About rabbiadar

Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi based in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, mom, poodle groomer, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ as the Coffee Shop Rabbi.

A Prayer for Healing

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וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ

Vayivra Elohim et-ha’adam b’tzalmo, b’tzelem Elohim bara oto.

God created humans in God’s own image, in the image of God created them. (Gen. 1:27)

May the One who created our ancestors in the Divine image, and blessed them with bodies of infinite variety, bless all who are in distress today.

From Divine Wisdom, Chochmah, grant each of us the Wisdom appropriate to our roles: to doctors, give skill; to nurses, give patience and perception; to caretakers of all kinds, give endurance and the wisdom to know when to seek help and where to find it.  Amen.

From Divine Understanding, Binah, grant us the understanding to see sufferers as they really are, to perceive the Divine Image within them even when it is hard to see. Whatever our own suffering, grant us the understanding that we are not alone, that sometimes it is in comforting another that we can find some comfort.  Amen.

From Divine Lovingkindness, Chesed, grant us lovingkindness, to listen to troubles as many times as they need to be heard.  Amen.

From Divine Compassion, Rachamim, grant us compassion for those who are sick in ways we do not fully understand. Give us compassion for those who are ill in ways that frighten or disturb us. And give us compassion for ourselves, when we fail to meet our goals.  Amen.

From Divine Kingship, Malchut, grant us the self-discipline to do what we need to do to guard and restore our own health.  Grant us also restraint in expressing our opinions: give us the humility to accept that sometimes we do not know what is best for others.  Amen.

From Divine Strength, Givurah, grant us strength to endure what must be endured, to persist in treatment if treatment is prescribed, to support those who are fallen ill with all of our strength, and finally the strength to accept those things which must be accepted.  Amen.

And from Divine Beauty, Tiferet, grant us the ability to appreciate the beauty in this world, no matter what troubles surround us. Let us walk daily among miracles with our hearts wide open to one another and to You.  Amen.

May the One who blessed our Ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel bless all who are sick, all who are troubled in mind, body or spirit, and grant them healing.  And we say, AMEN.

Image: “It’s Raining at the Broken Bridge” by Vinoth Chandar. Some rights reserved.

Not Our Grandfathers’ Shmita

Shmita means "release."

A recent Torah portion, Behar, introduced the concept of the shmita, or sabbatical year. As it happens the coming year 5775 will be a sabbatical year.

Leviticus 25: 1-7 states:

The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai:  Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I give you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. But you may eat whatever the land during its sabbath will produce — you, your male and female slaves, the hired and bound laborers who live with you, and your cattle and the beasts in your land may eat all its yield.

The Torah here draws an analogy between the people and the land. Just as the Jewish people are commanded to rest every seventh day, and to allow our animals and servants to rest every seventh day, we are commanded to rest the land every seventh year.
Deuteronomy 15 adds additional regulations for the sabbatical year:

At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the Lord’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. 

That chapter goes on to specify that Jewish slaves belonging to Jews will also be released in that year. It’s from this passage that we get the name Shmita (“release”) by which the year is usually called.
We don’t know exactly how these rules were applied in ancient times. The Biblical text suggests that the sabbatical year was in fact not observed:

This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I made a covenant with your ancestors when I brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I said, ‘Every seventh year each of you must free any fellow Hebrews who have sold themselves to you. After they have served you six years, you must let them go free.’ Your ancestors, however, did not listen to me or pay attention to me. (Jeremiah 34: 13-14)

In Nehemiah 10, the re-establishment of the sabbatical year is proclaimed, but again, we don’t hear how that actually played out.

The problem was and is that taking this law literally is extremely difficult. Imagine for a moment what it implies: all agriculture ceases for a year. All debts are cancelled. Slaves are let go. The richer you are, the more losses you take, but there are risks and losses for everyone. The entire population of Israel must gamble that enough food can be gleaned from fallow fields for all to survive.

The rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud devised ways to make it work. If you are interested in the details, check out prozbuland otzar beit din.  To get an idea of what is involved in a traditional rabbinical observance of these rules, you can read “Shmittah Revisited” by Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff.

But what if we take a more expansive approach to the interpretation of these verses? What if the real point is not in the details, but in the values that the shmita year teaches?

