Friday, October 14, 2005

Yom Kippur

heads-up, this is going to get kinda theological according to some people's way of thinking, and maybe even a bit deep... just to warn ya...

Yesterday was Yom Kippur. I was able to fast the entire 24-hour sunset-to-sunset period for the first time in years. (Woohoo!) It was a good day. Kol Nidre services were Wednesday night from 8:00pm to nearly 10 pm. There were lots of children sleeping in their parents' arms before the closing hymn was sung. Thursday morning services started at 10am and continued until just before 1pm. Children's services were at 1:30. There was a discussion group at 2:30, a choir performance at 3:30, and afternoon services started at 4pm on the dot. They included Yitzchak (memorial) and N’ila (concluding) services and continued until 7pm. Needless to say, a break-fast followed in short order. I went to everything except the children's service and discussion group... to keep myself from thinking about food if nothing else.

Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. It is the day when all Israel comes together to pray for forgiveness from G-d for all their sins and human failings of the previous year... together as a nation, as families, and as individuals. It’s a very emotional and moving day for a lot of people. The tradition says,

"Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day.
It is awesome and full of dread...

"the still, small voice is heard;
the angels, gripped by fear and trembling,
declare in awe:
This is the Day of Judgment!
For even the Hosts of Heaven are judged!" (From the "Unetaneh Tokef")

And mostly because of that, the Rabbi's sermon during the Yom Kippur morning service is debatably the most important and anticipated sermon of the year. Every year, people wonder, "what will the topic be?", "will it be about social justice, or current events, or a more traditional topic, like human mortality?" (Because of the sometimes depressing and down-right macabre nature of the Yom Kippur sermon, children are usually sent out for an alternative service led by the head of the religious school, which lasts from after the Torah and Haftarah portions are read until just after the sermon.) Our rabbi, Rabbi Zimmerman, is a master at crafting sermons. Nearly every year, he brings me to tears at least once. He is *the* best I've ever seen... and while admittedly, that's not many, even the senior citizen members of the congregation seem very impressed by him, and my grandmother of blessed memory thought him completely wonderful. He is wise well beyond his years (he's, I'd guess, in his mid-30s), and he always seems to know exactly what to say. Sometimes, he talks about things his children have taught him about the world, sometimes he talks about the significance of current events, like in 2001 when the High Holy Days were only days after 9/11... Many times, he speaks about social justice and why we're obligated as Jews and as human beings to do something about it. A major precept of Reform Judaism is the concept of Tikun Olam, which means "Repair the world," and another is the idea that if anyone is denied rights which we hold dear, everyone is denied those rights, including us... It comes from the Exodus concept that if one man is enslaved, the entire world is enslaved, and no one is really safe or free. So social justice is very important in Reform Judaism. At least, it's supposed to be. But as human beings, we are apt to be hypocritical, to exclude certain people, whether consciously or unconsciously, from our awareness of the oppressed.

Today, Rabbi Zimmerman talked about an incredibly taboo subject in American society, especially taboo in a religious setting, unless it's put in a negative light, according to many people's thinking. Rabbi Zimmerman said today that "gays are the new Jews." He got around to that point in a brilliant way too (as usual). He started with historical anecdotes about how throughout history when Jews have been oppressed and persecuted, it was often not motivated by hatred on the part of the people who began it. It was motivated by politics. The Inquisition, the pogroms, the ghettos of Europe, the Holocaust itself, all had their roots in the politics of the day. He told a particular story about how the Czarist government about 100 years ago sponsored a writer to compile a (they claimed) non-fiction book about how Jews were honest-to-G-d trying to take over the world. It wasn't because *they* hated the Jews in Russia per say, rather the Jews in Russia were a convenient distraction from the real problems plaguing Russia at the time. The government could say, "Hey, all you peasants, look over here. See this book! This is what it says! Look, the Jews are ruining your lives, not us! We love you! We‘re trying to protect you from them!" And then, just when people were thinking, 'okay, so where's he going with this?', he brought up the last Presidential election, how with all the problems plaguing our country and world at large, the one topic that got so many on both sides of the aisle up in arms and their power-bases riled was gay marriage. Why was that? Because the US is really in danger of being ruined by gays? Or because they are convenient scapegoat minority, who no one will speak up for unless they are one? It soon became obvious that he decided on this topic because of the recent bad business conducted by the County Commission. He actually said that "Rhonda Storms is a bad Christian." (I smiled. She’s a bad human being, if you asked me, her religion doesn't even get a chance to enter into it.) He said he could do that because, as she told our Cantor in (so he said) the *only* repeatable sentence in the letter she sent in response to the one our Canter sent as a community religious leader asking her to reconsider her position on the anti-gay ordinance, Rhonda Storms doesn't represent our county district. But it was about more than what the County Commission has done...

