I never knew my paternal grandfather. He passed away when my father was eight. The fragments I know of him are what I’ve gleaned from my grandma, my dad, my paternal aunts, my great-uncles and great-aunts who knew him. He remains a character in my mind. Not exactly unreal – but not exactly real either: he exists as a supporting role from a book, or like the vestiges of a dream I can’t exactly remember. He is a wistful blur in my head, existing only in the peripheries of my imagination, where there are colors I’ve never before seen, and soft echoes I can’t really hear. My paternal grandfather exists as borrowed memories that aren’t mine.
I’ve seen photos of my paternal grandfather; he seemed stern – thick eyebrows, deep-set eyes, a moustache set above thin, barely smiling lips. But despite the severity of the very posed, 1960’s, photo-studio portraits, he was very handsome. It’s said my father resembles him; I don’t see it. Where my grandfather’s lips remain staunchly straight, there is laughter in my dad’s mouth. I cannot reconcile the two in terms of resemblance. I was told stories of my grandfather’s famous temper, “but still, “ my grandma said to me, “he was actually quite funny. He laughed a lot,” however, I would look at the photos of him and I would think she was lying, or, at least trying to soften him; photos don’t lie. He seemed frightful to me, unsmiling, firm. The large photo of him hung imposingly in my grandma’s living-room, and when I was little, I lowered my eyes and looked away from him, my shoulders slumping, as he cast his gaze over me, the only grandson to carry his name. He had been a professional man in the employ of the government, well-off, the second of two sons. And that’s it; that’s the summary of him in my head: the man who fathered my own father, whose life spanned forty years before an untimely heart-attack, which left my grandmother widowed at the age of thirty-five, and four small, sheltered children left behind.
It’s curious that a life one lived - a life which spawned my own life, and without whom I wouldn’t exist – that that life seems so one-dimensional to me. I can’t imagine his laugh, his walk, his accent. I can, from photos, envisage the bare hint of a smile, and from stories, imagine his day and his routine – but the fact is, I do not know this man. I never will. If he were to pass me on the street, I wouldn’t recognize him. I have never shed tears for him, I’ve never sat with him, I’ve never shared anything with him – not a memory, not a hug, not a “grandpa”. I do not know who he is. Though he was my grandfather, he remains aloof and hazy across the stretches of time – a fictional extra character in the story of my life. Just a name to be written in family trees, just a footnote, a memory long gone.
When my maternal grandfather died, I was in the hospital room with him, together with my mom, two aunts, my uncle and two cousins. I’d never thought of him as my grandfather. He was always "grandpa": with the white moustache, tall and smiling, trusty thick framed black glasses perched on his long, slightly hooked nose, and ever the dandy, always attired in freshly pressed shirts or polo t-shirts, and carefully ironed pants, their seams, prominently crisp. He seemed immortal to me, infallible, unbreakable. Grandpa was ninety-one when he passed, that evening, March 2nd, 2017. He’d been admitted to the private nursing home, and he struggled for breath, his eyes glazed over, his arms and legs, tiny, frail, kicking as he gasped for breath. The grandpa I had known all my life had shrunk into a tiny body; where there had once been a proud paunch was now a deflated stomach, his face showing contours and valleys, ridges and facial bones that I’d never seen before. He struggled for breath, his kidneys failing, his lungs collapsing, as we stood helplessly, begging him to fight, to stay with us, and then, with one final gasp, he surrendered, and that was it. My grandpa had gone.
My parents split up when I was four. After an attempt at reconciliation, they called it quits for good, and then, my maternal grandparents entered my life in a very tangible and enduring way. My grandpa was like many Trinidadian men of the older generations; he didn’t vocalize emotion. He never said “I love you”, or coddled and hugged me the way his wife, my grandma, would. But if I was ill, he would admonish my grandma to rub my head, with Vicks vaporub and Limacol. When I was in trouble with my mother, he would intervene, feebly, in my defense. When it was summer holidays and I wanted a pirate ship, he turned the dining-table over, and let me and my cousin, Kavir, loose on our newly-devised play-ship. He would pick guavas for us, bring us the ends of sugarcane from his backyard, which we chewed on greedily. He would cut coconuts open for us, let us roast sausages at the end of sticks when he lit bonfires in the backyard. He would eat mangoes with us, the juice dribbling down our faces, and grandpa would laugh, and so would we, until grandma told him off, and grimly set about washing our pubescent faces, and grubby hands. Grandpa liked nothing more than to have us around, while he sold in his grocery store, while he cooked food for his dogs, while he mulled around in his backyard. We'd asked to help him once, in his grocery store, and he gave us a box of Tunnocks Caramel wafer’s to unpack, Kavir and I. We unwrapped each bar from it’s package and carefully, and unsanitarily, piled them - freshly out of their protective wrapping - onto each other, and then we beamed at each and called grandpa to to purview our work well-done. He laughed, and this became one of his favorite stories to tell. He cooked us fried eggs, beating the eggs until they were fluffy, adding a bit of flour and baking soda – a reminder of his disadvantaged childhood, where flour was needed to stretch the egss - and finally, he sprinkled this omlette with fresh bird peppers and finely chopped onions, poured it into the frying pan, and fried it to beautiful brown goodness. “Grandpa,” I would say, sternly, my eight-year old sensibilities offended, “I don’t like onions.” And he would make it again for me, sans onions. He drank beer and fine scotch, and whenever he entertained, he would open a bottle of his best scotch and offer lunch, and then, he would chuckle, warmly, drunkenly, with his friends, as they talked politics, religion and whatever else it was they philosophised about, while they smoked cigarettes, picked at their food and sipped their scotch. He was a particular man, my grandpa, when it came to grooming. Before school, each day, he would rub bilcreme in our hair: mine, Kavir’s and Kerry’s – and with deft strokes, he would comb the sharpest side-paths on each of our heads, and send us off with freshly-ironed men’s handkerchiefs in our pants pockets and extra “vex money”, which we never used for it’s intended purpose, instead, we supplemented our allowances and handed over this security money for snacks at recess time and lunch time in school. Grandpa rose before sundown every morning. “There is nothing as good for the body as a cold morning shower,” he would tell me. Unfortunately, I’ve never followed this rule - neither rising early, nor showering with cold water. Grandpa was of the old school; he took pride in his appearance. He smelt of Oil of Olay face cream, Old Spice deodorant and cigarettes. I can close my eyes, and still, though he’s gone, imagine his smell. Grandpa never told me, “I love you.” I don’t think the phrase was part of the lexicon of his generation. Instead, he showed it, and I felt it.
