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Archive for the ‘immigration’ Category

I got a call tonight that just crumbled me.  Our friend, Reinhard was on the line, from his lovely home near Reno, NV, to tell me that his beloved wife, Margarethe, had died in October after battling cancer for more than a year.  He’d received our ‘seasonal’ card – the one we never manage to get out before Christmas – and wanted to let me know the news.  I was crushed as I heard his voice, struggling not to break, as he told me of the passing of his wife of more than fifty years.

Reinhard and Margarethe were once strangers in this country.  They had met at a tuberculosis sanitorium in Germany; he from the former East Germany – as a youth he had been forced into the Hitler Youth movement – and she from the Black Forest.  She had tales of going outside with her mother to bury the dead English soldiers on their property; stories of what the second world war was like as a child and youth – a terrible time.  Together they had decided to make a new life in America.  Reinhard was a chemist and worked for Dow and other large chemical companies; Margarethe was a bookeeper and met my mother at the real estate agency they both worked at.  The social connections grew;  my father – son of two Orthodox Jewish immigrants – quickly developed a close friendship with Reinhard and Margarethe.

christmas-candlesAs a child and a teen, I found them fascinating.  Margarethe taught me how to make gooseberry and currant jam and homemade spaetzle; Reinhard taught me how to decorate a Christmas tree with real candles, which they carefully lit.  And then I would listen to my father and both of them sing “Stille Nacht” in German, as the tree sparkled with magic.  We’d sit down to a supper of homemade baked beans (New York-style, as my mother made them) and German sausages and later, enjoy shots of homemade bootleg brandy (made by my mother’s uncle in a copper still during prohibition) to chase the food down.

When I married, I introduced my husband and my children to our friends, and some years ago, we took my mother on her final airplane trip, out to Nevada for a lovely German Thanksgiving in the mountains.  It was smashing.

And now, Margarethe is gone, leaving me with these memories and all of us with the footprint of her life, well-lived, in America.  Reinhard and Margarethe came to this country for a better life – in search of stability, democracy, opportunity.  They received it, were sponsored into American citizenship by my parents, and have loved and supported this country.  Their story, of course, is one that has been – and hopefully will be – repeated, over and over again.  I say this, while knowing that the new American President is busy building a wall that we are all going to pay for – not just in money but in so many other devastating ways.

Margarethe lived a life of love, of generosity, of friendship.  She embodied the warmth that one hopes will come of any friendship.  She shared generously of her life, her culture, her perspectives which enriched my own.  I loved her.  Tonight I just might pour a small glass of some clear liqueur and raise it to her memory, and to Reinhard, her beloved husband.  Downstairs in my pantry there is still a jar of Kiwi and orange jam that Margarethe made…a jar I had been holding on to, waiting for some really special occasion.  Maybe that time is here.  Maybe tomorrow I’ll open it up, and remember her sparkling smile, her warmth, her friendship – the second mother I always adored.  It’s a legacy that will live on in blessed memory.

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I went into my chiropractor’s office last week.  I like my chiropractor – he’s a nice guy, we usually chat about his children, the weather, or how my back is feeling.  On this particular morning, I walked in and he said to me, “What do you think about Donald Trump running for President?”  “Donald Trump for President!,” I exclaimed.  “Now there’s a stupid idea.  How dumb does he really think we are?  This birther stuff is ridiculous,” I blathered on, referring to Trump’s stated obsession with the idea that the State of Hawaii’s “Certificate of Live Birth” for Obama is not good enough.  “Who the heck believes this stuff?”, I exploded.  One look at his face told me the answer:  he did.

Deciding to dig myself in completely, I continued, “And Michele Bachmann’s just as bad:  giving a speech in Concord, New Hampshire about the ‘shot heard round the world’ that started the American Revolution…in Lexington and the other Concord (Massachusetts).  Please,” I continued, “Can someone ask these people to just get their information straight before they sound off?”  Not content with the amount of damage I’d done myself, I suggested that it would be nice if these supposed candidates for President showed that they had a clue about matters of foreign policy and government relations before they decided they should make a run for the nation’s highest office.

