Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Activism Means We Have to Do Something?

Miriam-Webster’s dictionary stats that activism is: a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.

The problem with understanding this term in a Jewish context and an English teacher’s context is that I understand “active” as a verb. This means there is actual movement or action within every calculated move. So what does it mean to be an activist? Can one do so in the context of their own spiritual beliefs or do we hand this thought over to the Zionists and socially aware? I think we can have it both ways.

To be an activist within your own spirituality might be learning or taking up new prayers. It can be attending a class that makes us more active spiritually and within the community. To actually connect with G-d is an act of activism. When every ounce of faith you have is poured into a heartfelt conversation or plea with G-d, when we realize that we need to put in some work with G-d to get something in return. Maybe it’s a short Bracha we learned in class or maybe it’s a prayer that might help traffic part on the way to work. Sometimes it’s mitzvot that we do in turn to connect. Whatever it might be viewed as, it’s active.

Social activism comes with a different context and sometimes at a different price. Both are seen as valuable in the Jewish world. To stand with Israel is an activist approach. Maybe you feel more Jewish or more connected when you stand with your Israeli flag on a street corner and sing “Shalom Alechem” while the opposition shows depictions of terrorism in IDF uniforms. We attend rallies, encourage peaceful demonstrations, and teach a local group or random neighbor something insightful about Israel. Maybe it’s as simple as screaming at the left wing reporter on the news that clearly has misguided information about a place you know and love.

None of the above suggestions or tactics work for you. Clearly you want to be an activist in your Jewish world and of course you’re entitled to decide what is “Jewish” so let’s look at what you like. Maybe you’re very much into the concept of social work or you have a skill like law. You can do some Pro Bono work for your community or help Jewish families in crisis. You cant do this? Why? You work at a grocery store. Perfect! Start a canned food drive for Mazon, A Jewish Response for Hunger.

The problem with wanting to be an activist and actually being one is that we can all WANT something. Doing is really the key, really the act of mitzvot. By being an activist in your Jewish life, you are connecting with G-d on a level you feel most comfortable. No one can tell you that Tikkun Olam, my favorite of all concepts in Judaism, is not needed or valued.

I implore the Jewish community to challenge itself. What makes us active in our own faith and actions? What is the verb in our daily worship or conversation with G-d? If we are able to find one, try to find more. Every act we do can help create a bond stronger than the one previous. It is when we forget that activism is defined by doing that we, as a community, can become empty vessels. An active heart and active hands will promote a Jewish home. Jewish homes promote Jewish community. A Jewish community can promote Tikkun Olam. And to think, just a few small actions a day…

Be true to the streets!


It's Punk Rock to be Wicked

Hurry and clean the bread out of your homes! Quick! Those bagels are about to become the very link to your own personal disconnect with Hashem. What? No bagels? That’s fine, a breakfast burrito or some pancakes will do. Yeah, right! Welcome to Passover! Carbohydrates in some of their best forms become sinful thoughts for eight days.

For two nights (the two seders), we find ourselves surrounded by family and friends. For some, it’s a joy. For many, it’s a challenge. For few, it may be the only Jewish experience we have all year. The way we handle our Judaism can also be compared to the four sons mentioned in the Haggadah. The four sons are: the wise (“Chacham” in Hebrew) , the simple (or lazy, “Tam” in Hebrew), the wicked (“Rasha” in Hebrew) and the silent ("She'aino Yodea Lishol" in Hebrew, meaning "The Son who Doesn't Know Enough to Ask").

Many people focus on the one who does not know how to ask. However, ironically, many of us at the table are actually the wicked son. I mean, if you’re at the table, you probably have the idea you’re Jewish right? It is exactly this that keeps cites like our very own alive. For many Jews, you have sat year after year at a shabbos table or a Passover seder and thought “Why am I here?” You know at least the most basic of laws and you might even attend young adult events or have hit a Hillel in college or a BBYO event in your teen years of punk rock rebellion.

What is crucial to understand about all these sons (or daughters… I mean, I am a YENTApunker… not a MENCHEpunker) is that each has a place at the table. What Jewish person wouldn’t have enough food for one more extra person anyway? Yet, it is the wicked son that seems to be embraced by many of us though. The wicked thinks the laws apply to other Jews, but not themselves.

Situation: It’s a Monday morning and after a long night of punk rock craziness you ignored your alarm. You’re now totally screwed and cannot make it to work on time. You throw on a shirt that is only moderately wrinkled, hop in your economy vehicle, and speed to work.

