Sunday, March 25, 2012

Will I bring Treyvon Martin to my college reunion?


I was thinking about what I was like when I was in college as my 25th reunion approaches. Le Moyne College in the 80s was populated by a fairly conservative student body, and I wasn’t conservative politically which made for a fun time for this liberal, but there were some serious events that caused debate.  Apartheid, poverty, Reagan’s conservative muscle flexing and of course the constant racial divide not only on campus but around the country. 
 One story really brought some of those issues to the national awareness.  Bernard Goetz, a man who took a gun onto a New York City Subway and used it when menaced by some black youths.  He shot and injured the people he said tried to mug him.  Some say even he was hunting and fired into a severely injured assailant beyond a self-defense need.  There were many versions of the story but it didn’t take long that NYC and much of the country was divided along racial lines.  While Goetz was only convicted of an illegal gun charge, it refocused our attention on what is self-defense.  Some say this was revenge for previously being mugged.  That he was out hunting bad guys.  Debates were numerous and I even remember the Western Civilization Club at Le Moyne using the subway vigilante theme for a poster for a movie night featuring one of the Death Wish movies. 
I remember thinking many times that while racial issues were always bubbling that by the time of our 25th reunion we would be beyond that.  I truly had hope which many times over the last 25 years seemed to be both bolstered with the pinnacle being the election of President Obama, as well as destroyed by the fall out of things like the OJ trial.  We are still a racial divided country and one that seems to at times be getting worse.  But in the last few weeks it appears the country is nostalgic for the days of Bernie Goetz. 
In late February a man who fancied himself a neighborhood watch captain shot and killed a young black man he suspected of being a criminal.  His suspicion seemed to be fueled by the young man’s race.  He stalked him and executed him.  Standing behind a law that allows someone attacked to stand their ground, he was not charged and in fact the police treated the dead body as that of suspect.  However what we do know happened that night was the George Zimmerman called the police for the 46th time this year to report a suspicious person in the neighborhood.  When he was asked if he was following him, he said yes.  The dispatcher told him “we don’t need you to do that” a phrase that in many circles means, “Don’t follow him”.  There was a confrontation, someone yelled help and Treyvan Martin, a 17 year old boy with Skittles, Ice Tea and a cell phone was dead.   At first it went mostly unnoticed.  I read a paragraph about it in early March but the firestorm of interest began when it was discovered by the 24 hour news world.  We now have several versions of what happened that night, witnesses with conflicted stories and a police department under scrutiny for racial problems but now and in the past.  What we also have is the right wing noise machine trying to make the victim the problem while Mr. Zimmerman is still free, still has his gun and is being treated by some as a hero.
Like the Goetz case there is a racial divide here and that makes me sad.  Unlike Goetz however there is also a serious effort to see if this is a story beyond simply the racial issues but a larger concern about what it means to defend one’s self.  We have heard many things.  Glenn Beck wondered aloud on his echo chamber of a radio show if Mr. Martin may have been a murderer or a kidnapper (with no evidence of anything close to that).  Geraldo Rivera suggests the attire of Mr. Martin (a hoodie in the rain) contributed to his death.  Others blame Rev. Al Sharpton, another piece of 80s nostalgia is just pour gas on the flame as he was one of the first people to make this a national story.  But what I see and I see it sadly, it is a lot like Goetz.  Complex human psychology, a country willing to empower certain behavior even if sparked by some kind of racism, and the ubiquitous guns in the hands of people who may have series psychological problems.  The difference is that I truly do believe that our country is getting better,  that young white people seem to connect more to Mr. Martin than Mr. Zimmerman, that thousands are wearing hoodies in protest of the craziness of Geraldo’s and other’s attitude and there is a much better effort looking for justice. 
As I continue to think about how I will be seen in June in Syracuse maybe I will focus on how far we have come and not the stunted growth of our culture as I see it in this story.  But a part of me wants to show up in a hoodie.  I wonder how many people expect me to.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Elisha Ben Abuya

Elisha ben Abuya is a Talmudic character of high interest.  In fact the book As A Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg is a fictional account of his life.  In one story about this Sage of the first century is in the Talmud (Hullin 142a) where the he witnesses a boy climb a tree at his father's request (honouring his father) to get eggs (and remembers to shoo away the mother bird). Fulfilling two commandments that the Torah declares the reward for is a long life.    Elisha remarks, 'This boy is surely going to have a long life.' No sooner than he says this, the boy falls from the tree, breaks his neck and dies. Elisha's faith in God and true judgement evaporates and in that moment declares there is no true Judge in reference to God.   Elisha becomes an apostate, and is given the name Ocher ( the other one ), and becomes the foil throughout the Talmud for teaching the right way to approach the text.  