The exchange, among other things, proves that one really shouldn’t have discussions about politics with those whose views we don’t know in advance (yes, the chiropractor started it, but I shouldn’t have taken the bait).

On the other hand, Trump and the birther devotees have reminded me, on this day when we are noting the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, that such down and dirty arguments connect back to the racist history of the United States — and so, I suppose, we really shouldn’t be that surprised that the birther argument — and similar arguments about Obama’s heritage, religion, what-have-you, have taken hold.

The ‘inconvenient truth’ is that the seeds of this behavior were sown long ago, when the country’s Declaration of Independence was being written. New England communities were built off the proceeds of the Triangle Trade to Africa.   Thomas Jefferson, statesman and slave owner, included references to slavery in early drafts of the Declaration, James Madison supported the repatriation of slaves to Liberia and the Caribbean, and the Civil War ripped the country apart as battles raged over slavery, as Katrina Browne and James DeWolf Perry discuss.

So even while many rejoiced at Obama’s election as President, many others focused on all the reasons why this man of mixed race and heritage could not, should not, be President of the United States.  Which brings us to Candidate Trump.  I find Trump’s bombastic blathering outrageous and obnoxious, and I can’t take him seriously.  Unfortunately, my chiropractor, and thousands of others, do.  Trump is, I believe, just one more face that shows us the racist history of our country — a man who will swear that his pursuit of the ‘truth’ about Obama’s heritage has nothing to do with racism, but with the laws of the United States.  And those laws can not, surely, allow a black man to be president.

Back in September, I wrote a piece focusing on the fight Al Sharpton and Glenn Beck were having around Beck’s so-called “Restoring Honor” rally, which compelled Sharpton to stage a “Reclaiming the Dream” event. The two threw mud at each other, and it was not a pretty scene.  At its core, the fight occurred about race and class, I believe.

And here we are again.  It is the anniversary of the Civil War. Yet, 150 years later, we are still wrestling with pigs.  I fear we are doomed to keep engaging in such wrestling matches until we confront the realities of this country’s racist past, and the huge challenges of building a future of equality, together.

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This weekend marks the holiest time in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, when, after being called to atone for their short-comings for the year and make amends toward those they may have wronged, the year is closed and a new page in the Book of Life turns.  The time is spent in prayer and contemplation and fasting, and then, as the Shofar blows and more prayers are said, we are called to begin again…in love.

I was raised a Unitarian Universalist, but my father was raised as an Orthodox Jew by his Russian immigrant parents.  He was the one child, of six that Isadore and Tillie Weiner had, who married outside the faith, to a Protestant woman, Vera Racine.  Of all the children the six brothers and sisters had from their marriages (8) I am the one who was not raised a Jew.  My parents came to Unitarian Universalism together (they were the people whose faces appeared in national ads for UUism some years ago, saying, “We were looking for a church for the wedding.  We found a religion.”)

I love my faith tradition, and one of the things I treasure is that it allows me to bring my family and my cultural and religious history into my own faith practices.

Last weekend and this week I’ve been particularly fortunate, because several of my cousins (two of whom are Rabbis) have gathered, and I’ve had the time to be with them and celebrate our family cultural life.  That is a life that, last Sunday, included going to my own Unitarian Universalist church ingathering service, where the beginnings of the year were lifted up.  Our minister spoke of the end of Ramadan, the beginning of the new year (Rosh Hashanah), the start of a new ministry at our church, commencement of a new school year, all co-mingled, like the water we poured into one common bowl marking remembrance of our summer’s journeys.

I went home to host a brunch for my cousins of kugel, eggs, bagels and lox and whitefish, with family stories being told and re-told…a celebration of how our family of poor people, who came in search of a better life, made their way in this country and an indication that we, their children, still carry their stories and lives with us.  And at another family meal I made my Aunt Estelle’s brisket and we ate challah and honey — another family favorite — to remind us of our traditions and of the sweetness in life that we all wish for one another.