It is unfair: to compare my grandpa to my paternal grandfather. Grandpa was given the luxury of time with me; my paternal grandfather was not. But that is, sadly, sometimes, how the cookie crumbles. I asked my paternal grandma once, “Do you think my grandfather would’ve liked me if he was alive?” “Oh yes,” she replied. “He had a wicked sense of humor. He would have loved joking with you. And all the things you’re interested in – religion, Israel, books, dogs – he would’ve loved talking to you.” I used to wonder about him; what his day was like, what were his favorite things, what of him is present in my personality, in my looks, in my thinking. But I was daydreaming; wondering for an answer that would never come. I’d never met him. He remains, sadly, a footnote in my life. My grandpa, however, etched firmly as a main character in the story that is me.
A month and a half ago, a close family friend was unexpectedly diagnosed with stage four terminal cancer. It came completely out of left-field and the severity of how aggressively the cancer had spread shocked us. Since the diagnosis, she has begun chemotherapy and is, thankfully, responding well to the treatment. But the shock of the news and absorbing the grave verdict had left me somewhat unanchored, and a melancholy plagued me that I was unable to shake for the ensuing weeks.
Life. Death. Gone. Memories. Forgotten.
What is the point of it all?
I live my life. I woke up every day, eager to follow the daily news, be it World Cup, or what Trump has done next, or Israel; happy to say my prayers; excited to face the day and pen out whatever story I had inside of me; anticipating phone calls from friends; reading Facebook posts; eating, drinking, to be merry; to walk my dogs; to look for love; to hope; to dream; to dismay; to weep.
But to what end?
My grandpa had always told me, “Write my story. You’re the writer in the family. Write my story when I’m gone.” And he thus talked copiously, of his childhood, of his widowed mother, of poverty, of determination that led him to become a successful businessman, of the death of his mother, of marrying my grandma, of having children. I listened. I remember. I wrote his eulogy when he passed away; ninety-one years condensed into a few tearful pages. And I felt the melancholy of reducing my grandpa – a life well-lived – into paragraphs, when, to me, he was so much more. But that’s what we all come to, isn’t it? A final end, and a hope that we can be remembered. Only those who knew us would remember our subtleties, our nuances, our quirks. When I am gone, how long before I am forgotten? How long before I am reduced to a footnote in the story of the world? Who would remember my name in a hundred years?
We are, all of us, simply footnotes. Footnotes in each other’s stories, memories in each other’s minds. And as melancholy as that surmation is, it also is humbling. We exist for such a short space of time on this earth: a speckle of a drop in the vast ocean that is time. We will, all of us, eventually be forgotten. We won’t even exist as footnotes, because, at some point, the universe will end, and all of us will be gone.
"So to what end?", is my existential wonder. The heartaches, the joys of life, the tears shed – do we live for just the experience? Is it bombastic to worry about how we will be remembered? If we will be remembered? We may never make sense of the "Why's?" of life: why we exist, what is our collective purpose, why there is pain, why we are forgotten, but we must continue to live, and in living, we should know there is hope and excitement in knowing that each day we can become something to the other’s around us. Knowing that your smile can make the newsagent feel glad; knowing that your thank you can make the waitress feel appreciated; knowing that your hug can make your dog’s heart palpitate. Though I was not lucky to know my paternal grandfather, I was privileged to have known and loved my grandpa. And it is this which comforts me; though he is gone, he isn't a footnote in my life. His stories reside in my head - never to be forgotten; his laugh rebounds in my heart; his smile, forever alive in my mind. We live – not to be remembered – but in the now: to peel sugarcanes for our grandchildren, to fry eggs for our children, to drink scotch with our friends. We live - and we must relish in the lives we were given. And, yes, it will end with us being footnotes, but sometimes, some stories cannot be understood without the accompanying footnotes.
Let's talk about THE WRITING PROCESS when it comes to penning your masterpiece: whether you're writing the next great novel or have an idea for non-fiction.
I'll be sharing my writing process and personal techniques live on Instagram and Facebook tonight at 9pm EST, April 26, 2018, and we will discuss all your thoughts and questions about this crazy world of writing.