I thought of this story this morning when a friend, filling me in on her life, told me of two recent deaths.  One, her father-in-law, a man of age but still even with grandchildren left this world too soon.  The other was harder.  A ten year old, sent to bed with what was diagnosed as a flu fell victim to the misdiagnosed pneumonia that stole his last breath.  Each story added to the other's tragedy for my friend.  But the more I thought about it I was reminded of the story of Ocher.   Sometimes we are confronted with the things in our lives that defy explanation.  We strive to find meaning and sooth ourselves with the phrases like "everything is for a reason".  Sometimes it is not.  Sometimes it is the randomness of the universe more dynamic that we can imagine.  Sometimes the branch breaks.  


I think about this when I hear friends talk about both the profound and the ordinary events in their lives.  They use language like "God has another plan".  It is a comfort and I would think a curse to live with that as a belief.  For Ocher it destroyed his faith so much he became at times a personification of every kind of evil, even in one myth getting to visit paradise only to pull up all the flowers.  I cannot believe in a God who has so much involvement in the little details and if I did I would wonder why a God would have let that little boy go to bed.  I think it too easy to see God in the every day set backs and the great tragedies of our lives.  I remember the moment when this struck me the most.  It was almost 25 years ago and those who know me know of Linda's story.  I remember a man telling me that her death was God's way of telling me to live differently.  How can that be a God I worship?   


I will never see God as a player and me a pawn in the game.  My God is one that I seek to bring and express in the world.  I still can't wrap my head around the death of a child, but it is easier to believe in a God created universe where children will die for a variety of reasons without meaning, than one who would take a child just to force a single person to think differently.  Ocher was right in one respect.  There is no true judge, that isn't God's job, it is our job to create a world where we don't need one.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Cars going round in a circle.

When Noah was 2 years old and we lived in the south we would spend some Sunday afternoon watching the NASCAR races together as we played games or hung out.  It was a fun way to get some knowledge about a sport that was important to some of the people I worked with and of course make Noah happy.  Before that time much of what I knew about NASCAR was from ESPN and Jim Rome who called it Neckcar.  But what I discovered was a science that seemed so amazing.  The engineers who build the engines and the cars, the way the drivers use simple physics to gain a few extra miles per hour or manage to squeeze into spaces a few inches bigger than their cars really was remarkable.  However I was not much of a fan of the fans of NASCAR.  My one encounter that I will never forget a time I was flying early on a Monday morning out of Atlanta.  The day before was the New Hampshire race and there were many fans going home on my flight.  I could easily tell them as they were dressed up like their favorite driver.  Apparently there was an encounter the day before between Jeff Gordan and the late Dale Earnhart.  Their fans were jeering each other.  But even more noticable was that many of these fine young gentlemen had with them a six pack cooler as their carry on.  So I assumed that I was on the party flight to Georgia, just what I needed for a flight at 8:30am.  But much to my surprise when we approached the jetway one of these men opened their cooler to pull out his ticket and what looked like it sat on was a pile of underwear and socks, folded into the cooler.  This was his luggage.  Bravo for ingenuity.

In the years since I find myself gravitating toward the weekly car races from February to November.  I even started to question the ever changing points system, and can talk about the car of tomorrow with the best of them.  I know what the center of corner is and sometimes am tempted to get someone on the highway loose and spin em into the wall.  I have become a fan.  Last week I settled in to watch the Daytona 500 only the have it delayed over and over again.  I really missed it.  I loved it on Monday night and stayed up too late to watch.  I think I didn't want to admit how much a fan I am, but I have sat in stockcar, gunned the engine, and may one day do the fantasy camp.  I want to be part of the crowd and see the race.  Perhaps and the track in Northern California, or at least a track with a sushi bar.

I Don't Wear My Kippah at WalMart

Several years ago I was sitting in a cafe with someone who suggested I take off my kippah.  The neighborhood we were in was a predominantly...