Lamentation for America

My niece Hannah had been a Hillary fan,  politicized over the course of this election season. She would get up early before school to watch the news, stayed up for televised debates, town halls, and conventions. This summer I bought her a Hillary “I’m with her” t-shirt, and tried to get her to join me to canvas in Pennsylvania, though she always had soccer games.

So yesterday on her 15th birthday, I wrote her the following message:

Happy birthday, Hannah! I wish I could have given you Hillary as president as your birthday gift, but what else would you like? Love, Aunt Pammy

Her reply stunned me:

I have no clue what I’d like for my birthday. So instead could you just donate the money that would’ve gone towards a gift and give it to an organization like Planned Parenthood or Greenpeace or any other organization that is going to take a hit in the next 2-4 years and that really need the support now.

I’m a kvelling aunt, so proud, and trying to figure out how to best honor her request. In the meantime, I wrote this poem, dedicated to her:

Lamentation for America

after Lamentations 3

For my niece Hannah who is the future

 
I am the woman who collects chamsas,
hands in many colors and mediums
that adorn my walls,
my ears,
my Shabbos tablecloth

I am the woman who holds the hands
of her clients when she prays with them,
and who opens her hand out to God
before breaking bread.

Poteiach et yadecha,
You, God, open your hand,
and so must I:
in gratitude
in compassion
in generosity
in resignation

but not lying down and taking it,
rather accepting the role into which I
and you
and you
and you
have been thrust:

to be change-makers and voices of justice
in our communities, our towns and cities,
for our nation under God,
for our nation under siege

We were made for this time,
those of us who have been shaken
from complacency,
from our smug and privileged places,
glimpsing a not-so-pretty future for
the many peoples of this land
made for you and me

I refuse to live in darkness.
I will rage against the dying
of the light

Pamela Wax 11/13/16

Hannah's t-shirt

Hannah’s t-shirt

What Will You Do for Freedom Today?

20120416-american-decline-statue-of-liberty

Though I’m disappointed that Pennsylvania — where I canvassed often — did not go blue, New Hampshire — where I canvassed twice — most likely did (the close tally is still being counted). But even if Hillary doesn’t prevail in New Hampshire, the good news out of that swing state is that Democrat Maggie Hassan defeated Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte in her bid for the US Senate. This was one of two Senate seats (the other being Tammy Duckworth’s defeat of Mark Kirk in Illinois) that flipped to Democratic hands.

Today, Senator-elect Hassan sent a thank-you note to those of us who had donated to her campaign, sharing that every morning at the breakfast table when she was a child, her father (a WWII veteran) would ask her and her siblings the poignant question, “What  are you going to do for freedom today?”

I am feeling that call even more strongly today than I did yesterday morning when I wrote and posted my poem about turning our despair into action. In the dark days to come (and I believe that they will be dark; what David Remnick in his article “An American Tragedy” from The New Yorker says “will cast the country into a period of economic, political, and social uncertainty that we cannot yet imagine”), we will each have to make a commitment to vigilantly do our part for the causes of freedom, peace, and justice. As Remnick concludes, “To combat authoritarianism, to call out lies, to struggle honorably and fiercely in the name of American ideals — that is what is left to do. That is all there is to do.”

Yesterday and today I have witnessed three variations of grief in my liberal Democratic bubble: what I will call pragmatic, delusional, and despairing permutations (please do not think that these are in any way clinical terms, they are my own).

1. There is pragmatic grief like mine that will serve to channel the rage, a recognition that there is huge work ahead of us, now let’s get to work! My old and dear friend Susan, director of a social justice organization in Boston, wrote a beautiful letter to her children (one in college, the other in high school) about that necessity:

Our young people — and that is both of you — MUST take the ball and become politically involved… My life has been focused on helping those who need assistance. The road for them looks really grim today, and yet I feel stifled as to whether my work and contributions are enough. As a parent, I need to really stress to you how important it is to find your path and use your voices… It needs to be your generation who takes the ball forward. I love you very much and hope that as you move from teens to young adults and into your next phases that you will not sit idly by. The community needs you to step in and make your voice and your time count. (excerpted)

This form of “channeling” grief was also expressed by 9-1/2 year-old Frieda, the grand-daughter of my friends Sandy and Claire, who wrote the following letter of gratitude to Hillary Clinton yesterday:

Dear Secretary Hillary Clinton,

Hello! My name is Frieda and I am a fourth grader in Westchester, New York. Thank you for running for President. You are one of my heroines. I think it was very brave of you to run to become America’s first woman President. If there is no woman President by the time I grow up, I want to be the first. My friends and I agree that you really deserve to be President.

When I woke up this morning and I figured out that you didn’t win the election, I was REALLY mad so I decided to write a letter to you. I’m not disappointed in you, I’m disappointed in the voters. I really hope you will consider running again in four years. If I was allowed to vote, I would vote for you. Again, thank you for running for President.

“We pick ourselves up and fight back…Get out there and volunteer.. We need to be ready to mobilize,” is how Senator Elizabeth Warren framed it in her interview with Rachel Maddow this evening.

