When I was 12 or 13, I came home one day wearing my friend Steve Rogers’ necklace. It was a leather string with painted ceramic beads on it. And right in the middle, there was a simple metal cross. I knew I was over the line to wear that into my house. I knew it was a transgressive act of defiance and rebellion unlike anything I’d done before. At the time, it felt like an act of spiritual audacity, like a declaration of independence, like a path of liberation.
It’s strange that I don’t remember how my parents reacted. But I do remember that the issue was serious enough to be taken up the chain to my grandparents, my Savta and Saba. And the next time I saw them they sat me down for a talking to.
This is what my Savta Shoshana, zichrona livracha, her memory is a blessing, said to me: You’re Jewish. You’ll always be Jewish. It doesn’t matter what you think, or what you do, or what you say, or what you wear. Being Jewish is like being Black or being Italian. It’s just who you are. You can’t change it. And some people will hate you for it, and some day people might want to kill you because of it. So you need to know who you are. You know what happened. It can happen again – anywhere, anytime. So you can wear a cross if you want to. But it doesn’t change who you are.
I was sure, I was absolutely certain, that my grandparents were wrong. Inside, I was resisting everything they said. I put up a shield so their words would bounce off it. But something about the way they talked to me surprised me. I had thought that I was in big trouble. I had thought there would be consequences, punishments, maybe an ultimatum, maybe something like, “It’s your neck, but it’s not your house – so you can choose between that necklace and the roof over your head.”
But they didn’t pull rank, and they made no demands. They weren’t angry, but they were the most serious I’d ever seen them. I understood that this wasn’t an argument or a disagreement. I got that it wasn’t about me declaring my independence or being rebellious; it was beyond me accepting or rejecting the norms of my family. I had crossed a boundary and now found myself in a territory beyond arguments. I could feel DN: KN 5778 2a their fear for me, and I could feel their love for me underneath those words. And it made a crack in my shield.
I can’t remember a time in my childhood when I didn’t know about the Shoah, the Nazi holocaust. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know the words “Never Again” and the steel-and-concrete determination they carried. And I also can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel the dreadful presence of the shadowy terror that was the silent partner of “Never Again” –- the unspoken twin conviction that “It will happen again. We don’t know when and we don’t know where, but it will happen again. It’s only a matter of time.” That’s what my grandparents were telling me – with their words, and with much of how they lived and saw the world.
I have always had a very good life here, filled with education and opportunity and community and ease. And I have always resisted the narrative I inherited about the inevitable return of anti-Jewish oppression, and the inevitable return of non-Jewish bystanders allowing or not resisting that oppression. So over my lifetime, I’ve built a different narrative, one that includes the possibility of a thriving and healthy Jewish diaspora. One that is rooted in the trust that we humans are overwhelming goodhearted, and ready to take chances for each other, ready to show up for each other.
It’s not that I’m convinced that no day will come in North America when Jews will be targeted in ways that threaten our lives and safety. I have no way of knowing what the future holds. But this relative safety and healing that I’ve been blessed with have allowed me to choose to live without the conviction that persecution inevitably awaits us. We can choose to live into trust rather than fear. We can choose to be open rather than guarded. We can choose to be generous with our Judaism rather than protective of it. And those choices, I think, can bring us healing.
And still, there is a tension in me between these two narratives – my family’s narrative of inevitable persecution, and my narrative of new possibilities.
Over the last year, as we witnessed the fomenting of hate and anger and meanness during the presidential campaign, I felt more and more queasy and scared. Since November 8, I’ve felt fear in my body in a different way. Like a big steel door somewhere swung shut, and I’m trapped. Or like a big neon sign in the sky started flashing “Game Over,” as if some part of me always knew this moment would come.
My nerves are all at attention, my senses are more alert. I feel a sense of impending doom. Not always, but often enough.
