Sunday, June 27, 2010

the children of abraham

A post about me - about prayer, about Brooklyn and of course Mama Sue. How all of these are intertwined for me.

Mama Sue, for newcomers, is the subject of a documentary, called Mama Sue's Garden, that I'm in the throes of completing.

But starting with prayer. I'm Jewish and I belong to a (fabulous) congregation here in Park Slope Brooklyn -- Kolot Chayeinu, which translated from the Hebrew means, Voices of our Lives. But...I seldom go to services of my wonderful congregation. Instead I go to their Palestinian-Israeli study group meetings where we discuss books written by Palestinian and Israeli, and occasionally American and French writers. (more on this group later.)

But there are times that I want to go, and when I do, I feel at sea, even though I have a great time. I find myself singing along -- the songs in ancient Hebrew are actually catchy. And I love the usually witty and smart dvar (discourse) on the week's Torah portion, the way I liked analyzing a good novel in high school English class. At these visits to my *house of prayer,* though, I'm uncomfortably aware that I don't know how to pray. I marvel at how my friends down in St. Bernard, La. seem to be able to pray at the drop of a hat and indeed they're always praying. Not pretend prayer, not obligatory, conformist prayer on days alotted for it, but through an intimate, deeply felt, believing sense of connection to a spiritual, all-seeing, caring being. Mama Sue has a direct line to "God." When she knew the storm, that is, Katrina, was going to be bad, she sat on her daughter's bed and had a little "talk with god." And throughout one of the most harrowing tales I've ever heard, she told me she'd kept up a running conversation. She thanked God when a wooden boat -- which became her bed for two nights and her shelter during the scorching days -- floated by her rooftop. "You're sending me a boat? Thank you, God!!" One day she turned to me and asked -- did I think God was male or female?

No, I'm not going to get into what religion means/doesn't mean to me, or what gender my god is, if I have a god, and if god has a gender. But I don't rule any of it out. If I were to try to define it at all, it's oddly, a "label" that reaches to my core. It's the source of anger at some groups I don't agree with. I'm angry in this way, at these groups, because I'm Jewish. Those guys are "crazy," and those over there are more "reasonable." It's a deep and rich part of my identity, but I can't figure out where faith comes into it.

Sometimes, though, things seem clear. And it felt incredibly clear when Rabbi Lippman sent out notices to everyone that on June 10, we were invited to participate in the seventh annual Children of Abraham Peace Walk, I made a mental note -- this was something I had to attend. The Children of Abraham -- great name isn't it? -- Muslim, Christian, Jew. Every year, the three offspring of that mythic patriarch join hands, figuratively, and walk through a few neighborhoods in this polyglot, amazingly diverse place called Brooklyn. The organizers didn't envision it being anything more than this, though getting reps from three of the world's quarreling religions together in a cooperative stroll doesn't seem trivial. Still, it wasn't political -- nothing about the Middle East in there, no speeches about *unity* or 9/11. Simple declarations of ... brother/sisterhood. That's how it appeared to me, and the comments of the first priest who spoke that day confirmed that.

Before we set out, we (well more than 100 of us) took seats in the pews of a Korean Methodist church for some talking to -- I think it was for some unity, without calling it by name. Looking around, I noticed we were covered alternately in head scarves [the muslim women], baseball caps [me and a lot of the kids] sun hats, rain hats and no head coverings at all. Father Perry's talk was brief and I thought brilliant about this plainly evident diversity. All he said was -- "the differences that I see in this room today God does not see. "

(Memory may have made a change or two in his sentence, but its import and message I'm positive I've recorded accurately.) Anyway, that was it. That was the beginning and end of Father Perry's talk to us. Then we were on to the minister, who spoke for a much longer time but I confess I don't remember any of it. Ellen Lippman, my rabbi, was suffering from a very bad case of laryngitis and couldn't say anything.

But the speakers didn't make a big deal about the protest and solidarity that would mark this year's walk. We were going to leave this charmingly peeling church and walk about a mile over to the site of a proposed mosque, smack dab in the heart of a Russian immigrant neighborhood. Church, mosque, both in Sheepshead Bay. (The church we were originally supposed to meet at had bowed out of the ritual walk for some reason.)

Rabbi Lippman has cautioned me not to see the area as monolithically Russian. Of course it isn't. Happily, there really isn't any place in Brooklyn that you'd say is monolithically anything. You're really forced to be tolerant. (OK OK, not saying that every last Brooklynite is such a paragon.) But the high density of our housing makes us have to ... make room. It's humorous in it way -- how we all, with all our really minor differences are made to cohabit, kind of like first year college roommates. You get along, you complain to yourself, roll your eyes, and somehow, jeez, get along. NOT SO FAST.

