April 17, 2012 | 12:48 am
Posted by Lia Mandelbaum
This is my longest piece. It is one of my most meaningful pieces. It is a stream of experiences, that are all interconnected. Let it take you on my journey…
It is a Monday night in Tampa, Florida, around midnight, in the neighborhood where I grew up. I am sitting on a sea wall facing the Tampa Bay, with my feet dangling over the side. It is a very peaceful and quiet night. The air is still. The moon is bright and the view is vast and beautiful. The water is calm, and the moon is reflected in its tiny ripples. The only sounds I hear are random splashes from fish jumping and crickets chirping. I feel open and connected, as my insides mirror the serenity and calmness that surrounds me. I know that this is what it means to be present in the moment. I am grateful.
I begin to hear other noises coming from both sides of me, such as the footsteps of a person and an animal, yet I see nothing in the darkness. I am anxious and my body is tightening up from fear. I no longer feel the serenity and connection that I had been experiencing just moments before. My breath becomes shallow. Rather then observing the jumping fish with a childlike wonder, I am startled by them.
I am going to stop and take a breath, and try to once again ground myself. I choose to let go of my fear. I can feel myself reconnect with my surroundings. My head feels clear again and my heart is opening back up. The fish are no longer a threat. I was in no real danger, and realized that what I had just experienced was a great representation of the power of fear, by how my guard immediately went up, and my perception and experience totally shifted.
Over the years, I have found myself lost in fear over my sexual orientation. It would take over my mind and body, and I would no longer feel connected with my surroundings. That fear, which ultimately stems from a lack of self-love and self worth, is such a painful space to be in. The majority of the time, I am my harshest critic. I have found it to be a really tough journey, to reach a place where you no longer accept, and give power to the harmful opinions of others, as being based in truth. It is part of a perspective, that does not define who you are. I cannot say that I am completely there yet. I think that a reason why the LGBT community is often “othered,” is because sex, rather then love, is associated as to what defines us. Like so many other human beings, I truly desire to connect and have deep love and intimacy. There have been many times, where that connection was possible, and often already existed, yet the fear of societies responses, made the potentially beautiful relationship, only an idea or concept, that was feared rather then embraced. As I walk through my fears, the more I find self-love and self-worth. To freely love myself, and love within all types of relationships, is what I believe to be the ultimate freedom.
Last November, a random opportunity came my way, to face and walk through my fears. I was asked to share my personal story, which included being open about my sexual orientation. It was an event for NewGround, which is an organization that brings Muslims and Jews together to establish a new relationship, and the premise of the event was to find connection with one another through story telling. Four Muslims and four Jews, shared their stories that night, and the event was a success. Prior to sharing my story, as I sat in the front row listening to those before mine, I looked behind me at the crowd of over 150 people, and began to panic. My mind went blank and I had trouble listening to the storytellers. I asked myself why I had agreed to participate in the event. When I went up on stage, something came over me, as I felt serenity and empowerment take over my entire being. Similar to how I felt at the edge of the sea wall, as I stood towards the edge of the stage, looking out into the sea of faces, I felt grounded in my body, and connection to the moment. My story just effortlessly flowed out of me. The feedback I received that night from the audience, was incredibly supportive and beyond what I could have imagined.
During my story, I mentioned the concept of “the other,” which is when a person discriminates and dehumanizes another person, often because of their sexual orientation, religious views, ethnic background, political views or socioeconomic status. I tried to set up a mirror for the audience, to at least look and see if they could find a part of themselves in my story, regardless of their sexual orientation, or ask themselves if I was “the other.” I shared my belief, that we could be powerful mirrors for one another, where we can face our own reflection and see the truth about ourselves. At times, I have found that in general, my strong reaction to a person and an event signals an issue to work on inside myself. By facing my fears and being transparent in front of the crowd of Muslims and Jews, in a safe and transformative space, would end up being one of my greatest and most powerful mirrors.
Although I felt empowered by the experience, something inside felt out of tune, and I sensed a bit of false pride. What finally hit me, was that I was being incongruent with my message, considering how I was presently “othering” some family members. Instead of giving them the courtesy of communicating about a situation, I let my fear take over and I avoided them. I saw them as a threat, and threw up a wall of anger and blame. Although I was avoiding them, I could not stop thinking about them. There were nights where I struggled over my feelings, and could not fall asleep, yet I still couldn’t face them and my fears. Family members are often the ones who help to lay our foundation of self, and whether we know it or not, influences the core of our being. Regardless of my anger, I knew that it was masking sadness and that I love them.
