Archive by category "Musings"

Linking to the Ancestors

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Image credit: https://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/~rfrey/220balinese_arts_and_dance.htm

The balmy weather and the vivid greenness of surrounding nature in Los Angeles in the last few days (after all, we did have a week of rain about a week or so ago) reminded me of the paradisal gentleness of nature in Bali (if you put aside the heaps of plastic that have accumulated on their once pristine beaches). Surrounded by Muslim neighbors in other Indonesian countries that do not include Judaism among the allowed official religions, Bali is a Hindu country and welcomes people of all religions.

Their own religion places great stress on connection to ancestors. For the Balinese, this beautiful island will always be the land of their ancestors. “Our young people always come back,” an ageing Balinese man told me. “They go away to get educated – doctors, lawyers, teachers – but they always come back to Bali. Because this is where their ancestors are.”

The roads to the main cities and marketplaces may be overcrowded with tourists now, but in at least one remote village, tradition is honored. Once a year the villagers unearth the buried bones of their ancestors and wash them. Then, satisfied they have honored their ancestors’ memory, they rebury the clean bones. In the ancient Balinese way, they are paying respect to those who have come before them.

In rural houses of worship, the large statues that represent the many gods of their Hindu mythology, are draped by the local people with cloaks and hats made of gold cloth or other fine materials. Food and drink are set before them as if they were still present in this world. Of course, the local people “know” that statues are not really gods; they are symbols, representations of their belief system, and they are paying homage to these beliefs.

I bought two shadow puppets made in the traditional way from leather (not plastic, though these were available as well) and hand-painted to represent these mythological gods. They have exotic names and stories that the Balinese people well know and treasure. For the moment, they sit in a tall vase in my home, souvenirs of a country blessed by nature but already caught in the throes of environmental change. Yet the casual tourist, like myself in a brief visit over two days, is likely to feel that Bali will be all right. Because the children will always come back.

During my brief visit, I kept thinking of the opening verses – “Patriarchs” — of the central prayer of the Jewish religion: “The Amidah.” We Jews, too, know where the ancestors are: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah.  Abraham bought the Cave of Machpelah to bury Sarah, a purchase in silver coins recorded in the Torah. Joseph carried his father’s bones back to the Holy Land. And the children will always come back to honor and protect their memory.

©Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2019. All rights reserved.

Hitler in Los Angeles?

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Just the other day, I attended a compelling but disturbing slide-lecture by acclaimed historian Steven J. Ross, and now I’m in the process of reading his recent book on the same subject, “Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews foiled Nazi Plots  Against Hollywood and America. Small wonder it has already been picked up for production as a film. Every American, let alone every Jew, should read this book because it is sorely needed to shed some light on the period of societal turmoil in which we are living in currently.

The very first paragraph, a quote from Adolf Hitler in 1933, soon after his election as Chancellor of the Reichstag, is in itself instructive. The Nazi intent was to “undermine the morale of the people of America….Once there is confusion and after we have succeeded in undermining the faith of the American people in their own government, a new group will take over…and we will help them assume power” [1].

As I read these words, the 2017 neo-Nazi, torchlit march in Charlottesville, South Carolina took on a new dimension.  Especially chilling is Ross’ claim that the U.S. government of the 1930s and even into the early 1940s was so preoccupied with outing Communist subversion in America that they totally missed the clandestine Nazi actions that were undermining the U.S. with intent to eventually take over the government.

Antisemitism was the rallying call of this Nazi group, made up largely of German-Americans, with prominent and powerful people in the Hollywood motion picture industry as their  target. The plots were aimed at Jewish people in the film industry – the killing of top movie moguls and film stars with world-wide recognition like Charlie Chaplin and Al Jolson. These Nazis were plotting to hang 20 prominent Hollywood Jews as a signal of permission for other acts of terror against the Jews to follow throughout the U.S.

Why Hollywood? Why Los Angeles? Hollywood was seen as a perfect propaganda platform for worldwide attention. The selection of Los Angeles had a geographical motive. According to Ross, Hitler’s government was planning to unite with Japan to control the world. (It is not surprising, therefore, that Japan would attack Pearl Harbor, and America had no choice but to enter World War II.) Los Angeles is located halfway between Berlin and Japan so that, in the view of these foreign powers, it was a perfect place  — no, not Florida! — for an American Nazi “White House.” There was even a site chosen (Murphy’s Ranch, near L.A.) where militant Nazi drills of recruited young people took place.

