For the past few days, Rich’s friend, Mike, has been visiting from Israel. They met when they attended the Los Angeles Country Sheriffs Academy, and were sworn in as police officers.
Their lives, however, took very divergent paths with Rich landing a job with Tektronix in Beaverton in 1979, and becoming a software engineer, leading to careers with Sequent, IBM, and Microsoft.
Mike, after leaving the police force became a firefighter, married an orthodox woman, had two children, worked in a book shop, moving to Israel, had three more children, moved to a settlement, and then opened a bookstore in Jerusalem, which has become the largest English-language Judaic bookstore in the city. His dedication and accomplishments are commendable, and were propelled by his visits to concentration camps in Poland where his father was interned during the Holocaust.
Knowing Mike keeps kosher, I purchased two new cutting boards and knives for him to use. On the way back from the SeaTac airport on Sunday afternoon, Rich stopped at a grocery store, which has kosher food, so Mike could get what he needed for his visit. According to Rich, Mike spent over an hour carefully analyzing everything he purchased, checking labels and asking questions.
Once he arrived at our house, he set to work preparing his food, including asking for paper plates, unused plastic utensils, and foil to wrap the trout he’d purchased. He also wanted garlic, but because I only had frozen garlic, which I’d processed in a food processor, it wasn’t “clean.”
Throughout his visit, he diligently used paper, plastic or glass dishes and utensils, sanitized our microwave, and avoid anything that could be questionable. When he baked the trout he’d purchased, he used 5-6 sheets of foil to wrap it before placing it in our oven, which is less than a year old and spotlessly clean.
I asked him why he used [wasted] so much foil, and he replied, “I don’t make the rules.”
He also primarily spoke to Rich, treating me as irrelevant and stupid, sequestered himself in our spare bedroom or in a chair at the far end of the room. Two nights in the row, he had a “private” conversation with Rich about disrespectfully NFL players “taking a knee,” importance of Israel, and other American issues, which he felt had an impact on world politics.
On Wednesday morning, when I drove Mike to Coupeville to catch the Whidbey Island airport shuttle, he extensively questioned me as to whether it was the right place, even though another man was standing on the sidewalk, also waiting for the shuttle, and there were signs indicating it was a shuttle stop.
To say my “hair was on end,” would have been an understatement.
The day he left, someone on my Facebook feed published a link to the article, “We Asked 25 Rabbis: What is One Thing Jews Need to Stop Doing?” Adam Chalom with the Humanistic, International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism wrote,
Stop calling each other (and ourselves) “bad Jews.” 75% of American Jews do not obey kashrut [Jewish dietary laws] or Shabbat, and over 90% are proud of being Jewish (Pew 2013). Are 75% of us really “bad Jews”? And what does it mean to define yourself as a “bad Jew”? Being Jewish is what you DO NOT do, it’s where you fail!
Being Jewish is who you are, but the opposite of how you live. Judaism is not limited to religious beliefs that many doubt, or prayers most do not say, or dietary laws which 75% ignore. EVERYONE chooses what is Jewishly meaningful — we may read less Talmud and more Jewish poetry, others read Talmud and not Amichai or Marcia Falk.
Consider bagels: some say blueberry bagels are not “authentic,” but it’s useless to argue which bagel is the best, the original, the only bagel for all Jews. The more varieties of bagels, or Judaism, the more people can enjoy them and find the one that best fits.
Both my fraternal and maternal grandparents – from Hungary, Austria and Russia – were conservative Jews with my maternal grandmother loosely keeping kosher by not eating meat and milk together, and avoiding certain foods. As they grew older, my grandparents dropped certain customs, such as my grandfathers wearing tefillin and praying every morning.
They may have become “less Jewish” in their practices and regular attendance at synagogue, but the principals of Judaism framed how they treated others and contributed to their communities. In Judaism, the present world is more important than the next one, and how you behave is more important than what you believe.
In addition, to do something from a sense of duty is spiritually superior to doing the activity because you want to do it. With that said, doing something as part of a community or a tradition is better than doing your own thing. Equally important, relationships are mutual, interactive and continually changing. Judaism is an always evolving, as each generation reacts to God’s continual call.
You Choose Your Brush
In a webcast I found on the Internet, Mike stated, “Israel is where Jewish history is taking place now.” He emphasized the dire need for Zionism and making Aliyah, the immigration of Jews from the diaspora (dispersions of Israelites) to the land of Israel.