2. I have also heard what I consider delusional grief expressed in statements such as “Maybe he put on an act to get votes and he’s not really that bad!” Unfortunately, Trump has riled the most racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic elements who are already feeling justified in carrying out hate crimes. Even if he moderates his rhetoric somewhat, the Pandora’s box of hate has already been unleashed. Not to mention the likely demolition of government-supported social services and safety nets, a repressive law-and-order justice system, the possible loosening of common-sense gun laws, the appointment of right-wing justices to the Supreme Court whose decisions will effect our country for generations: the overturn of Roe v. Wade and  the further devastation of the environment and civil rights. On the international front, things bode no better: from foreign aid and disaster relief, to the Syrian refugee problem, to ISIS, to Russia and Putin, to Mexican and Central American refugees, to Israel (the two-state solution was not part of the Republican platform). We may very well bring the whole world down with us. So much is at risk.

When you choose to mobilize, there will be no lack of issues to get behind in the months and years ahead.

Even President Obama participated in this delusion of a reasonable president-elect in his speech yesterday. Had he only given this imagined version, instead, courtesy of The Gothamist.

3. Finally, there is despairing grief. There is the lesbian couple (daughter and daughter-in-law of a work colleague of mine) who just applied for aliyah to Israel in fear that their marriage will be overturned here in the U.S. There is the frightened 7-year-old boy (brother to Frieda) who called my friends to ask if they would move with him and Frieda to Canada. There is the gynecologist, a student of mine, who came to our Mussar class last night totally devastated and fearful about the impending overturn of Roe v. Wade and what that will mean for his poor, immigrant patients. I could have cut the pall around him with a knife, it was so raw and palpable.

I remember vividly a scene in the frightening 1983 movie Testament about nuclear war, in which the protagonist (played by Jane Alexander) calmly went about her day, even making the bed while knowing that the bomb had fallen and that radiation poisoning and death was only hours away. I picture that scene often when I offer bereavement counseling. There are people who are, of course, thoroughly undone by their losses and pain, and there are others, equally bereft, who keep their structures in place, structures which get them up in the morning and keep them going. So the gynecologist will get through this devastation in his version of “making the bed” — by doing his job, offering dignity and good medical care to his patients, and keeping up with his spiritual practice of Mussar.

My version of “making the bed” will be to help comfort the discomfited/ to participate in the healing of the brokenness/ and with urgency, as I wrote in my poem.

Join me.

The Morning After

The sun will come up, and I will rise from my restless night,

heart heavy,

and go about my day.

There will be beauty in the world, and laughter, and music,

and heartache,

and love.

There will be a community of like-minded friends with whom to commiserate,

and a long laundry list of ways to make a difference.

Yes, there must be a sense of responsibility:

to shake off the malaise, the numbness, the shock,

to understand the forces that led us here,

to help comfort the discomfited,

to participate in the healing of the brokenness,

and with urgency.

We will act out of conviction,

knowing that democracy is not a spectator sport.

We will grieve, and rage, and wonder how and why,

but we will need to learn patience.

For like the phoenix — long-lived and regenerative —

our day will come again.

Love does trump hate,

and, though long,

the arc of the moral universe will bend towards justice.

 

(written in the wee hours of Wednesday, November 9, 2016)

May Wisdom Prevail

Putin for VP?

Putin for VP?

I pulled down this sign from a street corner

I pulled down this sign from a street corner

Amen.

Amen.

Me and Hillary

Me and Hillary

 

We have knocked on thousands of doors, made oodles of phone calls, donated millions of dollars.

We have watched countless polls, shed worried tears, and dreamed the worst nightmares.

We have commiserated with like-minded friends and even with strangers, wondering about the madness that has come to haunt America.

We are being called to awaken to the fears of the other, fears we don’t understand, can’t fathom, fundamentally don’t share.

The old man in the senior housing block I visited today told me he lives by two principles: to make someone smile every day and to help someone every day. Sounds good to me. When I asked him if he was voting for Hillary, he asked me who she was running against. I thought he might have dementia, but he was just pulling my leg. “Who else would I be voting for?” he asked.

Indeed. Who else?

When I was in junior high and high school I had a blow-up pillow in my room that read “War is not healthy for children and other living things.”

Neither is Trump healthy for children and other living things. Even GOP strategist Ana Navarro can’t vote for him (see her scathing indictment of him here.)

Voting tomorrow will be a momentous act of affirmation and hope. I invite you to do it with real intention, real prayerfulness. This time around, it is not routine. It is a sacred act, a holy act, a hopeful act, even a defiant act.

Here is a prayer to read when you do so, by Rabbi David Seidenberg, with a couple of small emendations by me:

As I vote today, I am prepared and intending
to seek peace for this country, as it is written (Jeremiah 29:7):
“Seek the peace of the city where I cause you to roam
and pray for her sake to God,
for in her peace you all will have peace.”

May it be Your will that votes will be counted faithfully,
and may You count my vote as if I had fulfilled this verse
with all my power.

May You give a wise heart to whomever we elect today
and may it be good in Your eyes to raise for us a good government
to bring justice and peace
for all the inhabitants of this land and of all the world,
and to honor the image of God in all humanity
and in Creation, for rulership is Yours.

Just as I participated in elections today,
so may I merit to do good works and to repair the world with all my efforts,
and with the act of…[fill in your pledge]…which I pledge to do today
on behalf of all living creatures,
in remembrance of the covenant of Noah’s waters
to protect and to not destroy the earth and her plenitude.

