Sunday, September 13, 2015

5776: What I Know and What I Think I Know

Today at sunset, Jews around the world are celebrating, will celebrate, or have already celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. They have said, "L'shana tova," or happy new year, or given wishes for a sweet year. Tonight my parents are going to temple in Miami, where they are spending time with my grandmother. It is her 96th new year and my fervent and hopeful wish is that she has a healthy, strengthening, happy and love-filled new year.

Every so often I am asked, as the resident Jew, why the Jewish year is different than the calendar year we use today. Not a historical or religious expert, I generally explain only that the Jewish calendar is a lunar one, and was the one used until the current, Roman calendar was put in place. This seems to go over well with non-Jews, generally. When I mention that the Jewish year is five thousand something (5776 now), there's usually a blink in response, and a polite or thoughtful nod.

While sometimes this is a somewhat frustrating experience to go through - these conversations can go anywhere from thoughtful learning to threatened justification to attempted conversion - I recognize that in being a (relative) minority in the USA, I get to learn what it is like to be part of something seemingly obvious (most people know that Judaism is a religion) and yet not well understood ("uh, you can't eat pork, right?"). 

Why is this important? For me, it underscores two very different realities in my life that have manifested in the past year. Tonight's blog is an exercise in reflection on how being Jewish polishes the lens through which I might see the world. 

The experience of being "other" reminds me that the things that seem obvious might not be at all well understood. The example of the #BlackLivesMatter movement comes to mind. I know about it and understand the general message. But do I truly understand, can I really "get" what it is to be a Black Life in the year 5776 in this world, on this continent, in my own city? In fact, yes, I believe I can conceptualize it; but in reality, no, I can never know what it is like. I am, after all, white. What does this mean? Well, in reflecting on my experiences of what it is to be a Jew in a sea of non-Jews, and how tentative and sensitive and sometimes impossible it was to talk to non-Jews about it, be they friendly and curious or evangelical and judgmental... to me this means I must strive to understand and support Black Lives. It means that I must work towards understanding my own privilege, not to feel guilty (which isn't the point of exploring privilege anyway) but to perceive an existence different from my own and recognize the differences in how the world treats each of us. 

Having people tell me what the "reality" is of my religion - that I can't eat pork, or marry a non-Jew, or eat meat and cheese together - makes me think of (non-Black) media pundits commentating on the lives of Black citizens and their feelings and actions. How about we ask, and listen, and understand, rather than lump a mass of "other" into a single compartment of well-meaning but ill-treating, presumptive "understanding"? 

That's the first lesson I draw from my past experiences. Now to the future. 

Because the other reason this Rosh Hashanah is important to me, though I sit at home, alone, without having lit candles or sung a prayer, the other reason is that so very soon, I will be the minority again, but in a whole different way. No longer the choice of whether to speak up and self-identify as Jewish and therefore different, no! Quite the opposite: soon, the color of my skin will make me part of the minority. And how, exactly, do I want people to learn about me, to get to know me? I'll tell you: my preference doesn't lie with assumptions, lump-assertions, half-read histories or media-designated-truths!

Rather, I would like someone to ask me what it means to me to be a Jew, an American, a woman, a diplomat, a single thirty-something. Know me as an individual, and then thoughtfully make connections and distinctions from the other [pick a category] that one knows. And if that is how I would like to be treated, then I have a huge job ahead of me, because it is how I should treat every new person I meet. In the coming year, that will be a rather large number of people. 

How easy it is to assume! I have read about Mali's poverty, the Tuareg struggles, the more recent inclusion of extremist elements, the majority Islamic population, the dessert, the music, the history. Wouldn't it be easier, and perhaps justified, to go there "knowing" what it is to live in Mali?

I say, uh-uh, no way, it makes it so much harder, in fact: harder to get to know the people I'll live amongst and work with, and harder to experience a culture new to me, rich with so much that can change me, improve me, in many incredible ways. 

So looking back and peering forward, I hope to renew my curiosity in individuals, strengthen my resolve to listen and understand, and treat each person as part of a whole, yes, but also as wholly unique. 

L'shana tova to all. May your year be sweet and bright. 


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