Purim arrives in just a month! Purim is a joyous holiday, filled with costumed children, merrymaking and all-around silliness. Since this blog is usually about justice though (and this piece is to be cross-published for my March “Baltimore Justice” JMore column), you might be wondering what Purim has to do with issues of bettering our society. The truth is The Scroll of Esther, the core text of the holiday, is all about justice. It’s a tale of marginalization, attempted genocide, redemption and salvation. Good triumphs over evil, the queen, her cousin and their people survive, and the villain gets his just desserts (and not hamantaschen).
And yet, the way Jews observe Purim itself betrays a deep anxiety about the elusiveness of justice in the world. We wear masks and (deliberately) confuse our fellow as to our identity. We laugh in the face of evil and spin our noisemakers at the sound of Haman’s name, a temporary salve for the wounds of oppression. And we drink – by tradition, so heavily we can no longer distinguish between the words “blessed be Mordechai” and “cursed be Haman.”
On Purim, what’s right is wrong and what’s wrong is right. We challenge assumptions about good and evil not because we’re moral relativists but because any fool can look at the world and figure out in short order how frequently evil effectively masquerades as good. Because the Megillah invites questions as to what is seen or unseen, even right or wrong, I find myself reflecting on what wisdom the Purim story might offer those of us moved to action this year by the #MeToo movement. Does this book, named for a woman, have something to add to our conversation about the place of women (and men) in society?
Recently, as I was traveling to Israel for my twice-yearly fellowship learning at the Shalom Hartman Institute, I had an experience fairly common to someone who regularly wears a yarmulke. I was sitting in the Toronto airport terminal when a man stood over me and beckoned, “Nu? You’ll come daven Mincha?” [Translation: “You, who is clearly a Jew and because you’re a man (and therefore counts in a religious quorum for prayer), should come join us in the corner so we can collectively offer the afternoon prayers.”]
Most Jewish men, I think, experience this occasional intrusion as a heartening one. Indeed, in my own past I felt blessed to be counted and, therefore, to enable others to fulfill their worship obligations – particularly when someone is saying Kaddish. But that day, I refused. I did so in part because I was confident he would form a minyan without me (there were plenty of guys with yarmulkes) but also because I am becoming increasingly sensitive to what my counting means for those who happen to have been born with different anatomy then my own. So, instead of mechanically saying “yes,” I looked up and said, “no thanks.” And when he persisted I asked, “Are you counting women in the minyan?”
My point here is not to denigrate Orthodoxy. I believe there is great value in having multiple perspectives on Jewish practice. But increasingly, I’m feeling less sanguine about the positive contributions of non-egalitarian Judaism to the dynamics of women and men in our Jewish community. I could go into the halachic (legal) arguments in favor of counting women in a quorum, but that’s not really the point. Knowledgeable and committed Jews can disagree on the particulars of halacha. What’s more important is that we begin to confront, honestly, the ramifications of our choices as men, the privileged gender – including in our religious life. What does it mean to define default Judaism as we have? What are the implications when half of the world’s adult Jewish population, in the eyes of many, quite literally do not count?
Consider Purim. The book is named for Esther. She risks her life approaching the king, outing herself as a Jew and calling Haman out for his wicked scheme. And yet, by tradition, of the four verses that are repeated by the congregation during the Megillah reading, one is about Jewish survival generally and three are only about Esther’s cousin Mordechai!
One innovation we’ll be trying this year at Beth Am comes from my colleague Rabbi Julia Andelman who suggests three additional verses for the community to repeat – verses that celebrate Esther as hero of the story. In giving voice to Esther’s name, we remember how she leaned into history. She showed up for those who were voiceless and powerless and, in doing so, she made her life count.
What does it mean for her legacy and the place of women in Jewish community when we undervalue her contribution? What would it mean for us if Esther showed up in shul on Purim and we didn’t count her in the minyan?
In my last post (Jan issue of JMore), I wrote about an historic intersection near my house and titled the piece “Intersectionality.” In this post, I want to tackle the same term and its typical usage. It’s a word at once embraced and maligned, depending on your political perspective and, to some extent, your age. And it’s a concept to which pro-Israel activists take great exception because they feel (justifiably, I think) it has been used to unite disparate populations and activists around the world against the State of Israel.
