Monday, November 11, 2013

Thank You Pauline For Excluding Me From the Parti Quebecois

By: Chaim Steinmetz

The Parti Quebecois took an important step at its convention Saturday when it decided that candidates for the PQ can no longer wear visible religious symbols. This new policy helped clarify an issue that has arisen in the PQ’s past roughly……zero times. But the PQ felt it was important to institute this rule as a gesture, to explain how serious they are about their “Charter Affirming The Values Of Secularism And The Religious Neutrality Of The State, As Well As The Equality Of Men And Women, And The Framing Of Accommodation Requests” (or “Charter of Values”, for short.)

This means that if I wanted to run for the PQ, I could no longer wear my kippah. The PQ feels that public officials shouldn’t display religious symbols, because it would compromise their neutrality. But one wonders, what does neutrality mean? Why not apply neutrality to other forms of expression? Will they allow someone running for the PQ to wear a Habs jersey? Perhaps there’s a diehard former Québec Nordiques fan who roots for the Colorado Avalanche, who will be intimidated by the jersey; and who knows, there may be some hockey fans in Gatineau who root for a non-Quebec team like the Senators? Perhaps the PQ should order candidates not to wear regional baseball caps, with names like Montreal or Herouxville written on them; after all, by showing favoritism to one region, they are losing their neutrality!
Apologists for the Charter of Secular Values will counter that religion is different than sports or regional interests. To them, religion is uniquely divisive, and therefore must be completely hidden in the public sphere. After all, wars are fought over religion. But then again, most wars are motivated by nationalism; does this mean that nationalism isn’t kosher? Should we remove nationalism from the public sphere? (Last I looked, the PQ was a nationalist party).

Actually, experience shows that rather than being divisive, full freedom of expression brings about true tolerance. Just to the south of us is a deeply religious country, the United States. In it people of multiple religions work together, and many of them wear their religious symbols proudly. And yet, despite these shocking displays of kippahs, turbans and hijabs, even in the public service, the United States does a better job than Quebec in ensuring that people of different backgrounds get along with each other. (Not to mention that the U.S. economy has grown much faster than our own as well.) In the American system, the most important cultural values one must learn relate to democracy and civil rights, not clothing styles or religious habits.

While grasping for a rationale for this law, apologists advance another argument. They say that the new Charter of Values is really about promoting the equality of women; they claim the hijab is an instrument of male domination. While the patriarchal structure of deeply religious societies certainly can lead to the oppression women, refusing women with hijabs jobs certainly doesn’t liberate them; and it’s absurd to believe that discriminating against religious women will improve women's rights. And by refusing religious Muslims jobs, you prevent these very women from truly integrating into Quebec society.

Then, of course, there's the Celine Dion argument: “you are in Quebec and we have embraced you and opened our country for you to live in a better world, you have to adapt to our rules”. In other words, if you want to live here, you have to be like us. But please tell me, what is “being like us”? Is there a Quebec uniform I somehow overlooked? I see people dressed in every possible way, business suits and ties to colored hair and piercings. Some people wear tuques; others wear kippahs. What’s the difference? Unless of course, the difference is that by wearing a kippah, you acknowledge that your ancestors lived somewhere other than New France.

Jumping past the labored explanations, it’s obvious that the Charter of Values is a blatant political ploy. It is the solution to a problem that doesn't exist. Without cause and without reason, it cuts down our right to self expression. The Parti Québecois simply wants to advance their political goals, and hopes that demagoguery will lead them into the promised land of sovereignty; Madame Marois cannot pretend that she doesn’t know that this secular charter will appeal most to xenophobes and racists.

I oppose this charter, not because I'm Jewish, but because I'm a Canadian and a Quebecois. Democracy is founded not just on the rule of the majority, but also on  protecting the rights of the minority. The social contract that holds all of us together requires me to respect the PQ government, even if I’d prefer another one, and it requires this government to protect my rights, even if I didn’t vote for them. And one needs to recognize, that democratic rights can be slowly sliced away like salami, until they eventually disappear; just look at what Chavez did in Venezuela, and Putin in Russia. Both of these autocrats used popular support to create near dictatorships. Any country that tolerates a pointless restriction on civil rights is courting danger.

