Since the pandemic brought me back to Beachwood, I’ve thought a lot about the notion of home. Born in Akron, having raised my children in the suburbs of Cleveland, living life as a Grammy crazy close to my 4 gorgeous grandchildren and of course, having buried my parents at Rose Hill, Ohio is home. Yet, in the past 6 years I’ve cultivated an entirely new home and community in New York City where I have found a spiritual home, Ansche Chesed, 8 blocks from our apartment which is but 2 blocks from the 1 train. Until the pandemic hit, I delighted in riding the exact same subways Mom rode as she chased Frank Sinatra during her high school years. While I’m not chasing any one artist, I am pursuing my passions by serving on the Israeli Judaism committee of the UJA-Federation of New York, by supporting my love of Jewish choral music and choral music in general, by being a part of the Broadway investing/producing/creative community! Me, this little girl from Akron, Ohio who used to belt show tunes in front of the mirror, who, as a mother, coached her daughters on the stage of the JCC in junior versions of the Broadway classics, now part of the crowd at Sardi’s! Until last March. Now, my entire NYC life is on Zoom and so it is that once again, I can be in two places at one time. Just like in the old days when my other home was in the Homeland.
I was blessed to own an apartment in the German Colony in Jerusalem for almost 20 years. While never in residence for more than 7 weeks at a time, the ease of travel and the evolution of the internet made it very easy to establish a true home in the Homeland. Pop, Mom’s father, was born in the Old City; the family legend and lore is strong and my Zionist roots are deep. During those years I participated in many different forms of engagement, both personal and communal, in my Israel life. It was that kaleidoscope of experiences that gave me the grounding to take my love of Constitutional law, democratic ideas and principles, Israel and Jewish life in the Homeland and create the Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project back in 2010. I have long been fascinated by the similarities and differences between American Democracy as practiced in our 50 state Republic and the modern Jewish Democracy as navigated within a multiracial parliamentary democracy surrounded by hostile neighbors.
Over time, I have felt more at home in Jerusalem than in northeast Ohio, than more at home in New York than in Beachwood, now more rooted under the river birch than I ever felt under the olive tree. For me, home is where I am connected to a spiritual community and protected by the laws of the state. On both sides of the Pond, the government is committed to building a civil society where various communities come together for the common good. Both in my Home and in my Homeland, the Master Story taught a unified notion of “the common good.” What is of value, what is respected, what is revered are revealed within the words of the legends and stories we tell our communities that bind us together.
As a young girl at Fairlawn School I learned that our first President George Washington could not tell a lie. When asked, the Father of our Country admitted that he had chopped down the cherry tree. From a very early age, I was taught that in order for a democracy to function, the society had to value telling the truth. Similarly, in Sunday school kindergarten at Beth El, I learned the story about Abraham, the Father of the Jewish People, who destroyed the idols his father Terach had sculpted out of stone to make a point about faith. From a very early age, I was taught that for a community to function, the community had to share faith in a Higher Power. A source of Moral Authority, if you will. A source of Truth. A source of Trust.
As it became clear that the US Senate would fail to convict Trump for his utter betrayal of trust based on the big lie, I began to despair. I seriously asked myself, do I want to stay in the US knowing that those who hold Senatorial power are still frightened by a bully who never understood the notion of the common good? Having experienced the Second Intifada during my many times in Israel in the 2000’s, I recognized that the US had just undergone a domestic terror attack. That the terror attack was incited by the words of the leader of the country reminded me of another attack incited by the words of political leadership. When Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, z”l, was murdered by Yigal Amir, my heart shattered as the reality of a Jew murdering a Jew shook me to my core. In those dark days, we were reminded as a people of the profound power of words to create worlds. Donald Trump knows this basic truth. He used words to lie and create alternative facts. He incited a mob to desecrate the sacred spaces of the US Democracy. While not convicted, even Mitch McConnell now acknowledges that Trump is guilty.
Meanwhile, in the Homeland, the voters are preparing for yet another election as Bibi tries to cling to power without inciting a mob to take over the Knesset. In the public religious sphere, at the Women of the Wall’s Rosh Hodesh Adar minyan at the Kotel, Anat Hoffman was once again the target of intolerance and hate from a Haredi protester, this time the weapon being a cup of coffee thrown upon her, staining her tallit and siddur. And while the Israeli health system has faced the Coronavirus much better than the US’s, the utter disregard of the public health authorities by some parts of the ultra-orthodox leadership and community threaten the health and well being of the entire population. Once upon a time, the Zionist in me would have mitigated that despair, knowing that I would always be at home in the Homeland. But given the current state of affairs, while much progress has been made in the area of Israeli Judaism over the past 10 years, right now, my spiritual home is amongst a group of Upper West Side New Yorkers who define ourselves as a people of kindness who gather in a holy space where my voice can soar. Until I can return to that home, I have to be content with Zoom Shul.
So it was that I was sitting in my study yesterday morning listening to the reading of the Torah portion Mishpatim, which is overflowing with laws. Finding myself increasingly agitated by the realization that there would not be enough righteous Republicans to vote to convict Trump, I searched the text to find an anchor for my swirling soul. Of course there were ample verses that settled me. Chapter 23 of Exodus begins with the following verses, “Do not accept a false report. Do not join forces with a wicked person to be a corrupt witness. Do not follow the majority to do evil (1-2).” Words from our tradition, being read in our synagogues, on a day when the Senate of the United States had to decide what it means to live under the rule of law. And looking to our tradition, I lamented that unlike Abraham in Genesis Chapter 18, Jamie Raskin was unable to find enough righteous people to achieve the right and just result.
I sat riveted as Rep. Raskin argued the case. I empathized with his raw grief as he invoked his son Tommy in his appeal to common sense. I marveled when he referenced that one verse in the book of Exodus that he remembered from his Sunday school days, “Do not follow the mob to do evil.” Did Jamie Raskin know these words were a part of the day’s reading? Whether or not Jamie knew, the sacred synchronicity of that text which came forth from our Homeland being invoked in defense of my democracy at Home by an American Jew on Shabbat Shekalim, gave me great hope.
Finally, what is clear is that despite the Founders best efforts, there is no way to have a functioning democracy without some common source of moral authority, beyond the rule of law. Law being supreme only functions if there is an agreement on the source of truth, moral authority and the faith that everyone will follow the rules. The 4 years of Donald Trump and his Capitol Riot show what happens when there is an utter breakdown in this basic principle.
How do the American people return to a place where we can agree on what is truly the common good? On the day after Shabbat Shekalim, I suggest we begin by acknowledging the words that appear on America’s dollar bills, “In God We Trust.” Can we rebuild by acknowledging that there is a Higher Power, a source of moral authority, outside of our laws, that is, in fact, our common currency? How does a dynamic multiracial democracy come to a workable understanding of such a Presence that unifies and doesn’t divide? This is the great challenge for my Home going forward. Guided by wisdom from Above and courageous leaders such as Rep. Raskin on the ground, I have faith that my Home will continue to work toward being a more perfect union and like my People and maybe one day my Homeland, a light unto other nations.