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My Beauty Parlor Ladies Were Right

Last Friday, I went to the beauty parlor for my monthly cut and color. It is the hub of social mingling in my little town in rural Pennsylvania, the place to go for news about everybody’s family, and what’s on peoples’ minds. Here’s what I posted immediately afterward on our Facebook rabbis’ chat room:

“If you want to know what people think about the election, go to the beauty parlor. Here is what I learned today: Hillary will be indicted after the election (for what? don’t know). Wikileaks has been proven to not have any Russian connections (What is wikileaks anyway?). ATT-DirecTV has been blacking out the Fox morning show. Did you see that Hillary ad with the children? How can she say she supports children when she supports late-term abortions? Trump will clean things up in Washington. If you don’t live in a white, rural area of the country, just know that this is how a lot of my neighbors feel. This is not deep thinking, it’s visceral, and it’s real.”

As it turns out, the ladies at my beauty parlor represent a larger sector of the American electorate than many of my colleagues and friends in larger and bluer cities thought. They were among those who helped elect Donald Trump as president on Tuesday. In fact, they are the prototype of the Trump voter that Ezra Klein of Vox described so well in a recent podcast: They live in rural, overwhelmingly white, communities; and while they may be better off than some of their neighbors, they see poverty, need, and job loss all around them.

My neighbors are not mean people. They care about their families and their friends. Many care for ill parents, help out their kids, and are active in civic and church life. And I don’t think they’re angry so much as scared. Good-paying blue-collar jobs have been disappearing at an alarming rate, including in the coal industry, for a generation now. The Great Recession supposedly ended years ago, but here in rural Central Pennsylvania, people haven’t clawed back what they lost. These are people who have worked hard their entire lives to achieve the American Dream. But they see that dream slipping away. They are not better off than their parents were, and their children are struggling more still. There’s an unfairness about the way the country has “recovered” that they resent, and that showed at the polls.

Political scientist Kathy Cramer has been studying rural Wisconsin for years for her new book, The Politics of Resentment,” which she talked about recently in The Washington Post. Substitute Pennsylvania for Wisconsin and mining for logging, and she’s hit the bullseye on what she calls “rural consciousness.”

“Oftentimes in some of these smaller communities, people are in the occupations their parents were in, they’re farmers and loggers. They say, it used to be the case that my dad could do this job and retire at a relatively decent age, and make a decent wage. We had a pretty good quality of life, the community was thriving. Now I’m doing what he did, but my life is really much more difficult. I’m doing what I was told I should do in order to be a good American and get ahead, but I’m not getting what I was told I would get.”

Yes, there is more. Their notion of what America should be is shaped by my neighbors’ own lives – white, rural, conservative, gun-owning, church-going. It is anathema to someone like me who grew up in a politically progressive household and lived in racially and culturally mixed communities. We moved around – a lot. I went to a dozen schools before college, including three on military bases in the Far East during the Vietnam War. My dad, a behavioral psychologist, was engaged in the work of bridging racial and ethnic divides both within the army ranks and between Americans and the host populations of Okinawans and Koreans. When we returned stateside, the suburban D.C. neighborhood we moved to was populated with mid-level embassy employees and their families, of every ethnicity, religion, and home country imaginable.

The last eight years also have shaped and heightened divisions. For progressives like me, we have rejoiced in the presidency of Barack Obama. We are heartened by the pushback against discriminatory laws – the courts’ overturning of horrific state abortion restrictions designed to control, demean, and objectify women, as well as the courts’ rejection of voter-restriction laws that deliberately targeted the poor, the young, the elderly, and people of color who vote Democratic. And we were overjoyed when the Supreme Court ruled, in essence, that love is love is love. A President Hillary Clinton, we believed, would continue to lead the country in a progressive, inclusive direction.

But for many of my neighbors, these were all signs that America was losing its way, the way they had known for generations. This was a president who didn’t look like them, who wasn’t raised like them – who, in the words of my husband’s cousin, was “your Mr. Obama,” never “our President Obama.” This was a Supreme Court that rejected all that their church doctrine had taught about the sanctity of life, even life unborn, and the abomination of homosexuality. And this was a political elite – of both parties – that was ignoring their struggles, their pain, their needs. As Kathy Cramer put it,

“What I heard from my conversations is that, in these three elements of resentment — I’m not getting my fair share of power, stuff or respect — there’s race and economics intertwined in each of those ideas.

“It’s not just resentment toward people of color. It’s resentment toward elites, city people. And maybe the best way to explain how these things are intertwined is through noticing how much conceptions of hard work and deservingness matter for the way these resentments matter to politics.”

I harbor no illusions about the fact that there are racists and bigots and misogynists in our midst. That they have been emboldened by political pandering is terrifying and contemptible. But it would be a mistake to simply dismiss all Trump supporters as such, which serves only to limit our ability and opportunity to understand the identities and fears of others.

And while we decry the fact-free nature of our public discourse, we need to understand that, for my neighbors – and for yours – the issue is less about facts than about feeling. It’s less about policy than about place. As Cramer said, “All of us, even well-educated, politically sophisticated people interpret facts through our own perspectives, our sense of what who we are, our own identities.”

I happen to serve a congregation with a wide political spectrum in the pews, from Woodstock alumni to the current and immediate past presidents of the local Tea Party. I make it a point not to unduly antagonize. I frame my arguments for what I believe in, based on what I believe the Jewish tradition teaches us about issues of justice, fairness, inclusion, and the inherent and equal worth of every human being.

That will not change. If anything, I will redouble my efforts to let the prophetic conscience of our faith ring out from my pulpit. Justice, justice, shall we pursue. We shall love our neighbors as ourselves. We shall look after the poor, the widow, the orphan – those on the fringes of society who are often forgotten, neglected, or tossed aside.

Our politics may be polarized, and we may have distinctly different views on the role that government can and ought to play in making peoples’ lives better. But we can and must come together, as Americans, as Jews, and as human beings. We have been through worse. And we have survived and even thrived from these conflicts. We must do so again.

 

 

 

 

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Life on a See-Saw: Yom Kippur Morning 2016

From the big picture window in our living room, Don and I are blessed with a beautiful view of Reservoir Park. To the right are walking trails that lead back to the municipal pool and the roller-hockey rink from which, on a cool day with the windows open, we can hear the clank of skates and sticks, and the laughter of camaraderie.

In front of us is the reservoir itself. On sunny days, the surface is like antique glass, rippled from the wake of the resident ducks and bubbles from the fish for which they dive. And to the left, there’s the playground. When the weather turns warm each spring, and then cool again in the fall, parents and grandparents spend hours with the kids, helping them navigate the jungle gym, pushing them on the swings, and catching them at the bottom of the slides.

But one piece of playground equipment sits solitary, unused, its paint flaking. I never, ever see anyone on the see-saw.

It never occurred to me until very recently, when I read an essay by Carole Leskin, who recalled that, when she was a little girl and her father would take her to the playground, she loved the swings and hated the seesaw. The swings, she wrote, “were magic carpets for me . . . I could fly! If I wanted to, I could pump my little legs really hard and soon I was up in the clouds.” But, she wrote, when her dad took her to the seesaw, she was terrified. He’d put her on one side and he – tall and lanky – would sit on the other and tell her: “Here we go, Carole, Hang on!” She remembers hanging on for dear life as she was shot into space, afraid that she would come crashing down to the ground.

Carole Leskin is writing as a woman in old age. And when she thinks about the schoolyard now, she imagines that terror on the seesaw as a struggle between her, trying to keep a level head and her feet on the ground, and Father Time, trying to fling her into the air, where she has no control.

But when I see that lonely old seesaw in Reservoir Park, I think about it a little bit differently. And I wonder about the message it sends, not just to children but to all of us at all stages of life.

You see, when little kids first come to the park, they don’t know how to navigate the playground. They need the help of grown-ups: to push them on the swings, to catch them at the bottom of the slides. But slowly, they develop their own skills. They learn, as Carole Leskin did, how to pump their little legs so that they can propel themselves into the sky on the swing set. They learn how to climb up and down on the jungle gym without falling or getting bruised or scraped. They learn how to plant their feet at the bottom of the slide so they don’t go tumbling head-first into the dirt.

