The sound of the shofar, or ram's horn, is an ancient one, dating back more than five
thousand years. It added solemnity and drama to Moses's receiving the Ten
Commandments, played a part in the rituals of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and
was used for making public service announcements: a death in the community, a
fast day, the onset of the Sabbath. It was blown during the ten days of
repentance between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur and as a call to arms. In this
last instance, it was a signal to the people to be alert and ready for action.
It is certainly a potent and fitting symbol now. These are desperate times.
If you've read any of my OpEd pieces, you have already gathered that I don't have much patience for either posturing or façade. I think it has to do with being a mother and being of a certain age. Once a bunch of strangers have peered inside your womb, you don't have much left to hide. The need to be 'cute' or 'with it' has morphed into the need to be taken seriously and to speak my mind. The same is true in my writing. It doesn't pain me to admit that I will never be a great writer. But I can and have found my own voice and I have a strong desire to share my passion with my readers. I'm constantly struck by the connections between the various strands of my life and between seemingly disparate events or people. It makes life so fascinating. There's so much to learn. And I love to share what I see. What can I say? I'm a mom. And that's what moms do.
In my day job, I'm the office manager for Maxwell St. Klezmer Band. It's a group of
wonderfully talented, professional musicians who have been around for nearly
twenty-five years. They bring cheer to family and community celebrations, public performances for school groups, senior centers, and concerts both across the country and around the world. The band has a great reputation: it's toured Europe nine times, and has four recordings and several Public Television performances under its belt.
Relatively recently, we recruited an exceptional choreographer and dance leader called Dancin' Steve. What he does has as much to do with his personality as his talent. In his low-key way, he uses his enthusiasm and the mastery of his
craft to gently inveigle others onto the dance floor. He's a kind of Pied Piper, klezmer style. He's particularly effective with self-conscious teenagers, who are normally loath to do anything they can't excel at. By the end of the party, teens and left-footed adults are surprised to find themselves out there, having the time of their lives, doing unfamiliar things and loving every minute of it. They have been empowered and are exhilarated by their own daring and newfound skill.
It is a wonderful process to watch, this metamorphosis from wistful observer to active participant. I'm trying to do something similar: to inspire and empower people to willingly leave the sidelines and plunge into activism, getting caught up in what we shall call the dance of 'participatory democracy'. While I was in the shower this morning, I came up with what I think is a pithy slogan: "Democracy is not a spectator sport." (I was smitten with the wording and petrified that I would forget it by the time I got out of the shower, so I kept chanting it to myself until I could get to paper and pen. The more I repeated it, the better I liked it. An amusing image, I'm sure, but I battled those old brain cells and won. However temporary the victory, it was very affirming!) What we are trying to accomplish can only happen with massive engagement of the public, not merely the few experts among us. No wallflower deferments allowed! We need everyone's combined energy to make it happen. That will help us achieve that elusive tipping point Malcolm Gladwell described in his book by the same name.
Prior to going to Cleveland for the We Count 2006 Conference, I was busily obsessing about how I would respond to a room filled with hundreds of strangers. I'm not exactly agoraphobic, but small talk and I don't get along. As Bob Koehler would say, we're better at 'big talk'. As a teenager, I was actually quite good at talking about nothing for hours. For better or worse, the knack later deserted me. So I prefer small gatherings for more meaningful conversation. I realize now that the much-anticipated anxiety never materialized once I arrived at the conference. Why not? I knew only a small handful of people personally. I had corresponded with many others via email or by phone. But the vast majority were total strangers to me. Why wasn't I intimidated? Why didn't I retreat into a shell (as I usually do in similar circumstances)? The simple answer is that they just didn't feel like strangers, More like newly discovered family members. And we had so much in common! Our quest united us and made for an atmosphere positively crackling with energy. It was, in a word, fabulous.
The conference found me arriving home shortly before the onset of Yom Kippur. I commented to Bob, my travel buddy, upon returning to Chicago, that everything looked somehow different. It didn't seem possible that so much could have been crammed into such a short time. Remember the little boy with the vivid imagination in Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are? He got sent to his room without
dinner because of his bad behavior. In a fit of pique, he traveled to a far-off land where he found and conquered a bunch of scary looking but strangely loveable monsters. When he'd finished blowing off steam, "Max the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all." In order to get home again, he "sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him (turn to the last page) and it was still hot." Minus the wild and scary creatures, I experienced that same, disjointed sensation. I felt as if time had somehow temporarily expanded to contain more than the usual number of seconds and minutes in order to
accommodate the wondrous amount of speakers and workshops and material that Vicki Lovegren arranged for all of us. Returning to reality was a bit of a jolt.
The buzz from the weekend, the long drives, the lack of sleep compounded by my later hunger and thirst made for a very surreal night and day spent in a sort of fugue state where random ideas from the Cleveland conference intermittently flitted through my consciousness. Everything in my prayer book seemed to suddenly have an extra layer of meaning: the religious one and the current, political one about where we find ourselves and what's at stake. I peered around to see if anyone else was having this strange out-of-body experience.
