Carole King with Aretha Franklin performing “Natural Woman” and knocking everyone’s socks off.

I’m so frightened of January 20th, this upcoming transition to Trump and all that he represents. Maybe our republic is finished. But America also produced Aretha Franklin.

Aretha Franklin can’t be erased from the story of America.

Neither can Carole King.

James Baldwin, John Lewis, and Harvey Milk can’t be erased from America’s story.cropped-from-previous-computer-1-197.jpg

Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, and Emma Lazarus can’t be erased from the story of America.

Cesar Chavez cannot be erased. Neither can Jackie Robinson.

Bob Dylan, Rosa Parks, and Eleanor Roosevelt can’t be erased from the American story.

Lincoln, FDR, and Obama are part of the permanent furniture.

Dr. King can’t be erased, and neither can Bayard Rustin.
Same goes for Mark Twain.

chavez03The Abolitionists can’t be erased.

Harriet Tubman can’t be either.

Jane Addams and Eugene Debs, Margaret Sanger and Saul Alinsky: American to the core.

A. Philip Randolph and Rachel Carson, Thurgood Marshall and Ella Baker,

Dolores Huerta and Abraham Joshua Heschel: red, white and blue forever.

Townes Van Zandt, Woody Guthrie, R.E.M., and Bruce Springsteen are part of this nation.

Harper Lee and Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Warren, Sister Helen Prejean, and Sojourner Truth – from sea to shining sea

***

I just gotta remember this in the days ahead… help me, Higher Power, help me to remember this.

tapestry080512w

Coming Soon: Israstine

nablus-outpost

From today’s headlines…

With news of a brand new settler outpost emerging in the Nablus area, we start 2017, the likely year that will be remembered as the year the State of Israestine was born.

With the blessings of the increasingly vocal Israeli and American-Jewish right wing, and the upcoming carte blanche support of the Trump Administration, Israel and Palestine are now rapidly heading towards one state. A few more outposts, a few more announcements of plans for new neighborhoods, a few more openly public statements by top ministers in this Israeli gov’t saying they don’t want two states ever and they want to annex parts of the WB starting now. Not sure when the last straw will come, but when push comes to shove and the two-state option is completely and utterly gone, regardless of whether it was more because of aggressive settlement policies or more because of PA incitement and rejectionism, many lifelong Zionists will feel morally compelled to advocate for the single state between the Jordan river and the sea to be a democracy, with one person, one vote, complete freedom of movement, and new elections for a Knesset that reflects the wishes and identities of the 10 to 12 million people who live there. We’re witnessing the birthpangs of Israstine. Bibi is one of the founding fathers. Abbas too. Trump may just help deliver the baby.

If this is the will of most Israelis and Palestinians, then I wish them well and wish them success, and hope that the birth of the signle state is not a violent one. I think a two-state agreement along the lines Kerry outlined is a better option, a political resolution to an intractable conflict that is more likely to succeed, and more likely to meet some of the security needs and national/cultural expression needs of Jews and Arabs in this part of the world. But if Israstine is where the leaders of Israel and the PA want to head, and if their respective constituents are unwilling to demand otherwise, then it is what it is.

What I don’t think I can do, in the years ahead, is support de facto indefinite Israeli rule, direct and indirect, over millions of Palestinians because “it’s a temporary situation” or because “it’s mainly their fault.” I know my own heart, I know what I can and can’t support. I don’t want to be left with only the option of a democratic bi-national Israstine to support, but I also don’t know that I’ll feel able to support any other program. I have no control over what Israelis or Palestinians want or choose to do with their political and security calculations, and I’m not judging anybody. But by the same token, nobody has the right to judge me when I’m asked, as an American citizen, what do I support and what do I want our country to support with its resources? I know the answer to that. I can only see myself supporting a US policy that supports two democracies or one democracy – two states or one – but democracies as a bottom line, not this frozen endless status quo that denies the essence of the values of Israel’s own Declaration of Independence, the values of liberal Judaism (and I would argue of the essence of Judaism), and the best values of the United States.

