strait of gibraltar

tomorrow i will cross the border.

we all began there

somewhere

human beings

Became.

slavery became there

people

flesh and bones

stolen

taken

violated.

today

people journey north

from Mali, Algeria

across the desert

–for forty years?

they make it to the border

of Morocco

and with luck

they cross

with luck

they catch a boat

with luck

they don’t sink

with luck

they live a life in europe

of racism

prejudice

ignorance

violence

with luck?

i am packing

and in my backpack

is Frederick Douglass

Audre Lorde

Angela Davis

Martin and Toni.

i travel with a heavy heart

knowing how easy my journey will be

i travel

in return

to a continent i know

i once lived on

generations back

my ancestors

all of our ancestors

were once there.

i travel with a Jewish star

metaphorically tattooed on my arm

to a Muslim country

while Israel and Palestine

play with bombs.

i travel as a spiritual seeker

starving for religion

ritual

of any form.

but also

i travel afraid

of what I represent

my white face

my hebrew name.

we all began there

but i don’t have the memories

i didn’t suffer there.

tomorrow i will cross

the border

set foot on a continent

the skin of these feet

has never caressed

and i will close my eyes

and ask for forgiveness

and ask for ritual

and open my eyes.

coverage of paris shooting: more complexity, please. thank you omid safi.

I have been searching for articles written about the tragedy that occurred last week in France that offer a more holistic and nuanced understanding of what this means for the world. While the issues are so vast and no piece can do it all, when I read Omid Safi’s piece 9 Points to Remember on the Paris Shooting and Charlie Hebdo posted at the On Being Blog it felt closer to a heart-based approach than any news story I had seen previously.

So how do we process this horrific news? Let me suggest nine steps: 1) Begin with grief.”

Ah, yes. Instead of jumping to our brains and our “rational side,” can we not mourn the violence that seems so inescapable in our personal and global worlds?

As part of grieving, Safi makes a crucial point:

“We mourn the fact that our children are growing up in a world where violence is so banal. Even yesterday, on the same day of the Paris shootings, there was another terrorist attack in Yemen, one that claimed 37 lives — even though this tragedy did not attract the same level of world attention. There were no statements from presidents about the Yemen attack, no #JeSuisCharlie campaigns for them. Let us grieve, let us mourn, and let us mourn that not all lives seem to be given the same level of worth.”

Ahhh. “Let us mourn that not all lives seem to be given the same level of worth.” What makes the news? Which images are given most airtime? Can we mourn those who ARE given great media coverage, while also mourning those we DON’T know of? Those we know exist out there, but we might not know their names? This question relates to all sorts of conflicts: unlawful arrests and shootings of people of color in the U.S., survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, religious persecution of all sorts….there are the big names and cases we all know of, and then there are the thousands and thousands more that we don’t know of, but that STILL MATTER.

While he doesn’t discuss it, Safi offers a link to an article in Vox that shows the horrendously offensive images put out by Charlie Hebdo over the years. The Vox article ends with, “But the magazine that withstood so much and offended so many has finally been silenced. Today, visitors to the Charlie Hebdo website find only a single graphic. ‘Je suis Charlie,’ it reads.” 

This article makes Safi’s words even more important: “I try to resist the urge to turn the victims into saintly beings, or the shooters into embodiments of evil. We are all imperfect beings, walking contradictions of selfishness and beauty. And sometimes, like the actions of the Kouachi brothers and Mourad, it results in acts of unspeakable atrocity.”

Later Safi writes, “And as for the shooters, they have done more to demean people’s impression of the religion of the Prophet than the cartoonists in Charlie Hebdo ever did. If the shooters wanted to do something to bring honor to the Prophet, they could begin by actually embodying the manners and ethics of the Prophet. They could start by studying his life and teachings, where they would see that Muhammad actually responded to those who had persecuted him through forgiveness and mercy.”

This is a difficult time to be in the world. It is a difficult time to know what to think, which story to believe, or how to move forward. I think Safi’s 9 steps are very helpful. I think many of the comments on the article are also helpful, such as Maruf Khan’s statement: “There ARE thousands of Muslims in the streets of Paris standing side-by-side with their fellow French people of all other religions mourning and decrying this heinous act. We are all in this together. Muslims are just as much victims of such extremists. In fact majority of the victims of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Taliban, Al-shabab… have been Muslims.”

