Saturday, July 21, 2012

Fly it Forward

For Congregation Ner Shalom, July 20, 2012

A couple months ago, at the last Music Shabbat, I was going to give a drash that had to do with birds. But then some crazy scary and tragic things started happening in this community and my ability to give a lighthearted report on the odd and unexpected role of birds in my life and imagination seemed out of place. But I figured: I’ll get back around to it some night.

Tonight will not be that night. Although birds, whose very speech is called “song,” making them a logical mascot for Music Shabbat, will in fact play a role. Because this week I learned a parable involving birds. This parable came from the writings of Glikl of Hamelin. She was a Jewish businesswoman of 17th Century Hamburg. When her husband and business partner died in the late 1680s, she began writing her memoirs, to pass on her wisdom and experiences and reflections to her dozen children. She wrote seven volumes, and we spent some time reading from the first volume at this week’s Yiddish Tish. It is very challenging material for our Yiddishists. It’s Western Yiddish of the Renaissance and doesn’t sound like how our grandmothers spoke. But it’s worth the bit struggle.

Early in the first volume she tells the story of a bird with three hatchlings, pecking for snails and insects on the seashore. The parent feels the wind pick up and sees that a dangerous storm is moving in. In fact, if they don’t fly over the water to the safety of their home now, they will all be lost. In fact they already might not make it.

But the chicks are too young to fly. So the parent grabs the first one in its talons and takes off. As they fly, the parent says to the chick, “Look what tzores I suffer and how my neshomeh, my soul, is worn down – all for you. When I am old, do you promise to care for me and support me as well as I do you?” And the chick responds, “Dear one, just bring me to the other side of this water, and I will do anything in the world that you ask of me.” Upon hearing these words, the parent bird lets go of the chick and lets it fall into the water, saying, “That’s what becomes of liars.”

Okay, I know this isn’t the cute bird story you wanted tonight. We have bird owners and bird watchers and bird appreciators here. And you didn’t anticipate helpless little chicks drowning in the waves. But it’s a fable. These are allegorical birds, not actual ones. They could be foxes or princes for that matter. So let’s stick with it and go on.

The parent goes back and picks up the second chick, and happens in all fairy tales, the second child meets the same fate as the first. I don’t even need to repeat the language as she does in the telling. Because we all know in all fairy tales with three children, the first two meet a band end and only the third succeeds. In the story, “The Story of the Eldest Princess" by A.S. Byatt, there are three princesses. One day the sky turns green over the kingdom, and the eldest princess is dispatched on a quest to determine the cause and undo it. She begins on her way, but she was a bookish princess who had read many fairy tales and knew too well that she was destined to be an unfortunate plot device leading to the ultimate success of the youngest princess. So she decided she didn’t care so much that the sky was green, and she turned off the path and made her own story.

But this is not that story. The eldest and middle birds have both now drowned in the waves. So the parent bird turns back again, nabbing the third chick. Halfway across the water it says, “My child, you see how I suffer on your behalf and how my soul is worn down in this task. When I reach my old age, will you promise to care for me like I cared for you in your youth?”

The third child of course answers differently than the first two. It says, “Dear one, what you say about having troubles and worries on my behalf is emmis, it is truth. And I am bound to pay you back in equal measure if I am able, but I cannot promise it with certainly. Only one thing will I promise: that when I have children of my own, I will do for my own little chicks what you have done for me.”

The parent bird says, “You have spoken well and you are wise. I will let you live and I will bring you to the other side of the sea.”

Glikl of Hamelin goes on then to decode the parable for her children. She says that this as a fable about blood being thicker than water. About how profound and natural it is for parents to love and care for their children despite the fact that adults are rarely, in her experience, kind and loving to each other. But I think the lesson she draws could not be correct. After all, if parents so loved their children as she described, they wouldn’t drop them into the sea – not even for lying.

Maybe theres a different lesson. Maybe it’s this: you can’t treat compassion as a term of some contract. If I do X for you, please love me. No, when you act compassionately, you do it without the expectation that the object of your compassion will be compassionate back. Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t. But maybe you can expect something: that your kindness will give birth to other, further kindnesses. That kindness multiplies and, even if it doesn’t circle back, it rolls forward.

And I’m happy to say, that as of this week, this principle has been scientifically proven. Anna Belle spotted it right in the pages of the New York Times: a controlled study about the operation of compassion.

The news is that feeling compassion – wait for it – makes one more compassionate. I know that sounds tautological, but hang in there. Here’s how the experiment went. They got a group of people into a room to work individually on some math problems. These people would each be paid for the number of problems they solved. One group member – a ringer – visibly cheats to get more money. He’s not taking the money out of the hands of other participants; he’s just getting more than they are by sneaky means that they are aware of. In the next experiment, the group members have to pour and serve each other drinks of hot sauce. And guess what, they all give the cheater a whole lot more hot sauce.

But then in a rerun of the experiment using different people, just before the hot sauce bit, another ringer bursts into tears saying that she’d recently lost a parent and asking to be excused. So guess what? After seeing her tears, the others participants do not give extra hot sauce to the ringer who had cheated. Despite their earlier anger, they now mete out the hot sauce compassionately.

This is empirical proof of what the Kabbalists have told us for generations. If you are embodying gevurah – rigidness or harshness or anger, and you add to it a dollop of chesed, or compassion, and you stir it up, you end up with tiferet, the cosmological concoction that is the source of rachamim, or mercy. In other words: experience compassion, and your anger will turn to mercy, to rachmones. 

The birds and the scientists are saying the same thing: that people do, in fact, pay it forward. Your compassion has ripples. It produces more compassion.

And so when we are discouraged, when busses bombed in Bulgaria and theaters shot up in Colorado make us feel like there is just no hope for humanity, no hope for this sorry, confused, complicated species of ours, our response cannot be a further hardening of our hearts, no matter how attractive that option might seem. More and more, every day it becomes our job to release compassion into this world; to act consistently, or as consistently as we’re able, in merciful ways. It’s not just religion anymore. It’s science.

Tonight is Rosh Chodesh Av, the beginning of our month of remembering our destructions: the leveling of the Temple in Jerusalem; the Crusades; the expulsion from Spain; even the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto. These are all events we remember in the month of Av. Low points in Jewish history; low points in human history.

And yet there is another learning from Glikl’s birds: that while we must honor our past if we at all can, our duty is to the future; our debt to the past is paid out to the future. We redeem the tragedies of our history not by hardening our hearts, not by trying to undo; but by winging forward, whispering more and more compassion into this world.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Parashat Pinchas - The Naked Truth About Identity

From the banks of the Susquehanna.

This week I write from the Maryland-Pennsyvalnia border, from an old house that was the northernmost southern stop on the Underground Railroad, where I am surrounded by 312 or so naked gay men.

Not pictured: 312 naked men.
It is a naturist retreat and I'm here to perform - in costume of course - with the Kinsey Sicks. In eighteen years of performance, it's our first nudist gig (how many people ever get to say that sentence?). But Debbie Reynolds once said to us (this is also true), "Never turn down work, girls. I never have." And so we always say yes, and every gig is an adventure, this one perhaps more than many.

I'd like to think I am no prude. I make much of my living on stage with a group that sings some of the bawdiest lyrics I've ever heard. And as for nudity, I'm no stranger to the various hot springs of Northern California. And I've attended queer retreats that were relaxed in their dress code, with nudity breathing easily alongside feather headdresses and crinoline petticoats. But this is the first environment I've ever been in where nudity has been the norm and the requirement, and I'm finding myself more squeamish than I'd like to admit. I confess I've struggled most at meal times, seeing the men lined up to take food in the dining hall. I try not think it, but the thoughts come unbidden: too many genitalia at the buffet; too much pubic hair at chafing dish level. Yes, I talk a good game against body shame, but when it boils down to it I am deeply grateful for the layer of denim that typically separates me from dinner.

More of concern is that I find myself unexpectedly judgmental about this whole enterprise. Being in just your skin in the open air feels great; while walking from hot tub to cold plunge it seems logical. But organizing a 10-day retreat around the principle of not wearing clothes seems a little, well, immoderate to me. Yes, your clothes are off, I think, but what next? What is it about this experience that makes it worth the money and the travel? Is it just about breaking with convention? The fun and triumph of being a bad boy? Can nudity in itself really form the basis of a group identity? Enough so that you'll show up year after year to strip down to your tattoos?

Group identity, the quality of "belonging," is a tricky thing. This week's parashah is called Pinchas (which in Biblical Hebrew probably means "mouth of brass" but I'd be remiss if I didn't point out this week that in Modern Hebrew it could be read as "Penis? Heaven forbid!"). The portion has a variety of components to it, but in a certain way they all point toward the sometimes ritualistic and sometimes brutal project of forging group identity.