Narrative Wreck

Along with at least 63 million fellow citizens, I’ve been all kinds of a wreck since the election. I don’t see myself as having any special insight, wisdom, or forward-looking strategy to offer, and I’ve been ambivalent about blogging for all kinds of reasons. I’m not sure if what I might have to add to the conversation is useful, but this morning I find myself following my instinct to write. Maybe it’s the coffee.

The one idea that keeps resurfacing for me is that the election of Donald Trump is an event that has so profoundly disrupted, frightened, shocked, and disoriented me that it has thrust me, kicking and screaming, into what some have called a state of “narrative wreckage.” I’m working on an upcoming book about an ancient 1st – 2nd Century rabbi (I know, another big money making book, right?), and I’m going to excerpt a small part of the current draft, because as I’ve been working on this book I’ve gotten into this whole narrative wreck idea. Here goes:

Arthur W. Frank is a sociology professor at the University of Calgary, and he is the author of The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics published in 1995. In the book, Frank discusses the ways that people cope with the disorientation, disruption, and chaos that come with the arrival of a serious illness or disability, with a special focus on how illness affects their life narratives. I was assigned readings from his book in rabbinical school in some of my pastoral counseling classes.

wounded

This is a great book. To this day I’m a bit baffled by the publisher’s choice of image for the cover. I guess they were going for a sense of someone vulnerable (i.e. naked) suddenly being off balance, falling backwards. But I’m afraid the cover really just looks a lot like … well, I’ll let you decide.

As a congregational rabbi, Frank’s ideas aided me in my efforts to provide people with helpful pastoral counseling during times of crisis and loss. …

In The Wounded Storyteller, Frank claims that when someone discovers that he or she has a serious, life-altering illness, the person becomes a “narrative wreck” (Frank credits this phrase to the American philosopher, Ronald Dworkin). The idea is that each one of us has an operating narrative that orients our lives. Serious illness interrupts that narrative and, initially, throws its subject into narrative chaos. …

Let me be clear that I’m not saying I think the election = the country suddenly having a serious illness. In the book I’m working on, I also explain that the illness metaphor doesn’t exactly fit the point I end up making about the time of the ancient rabbis’ historical situation.

What I find helpful, however, is the idea that sometimes life brings incredible disruptions – a death, a war, an epidemic, a shocking election with serious implications for millions’ of peoples’ safety and future – and that Frank’s description of the ways that we sometimes confront these narrative earthquakes may be helpful to us in our situation now.

Let me quote Frank again. In describing his work with people facing the news of serious illness or disability, he observes that for each of these people, the operating narrative each of them functioned within, whether consciously or not, became suddenly “. . . wrecked because its present [was] not what the past was supposed to lead up to, and the future [was] scarcely thinkable.” I think it’s fair to say that about half the U.S. population, at minimum, is feeling something like this, not to mention who-knows-how-many people around the world who are still trying to pick their jaws up off the floor in response to last November 8th.

Here’s another quote from the current draft of my book:

Frank writes that, having become a narrative wreck because of the shock and disruption of serious disease, the person coping with the illness faces the challenge of having to find a way to re-narrate his or her life going forward.

That’s part of what’s been so hard for me, and I assume for so many others, these past 12 days. The many competing theories of why Trump won, what the Democrats did wrong, what the media did wrong, what the Russians did to us, what the Republicans did with gerrymandering and voter suppression, and the competing rants about what the Democrats should do going forward all have added to my sense of confusion and disorientation. I don’t know whose analysis is right, and I don’t know what the best way forward is. I still can’t accept what happened, and I can’t simply shift into a posture of hunkering down and helping to do the work that now needs to be done because I’m confused about what exactly that work is. (Okay, on some of the immediate issues, like Bannon, or objecting publicly now to the creation of any kind of national registry for Muslims, I’m not having confusion about what to do, but I’m talking bigger picture than that.)

I’m still stuck somewhere in the swirl of “did this really happen?” and, to quote John Oliver, “what the f*** are we supposed to do now?”screenshot-2016-11-20-at-11-17-06-am On the second question, I hear various activists, pundits, and politicians offering very different recommendations.

