Friday, March 21, 2014

Are we Doing it Right? (A Jewish Guide to Decision-making and Holiday Festivities)

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about right and wrong. Not in the moral sense, for that compass has been unbendingly pointed north since I was four - much to my inner rebel’s chagrin (and my parents’, who started calling me “Sergeant Winner” around that time) - but more so in the what-the-hell-are-any-of-us-doing kind of right and wrong. Starting with yours truly and rippling outward, I’ve noticed that we compare ourselves to a malleable standard that bends and moves with the economy, the media, the friend circles we run in – consistently dodging our outstretched fingers.

But, seriously, what the hell? We create this image of what we want and then let all of these external factors influence our determination of whether this is the right thing to want, and the right way to go about getting it. Some of us want a brick cottage – we want to raise our kids as religious, wholesome individuals and provide them good health and a golden retriever. Others of us are determined to live out of a cardboard box until we see social justice in the form of poverty eradication, gay rights, and equal educational opportunities for left and right-handed students. While simultaneously admiring the rainbow of values and aspirations within our peer groups, we are casting a dark shadow across our own domains. No matter what we do, we are not good enough. Not right enough. I have a good friend who has been studying Arabic for over ten years. He is living in the West Bank and I am in constant awe of his beautiful elocution whenever we wander the streets together. Its sounds like a dance. He has recently been struggling with whether to give up or not because he doesn’t feel like he’ll ever be good enough. Another friend has been working in social justice in various forms for nearly a decade. She volunteers for women's empowerment organizations, has been a lobbyist for a number of environmental causes, and is dedicating her savings and her life’s work to become a social worker to help troubled youth. And she recently called me in hysterics, mourning the expansive gap between her aspirations and her reality – the kids she can’t fix, the bills she didn’t help pass, the drowning sensation that the world will never ever be as bright as she envisions. And I was seeing these examples surface only after I began to acknowledge the profundity of this question in my own life. 

The angel and demon – the latter of which is far better at getting our attention – continue to argue in our ears. You’re not good enough. You’re not doing it right. What is right? What is the right way to make a difference? What is the right way to achieve the American dream? Do you focus on impact or on what brings you the greatest joy?

Amidst a whirlwind of celebrations and spontaneous adventures this weekend, I found out that I was accepted as a head coach at the Ultimate Peace summer camp this June. Ever since I heard about Ultimate Peace back in 2009, I’d planted the seed in my aspirations pot to become a coach.  Maybe I’m doing it all wrong; or maybe I’m doing my best but we’re trapped in a system that itself is wrong. Sometimes I feel like a social chiropractor, financially positioned atop the shoulders of the Man whose back I’m trying to realign.
 Instead of taking a moment to soak up the honor of this coveted and prestigious position - “holy crap! I did it!” - I immediately shifted to thinking of the friends and family I would disappoint by not coming home to the two weddings this summer; wondering if that means I’m staying in Israel; how I’ll fund the coaching opportunity and my life here in general; do I get a work visa or stick with this program for longer; which then got me angry and confused about why I keep having to pay to live out my professional dreams.

I remember a conversation with my friend the Arabic speaker, who was pondering giving up after ten years because if you can’t be fluent, then what’s the point? I remember asking him – but does it still bring you more joy than frustration? He said For now. And I said, Ok. There’s your answer. That sounded so great and ommmmm in the moment, but as it plays out in reality, does that answer convert into sucking away your own stability and savings in the name of your cause? Draining your energy on behalf of children whom you can never therapize enough to make the world bright again? Giving up friends you know you have at home in place of an unending line of question marks? Working in a job that may or may not actually be having the impact hope for? What is right or wrong? (And do the measurements come in meters or yards?) And then what the hell is that success, because that line will move again as soon as we focus on it – like a star you can only see from the corner of your eye. My friends' conversations shocked me - from the outside I see them as such remarkable individuals who are taking great and joyful strides in improving themselves and the world around them. But, as evidenced by these conversations over the past couple of weeks, I am not the only one toting around this rigid measurement of inadequacy. To know that they, too, aren't feeling enough in their world brought simultaneous darkness and light into my perspective because I wouldn’t be bringing this up it were not a question rooted deep within my own innards, walloping my thoughts with that hostile yardstick. But to see such tremendous individuals who feel the same made me realize that it's not just me, but instead a whole thought paradigm shift that we need to work on together.

