Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Jewish Redneck?

So the most common question I get is around the handle “Jewish Redneck.” People think it’s an oxymoron and that the two terms are mutually exclusive.

How I got the name was pretty simple: A few people started asking me if I was a Jewish Redneck, then referring to me as one. I have a truck, I use typical southern/Texan terms like y’all and coke (small “c” referring to all sodas, or pops as you will) I like shooting guns, I like to work with my hands, I *love* my cowboy boots and I am, most certainly, a religious Jew. So where does that leave me?

I never gave much thought to the name until I started getting the questions about the apparent incongruence of it. To me it was easy; I was both. And then it hit me. Much like other times in my life I realized my vocabulary definitions weren’t necessarily the equivalent of others around me, the rebel flag being the zenith of those incongruent declarations in my life.*

So what is a “redneck?” The term originated in the late 1800s as a reference to poor, white farmers, the salt of the earth if you will. They worked the fields and through a combination of the red southern dirt and the sun, their necks became red far beyond that of the rest of their skin. In the 1910s-1930s the term was co-opted by coal miner unions, then unions in general, and went so far as the simple placement of a red handkerchief/bandana on someone denoted their union membership. Taking it a step further the red bandana went on to be associated simply with a hard working class person, blue collar if you will. Didn’t you ever wonder why you always saw red bandanas and not a million other colors?

To me redneck had much the same connotation. Someone who worked hard, put their nose to the grindstone and did what had to be done, not necessarily what they wanted to do. They believed in an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, no more, no less. These were family men (and later, women) who believed in G-d, honesty, family, freedom, etc. Are these not the same exact ideals that Judaism teaches us? They are. Family, faith, honesty, these create a shared ideal between Judaism and “redneck.”

So although they seem to be mutually exclusive at first brush, they’re not. I can daven (pray) with a southern drawl, go to shul in my cowboy boots, and work on the roofs of Habitat for Humanity houses while secretly singing Fiddler on the Roof in my head. No matter what the pieces of your life are on their own they still add up to you, so be the best Jew, redneck, whatever, that you can.

* NOTE: To this day I refer to it as the rebel flag, because that was what it was to me growing up. It didn’t have the connotation of slavery or oppression, and certainly wasn’t the “Confederate flag.” Instead it was simply an emblem for southern pride and represented what I consider a core American value; that is, the right of a people to self-determine their future. It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I began to understand what this symbol meant to other people. Based upon that new understanding, I don’t endorse the rebel flag as an appropriate sign of southern pride.

The “Confederate” flag is not the red flag with a blue “X” on it encrusted with white stars. That is actually “The battle flag of the Confederacy” which was adopted for the battle field since the actual Confederate flag was very similar to that of the United States, thus causing much confusion in battle. Since the Southern states were considered “rebels” for trying to leave the Union, the association with those who rebelled against the dominate power came into being. Also, “Stars and Bars” is also not the proper term for the battle/rebel flag, but actually refers to the Confederate States of America national flag as well.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

41,000 Hours of Your Life

What would you do with over 4.5 years of your life? That's about 57 months or 1,700 days, or 41,000 hours. In that time you could earn your bachelor’s degree with time to spare, or two master's degrees. You could conceive and deliver up to 5 new lives, or you could have created something called Facebook and grown it into a multi-billion dollar company reaching over 150 million people. You could create unknown amounts of art, poetry, or other creations. The options seem limitless. Hell, how many governments have been overthrown in that time?

For the past 1,700 days Gilad Shalit hasn’t had any of these opportunities. He has sat in an unknown prison with no medical aid and no contact from the outside world. Not even the International Red Cross/Crescent has been allowed to see him and he’s been afforded no rights that should be granted under the Geneva Convention. Why? Because he's an Israeli Jew. I’ve written before about this topic in 2008 and again in 2009 and laid out plenty of information I won’t regurgitate here, but unfortunately, this situation still hasn’t been resolved. There is plenty of blame to pass around for this, not the least of which goes to his Arab captors, but I want to go beyond that.

Besides trying to gain his freedom and working towards a lasting peace in the Middle East, I believe we owe Gilad Shalit a little more. Each and every one of us, regardless of political persuasion, religious/ethnic background or country of origin owe him this: to live each and every day to its fullest. We often take for granted the freedoms we have and focus on what we don’t have. We turn to procrastination and apathy because it’s the easier option. Today, on the 1,700th day of Gilad’s illegal, immoral and unjust imprisonment, take a moment to think about what you’ve accomplished over the last 1,700 days and about what your life would be like if you hadn’t had the opportunity to do them. Think next of what you want to accomplish over the next 1,700 days as well. What have you been meaning to do, but put off? What good deed do you keep meaning to do, but somehow it always gets put off until later, and later never comes? Have you been meaning to volunteer at a homeless shelter? Then do it. Have you been meaning to call you mother more (because you know, she does worry), take the initiative and do it starting now. Did you want to start painting the kitchen because you know your significant other has wanted it? Time to go to the paint store.