On the teak china deck in our dining room sit two photos that I look at every day:  one of my grandmother, Tillie Rosen, with her father, a Rabbi, taken (we believe) on her sixteenth birthday.  The photo was made in Russia, probably just before she boarded a ship to New York to start a new life and her arranged marriage to my grandfather.  In another small frame sits a photo of Tillie, a little older, with her husband, Isadore Weiner, a memento of their wedding day, around 1896, in New York.  I have only one other photo of Tillie – from the mid-1940’s — taken at the opening of her son Morris’ haberdashery in Newburgh, NY.  Literally nothing else of the life of my grandparents exists in my home but this…but the stories do live on.

It was my father who made these people — who died before I was born — live for me.  They were uneducated, but very, very smart, and full of wisdom.  My father’s favorite story was of his sister, Freda’s engagement party.  My father was a young boy when Freda became engaged.  His parents scraped together enough money to have a little celebration of the engagement (to Arnold Rosenberg) and my father was sent off from the family tenement with a dollar to procure a jar of mustard for cold cuts.  Arriving at the store he found gallon jars of Gulden’s mustard in the window…costing $1 each.  He bought one and returned home.  He remembers being ridiculed:  “You dummy!  Why’d you get such a big jar of mustard!  You wasted that money!  Take it back!”  He also recalled his father sternly asking him:  “Did you pay for the mustard?”  “Yes,” my father answered.  “He paid for it – we keep it!”, his father replied.  And so the maxim was passed on to me:  “You make a deal, you keep the deal…no matter what.”

Many people have cultural lives more blended than mine.  Our new minister, for instance, is half-Palestinian, half-American, raised in French-speaking Canada, with a partner who is a South African Jew.  It is this cultural richness that bubbles up from the melting pot that is America, and that makes us so blessed to be able to honor and celebrate our many traditions, and to learn the many lessons passed on from other faiths and other countries.

In these next days, as I take time to consider what the year ended has been like and to reach out to those to whom I need to make amends, I will be nurtured by the diversity of traditions present in my life, the ones that I bring to my family’s life as I pass on the stories and the celebrations.  May we all be so renewed for the coming year.

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Ever since I was a kid, I’ve remembered Norman Rockwell’s series of paintings of The Four Freedoms.  Rockwell painted these iconic images during the height of World War II and they were published in The Saturday Evening Post after the US government declined to use them as part of its wartime publicity effort.  Rockwell, so quintessentially American in his artistry, said he was inspired to develop the series after hearing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech on the four freedoms, delivered on January 16, 1941.

Rockwell’s paintings depicted Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. Freedom to Worship shows people gathered in prayer.  These are traditional people, they seem to all be Caucasian, and they are praying in different ways.  But for the time in which Rockwell painted these images, he was illustrating something important about one of the core values on which the United States was founded, one of the values we hold most dear — that we may pray in different ways, but having the right to do so is a core American value.

More than sixty years later, the late Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church was presented with the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Freedom Medal, honoring Church’s work in lifting up the values that Roosevelt proclaimed where essential in nurturing a flourishing democracy. Several years before being so honored, Church, in his 2004 sermon “Choose Your Enemies Carefully,” delivered at All Souls Church in New York City, focused on religious freedom as he asked, what is it to be a complete human being?  Not first “…a Jew or Palestinian. Not a Christian or Muslim first. Or an American first, but a complete human being. Seeing our own tears in one another’s eyes. Recognizing that we have so much more in common than could ever possibly divide us. We are all alike mysteriously born, fated to die, the mortar of mortality binding us fast to one another, the same sun setting on each of our horizons. We all want and need love, and security, and freedom, and acceptance. We need others’ forgiveness and understanding. All of us do. We ache in the same way. We bleed in the same way. At times, we all feel awkward and unworthy and inadequate. And we all fail at times to hearken to the better angels of our nature.”