This week is Purim. While there is an expanding movement of sexy bunnies, slutty nurses, and half-naked Smurfs, the true meaning of Purim is to dress up as what you truly want to become – like masking yourself to reveal your true identity. There were light of God fairies, mother natures, and I put a couple of balloon monkeys on my shoulders and painted a Namaste sign on my cheek to signify being Zen amidst all the external chatter. (The next day I went out with Speedy Gonzalez in an ultra-orthodox hat & hair twizzles that my roommate lent me, which had no significance whatsoever except that my monkey scarf smelled like beer.)

After a night of dancing in the market, in which Elvises, disco men, astronauts, Zorros, and leprechauns lined the tables and alleys in place of the strawberries and slaughtered chickens, I eventually made my way to the soup kitchen – my weekly Sunday hangout. I was scooping couscous into dinner trays and trying to keep down my holy Tylenol, and all of a sudden it hit me. No – I did not vomit. All of the angst of this big decision fell away and I knew deep in my gut that I want to stay here and be a part of this Ultimate Peace camp. I want to stay another year; I will figure out how to raise the money (each counselor is charged with fund raising $800 for the organization); I will figure out a work visa and a job; I will figure it out. I started to laugh and my co-worker looked at me warily, Do you need another burreca? (a fried pastry with potato and cheese – ie my breakfast to keep down the holy Tylenol). No. I just know what I want. I just made a decision. He backed away anyway – I think he was afraid I was either going to throw up or switch to tears.

My phone rang. My friends from Ultimate Peace were inviting me to the Dead Sea – a trip I’d been failing at planning for nearly two months. We’re leaving  in half an hour. I felt like this was a little gift from the universe for finally letting go and listening – like a gold star from the cosmic teacher. Sometimes a little monkey business and patience are all that we need to provide some perspective. Is there a right and wrong? Probably. But it’s like asking if a snapshot is right or wrong; but at the moment, I’m just trying to enjoy creating the album.

I made it back from the Dead Sea in time for one more hurrah at Purim…Like I said, it was a packed weekend:

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Dear Sir

Like dialects of a language, the way in which women get objectified is unique to each of the regions that I’ve traveled, but the basic message is still the same. I’ve been bowed to in Argentina, stared at in China, told not to worry my pretty little head in my own back yard, used as currency for a dance club entrance, whistled at, proposed to, taunted, and followed. And I absolutely consider myself one of the lucky ones.

There is a new, show-stopping word that has been added to my vocabulary since I began working in the Israel-Palestine conflict: normalization. It signifies acceptance of the current reality, and most Palestinian activists are very wary of cross-cultural collaboration because they see bridge-building as a subliminal agenda for normalization. (e.g. Don’t talk to us about becoming friends until we ourselves have the same access to water treatment facilities as you do.)  While this one word could provide content for my blog for as long as I’m here, I bring up normalization not so much in the context of the conflict as with respect to offenses committed so consistently and unconsciously against the largest minority in the world - women. They have become so normalized that to identify them as unjust draws perplexed attention to the unraveling of the tightly woven wool laying over our eyes for eons.

