Stop stereotyping Chasidim

Stop stereotyping Chasidim

I’m a gay socialist anarchist Jew raised in the Reform Movement.  You won’t find anyone to the left of me on the political spectrum or prouder to be a gay man.  And I have a message for my progressive Jewish friends: stop stereotyping Chasidim.  If I of all people can see Chasidim as a diverse community of human beings with real value to offer the Jewish people, so can you!

I was raised in the Reform Movement and am proud to say so.  I founded and led teen services at my synagogue, served on youth group boards, helped re-write the movement’s sex-ed curriculum, did service work in Argentina with Reform Jews, led the Reform Chavurah on my college campus, and currently help craft young professionals programming at my Reform shul.

One of the values I was taught as a Reform Jew was to respect and honor other cultures and communities.  The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism does a tremendous job of advocating for social justice for African Americans, Latinos, immigrants, the disabled, LGBT people, and other minorities.  This is in our blood and our neshama and we rightfully view tikkun olam as essential to our Judaism.

Yet I’ve heard, from Reform, Conservative, and secular Jews many comments that caused me to think of Chasidic and “ultra-Orthodox” Jews (we’ll come back to why I hate that term- I prefer Chareidi) as monolithic, hateful, and bigoted.  Against Reform Jews, women, gay people, you name it.  I was taught about the Reform Kindergarten in Israel burned down by extremists, I read in the press about Orthodox men stabbing people at pride parades, and I was told that Chasidim are overly hierarchical and chauvinistic.

While some of these stories are true and in every stereotype there may be a bit of reality, I wonder why we don’t afford our Chasidic brothers and sisters the same understanding we offer other minorities.  For example, African Americans tend to be more socially conservative than Reform Jews, with 76% of Jews supporting same-sex marriage, but only 42% of African Americans.  And yet, progressive Jews’ support for African American civil rights is a matter of our faith and values, not whether they have the same values (though a growing number certainly do- they are a diverse community like all others).  My support for African American civil rights is not conditioned on them supporting my civil rights, though I certainly welcome it.

If we can show beautiful solidarity and support for African Americans, why are we so reluctant to engage with our Chasidic brothers and sisters from our own faith?  First of all, without realizing it, many progressive Jews have a double standard.  Bigotry in other minority communities is correctly diagnosed as only one perspective among a diverse group of people.  And yet, we don’t offer that same generosity of spirit to Chasidim.  We say they are all chauvinistic, they are all homophobic, they are all violent extremists.  To this, I say “sha!”.

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I recently read an interesting poll from the Pew Center.  It said that 70% of Chareidi Jews (both Chasidic and Litvish) think homosexuality should be discouraged.  There are two ways to read the poll, one pessimistic and the other quintessentially Jewish.  The pessimist (who already may view Chasidim with suspicion) would say: “wow what a bunch of bigots!”.  To which I say, “I never would’ve possibly imagined that a full third of this community would not want to discourage homosexuality”.  How beautiful it is to find this nugget of truth- that among “ultra-Orthodox” Jews there are a lot of people who don’t want to make their Judaism about ignorance and hate.  It gives me hope.

Speaking of diversity, for example, we acknowledge diversity within Latino communities (national origin, age, geography, language, etc.).  That is fantastic and very important in figuring out how to reach out and understand another group of people.  But Reform Jews (and I think progressive Jews in general), have done precious little to understand “ultra-Orthodox” Jews.  And let’s dissect that term for a moment.  I find it deeply prejudiced.  Ultra implies excess, fanaticism, too much, overwhelming, and out of control.  Since “ultra-Orthodox” Jews don’t call themselves that, let’s use “Chareidi” to talk about the Litvish and Chasidic Jews that term compromises.  Furthermore, the term “ultra-Orthodox” lumps almost a million people into one group.  Besides the fact that Litvish and Chasidic Jews have had ideological differences for centuries (which were quite passionate back in Eastern Europe), even within Chasidic Judaism you have different ideologies.  You’ve got the “outward looking” Chabad movement that seeks to bring non-Chasidic Jews into their community.  And you have the other Chasidic sects like the Satmars, Bobovers, Skeverers, and others who are more focused on preserving what they see as the essence of Judaism internally.

