Sunday, October 27, 2019

There's work left to do

Taku and I went to a Bat Mitzvah ceremony yesterday for the daughter of dear friends.

As I've said dozens of times before, if I were ever going to return to organized religion, it would be Judaism that I'd most likely to turn to.

It was a surprisingly moving service. The mother of the girl becoming bat mitzvah is Japanese and the father is Jewish, an Israeli-American who, like most of the Bay Area Jews I know, is comfortable in both Jewish and Buddhist thought. One of a large group of folk we like to call JewBu's. I'm not sure he would describe himself that way, actually, but his contribution to the service was to share his daily meditation with the people gathered before leading us all in a period of silent meditation:

May all beings be happy
May all beings be enabled
May all beings be free
May all beings live with ease.

At lunch after the service I got into a very nice conversation with a Taiwanese-American married to a German. We talked about her two daughters, one of whom has no use for Chinese food but loves good bread. The other shows a great fondness for things stir-fried. 

I shared with her my mixed heritage upbringing back at a time when we were expected to be American, not immigrant, Scottish not German, etc. (to use a couple examples from my own experience). We both agreed that the solution to many of the world's conflicts is to refuse to be drawn into either/or choices and insist on both/and wherever possible. I celebrate the fact that my marriage is ethnically Euro-Asian and our household is anthropo-canine.

The bat mitzvah girl is still a young 7th grader, so she is at an age, between 13 and 14, when according to many traditions, not just the Jewish, kids are expected to take on adult responsibilities. It's a coming-of-age ceremony.

Naomi, when told she would be expected to come up with a "mitzvah project," chose to throw her support behind Days for Girlsa program which offers access to menstrual care and education for girls around the world.

So here we are, at a Jewish ceremony, where at one point the Torah is brought out and carried through the congregation for all to feel close to it and to honor it, and at another part in the service this lovely sweet 7th grader dressed in her great-grandmother's kimono covered by a prayer shawl is telling the congregation about how there are still many places in the world where girls are forced to use rags, banana leaves, feathers, mattress stuffing, and even cow dung, to handle their menstrual flow. Lofty - meet mundane. Both/and.

Naomi's mentor, rabbi Camille Shira Angel, is a personification of the both/and approach to things. She is "rabbi in residence" at San Francisco's Jesuit University, the (Catholic) University of San Francisco. She is a lesbian. Her view of her role in life is expressed on her web page: "Everyone needs a rabbi and you don't have to be Jewish."

Since this is the start of the Jewish calendar year the reading (and therefore the theme) of the day happens to be the very first words of Genesis, "In the beginning...."  Taking up the theme as her drash (homily), the rabbi took up the two different takes on the Hebrew creation story that both made it into the text, and what we should take from both of them. One version speaks of creation as an unfinished project. God, the story goes, got tired and had to rest, leaving a lot of stuff undone, which then becomes our job to finish.

Naomi's project, making menstrual kits for girls, is doing just that - finishing, if you frame it in the Jewish way, the work of God. What's not to love about that? 

When I see religion being understood in that light, all my natural misgivings give way. That has happened to me on more than one occasion at Jewish events. The first time I felt the full impact of not only Jewish culture, which is easy for me to love, but Jewish religion, which is not, was at Harvey Milk's funeral, when the cantor came out and sang the kaddish, the mourner's prayer for the dead. It was a gifted cantor and I've seldom, before or since, heard a more stunning example of the power of music - in this case the millennia of Jewish suffering. 

Another thing I think Jews are good at is metaphor and symbolism.  At one point the torah was handed to Naomi's grandparents, then passed (very carefully, to be sure) to Naomi's parents, and finally to Naomi. I don't know why, but I couldn't stop the tears. Passing on the tradition of Jewishness in such a vivid way, welcoming the child into the community in such concrete fashion, really got to me. I've complained so often about the downside of religion, complained that the religious notion that God wants Israel to be for Jews and Jews alone is among the chief stumbling blocks (and may well be the chief stumbling block) keeping Jews and Palestinians at loggerheads. But here is religion in a different manifestation. Here it's the tie that binds, and whether one is a "believer" or not, it works to mark the importance of belonging to a community and being embraced by all the people from that community that have come before, passed on, but left you with a sense of connection to life.