In wading into the current controversy about a proposed Mosque to be erected blocks from the site of the tragic September 11, 2001, violence that destroyed the World Trade Center, President Barack Obama sought to affirm our freedom to worship as we choose, and to build houses of worship as we will.  He said, “This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are. The writ of the Founders must endure.”

Politicans caught up in tough election battles are now distancing themselves from Obama’s speech, and nearly every pundit or politico is being asked his or her opinion on the question of the Mosque.  CNN reports that nearly seventy percent of Americans polled are opposed to the Mosque being built on the proposed site.  This is deeply disturbing, and should send a shiver down the spine of every conscientious American.  Freedom to worship means religious freedom for all people – those with whom you agree and those with whom you don’t.  The 2001 attacks on our country were unspeakably horrible, and they were carried out by people intent on undermining our country’s fiber.  But the people who carried out the attacks do not represent one faith tradition.  They were a group of individuals, and their religion, and their houses of worship, must not be condemned in a wholesale manner.

It was Pastor Martin Niemöller who said, during the time Roosevelt gave his speech:  “First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”  These words remind us of our responsibility to speak out, and to act in support of freedom.  Our commitment as Americans must be to uphold the values on which our country was built.  And I have no question that if Forrest Church were alive today, he would be speaking out forcefully on this topic.

We are witnesses to history now, as in earlier times.  Forrest Church reminds us: “To whatever extent we place our primary identification with creed or nation, with race or gender, with school or party, we betray our common humanity. Party to faction, we are prey to the beguiling logic of division, the logic of retribution and judgment, the logic of brotherly hate. In short, we live in a state not of grace, but of sin.”

We have an opportunity, with the question of whether a Mosque should be built in New York City, to choose grace; to choose love; to extend a hand to those who worship differently, but who are our sisters and brothers all the same.  Let us affirm this most essential freedom, and in so doing, re-affirm the values on which this country was built.

Freedom to Worship, by Norman Rockwell:

Painting of Norman Rockwell's "Freedom to Worship"

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In May, I posted on this topic with thoughts on why the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) should not to action to pull its General Assembly (GA) out of Phoenix (2012) in protest of the repressive Arizona law, SB1070.  In June, the General Assembly did vote to gather in 2012 in Phoenix for a GA that will be different from others and acutely focused on social justice issues and partnership-building with organizations including Puente.

But 2012’s a long way off, and it would be easy for an organization, or individuals, to lose focus around these issues.  Fortunately the enactment of SB1070, and the commitment to witness for justice shown by Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, and others, has not allowed this to happen.

On July 29, responding to a call put out by Frederick-Gray, Sal Reza of Puente, and others, more than 200 UU leaders and lay people committed to social justice went to Phoenix and other cities to put their money, and in many cases, their bodies, where their mouths were.  29 UUs were arrested in Phoenix, dragged off to the jail of the repressive Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and given a taste of the Sheriff’s form of justice.

UUA Moderator Gini Courter and others had helped to prepare those who would be arrested by writing the phone number of a lawyer on their arms in black marker, so that when all possessions were taken away, the phone number would remain.  From what I could observe, everyone present was prepared for a long seige.  UUA President Peter Morales was one of those arrested, and during the night, while he and other protestors sat in jail awaiting arraignment, those who remained free stood outside the jail, holding vigil through the night.

All this is a far cry from the kind of public witness the UUA used to engage in.  Although a successful “Back Alley March” was held in Milwaukee, WI in 1990 as part of the GA to lend support to the efforts of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and other groups to ensure the right to safe and accessible abortion services, the next year (1991) brought a paltry gathering down to the beaches of Hollywood, FL where a few placards were raised and waived — with no press in evidence — in support of ecological protections.  By 1993 an event to oppose North Carolina sodomy laws and support the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people had been organized, with a great deal of UU support — but the timing of the event was so late that the daily news cycle had ended before the demonstration began and mostly, those demonstrating were talking to themselves.

