I just learned the Yiddish word beschert- "meant to be for some purpose."

It's used for happy occasions like finding the love of one's life, or chance encounters that change your life; and also for twists of fate.

It seems a useful concept in the way the article spelled it out. I was describing it to somebody recently but I got the definition incomplete in way that seems instructive to me. I said it was "meant to be," which the author somehow gave different nuance than "preordained or destined" but I couldn't remember how he made that argument.

The closing paragraph from the article by Rabbi Staub (in Friends Journal) made it clear for me again: "Meant to be for some purpose"— "the meaning isn't in the event itself, but in what we do when the event occurs. There are always opportunities— invitations— to react one way or another.

The meaning that I attribute to any circumstance, when I am able to do so at all, is not in the event itself, but how I respond when it ricochets out of my control."

I like that.

The shorter form "Meant to be" sounds like the heights of hubris; close to claiming to understand a Divine plan for the universe. It also sounds like predestination, which I find fatalistic and not useful.

In contrast, if I say it was "meant to be for some purpose" I am first not claiming to know what that purpose is; though I may spend a lot of time trying to figure it out. I am opening myself to additional clarification, changing it from something the Divine has done, into something the Divine might be asking me to do in response.

Online dictionaries say "beschert is beschert" is the analog to que sera sera— especially the connotations of finding one's soulmate. One's beschert is the one God intended for you to fall in love with.

Thing is, you also have some say in the matter; you can NOT fall in love and not spend your life with them, or maybe it takes some time for things to fall into place.

...Yiddish being Yiddish, there's a fair bit of contradiction built into the word, and perhaps most people just use it to mean "predestined" without the personal implications of responsibility. And maybe that argument is beschert!
Acting Up Stage Toronto had a recent run of "Caroline, or Change," written by Tony Kushner. The Globe and Mail gave it 4 stars and a number of blurbs said it's the best theater of the last year. Last year New York Magazine called it one of the "greatest musicals of all time", the only so chosen of the 21st century to appear on every panelists' short list.

So, hm. I wish I thought it was that good.

The story follows a young boy (modeled on Kushner) who lives in Lousiana in 1963. His Jewish family employs an African-American maid, Caroline. The title refers to all sorts of change: the coins in the boy's pocket (which cause drama as his step-mother decides Caroline should keep them rather than give them back to the boy), the political seismic shifts washing across the United States (including the Southern Freedom marches, the assassination of JFK, and the Vietnam War), the changes in social status of Caroline's high-school friend Rose, and against all of these, how Caroline feels the same as ever.

It is a powerful show; and there are notes of genius- the music is beautiful; the players are spot-on (except for one thing I'll note below); the magic of playing the Washing Machine, Radio, and Dryer as soul-singers is wonderful; and the Moon, played by a woman in a diva-like hat, occasionally gave me shivers.

In the end, the biggest problem I had was that it feels exactly like there's only one three-dimensional character, the boy Noah (who grows up to be the playwright). I think with a bit of tweaking to the book, this could be the amazing show for me that other people seemed to find it.

I think the ONLY fault in the production was sort of funny: a song about the moon talks about how her light shone, and the song rhymes shone with alone; but the Canadian pronunciation of "shone" is the same as the name "Shawn", and sure enough that's how it was sung. Um, yeah.

But anyway, it reminds me how difficult it is to change, especially when not changing has lots of comfortable attractions.
Last Friday morning I responded to a Globe and Mail New Media column on Facebook being full of phonies. In the author's response he quoted me by name.

Daniel Allen wrote to say that on the same morning as he read the piece, “one friend changed his status to say he is ‘not a failure, he just looks like one most of the time,' ” prompting other friends to pile on in support. “It might be that the Internet gives us a mask to hide behind,” he noted, “but it does also give us the tools to connect in very honest ways. If we choose to.”

Gee, makes a pretty good theme, don't you think?...

On that note: blah. I'll go and try and connect in honest ways, after breakfast.
[also sent to Globe and Mail's Letters to the Editor]

Re: "Who's kidding whom? On Facebook, we're all a bunch of phonies"

Your article today that Facebook is all flash and no substance comes
on a morning when one friend changed his status to say he is "not a
failure, he just looks like one most of the time."