When it comes to social justice, there are two primary modalities: achieving and understanding. Most activists are achievers – they wish to solve systemic and societal problems. They eschew quick fix, helicopter-in volunteerism whose results, they contend, are often more about satisfying the volunteers than they are about solving problems. They resist platitudes and pooh-pooh photo-ops from politicians who speak the language of institutional transformation but are rarely effective in implementing sweeping reforms. And the achievers very much want institutional change, to upend biased systems of control and to rebalance power dynamics so laws and policies work more in favor of the vulnerable.
This impulse is, in fact, a Jewish one. The Torah says “proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof” (Lev. 25:10). The edict signifies the beginning of the 50th “Jubilee” year when debts are forgiven and slaves set free. Hitting the societal “reset” button is attractive, especially for those who feel the powerful elite have been able to press their advantage over the proletariat with impunity. But the Rabbis preferred incremental over disruptive or radical change. They understood revolutions rarely succeed in creating sustainable solutions (let alone equitable) ones. So they taught one should give tzedakah but not so much she impoverishes herself. And some rabbinic sources suggest a wealthy person who becomes poor should be supported by the community in a manner with which he is accustomed, even if it means receiving more than his share (Talmud Ketubbot 67b).
Focusing on instant vs. incremental rates of achieving, though, draws attention from the essential disconnect between achieving and understanding, and herein lies the tension contained within the word intersectionality. When the platform of the Movement for Black Lives (endorsed by some, rejected by others within the loose coalition of those who organize under the banner “Black Lives Matter”) maligned Zionism and the State of Israel, it did so for ostensibly intersectional reasons. Their claim: the suffering of oppressed peoples in one part of the world (e.g. African Americans or Native Americans) is fundamentally linked to the suffering of oppressed peoples in other parts of the world (e.g. Palestinians). This is an alliance born out of the desire to achieve, to magically and radically reshape the world order, to rebalance society a la Leviticus.
But intersectionality, in its more pristine (and I would argue more useful) form, isn’t about achieving alliances so much as it’s about understanding the intersection of different aspects of identity – within rather than between people. The term was first coined by Prof. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989 to critique feminist thought, underscoring the extent to which oppression of black women exacerbates their experience of both racism and sexism. Crenshaw points out because “…the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.”
The problem with utilizing the framework of intersectionality for discussing Israeli/Palestinian politics is two-fold. First, it appropriates a useful term from its useful context and draws attention away from, say, the particular experience of African American women or transgender Palestinians or Jews of color. Second, it creates sharp alliances along blurry lines in order to leverage the powerless against the powerful. This goal is not wrong, in and of itself – the powerless do need allies, and it’s better for various marginalized groups to find common cause with one another than to work at cross purposes (which only serves to reinforce systems of oppression). But that strategy only works in the long run if each community takes pains to understand and recognize, first and foremost, the uniqueness of one another’s causes. To do otherwise is to flatten all oppression into an amalgam of grievances and rob whole societies of any lasting solutions.
Among the — I suspect many — things I do that drives my wife crazy is talk incessantly about an intersection near our house. The intersection of Madison Avenue and Druid Park Lake Drive has been under construction since 2016 — and was finally completed in November!
Frequently, over almost two years, I would say something like, “I was walking the dog, and the crew was out working on the stoplights today.” Or, “they finished the brick path!” Or, “they finally redid the tin blue roofing under the arch.” And Miriam would roll her eyes, smile and pray they’d finish soon just so I’d stop talking about it!
In 1860, the City of Baltimore and Mayor Thomas Swann dedicated Druid Hill Park, one of the oldest public parks in America. For about a century, the grand entrance to the park could be found at Madison Avenue, where the northbound streetcar turned toward McCullough at the majestic sandstone archway bearing Swann’s name. From the archway, families with children could walk from what’s now called Reservoir Hill straight into the park and stroll up the tree-lined and elegant stone-paved mall behind the conservatory toward the boat lake. The relationship between the neighborhood and the park was seamless.
