On Mascots, Ice Skating and Standing with Standing Rock

We gathered for Thanksgiving last week with friends up in Seattle. I look forward to Thanksgiving, it is one holiday which I do not need to work for one, and can spend with my wife and kids. Since our extended families are distant, we have more often than not spent it with friends, and I enjoy the opportunity to meet new people and renew past relationships. I love the food, and the civic focus on gratitude is an important injection of spiritual values into our “secular society.” This year our host handed out copies of the Constitution, further opportunity for reflection on where we have been and were we are going as a country, especially after this last election.

Where we have been is an important question on Thanksgiving, because we know from the history of this country the holiday is not celebrated by all. While we tend to tell a story of friendship and cooperation, we know the real history of the colonists and the Native population was devastating, including conquest and genocide.

I wrote a few years ago (On Thankgivukkah!) how our modern Thanksgiving is rooted in the Civil War as well, as it only became a fixed national holiday in Lincoln’s time. The idea was unity at a time of disunity, and Lincoln’s proclamation is a noble document. And while we can strive for its aims, we can not do so outside the historical context in which the “original” Thanksgiving and the “modern” Thanksgiving are based. (Lincoln also was responsible for one of the largest mass executions in US history, of Native Americans.)

This history was writ large this year in an unfortunate irony through another American Thanksgiving tradition: football. The National Football League plays games on Thanksgiving, and as I sat down to watch I was shocked to see the Dallas Cowboys—who traditionally play on Thanksgiving day—playing the Washington Redskins, which is a team name I prefer not to use but do so here for the point of illustration. On Thanksgiving Day, millions sat down to watch the Cowboys versus the “Indians.”

And Thanksgiving comes just a few weeks after that other traditional pastime, the Major League Baseball World Series, which pitted the Chicago Cubs versus the Cleveland Indians, which is another term I prefer not to use but use it here for the point of illustration. Another major league sports team, another problematic name. Plus the Cleveland baseball team has a racist mascot, a caricature of a Native American elder.

In America, we compound the painful history by reducing Native Americans to stereotypes, mascots and caricatures.

This is made all the more tragic, or ludicrous, our sad because currently there are Native populations staging an active and major protest in North Dakota. The Standing Rock Sioux are are protesting the construction of an oil pipeline that would be built on their historic land near their reservation and under the Missouri River, which serves as the source of their drinking water. A leak could be devastating to the Sioux and the environment.

The protests are augmented by the knowledge that the original path of the pipeline was to be closer to the city of Bismark, which would still need to go under the Missouri River, but complaints by the population about potential leaks there prompted the moving of the pipeline. This just the latest in a long history of the US Government and business interests slowly eroding or outright disregarding the agreements with and the rights and lands of Native Americans, and the reaction by authorities has resonant historical echoes.

While this was happening, this week out of Russia was the obscene news that the wife of a Russian official participated in a ice skating routine to a Holocaust theme. Dressed in concentration camp uniforms complete with yellow star, the skaters danced on a reality television show to the theme to the Holocaust movie, “Life is Beautiful.”

I felt a strong sense of parallelism.  A culture once thriving, then driven almost completely out of existence through genocide, now pantomimed in a way that mimics and distorts reality. The connection between the approach to Jews in Europe and Native Americans in the United States was noticeable in this instance: Jews in Europe have, like the Native Americans here, been reduced to mascots.

Which is why the protests at Standing Rock deserve our attention and support.

Our Jewish history is a history of displacement and being driven from our homes. We may have grown comfortable in our position in this country, but our  history is in our DNA. And with the rise of this new government, we Jews are being reminded more and more how we should not be as comfortable as we are. Threatened and oppressed populations require our support.

But not only that. The Standing Rock Sioux deserve our attention and support because they are bringing to the forefront issues which we should all care about: protection of our earth, protection of our water, our dependence on fossil fuels and the need to respect all peoples. That and the reckoning of the sins that built this country and their perpetuation in how the Native population is treated today. We all need to sit up and take notice.