As this weekend we celebrated International Women’s Day, I have compiled a couple of questions and comments to some of the men of this region. I will preface that my critiques are addressing some of the barriers and challenges, but they are by no means the whole picture. I have yet to write an open letter to those gentlemen who have welcomed me warmly into their country, offered directions, Arabic coffee, and boundless hospitality. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to address the following...
  •            I can hear you. I just do not want to get in your taxi. You’ll note that I am perfectly capable of walking considering my quickening pace; and flagging a cab doesn’t seem too much of a problem either considering the gesture I have just produced for you. Therefore, I implore you to conclude that I do not require your services at this time and you may stop honking, following, and shouting at me, and drive on to procure clients elsewhere. Simple economics of supply and demand. Starbucks failed here and moved on. You can, too.
  •            Just because we twirled about on the dance floor a bit (I admit I tried to leave room for the Holy Spirit, but apparently He occupies a different space entirely here) does not necessarily mean that I now belong to you. And to be frank, I am intimidated by your instant and somewhat unexpected level of commitment as I still cannot even pronounce your name. To be clear, dancing with another the incredibly attractive man at the bar is not intended as a personal affront to your manhood. But assuming that I am interested, perhaps we can have more than two dances together or go for a coffee before I come home to meet Mother? (Survey: Norman Bates, or local culture? The jury is still out as I have yet to commit to a 3rd dance...) 
  •             Speaking of Mother – God rest her weary soul – what would she say if she knew you were wandering the streets beckoning to young women with your comb over flapping all over the place? I cannot imagine a scenario in which she would deem this respectable, and I am sure she would be just as curious as I to know from where this culturally acceptable habit derived. Tell me honestly - how will it impact your overall well-being to know where I am from? I am not a lost and delicate butterfly flitting from one burly branch to another , so please do not shake your stick at me. 
  •            When you stick your face in my face and say “Mmm, good!” I first must assume that we can get past the obvious acknowledgement that I am not a hamburger billboard. If we can make it that far, I would like to inquire – to whom should I relay this message? Are you congratulating me on the DNA swivels that sprung into my curly locks and the overflowing cups passed directly from my mother’s bosom (so to speak)? If that’s the case, I certainly wouldn’t feel right taking all the credit. But shall I take a bow? I first and foremost want to thank my parents for making this all possible. Perhaps I’ll send them a “congrats on the successful consummation” card? Maybe I’ll just save these compliments up like a Starbucks coupon: You’ve receive an official stamp of approval on your offspring’s physical assets by yet another dirty old vagabond. Two more and turn in her birth certificate for a free latte! I know my father is proud of my work and my character, but what he really loves is a free hazelnut cappuccino on the coattails of my international sex appeal. Prrrr. 

Happy International Women's Day. I hope it was a little abnormal. 


Sunday, March 2, 2014

Shabbat Dinner(s)

This entry kind of goes along with my earlier post about breathing into space. A while back, I decided to spend the weekend in Jerusalem, working on just being. I dedicated Friday morning grinding into the thick layers of black mold that were caked onto the trim of my bathroom and creeping up the walls like the demonic shadows of a scary movie. Feeling somewhat accomplished, but by no means satisfied as it mocked me from the ceiling, I closed the bathroom door and went for a walk. I found a frisbee game being played by Orthodox men (i.e. No Girls Allowed) so I hung out on the sidelines and threw with a very chatty nine-year-old with a huge backhand (that’s frisbee lingo – he kept launching it over my head). Having made one pre-pubescent friend and one very ancient friend but no real progress at getting on the field, I bid farewell with a promise to join Shabbat dinner with the boy and his family.

I headed to the shuk – the market – which in every way, shape, and form is quite simply masochism on Friday at 2pm. Every Jew in Jerusalem (ok, maybe just over one thousand of them) and Birthright tours looking for the “cultural experience” are stuffed into a three-block maze of tiny shops. (I almost lost it on a tour guide cramming twenty kids into a busy intersection. You can talk about the history of salted nuts and gummy bears from across the street where there are not wall-to-wall Chosen people packed into a skinny passage all trying to get the best bargain and book it home before sundown. Seriously? This is where you choose to stop and have a teaching moment?) Everyone was at the market to buy the necessities for a feast and weekly celebration of Shabbat – sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. (As an aside, they mock our pre-Thanksgiving freak outs. “I don’t see the big deal. We do this every week!”) With last-minute invitations to two Shabbat meals and no prior awareness of the Friday shuk experience, I dove in on a hunt for something to contribute, and emerged forty minutes later with cookies and an eye twitch.  

