It’s Not a Beech, It’s a Birch

One of the simple joys of my Beachwood life is the abundance of nature surrounding me here in The Village. Even before Covid-19 slowed the world down, I delighted in the birds, the animals, the trees, the stream and of course, the lake. I have become especially attached to the large tree in my backyard with its magnificent canopy that provides just the right amount of shade no matter the time of day. In the 4 months I’ve been here, I’ve watched Mother Nature work her annual magic on this majestic tree, which I thought was a beech tree, as I live in Beachwood. When I suggested to the graphic artist working on the poster for last month’s Rally for Racial Justice that our Lady Justice be under a beechwood tree, it was the tree in my backyard that I was seeing in my mind’s eye.

Back in March, I noticed a very broken limb dangling from the beech tree, a little too close to my deck for comfort. I could see the break, the jagged edges revealing the bright inner wood behind the bark. As winter melted into spring, I watched the broken limb stay bare as the other limbs and branches slowly burst into green. With every prediction of stormy weather, I predicted that this would be the storm that would finally bring down the dead wood; no storm brought it down. The broken limb continued to dangle until Monday when the Village arborist finally arrived to prune the beech tree. As we conversed, I learned that the tree is not a beech but a river birch! My assumption, despite some research, was wrong. I was as happy to learn the truth about my beloved backyard tree as I was to see the dead wood carried away. 

Trees are powerful metaphors and archetypes in many cultures and religions for good reason. Like trees, we humans thrive when we are deeply rooted in healthy soil that provides the nourishment for our limbs to reach upward, toward the sky and the sun. Just as trees need water to grow into a dynamic living organism that becomes an integral part of its own backyard, so do humans need the tears that flow from those moments of real connection with others to be fully alive. As my mother Arlene, may She rest in peace, used to say in her simple way, “no pain, no gain.” As far as personal dead wood is concerned, I see the work of religious communities, therapists, close friends and hopefully family as the “arborists” of our inner lives.

Trees are also powerful metaphors for civil societies and the governments formed to allow those societies to flourish, hopefully for the greater good of all. The river birch will always be a symbol for me of the Beachwood city government that supported the Rally for Racial Justice. In a similar way, the memory of the olive tree in my former Jerusalem garden takes me back a decade to Rosh Hodesh Av 5770 when I was a part of the civil disobedience that began as the Women of the Wall’s monthly minyan at the Kotel. Being behind Anat Hoffman as she carried the Torah away from the Kotel Plaza, I witnessed her being manhandled by the Police Power of the State of Israel simply because fundamental Jewish law was the “custom of the place.” This sacred civil disobedience still happens in the Homeland as the State of Israel’s government fails to find the political courage to change a rigid religious status quo. The dead wood of the religious status quo agreement that was put in place in 1948 no longer serves the best interest of the State of Israel or the Jewish People.

In the decade that followed, I assumed the risk of being an artist/activist on behalf of Spiritual Civil Rights for All in Israel, in other words, religious freedom and religious pluralism. Perhaps one day I’ll produce another “Sacred Rights, Sacred Song” Concert of Concern; for now, I am honored to be a part of the UJA-New York Federation’s Israeli Judaism Committee which supports many change agents on the ground in Israel. The report from this Rosh Hodesh Av gathering is a painful reminder that despite major progress in the form of court cases and American Jewish public opinion, the needle has barely moved on the issues of Israeli Judaism, from the point of view of the government. Yet, the monthly activism continues. And now, due to and in the midst of “Corona”, Israelis are taking to the streets by the thousands to protest the failure of a corrupt Prime Minister to protect the people and the economy of Israel from the ravages of the virus. The parallels between the unrest in the body politic of Israel, my Homeland, and in the body politic of the US, my Home, are obvious. Once again, I am struck by the way events in Israel often foreshadow as well as reflect trends that will emerge around the world. That would be the prophetic nature of this unique people and place that is known as Israel. 

While the rallying cry in the United States has been Black Lives Matter and a demand for Racial Justice, it is the underlying pandemic that has brought both populations to the streets to protest the failure of their governments to provide for the Greater Good. In the US, the dead wood of systemic racial injustice that has been laid bare in the aftermath of the brutal murder of George Floyd, z”l, must finally be removed from the tree of our American civil society. The work in reforming how communities are policed, how inner city populations are educated, how housing loans are made, how health care is provided will be massive. Yet, we have no choice in this country if our founding ideals, the underlying soil that nourishes the roots of our democracy, have any meaning. It is that deep belief in the ideas of liberty and justice for all, of equal protection under the law, in the idea of what America should be, that prompted me to step up and plan the Rally for Racial Justice, despite being portrayed as a racist by the disgruntled student planners. Then again, I was under the false impression that the tree was a beech when in fact, it is a birch. A clear reminder that all of us need to constantly check ourselves for prejudice, bias and misunderstandings as we dive into the work of the Racial Justice movement.

Which brings me back to my backyard and the simple joys found here in the Village despite the anxiety that comes from knowing that the world is at an inflection point. There are those in this world who are like the turtles that live in the lake, coming out onto the log to glisten in the sun but will retreat into their shells and disappear into the water when they are disturbed. Then there are those who are like the squirrels, always on the run, going up and down the trees, filling their nests to survive the coming winter. The arborist said it was the squirrels that had gnawed at the dangling limb, weakening the stringy fibers that make up the wood. In a similar way, activists and our activism are the squirrels that work to gnaw away those limbs of the societal trees that are dead wood. Yet, activism must be followed by the exercise of political power, in all of its forms.  In the days ahead, may both the people of my Home and my Homeland  find the the political will to select leaders who can be the Arborists that finally cut away the dead wood,  leading their people out of the woods and into a better place for all. 

About the Author
Francine M. Gordon is an artist/activist who maintains homes in New York and Cleveland. From November 2010 through November 2016, through The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project, she produced over 10 Concerts of Concern in the US and Israel. Since establishing her New York residence, Ms. Gordon has become a member of the New York Federation’s Israeli Judaism committee which focuses on exactly the same issues as SRSS. In addition, she has become a proud member of the Zamir Chorale which allows her to express her Zionism through song.
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