Friday, December 11, 2009

Putting a minaret in my window this Hanuka

Tonight is the first candle of Hanukkah and I can’t imagine placing the chanukkiyah in the window without concurrently speaking out against the Swiss referendum banning the building of Minarets in mosques.
Why am I celebrating this holiday? is a question I ask every time I punctuate my year with a holiday. It seems natural. I probably share this ritual with my co-religionists, compatriots, neighbors and friends. Doing things without asking would be acting like a robot.
I just came from Israel’s first human rights rally ever. It was held in Tel-Aviv and it included every color of progressive activist you could imagine. There were Gay, Lesbian,Transgendered and Bisexuals, Arabs, Foreign workers, unions, socialists, environmentalist and more. They all came to uphold the basic principle established in Genesis; we are all made in God’s image, thus we are all entitled to the same human rights.
The march and rally were beautiful. This is my left. Before I departed the States, I was a member of a left that didn’t let me feel at home. They made me feel like a pariah because I wanted national rights for my people. It was not a warm place. The left in Israel are unique. They put vision before anger. They articulate a message about humanity that has profound meaning. There values are native to this little piece of the world.
And today, the day I place my chanukiyah in the window to say to the world, “I am a Jew and I am proud.” The day I remember the dedication of the Temple and consider God’s heroism as an act of self-restrain and control in a sometimes violent world, today I want am full of pride from the Jewish resistance to the Swiss referendum against the building of minarets in new mosques. For instance, Rabbi Pinchas Dunner, executive director of the Conference of [Orthodox] European Rabbis, said "a war on religious freedom cannot defeat Islamic extremists. The best weapon against radical Islam is support for moderate elements in the Muslim community and promoting interfaith dialogue." The Anti-Defamation League said, "This is not the first time a Swiss popular vote has been used to promote religious intolerance,... A century ago, a Swiss referendum banned Jewish ritual slaughter, in an attempt to drive out its Jewish population." And the American Jewish Committee's David Harris exclaimed, "The referendum result amounts to an attack on the fundamental values of mutual respect... While there are certainly understandable concerns in Europe over Islamist extremism, these cannot be legitimately addressed through a blanket assault on Muslim communities and their religious symbols.”
I wish these comments were shared today at the rally and on the floor of the Knesset, but I’m happy we have a strong starting point for condemnation of this terrible Swiss referendum, and I’d like to think the our experience of Hanukkah and the various retellings of the story over millennia, have helped create this humane sensibility.
Happy Hanukkah. Chag Urim Sameach.

My brother Benny is Superman

I wrote about Benny recently. He’s my buddy that was arrested for “moving while black.” I spoke to him the other day and he told me he isn’t superman, and I cried.
Benny is superman. He is one of the most amazing people I know.
Benny was a general in one of the strongest and most influential army’s in the world, a Chicago gang which I cannot mention by name. He had everything a nihilist could want; sex, drugs, money, power. He was respected and revered by his subordinates. He was protected by a circle of guards wherever he went. All Benny had to do was rule fiercely, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t send kids out to sell drugs or commit violent crimes. He couldn’t teach new members of his gang to go through the ranks as he did. He couldn’t stand to have his own son grow up in this world. So he did what know one has done before him. He picked up and left.
For those that don’t know the codes that gangs operate under, take my word, exiting the gang is a capital crime and Benny was the top of the list of violators. But there was something different about Benny and his successors knew it. They didn’t prosecute. They didn’t even cut off the friendship. They just let Benny go off on his own into a life of monogamy, fatherhood, manual labor and a few notches above poverty.
But Benny took his choice and made the best of it. He raised a wonderful son who has served two tours in Iraq and continues in his service of the country. He has a loving wife who works hard and is dedicated to her husband. He has a new apartment which, among other things, he had to pay for with a month of his freedom, he has many dedicated friends, and he has his integrity, which is worth everything.
Benny works hard. He helps everyone who asks. He even helps those that don’t ask. As my father’s right hand in the management of his properties, he stays overtime to help out the nuns that operate a day care center in my dad’s building. He helps drug addicts and alcoholics on Chicago Avenue find day labor without judging them or their habits. When I ran a book club for homeless people in the neighborhood, Benny always brought dozens of people to participate and, according to Benny, “Improve their lives through education.”
The other day when I called Benny from Tel-Aviv, he told me that he’s not superman anymore. This was his way of bragging when he would lift a couch for a new tenant or move a refrigerator for a long termer. He said he could do anything, and I believed him. Benny could explain to me what the Cubs needed to change in their line-up to improve their game, and then when they finally got around to it, it would be a vast improvement just like Benny predicted. Every Monday he would break down the weekend football games for me and in the dead of winter he’d explain the ups and downs of Chicago hockey and basketball. Benny could have switched me in my statistics classes with ease because the statistics he watched and devoured every day when he’d read his paper on the bus to work were alive and ontological for him. This was how he understood the game. The fact is, Benny did teach for me. He lead discussions for my high school students in the school I ran and in the Chicagoland Jewish High school where I occasionally volunteered. He spoke to my master degree students about phenomenology and how to really understand the experience of inner city children. Benny could do anything.
So when Benny told me he’s not superman, of course I cried. Who wouldn’t? My society had beaten Benny to pieces. They put kryptonite at his doorstep and expected him to come out smiling. They greeted his integrity with shackles and chains. All this because of the color of his skin.
In America, the problem is not “driving while Black,” it’s not “moving while Black,” as in Benny’s case. It’s “breathing will Black,” and it is a shanda and a disgrace. And it’s our loss. We have to live without superman. Even worse, we have to live as Lex Luther, a whole society of Lex Luther’s. And the worst part about it is that we don’t see it. By allowing Benny to sit in jail and not concerning ourselves with the basic dignity of all Americans, be it through proper, affordable health care, or be it through the elimination of all forms of racism, we are not doing our part, and it really sucks being Lex Luther.