But you can’t do that on the seesaw. The seesaw is the one thing in the playground you can never learn to navigate all by yourself. If the goal is teaching children that they can learn to do everything without anybody’s help, then no wonder the see-saw sits alone.

Aye, but here’s the rub: You cannot go through life thinking that you can accomplish everything all on your own, without help from anybody to boost you up, keep you steady, or wipe off the dirt and dress your wounds when you slip and fall.

The seesaw, I would argue, is the single most useful and necessary piece of equipment on the playground. It should get the most use, not the least. Because it teaches us we ought to learn to navigate life like we do the playground – with help from somebody else.

It seems natural for little kids to want to be independent, and that’s a good thing. Don’s granddaughter Rachel visited our house when she was 18 months old, and the two phrases that came out of her mouth were “I do” and “I eat” – both with an exclamation point at the end. They learn, over time, to get on the bus by themselves, to navigate going from class to class with different teachers and different classmates, to keep their own schedules and their own checkbooks, to pay their own bills and make their own way in the world.

But I wonder if we do kids a disservice if we emphasize independence at the expense of co-dependence. Not in a negative, clinical sense, but in the sense that we create healthy lives for ourselves when we learn to trust and help others, and let others trust and help us.

Columnist David Brooks calls this “being in covenant” – just the language we use in Judaism. It’s language he draws from a new book by Marcia Pally of New York University, which I mentioned last week when I spoke on the binding of Isaac. In Commonwealth and Covenant, Pally suggests that what we really want in life is what she calls “separability amid situatedness.” That’s a fancy way of saying that we want to go off and do our own thing and explore the world in our own way – but we want to do all of that knowing that we can come home to healthy, loving, families and welcoming communities that give structure and meaning to our lives. And this, too, is fundamental to Judaism.

On the see-saw of life, it’s the comfort of knowing that there’s somebody on the other side who’s there to keep you balanced and safe.

As Brooks points out, we live in a world where autonomy and individuality reign supreme, where people are increasingly separated and isolated by social and economic forces, yes, but also by new technologies like the internet. People spend more time alone, either because they’re forced to or because they choose to. Individuality was supposed to empower people, but Brooks sees the opposite happening. “People are often plagued by a sense of powerlessness, a loss of efficacy,” he writes. “It turns out that people can effectively pursue their goals only when they know who they are – when they have firm identities. Strong identities can come only when people are embedded in a rich social fabric. It’s hard to live daringly when your very foundation is fluid and at risk.”

That’s where covenant comes in. And it’s a different type of relationship than we are accustomed to in our society, where the art of making a deal can be a best-seller but the craft of creating covenant is relegated to the back of the bookstore, in the more obscure realms of sociology and religion. As Brooks puts it:

“People in a contract provide one another services, but people in a covenant delight in offering gifts. Out of love of country, soldiers offer the gift of their service. Out of love of their craft, teachers offer students the gift of their attention.”

Living in covenant with other people is, as it turns out, as important in the secular parts of our lives as it is in this sanctuary. It’s just more obvious when we are in a religious setting, overtly talking about commitments of faith.

This morning’s Torah reading – “Nitzavim,” from The Book of Deuteronomy — re-emphasizes the spirit of the covenant by challenging us to stand up for what’s right and just. The Torah deliberately uses the plural in the Hebrew: Each of us has a responsibility, but we fulfill that responsibility in community. And in the afternoon reading from the Holiness Code of Leviticus chapter 19, we are challenged to see covenant in all of our relationships – faithfulness to family; support for the disabled, the poor, the hungry; justice in judgment. Not because we have contracts with these people but because we have a covenant with them through God:

קְדשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם

You all shall be holy, as I, Adonai Your God, am holy.

Once again, the command is to each of us, but the Hebrew is in the plural. Twice over, the Torah brings us this “separability amid situatedness.” As Marcia Pally writes, “God’s spirit of righteousness and care is given to the nation through the gift of the commandments to help it carry out what God knows it can (be righteous and a means to the blessing of humanity).”

