Monthly Archives: January 2019

Context and Subtext

 There are days when, after reading an article or listening to the radio or watching TV, I stop and wonder: where am I? It’s like I’m living the lyrics from the Talking Heads’ fabulous song, “Same as it Ever Was”:

And you may ask yourself
what is that beautiful house?
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right? Am I wrong?
And you may say to yourself, “My God! What have I done?”

When the video of the high school boys from a Covington, KY Catholic school went viral last week, I admit to being utterly horrified. Here was a group of mostly white high school boys standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, who were sent — on a school field trip! – to join in protesting a woman’s right to choose the destiny and the sanctity of her own body. As they waited for the buses to pick them up, decked out in freshly purchased MAGA hats, they began to harass an older Native American man, named Nathan Phillips, who was chanting a traditional song and playing a Native hand drum.

The video focuses on a boy named Nick Sandmann, who stands very close to the tribal elder, smirking the classic smirk known to all who work with or live with adolescents. It is a look of condescension and derision. His classmates, who are mocking the tribal elder by jeering and crassly imitating Native American dances, back him up. 

Watching that video was a profoundly disturbing experience. It reminded me of an infamous photo from Nazi-occupied Poland. A group of young SS officers have surrounded a religious Jew and are cutting his beard off. They are laughing, having a great time exercising their unbridled cruelty and animus at the expense of this poor man. The one who is closest, inches away from his face is smirking; it’s the same smirk. It’s the same message: “You are nothing. I am superior. You will not replace us.” 

I was filled with revulsion and disgust watching this display of hatred. Is this my country? Is this what passes for appropriate conduct? I know deep in my heart that our Midrasha high school students would never engage in this kind of debasing behavior. And I pray that they are never on the receiving end of it. 

As a few days went by, the story got much more complicated. Nick Sandmann’s parents hired a pr firm that specializes in crisis management. They produced a longer video that shows these same kids being harassed previous to the encounter with Phillips, by a group of Hebrew Israelites (who are neither…), who are essentially like Westboro Church, committed to extreme provocation to make a point of their chosenness. 

Some people have suggested that the full context of the day is crucial in order to gain a true understanding of events. They say that these boys are being singled out and vilified for behavior that they did not even engage in. If you had been there, some say, you would have seen that the boys were being actively heckled by the Hebrew Israelites and that their seemingly over the top, hyped up behavior was a response to that. Some also say that Mr. Phillips moved towards the boys and that some of them may have felt intimidated. Of course, context is essential, and so many stories that we see and read on social media are shaped to provoke us, and not inform us.

I watched the hour-long video to gain a sense of context, and I can say that the general scene at the Lincoln Memorial was utter bedlam. Adolescents and chaos are not a good combination, and so I think my initial disgust and my association with the Covington boys and Hitler Youth may have been a bit of an over-reaction. 

But if we acknowledge the importance of context, how can we not see a Native American man being disrespected? How can we not acknowledge that the tomahawk gestures, along with the mocking of the Indian chant, were ignorant and crude behavior? We can empathize with Nathan Phillips and the fear he experienced that day. Looking at Nick Sandmann’s face as well as the faces of some of his classmates watching Sandmann smirking and blocking Phillip’s attempt to pass, gives me valuable context. Like many, I have attenuated my initial outrage; however, it is still a sad display of just how far we are from MLK’s dream. 

Where am I? Waiting for justice. Working for justice. Teaching about justice. God, give us all the courage to stand with those who are disenfranchised, to remember that the message of Passover is an everyday, year-round obligation: none of us are free when someone is still treated with scorn and derision.

 Shabbat Shalom 


A Close Shave

As a man with a beard for the past 45 years, I don’t have much cause to shop strategically for the best razor or the best razor blades. I use it a couple times a week – that’s it. But I can tell you now, with absolute conviction, that I will only buy Gillette products from now on. Why? Because their new ad campaign, “Gillette: The best men can be,” acknowledges that Western cultural norms for men need to be changed – by men. As they say on their website, “It’s time we acknowledge that brands, like ours, play a role in influencing culture. And as a company that encourages men to be their best, we have a responsibility to make sure we are promoting positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man. … we have spent the last few months taking a hard look at our past and reflecting on the types of men and behaviors we want to celebrate. We’re inviting all men along this journey with us – to strive to be better, to make us better, and to help each other be better.”

Not your average message.

The central vehicle for this message is a video now playing on network tv. It portrays, in various tableaus, some of the worst of classic male behavior, at least half of it involving boys. It starkly depicts acts of malevolence, brutality, violence, sexism, and objectification of women. All of these behaviors are excused: “it’s just a joke,” or “don’t be oversensitive,” or “I didn’t really mean anything by it,” or the especially destructive, “boys will be boys.”