May You give to all the peoples of this country the strength and the will
to pursue righteousness and to seek peace as a unified force
in order to cause to flourish, throughout the world, good life and peace,
and may You fulfill for us the verse (Psalms 90:17):
“May the pleasure of the Eternal our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands for us;
make the work of our hands endure.”

Amen.

Yesterday’s Best Story from the Field

It was my first (of three) turf packets of the day, out in a suburb of Easton. After knocking on about 40 doors in two adjacent neighborhoods, I had one last name to contact on this list. And I couldn’t find the house. The map said it was on the main street between those two neighborhoods, but the numbers didn’t match up. After walking for some time, I turned around, retrieved my car, set my Waze app, and went in search of this last house on my list. The houses were big and upscale, and the name on my list was a 19-year-old woman.

 

I thought about skipping her altogether. My thinking went like this: I can’t find the house, and I’m getting cranky. Since this is a 19 year-old presumably living at home with her parents, it is more likely she is voting the way they are voting. They will encourage her to vote and know where to send her to vote. She doesn’t need me.

 

But I kept driving. I found the house. A man opened the door.

 

“Hi, is Emily home?” I ask. “No, she’s not. May I ask what this is about?” I tell him that I am canvassing for Hillary and Kate McGinty, and came by to ascertain Emily’s plans for voting on Tuesday. “But since she isn’t home, somebody will be back to speak with her either later today or tomorrow.”

 

“I understand,” he said, “but I’m wondering why I’m not on your list.”

 

“There are a couple of probable reasons for that,” I tell him. Either he was contacted already (no, that wasn’t it), or “you’re a registered Republican.”

 

“Well, actually I’m an Independent.” He seemed open to talking, so I pushed the envelope.

 

“So, Mr. Independent, may I ask you who you plan to vote for?”
“I don’t think I can vote for either of them,” he replied. “I was actually just listening to Gary Johnson and Bill Weld when you rang the bell. I might vote for them.”

 

“You know that Bill Weld says that Hillary is the most competent and experienced person running,” I said. He did know that, and he gave Weld credit for saying so.

 
Then it came pouring out. How he was Puerto Rican, born in this country, how he was a veteran who had served this country he loved. How he had voted for and loved Bill Clinton, how he had supported Hillary in the primary eight years ago against Obama; he thought she was terrific. “But she’s just too liberal now,” he said. “I really like her running mate, though. He’s a man of faith like I am. There are a lot of similarities between his Catholic beliefs and mine.”

 
“Well, I’m a woman of faith,” I disclosed. “In fact, I’m a rabbi. And Hillary is a woman of deep faith.” We talk religion for a couple of minutes.
Then I say, “I have a prayer I’d like to read you if you don’t mind, but it’s in my car if you can wait for a minute.” I run to my car to retrieve my I-phone, on which I have the prayer “In Thanks for U.S. Democracy” that I posted here yesterday.

I stand on the stoop outside his front door and read it to him. I get choked up and start crying; and then he gets teary-eyed, as well. When I finish reading, he invites me into his home, hands me his card, and says, “Rabbi, please email me that prayer. I’m going to send it to everyone I know.”

He didn’t promise me he’d vote for Hillary, but that was my finding common ground with him, and it was pretty special.

When I got back to the field office and told the campaign manager this story, Drew reminded me that those one-on-ones are the reason Hillary will win this election. It’s one person at a time, a connection made, one story at a time. It’s a ground game that Trump doesn’t have.

Late last night I composed Mr. Independent an email. Before I pasted in the prayer, it read as follows:

“It was a delight to meet you this morning. I’m so glad that  this prayer spoke to you, as it does to me, of our highest aspirations for our beloved country.

“In our conversation, you referred to Tim Kaine’s faith, as well as your own. I thought you might be interested in this clip of Hillary talking a little about her faith, which I thought was one of the most wonderful, uncensored, and revealing moments of the primary campaign (and not just because I actually do often carry those two pocket blessings around with me), http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/197451/watch-hillary-clintons-revealing-answer-to-a-rabbis-question-about-humility

“Blessings to you and yours — and to all of us. Here’s praying that sanity will reign.”

I hope he replies. If not, I think I might reach out again after the election to see what he thinks of the results and to understand better what makes Hillary “too liberal” for him. That’s what it will take to build common ground with those who don’t agree with us all of the time.

Pounding the Pavement for Democracy

Dear friends,
In the fall of 1980, I was studying in England when the Reagan vs. Carter election was unfolding. I was so frightened of a Reagan victory, I thought about what it would mean to remain in England and become an ex-pat. Still in college, I was not financially independent, so I returned to the U.S. at that time.

After college, some of these political passions got channelled into spiritual passions. That’s when I lived in Santa Cruz, CA, and somehow I managed to survive the Reagan years fairly unscathed, writing poetry and free-lance articles, volunteering at a women’s health collective, working at an abortion clinic, then working at a community credit union, teaching Hebrew school, and helping to create alternative Shabbat, Passover, and High Holy Day services with my Kolaynu community.