Non-Chabad Chasidim, because they are more focused on preserving their learning and culture rather than recruiting new members, place a strong emphasis on Yiddish.  For these Chasidim (and to a degree Chabadniks), language, kashrus, and clothing are what help keep their community distinct from the goyish world they’re surrounded by.  One of the things I appreciate about this, besides the fact that they’re sustaining the Yiddish language more than any other Jewish movement in the world, is that they don’t want to assimilate.  While the Reform Movement today has a healthier balance of innovation and tradition, in its early days it was formed as a way for Jews to assimilate into Protestant culture (at the time, in Germany and the U.S.).  Services reflected Protestant norms so Jews could “fit in” with their neighbors.  While I certainly understand the impulse for Jews to want to fit in after 2,000 years of persecution, I think assimilation is the wrong solution.  Why do the persecutors’ work for them?  We should embrace all that is different, “weird”, and unique about Judaism rather than aiming to pleasure the majority.  I love this radical rebelliousness on the part of Chasidim and I think there is great value to progressive communities in learning about it as we craft our own practices.

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Which brings us to an interesting point.  So many progressive Jews (and non-Jews) decry the poverty rate of Chasidic Jews and their high unemployment.  If some of the words progressive Jews used to describe Chasidim were applied to other lower-income minorities, they’d be seen as prejudiced.  Rather than bemoan the fact that Chasidim “study all day” (something we wish our own kids would do!), why can’t we appreciate the good Chasidim are doing for the Jewish people?

An entire language would be dead by now if it weren’t for the Chasidic community’s diligence.  After World War II, American Jews rapidly assimilated and part of the compact they made in exchange for social advancement was to leave “weird” Jewish stuff behind, like Yiddish.  At one time spoken by millions of American Jews, it rapidly declined over the subsequent decades.  The few secular or progressive Jews trying to keep the flame alive (I’m one of them- I recently started studying the language) get little or no support from Jewish funders or institutions.  While there is somewhat of a renaissance of people (especially my generation) learning the language thanks to groups like the Workmen’s Circle, YIVO, and Yugntruf, most American Jews are uninvolved.  Their parents and grandparents didn’t pass on the language.

Yet recently, something curious happened.  While up to 2000, the number of Yiddish speakers in New York was declining, it jumped from 113,515 speakers to 121,917 in 2010.  This might sound small, but that’s a 7.4% increase in 10 years, at a time when other immigrant languages from the 20th century like Italian and Greek are rapidly declining.  They don’t have a core of passionate, dedicated speakers like Yiddish does, and we are blessed to have them preserving 2,000 years of Jewish history every day.

Due to high Chasidic fertility, you can expect those numbers to go up rapidly over the next 10, 20, 30 years and beyond.  Rather than criticizing Chasidim for having large families, I frankly think we should thank them.  Not only are they pulling off a tremendous feat, bring a child into the world (and on a low budget), they are nourishing that child with Torah, with Chesed, with love.  Would that we had the kind of energy for 7 children!  It’s truly astonishing and while we might not choose it for our own families (progressive women, breathe a sigh of relief), we can acknowledge and appreciate the tremendous sacrifice these families are making.  And they are strengthening the Jewish people at the same time.

If progressive Jewish leaders were creative, they’d see this burgeoning Yiddish resurgence as an opportunity.  Rather than telling Chasidim to learn English or take “modern” jobs (though contrary to stereotypes, many do work), let’s think about some ways in which this could benefit our own Judaism.  For example, often for ideological reasons, some Chasidism choose to leave the community.  Estranged from their background but in search of something new, they are forced to leave Yiddish in the home, since our capitalist economy has decided it’s not a valuable “work skill”.  Putting aside the speciousness of the idea that speaking such a rich language is not a valuable skill, let’s acknowledge that many ex-Chasidim have trouble in the job market.  How about this for an idea.  While some ex-Chasidim, although fluent in Yiddish, may not want to work as teachers, some may.  What if we pooled our resources to train those interested in teaching the mameloshn and created a corps of teachers who could revive Yiddish teaching in progressive Judaism?  While obviously this is a proposal for Ashkenazi Jews (though certainly anyone could learn it!), it could be inspiration for similar programs for Ladino or other Jewish languages.  Let’s give deserving people new job opportunities while creating Jewish richness for our own community.

All of which is to say, Chasidim are people.  Just as we would never assume that the unelected heads of the hierarchy of the Reform Movement or Conservative Movement speak for all members of those movements, we should apply similar scrutiny to statements from Chasidic rabbis.  Yes, Chasidim often revere their rabbis, but there are also plenty of schisms in communities, competing rabbis, and more importantly, grassroots Chasidim who may have different opinions, voiced or not.  Like we’d approach any sociological setting, let’s not assume that one person talking on behalf of thousands speaks for them all.