Some people are saying organize, resist, and fight! Others are saying try to understand our white working class & rural neighbors!  Some are saying there needs to be a combo of both. And some are still saying it’s not too late to stop this from happening! I’m thinking of the petitions to the Electors urging them to either put Hillary in the White House or cause the House of Representatives to select the next president, presumably a Republican other than Trump. No, I don’t believe there’s any chance that’s going to happen, and yes, I signed on to all those petitions.

In The Wounded Storyteller, Frank describes the people he has worked with as ultimately responding to the crisis that serious illness has brought into their lives by trying to find a way to re-narrate their lives going forward in one of three common ways: the Restitution Story, the Chaos Story, and the Quest Story. Some of his patients would move from one of these coping strategies to another. Frank clearly thinks that only the third option is the most helpful, though he doesn’t judge people who end up going with either of the first two strategies. Here’s what I’ve written in the draft of my book about these three kinds of coping responses to the experience of narrative wreckage caused by serious illness:

The Restitution Story treats the illness as something temporary that medicine is going to heal completely. The subject tells herself that the interruption it is causing is only transitory, and that her pre-illness self-narrative will resume shortly. If this in fact is medically true, then the Restitution Story can work well for the subject. But, the Restitution Story can also be an expression of denial, serving only to delay the subject’s need for a new life narrative.

When a seriously ill person embraces what Frank calls a Chaos Story, he gets “sucked into the undertow of illness and the disasters that attend to it.” His new story is, in some respects, not even a coherent story – there is no viable narrative, except maybe the expectation of continued chaos or doom. He has no sense of a path towards a viable future meaningful life narrative. Here’s the contemporary American Buddhist teacher, Sharon Salzberg, quoting Hannah Arendt as she reflects on this idea. Salzberg writes:

In commenting on the power of a story to give our lives cohesion, writer Hannah Arendt says, “The story reveals the meaning of what otherwise would remain an unbearable sequence of sheer happenings.” To perceive the events of our lives as “sheer happenings” is indeed unbearable. [I wanted to explore a new story that] would take the scattered shards of my life and fit them all together in a new and different way.

The Chaos Story is full of panic and disorientation, and it is painful to witness someone who is living within its brutal and sorrowful grip.

Finally, there is the Quest Story, which Frank argues is the healthiest and the noblest kind of new narrative for the person facing severe illness to adopt. “Quest stories meet suffering head on; they accept illness and seek to use it. Illness is the occasion of a journey that becomes a quest.” When a person facing severe illness develops a quest narrative, she engages in an act of courage and creativity that enables her to tell a new story about her life that incorporates the disruption of her previous life narrative, accepts the parts of that narrative that are permanently lost, and designates new meaningful destinations and goals for her life.

For a Quest Story to be successful, Frank writes that it needs to be what he calls a “good story.” A good story” is one that is honest about the past and what’s been lost, while also setting forth a new direction in which the subject’s goal is to “rise to the occasion” that has been created by the changed reality – including the losses and new challenges. The Quest Story that is also a good story . . . meet[s] suffering head on . . ., accepting the illness and seeking “to use it” so that it propels the subject into a quest to create meaning and goodness within a new and unexpected framework that couldn’t have been anticipated before the arrival of the illness.

There’s another part of the challenge of embracing a Quest Story that Frank discusses that I think is important to mention here. He writes that a surprising number of the patients he works with use some version of the metaphor of being shipwrecked to describe their experience of being confronted with the news of their serious illness or new disability. He writes:

Almost every illness story I have read carries some sense of being shipwrecked by the storm of disease, and many use this metaphor explicitly. Extending this metaphor describes storytelling as repair work on the wreck. The repair begins by taking stock of what survives the storm. The old map may now be less than useful, but it has hardly been carbonized. Disease happens in a life that already has a story, and this story goes on, changed by illness but also affecting how the illness story is formed. (p. 54)

What stands out to me in this quote is that if the moment we’re living in is calling upon us to develop a Quest Story, Frank reminds us that that task will involve identifying which parts of our shipwrecked narrative are truly lost, and which parts are still intact and are going to be important components of a successful Quest Story, a “good story.”