It's followed by seven responses along the lines of "Big love," "dude,
you're my hero", and the charming quote, "It's not much of a tail, but
I'm sort of attached to it."

Browsing my News Feed, I see one friend in Minneapolis posted photos
of newly installed solar panels on her roof, someone in Guelph has bad
writer's block, and a friend in Boston sent out a "gut shabbes, y'all."

I want to say thank you for this article which gives me another reminder
to treasure my friends for their uniquenesses, honesty, and comfortableness
with being genuine even in public. It might be that the internet gives
us a mask to hide behind, but it does also give us the tools to connect
in very honest ways. If we choose to.
We drove into Toronto for Soundstreams' "An Unfinished Life", a concert with Renaissance music by the Hillard Ensemble, and a world premiere of a piece about a young Dutch woman whose diaries were recovered after she died in Aucshwitz.

The choral music was wonderful- two pieces by Palestrina, two by Solomon Rossi (a 16th century Rabbi), and one by Orlande de Lassus, a 16th century Dutchman. One each of the Palestrina and Rossi were based on Psalm 137, "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion." I love that text, and not just because Boney M sings it also. Though, um, that's part of it.

The Hilliard Ensemble is two tenors, a countertenor and a baritone, who look like four completely unassuming middle-aged men but they have exquisite voices. d. and I have seen them before, probably in Boston, though I don't have the details. (yet- I bet d. will remember). I liked the first half very much.

(Except someone's cellphone rang in the closing phrase of the last piece! Argh!)

The second half, about Etty Hillesum, sung by the Hilliard Ensemble, Tafelmusick Chamber Choir, with narrator and Chamber orchestra, was challenging for its composition; much of the piece was spoken with musical accompaniment. As d. pointed out, nearly none of the music was memorable or even hummable. But I think the piece worked, overall- once I became accustomed to the narration, which was done quite well, it was at times quite affecting.

A brief snippet from Hillesum's diary, from July 1942, when she was held/working in Westerbork, the Dutch transit camp from which Dutch and German Jews were deported to Auschwitz:

Dear God
these are anxious times
Each day is sufficient unto itself
I shall try to help you.
and defend Your dwelling place
inside us, to the last.


More prosaically: I think I drove us back home in record time; it appears it was 1h 16 minutes from the parking lot under Dundas Square to our garage. What can I say, I wanted to get home. :)

And now, to bed.
What a fun day. How odd it is, that having just concluded I was probably an introvert, in a conversation in [livejournal.com profile] frankie_ecap's journal, that I had such an energizing day being unabashedly extroverted.

The best part for me was the unexpected ease of connecting with people. Lots of people were curious about the mechanics of how Quakers operated; and I found that LJ conversations with you smart lot were very helpful at putting my responses into useful language. You know how sometimes, you're teaching something and you can see exactly where the other person is at by the questions they're asking? It only happened a few times, but they were verra cool.

Now, I have huge problems with prostel prosthetiz prostheletizing. (...see?) Ultimately I think that word describes a form of violence on another person's psyche, based on manipulation... and patriarchalist religious assumptions.

I have to do some thinking about what doesn't bug me in the realm of talking about religion with strangers. (Maybe it's the fact that at this festival we had a huge whack of common ground at the outset of the conversations, and a fair motivation to learn.) Yeah. I'll keep thinking about it.

The festival's setup was: a bandshell at the bottom of the hill in the local park. In a straightish line up the hill, a double column of tables, each for an organization or vendor. The groups included the local Humanists (who organized and funded the event), Falun Dafa and the Bahai (the only two other explicitly religious groups besides the Quakers!), one anti-domestic-violence group, a housing co-op raising money for Amnesty, the Green Party (on my one side), Community Money (on my other side), and [livejournal.com profile] pnijjar's Fair Vote Ontario across the way from our table. It seemed to me that there were fewer hemp and craft vendors than I remember from last year, which was fine by me.

