Tuesday, August 23, 2016

I was in Germany once. It didn't go well.

I was in Frankfurt, Germany once.

I hadn't thought about that trip in years. Until I heard Mrs. Chana Silver speak in synagogue on the Fast of Tisha b'Av. She leads tours of Poland for young women. They see the places where Jews lived and where they died – cities, ghettos, graveyards, and the work and death camps.

I was there forever ago, when I was in my 20s. Long before anything Jewish had touched my life, except I had, for some unknown reason, read Hitler's Mein Kamp. I had gone to London with a backpack, a round trip ticket and $100 in my pocket.

I went with a group of my friends and I knew they had arranged inexpensive or free places for us to stay. So I really only needed money for me to eat. Still $100 wasn't enough money and I knew it. The closest thing to being out of the US I had been at that point in my life was crowding 5 people into one of the original VW Beetles, and road tripping to the California border town - Tiajuna, Mexico. I didn't know when, or if, I would get another chance to go to Europe. I guess I hoped my friends, who were probably every bit as broke as me, wouldn't let me starve, so I shrugged my shoulders and I went. Dumb or ballsy. Nah, definitely dumb.

We were supposed to do a musical play called Viet Rock at the Edinburgh Scotland Theatre Festival Fringe (the part where anyone can show up and do a show). We were young, crazy and running on more hash than food. As well as, how shall I put this delicately, extremely sexually active with interchangeable partners in the group. What can I say? We were California kids, with delusions of being hippies. We were in a foreign country, living and working together 100% of the time. It went about as well as you would expect. In one of the inevitable seismic social shifts, the lead in show ended up being given to a person who was one, convinced she couldn't really sing and two, had crippling stage fright the size of the state of Texas. Yup, that would be me. I lasted about two rehearsals before I melted down and quit after the girl I had replaced complained to everyone that I was off-key. Which, to be fair, I probably was. So at least partly because of me, the group completely imploded at that point and we never did the shows.

We had some time on our hands, so half dozen of us took off for the Continent, with no specific destination in mind. We took a train as far as Frankfort. Then my friends decided to go on to the Black Forest. Because of the cake I think.

I had been getting more and more uncomfortable from the time we crossed the border and I was in a low level state of panic by the time we got off the train. I can't really describe how it felt. It was like I couldn't breathe and I knew I couldn't be there, even though I had no idea why. So I refused to continue to the Black Forest. And they left me. I can't really blame them. I wasn't their responsibility and I had just ruined the reason we had come in the first place. Plus we were at an age, and in a time, when we thought a woman could hitchhike by herself and be safe doing it.

So there I was. By myself. In a country where I didn't know anyone or speak the language. With almost no money. Again dumb on my part or ballsy. No again, definitely dumb. But I can still feel the way I felt then, uncomfortable and short of breath. I had to get out of there.

I took what little money I still had, and went back to the train station. I kept enough for the ferry back to the UK, counted the rest and figured out I could get as far as Luxembourg. Wherever - as long it was out of Germany and in the general direction of “back to the coast”. I breathed a sigh of relief when I crossed the border a couple of hours later. I felt as if something had fallen away.

In a continuation of “let's see how dumb I can be”, I took a ride with an Austrian trucker who bought me some really excellent sausage and bean soup (which I'm sure I couldn't eat now) and later tried to get me into the bed built into the cab of his truck. Who even knew there were beds there? When I politely declined, he dumped me by the side of the road, in the middle of the night, and I ended up sort of sleeping in a field. There were a lot of little animals resenting this human in their field and I could hear them moving around all night. None of them joined me in the sleeping bag, but worrying that they might accounts for the “sort of” slept. I also had a, thankfully, very short visit from four guys who stopped and stared at me from the road. I stared back and they moved on. Perhaps I should say I was dumb and lucky. The next morning I was able to get a ride to Calais.

Later everyone re-grouped in London and we went off to the place where I developed my terror of crowds. A rock festival on the Isle of Wight where I spent a week with half a million people (& heard Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, The Who, poor Kris Kristofferson who got booed off the stage by a rock and roll crowd who had no interest in country, Sly of Sly & the Family Stone, who could barely walk but could still sing, & a long list of other legendary musicians). I also dealt with continual noise and people moving, restrooms that were trenches in the ground, and having the only space I could call my own be the area on the ground my sleeping bag covered. The music was amazing. The rest of it, not so much.

But the really weird thing is, none of the above were the weirdest thing that happened on that trip.

My mother saw my friend's mother hugging her when we were saying good-bye at the airport and she awkwardly hugged me. That is the only time I can remember her hugging me. In my life.

Freaking out in two countries? Hitchhiking by myself? Living with 500,000 people? Nope. That was the weirdest thing that happened.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

None of Us Are Free

I was born in December 1946. The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution which abolished slavery was ratified in December 1865, only 81 years earlier. My great-grandmother, who died when I was a teenager, may not have been born in slavery, but her mother most likely was.  I don't know for certain because slavery wasn't something we talked about in my family when I was young. Our ancestors were victims, but we, the children of the victims, were ashamed, as if it was their fault they were slaves... as if it was our fault. In any case, there are possibly only two “greats” and four generations between me and slavery. 81 years. Not very much time at all.

And these verses are in our Torah, in my least favorite book:

Leviticus 44 to 46: “Such male and female slaves as you may have — it is from the nations round about you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also buy them from among the children of aliens resident among you, or from their families that are among you, whom they begot in your land. These shall become your property: you may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time. Such you may treat as slaves.”