We will talk about the three main stages of the writing process:
Being last is never good. Being last means you tend to get overshadowed, understated, and well - forgotten. Although everyone else before you is being made a big deal of: "Oh my God! Number 1?! Hello! You are super important right now!" - and descendingly less to Numbers 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9... and then, finally, we reach number 10 which everyone forgets.
Poor number 10.
What are we talking about here? The Duggar's 10th baby? (They had 19 - so that situation is even more complicated and disturbing than this example has the capacity to address at this current juncture. No - we're talking about that oft-forgotten, oft-shrugged off, oft-"meh..." mitzvah:
"Thou shalt not not covet anything that belongs to thy neighbor". Or as it's more succinctly put in the עשרת הדברות – the Decalogue, or the Ten Pronouncements G-d made atop Har Sinai all those thousands of years ago, as He gave His Torah to use. A Torah we've come to love, a Torah which has come to define our peoplehood, a Torah of compassion and love, indicating a loving, personal G-d who does not send us to hell for transgressions while we're here on earth.
In Hebrew, the tenth and final commandment states: לא תחמד, Thou shalt not covet - in the very concise way Hebrew does it's thing.
Thou shalt not covet. Not thy neighbor's stuff, thy friends stuff, thy mom's new blue jeans, thy dad's new car, thy uncle's new Zara shirt (which you know would look so much better on you!)
Thou shalt not... covet.
This mitzvah is no less important than honor thy mother and father, nor is it less severe in it's direction to remember the Shabbat and keep it holy.
But in light of the newly fangled response of "OMG! So jelly!" it seems like this commandment has been all but forgotten.
Why is this?
The tenth commandment is not the easiest of the mitzvot laid out in the Aseret ha-Dibrot. It is the only mitzvah which speaks specifically to an internal impulse which must somehow be subdued. But, as time as passed, over the centuries and millennia which comprise the giving of the Torah, we find that, in today's heady world, the compulsion to covet has become a normal part of every day life.
I, too, am guilty of this. My friend has a new significant other? I'm happy - but I want one, too, please! My aunt buys a new house? I'm happy for her - but I want one, too, please! In all our stringent following of the mitzvot, particularly those mitzvot in the Ten Commandments, we as a world - Jews, and non-Jews alike - completely and utterly ignore this utterly important (though overshadowed) mitzvah.
Why is this so? The tenth mitzvah differs from the others because it doesn't deal with outward expressions of faith and emuna. Rather, it deals with an internal struggle, and HaShem told us: "stop being jealous bitches." No where in life and time has the necessity for this mitzvah to make a glorious comeback than in the right here and now, when everyone is "jelly/jellzies/jelling" about something that someone else has (bf, gf, house, clothes, car, restaurant, lifestyle, money, Apple Watch).
How easy it is to ignore the inner compulsion of covetousness and just be jealous. So simple it is to forget everyday, when we allow our yetzer ha-Ra to take the better of us that we're breaking, re-breaking and just always breaking this most important tenth mitzvah.
The world of capitalism has been the most impactful on this, the final Commandment. Many people say "oh that's the unattainable commandment because there's so much stuff that constitute life in the 2000's", Actually - no. It's not impossible - it's just... more difficult to control your internal urges to not feel jealousy and particularly covetous, especially in our current cultural climate (yes - I mean, just look at China having becoming pseudo capitalist - the traditional society has given place to what basically looks like any Western mall of mom's, daughter's, son's and dad's thronging to find the latest gadgets, regardless of how much they have to spend. Girl's lining up for Mono Blahniks. Is she buying this because of the workmanship of the shoe? Or is she buying it as a quality-status symbol? Not just that girl. Me. Why am I buying Zara? Because I saw it fit someone with my body type perfectly, and I - admittedly - coveted what tat passerby perfectly and so I've been on a rampage for the past ten years when it comes to buying Zara. Also I can say that the quality of their clothes has significantly decreased).
Covetousness has not been eradicated, in fact, in our times, it's become even worse - these are the most challenging times for this, the last of the mitzvot.
How do we re-channel ourselves into not being covetous? We need to pull away from the dizzying white lights of life: your friend's better half (who you thought was cute), your friends happiness (which you are happy for outwardly, but secretly wish it could happen to you as well: his job promotion, her new house, his new baby, her new car - you need to find it in yourself to be grateful and genuinely happy for these wonderful blessings to others and not let it impact your own yetzer haRa.
There is no magic trick to this - but something I've found is this: be grateful. Be thankful. Be so unbelievably happy with that which you were given and direct your gratitude to the person who gives it to you, but direct thanks to haShem for sending you this bracha.
In all things we do in the modern age, we must be always cognisant that we have a well-defined set of rules which govern our morality as Jews - I'm not even talking about what's in the Shulchan Aruch, I'm talking, merely and only, about the Ten Commandments. This isn't just G-d's Words to us - it's an adoptive attempt to emulate the Creator Who doesn't covet the things we have. In our mortal, limited lives, our purpose is to discern the Divine in everything and attempt - futilely, often - to match up to it.
So time to stop jelling. Time to be happy for when other's move up the lifecycle ladder, despite the fact that we are sprawled out in the mud at the bottom of the ladder.
