Previous month:
December 2014
Next month:
February 2015

On Being Both Inside and Outside a Community

ImagesIt's a snowy day here in Columbia and a couple of my appointments for the afternoon were cancelled.  Yesterday I picked up next month's selection for my Daughters of Abraham book club:  "Unorthodox:  The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots" by Deborah Feldman.  I was just going to read a few chapters today, but somehow ended up reading the whole book, more or less.  Somehow, a snowy day calls for such excesses.

I do admit to skimming a bit in part because I found the book disappointing.  The author describes her early life in an extremely rigid, insular sect of Hasidic Judaism in vivid detail but seems emotionally cut off from much of it.  When she remembers her grandmother's baking Feldman can conjure up a little warmth, but for the rest of her narrative she is bored or confused or faking her response to a situation.  The book had the feeling of being written too soon after her departure.  She had to extract herself emotionally from her community in order to leave and she wasn't yet able to really put herself back in.  The result is a memoir that seems to hover at the surface of the story.

The feeling that Deborah Feldman best describes is one that defines her life from an early age:  she feels like an outsider, even when her life is completely defined by the Hasidic community.  While all the other girls in her class at school live with their parents, she lives with her grandparents.  Her father, their son, is mentally handicapped in some way and unable to care for her.  Her mother seems to have left the community, although we hear almost nothing about her.  So from an early age, Feldman feels like she must work to be accepted by the people around her.  

At the same time, she is drawn to books which she is forbidden to read--novels in English like "James and the Giant Peach" then "The Chosen" and eventually "Pride and Prejudice".  Feldman never explains how she got into the habit of reading these banned books when her grandfather prohibits her to even speak in English.  But these books capture her imagination and give her a sense of inhabiting worlds beyond her own.  They give her a way to step out of the Hasidic community while at the same time staying in.

Deborah Feldman's family does seem unusual within her community, but I have a feeling she was not the only one around her who felt like an outsider.  In my experience, everyone wonders if they really belong, if they are really accepted, even those who everyone else considers insiders.

For Feldman, the only way to find peace was to eventually leave the community completely.  But once out, she admits that she struggled to feel at home in the secular world.  It took her a long time to let go of the feeling that people were staring at her, noticing her because she was clearly out of place.

Most of us don't need to take such a drastic step because we're part of communities which are much more open to difference.  But there is still work to do to make our peace with the question of whether we really fit in.  Instead of struggling to conform completely to what a community seems to expect or value, we have to recognize that everyone fits in some ways and doesn't fit in others.  When we recognize that no one else fits in completely, we can relax about the parts of ourselves which don't exactly conform.

At least that's what I'm telling myself today.  

I love the Kittamaqundi Community and feel deeply connected to the amazing people there.  But having stepped out of the community for four months for a sabbatical, I'm realizing it isn't all that easy to step back in.  Over the past week, it's become clear to me that part of the problem is energy.  I feel refreshed from my time away, filled with ideas that I'd like everyone to buy into and want to try.  But a lot of people in the church--especially those in leadership positions--are in a different place.  While I was away, they poured their energy into sustaining the community and now, frankly, they want a break.

I'm listening...and adjusting my plans for the immediate future.  And I'm thinking about how I can stay close and connected to the community while also not being completely in sync with it.  It helps to remember that I've stood in many places with one foot in and one foot out, and whenever I've been in that position I've discovered that I am not alone.

The Kindness of Strangers

While Dan and I were navigating black ice this past Sunday, Rosa was headed to Sanibel Island with her grandparents, on a quest to observe the roseate spoonbill.  Her trip to Florida was their Christmas present to her, and it came with promises to go birding every day.  It was a dream trip for our self-proclaimed "Bird Nerd".  The only catch was that she would have to fly on her own.  

At 15, Rosa is too old to be an "unaccompanied minor", a designation which would have allowed me to walk all the way to the gate with her and to watch her board the plane under the supervision of a flight attendant.  I had to wave goodbye at the security check and watch as she headed off into the airport to find her gate on her own.  This was actually the second time we've done this--she flew out to Minnestoa on her own for Spring Break when she was 14.  So of course, I was more anxious about the trip than she was.

When I checked her in the day before, I was discouraged to discover that she would be in the last group boarding her Southwest flight.  "Don't worry, Mom," Rosa told me.  "I like sitting next to people I don't know on airplanes.  It give me a chance to act like Sherlock Holmes.  I can observe them and try to figure out what their story is."  Rosa has often struck up conversations with the people she's sitting next to on flights, even when she is traveling with our family.  Inevitably, people are delighted to talk with her.  I mostly find this reassuring, figuring that the people she befriends would be willing to help her in an emergency.  

Unaccompanied children have been the topic of much discussion in our neck of the woods, ever since the Washington Post ran a story about a family in Montgomery county who were investigated by Child Protective Services after the police picked up their kids, aged 10 and 6, who were walking along Georgia Avenue by themselves.  The kids were walking home from the park with their parents' permission.  Their parents have been slowly giving them more independence, allowing them to walk down the block on their own, then to the 7-11 a couple of blocks away, etc.

