July 26, 2006

Give Peas a Chance

Arab Jewish Community Center, Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Israel

No, that Peas in the title is NOT a typo. It is intentional. And though I want, even wage peace, real peace is elusive — a beautiful, pleasing image of a possible future condition. Peace is a vision, a dream, an idea. And getting to peace is a process, not a cheap fix; an endless journey, not a quick trip.

So I shout (silently), Give Peas a Chance, a version of the nineteen-sixties call for civil rights, freedom, and justice for all peoples: Give Peace a Chance. For while elusive peace beckons while we strive… or make strife, the small green pellet-like vegetable is at hand. And it is good.

After nearly two weeks into this Middle East war, I am putting into words my silences and sadness, conviction and doubt, and the pain even in thinking and talking about war raging in Israel (one of my two homes) and in Lebanon and Gaza and neighboring areas. I am blessed to be a citizen of two democracies: America and Israel. That's being twice blessed when millions tragically aren't even once blessed... yet.

Thanks to my pal Stephanie for gentle persistent prodding and to other friends for helping to launch this posting. More will follow.

hi tamar...i need your take on what's happening in israel and lebanon...i feel so awful about it all...you must be worried about family and friends...let me hear from you...the world feels like a crazy place right now...
— love, phyl

hi tamar. i am SOOO pissed off! i cannot stand it any longer: the media, colleagues at work etc: the bad israel destroying everything in lebanon as if there was no reason for it. as if israel wanted to hunt the lebanese, extinguish the lebanese. poor lebanese here, poor lebanese there. (i also feel sorry for them, they have to leave their houses, their possessions are ruined - but i put it in a relation and see who is responsible for the situation - hizballah!)

why is it so easy to feel sorry for the lebanese and so hard to feel sorry for the israelis? in other words: why is it so easy to feel sorry for non-Jews and so hard to feel sorry for jews???? maybe that is the right question?

how can i confront these people around me without getting angry? if something crosses your mind, it will be much appreciated!
— love, stefan

Most Israelis and Lebanese would like nothing better than to live (and die) in safety – and over a natural lifespan.
They aim to learn, sing, garden, drink good coffee or tea, work, travel, decorate, sew, swim, pray to the God of their understanding, vacation, ride busses and trains, visit an ATM, buy stamps, test new recipes, borrow library books, walk the dog, water the plants, take out the garbage, exercise, attend conferences, blog.

Yet reality intrudes.
During its millennia-long pre-rebirth gestation, the declaration of statehood in 1948, and following decades, Israel has been engaged in an existential struggle with her neighbors and their partners. Nonstop. Always. The front lines: Middle East. The casualties: worldwide. For those pathologically inclined to hate Israel no matter what, war is what we have. And the human family pays the infinite costs in pain, loss, suffering, and death. Everywhere.

… Sometimes you find yourself in a situation in which peaceful methods will not work. Talking does not work. Trying to work things out does not work. Peace offerings do not work. On the contrary, they are seen as signs of weakness.

Peace loving friends have been expressing their confusion to me, all this week. Surely there is a better way to deal with Hizballah. Surely if we had just sat down with him, surely if, surely if. One sweet soul even went so far as to say that what Nasrallah really needs is a big hug.

It is so hard to believe that some people really and truly are not interested in peace; that they are interested only in winning. And that the only way to deal with them, the only way, is to fight them. Or die.

Israel does not have the luxury I had, to leave and find somewhere else. Israel has to stand and fight, to the death, whatever the price.

Still, no one can kill the vision of peace.
Not even lunatic barbarians who seek to annihilate life, especially “the other.” And, depending on the lunatic, that “other” is you or me and probably both of us.

July 23, 2006

Stefan's Urgent Message on Austria's "sick people"

It is very important to me to spread this aspect of Austria all over the world.

Thus, my beloved friend Stefan concluded his email to me yesterday. The complete email follows. But first, a bit about this gentle peace-seeking Austrian

From 2002 through 2003, Stefan served in an Austrian military service alternative program. At Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, in Jerusalem, he archived documents — drawing on his multilingual and research skills. We met that year and quickly became fast friends. Stefan, who is not Jewish and does not identify with any religion, is a political scientist and researcher in his native city, Vienna. 

I had a most terrible experience today. I went to an orthopedist … I expect help, I entrust my body and health to another person's hands. I want to get checked to feel better, sane. I expect a doctor to aid my recovery.

I came in, sat down. He asked me what my profession was, and I told him that I work at the General Settlement Fund for Victims of National Socialism. His unbelievable question was, "Who are the victims of national socialism?" (with a kind of smirk, sneer on his face.) I was so perplexed. Stunned. I answered, "Well those who were persecuted by the Nazis." He: "Aha. Not only the Jews." I told him that ANY victim of the Nazis is entitled to file an application at our Fund (to make clear that not only the "greedy Jews" that he obviously phantazises about).