I have come to believe that having integrity is one of the utmost important character traits for any human being to have. I have suffered some tremendous consequences for not having integrity, and I NEVER want to experience that again. Because I wasn’t being congruent with my message, I knew that my integrity would be at stake if I did not take action, by facing my family, and hopefully making repair. I knew what I had to do, and so I finally reached out. I must say, that I needed to experience something incredibly significant, in order to push me through my fears. I have not perfectly walked on the path of making amends to them, but when I wrestle with fear and want to throw a wall up, I walk through the fear because I truly desire to connect and make repair. I am so grateful that we are now communicating.
It hit me, that there was some great irony and profound significance taking place, considering that by taking the steps to create a new relationship with Muslims, would end up being the catalyst to push me to try and make repair and start a new relationship within my own family. I knew that there was a powerful message taking place, and that I needed to continue to engage with Muslims. I had only scratched the surface with them, and there was already profound messages and parallels. I knew that as long as I was being proactive in establishing a relationship with both my family and Muslims, I would continue to find great parallels and powerful messages. My belief did not fail me.
A few days following the NewGround event, a Muslim woman reached out to me on Facebook, and sent me a message. “I wanted to introduce myself and let you know that I definitely think you should keep at sharing your stories publicly. I know for sure I wasn’t the only one that was happy to have heard your story. It takes a lot of courage, self reflection, and soul searching to do what you did on stage in front of a community unfamiliar to you and I think that’s exactly the example we need more of. Thank you.” I was so grateful for her message, because she mirrored back to me, that I had made a difference. It relieved some of the lingering fear I had over making myself vulnerable, and I felt empowered and proud of myself. I also felt the desire to continue to get to know her.
*Out of respect for her privacy, I chose to give her the Muslim name Eiliyah, which means “The beautiful one to grow in peace and love with God.”
When I started back up at school, I took a great social work class about working with minorities. One of my major assignments was to interview someone that I had been taught to demonize and view as the “other.” I knew immediately what community to focus on, and who to ask to interview. I reached out to the woman who had contacted me on Facebook, and asked her if she would let me interview her for my project. She said that she would be happy to help me, and so we made plans to meet at the Coffee Bean. Before we met, I looked her biography up online, and came to discover that she is a very successful and dynamic activist. I became a bit intimidated, but I was also really excited to finally get the chance to meet her and hear her story.
While I was excited to meet Eiliyah, I was also nervous because of how once again, I was walking into the unknown by getting together with a woman I had never really met, but who knew some very personal things about myself. As I approached her, I could tell that she was very sweet and laidback, and was around my age. I believe that she was also nervous, because she was walking into the unknown, to be transparent and vulnerable with someone she had only connected with on an abstract level. I have found that by engaging face to face with someone can be a much more intimate and intimidating experience. Before we started the interview, in order to bridge the gap, she wanted to get to know me and establish a connection. She told me that because I had put myself out there by being transparent and vulnerable, she wanted to do the same. I truly appreciated her initiating the opportunity for us to be on the same page. I found it to be immensely considerate and brave. Through sharing some very intimate struggles that she has had to walk through, I saw what a brave and strong woman she is, who has come to know her voice, and integrate with her innate beauty and power. Eiliyah is on a journey to dissipate, ‘unravel’ and break free of any belief systems, that take her away from living in a reality that is based in the love and compassion that she came to know through studying the heart of the Qur’an.
During the interview, she mentioned how she was taught that compassion and social justice are major spiritual principles in the Qur’an. As soon as she said that, I felt a connection to her considering that I was always taught the importance of those principles through Judaism. “I would find messages of compassion and of social justice, and of taking care of the most vulnerable in society, whether you knew them or not, if they were your family or if they were strangers, if they were a different ethnicity or if they are the same. I feel like the stories of the prophet, and the texts, and the scriptures, and the Qur’an are all so full of that. I think its beautiful and I love seeing the world through a lens of compassion. The first of the 99 names and the first of the 99 attributes of God in the Islamic tradition is Rahmah, which means compassion, and I think that is one of the most powerful statements that can be said.” What hit me was that I had never associated principles of compassion with the Qur’an because of all of the negative messages I had heard through the media and word of mouth. Eiliyah spoke of the Qur’an, with such a genuine love and respect, that I could not help but question negative ideas that I had been given about it. I have yet to read it, but would love the opportunity to look over it with Eiliyah. I want to see for myself, if there is hatred espoused in the Qur’an, because in a holy book whose foundation is based in compassion, I do not see how hatred could be a part of the equation. The reality is that people interpret the Qur’an, Torah and Bible, through their own lens, and there are often different meanings for different people. People may see only what they want to see. I knew that Eiliyah was coming from the heart, and in my experience, I have often found that when something is coming from a place of love, is where holiness is most exuberant.
