homelessness

One morning in D.C. I met a friend at Caribou Coffee, and I grabbed the restroom key off the bar as soon as I walked in. The barista glanced at me but said nothing. I walked back to the restroom, which was clearly marked: “For Caribou customers ONLY.” A homeless man sat at the table closest to the restroom, sipping his cup of coffee, alternately watching me and his shopping cart of belongings just outside the door.

“If I did that, they’d make me buy something before used the restroom.”

I didn’t know what to say. I muttered that I was going to buy something; I just really had to use the bathroom. But I knew that he was right. My privilege as an upper middle-class white woman (even one dressed in her stinky running clothes) had given me that pass. I look like someone who is going to buy something. Or someone who isn’t going to bathe in the bathroom. Or both.

I don’t see homeless folks where I live in Boston. I know they exist, even in the affluent suburbs where I live and go to school. But besides running or a quick trip to the drug store, I drive everywhere. It’s hard to see anyone from the bubble of my car.

Before I left D.C., the plight of homelessness weighed on me heavily. I walked everywhere, including to and from my office downtown, where there are homeless people on almost every street. In the months before I moved away, I struggled every day with how best to treat these people with humanity. My general policy is to give money — change — to whomever asks, but I feel deeply the inadequacy of that response.

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tzedakah box: tiempo israelitico synagogue; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

As I was packing, I decided I didn’t need to schlep a full tzedakah box, which my husband and I had been adding to since we moved to our apartment four years earlier, to Boston. I put the coins in a plastic bag and began doling it out. There was a lot of change, and I began to go out of my way to give it away. I’ll be honest: This increased interaction with some of the most vulnerable residents became a source of stress, as I found myself feeling increasingly helpless in the face of such a daunting social issue. I didn’t know if what I was doing was ultimately helping or hurting, and I don’t know what a better alternative is.

But when a person is asking something from me — a person who my tradition teaches me was created b’tzelem Elohim, “in the image of G-d” — I can’t decline a request for change, something that literally costs me very little to give. Because of this, I am unconcerned, as many are, about how the requesting party will use that money; that is simply not a factor in my thinking about this issue. As often as I can, I look the person in the eye, I smile, and I give.

I arrived at this decision about how to respond to these requests after a text study during a fellowship I participated in. The Jeremiah Fellowship, run by the local D.C. organization Jews United for Justice, was a 10-month program to train the next generation of Jewish social justice changemakers. The text study, “Can You Spare a Dime? Jewish Perspectives on Spontaneous Tzedakah,” which focused specifically on these kinds of street requests, was in three parts: To give or not to give? What about people who aren’t really in need? Are there alternatives to giving money?

We’re told in Vayikra Rabbah 32:2:

Rabbi Pinchas says in the name of Rabbi Re’uven: To anyone who gives a small coin to a poor person, the Holy Blessed One will give many small coins. But is the giver really just giving the poor person a coin? Isn’t she really giving him his life? How so?

If a loaf of bread costs ten coins and a poor person is standing in the market and only has nine, and someone comes along and gives him one [more] coin so that he buys the loaf of bread and eats it and his soul is returned to him [i.e., he is saved from starving to death]. The Holy Blessed One says to the giver, “In your case, too, when your own soul threatens to break loose from your body [i.e., when you’re on the verge of death], I will return it to you.”

The text study (several more pieces besides the one above) had a profound effect on me. I like that the Talmud acknowledges that not everyone who asks is in need (or, by extension, will use the money for the professed need) and suggests non-monetary ways to help those in need — while still affirming our obligation to give even just a little, and to do so with compassion.

sign near occupy dc on k st nw

sign near occupy dc at vermont & k sts nw; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

I know that not everyone agrees with my approach — including some of my fellow Jeremiahs, who looked at the same texts I did. While I lived in D.C. I also made a (small) annual donation to an organization that worked with the local homeless population. Each week my husband bought a copy of Street Sense — a publication by and about those experiencing homelessness — from a vendor near his office. And I spent many a Christmas day repainting various buildings of the Community for Creative Nonviolence, a downtown D.C. shelter.