 
Fast forward to 2004. I am a rabbi now, living in NYC, working at my current job in Westchester, and serving as co-chair of the Women’s Rights Hevra at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun. We are all passionate about good sex education and women’s reproductive rights. John Kerry is running for President against George Bush. We decide to mobilize busses to Pennsylvania to go door- to-door talking about Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court, and reproductive choice at risk. We mobilize hundreds of volunteers to join us on these trips, mostly to Montgomery County. Then I work the polls in Philadelphia on Election Day doing election protection work. Kerry loses. I am terrified of what Bush and the right-to-lifers will do if they end up with a right-wing majority on the Supreme Court.

 
2008, I canvas again in Pennsylvania for Obama, but also go to Wisconsin and New Hampshire. I was a secret Hillary supporter even then, but, of course, got behind Obama. Yet again I was motivated most strongly by a fear of what would happen to the Supreme Court if a Republican were to win the White House. We learned then that the grass-roots effort and ground game of phone calls and knocking on doors was the key to the Obama victory. Personal contact in order to both converse with undecided voters and then to get the vote out is Campaigning 101 essentials.

 
So here we are in 2016, and again, the ground game is what is going to win the election for Hillary Clinton. I have come to Easton, PA three previous times this fall and also worked out of Keene, NH twice. Both are not only battleground states for the presidency but have close Senate races. Hillary’s victory on Tuesday will be a pyrrhic one if she doesn’t also win the Senate. A Republican-led Senate will not only stymie any legislation (or Supreme Court nominees) she advances, but is also threatening to impeach her if she wins!

 
Now I’m back to Easton through Election Day. Here in the battle-ground state of Pennsylvania, there are one million volunteers! In Northampton County alone (where I am in Easton, PA) there are eight different field offices sending volunteers to different parts of the county. Some of these offices are set up in people’s homes. Last night I made phone calls out of a home of a woman who was a staunch Republican (and elected Republican official!) until this election. She has turned her home into Hillary-Central, making food for the volunteers (great baked ziti and salad!) and turning her dining room into an office where we come to get our assignments.

 
As you may know, the pundits are saying that Hillary can lose the battleground states of Florida and Ohio but must win Pennsylvania in order to win this election. You may also know that Obama won Pennsylvania because the strong African-American vote in Philadelphia counter- balanced all of the Republicans elsewhere in the state. Therefore, the current transit strike in Philadelphia is terrifying if inner-city folks can’t both get to work and to the polls between the hours of 7 AM and 8 PM due to transit and therefore traffic problems. I was sure Pennsylvania was now a lost cause.

 
HOWEVER, the good news is this: 1. A friend called the campaign in Philadelphia and found out that the ground game for getting voters to the polls has been set up with churches and synagogues as sites for pick-ups, so that voters can get to the polls (provided there are enough drivers), and 2. one campaign organizer told me that the Latino vote and the women’s vote is so strong in Pennsylvania that the Clinton campaign may not need the African-American vote as much as Obama had needed it to pull off a win in Pennsylvania. I was so relieved that I actually slept for nine hours last night without a single anxiety attack waking me up in the middle of the night! (Thanks to Merri C. and her sons for hosting me while I am in Easton — that’s a way that local folks are contributing to the campaign — by hosting those of us coming from out-of-town.)

 
Friends, if you can make it to a swing-state to help get out the vote between now and Tuesday, do so. To my friends in Massachusetts, there is an office in Keene, NH that I have worked out of. For friends in the New York metropolitan area, there are any number of free buses transporting folks to Pennsylvania. Go to www.hillaryclinton.com to sign up WHEREVER you are in the country. If you are not close to a swing state, the website can set you up to make calls to voters in swing states. moveon.org is another organization that is calling voters in swing states. I made a call last night to an elderly woman who just moved and had not yet voted in this new location. She was so grateful for me to call with her polling site and a phone number to get her a ride to the polls. Even one call like that is worth all of the “not-homes” or those who don’t want to talk to you at all.

 
Or DONATE money! People for the American Way (www.pfaw.org) is an organization you should know about which is doing election protection work, Supreme Court protection work, and also has a right-wing watch — they keep me abreast of the voter repression/suppression efforts that are going on all over the country and fight on behalf of those plaintiffs. Emily’s List (www.emilyslist.org) is a one-stop funding site for female pro-choice candidates. Many of the close Senate races are those of progressive Democratic women: Maggie Hassan in NH, Deborah Ross in NC, Kate McGinty in PA, Catherine Cortez Masto in NV, and Ann Kirkpatrick in AZ. You can either go to each of their own websites to donate or do it through Emily’s List.

The stakes are high and as citizens of this great country, we are all invited to participate in keeping it a democracy. I am here in PA praying with my feet and my pocketbook. I hope you can join me in my prayers. And if not, here is a real prayer:

In Thanks for U.S. Democracy by Alden Solovy

G-d of history,
We give thanks for the blessings
Of democracy in the United States,
Blessings unparalleled throughout the world.
No nation can match these gifts.
We give thanks:
For free and fair elections,
For the 15th Amendment,
For the 19th Amendment,
For the Voting Rights Act,
For decentralized control of balloting,
For decentralized control of vote tallying,
For the peaceful transition of power,
For the two-party system,
For third party and independent candidates,
For robust debate and political compromise,
For patriotism above partisanship,
For the separation of power,
For leaders taking an oath of office,
For leaders taking an oath to serve the people,
For leaders taking an oath to defend the Constitution,
For a military sworn to defend the Constitution,
For judges sworn to uphold the Constitution,
For two chambers of Congress,
For accountability to constituents,
For the Supreme Court,
For our Chief Executive, the Commander-in-Chief,
And for one another, citizens of a great nation.
Let us cherish the right to select our government.
Let us cherish the right to select our representatives,
The national, state and local leaders
Who will steer our nation and guide our communities.
Our system is strong.
On election day, our voices are heard.
We, the People, are blessed.

