Egypt, where we were once strangers, exists all around us; in dark corners of our neighborhood where children are sold into sexual trades, where women are muzzled by cowardly men, where black earns less than white, where the rich step over the poor en route to banks, where the weak are silenced by the misuse of money, law or even brute force. We cannot remain indifferent.
I hate the word “tolerance,” even more the concept.
In the past year, our community struggled with multiple crises. We started with the Pew Research Center data on Oct 1-2013 which challenged those too Jewish, or not observant enough. Next, came the debate over rabbis conducting same sex marriages, as we all became Bible scholars interpreting Leviticus 23:22 which deems the laying of a man with another man abhorrence. Surprisingly, the most intensely divisive discussion burst over an ad that asked if some schools accept too many Persians, rendering them less desirable to non-Persians.
Bombarded with controversies, typical patterns emerged. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone thinks theirs is the only valid thought. Not everyone respects the rules of engagement.
These issues represent a minority group trying to forge its identity, as sparks fly from the friction with the majority. Each topic speaks to my life story.
My memories of kindergarten still remain painful. In Iran, my well-intentioned father placed me in the coveted French school- Razi. Every morning, before sunrise, I was tossed onto a bus that took me on the two hour commute to the premier school in the country. I was a total stranger. I recall the hours of zero comprehension, the occasional merciful act of a child offering me water as if I were the hunchback of Notre Dame, the girl who in an attempt to get me to play pulled me to the ground and broke my chin, the hours spent inside a formal movie theater watching French movies with no subtitles.
I never belonged. Not even in my country of birth.
One day, my mother had the sense to get me out of that abyss. She placed me in a public school where I was one of a handful of openly Jewish kids (others were in the closet afraid of random raids by the Muslim bullies.) I cannot forget the summer afternoon when my innocence was lost. I ran home, breathless, six blocks, dehydrated from the tears pouring down my face. My father was home from one of his sabbaticals. I hurled. My friend’s uncle had interrupted our street soccer game because as a "dirty Jew" I was ritualistically impure to play. He was worried that I would infect the others with my kosher germs, much as measles spreads to the unvaccinated.
Unfortunately, it was a story my dad knew too well. His tales flowed, of how his father had to wear a special “Jew patch” on his arm to warn others of possible contamination, of how he was not allowed to handle fruits in the neighborhood market fearful of Jewish cuddies, and of how when it rained the Muslim kids would run away afraid that the airborne droplets would splatter from him to them. Once, my father retold, he had solved a cumbersome math equation and was hailed as “The Jewish Einstein” by his ignorant teacher.
I stumbled through a couple years of school until the Iranian revolution chased me away to an all Jewish school in Manchester, England. On the first day, a number of boys circled around me, not so much to welcome a fellow Jew, but to ask how it was possible for a Jew to be so black (actually, they used the “N” word, as my complexion was dark in comparison to their pale skin.) The second day, at the bus stop, I was assaulted by five older boys from the nearby Catholic school. "I don't like this one's face," one yelled proudly as he marked my eye with his fist.
The minority position set the tone for the rest of my life. I never belonged and became shy, quiet, observant. “Introvert” they called me. When others invited me to join their group, I was suspect. What did they want with me?
I was not good enough. Those who succumb to a larger force find strength in observing, internalizing and analyzing.
Incredibly, the first time I ever felt that I was part of the majority was as a heterosexual man! For once, I was on the other side of the fence. When the same sex marriage issue surfaced, I realized that I could exert force. I could be the ruler, the tyrant. I could be the one to belittle and to crush. Instead of being the subject, I became the object. I saw myself from the outside looking in, saying "go ahead, this is your chance to let out your pain, to hurt someone so that you could avenge your wounds.”
And yet, all that flowed out of me was love; all I could do was see myself in them. I identified more with the beaten than with those holding the whip.
I had heard the idiom that "hurt people hurt people." That was not true for me. Although some hurt people hurt people, a large number, through love, through silent resilient strength, through prayer, through community and through the grace of God heal people.
Hurt people heal hurt people.
As I habitually internalized the suffering of those denied what the rest of us expect as rights, I revisit the eternal words from our Torah. Exodus 22:20: "And you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." I understood this verse anew.
As a doctor, I routinely see the “that’s not me" look. Shocked by the stretched out gurneys, the young woman with the coronary artery disease thinks "what am I doing here with these old men?" Surely the disease has the wrong patient. A harsh voice in my head: "Get real!"
When cancer visits, does it ask religion, race or sexual orientation? When the cholesterol plaque ruptures to cause a heart attack, does it ask Persian, Jew or Gay? Worse yet, when the Nazis cowed us into the gas chambers, did they ask level of observance, country of origin, or sexual preference?
I am a married Sephardic Jewish Persian heterosexual male. The Torah is my Tree of Life. My patient is a single Ashkenazi Jewish German homosexual female. The Torah is her Tree of Life. We are either all created in God’s image or none created in God’s image. The only exception to this rule is the person who fails to understand it.
I hate tolerance, because it falls short. I don't want you to put up with me; I want you to love me.
We tolerate chronic pain; we celebrate diversity in people. Tolerance is only a first step; love is the cure. Step out of narrowness into the eternal. Expanding circles of love help us identity what it is to be human. Minorities should become our teachers; we must seek their forgiveness. We cannot ignore the pain; we must work through it. We need to honor those who are different according to kavod haberiot which demands respect toward diversity. In the end, we become strong where we are weak.
Time is the great master that sieves all discussion, bringing to surface the truth that shines. Hate is unstable. In any situation, evil is not eternal; the dragons will be slain. History is full of examples: From a black woman that refused to ride the bus to a black president. Always err on the side of love.
Next time there is a major controversy, and it will be soon, let's engage using the following rules. Respect the process for we are blessed to have the freedom to debate openly. That is holy! Respect the opposition for if we are right, they will end up proving our point. Argue out of love not fear, nor hate; if in doubt, love, no matter what. Remain humble to the validity of diversity of ideas, as in people!
When I hear "too Persian" or "too Jewish,” I don't feel sorry for myself, nor defensive. Instead, I pity the person judging me. We all know people who have everything- health, family, riches- and still feel impoverished when their neighbor appears to have more. The person who cannot see the brilliance of the diversity of the Jew, of the Persian or of the gay person, fails to appreciate of the glory of the rainbow.
That which is love or expands love is of God; that which is of hate or limits love is of man.