All of this is to say that I loved being in back in D.C., where homeless folks are visible, even if they are a painful reminder of how short our society falls in an important test. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”

feminist fishbowl

On Wednesday I spoke on a panel — or more properly, a fishbowl — about feminism at my school’s community time (held once a week for an hour-and-a-half) in advance of our winter seminar the week before school starts again in January, which will be on the topic of feminist theology and practice. Also on the panel were a faculty member (a man) and two fourth-year students (a man and a woman).

We each had four minutes (!), and I was super nervous, in part because I still don’t know the community very well, and I am just not sure where people are on feminism (yes, I know). In the end, I felt that it went really well. It was such an important experience for me personally, since, as I’ve been sharing, I’ve been having a hard time with the very painful misogyny in many of the texts that we’re studying. It felt great to have my say, to share my worldview. Which is, of course, the essence of feminism.

These are the questions that I was asked to respond to, and following that is what I said (slighted edited from notes into a more readable format, and including a few sentences I had to cut on the spot in the interests of time).

1. What does feminism mean to you?
-What is your working definition of feminism/feminist practice?
-How did you arrive at this conception of feminism?
-How is feminism lived out in your life? Your relationships? Your work? Your Jewish practice?

2. Why is it important for Hebrew College, as a community, to be talking about feminism?

____________________________________________________
My feminist practice works towards the liberation of all marginalized people, not just women. I have unerring commitment to intersectionality: The patriarchy perpetuates not just sexism but lots of other -isms/privilege: racism, ableism, cisgenderism, heteronormativism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, etc. The identity of an oppressed person is not just shaped by gender.

Essentially, our world is perfectly suited to educated, wealthy, straight, white, able-bodied, cisgendered men, and there are way more people who are not that. This means that a very small group of people have power and privilege. I’d like to create a world that is suited to all people.

patriarchyI can’t walk away from misogyny, so I can’t walk away from feminism. And I won’t walk away from feminism, because it is the only defense I have in world that is hostile to me –  not the other way around.

I’ve never taken a women’s studies or feminist theory class. In fact, I spent my college years doing just about the opposite, studying classics (ancient Greek and Latin texts). The definition above was forged in the fires of the rape crisis center where I worked as a hotline counselor and hospital advocate for seven years; I received extensive training before I started and ongoing training as I continued to volunteer. I answered crisis calls on a 24-hour hotline, and I went to the hospital when patient identified as a sexual assault survivor. (For simplicity, I will be talking about survivors as women, but I want to acknowledge that women are not at all the only people who are raped.)

I understand the phenomenon of sexual assault in a feminist context: that is, rape is about power and control, and not desire or libido. It is perhaps the most violent manifestation of patriarchy, and it is a direct result of the “rape culture” in which we live.

Rape culture is set of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women; it views sexual violence as a fact of life, when in fact what we think of as immutable is an expression of values and views that can change. In addition to its the part it plays in the lives of women, rape culture also narrowly circumscribes men’s roles.

A few examples: rape culture is 1 in 33 men and 1 in 6 women being sexually assaulted in their lifetimes; rape culture is encouraging women to take self-defense as though that is the only solution required to prevent rape; rape culture is the claim that sex workers can’t be raped; rape culture is the threat of being raped in prison being an acceptable deterrent to committing crime; rape culture is tasking women with the burden of not getting raped and failing to admonish men not to rape; rape culture is refusing to acknowledge that the only thing a person can do to avoid being raped is never to be in the same room as a rapist.

My feminist practice is based on the principle that the personal is political. Just to give two examples: I listen. I know precisely my experience of sexism, but that does not mean that I know what it’s like to be queer, or a person of color, or disabled, or any number of things. It behooves me to check my privilege and to listen and to accept as true others’ telling of their experiences

And on the flip side: I tell my story. As an excellent web resource says, “Because women’s stories aren’t told, it’s incumbent upon female feminists to tell their own stories, to fill that void, to be unrepentant and loquacious raconteurs every chance we get, to talk about our bodies, our struggles, our triumphs, our needs, our lives in every aspect. It’s our obligation to create a cacophony with our personal narratives, until there is a constant din that translates into equality, into balance.”

