Of She, Sheldon and the Shamash – Reflections on Mom’s 11th Yartzeit

The news is coming fast and furious as the Kislev moon fades away, making room for the increasing light that the candles of our Hanukkah menorahs will bring. Ever since my mother Arlene Gordon, z”l, died on the day preceding the first candle 11 years ago, our eight day Festival of Lights has become a nine day affair for me.  This year, the extra candle I light in my mother’s memory seems particularly poignant as our world seems rather dark at this moment.  Or not so dark.

Last week, in the wake of allegations of sexual misconduct, Senator Al Franken announced he will resign at the end of 2017, and 2 other congressional resignations followed. Yet, there remains the real possibility that a pedophile named Roy Moore will be elected to the Senate from Alabama.  Not to mention that utter irony that Donald Trump sits in the Oval Office despite the credible allegations of sexual misconduct against him.  I am heartened to see that Trump’s accusers are coming forward, again, in the wake of the #MeToo Movement.  There is no question that the United States is experiencing a moment of reckoning with respect to how sexual misconduct is handled.  The burden of proof in the classic He Said/She Said is starting to shift.  Going forward, once She alleges misconduct, He is on the defensive to prove it is not so.  Congress must model this process for the rest of American society.  And let those of us who care about a just and decent society, a place where the core Jewish value of B’tzelem Elohim, individual dignity and worth grounded in the belief that each person is created in the image of G-d, trumps all else.  And let the Predator in Chief beware that he is not above the law or societal values.

Yet by virtue of his office, the Tweeter in Chief does have the power to change decades of American foreign policy.  Last week, in a bow to donor Sheldon Adelson, President Trump announced that the United States now officially recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of the modern State of Israel.  In light of the rhetoric of the organized Jewish world over the past 50 years, the American Jewish Community had no choice but to welcome this shift in official US policy.   Making good on his promise to  Adelson and evangelicals, Trump has acknowledged in words the essential facts on the ground.  Unfortunately for the course of history, he forgot to mention the other facts on the ground, the Palestinian reality, complicating his Administration’s quest for peace.  Fears of violent riots and protests have given way to a cautious wait and see attitude as a different Arab world reacts to an unpredictable American President.

Further darkening this season is the knowledge that neither of my “leaders,” Trump nor Bibi, are worthy of the positions they hold.  Trump never should have been elected and shame on the Republican Party, the GOP, for allowing it to happen.  Despite the Access Hollywood tape, the Republicans supported a man who bragged about his sexual predations and now are witnessing the Predator in Chief supporting Roy Moore for Senate.  The GOP, the Grand Old Party, has become the POP, the Party of Predators.  With thanks to Sheldon Adelson, who supported Trump to the tune of $25 million, the US is suffering an assault to our democratic institutions and ideals that is shocking in its ability to continue to shock our senses.  Tomorrow the people of Alabama will make a statement and it is clear that anyone who values decency in the public sphere is hoping that the Democrat Doug Jones defeats a man who represents what is vile and repulsive in American society.

With respect to the climate in Israel on this eve of my Mom’s 11th yartzeit, I wish I could share with her the state of the Modern Jewish Democracy Movement.  Seven years ago, with Mom, the daughter of a Jerusalem-born sabra on one shoulder and my mentor in activism, the late Dr Art Naparstek on the other, I began advocating for changes in Israeli society, law and politics that would allow for a more robust expression of Spiritual Civil Rights in the modern State of Israel.  While access to the Kotel is one issue, the Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project also spotlights abuses of religious power in the areas of marriage, divorce, conversion, segregation in the public sphere and allocation of state resources.

The victories won by the Women of the Wall and the Israel Religious Action Committee in the Israeli court system have been moments of validation for the work.  Being asked to join the Israeli Judaism committee of the UJA-Federation of New York and getting involved in the allocation of funds to the non-governmental organizations doing the work on the ground in Israel has also confirmed the importance of the activism.  The Three Weddings at Temple Emanuel a week ago yesterday was a beautiful affair that was a grand celebration of love, Jewish life and religious freedom.  Connecting with the major players at the event who I’ve known for years, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Anat Hoffman, Uri Regev and Gilad Kariv, was yet another moment that I knew my activism has mattered.  However, because Bibi panders to the ultra-Orthodox power in his coalition, the most striking accomplishment of the Movement, the Kotel Compromise Agreement, has been set aside. That is just the obvious example of the many steps forward and back that have been taken in this slow walk toward a change in the Status Quo agreement.  In the spirit of Hanukah, I would tell Mom that like her, I have been a type of Shamash, lighting the way for others and helping fuel their activism.  How fitting that this year is the 8th year since the first Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Concert was presented in Cleveland.

The sun is sinking into the Hudson River and the sky is taking on the glorious hues of a cloud streaked December twilight, heralding the beginning of 24 Kislev.  Mom was a true leader in her own unique way, a woman who had a fire within her and was able to help others find their spark of involvement.  Last night, singing on the stage of Merkin Hall here in New York City with the Zamir Chorale, joining voices with my daughter Sarah when Zamir Noded and Zamir sang together, my mother’s spirit lit up the room.  Even though she could not carry a tune, as a young mother in Akron, Ohio she knew that there was something powerful and profound about Jewish choral music and was an activist/advocate for our beloved Beth El Junior Choral Society, speaking out when few others dared to confront mostly male Board of Trustees of Beth El Congregation back in 1969.

It is in her spirit that I raise my voice, whether in the #MeToo Movement, the Resistance to the Predator in Chief or in my work supporting beautiful music, Jewish and A Capella (yes, the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble).  If only I could convince Sheldon Adelson to send a little money our way to these programs that literally bring Harmony to a troubled world.  After all, Mom and Dad did love Las Vegas and most likely contributed to his fortune.  I would try to show Sheldon that music brings light into a dark and troubled world, just as the Shamash will light the first light tomorrow night, as Hanukah begins.  Tonight, in Mom’s memory and with hopes for brighter times, I will use a Hanukah candle to light Mom’s yartzeit flame and  then, will use that same candle for the Shamash tomorrow night.  For me, this symbolizes the essence of Hanukah –  a rededication to a hopeful future, grounded in the values of our past, while embracing the challenges of the present.

May Hanah bat Moshe v’Devorah’s Memory be a blessing and Hanukah Sameach.

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.