In the end, Chasidim are diverse.  They have real problems, ranging from chauvinism to sexual abuse.  Real problems that our communities have experienced too.  Let’s not be afraid to point out those problems to address them, but let’s not forget our shared humanity and fallibility.  Chasidim come in all shapes and sizes, just like us.  I challenge my progressive Jewish friends- Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Yiddishist, atheist, secular, Humanist, and Renewal- to join me in committing to learn more about the fascinating Chasidic community.  Read a book, visit a website, learn Yiddish, go to Chasidic neighborhoods, go to the source.  The more stuff you engage with actually written by or produced by Chasidim, the more authentic your knowledge of them will be.

When I visited New York in March, I wore jeans and a sweater (with a teal streak in my hair), and headed to Williamsburg, a Chasidic neighborhood.  I went to a bakery and found the man very quiet.  But once I started speaking in Yiddish and said I was visiting from Washington, D.C., his eyes lit up as he grabbed me some babka.  I spent hours perusing a Judaica store as well, filled with the latest in Yiddish illustrated books for children.  These books were gorgeous and creative and engaging.  If they were translated with pretty covers and called “graphic novels”, you might be curious enough to buy them for three times the price at an independent bookstore.  The shop owner was generous and kind and welcoming, even though I clearly wasn’t a member of the community.  I bought a black velvet yarmulke, to fit in a little and as a keepsake, but my teal streak still strong enough to make clear I was a bit of an outsider too.

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That is my hope for your engagement with Chasidim.  There’s no need to lose your “teal streak”, that progressive bent which makes your Judaism unique and powerful.  Instead, come with your authentic voice, show respect for the local community like you would with a Muslim community, and engage.  Chasidic people may never write this kind of blog encouraging their community to engage with progressive Jews (though that’d be awesome).  But in the end, I don’t care.  I’m not doing it for them so much as I’m doing it for my own Jewish values, taught to me by the Reform Movement.  Ve’ahavta le’reacha kamocha.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Your Latino neighbor, your black neighbor, your disabled neighbor, and yes, your Chasidic ones too.

It’s time to step outside our comfort zone and get to know our fellow Jews, our fellow human beings.

Amen.

-Matt Adler (פסח מיכאל)

 

Jewish Prayer for Diversity

Jewish Prayer for Diversity

At a time in which politicians in the U.S., U.K., and other countries are pouring forth hatred against minorities, it’s important for us to remember the beauty of diversity as we stand beside out brothers and sisters in solidarity. I wrote this Jewish prayer out of love for diversity:

Blessed are you Adonai our G-d
Ruler of the universe
who created all types of wondrous people.

Whole Grain Judaism

Whole Grain Judaism

What most people recognize as the “Jewish World” today is a series of businesses. The Reform Movement, the Conservative Movement, AIPAC, JStreet, the Orthodox Union, and Hasidic sects. To varying degrees, these groups and ones like them are organized as economic units- the Jewish Industrial Complex, if you may. Each one relies on extensive fundraising efforts, courting of big donors, and hierarchical leadership which chooses how to direct the funds just like a CEO. Sometimes that leader even carries the title of Rabbi, though it’s questionable how studying Talmud and how to give a good Dvar Torah makes one fit to be a CEO. Or whether a Rabbi, originally a teacher and servant of the community, is really meant to be such a thing.

Am I exaggerating? Here’s a quick test for the Jews reading this piece:

  • How many High Holiday services have you attended where there was no appeal from the Bimah for making a donation?
  • How many Jewish groups have you been a member of that didn’t cost anything?
  • How many synagogues have you seen where donors aren’t acknowledged with engraved plaques?

Now if you can count up your answers and the result be more than zero, you are a unique Jew. Mazel tov! Perhaps you belong to the budding chavurah movement, which I think gets many things right about how to organize Jewish life. And perhaps there are some variations by sect and organization, but the overall point remains the same: today’s Jewish institutions revolve around money. And the more you give, the more influence you have. If you’re thinking that it’s unfair for me to call this a uniquely Jewish phenomenon, you’re right- other cultures and religions suffer from this problem too, but I’d like to primarily focus here on how it affects my community.

