The Stopping Place

“There had to be a stopping place,” she said, “and this seemed to be the place for me to stop being pushed around. I had decided that I would have to know once and for all what rights I had as a human being and a citizen, even in Montgomery, Alabama.”

 

For Rosa Parks it took twelve years to find her stopping place on Cleveland Avenue bus #2857. Against Montgomery City ordinance she had boarded the front of the bus in 1943 and was escorted off by the driver and told to re-enter the bus from the back door. As she exited, the driver waited a moment and then drove off, leaving her in the exhaust of the bus and a soaking rain. On December 1, 1955 she boarded the bus (fate had it that it was the same bus driver) this time from the rear door, but moved up to sit in the white designated area. The rest is history.

 

Rosa Parks had found her “stopping place.”

 

Almost 60 years later Elana Sztokman boarded an El Al plane to find that she had taken the “wrong” seat. A Haredi (which means “God fearing”) Orthodox Jewish man was assigned the seat next to her. What ensued was not unfamiliar to Elana or any passenger on an El Al flight. The man either wanted her to relocate or to find another seat for himself. Sitting next to a woman was against his religious sensibilities. He was finally able to switch but causing a delay in takeoff of the flight from New York to Tel Aviv.

 

It is likely that this story would have gone the way of a common, recurring event—it happens on almost every El Al flight—except that Elana was returning to Israel following a U.S. book tour. The title of her new book: The War on Women in Israel: A Story of Religious Radicalism and the Women Fighting for Freedom.

 

Here is her blog report of the incident:

 

“The plane took off 20 minutes late because an ultra-Orthodox man was negotiating with passengers so as not to have to sit next to a woman—me—on the 11-hour flight. I asked myself if this was karma or poetic justice. After all, I had just spoken to hundreds of people about exactly these issues and the way women are made to feel like second-class citizens as a result. Part of me wanted to smile and hand out copies of my book. But I sat there silently for a long time, watching all this happen, witnessing all these men around me talking about me, without looking directly at me. I sat there, torn between my desire not to make a scene and my feeling that if I don’t articulate, right here and now, how all this affects women, how this affects me, who will?”

 

Elana did speak up. She spoke to the man about her feeling insulted by his action. Her words though were met with apparently deaf ears as she heard him say under his breath, “She doesn’t understand.” Elana fought back and said to him, “I understand everything, and don’t talk to me as if I’m not here.” She reports: “He ignored me, and all the other men turned their backs and did not respond or even look at me.”

 

Rosa Parks did not cry when the Montgomery police came aboard and arrested her. Those tears had long before been dried up by the soaking rain and bus exhaust. On returning to her seat, Elana burst into tears. She does not explain why she cried but implies that it was a response to sitting for a half hour “absorbing the insult.”

 

As Rosa Parks had done before her Elana refused to move. The insult though brought up feelings of being relegated to “sitting in the back of the bus” (Elana’s words). She exhorts women at the closing of blog “to respect themselves enough to say no to all this. I want women to allow themselves to feel the impact of the silencing. I want women to be honest with themselves and to look at their lives and the places where they are powerless or oppressed, and to acknowledge that. Better yet, I want women to say no, I will not be silent or servile. I will not continue to absorb the insult as if this is all OK. I want women to say that they deserve better. I want women to believe that they deserve better.”

 

Of course, Elana is talking to herself as well. What has not occurred to Elana is the stopping place inside her. Rosa Parks knew with every fiber in her that she was an equal. If she had sat in the designated white section of the bus and all that happened was that a white man refused to sit next to her she would have felt vindicated. She would still have found her stopping place. It would now be up to that white man to find his. Elana and all of us must remember those words of Dr. Martin Luther King: “A man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.”

 

A final word to Elana: “You stayed in your seat. It is his choice to move. That is your stopping place.”

 

david

 

P.S. On the issue of delaying a flight for the sake of a man relocating so as not to sit next to a woman others have suggested creating a separate men only section on El Al flights. The Israeli Supreme court already has ruled that such segregated sections are unconstitutional on public buses in Israel. I would suggest that Haredi men wear blinders or dark sunglasses and if that is not sufficient create a male version of the burka.

 

Blue Monday

“Let the past year and its cursed images end.” Is this prayer a naïve hope? Did we think that when we said this prayer on Rosh Hashanah, reflecting on the disturbing images of so much suffering this past year that this year would be different? Was it our intention that this year would bring us only images of compassion, blessings and solidarity? The cursed images have continued, almost seamlessly, from this past year: another beheading (British aid worker Alan Henning), mass graves of student protesters murdered by police in Mexico and the sick and dying from an ever worsening Ebola epidemic.

 

What then can we hope for? I suggested last week that we need to promote images of generosity, of caring and compassion and of acceptance of others. While there is so much hatred and violence being perpetrated, there is so much good being committed.

 

Knowing full well that the cursed images will continue, so we will see more of them the hope then is not, at this moment, for their cessation, rather for the outcry against these cursed acts. This coming Monday is Blue Monday on the Emory Campus in Atlanta. It will be a hopeful image.

