September 14, 2011
Opinion: How can we be better humans?
I spent the long Sunday of 9/11 at events that had nothing to do with 9/11, but there was no way to avoid that day’s ominous shadow. All three events I attended were connected to Judaism in some way, and they showed me how much Jews can teach the world about how to react to the tragedy of 9/11.
At each place I went, Jews were confronting Jews.
The first event was on a hilly landscape in Santa Barbara, where I was invited to speak — along with local community leader Rabbi Ira Youdovin — to the reform Congregation B’nai B’rith, the oldest and largest synagogue in Santa Barbara, founded in 1927. As my car wound up the mountain, it occurred to me how different this “neighborhood” was from my Pico-Robertson ’hood of old shuls, kosher markets, butchers and tailors.
And yet, I was about to meet a few hundred Jews who look exactly like the Jews I see every day in my neighborhood.
This group of Jews was ready to tackle one of today’s toughest issues for supporters of Israel: the upcoming Palestinian initiative to get the United Nations to declare a Palestinian state. This was a serious, engaged crowd of people who wanted to better understand the many angles and consequences of this issue.
The morning session was full of lively and spirited moments, but what stood out for me was the mood of self-reflection: What can we do better?
The crowd was appreciative but not overly swayed by my passionate presentation that put most of the blame for the failure of the peace process on Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian leadership. While they recognized the hard realities facing Israel, for most people in this audience, the bigger question was always: What can we do better?
They seemed to have internalized their rabbi Steven Cohen’s call to try to look at things from the perspective of the “other.” There was a deep love for Israel in the room — but it was a love that expressed itself in a desire to push ourselves to find solutions and be better people.
This idea of pushing ourselves resonated later in the day, when I saw a presentation by the Jerusalem artist and activist Andi Arnovitz at the Beverly Hills home of Jean and Jerry Friedman. Arnovitz is a “protest artist.” She sees things in Israel that drive her nuts and then creates stark and haunting artworks about those things, using symbolic materials like discarded Talmuds and remnants of old prayer books.
To protest the vexing issue of agunot — women who are “chained” to ex-husbands who refuse to give them a “get” (religious divorce) — she shredded a ketubah (religious marriage contract) and reassembled the tiny pieces into what she calls “flat and lifeless paper coats with hanging threads” to symbolize the tragic state of limbo inflicted on these women.
To protest a little-known religious Jewish sect outside Jerusalem called Keren Buria — who cover their girls in head-to-toe black burqas — she created a print of Adam and Eve and covered Eve completely with green leaves to symbolize the humiliation of physical nullification.
Arnovitz says that the goal of her art (which is on exhibit at the George Billis Gallery in Culver City until Oct. 8) is to use aesthetic beauty to reveal a message of protest — usually against extremist trends in religious Orthodoxy. As an Orthodox Jew herself, she sees her mission as challenging her own religious group to reaffirm the human and compassionate side of Torah.
The notion of moral challenge came up again at the third event I attended on 9/11 — this one the launch party of Tom Fields-Meyer’s new book, “Following Ezra: What One Father Learned About Gumby, Otters, Autism, and Love From His Extraordinary Son.”
Fields-Meyer had a difficult decision to make: Which section of the book should he pick to read to his family, friends and colleagues at the party?
Instead of going the shmaltzy route, he picked a painful and almost embarrassing chapter in which his autistic son, Ezra, violates (twice) one of the Ten Commandments. The section is a great read on the ideals of moral improvement — I will only tease you with the ending: “For the moment, I forget about the stealing and the punishment, and savor the realization that my son is developing something new: a conscience.”
This was a perfect word to cap a long day: conscience. What I savored personally was that on one of our country’s most emotional days, I had spent my time with Jews pushing their consciences to make things better.
In an odd way, I’m glad I didn’t attend one of those “interfaith” sessions with other religious groups, where we show the world how much we all have in common. I do love that as humans, we have a lot in common — and I do have a soft spot in my heart for those interfaith moments.
But on this day, I must say, I was more moved by my “inner-faith” moments.
There’s something powerful about a people self-reflecting and working on itself. I can only wish that this great Jewish tradition will become a 9/11 tradition; that on this singular day, every religious group in the world — including the one under whose name the 9/11 murderers committed their atrocity — will gather and ask one another this simple question: How can we be better humans?