The telling of these events is not a fantasy; what happened is real, supported by very considerable evidence.

It sounds almost impossible that all this clandestine activity could have taken place under the nose of the American government without at least some officials at various levels being aware of it. Sadly, some were not only aware, they were complicit.  So at this point, what Ross’ book details takes on the dimensions of a spy story, replete with double agents.

The spy story gets even more complicated. A small cadre of Jews, however, led by attorney Leon Lewis and aided by some dedicated Christians as well, don’t take these subversive goings-on lying down, however, and  they establish their own counter spy network to foil the plots against the U.S., and specifically Jewish Americans. When I have read the book from cover to cover at least once, I’ll probably write more about what took place. But I don’t want to spoil the action for you, so, in the meantime, it’s a really good idea for you to read it yourself.

[1] Steven J. Ross, Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America. (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017), p.1.

©Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

Put Not Your Trust in Princes

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Almost everything there is to know about human nature can be found in the Hebrew Bible. Amazingly, it’s all there. Centuries change, countries and circumstances change, but the things that animate and motivate people remain the same, even if they seem to be masked over by different cultures, degrees of sophistication, wealth, or learning. Even if they feel close to God. Perhaps Psalm 146 states it best – and succinctly.

Put not your trust in the great (princes),

In mortal man who cannot save.

His breath departs;

He returns to the dust;

On that day his plans come to nothing.

Psalm 146

Way back in 722 BCE, when Assyria, then a strong power in the Middle East, captured the ten tribes of Northern Israel (also known as “Ephraim”), the two kings of a then divided Israel (the region known as “Judah” was in the south) rivalled one another. In particular, the rebellious northern region (itself riven by divisions and idolatry) made alliances the prophets warned against (see Isaiah 20) with Egypt, with Syria, with Edom – alliances that deserted Northern Israel and switched to the other side when the going got tough. Thus, as Psalm 146 explains, don’t put your trust in the great (the princes of old), whose words and actions may be mercurial. Far better to trust in God – and your own wise innate and learned moral actions.

Fast forward to 2018. Currently, both the divisions in the modern State of Israel and in the Diaspora are worrisome. Internally Israel is divided politically, religiously, and in its foreign policies. Left and rightwing parties are continually at loggerheads, and Israel’s present foreign policy — throwing in Israel’s lot with Saudi Arabia (in the hope that it will rally the other Arab countries to force the Palestinians to make peace and for Hezbollah to stand down) and with the U.S. (in the hope that Jerusalem will at last be recognized by the nations of the world as the capital of Israel). Unfortunately, Israel’s moral standing – and support in the Diaspora — is being sacrificed to these aims.

There are spiritual divisions too. Although Judaism traditionally encourages different points of view, the religious right remains too rigid in its interpretation of halakhah (Jewish law). The Israeli rabbinate’s extreme orthodox attitudes toward and authority over marriage, divorce, and conversion, as well as towards women are all sources of controversy. There is little, if any, recognition of the spiritual validity of the various Jewish religious denominations prevalent in the Diaspora, especially America. In resistance, the secular left, both in Israel and the Diaspora is close to throwing away the baby with the bath water. Thus in many area of Jewish life, there is a dissonance in the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora. That’s why it is so important to remember the circumstances that led to the captivity – and eventual assimilation — of the ten tribes of old by the Assyrians, who dispersed them to other areas, never to let them set foot in Israel again.

While their northern brothers were being taken captive, southern Israel (Judah), ruled by the 8th century BCE “good king” Hezekiah, son of Ahab, was also to suffer, in part from ascribing too much goodness to others. In fact, the prophet Hosea warned the king not to show his very considerable wealth to other Middle Eastern nations like Babylonia lest they war against him to plunder it for themselves (See Isaiah 20). And indeed, at a later date during Hezekiah’s 29-year reign, Babylonia did so. Meanwhile, after the devastation of Northern Israel, Southern Israel became a vassal of Assyria, required to pay vast sums to the Assyrian king.