He said that in his opinion also his father was a victim of National Socialism because he lost a leg as a soldier in the War. I told him that I see that differently, which he did not accept, of course. He started to talk about his views on history, that "Hitler just made a naive assessment of the situation." The doctor added, "With money of the Jews -- because THEY have the money -- Hitler wanted to rebuild the German state." The doctor went on, "This worked out pretty well at the beginning." The rest of the shit coming out of his mouth I cannot remember. But there was more.

I was petrified. Stunned. Scared. Unable to move, to run out, to leave. I came to see him because I expected help against the pain I have. But he gave me even more pain! I am upset with myself for not calling him what he deserves and rushing out. I even allowed this pig to treat me. When I was out of the surgery on the way to work I started crying.

It was hard to calm down the whole day. Friends around me cheer me up. But still, I cannot get rid of the feeling that this place is very hard for me to live because of these sick people.

It is very important to me to spread this aspect of Austria all over the world.

Shabbat shalom

July 14, 2006

Because I could not stop for Death...

He kindly stopped for me...

My pal Sherry (in the photo, seated next to me) and her family buried her middle sister, Dyane, today. Death came unexpectedly last week to the fifty-year-old baby-faced vital mother of three. Twenty-year-old Jennifer woke up to find her mother cold and still, just past dawn, a day after undergoing elective surgery. Sherry's reality is changed forever as it is for Jennifer, her elder sister and younger brother, grandparents, father, host of aunts and uncle, cousins, and greater family and community.

In mind- and body-numbing grief, Sherry and her family cleaved to one another, and from their broken hearts and anguished souls, they rallied courageously in unity and with dignity.
  • They groped to make sense of the insanity-producing news ... Dyane died, Sherry stammered to me an hour after she got "the call" we all dread.
  • They hugged and held Hattie Pearl, her mother, and the children who had lost theirs.
  • And they project-managed the business and housekeeping that death demands in the earliest hours of its wake.
So today, on a sunny cloudless July Thursday in Atlanta, Dyane's family and community celebrated her life, from its Sunrise (November 30, 1955) to Sunset (July 7, 2006). His Eye is on the Sparrow, and a medley of songs, prayers, personal remarks, and a eulogy hovered over the sea of mourners and loving supporters in Murray Brothers Cascade Chapel. She kept it real, never phony. She was my momma, the one and only, 13-year-old son Khadali penned in the program notes the ushers had offered.

An hour later, the half-mile-long cortege followed the white hearse, snaking along Cascade Avenue, a ten-minute drive to Greenwood Cemetery. Verdant lawns and giant-tree-filled yards of well-appointed homes flanked the route through this venerable African-American neighborhood. Not one car driving in the opposite direction on the heavily trafficked artery budged. Those drivers pulled to their right, pausing in the early afternoon crush to honor unnamed mourners accompanying their loved one on her last earthly journey. And for these precious moments, compassion ruled the road in a voluntary halt to the mad dash helter-skelter mania to push, to pull, to do, to redo, to undo.

And suddenly this local custom brought to me the sweetness of the Sabbath. On this day, in my Jewish tradition, we are instructed not to effect change in the world. Six days we do, and on the Sabbath, emulating the Creator who rested from the six days' work of creation, we pause, shifting to "be" mode. On the Sabbath and along that "opposite" lane of the funeral procession, we might, perhaps, grasp the "bigger picture," the eternal.

Inside Greenwood Cemetery, as we passed rolling hills of family- and community-designated areas, wending our way to where we would witness Dyane's interment, I noted the Memorial to the Six Million in the Jewish section. And my memory transported me to ceremonies I had attended on Holocaust Remembrance Day at Greenwood, elsewhere in the United States, and in Israel. In a bittersweet silent prayer, I gave thanks that here, among other safe harbors, we dwell together with our brothers and sisters of all faiths or none, of every shade of color or none, earthly status or none. Here, extremism and violence, twin invaders of peace and of hope that hammer daily everywhere, are vanquished.

Dearest Sherry, You said, "It's very hard to fathom that we are now four." And I honor the hurt and salute your honesty. May you find comfort in knowing that you, the firstborn, loved Dyane relentlessly even as you are sheltering her freshly orphaned children in the wings of your gentle steadfast caring.

July 13, 2006

The Open Door Community July 4 picnic

In Atlanta's Open Door Community great room
used for dining, meeting, worship, and study

In the United States, we celebrate our birthday as a sovereign state on the anniversary of when our first Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence — July 4, 1776, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

On this federal holiday, nationwide we celebrate our nation’s birth with speeches, prayers, music, picnics, fireworks, and parades. Here, in Atlanta, the annual 10-kilometer Peachtree Road Race is held (since 1970).