He reminded us that inappropriate joke are the beginning... Rude gestures, name calling, negative associations... Assuming most gay men are pedophiles, that there's something *wrong* with them, that they are a *them* and not *us*, that the phrase "that's so gay!" is equivalent to "that's so stupid" in American vernacular these days... reminding us that it's no different than saying, "I hope you didn't get jewed when you bought that car!" thereby equating Jews with being cheated. (He made several more pretty graphic analogies throughout the sermon.) The words of those who demonize and differentiate, no matter how outlandish they are, become accepted by more and more people as likely to be facts... Next come outbursts of violence, which become more and more frequent, more and more tolerated by the general public, the excuses by those who agree with the perpetrators that the victims somehow brought the violence upon themselves for essentially not being the same as everyone else become more acceptable... This has happened in this area in the last few years... Several gay men have gone missing in Hillsborough County, one of them just 5 miles north of my home, in similar enough ways to make authorities wonder if there's a serial killer stalking gay men in the area and openly gay men and women have been warned to be extra aware of their surroundings and to try not to go out alone... Every few months there are news stories published that a gay man or a lesbian has been assaulted, several have been in their own front yards or at their businesses... (And I remembered specifically about 2 years ago, during Gay Pride, there was an all night circuit party, a "White Party," for gay men at the rented-out Florida Aquarium... In the wee hours of the morning, as it was winding down, a lot of guys were walking to their cars parked in the garage across the street. A group of five or six angry, young straight guys, armed with crowbars and chains, attacked one of them from behind as he reached his car. He didn’t even have a chance to defend himself. They yelled, "Stupid fag!" and other obscenities as they beat him and kicked him, but he was already unconscious and bleeding on the cement floor by then and didn't hear them. Some of the other "fags" in the garage heard, I think in a turn of divine justice, the commotion and came running. Since the attackers were drunk, and not really in shape (unlike the vast majority of the kind of guys who would go to a White Party, let me tell you), when they reached them, those attackers got the snot beat out of them and were subdued while the police were called and ambulances arrived. The attackers had broken bones, busted lips and bloody noses, and were arrested and charged with some nasty felonies... The young man who was attacked was in a coma, but thankfully came out of it after a few days and, after many months of physical therapy, made a full recovery. And the gay men who came to his rescue, happily, weren't charged with anything, since the attackers had been armed and obviously the aggressors. Even though it ended well, given the situation, it started in the first place when it shouldn't have at all.)

Rabbi Zimmerman pressed on: Then, the little laws get passed... This anti-gay ordinance in Hillsborough County and many others like it in communities across the country, it's a sign. It's a sign as much as the first anti-Semitic laws in Germany were a start. The slope is slippery and if no one but those who are persecuted care or cry out, the snowball will turn into an avalanche, people will loose their lives and the world will become dimmer for the spilling of innocent blood.

And, just when the sermon was getting to the point where some might have been wondering when it was going to end, he brought it back home. He said, "And I'm sure many of you are sitting there thinking, 'Rabbi, what does *this* have to do with me and Yom Kippur?' Well, I can tell you there were many good priests in Europe and North America who gave sermons during Christmas services in 1939 just like this one, and many of their congregants probably asked the same thing."

The point was we know what's happening now, we've seen it before, as a people we lived it before, and we know that's it's wrong and it's wrong to be silent. Being silent in the face of injustice is as serious a sin as actively participating in the injustice. Are we going to stand by and watch? We know we shouldn't, we know we must speak out for all those who have been silenced and all those who would be silenced. I’ve known this for years and that’s why I’ve been a card-carrying member of the Human Rights Campaign and Equality Florida since I was 16 in 1999. I vowed to myself then that I would not be silent for all those who are forced to be. And still, even with all this commitment and effort and calling friends out on the mat for casual thoughtless homophobic comments, telling them, exactly as the rabbi said, that such comments are not harmless, and bearing their anger at my censure on more than one occassion, I know in my heart there is more I could have done.

I was glad that Rabbi Zimmerman reminded the entire congregation of these obligations… I could see looking around it was very difficult for many of them to hear. I could feel the tension in the room rise, there was a sense of uncomfortable emotion as the sermon ended on that note, which I think was the rabbi's intent. But I still wondered, as we all watched the children filter back into the sanctuary and were welcomed and hugged by their parents a few minutes later, how many of those parents were glad that their children hadn't heard the Rabbi's sermon this year.

And on a completely different note, but still connected to Yom Kippur, my cousin (by marriage) Stephanie gave birth to a baby girl (and I *knew* it would be a girl. As soon as we found out that she was pregnant last spring, I immediately thought, "it's a girl"... did the same thing when she had Molly, and I knew instantly that Jake would be a boy when she was pregnant with him... Perhaps I *am* a bit psychic... ;D ) around noon on Yom Kippur. She and her husband have decided to name her “Katelyn Rose” (I’m not sure on the spelling, but that’s the name). Poor Steph had a c-section and so she wasn’t up for visitors yesterday, and Katelyn spent her first several hours in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, though she wasn‘t a premmie. My cousin Martin said there was something wrong with the way she was breathing when she was born. We’re praying it’s not serious and she recovers. I’ll post a picture as soon as I get to take them… Hopefully, we will be able to go to the hospital to see them this afternoon.

No comments: