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.

 

Time to Put Hyphens on the Back Burner? Counting our Blessings.

Time to Put Hyphens on the Back Burner? Counting our Blessings

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Image credit: https://1pa6q42ounl23kigam363hm3-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads//2012/07/american.melting.pot.jpg

Although I was born in Canada and proud to be a Canadian, I grew up with a soft spot in my heart for Americans because my family—and many other Canadians we knew – spent our vacation times mainly in the U.S.  Living in Montreal as we did, the U.S. border was only an hour away, and, after WWII (when travel to the U.S. once again flowed freely), my mother, sister, and I spent several joyous summers on the banks of Lake Champlain in Plattsburgh, N.Y. (unlike in Quebec, kids under 16 could go to the movies there, and a turkey dinner could be had at Woolworth’s for $1.25 each!), with my Dad joining us on the weekends. Later, my college friends and I got to know New England well in bucolic places like Lake Placid and Lake George.

When I married, my husband and I spent our honeymoon in New York City, attending a different Broadway play every night for a week. In Canada, we had a ski chalet in Mount Sutton, close to the Vermont border. My in-laws were part of the Snowbird crowd – my mother-in-law actually got a prescription from her doctor advising her husband that she needed to spend the winter in Florida (still a popular destination for sun-seeking Montrealers) for her “condition.” We were also grateful for our blessings, and we tried to “give back” to society in many ways.

As our four children grew, my husband and I became devotees of Ogunquit and Kennebunkport, Maine in the summer and then, venturing a little farther afield, of Cape Cod. How we enjoyed the sandy beach and tranquil waters of West Dennis and sometimes the daunting, cold waves of Nauset Beach! For several years, we explored the Cape’s artistic locations and innovators, its renowned aquatic museum in Wood’s Hole, and its marine cuisine. We loved American holidays like July 4th, when the population would always stand as one and place their hands on their hearts while lustily singing the National Anthem.

“Americans are patriotic,” we would say approvingly. “Americans make a lot of noise. Americans are a lot of fun.” Canadians, by contrast, were more circumspect, we thought, more modest then in their expressions of fealty to their country. Not everyone knew all the words to our own National Anthem, “O Canada,” which, as time went on and the words kept changing, we eventually sang in both English and French, especially in Quebec, where after much controversy, French became the official language.

The British Province of Canada was initially formed in 1841 by the union of Upper Canada and Lower Canada. Upper Canada’s population consisted largely of former Americans still loyal to Great Britain (that is, English-Canadians living in what is now Ontario), while Lower Canada (today’s Quebec) was mainly populated by French-Canadians, with long memories (je m’en souviens is still on Quebec license plates) of defeat to the English on the Plains of Abraham. Thus the tradition of hyphenated Canadians began. As Nova Scotia and New Brunswick joined the initial Confederation to create the Dominion of Canada in 1867, the Fathers of Confederation agreed that there would be two official languages in this new country, Canada, a decision that came back to bite a little more than a century later in the 1970s and 1980s when Separatism reared its controversial head. Suddenly we had a Quebec population divided into Franco-phones, Anglo-phones, and Allo-phones (people of neither French- nor English-origin). Separatist or Federalist labels merged into Quebecois or ROC (the Rest of Canada). And violence for a while.

It seemed then to be forgotten that, since Canada’s boundaries had grown over time to include ten provinces, plus the Northern Territories, the population now included immigrants from many countries of the world. Over the years, the French-/English- hyphen had proliferated to include many places of origin. In other words, while the country’s inhabitants were and are all “Canadians,” at various times in Canadian history, they or their ancestors had migrated from some other land. There were, indeed, many hyphens in Canadian identities. The federal government encouraged Canadians to celebrate the memory of their ethnic or cultural identity as a matter of pride. It added a welcome diversity to society. And eventually, native Canadian “Indians” were dignified at last with the title “First Nations” people.

Canada has long believed that “the cultural mosaic” enriches society. And it certainly has. But it seems to me that, in contemporary times, the mosaic can get in the way of a unified identity. In Quebec, La Patrie still strikes a chord in the hearts and minds of Franco-phones.

By contrast, Americans have traditionally believed in “the melting pot.” In days gone by, it didn’t matter where you came from. Once you became a citizen, you were an American. You enriched American culture with your prior knowledge and/or experience of other countries. You brought your skills, or you learned new ones. For me, this has always been a beautiful philosophy: The Statue of Liberty symbolically welcoming the oppressed, the homeless and hungry, with the opportunity for a better life in freedom and dignity. From sea to shining sea. From one coast to another.

Why break our splendidly diverse population into large or small demographic fragments (according to urban and rural locations and narrow definitions): a broad range of color, geographic, political, and even religious beliefs (evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim) compressed into a maze of charts on a TV screen?

