Thursday, December 1, 2016

Stuck in the Middle: Isaac Speaks Up

My name is Isaac. You think you know me, but you really don't. I am stuck in between two generations, constantly overshadowed by my father Abraham and my son Jacob. If you ask anyone to name the nation that eventually came from my family, they either refer to them as "the offspring of Abraham" or, more commonly, "the children of Israel" (Jacob’s adopted name). You never hear anyone refer to this nation by my name: Isaac. It's not that my name isn't mentioned in the Bible. My name actually appears 108 times, yet, virtually all of the stories where my name is mentioned and where I am involved as a character are told from someone else's point of view, completely ignoring my perspective.

When I was just a little boy, I was out playing with my half-brother Ishmael. The next thing I know, my mother throws him and his mother Hagar out of our house. To this day, I have no idea why this happened, and nobody ever asked me how I felt about losing my half-brother who I was playing with. The next and only other time I saw Ishmael was when we together buried our father Abraham.

Not long after I lost my half-brother, there came what many of you call the "big test." You have certainly heard about the most famous of stories that contains my name, "The Binding of Isaac." The irony of having my name in the title of this story is that the story isn't really about me at all. It's all about my father: "After these events, God tested Abraham." Not once throughout this "big test of faith" is my voice ever heard, except when I asked my father why he forgot the sacrificial lamb. His answer: "God will provide." So there I was, bound on an altar, the fire burning and my father's knife to my throat. Yet when it's all over and God's angel saves my life, only my father emerges as a heroic figure. Not once do we hear how I -- Isaac -- felt throughout this ordeal. In case you're wondering, I'll start by asking if you ever noticed that after the ropes were loosened from my hands and feet, there is never again recorded in the Torah one single conversation between my father and me. Let's add to this that when we came home, we found that my mother died from the shock of hearing what my father had done. So perhaps from your perspective, this story crowned my father the "ultimate hero of faith." As for me, my relationship with my father was ruined, I lost my mother and I spent the rest of my life traumatized. Not quite an "all's well that ends well."

My father's last act on earth was to send his servant to arrange my marriage. Funny, nobody asked me if I wanted to get married, and if I did, you’d think I might have a say in who I would marry? I ask this question because, yes, I did love my wife Rebecca, but I have a hard time getting over how she went behind my back and convinced my son Jacob to deceive me. I favored Esau, and I have my own reasons for that. But once again, my feelings were not taken into account, and what should have been "Isaac Blessing His Sons" became "Jacob Deceiving Isaac." My own blessing to my kids became the matter of a sibling rivalry and a sneaky plot by my wife. Once again, I had no say in the matter.

Please don't get me wrong. I am not writing all of this in order to invite your pity, because there is one story recorded about me for which I will forever be proud. It is the one and only story in the Torah that is all about me. As you know, both my father and son were faced with severe famines in Canaan, and as a result, both of them left Canaan and “went down to Egypt.” I, too, was faced with a "famine in the land," but I did not leave. I chose to fight it out and stay in Canaan…and I dug wells. I think being bound with a knife to my throat on Mount Moriah actually gave me something I would call “the survivor’s instinct.” I became a survivor, and despite the trauma I experienced, I learned to tough things out. I am the only one in my family to never leave our Promised Land.

Throughout our history, my family's descendants have been mistreated, traumatized and deceived (just like me), yet somehow, we always survived. We always insisted, either physically or metaphorically, on "staying in the land and digging wells," despite "the famine." So perhaps our people refer to themselves by the names of my father and son, but their inner character and strength as tough survivors comes from me, Isaac. It is my story -- the story of a survivor -- that is really our collective story.

So, I may not have much a voice in all of this, but my gut instinct tells me I have lots to do with why we are still here.