There was bright sun all day, and it was brutal. I'm glad for the sunscreen I put on, for the tree that provided partial shade, and for the sun umbrella we could move around for better shade. I went through 3 litres of water, probably a day's record for me. Plus another 500ml over dinner.

The organized program started around noon. They alternated bands and speakers at the bandshell. The sound setup was bad: the bands were audible all the way up the hill, but the speakers were only audible to the lower 1/3 of the tables. Which meant the majority of people at the festival couldn't hear the speakers. I asked one of the organizers about this; he asked the sound guy, and the sound guy said that was as good as he could do. I hope this can be fixed for next year.

I was the first presenter. I was preceded by a band, who played fairly good electronica. 20 people in the audience when I got there, and maybe 10 when I finished; and 5 of those were other Quakers. But, near the beginning when I looked up, there were a few dozen people standing a way up the hill, around the tables, listening.

The only other speakers I heard were [livejournal.com profile] pnijjar, who did a fine job explaining the Ontario Voter Referendum on proportional representation in just ten minutes, something I could never have done. I also heard a speech by a (30s-ish) woman begging everyone to reach out to teenagers, to look past the violent media they consume and try and guide them to better options, and don't write them off because they look scary. She seemed more passionate than many of the people I saw. I really would've preferred being able to hear more of the speakers.

At the Quaker table, we had anywhere from 3 to 5 people around at any time; a total of 9 of us over the day. I was surprised at how much difference that made, just for myself, compared with last year when I was alone for at least half of the day. Only off-and-on visitors to the booth. But we seemed to hit a critical mass of visitors a few times, when conversations would draw in other visitors. That was neat. I believe I saw the same happening across the way, at the Fair Vote Ontario table. I didn't see it happen at the Green Party tent.

My favourite moment was mid-afternoon, when I saw a guy with a Perl tee-shirt walk past. So I jumped up and accosted him. It turns out he's a friend of [livejournal.com profile] elbie_at_trig and [livejournal.com profile] thingo. He came over and we had a wonderful wide-ranging conversation for about half an hour (and I really need to learn more about Martin Buber's I and Thou, which he compared to Quakerism's "answering that of God in each other". Also I need to email his girlfriend some information about google labs and public-transit..) Elbie came by once or twice for a chat and eventually dragged him away. ;)

I suppose I could have more to say about the festival but I feel done for this post.


Tuesday, 23 January 2007 12:12 am
Blame America... and oh yeah, the Jews is a review in this week's Globe and Mail Books section, of a new book, Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dislikes America by Andrei Markovits. The book sounds challenging: how opinion of the US in Europe has been prejudicially negative (giving a number of "damned if you do, damned if you don't" examples, such as broad public protests in France and Germany against both US globalization and US protectionism). Part of his thesis is that Europe resents America for the dependence Europe had on the US after WWII; and for the changes the US has wrought in Europe since.

But the most challenging part to the book is possibly the chapter on the connections between anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism, in part due to the US's support for Israel, and due to a belief that the US is run by Jews.
Markovits argues that "all the historical ingredients used to demonize Jews are simply transferred to the state of Israel, which -- in the standard diction of anti-Semitism -- behaves Jew-like by grasping for global power, exhibiting Old Testament-like (pre-Christian) vengefulness. It bamboozles the world, as cunning Jews are wont to do, extorts money from hapless victims who have been fooled into seeing the Jews as victims, exhibits capitalist greed and, of course, indulges in constant brutality toward the weak. Israel thus becomes a sort of new Jew, a collective Jew among the world's nations." And that reinforces anti-Americanism, and vice-versa. Ugh. Markovits points to recent and rising cases of anti-Semitism among the European Left, and I'm a bit worried he knows what he's talking about.

Ultimately, too, I don't understand nationalism terribly well; this was drilled into me some time ago by [livejournal.com profile] zubatac as he tried to explain the nature of Croatian nationalism as a small country within Europe. But since coming to Canada, I do feel a bit... I guess defensive is the right word, sometimes, when the conversation turns to US offences; which might be very similar conversations to the ones I'd be having back in the US, but the difference... I can see this as a bit of nationalism.