I can recall as a child seeing the plaques in the synagogue entrance with donors’ names and being perplexed. Why were there plaques? And why were some plaques much bigger than others with weird phrases attached to them indicating just how much they gave? The Howard County Jewish Federation, for example, takes Jewish icons and turns them into fundraising slogans: the Maimonides Society for doctors who give $1800 a year, the Knesset Society for those giving $1200 a year, and the Lion of Judah Society for women who give a minimum of $5000 a year (and who get a fancy pin to show for it to show others of course). Why not go all the way? How about a “Guardian of the Gates of Repentance” for $6000, a “Queen Esther for a Day” for $8000, or maybe even “Become a Cohen” for $10000? Do these sound absurd? Perhaps. But is it really that much different than a Chabad shul in Israel charging $7250 for being called to the Torah at the beginning of Kol Nidre?. Before my Reform friends get high and mighty about that, some Reform Temples have historically sold the prime sanctuary seats to big donors who, of course, got plaques with their names engraved on the seats.

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Speaking of plaques, this seems like a kind of filthy bacteria contaminating the otherwise admirable white teeth of the Jewish people. As the son of a single mother who had limited income, I often felt segregated, looked down on, and excluded from Jewish events. Although I actively participated in youth group, led services, tutored Bar Mitzvah students, joined Federation programs, and took Hebrew lessons, I can conclusively say that there is a pernicious class divide within the Jewish community. It’s not that I remotely begrudge people donating to Jewish institutions- I think they’re largely well-intentioned, good people. The question is why does our community feel a need for aggrandizing its wealthiest members? And what effect does that have on middle class or lower-income Jews trying to preserve their heritage as well?

Which goes back to the original point- today’s Jewish institutions are businesses. There are the leaders (CEOs- read: highly empowered Rabbis, non-profit Presidents, sometimes even movement or synagogue Presidents). There are also the workers (Hebrew school teachers, Jewish Day School staff, synagogue janitors, cantors, sometimes even Rabbis). And there are (brace yourselves) the customers- that’s me and you.

Well that’s a really ugly way to think about community. Especially because I think most people involved, be they clergy, board members, or community members, would rather not think of the synagogue or a Jewish organization as a financial transaction (especially the workers who are often underpaid and underappreciated- I’m looking at you Jewish communal workers!). So clearly something needs to change to make this community work for all of us.

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What I find most compelling about Judaism (especially since we became a kind of anarchist Diaspora community 2000 years ago) is our lack of bureaucracy. I often like to point out to Catholic friends of mine that I’m quite proud of the fact that we don’t have a Pope. The fact that we are a dispersed, loosely organized (organized is generous when talking about Jewish communities!) people has allowed for a wide variety of interesting philosophical and cultural movements within our people. It stimulates debate and foments creativity. That’s why we literally have two Talmuds! It’s why we have Renewal, Humanist, Yiddishist, Sephardic, Yemenite, Persian, Ashkenazi, Atheist, Socialist, Communist, Zionist, non-Zionist, Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, Conservadox, Modern Orthodox, Hasidic, and Charedi Jews- and more! Such a vitality and diversity of thought is almost unparalleled for such a small group of people! It is kind of like the city of Austin, TX. Because Austin has laws that specifically limit chains and large corporations, for a small city, it has a wide variety of restaurants and bars and stimulated people. Judaism’s lack of central organization and hierarchy allows for the most beautiful proliferation of cultural and spiritual energy.

This is why I’m so concerned about the corporatization of Judaism. Judaism is both a culture and a religion, but it is emphatically not meant to be a commodity. When you look at the Jewish movements growing most rapidly today it is the ones that do not charge membership fees. For instance, independent chavurot and minyans around the country don’t charge you to participate, so people are more interested in joining. Nobody wants to feel like their spiritual and cultural belonging feel more like paying rent than connecting with G-d. Another example is (not withstanding the bizarre Chabad practice in Israel described earlier) Chabad. While I was a student at Washington University in St. Louis, I led a Reform Chavurah for progressive Jewish students. We were very successful in building up an organization (the largest on campus) that was centered around community rather than membership or fees. The only other Jewish organization on campus that had similar success was Chabad. Despite the movement’s decidedly conservative politics and religious beliefs, the simple fact that Chabad emissaries make their meals, services, and programming free attracts people of all different backgrounds. It just feels more welcoming to be approached as a Jew and a human being, rather than a potential member or donor.

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I’ve explained how a profit-centered Judaism is taking hold of the Jewish community. But how does this affect Judaism itself? In one word: barriers.