Although there are restrictions on keeping other Jews as slaves, it is OK to enslave non-Jews “as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time.”

With very little research it is possible to find verses in all five books of Moses that accept the institution of slavery. Obviously this is something that affects me personally. And it is a part of the Torah that has always bothered me a greatly.

When I was taking basic Judaism classes before I converted, and I was asked a question to which I did not know the answer, nine times out of ten “Because we were slaves in Egypt” would turn out to be correct. The liberation of Israel from Egypt is part of the central narrative of the whole history of the Jewish people.

So if Torah is about liberty and human dignity, why the acceptance of what I've always thought of as the Great Evil: slavery?  Why didn't the Torah just outright ban slavery?

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, says it is because “On the one hand, the Torah speaks from a future that has yet to occur, inspiring us with its vision, pulling us toward that time. And on the other hand, the Torah must deal with the world as it is, not artificially imposing upon it a foreign mold, but bringing it on its own from the place it stands by nature and circumstance to the place it truly belongs.”

He gives this example:
“Take an agrarian society surrounded by hostile nations. Go in there and forcefully abolish slavery. The result? War, bloodshed, hatred, prejudice, poverty and eventually, a return to slavery until the underlying conditions change... Not a good idea.

Better idea: Place humane restrictions upon the institution... Yes, it's still ugly, but in the meantime, you'll teach people compassion and kindness...  Eventually, things change and slavery becomes an anachronism for such a society.”

Others I read also give the same general answer: G-d and the sages knew slavery was wrong, but in that time, in that culture, in that place, they could only mitigate it to some extent, they could not abolish it.

From my perspective: that of the great, great granddaughter of slaves, that seems more a rationalization than an argument. But let us assume it is true: Torah times were a long
time ago, it was a very different culture, it was a very different place.

There is still that scant four generations, that mere eighty one years between my birth and slavery in the United States. That is not a long time ago, it is not a very different culture, it is not a very different place. One has only to read the news these days, if you can stand to do it. The battle of the hashtags (#blacklivesmatter, #alllivesmatter #policelivesmatter) and the heated rhetoric of the Republicans and Democrats says clearly (at least to me) that there is a legacy of distrust and dislike that shows the U.S. is not so different 151 years after the abolition of slavery.

Of course, some things have changed.

I remember as a child, standing on my front porch, watching the trucks roll by filled with young National Guard troops, going into Watts (near Los Angeles, California) to put down the riots after Martin Luther King Jr's death.

And now, within my lifetime, there is an African-American man in the White House, whose greatest competition for the job, from within his own party at least, was a woman. (Who just shattered a major glass ceiling of another kind, winning the Democratic nomination for President a few nights ago.)

Whatever you may think about the current President, having him win the nomination, and the election, showed that some major changes have happened in this country recently.

So why do these verses about slavery bother me so much – here and now?

Because, according to the State Department, there are as many as 27 million modern day slaves worldwide, with as many as 50,000 slaves trafficked into the US from foreign countries, along with 244,000 kidnapped and exploited US citizens. That’s here and now.

In addition, the WARChild International Network reports that 250,000 children are actively deployed each year, fighting in almost 75% of armed conflicts worldwide. Here and now.

27 million slaves worldwide. I don't even know how to understand that number. 250,000 child soldiers each year.  I don't know how to understand that number either.

I'll be honest with you. These numbers stun me. In this time, in this modern culture, in this place. Here and now.

I wish I knew what to do to make slavery something that only happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far way.

But it isn't. It just isn't.

Like Anne Frank I have to believe that “In spite of everything ...people are really good at heart... [And even though] I can feel the sufferings of millions ... if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end...”

Change is possible in human nature, but it can take so much time. G-d may have infinite patience. But I don't. I think G-d, and our sages, wanted slavery abolished, and that they want that still.  But it must be done by us, by free human beings who have come to see, of their own accord, the evil that slavery is and the evil it does.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, formerly Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, said: “The G-d of history, who taught us to study history, had faith that eventually we would learn the lesson of history: that freedom is indivisible. We must grant freedom to others if we truly seek it for ourselves.

“Egypt was the Jewish people’s school of the soul; ...its ongoing seminar in the art and craft of freedom. It taught [us] what it felt like to be on the wrong side of power. Jews [are] the people commanded never to forget the bitter taste of slavery, so that [we] never take freedom for granted. [Because] those who do so, eventually lose it.” Or as the song by the great blues singer Solomon Burke puts it: “None of us are free, as long as one of us is chained, no one of us is free.”

I feel that this is on us. Slavery still exists. And we are the people charged to remember it, and learn from it, and hopefully, end it... soon, in our own time.

Over the past few years, the number of countries, which includes the US, that have taken steps to implement the UN Protocol against Trafficking in Persons  has doubled.

And this is a good thing at that level. But what can we, as individuals, do?

We can educate ourselves about what is going on. An internet search using the words “human trafficking” or “child soldiers” will bring up page after page of unbelievable statistics as well as information about the red flags that may indicate human trafficing, and things we can do to help stop it. As a first stop, go to CNN’s The Freedom Project

Lastly, Anne Frank, in her famous diary, also said: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

So let us not wait a single moment longer to begin working to truly abolish slavery so that at some point someone reading about slavery in Leviticus or any part of Torah, will simply be able to shake their heads in wonder at what would by then have truly become an institution of another time, another place, another culture.