Torah’s repeated message of “separability amid situatedness” is fundamental to the way we live as Jews. Not just here in this sanctuary, where we speak the language of covenant most openly – but, most importantly, when we leave this overtly holy space and time and create holy space and time the rest of the year, in the rest of our lives.

As Marcia Pally notes, a contract protects interests, but a covenant protects relationships. That’s exactly what the prophet Isaiah expressed in the Haftarah of consolation and hope just a couple of weeks ago, in the lead-up to the Days of Awe:

For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from you, nor shall the covenant of my peace – the b’rit sh-lomi – be removed, says the Eternal who has mercy on you. (Isaiah 54:10)

Isaiah’s message prepared us for the commitments we make today. That’s the thing about a covenant: you can always count on it in a way that you cannot with a contract. Contracts can be broken, dissolved, nullified. But covenant stands fast. When you are in covenant with the person on the other end of the see-saw, you know he or she will be there to keep you balanced and safe.

It is covenant, David Brooks notes, that “preserves individual freedom while strengthening social solidarity.” Today, we Jews reaffirm the covenant with God that is reflected in our behavior toward others. But for the world to be redeemed – for the world to be a better, safer, more peaceful place like that playground across the street – we must be challenged to create covenants with others that stretch across the ties of family, community, religion, race, and income.

If we are to be the holy people that God commands us to be, we must understand that it does not matter that the person on the other side of the see-saw is a family member, a close friend, or just someone who relies on us to see to their sense of safety and balance.

When I was a kid, I used to see other kids sitting on one side of the see-saw, waiting for somebody else to come and play. And we always did, whether we knew them or not. It was a way we met new people, and build new relationships – based from the beginning on mutual trust. We didn’t understand the language of covenant when we were five years old. But that’s what we were doing. Maybe it’s time to put a fresh coat of paint on the see-saw, oil the squeaks out of it, and make it important again.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.

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©2016 Audrey R. Korotkin

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“Redd Up Your Life” – Kol Nidre 2016

Let me start out by saying that Fay Schmitt is one very smart lady. Many of you know her as Snookie, and she was one of Norma Sevel’s best friends for a very long time. It was Snookie who helped smooth Norma’s transition from her beloved New York to Central Pennsylvania when she and Bernie married. And that included helping Norma understand the local lingo, fondly known as Pittsburghese.

As Snookie told the story at Norma’s 85th birthday party in our social hall a couple of years back, she early on had Norma flummoxed by her use of a phrase that’s pretty common around here. She said she couldn’t go out with Norma just at that moment, because she was in the middle of redding up her house. Redd up the house? You know, said Snookie. Redd up your house. Tidy things up. That’s the way we say it here.

It’s one of those many colloquial expressions that pop up in conversation. Like “Yinz better redd up the dining room and put out the chipped ham whenever company comes.” Like that.

I’m particularly fond of the “redd up” phrase. To me it sounds like a shorthand for “get things ready” or, even better, “get yourself ready.” Because today, on Yom Kippur, our focus is not on redding up the room, but redding up our lives.

Let’s be clear. This is not going to happen in a day – even on this holiest day. Yom Kippur – the entire Ten Days of Awe, really – is designed only to give us a time and a place to start. Prayers to openly acknowledge our failings. Music to fill our hearts with gratitude at being part of this Temple family – a family that’s here for us even with all of our flaws. Time for silence, to contemplate where we are and where we want to be.

But when it comes to actually implementing a plan to tidy ourselves up, well, that’s up to each of us.

Fortunately, there’s never a shortage of self-help advice in pop culture. And the current craze for redding up is called the KonMari method. It comes from a best-seller called “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” by Marie Kondo. Now, it makes sense that this should be so popular in Japan, where tiny living is not a choice but a necessity. These days, Japanese architects are building on odd parcels of city land as small as 300 square feet, with the task of making the homes as airy as possible.