The portion opens on the heels of the vicious slaying of an Israelite man and his Midianite wife by Aharon's grandson, Pinchas. This murder comes during a terrible plague among the Israelites, and also during a period of some significant potential social change. There is boundary blur between the Israelites and the neighboring Moabites, a blur that involves both sex and idolatry. God, a rather formidable wounded spouse, demands recompense for the infidelities, and requires that the offenders literally be hung out to dry (and whan I say "literally" I mean "literally"). But when this particular Israelite and his Midianite wife sashay past the tent of meeting where the Israelites are gathered, Pinchas takes justice into his own hands, following them into their chamber and impaling them together on his javelin, in an unmistakably sexual gesture. Shocking poetic justice for the crime of cultural interpenetration.

The plague immediately stops and Pinchas is now a hero and God's favorite. The reward of eternal priesthood is given him and his heirs for reinforcing the border fence around Israel's sexuality and theology, which he was apparently qualified to do as the cohen with the biggest stick.

So in this episode we see the first example of enforcing group identity: punishing those who violate it. After all, offered a choice between faithfulness to the group or death, faithfulness to the group or bodily harm, who wouldn't honestly choose the group? This is not just ancient history; we all see how identity continues to be enforced this way in gangs and in cults. But more invisible to the culture as a whole is how through violence against women, gay people, and transgender people, gender roles and norms are enforced. Those who deviate from the group identity, even in this day and age, know they run the risk of retributive justice.

As the adrenaline and the testosterone of this episode ebb, the portion moves on to another means of fostering identity: the simple act of counting. A census is held in which the tribes and clans are all named and numbered. Identifying the children of Israel and how they're connected with each other, shouting the roll call of our people, noting our numbers and our connectedness, getting a sense of group composition and continuity (these are now the descendants of those who left Egypt; not the generation of the Exodus anymore) - these seem to have real effect in any project of community building.

The portion then touches on a way to secure group identity for those most hungry for it. As the character of Roy Cohn says in Angels in America: "Hire a lawyer; sue somebody; it's good for the soul." We read here the famous story of the daughters of Tzlafchad, whose father died without leaving any male heirs to inherit his land, a situation not contemplated by the laws handed to Moshe at Sinai. The daughters bring a suit that reaches the Supreme Court: Moshe and God. This is not just a suit about particular property. It is about identity: who is an Israelite and who is not? Women had not been counted in the previous verses' census. Were these women part of the tribe or no? Belonging is their demand; real estate is just shorthand for it.

Finally, Torah illustrates one last mechanism for building group identity: the cycle of ritual. Days when pilgrimages are required; days for sacrifices; the elements of those sacrifices. The rituals involved are complicated; they involve relinquishment of meaningful property - bulls and rams and goats. Through this year-in, year-out calendar of ritual activity not shared by non-Israelite nations, a sense of identity emerges. Just as Jews sitting annually in synagogue for Yom Kippur feel Jewish, and as Jews having their annual defiant Kol Nidre cheeseburger feel Jewish. Ritual establishes and deepens group identity; it marks you as part of a people and places you safely (one hopes) within that community's arms.

Which brings me back to this gaggle of naked men whose sense of group identity I at first mistrusted. I began having some conversations with attendees. Most are my senior by fifteen years at least. One had had a promising career in the arts in New York when he was young, but gave it up to return to rural Pennsylvania to care for his ailing mother. He became a contractor and would get jobs through the union. He saw quickly the nature of group identity in that world, and how the ones perceived as gay wouldn't get the contracts or would get laid off of jobs first. Even without Pinchas and a javelin, those who didn't fit in were punished, and punished publicly. My new friend, to evade such retributive justice, invented what he called "a ghost family." I asked what he meant. He told me he invented the fiction of a wife and children who had been killed in an accident. He knew that after finding that out, no one would ask him again about his personal life, and no one did.

I thought about the fear that someone must feel to invent that particular fiction. The storyline was invented, but I suspect the pain described was not fictional at all. The implied threat against his livelihood and, probably, his personal safety, was significant. Spending decades cloaked in this story of tragedy was in itself tragic. No, he hadn't lost a family. But he had sacrificed his own truth in order to be offered the group's benefits and protection.

He retired over a decade ago and started a new era in his life. He doesn't care who knows he's gay. In this new wave of openness he found love. And he began coming to this annual retreat, where he sheds not only his clothing, but anything that remains of the lies in his life. His story may be unique. But there are 311 other unique stories here, all equally surprising and compelling: men who served in the military in the early 1960s, men who tried to be straight, men who live in small towns, men who are farmers among farmers. They come here and offer up their garb and with it all vestiges of pretense, of posturing, and of self-protection. The ghost families are released to the spheres.