I know that these responses are triggered by events that are happening now, but they are not entirely about what is happening now. They are the awakening of old fears that were planted in me decades ago. So I’ve been in conversation with myself, and with many of you, working to sort out what is real in this moment, and what I am carrying with me from the traumas of Europe in the 1930s and 40s, and all the traumas that came before and since.
Each of us has our own relationship to the Shoah. And I don’t think any of us is untouched by it. Whether we are Jewish, or not Jewish. Whether we’re Jews who chose or affirmed our Jewish identity, or we’re Jews by birth. Whether we have roots in Ashkenaz, or come from Sefardi or Mizrachi backgrounds. Whether our ancestors survived the death camps or the ghettos or were in hiding, or whether they lived far away from Europe.
Maybe because of the enormity of the Shoah, maybe because my father and grandparents were immigrants and spoke with accents, maybe because of my family’s particular mishugas, its quirks, I never quite felt American. Or maybe I felt like I was American – but I didn’t feel that American history was really my history, or that American culture is really my culture, or that the American story was my story. My story was somewhere across the sea, sung in a minor mode, transmitted through recipes for apple cake and Shabbos candlesticks and musty leather-bound volumes.
So it takes conscious effort for me to try to understand my experience as white person in America, to own this history. It takes effort to look clearly at myself as an inheritor of the benefits of white supremacy. It takes effort to understand that my father could make a middle class life for our family after coming here with just a few dollars in his pocket not only due to his hard work and devotion, but also because of the path that was already paved for him once he arrived here—a white person’s path that is not, and has never been available in the same way to people of color.
It takes conscious effort for me to see that my story is not only the story of the genocide of the Shoah, and the story of European Jews. My story is also the story of this place –A country built on the genocide of the middle passage. A country built on the economic and political structures of white supremacy that have sought to dehumanize the survivors of the middle passage and their descendants. Structures that endure to this. And my story is also the story of a country built on the genocide of indigenous peoples, their forced displacement, and the relentless attempts to erase their cultures and identities– attempts that persist to this day. A few years ago I had an experience that taught me about spiritual audacity. The Costanoan Rumsen Ohlone people held their California Big Time Gathering at Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco. Yerba Buena Gardens is part of a big development in the South of Market area that sparked resistance because it was built on a sacred Ohlone site.
The listing for the all-day event said:
“At sundown (approx. 8:30 PM), the Costanoan Rumsen Ohlone Tribe will lead a traditional Bear Dance healing ceremony in the Yerba Buena Gardens to begin to heal the damage done at this site, which was sacred to the Ohlone people. Ancestral graves were disturbed during the building of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in the early 1990’s, and although ancestral remains were reburied elsewhere, the tribe will dance to communicate with ancestral spirits in an attempt to bring peace and healing.”1
I went to the gardens that night with my son Jesse, and our friend Esther Solomon – they were both about 11 at the time. It felt holy to me even as we were making our way there. I wondered at the courage it took for the Costanoan Rumsen Ohlone people to show up on this site where so long ago their ancestors had died, and where so recently the city of San Francisco had said to them: We don’t care about your ancestors, or what we did to them, or what we’ve done to you. We’re building our project anyway.
As people gathered for the ceremony the leaders invited everyone present to participate. They explained that there would be parts of the ceremony that were only done by the dancers, the leaders and the members of the tribe. And there would be other parts where everyone was invited to join in. They would teach us how. As the tribal chief Tony Cerda said, “People in the city need healing too, not just people in the woods and in the mountains.”2
I couldn’t believe that I was being invited in not just to witness, but also to participate, and to receive healing, on this site, with this history of violence and abuse perpetrated by my people against this people. I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the generosity that was being offered to me – a generosity that was beyond my comprehension. The Bear Dance was healing for me. And I left the gardens feeling transformed. I saw a new way to walk forward toward healing. I saw new possibilities for how I can live and move both as a Jewish person and as a white American. I felt, and feel called to cultivate radical generosity, openness, and a willingness to notice my fears, without being deterred by them.