I guess I'd like to understand anti-X-ism better, where X isn't a personality trait or a religion, but rather an entire country, and possibly against the people who live there.

I hope to read this book, even if the cover looks totally stupid, and also the author has received laurels for writing a semi-scholarly book on Soccer and American Exceptionalism. Maybe I'll wait for the NYT to review it.

But also, I'm writing about the reviewer for the Globe and Mail, who sounds like a jerk. His end paragraph concerns anti-Americanism driving America further away from the rest of the West, because America cares too much what other countries think of it: "At stake here, however, is much more than mere vanity. The Americans don't really have much else besides that for which they stand." Ouch. That's not only a harsh blow, it has little to do with the book's thesis or his review before that throwaway line. Seems like sloppy writing and sloppy editing, and I'd have expected better from the Globe and Mail.

...Finally, on a related note, today I got a letter from Citizenship and Immigration. It came in a thick packet, so I was convinced they returned my Citizenship application for missing something. But no, it's a letter acknowledging my application, and a study guide for the test I'll take in 8 to 10 months. Yay!
This afternoon I went to a talk on The Great Transformation, the latest book by Karen Armstrong. It was an OK talk, though quite short. She started talking at 2pm, started taking questions at 2:30; and finished up for book-signing at 3pm. I think perhaps it was the shortest talk I've ever paid money to go to. It's a shame because it would've made a better talk with another 30 minutes. Ultimately I decided I would read her book, but I'd wait for it to come to the library, since I didn't feel like plunking $40 on it.

The topic was the time-period from 900 BCE to roughly 200 BCE, called "the Axial Age" by historians because of its transforming effect on civilization. The time-period saw the rise of philosophical rationalism in Greece, monotheism in Israel, Confucianism and Daoism in China; and Hinduism and Buddhism in India. Her talk was about the major similarities between these religions and philosophies. While they had different emphases, her thesis is that all argued for the importance of compassion over violence, the importance of dropping one's ego, and of working on seeing reality as it is, as fully as possible.

These faiths and philosophies also share a strong notion that it's a lot of work to do these things, but one will reach a more enlightened state the more one works at them.

She said that Western institutionalized religion does an awful job at presenting the teachings of its prophets, instead emphasizing the creedal rules that have built up after the prophets had left. She said we don't need new prophets or sages; we've got quite enough who we've been ignoring already.

She suggests that Christian churches are bound up in institutional ego, a sorry state that is opposite all of the prophets' teachings. She quoted a Catholic thinker, I wish I remembered who, saying "while you cannot define God, if you travel in the diametric opposite direction from ego, you will find God there as well."

She spent a while talking about the importance of the golden rule, which she said originated with Confucious. The last time she spoke here, in 2004, she talked about Hillel, the great Jewish Rabbi, who was asked by a Gentile to stand on one foot and recite the whole of the Torah. He stood on one foot and said, "Do unto others as you'd have them do unto you. That is the entirety of the Torah. The rest is commentary." She said the Buddha was asked what one thing a disciple could do every day, all the time; he answered that thing is to follow the golden rule. So, this was her example of the one thing we should take to heart most closely.

While I agree with this statement, she made it very clumsily, in such a way as to confuse the golden rule with "don't offend others." I have a big problem with this. Not offending others is a good secondary rule, along with "be nice". But on a deep level, sometimes we need to be offended. If I'm faced with a learning experience that includes offending me, I'd prefer being offended to not learning. Besides, being offended just bruises my ego, which shouldn't be in the way, to begin with.

A talk I heard earlier this month on CBC radio put this argument very well, that compassion is important, but it doesn't stop at being "nice"- it also requires empathy, holding both your perspective and the other person's perspective to figure out the compassionate response.

The larger problem with her thesis as a recommendation for society today is that on the whole, people are too lazy to take the time and energy. People are accustomed to the lite version of faith and philosophy that doesn't require doing anything challenging, especially outside the hour they've allotted to it once a week. It's tremendously hard work to be compassionate, and I don't think people can do it very effectively with our civilization in the state it's in.

August 2013

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