One of the first things I saw when I emerged that afternoon from the Sheepshead Bay subway station was a Citibank, with a sign declaring -- Russian, Chinese, Spanish, Italian spoken here. So the Russian neighborhood where we heading was definitely not entirely Russian. And among those Russians, they most likely were not entirely Jewish, in spite of their emphatic insistence. But in whatever ethnic mixture the nabe within a nabe was, they were not looking forward to the mosque being built. They had hired lawyers, in fact, and through sputterings about "traffic" ... "masses of people praying in the middle of the street" ... "a nearby school," they were and are attempting to block its construction.

So we were going to walk calmly along the bay's shore, past large apartment buildings and into this neighborhood, which consists of strips of squat brick row houses. We would end up at the narrow dirt lot, that interrupts this string of homes, where a local Iman is proposing that a small mosque be built. Now, he told me, they had to travel out to Bay Ridge to find a mosque, a trip of about an hour by subway. To placate the community, he'd agreed that there would be no electronically amplified -- or any outdoor -- calls to prayer.

When we wound up at Voorhies Avenue., we were met by a wall of hand-written signs attached to the fences. The residents were out on their tiny lawns glumly watching the head scarves, prelate collars and baseball caps amble towards our obvious destination. I was glad we weren't shouting any slogans, and extremely glad that they weren't saying-- or chanting -- anything either.

And I was glad when a friend from Kolot whispered, " I get it." That is, she got why the neighbors were so upset. I had to make my thinking catch up to my walking companion's. What was Betsy seeing? I peered at our surroundings. We were on an entirely uniform residential block. The houses -- the people themselves -- seemed clustered together. They had come to the curb and they stared at us silently, uncomfortably, mouths closed tightly, for the time being. I surmised that these people shared a language, a background, a history -- an outlook.

After I'd scarfed my cheese sandwich, I crossed the street to meet these neighbors. They were only to happy to talk to me. Well, talk isn't the right verb. They were almost wailing, shouting, pleading, imploring me to, what. To sympathize? To see their point of view? To agree. These are some of the things they said. I'm quoting them in no particular order and the lines don't necessarily have a relationship with one another:

*** A school is on the corner! *** Remember 9-11? *** Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslim. ***

Myself: I suggested that we had home-grown, non-Mulsim terrorists as well. We had the Oklahoma City bomber for example.

*That was only one!* someone countered.

*Would you like to have a mosque in the middle of your neighborhood?* someone said, getting uncomfortably close.

I thought maybe I could throw a little levity into the conversation. "Well, this is what Brooklyn is! We're all on top of each other!" I intertwined my fingers and tried to shrug, like 'hey, lighten up,' without saying it.

They were envisioning a horde of men, prostrating themselves in the middle of their block, perhaps many tmes a day. And had that been the future of this new community, I think I too might have been a little wary. But when I returned to *my* side of the street and asked whether there'd be any street prostrations, a Muslim woman replied -- what was the point of building a mosque if you were going to pray outside. They were fully intending to use the interior of the mosque.

The angry neighbors across the street were envisioning harm being done to the children who came to the corner school. And then I remembered. Those who had come from Russia no doubt remembered when some crazed Chechen psychopath had snuck into an elementary school in Belsan one morning and opened fire with an automatic rifle, killing dozens of children and teachers. The carnage was horrible. There had been other incidents. And Russian draftees were sent to Chechenya province, where they were despised and -- if the revolutionary or state-building or sesessionist Chechens -- however you wanted to see it -- could manage it, they were killed.

I'll lump the neighbors into one unified group for a moment in the interest of making a point. See what making a point made me do? Already I know I'm distorting the situation. I'm tempted to go there -- into how I know I'm getting heavy into guesswork. But I know that no one would read this blog if I started writing about how easy it is to be inaccurate. How life almost dictates it. Couldn't hardly talk otherwise. But I wonder if those "irate" neighbors were mistrustful because they saw history and ethnicity through a distinctively Russian lens, with its unique way of dividing people into "the crazies" and "the reasonable. "