It was nice speaking with you, and sorry this talk is just a few thousand years late. Funny, something deep inside of me said that even if I waited this long to speak up, my people would still be around to hear me.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Immigration, Thanksgiving, and Fiddler on the Roof

Last February I saw the recent revival of Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway. For those in the audience who have seen this show a million times (probably most!), we all noticed two additions to the show, at the very beginning and then again at the end. At the beginning, before the fiddler begins to fiddle and before Tevye begins singing “Tradition,” the character playing Tevye comes onto the stage to a train station, looking to take the train to Anatevka. He is dressed in modern-day clothing, and is without his traditional cap that covers his head. The lights then dim, and the show as we all know it then proceeds. At the very end of the show, as the inhabitants of Anatevka are being forced out of the village, the lights dim again, and the Tevye in modern garb re-appears, and the fiddler sees him and invites him to walk into the line of the Anatevka villagers being forced out.

Who is this modern-day Tevye, and what does he represent? When the villagers are leaving Anatevka and sharing with each other where they are going, we find out that Tevye and his family are going to live in America. This modern-day Tevye that appears on the stage in the beginning of the show is an American-born descendant of Tevye. He is taking a train to Anatevka to explore his family’s roots so that he understands from where he came. At the end of the show, when his ancestors are being forced out of Anatevka, he joins the line so that he can experience what it was like to be forced out of a home – a concept he has experienced as an American.

Those who see him without a head covering mistakenly jump to the conclusion that he represents the assimilated American Jew who is no longer religious. While the phenomenon of assimilation indeed is a reality for American Jews, in this specific instance, his being without head covering is not a message about his religious observance. A quick reminder of some of the show’s dialogue on the subject of head coverings forJewish men points our discussion back to the immigration issue.

In Tevye’s opening number “Tradition,” Tevye tells the audience that in Anatevka the men always keep their heads covered. “Ask me why,” he says, “I don’t know! But it’s a tradition.” At the very end of the show, when the Russian constable announces the edict of eviction to the Anatevka villagers, one of the villagers asks the rabbi why it is that Jews are always wandering from place to place. Before the rabbi could respond, Tevye says, “Maybe that’s why we always keep our heads covered.” In many cultures, when a person would set out on a journey, they would wear a head covering as a sign of protection, and upon arrival, the first symbolic sign of settling down was to remove the head covering. Tevye’s reflection was a reaction to the eviction, saying that being evicted from our homes is nothing new for us Jews, and that maybe we always keep our heads covered because we are always prepared to face the next eviction notice.

Enter Tevye’s American descendant, noticeably without a head covering. As opposed to his ancestors who were evicted and wandering from place to place – thus always having their heads covered – this man is born in the United States, a place where he can permanently say “I’m home.” He does not ever need to cover his head, for he is not going anywhere, and he knows that he does not live with the threat of eviction looming over his head. He is the descendant of those who “always had to keep their heads covered,” whereas he, by contrast, has never known of the need to do so.

Different than a Passover Seder, Thanksgiving lacks any text or formal discussion topic. It is an evening where we give thanks for the basics – family, food and shelter. As a genuine “American” holiday, many Jews use this meal as a special opportunity to appreciate and give thanks for living in America, a country where we have enjoyed freedom and protection from day one. Whether our ancestors came from Eastern Europe or the Middle East, we are all “descendants of Tevye.” We are all descendants of those who sought these shores seeking freedom, escaping persecution or in search of a better life. We all come from families who always had their heads covered, and for those of us born here, we are the ones who never had to keep a head covering on. If the traditional Jews amongst us choose to now keep our heads covered, it has nothing to do with a fear of eviction. It’s simply an outward expression of our religious identity, and in the context of the United States, it’s actually the opposite of Tevye – it’s an open declaration that we feel at home enough here to openly say who we are, without fearing any repercussions.

As we sit down as Jews to our Thanksgiving dinner tonight, we do so with a collective consciousness as “those who came from elsewhere” and were blessed to find shelter and protection in this great country. We do so knowing that many of our ancestors, like Tevye, were given three days to leave their villages or countries. We do so as “descendants of Tevye,” who have never known a day of persecution and have never lived here with any threat of eviction. We sit down to our beautifully adorned tables and our delicious foods, thankful for the life that America has provided for us. Finally, we sit down to our tables and pray that America remains a country committed to the same values and ideas that made it possible for Tevye and his family to find a permanent home here.