Friday, May 31, 2013

seeing double

A couple of years ago, How I Met Your Mother had a reoccurring sub-plot about doppelgangers. I don’t remember the exact details, but I do remember that, throughout the season, Marshall, Lily, Barney, Ted and Robin were on the lookout for strangers who resembled their friends.

I see doppelgangers all the time. I first noticed it when Yoni and I arrived on island almost a year and a half ago; I would be driving on base or strolling in American Village and all of a sudden, across the parking lot, I’d think I recognized someone. And not someone I knew from Okinawa – not even someone I was particularly close with at home. Just someone I would recognize walking down the street in Forest Hills or on the Upper West Side.

In the beginning, I’d have to consciously remind myself, “no, that’s probably NOT so-and-so walking down the street. You live in Okinawa now.” After a while, though, I started to enjoy these doppelganger sightings. They make me smile, and bring a (slightly strange) sense of home to my daily life here. Today I saw the same doppelganger twice, and was (almost) fooled both times. Talk about the power of suggestion.

I don’t really have anything profound to say about this, except that obviously my brain works in mysterious and oftentimes amusing ways. Maybe my subconscious is trying to help me re-adjust to being in Okinawa after three weeks in the States? Regardless, I hope these sightings continue. They really do make me laugh every time. And who doesn’t need an unexpected laugh every once in a while? 

Friday, May 24, 2013

On Tuesday, the Rabbi Spoke Up

In a recent article in the New York Jewish Week (, my wife wrote a short summary of some of her experiences as a “Chaplain Spouse” in Okinawa and representative of the Jewish people to the military community of Okinawa having left the Jewish confines of New York City.

My turn.  Though I am not a New Yorker.

I came to New York immediately after attending the University of Maryland.  Having attended public high school in Virginia, UMD and its strong Jewish community was a haven from all that I hated about high school.  It's not that my high school years were any more filled with teenage angst than any other student, but mine had the added dimension of placing me in opposition to the Liberty Baptist contingent.

Just down the street from my home and on the way to school was a massive church.  With little crosses marking babies being killed in abortions and regular calls for dens of fornication to be closed, Liberty Baptist was in my mind exactly what you would expect from the spiritual off-spring of Jerry Falwell.   And my school had its fair share of church-goers who undoubtedly cared for my soul and were really worried about my impending damnation. 

They prayed at the pole before school.  They brought in lectures for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (my sister and I formed the Fellowship of Jewish Athletes, it wasn't nearly as popular).  Sometimes they asked questions of the kind that Leora mentioned in her article, and sometimes really offensive statements were made in my general direction.  I was the only kid in school wearing a kippah, so it was bound to happen:  I chose to be recognized as a member of the Jewish people and thus its representative to the world.  In 1999, when Jerry declared that “the anti-Christ is alive today, and he’s a Male Jew” – that was not a very good week.  When the freshman class read Elie Wiesel’s Night, and one of the kids asked, “What exactly is a Jew?” I was the person that they brought in to answer questions.  

But then I went to Maryland.  I had Jewish friends and non-Jewish friends, and people who asked questions about my Judaism. But I was hardly the only visible Jewish person on campus.  Kal v’chomer (Talmudic for “so much the more so), when I entered rabbinical school.  For 6 years, I was in a Jewish cocoon. Then I became a khaki-butterfly.

Outranking the vast majority of the people on this island, I don’t get any directly insulting statements made in my direction.  I think people are pretty cool with the rabbi thing in the Marine Corps; the 9 or so Active Duty rabbis in the Navy/Marine Corps and the many who have served before me have built a legacy of being quality chaplains to all faiths and a significantly funnier group than say the Assemblies of God chaplains.

(Side note:  That is not to say Assemblies of God don’t make good chaplains, just that I believe that the Jewish chaplains tend to be funnier people.  Retired chaplain Ibn-Noel is a funny funny guy, and might just bring the Islamic chaplain community into contention for funniest group of chaplains – but he’s retired so I don’t know if he counts.)

What is interesting however is the assumption that I encountered that I would naturally be more – and excuse the terminology – fundamentalist than your average “low church” (not in the pejorative, but referring to non-liturgical/evangelical) Christians.  The assumption being – “Those Jews are so fundamental, that they didn’t even take the New Testament! That’s Old School.”

And they are correct, while their religion was doing new fangled things like not getting circumcised and eating bacon, my people were holding on to the Pentateuch like it was gospel.  (See, I told you we were funny.)

This came to a head this week.  On Tuesday, the Chaplain of the Marine Corps came to speak with all the chaplains about changes to DOD policy and the role of the Chaplain Corps in the near future, especially if DOMA is overturned.  The statements made in the meeting are closed, and I will not be sharing any of them.  However, the many discussions afterward are not confidential.

