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David Greene, You Have My Full & Undivided Attention

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I am driving home from morning carpool, listening with half an ear to NPR’s Morning Edition. David Greene is reporting a follow-up to a story from 2009.

Izola White, now 88 years old, owned a diner on Chicago’s South Side for more than 50 years.  Izola’s was a 24-hour operation that served delicious food together with refuge from the streets of a rough neighborhood.  Due to her own illness and the country’s economic downturn, White was forced to close the diner two years ago.

I hear the emotion in her voice as she describes her current circumstances and her desire to reopen the diner.  Her godson, Dewayne Mason, comes to the phone. He and Greene discuss the downward spiral into poverty among African-American families and the deterioration of Izola’s neighborhood.

I am turning off the main road into my own neighborhood when Greene grabs my full and undivided attention.  Later, at my desk, I will visit the website so that I can replay his words and reflect on what I learned from the final seconds of his report.

After Greene finished listening to Mason’s account of the situation, he asked permission to say goodbye to Ms. White.  If he had merely thanked her for her time, I might not have remembered the story at all. But because he spoke to her with such kindness, I was drawn into the conversation at its close. He demonstrated in just a few words that he had been listening carefully–that is, with great caring–to her story.

Here, at the very end, is the evidence that David Green is a mensch, a decent human being, who doesn’t hear the painful details of another person’s story without feeling them.  In my opinion, it is worth listening for five minutes to hear these words spoken in his voice:

“Ms. White, it was very nice catching up with you. I really appreciate the time and I hope I can come for a visit – a visit to Izola’s soon and it will be back opened and you’ll be feeling good.”

 

 

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Had Gadya: One Little Kid

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With the help of our animal companions we can achieve greatness.

This is the life-lesson of three stories, the most recent of which I read in last week’s New York Times.  There I learned that a paleontologist’s nine-year old son was chasing their dog in a South African cave, when the dog led them to some well-preserved fossils that may shed new light on human evolution.  These bones may be from a predecessor of Homo erectus who lived nearly two million years ago.

This reminded me of another story about a young Bedouin shepherd who was tending his flock along the cliffs near the Dead Sea in the spring of 1947.  Searching for a lost goat, he stumbled upon a jar filled with manuscripts in a cave which would later be called Qumran.  His discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls continues to influence our emerging understanding of biblical texts and the many sects who lived in ancient Israel.

Finally, the lost goat at Qumran recalls a much older story found in Midrash Rabbah, a collection of ancient rabbinic legends. This is the story of Moses, who was also working as a shepherd when God noticed his extraordinary capacity for compassion and thus chose him to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt.  In this translation by Danny Siegel, the young goat is identified as a sheep, but the connection to our first two stories remains palpable.

Our teachers have said: Once, while Moses our Teacher was tending [his father-in-law] Yitro’s sheep, one of the sheep ran away. Moses ran after it until it reached a small, shaded place. There, the lamb came across a pool and began to drink. As Moses approached the lamb, he said, “I did not know you ran away because you were thirsty. You are so exhausted!” He then put the lamb on his shoulders and carried him back. The Holy One said, “Since you tend the sheep of human beings with such overwhelming love – by your life, I swear you shall be the shepherd of My sheep, Israel.”

In a similar story, Moses chases a goat up the side of a mountain, where he discovers a bush that is burning but not consumed.

There are those who recognize the uncanny ability of our four-legged companions to guide us beyond the boundaries that constrain us.  These stories remind me that walking upright is a remarkable achievement, but perhaps not as important as bending low to follow God’s “lesser creatures” to glorious heights.

 

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Living in the New Normal Age

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“Wow! It’s even on the first page of the Styles section.”

My teenage daughter and I had been discussing the issue of 9/11 commemoration fatigue.  I had just mentioned, between swallows of cereal, that I recognized the importance of remembrance—she and I had decided to attend a local memorial service on Sunday—but I worried that people who had spent several weeks saturated with 9/11 anniversary news were likely to return to their normal lives on September 12th without another thought to the first responders who are dying of cancer, among others who have had to adjust to a “new normal.” And there it was, an article about 9/11 in the Styles section of The New York Times.

My new normal has been much like yours: taking off my shoes and waiting in long lines at airports, and worrying about suspicious packages left unattended.  But I have also made a conscious effort to change the arc of my professional career since 9/11/01.  Then I was working as a teacher in an elementary school, quite pregnant with my third child and contemplating my maternity leave.  Now I teach World Religions classes to adults and spend much of my rabbinate in conversations with people of other faiths.

I follow interfaith organizations on Twitter; I stalk Parabola magazine on Facebook; I attend as many lectures and events in town as my busy schedule will allow; and I work to establish deep connections and true friendships with “the other.”  If alienation and hatred could lead to the 9/11 attacks then perhaps relationships and education can be the inoculation against a reprise.

A sense of normalcy has emerged in the post 9/11 age for me: I have focused my attention on learning about the experiences and beliefs of other people.  Just this week I started following a new blog about biblical texts that is written by three women—a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim—who are striving to achieve similar normalcy. If you are seeking knowledge of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles and the Quran, I highly recommend reading and responding to their posts.

Maybe someday we will read about them on the first page of The New York Times.

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