As each Jewish organization or movement builds its customer base, it doesn’t want to lose anyone to competitors. And so lines harden. Reform Jews, rightfully rejoicing in their egalitarianism and creative musical worship, have utterly abandoned Ashkenazi Hebrew and Yiddish. Conservative Jews, rightfully proud of their high levels of Jewish camp and day school participation, look down on Reform Jews while failing to recognize their policies on women and gays are taken from the Reform playbook but with an agonizing 10 year delay. Modern Orthodox Jews, rightfully proud of their tight knit communities and passion for Judaism, have adopted the Protestant model of Judaism as a religion only and have neglected Jewish culture- Ladino, Yiddish, calligraphy, art, social justice, and a concern for the “other” (read: Palestinian). Ultra-orthodox Jews, rightfully proud of being the only Jewish community to successfully preserve Yiddish as a daily language, have attacked women for praying at the Western Wall, forgetting the Biblical injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself”.

What this means is that each type of Judaism- be it a religious movement or a cultural one- needs to break out of its shell so our community can learn from the best of what each tradition has to offer. The only way to do this is to (sorry to quote Ronald Reagan because I’m not a fan!) “tear down this wall!” Rather than being little pieces of a much more interesting whole, we must start to practice “Whole Grain Judaism” where we’re confident enough to be able to see the good and bad in all Jewish movements and take what we need to build a holistic, healthy philosophy and community.

Since the barriers between our different Jewish silos are partially financial in nature, we must turn our attention to how we can de-financialize Judaism. Are we raising money for things that we could do ourselves? The most successful religious movement in the U.S. today (in terms of growth) is non-denominational evangelical Christianity. What do they do that’s so enticing? First off, this is largely a low-budget operation. While we do see images of megachurches and the like, a lot of prayer meetings are small and open to all (like minyans- see we have precedents for this in our history!). Perhaps “small and open to all” a good guideline for how to reconceptualize Judaism. Rather than big synagogues with big expenses where few people know each other, what about small, deeply personal chavurot that are largely self-run? There may in fact always be some expenses in putting on events or educational programs, but I think that without an expensive building and all the maintenance it requires, this would greatly reduce the cost of Jewish community participation. For communities that want to further reduce expenses, why couldn’t they run their own educational programming? The Hebrew school model (I’m thinking mostly of Reform and Conservative shuls here) is outdated and while there are many passionate and engaging teachers who I adore from my youth, for most kids it’s a bore and a chore. If community members themselves were the educators (and if the youth could take leadership roles), it’d increase everyone’s investment in the process and make for a more creative effort.

If you want to go further, you could reduce or eliminate the role of a paid rabbi, since Judaism, unlike Catholicism, doesn’t require a rabbi to do most prayer services or functions. Making rabbinic training less expensive, less bureaucratic, and more driven by local community needs would be one way to reduce costs as well. Local mentorship of rabbis by other rabbis instead of long seminary programs could be one way to train more leaders for less money. In additional, communal leaders could take on aspects of the rabbinic role or share clergy across chavurot.

Another benefit of decentralized Judaism is the ability for each chavurah or cultural group to set its own policies. Rather than obeying the mandates of the Union for Reform Judaism (which in turn eats a lot of synagogues’ money!), why not give each community the flexibility to choose what’s right for them? There is Jewish precedent for this. In Jewish tradition, it was considered the norm for a traveling Jew to follow the minhag (tradition) of the new community he or she encountered. This means that even going back hundreds and thousands of years, Jews have always maintained different traditions across time and boundaries and yet still managed to thrive as a people. Unity is a fascist concept. What is really beautiful is diversity and we ought to encourage it. What might work for Jews in D.C. may not work for Jews in Tehran or Jews in France. Let’s stop pretending we’re one people (by the way, having rigidly defined competing hierarchical movements doesn’t exactly contribute to that goal anyways) and embrace that we are one people with many faces.

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Speaking of decision making, “Whole Grain Judaism” must include a strong emphasis on the democratic process. Currently, I can’t think of a since Jewish institution that lets all of its members choose its leadership. As a current member of the Reform Movement, I can’t think of a single time I’ve been asked to vote for the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, yet my movement emphatically urges me to vote for the President of the USA. I suppose it’s easier to preach democracy than to practice it. But I insist that Whole Grain Judaism allow people an equal voice in the decision making process. No plaques, no privileges, just equality. It’ll make for greater inclusion and involvement in the community because people will feel greater ownership.12885746_10100982715916252_8899510398616850012_o

