That Little Red Light House under the Great Gray Bridge

Before there was the George Washington Bridge, there was a small red light house at Jeffrey Point near 177th Street along the Hudson River.  In fact, the Great Gray Bridge and the Little Red Light House are the subject of a classic children’s book you may have read to your kids.

I bet you thought that light house was long gone.  I was sure it was.  But, today, we went with a synagogue group (more on that later) in search of that little red light house that has survived even though it was long ago decommissioned.

On this cold and foggy day, just underneath the Great Gray Bridge,

there is this little light house

tucked away and almost invisible from afar.

But as you get closer to the base of the bridge,

there it is, resplendent in a new coat of paint against the gray sky.

And, although it is small, very small,

it would not be an easy landing.  You must hold tight on the rails against the whipping winds, when you stand outside, on the top near the beacon.

Ranger Jerry, a man who said repeatedly how he hated paperwork so we all must be careful,

told us the history of the light house which was more important for its fog horn than its beacon in the late 1800s and early 1900s when these waters were heavily navigated.

Still, I wondered what did this light house have to do with Jews?  After all we were there with a synagogue group.  Maybe it was a place of hiding for refugees smuggled into this country after Roosevelt closed the borders to fleeing European Jews.  Wow, an Anne Frank-like story right here in New York!!  That must be it!!!

Rabbi Rachel gathered us around to talk about this monument’s relevance to us, as Jews.  Something about Esther and Moses, each of whom was one against the powerful and many, and each of whom at some point felt too weak to lead.  Like the light house when the Great Gray Bridge was built.  Still each carried on and saved the Jewish people.  And still, the light house stands.

A big rousing Kumbaya to Rabbi Rachel for trying to connect all of this, and make it relevant to the kids and allegorical and all that.  What made it relevant to Jews was that a group of Jews schlepped to the light house on a cold, rainy, foggy day because we love our kids and they would have been disappointed if we didn’t go and we would have felt guilty.  So THAT is what is Jewish about the light house.

A Merry Little Jewish Christmas

Even though I believe that one respects other’s traditions by not co-opting them, I do live in the real world.

In the real world, my partner and I are lesbians moms to a boy, my sister is married to a Catholic, my Jewish cousin has secretly (all his 67 years) wanted to decorate a Christmas tree and my son thinks that Hannukah wouldn’t be Hannukah without presents.  There, you have it.  A typical American family trying to navigate the traditions without losing our minds in the process.

Friday night, we started the festive weekend at the children’s Hannukah service and potluck at our synagogue.  Our synagogue meets at the Church of the Holy Apostles (Chasidim Kadoshim, to the Jews).  As if to show me that I am not the clueless among Jews, someone said, “It smells so wonderful in here, like pine trees!”  Really?  Really?  Ever hear of “deck the halls with bows of holly .  .  . ” and the recipe, “kill a tree,  attach chachkas to them, and one week later reduce to mulch.  Repeat each year.” ??????

We also stayed for the adult service.  It is difficult to take seriously a rabbi who has a Santa’s elves’ styled hat with a menorah on it but she did take it off when she spoke some words of Torah.  It was an important drash to hear.  There were three main themes:  our viewpoint is imbued with our baggage, for every light there is a shadow and vice-versa and, finally, don’t accept the heroes of a story at face value.

First, the baggage.  The story of Hannukah is simply the miracle that oil enough for one day lasted eight days so that the Jews who recaptured the Temple could perform the necessary re-sanctification rituals.  But if it is 1948 Palestine, the story is about a military victory by a small group against mighty armies.  If it is 1498, during the Inquisition, it is about the subjugation of a people.  If you gather rabbis, it is about a miracle.  If it is 2011, you might wonder if the Maccabees were zealots somewhat akin to today’s radical fundamentalists.  (In fact, history bears that out.)  So, who you are, where you’ve come from, and who you want to be, can shade the way you tell the story, and emphasize the elements.