What are some of the values that shmita endorses?

  • Food security
  • Economic justice
  • Sustainable use of land
  • Human, animal, and land health
  • Freedom
  • Equality of all human beings

Genesis 1:26 is often interpreted to mean that we human beings may do with the earth what we like:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image,in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

The principles of the shmita year (as well as the prohibitions on unnecessary cruelty to animals) remind us that we are not the rulers of creation, free to do whatever we like regardless of consequences.

Economist and halachic expert Rabbi Meir Tamari commented in his book The Challenge of Wealth that proponents of various political and economic ideologies have often tried to use Torah to argue that their particular system is “God’s system.” He points out that one can make such arguments for many conflicting systems: capitalism, socialism, communism, etc. Torah therefore is not an endorsement of any one economic or political system; rather it offers us a vision of a world of justice and peace. It is up to us and our human creativity to find ways to bring that world to fruition.

Perhaps the commandment for shmitah (remember, it is literally translated “release”) teaches us that we should regularly release our preconceived notions in order to take a hard look at what is going on around us. Released from our ideological straightjackets, we might be free enough to bring our world back into line with the values expressed in Torah.

We are living in a time when many people are concerned with overwhelming issues like slavery, economic inequality and climate change. Some refuse to see these as real. Others insist on particular solutions, and refuse to consider anything else. While we do not all agree on solutions, we can support one another in seeking many different solutions to the ills we face. We can release our insistences that our plans be the only plans.

Our times call for creativity. Now the shmita year is coming to call us to even higher creativity, and an even higher standard of justice.

Psalm 126 says that “those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.” Much is wrong in our world today. Let us make use of the shmita year, and shmita creativity, to work towards a new harvest, a harvest of joy. May the coming year be a year of fruitful release!

Image: “The Moment of Release” by Harold Lloyd. Some rights reserved.

We Were Strangers Once

We're all in this together, after all.

We’re all in this together, after all.

Passover preparation this year was interrupted by horrible news: on Sunday, April 13, three people were murdered just outside Jewish institutions in Overland Park, Kansas. From the news reports, it seems likely that a notorious anti-Semite chose that day to terrorize Jews.  Children were terrified. Three innocent lives were taken.

Here in the United States, this event was big news and the response was exactly what we would hope for in such a situation. Law enforcement rushed to the scene, and determined that the murders were indeed a hate crime. The President, religious leaders, and civic leaders rushed to the microphones to denounce the evil acts. The news services interviewed speakers from the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League and local synagogues. All the public voices agreed: the acts and attitude of the murderer stand completely outside the law and the public will.

We have reached a point in American history where it is assumed that violence against Jews and people who spend time with Jews is a bad thing.

Unfortunately, while we have made progress in this area, others still suffer under the assumptions that they are less than human, dangers to society, or are “asking for trouble” simply by being who they are. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, more than half of all victims of anti-LGBT hate crimes in 2012 were transgender women. Transgender women of color are especially at risk of violent attacks. For example, Islan Nettles, a young trans woman who had worked her way out of homelessness and was looking towards a bright future was beaten to death by thugs on the street.

I had dinner with a young trans activist last week, to find out how things were going at the nonprofit where he works. He told me that he is haunted by all the murders, that every week brings word of more violence against trangender people.

And then there is the violence that isn’t categorized officially as a hate crime, because it originates in the legal system itself. Last May, Monica Jones was arrested on the street in Phoenix, AZ, when police profiled her as a sex worker because she was a trans woman of color walking on a public street. She was given a choice of a Christian “prostitution diversion” program or to be tried on charges of prostitution. Never mind that she isn’t a prostitute. Never mind that she is a student in good standing at Arizona State. Never mind that if sentenced, she faces placement in a mens’ jail where she is almost certain to be the target of violence. An Arizona judge convicted Monica of “manifesting prostitution” which means she fit the profile: in her case, she was accosted by police for “looking like a prostitute” and then she asked them if they were police. That is her “crime.”

There was a time in America when ignorant people felt free to ask Jews about our anatomy (“Have horns? a tail?”) a time when Jews were assumed to be deceptive, a time when Jews had to fear violence on a daily basis. There are, sadly, people who still hold to anti-Semitic beliefs and who act on those beliefs. But when the chips are down, as they were in Kansas this past week, American Jews can depend on the system for justice.