It seems like a completely reasonable thing to do.  After all, most of us who are now the parents of young children were raised this way.  We were the "latch key" kids who let ourselves in to empty houses after school.  We played outside with other kids in the neighborhood without telling our parents exactly where we were going or who we were with.  Crime rates are even lower than they were in the 1970's when we were kids.  And now, most kids walk around with cell phones with GPS tracking.  We have every reason to let our kids walk around on their own, and yet almost no one does.

Maryland law states that children can't be left alone in the house until they are 8 years old (unless there is a child who is at least 13 years old with them).  Most parents I know are aware of this law because we are all anxious for our kids to get old enough so that we can leave them at home when we run out to do a quick errand.  It didn't really register with me until I read last week's news coverage of the "free range" children that this law only applies to kids left alone in houses or cars.  There are no laws saying that a six-year-old child cannot be left to play in a playground unattended.

Once I thought about that, I realized it makes perfect sense.  It is, in fact, much more dangerous to leave a child home alone than it is to leave them unattended in a public place.  At home, a child could hurt herself, cut herself, burn herself and not know how to respond.  She could become afraid and not know how to find help.  In public, a hurt or afraid child would immediately attract attention, not just from the police but from neighbors and even strangers.  There are also nasty people in the world who try to take advantage of children, but when our children in public spaces, they are protected by the kindness of strangers.

Shouldn't that be what we teach our kids?  Don't go off alone with anyone you don't know well (when you are 6 or 16 or 26....)  You are safer around a group of strangers than you are in an intimate encounter with an acquaintance.  You can make yourself safer, in fact, by talking to strangers, striking up conversations with the people around you so that you feel comfortable asking for help if and when you need it.

Trust groups.  Be careful about isolation.

The Right To Be Offended

Newseum_5_Freedoms_1st_AmendmentLike everyone I know, I was sickened by the news of the attacks in Paris last week.  The actions of Cherif and Said Kouachi are criminal and indefensible.  But I have followed with interest the conversation about free speech that this incident has provoked.  While no one can defend murder, thoughtful people have had a wide range of responses to the cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo and to the questions they provoke about how a diverse group of people can manage to live in community with each other. 

Some of the most thoughtful comments I've heard came from Maajid Nawaz who was interviewed this week by Terry Gross on the NPR show, Fresh Air.  Nawaz is the author of "Radical:  My Journey Out of Islamist Extremism", an account of his experience with Islamist groups in Great Britain and Egypt.  When Terry Gross asked him about the Koran's teachings regarding blasphemy, he quickly redirected the question.  The issue for the wider society, he asserted, is not what the Koran teaches about offensive speech or images.  The issue is how to faithful Muslims can live in the midst of a society where not everyone is a Muslim, bound by the teachings of the Koran.  It is important for Muslims, and for everyone else, to distinguish these issues.  Nawaz continued:

And so I don't think the problem here is enforcing Muslims to render nothing sacred in their religion. You know, I'm not offended by these cartoons, but I know many Muslims who are my friends who are offended. And the conversation I have with them is that actually the issue here is you can be offended all you like. What you can't do is insist that others do not offend you. There is a right to be offended. There is no right to insist that other people do not offend you.

The phrase that stuck with me was the "right to be offended".  That is, in fact, what is guaranteed when a country establishes a right to free speech.  What a marvelous way to put it!

The building in Washington, D.C. which most inspires patriotic feeling is me is the Newseum which has the First Amendment to the U. S. constitution inscribed in stone on the front of the building.  I think of the rights defined in that amendment--including the right to free speech--as an expression of our understanding as a nation of how to best live in community.  When I first learned about the First Amendment as a teenager, I heard it as a list of benefits of living in our country.  We get to say whatever we want!  Cool!

These days, the right to free speech doesn't just seem like a bonus.  With the right to free speech comes the right to be offended.  How should we understand that?  Should we acknowledge that positive rights also come with a cost?  Is offense the price we pay for a right that also protects us from tyranny?  

Or could it be that the experience of being offended is an important and valuable part of being in community?

It certainly is an inevitable part.  I have done my fair share of offending the people with whom I'm in community, mostly unintentionally but at times intentionally, in the context of heated argument or failed attempts at humor.  And while I work hard to follow the advice to not take anything personally, I am occasionally offended by others.  These aren't pleasant experiences, but they have often become opportunities for self-reflection and honest, if difficult, conversations which then strengthen the bonds in our community.

One of the songs I learned at the Jewish Day Camp I attended as a kid often runs through my mind:  Hine(y) ma tov u’ma-nayim, Shevet ach-im gam ya-chad.  Look how good and pleasant it is when people dwell together in unity!  It is indeed pleasant to be around people who all agree.  But it is also good to be around people who disagree, who argue with each other and even offend each other.  Why?  Because when we recognize that not everyone thinks what we think, likes what we like or is offended by what offends us, we forced to think critically about things which we may have accepted without thinking.  

Free speech saves us from tyranny--not just the tyranny of a political leader or group who does not allow dissent, but from the tyranny of our own belief systems.