And they do this every year like clockwork. This week in the woods is a mo'ed. It's a designated ritual time as real as any festival on the Jewish calendar, and more eagerly anticipated than many of them. Their sacrifices happen every year at the appointed hour. And in this ritual, in the annual get-together, in the annual accounting of who is still here and who is now gone and what is their legacy, community - identity - is formed. An outsider might wonder how not eating is sufficient to form the organizing principle of a Jewish holiday, but we on the inside know that fasting is a bodily mechanism to support work of the soul. And here, in the wilds of rural Maryland, on land surrounding a house that was a stop in the Underground Railroad, where black Americans fled retributive justice in search of real belonging, nudity itself is secondary. Here, in this spot, it is 312 souls that are bared.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Parashat Balak: Some Tents, Some People and Some Wonder

For Congregation Ner Shalom, July 6, 2012

So the big news of the week: the Higgs boson. How can anyone even think to offer a drash today without talking about the Higgs boson? For those of you who spent the week in hiding, the Higgs boson seems to be the elusive particle that was somewhat misleadingly dubbed "the God particle" because of its role in creating mass from nothing. It is the result of a particle traveling through a "Higgs field," which is described as something like a universally omnipresent molasses. And as it passes through the field, this particle, for an almost immeasurably small instant, goes from having no mass to having mass, and then decays into other kinds of particles we already knew existed. This is a heyday for physicists who, through direct observation, are witnessing a piece of how this universe came into being and continues to come into being at every moment.

Sassoon v'simchah
The science around the Higgs is utterly unintelligible to me. A phenomenon both infinitesimally small and as large as the cosmos. It has implications, say the scientists, for theories around symmetry and even Supersymmetry. I have no idea what supersymmetry even means, although it sounds a bit to my ears like a comic book hero whose special power is the ability to instantly undo any Vidal Sassoon haircut. 

Mostly I love this news because it has added the quality of wonder to this week, a week that was otherwise all about tasks and anxieties. A week where most of the rest of the news was disheartening or annoying in some way. Is it a tax? Is it a penalty? Is it a tax? Is it a penalty? Does anyone care?

No, a good dose of wonder is what we all needed. It's what I needed. And that's what Bil'am got, in this week's Torah portion. He got, unexpectedly, a big dose of wonder. It kicked him right out of his plans and fears and schemes and drove him into a moment of pure admiration that had a quality of surrender to it; a flow of speech that was reminiscent of speechlessness.

Mah Tovu: Past Tents
As you might recall, the story goes like this. Our people are camped on the outskirts of Moab. The king is unhappy and engages the seer Bil'am as a sort of a metaphysical hitman, to curse us. What follows is a jumble of backstage bickering, sniping between king and prophet, anxiety dreams in which God speaks, and a slow struggle forward despite the opposition of invisible armed angels and an unlikely talking donkey that had been waiting a long time to say its piece.

But in the moment, in that moment overlooking the vast encampment of Israelite tents, what comes out of Bil'am is nothing he had planned. It is wonder:

Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov. How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob,
Mishkenotecha Yisrael. Your dwellings, O Israel.
Like winding brooks, like gardens by the river's side,
As aloes which Adonai has planted, like cedar trees beside the waters.

Bil'am experiences a letting go of intentions and preconceptions and by choice or not, he gives way to the wondrous. It is almost a shrug of the shoulders, a shrugging off of the shmutz, and an opening to loveliness or vastness or minuteness or overwhelmingness. It is bowing before what is beyond us.

Of course it is not the tents themselves that stop Bil'am's curses before they can be uttered. Tents alone, however pretty, are tents; they are empty. They are only given mass, given meaning by their people. In fact, historically, there is some blur between the tents and those who inhabit them. Our Hebrew word for tent, ohel, shares a root - alef, heh, lamed - with the Arabic word 'ahl, as in the greeting 'ahlan wasahlan. In Arabic this root doesn't mean tent but rather "people" or "kinfolk" or "family." And sure enough, looking deeper into the Hebrew, it appears that tents came to be called ohel because they were symbolic of people, of families, the way in English we might use the word "banner" or "crest," if we came from an ethnic group that had things like banners and crests. Or in the way we use "house" to mean "family," as in the House of David or Windsor or Usher. Or the way we might even use the word household. In that way, a settlement was made up of ohalim - comprising both tents and people.

Mah tovu ohalecha, how beautiful these people. Like brooks, like gardens, like trees.