Transgender people face intrusive questions about their anatomy anytime, anywhere: “What surgery have you had?”  “What do your genitals look like?” They are assumed to be deceptive: “He used to be a woman!” “She isn’t a real she!” They are acceptable targets for jokes, for violence, and for ridicule in too many venues. However, the sad fact is that trans folk cannot depend on the system for justice; sometimes our law enforcement and legal systems are the source of injustice.

We’ve been there. We know what it is like to be despised outsiders. This Passover, let’s mobilize our resources to fulfill the commandment:

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. – Exodus 20:21.

We Jews are still targets of violence. We are still misunderstood and oppressed by the majority culture at times. We could take our anger and fear and turn inwards. But instead we have the choice to obey the commandment and turn outwards, to reach outwards, and take the hands of those who are still labeled as strangers in our society. We are commanded to challenge bigotry and ignorance. We are commanded to speak up for the stranger. Because we know what it’s like.

I wish all our readers a zissen Pesach, a sweet Passover, an energizing festival, empowering us all to work for justice.

Image: By Koshy Koshy, Some rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

A Heartfelt Request

On April 1, 2014, I and more than 50 other rabbis are going to shave our heads:

  • in solidarity with children and their families who suffer through cancer and cancer treatments
  • in protest against the lack of options available to those children and their healthcare professionals
  • in memory of Samuel Asher Sommer z”l, who died last December after an 18 month struggle with cancer
  • and to raise funds for research so that future cancer sufferers will have more and better options than did Sam.

Did you know:

  • Worldwide, a child is diagnosed with cancer every three minutes.
  • Most childhood cancers are not related to lifestyle factors – they can’t be prevented by “living well.”
  • In 80% of children, by the time the cancer is discovered, it has already spread within the body.
  • More than 90% of survivors of childhood cancers will have lifelong conditions from their cancer treatments.
  • Only a tiny percentage of federal cancer research funding goes for treatments for childhood cancers.

We can’t save Sammy, but we are raising funds to bring about better treatments for the children who will be diagnosed in the future. Current treatments are brutal and too often ineffective.  Research dollars go to look for more effective treatments that do less damage to children.

I am asking you, my readers, to participate in this drive by donating through my page at the St.Baldrick’s Foundation. Even the smallest donation will make a difference; I checked, and the website will accept a donation of even $1.

St. Baldrick’s, by the way, is not a religious foundation. “St. Baldrick” is a combination of “bald” and “St. Patrick’s,” a reference to the fact that the first fundraising head-shaves took place on March 17, 2000. St. Baldrick’s Foundation is a good steward of the funds you donate; Charity Navigator gives it a coveted 3-star rating.

If my words have ever been useful to you, or if the story of Superman Sam has touched your heart, I beg you to give, if not through my page, then through the page of some other rabbi you know. In these months of Adar, when “joy increases” let’s do something concrete to increase the years in young lives, and the joy in the lives of young families.

To donate through my page at “36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave” and to donate to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, please click here.

“my teacher said im not jewish”

5646829664_aedb670811_bSometimes I get inspiration from the search terms people use to find my blog. And sometimes I get angry.

I hope that the person who searched Google with this string found some comfort from a real live human being, but just in case anyone ever Googles it again, I’m writing this blog post and titling it “my teacher said im not jewish.”

To anyone who has Googled this:  There’s another blog post on my blog that will explain why some Jews get excited about who is “in” and who is “out.” That is theoretical stuff. You are dealing with real stuff, not theory. If someone says to you, “You are not Jewish” or “You are not really Jewish” here is what you can do:

1. First of all, ask yourself, “Do I feel a part of the Jewish People?” or “Do I love Judaism?” If the answer to either of those is “yes,” then:

2. Go to a rabbi and say, “My teacher said I am not Jewish. But I feel a part of the Jewish people!” or “I love Judaism!”  then ask:

3. In our community, how do we make this situation better?

The reason that you ask it that way is that different Jewish communities will approach this in different ways depending on the specifics. Maybe the teacher was just wrong and out of line. Maybe the teacher was correct about some technical matter of halakhah [Jewish Law] but forgot she was talking to a real human being. Most importantly, if it is a Jewish legal issue, then there’s almost certainly a way to make it better.