Finally, why is it important for Hebrew College, as a community, to be talking about feminism? Because we’re still asking that question.

feminist teshuvah

I wrote this two weeks ago as a final assignment for the fall seminar for first-year students, which looked at the Torah and Haftarah portions – and critical analysis of both – for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. We were asked to reflect on something we found interesting or significant from the readings and to present that reflection to the class. I’ve edited it slightly to make it more accessible to readers not in that class.

Thus for me, teshuva between women and G-d implies not just G-d holding me responsible for the ways I have failed as a human being, but also me holding G-d responsible for failing me as a Jewish woman by giving me a world and a people and a text that continue to betray women, often making it difficult for us to uphold our side of the covenant.

I almost fell off of my bed after I read this passage from Tamara Cohen’s essay, “Returning to Sarah,” in Beginning Anew. To say that it resonated with me would be a vast understatement. I don’t think a piece of text has so perfectly spoken to me in 10 years, since I read Anita Diamant’s Choosing a Jewish Life – the main impetus for the Jewish journey that eventually led me here.

The passage gave me permission to be mad at G-d. The tradition I grew up in did not allow that, and my inchoate theology tends towards a G-d that is not directly responsible for the state of things. Our mischegas is our own.

A world and a people and a text that continue to betray women.

[B]etray women.

This is my experience, from growing up in a tradition of strict gender roles, to working at an all girls’ boarding school in North Carolina, to volunteering at the rape crisis center in D.C.

I am grateful to now be a part of a community whose commitment to egalitarianism seems to be firm, but I know this to be an aberration. (And I know that there will be failures on that front; we live in a world of male privilege, after all.)

My life thus far has been a daily, run-into-a-wall encounter between the way that I experience life and a privileged experience of life. And that’s my experience as an upper-middle-class, straight white woman – to say nothing of the experience of people of color, or queer folks.

I feel that betrayal acutely, in ways large and small.

I feel it when last summer’s debt crisis – which almost led to a default and did lead to a downgrade in U.S. credit by world debtors – ended only when the president agreed to a bill rider that prohibited the District of Columbia from directing its own tax revenues to subsidize abortions for District residents.

I feel it in the lack of basic labor protections – standard for most workers in this country – for domestic employees, the women that care for our children, houses, and elders.

I feel it when our secretary of state – our nation’s top diplomat – is asked which fashion designers she prefers.

I feel it when sports teams at my alma mater are referred to as “the Longhorns” . . . and “the Lady Longhorns.”

I feel it when I get mail, as I did yesterday, addressed to “Mr. & Mrs. Joseph Grossberg.”

Last Wednesday at hesbon hanefesh (“account of the soul”) a teacher asked us to reflect on the issue of anger, and he used a text from Rav Natan as a prompt: “Help me break my tendency towards anger. Help me practice patience in all aspects of my life and overcome my anger. I don’t want to be angry or respond harshly to anything . . . I just want to be able to serve you honestly and simply, and to have total trust in you.”

This is not my prayer to G-d. For me there is a distinction between the feeling of anger and acting angrily. I don’t want to do the latter. But I also don’t want to not be angry, when I generally feel that if you’re not angry about the world, you’re not paying attention. (Patience, on the other hand, that I pray for daily.) My anger, my outrage at injustice, is often what motivates me. It’s one of the reasons I’m here.

And if I’m being honest, I have to say that in the drama of the traditional Yom Kippur “scapegoat” sacrifice in the texts that we read, I feel less like the onlookers or even the high priest – and more like the goat. I feel the weighed down by the burden of our society’s sins against women. Like the goat, I am either abandoned in the wilderness – or thrown over a cliff.

So, how can I do the hard work of teshuva (“repentence”) when a great deal of my reflection has left me angry at G-d? Trust after betrayal is incredibly hard, especially when the betrayal “continue[s],” as Cohen notes.

Cohen’s answer is, at least in part, is for us to complete the stories about and to strain to hear the voices of the women of the Torah. We must write our own midrashim and live our own fully integrated lives. So, I’ll definitely try to get that done in the next 19 days.

