I took a train to London this past week and went to buy a cup of tea from the bar. As I placed my order with the barista, I heard her European-accented English, so I said cheerfully, ‘I’m from Holland, where are you from?’ and I noticed her reflex: she didn’t want to answer my potentially invasive question, even though I pre-empted it by sharing in our joint Continental background. ‘I’m from everywhere and nowhere’, she answered awkwardly though not unkindly. A few moments later, however, she softened and offered a compromise. ‘Oh, I speak four languages and am learning my fifth now!’ She lowered her gaze a little and said in a soft voice but not without pride: ‘Hebrew’.
Well, I didn’t see that one coming but a rabbi is always ready to pounce on a fellow Jew, so I said, ‘b’emet?’ – ‘really?’ – ‘kol hakavod!’ and she started laughing. ‘You’re Jewish?’ she asked me and I answered in the affirmative. ‘Me too – in fact, I’ve just converted to Judaism’ to which I could only offer my delight and mazzal tov. Turns out she’s a newly-minted congregant from a Reform synagogue in London. Her pride and joy was unaffected and swept away any remnant of awkwardness.
We continued chatting for a little while and she told me she is from Romania. I asked her if recent political events had affected her and she nodded.
A work colleague had, after the Referendum, left her a hateful, racist note saying, ‘Go home, you … <fill in an expletive>’.
It was shocking to hear. I have no other words to describe it.
I pondered our conversation and the bravery of this woman to be willing to be so vulnerable. Not only did she share her national background with a complete stranger, but also confided in me that she’s Jewish. And not only that – but she also had the courage to share her conversionary background. Talking about being a minority within a minority within a minority. And yet, she did it with such great joy.
Over Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, we talked about our deep stories and the value of taking emotional risks. We talked about how in our currently unsettled social climate, our ‘deep stories’ can be deeply polarising but also potentially unifying if we’re willing to shift the narrative. We live in a culture where we have become increasingly pitted against each other and it is both heart-breaking and disturbing to note. Hate crimes – like the one my new friend experienced herself – have soared with a 41% increase in recent months, according to the Home Office. Now let me be very clear here: this is not a judgement on individual political positions held during the Referendum. It is rather an indictment of the lingering, festering racism that has come to the fore.
This surge in racism (and antisemitism which is up 11% this year according to the annual CST report as well as islamophobia, up to a whopping 326% increase according to Tell Mama) is an equal-opportunity scourge across the UK, Europe and the United States of America.
In this Season of Repentance – which doesn’t officially end until Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah – it is important for us to take note; and we should respond Jewishly, humanistically and religiously. We should take courage that even the smallest of kindnesses can be redemptive; and can cut across the hatred into hope. The first step is to shift the narrative, to rewrite our deep story and to take the emotional risk.
Do we have the courage to leave our preconceived notions behind and to expose ourselves to the raw elements of our emotions?
I have a second story for you, as retold by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin and recorded (in greater detail) in the Washington Post.
“Derek Black, [was] a young man [and] a leader in the white nationalist movement. His father, Don Black, had created Stormfront, a white nationalist website, with more than 300,000 users. His mother, Chloe, had once been married to David Duke [a notorious white nationalist]. This was Derek’s education: America was for white Europeans, and everyone else would have to leave.
Derek enrolled in College. Around campus, he mostly kept his opinions to himself. Someone found out that Derek was a white nationalist. He “outed” Derek, and posted this revelation on the College internet message board. The message went viral.
Derek had an acquaintance at the College named Matthew, the only Orthodox Jew at the College. For months, Matthew had been hosting Shabbat dinners, where he invited a diverse group of people. Matthew decided that his best chance to influence Derek’s thinking was to reach out to him. He sent Derek a text message. “What are you doing Friday night?” He invited Derek for Shabbat dinner.”
Derek’s new friends gently confronted him with his white nationalist views. Derek, in turn, started examining both his emotions and his ideology, slowly coming to the conclusion that this is not what he believed in anymore and issued a public statement disavowing white nationalism as well as a wholesale apology. ‘I can’t support a movement that tells me I can’t be a friend to whomever I wish or that other people’s races require me to think of them in a certain way or be suspicious at their advancements. The things I have said as well as my actions have been harmful to people of colo(u)r, people of Jewish descent, activists striving for opportunity and fairness for all. I am sorry for the damage done.
Can we imagine how vulnerable Derek made himself? He risked everything he had, he grew up with, the family members he loved. He risked his relationships, his reputation, his future career and perhaps even his physical safety. But he was willing to take that risk for all the right reasons. Today’s Torah reading reminds us:
“V’zacharta et kol haderech asher holech’cha Adonai Eloheicha zeh arba’im shanah bemidbar l’ma’an anotecha l’nasot’cha l’da’at et asher bil’vav’cha’ – ‘Remember the long way that the Eternal your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that He might test you with hardships to learn what was in your hearts’. (Deut. 8:2)
Sukkot is the festival of vulnerability and at the same time the season of our joy. There is deep, transformative joy to be found in the courageous act of vulnerability. Just as we sit in our sukkah, exposing ourselves to the elements, we can expose our hearts to life’s tests. Life might be difficult, and might lead us round the long way but ultimately reveals what lives truly in our hearts.
For the woman on the train, it was an unexpected moment of solidarity and belonging. For Derek Black it was far more profound and life-changing. The very hatred and racism that we see churning in society was what he disavowed. Derek learnt that compassion and truth lived in his heart. At the same time, the Jewish student had the courage to invite Derek to the Sabbath table, bridging chasms of prejudice that few of us could imagine bridging.
Even the smallest of kindnesses, the most unexpected of conversations can change lives, but only if we dare take the risk. Like the shach of our sukkah, we cannot rely on always staying out of the downpour. Like the march through the wilderness, it may take longer. But we can all get there and find joy therein.
Shabbat shalom, moadim l’simcha.