Thursday, August 17, 2017

Justice, Justice--Means and Ends after Charlottesville (Portion Shoftim)

As we begin the first week of Elul, the Jewish month of reflection and preparation for the coming Days of Awe, we have a lot of work to do.  Our nation is bleeding.  In the aftermath of last weekend’s events in Charlottesville, so much is broken, starting with the moral abomination at the helm whose comments have empowered bigots and abused the vulnerable.

And then this verse shouts out at us from this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim: “Justice, justice you must pursue!”

Why is the word tzekdek—justice—repeated twice in succession?  Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peschischa teaches: "Torah is telling us to be just also in pursuit of justice—both the end and the means by which it is obtained must be just."

This is crucial.  Our tradition insists that if we wish to repair the world, we cannot pretend that a positive end justifies negative means.   Justice will only endure if we achieve it with integrity.

Rabbi Mordecai Liebling was in Charlottesville during the white supremacist rioting.  In his article, “Fighting What the Nazis Fear,” he speaks of the imperative to resist evil and, concurrently, to reach out, even—or perhaps especially—to those whose views are repugnant to us.  He writes:

“We are faced with a difficult challenge: we cannot tolerate white supremacy and we must listen to the fear and pain that many of its supporters carry. . . The truth is that they are not getting what they were led to believe and their economic future is not promising.
It is the work of those white people who are able to hear their pain, attempt to reach over barriers and advocate for policies that will benefit them as well. Dehumanizing and dismissing them leads to more hatred. We will not bring about a more just society through violence.”
This is our enormous challenge in the coming year. 
Tzedek, tzedek tirdof.  Justice, justice shall you puruse.
Resist and reach out. 

Reach out and resist.

A Love that Lights the Sky: Musings on the Eclipse

Talmud teaches: “When the sun is eclipsed, it is a bad omen for the entire world. “  This is not surprising.  Nearly every ancient tradition shared this view.  Shakespeare describes an eclipse as a “stain on the sun that portended no good.”  The English word “eclipse” comes from the Greek, “ekleipsi,” which implies, at its root, abandonment.  In a prescientific world, the sun’s unexpected diminishment and even disappearance was utterly terrifying.  Without its light and heat, the earth would be a lifeless, frozen hunk of rock.  What could be more traumatic than the sun’s abandonment?

Times have changed.  This weekend, millions of people across the US will go significantly out of their way to view the Great American Eclipse.  As writer Ross Andersen notes: “The primary emotion most of us now feel upon glimpsing an eclipse is wonder.”  The moon, which is, amazingly, both 400 times smaller than the sun and also 400 times closer to earth, perfectly blocks the sun, so day turns to night and the sun’s corona glitters in the darkened sky.  Here in Idaho, many will witness what will be a once-in-a-lifetime event.

I share the wonder.  I don’t believe in the kind of God who makes everything happen for a reason, micromanaging the Creation with divine signs and portents.  Eclipses are not omens in response to our sins; they are entirely predictable and will occur whether we are sinful or saintly.  Like other celestial mechanics, they are, in fact, powerful reminders that we human beings are not the center of the universe.

Yet I am convinced that with a bit of post-modern interpretation, Talmud still has something significant to teach us on these matters.  My conviction that eclipses are not sent as inherently purposeful messages from an omnipotent deity need not leave them absent of moral significance.  I believe that as fundamentally meaning-making creatures, it is in humanity’s nature to find purpose in events after the fact.  This eclipse might still serve as a powerful sign for humanity if that’s how we consciously choose to understand it.

How, then, do I propose we interpret both the fear and wonder of next week’s solar eclipse in a contemporary context?  I suggest we take it as a call to action on climate change.  On Monday, August 22—or, by the Jewish calendar, the eve of Rosh Chodesh Elul, a month devoted to reflection and repentance—the source of life on earth will, for a moment or two, go dark, from coast to coast across the world’s most powerful nation.  And then, just as scientifically predictably—and, at the same time, still miraculously—the light and warmth that sustain us will return.  Let this awesome event serve as a reminder that unless we change our behavior as a species, in the future, we may not be so lucky.  The damage that we are doing to our planet—and our own civilization—with our profligate devastation of earth’s natural systems is not so easily undone.  May the temporary eclipse of the sun wake us to the wisdom of philosopher and naturalist Kathleen Dean Moore’s words: “To let the world slip away—the starfish and sea anemones, the green and fecund marshland, the glacial streams—to let it slip away because we’re too busy, or too comfortable to change, is a sin against creation.”