Light of the Hannukah candles casts a shadow.   For advance, there are detractors, some of whom are merely engaging in a power struggle.  The shadow can be dangerous and it can be restful.  The light can be the path but it can also burn.  Light and shadow need each other.  Success lies in the right balance.  And that is the greatest challenge.  The rabbi told us of settlers in the Israeli occupied territories who, whenever there is a threat to their settlement or way of life, burn down a mosque inside Israel.   (Israel immediately rebuilds the mosques and other Jewish organizations provide Qurans and prayer rugs.)  In the light of peace there is darkness.  Darkness of zealots who use the cover of Judaism to perpetrate atrocities.  Have they forgotten their parents’ and grandparents’ ordeals in Europe?  How could this be?  The light needs to shine a light on this darkness.  These “Jews” do not deserve a place in Israel or anywhere in the quasi-civilized world.

For the first time in a long time, I was glad to to synagogue and learn about things that the mainstream media doesn’t cover.  It made me think, rather than go to synagogue again, I should visit a mosque, Sikh temple or a church and listen.

After leaving synagogue, we looked up at the Empire State Building.  Blue and white adorned two sides, and red and green, the other.  I love New York.

Saturday, the Blogger family gathered with assorted cousins and in-laws to celebrate both traditions.  In my sister’s house was a small Christmas tree decorated in blue and white with a rabbi as an ornament.  Cousin Gentle was so excited because he thinks ornaments are sooooooo adorable that he wants to decorate the tree next year.  I told Cousin Gentle that it had to have an irreverent theme, like that the Hasidic rabbi and the dreidel that was at the foot of the tree.  He had a look of total inspiration that I believe he may have been visiting after-Christmas sales these last two days.

I LOVE how politically and religiously incorrect it was.  And, of course, there was a Yahrzeit candle burning for my Catholic brother-in-law’s father who recently died. And my brother-in-law made the latkes.

Saturday night, everyone was Jewish and Christian and all was good with the world.

The Albino Peacock

On Yom Kippur day, POB (partner of blogger) took sick and I was recovering from my contagion and we were clearly not going back to synagogue. I rallied SOS (our son, source of sanity) to take a walk with me, but first he had to have a meltdown about not be able to take his scooter with us.  I had to draw a line, such as it was, since it WAS the holiest of holy days after all.

We ambled up Broadway.  In fact I dragged SOS up Broadway.  “Penance,” I whispered quietly, “for the sin that I have sinned against G-d by . . . .”

No, dear SOS, we weren’t going to browse in Bank Street Bookstore. Nope, no ice cream either. We are just walking.  Now imagine the response:  silent treatment from hell interspersed by whiny demands for better parents.  Obviously, I didn’t self-flagellate enough during these Holy Days.  I obviously needed this for true atonement.  I had thought to look around for broken glass and hot coals so I could walk on them.  But, no need, I had my child to torture me.

SOS’s mood did brighten considerably when I said that we would cut through the Columbia campus to Amsterdam and then walk home.  You could see in his eyes that he knew liberation from the cruel bondage (of walking ten blocks) was within reach.  “E-mom, is the DVR recording on Yom Kippur?”  I looked at him.  “I withdraw the question.”  Wow, that gene replacement therapy is working.

As we walked through the Columbia quad, I felt like we stepped outside Manhattan and onto any non-urban campus. I don’t think I have been around that many 17-22 year-olds since I left college.  My initial thought was that I could just naturally blend into the scene.

Then reality hit:  I see me when I look at them and they see a middle age women when they look at me.

[For those of you who know Fiddler on the Roof, join me:   When did I stop looking so youthful? When did I start to act so old?  Wasn’t it yesterday when we were at the mall? Sunrise, sunset.]

Back to reality (after a fashion).

As we were walking down Amsterdam, SOS interrupted my self-pity about wasted youth and asked if we were permitted to go to St John the Divine on Yom Tov.

Really? I panicked because I was so sure that, on this clear day, lightning was about to strike.