There are so many things going on that lead you to despair - the portrayal of immigrants as "rapists and murderers," the betrayal of the Kurds (who are then faulted for not helping us in WWII!), the now routine California wildfires, the denial of climate change, our inability to get rid of guns, to provide accessible health care for all, as they do in most modern nations, and on and on and the fearsome prospect that Democrats may not unite behind an electable candidate in 2020.

Fortunately, also out there in the big bad world are the likes of this gutsy 16-year-old, Greta Thunberg, bringing folks into the streets by the thousands in practically no time. And Naomi, this 13-year old kid discussing menstruation in a religious setting and getting us to open our wallets to join her. Slivers of hope that we might yet pull through.

Religion has great power. Those who convert often embrace their new faith with a fanatic enthusiasm. Those who leave the church often show equal enthusiasm in wanting to demonstrate the folly of religion, and I'm sure I fit into that second category. I have a distinct memory of reflecting on the notion back in my early 20s that God is supposed to have made man in his own image. Is it not infinitely more likely, I began asking myself, that it is the other way around? That man creates the God he wants there to be, projects his hopes and fears onto the universe and comes up with a super hero, somebody to take care of him and allow him to sleep at night? That question, I came to understand, is one of the great universal questions that plagues anyone who has even the slightest inclination to be philosophical. And I'm persuaded that, if you're honest, you'll admit that it never really gets answered; it only gets accommodated. 

Because I view religion as man-made, I've followed organized religion closely over the years, confirming over and again that one's character is revealed in the notions one throws out about the nature of a Creator-God. When Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson told us that the hurricanes along the East Coast were God's punishment for America's embrace of feminism and homosexuality, I concluded that Falwell and Robertson, being rotten on the inside, had merely come up with a rotten view of what their Grand Deity must be like - somebody who would murder thousands of children and other innocents simply because other people had misbehaved. The Roman Catholic Church seems to be divided down the middle between those who place primary focus on the authority of their leaders, on the one hand, and the compassion, generosity and forgiveness preached by Christ, on the other hand, as expressed in an emphasis on pastoral care. It's not, unless I am mistaken, what God says and does so much as what you want to believe God says and does.

Naomi's view of God, if her choice of these two poems by Cynthia Rylant, included in the ceremony, is any indication, is one I can embrace with enthusiasm, even as a non-believer. I cite them here. One is God Went to Beauty School. The other is God Went to India.

God Went to Beauty School
He went there to learn how
to give a good perm
and ended up just crazy
about nails
so He opened up His own shop.
"Nails by Jim" He called it.
He was afraid to call it
Nails by God.
He was sure people would
think He was being
disrespectful and using
His own name in vain
and nobody would tip.
He got into nails, of course,
because He'd always loved
hands were some of the best things
He'd ever done
and this way He could just
hold one in His
and admire those delicate
bones just above the knuckles,
delicate as birds' wings,
and after He'd done that
He could paint all the nails
any color He wanted,
then say,
and mean it.

God Went to India
To see the elephants.
God adores elephants.
He thinks they are
the best thing
He ever made.
They do everything
He hoped for:
They love their children,
they don't kill,
they mourn their dead.
This last thing is
especially important
to God.
Elephants visit the graves
of those they loved.
They spend hours there.
They fondle the dry bones.
They mourn.
God understands mourning
better than any other emotion,
better even than love.
Because He has lost
everything He has
ever made.
You make life,
you make death.
The things God makes
always turn into
something else and
He does find this good.
But He can't help missing all the originals.

Bravo, I say to Naomi's rabbi. Bravo for your take on the Book of Genesis, on your inclination to read into it the notion that God's work is unfinished and that we, as the children of God, have to take up the task of finishing the job. You make me, as a non-believer, and even somebody highly suspicious of any and all religious dogma, want to embrace you, to help encourage religious people like yourself to build on your religious and your ethnic traditions. You expose the either/or folks of the world as limited in imagination and the both/and folk as people who give us all cause for hope. We, the Chinese married to Germans, the Americans married to Japanese, the girls celebrating their bat mitzvahs in their great-grandmothers' kimonos, can all work together without fear there might not be room for all of us.

People committed to both/and are automatically committed to lifting the other's interests up to the level of their own. There's no better definition of love than that kind of commitment, whether it's a parent's willingness to sacrifice for a child, a willingness to straighten up and fly right in order to set a good example for a loved one, or a willingness to spend time making menstruation packets to give to girls on the other side of the planet so they don't have to sit at home and miss school when their period comes.

