Happy New Year?

September 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’ve written a little bit about my relationship with Judaism before.  In this Catonsville Patch post from over a year ago, I compare the ways in which I am Jewish to ways in which I am Jew-ish.  In a post on my own blog last March, I wrote about how I had a Passover Seder without realizing it.  I am continually amazed at how every time I learn something new about Jewish law, customs and teachings, I find myself saying, “Hey!  I do that, too!  For that same reason!  Except, I didn’t know it was a Jew thing…”  While you’d have to be on drugs or delusional to call me observant, I can assert with great conviction that I have a strong Jewish identity – always have.  Judaism’s funny that way.  You don’t meet many “Secular Catholics” or “Secular Mormons” the way you might meet a Secular Jew.

Growing up in Brooklyn, I was surrounded by Jews, of course.  All through my schooling years, though, my friends were as likely as not to be Jewish.  Or black.  Or Asian.  or Puerto Rican.  Brooklyn’s awesome like that.  Even though the only Jewish holidays we celebrated in our family growing up were Hanukkah and Passover, and I only went to synagogue to hang with my dad who played organ there, I knew I was Jewish and never felt alone in that.  Then I went to college in Baltimore.

Before classes even started, I was dating the (Jewish) guy who would become my boyfriend for 2 years, but on one of those first dates I remember him having trouble believing I was Jewish. “Really?  Are you sure your’e Jewish?  With the light hair and the small nose?”  (He was probably kidding – thinking back, I’m guessing my name – Aliza Lirtzman – was enough to give me away.)  Yeah, he was way more religious than I was, and taught me lots of stuff about my religion.  So that first month of school I was still feeling pretty Jewy.  Or so I thought.

One pretty September day, I was walking from class to the Student Union, when I passed a classmate who said, “Happy New Year!”  I kind of went, “Huh?” as he passed, but made the connection quickly enough to wish him the same.  It was Rosh Hashanah.  The Jewish New Year.  When I grew up, the holiday was marked only by my having a day off from school and my dad having to play in synagogue all day.  Here I was in Bawlteemawer, on my way to class without either of those reminders.  Sure, I had a Jewish boyfriend, and knew other Jews on campus, but I wasn’t exactly raised steeped in Judaism’s finer points, like when one of the most important holidays took place, or even why the Jewish calendar was so screwy that it didn’t neatly line up with the regular calendar.

I was struck by something else when my classmate wished me a Happy New Year.  Once I realized to what he was referring, I found his wishes comforting.  “That’s kinda weird,” I thought.  Why would I find something comforting when I didn’t feel like anything was troubling me to begin with?  It took me a while, but I thought about it enough to come to the following conclusion: when I went to college, I became minority.

Growing up in Brooklyn, I never felt like that – I mean, pretty much EVERYONE in New York is a minority in one way or another – even white, Christian males.  But here?  At Johns Hopkins?  In Charles Village?  A Jewish girl?  Yup.  I was a minority.  It was a weird, complex yet subtle transition, and it had taken place for sure.  How else to explain the feeling of unique connectedness I felt with my classmate?  The feeling of “Whew, it’s nice not to be the only one” that was subconscious, but close enough to the surface to emerge with a single “Happy New Year?”

The funny thing is, I don’t remember anyone in Brooklyn wishing me a Happy New Year over Rosh Hashanah growing up.  We weren’t religious, and didn’t really travel in observant circles.  It probably happened sometimes, but it sure didn’t have the effect on me as when I was in my first month away at college.  Yet, even though it wasn’t a yearly celebration for me in Brooklyn, my classmate’s kind wishes brought me a slice of home.  That is something EVERY freshman in college needs in those days of transition.  So, thanks, George Whatever-Your-Last-Name-Is.  You gave me something I was missing even before I realized I was missing it.

It happens my parents will be visiting us this weekend, which coincides with Rosh Hashanah.  Maybe we’ll accidentally observe by accidentally dipping an apple in some honey, or accidentally explaining to my kids how the holiday is related to the reading of the Torah.  And my youngest son will have his first trumpet lesson.  It ain’t a shofar, but it’s about as close as you can get Catonsville.

