Jewish Journal

Melding Together Snakes, Gangs and Torah

by Lia Mandelbaum

July 2, 2013 | 10:18 am

As a social worker, community organizer and social justice advocate, I recently felt drawn to get involved in some community building for an area of Central LA that has a very high population of gang members.  For the sake of developing awareness and increasing safety measures, I felt that it was important to take up the opportunity of a guided walking tour of the area during the day with a group of people.  It was led by a community member discussing the gang violence found within the area.  How can you work in the community and truly be effective and safe if you are unaware of your surroundings? 

Since I had just completed an internship doing social work in mental health in South Central, I felt more comfortable with the idea of walking in this neighborhood.  I have to admit though that as we were walking, and I began to understand the seriousness of the gang violence in the area, I felt nervous.  I tend to have a very risk-taking personality, and sometimes put myself in not the best situations.  I usually do this though when my gut tells me that we will be okay, and that the experience will provide something very valuable and meaningful, which the neighborhood tour definitely provided.

While walking around the neighborhood we came across two people who were each holding a boa constrictor.  Definitely not something I see everyday.  Our group stopped to talk with them, and they let us hold the boas.  The larger one, which was a yellow boa constrictor, weighed ninety-six pounds.  I imagine that the smaller one that I had held wasn’t even half the weight of the yellow Boa.

Finding Torah in unlikely places

I found it to be ironic that it was through playing with the boas that the group found comfort within the intense moment we were experiencing.  As someone who loves to take a holistic view on life through finding symbolism and melding together different meanings, I decided to look deeper through applying the experience to the Torah.

As found in the story of Adam and Eve, it is the serpent that encourages Eve to eat the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge, and God curses the serpent "above all animals," causing it to become an eternal enemy of the human race.  Eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge represents the beginning of the mixture of good and evil together.  It is how the yetzer hara, the Evil Inclination, was born.

Similar to how the Tree of Knowledge represents the beginning of the mixture of good and evil, the neighborhood I was walking through was a prime example of the blending of good and evil.  You have your gangs, but you also have the families that I found hanging out in the front yard with the children laughing and playing.  These families have to figure out how to survive in the area, usually through not going outside at night.  When considering the yetzer hara and yetzer tov ("a good inclination") as the light and dark parts of the soul, I find it interesting how the light in the neighborhood provides protection, and the darkness of the night is where the evil inclination comes out.  

Considering the symbolism of the snake                                                                                                                                                                                          

Considering what the snake often represents, I found that it was very symbolic for us to come across them during our experience of trying to understand the neighborhoods gang population.  Someone could easily refer to a gang member as being a snake, with evil intentions, and who can't be trusted.

As I held the smaller boa, I could sense that the snake was initially nervous while being held, but through my lack of fear and the ability to fully support the snake’s body, I could tell that the snake felt safe, and it was actually very sweet towards me.  Although snakes have their defense mechanisms, without it having arms or legs creates its own challenges, and can make the snake feel vulnerable.  I have come to decided that snakes get a bad rap.

People who are involved in gangs often view the community as the only supportive space they have.  Like how a snake finds support through wrapping its body around something stable and supportive, young people get wrapped up in gangs for their own sense of support, and as an easy way to cope with the often very challenging life circumstances that they have been dealt.  Most gang members come from poverty. 

Seeing the humanity in all people                                                                                                                                                                                                                

When dealing with high risk populations, I find it important to be aware of the nature of their lifestyle, but to also see the humanity within that population.  As a part of the NASW code of ethics for the social work profession, one of the main ones is about treating all human beings with dignity and giving them the best support possible, regardless of the harm that they have created through their actions.

While love and compassion are not shields if you are to be shot at, they at least provide an opportunity to prevent violence, and hopefully make an impact and transform the individual on an incredibly profound level.  Through the experiences I've had with individuals who were involved in gangs, I've seen time and time again that when you get down to the bottom of it, they yearn to be seen and loved, and once they feel that support they can find the inspiration and hope needed to change their ways.  Easier said then done though... It can be a dangerous process where there is a retaliation of threats and acts of violence towards the person choosing to leave the gang.  

The snake and High Holidays                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

During the high holidays, what we hope to regain is the path of T’Shuvah, which means the transcendence of the darker parts of the soul.  Although rooted in Christian traditions, the word repentance is often associated with it.  Through t’shuvah, we are making the choice to act freely, and consciously, in accordance with our ultimate, sacred purpose in the world.  As we do a moral inventory of ourselves during the high holidays, similar to how the snake sheds its skin so that it may let go of the old to bring in the new, may we shed ourselves of the darker parts of our being and welcome in a new year filled with light and love.  Like how the snake wraps itself around objects that provide support, may we wrap ourselves in actions that bring light and love into the world.

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Lia Mandelbaum is getting her degree in social work at California State University-Los Angeles, and has an internship at Barbour & Floyd Mental Health Services.

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