Mazel Tov, Naomi!

Note: The bat mitzvah girl's name has been changed. If she is willing to have me share it here (I haven't asked her yet), I'll go back and repost and remove this note.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Love me some goose-steppin'

What's life without a little complexity?

If you've got a moment, have a look at these super-cute kids, one more adorable than the next, goose-stepping around the stage to what we in the West consider the hokiest of music forms, the polka.

From Putin country. Trump's best friend and possibly boss.

Moves suggesting militarism of the most loathsome sort, the kind we associate with the Nazis, but actually has been maintained by modern-day authoritarian states from North Korea to the former East Germany to Latin America to China. (For a quick history of the goose step, check out this guy.)

So what's with this kiddie goose step? Innocence? Naiveté?

What it draws attention to, I think, is how well some places manage to show a respect for discipline. 

And how closely this discipline is associated with both authoritarianism and high-quality performance.

The first two Russian commenters on this YouTube page with the polka-dancing kids declare:

1. How great it would be to be a child again [no irony intended, I suspect; no apparent awareness of the association between the goose-step and the dangers of militarism]; and

2. How we miss Soviet education and life under the Soviets, the clean and good relations (sic). Thanks for the memories, for the wonderful dance number!

Walking around in Berkeley the other day I found myself focusing on how absolutely sloppy everybody looks. Like before going out they all deliberately avoided putting on clothes from their closets but pulled things out of the dirty laundry basket instead. Disciplined is definitely not the Berkeley look.

I guess that's why I find anything that smacks of discipline strangely attractive these days. It mirrors the constant struggle within me, the feelings I work with now that I'm living in retirement. Part of me still respects discipline, knows what you get with it - talented music and dance performances, for example, high quality art work, high quality work of all sorts. And part of me says, "I'm retired. Peel me a goddam grape. And don't expect me to do a damn thing I don't want to do anymore."

Like a kid raised in a non-churched home who becomes curious about religion, or a kid denied information about sex who becomes obsessed with pornography, I'm drawn to cute little tykes from the former Soviet bloc who goose step.

If you have medication for this, please let me know, will you?

Friday, October 18, 2019


The other day Elizabeth Warren delighted liberals with her response to a hypothetical question by somebody opposed on religious grounds to the Supreme Court decision that same-sex couples had the same rights to marry that opposite-sex couples do. “I’m old-fashioned,” the putative questioner claims, “and my faith teaches me that marriage is between one man and one woman.”

First off, stop for a minute and consider this curiosity of American discourse. We use the word “faith” as a short-hand stand-in for “dogma espoused by the religious organization I am affiliated with.” It’s not the person’s belief (faith) that Christ died to take away the sins we have allegedly inherited from Adam and Eve that is at stake here, but the right of people to ascribe to a notion not supported by evidence and then claim because it’s a religious notion they somehow have the right, nay the duty, to insist the rest of us are bound by that notion, as well.  Even if the claimant’s fellow church-members do not share their view. Hopefully the days of the special status of religious believers over non-believers are coming to an end.

Warren went straight to the heart of things. Our ultimate legal authority in America is the U.S. Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court, and most assuredly not by one of the many conflicting voices within the larger Christian or other religious communities. Warren’s response quite correctly acknowledged the individual’s right to determine for themself who they might marry. Assuming it’s a man speaking, she said, “Then just marry one woman - I’m cool with that!”

A few days later, The Washington Post’s deputy editorial page editor, Ruth Marcus, took issue with Warren for being too flippant. We need to show more tolerance of religious beliefs, Ms. Marcus said, evidently failing to realize that a person’s opinions are not the same thing as the person themself, an astonishing error for somebody in Ms. Marcus’s position to make.

Warren did respect the questioner. “Then just marry one woman,” says as much. It’s the same thing as saying, “Go ahead and exercise your rights as a citizen. I will not oppose that.” What she did not respect is the opinion that lesbians and gays’ legal rights should not stand. Nor should she. We have all sorts of wretched opinions held by Americans, that black people should only be allowed to live in certain neighborhoods, that the children of people seeking asylum in this country should be taken from them and put in foster homes, that if you’re rich it means you have worked hard and if you’re poor it means that you haven’t, that global warming is a plot devised by the Chinese, that the world is only 6000 years old, that the moon landing was faked by the government, and on and on. There is no reason on earth an absurd opinion should be shown respect. An opinion that reflects cruel intentions even less so. Warren was well within her rights to poke fun at the question by adding to “just marry one woman” - “if he can find one!”