One thing that’s clear to me now as much as any other time in my life: I need a narrative to operate within in order for my life to feel meaningful and worthwhile. I need a new personal life narrative – a mythic story of Maurice’s life – because of this election. I’ve come to accept that this election in particular is that personal, that huge, for me, and that the narrative wreckage I’m experiencing is literally on par with some of the worst narrative-wreck-moments I’ve experienced in my life, including the sudden and traumatic loss of my father when I was 18. And I know I’m not alone in feeling this way.

Beyond my personal need for a new, good, functional life narrative, progressives in this country collectively need a new organizing narrative that gives meaning and purpose, and a sense of hope, to guide and focus our activism and provide us with an emotional, psychological, and even spiritual bedrock that can give us inner calm and strong faith in our vision. What is that narrative? I still don’t know.

But. Frank’s work on narrative wreckage and illness feels really useful to me right now. Listening to him, I feel a little bit more clarity and hope. His writing says to me that even if we are currently stuck in Restitution Stories and Chaos Stories – and I am definitely still shifting back and forth between those two a lot – our aim should be towards a Quest Story. I can picture getting to a Quest Story for my personal life narrative. I don’t know what it looks like, but Frank helps me remember that it will still include a lot of the elements of my pre-Trumpocalypse personal operating narrative.

The same applies to progressives in America. Frank reminds us that despite this shipwreck (or earthquake, or whatever you want to call it), we have a lot of maps and assets that have survived intact. That includes the religious, moral, and historical wisdom of the Jewish people, which given the devastations and crises Jews have survived over many centuries, is probably more prescient than we realize. It includes the remarkable social progress that African-American leaders and organizations have brought into being in our society through many decades of creative organizing, moral suasion, inspiring preaching, and inspiring leadership. It still includes countless lessons learned and battles won by progressives throughout American history. Trump’s win doesn’t erase the power of MLK. Or Stonewall. Or Cesar Chavez. Or Harriet Tubman. Or even the fact that, as Jon Stewart recently put it, the same country that elected Trump also elected Obama twice.

That said, some things have been permanently lost in this shipwreck, and identifying them and letting them go is, according to Frank, part of what makes the difference between working with a dysfunctional operating narrative or developing a healthy Quest Story. At this moment I’m not sure what those things are, but I expect that’ll become clearer.

I’ll close out this post with some early thoughts about what some elements of a new Quest Story might look like for progressives. In order for a new, shared progressive narrative to be what Frank calls “a good story,” I think it needs to include a moral imperative to “not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors” (Lev 19:16) and to be our brothers and sisters keepers (Gen 4:9). For me, as a white Jewish man with a middle class job and a graduate degree, my freak out over Trump, while intense, frightening, and excruciating, does not include the sudden dread that my cousins or school mates might be deported. It doesn’t include the threat of a national registry for people of my religion (though I’ve signed a pledge to register as a Muslim if such a policy is attempted, and I hope others will do likewise). My trauma and disorientation doesn’t include what millions of women in this country now have to face in the form of increased fear of consequence-free sexual assault, nor am I stuck suddenly having to wonder whether in a couple years my marriage to my beloved partner will be reversed. I’m not saying that as a Jew I’m scot free – not by any means. For the first time in at least 20 years, I’ve been on the direct receiving end of anti-Semitic hate speech, and many of my rabbinic colleagues have described the same. Shit got real for me, for sure, but I’m less in the cross-hairs of the most aggressive and threatening aspects of the angry right wing than a lot of my neighbors. Anyway, my point is that a Quest Story for progressives needs to include a mandate to stand up for the most vulnerable and viciously targeted groups in our society, now and going forward, and not just for the less vulnerable to stand up for the most vulnerable, but for all of us who share these values to stand up for each other.