For far too long the final commandment has been sadly ignored. Hate comes from the ignoring of this commandment. The Arabs hate that Israel - against all odds - set up a state for themselves, educated their population and formed the Start-up Nation, they hate that Israel can bring forth flowers and fruits and vegetables with little water. This is what covetousness causes: hate. I want what you have - I'm jealous of you. I hate you. The steps between the two are very short, and they increase in terms of intensity of feeling as they progress, culminating in red eye, all consuming hate. On Personal, Community, and Regional and Worldwide level., hate happens. jealousy happens. Do we want hate? Do we want the Arabs to continue to covet what we have: a land they desperately want as their own, yet, they're awed by the great investments which have gone into Israel making it a worldwide masterpiece? On a personal level: do we want a situation of fighting with friends because you're JELLY?
The tenth commandment needs its due. And the day has come. Let's just stop.
Say No to jealously. No to covetousness. No to wanting what isn't yours.
Say Yes to being happy for others - and not letting jealousy inside get the better of you. Say Yes to jumping for joy when you hear they've made a new house, gotten married, found the love of their lives, booked a worldwide cruise.
This is how we honor the last commandment.
Let's do it together and end this puerile and base response of "Oh my G-d! I am so jelly!
(Although, my dad did just buy a new iPhone 6+ - I'm a little jelly. Maybe he'll buy me one too and we'll curb that jellyness at the bud )
(This post was originally written for the "Times of Israel" on December 8th, 2013. The original can be found here).
Trinidad & Tobago is one of the most culturally, ethnically and religiously diverse societies in the world. With an almost equal helping of East Indian-descended and African-descended racial majorities, one also finds enormous minorities in people of Chinese, European, Lebanese, Syrian, Amerindian and mixed-race descents. Further compounding this ethnic hullabaloo, a hodge-podge mix of religions adds another spicy dimension to the pot. Catholics, Protestants of every conceivable colour, Hindus, Ba'hais, Muslims, Rastafarians, Ethiopian Orthodox, Shango Baptists, Buddhists, atheists, Jews and everything else you can imagine all call these wonderful islands home. And despite all the very many differences which mark the varied and coloured people of this country, ethnic and religious divisions do not exist. Rather, the different cultures, religions and races coalesce to form an easy Carnival culture, reflected in the unique spirit of the Trinidad & Tobago people.
The story of these two islands is a remarkable one of cultural, ethnic and religious cohesion, respect and tolerance. The government has proclaimed almost every imaginable religious festival a national holiday, and thus, citizens of this twin island republic are given a day off to enjoy their own holy days and reflect on the holy days of others. In this Christian-majority country, the Muslim holiday of Eid-Ul-Fitr and the Hindu festival of Divali are given equal prominence as Christmas and Easter. The Afro-Christian syncretic Shango Baptist religion (unique to Trinidad & Tobago, and similar to the voodoo rites of Jamaica and the southern states in the USA) was given its own national-religious holiday, Spiritual Baptist Liberation Day, to commemorate the persecution and struggles they endured under British rule as they agitated for freedom to worship and official recognition, which they eventually gained under local rule. In addition to all of these fascinating religious holidays, Trinidad & Tobago celebrates the national holiday of Indian Arrival Day, to mark the coming of East Indians to the country. Also, Trinidad & Tobago was the first country in the world to recognise the importance of the abolition of African slavery in 1834, and the remembrance of this wonderful moment in human history was officially enshrined into the national concsiousness with an annual celebration of Emancipation Day.
Racial and religious divisions are wonderfully absent in this oil- and gas-producing Caribbean nation. The country has an official and unofficial policy of acceptance, tolerance and respect, as reflected in the words of it's national anthem: "Here every creed and race find an equal place". Each culture which reached the shores of this young country was embraced - finding it's rightful equal place - and each added an essential ingredient to the recipe that was to become its unique, cosmopolitan culture. With a country so at peace with its difference that it celebrates its diversity at every opportunity, it's no wonder the small Jewish community in Trinidad & Tobago goes by unnoticed by its non-Jewish fellow-citizens and by world Jewry at large.
Trinidad & Tobago Jewry comprises roughly fifty to sixty persons of various Jewish backgrounds. Though tiny, the community is a microcosm of world Jewry. Within the minuscule numbers one finds Israelis, Sephardi, Mizrachi, Ashkenazi, Turkish, Conservadox, secular, traditional, atheist, humanist, ambivalent Jews, and converts to every major stream of Judaism. In addition to this, the community welcomes the Trinidad & Tobago descendants of crypto-Jews who are aware of their Jewish heritage and want to know more about the religion of their forefathers. I even lunched once, in 2010, with a Karaite Jew who had come to Trinidad & Tobago on business and had so enjoyed his stay here that he said outright that he could see himself retiring to Tobago with his wife in a few years, and thus become another diverse thread in the colourful fabric which constitutes Trinidad & Tobago Jewry.
The community boasts many achievements, with Jews contributing to almost every sphere of public life in the country: in media, one of the most well-known and respectable news anchors is Jewish; in fashion and the Carnival arts, one of the most popular fashion and Carnival costume designers is a Moroccan-Jewish Israeli expat who has lived in Trinidad since she married a Chinese-Trinidadian at the age of twenty-one; in music, one of the pioneers of calypso, Lionel Belasco, the son of a Sephardi-Jewish man; in literature, Afred Mendes, the descendant of Portuguese Jews, and grandfather of world-renowned director, Sam Mendes; in the culinary arts, one of the most popular food bloggers and chefs in the country is Jewish and has a kosher Caribbean website, customising local recipes in accordance with kashrut; in public service, a Curaçaoan Jew serving in the country's highest court, the Caribbean Court of Justice; in the business sector, several of the country's oldest business enterprises have been founded by Portuguese-Sephardi Jews in the 1800's (Y. de Lima & Co., Miguel Moses), and many businesses were established in the early half of the 20th century by European Jewish immigrants (Stecher's Fine Gift Stores, Yufe's, Diana Candy).