Hebrew College founder Art Green, in his introduction to S.Y. Agnon’s seminal text on the High Holidays, Yamim Noraim, suggests another, or an additional, model: He notes that Yom Kippur commemorates the giving of the second of the Ten Commandment tablets. (Moses destroyed the first in his anger at the Israelites’ creation of the golden calf.) Green says, “This time the tablets were to be a joint divine-human project. Moses does the carving, G-d does the writing. Every Jew receives or fashions these second tablets on or around Yom Kippur. This is the season when each of us renegotiates our covenant with G-d.”

If I can frame it like that, I’m able see G-d as a partner in the beginning of my teshuva. But it’s also a good thing that I have next year, too.

no milk and cookies

Or, in which I do not laud the president for his statement on marriage equality yesterday.

First: I absolutely support marriage equality. It makes me furious that in various parts of this country we are voting on and legislating against civil rights. Any two consenting adults should be able to get married — and this is one of those rare moral and ethical absolute rights. It should not even be an issue.

And . . . I’m not that impressed by the president’s televised statement that “I think same sex couples should be able to get married.”

I realize I’m in the minority among my progressive peers, if my Facebook feed is any indication. I acknowledge that words matter, and it matters what the president says: He can start and shift a national conversation. And, as a straight married woman, I can’t know what it feels like to have my relationship finally given the dignity that it deserves, by the most powerful man in the world, because my privilege is that my relationship has always been so accorded. In some ways, it was indeed an historic moment. (And I’m not completely hardhearted: I was touched by his crediting his wife and daughters for helping to shape his views on this issue. The women have always been my favorite Obamas.)

But many things about what happened yesterday — and, I suppose, what have been happening for a while, during the president’s “evolution” — were troubling. It’s hard to escape the fact that the decision to make this statement was born out of yet another vice presidential gaffe. Basically, Joe Biden went off the campaign script, and the president’s hand was forced. To avoid the impression that he and his running mate are not on the same page on this issue, the president quickly went on television to express what we’ve suspected he’s actually believed for a long time.

Indeed, the speed of the reaction (three days passed between Biden’s statement and Obama’s — did the president just happen to finish “evolving” at that point?) suggests that he already held the belief and was perhaps waiting until after the election to say so. His silence has then been a political calculation, about which I find very little commendable (particularly in light of the growing support for marriage equality in this country). It is incumbent upon us as human beings to speak out against injustice — and never more so when that human being is in a position of political power.

And even if I’m wrong in characterizing the action as political, and I take the president at his word that his personal belief has been evolving, I am still dismissive. A black man well knows the the history of injustice in our country’s marriage laws, and he should have been saying from day one, “I absolutely support equality because it is not okay to restrict marriage.”

Moreover, this seems to me a symbolic statement. Will he speak out against future measures like the one in North Carolina, which passed just the day before? Will he work to repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which he has thus far only ordered the Justice Department not to enforce defend*? I want action with vague words. I don’t feel all that thrilled at what on its face was a simple statement of belief, the appropriate response to which is “duh.”

In the bigger picture, I share the concerns of many — particularly people of color, low income folks, and trans folks — in the queer community about the focus on marriage equality to the exclusion of other issues facing those constituencies (see also: hate crimes legislation). As a friend of a friend wrote on Facebook yesterday — and as my friend Alicia has eloquently written elsewhere:

WHAT about those of us who are raging queers? What about those of us who are poly, sex-positive, who don’t want kids, who have unconventional family arrangements? What about queers who have AIDS, who are homeless, who are gender freaks and warriors? Those of us who want working to dismantle the state, take apart the military, end capitalism, destroy the institution of marriage, and abolish prisons? What do we do when a movement for justice for LGBT people and the national discourse frames that movement as being about an institution that strengthens the power of a state that wages wars, puts people behind bars, profits off of land theft and slavery, and makes healthcare a right of the rich?

Marriage equality is a step. But I worry that the argument for it often devolves into, “Gay folks are just like straight folks. You don’t have to go out of your comfort zone to support marriage equality.” That’s insulting to everyone involved. I want support for people (straight people included) not to get married, too. I want support and attention for many, many other issues that, frankly, are more pressing for many folks than the right to marry.