I’m also guessing that while a Quest Story that works will need to motivate an organized and honorable defense of the vulnerable, it will also need to motivate organized and honorable efforts to try to connect with and have transformative experiences with Trump supporters. I say “with” because I do believe there’s a role in a new progressive Quest Story for insisting on the humanity of our neighbors who went for Trump and for trying to better understand their needs, hopes, and fears, and yet there’s also a need to hold firm to the convictions we hold that bigoted and dehumanizing beliefs don’t get a free pass under the banner of economic insecurity or perceived cultural disenfranchisement. Perhaps this looks something like MLK’s core civil rights message, which never wavered in its determination to advance the rights of African-Americans, but which invited white Americans to join in the creation of a society of equals and insisted that we would all be – and it hurts to use this phrase but I will – stronger together in this new vision.

I’m out of steam, so I’m going to stop writing now. If you read this, thanks. If you have ideas about what a healthy Quest Story might look like, I’m very interested.

Note #1: I need to get back to this and add in some citations for works that I’ve quoted or referenced. Sorry not to have done that just yet.

Note #2: I want to thank my teacher from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Dr. Barbara Breitman, in whose course on pastoral counseling we read The Wounded Storyteller and discussed these ideas at length.

Rabbi Toba Spitzer’s letter to her congregation re the Platform of the Movement for Black Lives

Offered here out of my personal admiration for the work of my colleague, Rabbi Toba Spitzer of Congregation Dorshei Tzedek in Newton, MA.

A letter to congregants about BLM and the Jewish community
by  Rabbi Toba Spitzer
Friday, August 19, 2016

*****

Dear congregants,

Two weeks ago, upon my return from a four-day retreat at the Weston Priory in Vermont, I discovered in my accumulated email that in the short time I was away, a storm had engulfed much of the Jewish community.  During that week, a coalition of groups affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement released a platform entitled “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, and Justice. <policy.m4bl.org>”  It is an extensive, powerful document, and I would highly recommend reading it for all those interested in issues including everything from economic policy to criminal justice reform to voting rights to reparations to U.S. foreign policy.

It was in reaction to a part of this latter section, “Invest-Divest,” that the firestorm in the Jewish community broke out.  In addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the U.S. role in that conflict, the document uses very strong language that, to many in the Jewish community (and I will include myself in that group), seemed out of proportion and extreme (including the use of the word “genocide” to refer to Israel’s policy towards the Palestinian people).  There were a number of hasty reactions to this portion of the document, including from our Boston Jewish Community Relations Council, which seemed to condemn the entire Black Lives Matter enterprise, because of this one section of the platform.

The reason you have not heard from me sooner on this issue is because after my initial sense of dismay and confusion at reading the “Vision” document, I began seeing a whole variety of responses – all from within the Jewish community.  While some individuals and organizations felt the need to question and condemn the language about Israel, even if praising much of the rest of the platform, others within the community – many, but not all, Jews of Color – expressed a deep sense of hurt by what they deemed organizational Jewish abandonment of the cause of racial justice, and/or an unwillingness to face up to the realities of Israeli policies.  My head and my heart have been in some amount of turmoil, as I have tried hard to really listen to a wide variety of perspectives and to think about how my own perspective as a white person frames and limits my understanding. I realized I had a lot of listening and thinking to do before I could say anything of any benefit or use.

What I wanted to offer you here is not one more response to all of the issues raised by the “Vision” document and the reactions it provoked – there have been some very good pieces written about that, and I have included links below to a variety of explorations of the complex issues involved, everything from the complicated reality of Black-Jewish relations in the U.S. to anti-Semitism on the Left to racism within the American Jewish community to the legacy and impact of the Israeli occupation.  Today I wanted to share with you where I see the opportunities arising out of a painful few weeks.

In observing my own evolution over this time, and in witnessing the heartfelt wrestling of many of my rabbinic colleagues, I am appreciative of the deep questions that have arisen in the wake of the release of the Black Lives Matter platform. Questions about what it means to be a white ally in the struggle for racial justice; questions about how the realities of imbedded, often unconscious racism and anti-Semitism shape our attitudes and our actions; questions about how we as an American Jewish community can do a better job of wrestling with the complex reality of Israel and the ongoing suffering of the Palestinian people; questions about what it means to be a racially diverse American Jewish community; questions about how to address the fears and historical trauma that continue to shape so much of our discourse within the American Jewish community.