Pauline Marois has now made it clear: as a kippah wearing Jew, I don’t belong in the Parti Quebecois. Well, I’m glad to be excluded. I’d never want to be part of a party that shamelessly undermines rights and courts bigots; I’d never want to be part of a party that will trample on democracy in order to further its political goals.

 So, thank you Pauline for excluding me from the Parti Quebecois.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Rabbi of the Tifereth Beth David Synagogue in Cote Saint Luc

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

The Jewish Kippah Problem

Quebec has a kippah problem. A proposed “Charter of Values” will prohibit public employees from wearing hijabs, turbans, kippahs, and bizarrely oversized crosses. Apparently, our government believes religious symbols worn by less than 1% of the population threaten to turn Quebec into a theocracy.  

The Jewish community has united in opposition to the Charter of Values. This threat to minority religious rights is unsettling, and Jews of all backgrounds feel a sentimental tie to the beleaguered kippah.

But as Jews, we have our own kippah problem. Our attitudes towards the kippah reflect our ambivalence about being a Jew in the non-Jewish world.

After the Jews were given political rights in Europe, many chose the route of partial assimilation. Their motto was “be a Jew at home, and a mensch in the street”. In their desire for acceptance, Jews modified their public image.

The tradition of wearing the kippah was quickly tossed away. At the turn of the century, the kippah was discouraged by the Reform movement as an ancient relic; one historian remarked that “worship with an uncovered head” was a “hallmark of Reform Judaism”.

Other Jews saw integration as dangerous. They followed an ideology of “shalem”, of being distinct. They spoke Yiddish, wore a shtreimel, and used their Hebrew names on official documents. These Jews insisted on being a counterculture, and defiantly refused to integrate.

Most Jews fall between the poles of ghettoization and assimilation. We know how to fit into the larger culture, yet still want to be profoundly Jewish as well. And so we wonder: how different should we be?

And that is the Jewish kippah problem. We want to be serious Jews, but we also don’t want to stick out that much.  It’s a simple psychological fact: people want to fit in with the majority. Even Orthodox Jews are sometimes uncomfortable wearing a kippah. It’s not uncommon that when I’m in remote venues with few Jews, I’ll meet a modern Orthodox friend who’s chosen to wear a baseball cap instead of a kippah, so that his head covering is less conspicuous.

And this kippah problem is our greatest challenge: how to be comfortable while being different. A new Pew study shows that 32% of American Jews had a Christmas tree. (By contrast, only 22% kept kosher).  Christmas is ubiquitous; to resist it is difficult, because it’s difficult to swim against the stream. To put it directly, kippahs are awkward while Christmas trees are comfortable: that’s our kippah problem.

I wish I had a magic solution for this, but I don’t. Being a Jew in North America means having the courage to of your convictions, and proudly be different.  And that’s not so simple, even for a Rabbi.

Recently, I was on a CBC panel debating the Charter of Values. I left just before sundown, at the last moments for the afternoon prayer. The vigorous debate had left me feeling a bit leery of public displays of religion, and I wondered whether I should pray covertly while sitting in my car. I sat for moment in my car, and then reconsidered; I then stood outside in the parking lot and prayed. And those moments of prayer inspired me to realize that yes, you can be both a mensch and Jew, both in the street and at home.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Who is Your Bad Jew?

Apparently, I am from Amalek, the ancient nation dedicated to destroying the Jews. I wear a knitted kipa; a leading ultra-Orthodox rabbi has declared that Jews who wear knitted kippot are “Amalek”, and remarked “Are these people even Jews?”.