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, Director of Programs for T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, said it so well in a letter to supporters this week when she tied the situation to the weekly Torah portion. She wrote,

In this week’s parshah, Toldot, we read about how the Phillistines blocked up the wells Abraham had dug, forcing Isaac to redig them in search of Rechovot–wide open spaces where he could live in peace. The Native American water protectors are standing up not just for their own protection but for all of us who want clean water, sacred sites, and human rights protected from corporate greed.

Our spiritual history and actual history and values compel us to take a stand. We all deserve the protection of those things that are most precious to us, things like water, and respect, and peace.

Finding Expansiveness on a Tuesday Afternoon

Confession #1: You might have already realized this but I didn’t write a column last week. Last week was a bit busy for me, not only with work but with Yohanna being out of town attending a conference, I was solo parenting for a few days. Balancing that fact, along with things at work that needed my attention and the regular preparation for Shabbat, I have myself the permission to not write last week. I know that committing to write a weekly column sets up a deadline for me and an expectation for you, but last week something needed to go.

Confession #2: This Tuesday, I took the afternoon off to go to the movies. In the morning I was invited to speak at the “World Religions” class at South Puget Sound Community College, and rather than return to the office for a few hours, I caught a Spectre_postermatinee of the new James Bond movie, Spectre.  (Little known fact: I am a big James Bond fan). Since no one else in my family was interested in this movie, and since my weekends often make it harder to get to the movies, catching a Tuesday afternoon matinee seemed to be just the thing. Later in the day at home, I was able to attend to some of the more “movable” aspects of my job, and do some writing and email correspondence.

One of the things I like about my work as a rabbi is the schedule. I am present over the weekends of course at Shabbat, Beit Sefer and other activities and events. I am “on call” to respond to illness or death. And at the same time, since I am not 9-5, I can organize my time differently. Even my “day off”—I am, in theory, off on Mondays—is worked into my flexibility. Especially with kids I find it hard to take one full day off a week; I’d rather work some on Monday so I can take off another time during the week to be present at my sons’ schools. Or, if I need a break, I can reorganize my schedule to take a break.

All this falls under the heading of “self care” or “balance,” something that we are told over and over again is so important to our wellbeing. We are told this so much so that ironically it becomes at times another form of anxiety or pressure to be balanced. What I have learned though is that one, this is very important, and two, what this looks like, what constitutes “balance,” looks different for different people.

In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, we continue the saga of our ancient patriarchs and matriarchs. We read about the death of the first generation—Abraham and Sarah—last week, now the story picks up with Isaac and Rebekah, and their journey to establish themselves and their family. Part of the story we tell this week is Isaac’s desire to dig water wells. His first two attempts to dig wells are met with conflict and contentiousness from his neighbors who also stake claims to the wells. His third attempt is successful and so he names the well Rehovot—“expansiveness”—because, as the text relates Isaac saying, “Now at last God has granted us ample space to increase in the land.” (Genesis 26:22)

In reading this section, I was struck by the name. Names have importance in the Torah, and each name has a meaning. I found the naming of the place Rehovot/Expansiveness to evoke not just a physical description but an emotional one. To name a place based on the feeling evoked by the place feels very powerful. And I saw a parallel in Isaac’s quest to our own. We, like Isaac, pursue our lives only to be met oftentimes with conflict and contentiousness. And this doesn’t even need to be active conflict, sometimes just our responsibilities and needs feel like they are challenging us. Our goal, then is find the expansiveness in our lives—our joys, our wants, our desires—that will lead to balance. That will allow us to meet those responsibilities and needs with renewed strength and vigor.

How do you find your expansiveness? What is it you need to do so you can “increase?” For me, it sometimes means going to see a movie in the middle of the day.

Confession #3: I’m taking this Shabbat off. Monday and Tuesday I will be in Philadelphia to attend the biannual board meeting of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, my professional association for which I am the board secretary. We meet in person in November and June. But rather than travel just for the meeting, I’m going to go a bit early so I can attend a 25th reunion of my high school graduating class (!). I’m looking forward to connecting with old friends with whom I haven’t been in touch for a while. For me, seeing friends, developing social connections, is another form of balance, of finding that expansiveness.

So how do you seek your balance, your expansiveness? You can tell me next week, when I return.