Now is the time for turning, in action and in prayer.  Let us conclude with the words of poet Daniel Landinsky, inspired by the work of Persian Sufi mystic Hafiz:
All this time
The sun never says to the earth,
"You owe

What happens
With a love like that,
It lights the
Whole Sky.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Upstream 32: Our Last Shabbat in Lita (Klaipeda, Friday June 16 and Saturday, June 18)

Since we head back to the mainland today, we're up and out early, done with  breakfast by 9:00, then off for a walk through town to the Amber Museum and Neringa History Museum.  Here on the Spit, amber is ubiquitous.  Much of it comes out of the Curonian Lagoon and even more--in fact, the world's largest supply--is dug out of the sands on the southern half of the Spit that is part of Kaliningrad, Russia.  In shops and souvenir stands all over Nida, amber is hailed by its German name: bernstein, meaning "brown stone."  Amber isn't actually stone at all; it's fossilized resin from ancient trees, so unlike rock, it is very light and quite flammable.  As one vendor told me, burning is a good way to tell whether a piece of amber is authentic or a plastic knock-off--though, of course, with this test, by the time you know it's real, it's too late. . . .  The museum was quirky and interesting; it was fun to learn more about amber through their eclectic collection of various colors, shapes, and sizes, including numerous pieces containing fossilized insects and plant materials.  Given the commonality of bernstein as a Jewish name, I wonder if there is a significant history of Jews in the amber trade.


Neringa is the name for the municipality that includes, essentially, the entire Lithuanian section of the Curonian Spit, with the four villages of Nida, Juodkrante, Preila, and Pervalka.  The Neringa History Museum tells the story of this region: flora and fauna, human history, art and culture.  The central gallery is filled with an array of contemporary wooden sculpture.  Traditional wood carving is much beloved in this heavily-forested nation.   Over the course of our expedition, we've seen so many large folk art carvings, mostly either religious or nationalistic, sculpted in a realist style and displayed in parks and village squares.  The exhibit here draws on that tradition, but the pieces are smaller, abstract and lyrical--a nice modern twist on an ancient national art.

After the museums, we walk back to our bed and breakfast, check out just before noon, enjoy a light lunch, then catch the 2:00 bus back to Smiltyne and the five-minute ferry across to Klaipeda.  Rosa and I are both so grateful for our rest day on the Spit.  Now we walk to our AirBnB apartment in Klaipeda's Old Town.  We're greeted there by our host's husband who--small world--is an American who spent a few years working in Boise before marrying the Lithuanian woman he met over the internet and moving here to be with her.  He's friendly and eager to assist us.  His first recommendation for dinner out is a place called "Meat Lovers" but since that, obviously, will not work for me, we end up at a pan-Asian place for an early supper, then back to the apartment to welcome in our last Shabbat in Lithuania.

We have greeted Shabbat in Vilna, Kovno, Keidan, and Jurbarkas.  Now, at last, in Klaipeda, at land's end, on the Curonian Lagoon, just across from the Baltic Sea, we kindle our tea candles, make kiddush over prosecco, and motzi with delicious hard white rolls.  Next Shabbat, I'll be homebound, while Rosa makes her way to Tel Aviv, via Amsterdam.  I have so much to celebrate: an extraordinary journey, precious  time with Rosa, the imminent arrival of Janet and Rachel and Jonah, who will meet us Vilnius in a day and a half.  I am grateful for sacred labor and holy rest, for love and learning, family and friends, old and new.  For darkness and light, for glimpses into my family and my people's past, even when tragic, and for the hope and promise of the future, even when uncertain. For the rivers, and for the Source of the rivers, that give us life, and sustain us, and enable us to mark this joyous day.

It's Shabbat morning, so we sleep late, then walk to what remains of the old Jewish cemetery on Sinagogu Gatve (Synagogue Street).  Both the Nazis and the post-war Soviets ravaged the site, until nothing remained except a few scattered markers.  But after Lithuania achieved its independence in 1991, the Jewish community reclaimed this sacred ground.  They embedded fragments of headstones into a memorial wall and added a monument to the Jews of Memel who were murdered in the Shoah. They also planted an avenue of junipers in honor of righteous gentiles who, at great personal risk, sheltered local Jews.


For most of its history, Memel was a  predominantly Prussian city.  Its Jewish community was quite different from the Litvak centers to the east--more thoroughly western and profoundly influenced by secular Enlightenment ideas.  As a border town, Memel often had two rabbis: one a German PhD, the other an old-fashioned rov in a long black kapote, with no secular education but deeply learned in talmudic matters.  Here, East met West.