Now, it is highly possible that a police officer never catches you on the way to work. However, Hashem sees everything. He knows that you’re aware you’re breaking laws and putting yourself or others at risk. If you continue to speed, knowing the legal limit, you too fit in the wicked category.

Why would I want to label many of my loved ones as wicked and not the wise or the simple? Well… it seems so much nicer to realize we all have an ability to grow. The wise son almost implies we have nothing left to learn. However, our nishamas have much to learn and can always learn more. Many of us are not simple. We are not lazy, we are functioning in the secular and the Jewish community. The long hours of Tikkun Olam have to count for something right? But wicked, many of us proudly are, despite the connotation.

Wicked sounds so unpleasant, but I implore you challenge the connotation and see its beauty. Embrace the idea that you might learn something at the table or that you might have it in you to learn something this year. Being wicked doesn’t have to be looked upon as bad. Acknowledge and embrace your wickedness. Enjoy it, but use it to identify where you can grow spiritually.

Overall, the laws do apply to us all. This Pesach try and find one law to learn. Hell, pick up some Leviticus and read. It won’t hurt you anymore than those commercials for Viagra do. I mean, if it’s from Hashem it’s perfect right? So nurish your spiritual roots in four glasses of wine and remember, it’s punk rock to be wicked. L’Chaim and Chag Sameach!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Jewish Namesake

It’s terrible to feel like you don’t stand out. Like you could fall in to chasm of Jewish people at shul and never be identified because your parents thought it was beautiful to make your name sit amongst many. It’s the way we work as a people. A baby boy clearly has a chance of being named Josh, Ari, Dan, Issac, Jacob, David or Matthew. A baby girl also has a risk of commonality: Rivka, Leah, Sara, Rachel or Miriam. Some of us have been blessed by getting both a first and a middle name that are common, almost stripping us of our individuality at the core.

For years my mother bragged that she had given me a very Jewish name. She said she wanted everyone to know with a name like Rachel Sara that I would be a strong woman. At shul she could yell my name and thought it was a sheer delight when 20 other girls would turn their head to a thick Brooklyn accent yelling for her daughter. Little did she ever know she would have to direct her voice to the other Joshes and Davids of the world because that’s where I was, playing football during breaks at shul.

Everywhere I went someone had my name. It made me feel like I was swimming in a world of Rachels and I had nothing special in my name to offer. I met a Merav once and nearly wept at the fact she had such a different name than most. Even dating got awkward since I have had a fair share of dates with Davids and Daniels. Speaking to my friends, we would have to name them attributes of their character, to distinguish one from the other.

As I got older there were so many Rachels at one particular shabbos table that I had to become “Schiff”. Now I not only had a first name that was so common we had to come up with something new for me, but I felt like a line backer for a major football team. What girl gets called by her last name? Like being a member of the tribe was a team and I had a jersey that read “Schiff” in large letters on the back. I was like all the others, but now had a new issue of feeling masculine. People introduced me by my last name, like I had no first. This name thing was really getting to me.

Just recently, I decided to read “The Boy in Stripped Pajamas”. A young boy name Shmule is in a death camp. He’s around 7 years old and talks about how everyone on his side of the fence has his name. He complained that his name was nothing special and that he was one of many. I bawled. What a way to identify with people. To have a name that binds you culturally, historically, and shows understanding on such a deeply rooted level. Then, I finally realized what my mother had been so proud of. It took me 27 years and a book with a 7th grade reading level to get it, but I think it did.

A name is like an onion. First, at the center (for my name), is Rahel, who is buried in Israel at the side of a road. Ever since her, there have been other Rachels in Jewish history, each making a layer around the original. My name adds to the many generations that have come since then. I stand on the shoulders of strong women who have come before me.

It is an Ashkenazi tradition to name your child after a family member who has passed away. My mother continually tells me that all Jews are family. That when one is hungry, we all need food and that when one needs help we should give as though they are our flesh and blood. By giving me a name that seems so unoriginal, so plain, she was giving to those women who had come before me.

Although I still find it frustrating to thumb through my blackberry and try and distinguish one Jewish name from the next; I have found some humor and pride from it. Funny enough, I owe my comprehension and appreciation of my name to a small, fictional boy in stripped pajamas.

I no longer complain about being one of many.

Be true to the streets! –Yentapunker