But in 1961, Baltimore dedicated the Jones Falls Expressway, access to which from Greater Mondawmin included a triple-level interchange. Great care was taken to move cars with rapidity past the park toward the highway – hence Druid Park Lake Drive was born. The park, once fully integrated into its surrounding neighborhoods, was now amputated from them, leaving future generations in Auchenteroly Terrace, Liberty Square, Park Circle, Woodberry, Hampden and Reservoir Hill scratching this green phantom limb.
When Miriam and I lived on “Lake Drive,” we used to chuckle that getting the grass mowed in the median between our home and the street meant calling the Department of Rec and Parks, because the park service retained responsibility for green space on either side of the major traffic artery, which had been routed straight through the southern portion of the park.
To this day, Maryland’s Department of Transportation focuses primarily on moving automobiles, not human beings, from place to place. Walking, jogging, biking, pushing a stroller or walking your dog – these are a secondary concerns. That’s why I’ve been so excited about the intersection at Madison Avenue. The park is our front yard, but for years, we’ve had only two pedestrian crossings to the park from the south, each more dangerous than the next. Our first act of advocacy upon moving to Baltimore was, with the help of the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council, to guilt the city into repairing the broken walk signal at Linden Avenue. The message sent went something like this: “The new Beth Am rabbi is running across four lanes of fast-moving traffic with his little kids.” The signal was fixed within a week.
For as long as there has been human civilization, there have been roads and intersections. In rabbinic literature, these are rightly seen as liminal spaces, places of transition where values and priorities are clarified. The Talmud (Ketubbot 17a) stipulates that if a wedding procession meets a funeral procession at a crossroads, the wedding takes precedence. Each are important, but joy and promise demand more immediacy than sadness and loss. I wonder how many couples, Jewish and not, walked together, holding hands and smiling at the undulating grassy landscape before them as they passed beneath Mayor Swann’s arch during the century before the JFX was built.
The new intersection is pretty nice, as intersections go. They installed classy, historic-looking lights and walk signals and removed the yellow stoplights which had been haphazardly strung across the road. Most important, they added an accessible crossing with lines repainted so traffic has to stop further back. Now distracted or aggressive drivers are much less likely to hit my dog or my kids when we cross. It’s a step in the right direction but much more is needed to truly rethread the park with its surrounding neighborhoods.
A version of this post can also be found here.
I don’t typically post sermons on this blog, but after seeing this article in The Jewish Week, I feel compelled to share these words in the context of the urban and social justice that animates my rabbinate.
December 2, 2017 ~ 14 Kislev 5778
Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Mark Halperin, Roger Ailes. Bill O’Reilly, John Conyers, Al Franken, Roy Moore, Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, Russell Simmons, Leon Wieseltier Garrison Keillor, Matt Lauer.
These are some of the names of men who have been credibly accused of harassment, assault and, in some cases, rape. All, it appears, have abused positions of power and influence, with multiple people, most of them women. The journalists and entertainers have been disgraced and dismissed by media and entertainment agencies who recognize the compromised position further association with harassers and predators would mean. Or, if we’re being generous, they’ve decided to do the right thing. The politicians, so far, seem to be hanging on.
Then there are other names: James, Ji-ho, Andrew, Peter, Ahmed, Christopher: countless names of those who have not been publicly accused, who retain their jobs, their influence and their capacity to abuse. They are doctors who molest patients, who grope nurses or colleagues. They’re factory foremen, police officers, teachers, students, therapists, lawyers, CEO’s and middle managers. They are postmen and presidents. They are pastors, priests, imams and rabbis. They are husbands and fathers. These are the men whose secrets have remained safe because their victims’ risk of sharing their stories is greater than their risk of keeping them secret.
The Talmud has a term for a community or society where abuse is pervasive and moral leadership absent: a tarbut ra’ah, a perverse culture.
I used to watch the Today show from time to time. I liked Katie Couric. I really liked Ann Curry. I thought she was smart, at once incisive and emotive. And then Matt, it seems, Lauer didn’t want to work with her. And I stopped watching Today. And, irony of ironies, turned to CBS because there I could see a real journalist and interviewer in Charlie Rose. When you change the channel from one network with an abuser as its anchor to another network with an abuser as its anchor, that’s a tarbut ra’ah, a wicked culture.