Like most things, I feel the need to make the story more, not less, complex, in order to understand it. And while many of the comments on this article are loving, many are angry and hateful and accusatory of other commentators. On one blog post. How many more have been written about this issue? The power of words is fierce. Let us be careful of the words we choose. Let us remember that in Krista Tippett’s interview with Dr. Reza Aslan, Dr. Aslan aptly points out that we would never use the term “The Christian World” without immediately being more specific, and yet the term “The Muslim World” is used all the time. Dr. Aslan writes, “the connotations are that there is something monolithic.” And Islam is anything but monolithic.

Complexity. Complexity. Complexity. Peace for the world. Peace for our inner lives. Peace peace peace.

wrestling with judaism

I have a very complicated relationship with Judaism. Much of it has to do with the religious and spiritual experiences of my parents, both before and after I was born. Much of it has to do with the continuous feeling that I never was “Jewish enough.”

I did have a Bat Mitzvah. I loved my Bat Mitzvah. It was spiritual and communal and I felt powerful singing Torah and reading Hebrew and interpreting Torah and reading my own poetry aloud to loved ones.

But my home soon became one of Hindu practice, travels to India, and ashram ritual. By high school I was actively pushing Judaism away, much because by junior year I was so busy trying to fight racism. Claiming my Jewish identity did not feel relevant. It felt somehow selfish. I had heard so many of my white peers say they had no responsibility to engage in combating racism because they were Jews and their ancestors had been brutally oppressed and they didn’t have slaves and so it wasn’t their problem. I associated my generation of Jews with denial of other injustices (of course this is not true of all Jews of my generation, but this was my experience. I am also well aware that not all Jews are white, and this is a gross generalization made that renders invisible so many Jews across the world. However, the Jews I encountered going to public school in Western Massachusetts were of European ancestry).

When I arrived at college I felt lonely and lost. I craved community, and I craved the spiritual life that I had experienced at home with my parents. But I wanted to explore something that wasn’t theirs. In my strange case, that meant exploring where I actually came from.

So I approached one of the rabbis at my school. Who, thank goddess, turned out to be none other than Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. She eased me into the process of getting over my terror of all things Jewish, and allowing myself to dip my toes in. She shared poetry with me. I began attending Shabbat services, and she helped me understand the flow of the service. When I was outraged by the male-pronoun-filled prayers, we talked it through over tea. Rabbi Ruttenberg was the first person to  make me feel okay about being Jewish since my Bat Mitzvah. To make  me want to be Jewish. To make me feel deeply rooted in being a woman and being Jewish.

That school wasn’t a good fit and I left. Rabbi Ruttenberg moved away soon after. My connection to Judaism lost it’s priority in my life, and I spent a while exploring Buddhism. I attended a five-day mediation retreat at one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s monasteries and began meditating in that practice. When that didn’t feel quite right, I read Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now and A New Earth and I felt deep truth there. I started following his exercises in my daily practice. But as always life crept in and that didn’t stick either.

This past summer I moved to a new town, near where I grew up but far enough away to feel fresh. And like other times since leaving for college, I yet again felt drawn to exploring my Jewish roots. It felt like the worst time to be claiming my Jewish identity. It was August 2014, violence was terrible in Israel and Palestine, and many of my activist friends were posting on facebook “viva palestina.” I was very aware that the Hebrew language is one that elicits fear for many people throughout the world. I was very aware of the timing. On August 19th I wrote in my journal, “I can’t believe how many times I have felt pushed away by Judaism, and yet I keep trying. Something keeps calling me back. Is it my ancestors? Wanting to connect to them? Is it my deep-down belief in God and spirit and desire to live a life of prayer and depth? I couldn’t believe I arrived at a Shabbat service last Friday that felt so much like home, that made me tear up with beauty and resonance. I need my ancestors to heal. I need prayer to heal. But what a strange time to embrace Judaism, with the terror that Israel is inflicting on Palestine. Or is it the best time? Because I was always Jewish, whether I wanted to be or not. whether I acknowledged it or not. And by embracing it and seeing what it really means, maybe I am getting closer to my truth.”

