Sunday, March 30, 2008

Funny, He Doesn’t Look Jewish

The Jewish Week, January 2008

There are times when a rabbi looks at the weekly portion and a sermon just screams back. This weekend, when we will celebrating both the legacy of Martin Luther King and the crossing of the Red Sea – affirming that liberation comes in all colors – we’ll also be able to say for the first time in American history that someone who is not a middle aged white male has a front-runner’s chance to become President.

And as if to place an exclamation point on that premise, the Haftarah features a female military champion named Deborah and her sidekick named, of all things, Barak. If either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama eventually becomes Commander in Chief, we can say that we heard it here first, in the book of Judges. Throw in the real chance that a Jewish third party candidate may join the fray and we’ve got, at long last, a presidential campaign that looks like America.

Setting aside position papers for the moment, we, as Jews, should be celebrating the diversity of this year’s slate. For too long we’ve been preoccupied with group survival, focusing on how we are different: why we don’t celebrate Christmas, order pepperoni or work on Saturday. These distinctions are important, but only in that they point us to a life of holiness, whose ultimate goal is to create a society where artificial barriers separating people are dismantled. Among the most insidious of these barriers are those of race and gender, which, along with ageism and disableism, are based primarily on appearance rather than substance.

“Look not at the flask,” we learn in tractate Avot, “but at what is within it.” Long before Gutenberg, Jews were teaching their children not to judge a book by its cover. But while our sages dared to hope for an end to worldwide prejudice and our liturgy resounds with the desire for Oneness, after services we retreat to psychological ghettos of similitude. We cry for unity but settle for uniformity. It is understandable to want to live among like-minded neighbors who can reinforce our deepest values. But somewhere along the line, we convinced ourselves that like-minded people have to look alike too.

Fortunately, the Internet generation has grown up in a much smaller world, where those barriers have begun to dissolve. It’s telling that in the teen mega-hit “High School Musical,” it’s not the WASPy blonde girl, Ashley Tisdale, who gets the guy. The shy Hispanic girl does. It’s even more telling that, when Tisdale - who is Jewish on her mother’s side – recently had rhinoplasty, she needed to defend that choice on medical grounds. Her fans were incensed. They liked her nose just the way it was.

That old joke, “Funny, he doesn’t look Jewish,” isn’t so funny anymore. With the proliferation of conversion, adoption, donor eggs and surrogate motherhood, too many Jews simply don’t. Interracial Jewish couples are becoming more common both here and in Israel, where, while Ethiopian Jews still face challenges, the assimilation of Ashkenazim and Sephardim is nearly complete. Increasingly, we’ve become fascinated by exotic Jewish communities like the Abayudaya of Uganda, Cochin and Bene Israel of India, the Igbo of Nigeria and the Ethiopians.

As a student of religions, I’ve long been fascinated by the Baha’i faith. Here is a group that shares much with the Jews, including a home base in Israel, a suspicion of Iran and a history of brutal persecution. What they also share with us is an innate color blindness, only they choose to proclaim it to the world while we continue to shrink from it.

The great Baha’i prophet, the Baha’ullah (1817-1892), called racism the greatest challenge to global unity. Jews should be champions of this ideal. Long before the Baha’ullah walked this earth, Jews were the world’s greatest conduit of multiculturalism. While Christians and Moslems spent most of the Middle Ages constantly building fences and re-drawing borders, Jews were constantly traversing them, carrying with us the best that every culture could offer.

Baha’i followers view interracial marriage as the idyllic relationship. Until all too recently, many Jews considered such matches a shandeh (disgrace), even when both spouses were Jewish. Part of that is attributable to a legitimate concern that children of such marriages would be subjected to ridicule on the playground. But part of it is outright racism.

Now those views are thankfully changing. People no longer assume that an African American in our High Holidays choir is a non Jewish ringer. It longer startles anyone that there are children in our Hebrew School of Asian or Latin American descent. There is much greater recognition that not all Jews need to be cut from the same lox-and-bagels mold. Finally, we are looking less at the flask and more at what lies within.

I perform many conversions, for adults and children, and each Jew-by-choice adds something special to our people’s fabulous mosaic. I ask each Bar/Bat Mitzvah student to construct a family tree and I’ve seen ones that trace back to leaders like Rashi on one side and Daniel Boone on the other. They are all part of who we are and where we come from.

The Jewish family tree is more colorful even than Barack Obama’s. He may hail from Kenya and Kansas, but we come from Babylonia and Beverly Hills, Yemen and Ypsilanti, Toledo and, uh, Toledo, and in my case, Brooklyn and Brookline. Now that we live in a country where Deborah the judge and her sidekick Barak could each legitimately aspire to be President, we should pick up that flask and take a good, long drink.

On MLK Weekend, nothing could taste sweeter.

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