I met one of the dancers a few days later. I told him how grateful I was to him and how moved I was by his generosity. He said, We have to be generous. We’re the bear people.
It feels clear that we’re entering a time of great change and struggle. The untended wounds of our country are open and festering. Our beloved earth is groaning under the weight of our greed and disregard.
In this time, we get to ask ourselves two particularly Jewish questions. First: which parts of Jewish historical experience can help us, and help our allies and partners, to understand what’s going on and to respond? How can our particular historical experiences and wisdom serve the movement to resist hate and authoritarianism and to build love and healing?
And, second, we get to ask ourselves: which parts of our Jewish historical experience will seize us with a terror that sends us retreating into the fortress of “Never Again”? A fortress where we try desperately to hold the terror at bay by closing our hearts to others, seeing other people as a threat, and using our material resources to bolster our sense of security?
Over the last months we’ve talked a lot in our community about a strategy of beefing up solidarity instead of beefing up security.
It means opening ourselves up instead of closing ourselves off.
It means building more and deeper relationships with other communities, and linking arms, with no one left behind, as we did last month in Berkeley.
It means listening deeply and speaking truthfully.
It means accepting what people say about their own experience and how they see the world, and staying in conversation even when their perspectives are difficult or painful for us to hear.
It means paying attention to who is most at risk here in any given moment, who is most vulnerable, who is most harmed by the systems of oppression that we operate in. It means being curious about that ways that we support and benefit from the structures of oppression that target others:
If we’re white, if we’re cisgender, if we’ve got papers, if we’re not disabled, if our ancestors chose to come here from other lands.
It means being Jewish in public and inviting people to join us — sharing all the amazing teaching and celebration that’s part of our practice. Cultivating our generosity so we can welcome everyone into the home of our community. Like the prophet Isaiah said,
עמים לכל יקרא תפילה בת בתי כי My House shall be a house of prayer for all people! (Is 56:7)
To support this path for deepening solidarity, we’re initiating a new and important process in the coming year. It is a community-wide initiative to challenge white supremacy and to build our capacity for racial justice, from the inside out. We are bringing together a multi-racial team to design a process that will help us to understand how white supremacy and racism are at play within us and in our community, and to support the work we need to do to heal and grow. We’ll be working with community partners and bringing in experienced facilitators. If you’d like to be part of the design and implementation of this process, please be in touch with me.
Together, we can move ourselves and our community into ever-wider circles of loving curiosity and radical generosity and spiritual audacity.
The great indigenous writer and filmmaker Sherman Alexie shows us the way in his new poem, called Hymn. Tormorrow morning, Hazzan Shulamit will chant part of the poem as our haftarah, our prophetic reading. You can read the full text* on the handout.
Who will you be? Who will I become
As we gather in this terrible kingdom?
My friends, I’m not quite sure what I should do.
I’m as angry and afraid and disillusioned as you.
But I do know this: I will resist hate. I will resist.
I will stand and sing my love. I will use my fist
To drum and drum my love. I will write and read poems
That offer the warmth and shelter of any good home.
I will sing for people who might not sing for me.
I will sing for people who are not my family. I will sing honor songs for the unfamiliar and new.
I will visit a different church and pray in a different pew.
I will silently sit and carefully listen to new stories
About other people’s tragedies and glories.
I will not assume my pain and joy are better.
I will not claim my people invented gravity or weather.
And, oh, I know I will still feel my rage and rage and rage
But I won’t act like I’m the only person onstage.
I am one more citizen marching against hatred.
Alone, we are defenseless. Collected, we are sacred.
We will march by the millions. We will tremble and grieve.
We will praise and weep and laugh. We will believe.
We will be courageous with our love. We will risk danger
As we sing and sing and sing to welcome strangers.
*These words are taken from Sherman Alexie’s poem, Hymn, which is quoted at the end of the sermon.