I’m not going to make pronouncements here on a blog about what exactly should happen, because I am not your rabbi.

If you are reading this because this happened to you long ago and you no longer have a rabbi, you need to GET a rabbi.

Do not be discouraged by this “technically, you’re not” business. Your rabbi (once you get one) has tools for making things right. You may have to work with him or her to make everything kosher. That is just how Judaism works – we are a religion, and a people, of doing, and we do things as a community.

To anyone who has made a pronouncement about someone else’s Jewishness:

1. Are you a rabbi? My colleague, I understand that you were conveying necessary information. I pray that you always consider the Jewish values of chesed and rachamim when you choose your words, and that you consider the comprehension level of your audience. Hurtful words have consequences for all of Am Yisrael.

2. Oh, you aren’t a rabbi? You are just a helpful person teaching others about Judaism? Understand this: You are out of your depth. You do not know as much as you think you know. The words you carelessly sling around may have chased away the parent of a future tzaddik. You may have caused hurt that could someday have terrible consequences for the Jewish people. The correct answer if someone asks you a question as important as “Am I Jewish?” is “Let me give you the phone number of a rabbi.” Even if you are really pretty sure they aren’t Jewish, just say, “Go talk to a rabbi.” If they are your student in Hebrew school, do not injure a child’s budding Jewish identity with cruel guesses. Go talk to the rabbi yourself.

I work at the edges of the Jewish community with people who are not affiliated with a synagogue. Usually they are not affiliated because they have a story to tell: a story about hurt feelings, a story about someone who rejected them or neglected them. Often what they were told was wrong, or it was delivered in such a way that they misunderstood, or it was delivered with cruelty so that they ran away in pain.

Anyone who is concerned about the survival of Judaism should be concerned about this matter. All human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.  When the great rabbi Hillel was asked by an impertinent questioner to summarize the Torah while standing on one foot, he said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. Go and study.” Kindness, chesed, is at the very heart of Torah.

May the person who made the original Google search “my teacher said im not jewish” find kind and knowledgable help in pursuing his or her Jewish destiny. And may all of us be part of the building of Klal Yisrael [all Israel] and not part of tearing her down.

Image: AttributionNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Lance Neilson

Questions, not Answers

Samuel Asher Sommer, z"l

Samuel Asher Sommer, z”l

Judaism is in many ways a religion of questions, not answers.

We have two Creation stories that contradict, neither of which is likely to be literally “true” as most 21st century people understand that word. The message seems to be “wrestle with it” or simply, “ask questions.”

In another story in our scripture, one of our patriarchs wrestles with a figure who is not identified: God? An angel? Himself? Our sages disagree. We are left to wrestle with it, and to ask questions.

At the worst of times, we do not offer or accept easy answers. Today we buried one of our own, an eight year old boy, the son of parents who are beloved leaders in our community. No one connected with Sammy Sommer “deserved” to suffer, or was “improved” by his or their suffering. There is no reason, no answer for such suffering. We are left to wrestle with it. We are left with questions.

As Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr wrote, Sam is not “in a better place,” he did not “pass,” and today’s funeral did not “celebrate” anything. He died, and we mourn. We do not have any answers, only questions and memory. No one whose life was touched by “Superman Sam” will ever forget him.

In the end, what we have is the stories: memories of Sam, just as we have memories of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, memories of all the fathers and sons and mothers and daughters who have gone before us. Torah is not history, it is memory. It offers not answers, but stories.

And we, the living, will remember.

We, the living, will also wrestle with the questions, as we embrace the mourners in our midst. We accept the sorrow and we do not minimize it. As we stand with the mourners, we will ask ourselves, what could be different, in the future?  What can we do? In the face of this terrible grief, what must we do?

And those, finally, are the questions we can answer.

 

Friends and colleagues of Rabbis Michael and Phyllis Sommer are working to raise funds for pediatric cancer research as a memorial to Sammy, and as an answer to the question, “what shall we do?” To contribute or to participate in 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave, follow this link.

 

 

 

 

Sinning Against Myself

Mirror, mirror...