Another local tradition takes place in the shady backyard of the Open Door Community, where this year more than 500 hungry guests from Atlanta's streets enjoyed a delicious picnic of traditional fare. Celebrating its 25-year anniversary, the Open Door is an oasis of hope and loving kindness, in the trendy Poncey-Highlands neighborhood.

Community residents (some have a PhD; others, dropped out of grade-school) and volunteers managed a complex logistical operation graciously. When the caller announced the numbers on guests' tickets, men and women, in orderly fashion, found places at tables for six covered with cherry-red-and-white-checked tablecloths.

The guests: a slice of the American pie
Men and women, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. Most spoke English, some spoke Spanish, and many more remained silent. Numerous veterans of Vietnam, the Gulf, and Iraq Wars. Multitudes born into poverty. Others, once privileged, down on their luck. Mostly everyone appeared weary, worried, hot, and thirsty.

Some guests were bandaged from recent falls; others got around in wheelchairs or used canes. One woman announced that she had given birth a week ago ("No, four weeks ago," her companion corrected her), and she anticipated my question: "Mama is caring for the baby." Many guests, before eating the bountiful meal, bowed their heads in hushed prayer, giving thanks to the Creator for blessings of food and more.

Skin tones of the human family, from white rice to dark chocolate. Fellowship. Smiles. Jokes. Laughter. Silence. Gratitude. Sorrow. Confusion. Cheer.

The menu
Tasty grilled hamburgers, baked beans (mixed with molasses, brown sugar, mustard, ketchup, and garlic), slaw, potato chips, an array of relishes, watermelon, and iced tea and water.

Serving on the second shift
My friend Gary joined me on the second shift volunteer team. From noon to 3 pm, we refreshed and reset emptied places and wiped vacated seats, brought refills of food and drink, and, whenever possible, chatted with the guests.

Open Door volunteers wear nametags so it's always easy for folks to start a conversation with me. They read my name, and ask me to explain it [Hebrew: date palm or date, the fruit]. I love plugging my Biblical namesake, and I invite them to read the source text. "Genesis 38," I tell them. "Check it out." While some guests know the story (II Samuel:13 chronicles a different Tamar), a few cite the source — book, chapter, and verses. Sometimes we engage in discussion, even disagreement, on the messages of the text. I always learn from these exchanges.

George spotted me, and asked me to check his pronunciation: "sha-alu shlom yerushalayim," he mouthed slowly. (Thursdays, my calendar says, "Open Door," and months ago, George had asked me how to say, in Hebrew, "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.") He probed, "Does sha-alu" have a double 'ah' sound?" It does. It had been a while since I weighed these words of Psalm 122.

Chatting it up
A woman named Phonesia shared that, "Four weeks ago I had been serving a prison sentence ... eight years." I caught my breath and stammered, hopefully, "Today, you are clean as a newborn baby." Phonesia, worried that our conversation had taken a downward spiral, added that she would love to be of service at the Open Door. "Hang on," I urged, and then I spotted Tony, my go-to man in a purple-colored shirt declaring “No War.” I directed Phonesia to him, bid her Happy Fourth, and a hearty welcome.

Roosevelt, on hearing that mine is a Hebrew name and surmising correctly that I am Jewish, said, "We share a common history." Thinking that this African-American man had slavery on his mind, he explained, rather, that "In Germany, your people wore the yellow star and mine wore the pink triangle." Memory. Horror. To his "May I hug you?" my expression read, "Bring it on." The struggle. In solidarity. Never again.

Reggie and I beamed to see one another after a long absence from the Open Door. He had found a job, and lost it recently. "On to Plan B," he optimistically declared (following his grandfather's philosophy). "Plan B," I repeated, "Have you read Anne Lamott's book by that name? He reached into his backpack for a small spiral notebook and a pen. "I'll write it down, and when the library reopens after the holiday, I'll look for it," he promised himself. (Anne Lamott — you would be tickled that people are discussing your writing here.)

Thank you's
As the last guests picked up their bundles and left, volunteers cleaned up and restored the space to a backyard under large shade trees. Gary and I unloaded his car and brought into the sorting room the donations that my neighbors Hope and David harvested from their closets and shelves. Good, clean, fashionable clothing and shoes for all occasions and seasons, toiletries, and luggage.

It had been, for me, a fine July 4 celebration. Thank you George, Phonesia, Roosevelt, Reggie, and all guests. Thank you, Open Door. Thank you, framers of the Declaration of Independence. And thank you, champions of independence everywhere.

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Preamble to the Declaration of Independence (excerpt)