Posts Tagged ‘Judaism’

The Power Beyond Words

September 6, 2013

}z}Shanah Tovah everyone, and happy 5774.  While I’m a pretty secular Jew myself, I find the cultural roots, most specifically the notion of Tikkun Olam – the fact that we are partners with the divine in an effort to heal the world – to be important guideposts for living my life.

My mother, however, is quite religious, and even with her advanced medical training, finds the teachings of the Torah and her faith to be essential components of her being.  Our differences in perception of what it means to be Jewish sometimes lead to friction, but the commentaries she sends to us each Sabbath and holiday are often food for thought.

The one she sent for Rosh Hashanah from Rabbi Yehuda Amital struck me as particularly compelling, as it related back to parenting and relationships.  On the surface, that doesn’t seem to be the point, as the relationship it is talking about is between man and God.  Here’s the operative paragraph to chew on:

A person who turns to God faces a dilemma.  Generally, turning to God in prayer consists of using words.  However, human language was created for dialogue between people, between one finite creature and another.  There is something tragic about the fact that a person must use human language when turning to God.  Human language limits, constricts, and distorts.  It cannot express what is found in the chambers of our hearts.  Human speech is fundamentally different from divine speech.  God, after all, uttered “Remember the Sabbath” and “Keep the Sabbath” in one statement. This is an entirely different mode of expression than human speech; it is a completely different essence.  The blast of the shofar solves the dilemma, as least to some degree.

At first I thought about this statement in terms of sound, and it was very resonant regarding the power of sound to create emotion.  From the power of a movie soundtrack to create an emotional response that the scene itself alone cannot, to that song that moves you even though you can’t remember most of the words, sound strikes an instinctive chord in us.  It creates bonds that transcend language and ideology.  So, as the Amital suggests, if we look to speak with our metaphorical hearts rather than our intellect, using pure sound to express our feelings makes a lot of sense.

But then my mind wandered to a different place.  A recent visit by my parents, my aunt, and my brother who was in town from Barcelona for the first time in years.  Mom and I had a disagreement, and she flashed me the look.  You all know what I’m talking about, as every mother has one.  While sound imparts more of a purity of emotion, a look conflates emotion with reasoning.  You don’t just “go with” a look, you attempt to decipher its meaning.  But because the look shares that primordial origin, the meaning of the moment oft becomes hopelessly conflated within the entire prism of a relationship.  My mother’s look disapproval struck not just the parent in me, but the child.  And it hurt.  A lot.  It caused me to lose my temper and allow the moment to blossom into a full-fledged argument.

When tempers calmed a bit and my mother and I talked the next day, I told her that I didn’t think she realized the power she had, and how those looks can wound even a grown-up child.  She responded that those expressions are, “like breathing or blinking your eyes.”  She felt that she displayed tremendous self-control by walking away from the situation without saying anything.  And no doubt that was the case.

But while I understand that non-verbal emotional expressions become so ingrained that they become reflexive, I started to really think about whether the look was something beyond control.  In looking at my own behavior as both a Dad and a coach, there can be no contesting that I have indeed crafted a pretty potent look myself.  Sometimes, when it “just comes out” I see that look back saying, “Oh, no, Dad is mad” as their heads spin the Wheel of Misfortune regarding what’s coming next.  But now I have a different perspective on the power I am wielding over them.

So what the incident with my mother brought to light and Reb Amital’s commentary shed light upon was that, much like we look to mediate what we say to our kids because we know the power of words, we also need to be aware of the power of non-verbal communication, perhaps even more than what we say.  For it is the recipient of the look that is telling the story, and the plot is often a lot different than what we meant it to be.

Of Boy Scouts and Superman

March 18, 2013
The wife?  Gorgeous.  The rest?  Meh.

The wife? Gorgeous. The rest? Meh.

I hate nature.