We hear the overused and watered-down phrase “freedom isn’t free.” Well, whether it is or isn’t, you have it, now start making use of it. Leave the world a better place than you received it and start now, before now becomes then and then becomes too late.

“No man is rich enough to buy back his past.” ~Oscar Wilde


Monday, August 16, 2010

By Any Other Name

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” –Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

One-hundred and fifty years ago, without even knowing it, Charles Dickens encapsulated what social networking has become. It does provide the best of times; finding old friends, keeping touch with family, seeing weekly picture updates as a grandchild grows up somewhere across the country.

And, it is the worst of times. People being fired for Facebook status updates, on-line social stalkers, identity theft.

But in what should be an age of wisdom with unfettered access to more information in .29 seconds than Voltaire, Socrates, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and Einstein had access to ever in their combined lives, we continue to prove this the age of foolishness, at least, social foolishness.

Luckily (insert sarcasm HERE), technology providers are finding new and inventive ways to help us shoot our own eyes out. Microsoft has released the Outlook Social Connector for Microsoft Office Outlook. Basically, this connects all your Outlook contacts to their information on Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace and more. You’ll see status updates, comments, messages and alerts from the social networking sites all in one place for your contacts. Cool for you, but also remember the flipside. Now your boss, co-worker, neighbor, stalker, vendor, customer, and crazy Aunt Sally can all follow your social doings in one place without even having to try.

For some (this guy included) this raises the question of privacy and Big Brother and how much is too much? How “connected” and transparent do you really want your life to be? For many like myself we try to keep two separate identities in the social space; one business appropriate, the other inner-circle friend appropriate and “never the twain shall meet.” (Rudyard Kipling, The Ballad of East and West) However, this is becoming more and more problematic as advances such as the Outlook Social Connector spider out and aggregate material on the fly.

Your best defense? Don’t be stupid. Sounds easy enough, yet a week doesn’t pass where you can’t find mention of someone getting fired or not getting a job because of what information lies in the social aether (yes, this is the correct traditional spelling used in this sense). Use the rule of thumb I was taught as a child. Don’t do anything you’d be embarrassed about if your grandma read it on the front page of tomorrow’s paper. So, don’t post without thinking. Mistakes can follow you forever, just ask Monica Lewinsky, Roger Clemens or Tiger Woods.

Also, use your knowledge to set up as good a firewall between your two personas as possible. Know what Facebook is publishing publicly and control it. If you don’t care, trust me, they sure as heck don’t.

Remember, this information never dies. Digital copy is around forever. Just because you delete it doesn’t mean it’s gone. It could be days, months or years before it shows back up, but it can and does.

I began with a famous beginning, let me end with a famous ending. Just know information, like plague bacillus, never disappears for good.

“He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.” - Albert Camus, The Plague

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Humanity lost, humanity gained

We’re on our way to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and I’m not sure what to expect. I know what I’m supposed to think and feel, but that that translates into reality remains to be seen.

As we walked up to the entrance it was strange, and a bit disturbing, to see that houses have been built right across the road from the camp. Not across a highway, not across a four lane major street, no, right across the two lane, busted pavement road. Who would want such a house? It simply seemed wrong. As we continued the walk I froze as I looked into the camp and saw smoke billowing from a chimney that appeared just inside the walls. A moment of actual, palpable panic set in even as I realized it was simply a heating vent. Is it maybe we see what we want to see, or perhaps what we were expecting to see? I don’t know, but my heart did race and I did feel a moment of heightened alertness not expected while “on vacation.”

Hours after the camp and the group’s reactions seemed to range from completely indifferent to clearly moved and upset. I also notice a few people having, what appears to me, a delayed sense of distress. My reactions… well, I don’t know. I know, since when am I one to struggle for words? I simply didn’t feel the connection I thought I would. I think there’s two reasons for this. One, I have no personal family connection to this place as my family’s history lies in Lithuania. Secondly, no mass crematoriums. This was a true concentration camp and not a death camp. People were murdered and tortured and humiliated here, but not on the mass scale as a full death camp. The difference has never been as apparent to me as it is now.

I guess I also feel hopeful. Here we were, a group of Jews with varied backgrounds and different family stories, after a near total annihilation of European Jewry, standing at what was, for Judaism, death’s doorstep; living, praying, thriving. What’s more, we’re not here in secret, some clandestine action designed to smuggle Jews into forbidden territory so they are able to feel a sense of history up close. No, we were here, in part, at the request of the German government. We were here not to mourn the past nor as a token gesture of reconciliation, instead, we were here to engage modern Germans in cultural, theological and simply personal dialog. To learn together, to educate one another and to make the “other” take form of someone real, someone tangible, someone with a name and a face. Germans are no longer simply “them” or “they” to me, rather Germans are people with names like Nadine, Sascha, Esther and Johanna. I hope we have made a similar impact. After all, it was humanity that was lost in the Shoah, not just humans.