Mirror, mirror… (Photo credit: janetmck)

Look in the mirror.  Look at the face that looks back at you.  What do you see?

Do you see a person

– who needs sleep?

– who needs to see a doctor?

– who drinks too much?

– who eats unhealthfully?

– who is too tired to know what she needs?

– who is depressed?

– who needs regular exercise and doesn’t get it?

– who hasn’t laughed in a month?

– who is secretly struggling with something she hopes no one else will notice?

– who needs help and won’t ask for it?

– who has been offered help but refuses to accept it?

– who is lonely?

– who is frightened about something?

– who hasn’t had a day off  in HOW long?

Modern secular culture encourages us not to take care of ourselves. We see advertisements for unhealthy foods, for “fun” gambling, for TV shows that are on late at night. We get caught up in the push for certain kinds of success. With our families scattered all over the country or the world, care for children or elders often falls on one or two family members, who get no help or relief. We avoid admitting to depression, mental illness, disabilities, because of the stigma they carry. We avoid asking for help because that would involve admitting that we need it.

These are sins against ourselves. When we fail to get enough sleep, good food, and enough exercise, we forget that our bodies are limited, that we are setting ourselves up for illness. When we fail to ask for or accept help, not only do we hurt ourselves, but we keep others from having the opportunity to do a mitzvah.

Ask: What could I change in my life so that I could get enough sleep? Help taking care of my aged parents? Help doing whatever it is I need to do to take care of myself?

Then make a plan.  Do it.

If the answer to that question is, “Nothing,” or “I don’t know” then make an appointment to talk with someone who can help you find options: a rabbi, a therapist, a counselor, a friend.  Admit how hard it’s all gotten to a person who won’t tell on you. Ask them to help you find some ways to lighten the burden.  Those ways exist, whether you can see them or not.

Make the call.  Do it.

For sins against God, the Day of Atonement atones, but for sins against human beings the Day of Atonement does not atone: those include the sins against ourselves.

Someone is waiting for you, and for me, in the mirror.

Saturday Afternoon, Sixth Floor

The green elevator doors at University of Tsukuba

(Photo credit: moonhouse)

Shabbat afternoon I visited an elderly woman near the end of her life. When I arrived she was dozing, so I slipped into a chair by her hospital bed. I watched and prayed, nothing very fancy or formal, just opened my heart to the Divine as I sat next to her.

I was just about to leave a note and tiptoe out when she woke. She and I had visited often before this recent drop in her health, but this time it was a more one-sided conversation. We held hands and she talked to me. It was the conversation that takes place at many such bedsides: memories, regrets, accomplishments, a taking-stock of a life as that life nears its close. It was not a formal Vidui – not time for that yet – but an informal rehearsal, an experimental trip down the checklists of her life.

Despite what one sees at the movies, these are not usually dramatic monologues. We all have similar worries: Did I love enough? Was I loved? Was I good to those who loved me? Is there any unfinished business? Sometimes the conversation is rather like a defense attorney’s closing argument: I WAS good enough. I WAS good to my family. But there always echoes in the wake of those statements the question softly added, “Wasn’t I?”

I am a witness, and I hope to be a comfort. I am aware in those moments that someday I will be on the other side of that conversation. We are all here only for a little while.

The visit ended and we said our goodbyes. I may see her again, but nothing is certain. No family was there at the time so I slipped out the door. I walked to the elevator, where the door opened and closed on me and my thoughts.

Shiva Minyan

Dusk from window on board an Airbus A330.

 

I spent the early evening with a grieving family. They had come together to mourn the loss of a man in his fifties, dead of cancer. He was a gifted musician and human being, and everyone who knew him misses him terribly.

 

These days, many Reform families opt out of shiva or shorten it to one or two days. They give many reasons. I suspect that for many of them, the idea of a whole week of official mourning is a frightening prospect at a time when they are already disoriented and upset, and I can understand that. It’s a shame, though, because shiva can be wonderfully healing.

 

This family has chosen to embrace the process of mourning. They’ve opted for a real week of shiva: for seven days his widow is staying home, surrounded by family and friends. I am  temporarily serving at their synagogue, and I will lead the evening prayers for this shiva most nights.