But KonMari has become an obsession all over the world. And I think it’s because the message is universal. KonMari focuses not only on relieving clutter but also the emotional baggage that results from it: tension, lack of focus, frustration, even anger and resentment. And the author herself is aware of the implications:

“From the moment you start tidying,” she writes, “you will be compelled to re-set your life. As a result, your life will start to change. That’s why the task of putting your house in order should be done quickly. It allows you to confront the issues that are really important. Tidying is just a tool, not the final destination. The true goal should be to establish the lifestyle you want most once your house has been put in order.”

Tidying is a just a tool, not the final destination. And it has both a physical and an emotional element to it. It’s a parallel to our engagement with ourselves, our bodies and our souls, on Yom Kippur.

To put this physical challenge in its emotional context, we turn to Christiane Northrop, a physician who dispenses health and wellness tips in books, on TV and on the web. She’s a big fan of the KonMari method and suggests three main steps:

First, ask yourself: WHAT DOES YOUR CLUTTER SYMBOLIZE

Second: LIGHTEN UP what you have

And third: VISUALIZE YOUR NEXT STEP

First things first: What does your life’s clutter symbolize? Dr. Northrop says it makes sense to see where it is, what it is, and what it means.

If our main living spaces are a mess, for example, maybe we are trying to hide ourselves from the world, because no one will be welcome there. If we stuff things into closets, maybe we are unable to really see ourselves as we are, hiding things away from sight. If we clutter the bathroom, maybe that’s a sign that we lack self-worth, because that should be a space of both privacy and luxury. And dumping everything in the garage, to the point where we can’t get our cars in and out easily, may be a sign we are having difficult moving on with our lives. Maybe it’s due to a trauma, or a loss, or just plain exhaustion. But all of these places of clutter tell us something about what’s getting us stuck.

Marie Kondo says the first step to understanding the emotional clutter is to put all the physical clutter in one place. Clear out every room and really look at what we’ve accumulated. As she puts it, “There are three approaches we can take toward our possessions: face them now, face them sometime, or avoid them until the day we die. The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”

So let’s say we face them now. What are we likely to see? My guess is that it’s a lot of stuff that contain memories of people and places in our past who may not be part of our present. Maybe it’s a favorite shirt that belonged to an ex-boyfriend. There’s a good reason he’s an “ex” – but the shirt may remind us that we had good times too, that the relationship was not a complete mistake. A photo album full of pictures of a neglectful, or even abusive, parent reminds us that this person’s life was not all bad. We might keep the photo as a way of saying kaddish for someone when we cannot bring ourselves to actually recite the words.

I was really glad, after my father’s death, to discover he’d kept a few things from each of our childhoods. I have my baby book, old Polaroid pictures, a letter to me as a newborn from his boss, about what kind of dad I had. A couple of the birthday and fathers’ day cards I hand made for him. A few report cards, where I can see that my verbal skills have always been good, and my handwriting has always been rubbish.

It’s all in a little box I keep in my office at home, within easy reach when I need my dad close. But a few things are just enough to help me jog the memories. If I kept too much, I wouldn’t be able to sort out what’s really important. And I wouldn’t be able to find what I want, when I want it.

We all, I think, tend to hang onto the past in some way. Maybe we’re trying to keep children as babies, when they were dependent on us. Or keep our aging parents as young and vibrant, when they were not dependent on us. Or maybe, like me, we hang on to old clothes from when we were younger and thinner. But as Marie teaches, “The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.”

So we have to make choices. We have to take the next step and LIGHTEN UP.

But here, too, there’s a really important emotional component to the KonMari method. Because it teaches us to focus, not on what we get rid of, but on what we want to keep. It’s not about what we lose. It’s about what we re-discover.

So here’s how we do that. We pick up each item, one by one.  We hold it. We stroke it. And we ask ourselves: Do we love it? Does it spark joy? If yes, keep it. If not, let it go.

I can’t imagine there’s a person in this room tonight who isn’t holding onto something that has outlived its usefulness. It might be a grudge against somebody who said something unpleasant. Or bottled-up anger against a slight, whether it was intentional or not.

