Saturday, July 28, 2007

Help me Name my new Web site!

I'm pushing it, I know. To taunt you with another post that's not one. I promise I'll write a post with real content, really soon.

Meanwhile, I really do need your help! I am ramping up my consulting/training business, trying to get enough facilitation gigs to pay off my loans a little quicker, among other things. To do this I need a website, which I'm working on. My web site needs an address - that's where you come in.

The main requirements are that it be easy to remember and easy to spell. Unfortunately, this rules out using my last name. It needn't have much to do with the content of my business - in fact, I'd rather not get very specific because I don't want people thinking I only teach on one subject. (So, no "transgender trainers . com, please.)

Some that have been proposed (some in jest, but it's hard to tell which), are as follows:

jestertrainings (after my cat)
mindspringtrainings (which is so good & vague, it must be taken)
complicitous (violates the easy-to-spell rule)
redhoodietrainings (i don't always wear it ...)
knowjusticetraining (unfortunate sound-alike)
b'asherhusham (oy, the spelling!)

and there were so many more but ... I guess they failed the "easy to remember" test. I could still be convinced, if someone reminds me of them.

So, what do you think? I need ideas! Post em in your comments, please. I need em by August 10.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Today's News

I live in a place where the lead story in the local newspaper is about a pet tortoise that got lost, and came back.

My first thought: Isn't there a war going on?

My second thought: Well, at least it means that I live in a place where people aren't getting murdered and stuff.

Then I remembered: Wait a minute, two people were murdered here just last week.

I guess the picture wasn't cute enough.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Are Jewish services more participatory?

A few thoughts and tidbits, following a friend’s post speculating on what makes Jewish religious services more participatory than Catholic ones. (It really is better if you read her post first.)

1) The language thing: Dane highlights that both Catholic and Jewish services make use of languages (Latin, Hebrew) that most congregants do not speak or understand. True. I’d add that Jewish congregations vary enormously in the proportion of the service that's conducted in Hebrew (as I gather Catholic congregations vary in their use of Latin). As a teenager I attended some services where none of the service went untranslated - much was in English, and the rest in Hebrew, Aramaic, or occasionally Yiddish, with immediate English translation. (Well, on second thought, sometimes some Yiddish did go untranslated - in the spirit of "speak Yiddish so the children don't understand" - but that's different.)

1 ½) Random halachic insertion: I learned last week that the sh'ma - a central part of almost every service - is supposed to be said aloud, by every single congregant, at least loud enough so the speaker can hear themselves (since sh'ma means "listen"), in whatever language that person understands best. I don't make this shit up, it's halacha (religious law). citation: Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 13a.

2) On praying silently: Dane also points out that the Amidah, a central aspect of most services, is conducted silently, which may discourage active participation of some congregants. In some services the silent Amidah is followed by a unison reading aloud of the same set of prayers. Is this for certain holidays only, or is it just a matter of how long a congregation wants its services to be? I'm not sure. I believe I remember being told that the reading aloud was so that non-literate congregants would also have access to the prayers. But even when the Amidah is conducted silently, people can "participate" by meditating, praying in their own words, reading along in Hebrew or, often, the vernacular, or by reading vernacular commentary and artistic re-interpretation.

3) And speaking of interpretation: For me this is the essence of participation. In a catholic mass, regardless who's doing the speaking, the text is suppose-d to mean one thing and one thing only, and the Pope gets to decide what. (Not to say it really happens this way for all Catholics, but that is the official idea.) In a Jewish service, there is no official correct interpretation. We may all recite "sh'ma yisrael" together, and we may translate it, legitimately, in dozens of different ways, and understand it in infinite more ways. The guy on my left is thinking, "Believe, you assembled Israelites about to enter Canaan …,” and the guy on my left is thinking, “Listen here, Sharon, you no-good-nik …,” and another person means, “Remember, Jews ...,” and another, “Be open to each other, you doubters who wrestle with G-d …,” and our praying in unison in a language none of us particularly understands does nothing to quash our enacting different intentions with the prayer. We participate my making meaning, which is for me one of the highest forms of engagement.

4) Congregations?: These days, and perhaps always, a whole lot of Jewish praying does not take place in a shul. It takes place at home (this used to be the great majority of Jewish praying), or in small chavurot (gatherings of friends/colleagues) that may or may not accomplish a minyan, have a leader, or follow any of the various halacha (religious law) and traditions regarding Jewish prayer. So, Dane, when you cite facts about how it’s done in Jewish services, you are being fairly specific about the kind of prayer you include in your comparison – that is, prayer that occurs in a synagogue, with a rabbi or chazzan, with sidurim, etc.