Some chaplains are really pro-same sex marriage.  Many are not.  This is a reality, and there are a lot of valid reasons on both sides.  Many of the negative camp were surprised to find me aligned with the pro-same sex marriage camp.  And of course, I couldn't keep my mouth shut.

Regardless of how I stand and have stood as a rabbi on that subject (that is within the Jewish community), I have always said that I have no problem with Protestants having Protestant same sex marriages; just as I have no problem with Catholics having hetero-sexual weddings.  If two gay Wicca gentlemen desire to wed, I would never dare stop them.  If two transgender-Athiest desire to tie the knot, what right do I have as a rabbi to tell them no?  If they desired to live their life as the Southern Baptist Convention would like them to live said life, they could easily become Southern Baptist.  They choose not to do so, and I make the same choice.  Therefore, I will not have the rules and rites of Jewish Marriage dictated to me by the SBC.

But the discussion opened up a whole new bag of questions that Leora doesn’t usually get (but maybe she will now that I write this on the blog):

“Rabbi, Haven’t you read Leviticus?”  Yes, in the original Hebrew, too!  And with the troupe, at that!  But I’m also drawn to Genesis where God says that its not good for a person to be alone.  And that God gave the human an ezer k’negdo.  A partner who challenges, completes and otherwise makes the human a better, holier person.  Just as I believe that Leora is that to me, I have no right to doubt that Steve isn't Adam's ezer k'negdo.  For me, if God created them for each other - than humanity has no place in over-ruling the Holy One Praised Be He.  If two humans are supposed to be together, than I want them to make God a part of their relationship.

“Rabbi, What about Sodom and Gomorrah?”  Where?  There is something about the English pronunciation of biblical names and cities that drives me up a wall.  But simply put, having read the story, I don’t believe they are punished for being gay.  I think it’s pretty clear that they are punished for being truly horrible people who want to rape strangers.

“Rabbi, do you perform gay marriages?”  I have never performed a gay marriage, and thus, my convictions have never been put to the test.  Honestly, I’ve never been asked to do any marriages.  I’ve been asked to perform one sometime in the future, and I would like to say yes – but because I am endorsed by an agency that includes a beautiful coalition of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox rabbis, I am not authorized.  To tell the truth, I am most comfortable with the Conservative Movement Responsa allowing for “Commitment Ceremonies”.  It is more or less the same thing, but there are some legalistic issues related to Leviticus that make me happier when I call the act, “A Commitment Ceremony”.

Sometimes my rabbi beliefs are complicated and nuanced, and this has angered even some of my congregants.  But they are my beliefs and I'm still working to perfect them.

That said, these are my rabbi beliefs.  My chaplain beliefs are simpler.  Every Marine, every sailor – regardless of race, religious affiliation, or sexual preference - that walks into my office is a soul that I am challenged by God, by Torah, and by SECNAV 1730.1D to facilitate for, to fight for, and – above all – to care for.  I support my all of my Marines (even the ones who grew up in Liberty Baptist churches).

On this weekend, when we remember those who gave their lives in noble service: It is my prayer that as the military opens it’s doors to “Same Sex Domestic Partners” in the coming months, that all will feel comfortable in raising their hand and serving in the United States military.

Friday, May 17, 2013

the more things change...

Friday afternoons have always been something of a ritual for me.

In Okinawa, I spend Friday afternoons alternately cooking for Shabbat and trying to convince myself to put away the groceries I bought that morning (I really hate putting groceries away). I make challah, roast a chicken, and catch up (via Hulu) on whatever TV shows I might have missed that week.

That tradition, though – cooking and TV and quiet afternoons in the kitchen – was born long before I moved to Okinawa. If you were to find me in Forest Hills on a Friday afternoon (where, coincidentally, I am right now), you would almost definitely find me in the kitchen with one or both of my parents, and SVU or NCIS or (most likely) The American President playing in the background. I might be making a fruit platter, chopping vegetables, washing dishes, or relaxing at the table. Whether I’m very busy or not busy at all, though, it’s pretty unlikely I’d be spending time in a different part of the house. That’s just how Friday afternoons go.

Coming home for a visit, it’s easy to focus on the things that have changed: friends that have moved or changed jobs, furniture that has been replaced, favorite restaurants and stores that have closed. With all of that, I take comfort in the things that remain the same from one trip to NY to the next. The subway will always be crowded and slightly stuffier than I’d like. I’ll always feel happy and completely at home walking down Central Park West. And, in Forest Hills, I’ll always spend Friday afternoons in the kitchen.