© 2016 Alden Solovy and tobendlight.com. All rights reserved.

L’havdil — Stone Mountain and the U of Georgia

16th day of the Omer — gevurah sh’b’tiferet (boundaries in compassion)

Judi gave me the title of this post. L’havdil is a hard-to-translate Hebrew phrase along the lines of “Viva la difference!”

The use of this phrase marks the world of difference between all of my civil rights touring and our planned visit this morning to Stone Mountain, which is an homage to the southern Confederacy. The tableau on the mountain features the Confederate leaders, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. It is actually quite impressive as an engineering and artistic feat (it is 33 stories high, a city block wide, and 5 miles around the base of the mountain), if a bit appalling in that there is no counter-story offered there. In fact, Ku Klux Klan rallies regularly take place at the foot of it, to this day.

Stone Mountain

Stone Mountain

Stone Mountain close-up

Stone Mountain close-up

We made this stop en route to the University of Georgia in Athens where we helped Judi’s youngest daughter pack up and move out her stuff for the summer and also visited with her middle daughter who is graduating from there this coming week (oldest daughter is in law school at Vanderbilt). Athens was a lovely college town and the campus is lovely. But I stopped short in my tracks when I saw this plaque noting that the university didn’t integrate until 1961 (hence the historic black colleges in Atlanta — Morehouse and Spelman). I went to progressive Oberlin College, the first school to accept both African Americans (from 1835) and women (from 1837, though its mission was to be coeducational from its founding in 1833). So, 1961?!?!

University of Georgia didn't integrate until 1961!

University of Georgia didn’t integrate until 1961! The Holmes-Hunter academic building marked by this plaque carries the names of the first two African American students to enroll.

As I prepare to leave tomorrow morning, I leave you with just two more images from my time here.

Graffiti on a wall in MLK's old neighborhood.

Graffiti on a wall in MLK’s old neighborhood. One section reads “No more hunger.” The other says, “In this country you can do anything if you try, but can I live next door to you?”

A guard at the aquarium the other day read my shirt and said, "I have a dream." "yeah? What is it?" I asked. "To own my own business," he said. What is YOUR dream?

A t-shirt I bought at the King Center on Thursday. A guard at the aquarium on Friday read my shirt and said, “I have a dream.” “Yeah, what is it?” I asked. “To own my own business,” he said. What is YOUR dream?

Happy Mother’s Day, y’all! And thanks to Judi and Stan for your gracious (and Southern) hospitality!

Fish and Human Rights

15 th day of the Omer — chesed sh’b’tiferet — loving kindness in compassion

On Friday morning after an early swim with Judy at the local JCC and breakfast at the incredibly cheap and delicious Waffle House (a Southern chain), I took MARTA (the subway) to the Center for Civil and Human Rights. I was told an average visit lasts 1-1/2 hours, but I’m not average —  it took me over 3 hours to take it all in. There was a lot to see, read, and assimilate. The most difficult experience was the re-enactment of sitting at a segregated lunch counter as a sit-in while vitriol is being hurled at me and even violence is all around — loud sounds through my headphones of baseball bats or heads being bashed and screams of abuse. It felt real and terrifying and there was a real taste of the fear, as well as of awe that all these young people in the ’60’s managed to respond nonviolently to violence.

An interesting factoid for me was learning about the role that Rabbi Jacob Rothschild of The Temple played in Atlanta’s civil rights work (where my friend Judi used to work), his friendship with Dr. King, and his vocal involvement with the school desegregation movement which led to the Temple getting bombed. (BTW, The Temple was filmed in Driving Miss Daisy –– it was where she was a member). It’s the oldest Reform congregation in Atlanta.

Another fascinating role was played by Coca Cola, which threatened to pull out of Atlanta if the business community didn’t get behind the dinner to honor Dr. King after he won the Nobel Peace Prize. The dinner sold out (1500 tickets) within two hours following that threatening announcement. Money does talk. Even today Coca Cola has played that card. When the GA governor recently considered signing the religious freedom restoration act (a law which seems to only protect the freedom of bigots to hate), it was Coca Cola and Home Depot who convinced him of the  economic and public relations debacle that would ensue, so he didn’t sign the bill. I would like to be generous and view Coke through a lens of moral integrity alone, but motivations are complicated, and economic self-interest likely played a role as well.

Wall in Atlanta's Center for Civil and Human Rights commemorating the Freedom Riders

Wall in Atlanta’s Center for Civil and Human Rights commemorating the Freedom Riders. There was a real honoring of the men, women, and children — black and white — who had  played a part in the Civil Rights movement.Remember Emmet Till? Fannie Lou Hamer? Did you know that Rosa Parks was a serious NAACP investigator, not a mild-mannered “any woman” as she has been portrayed?