The next day, on August 20th, I wrote, “When I saw the Rabbi I felt this rush of joy all through my body. She began singing and I knew the words. I guess I remember more Hebrew than I had thought I did. I felt safe to be in my body. I felt safe to cry and sing at the same time. I felt safe to believe in God even though I have no idea what that means. Many survivors of sexual assault abandon their faith because how could there be a God that would let such a thing happen? I guess I never saw God as controlling or “making things happen.” And I still don’t. So that hasn’t exactly been my experience. What I do know is that something about connecting to my ancestors and to my lineage and exploring what believing in God might mean feels very central to my healing process. I don’t know why. This feels like the worst of times to be embracing Judaism with the terrible escalated violence in Israel and Palestine. And yet, judging other Jews for denying their white privilege—isn’t that the same as me denying my own Judaism, which often now, and certainly in the context of a Jewish State, is a privilege?”

That wonderful Rabbi who brought me such joy was none other than Rabbi Riqi Kosovske, who of course turns out to know Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. Sometimes miracles do seem real?? I began attending services regularly at this local reform synagogue, and connecting deeply with Rabbi Riqi.

I still struggle with what it means to be connecting so strongly to Judaism now, while still being fiercely committed to justice for Palestinians and so strongly against what the government of Israel is doing. I will continue to wrestle with this.

But I am also wrestling with Judaism itself. Last week I had a very difficult time studying the Torah portion about the rape of Dinah. I needed a way to understand the story that didn’t make me feel so small. I met with Rabbi Riqi and she introduced me to The Torah: A Women’s Commentary. Since then I have been reading this version of the Torah at home and finding joy in women discussing the women of the Torah.

Back on August 19th I also wrote “Suddenly I want to write about God. I want to read Torah. I want to talk to my grandmother so badly I pretend my cat is my grandmother and ask the silent room all of my questions. I want to re-learn Hebrew. I want to feel a mystical element in as many moments of my day as possible.” I am feeling more mysticism in my days. I am feeling more connected to my grandmother. I wish she was here with us, but I still talk to her. I still don’t know what all of this means. What I do know is that I feel guided by something inside me, not what my brain tells me is right and wrong. I am being conscious, but I am also feeling pulled in a good way.

The search for home and justice is very confusing.

guitar lessons, jazz, rumi, and the power of history

Back in August, after playing acoustic guitar for over five years and not improving all that much, I began taking lessons with Diane Sanabria, a dear wise woman musician warrior who teaches not only songs but music theory, sense of humor, and life lessons. This afternoon at our lesson she didn’t just show me Travis picking patterns. She took me on a trip to New Orleans, elaborated on the history of African poly-rhythms that started stirring things up to create ragtime and eventually jazz. She honored the African origins that led to Merle Travis’ famous picking style.

She spoke about how much deeper the experience of learning a musical instrument can become when we also study the history and origins of musical styles. I was practically jumping out of my seat. And of course I was reminded of my all-time favorite On Being podcast, “The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi,” when professor Fatemeh Keshavarz says, “I don’t think you can free people from the context in which they live. And I don’t think even if you try to do that, that that serves a useful purpose. I don’t see Rumi as detached from the Islamic context at all. In fact, I see his work as utterly and completely immersed in the Islamic tradition. I tell you, it would be hard to read a single ghazal, not even the Masnavi, which is expressly a work with theological and mystical intentions. But even a ghazal, it would be hard to read a ghazal and not find quite a few allusions to Qur’anic verses, to sayings of the prophet, to practices in the Muslim world, so I don’t think we need to separate him from his Islamic context.The way first I visualize this myself is that he goes through the religion, he lives it, absorbs it, and uses it in his way. So in the process, he subverts a lot of things. He changes a lot of things, reinterprets a lot of things, but he does not step outside of it. He lives in it.”

Just as we can’t extract Rumi from his Islamic context, and we can’t pull jazz out of it’s African American and African origins and suggest that because these productions of art are so transformative they must be somehow universal and therefore “neutral” (i.e. often meaning white-washed), my dear guitar teacher believes in the power of historical knowledge to bring added meaning to creative learning in real-time. And I agree with her. Finding a new way to do things comes from studying how it has been done and transcending that to create something new.

I think I will go practice my guitar now.