Let us not lose the inspiring ideals that America encompassed. Let us remember that the Jewish value of b’tzelem Elohim, the creation of the progenitor of mankind in “the image of God,” extends to all humanity, along with the core concept of welcoming the stranger.

As Thanksgiving approaches, let us express deep gratitude for the cultural enrichment and initiative immigrants from so many countries have brought and continue to bring over the centuries since America’s inception. It’s self-evident, hopefully along with the Four Freedoms enunciated by an American President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1941 shortly before the U.S. entered World War II: Freedom of Speech and Expression, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.  These freedoms, he hoped, would become universal values. So why do we need the hyphens in 2018? These little word connectors, it seems to me, belong to an unequal past. Let us put the hyphen to rest.

When you travel to so many less fortunate parts of the world – shockingly so — as I have had the occasion to do in recent years, you know how good it is to come home to America.

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

 

 

A Letter to my Friends

October 29, 2018
Los Angeles, CA


A Letter to my Friends

From Rabbi Corinne Copnick

You are undoubtedly grieving, as I am, over the shocking, hate-fuelled murders at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, as well as the evil sentiments behind them. It is a time for mourning and consolation.

And then it will be a time for serious thought. No matter what euphemisms are employed – white nationalists, alt-right , extremists – there is little doubt now that elements of the Nazi party are alive and well in America.

What can ensure its growth, unfortunately, is a leader inflated with power, someone with access to a bully pulpit who can call out the appropriate “dog whistles” to activate the crazies, to bring them out of the woodwork. When the President of the United States looks directly into the camera and declares, “I am a nationalist,” that is such a dog whistle. It calls “the troops” into action. And I think the President of the United States is smart enough to know what he is doing.

So was the dog whistle intentional? I leave that for you to decide. Was it intentional when Trump, again looking into the camera, asked the memorable question, “Russia, are you listening?”

A respected historian, commenting on television yesterday on the atrocities at the synagogue, explained that the young men seduced by this deceptive rhetoric (such as the Charlottesville torch-bearers declaiming “The Jews will not replace us”) take pride in calling themselves “Trumpenkriegers.” The Germanic name apparently refers to “foot soldiers.” They declare themselves foot soldiers doing the dirty work for Trump.

On the day previous to the synagogue shootings, most Americans were still reeling over the attempted assassination by mailed pipe bombs of respected democratic leaders strong enough to take a stand against forces that denigrate – and try to destroy –the very principles on which this amazing country was founded. Only a day before, and only days before the mid-term elections, the media was consumed with these attempted murders by pipe bomb that had just taken place. Then, the very next day, the topic was actual murder by massacre.

Many of the synagogues and Jewish institutions in Los Angeles, where I live, already have security guards, at considerable cost. But the solution to the problems we are facing today is not to turn America into a fortress.

It is all too easy to proclaim glibly “Never Again,” as our President did at a recent rally.  We must ensure that history does not repeat itself.

I am invited to attend a meeting at the Museum of Tolerance in L.A. The purpose is to memorialize the horrific events that took place in wartime (WWII) Budapest with eyewitness accounts. Let us pray that our own grandchildren will not have to memorialize tragic events still to take place in this beautiful country if we do not prevent them from happening.

Let us pray in holy memory of those who were murdered at the Tree of Life synagogue, with deep compassion for their mourning families, and in solidarity with those who survived and those still in need of recovery. And let us pray for the soul of America. We are all in need of healing.

Spiritual Citizenship: A Reflection on Conversion

Spiritual Citizenship: A Reflection on Conversion

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Photo credit: Susanne V. Schroeder

As intermarriage becomes an increasingly common aspect of Jewish life, the Conservative movement has decided to allow their affiliated rabbis to attend intermarriage ceremonies. Not to officiate at these ceremonies, mind you — perhaps that decision will follow — but for now they will at least be able to attend the simcha. In a recent article in the Forward, Ari Feldman gives further details (“Conservative Movement Gives Rabbis Green Light to Attend Intermarriages,” Oct. 22, 2018). It is a long-awaited, welcoming gesture. Until now, conservative rabbis could not even hover in the back row if they wished to remain in the conservative movement.

Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky offers his own thoughtful and lengthy article, although written a decade ago still insightfully relevant, also written from a conservative point of view, on the subject of conversion. “At a given moment,” he writes, “a non-Jew is transformed from ‘outsider’ to ‘one of us.’ What changed that person?” What is the transformative moment?

Kalmanofsky suggests that the prospective convert may have passed through one or more “doors”:

  1. “What doorway did s/he pass through, so that the s/he now counts in the minyan?
  2. Was it a religious doorway?
  3. An ethnic one?
  4. An intellectual affirmation.
  5. A faith act?
  6. A mark on the body?
  7. An orientation of the spirit?
  8. Does conversion depend on one’s self-definition?
  9. Or upon decisions by others, like rabbinic courts?
  10. Or perhaps upon the informal willingness of Jews to recognize someone as family?”