I was beginning to see what Betsy had noticed immediately. The task at hand, of inserting a new group, and not just any group, into their midst, involved more than a march of solidarity. One angry woman startled me when she asked, rhetorically perhaps, why hadn't we invited them to join us at the conclusion of our walk, on our dirt plot, home of the proposed mosque? Why weren't they breaking bread with us? Indeed, why hadn't we? Even if she didn't really mean it (guessing again), wasn't our task to begin to break down these invisible, fear-driven divisions, imported intact from somewhere else? You can't do that only through confrontation and marching -- how we might have appeared at first blush to have arrived -- marching. And maybe we seemed massive, I don't know. Though we were pretty much a hodge podge, we might have looked like a weird -- clan, laughing in headscarves and baseball caps over our thick submarine sandwiches.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Lettie Lee Asks a Question, the movie

As promised -- Lettie Lee asks a Question, the movie. Lettie made it as part of a documentary workshop, which I ran back in Spring, 2007 for survivors of Hurricane Katrina. It may be the only funny Katrina film you'll see.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Danger: Men at Work

Men at Work

My mother and I had a private joke about that oft-displayed warning sign, DANGER: MEN AT WORK placed at the edges of construction sites. I notice that it's not used as much these days, probably because it would violate the Equal Opportunity in Employment laws. And yes, of course, women might do something as stupid as all those guys working for BP, but it's still a good bit of dark humor, I think.

Though, if you pressed me, I think there was some machismo and very traditional boss-man on underling power play at work in the decision to push on through known weaknesses in those systems we've been hearing about ad nauseum -- the blowback prevention system and well casing. Watch the red, terrified faces of the engineers responding to Congressional questioning. They knew. They knew! And they were forced to go on. The BP staffer in command -- I believe someone w/o any real knowledge of things geological and deepwater engineering -- said, in spite of just being told 'this is risky,' DO IT. (that is, drill baby and shut up)

The question tickling my brain insistently, mosquitolike is -- why? Why override the recommendatiaons of the guys who knew? The engineers with their eyes glued to the pressure gauges, water flow rates, oil flow rates, that troubling spot on the monitor, glaring at them like an enlarged wart.... the experts. OK, maybe it wasn't machismo. It was, some will say, pure and simple -- greed. That's black gold down there... I guess it doesn't matter. In the end.

Rudy, who cuts my hair occasionally, and prattles non-stop about his latest projects -- these charming black paper masks, Barcelona and lately geology -- wonders whether we're not disturbing something vital by sucking so much oil out of the earth. Maybe that's what keeps the techtonic plates from crashing into one another he muses. snip. snip. Earthquakes seem common lately. Or is it just a coincidence? We'll find out later. Snip.

He happened to be cutting a client's hair, he told me today, and she happened to be a geologist. From the Middle East. I stopped watching how much hair he was snipping off, to my later regret. 'And I led her through telling me what she does' he went on, clearly proud of his drawing out technique. 'She consults for oil companies. ' It must be great to have them asking you for your advice.' Rudy finally, as he was gelling her bangs, asked this geologist client what she thought about sucking all this oil out of the earth's crust. Was it a risk? She didn't know. And if she doesn't know, who does? Rudy said, gelling my bangs.

That oil isn't there so we can drive SUVs he pronounced. No, it's not. Where do we start? I thought that one entryway into revising 'how we do things' is through, well, the basics. Like attitude. Back to the lowly engineer, doing his job, but without any say-so, authority. Without respect, aauughhh, it sounds so beside the point, complaining about the lack of respect awarded a man on the bottom rung of the ladder, when an ecology is being killed. But maybe it isn't. Ignoring that man had huge consequences. Yes, there were formal precuations that should have been place. Rules. And maybe they will be installed (as always, after the horse has bolted). But there will always be crises, moments when you've gone past the chance for thoughtful, bureucratic review. You're up against it. And there are two, three ten of you. What happened was the failure to really inbibe what was being said, and to respond... The head is cut off from the body. And the body, well, dies.

I recommend you see the film, Secret of the Eyes, (Secreto de los Ojos. From Argentina, it won the Academy Award this year for best foreign film.) where the filmmaker makes a concerted point -- amid several subtle and wonderfully suspenseful, intertwining plots -- about this kind of bullying top down, and poor fellow/drunkards attempting to bully up, and just, well, between and among all these guys, half the time ending in threats and blows. These tipos. In this film, whenever two or more guys talk with one another it's to shrink their supposed opponent to the dimensions of a worm. But moments of friendship -- kind, warm relating between men -- happen, and when they do -- as between the main (Pacino-like) protagonist, Benjamin Esposito and his office-mate, Senor Sandoval -- it's like an oasis, a respite in this otherwise brutal assaulting mode of conversation.

Here's to oases.

!hasta luego