Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Big Story:
Preview of an Apolitical Movie

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, MD

There's not that much apolitical material coming out of the Middle East these days.  Or, more to the point, there' plenty of apolitical space in the daily lives and cultural experience of those who live there -- but when those of us from "outside" Israel think of the place, it is usually, first and foremost, in terms of conflict or religion or in a big picture kind of way.

But I just saw a press screening preview of a new Israeli movie which may not have mentioned the conflict with the Palestinians or religious-secular tension even once.  And I didn't miss it.

Instead, the "politics" of this film were about body-image, self-esteem, and finding your place in the world.

If I have any quarrel with the film it is a quibble kind of quarrel: I am not thrilled with the translation of the title.  The film is called Sippur Gadol in Hebrew...I would have translated that as "A Big Story."  Instead, the film is called, in English, "A Matter of Size."  But that's a little thing, I suppose, in the light of a wonderful hour and a half.

So here's the story: the film begins in a diet club in the Israeli town of Ramla, where everyone weighs in but -- unlike Weight Watchers here in the States, and in typically Israeli communal fashion -- your weight is shouted out loud at the weigh-in, along with either encouragement or insults.

One man, Herzl, simply can't seem to lose weight.  There is no evidence that he is cheating on the diet, he just isn't built to lose weight.  Understanding is not one of the nuanced strengths of this club, however, and so he is unceremoniously kicked out.  He also loses his job because of his overall appearance, and finds new work cleaning dishes at a Japanesse restaurant.  And it is here that things get interesting, as he first encounters Japanese traditions, cultures, and a certain highly specialized form of the martial arts.  And so, soon enough, Herzl and his friends form Israel's first ever sumo wrestling team.

The film opens here in Washington at the Avaolon Theater of Friday, July 2.

A version of it apparently played earlier in this area, at the Washignton Jewish Film Festival, but I missed it there; it is well worth the hassle of finding parking near the Avalon (although I suppose that walking an extra block or two to see a movie about training to get in shape won't hurt)(and I wonder about sales at the concession stands for such a film!).   I am attempting to attach a link from a different review(http://www.forward.com/articles/104846/) but in my own comments I would say: this film was light (pun intended), deep without being obvious about it, and it shows a whole different side to Israeli life than we are used to seeing or thinking about.

And the challenging question I would pose to myself or others is this: which comes first -- physical health, or acceptance of oneself?  How do we reward ourselves?  And what are the greatest rewards of all?

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Faces in the Mirror

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach,
Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, Maryland

[This was the introduction to my column for America OnLine from 1997-2002;
I will rewrite it shortly, but the reasons why I am writing, and what it says about my perspective, still applies.]

A distinguished teacher and leader of our movement, a brilliant writer and an inspiration to me, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, who was in Sudbury, Massachusetts for many years, tells the following story:

One of a rabbi's happier jobs is making guest appearances in thecongregation's pre school. A few years ago...their teacher asked if I wouldgive the children a tour of the prayer hall. I decided to save the contentsof the ark...for last. But I lost track of time, and suddenly spied theteacher discreetly signalling from the back of the room that school wasalmost over.  Not wanting to rush through the sacred contents of the ark, I decided to savethem for a special session. I promised the children that the next time wemet I would open the curtains and together we would see what was inside. The teacher later informed me that such a hasty conclusion had generated a heateddiscussion among the little people as to what exactly was in the ark "behind the curtains."  One kid, doubtless a budding nihilist, thought it was empty. Another,apparently a devotee of American television consumer culture, opined thatbehind the curtain was "a brand new car." Another correctly guessed that itheld the scrolls of the Torah. But one kid, the teacher insists, said "You'reall wrong. When the rabbi opens that curtain next week, there will just be a big mirror."
                                                 (excerpted from God was in This Place and I, i did not Know)

A big mirror. In a sense, that Sudbury child's answer is one of the most profound comments about the Torah that I have ever heard. For truly, what we see when we open the ark, when we read the ancient words and gaze at the parchment scroll...are our own faces, our own issues and concerns and feelings.

With any book we read, any movie we see...and, especially with the Torah...we bring ourselves to the reading, the seeing, the understanding. Without us, it is not there. And that, for Jews as well as for those of other faiths, is precisely the power of the Bible.