Two weeks after opening those first emails that made me aware of this issue, I am actually feeling cautiously hopeful.  The level of distress uncovered in these past few weeks signals to me there is, in fact, both a need and a desire within the American Jewish community – in all its fractured complexity, in all its diversity – to wrestle with some very difficult realities that we cannot avoid.  There are conversations happening now that were not happening two weeks ago, in all parts of the Jewish communal world.  There are voices being heard that were not heard a few weeks ago.  There is some heartbreak, but a broken heart is an open heart, and I am hopeful that with open hearts, and a willingness to really listen, we can, as a broader community, reach a new level of understanding, and new kinds of commitments to creating a more just and equitable world.

Here at CDT, I want to express appreciation for our Understanding Race group, which has been doing its own learning about race and racism, and bringing opportunities to the community for discussion and learning.  In the coming year, we will be exploring as a community issues around racial diversity within the congregation, and how to become a more diverse community as well as a community where Jews of Color can feel fully seen and respected.  Under the auspices of the Tikkun Olam committee, we will continue our work in the realm of criminal justice reform, and explore new ways to ally with local struggles for racial justice.  And I hope too that we will build on our trip to Israel and the West Bank this summer, and have opportunities for further learning and discussion in that realm.

One final note – I am heading off for one more retreat, my last get-away of the summer, this Sunday through the following Sunday.  While I’m away, I will not be checking email. But I do welcome your responses and thoughts and questions, so please know that if you send something to me and do not hear right back, it is because I am off-line, and I will respond upon my return.

I wanted to give the “last word,” as it were, to a local Black leader whom I deeply respect, and whom we hosted a few years ago during our Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Shabbat celebration – Tina Chery, the founder and director of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute (the organization which we support each year at the Mother’s Day Walk for Peace).  She sent this moving testimonial to supporters of the Institute this past week, and I offer it here for those who did not receive it – it’s a 12-minute video, reflections that put Ms. Chery’s work for peace in Boston in the context of the violence of this summer and larger issues of institutional racism (and please see below for links to some of the articles I referenced above).  Hers is both a prophetic and a healing voice, even as she puts into words her own heartbreak.

This Shabbat is called “Shabbat Nachamu,” the “Shabbat of Comfort” following Tisha B’av.  It signals the turn from destruction toward redemption and renewal.  May we seek that comfort, that renewal, in a willingness to really listen to one another; to embrace the difficult questions; to turn towards – not away – from our own agitation; to persevere in our desire for a more just and loving world.  I want to wish everyone a Shabbat shalom, a Shabbat of peace and reflection, healing and comfort.

Rabbi Toba

[Links to outside articles for further reading:]

Learning about transgender inclusion on Reform movement webinar

I’m appreciating the chance to gain a better understanding of evolving societal understandings of gender and gender diversity. Great, clear presentation so far being led by Daniel Bahner of Keshet.

Keshet logo

The program is coordinated by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, known in Jewish community circles as “the RAC.” The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and the Youth and Gender Media Project also helped put it together.

I’m especially interested, given my new job as Associate Director of Affiliate Support with Jewish Reconstructionist Communities, in learning from the wisdom and experiences of these sponsoring organizations. They’ve done years of great work.

Because I’ve blogged about Rocky and Creed (and fully acknowledge how much I enjoy both films), there was a fun connection that came up in my mind when this webinar began. The first activity asked participants to generate stereotypical words and phrases that we associate with the gender binary notions of “boys” and “girls” / “women” and “men”. Not surprisingly, one of the words that came up a lot in reference to “women”/”girls” was pink. Daniel did a good job of reminding everyone that a lot of the aesthetics people in our culture tend to associate with men and/or women are so profoundly temporary and culture-bound. He did it by saying, “Remember, the founding fathers of this country wore wigs and high heels.” Anyway, this led me to remember that in the first Rocky movie, in 1976, when the big fight at the end finally happens, Rocky and his manager and trainers come out of his locker room and walk to the ring wearing pink. Pink robes, and for the manager and trainers, pink sweaters.

rocky pink

Anyway, I’m just appreciating this opportunity to learn and thinking about how I can work to be of service to the communities I will be serving in my new job.