Though the Jewish community accounts for only roughly 0.005% of the total population, the community has impacted the country in many overt and subtle ways. The insignia of the police force is the Magen David, topped with a tiny hummingbird in the upper-right corner to add a local flair; outside of Israel, Trinidad & Tobago is the only country in the world to make use of this enduring Jewish symbol. A Jewish real estate development in the suburb of Diego Martin from the post World War 2 era honours the names of the great stalwarts modern Jewish history: Golda Meir Gardens, President Weizmann Avenue, David ben Gurion Avenue and Yitzchak ben Zvi Avuenue are some of the more colourful names which remain as a testament to the Jewish presence on the islands. The world-famous Angostura company, which produces Angostura bitters and the Angostura range of rums and is one of two non-British companies to hold a Royal Warrant to the Queen, was founded by the German-Jewish Siegert family and continues to operate it's operations in Trinidad & Tobago. The Stollmeyer's Castle - modelled on Balmoral Castle, and built in 1904 by the Trinidadian-British-Jewish Stollmeyer family - is one of the Magnificent Seven mansions which line the Queen's Park Savannah in Port-of-Spain, and remains a national monument. The Bet Olam section of the Mucurapo Cemetery continues to function as the community's modern working cemetery with gravestones which mark the very Jewish names of Cohen, Schwartz and Katz; gravestones which indicate birthplaces and persecuted lives in exotic countries which no longer exist - Belorussia, Prussia and Anhalt - and eventual peace and rest on the tranquil shores of this distant Caribbean island. Directly opposite to the cemetery is a parcel of land which, in the 1970's, had been bid upon by the local Jewish community as the possible site to build a permanent synagogue (ironically, the Jewish community lost their bid, and, instead, the land was sold to the Jamaat al-Muslimeen - a terrorist organisation which later, in the 1990's, stormed the Trinidad & Tobago Parliament, shot the Prime Minister and overthrew the government for three days until they surrendered to the Army). On May 15th, 1948, the day after the State of Israel had been declared, Trinidad & Tobago Jewry - which was at it's zenith, consisting of approximately five thousand souls - took to the streets of Trinidad & Tobago's capital city, Port-of-Spain in a joyful march, with the Israeli flag being waved by the jubilant masses and loud, powerful renditions of Hatikvah being sung with glee. The community's greatest achievement happened twice when it worked towards and witnessed the official visits of two Trinidad & Tobago Prime Ministers to Israel: first, when Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams travelled to Israel and met with Prime Minister David ben Gurion in the 1950's, and later, in 2005, when Prime Minister Patrick Manning travelled to Israel and met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (the last meeting the Israeli Prime Minister was to have with a visiting head of government before his untimely coma).
Tiny community? Yes. Dynamic, diverse community? Undoubtedly. The very smallness of the community has forced it to be all-inclusive and unaffiliated, thus remaining open to all streams of recognised Jewish thought. Divisions between secular and religious, Reform and Orthodox, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, which are painfully prevalent throughout world Jewry, are notably absent in the Trinidad & Tobago community. It is precisely the smallness of the community which leads to it's all-inclusive, unaffiliated nature. The community remains undivided, and the organisation which represents the community - "Echad: the Jewish community of Trinidad & Tobago" - carefully chose its name to reflect the unity of the local community. The local culture of tolerance and respect is applied liberally to the Jewish community: inclusively united in its Jewishness, despite differing opinions as to what individual and collective Jewishness entails.
At present, there is no synagogue, no mikveh and no rabbi to serve the community, but celebration of the major holidays is religiously marked, and hosted in the homes of local Jews, with many different formal and informal events happening throughout the year. Although there is no Chabad house, Chabad performs outreach to Trinidad & Tobago and every summer, with missionary rabbis visiting to pastor and assist. For the rest of the year, rabbis in the more established Caribbean-Jewish communities in Jamaica and the Dutch Antilles are always ready to lend a helping hand, and many of the local community are in communion with congregations in the United States. As Trinidad & Tobago is the most economically and financially advanced English-speaking Caribbean country, due to its oil, gas, energy and chemical industries, at any given time there is bound to any number of expatriate Jews from Israel, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and various other countries working on the islands, and these visiting Jews swell the numbers of the local community considerably.
At the same time, the advantages which come with being a small community give rise to the very probable future where Judaism will cease to exist on the islands. The challenges of continuing to exist as a community without the unifying edifices of a synagogue, a mikveh or a rabbi are, arguably, surmountable in the short-term. Monies can be raised to rectify any of these glaringly absent centrepieces of Jewish life. The true existential threat to the community lies in its smallness and, thus, unsustainable numbers. True, Jews tend to be pessimistic when it comes to predictions of sustainable numbers and the future, but the fact remains: in Trinidad & Tobago, the average Jew is sixty years old, and pessimistic or not, this is not a very encouraging statistic. The younger resident Trinidad & Tobago Jewish population currently accounts for only five to ten persons - numbers which definitely cannot sustain a continued Jewish presence on the islands. A good American-Jewish friend of mine from Trinity College, Rachel Golden, who spent a year abroad at the local university and did her research thesis on the Trinidad & Tobago Jewish community, came to the following conclusion: "The Jewish community in Trinidad is in danger of disappearing all together. There is no new blood except for the occasional visitor such as myself; but I don’t have permanent ties to Trinidad, and my future children will not be raised here". However, Trinidad & Tobago's Jewish story is one of persistence; it has always replenished itself from different sources. Despite the damning statistics and the odds stacked against it, there is no doubt that Trinidad & Tobago Jewry will continue - albeit, in small numbers - but continue nonetheless. To understand why such a conclusion can be so confidently stated, one must first understand the history of Judaism in Trinidad & Tobago.