Did somebody else take credit for a project you worked so hard on? Or did you have to do more than your fair share? Are you still thinking about a mistake you made six months ago, when everybody else has forgotten about it? Are you feeling ignored by your spouse, or disrespected by your children? Does it sometimes bring you to the verge of tears to think about it? Do they even know?

Chances are the other person isn’t even aware of what he or she has done, or at least what it’s done to you – because most of us walk away from a confrontation or a bad experience. We simply swallow the bad feelings, and then they sit like a rough pebble in the pit of our stomach. Because we think – probably incorrectly – that it’s easier to try and ignore it, or internalize it, than to have the conversation about it. Not accusing, not blaming – but simply explaining you how feel.

And now you’re faced with this question: Do you love that feeling? Does it spark joy? Is this the way you really want to live?

Answering those questions is really important today, of all days. We use rituals during these Days of Awe, to symbolically rid ourselves of what we no longer need or want. We cast our bread on the water, to wash away the sins. We beat our chests at each admission in “al chet” litany of shortcomings. Many of us, if we can, fast, to purge our bodies as a symbol of the way we can purge unhappy thoughts, and disrespectful words, and destructive behavior.

But Yom Kippur also calls on us to go beyond the rituals and symbols – and to really let go of the anger, and the grudges, even if we do not feel appeased. A traditional Yom Kippur prayer called the T’fillah Zakah reads, in part:

I extend complete forgiveness to everyone who has gossiped about me or even slandered me. So, too, to anyone who has injured me, whether physically or financially, and for any human sins between a person and their neighbor . . . I grant complete forgiveness.

Granted, true reconciliation is still the goal – so much so that the tradition also speaks of two friends on Erev Yom Kippur, standing face to face and asking each other for forgiveness – even if the offense was only perceived, or unintentional.

But I think the author of T’fillah Zakah recognized that, in reality, this often doesn’t happen. A lot of the time, we just need to act on our own. Because when we leave the break-the-fast tomorrow and head back to real life, we really do not want to go back to a messy house, full of all the stuff that’s suffocating us.

Redding up our lives requires facing all that stuff, keeping only what brings us joy, and letting go of the rest. Only then can we move to the third and final step: VISUALIZING OUR NEW LIVES. The future as we want it to be.

Dr. Northrop encourages us to be very explicit about this. It can’t be just: I want to be a better person. We have to have a specific path, and set ourselves specific tasks, to make that happen.

And here too, Yom Kippur shows us the way, in the two Torah readings we will share tomorrow. The reading from Deuteronomy, Nitzavim, gives us the general outline, the mitzvah of being ready to act on God’s behalf. I think it’s where we stand after the purge. Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem: You stand here, all of you today!.”

But the Holiness code from Leviticus is very detailed in laying out a path for the future. It models for us proper behavior at home and at work, in public and in private. Do not steal. Do not cheat. Do not lie. Do not defraud your neighbor. Do not curse the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind. Do not reap everything you can from your vineyards and fields – the corners belong to the poor.

Every single one of the Torah’s specific examples from thousands of years ago translates into what we do today. And every single one of them is a reminder that the best way to rid ourselves of clutter – is not to hoard it in the first place. The best way to make amends – is to be more careful about what we say and what we do, to start with. Chances are, we are going to mess up. We are going to let the clutter creep back in. And we’re going to have to do this all over again a year from now. But maybe then the clutter will be a little less overwhelming, the purging will be a little less painful, and the spark of joy will come a little bit easier.

Marie Kondo warns us that the path on which we embark tonight will not be an easy one. “The process of facing and selecting our possessions can be quite painful,” she writes. “It forces us to confront our imperfections and inadequacies and the foolish choices we have made in the past.”

But the fact of the matter is that we cannot get to step three – visualizing our future and making it real – without confronting our past and purging ourselves of that which no longer sparks joy. And if we can embrace that spark in ourselves, we will be a light – a veritable beacon – of joy for others.

May the journey on which we embark tonight lead us to such a future. May the act of redding up our own lives inspire others to do the same. May this be God’s will and our own, as we say together: Amen.

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©2016 Audrey R. Korotkin