Monthly Archives: November 2021

Rethinking The Stories

The death of George Floyd cracked something open in our perception of America and Americans. Derek Chauvin, a police Officer sworn to uphold the law in Minneapolis, MN, calmly and deliberately choked Floyd to death. I’ll never get over the image of officer Chauvin calmly pressing his knee down on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes, with his hands in his pockets. Floyd begged to be released, over and over again crying, “I can’t breathe.”  As Floyd pleaded, Officer Chauvin continued to kill him.

The image awakened many Americans. A white man in a blue uniform believed he could get away with killing a Black man in public. Bystanders screamed while Chauvin’s fellow officers did nothing other than keeping the crowd at bay.

This is a time of reckoning. We are beginning to acknowledge the deeper scars of American history and the dimensions of racism. We are daring to pull back the thick curtain of denial to truly look at how we got here. It’s time to learn about so many things we don’t want to know about slavery and racism and implicit bias and redlining and white supremacy.

This is tough stuff. It has so many implications for American society. We are trying to pull down the lies and the injustice and the self-serving hypocrisy that created a false front, an image of America that sought to exclude people of color and alternative religious faiths and gender identification. We are pulling down the false idols.

We are duty-bound to serve up the truth. We are compelled to explore our new American center of gravity, to find meanings in the new dimensions of American life that are being uncovered and shared. This is the only way to move forward in a progressive, multi-ethnic, multi-racial country. If we don’t acknowledge the fuller truth of the past, as painful as it may be, we are doomed to implode. Without telling the full truth, we run the risk of becoming a neo-fascist nation. The stakes are that high.

There are people who fear disturbing the status quo. I understand that. I’ve seen that response to Jews who sought to matriculate at American universities that had quotas to keep us out. I saw the first Jewish hospitals in America constructed because so many hospitals would not hire Jewish doctors, and they had to practice somewhere. They feared us, scared of our perceived foreignness. They hated us with the two-thousand-year-old canard that we were “Christ-killers.” White Anglo-Saxons were not interested in sharing the pie.

I listen to White people railing against enlightenment at school boards all over the country. I wonder how it’s possible to claim that advancing a more nuanced understanding of race in America is a Marxist idea… And I can assure you that 99% of people who use the term Marxist as a xenophobic sledgehammer have no idea what Marxism is. Opposition to historical facts, like opposition to science, is all about a desperate need to uphold an ideology of the past even as the arrow of time points in the opposite direction.

We can – we must – be able to accept the cruel nuances of our history, that the Founders of America were noble – and that some of them were slaveowners and deeply flawed humans. Knowing the fuller truth chastens us; it lights the way to a deeper wisdom. The story of our nation includes unspeakable violence and racism and slavery and atrocities against Native Americans and people of color and Jews. But those are not the only stories.

We are weaving a complex tapestry that is still coming together. I hope that this Thanksgiving we can braid various narratives together rather than rip them apart. It saddens me to learn the extent to which the quintessential Thanksgiving mythos does not bear much resemblance to the facts. The myth is that friendly Indians, unidentified by tribe, welcome the Pilgrims to America, teach them how to live in this new place, sit down to dinner with them and then disappear. They hand off America to white people so they can create a great nation dedicated to liberty, opportunity, and Christianity for the rest of the world to profit. That’s the story—it’s about Native people conceding to colonialism. It’s bloodless and in many ways an extension of the ideology of Manifest Destiny.

Do we have to get rid of the Pilgrim hats and the head feathers? Is it racist? Or is it aspirational? Is it an image that we have clung to all these years to propose the possibilities inherent in sharing our bounties together? Or is it a cynical dodge for colonialism? I don’t know, but it’s worth talking about.

Hard conversations are necessary for us to move forward. Stonewalling the truth in favor of preserving an idyllic – and imaginary – past will not work. Thanksgiving can take on new meaning. It can underscore the best of our nation: a sincere desire to give all our citizens the opportunity to succeed with grace and dignity and equality. We will create new images. We will tell new stories.

Reform Jews know this so well. We have this ancient history and ancient rituals that we continue to reframe and alter. We abandon that which no longer works, and we adopt a new way of understanding our destiny. It’s hard. And it’s why we are here in 2021, daring to raise up new meanings.

Whatever you do on Thanksgiving, while you feast, give some time to exploring the old stories as you consider what the new chapters will tell us. This must be a time that we recognize just how important it is to braid together the stories that work to unite us, the stories that dare to be truthful.

The Envelope

I’m not what they call an adventurous traveler. I don’t have a particular hankering to hang from a cliff in a harness secured by rope. There is nothing thrilling about a pup tent or a sleeping bag. Sailing on a tramp steamer to Bora Bora does not tickle my fancy.

You might say that I’m overly enamored of my creature comforts, that I prefer a resort to any form of roughing it. Why wouldn’t I? Look up rough in the dictionary. There is not one pleasant or breezy definition. “Something in a crude, unfinished, or preliminary state. Difficult to travel through or penetrate.” Nope. Not for me.

There are many people who delight in facing the harshest challenges imaginable. Cable television offers up a huge smorgasbord of shows that feature such humans. Whether it’s couples walking around in the wilderness naked, looking for water or shelter, or tuna boat crews at sea, getting pounded by huge waves and nasty winds, or people in Alaska doing Alaska stuff (there are so many Alaskans outside in the cold in front of video cameras!), there is clearly a surfeit of folks who love to rough it.