This Shabbat after lunch we’ll hear from Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian, and his take on 1st Amendment protections and freedom of the press. But this morning I want to talk about a different kind of reporting, the reporting of harassment, assault and rape of mostly women by mostly men. And I want to suggest that a big problem right now in our society isn’t just that these abuses are happening, it’s that when we’re paying attention at all, we focus too much on the plight of women, and not enough on the culture of machismo that leads so many men to think they can treat women like this in the first place.
And the thing is, we don’t have to go far to find a story that illuminates this dynamic. In fact we just read it. Our triennial reading of Parashat Vayishlach today began as follows (Gen. 34:1-4):
וַתֵּצֵ֤א דִינָה֙ בַּת־לֵאָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָלְדָ֖ה לְיַעֲקֹ֑ב לִרְא֖וֹת בִּבְנ֥וֹת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
Now Dinah, the daughter whom Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the daughters of the land.
וַיַּ֨רְא אֹתָ֜הּ שְׁכֶ֧ם בֶּן־חֲמ֛וֹר הַֽחִוִּ֖י נְשִׂ֣יא הָאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּקַּ֥ח אֹתָ֛הּ וַיִּשְׁכַּ֥ב אֹתָ֖הּ וַיְעַנֶּֽהָ׃
Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her, and took her and lay with her by force.
וַתִּדְבַּ֣ק נַפְשׁ֔וֹ בְּדִינָ֖ה בַּֽת־יַעֲקֹ֑ב וַיֶּֽאֱהַב֙ אֶת־הַֽנַּעֲרָ֔ וַיְדַבֵּ֖ר עַל־לֵ֥ב הַֽנַּעֲרָֽ׃
Being strongly drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob, and in love with the maiden, he spoke to the maiden tenderly.
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר שְׁכֶ֔ם אֶל־חֲמ֥וֹר אָבִ֖יו לֵאמֹ֑ר קַֽח־לִ֛י אֶת־הַיַּלְדָּ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לְאִשָּֽׁה׃
So Shechem said to his father Hamor, “Get me this girl as a wife.” We’ll get to the brother’s reaction a bit later, but for now I’m interested in Jacob’s response. The text tells us Jacob, Dinah’s father, is the first to find out. And what does Jacob do? Nothing. The pasuk reads, “At the time Jacob heard his daughter Dinah had been defiled, his sons were in the field with his livestock, v’hecherish Ya’akov ad boam, so he kept quiet until they came back” (34:5). Why doesn’t Jacob say anything? Possibly he is afraid tensions could escalate. Sforno, the 16th century Italian commentator, says “he refrained from starting a quarrel until his sons would have been informed of what happened so that they could be on their guard against adversaries.”
Maybe Jacob is afraid for Dinah’s safety, or for his own safety. Or maybe Jacob isn’t yet clear exactly what’s happened. The Torah is precise when it describes the news that’s been relayed: “v’Ya’akov shama ki timei et dina bito…, And Jacob heard that his daughter Dina had been defiled.” We’re not told whether he knew she was raped, per se. If the sex had been consensual, we could speculate, perhaps, Jacob would have felt differently. Maybe he is angry with her as much as with Shechem or Hamor, Shechem’s father. In fact, there are commentators that imagine Dinah was not raped, including a modern midrash in the form of a novel called The Red Tent. Perhaps some of you have read it.
The problem though, is the torah seems pretty clear about what happened: “vayishkav otah vay’aneha. If he had simply “lay” with her, we wouldn’t need the final verb after “he lay with her.” Vay’aneha means “he forced her.” So, what then? What’s the next thing we often hear when a sexual assault has occurred? On whom do we focus? Not the rapist; the victim. Maybe she dressed the wrong way? Maybe she sent mixed messages? Maybe she said “no” but her body language said “yes?” Maybe she was in the wrong place at the wrong time? – something single women ought to be careful of.