Thanks to the continuing work of UUA’s public witness team, the expert coaching of communication consultant Helio Fred Garcia, and the deep commitment of many people of faith, things have changed over the years.  A shout-out is due to Susan Leslie and Audra Friend of the UUA’s Advocacy and Witness staff group, who have had primary responsibility for organizing the GA public witness events of the last several years.  Leslie and Friend were in evidence in Arizona as well last week, along with the UUA’s Standing on the Side of Love (SOSL) team, helping UU leaders select gathering spots, making sure that word got out to the outside world.  The SOSL bright yellow T-shirts were everywhere, ensuring that when people protested or were dragged away, the media and Unitarian Universalists would know that it was one of ours being hauled off.

Effective public witness, as Garcia frequently says, “needs to be both public, and witnessed.”  While that makes for one of those “duh” moments – how literal do we need to get here? – it’s not always easy to pull off.  Too many times, multiple agendas and good intention have served to undermine the desire to make an impact in the Public Square.  Effective witness calls for deep grounding in the fundamental principles of faith, the opportunity to make something happen that will be noticed, and a natural fit with the organization engaging in action.

This time, the UUA got it right from one end to the other.  The partnerships formed with Puente and other organizations have been intentional and healthy.  I believe that organizations on the ground in Arizona know that they can count on the Unitarian Universalists, and others of faith, to stand with them as they fight for justice.  Opinion pieces from UU leaders showed up in The Huffington Post and elsewhere prior to July 29.  Those involved in the demonstrations were tweeting, Facebooking, blogging, producing videos, taking photos that they uploaded to the web immediately.  Reporters (print, radio, internet, TV) were present.  The story got out.

This is not an end, it’s a beginning.  There will have to be much more…more relationship-building, more education, more demonstrations and almost surely, more arrests, all leading to the 2012 Phoenix GA.  But this is what witnessing the faith is about.

The UUA is preparing to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary.  Early in the UUA’s history (borne out of the consolidation of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America), Rev. Dana Greeley, the first UUA President, asked ministers to respond to the call of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to come to Selma and witness their commitment to civil rights and justice for all.  Many went and marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, arm in arm, and one died for the cause.  In 2010, ministers and lay people responded to Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray’s call and went to Phoenix to stand for the civil rights of those who come to this country in search of a better life.

From where I sit, it seems like the UUA has come full circle in its understanding of how to witness the faith.  As UU minister Kendyl Gibbons wrote, “the time is now, the place is here…[there is] no other world” but this one, calling out for effective witness in support of simple justice for all our people.

Watch:

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Tomorrow many of my former colleagues, as well as friends, and those who I have never met, but whom I support in faith, will gather to raise their voices against the horribly restrictive law (SB 1070) of Arizona that is scheduled to go into effect tomorrow.  It will be sweltering hot, and they will be outside, some in clerical collars, others in “Standing on the Side of Love” T-shirts, many with buttons that show an inverted blue triangle or the statement “I could be illegal.”

I wish I could be there with them.  They have gone to say, once again, that laws that discriminate against a person because of race or ethnic origin are simply wrong.  As Sheriff Joseph Arpaio prepares his outdoor holding pen to contain those who he and his deputies plan to arrest under the new law, thousands of others will chant and pray, march and demonstrate, for the civil rights on which this country was founded.

I am grateful that a federal judge today blocked some key parts of this law from taking effect. In issuing her decision Judge Susan Bolton wrote, ““There is a substantial likelihood that officers will wrongfully arrest legal resident aliens.   “By enforcing this statute, Arizona would impose a ‘distinct, unusual and extraordinary’ burden on legal resident aliens that only the federal government has the authority to impose.”