In The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar: Everyday Holiness, I found a passage that mirrored the values of compassion and social justice that I was told is also found in the Qur’an. “The moral precepts of Judaism demand that we be compassionate to every soul. Singled out repeatedly as especially needing our compassion are the poor, widows, orphans, and others in need. The Torah repeatedly hammers away at our obligation to help those who are vulnerable and needy. The tradition is so insistent that we be living vessels of compassion that the Talmud asserts that “anyone who is not compassionate with people is certainly not a descendent of our forefather Abraham.” Compassion is an inner quality that grows within us out of the perception that we are not really separate from the other. We have a commonsense appreciation that we are all separate beings, but the truth is that we are very much connected at several levels.”
Another major driving force for me to make repair within my family, was my grandmother, whom I tremendously love and respect. She had been struggling over the disharmony in the family, and feared that the tension would not change before she were to pass away. She had been in a lot of heartache over what was going on. It was an awful concept for me to think about, and so I wanted to respect my grandmothers life, by trying to repair the damage that was on my part. After some good communication began to occur within the family, when I spoke to my grandmother, she exuded such joy and relief. I had not heard her that excited in years. One day, as I was thinking about the family situation, I wondered what Abraham would feel if he knew of the disharmony, to say the least, that has existed between the Abrahamic faiths. I would imagine that similar to my grandmother, Abraham would be, or is, heartbroken, and yearns to see repair and harmony.
When Eiliyah and I first met, I asked to sit tucked away in the corner of the outside eating area, so that any additional voices would not get picked up on my recording device. Half way through the interview, four priests sat next to our table, and I became a bit nervous that their voices would overpower hers. There had been plenty of other places for them to sit. A month later, as I was transcribing the interview for my paper, I realized that there was a reason why they sat next to us. When addressing the conflict between Muslims and Jews, she said, “I don’t remember anybody ever saying anything from a Quranic perspective, that was demeaning about the Jews. If anything it was making connections between the Jewish tradition, the Christian tradition and the Islamic tradition, that we all come from Abraham. That there is this deep connection, and brotherhood and sisterhood amongst our traditions, and that we should respect that and we should hold that relationship dear, and this is coming from the line of thought and the same message of God. The messages of God were being sent around the world, and the focus is on compassion and its focus is on getting to know one another and establishing equity. Being a part of these traditions was what was taught, and that there should be respect.” As she spoke of the brotherhood and sisterhood between the three Abrahamic faiths, I was taken back when I realized that the voices from all three of them were on my recorder. Turns out that the four voices of the priests did not over power either of our voices at all, but rather added to the display of a beautiful sense of unity and harmony.
When the interview came to an end, and we began to get ready to leave, I felt this amazing sensation of being present and connected to my new friend, similar to the feeling I had on the sea wall in Tampa Bay. I felt a synergistic centeredness in my heart. The experience I was having could be highlighted in one of the statements that Eiliyah had said… “There is this deep connection, and brotherhood and sisterhood amongst our traditions, and that we should respect that and we should hold that relationship dear, and this is coming from the line of thought and the same message of God.”
As I started to write the closing statements for the term paper on my interview with Eiliyah, I was supposed to address how I was going to continue to engage with the community that I had been taught to demonize. How was I going to bridge the gap? I hit a wall as I thought about how I could bridge the gap, and I realized that it wasn’t about making all these major changes in the community, but rather engage by just showing up and participating. This answer came to me through an email I received at that very moment, about an Interfaith Concert for Possibility, produced by reGeneration, which is an organization that is seeding the Middle East with an educational philosophy that embraces life, learning, the arts, the earth and all the children. A few of the many collaborators of the event were NewGround, King Fahad Mosque, Temple Emanuel, All Saints Church, Islamic Center S. California, IKAR, Valley Interfaith Council, Temple Isaiah, Wilshire Center Interfaith Council, Progress Christian United, The Raoul Wallenberg Institute, Muslim Public Affairs Council, Temple Israel of Hollywood, and the First Congregational Church of LA.
I took the timing of the email as a message that I needed to be there. Although I had four different people back out on plans to join me for the concert, I felt that I should go anyways. I am so glad that I went because something amazing happened that night, and probably wouldn’t have happened if I had gone with someone.