Further, this does not change my position that I will not be giving the president anything other than my vote. He won’t have my time and money before the election as long he keeps signing bills allowing for indefinite detention, deporting record numbers of undocumented immigrants, and raiding medical marijuana dispensaries, to name a few issues on which he has utterly disgusted me.

Finally, while I’m on my soapbox, I’d really appreciate it if we could all stop using the term “gay marriage” (and the only somewhat better “same-sex marriage”), as it’s conceding the right’s narrative on this issue. “Marriage equality” affirms that existing marriage laws apply to everyone; we are not seeking to create a new institution for queer folks.

Marriage, as it stands (my issues with the institution, especially the state’s role it, notwithstanding), should be open to all.

*Update: My friend Brian Moulton, chief legislative counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, points out that the Obama administration has been “not defending” DOMA — not “not enforcing.”

blue nights

I was drawn into Joan Didion’s latest memoir, Blue Nights, immediately. She begins by writing about a season changing from spring into summer into fall:

To the English it was “the gloaming.” The very word “gloaming” reverberates, echoes — the gloaming, the glimmer, the glitter, the glisten, the glamour — carrying in its consonants the images of houses shuttering, gardens darkening, grass-lined rivers slipping through the shadows. During the blue nights you think the day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone.

I’ve only read one other Didion book, The Year of Magical Thinking, the memoir that preceded Blue Nights. Tragically, the former is about the death of her husband in 2003; the latter, the death of her daughter two years later. It’s hard to escape the fact that few have unexpectedly suffered more than Didion.

In both books, the difficult subject matter is made easier by her beautiful writing. Her prose is positively poetic. I read The Year of Magical Thinking weeks after the death of my beloved grandfather, and it helped me immensely in dealing with his death. The book also touched on her daughter’s struggle, who was in a coma at the time of her father’s death (but managed to recover long enough to attend the funeral). When it was published, I was eager, as odd as it sounds, to read the second part of Didion’s saga. Her recent experience is heartbreaking, and accompanying her on her journey through grief is comforting.

But if Blue Nights drew me in right away, I had a hard time finishing it. In some ways, what Didion describes in both books is universal: With grief come questions. How did the illness actually cause death? Did the deceased anticipate the end? How did I fail my loved one? How could I have made the time we had left more meaningful? Why didn’t I . . .? And no one articulates these hard questions better than she.

In other ways, Didion mistakes her experience as universal. Toward the end of the book, she contemplates the suddenness of change: “One day we are absorbed by dressing well, following the news, keeping up, coping, what we might call staying alive; the next day we are not. One day we are turning the pages of whatever has arrived in the day’s mail with real enthusiasm — maybe it is Vogue, maybe it is Foreign Affairs, whatever it is we are intensely interested, pleased to have this handbook to keeping up, this key to staying alive — yet the next day we are walking uptown on Madison past Barney’s and Armani or on Park past the Council on Foreign Relations and we are not even glancing at their windows.” The general sentiment rings true, to be sure, but the details that are supposed to concretize her state of mind are alienating. Didion uses the word “we” — but her world isn’t one that I recognize.

Indeed, her two works that I’ve read are full of this kind of name and label dropping: Payard and Bouvier des Flandres, Bendel’s and The Bistro, Minton dinner plates and I. Magnin soap, Lilly Pulitzer shifts and Donald Brooks dresses, David Webb bracelets and Christian Louboutin shoes. I don’t even know what most of those words mean. And it goes on. Tasha (Natasha Richardson). Nick (Dominick Dunne). She spends two pages listing the (presumably very fancy) hotels that she and her daughter stayed in on her book tours. She even identifies something as banal as a kitchen implement: a “Craftsman knife.”