Jews reached the shores of Trinidad & Tobago in several distinct (almost imperceptible to the greater society around them) waves since Christopher Columbus discovered these most southerly of the Caribbean islands, on his third voyage from Europe in 1498. The first major wave of immigration came in 1783 with the Cedula of Population, when Trinidad - as a vastly underpopulated Spanish colony - opened it's borders to European Catholics, targeting, specifically, the French planter class. Almost immediately the white population swelled, from 1,000 persons in 1773 to over 18,000 by 1797, when the island came under British rule. With the opening up of the Trinidad's borders, the French planters were given a haven, and immediately formed the white majority on the island. Under Spanish, and then, British rule, the French planter class ensured that the island operated as, for all intents and purposes, a French cultural outpost, and French and patois remained the lingua franca of the island well into the mid-1800's. It is speculated that a sizeable minority of these French Catholics were actually crypto-Jews who had converted to Catholicism in previous centuries, and were interested in coming to Trinidad primarily because they would be free from church influence to live as they pleased. Jewish surnames such as Barcant, Mainz, Meyer and Yakar cropped up among the French planters. Sources indicate that those who were descendants of Jews continued to practice their Jewish traditions, despite their Catholic exteriors: their graves faced east; they named their sons on the eighth day in their homes; church attendance was the lowest in Trinidad than in all other colonies in the West Indies; and they married exclusively amongst themselves, shunning the Spaniards and, later, English, who lived alongside them. Eventually, over time, the crypto-Jewish French planters assimilated assimilated into the Catholic culture which surrounded them, and their Judaic practices were lost over time.
In 1838, when slavery was abolished, the British brought in indentured labourers to take the place of the newly freed Afro-Trinidadians who refused to continue working the plantations. Chief among these new worker immigrants was a large number of East Indians, but, attempts were also made to secure labor from China, Lebanon, Syria and Portugal, mostly from the Portuguese island of Madeira. The Portuguese immigrants were undoubtedly direct descendants of Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism in 1492. Many of the Portuguese-Trinidadians remained in Trinidad & Tobago when their two-year indentureship contracts came to an end. They formed a decisive minority within the Creole population and experienced no real tensions with their European fellows, but unlike their European counterparts, they were considered non-white by the society and, ascribed equally to Catholicism and Presbyterianism. Despite their staunch commitment to Christianity, the Portuguese immigrants were largely aware of their Jewish roots and established strong links with the tiny community of Sephardi-Dutch Jews which existed in the island at the time, and, indeed, there was intermarriage between these two groups. Jewish surnames which reflect the Portuguese-Jewish heritage continue to exist in the Trinidad & Tobago population, names like: de Caires, de Silva, de Souza, Arbanel, Guzman and Ferreira. Modern descendants of these Portuguese-Jews are generally aware of their Jewish heritage, but continue to adhere to Christianity.
The most major wave of Jewish immigration occurred during and immediately following World War 2, when European Jews, fleeing the horrors of the Nazis, entered the islands. Many of them held German and Austrian passports, and as a consequence of the war, were termed enemies and were held in internment camps in Port-of-Spain for the duration of the war. When World War 2 ended, many left the camps and exited Trinidad & Tobago as a whole, but many more decided to settle here, which resulted in the largest, organised Jewish community Trinidad & Tobago had ever been blessed with. There were Jewish youth clubs, a Jewish drama club with productions being staged in Yiddish, Hebrew classes, Zionist clubs, and an official synagogue in a rented building on Duke Street, Port-of-Spain. Jews spread throughout the island, with strong presences in both the national capital and in the industrial capital in San Fernando. At this point, estimates indicate that the Jewish presence numbered approximately 3,000 people throughout the islands. Jews made contacts with the other ethnicities on the island, particularly the Lebanese-Christian and Syrian-Christian first- and second-generation refugees on the island, who had come to Trinidad & Tobago to establish better lives. These new Trinidad & Tobago Jews embraced their new homeland, and organised themselves into a society affectionately called the "Calypso Shtetl". It was a golden era of Jewry on the islands, spanning thirty years, until 1970, with the rise of the Black Power Movement. The Black Power Movement sought to establish equal rights for the non-white majorities in the country by forcing socio-economic-political change, and was, in itself, a necessary step in the eventual racial peace enjoyed in the country today. However, Jews - who were identified as white - were not ready for the riots and rampage, after just recently having escaped Nazi atrocities, so rather than risk being present for a possible civil war (which never came), they fled en masse from the islands. The Torah scroll they had purchased was exiled to Barbados, and the era of the Calypso Shtetl came to an abrupt end. By 1970, the Jewish community numbered less than 100 persons.