 

The first night after the funeral the entire group was in shock. They were in that deep place of mourning where there is no consolation, only grief. I steered them through the service, hearing voices in the group check in and out as they were able. The tentative voices and soft crying made clear that they had just suffered an unthinkable loss. When we reached the point in the service where I offer the option of sharing stories or sitting in silence, they opted for silence. We sat quietly for a good five minutes. Afterwards, someone mentioned that it was good to be quiet together; they were all exhausted.

 

Four days later the mood had shifted. They were beginning to absorb the loss. Their voices were quiet but more relaxed. The dog greeted me, snuffling, and a few people chuckled at his obvious pleasure at the “messages” from my dogs. I sat in my usual place, they in their usual places. What had been strange the first night was already a routine.

 

I began the service with “Hinei ma tov,” a song about how good it is to be together. We used some of the alternate prayers in Mishkan Tefilah for a House of Mourning. Over the days since the first night they’d been looking through the book a bit and several had requests for readings that they liked. There were song requests, too, and we sang “Oseh Shalom” twice because someone remembered a favorite melody. I let the service take the shape they needed, then we finished traditionally, with Psalm 23El Male Rachamim, and Kaddish.

 

I said my goodbyes and slipped out. As I left, family and friends gathered in the kitchen, getting plates of food. Life is returning to this house, slowly but surely.

 

The Class I Hate to Teach

Antisemitic graffiti in Venezuela (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Antisemitic graffiti in Venezuela (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I enjoy teaching basic Judaism: it’s my true love, my mission, my passion. “Intro,” done well, can enrich an entire Jewish community by helping outsiders become regulars.  The class has to be more than facts and how-to’s, because Judaism isn’t just a religion, it’s a vast array of ethnicities, customs, history, and culture – as Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan famously titled his book, Judaism is a civilization. As an “Intro” teacher, I’m a tour guide, den mother, demystifier, and spiritual director.

But there’s one class in every series that I hate to teach. Not coincidentally, it covers one of the few topics specified by the tradition as a requirement. Rabbinic tradition is rather vague about what converts to Judaism must be taught before they go to the mikveh, but it is adamant that they understand that Jews have been a despised and persecuted people. In other words, they need to be acquainted with anti-Semitism.

I bring a printed-out lesson plan to the session, because I know that otherwise I will wander off-topic at the first opportunity. I march through my list: the misgivings about Jews in classical civilizationChristian attitudes about Jews that took shape in both church doctrine and in civil law, and the obsession with Jewish ancestry that surfaced in Spain in the 16th century that presaged full-blown ethnic hatred of Jews in the Western world.  I talk about Herzl’s realization, as he covered the Dreyfus affair, that the Jews of Europe faced something terrible. I talk about all of that as a prelude to the Shoah. And then we talk about the “New” anti-Semitism.

We talk about the memes that have dogged Jews through history: blood libelmoneylendingcourt Jewsconspiracy, communism, socialism, anarchism, pinko-Commie-whatever-ism. I tell them about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  I tell them about the origins of the term “Anti-Semitism,” that it was invented by a German journalist as a sophisticated-sounding substitute for Judenhass, Jew-hatred.

Some students who have been engaged Christians at some point in their lives practically writhe with discomfort. I acknowledge that when you’ve got one foot in each community, this can be very hard listening.  I share the fact that when I took the class as a prospective convert I found the class deeply upsetting because I felt somehow responsible. Some Jewish students look distant, and I suspect they are running through unpleasant memories and feelings. Or maybe, like me, they just hate the topic.

My impulse is to comfort. I bring cookies. I reassure. But I march relentlessly through that lesson plan, because it is important that they know this stuff. I have a duty to see to it that they understand that when you sign up to be a Jew, you sign up for this, too. For Gentiles in the class, it is important to know why Jews seem “sensitive” about some things, why some topics are funny only if you are a mad genius like Mel Brooks and can take them all the way off the deep end.

Usually the evening ends off topic: I get to the end of the list, and we trail off from “Jews run the media” into jokes and trivia about Hollywood and Jews. If I’m artful, we’ll leave on an upbeat note.  But I’m always relieved when the evening is over, because I hate this topic.  I hate, hate, hate it.