Thursday, April 29, 1999

Chesed (Kindness):
A Jewish Response to Littleton

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Williamsville, NY

When a meteorologist says, "Wow, there's a lot of weather out there," she doesn't mean its a bright and sunny day. On the same theory: wow, there's a lot of news out there these days. War and peace in Kosovo and the world. High stake elections in Israel. Ground zero of the abortion wars, right here in Buffalo, New York (more on "Operation Save America" -- sic/sick -- another time).

And then came Colorado.  The paradox of shock. There is so much to say we are stunned into silence.

My first reaction, the first reaction of many of us, was indeed shock. The second, perhaps, if only for a moment, was relief (and then guilt at the feeling of relief): it was far away (for most of us). It wasn't "here." It wasn't our children.  But then the disbelief returns. For at some level these were our children. They are all our children.  Some schools are doing a wonderful job, now, in providing places to talk. In helping children cope with tragedy on a mass scale. But time passes and the headlines fade. A famine or a draught, a new scandal in Washington, and all this will be off the headlines, and out of our minds.

Yet the task remains at hand.

Our society has so very many pressures. For high scores and good grades, for grace of body and quickness of wit, for appearance and accomplishment. It is so hard to grow up in the midst of these pressures, to find one's own place in the pull of subliminal messages. To know who you are, and connect with others: sex mistaken for intimacy, identity confused with popularity, friendship tossed aside for a better offer with a cooler crowd. We teach our kids so much in so many unintentional ways. Have we forgotten to teach our kids to be kind?

A story of a woman. We'll call her Judy Cohen. It's not her name. But the story is real. And in one form or another, this has happened to more than one person I know.When Judy Cohen was in sixth grade, she began to develop some deformities. Her body shook in weird ways. Her speech was slurred. Her self-image shattered. The kids in her school were unspeakably cruel to her. Her public school -- and her synagogue's religious school. But there was a difference. In the public school, officials acted. They threatened the kids who were the most cruel to her with expulsion. And the problems eased. Not completely. But enough.

And her synagogue's school? Well, what could they do? All we can do is beg our parents to send their children in the first place. Don't throw away a 4000 year old heritage because your kid prefers to play hockey. We beg. We plead. We accommodate. We have no teeth. Expel a kid? For some of our sixth graders (a minority, but some), let's face it. It would be their dream come true.

Things may be a bit better in our religious schools these days. A little bit. But we have few teeth. The cruelty of one child to another is simply worse in a setting where some kids feel forced to attend. For Judy Cohen, at least in her mind, the cruelty eased in public school. In religious school it did not.

Judy Cohen grew out of her problems. She developed more confidence. She grew to have friends. She grew to love her life.  Judy Cohen is very, very active in her spiritual community today. They really feel like they couldn't do without her. She came to see its importance because, in college, she found a group that simply welcomed her the way she was. In love. In acceptance. In true community.

Judy Cohen is very active in her spiritual community today. And her Presbyterian Church, they sure are glad to have her.

You know, kindness isn't just superficial stuff. Before we can fill our heads with facts, we must be in a place we feel we belong. But kindness is not just the prerequisite we need in order to learn. Warmth and welcome, kindness to one another is the substance of what we must learn. It is both: the first commandment of community, and the most lasting lesson of life.

Judy Cohen doesn't live in Colorado. And she overcame her problems.  But those who feel unwelcome, unwanted, unloved... they are all around us. It will take big hearts to make sure that there is never another Littleton.

"Yitgadal, v'yitkadash...."  I don't have a lot to say about Littleton. Only everything.

Tuesday, April 06, 1999

Memories of Yugoslavia

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Williamsville, NY

I pick up the paper and shiver. In my case, the political really is personal. For once, nearly two decades ago, I nearly died on a mountain pass in Yugoslavia. Somewhere between Macedonia and Albania. Somewhere,
where people are dying today.  I had gone to Yugoslavia for, well, vacation. I was in the middle of my junior year of college, was studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, had toured around parts of Israel already, and, on the break between semesters, took my backpack and traveler's checks and headed off
to Greece, Yugoslavia and Romania. Hey, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

It was January of 1981. The Iron Wall still stood. But you could fly to Athens from Tel Aviv... and back to Tel Aviv from Bucharest, and somehow, the idea of doing a circle tour and exploring a little bit of Eastern Europe took on a tremendous appeal.  My first stop in the communist world was Skopje, Macedonia. We had been traveling all night, through Thessalonika, Greece. We were tired, and still in transit, so my memories of Skopje are blurred, but I remember an old market area, a blend of cultures, my first encounters with Gypsies, pictures of Tito all over the place, and having a really hard time (more so than anywhere I had yet been in my life) finding anyone who spoke English. I vaguely remember meeting some Fulbright scholars studying something or other, trying to order dinner and learning my first phrase of Serbo-Croatian:
"bes meso" which means either "without meat" or "we can only afford the cheapest pizza you got." But as I see the refugees and riots, the stone throwing crowds and the cars set aflame, I remember the city. "I've been there," something inside me says as another image flashes across CNN. It's that déjà vu kind of thing, when a piece of your life and a piece of history touch and you stare speechless at the smallness of the world.

