In keeping with Jewish tradition, the shofar was sounded 100 times on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. In the Talmud, there’s a teaching based on the Book of Judges about the mother of our sworn enemy, Sisera, who stands at her window waiting for her son’s victorious return. She worries, “Why is his chariot so long in coming?” When it is clear her son has been killed in the battle, she weeps and wails in her grief. The description of her cries (in Hebrew in Judges 5:28-29) is 100 letters, hence 100 blasts of the shofar.
There are many explanations of the shofar blasts, but I prefer this, with its common humanity and pathos. It is a reminder never to celebrate vanquishing an enemy; Sisera’s mother’s cry sounds the very same as our own when we are in grief and mourning. Beneath all our external differences and “sides,” we are all humans who feel grief and sorrow, joy and contentment. There is no “other.”
Just north of the village where I live is a community of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, the Anishinaabe people. Every year at the Pow Wow, along with traditional circle dance and drum, there is a dance for everyone, called the Inter-Tribal — all are welcome in the circle, no matter our tribe of origin. When I attend, I don my rainbow prayer shawl and walk the circle; it is a great circle of Us.
In our 1.25-square-mile village of 613 people, we have just a couple yellow flashing lights but no full traffic signal (and just one in the county). Our public school team, the Norsemen, has a homecoming parade down the four blocks of main street, and I always hold up a sign that says “Rabbis for Norsepersons!!” with the “s” in “rabbis” crossed out, because I am the only full time resident rabbi for a few hundred miles in any direction. The floats are sweetly homemade, and we know the drivers, who thumbs-up my sign with wide smiles.
It’s hard to imagine that, before I moved here from the Detroit area 20 years ago, many residents had never met a Jew, let alone a rabbi. Now, much of the community has adopted me as its own, and it is my privilege to perform baby namings, weddings and funerals, at which I am usually the only Jewish person present. We have come a long way since the early days when I heard “Jew” used as a verb — meaning to screw someone over in a financial transaction — at a televised government meeting and a handful of times in person to my face, quickly followed by “I mean no offense to you personally.” There is still a long way to go for other people of color.
My husband Karl’s Scandinavian Lutheran family arrived in our village in the mid-19th century and helped found both the local Lutheran churches. When we began dating, he was amazed to hear that I had an “Escape Plan.” This meant that when “they” (whichever “they” it happened to be) came for the Jews, I would have an up-to-date passport and enough cash on hand to be able flee. At that moment, Karl realized that nobody had picked on the Scandinavians like they have on the Jews, so “The Plan” was as foreign to him as lutefisk once was to me.
I’m not the only Jew who has A Plan. Most Jewish adults I know have mentioned in casual conversation the idea that “it could never happen here” was exactly what the Jews of Germany said. The German Jews had an 800-year head start on residency over our relatively recent arrival in North American in the 18th century, so longevity and citizenship do not offer succor when they “come for” the Jews. It is an echo of the disloyalty trope we hear again today.
Transgenerational trauma is real: We have been raised with firsthand encounters with Holocaust survivors, often family members, and the real loss of aunts, uncles, cousins and extended communities of origin. And to be blunt, in my early Jewish education, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust were deployed as part of shaping Jewish identity and a sense of Jewish exceptionalism. Hence, The Plan.
Transgenerational trauma is not unique to the Jewish people. Many people who are Native American and African American, for example, live with transgenerational trauma as well. Together, we live in a time when the signs are grave once again: Not only is anti-Semitic violence on the rise, but many forms of “othering” are encouraged, given legitimacy and cover, under the present administration, whose stock and trade is an Us/Them paradigm.
In “Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst,” neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky tells us the brain’s amygdala takes just 50 milliseconds to make an “us/them” decision, and that, alas, we cannot tame the wily amygdala. At best we can create adaptive “Us-Them-ing,” in Sapolsky’s phrase, wherein higher cognitive functions make room for multiple Us-es, multiple circles of belonging. It’s what my Christian neighbors have done in adopting an unofficial town rabbi, or as one neighbor said, “Chief Rabbi of the Post Office Boxes.”
Nationally, multiple Us-ness means Muslims helped repair vandalized Jewish cemeteries, Christians aided Sikhs when they were terrorized, and Jews, including many rabbis, take a lead in opposing the violent othering at the southern border of the United States. Moms stand at Pride Day parades and offer hugs to folks whose own families have rejected them. The Black Lives Matter movement has many allies who are not people of color, and the terrible legacy of white privilege (read: wealthy, heteronormative, male, white privilege) is finally beginning to be taken seriously. The fate of our planet creates a kind of transcendent, global, transspecies Us that, if unaddressed, could make all our Us-Them-ing irrelevant. Social justice intersectionality is based on the idea of multiple Us-es, that the othering of any group is a danger and an affront to us all.
As a result, I have decided to change My Plan, because I am a rabbi in a one-yarmulke town. My neighbors have made peace with the blasting of the shofar from the front porch every morning the month before the Jewish new year, and the good people who invite me to the annual pig roast at St. Michael’s Catholic Church do so with a spirit of welcome and ironic humor.
I’ve been told our ally rainbow flag (with a Jewish star on it) is potentially dangerous, but other than a few sidelong glances, the overwhelming response has been “thank you” from passersby, whom we greet as we sit on our wide front porch on summer evenings, giving away books and dog treats from our Little Free Library. We still have a long way to go in addressing economic disparities and racism, but Us-Theming does not dissipate when those of us who represent diversity flee the community.
So I have adopted a New Plan: Whatever may come, I will stand in my multiple Us-es and combat hate, fear, othering and oppression with nonviolent noncooperation, right here in our tiny village. I’ve let go of my once-grand plans to “change the world,” and pared things down to this: In the place where I live, I will protect my people and my neighbors, all of the Us-es that need allies, even if it is only to link arms and bear witness to the battles that they must fight for themselves. Being the only yarmulke in town means I will don my prayer shawl for protests because my New Plan is the Inter-Tribal, where all are welcome.