What doorways do those of us who are born Jews pass through in the various stages of our lives? Do we find enriching moments — our own transformative doorways — along the way? Do we continue to grow spiritually? Or do we take the fact of Jewish birth — our spiritual citizenship — for granted?

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

Who is the real mother?

Who is the real mother?

 

“And the king said, “Divide the living child in two and give half to the one, and half to the other.” (1Kings 3:5)

 

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

 

Time and again, we can find solutions, or at least the glimmer of a solution to current problems, in ancient Jewish wisdom. In the biblical story that depicts each of two women claiming the same baby as hers, the women approach King Solomon for a decision. To the horror of the real mother, the king suggests dividing the baby in half, one-half for each of them. Of course, the real mother cannot accept this solution; she realizes that the baby will die in the process of “fairness.” Heartbroken, she would prefer that her baby be given to the false mother; at least he will live. Thus the king is able to identify the real mother.

Image credit: https://www.eurasiareview.com

Of course, this is not an exact analogy of the situation in Israel with both Israelis and Palestinians claiming that the biblical Promised Land is theirs, and that each is the true indigenous people of the land. However, if both sides keep fighting over it, as they have done well before before the modern State of Israel was established in 1948, the baby will indeed die.

Who is the real mother?

For centuries, despite – or perhaps because of –their success in the face of great difficulties, most Jews (living in “exile” from the Promised Land after the conquering Romans destroyed the Second Temple and plowed Jerusalem under with oxen) have traditionally been scapegoats when things go wrong in foreign lands. In the sway of the Spanish Inquisition, Europe cast them out, and Jews scattered to other parts of the world.  Lucky, hard-working Jewish immigrants found a second home in the U.S., the goldene medina. There were always a few Jews living in the then “Palestine” in cities other than Jerusalem. But until Israel was re-established as a modern state, the Jews of the world truly had nowhere to call their own. Nowhere to go in the face of hatred directed at them – and to immigrants in general — by right wing extremists in repetitive cycles. Now at last they have Israel once again, their ancestral home.

In a recent Beit Kulam class, one of my students (Israeli by birth, now an American citizen), offered an enlightening comment. Both Palestinians and Israelis have nowhere else to go. It’s true: The Palestinians also have nowhere to go. Arab governments in their region, for various reasons, don’t want to take them in. Their Arab “brothers” don’t want to be swamped by an aggressive people who tend to political trouble-making and who will quickly become a majority in their land. There are plenty of Palestinians in Jordan now, but the Jordanian king doesn’t want any more. It’s Israel’s problem. So there are two peoples who, when push comes to shove, have nowhere to go. Except Israel.

* * * *

Two people who claim to be indigenous to the land.

The region was ruled for centuries by the Ottoman Empire, who were largely absentee landlords, and sadly, the land deteriorated under Ottoman rule. Later, before all of Palestine (so named by the Romans) became a British protectorate after World War I ended, the territory was called Transjordan, a Jordanian protectorate.

Unfortunately, the Palestinians and the surrounding Arab countries have continued to reject the Jewish state, and insist the land is rightfully theirs. The term “Palestine” originally referred to all the people living there. Then in the 1960s, their leader, Yasser Arafat, narrowed the definition of “Palestinian” to the Arabs living there. These Arab Palestinians considered themselves a people indigenous to Israel, even though the Arab Invasion of the Middle East did not occur until 700 BCE.  And they also claimed Jerusalem should be theirs, even though the Muslim prophet, Mohammed, was never there. Rather, he saw Jerusalem in a DREAM.

 

While Muslims face Mecca, not Jerusalem, in their prayers, Jews have turned toward Jerusalem, toward the East, in their prayers for two thousand years. They have wandered from land to land for centuries, always reciting in their liturgy, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Always they have vowed “If I forget thee, Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning”( Psalm 137:5). Jerusalem is incised in the collective memory of the Jewish people.

Jerusalem is often represented in the Bible and in Jewish liturgy as a woman. Metaphorically, there’s a continuing love affair between the Israelites and Jerusalem. However, politically today, she is  more like a woman that two men desire. Can she embrace them both? Or do the contenders choose to cut her in half, as King Solomon suggested in his judgment about the baby, even though she may die? Should one party relinquish his claim in order that she will continue to bloom, offering succor to them both? It looks like neither will have her in entirety. If both

parties are truly indigenous, they will have to share her. When two people have no place to go, and there is only one land where they believe they rightfully belong, they need to share. In Hebrew, Jerusalem is plural: Yerushalayim.

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