From Skopje, we took an overnight bus bound for Dubrovnik, once a shining jewel on the Adriatic in what is now Croatia. It was there, on that trip, somewhere in the mountains, that we nearly died.

It was snowing. It was really cold. We were up in the mountains somewhere, and one of the passengers was playing Arabic music on a boom box really loudly, all night long. Around 3 am we went through a tunnel in
the mountains... and at the other end there was a truck, stopped in the middle -- and I mean the middle -- of the narrow road... with no one in it.  On the left was a sheer cliff leading up. On the right was a sheer
drop. The driver attempted to go around the truck to the right. Halfway through, we hit the truck. Windows began to crack.  In some agitated language we did not understand, the driver then ordered everyone off the bus. We exited, with about a foot to spare on this side of the cliff... we huddled behind the bus... and some of the men then put their hands on the bus... and started leaning it away from the truck.

The bus, with all of our belongings on it, now had its top tilted over the cliff. Had it tumbled over the side, we could have died there that night. Instead, the men slid the bus past the truck, put it back on all
its wheels, and gestured the group to get back on board. The rest of the ride to the industrial city of Titograd, and eventually to Dubrovnik, was less exciting. But, somehow, I minded the music a whole lot less than I had.

So I nearly died in Yugoslavia one night. If I had, I would hardly have been alone. Then, or now. For people are dying in Yugoslavia as I write these words. People are dying. And dreams are dead. Dreams -- of a time when different cultures could live together, and appreciate each other, live and let live, thrive and survive together at one and the same time.  I saw a Croatian dance troupe in Dubrovnik. Saw mosques and markets in Sarajevo. Strolled the banks of the Danube in Belgrade. Everywhere I went, I saw faces mixed and mingled, different smells and hair and languages somehow managing, the powder keg of nationalist pride and ethnic hatred held in check by a delicate dance of promises, and the lingering legacy of a single man whose picture was everywhere.

Unlike my father (who is a Sovietologist and knows something of the area) I am not an expert in the Balkans. And the Balkans baffle even experts. I don't know what to make of what is going on right now. It sure seems from the outside as if some Serbs will slaughter anything that moves. The atrocities being reported are beyond belief...if we Jews did not know all too well that news from Europe which seems beyond belief should be given some possibility of credence nonetheless. I wonder if this is how people felt on hearing the first hints of atrocities a half century ago.

But: this might not be such a black and white conflict. Last Sunday's New York Times ran a long discussion of the history of the Serbian-Albanian conflict dating back to the fourteenth century! There are those who remember (including one of the New York Times' regular columnists) Serbs fighting the Nazis -- and Albanians fighting with them. And: should we Jews not be a bit cautious about an international organization declaring -- and enforcing -- the idea that territory sacred to one group and under its control should be largely ceded to another group because they make up the majority of the population in that region at the moment? And maybe the Ethnic Albanians are harboring terrorists and committing crimes we hear
nothing about. Would you want the KLA as neighbors? Are you sure? We read news reports of Serb atrocities and cringe in echoes and analogies we fear to use. How accurate are the reports? Or how biased?

I don't know. And I don't know how to find out. But for all the caveats, sometimes I know a moral crisis when I see one. Once, on a boat ride in Miami, during the beginning of the conflict in Bosnia, I met two Serb academicians who swore that the Muslims killed their own people and then called in reporters in order to make the Serbs look bad. I had heard the same claim made about Israelis. Let's kill our own, and blame Palestinian terrorists. I didn't buy a word of it then either. If the Western media reports are even half accurate, maybe it is time for ground troops after all. Knowing that neither side are angels. But to stop the slaughter. Whoever is committing it. Not because of national interest. Because of a moral imperative. For when we Jews said "never again," we meant never again... to anyone.

The course is not easy. Risk runs high whatever decisions we make. For the Balkans have been, to use a purely scientific term, a bloody mess, for an awfully long time. Any act is a step into a quagmire. Not acting
at all... may well be worse.  All I know for sure are two things. The one is political. The other is personal. The first is something I have said and written about before.  It is pretty easy to build yourself up by putting someone else down. The easiest way to promote your own identity is to stress what makes you different -- and better -- than another group. It is the easiest path --and the most dangerous. If history teaches anything at all it is this: inevitably, invariably, a group that disparages, demeans and denies another group's way of life will some day, somehow, seek to deny that other group's right to life. The harder, but healthier path to promote your own identity lets you live with others who are different. It is pride -- without prejudice. It is a sense of self-worth that is inherent, absolute -- and not comparative.  A bridge in Sarajevo. Ethnic hatred. This country provided the scene and the spark for one World War. I hope and pray that the same simmering cauldron of hate is not the stew for yet another. 

The second thing I know is this. Mixed in with anger and outrage and the heat of passionate emotions is a hint of something else. There are those who yearn still for the Germany they knew before Hitler. For the
civilized society they thought they had. I have nothing so strong as that. Just the nostalgia of a passing tourist, the fast fading recollections of a backpacking student of yesterday.

I nearly died on a mountain in Yugoslavia. But I miss the country I saw. The mountains and the sea, the ethnic festivals and celebrations, the blend of heritage and history. The hint, if only for a time, of hatred
held in check. I miss the Yugoslavia of yesterday. And I know it will never be again.