Truth be told, I’m not shocked; nasty rhetoric is as old as Jewish history. But put the nastiness aside, and you will recognize that we do have a need to define what it means to be a good Jew, and at the same time, decide who is a bad Jew. Emile Durkheim explained that reacting to deviance is a way of drawing communal boundaries, and defining what a community is about. And if we’re honest, we’ll admit that every group of Jews, including our very own, does exactly this: we decide who is a bad Jew. Jewish identity, like any group identity, requires us to decide which heresies are unacceptable. Every Jew, from Reconstructionist to Ultra-Orthodox, has a clear definition of who is a bad Jew; and there’s a laundry list of disqualifiers, including intermarriage, hatred of Israel, lack of observance on one side, and intolerance, homophobia, and fundamentalism on the other side. Our reaction to deviance can lead a major Orthodox Rabbinic figure to be stringent on a minor matter of custom “lest it lead to Reform”, and lead well known Reform rabbis to call his movement’s re-embrace of mitzvot “right-wing... religiosity -- even fundamentalism”. Yes, it might sound funny, but without a clear idea of who is a bad Jew, we cannot truly define ourselves. If we are everything, then we are nothing.

But where we fail is when we turn the search for the bad Jew into the essence of who we are. Kai Erikson points out that some communities will seek out “bad” members to denounce; in doing so, the community unites in anger at the threat, the deviant who wants to “ruin” the community. But for Jews this course is ultimately self destructive. One ends up with a Judaism of negativity, a bitter mix of dogma, criticism and anger. People who don’t share our high standards of kashrut or political correctness will be excluded and insulted. Instead of being a united people and the proud inheritors of a 3300 year old tradition, we’ll end up being anti-intermarriage, anti-anti-Semitism, anti-fanaticism and anti-everyone else.

When a rabbi denounces slightly less Orthodox Jews as anti-Semites, it’s time to realize that internecine battles are destroying us. The head of the Volozhin Yeshiva, Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Berlin, wrote that legitimate criticism can morph into self destructive hunts for heresy and needless hatred. If we fixate on denouncing heretics, we’ll end up turning everyone into a heretic. And in the process, we’ll forget our heritage and our community.

Everyone of us has a portrait of what we think a bad Jew looks like. The problem is, if all we do is fixate on this portrait, the only truly bad Jew is ourselves.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

We Didn’t Get Here by Complaining

Some people are only happy when they’re miserable.

The joke is told about the well known businessman who has a heart ailment, and is taken to the best hospital in New York. A few days later, he abruptly transfers to a small hospital best known for its mediocrity. When he arrives there, the attending physician is intrigued, wondering why this man has transferred from a world class hospital to his humble facility. So he asks his celebrity patient what was wrong with the previous hospital.

"Was the medical care not good enough?"

"No - the medical care was remarkable, with one doctor more brilliant than the next. I can't complain".

"Was the nursing care OK?"

"The nurses were absolute angels. I can't complain"

"What about the food and the rooms?"

"The food was exceptional, restaurant quality, and the hospital rooms were just redecorated. I can't complain".

Finally, the doctor asks: "So why did you come here?"

"Here…I CAN complain!"

Like most jokes, this one tells an awkward truth: many people feel their best when they have something to grumble about. Grievances and criticisms are their raison d’etre, and they’ll enthusiastically share their gripes with anyone who will listen. The curmudgeon hunts for complaints, and savors new opportunities to gripe. (We’re not talking about constructive criticism here; we’re talking about old fashioned griping, where the gripe is an end in itself).

In rabbinic literature two biblical characters, Datan and Aviram, are associated with each and every complaint the Jews had in the desert. This is the rabbis way of saying that for Datan and Aviram, complaints were instinctive, more a reflection of their character than their circumstances. Much like the man in the hospital, Datan and Aviram love to kvetch for its own sake; they are chronic complainers. And chronic complainers are only happy when they’re miserable.

Most of us know someone like this. And if we’re honest with ourselves, at times, most of us ARE someone like this. Complaining needlessly is a guilty little pleasure that we all enjoy, an emotional free parking space where we can be smug and self pitying at the same time. 

Complaining is seductive because it deflects responsibility from oneself. The complainer’s universe is controlled by incompetent people and immutable bad luck, with nothing more that the complainer can do. After all, what do you expect from them, when the “bozos in charge” ruin everything? In the desert, the complainers whine to Moses “Why did you take us out of Egypt”, content that they themselves carry no responsibility for their own future. After all, whatever goes wrong is Moses’/God’s/ Pharaoh’s fault.