Norman Rockwell's iconic rendering

Norman Rockwell’s iconic rendering of Ruby Bridges integrating her school in New Orleans in 1960. The painting is called “The Problem We All Live With” and was published on the cover of Look, 1964. It is apparently still the most requested painting at the Rockwell museum in Stockbridge, MA. John Steinbeck wrote about Ruby in Travels with Charley: “The little girl did not look at the howling crowd. But from the side the whites of her eyes showed like those of a frightened fawn… Then the girl made a curious hop and I think I know what it was. I think in her whole life she had not gone ten steps without skipping but now in the middle of her first step the weight bore her down and her little round feet took measured reluctant steps between the tall guards. Slowly they climbed the steps and entered the school.

The most visceral experience of the museum was sitting at the "lunch counter," listening (through headphones) to people screaming obscenities at me. I was to remain there with my hands on the counter, responding to violence with non-violence. I cried and prayed for the entire 90 seconds

The most visceral experience of the museum was sitting at the “lunch counter,” listening (through headphones) to people screaming obscenities at me. I was to remain there with my hands on the counter, responding to violence with non-violence. I cried and prayed for the entire 90 seconds. The sign where I placed my hands reads: “How long can you last? Put on a pair of headphones and place your hands flat on the designated areas. Experience a simulated response to your nonviolent protest and see how long you can keep calm with your hands steady on the counter. Try to keep your eyes closed.”

I'm about to sit at the lunch counter, totally unprepared for what is to come.

I’m about to sit at the lunch counter, totally unprepared for what is to come. A box of tissues was thoughtfully placed close by.

After passing through the civil rights part of the museum,  I visited the human rights floor, which helps make the connection between the US civil rights movement and other important contemporary movements both nationally and internationally, from public education and Internet freedom to ending genocide and sexual violence, to promoting the rights of women, the disabled, LGBT community,  the labor movement, immigrants, etc. I learned about a number of inspiring people, projects, and movements around the world.

We were also posed serious questions about our own ethical footprint in the world. For instance,we were encouraged to ask the companies that make our favorite chocolate to certify that the cacao is not from plantations that use child or slave labor. Will YOU research and ask? Other examples posed were about the minerals used in our electronic devices and the violence of the warlords who oversee their production and distribution (would you pay more for a cellphone if it were guaranteed “conflict-free”?); the child labor used to stitch soccer balls, preventing kids from attending school (would you contact a soccer ball manufacturer to find out how they insure that their soccer balls were not used with child labor?); shoes and clothing made abroad are also often made under unsafe and toxic working conditions — would you pay more for your clothing if you knew it protected the workers?;  the health risks for women who pick and cut flowers — thereby necessitating that we ask and pay for fair-trade flowers. All of these are actionable things that you and I can actually do to help protect  human rights. What will you take on?

Chocolate production is not child's play, but child labor under sometimes toxic conditions (pesticide use) make it

Chocolate production is not child’s play, but child labor (often slave labor) under sometimes toxic conditions (pesticide use) makes it dangerous and in humane work

The museum is located in the same complex as the Coca Cola museum and the aquarium. Within blocks were CNN headquarters which offers tours, as well as Emory University. It was already close to 3PM and it wasn’t an easy choice, but marine life won out, so I paid an exorbitant amount of money to see life-affirming miracles that made me happy, awe-struck, and feeling much better about the state of the world.

All felt so much better with the world when I entered the aquarium and encountered blue water (representing calm), and fish (representing freedom)

All felt so much better with the world when I entered the aquarium and encountered blue water (representing calm), and fish (representing freedom)

Though I couldn't film during the actually dolphin show ( though I did get soaking wet sitting in the 4th row!), this guy did come up to kiss me

Though I couldn’t film during the actually dolphin show (though I did get soaking wet sitting in the 4th row!), this guy did come up to kiss me (or kiss the glass that separated us)

Judi prepared a delicious Shabbat dinner (and surprised me with my favorite dessert –pecan pie) and invited lovely guests to join us. This morning we went to synagogue where a colleague serves as the associate rabbi. Laurence was an AJWS global justice fellow with me, and was on my trip to Guatemala last summer. It was great to visit with him to to meet his wife and kids.

Afterwards, Judi drove me to see the Temple. That was the only touring. The rest was R&R for Shabbat. But the tourist hat goes back on again tomorrow!

 

 

MLK’s Atlanta and the Earth Goddess

13th day of the Omer —yesod sh’b’ gevurah

Yes, I’m traveling yet again. Since the beginning of 2016, I have been to California twice, to Hawaii, to Spain, and now to Atlanta. I have the travel bug! Life is short and there is so much to see and learn.

I arrived in Atlanta late last night for a long weekend with Judi, my rabbinical school roommate, and her husband Stan. I have wanted to come here for quite some time to visit the historical sites associated with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights era. Originally, I had also hoped to make it to either Birmingham or Montgomery for more of the history of the segregated South and the civil rights era, but realized, especially after the intensive touring I just did in Spain, that I would have to do Alabama another time in a separate trip.

What has been most unexpected by my first day here in Sweet Auburn (the name of the historic black neighborhood where MLK grew up and where he returned to co-pastor with his father) was how much crying I would do! It’s been an emotional roller coaster ride, both with the heart-piercing reminder of the cruelties of racism and segregation that are still rippling in our society today (read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow for more on this) as well as the uplifting, but nonetheless tear-provoking inspiration, legacy, and prophetic vision of King himself.