Some things never change. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Two Adult Beverages with Dinner

This week, we returned to the longstanding issue of Marines and Alcohol.

Marines will proudly – sometimes with a beer in hand – point out that in 1775 the Marine Corps was founded in a Tavern in Philadelphia.  Two weeks later, the Chaplain Corps was founded to get them out of the bar.

Fun fact: for much of the Marine Corps’ early history, their position was security detachment aboard ships.  Many confuse this concept with protecting the ships’ captains from mutineers, this is true, but an understatement.  Their primary job was to keep the ship’s supply of rum.  If you are wondering where animosity between Sailors and Marines began…

As you might recall, my little island of Okinawa has had quite a few “boo-boos” on the alcohol front.  And thus began the “Winter of Lockdowns”.

But that’s all behind us now.  Right?

Based on a very strong tradition of Covering One’s Ass and reinforced by various pieces of litigation naming the Marine Corps as primary offender, the Marines have a special way of dealing with the big three issues (Substance Abuse, Sexual Assault, and Hazing).  Using small words and repetition (and until recently, reinforcing statements with a judicious use of knife-hands), the Marine Corps makes their points by boring their personnel into submission.  It’s called a “Stand Down”.

This week, the Commanding General of III Marine Expeditionary Force came around to speak to every Marine.  To look them in the eye.  And explain to them the new policy.  For thirty minutes.  With wind in the background.  I’m not sure that I heard more than 10 words. I’m pretty sure Nepal was mentioned.

Secondary note:  Marines will tell you that USMC has more than one possible meaning.  United States Marine Corps.  Uncle Sam’s Misbehavin/Misbegotten Children.  And my personal favorite: Uncomplicated [Stuff] Made Complicated.

Then, the Sergeant Major and Command Master Chief.  They were both louder.  The basic premise is that now we can have two adult beverages out in town... but only at a restaurant... and only as long as our BAC does not go over a .03.  

We have to leave base sober, and return sober.  But we can have two beers.  

For twenty minutes, we basked in a new policy that will not be in effect for a few more days/weeks/months.  But I'm not sure that any of us really know what it means.  I'm still not going to drink out in town, and I'm still going to be sad at Karaoke. It's a bummer Righteous Brothers' impression improves with liquid reinforcement.

Friday, May 3, 2013

answering the tough questions

Last week, a friend in the building asked me to do her a favor. She had a hair appointment, and was not in the mood to drag her kids along with her – so would I mind hanging out with them for a couple of hours while she went? Her kids crack me up, so of course I said yes. (Let’s be real: I would have said yes anyway since I try to be like that, flexible and easygoing and helpful. But liking her kids was really an added bonus.)

Her 10-year-old daughter (let’s call her O) and I had been talking about the new Les Miz movie for a few weeks (she is flabbergasted that I have seen the show on Broadway, and that I know someone who played in the orchestra – love how easy it can be to impress a 10-year-old) so naturally we settled in to watch it pretty much immediately after my friend left.

It took a long time for the Les Miz movie to be shown on base, and so Yoni and I went so far as to go to a Japanese movie theatre to see it a few months ago. While there were many interesting things about seeing the story told on screen as opposed to on stage, one of the strongest impressions I walked away with was just how heavily religious themes are laced into the rest of the story. As much as I’ve known and listened to this musical basically my entire life, I never really got that sense from the Broadway version or the cassette tape we listened to in the car so many mornings on the way to school.

Having had that reflective moment after seeing the movie a few months ago, I shouldn’t have been blindsided by this next encounter – but I was anyway. About an hour or so into the movie, O turned to me and said, “Miss Leora” (yeah, that’s what ALL kids here call me – I can’t seem to convince their parents that it’s unnecessary), “can I ask you a question?” “Sure,” I said, “what’s up O?” She responded, carefully, slowly, “Why don’t Jewish people believe in Jesus?” Oh.

I should explain that O and her mom and I talk about religion a lot – so that question was not quite as arresting or surprising as it might seem. But still. What does one say to the 10-year-old child of a friend who asks you such an honest and complicated question?

I tried not to show my surprise or hesitation, and bumbled through an answer that seemed to satisfy her. But really, I should be used to it by now. Because answering questions that are at once simple and complicated sometimes feels like it’s my biggest job here in Okinawa. My favorite one went something like this: “So, my only experience with Jewish people comes from watching Fiddler on the Roof. Where do you fall in that continuum?”

Whenever presented with one of these questions, I almost always have a momentary panic attack. But then I try to think about the simplest, clearest, most honest, easiest-to-understand way to explain something, and take it from there. That strategy seems to be working for me so far, but eventually O will turn 11. Here’s hoping things don’t get endlessly more complicated. Oy.