Kvetching can also be very comforting. Buried beneath the constant stream of complaints is a dark background of pessimism; the complainer simply doesn’t expect things to be better. Each complaint is merely another thread in the fabric of pessimism, another way of establishing that life will always disappoint.  While negativity sounds shrill and bitter to others, it is in many ways very comforting to a pessimist;  the secret of pessimism is that the pessimist is never disappointed. When you expect the worst, very little fails to meet your low expectations.  Pessimism is an emotional shock absorber, a way of insuring that one is never really disappointed. The fact that the Jews who left Egypt are pessimists and complainers makes good sense; having survived generations of adversity where a promised redemption persistently failed to arrive, pessimism was the defense mechanism that allowed them to disregard disappointment after disappointment. Like other broken hearted pessimists, the Jews who left Egypt complained in order to diminish the pain of future disappointments.

According to stereotype, Jews are inveterate complainers, the people who have turned “kvetching” into an art form (and certainly, it's funny to poke fun at Jewish kvetching; just ask Jon Stewart). And as someone who works in the Jewish community, I can tell you that there’s truth to this stereotype. But beyond the jokes, the reality is quite different. Instead of just whining about 1,900 years in exile, we have built a Jewish state; instead of griping about the Holocaust, we have rebuilt a proud and successful Jewish community. Yes, we’ve had our moments of kvetching; but complaints were never the final word.  We have chosen to dream of a better future instead of dwelling on a disappointing past.

It could have turned out differently. After the Shoah, the Jewish world could have followed Datan and Aviram’s example and wallowed in complaints and pessimism.  But that’s not what happened, due to a cadre of heroes who chose to transcend negativity.

These men and women had broken hearts, but strong spirits. They persevered, building families, businesses and communities. They sweated and slaved and finally succeeded. And at times, they even smiled.

Those smiles may seem innocuous; but in actuality, when someone has every reason in the world to complain, smiling is very heroic indeed.

Lindsey, a young woman in our synagogue went on the March of the Living with her grandfather, a holocaust survivor. When she returned, she told this anecdote about her trip:

“I cried because for that small moment, it felt real……. I thought about those few minutes I spent beside my grandfather who had done this identical march 60 years ago in completely different conditions. We never really spoke much about his experiences in the holocaust except for this one incident. 60 years ago my grandfather and his father began the death march standing beside one another starving and in freezing cold weather…..(and then) it was my grandfather standing alone. My great grandfather was too weak to keep up with everyone so they shot him in front of my grandfather’s very eyes. It wasn’t this that made me cry either. It was the fact that when I was marching beside my grandfather, he was smiling at me. He had experienced this torture first hand, and yet when I, his only granddaughter, was walking next to him, he was brave enough and strong enough to smile.”

This courageous smile tells the story of contemporary Jewish history. In the last 70 years, the Jewish world has undergone a change of fortune unparalleled in human history.  But we didn’t get here by complaining; we got here with heroism, hard work, and….courageous smiles.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Smiling on Yom HaShoah

Hi! I had an article published on the Times of Israel website on Yom HaShoah. you can access it by clicking here

(in case the Times of Israel website has any issues on April 6-7, I've also posted the article below)

Smiling on Yom HaShoah

Yom HaShoah is the saddest day on the calendar. It is not only the deaths of 6,000,000 that overwhelms us; it is the barbarity with which they were murdered. Each atrocity shocks the soul. Jan Karski, a member of the Polish Underground who was one of the first witnesses to report about the Holocaust, described an atrocity he witnessed in Izbica, Eastern Poland. There, multiple groups of 120-130 Jews were forced into train cars made to fit 40 people, and the doors were slammed shut. On the floor of the train was quicklime powder, a chemical that generates enormous heat when mixed with water. The human sweat dripping down to the floor caused the quicklime to bubble, and painfully and slowly, the inhabitants of the cars began to burn. These poor victims cried in agony for over a day until they met their inevitable deaths. Remembering the Holocaust forces us to recall some of the most barbaric massacres in the history of mankind.

