At the Confluence of Identity and Individuality as we Enter the Ritual of American Thanksgiving
As we enter the week of our family Thanksgiving rituals, we step into this week with all of ourselves. We hold all of our American identity and our Jewish identity and all of the ways that we identify ourselves. Identity can both entrap us and set us free. The process of identifying ourselves and where we align and identify with others, our families included, is built into healthy human maturation. As we live our lives, we explore what it is to be human in the world in which we find ourselves.
Our birth situates us in a family and community and location on the planet. As we mature, we take both an interior and exterior journey in determining our affinities and our sense of true self. This is a life-long journey. Our experiential and educational journeys expose us to different ways of thinking and behaving. We create and select groups that align with our thoughts and actions. We continue to evolve and create our true selves each day of our lives when we are open to experiencing and acknowledging the fullness of our existence in relationship with our ecosystems of human and earthly connection. For some of us, these explorations also connect us with the Divine Mystery – beyond knowing, beyond believing, and as close as our breath. A sense of comfort in the fullness of one’s identity is stabilizing and liberating – deep roots and growing, flowing, blossoming branches.
And, identity can be used negatively when we use it to paint, in broad strokes, the identity of others. When I bring stereotypes and my fears of the behaviors I expect or anticipate from others based on how they look, how they dress, or the signs they carry, and when others do this to me, perceived identity is divisive and can be dangerous.
On Tuesday, November 14th, also Rosh Chodesh Kislev (the new moon and Hebrew month), I walked with my husband, Eric, from the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., to the metro to travel to the sun-kissed event called “March for Israel, to free the hostages, against antisemitism” that had been pulled together in short order by mainstream Jewish organizations for all of the reasons stated and to show American support for Israel in light of the worldwide demonstrations against Israel’s military actions in Gaza. As we stepped out of the Kennedy Center, there were many parked buses that were emptying a steady stream of men with black hats and peyot/peyus (the sidelocks that some ultra-Orthodox sects maintain in keeping with rabbinic interpretation of the Torah commandment to leave the corners – of agricultural fields – uncut (pe’a means “corner, side, edge”).
“See,” I said to Eric, “this is what I was afraid of; this demonstration is going to be filled with people who support the settler movement in the West Bank and who love Bibi.” I had been very nervous and hadn’t slept well the night before the March. I had been wrestling for the ten days in which I was aware of the March. I didn’t want my nuanced, progressive, peace-centering feelings and beliefs to be conflated with those who took a hard hawkish and anti-Palestinian position.
I LOVE Israel and firmly believe that the historically informed, 20th century decision to establish the State of Israel was a sound one. I believe with every fiber of my being that Israel has every right to exist and that most Israelis want to live in peace with their Arab country neighbors. I know many Israelis who work for peace and for a two state solution – Israeli and Palestinian states, side by side. I know many Americans who support this work as allies. AND, I recognize and am devastated by the immense suffering and loss of life in Gaza as a result of yet another war. I stand firmly against the anti-democratic movement of Israel’s nationalist and ultra-Orthodox party leaders over recent years who are eroding the hope and democratic ideals upon which Israel was founded.
We stopped in the bright sunshine of the day for Eric to take pictures of me with the sign I had crafted to illustrate/verbalize MY identity as a rabbi who believes in the capacity of Judaism, and, please, Jews, to hold multiple truths with tenderness and compassion. As the warmth of the sun opened my smile and my heart, I was struck at how my fear of the men congregating near me was exactly the reaction that I didn’t want others to have! I was using my stereotypical notions of these Jews to jump to my own conclusions about their beliefs about Israel. I vowed to move forward throughout the day with compassion, warmth, kindness, and curiosity no matter what I encountered.
We entered the Foggy Bottom metro station with a throng of Jews. I noticed the kindness and professionalism of the overwhelmed metro employees and thanked them for their patience and friendly attitude. We exited the metro at the National Mall with excited students from day schools. The crowd was energetic and enormous, even as we arrived around 11:30 am. There were already brilliant college students warming up the crowd with stories of antisemitism on campuses as well as poetry and music. We found our friends (a remarkable feat!) and moved into the area that required a blue wristband. The level of security and the crowd as we entered the area where we had to narrow to fit between tall fences to go through security (as well as the fact that we had taken a train packed with Jews to get here) provoked a Shoah-informed fear I hadn’t anticipated. However, the friendliness of the security guards washed away the physical experience of the trauma that apparently lives deep in my Jewish identity.
In the sea of people, many draped in Israeli flags, many carrying photographs of the hostages, many carrying placards produced by organizations, I stood with my home-made and complicated sign … too full of words.
At one point, a man asked me in an angry tone, “what kind of rabbi are you?”
“A Jewish rabbi,” I responded, in an effort to add humor and avoid conflict.
“No, what denomination … Reconstructionist? Reform?” he insisted.
“I identify with both Jewish Renewal and Reconstructing Judaism,” I said.
“You are against Israel,” he pushed, “you are anti-Zionist, all Reconstructionist rabbis hate Israel!!”
Again, someone wanting to paint an entire group with broad strokes of identity …
“That just isn’t true. All of the Reconstructionist rabbis I speak with regularly love Israel, as I do.”
And knowing that this was not a conversation I wanted to continue, I thanked this man for engaging in “compassionate conversation in support of Am Yisrael and Judaisms capacity to hold multiple truths.”
The rest of my time at the March was filled with a sense of appreciation of the many different people who came to stand together. We accomplish a great deal by the exercise of standing together in unity as we stand in difference. My hope is that the March will be remembered not for the surprise speakers who divided us, but for the passionate and powerful speakers who united us.
As we sit down at our Thanksgiving meals, I am hopeful that we will find ways to express our gratitude for the bounty of our lives while also holding our differences with the same reverence and appreciation. I am including a ritual that I like from one of my favorite sources of Jewishly-informed ritual, the deep well of Reconstructing Judaism’s ritualwell.org. I wish you all a shave tov ~ a good and meaningful week of thanksgiving and appreciation, and a Shabbat Shalom. I am really excited to be with the Glacier Jewish Community in the Flathead for for Chanukah, and at the “American Holidays” conversation which we have rescheduled for the evening of November 29th at 8pm Mountain time in hopes that some of our parents with young children, as well as the rest of us will be available for a robust program.