I spent several hours visiting the different sites which comprise the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, which President Carter established in 1980 to preserve the places where Dr. King was born, lived, worked, worshipped, and is buried. (President Carter actually established dozens of new historic sites, national parks and conservation lands during his presidential term).  The MLK, Jr. National Park Service Visitor Center had wonderful displays and films. Then I took the tour of the King family home;  visited the Ebenezer Baptist Church where MLK’s father was pastor and where Dr King returned as co-pastor after a 6-year stint in Montgomery; visited the King Center which has three separate rooms, one each dedicated to the legacies of Mahatma Gandhi (who greatly influenced Dr. King’s positions on non-violence), to Coretta Scott King,  and to Rosa Parks (whose refusal to move to the back of a Montgomery bus so that a white man could sit down, ignited the successful bus boycott and a movement).

Outside the King Center, Dr. King’s speeches were playing over a loudspeaker, so as I walked down the freedom walkway along a reflecting pool to his (and Coretta’s) tombstone, I heard his voice. I was so overcome by emotion at that point, that a Park Ranger came over to me and asked me if I knew what my tears signified. “Yes,” I said, really bawling at this point, “they signify my unrequited desire to work whole-heartedly for justice and and the world is so broken, and there is so much to do!” He just listened as I babbled, pointed at my heart, and said, “Your tears signify that you understand. Now go out and tell the world.”

So I’m telling you: The world is really broken and we HAVE to work harder to heal it. For me, Martin Luther King is truly an inspiration in how one moves from despair to action. I don’t want to live with despair or cynicism in my heart — I want to live with the belief that the seemingly impossible IS possible and that mountains can be moved by virtue of our will to move them. So let’s start pushing!

In front of MLK's childhood home with Doug, the guide

In front of MLK’s childhood home on Auburn Avenue with Park Service guide, Doug. When MLK was growing up here, the Sweet Auburn neighborhood was the wealthiest black neighborhood in the world. But wealth or profession didn’t insure respect or justice in America. MLK got an early education in racism at age 6 when his best friend, a little white boy whose parents owned the candy store across the street, “unfriended” him because of the color of his skin.

The Promenade behind the Visitor Center. The flagstones on the two outer paths feature footprints of civil rights leaders

The Promenade behind the Visitor Center. The flagstones on the two outer paths feature footprints of civil rights leaders

Footsteps of Ambassador Andrew Young

Footsteps on the Promenade of Ambassador Andrew Young

Tombstones of Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King

Tombstone of Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King. It is placed on a little island in the middle of a long pool of water.

One of my brasher the acquaintances -- Jerry, originally from the Bronx, who comforted me during one of my crying jags

One of my bashert acquaintances was with Jerry, originally from the Bronx, who comforted me during one of my crying jags on the Freedom Walk

Judi picked me up at the end of the day and we had a quick bite at Krog Street Market, an upscale food market where we debriefed our respective days (hers included officiating at a funeral, and besides what you read here, mine included speculation about whether Dr King would be for Hillary or for Bernie if he were alive today. BTW, none of the park rangers would/could engage me on this question).

We then went for the evening to the botanical gardens where Dale Chihuly’s glass sculptures were featured throughout the landscape. Though exquisite works of art which were (mostly) tastefully placed to enhance the experience of nature, what really stole my heart was the “mosaiculture,” a 20-foot tall, humungous living sculpture called the Earth Goddess. She is changed seasonally with different plants (I bought a postcard of her in reds) and trimmed weekly. She weighs more than 29 tons and is created from more than 18,000 individual plants. I fell in love!

Me and Judi with both Chihuly and the Earth Goddess in mosaiculture

Me and Judi with both Dale Chihuly glass and the Earth Goddess behind us

The Earth Goddess. Note the water flowing from her hand

The Earth Goddess. Note the water flowing from her hand

Dale Chihuly glass amongst the plants.

Dale Chihuly black-and-white glass amongst the plants

Tomorrow I will visit Atlanta’s Civil and Human Rights Museum. And then it’s Shabbos!

Seville and Passover

On Friday we arrived in Cadiz, and took a tour bus to Seville, about 1-1/2 hours away. Three operas are associated with this lovely city: Carmen, Don Giovanni, and the Barber of Seville. Though ours was not a tour specializing in Jewish sights as our Barcelona one had been, the walking tour focused a good deal on la Juderia, the Jewish quarter of Seville, focusing on the relationship between the three cultures of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. It was pointed out that the Juderia was very close to the palace because the Jews (pre-Inquisition) were protected by the crown due to their relative wealth, education, and know-how. The guide, Lola, is herself the descendant of Conversos, noting that her last name — Romero — means “rosemary,” and that the converted Jews discarded their distinguishable Jewish surnames and often replaced them with words for fruits and herbs like Romero, Nanjara (“orange”), Manzana (“apple”), etc. Anyone with nature words as a last name is likely a descendant of Conversos, she said (I have some research to do to verify that!)

This symbol that says "Sefardi" in Hebrew is an indication of Jewish sights throughout Spain.

This symbol that says “Sefard” in Hebrew is an indication of Jewish sites throughout Spain. The black space also artistically incorporates the Hebrew word “yizkor” (an imperative meaning “Remember!”).