When Memel became a part of independent Lithuania between the two world wars,  it was the country's second largest city, after the capital of Kaunas/Kovno (Vilnius was under Polish control during this period).  It was a time of economic prosperity and as Memel grew, so did its Jewish community, from 4500 in 1928 to 6000 by 1939.  Many were ardent Zionists.

Everything changed on March 20, 1939, when Hitler gave Lithuania an ultimatum: vacate Memel within twenty-four hours.  As Samuel Greenhaus writes in his article in Memel's Yizkor book: 

The same day, Lithuania bowed to the ultimatum.  The entire city was covered with Hitler flags and Hitler's photograph.  40,000 Memel Germans went out into the streets and celebrated with wild enthusiasm.  In one night,  7000 Jews escaped from the area.

Most of Memel's Jews fled into Lita, just across the border.  They did not receive a warm reception from non-Jewish Lithuanians, who refused to recognize them as citizens, even though Memel/Klaipeda had been part of Lithuania for the past sixteen years.  Most of them spoke no Lithuanian, Russian, or Polish.  When the Red Army conquered Lithuania in 1940, they, too, disdained the Jewish refugees from Memel.  But the Litvaks reached out to their Jewish brothers and sisters and did their best to support them, even as they struggled through their own political and economic difficulties.  Of course when the Nazis invaded in June of 1941, the Memel Jewish refugees were slaughtered along with the rest of Lithuanian Jewry.


The annexation of Memel turned out to be Hitler's final territorial acquisition before the Nazi invasion of Poland launched the Second World War.  On the evening of May 22, 1939--just two days after issuing his ultimatum, Hitler personally traveled to Memel on a German battleship and delivered a speech from the balcony in the city's theater square, addressing the local citizens who, for the most part, welcomed him warmly.  

Today, in the center of that square, stands a statue of Annchen von Tharau, the folk heroine of a seventeenth-century poem by local Prussian poet Simon Dach.  She faces out into the plaza, with her back to the theater balcony where Hitler delivered his speech.  As the story goes, Hitler had the statue removed before he spoke, because he could not stomach the notion that anyone--even a copper rendering of a fictional character--would turn away from him.  Thankfully, Annchen was later restored to her proper place, and still looks away from that infamous balcony.


Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler.  He's a cruel and ignorant bigot but not a genocidal dictator--at least not yet.  Still, it's all too easy to imagine substituting Trump for Hitler in this story.  It's just so Trump-like, that awful combination of deep insecurity and grotesque narcissism that renders an authoritarian leader utterly incapable of tolerating the mildest dissent, even from inanimate objects. Alas, while Annchen again stands proud, Hitler's victims are gone forever, lost to the world, with no hope of restoration.  

Will we ever learn from this?


Back in what remains of the old Memel cemetery, Rosa and I lay a Boise river rock and homemade hamsa bracelet by the Holocaust memorial.  Then, just a hundred meters or so to our left, we notice a couple of men talking behind a modern brick building that turns out to be a small but active Orthodox synagogue.  I greet the men in Hebrew and although their Shabbat morning service is over, they invite us to join them for kiddush and lunch.  Inside, we find five or six community members gathered around a well-stocked table, including the very young Chabad rabbi.  They welcome us warmly, ask about our time in Lithuania, make kiddush with abundant vodka, sing a couple of traditional zmiros, then serve us classic eastern European and Israeli salads.  Since they don't speak English and we don't speak either Lithuanian or Yiddish, the entire conversation is in Hebrew.  Mine is mediocre at best, but we understand one another, which feels good.


As I sit with this small remnant of Jews in Klaipeda, it occurs to me that Chabad is the Jewish version of McDonald's, Starbucks, Ikea, or any other successful international franchise.  They follow a strict cookie cutter approach, so they are pretty much the same wherever you go: Argentina, Nepal, Klaipeda, Boise. .  . This strikes me as both their weakness and their strength.  I find it a bit bland, short on local cultural spice that makes a community interesting in my eyes.  Yet I realize that for many people, this formula works.  It's reassuring, with an aura of authenticity, as if eighteenth century Ukrainian hasidism was the eternal, global Jewish norm.  This strikes me as odd in Lithuania, the bastion of the Misnagdim, with their legacy of arch-rationalism and vehement opposition to the Hasidic movement.  And it's even odder in here in Memel, a seat of the Prussian Haskallah/Enlightenment.  But such is the landscape of Jewish life in 5777/2017.