While I value Israel, and the need for a Jewish homeland, the rebirth of Judaism isn’t in its rigid adherence to Jewish rules and customs, and pilgrimages to Israel, but in applying Jewish principles in new and innovative ways. It’s small gathering to reaffirm faith, it’s community outreach, it’s elevating those who’ve fallen and standing up for those who can speak for themselves, and recognizing chidush, the obligation to find hidden contents and “new interpretations” of the Torah and its teachings.
The past few days, several occurrences happened, which reaffirmed my belief.
Several years ago, Rich and I joined an extraordinary reform synagogue in Bellevue, WA, Temple B’nai Torah. Even though Rich isn’t Jewish, he agreed to go, knowing it would make me (euphorically) happy. He was immediately hooked, especially when Rabbi James Mirel started playing the bass or included congregants in the service by asking them to stand up and recognize something good that happened during their week. Rich was inspired by Rabbi Yohanna Kinberg’s insights, and enjoyed the melodious singing in Hebrew, led by Cantor David Serkin-Poole.
What truly “sold” him on Judaism was the inclusiveness. Everyone was welcome, greeted as a valued member or visitor, and encouraged to participate in the synagogue’s activities from community projects to adult education.
While we lived in Kirkland, we attended the monthly community Sabbath dinners, listened to lectures on Israel, helped at various events, fundraisers and the tent city, which was set up in the synagogue’s parking lot, and made life-long friends.
During Mike’s visit, Rabbi Kinberg shared on Facebook her little sister was running for city council in Jersey City, NJ, and her cousin was running in Blackburg, VA for city council. Community involvement is evidently central to the Kinberg family.
Rabbi Kinberg’s father was a rabbi in Eugene, OR and was known for his support of minority rights, gay rights, anti-nuclear and anti-war activism, reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians, and outreach to non-observant members of Eugene’s Jewish community. His wife, Alice, was equally active, supporting feminist issues including allowing women to read from the Torah and lead prayers.
Following in her parent’s footsteps, Rabbi Kinberg is active in Jewish Family Service, Hadassah, J Street, Women’s Torah Project, and the Jewish Federation. She is also committed to Tikkun Olam (Hebrew for repairing the world) by advocating for social justice, reproductive rights, the environment, and Israel.
Also posted on Facebook during Mike’s visit was the birthday of one of Cantor Serkin-Poole’s children. Many years ago, Cantor Serkin-Poole and his partner adopted three special needs children, who they raised to be independent adults, one of whom has worked at Microsoft for many years.
Coloring Outside the Lines
One of the books on Mike’s site is “The Lies They Tell” by Tuvia Tenenbom, a professed social anthropologist with a degree in mathematics and computer science, traveled around America, posing as a German journalist. He wrote scathing essays about Americans observing:
The America I find is not the America I wished to find. It is racist, it is hateful and its citizens are bound to destroy themselves. Be they blacks and some Spanish who have nothing better to do with their time than shoot each other in the head; be they Jews who are possessed by a terrifyingly psychotic illness of self-hate; be they Indians who have given up any semblance of spirituality in exchange for acres and casinos; or be they all the others: whites, the rest of the Spanish, Muslims, Mormons and others who live in fear of one another.
Aside from mislabeling several ethnic and cultural groups, his insolence is appalling. No doubt, America has many, many issues, but painting it with broad negative strokes obscures what makes it good from technology companies changing the world (i.e. Intel, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and many more) to cultural contributions in music, theater, film, art, and literature.
He proclaims American Jewish identity is lost to assimilation and acculturation in the American stewpot with Jews preferring sushi to a knish, and American un-Orthodox Jews spending their time supporting pro-Palestinian causes dedicated to destroying the Jewish homeland. Nevertheless, Israeli-born Tenenbom makes his living in New York as an artistic director, playwright, and author.
Some of the smartest, most accomplished (and gutsy) people I know are Jewish. They’ve risen to their esteemed positions not wearing kippahs (or wigs) on their heads and tzitzits under their shirts, but by coloring outside the lines, seeing and leveraging opportunities to make a difference, be it starting a business, designing a product, participating in local, state and national politics, doing life-changing research, creating accepting forums, and much more.
While orthodoxy is rooted in keeping a contract with the past, reform Judaism, which is around 38% of American Jews, encourages the autonomy of the individual and the right to decide whether to subscribe to a particular practice or belief. In addition, reform Judaism supports Tikkun Olam, healing and restoring the world, and K’lal Yisroel, a sense of shared community and destiny whether a reform, conservative, reconstructionist or orthodox Jew.
My faith doesn’t hinge on staying within the lines, but becoming a better person by helping and being respective of those around me.