Rashi, the great 11th century Talmudist and Torah commentator, the one sometimes made out to be a feminist because he taught his daughters to lay tefilin, isn’t all that sensitive to the spurious allegation leveled against rape victims from time immemorial. Why does the verse before the encounter say “Vateitze Dinah bat Leah, indicating both that Dinah is the daughter of Leah and using the specific verb “to go out?” Rashi responds: “she is called Leah’s daughter, since she, too, was fond “of going out,” as it is said (30:16) “and Leah went out to meet him.” Rashi bases his comment on a midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 80:1) which notices the verb vateitze, “and she went out” is used to describe the scene in Chapter 30 (v.16) when Leah appears to seduce Jacob (after buying Rachel off with some mandrakes). The next few verses there describe how Leah gives birth to sons 4, 5 and 6… and then to a daughter: Dinah. Do we get the midrashic move? Leah “went out” to seduce Jacob – which produced Dina. Dina “went out” in a similar manner and got raped by Shechem. If Rashi isn’t entirely transparent about what he means, the midrash is crystal clear: “Leah יָצָאת מְקֻשֶּׁטֶת כְּזוֹנָה [she] went out dressed like a whore.” Which is why we’re also told Dinah “went out.” “Like mother like daughter.”
So, what about Jacob’s silence? Maybe it’s reflective of something bigger, more systemic, a tarbut ra’ah, a perverse culture of around sexual violence. You see, the truth is, it didn’t really matter whether Dinah was raped. Her consent isn’t the ancient world’s central concern. Dr. Tamara Ashkenazi offers the following if her A Women’s Torah Commentary (p. 191): “The assumption made by most interpreters is that Dinah did not consent to the sexual act. However, the questions of consent, so central to the modern notion of rape and of women’s rights in general, is entirely ignored in this text. Dinah’s consent is not the issue.” She continues, “In our society, forcing a woman to have sex against her will is seen as terrible both for its emotional and psychological consequences, and for the humiliation and debasement suffered by the woman as an individual. The Bible, even in its rape laws, was primarily concerned with the juridical and social-status consequences of the tort involved in sleeping with a virgin without either marrying her or compensating her father.”
Dina, like all women in biblical times, is at least in part a commodity. She, more or less, belongs to her father. When she is deflowered, as it were, she belongs to her husband. But if the person doing the deflowering isn’t her husband, that’s a problem. However Jacob felt about the rape itself (and we can’t really know), at the end of the story, Jacob seems to have been ok with the solution: Shechem is to marry her. Which is why he gets so upset with Shimon and Levi when they trick the Hivites into circumcising themselves. What do they do? When the men recovering from their circumcisions are most vulnerable, they slaughter them, Shechem and Hamor and every other male in the city – and rescue their sister. Is this collective punishment fair? Maimonides says yes because “they saw and knew [about Shechem’s abduction of Dinah], yet they did not bring him to justice” (Hilchot Melachim, 9:14). Silence is consent. By that token, Jacob, too, may be complicit in his daughter’s trauma, and maybe Shimon and Levi are the heroes of the story? They at least know, unlike many (ancient and modern), that the victim is not to blame for the crime. They retort to Jacob, “Should he then have been allowed to treat our sister like a whore?”
But before we go too far in defending Shimon and Levi for their vigilante justice, remember, their collective punishment of Shechem’s and Hamor’s fellow citizens includes not just theft of property, riches and livestock but also their women and children. They certainly don’t have a sophisticated appreciation for the importance of treating women and girls with respect. No, as is often the case, we have to look closer at the text to discover how the ancient words of Torah, written for another culture, in another time, might guide us in our time.
Which brings me back to the issue of sexual assault and consent. One of the things we’re hearing a lot in the wake of all these scandals is that women and men are beginning to think differently about sexual violence. How telling that in the 90’s, many prominent feminists sided with President Bill Clinton because, while his behavior was repugnant, it was still consensual. Betty Friedan said in those days, “[Clinton’s] enemies are attempting to bring him down through allegations about some dalliance with an intern…. Whether it’s a fantasy, a set-up or true, I simply don’t care.” And the National Organization for Women equivocated about whether the president was a “sexual predator” or merely a “womanizer.”