SOS interpreted my panic as disapproval. “It’s ok, E-Mom, we don’t have to go into a church. I just wanted to see the albino peacock.”

“The whaaaat?”

“Eeeeeee-Mom,” SOS said in that way that was accompanied by a you’re-so-stupid-how-do-you-manage-to-breathe eye roll, “albino means all white and the albino peacock lives in the garden. It’s sort of like a refuge for it.”

No joke:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/porto/128123180/

“Oh, ok, buddy, then it is ok if we go to church,” I said as I readied to throw my son out of the way of the thunderbolt or flood that will whisk me away to hell.

My grandmother used to kiss the mezzuzah and put money in the pushke (the charity box) to get around minor infractions of Jewish kosher laws so her children could drink milk before bed if bedtime was less than six hours after a meat dinner.  Would this work on the holiest of holy days?  My mind was going through all of the usual arguments for the KM/MP (kiss mezzuzah/money in pushke) panacea as we were getting closer to St. John the Divine.  Would we have to go in the church to get to the garden where the peacock lives?  Churches are beautiful but still . . . .

Luckily we didn’t have to go into the church to reach the garden.  Phew.

The garden where the peacock lives is set very far back from Amsterdam and so quiet and lovely.  SOS and I held hands and watched the peacock in the hushed quiet of this little garden that seemed miles away from the pulse of the City.  It is an extraordinary bird. http://www.flickr.com/photos/porto/128122920/in/set-72057594105452625/ I bet that there are swirls and patterns on the feathers but we can’t see them on the white-on-white feathers.  http://www.flickr.com/photos/porto/310756506/in/set-72057594105452625/

And those moments were exhilarating and transcendent.

Yes, Yom Kippur 5772, the day that two wandering Jews found beauty in a rare creature on the grounds of a church.  And it felt like a blessing.

Al Chet

The “Al Chet” is a commual confessional said ten times during Yom Kippur.  (There is also the silent, personal confessional said ad nauseum, so it isn’t as easy as it sounds.)

For the Al Chet (guttural “ch”), each line starts with:  “For the sin we have committed before [G-d]” and then gets pretty detailed:

under duress or willingly; by hard-heartedness; inadvertently; with immorality; openly or secretly; with knowledge and with deceit; through speech: by deceiving a fellowman; by improper thoughts; by verbal [insincere] confession; by disrespect for parents and teachers; by using coercion; desecrating the Divine Name; with evil inclination; by false denial and lying; by a bribe-taking or a bribe-giving hand; in business  dealings; by eating and drinking; with proud looks; with impudence; and on and on.

After every few, we Jews ask: V’al kulam Eloha s’lichot, s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu (For all of these things, G-d of forgiveness, pardon us, forgive us, let us atone.)

Generally, I really dig in deep when it comes to the sins of pride, speaking ill of someone, improper thoughts and eating and drinking.  Ok, impudence, too.  And, ok ok ok ok, taking G-d’s name in vain.  But as a general matter, I am comfortable that the other sins are not mine in particular although on Yom Kippur we stand as a community and “own” these sins as a group.

Still, while the confessional is detailed but it is easy not to connect with the words on the page.  So, at our synagogue, during Selichot (the prep holiday for the Ten Days of Sorry), our synagogue congregants write down sins for which they seek atonement.  [a side note:  just the “Ten Days of Sorry” comment is going to be a BIG issue for 5773 if I last so long.]

Some of the “al chets” were: littering, not recycling, abusing substances, infidelity and unprotected sex.  While this may be ground-breaking in an Orthodox shul or a church, in our synagogue serving the gay, bisexual, transgendered, intersex, queer-identified community, their families and their friends (the printing is getting soooo expensive) with a social justice mandate (as if being home to everyone and literally his or her Jewish mama isn’t social justice enough), these “al chets”, too, have become rather mundane over 20 years.

But there was one “al chet” that stuck with me:  for the sin that I have sinned against G-d by maligning Orthodox Jews.