Despite this mass exodus in the 1970's, Judaism hobbled on in Trinidad & Tobago for the next three decades, bringing us to the present - where the numbers are at a record low. Yet, there is a confidence in the community which has led to a sort of renaissance, indicating that the community remains virile and will continue to press on. Why is this so? Without a rabbi, without a synagogue, without a mikveh to rally around; when demographics indicate that Trinidad & Tobago's Jews' numbers are unsustainable - how is it possible to confidently declare that Judaism will continue to exist in Trinidad & Tobago?
Unlike previous decades, the internet brings the community together and connected to the outside Jewish world in an unprecedented way, never seen before. Trinidadian & Tobago Jews and their descendants who have migrated from the country are now connected to the community they left behind and each other. In the early 2000's, a reunion of the Calypso Shtetl took place in Toronto, with members flying in from the United States, Israel, Australia and Trinidad & Tobago. Trinidad & Tobago Jews who establish lives in other countries remain connected to the islands to varying degrees. The Calypso Shtetl lives on virtually.
In addition to this, a large number of expatriate non-Jewish Trinidadians and Tobagonians are meeting and marrying Jews, and, in many instances, these Trinidadians and Tobagonians are converting to Judaism. While many of these hybrid Trinidadian and Tobagonian/Jewish families live and work outside of the islands, they remain - unlike the Calypso Shtetl - genetically anchored to Trinidad & Tobago. Whether this new generation would eventually return to Trinidad & Tobago and revitalise the community with their sheer numbers is yet to be seen, but the fact remains, they constitute a large demographic which cannot be ignored. At present, Echad has made contact with twenty of these families - numbers which far outstrip the resident Trinidad & Tobago Jewish community - and, the discovery of more and more of them are happening more frequently.
In an odd way, Judaism has seemingly always had the odds stacked against it in Trinidad & Tobago. While Jews flourished in almost every other Caribbean island (Jamaica, Curacao, Aruba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba), they never managed to properly set down roots here. Yet, as the history of Jews in Trinidad & Tobago shows - despite the failures of the past, Jews still, inevitably, settle in Trinidad & Tobago. As the economic, industrial and financial powerhouse of the English-speaking Caribbean, Trinidad & Tobago remains a powerful magnet for foreigners, and, in particular, foreign Jews. Expatriate Jews living in Trinidad & Tobago find their way into the local community, bolstering numbers and becoming unofficial "Trini Jews". While the vast majority of these visiting Jews will return to their original home-countries, their presence adds to the dynamism of the community.
The Jewish community of Trinidad & Tobago remains tiny, but the hope for a bigger and more dynamic future remains solid. Trinidad & Tobago has given to the various Jews who have settled on it's shores, and the Jews have returned the favour to their Caribbean homeland in abundance. As a small community, Trinidad & Tobago Jewry remains committed to the Jewish mission and would like the rest of the world to know: we're here - don't overlook us, and don't forget us.
Christopher Pike wrote a book called "Remember Me 2", where the ghost of a murdered girl was given a second chance at Life. Instead of being reincarnated, the ghost-girl was given the body of a Latina girl who had truly given up on life and subconsciously appealed to the universe for a way out. The universe answered the living girl by plucking her soul out of her body and interring the ghost girl's soul therein. While the Latina girl had felt that her life had no meaning and no purpose, the ghost girl took ahold of her second chance and, despite her limited options as an inner-city, high school drop out, she grabbed ahold of every opportunity and became a successful writer, whose stories touched the millions who read them.
There are so many inspiring tales of people making the most of their lives - people who survive, who succeed, who make it happen, even when the odds against them seem insurmountable. These people are like the ghost girl who are determined to make it happen, while, far too often, so many of us are like the Latina girl, ready to give up. Sometimes I feel like that Latina girl. I don't know where my life is going; I don't know where I am headed. Sure, I have many more opportunities than that Latina girl in Pike's novel, but, at the same time, I don't make the most of what I have and what I can do with what I have. A more ambitious person would channel their focus and drive, and sit down and write and write and write some more, honing their writing skills - making it happen. Me? I let the rejection of "Avi, Resurrected" affect me so much that I stay my hand at writing. I'm not the world's best writer - I'm not even in the top million - but I do love to write, so why don't I? I think there's a huge part of me that's afraid. Not afraid of rejection, not afraid of not succeeding, not afraid of not trying. There's the complacent demon in me that's afraid to change. I'm so comfortable - I haven't had any real upsets to mar my life. And that's what I'm afraid of: that I haven't paid my dues so I don't deserve success if it should happen.
In a way, I'm a pessimist and an externaliser. I sometimes think that destiny just doesn't have this, that or the other in store for me - so why try? Because if I try, I'm just going to get knocked down, since I haven't paid any dues to get where I want to go. Life is about struggle, about overcoming obstacles, about beating the odds. Other than overcoming whatever pains and heartaches I went through as a result of my parent's divorce as a child, and the random heartbreak of romance, I've had nothing to challenge me and make me work hard and earn my success. This is why I'm stuck where I am, or, at least, keeping myself here. I know the power is within me to simply turn over a new leaf anytime I want - but why do that when it's so easy to not do so? I can while my life away in the comfortable place that I am in life - knowing that everything would be ok, because there isn't anything to prod me into doing otherwise.
Sometimes I wonder about the great people of history. Would they have been great if their circumstances had not pushed them forward towards something greater? So many notable historical figures fought through so much to achieve what they wanted. When it comes too easily, it's never much of an accomplishment. My friend, Kirk, who, like me, had been thoroughly spoilt by his parents, was suddenly cut off by his parents in 2006 when he decided he wanted to go to China to learn Mandarin. A semester shy of graduating from university, Kirk was forced to find funds to pay off his tuition, to eat, to live, to survive, and then found a way to China to make his dream come true. The struggle, the effort, the determination made his success all the more sweeter and more deserving.