We should not think that, by virtue of Judge Bolton’s ruling, the crisis is over.  The debate over the law that was passed by the state electorate is almost surely bound for the US Supreme Court, and there are hotly-held feelings on both sides.  I can not forget, and Elie Wiesel does not want any of us to forget, that in another time individuals were hauled off the streets, incarcerated, and gassed because of how they looked, their last names, or their religious beliefs.  We are fools if we believe that such things can not happen in the United States, because this Arizona law is a perfect example of the same circumstance occurring.

As I have noted previously, I am the granddaughter of Russian Jewish immigrants.  My last name, my cultural and religious beliefs, all connect me to my Ashkenazic Eastern European relatives.  And I will not forget, and I will not go away, and I will not be silent or back down.  I applaud the stance taken by Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales and UUA Moderator Gini Courter: we must protest, whether we are in Boston, Phoenix, Minneapolis, Miami, or Podunk.  I’ll be here in Lexington, Massachusetts, but I will be wearing a blue triangle and a badge that says “I could be illegal.”  And I will be carrying my passport with me as well.  I can only hope that all over the Boston suburbs, as in other parts of the country, thousands and millions wear the same badges.  They connect us to brothers and sisters we have never met who seek a better life in the country that has held so much promise for nearly three centuries.

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A number of Unitarian Universalists have already weighed in on whether it is advisable for the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) to pull out of Phoenix for the 2012 General Assembly (GA).  After a conference call meeting, the UUA Board of Trustees has decided to put the question to a vote of GA delegates at the upcoming GA in Minneapolis.

Now, my turn.  My very first GA was in 1987, in Little Rock, AK.  I remember being amazed and thrilled as Bill Schulz, then-president of the Association, took the stage and with passion, informed the delegates that the UUA would pull out of Phoenix (where GA was to be held in 1988) because of Arizona’s failure to support a Martin Luther King Day holiday.  People roared and cheered.  We were going to ‘show them’ what we stood for.  We said we would go back to Arizona after a King Day had become law.  We went, in 1988, to Palm Springs, CA.  As I recall, we had a perfectly delightful GA in a lovely resort area that was really luxe.  And, in 1997, we did go back to Phoenix.

And now, here we go again.  This time, the reason seems more powerful – Arizona’s new law, which discriminates against illegal residents and essentially makes Arizona a police state, is not only disgusting, it smacks of Hitler’s Germany, where anyone can be asked to show their papers to authorities, and questioned if those authorities think they might be illegally in the state.  And yet…we have to consider how we can most effectively witness our beliefs and values in a way that will be seen, and heard, by the residents of the state to which GA travels, and the authorities who govern that state.

There have been many other states where oppressive laws are in place.  For instance, many states have sodomy laws.  The UUA, which actively supports absolutely equality for bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals, has found a way to witness against such laws, and/or bring financial and moral support to the local BGLT community, many times.  In other states where oppressive laws exist, we’ve held marches in support of abortion rights, environmentalism, and more.  In Cleveland, the GA witnessed against the offensive use of the Chief Wahoo character  by the Cleveland Indians, during a rain-soaked march and rally.

Do we stay or do we go? A friend of mine is a noted travel industry writer, and she’s working on a story which is about the economic impact on Arizona of conventions pulling out because of the law.  And she’s following the UUA to see what we do.  It will cost over $600,000 at a time when there is no money to spare and when numerous staff members have already been laid off and UUA programs ended or re-envisioned for lack of funds.

My belief – informed by years of GA involvement and commitment to effective public witness – is that our voice as faithful and committed people will be heard more if we stay.  The revenue lost by our relatively small convention leaving is ultimately not going to make much of a difference to the Arizona convention industry.  And if we go, our voice is out of the mix.  If we stay, and witness our faith and values effectively, the people of Phoenix and those who live in this repressive state are likely to know more about who Unitarian Universalists are, and what we believe in, than before we showed up.  Through our actions we can be known — and in being known, allegiances can be formed, and influence increased, and we can have the chance to really walk our talk, hand in hand with the immigrant community.

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