Not that I want to destroy it or anything; I spent the better part of two decades as a lobbyist and organizer trying to save it.  But in terms of enjoying it, let me just say this.  You see a picturesque ocean, I see an endless stretch of something that I can neither stand on nor breathe in.  Hell, I can’t even drink the stuff.  I’m still not sure what’s so beautiful about that.  With our annual trip to the Keys coming up soon, trust me, I’m going for the pie.

I was noting this particular out of my myriad peculiarities this past Friday, which happed to be “Scout Day” at our synagogue.  A number of boys, girls, men, and women including several of Gus’s classmates got up on the bimah and spoke of the connection between scouting and Judaism, most notably the emphasis on doing good deeds (mitzvot).

Whenever I see those Boy Scout uniforms, they burn like a scarlet letter on my parenting soul.

Ahoy!  I be Homerrrr!

Ahoy! I be Homerrrr!

You see, my big boy has in the past expressed some interest in joining the Boy Scouts.  And it probably would have been good for him, too, given my wife is not a huge fan of “roughing it” and my idea of communing with the land is a lovely stretch of well-manicured savannah abruptly enclosed by a semicircular fence bracketed by two garish yellow foul poles.  The pangs of guilt in not adequately preparing him to survive the zombie apocalypse are amplified by the social deprivation he’s expressed at not being part.  It’s the classic “all the cool kids are doing it” argument he expressed to me once again as we drove home.

But even with the young men proudly speaking of all the mitzvot they have done as Boy Scouts, perhaps in honor of the upcoming Passover holiday, this Pharaoh’s heart hardened and once again said, “No, no, no.  To Boy Scouts you cannot go.”

And take that cursed walking stick with you, camper!

And take that cursed walking stick with you, camper!

Indeed, I saw more than a certain sad irony in a mention of Scouting Day at a synagogue.  Jews have historically been a people on the outside looking in.  On Passover, we are instructed to remember our time as slaves thousands of years ago as if it were happening to us right now.  “For you were slaves in the land of Egypt.”  We are commanded not to ignore injustice both by deity and by tradition—something I find bonds me to Judaism despite my rather militant agnosticism (I don’t know, and neither do you).

But, of course, as we sat there hearing these young men speaking of the environmental and social ethics of Scouting, we heard nothing of the great white elephant—the national BSA’s continued singling out and exclusion of any gay or lesbian children or parents from being a part of the organization.  I understand why this was excluded from the program—I’m not quite that obtuse.  There was no reason to cast a pall on these kids who got so much out of this experience with this inconvenient truth.  But I don’t think I’m the only one in the sanctuary who could feel it ghosting the proceedings.

I tend to prefer the "warts and all" philosophy

I tend to prefer the “warts and all” philosophy, however

What surprised me a bit as Gus and I discussed this issue once again was the discovery that when he talked with his friends who were in the Boy Scouts, each and every one of them vehemently denied that the BSA had this policy.  Now, I don’t think that their parents have been lying to them.  Indeed, I just had a discussion with a couple of our good friends who have their son in the Boy Scouts.  When they decided to do it, the issue of the national policy was absolutely part of their discussion.  But knowing that in this liberal haven of Arlington that the issue would have little-to-no impact on their particular troop made them feel the on-the-ground positives outweighed the rhetorical negatives.

That seems quite reasonable to me.  And I’m sure that the fact that Gus’s friends have no idea about the BSA’s anti-LGBT policy is not a concerted effort on their parents part.  They joined the Scouts at a very early age, when this issue would have frankly been too complex to explain to them.  Given in a liberal place like Arlington this issue just simply isn’t an issue for their troops, it’s simply never come up.  And because in so many other ways the Boy Scouts is about respecting and helping others, it just seems antithetical to any child participating that it would also have such an exclusionary and discriminatory policy.