As I watched it, I thought about things I had experienced as a boy. I remembered what it felt like to be a target of bullying – not that I’ve ever forgotten. I remember watching how cruel boys can be to each other while adults watched on, shaking their heads, laughing.

I also thought about my sons, my boys. I wondered about their sense of the world, whether they had experienced similar moments of fear or shame or anguish when they were kids. We’ve never discussed it, but we will… I also think about my grandson. I hope the world has shifted enough so that he may never experience some of the things I went through already at his tender age of five.

Inevitably, there has been a backlash. Some men, threatened by the implication that the world has changed, afraid that their power and masculinity are under attack, convinced that the status quo for the past few thousand years is under attack, are on the cutting edge – of the last century. As one social conservative wrote on Twitter, “Just sell some damn razors and keep your social justice stupidity out of it.” Yeah, that’s great. What’s missing from this statement is a caveman grunt and a beer belch.

We are in a time of critical transformation. I spoke of this extensively on the High Holy Days, but I want to reiterate how significant this period is for the Jewish people. Our shift towards a more openhearted, egalitarian Judaism happens in the shadow of an ancient system that classified the world through the dual lenses of patriarchy and a male image of God. What it means to be a good Jewish man, a mensch, has changed. And we must teach our children – particularly our boys – that what our tradition wants is inclusivity and compassion. We must explain that to be created in God’s image is not about gender, but instead about attitude and intent.

We need to rededicate ourselves as a temple to the Jewish values that raise up social justice and lovingkindness – both of which seem to be in critically short supply just now. We need to support institutions and companies that further the struggle to separate us from a disturbing, toxic past and thus lead us toward a better future, a better world.

So if you need some razor blades, remember Gillette. And note that they’re giving $1 million per year for the next three years to non-profit organizations executing programs in the United States designed to inspire, educate and help men of all ages achieve their personal “best” and become role models for the next generation. Let’s celebrate the possibilities of making mensches.

Things Seen and Unseen

I have downloaded loads of apps onto my iPhone. Most of them I use once in a while, and some of them not at all. Amongst my favorite apps is one called “Plane Finder 3D.” The opening screen is a 3D photo of the Earth, on the North/South American continents. Very quickly the screen fills with airplanes of various sizes that obliterate any view of the planet. Every little object is a plane currently in the sky. Touch any plane, and you instantly discover the airline, the flight number, the model number and manufacturer, the altitude, how long it’s been in the air, and when and where it’s landing.

No, I am not a travel agent. I’m not even an avid traveler. In fact, I think of myself, after the title of a novel by Anne Tyler, as the reluctant tourist. I love “Plane Finder 3D” because it blows my mind, every time, to look up in the air, see only clouds, and yet realize there’s something more going on high above me. There are literally thousands of airplanes in the sky at all times, 24/7. I can’t hear or see it, but it’s real. And with a little help from some extraordinary tech tools, I can get a handle on what is going on.

When we traveled last week in San Miguel Allende, Mexico, we saw beautiful gates and doors of so many shapes and sizes and colors. From the outside, they were intriguing. But what was behind those gates? One never knows. There could be a magnificent hacienda or a lush garden, a comfortable hammock and a grill, or a pile of garbage and a shack. We imagined what might be there and occasionally peaked and saw all the things I’ve described – and even more.

What’s behind the door? What’s flying 6 miles directly overhead? Who knows? It is the intrinsic mystery of existence to embrace the power of the things that are seen and those that are unseen. Each and every one of us has some doors behind which we hide things from others, and sometimes, even from ourselves.

There are times when we believe that the only thing people want to see is the superficial, the colorful door that faces the street. To show others who we really are takes the risk of vulnerability. We wonder, “Who would ever want to know who I actually am? Who would ever trust me or like me if they knew the things that scare me? Who would respect me if they knew how I struggle with addiction or anxiety, or whatever your panic button connects to…?”

The problem with the closed doors of San Miguel is all the beauty, and the pain and the “realness” of life are lost to we who stand on the outside. I’m not asking for the key to their homes or permission to enter their space – just the chance to bask in the beauty of life, piles of dirt and stone along with citrus trees and orchids. Life is so short, and we use so much energy holding the door shut. 

What would happen if we, somehow, dared to open the door? As Brené Brown teaches, If we’re going to find our way back to each other, vulnerability is going to be that path. We want to be with you and across from you. And we just want, for ourselves and the people we care about and the people we work with, to dare greatly. When you click on a little airplane in “Plane Finder3D”, there are few secrets. The plane is essentially stating: “Here I am, this is where I’ve been, and this is where I’m going, and I’m even going to tell you how I’m getting there.” I know. It’s simplistic. But the thing is, every one of us has an origin story. And each one of us has a thought or two about where we want to go before the story is over.

Open the door. Tell your story. Share your heart and soul. Dare to be seen.