5) Which Jews?: I agree that most Jews who participate at all in religious ritual tend to be rather more active participants in it than most Christians, and especially than most Catholics – which is not to say all, so don’t jump down my throat about it. That seems like a logical effect of the structure of services in those traditions, which is the main point of Dane’s posting. On the other hand, there are a whole lot of Jews who do not participate in religious ritual, period. Many Jews are secular because their parents and grandparents were, and lots more are excluded from mainstream Jewish religious services for some of the very reasons that make these services so participatory – for example, the expectation that everyone in the congregation is able to read Hebrew or at least transliteration with fluency, has studied Torah enough to have an opinion about the leader’s interpretation, knows when to stand, when to bow, when to kiss what, is familiar with most if not all of the tunes used in a standard Shabbat service in that congregation, and so on. For Jews who do not share this basic cultural capital, attending Jewish services is no more participatory than watching a movie, and can be considerably more embarrassing.

So, good, let’s congratulate ourselves on having a religious tradition that values and encourages active participation. But let’s also continue wrestling with the various divisions that oppression and history have made in our communities – divisions of class, ethnicity, geography, language, politics, gender, class … - and let’s think hard together about what truly broad participation would look like.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Another Katrina Story

Several months ago I traveled to New Orleans for the annual HIV Prevention Leadership Summit, sponsored by a lot of great acronyms such as NAPWA, NMAC, CDC, and others. The host committee, mostly case workers and outreach workers for the New Orleans Department of Health, patiently reminded us over and over again about of the impact of the flooding related to Hurricane Katrina. Many of the New Orleanians who work in HIV prevention now live in FEMA trailers that the DOH and other providers of “essential” services managed to procure for them. It was the only way these agencies could ensure that enough staff would be able to return to New Orleans and their jobs to keep the agencies running.

On Monday afternoon (the first full day of the conference) the host committee sponsored a bus tour to the most damaged areas of the city. This kind of disaster tourism feels creepy to me, and initially I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. I was additionally turned off by the many people who said things like, “You just can’t imagine the devastation without seeing it firsthand. You just have to go see it.” Those of you who read my earlier post On Understanding Injustice have an inkling about how I respond to the assumption that the only way to understand a catastrophe is to experience it. To summarize, I think that this kind of logic has the potential to paralyze us with guilt and pain, and does not fully allow for the idea of allyship.

On top of all that, I was skeptical about the validity of the claim that I “couldn’t imagine” the affects of the hurricane, and more importantly, of the levee breaches. I have a damn vivid imagination. I was pretty sure I could imagine the devastation without seeing it.

I did end up going on the bus tour, and as it turned out we were both right. I did not see anything on the bus tour that I hadn’t imagined already, but I did gain some insight from the experience.

We started off in the French Quarter, which was the least damaged area of the city. Even there, most buildings are still marred by water lines, anywhere from a few inches to several feet above street level. These marks are permanent. Some building owners have tried painting over them, but the lines come back.

We continued through many neighborhoods where houses were more damaged. In these areas, every building was marked with spray-painted symbols indicating which teams of disaster workers had checked the building, when, and what was found. In houses where pets were found alive, the markings also indicate which animal shelter the rescuers evacuated them to. I found this sign particularly surreal: “2 cats DOA, 2 fish rescued.”

The houses in these neighborhoods are in various stages of repair. Some are sound enough to be occupied while they are rebuilt. Some have been gutted, and their owners are living in FEMA trailers in the driveway while they work on them. Others were gutted by teams of volunteers and have not been touched since, because the owners can’t afford to come back. A few are still filled to the ceiling with the ruined, rotting contents.

And then we got to the lower ninth ward, the hardest-hit part of the city. In parts of the lower ninth ward, the houses are just gone. It’s been almost two years now, so the multi-acre heaps of wreckage have been cleared away. What’s striking now is the emptiness. There’s just nothing, and no one, there. Blocks upon blocks of empty lots. Blocks upon blocks of addresses that people used to live at. When they come back, how do they even know which piece of weedy ground is theirs?