During an intermission at the concert, I just stayed seated looking out at my surroundings. There was a woman next to me that I felt inclined to interact with. As soon as we started talking, I could tell that she was sweet, but the conversation ended pretty abruptly because a group of women came up to her, and she jumped up to hug them, and with such pure joy. It was very evident that they all were genuinely excited to unite. After the group left, the woman apologized for leaving the conversation. I told her to not worry about it, and that it was great to witness such a joyous connection between all of them. Turns out that they were a part of an interfaith group. She described herself as being spiritual, and a woman on a quest for inner standing. She said that it was beautiful how color was no divide amongst the women. Her roots are from the Garifuna culture, which are descendants of Carib & Arawak Indians and West Africans. She told me that she had made a documentary film about her people and her love for her grandfather, and that it was about to start being shown at film festivals across the country. I told her that her timing was great, because of how just the other day, I was expressing my deep sadness to someone, over how I had been in such a bad emotional place for so many years, that I did not get the chance to be present for a relationship with my grandfather, who was such a good man. I had decided to try and still have a relationship with him, and I was trying to figure out how. She told me that she believed I could still have a relationship with him, even though he was not physically present. I told her that I would love to meet for coffee sometime and talk about our grandfathers. She thought it was a great idea. At one point, when I looked over at her, she was flustered with excitement. She told me that she was getting chills, and showed me the goose bumps on her arms. She said that she could feel that my grandfather was with me.
When I told her that I was Jewish, she said that her husband was Jewish, and that he was the director of an organization, whose title had the name of a man I did not recognize. Before they were about to leave, we exchanged information. It wasn’t up until that point, that we had actually exchanged our names. I was so grateful that I listened to the message that told me I needed to show up to the event.
I decided to leave about ten minutes after they did. As I exited Temple Emanuel, where the concert was held, I ran back into my new friend. I told her that it was so great to meet her, and she said that it was by no accident. She then introduced me to her husband, who I came to learn was the director of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Ethics. He asked me if I had heard of Raoul Wallenberg, and I said no. I came to learn that he was a Swedish architect, businessman, diplomat, and humanitarian, who is widely celebrated for his successful efforts to rescue tens of thousands to about one hundred thousand Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary during the Holocaust from Hungarian Fascists and the Nazis during the later stages of World War II. Raoul Wallenberg is honored in the Guinness Book of World Records as having saved the greatest number of people from extinction. I mentioned to her husband, that my grandfathers’ parents came to America from Hungary. I wondered if Mr. Wallenberg helped to save some of my own family members during WWII. The woman and I looked at each other with gleaming faces. As I walked away, it hit me that I was being taken on a fluid path, to help me reconnect with my grandfather.
Like Raoul Wallenberg, my grandfather was also an architect, and had the oldest architectural firm in Tampa. One of his many projects was to expand the sanctuary at the synagogue that I had grown up in. The night before I headed back to Los Angeles from Tampa, I decided to go with my grandmother to the Shabbat services at the synagogue, called Schaarai Zedek. As always, my grandmother and I sat in the left wing of the sanctuary, which was one of the extensions that my grandfather had designed. I felt that by being in the sanctuary, I was wrapped in his loving arms. As I was sitting there, something struck me, that had never before. On the wall of the wing he designed, was a 15-foot tall stained glass portrait of Abraham, as he was about to sacrifice his son Isaac, and was being stopped by the angel of God. Over the years, during each service, I used to stare at the beautiful stained glass portrait of him, but this time, it’s significance and presence was much more profound for me. In a sense, it came alive.
Not long after I returned from Tampa, my aunt reached out to me and asked if I would like to join them for their Passover Seder. It had been a while since I had last seen them, and I was really happy to receive the invitation and let her know that I would be joining them. As I was heading out, I realized that I had not picked up some flowers to bring with me to the Seder, like I had hoped to. If I had time, I was going to stop. On my way from Silverlake to Pacific Palisades, something extraordinary happened. It was 6:30pm on a Friday in Los Angeles, and I was hitting absolutely no traffic. As I flew through downtown and on the 10W, I felt as if Moses had parted the waters to help me get to my family, except that it wasn’t just Moses who was parting the waters, but also prophets from all different faiths, because they too were responsible for helping me to reunite with my family. I made it so quickly to the Palisades, that I managed to be able to stop to pick up a beautiful bouquet of flowers. I came to find out that the lack of traffic was because it was Good Friday, however that did not take away from the powerful symbolism from freely reconnecting with my family. I guess you could say that the timing was perfect.