Nevertheless, in order to preserve southern Israel’s independence from the Assyrians, King Hezekiah implemented a clever strategy. He diverted the waters of the Gihon spring, which were outside the city of Jerusalem’s walls, by means of a tunnel to the pool of Siloam, which was inside the city walls. It still exists in Israel. I walked through that same tunnel, trying not to slip on its cobblestones covered with water to my knees, when I visited Israel (it was my children’s first time) in 1989.

But long ago, when the Assyrians besieged Jerusalem, King Hezekiah was powerfully backed by the prophet and statesman, Isaiah, and Jerusalem had the water to survive. Although the Assyrian army was soon decimated by the plague and retreated, the kingdom of Judah had to continue paying vassal tribute.

Despite thousands of years of deprivation, dispersion, and persecution, the Jewish people have somehow endured. So many centuries later, in modern Israel, the north and south are physically together again, one country, indivisible (although there are usually aggressive intentions toward Israel from both directions). Better, it seems to me, that Israel should believe in itself for its own protection than in any foreign entities. Especially in the word of foreign potentates in modern guise with their own agendas. Better that those who claim to love Israel, both in the Middle East and in the Diaspora, should continue to believe in the wisdom of a guiding God, Creator of our universe. Even princes. That’s what the Bible tells us.

©Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

Other and Me

Other and Me

 

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

 

Image credit:https://ichef.bbci.co.uk/news/624/cpsprodpb/17842/production/_96322369_schoolchildren_getty976.jpg

In a way, I have always been “Other.” It’s a designation I think of as normal, maybe even special. My “Otherness” started at an early age when my sister and I attended a public school under the aegis of the Protestant School Board in Montreal. There was one school board for Protestants and one for Catholics. Actually the Catholic School Board was divided in two: one for the majority — French-speaking Catholic children — and one for English-speaking Catholics, a minority. But the latter were not “Other.” We Jews were “Other,” because neither French nor English Catholic schools would accept us as students. So our Jewish parents enrolled us in schools run by the Protestant School Board, which had an open enrolment policy. And where the admission forms had checkboxes for Protestant, Catholic, and Other, we marked “Other.” “Other” was good; at least “Other” was accepted in this place.

It is ironic that most Montreal Jewish kids in those days grew up speaking English, rather than French, as their first language because they weren’t admitted to the Catholic schools. We all ended up knowing both languages anyway.

There were, in fact, private Jewish-run schools called “parochial” schools, like Talmud Torah, at that time. Talmud Torah students learned their lessons in English, French (later mandatory), and Hebrew. The Folke Shule and, if my memory serves me correctly, the Peretz schools, went a step further and added Yiddish to the mix. Not every student could master three or four languages at a time, however, and these private schools were expensive. While I excelled at languages, my parents, like those of most of my friends, simply could not afford a private school, especially if there were several children. While most of us attended extra-curricular religious classes at our synagogues once or twice a week, girls did not have to learn Hebrew. And I learned to understand a domestic kind of Yiddish from listening to my mother speak with my grandmother when they didn’t want me to know what they were saying.

In addition, I could recite the New Testament’s Beatitudes and still remember and can at least hum along with all the Christian hymns and the Christmas Carols, at least one of them in Latin. How did that happen? The Protestant School Board’s curriculum required each day to begin with fifteen minutes of New Testament scripture – that is, after we saluted the Union Jack flag (Canada was still a Dominion of England) and sang sequentially, “God Save the King (George VI),” “The Maple Leaf Forever,” “O Canada,” and finally recited the Lord’s Prayer together.

Only then did the Protestant scripture class began. Those of us who were “Other” could attend, but, if our parents sent a note otherwise, we could spend those 15 minutes waiting in the darkish Cloakroom. Most schools have lockers today, but then we had Cloakrooms, small rooms adjacent to the classroom, where, as the name suggests, we hung our coats, hats, scarves, and mittens, all laden with melting snow. Our boots languished underneath, and of course, it all smelled very – damp!

Some children waited in the Cloakroom. But my mother, like others, did not send a note. “It’s good to learn about other religions,” she said, “as long as you know what your own is.” It’s a teaching that has remained with me always. As a rabbi today – who knew then that’s what I would become? — I still credit my mother with inculcating in me the value of Interfaith association when I was just a little “Other” in Elementary School.