But just because I may not have a taste for the challenge of the outdoors does not mean that I don’t appreciate the call of the wild. I am an explorer. “For all the different forms it takes in different historical periods, for all the worthy and unworthy motives that lie behind it, exploration—travel for the sake of discovery and adventure—is it seems a human compulsion, a human obsession even (as the paleontologist Maeve Leakey says); it is a defining element of a distinctly human identity, and it will never rest at any frontier, whether terrestrial or extra-terrestrial.”

This fact of exploration is in our bones, maybe in our DNA. It drives us not only to enter the woods or get in a space vehicle, but also compels us to delve into the human mind. The exploration of consciousness is a wild ride with so many twists and turns along the way, replete with tremendous implications.

Questions about being and nothingness and infinity and finitude are not imponderable. In fact, they demand we ponder. It’s not a cliché to ask about the meaning of life: it’s mandatory.

I watched a bit of Life Below Zero a few months ago. I don’t know why I did. It’s a hazard when you’re couch surfing. You find something so bizarre, so out of your normal range of interest that you’re drawn to it in all its weirdness. The segment I watched was about a guy who, on his own, was getting ready for winter and building an igloo. And if I tell you that he was in the middle of nowhere, it couldn’t convey just how remote a location he was settling in.

In a million years I would say no. For a million dollars I would say no way. But this man was extending himself way outside his defined box. He was pushing the envelope awfully hard, “for the sake of discovery and adventure”.

Does the show, Life Before Zero change the world? Probably not. But it certainly expanded the consciousness of the igloo builder. And it reminded me that an eagerness to explore is not represented by where you stay: exploration is about where you go. Look at Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norga, the first people to climb Mt Everest. Look at Stephen Hawking, one of the greatest theoretical physicists of the modern age. There’s so much spacetime to cover between Hillary and Hawking. I hope we never stop exploring.


Who knows how certain artifacts, buried in the ground or a closet, emerge after years or even centuries? Most things are stumbled upon by accident. Someone is moving out of a family home, lived in for generations. A new highway is being built when excavators find relics and sometimes ancient settlements. The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947 when a young Beduin shepherd, throwing stones into a cave on the outskirts of Qumran, heard the sound of something shattering. He went to look and found large clay pots containing scrolls. He had no idea what they were. Eventually, he traded them to someone in the grey market antiquities business who sold them. It’s a fabulous story, filled with intrigue and hijinks.

Until recently, valuable objects, found by accident, or searched for by archeologists or treasure hunters, belonged to whoever found them – or paid for them. The notion that indigenous peoples were robbed of their sacred objects, family heirlooms, and cultural artifacts, was collateral damage. “To the victor goes the spoils.”

We have recently begun to reimagine to whom these items found in so many museums and private collections genuinely belong. It’s a tough, ongoing conversation, deeply emotional, and filled with issues related to race and culture and the very meaning of ownership.

Right now, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is hearing a case brought against Harvard. For over a decade, Tamara Lanier of Connecticut claimed that the university has photos of her distant relatives photographed while slaves, against their will. The pictures were being taken for a Harvard professor looking to “prove” the inferiority of Black folk. Lanier says the university has no right to keep these images, that they should go to her as a living descendant.

Harvard disagrees and claims that the images, despicable as they may be, will form part of the collection to illuminate how the university, like many in America in the 1850s, was racist and cruel. The lower court agreed with Harvard, saying, “the law, as it currently stands, does not confer a property interest to the subject of a photograph regardless of how objectionable the photograph’s origins may be.”

The MSJC ( MA Supreme Judicial Court) pulled the appeal to this case to the front of the line. They see it as a timely and vital conversation around history, property ownership, and justice. Some justices highlighted cases in which historical crimes have resulted in the eventual repatriation of remains or artifacts left in indigenous reservations, internment, and concentration camps.

This, of course, brings up all kinds of questions about the many Holocaust images taken by Nazi soldiers that we see in textbooks and museums. To whom do those photos belong? In Israel, there is an extensive conversation going on right now around Holocaust artifacts of significant historical meaning. Through an Israeli auctioneer, an anonymous person is attempting to sell eight fingernail-sized steel dies, each lined with pins to form numerals, that were pressed into prisoners’ flesh with ink to brand their serial numbers. Holocaust survivors sought an injunction against the sale, and the regional court in Tel Aviv subsequently put the transaction on hold.

Israel has no law to prevent the sale of Holocaust relics in private hands. But Yad Vashem says it’s utterly preposterous and shameful to allow such auctions. As Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and research center, officials say that such artifacts belong to them.

A spokesman from the Auschwitz Memorial in Poland said photographs of the dies appeared similar to those in its collection. “If they would be authentic, then the very fact that such unique historical items are put up for auction – and not given to an institution that commemorates the victims and educates about the tragedy of Auschwitz – deserves the words of protest and condemnation.”

History is generally not good to the victims and the vanquished. The arrow of time continues to slice through spacetime. The relics of the past, things so dear, symbols so potent, end up eroding under sand or burnt by an ignorant mob or displayed like trophies.  

What about the souls of those African slaves? What about the Jews who died at Auschwitz? Where is the compassion and the dignity they deserve? What is to be done with the pieces of history that are left behind long after the innocent are gone?