The large Spanish plaza in Seville, built for the World Expo in 1929, has a magnificent tiled display representing each province of Spain and is the most visited landmark in Seville. While there, I was in the midst of choosing from some beautiful hand-painted fans when the young female merchant hurriedly packed up her wares and ran away — along with scores of other merchants. We saw the police enter the square and realized that there must be regular round-ups of these illegal peddlars. Many of the merchants actually left their stuff behind on the ground rather than be caught with it! It was a sad sight. Julie remarked that these might be Romas (the proper name for gypsies).

Spanish Plaza in Seville --One of my the provinces represented by a map on the ground and a tiled representation of its history.

Spanish Plaza in Seville — one of the provinces represented by a map on the ground and a tiled representation of its history on the wall behind.

Spanish Plaza

More of the expansive Spanish Plaza

On our tour we also passed the plazas of many other countries that were built for that Expo, as well — the U.S., Argentina, Peru, Guatemala, etc., each unique in its own right. The Plaza of the Americas was actually built by Spain to honor Columbus’s “founding” of the New World. He is quite the hero here in Spain, notably for bringing things like tobacco, coffee, and chocolate back to the Old World.

Of course, we also visited the famed Alcazar, a Moorish palace built for the Spanish King. Again, the three cultures of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism were featured in the design and architecture (all done by the best Muslim architects and artists of the time), with Jewish stars, Hebrew words, verses from the Koran in Arabic, and Christian iconography, all featured. The beautiful gardens themselves cover 18 acres!

I'm a sucker for shots of beautiful doorways. This is an original wood doer at Alcazar.

I’m a sucker for shots of beautiful doorways. This is an original wooden door at Alcazar. Everything was exquisitely and colorfully tiled or carved

Alcazar decorations showing both Islamic and Christian imagery

Alcazar wall decorations showing both Islamic and Christian medieval imagery

Thanks to the advice of my colleague Rabbi Shira Milgrom, I knew to visit one particular Seville spot off the beaten track during our free time. Julie and I found space #9 in an underground parking garage just outside the Juderia. Apparently the garage was built on top of the community’s Jewish cemetery. Behind that parking space is a glass window display of one of the cemetery’s sarcophagi. May he/she rest in peace. And may the daily parkers in Space #9 (and elsewhere in that garage) know that they park on holy ground.

You can see the reflection of the car in the glass that encloses the sarcophagus

You can see the reflection of the car in the glass that encloses the sarcophagus

When we returned to the ship it was time to ready myself for the Passover seder. This year is THE year of freedom for me — no Passover cleaning or cooking responsibilities. What a welcome reprieve! We had about 75 seder guests. Most of them were Israelis who had packed their own haggadot and matza (including Mordecai who handed over his handmade shmurah matza for the occasion), not expecting a seder onboard. They were all duly impressed (as I was) by the extraordinary efforts of Holland America to provide such an elaborate (and kosher) seder meal for us. They even had a complete Seder plate for each and every table (over 20!) We had a blast, and I received such heart-felt thanks from everyone who came!

Seder table - note the Mediterranean Sea just outside the window. I was glad to be in a boat and not crossing the Sea by foot, as the Israelites did!

Seder table – note the Mediterranean Sea just outside the window. I was glad to be in a boat and not crossing the Sea by foot, as the Israelites did!

Since Saturday was a day at sea on our return to Barcelona without a port stop, it was truly a day of relaxation. I davenned, walked for an hour around the deck for Holland America’s “On Deck for a Cure” cancer fundraiser, had a massage, swam ( I swam every day this week and was the only one in the pool each time until today), and then in the evening convened an alternative Passover experience (seder “lite”). Julie and I then went to see a late movie (the 4th one I went to this week!)

Julie paid for an exclusive behind-the scenes tour of the inner workings of the cruise ship. All week long, she was asking questions about “how do they this or that?” so she finally had a venue to get all her questions answered! There are 110 chefs onboard, for instance, and our drinking water is desalinated sea water! The captain does far more than navigate — he oversees all departments from guest services to personnel, and she also learned that crew works a certain number of months on before getting a certain number of months off. There is an amazing string quintet onboard who plays on the ship’s Lincoln Center Stage, and Julie (herself a professional musician and founder of an amazing nonprofit called Shelter Music Boston), also was sure to get the scoop on how they got this gig.

Our cabin steward, Joni, creates a different "towel" animal each night. After Seder, we came back and were surprised by the monkey hanging from our ceiling!

Our cabin steward, Joni, creates a different “towel” animal for our room each night. After Seder, we came back and were surprised by this cutie-pie monkey hanging from our ceiling!

I asked if she needed an officiant, but the bride assured me that the Captain was to perform the ceremony.

I asked if she needed an officiant, but the bride assured me that the Captain was to perform the ceremony. Later Julie told me that the Captain is actually not allowed to do weddings (something she learned on her ship tour). I hope the bride and groom know that!

It is late Saturday night, the second day of Passover, and the first day of the counting of the Omer. It is both the day and the week of chesed, loving-kindness.  As Julie and I head back to the U.S. tomorrow, may we carry these great memories with love in our hearts. I am so grateful for this opportunity to have travelled to Spain, learned so much, been of service to others, and been in the good company of such an old, dear friend.

Shavua tov and Chag Pesach sameiach.