What was not said enough at the time (including by me), what still isn’t said enough today, is that consent is only part of the story. The full story is about power and the abuse of power. Lewinsky worked for Clinton. The women Matt Lauer allegedly abused were subordinates – by rank or by circumstance. And that’s the story we see playing out again and again – in the media, in entertainment, in politics – and NOT in the many spheres where calling out harassers, abusers and even rapists is riskier for the victims than it is for the perpetrators, because they can lose their jobs, their reputations, sometimes even their lives.
The story of Dinah is instructive because we never hear Dinah’s voice. She is utterly silent. She is acted upon. The disempowerment of women by men is an ancient and modern story indeed. Rabbi Laura Geller, a Reform colleague from Los Angeles writes about Dinah: “Her silence is loud enough to reverberate through the generations. We hear it in the reports of other fathers who perceive their daughter’s rape as their dishonor, their punishment. Fortunately for Dinah, in Genesis the blame and punishment fall entirely on the perpetrator and his people, not on her. Other women are not as lucky.” Rav Geller considers, “What happens to Dinah in the aftermath of her ordeal? We do not know. We never hear from her, just as we may never hear from the women and girls in our generation who are victims of violence and whose voices are not heard. But the legacy of Jacob as Israel, the one who wrestles, demands that we confront the shadowy parts of ourselves and our world…. The feminist educator Nelle Morton urged women to hear each other ‘into speech.’ Dinah’s story challenges us to go even further and be also the voices for all of our sisters.”
Well said. And I would add to the men in the room, after listening to women’s voices, we also must speak, but less about victims and more about perpetrators, harassers, abusers and rapists. In other words, we must speak more about ourselves. What is it in us, in our masculine culture that has convinced so many men and boys they can objectify or harm women? The Tarbut Ra’ah that continues to shape our society is corrosive for all of us, of every gender.
What, ultimately, do we learn from our parasha? That consent matters and it doesn’t. It matters because every person, having been created in the image of God, has sovereign responsibility for our bodies. We get to choose with whom we share our physical selves. All of us. All the time. And… sometimes the choice, is complicated because we make it complicated. We create situations, power-dynamics that rob women of their full agency. Women and men, together, must begin to unmake the structural and institutional sexism that allows men to earn more money, more upward mobility and more respect.Vateitzeh Dinah, Dinah “went out” but not to a level playing field. We must do more to level the field. And we must do it soon.Because our children are watching us.
The Practice of Blessing Makes Life a Little Sweeter
Rabbi Meir taught, one should attempt to say 100 blessings a day, each day (Talmud Menachot 43b). These blessings range from affirmations of ritual behavior (lighting Shabbat candles or putting on tefilin) to those embedded within traditional thrice-daily prayer services to expressing gratitude for learning or the food we eat. This last type, birchot hanehenin, blessings of enjoyment, extends to those things that bring pleasure or awe to other senses too: the sight of a beautiful sunset, the sound of crackling thunder or the fragrant scent of wild herbs.
Each summer for four summers, I get to spend meaningful time learning in Jerusalem as part of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Rabbinic Leadership Initiative. This July, I had a flat in West Jerusalem’s German Colony. Most mornings, before hours upon hours spent pouring over rabbinic and biblical sources or listening to (terrific but lengthy) lectures, I would go jogging on a rail-trail. The Rakevet, originally tracks for the Ottoman-era steam locomotive train, winds its way through the Jerusalem hills from the original train station, past the basketball and soccer stadiums, to the Malcha Mall. For years this now verdant pathway was simply a run-down anachronism, oxidized rail beds guarded by a chain link fence that divided the German Colony from Baka to the East.
As a habit during my run along the now-manicured lawns surrounding the repurposed trail, I would pause for just a moment each morning along-side one of the ubiquitous rosemary bushes that adorn the path (and much of Jerusalem). Reaching down to rub the herb between my thumb and forefingers, transferring the intoxicating scent to my own body, I would raise from hand to my nose, recite the requisite blessing and inhale deeply – Blessed are you YHVH, Master of the Universe, who creates fragrant spices (atzei b’samim). This notion of reciting 100 blessings a day. Why? It’s about cultivating an attitude of gratitude; making regular practice of thanksgiving elevates our sense of wonder at the miracle of life (and also has the inverse effect of mitigating cynicism).