As we stand there, we are all hungry, thirsty, light-headed and emotionally exhausted. The usual veneer of self-confidence has been stripped away and we resemble newly shorn sheep, terribly conscious of our nakedness and vulnerability. Normal divisions and separations blur. There is tremendous energy in our communal prayer. We use well worn melodies, our blended voices rising plaintively heavenward. We feel linked to all the other daveners (people praying) in the room, around the world and throughout history. It's as if we are functioning on
several different planes simultaneously. Geography and history lose their boundaries. We are all one. We are alone and yet not alone. We are fully accountable for our own individual actions and at the same time part of something much bigger which involves the fate of the entire community. It feels good and right.
There's a very old joke about a terrible flood (admittedly, funnier pre-Katrina) and a
man who's standing on a hill, patiently waiting for divine rescue as the floodwaters rise. Each time someone passes by with a rowboat, a raft, and finally a helicopter, he passes it up. When he ultimately drowns and gets to heaven, he asks why God hadn't saved him? "Who do you think sent the boats and the helicopter?" We can't passively await rescue. The slippery slope of lost democracy and encroaching fascism is just too slick, too steep to wait another minute. Every minute we do nothing, we're losing ground.
After the 2004 election, I had a conversation with Tony, the guy who has cut my hair for the last twenty years. Being in the job he's in, he avoids talking about politics and religion. It doesn't pay to alienate your clients. But, in one of our many conversations, he let it slip that he was unhappy about the election outcome. He made a conscious decision to turn off and tune out. He planned to devote more time to his family and keep his mental health that way. We haven't talked a lot about his choice, but it makes perfect sense to me. He's a doting grandfather and an even-tempered guy.
But, what happens if we become a whole nation of Tonys? If everyone turns inward and avoids the hard questions, who's minding the store? While I admire his equanimity, wresting back our democracy depends on consciously moving way outside the 'comfort zone'. And that's not easy. We live in the era of the couch potato and the quick fix. Tabloid headlines scream "Take off 15 pounds in three days without dieting!" "Make a million dollars overnight!" and "How to be the most popular, sexiest person alive!" Just read this, buy this, try this. Junk food for the mind. Too much TV, computer games and mental laziness have left us with the collective attention span of a flea. Doing something that takes conscious effort and makes life more difficult is not the obvious, popular choice. But there is a vast difference between easy and right. It's like the difference between empty calories and a wholesome meal. They may both be tasty, but in terms of nutrition, energy and health benefits, ultimately, there's no comparison.
Those of us involved in social action, in trying to bring about election reform, are well aware of the activists who have preceded us, both in America and around the world. Familiarity with their experiences nurtures and sustains us. We gain strength from the knowledge that we are not alone and that we owe so much to those who laid the groundwork for us. We are more than the sum of our parts. The opposition stresses our differences, its strategy to keep us apart. We are strengthened by our common purpose. All of those who preceded us have participated in that communal dance. The long road ahead will be easier to travel if we do it together, taking turns encouraging one another. (For help recharging your flagging energy, read Paul Rogat Loeb's The Impossible Will Take A Little While, a citizen's guide to hope in a time of fear, a terrific compilation of essays by activists from all over the world.)
Several documentaries on 2004 were shown at the conference ('Eternal Vigilance','American Blackout', 'No Umbrella' and 'Stealing America: Vote by Vote'). I was bombarded by those familiar, haunting images of black voters standing in the rain, waiting for hours, angry, defiant and still more than willing to do their duty. I have asked myself more than once since that Election Day, how long might I have waited before going home in defeat? As I watched, I was continually shaking my head, on the verge of tears. It was almost too much to bear. Is this what we've come to? Where only the special few can have their voices heard? Is the only way to construct electoral 'victory' to handpick the voters? How does this resemble democracy? When blacks, Native Americans and Hispanics in Democratic strongholds are systematically disenfranchised, all of us are losers. Count every vote. Make every vote count. "Tzedek, tzedek tirdof..." "Pursue justice..." the book of Deuteronomy exhorts us. The word 'tirdof' actually means to chase. It's an unusual word choice, for good reason.Chasing after justice demands purpose and commitment. It is not simply an intellectual exercise, and it certainly is not passive. The rest of the sentence is "so that you may live". "Chase after justice so that you may live." Our sages explain that if there is no justice, we are all diminished. Jonathan Kremer of the Philadelphia
Jewish Voice says "The active, tenacious pursuit of justice is what will ultimately let us live at peace with ourselves and our neighbors ...wherever we may live." http://www.pjvoice.com/v4/4202justice.html
If equality and social justice are an illusion, it is pure hypocrisy to claim that we're fighting abroad to export a democracy we don't actually possess. I agree wholeheartedly that democracy is worth fighting for. That fight should be going on right here at home. There is so much to be done. It doesn't ultimately matter so much what you feel or think if it doesn't move you to action; you make a difference through what you actually do. If you need motivation, listen to Mark Crispin Miller: "If you don't have the right to vote and have that voted be counted, you will not make any progress of any kind on any other issue or any other front. All of your freedoms are predicated on your right to vote."
Bob Koehler has referred to himself as an "army of one". Action by millions of "armies of one" can bring about change. Heed the call of the shofar. Enlist in this fight to restore and protect democracy today!