It has always been so. We are soon to celebrate the cycle of Torah, the end and beginning, the completion and the commencement of the longest running syndicated re run in world history (only with this show, the rights to it are there for any takers.)

Simchat Torah leads us to ask a simple question. Why the Jews? Why were we chosen to receive the Torah?

In one place in our tradition, we read a story of how God offered the Torah first to all the other nations, but they asked what was in it, and when God said: "Do not kill," the Ishmaelites said, uh, sorry God, but we live by the sword, maybe next time, okay?  And when God told the Moabites, "Do not commit adultery," they respectfully replied that they, too, were not interested. Only when God approached the Jews did we reply without even asking about the contents "Everything that God has said, we will do and we will hearken."

Why the Jews? Why did we receive the Torah? Because everyone else had their chance, and they blew it.

But in answer to the very same question, there is yet another story. There is a different tradition that tells us how, at Mt. Sinai, God lifted the mountain up out of the ground, held it above the people who were trembling
below, and simply said: "If you accept my Torah, it will go well for you, but if you do not, this will be your burial place." To which the wise Israelites replied: "Everything that God has said, we will do and we will hearken."

Both of these stories answer the same question. Both are reactions to a question the comes from reading in between the lines of the Torah.

But with both stories, we learn as much about the writers of the story as we do about the Bible. The first was a chauvinist, or, at the very least, lived at a time when the non Jews around him (I assume it was a man) were behaving with violence and sexual immorality.

By the time the second story was written, however, the writer assumed that there were no inherent differences between Jews and non Jews; we happened to be the ones God chose to receive the Torah, but not by any inherent qualification on our part.

Another classical example. "And God built Eve from the rib of the man." Why the rib? To teach (as with one interpretation) that women are like bone, hard and inflexible? Or to show that a woman is from the side of a man not the head to rule above him, nor the foot to serve below him, but the side, to walk together, hand in hand and side by side, equal in every way.

In these different reactions to the very same verse, we can guess the gender, the inclinations and the general time period (ancient vs. quite modern) of the person doing the reacting.

In studying the Torah, we do not learn one single truth. We bring ourselves to the text, and we see ourselves reflected in it. It is not just talking to us. It is talking about us, and through us.

In studying the Torah, we discover ourselves.

That is precisely the goal of Jewish study. It is something that the synagogues in our community offer in a high quality way: the opportunity to peer into the past and discover the concerns of the present, to look at our
ancestors and see...that they are us and we are them on down through an endless chain that links and binds the generations together.

It is why our tradition teaches that "talmud torah k'neged kulam; studying Judaism is equal to all of the other commandments and customs of our tradition combined...because it will lead to them all."

The opportunities are there. The windows into the past and into our own souls are open for us. In each Bet Midrash, in each house of study, in a path that leads through the classrooms and the chapels, the libraries and social halls there waits for you...the Mirror in the Ark. And we...we who bring ourselves to study, we who see our own souls in the spaces between the words, we are, indeed, the Faces in the Mirror.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

"Dinosaurs Outside Ice-skating"

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
 One day when he was around two-and-a-half years old, when we were living in Buffalo, New York, my son Daniel looked up from something he was doing and announced with great enthusiasm: "Dinosaurs Outside Ice-skating!"

 I have no earthly idea what prompted this definitive pronouncement. All I know is that he must have been, at that moment, looking at the world a very different way than I was. And that it was going to take an awful lot of effort on my part to figure out -- if I could do so at all -- what it was that was going through his head.

I thought of this lesson shortly after hearing his comment, in the middle of a meeting in which it seemed like the different groups speaking were from different planets altogether.

The general subject was Church-State separation; the particular topic was an upcoming "National Day of Prayer" which had been planned for the City of Buffalo Common Council Chambers, in which groups were
called upon to come together for four hours, to put aside differences and share our common bond "in the body of Jesus."

Our "official" Jewish community was united in its response. Both the Jewish Federation and the American Jewish Committee representatives saw two problems from our point of view: first, the exclusive nature of the
gathering, since not all of us "true-blue" "real" Americans of us share a "common bond" in the "body of Jesus," and second, in the location of the gathering, four hours of time in the Common Council Chambers themselves. To our local representatives, and to the national contacts that these groups consulted, all of this seemed to be a pretty clear violation of the separation of church and state.