In my view, civility beats incivility and kindness is way too often underrated as a value. I’m not advocating slapping the label “idiot” on everybody whenever they demonstrate what fools we mortals can be. But I also think progressive-thinking people like Ms. Marcus need to stop bending over backwards to give any poppycock notion credence simply because it can slip into the discussion under the cloak of religion. Religious nonsense is still nonsense. And history is full of evidence that some of the worst idiocy - and cruelty - ever conceived has included religious claims. Rather than give them a lifetime of free passes, we’d do better to stop them at the gate and check for weapons.

No need to look very far for examples. Never mind the religious wars, the Spanish Inquisition or Martin Luther’s urging we burn Jewish homes to the ground. Look to Salt Lake City where just the other day the Mormon Church went back on its word and is now opposing the ban Utah put in place on what the church calls “conversion therapy,” a form of psychological torture which, according to the Trevor Project, nearly three quarters of a million young gay people have been subjected to. Once gays had to endure electric shocks when feeling sexual attraction to others of the same sex. Advocates of conversion therapy will see the glass as half full and tell you we’ve left such barbaric practices behind. But just as segregation is progress when seen against slavery, conversion therapy is an insult to decency that must be stood up to. Arguing its advocates must be allowed to continue because what they advocate stems from their “faith” makes us all enablers.

No, Ms. Marcus. Some ideas must be actively opposed. Not all opinions are of equal value.

Bless you for your faith in the human race, in the belief that people can be talked around if you just take the time to engage with them. I take it that’s where you’re coming from. I trust you had the kind of 3 a.m. discussions I did back in your college dorm or wherever you first debated whether Gandhi’s non-violent approach would have worked with Hitler or Stalin or the Pol Pot Regime. I’m all for debate and persuasion when that avenue is open to us. But I’m not open to the notion that there is something about religion that entitles it to special favors.

Monday, October 14, 2019


Chosen family folk stopped by the other day for a quick bite before going to the theater. We spent much of the time catching up on the news of their still new grandson, Elias, who lives in Buenos Aires.

I love these people dearly. Loved watching their daughters grow up. One is now doing her part to fight crime and injustice (that's how I choose to define her job as a lawyer in the nation's corrupt capital) and the other is, among other things, responsible for baby Elias.

Barely do I have time to properly groove on the wisdom of this child to be born into such a loving family before I get news about another grandchild, born about the same time. This time it's the grandchild of my nephew, Joe Onion, Jr.

We all met last May, Elias's grandparents and Joe Jr., while visiting my sister in Connecticut. Joe's son, Joe III, was there, too. He's the daddy of this little girl, Ella Rose.

Ella Rose and her Grandpa
Can't believe how lucky I am that I now understand the joys of being a grandparent, even though I'm not one myself. Not directly. But I know what I'm feeling, and if I can have these feelings I can only imagine what the actual grandparents are feeling.

It's no secret that those emotions are enhanced by precious memories. I was visiting my sister one time - must have been around 1973 or 1974. Joe Jr. said good-bye and went out the door to walk to school. Two minutes later he comes back in, marches up the stairs, flushes the toilet, and goes back out again without a word to anybody. "Sometimes he does that," my sister says, "forgets to flush the toilet." That leads to a discussion of how many things we take for granted that people know that they actually don't. There are a whole lot of things kids simply have to learn while growing up, one painstaking detail at a time.

That kid is now the grandpa on the right. Ella Rose is the great great great great granddaughter of "Grandma Mary," my great-grandmother, the woman in the rocking chair in the kitchen by the stove I have such vivid memories of, in Manchester, Nova Scotia when I was at the flush-forgetting age. Which didn't matter, because we didn't have indoor plumbing in those days, but that's another story. Mary Johnston was pretty old by then and had taken to starting the fire in the stove first thing in the morning to bake bread. Problem was she kept doing this several times throughout the day and we all worried she might burn the house down.

I feel sorry for the younger generations. They don't have all the memories I have. They see this little face and think, "How cute!" I see her and think of her grandpa learning one has to flush a toilet and of the fear we could all go up in smoke, if we weren't on our toes.


Such joy.