The home belonged to Rachel, who is the mother of my uncles’ wife. Like my grandfather, Rachel is Hungarian. As we were standing in the kitchen, I decided to ask her if she had heard of Raoul Wallenberg, and she looked me straight in the eyes and said that he was responsible for saving her life during the Holocaust, and immediately showed me a picture of his memorial site. Rachel had recently written a book about growing up in Hungary during World War II, and one of the chapters is titled “My Hero: Raoul Gustav Wallenberg.” He had personally grabbed her and her mother while waiting in a line for deportation to Auschwitz.
This weekend I was in Sacramento to attend an event put on by the National Association of Social Workers, called Lobby Days. The event was a culmination of 1,400 social work students from schools all over California, giving us the opportunity to speak with senators about three specific bills. On Monday, a couple hundred of us gathered to have a rally in front of the Capitol. There was an amazing synergy, as we were all so passionate about helping to give a voice to the communities that are so often marginalized. Occurring in the Capitol at the exact same time as our rally, was the California State Assembly’s Holocaust Memorial Project 2012. As soon as the rally was over, I ran inside to see if I could catch some of the end of the program. It was over, however I got the chance to speak with a woman who was an organizer for the event. She said that 170 people attended, and 78 of them were survivors. I thought about the contrast of the two events… Where one was about shouting for the living, and the other was about giving silence for the victims that are no longer with us. They were both poignant in their own way, addressing the injustices of the present and the past. I wondered if any of the survivors were rescued by Raoul Wallenberg.
Hillary Rodham Clinton once said “We should see the story of Raoul Wallenberg not as a part of a heroic myth, but as an example of the values that should inform how we live.” One of the bills that we lobbied for, which I believe would be close to Wallenberg’s heart, is for the Reuniting Immigrant Families Act. The majority of children whose parents are undocumented immigrants, are often found in our foster care system, after their parents had been abruptly taken away from them and deported. Given the nature of the immigration system, these children are less likely to be reunified with their birth parents. When Wallenberg saved Rachel’s life, he made sure to keep her and her mother together, as he managed to convince some of the guards with fake documents and men posing as Swedish police officers, that they did not belong in the line that was deporting Jews to Auschwitz. Although I could not attend the memorial, I imagined Raoul Wallenberg, standing along with us at the rally, fighting for the voiceless.
Going back to my trip to Tampa, to be with my family, I want to mention my last experience on the sea wall before I headed to the airport to go back to Los Angeles. I had decided to go say good bye to my meditative space, and as I walked out there, I felt that the wind was very strong, and when I approached the sea wall, I saw that the water was very choppy. The sky was grey and it began to drizzle. I was initially bummed because I wasn’t going to get one last peaceful encounter, but I realized, that even though my surroundings weren’t ideal, it was still important to find connection and beauty in what I was facing. With life in general, it is important to be able to have the faith and recognition, of the intrinsic beauty in situations and relationships that could be easily dismissed as “bad.” There were pelicans struggling to fly, as they battled going against the wind currents, but I noticed how they would freely soar when they would swoop down and skim the surface of the choppy waters. Often times, similar to the pelicans battling the wind, we are battling a struggle within ourselves, but when we take the chance to face the choppy waters, whether that be ourselves, challenging situations or tumultuous relationships, there is a freedom that can occur with it, as we break the shackles from belief systems based in fear, anger and mistrust. This freedom occurs for me as I face my fears, such as through speaking in front of Muslims at the event for NewGround, or by facing my family. For Eiliyah, by facing and breaking down her belief systems that held her back from living from a place of love and compassion, has given her a sense of freedom. There is freedom found in unconditional love. When I use that term, I do not mean it in the sense that we are going to love every single person we come across, because I do not think that is realistic. I believe in having unconditional love with discernment, such as through not retaliating feelings of anger and hatred to those who may feel that way towards you, and even having an open heart, and an open mind, towards the possibility of a new relationship. I have found that when we are facing “the other” we are ultimately facing ourselves.
“Living in a world of polarities, yet knowing that all parts are one in the unified whole, creates the underlying framework of connectedness. Utilize the relationships created by polarity to explore and expand any self-limiting construct. Open your perceptions.” I cannot help but find this statement to be true, especially through the experience with how by connecting with Muslims, I was also connecting with my family. Not just family members who are alive, but also those who have passed away.
Life is sacred. Life is tough. Life is mysterious. Life is painful. Life is beautiful. All of it is holy.
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