Whoa!!!!  That stopped me in my tracks.  I used to greet Jews with a kippah (skull cap) or a sheidl (wig) as fellow travelers seeking a good, meaningful life.  I learned over the years that one doesn’t inherit religious or ethical principles.  So, a child with a yarmulke can be as good or as evil or as somewhere-in-between as the rest of us.  Yet, they wear a costume of piety.  I have learned first hand about how some kosher, Sabbath observing, “pious” Jews are not ethical, moral or righteous. 

I have been crushed, disillusioned and personally harmed by the nefarious, immoral and dishonest deeds of those parading as pious, even those who are called “rabbi”.  And not because they object to my sexual orientation (there is no prohibition against lesbians in Torah).

As a result, I do deal with Orthodox Jews with greater suspicion than I do others.  And that is wrong.  The good and right thing is to assess each person according to that person’s merits.

It all comes down to a derivative of the golden rule: Don’t judge a book by its cover. 

For the sin that I have sinned by maligning all orthodox Jews on account of a few pretenders AND wanting to rip off their Yamulkes or sheidls, Eloha s’lichot (G-d of forgiveness), pardon me, forgive me, let me atone.  But if the person deserves it, I want the Heavens to clap with thunder and the angels to blow those crazy little bugels, ok?
Wow, Yom Kippur is over by less than two hours and I am soooo cooked for next year. .  . . . . .

Days of Awe, 5772

Jews have a strange way of celebrating holidays.  Take the New Year, for example.  Most of the world celebrates a new year with parties, presents or hangovers.  Not Jews.  It’s all about death and destruction.

Our new year 5772 begins Wednesday at sunset with Rosh Ha-Shanah, the birthday of the world.  (I always forget to ask if that is based on the first day or sixth day of creation).

Every new year, we begin by fighting for our mortal lives.

On Rosh Ha-Shanah, our ancient rabbis taught that our fates for the coming year are “penciled-in” and, ten days later, on Yom Kippur, they are sealed – for life or death, for health or sickness, happiness or sorrow, wealth or not-so-much wealth. And because Jews can be lugubrious at times, we go through the recitation of how many ways we could die — water, fire, disease, famine, war, etc.  (The list goes on and on.  Who knew that there were so many ways to die prior to modern warfare?)

During the 10 days, one can sway G-d from the harshest of punishments by our good acts, repentance and atonement for our sins committed during the prior year (here, 5771) and return to the principles of our faith.  Nevertheless, it all pretty much puts a damper on any thoughts of parties with confetti, funny hats and noise makers.

We don’t even sing happy birthday to the world.  If I were the maker of the world, there would be hell to pay (no scare tactics, there) if some massive number of earthly beings, sea creatures and plants didn’t start a rousing round of “G-d’s a jolly good fellow — um — non-corporal entity”.

Living year-to-year like this makes a person wonder why a Jew takes out a 30-year mortgage, or eats vegetables instead of ice cream.  I guess I understand the 30-year mortgage — why buy something with cash if your fate the next Yom Kippur is shall-we-say “tentative”?  Better to borrow money and leave more liquid assets to your heirs, should the fate have a negative prognosis.  But vegetables?  Well, I guess on a day-to-day, they are important to digestion, the specific details of which are somewhat of a preoccupation of our people.

It isn’t all sack cloth and ashes.  We do gather for a meal together but we are focused on not talking about the tragic outfits at synagogue or the odd recombination of couples from last year, because it is not settled law whether for atonement purposes, these sins are included in last year’s sins or next year’s sins.  And we act so sure that we will live another year, that we don’t start with dessert.  The sheer hubris should get us deeper in trouble, even if we don’t have to account for it until 5773.