Can't hate this guy

Can’t hate this guy

As I continue to mull this decision, I always remind myself that my own moral compass is certainly far from true north.  For instance, I always loved the (should be in the) Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza, and even though I was taken aback when he called Rush Limbaugh “American Royalty” back in 2005, I decided that I would divorce the catcher from the man, and continue to be a fan of the player.  Why shouldn’t that same principle apply to the Boy Scouts?

It is actually a somewhat similar issue happening right now in the nerd world that gave me a bit more clarity. As you might remember, I rather enjoyed Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, which will be coming out as a motion picture in November.  Indeed, I was quite intrigued to hear that DC comics is giving him his own Superman series to play with.  But then, I was hit with the news that Card is anti-gay marriage and has made some statements over the years that could be considered quite homophobic.  Here’s a very thorough article from Hollywood.com that traces the saga, and the publicity problem that both DC and Summit Entertainment have on their hands.

May be the closest I come to seeing the movie, unfortunately

May be the closest I come to seeing the movie, unfortunately

I’m far more iffy now as to whether I’m going to complete my Read It Then See It on Ender’s Game, as not only does Card personally believe in something I find terribly discriminatory, not only does he belong to what I believe to be a discriminatory organization (the National Organization for Marriage), but he is a member of their board of directors.  He is therefore actively using his celebrity to empower an organization that’s entire purpose—unlike the Boy Scouts—is to discriminate against the LGBT community.

There seems to be a difference in my mind between personal differences and institutionalized discrimination.  And while BSA is a private institution, it is still an institution.  So this is why I will still put Piazza’s #31 on my back, but Card’s Superman comics will remain on the shelves and I will continue to deprive my children of the unquestionable benefits of the Boy Scouts on this principle.

I admit fully that the line from disagreement over objectionable personal belief to institutionalized discrimination can sometimes be a murky one.  But it is that institutionalization of bias that, as a former slave in the land of Egypt, I simply cannot abide.

ew.

So this is the slightly wavering, yet deeply-etched line that I draw in the sand, and what I am committed to teaching my children.  If the BSA lifts its policy (something that doesn’t seem likely in the near future), however, I would be happy to allow my sons to take part.  Heck, I’ll even go on a camping trip with them.

Just don’t expect me to like it.

Golem: The Hero Project

March 6, 2013

You know what they say about real estate: location, location, location.

Last year's fun, tucked away in a nice quiet corner.

Last year’s fun, tucked away in a nice quiet corner.

I guess I should have been excited about being given one of the prime spots at my little guy’s elementary school’s Multicultural Night.  We were right at the top of the stairs, impossible to miss—Israel front-and-center.  After brushing away the urge to suddenly discover my Slovenian heritage, I began setup for my second year representing the Jewish State.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I absolutely love the fact that the biggest school event of the year is one that celebrates the diverse cultural backgrounds of the school students, parents, and teachers.  The kids are given passports, and run around the school to different tables representing different countries.  When they have stopped in and participated in whatever that country has to offer, they get the requisite stamp on their passport.

I think the twist would have given me away

I think the twist might have given me away

It’s just that I was absolutely exhausted by the worry and work of tending to my big guy’s concussion recovery (he’s doing much better now, by the way).  Just putting things together and manning the table was somewhat daunting at the moment.  Now add to that a location that guaranteed the deluge of smart, inquisitive, and energetic K-5 kids and I was hitting myself for not bringing along that bottle of Plymouth to go along with the Play-Doh.

I remember being really spent after my maiden voyage at the Israel table.  Last year’s theme was holidays, and, as you might remember, we took advantage of the proximity to Purim to do Haman Hangman and teach kids about the “Hebrew Halloween.”  Trying to manage that again, but this time at the center of the storm, was positively daunting.

Great moment, but not much competition for Hansel and Gretel

This year, the theme was folklore and fairytales.  This is something that gave me and the other Israel table parents some consternation.  Israel itself is a young country, so the amount of folklore developed since 1948 is fairly small.  One could point to the bible itself as Israeli folklore (and, some might argue, fairytales), but that seemed out-of-sync with the vibe of what they were looking for.