Now, I must say that many, many mainstream Protestant and Catholic organizations agreed with our objections, as did, of course, representatives of the Muslim and Hindu communities. At least one of the two issues had wide sympathy in these circles: such a gathering, held under the guise of a "National" Day of Prayer, should be inclusive, rather than exclusive. There was much less, although still significant, support for the notion that such a gathering, whose primary purpose was religious in nature, had no business
being held on government property. Individual, spontaneous and internal private prayer has never been disallowed in such settings; organized, public and communal worship in governmental settings has been much more problematic. (The gathering was, to much relief, but also some anger, moved out of the chambers and onto much more appropriate property at the last minute.)

What took me by surprise, I must confess, was the reaction of some segments of the African American community. While there were certainly those who had some sense of where the "other than" Christian community was coming from in our feelings, still there was a widespread sentiment that nobody
should be barred from any form of worship in any setting whatsoever. While I expected such an attitude from the something like the Christian Coalition, one of whose stated goals is to proclaim America a "Christian" country, the response from a community with whom we still very often find ourselves allied caught me by surprise. In our language, in our outlook, in our concerns, it was as if we were coming from two different worlds. And it looked like it was going to be pretty hard for each of us to really comprehend where the
other one was coming from.

But in inter-group relations, where we seem the most "alien" and "other," where we let our differences really come out, with love but honesty, with candor but calm, time, and work, talking, and trying, may yield good results in the end. Not agreement. But understanding of an other. Even, perhaps, appreciation of where someone very different from us is coming from.

I now know what I should have realized, perhaps, before. We look at the world in very different ways. For Jews, the separation from state-sanctioned prayer has been the deepest and most abiding basis of our freedom in this country. For African Americans in this country, for a very long time, prayer was the only freedom they had. Of course our attitudes towards the role of prayer in public life will differ. Even if we agree about many other areas of public policy.

Comprehension of a similar sort came to me several years earlier, before this incident, on the related topic of vouchers from private schools. After a direct conflict with some Roman Catholic officials on this issue in a previous community it which I lived, I sensed that we were ships passing in the night, that each one of
us was talking past the other, not really grasping the depth of the places which were the source of our positions. I appealed to a name I knew, a national Catholic expert on Jewish-Catholic dialog. He opened up a new world for me when he helped me look at the United States, for just a moment, through Catholic eyes.

It seems that one of the only actual pogroms in this country was, well, against Catholics. And the issue was over education. The place was Philadelphia, and the time was the middle of the nineteenth century. The
trigger event was a dispute over which version of the Bible would be used in a public school, a Catholic version or a Protestant version. And the anti-Catholic rhetoric grew so strong that, for the first and only occasion of which I am aware, a local Catholic bishop banned people from coming to services the following Sunday, in fear for their safety.

Just like the recent issue in Buffalo, the particulars of the incident are less important in the long run than what they reveal about the underlying experience of the group. It seems to me, as I look at the situation now,
that Jews and Catholics encountered an identical problem -- Protestant influence in the public schools -- and reacted in quite different ways. We Jews went to court, to create a neutral ground, an appropriately level
playing field for all American citizens in the schools which we "own" in common. The Catholic Church, as an institution, went out and created an entire and separate school system, in which Catholic values could flourish
untrammeled by the dominance of others. A similar problem, with two distinctly different solutions. No wonder Jews and Catholics, by and large, strongly disagree on the issue of using public money for parochial education.

I remain a strong opponent of vouchers for private schools. But I have a deeper, gut-level feeling for why this is such an important issue for some people than I ever did before. I am grateful to a patient and wise Catholic
teacher, who opened my eyes to his world.

When we try to look at the world through the eyes of another, we never know what we are going to find. That is because people who are different from us are, well, different. But it is a journey of discovery that is
almost always worth the effort. Not because we are going to agree on what should be done. But because we will come to know each other better. And in the process, without a doubt, we will learn more about ourselves.

I still don't know what my son meant when he said "Dinosaurs Outside Ice-skating." But I tried, for a moment, to see the world through his eyes. I discovered not agreement, but excitement and wonder and delight.

And Daniel. Somehow Daniel saw something of the world through my eyes as well.

He still shares this delicious sentence from time to time. But then he will pause, giggle, and add two more words. "That's silly!" he says. And somehow, despite not knowing all of what is going on in each other's heads, we have found a way to bridge a gap. Somehow, we understand a little bit about each other, and ourselves.