There are different types of whole grains and so Whole Grain Judaism will mean different things for different people. For me, it means a Judaism that proudly embraces, teaches, and speaks its various languages (Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, Bukharan, and more). It means a Judaism where all have an equal say and the community actively and passionately participates throughout the year- at home and as a whole. It means a Judaism that is egalitarian and progressive, but is also proud of our traditions- embracing aspects of Kashrut, holidays, tekhines, and piyyutim. It means a Judaism that shows a deep and abiding love for the world’s many cultures while also sharing and embracing our own- Jewish literature, history, music, cuisine, poetry, comedy, art, and architecture. After all, when we know our heritage well, we are better able to relate to and engage with other people’s cultures. It means a Judaism of loving our neighbors as ourselves and standing for justice, peace, friendship and cultural understanding with all peoples, learning from others and sharing our insights too.

The important thing is to find the whole grain that makes your Judaism fulfilling, rich, healthy, and delicious. Maybe you’re barley, maybe you’re wheat, but in the end, you can’t let the artificial barriers that separate us stop you from finding your path. There will always be disagreements among Jews- that’s what makes us Jews! But don’t let that convince you that you can’t learn from your fellow Yidden even if you continue to disagree on important issues.

In the end, I think most rabbis, cantors, Jewish communal employees, synagogue board members, donors, members, and unaffiliated Jews are good people because most people are good people. But let’s face it- this system sucks! Judaism is best when it’s not a financial institution, but rather a constellation of cultural, personal, and philosophical relationships that tie us together with love and curiosity. Let’s make it our mission to go against the grain and make ourselves whole.

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“To You My G-d”, a bilingual Piyyut

“To You My G-d”, a bilingual Piyyut

I’m proud to share with you my first bilingual Arabic-Hebrew Piyyut, or Jewish liturgical poem.  It’s given me a great deal of inspiration and satisfaction to write this poem.  I write in the spirit of peace and G-d which gives life to all and joy to every language.

A rough translation:

To You my G-d, my beloved
I say my prayer
From the depths, I am sad
I am close to You
There is nobody better than you Allah
Please watch over all who love You

Inspired by the Piyyut “Lecho Eli

Evening prayer

Evening prayer

This is my first foray into writing Hebrew poetry (with a dash of Arabic and Yiddish in it!). Inspired by the prayer and meditation I do before going to sleep, I present to you “Evening Prayer” (approximately translated below, it rhymes in Hebrew).  Sorry the spacing is wacky- it’s supposed to be four lines for each stanza- WordPress is weird about foreign languages!  I’ve put dashes between stanzas to show where they start and stop until I figure this out, but imagine it without dashes!

תפילה ערבית

תודה אלוהים על יום טוב
יום מלא הזדמנויות
לך אני מרגיש קרוב
עימך לי אין בכלל צרות

כל ערב לך אני מודה
גם אם היה יום קשה
אני מנסה לתקן את העולם
מבין בניך אין אדם מושלם

ביסמיללה שמור עליי
ותן עוצמה לאהוביי
קח את חיי בידך
ס’איז א באלאגאן בלעדיך

אני מודה ומתפלל
בחדרי באמצע ליל
לאזם אומר לך תודה
ואז מותר לבקש עזרה

יא אלוהים תודה לך
תפילת הלב תפילה קטנה
לא תפתור את בעיותיי
אך השכינה שיפרה את חיי

Evening Prayer

Thank you G-d for a good day
A day full of opportunities
To you I feel close
With you I have no worries.

Every evening I thank you
Even if it was a hard day
I try to repair the world
Among your children there is no one perfect.

Bismillah watch over me
And give strength to my loved ones
Take my life in your hands
It’s a mess without you.

I give thanks and pray
In my room in the middle of the night
I must give thanks to you
And then I may ask for your help.

Oh G-d, thank you.
Prayer of the heart, a small prayer.
You will not solve my problems
But your presence has improved my life.

Why superdelegates Don’t Matter (from the perspective of a 2008 Obama Pledged Delegate)

Why superdelegates Don’t Matter (from the perspective of a 2008 Obama Pledged Delegate)

Lately there’s been a whole bunch of hubbub about Bernie not “actually” winning New Hampshire because Hillary’s superdelegates make up for the ground she lost on Election Day. I was a Pledged Delegate from Missouri’s 3rd Congressional District for Barack Obama in 2008. I attended the DNC in Denver and was proud to nominate Barack Obama to be the Democratic candidate for President.