It’s beyond painful to contemplate the Holocaust, but we do so out of a sense of obligation.  Remarkably, for many years the Holocaust was ignored. Peter Novick documents in The Holocaust in American Life the lack of interest American Jews showed in the Holocaust during the 50's and 60's. There were no communal commemorations, just small inconspicuous events organized by survivors, for survivors. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg describes the experience of being a young American attending an early Holocaust memorial service as similar to “crashing a funeral”. In the 50’s and 60’s, survivors felt pressured to remain silent about their experiences, and were urged by their American contemporaries to “stop dwelling on the past”. Novick points out that this phenomenon was due in part to the myth that the victims of the Holocaust were weak, docile sheep lead to slaughter. In a postwar atmosphere of confidence and self-reliance, the survivor was an “embarrassment” because he was considered an example of “cowardice”.

Today the Holocaust is no longer marginalized. Holocaust education is a staple of public school curriculums, and Yom  HaShoah is widely commemorated around the world. Holocaust survivors are no longer marginalized either.  Survivors have been able to bear witness. Tens of thousands of them have told their -stories, ensuring the history of Holocaust is neither denied nor forgotten.

But what is often overlooked is the remarkable achievements the survivors have had after the war. A full account of the impact Holocaust survivors have had on the postwar Jewish community has not yet been written; but their contributions are nothing short of heroic.

Yes, many survivors did not fully recover from their traumatic wartime experiences. Some could no longer function, and lived solitary lives supported by distant relatives. Others were dysfunctional and carried lifelong scars, scars that still affect the lives of their children and grandchildren. But contrary to stereotype, there were many Holocaust survivors who flourished after the war. A list of the of successful survivors would read like a Who’s Who, and would include the winners of the Nobel Prizes in Peace (Elie Weisel), Literature (Imre Kertesz) and Chemistry (Walter Kohn), a Brigadier General who commanded U.S. Army forces in Europe (Sidney Shachnow), technology innovators (including Andy Grove of Intel), corporate titans, real estate magnates, and the like. Even those who didn’t achieve fame and fortune have left powerful impressions. My late mother, a survivor of Auschwitz, was widowed at a young age and raised four children on her own, in a home filled with warmth and compassion.

What is remarkable is how the survivors succeeded after experiencing such profound trauma. William Helmreich, a sociologist, wrote a book based on a study of 170 survivors called Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They Made in America. He explains that he conducted this study in order to answer the following questions:

“How do people who have experienced such cataclysmic events pick up the threads of their lives?…what lessons can the rest of us learn from the survivors about coping with tragedy and adversity?”

Helmreich found that survivors were able to thrive because of a combination of personality traits, including flexibility, assertiveness, courage, optimism, tenacity, and the ability to find meaning.  Because of these attributes, survivors were able to overcome tragedy and rebuild their lives. Looking back, the slur that survivors were cowards has been more than disproven by the exemplary courage with which they lived after the war. And 68 years after the Holocaust, Jewish communities around the world are far stronger because of the contributions of survivors. They deserve our appreciation for all they have done.

Each year the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre conducts a Yom HaShoah service at our synagogue. In recent years, the format has included a section where six survivors tell their testimonies on video, and then each survivor stands up to light one of six memorial candles. The video testimonies break your heart; you hear about the horrific losses these survivors experienced, how their parents and brothers and sisters were torn away from them a tender age, while they were left alone to fend for themselves.  The survivors speak --with profound emotion, and while listening to their words, tears start to roll down my cheeks.

But then the survivor gets up to light the candle. At our service, each survivor lights the candle accompanied by a child and a grandchild. For me, that is when I both cry and smile. Despite all that these survivors have gone through, they still didn’t quit; and they’ve not only survived, they’ve thrived. Here they are, 68 years later, standing with their children and grandchildren. 68 years later, they have rebuilt their families and homes, and made profound contributions to our community. Even though it is Yom  HaShoah, I cannot stop myself from smiling as I watch them, with a little bit of joy and a lot of pride. Thanks to these survivors, we can still declare “Am Yisrael chai”, the Jewish people live on.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Second Tablets, Second Chances: Podcast

This is part of my regular Sermons for Snowbirds series found here. A few thoughts about failure, the original sin, and getting second chances.

Dual Loyalty and the Book of Esther: Podcast

 This is from my "Sermons for Snowbirds" series, found here. Some thoughts on whether Jews can be good citizens of another country, and what drives Jewish identity in the diaspora.