I probably would have dismissed these details had they gone unremarked. I’ve come to think of them as window-dressing, ornaments whose specificity probably connote something deeply meaningful for Didion (indeed, a photograph of Sophia Loren at a fashion show in 1968 prompts a lengthy ode to a past era in her life) but which for me are almost meaningless. I feel deeply for Didion’s losses, and these references, signifying wealth above all, give me hope. Whatever else she is — bereft, grieving, heartbroken, broken — she’s not poor. She has the resources to give herself the space to heal. It’s one of the benefits of privilege.

But Didion is angry about this label, and she breaks into a defensive address of the reader halfway through Blue Nights: “‘Privilege’ remains an area to which — when I think of what she endured, when I consider what came later — I will not easily cop.”

But she’s wrong. Just wrong. Wrong, full stop. It’s hard to imagine a more privileged type of person in the U.S. than a wealthy white Hollywood family. Didion’s daughter undoubtedly suffered terribly at the end of her life — and, to hear Didion tell, struggled with debilitating mental issues when she was alive. And she did so in a life of privilege. With all due respect to Didion’s experience, health problems, even fatal ones, don’t negate privilege.

I found this refusal to acknowledge her daughter’s — and by extension her own — privilege so troubling that I had to put the book down for several months. I was recently able to finish it, and I’m glad I did. Ultimately, I do recommend the book — how can I not love a book whose author describes a scene of her daughter’s walking to school as “beautiful as anything I’d ever seen”? — but I also recommend skipping chapter 15. Didion should have skipped it, too.

the jazz baroness

On Sunday I attended a screening of the documentary “The Jazz Baroness” at the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center, the kickoff event of the Washington Jewish Music Festival.

I can’t really remember what motivated me to buy a ticket: I’m not a music person, so I generally don’t even skim the program listings for this annual event. But something must have intrigued me about this documentary.

The film was written, directed, edited, and produced by Hannah Rothschild, whose great-aunt Pannonica, known to everyone as “Nica,” had a long friendship with Thelonious Monk, from when they met in Paris in 1954 until his death (at her house in Weehawken) in 1982.

By all accounts, they were not lovers, although Monk’s son tells the filmmaker that he believes Nica to have been “in love” with his dad. Indeed, both Nica and Monk were married when they met; Nica’s husband, Baron Jules de Koenigswarter, divorced her in 1956, at least in part because of her carrying on with New York jazz musicians.

The relationship seems to have been more one of patronage and caregiving on the part of Nica, who simply adored Monk’s music. In the film, she (voiced by the incomparable Helen Mirren) tells the story of the first time she heard it. In 1951, she stopped by a friend’s apartment in New York on the way to the airport to catch a flight to Mexico, where she was living at the time with de Koenigswarter and her children. He played for her “‘Round Midnight,” and she was completely captivated. She’d never heard anything like it, and she made her friend play the record over and over again. She missed her flight back to Mexico, and shortly thereafter, she moved to New York.

For his part, Monk was a musical genius but suffered from fairly severe mental health issues (undiagnosed in his lifetime, but later speculated to be manic despression, bipolar disorder, and/or schizophrenia). Several friends and his long-time manager also testified to his use of marijuana and heroin. Another friend explained that Nica, together with Monk’s wife, Nellie, shouldered the burden of caring for Monk, as his behavior was too much for one person to manage. Nica even took the rap for Monk when they were arrested for marijuana possession on the way to a gig in Delaware.

Overall, I liked the film. I certainly learned a lot, and I *loved* that Monk’s music played all throughout the film. You really can’t go wrong with his bebop. A few small items distracted me: Hannah Rothschild’s voice sounds remarkably like Helen Mirren’s, so at times during voiceovers it was hard to tell whose experience was being narrated. And a few of the interviewees were only identified during their first appearance in the film, leaving me to wonder in later scenes on what authority they were speaking. (Compounding this problem is that many of the Rothchilds interviewed were old, wrinkly, and therefore practically indistinguishable, women.)

My other complaint concerned the filmmaker’s attempt to show parallels between Nica’s and Monk’s lives. I don’t think that her search was in vain, but when she likened Monk’s upbringing — the son of a sharecropper in rural North Carolina — to Nica’s childhood — a member of one of Europe’s most prominent dynasties — she strained my credulity.

Mostly, though, I very much enjoyed the story of this “beautiful friendship.”