I've been wanting some Bil'am moments this week. Moments where I'm torn out of the pettiness of my daily life and my attention drawn instead to beauty; to the beauty of people, to the beauty of their tents. I notice that my anxiety is idling really high; I'm reacting strongly to the ugly stuff in the world and to the small stuff in my life. I feel nervous about my responsibilities for the High Holy Days; apprehensive about all the touring I've got between now and then. And I confess that I haven't quite gotten my game back since the death of Steve Norwick. It's a loss that has a lingering quality to it. So I've been needing some of the medicine of this wonder; wonder that can knock the other stuff out of my system.

And some of those moments of wonder have been pushing their way into my life despite my resistance.

My husband has a birthday on Sunday. Two nights ago I awoke with a start about this. I have repeatedly resigned myself to the fact that I am not young anymore. But I hadn't quite gathered that neither is he. I was startled by the thought. Because while I'm willing to spend the years of my one life on him, it suddenly surprised me that he would be willing to spend the years of his one life on the far-more-difficult me. And I felt wonder. Mah tovu ohalecha. What a beautiful tent. What a wondrous person.

After dinner one night last weekend, our eleven-year old repeated what has become a meme for the next generation in my household, which is that since he's an atheist, he's therefore not Jewish. We grownups, for the umpteenth time, told him that you can't turn it off like a switch. We're a tribe, we're descended from, blah blah blah. But I could tell it made no impression, and of course in our queer tent, we've placed a much higher value on spiritual inheritance than on the accident of DNA, so an argument of Jewish genetics shouldn't make such an impression. He wandered off. The adults remained at the table, full of sadness. Then I heard my voice calling him back to his chair to sit with the grownups, and I began giving the speech I'd always shunned, the speech too cliche to even admit to. I gave the Jewish suffering speech. How our forebears suffered because they were Jewish and suffered in order to be Jewish. The Jewish suffering that gave rise to a hope for something better. The story of my great-grandfather who pushed a junk cart through Chicago streets; and my grandfather who was a salesman; and my parents who started a business, so that my sister and I could be the first to go to college. And the stories began to include not just my grandparents, but all of our grandparents. How the generations expressed their values by working for the future, struggling so that he, the 11-year old, could feel that safety was the natural state of things and that education and success were his due.

Yes, I gave the Jewish suffering speech. Shamelessly. And as I gave it, I felt such a pride in my ancestors and in my people. Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, what good people. And I felt so proud of the adults around the table, including the non-Jewish adult who cares so much that her children should honor the past that made them, Mah tovu ohalecha, what good people. And through this whole speech, the 11-year old listened, and asked questions, and looked in our eyes, and didn't make a single wisecrack. How he received this transmission was altogether something new. I looked at him and felt proud. Mah tovu ohalecha. What good people.

We are remarkable, human beings are. Capable of so much. We have spoiled the planet beyond the tipping point, they now say. Our leaders act out the most self-serving of dramas on the political stage. We allow our culture to create weaknesses in people and allow corporations to profit from those weaknesses.

But I can't quite despair. I can't yet feel hopeless. Because there are times that I look at people. I hear about people acting in the most beautiful and generous of ways. This is the 25th Anniversary of the Names Project AIDS Quilt. On the radio yesterday a caller told the story of an IRS agent who processed the estate return of a young man who'd died of AIDS. This young man had had no one. There were no family or friends taking care of his affairs. His burial was court-ordered and court-administered. The IRS agent went on to make a quilt panel in honor him, because he felt how wrong it would be for no one to remember. I heard this story and I thought, mah tovu ohalecha. How beautiful these tents. How wondrous these people.

Wonder. Appreciation. Letting down our resistance to seeing the good even in our adversaries - and there is so much good in all of our adversaries. This is the gift of mah tovu, the gift of Bil'am's blessing. That we might let ourselves look around at our loved ones, and our friends, and our heroes, and our favorite co-workers and our least favorite co-workers, and those who help us when we're sick and those who listen to us when we're in pain and those who do generous things quietly and those who try their best to raise their children and those who try their best to preserve the world and those who try to change the world and those who preach love and those who preach other things because they're afraid and those who dream and draw and make things and those who build supercolliders so that one day they can tell us more about how things came to be things to begin with. The people of the past who put us here, the people of the present who are trying so hard, and the people of the future that we want to be. We can look at all these things and give way to some well-deserved wonder, and say mah tovu ohalecha. How beautiful these tents. How wondrous these people.  Like winding brooks, like gardens by the river's side, as aloes which Adonai has planted, like cedar trees beside the waters.