Before I explain why superdelegates don’t matter, a few quick definitions:

Delegates – when all the primaries are over, these people get to vote for their preferred nominee (in this case, Hillary or Bernie) to represent the Democratic Party. Whoever has the majority of delegates at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) will be the party’s candidate in the November General Election.

Pledged Delegate – this person is chosen through a variety of processes that vary by state (in Missouri, I actually ran a campaign to become a delegate through a series of caucuses/mini-elections). The important thing to know about them is that they represent the voters in a proportional manner. Now that New Hampshire has voted, different regions of the state will go through a process of picking the actual delegates to represent Bernie and Hillary according to the percentage of the vote each candidate got. It’s not a perfect one-to-one representation of votes because it’s proportional (I’d much prefer a simple raw vote total to decide the nominee), but the basic thing to know is that these delegates actually do represent the voters. I capitalize Pledged Delegate because these people actually represent the democratic process.

superdelegate- this person is typically a Democratic elected official like a Senator or Congressman or some other party bigwig. Just by virtue of being a bigwig in the Democratic Party, this person gets to cast a vote at the DNC to decide the party’s nominee. This individual’s vote, then, is equivalent in power to a Pledged Delegate, even though the latter represents thousands of real voters. I refuse to capitalize this word because it is an inherently undemocratic concept to say that certain people, by virtue of their status, get to have more say over our voting process.

Now, back to the original issue. Lately, articles (I imagine fueled by plenty of nudging from the Clinton campaign) have been suggesting that because Hillary has more superdelegates who’ve endorsed her, that Bernie didn’t really win New Hampshire and won’t win the nomination.

Here’s why they’re wrong:

  • superdelegates can (and do) change their minds. In 2008, more superdelegates initially endorsed Hillary, but then once the convention rolled around and Obama had won more pledged delegates, many of them actually voted for Obama when it came time to choose the nominee.
  • superdelegates who are elected officials might support Hillary right now because she’s part of the establishment like them, but when push comes to shove, they are elected officials. That is to say, if the people of their states are voting for Bernie and the superdelegates want to get re-elected one day, they probably don’t want to piss off their constituents too much by going against the popular vote.
  • If after all the states have voted and caucused, more voters have chosen Bernie Sanders, I think it is damn well impossible to believe that the party would go against the popular will and choose Hillary. There is no doubt in my mind that this would literally split the party in two and that voters would raise so much hell, no elected official in their right mind would have the chutzpah to do this. They would hurt their own chances of getting elected and frankly it’d hand the White House to the Republicans, neither of which they want.

What does this mean for us?

In short, don’t panic. The reason Hillary’s people are pushing this story now is to demoralize, confuse, and depress Bernie supporters. They’re up to their usual tricks and want to make it seem “inevitable” that she’ll win, even if this went against the voice of the people. The truth is, though, they can’t achieve this. If we turn out to vote and win the elections and caucuses, Bernie will be the nominee.

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Having been a Pledged Delegate, I saw a lot of fun things at the DNC, like Ted Kennedy’s last DNC speech and I even got a picture with Anderson Cooper before he came out (after he saw me give him a sexy wink!). I also saw a hell of a lot of corporate lobbying. I even sipped free mimosas in a historic Denver railcar rented by a Missouri railroad company with Senator Claire McCaskill extolling the virtues of Missouri railroads, a fun if bizarre experience for me (it didn’t work- I don’t really care about Missouri railroads or Claire McCaskill!).

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My point is between my DNC experience, working on the Obama Campaign in Florida in 2008, and serving in the Obama Administration (before I resigned to get out of the corrupt political system!), I’ve seen a lot of crazy, reprehensible, fucked-up things. But I want to reassure you that despite all that, I have a great deal of confidence in the fact that if Bernie Sanders wins the most votes, he’ll be the nominee, superdelegates or not. It won’t be for lack of Hillary and her ilk trying to derail our movement, like she is with this delegate issue. But I know that if we come together and win this fair and square, nobody will be able to stand in our way.

In solidarity,

Matt Adler

Pledged Delegate for Barack Obama, DNC 2008

Barack Obama Campaign Deputy Regional Field Director, Broward County, FL 2008

Barack Obama Presidential Appointee, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

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In memory of my friend Jad Zakhour

In memory of my friend Jad Zakhour

My friend Jad Zakhour passed away this week. I was flipping through my Facebook newsfeed and suddenly saw a picture of him with some caption like “we’ll miss you”. My first (optimistic) thought was “oh, maybe Jad is moving to a new city”. But sure enough, as I looked through post after post on his Facebook page, it was clear that Jad was no longer with us.