 

Here are the letters from the University President and the Student Government Association

 

To the Emory Community:

 

It saddens me to report that the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity house, an historically Jewish fraternity here at Emory, was the target of crude, offensive graffiti, including swastikas, early Sunday morning, October 5, shortly after the end of the observance of Yom Kippur.

 

On behalf of our community, I denounce this abhorrent act. It is an offense against a Jewish fraternity and the Jewish members of our community, and it is a repugnant, flagrant emblem of anti-Semitism. It is also an offense against the entire university. Among the many pernicious things the swastika symbolizes, in the last century it represented the most egregious and determined undermining of intellectual freedom and truth-seeking. In short, its appearance on our campus is an attack against everything for which Emory stands.

 

Emory University will not tolerate such acts. Instead we must together pledge Emory University’s continuing commitment to raise awareness and prevent all forms of violence and discrimination; to foster openness and diversity of thought, experience, spirituality, and culture; and to seek positive transformation in our community and the world. We all have a responsibility to uphold the principles we hold dear as an academic community, and to create a community that is inclusive, open, respectful, and welcoming to all.

 

Sincerely,
Jim Wagner
President

 

The Student Government Association Executive Board condemns the reprehensible act of bigotry carried out against the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity, the Jewish community, and the entire Emory community. The individuals responsible have sickened us.

 

Emory students engage in conversations about our differences. In our classrooms, social clubs, athletic teams, and student organizations, we affirm each other’s identities. In everything we do, we strive for courageous inquiry. Used in this way, the swastika represents the systematic silencing and murder of human beings because of their identities. In this context, there is nothing courageous about a swastika.

 

We are committed to making sure that this moment of anger is a springboard for action, and that all people and all communities at Emory feel supported and safe on our campus.

 

We invite you to wear blue on Monday in support of Emory’s Jewish community and the rights of all people to live freely and safely.

 

An image in blue. That is not a naïve hope. Please join me in wearing blue this Monday.

 

Developing the Negative

There is an old and odd traditional prayer said at the beginning of the New Year—it is found in the Sephardic liturgy and it’s refrain is: “Let this year and its curses (come to an) end.” In the past we have heard of murders and rapes, we have listened to people’s accounts of atrocities and have created in our minds eye the accompanying images. All that has changed—and evolve even more. The promise of technology is a camera on every phone and soon to be on every head. Our awareness of the suffering of humanity and all other creatures on the planet will be in pictures, some of which we are unable to look at. At our Kabbalah Experience Rosh Hashanah service, entitled “From Despair to Hope” we started by creating a common bond of our despair in all the sad and sometimes horrifying events of this past year—all that carry images—seen or imagined. The traditional prayer concludes: “and now let the New Year and its blessings begin!” I would suggest that as a community we share images of kindness, generosity, courage, healing and community.

 

Here is the 2014 version of “Let this year and its cursed images conclude.”

 

The beheading of Foley, Sotloff and Haines

 

The bodies of Ya’acov Fraenkel, Mohamed Khdeir, Gilad Sha’ar, Eyal Yifrach

 

Let this year and its cursed images conclude

 

The police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner

 

The police beatings of Marlene Pinnock, Victor Hernandez, Kollin Truss

 

Let this year and its cursed images conclude

 

Ukranian dissidents: Yuriy Verbytskyi, Pavlo Mazurenko, Mikhail Zhyznevskyi

 

Yazidi men lying lifeless in mass graves

 

Let this year and its cursed images conclude

 

Bodies of Indian girls hanging from trees

 

A knock-out punch of domestic violence

 

Let this year and its cursed images conclude

 

Drowning victims Billy Kim, Jim Woo-hyuk, Park Suyehon on the Sewol ship

 

Thousands of corpses of the Ebola virus

 

Let this year and its cursed images conclude

 

Hate crime victims Reat Griffin Underwood, William Lewis Corporon and Terri LaManno

 

Hate crime victims of mental illness Veronika Weiss, George Chen, Christopher Michael-Martine

 

Hate crime victims Leroy Henderson, Ahmed Said and Dwone Anderson-Young

 

Let this year and its cursed images conclude

 

The deaths of Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams

 

Let this year and its cursed images conclude

 

Rape and murder victims: Sister Bernadetta Boggian, Sister Lucia Pulici and Sister Olga Raschietti

 

Newlyweds Sajjad Ahmed and Muawia Bibi murdered by her parents in family honor killing

 

Let this year and its cursed images conclude

 

And here is an image of kindness:

 

 

In our Denver community Dependable Cleaners has been cleaning prayer shawls (talis) for free for many years (it is a different type of interview).

Chasing Peace

For those wanting to access a copy of the KE Rosh Hashanah Prayer Book it is accessible here: http://bit.ly/Y4jV3x 

 

I received two emails yesterday, the next to last day of the year 5774 in Jewish Time. One was from a man who was in class with me for a very brief time some six years ago. He wished me a Happy New Year and let me know that he enjoyed last week’s blog and many others; I did not know he was on our active mailing list, let alone that he read the KE blog.

 

A lesson: A small thank you can lift someone’s spirit. Practice communicating your thanks for the little and big things—even if it years later. I let the man know he lifted my spirits.