This was the point in the tour where I started to get emotional. It was painful to look at the devastation. And yet it was not unexpected. It was exactly as I had imagined it. And while people around me were saying things like, “Oh, my Lord,” “I can’t believe …,” and “Would you look at that!,” the whole scene felt oddly, eerily, distressingly familiar to me.

I had a sense of what the lower ninth might be like, not from news reports, but from my imagination. And I was able to imagine it with remarkable accuracy because I had some practice at imagining disasters. I have had to imagine such catastrophe to understand my own family history.

I have a great uncle who is a journalist. He was the youngest of three siblings, and the only one of them to be born in the U.S. In the early ‘70s, after completing a freelance assignment in Denmark, he took a detour to Poland to try to find the shtetl where his parents and siblings were born. When they had left, in 1929, the town had consisted of about 500 families, about 400 of them Jewish. In the version of the story that I picked up as a kid, my uncle returns to the village some half of a century later, to find 100 family homes and 400 empty lots.

Four hundred empty spaces where houses used to be. Four hundred foundations. Four hundred families dead or scattered. As a child, I worked hard to imagine this. Reflecting now, I wonder how many young Jews force ourselves to imagine catastrophe, with as much as details as we can muster. It is not just that we want to understand the events. To some extent we need to imagine these things, simply to be able to relate to our elders at all.

Now I’ve re-read my uncle’s written account of his visit and I know that the details I remembered were slightly off. It wasn’t 400 families, it was 450 out of 500. And he never precisely says that the houses were gone. Maybe they were left standing, empty, or occupied by gentiles. But it is true that there were no Jews there. That also is something I have made myself imagine: All the Jews are gone. My people are not there, now.

One time a (gentile) professor of religion with whom I was studying suggested that I ought to travel to Eastern Europe, to visit Auschwitz and Dachau. “Oh you just have to go, without going one simply can’t imagine …” You get the idea. Needless to say I did not take his advice. I understood without visiting what my professor, apparently, did not: I can imagine, and there is nothing to go back to. If I were to visit Poland or Ukraine, to try to find the places my family came from, I would come up empty-handed. My people are not there, now. The closest I could get to them would be a Holocaust tour.

Riding through New Orleans on a bus hired by the Health Department, because they wanted us to understand, I thought about those four hundred burned-out foundations I imagined as a child. Empty lots. My people are not there, now. And I thought of children all over the U.S. who are New Orleanians-in-exile. Looking back to New Orleans. Wondering if there’s anything to go back to.

There have been whispers from some politicians in New Orleans that it might be best to give up on the ninth ward, not to repopulate at all. They whisper that there might be a silver lining to this catastrophe, an opportunity to “clean up the city.” I get nervous when politicians want to “clean up” any place. It seems the dirt they’re looking to sweep out is always Brown. The lower-ninth ward was a predominantly, almost entirely, Black area. There were thriving Black-owned businesses and Black-led neighborhoods and schools. They aren’t there now. No businesses, no schools, no houses, no people. Just empty lots.

Officially, the whispers have not been heeded. Unofficially, there is no one in the lower ninth ward. Officially, people are allowed to move back. Unofficially, insurance companies won’t approve rebuilding plans, and FEMA won’t provide trailers, in those areas. After the khurvn, the Holocaust, there was no one left to move back. About 2/3 of the Jews of Europe had been murdered, and those who survived settled anywhere else, rather than return to a place so infused with loss and violence. Thank G-d this is a different situation. Right now there are still people eager to move back to New Orleans and rebuild. Officially, they’re encouraged. Unofficially, …

No matter what happens in the lower ninth, some of the people who were pushed out by the levee breaches will never return to New Orleans. They will settle in other cities, and some will raise children there. Those children will force themselves to imagine horrific emptiness, pets and people marked Dead On Arrival, real and immediate fear of drowning, neighborhoods that are gone. They will need to imagine these things, not only to understand their history, but also to be able to relate to their parents at all. They will want to come back and visit the place their families came from. And I want there to be something for them to come back to, besides Katrina tours. I don’t want a whole generation of Black New Orleanians-in-exile to grow up knowing, “My people aren’t there, now.”

If we need one more reason to rebuild, let it be this: Another generation does not need to grow up feeling like perpetual outsiders, like immigrants from a place that didn’t want them anyway to a place that doesn’t want to know them. Another generation does not have to grow up feeling the only way to know their culture is to know pain. This is a moment when we can fix something. It is not unimaginable that we would turn our backs – after all, we’ve done it before. But let’s not do it again.