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Ya Got to Have Friends…

January 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Part Eight (and last for a while) of I-Don’t-Know-How-Many in a series of posts inspired by “Miss Representation.”  If you haven’t seen the trailer for this movie, and you have 8 minutes, please watch it here now.  

Remember Donkey in “Shrek?”  Now, I don’t often look for wisdom out of the mouths of donkeys (insert liberal Democrat joke here…) but when he’s singing a Bette Midler song, I tend to take notice.  There’s a theory that’s been bouncing around in my mind for the last year or so, and I can’t seem to separate it from the image of happy Donkey singing “Ya Got to Have Friends” to Shrek.  Animated references aside, it seems appropriate to give voice to this theory in the blog series inspired by “Miss Representation.”  Yet, it’s a tricky message because I imagine it will be easy to misinterpret – and here it is anyway.

Minorities need friends in the majority.  I believe this applies to many facets of life, but generally, I am referring to the advancement basic human rights.  Overthrowing tyranny and abuse.  Moving civilization forward.  You know – the little things.

I realize I’m painting with very broad strokes here, but consider  history.  It’s hard to find an instance where an oppressed minority group’s advancement towards equality was not helped along by someone (or many) in the majority.  Emancipation.  Desegregation.  Women’s Suffrage.  Establishment of Israel.  Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  Were the minorities and/or oppressed in these cases irrelevant or powerless in bringing the advancements to fruition?  Of course not – of COURSE not.  Au contraire.  But neither were they alone or singular in their efforts.  Somehow – somewhere along the way, in each of the cases mentioned above – their arguments, stories, actions, found a receptive heart and sympathetic ear of people in the majority.  And those in the majority whose eyes had been opened worked on behalf of those who had been wronged.  Then there was progress.

It’s very natural, when you’re a member of a group that’s been wronged to surround yourself with others like you, and assert your strength and independence as a group.    Cathartic.  Therapeutic.  Necessary.  And soooo easy to cross over to the “Stick it to the Man” and “Rage against the Machine” mentality.  We emphasize the “us vs. them” dynamic.  We are able to turn any problem adversarial.  (The more twisted ones actually get off on doing that, and shame on them.)  I can’t think of a greater impediment to progress.

We may feel we can go it alone – we don’t need those bastards in the majority.  But we’d be wrong.  If we don’t need them now, we’ll need them down the line, and we’ll be happy to have a friend or two on the other side.  This is my argument against isolation, people.  For all the flaws in our government, the beauty of its infuriating design is that one side can hardly get anything done without the other.   For all the flaws in our society, the brilliance of its survival lies in our ability to see value in other points of view.

Forgive the inelegance of the argument (and my beating a dead horse,) but blacks needed whites to defeat Jim Crow.  Jews needed gentiles to establish Israel.  Gays and lesbians need straight people to be on their side and advance their cause.  The first female Justice to the U.S. Supreme Court was appointed by a man.  Everyone needs friends on the other side of the aisle, whether it’s the aisle of Congress or the aisle separating men and women in an orthodox synagogue.

I finally watched “Miss Representation” in its entirety.  I’m trying to get it screened in Maryland.  Baltimore’s mayor (Stephanie Rawlings-Blake) is female, the longest-serving female U.S. Senator (Barbara Mikulski) is from Maryland, yet our state hasn’t yet had a screening.  How great would it be to fill a theater with people to watch this film?  Yet, the first question on my mind is, “How many men can we get to see this?  How many boys?”  I desparately want women and girls to see this, too – to stoke the fires in their bellies and make them roar.  To impress upon them how dangerous complacency is and how fragile our hold on equality.  But I also want the men there.  Progress won’t happen without them.

Because believe me.  When a twenty-something-year-old waiter feels comfortable addressing my mother as “dear,” but my father as “sir,” it is more obvious than ever that we have a loooooong way to go and a LOT of work to do.

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