 

The other email was from a man I have written about before in this blog spot in the context of “people from your past” (three people who asked to visit or connect with me from my past history in Philadelphia). He was my running partner. He is now reading this blog (I didn’t know that either) and wanted me to know that we shared another thing in common—we were both born in Atlantic City. In my years running with him this never came up. He read the blog last week in which I mentioned that one of my earliest memories was standing in front of a toy store window on the Boardwalk and looking at elaborate displays of stuffed jungle animals. It is such a vivid memory that I have never doubted that I experienced it.

 

Then came the following confirmation:

 

“Here’s a bit of trivia to fill in one of those missing links–the toy store with the stuffed animals: Taber’s Toyland. My Dad (who moved to Atlantic City in 1944), had one of his first jobs there. Growing up I was friendly with the Taber daughter. I usually see her at synagogue when I visit my folks around this time of year.”

 

I googled Taber Toyland Atlantic City and up came a photo of the toy store on the Boardwalk. Not “just as I remember it” but familiar nevertheless.

 

Lesson: Life is all about the connections we make. We are interconnected in ways that we have little to no idea about—until the moment arises when we discover it.

 

Rosh Hashanah brings memories of my father from his pulpit in Atlantic City and then in New York. At his funeral I lamented that the world had lost its finest shofar blower (among other finest qualities). When my father blew the Shofar the blasts fulfilled the intention of its’ sound penetrating the heart. My Dad was a powerful man, with a vice grip and yet, very gentle hands that also communicated his gentleness.

 

Our family decided to place on my Dad’s gravestone these four words: Loving Peace and Seeking Peace (it is a quote that describes the High Priest Aharon, in Hebrew: Ohev Shalom, ve-Rodef Shalom). What is the difference between one who loves peace and one who pursues peace? The pursuer of peace has to be willing to challenge things, to get into the mess in order to negotiate the peace. It takes courage to enter the fray, to ruffle, and make uncomfortable. Always ask though what is my intention? Is it peace? Then pursue it.

 

Lesson for the coming year: We need to be intentional about pursuing peace—and to fully capture this the Hebrew word Rodef, though translated pursue, more literally means, “to chase after.” Chase after peace, chase after valuing connections, chase after thanking others.

 

 

Elephant in the Room

Rosh Hashanah is a time of reflection on beginnings, on the birth story of humanity and on our own births. I was born in the winter of 1958 in Atlantic City. My father had received his rabbinic ordination a year before and the small orthodox synagogue in this sleepy beach town offered him his first position. The synagogue was inland but we lived a block from the ocean. I fell asleep to the rhythmic sound of waves.

 

My first five years of life were spent along, under and on the boardwalk. I wandered often, either with my older sister Sarah, my buddy Stanley or by myself.  By the time we left Atlantic City I knew every slat of the boardwalk from the Steeplechase Pier down to the Planter’s Peanut Man. My favorite store along the boardwalk had a display of stuffed jungle animals—how I wished that I could rescue one from behind the impenetrable glass enclosure.

 

I have snippets of memories, many very clear. Ladies in white gowns: The Miss America pageant held in the first week of September and always on Saturday. Woken in the middle of the night: The hurricane of ‘62 which destroyed the Steeplechase Pier. Heading to see the whale washed up on the beach: The car turned around once the announcer on the radio (finally) said, “April’s Fools.” The strongest man on the beach: The Orthodox Rabbi in town, my father. Television: Something we would watch by sneaking into motel rooms across the street.

 

We all have beginnings; we all have memories of those beginnings. Rosh Hashanah is a time to reflect on our early and formative beginnings. How did those experiences shape us? How do they continue to shape us?

 

There are many influences on the life we live. Psychology has taught us: the earlier the influence the deeper the code. That code is translated into a way of seeing the world and us in relation to it. What did the hurricane encode in me as I surveyed the flood in our basement and saw the remnants of the Steeplechase Pier that had not been washed away to sea? What was encoded in me on that April 1st when I realized that my parents, the smartest people I knew could be so easily fooled by a prank? Each of our experiences is a little message encoded into us.

 

William White suggests that the “kind of organization one gives to memories” is what underlies individual character. “One’s memory must put its beads upon scores of different strings,” writes White in his book, Masks in a Pageant, “the work-string and the love- strand run through every life.”

 

It is intriguing to consider the memory filing system and whether they are neatly labeled in separately stored folders with names such as Atlantic City-The Early Years. It is even more intriguing  to wonder:  What or who is doing the filing? Neuroscientists have been mapping how and where memories are formed and stored but to my knowledge some aspects, such as “the who” of the memory system—who is deciding where to place memories–is still a mystery. What links are there, if any, between files and folders and is there a folder with plenty of subfolders and files that is labeled:  Events and Incidents Not to Be Remembered?”

 

There are many world events from this past year I would like to not remember (and some personal ones too)—that’s one of the problems though with “not remembering” as Immanuel Kant joked: “I have to remember to forget that!”

 

Whoever that who is who is filing my memories has a clever name for that particular folder of those memories I want to choose to remember to forget. It is labeled: The Elephant in the Room.