Finally, we decided that there was such a rich folklore tradition within the Jewish diaspora experience that it was just too good to pass up.  It also gave the opportunity to teach kids about the concept of a people without a nation.  And, as a nerd, there was really only one story choice:

Golem.

For those unfamiliar with the story, here’s my excerpt from the activity sheet I put together.

Fantastic book to introduce kids to Golem. Click on pic to find out more.

Fantastic book to introduce kids to Golem. Click on pic to find out more.

Legend has it that in 16th-century Prague, Czechoslovakia, the Israelites were being threatened because a lie was spread that Jews were kidnapping Christian children. As a mob gathered to attack the Jews, the head Rabbi of Prague turned to a passage in the Torah that referred to an “unformed substance” or Golem (GOH-ləm).  Through a mastery of Jewish mysticism, the Rabbi formed a mound of clay into a large human-like shape.  Finally he inserted a parchment with the most sacred Jewish prayer, the Shema, and the Golem came to life.

Unharmed by human weapons, and growing larger and more powerful by drawing strength from the earth itself, Golem was a determined protector of the Children of Israel.  But Golem became so powerful that even the Jews themselves started to become fearful.  Eventually, the Rabbi would use his powers to return Golem to the earth, even though he came to treasure his life as much as any human being did.

Golem SwampThingCan you see why a geeky guy like me loves this story so much?  It’s essentially Frankenstein meets Superman.  Indeed, Golem has been featured in comic books from Swamp Thing to The Hulk, and in pop-culture hotspots from The Simpsons to the Pulitzer Prize-winner The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Resistance was futile.

Given Golem was formed from a mound of clay, it leant to a great activity for the kids—Build Your Own Golem.  Armed with a rainbow of Play-Doh tubs and paper plates, the kids molded their own heroes and brought them to me for me to mark with their name and their Golem’s name in Hebrew (or the best approximation my 6th grade Hebrew School training could approximate).  As the first little girl brought me her fire-breathing butterfly, I found that I needed to kneel down to more comfortably write on her plate.  I did not get up again for two-and-a-half hours.

Location, location, location.

knee_padsAnd while my hamstrings are still recovering some two weeks later, I have to say I am so very glad I didn’t let my fatigue (and self-pity) get in the way.  I wish we had been a little less crazed, as we weren’t actually able to do the photos and videos of the kids as I had hoped.  But both their creations and their answers to my questions were absolutely fascinating.

As you might expect, there were plenty of the “boys will be boys” crowd that just wanted to talk about the cool ways that their Golem could destroy things.  When I noted the fact that those powers could be used just as easily for evil as for good, most responded, “Well they just use it to kill the bad guys!”  When I challenged them to think about one way they could use their power to do something other than to destroy, I got a lot of quizzical looks and “Can you just give me my stamp now, please?” But I also got a lot of good thinking.  Lightning bolts that could light lightbulbs and controlled storms that could spin wind turbines, to name a couple.

And then there were the “outside the box” notions of heroism.  A winged Pegasus that spread friendship with a flap.  A tree of life that provided food for the hungry.  My favorite was a little girl with a pretty pink Golem.  When I asked what powers her hero had, she shrugged her shoulders shyly.  Her Dad wrapped his muscular arm around her shoulders and urged her to answer.  “Is your Daddy your hero?” I asked.  She grinned and nodded her head, looking up at him for approval.  “And what makes him your hero?” I continued.  She pondered for a moment, and squeaked, “He loves me.”  This time, it was my turn to grin.  “Love, my grandmother always said, is the greatest power of them all.”  We named her Golem Ahav—love in Hebrew.

folding chairWhether you go with Golem or just a “build your own Super Hero” project, I cannot recommend this activity enough.  I would have loved to have done this in a classroom environment where the kids get to build, discuss, and share their designs, and more importantly, their thoughts on heroism with each other.

Just make sure you’ve got a chair.