The first Shabbat dinner was at the home of Chana (Colombian/American) and David (American) and their son. We were joined by two other girls slightly younger than I, which brought the table to six. At a pause in our pre-dinner conversation, Chana burst into song, quickly followed by the rest of the diners. Clapping and beating on the table, she explained during a lull that this was the ritual of calling in the Shabbat angels who just come in to say what’s up and then move on. We performed the ritual washing of our hands and more singing. There is no distinct rhythm or melody and the songs don’t rhyme. So this communal singing introduced a powerful and totally new, joyful sound to me. David blessed, sliced, and salted the bread, and the feast began. There must have been six different salads at the table. There is no holding back for Shabbat. And unbeknownst to me, this was just the first course. Slowing down, Chana explained their family’s ritual of sharing a learning around the table. This week’s emphasis was on Exodus and the plagues, so that was the foundation for the sharing but our contribution could really be about anything. At one point, Ari Lev (my young throwing buddy) was talking, and Chana interrupted to ask if I wanted some context. Without an ounce of judgment or checking any notes, she started at Adam and Eve, moving to Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and eventually Joseph, who had a coat of many colors and was sold into slavery in Egypt. The story Ari Lev was talking about pertained to a side story of Joseph’s brother Judah, and his dealings with his daughter-in-law, Tamar. I sat in awe of how this narrative, one that I’d seen painted on a wall in Sunday School or sang songs about in youth group, was so deeply engrained in the very existence of the people at this table. Never in my life had I felt as connected to a nation or a narrative as these people do. I thought of how it would feel, sitting at the breakfast table with my roommate, rattling off the lineage of Roosevelt or Taft and how their stories would eventually get to me. I often don’t consider the roots of my own narrative. But on one level, that’s why I’m here in the first place.

We leaned back, totally stuffed (oops) and voted on a game (Dix It – like Apples to Apples with pictures), after which Chana invited everyone back to the table for another two rounds of food and more reflections. Then we benched, which I guess means to formally close the meal. We sang (or more specifically, I hummed and beat on the table) and everyone fell into a hushed whisper of their own prayers. I closed my eyes and listened to what sounded like muffled spirits in the wind. They each closed their prayer books and kissed the covers. I walked home with one of the girls, who explained that she too is a mutt (my word - she had more formal phraseology for herself), but that she boarded the Orthodox train a few years back. She explained that Jews don’t proselytize to anyone except people like us who have Jewish heritage. (Not knocking Christians, but it was a very different sensation to be educated by Jews and I couldn’t figure out the difference at the time. It is because there is no tenet that requires Jews to attract new followers as there is in the Christian faith; so there was no sense of recruitment in their teachings – just a flat but engaging offering of this is what is). She explained why many of the women wear wigs (in Hebrew, the root word for hair is also gate, so they believe that anywhere on your body with hair is also a gate and must be protected. Married women wear their hair wrapped or cover it with a wig, and men have the curls at their temples).

The next morning, still physically and mentally full from the dinner before, I walked back to Nachlaot for a mid-day meal with my organization’s director and his family. We were eight, nestled into the corner dining table with a feast of salads as plentifully packed onto the table as we were around it. We went through a similar ritual of songs and hand washing and bread breaking. Yonatan (my boss) hoisted his son onto his shoulders and they chanted in sync to call in the angels. I hadn’t learned my lesson from the night before, and satisfied myself on Asian salad, beets, hummus, tabouleh, and sprouted rye bread. We began the same ritual of reflecting on the week’s teachings around the table. They paused just before they got to me, and I was stunned (but not deterred) when they brought out the main course of quiche and curried tofu with peas and another salad. With a plate full of hot food, we resumed the reflections; I kind of cheated, or reflected more deeply, rather, on my Hasidic class again. We sang and listened to stories and when Yonatan’s turn came he asked us to create a rhythm – a subtle and consistent “oyoyoyoy”; and he began to sing/rap/freestyle his reflections on Exodus. The plagues were not random acts of an angry God, he explained. When you mess with the water, the frogs die; when the frogs die, the bugs arrive and take over; they consume the vegetation; which leads to famine; and so on. It’s like the skeleton song, except instead of the body, it’s the world. Pharaoh knew after the locusts that he’d really screwed up, and he told Moses as much. But he still couldn’t let his slaves go, not because of his ideology, but because slaves were the backbone of the entire economy. Similarly, American slaves weren’t freed due to a moral tipping point, but rather an economic one – the introduction of the fossil fuel industry, which started the shift towards the capital infrastructure of the country. Pharaoh was bound to his wrongdoing because of his economic obligations, just as we today are bound by ours. We are the slaves of today and our monster is the black gold we leech from the earth. We see signs and whisperings of greater forces of resistance to our way of life, but so far we aren’t doing anything about it. All of this was expressed so fervently and eloquently to the delicate rhythm of the other diners. And we continued around the table…worship by way of food, community, and reflection.