I was shocked. How could someone my age- just 29 years old- pass away so suddenly? I didn’t know what to say. Shock turned to sadness as it hit me: I’m never going to see Jad again. And how difficult it must be for his family and the many friends he had built strong relationships with.

While I could dwell on the tragedy of Jad’s death, I know he would want me to celebrate his life. Jad and I became friends soon after he came to live in the U.S. He was Lebanese but had been living in Egypt before moving to Maryland. He joined my soccer team, Potomac United. What was clear from the get-go was that Jad was a dedicated soccer player who gave every game his all. But more importantly, he was one of the most lively, fun, energetic, and goofy people I’ve ever met. He was full of jokes- a lot of them inappropriate (which I loved). Once, while me, him, and our friend Zeeshan were hanging out at a pool, he claimed that I said I had a “funny sensation” in my pants. Of course I never said that, but he insisted for years that I did, almost to the point where I believed it myself (sorry Jad, I know you made it up!)! He knew how to get people to laugh at themselves, but never at their expense.

Jad also had a big heart. While he was kind of a macho guy- he always drove sexy cars and had beautiful girlfriends- what few people know is the role he played in me coming out of the closet. When I was 18, second semester of senior year of high school, I realized I liked men. Coming out is not exactly a science (especially in the days before Facebook), but I decided there was a small group of people I wanted to tell personally before my identity became more public. Jad was one of those people I wanted to tell face-to-face. I remember before I came out to Jad, I felt a little nervous. While I knew he was a great guy, saying you’re gay is a hard thing to share with someone. When I told him I was gay, Jad’s reaction was simple and heartwarming: “Ok. So what?” Jad was a straight shooter. He treated me with respect, kindness, and love. I felt accepted and what I want him to know (because I do believe he’s reading this right now) is that the love he showed me when I came out then made it easier for me to come out to other people down the road. I’m eternally grateful for how he helped me accept myself and learn to trust that most other people would accept me too.

Jad not only helped me accept myself as a gay man, he also helped open me up to new cultures. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved learning about other people’s cultures- food, music, languages, you name it. And so when Jad once mentioned to me that he spoke multiple dialects of Arabic, I felt like I had to learn more. I distinctly remember riding with Jad and his mom Randa in a car and there was this awesome music on. I asked Jad what it was and he told me it was Lebanese pop. I was instantly intrigued. I was then inspired to write a research paper for school on the Lebanese Civil War and actually interviewed Randa about her family’s experience during the war. I also got hooked on the delicious Lebanese pistachio candies the Zakhour’s kept around their house- I think I once ate all of the ones that were out in the candy dishes! Jad and his family would often speak in Arabic- or a mixture of English and Arabic- and it really made me curious to learn more about his heritage. Partially because of Jad, I decided to enroll in an Arabic class at the Jewish Community Center my senior year of high school. My teacher was an American guy and didn’t have a great accent, so I remember once when I wanted to show off my new Arabic knowledge to Jad by saying “khalass” (“enough”), he couldn’t stop laughing at my pronunciation. But then he proceeded to spend a solid 10 minutes teaching me how to say it right. Don’t worry Jad, I took three years of Arabic in college afterwards (including a semester of the Levantine dialect your family speaks), so know I say “khalass” right😉 . While I was initially misled by some stereotypes of Arabs because of the Arab-Israeli conflict and 9/11, I’m proud to say that Jad and his family helped me see all people’s humanity and look past the hateful rhetoric we see in the news.

So where does that leave us now? Obviously it’s hard to make sense of tragedy. We will never truly figure out why Jad was taken from us so early. But I prefer to think about how I’m going to try to make some good out of it despite the sadness. Just as Jad taught me to be true to myself, I will continue living my life as a proud gay man. I will look for opportunities to help gay youth in need of a boost in confidence, just like Jad gave to me. Just as Jad opened my eyes to his culture, I will make an extra effort to advocate for peace and understanding between Jews and Arabs. And every time I tell an inappropriate joke or act extra silly, I will feel Jad’s spirit in the smiles and laughs of my friends and family.

Jad, I’ll miss you bud. But I will make sure your memory is not forgotten and know that your good deeds to me will continue to live on in my life as I pass on that goodness to others.

Allah yerhamak ya akhi. Inte deiman rah itkoon fi albi. May you rest in peace, brother. You will always be in my heart.