And then there are people like me, who think that G-d (if G-d even listens to the rituals we ascribed to Heavenly declaration) has billions of creatures to judge, so that’s why some of the good get caught up with bad and the some of the bad seem to get rewarded.  Also, what a downer to have to note everyone’s sins 24/7 (ok, G-d rested on the Sabbath, so 24/6), and then have to remember all of them to give an initial prognosis on Rosh Ha-Shanah and then listen to 9 days of whining about why it wasn’t really stealing, gossip, adultery, pork or whatever.  On the 10th day, I would flood the earth and start again.  Wait, G-d did that once.  (And by the looks of global warming, it is happening again.)

Still, I am looking forward to these ten days of awe.  It is a religiously mandated time-out of the usual rhythms of life.   At different times during these ten days, there is time for quiet, for chanting, for meditation, for family and for solitude.

Something in me needs space to think about my family and the world and my place in both.  I have a visceral need to course-correct some aspects of my life and to resolve to do some things differently and do other things better.   I think this need comes from my fears about the future of the world, our country, our economy and our humanity and their effects on my ability to provide for my family.  And I need these Days of Awe to figure out how I can transform my fears into hope and action.

May this be a year of peace and other blessings for all of us, all over the world.

 

Even More to Talk About

COB (colleague of blogger), wants to write for the Alternate View (see prior blog entries).  He thinks Blogger and SNOBFOB (my awesomely funny friend who isn’t so sure she wants to be associated with blogger on-line) should try a YouTube video first, one that is a “parody” of The View.
Here are his ideas for the guests:
  1. Someone from the “Iced” Tea Party [blogger comment:  or The Latte League, truly effete, New York liberal intellectuals]
  2. A 10 year-old who has ideas for running government more efficiently [blogger comment: or Christine O’Donnell, who has the IQ of a ten year-old and is a witch to boot]
  3. A gay/lesbian person who is against same sex marriage [blogger comment: or Mr. Michele Bachmann, who thinks he cured himself]
  4. A person who is now an actor/actress since they can’t get a different job in this economy [blogger comment: because everyone assumes actors and actresses, especially the most talented ones, are unemployed]
  5. A crazy person (COB thinks I could fill that role.) [blogger comment: I think COB could audition for this role.]
Not a bad start.

The News

These last few days I have read the newspaper, cover to cover.  Death, starvation, destruction and war games.  And economic chaos, too.  And political polarization and the concomitant demonization of the “other”.

Today, I have been humming One Tin Soldier, an anti-Vietnam War song from the 1970s.  I didn’t remember all of the lyrics, but I did remember the prize that everyone in the parable is bickering over, killing over and claiming rights over.  It is worth a listen (click on the hyperlink) and read the lyrics.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7jHp7OchP0

(by Dennis Lambert & Brian Potter; performed by Jinx Dawson and Coven in the movie “Billy Jack” (1971))

Listen, children, to a story
That was written long ago,
‘Bout a kingdom on a mountain
And the valley-folk below.

On the mountain was a treasure
Buried deep beneath the stone,
And the valley-people swore
They’d have it for their very own.

Go ahead and hate your neighbor,
Go ahead and cheat a friend.
Do it in the name of Heaven,
You can justify it in the end.
There won’t be any trumpets blowing
Come the judgement day,
On the bloody morning after….
One tin soldier rides away.

So the people of the valley
Sent a message up the hill,
Asking for the buried treasure,
Tons of gold for which they’d kill.

Came an answer from the kingdom,
“With our brothers we will share
All the secrets of our mountain,
All the riches buried there.”

Now the valley cried with anger,
“Mount your horses! Draw your sword!”
And they killed the mountain-people,
So they won their just reward.

Now they stood beside the treasure,
On the mountain, dark and red.
Turned the stone and looked beneath it…
“Peace on Earth” was all it said.

Where do we go from here?

I have this terrible feeling that I, along with everyone else in this country, am being sacrificed at the altar of hubris and zealotry.