The Christian teachings came in handy in another way – protectively. Just down the street from the library where I chose new books and returned others once or twice a week was a French-Catholic convent school. Close to Easter time when the Montreal sun was stronger and the snow beginning to melt into puddles, the uniformed schoolgirls congregated after school just outside the wrought iron gates, blocking the way for all passers-by.

“Catholique ou Protestant?” they would aggressively challenge kids from other schools. Or who were going home from the neighborhood library, their arms full of books. I knew all too well that if I admitted that I was Jewish, they would beat me up – and there were a lot of them. I couldn’t say, “Catholic,” or they would ask me to recite the catechism. That’s just the way it went. So I firmly replied, “Protestant.”

“Prove it,” they demanded. That was easy. I declaimed the Beatitudes with the ease of a schoolgirl who recites them everyday at her 15-minute scripture class. So they only splashed my stockings with mud and pulled my hair. That was enough for a Protestant.

Times have changed. The prediction is that in a couple of decades, the population in the U.S. will be more than 50 percent “Other;” that is, it will be diverse, made up of many kinds of people. “Other” will be the majority. Happy Holidays to one and all, wherever you were born, however you pray!

Chag Urim Hanukkah!

©Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

Border Issues – Then and Now

Border Issues – Then and Now

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

“Moses went up from the steppes of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the summit of Pisgah, opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan; all of Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Menasseh; the whole land of Judah as far as the Western Sea; the Negeb and the Plain – the Valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees – as far as Zoar. And the Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “I will assign it to your offspring” (Deut. 34: 1-4).

Image credit: Globescope

Thousands of years before Robert Frost, winner of multiple Pulitzer prizes, wrote his celebrated poem “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” in 1914 on the cusp of World War One, the Hebrew leader, Moses, allotted promised land to the Israelites in accordance with specifications divinely articulated in the Torah (Deuteronomy 34). Within this larger boundary, the specific areas where each of the Hebrew tribes would make their home were specified even before the ancient Israelites crossed the Jordan to enter Canaan (Deut. 3: 12-17).

When the tribes of Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Menasseh elected not to cross the Jordan river’s western bank, but rather stay where they were, east of the Jordan, because they thought this location would be ideal for raising their flocks of cattle (Numbers 32:33), Moses explained that these tribes could live anywhere they liked with two conditions: 1) they would assist the other Israelite tribes in the initial entry into Canaan, and 2) furthermore would come to the defense of their brethren across the Jordan whenever their help was needed urgently. It was a condition that would be loyally kept.

Much of the book of Joshua (1-13) is devoted to a detailed description of the division of the land of Canaan. Not all of the idolatrous Canaanite tribes were fled or were killed, however (and historians now say – by virtue of new methods of carbon-dating pottery shards) that the battles described in the Bible may have taken place a couple of centuries before the Israelites actually arrived there), and so the remaining Canaanite and incoming Israelite tribes eventually learned to co-exist.

Notably, for the Israelites, the issue of borders was balanced with the commandment to welcome the stranger. While obligated to follow Israelite law while within the boundaries of the Promised Land, the stranger was well treated and given the same privileges as the the Israelites. Also, in this long-ago agricultural society, the corners of the fields were always to be left unharvested so that poor people could glean them for themselves and thus gather their own fruit and grain. These rules to help the have-nots were well respected by those who had more.

The fields of plants needed respected borders too. In the Mishnah (commentary on the Torah that became the first part of the Talmud) section “Zeraim” (Seeds),” we learn that, in order to keep plants roots from intermingling (mixed seeds are prohibited) so that they will grow better, it’s good to plant row of onions as separators. Why? Because the onions’ roots grow straight down, and thus the plants won’t intermingle. The onions don’t mind at all. They grow well side by side too. Ancient Israel was — and Modern Israel even more — a very ecologically-minded place.

So maybe, amid the political turmoil we are experiencing today, Robert Frost’s enduring poem should read “Good Fences and Mutual Good Will (and a little bit of empathy and real world knowledge) Make Good Neighbors.”

 

© Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.