Back in Baltimore, weather permitting, I continue to bike or run outdoors from my Reservoir Hill home many mornings. I run through Druid Hill Park and its surrounding neighborhoods. I encounter fellow Baltimoreans jogging, grabbing the paper, walking their dogs, greeting the day and one another. I run past tenderly cultivated flowering pots and herb-laden gardens. Sometimes I stop and smell the rosemary – and when I do I say a blessing. With over 300 murders a year in Baltimore city, with (understandable) anxiety about politics, endemic poverty, racism and more, intentionally peppering our days with blessing liberates us from cynicism and self-pity.
When my family and I first moved to Baltimore, we rented a house on Druid Park Lake Drive, next to a series of vacant and crumbling row homes. One day, my son Shamir (age 3 or 4 at the time) and I were standing on our minuscule back deck overlooking a shambolic alley scene. A smile spreading on his lips, he gestured exuberantly toward the house next door and said, “Look Abba, flowers!” I strained to see what he saw and finally I noticed: amid a pile of bricks and broken glass, a few yellow dandelions strained toward the sunlight. I saw rubble. Shamir saw flowers.
The city is flowering in myriad ways whether we notice it or not. Those who notice, blossom too. Those who take it for granted or, worse, don’t bother to absorb the sights sounds and smells of that flourishing, “they soon wither like grass” (Psalms 37:2). These days, we have a nicer back deck. And of course we planted some rosemary.
A version of this piece will appear in the December issue of JMORE.
When we began to think about the concept of a New Jewish Neighborhood, one defined by a different set of principles and aspirations than most neighborhoods of Jews, we needed to consider the extent to which our intentional (not incidental) presence in Reservoir Hill would mean focusing on particular Jewish practices. Initially, there was some anxiety about asserting our Jewishness in majority black spaces. Would engaging our West Baltimore neighbors signal triumphalism at worst and, at best, a sort of noblesse oblige where well-intentioned people of privilege dominate minority spaces, subtly, if unknowingly, remaking them in their image? Isn’t it our job, said some, to listen, learn and support — to champion allyship?
Tactically, these questions are important. Too many of us in positions of power or influence assume our resources come with answers to questions we have not been asked. Effective encounters begin with humility. The problem with exclusively centering the other, though, is it doesn’t allow both parties to bring their full selves to the moment of encounter. Educational Philosopher Parker Palmer writes, “Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks—we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.”
Finding joy in authentic connection and service is what drives our relational work in Reservoir Hill, and last month’s Whitelock Farm Harvest Festival was a great example. For several years now, Beth Am/IFO and the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council have cosponsored an annual Greens and Kugel cook-off. It’s a food and culture sharing extravaganza bringing together Jewish and African American foods, but more importantly, Jews and non-Jewish African Americans.
Many years the harvest festival occurs on Sukkot when Jews also celebrate our fall harvest. So this year, a congregant lent us a small sukkah to erect on Whitelock Street. IFO (In, For, Of) and Beth Am board members volunteered to share plans and garner feedback about Beth Am’s renovation and expansion plans, and a few of us offered ecumenical lulav demonstrations.
The scene had a historical elegance as Whitelock was once the pulmonary artery at the heart of Jewish Central-West Baltimore. Now it forms Reservoir Hill’s verdant core with our urban farm, German Park Playground, a community garden and the new South Lots outdoor kitchen and community gathering space. Sukkot is called “the season of our rejoicing,” a time to express gratitude for a bountiful harvest. The annual greens and kugel cook-off won’t solve systemic inequities, it won’t erase racism or antisemitism and it won’t unmake decades of neglect that marked Whitelock’s long hiatus between Jewish or black owned shops and the community farm.
And there is more work to be done: as the contest has gained in popularity it’s drawing fewer lower income entrants. But it’s hard to deny the joy that manifests each fall in Reservoir Hill. It’s not the prizes awarded that matter, but the realization of shared vocation. “True vocation joins self and service,” writes Parker Palmer, which is to say it’s not about “…scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess.”
A version of this piece will occur in the November, 2017 issue of Jmore.