“Take no prisoners” is a way of waging war.  It is not a way of governing.  True believers and purists on both sides of the aisles are important counterbalances, but they cannot dictate the future of our nation.  Even Grover Norquist said letting the Bush tax cuts (which affect me) expire and closing tax loopholes are not “new” taxes (phew, because if repealing subsidies for corporate jets is so problematic in these times of George W. Bush deficits, then let’s all join hands and drown ourselves).  Shouldn’t the true believers be swayed?  I guess it is a new, virulent strain of true believer.  One that speaks to God directly.  It must be a local call because the long distance charges alone could bankrupt a person.

For those who invoke G-d and destiny in the argument surrounding the raising of the debt ceiling, I send this quote:

“Do Justice, Love Mercy and Walk Humbly with your God.”

This is the answer to two questions posed in Micah, Chap. 6:8: “What does the Lord require of you? What are you supposed to do to live faithfully with your God?”

Why am  quoting scripture?  Because I am that desperate for the extremists to take pity on us and our nation and make some hard and dare I say, PRACTICAL, decisions.

I understand taking a hard line in the abortion debate, in the capital punishment debate and in the war debates.  These are about potential life, actual life and the taking of life.  But, in the money debate?  I think you can tell what God thinks about money by who has the most.  So, let’s not bring God into this.  Let’s be honest.  It is about political gain and power. And that is about as un-God-like as you can get.

You know the world is tilted in the wrong direction when I am trying to “protect” God’s good name from God’s self-proclaimed followers.  As far as I can tell, they are frauds.

 

Sometimes it is ok to wish away a day

I know that each day is a gift, but some days, you wish you had the receipt so you could exchange it for a better day.  Today was one of those days.  Humbling, tender, sad, crazed, scary, and ultimately safe at home with my beloved family.  It was not about too much work, which is a blessing in this economy, but a lot of other things which, suffice it to say, sucked.

I went out with a colleague to commiserate over a glass of wine about mutually horrific days.  Afterwards, I was thinking about the blessing of coming home to my family.

And this Dan Fogelberg song started an endless loop in my head — “I have these moments all steady and strong, feeling so holy and humble.  The next thing I know I’m all worried and weak, feeling the world start to crumble. . . .”

Happiness is having loved ones who will abide you when you are all holy and self-righteous and shore up your foundations when you are feeling about to crumble.

It is a moment to be thankful for the spirituality gained from a day’s worth of testing one’s sanity.  It is also a moment to go to sleep, with rejuvenating cream slathered on, and promise yourself you will never have such a shitty day again.

Martin Buber meets Scarlett O’Hara.  I am feeling a cosmic shift toward the drain. . .

The times they are a’changing

I always knew I was gay.  People often ask, “how could you know before you were ever with a woman?”  “The same way you always knew you were straight,” I say.  But the truth is that kids don’t think in terms of gay or straight.  They are who they are.  So, I knew as much that I was gay as straight kids knew they were straight.  Labels didn’t apply yet.  It only became an issue in the teenage years and beyond.  I desperately tried to be like everyone else, to the point of going overboard.

In the 1970s-90s, it was something to be hidden if I wanted to be a successful lawyer, if I wanted to fit in, if I wanted to get into the right social and professional crowds.  By the late 1990s, the gulf between who I was and who I pretended to be was wider than the San Andreas fault (gee, I hope that the fault line is wide, or I bungled this analogy).  I was tired of the schism, and so tired of the inevitable lies that somehow never fooled anyone, that I was willing to give up some measure of “success” and “acceptance” for peace of mind and peace of being.  That’s when the journey toward self-acceptance and family acceptance began.  A long, winding road, filled with pot holes, and yet, at various critical points, surrounded by warmth and beauty.

Today, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the military must end “don’t ask, don’t tell”.  Last week, New York legalized same-sex marriage.  A recent poll reported that more people in the country support gay marriage than not.

Still, I am not equal in the United States of America, the beacon of liberty to all nations.  But I am closer to equal than ever before.

I just hope that there comes a time when people wonder why there ever was a need to fight for equality — for anyone, anywhere.