“Friendship, War, Memory, and Community: Memorial Day Weekend 2016”

A guest sermon I offered this weekend at First Christian Church – Disciples of Christ in Eugene, Oregon.

 

“Friendship, War, Memory, and Community: Memorial Day Weekend 2016”

Good morning and thank you so much for offering me the honor of sharing some thoughts with you today, on this Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. Though I have not served in our military, many of my family members have been soldiers, both here in the US and in other parts of the world where they’ve lived. My grandfather was a US Army infantryman in France during World War I. My father served during the Korean War, though he was never shipped overseas.

My mother’s family are Moroccan Jews who now mostly live in Israel. During World War II, my mom’s family lived in Casablanca, which was under German occupation. During the 1940s France had ruled Morocco as a colony, but the Nazis took it over not long after Paris fell. My maternal grandmother’s sister, Rosette, joined the French underground, and nobody knew much about what she did. She was gone for weeks at a time and then would suddenly show up for a few days. One time she showed up late at night at the home of one of her sisters with a small group of men. Her terrified sister let them in and, in later years, all she could say about the visit was that the men brought a whole bunch of weapons into the house, hid them in a back room, and Rosette told her to just say nothing and people would come by soon to get them.

Then there are my many, many aunts and uncles and cousins who have served and currently serve in the Israeli army. My mother’s brother, my Uncle Yossi, was the sole survivor of his army unit during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Anwar Sadat had launched a very effective surprise attack and the army was scrambling to call up reservists. When Yossi’s unit’s call-up notice went out over the radio, he went to get his boots from their usual place, but couldn’t find them. Turned out his mother had been tidying and had moved them. By the time he found them and hustled to the base, his tank unit had already been sent to the front. The commanding officer placed him with a different departing unit. As it happened, all of the others in his intended unit were killed in an explosion. The misplaced boots saved his life.

Yossi is an interesting case in point. In addition to the trauma and survivor’s guilt he’s had to bear over that pair of boots, he also has told my mom about terrible recurring memories and dreams from his experience in combat. In particular, he is haunted by a flash moment in which he and an Egyptian soldier were suddenly face to face, a few meters apart. The two men shared a moment of horrified shock and recognition, and then both moved to fire. Yossi fired first, but for years struggled to cope with the image of the Egyptian young man’s body.

On this weekend when we contemplate those of our fellow Americans who have fallen in battle, we are drawn to personal memories of war, memories that become family stories that get passed through the generations. A lot of those stories give us insight into the meaning of friendship. In the Book of Proverbs, we find these words: “There are friends we have who cause us great harm, but there’s also the kind of friend who sticks by you even more than a brother.”[1] And in Ecclesiastes, also on the theme of friendship, we read, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their toils: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity the person who falls and has no one to help them up.”[2]

I’d like to consider these two short, simple biblical passages in light of the themes that Memorial Day weekend evokes – themes of war, friendship, memory, and community. Some of what I have to share comes from people whose experiences with war have left them passionately opposed to war in all or most of its forms, and in sharing those thoughts I want to be clear that I honor in the deepest way the sacrifices of our fallen soldiers and the pain and loss of their families. We need to be able, in a house of God, to attempt to look at war through lenses of honesty and concern for the divine image that is present in every human being, though we also need to stand in solidarity and true friendship with all who are serving or have served, and with all who have given their lives for us in times of war. We need to do both, and doing both with sensitivity and candor honors the dead and the truth alike.

I’d like to start with the words of Vera Brittain. She served as an English army nurse during
World War I, and wrote one of the most widely read memoirs of the war, Testament of Youth. In it she describes her years as a female student at Oxford – at a time when few

Vera Brittain

 

women went to university – and the beginnings of her romance with a brilliant fellow student named Roland. She includes many of the letters the two lovers sent one another after Roland quit school to enlist. Roland’s early letters describe his enthusiasm for getting into battle, and his later letters from the battlefield become increasingly disillusioned and numb. Of course, like so many European young men of that generation, Roland never made it home.

Continue reading