And on this Shabbos afternoon, in the presence of a modest but enduring Jewish community, after so many cemeteries and ruins, I feel the appeal.  Warmed by the whiskey--an integral piece of the Chabad formula--I'm filled with gratitude for my fellow flesh and blood Jews.  Enough of the ghosts. No, the Lubavitchers are not the authentic heirs of Litvak culture.  But Shabbos is Shabbos and kiddush is kiddush and I am grateful to this tiny congregation for taking us in.  Rosa and I bentsch the Birkhat ha-Mazon quietly on our own, thank our hosts, and head out, wishing everyone Shabbat shalom.


We enjoy a perfect Shabbat afternoon, walking all over Klaipeda on a gorgeous day, with blue skies and a gentle sea breeze.  There's so much art, scattered around the streets and through the city parks. We stop for a happy hour glass of wine aboard an old schooner ship anchored in the harbor, eat pizza in an elegant courtyard, and, come nightfall, watch The Godfather on Netflix back at our AirBnB apartment.

It's one of those blessed days, with beauty at every turn.  The highlight, for me, was the Clock Museum, a fascinating place that artfully documents the diverse ways that humans have developed over the course of our history to mark and measure time.  There were dozens of intricate mechanical clocks and watches, including some incredibly ornate Baroque and Rococo pieces, but I was most intrigued by earlier timekeeping methods: "clocks" that used water, sand, and even fire to delineate the passing moments.  

Time is, as we construe it, a human construction.  We are, it seems, hard-wired to find ways to quantify the passing days, to divide them into hours and minutes and seconds.  Perhaps our capacity to measure time offers the reassuring illusion that we can also control it, or even, sometimes, turn it back.  I've spoken repeatedly of how Rosa and I are traveling metaphorically upstream but rivers don't give a damn about time and ultimately, neither water nor sand nor fire can really carry us back.  
Ever forward flows the stream.

Tomorrow we return to where our journey began, Vilnius, where Janet, Rachel and Jonah will fly in to meet us.

Shavua tov.  A good week.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Upstream 31: Between Bay and Sea (Nida, Thursday, June 15)

We enjoy a quiet, restful and relaxing day on the gorgeous Curonian Spit.  

This narrow stretch of land, between the Baltic Sea and the Curonian Lagoon runs for 98 kilometers, divided almost equally between its northern portion, in Lithuania, and its southern half, which belongs to the Kaliningrad district of Russia.  It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a place of great beauty: wind-swept sand dunes, fragrant pine forests, and quaint, immaculate villages.  We arrive in Smiltyne, the gateway to the Spit, via a five minute ferry ride across the Klaipeda harbor, then catch a bus that takes us an hour south to Nida.

Nida is an enchanting summer resort town.  It looks far more German than Lithuanian, which is not surprising, given that for most of its history, it was part of Prussia.  Most of the prim, lovely houses are painted in a rich chestnut brown, with cheerful blue shutters and trim, and flower boxes everywhere.  We check into our bed and breakfast, then walk up and down the main street, stopping to window shop in the boutiques, which feature the usual beach souvenirs (tee-shirts, jewelry, mugs), Lithuanian linen and--everywhere--amber, which is native to the region.  At lunch we run into our first group of Israeli tourists in Lithuania,  here for a half day's stay on a cruise of the Baltics. Even though my Hebrew is terrible, I really enjoy speaking with them.   After all of the history, monuments and memorials to Lithuania's Jewish past over the last month, it feels good to be in the presence of these scrappy living, breathing Jews from our national homeland.  Still, I empathize with our waitress, who is not accustomed to serving a very large crowd of demanding Israelis!   

In the afternoon, we rent bicycles.  First we ride across the width of the Spit--a couple of miles--through the hilly coniferous forest to the Baltic Sea.  This is truly land's end.  The beach is wide and sandy, lined with volley ball nets and hip eating places.  We dine, al fresco, on fresh roasted corn on the cob and spring rolls, sitting on a lovely veranda filled with the music of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli.  Then we ride up the spit, along the bay, to the villages of Preila and Pervalka, passing lighthouses, sand dunes, and old fisherman's homes, with their impressive sloping, thatched roofs.  We end the evening with a walk up Parnadis Dune, the largest on the Spit, which offers a spectacular view of the Curonian Lagoon.  

The past month has been all about pilgrimage: hard work, challenges, obstacles, endurance, connections, learning, growing.

Today was a vacation.