When you have to fight for what you want - when you truly are forced to make it happen - the ability to succeed is such a reward. In Trinidadian culture, you are embraced and kept safe by your parents for years and years and years. You're not forced out into the world to make your way and to struggle and make ends meet. That's a good thing, in so many ways, but at the same time, it results in a sheltered, complacent adult, who isn't really an adult when you think about it.
Do I love to write? Yes. Do I want success? Yes. Success in terms of what? Publication, fulfilment, and the energy and push to write some more. Am I willing to work hard and suffer through to make my writing happen? Meh. Not so much.
I think that I need to have a moment in my life where things aren't easy. where I have to fend for myself and stand up and make it work. Where I can't run to daddy for help with everything. I'm not like the Latina girl in that I am not ready to give up life just yet, but I am like her in that I'm not taking advantage of my talents and my advantage of simply being alive.
Today I came across a most affirming article, "19 signs you're doing better than you think", and it got me thinking. It was certainly a most positive, change-your-perspective type article for anyone who's down, but the point of the article is not to pat yourself on the back and sat back smugly and complacently after you've read it. The point of it is to understand how good you've got it, take a breath and propel yourself further - to be aware of how much you have going for you and to, in the words of Tim Gunn, make it work.
I'm typing all of this a ferocious determination at present. I don't know what tomorrow may bring - I may revert to my regular complacency, or I may push myself into being different. I don't know. I just want to remind myself with these words here that, in all truth and honesty, although I'm thirty, I'm pretty much in the same place I was when I graduated high school. It's a sad truth, but it's the truth. Do I want to be forty and typing/thinking that as well? Well, if I don't, I've got to light the fire under my ass and get moving. A new future looms before me: I move to Israel in January. Sure, I've done it before, but when I did it in the past, I did it on daddy's dime. As scary and poor as the recent future will be, I know I'm going to have to make it on my own, to succeed at the little things (day to day living) and big things (becoming a real writer). Like Rachel Greene of "Friends", it's like I'm entering the first episode of my new life, and it's time to cut up those daddy-given credit cards. Sure, I'll probably be poor for a while, as I adjust to living on my own: rent, food, etc., but I can just imagine the feeling of accomplishment I'll have, when, at the end of the day, I know I'll have made it on my own. And, besides, being a pauper (albeit, one with a Macbook Pro and an MBA behind his name) is usually the right school for successful artists - that's the way artists pay their dues, gain their experience, and truly hone their skills. So time for me to pick up the scissors and cut up those credit cards, otherwise a ghost will probably take over my life and make more out of it than I am at present. It's probably better if I didn't let that happen.
(This post was originally written for the "Times of Israel" on October 21st, 2013. The original can be found here).
I'm not sure if you've seen the current video being shared virally about the situation with the illegal immigrants in Israel. It's gone viral to an extent that not even Grumpy Cat can compare to. In the past hour, I've counted sixteen people on my Facebook list of friends who've shared it. If you haven't seen the video, you can probably access it here under the title: Israel's New Racism.
What confuses me about this current video being circulated regarding the issue of illegal immigrants and Israel is the awful way so many people are judging Israel. The ridiculous, racist statements in that video do not reflect Israeli society at large, and, what's more, the ridiculous Eli Yishai (whose inane statements have come back to haunt every Jew and Israeli) isn't even in the government anymore. Yes, there are hillbillies in Israel who are racist and stupid - but there are also idiots in all our countries. Do we judge the US based on Rush Limbaugh? Or Saudi Arabia based on Osama bin Laden? Or France based on Gerard Depardieu? If not, then why use the folly of that video - voiced by a small segment of Israeli society - to color the nation as a whole?
We must also consider this glaring truth: if Israel was so godawful to these illegal immigrants - why do they keep going there? Perhaps - just perhaps - the situation is better in Israel than any other country in that area, and this is why the illegal refugees keep flocking to Israel, despite the overtures of this video to brand Israel - once again - as a brutal oppressor? Already, by January of 2012, the number of illegal immigrants numbered some 55,000 souls - and, today, they amount to over 60,000 persons, with the numbers growing daily. If Israel were so bad, would they keep coming? And, if you are going respond blithely that they come because it's better than their home country, yet, Israel is treating them unfairly, then I must ask the question: why are they going to Israel, specifically, and not Egypt, Sudan or Ethiopia?
No country just automatically allows illegal immigrants to settle there. Is it racist that the UK, Italy, Japan, France and China subscribe to jus sanguinis? Is it racist that the US dispenses only 50,000 green cards to lucky winners in a lotto each year and turns down thousands more each month? Is it racist that one must qualify to apply for Australian citizenship - after having met certain, crucial criteria? Is it racist that Canada has deported thousands of illegal Caribbean citizens back to their home countries? Is it racist that none of us can just pick up ourselves and go live, work and start a family in Mongolia - without first having been given permission to do so by the Mongolian government? Consider, in your own country, would the government sit quietly and grant citizenship to 60,000 random people who suddenly show out of the blue? A government's first responsibility is to it's own citizens; refugees, who are vying for citizenship are not a government's first priority, though they must be considered carefully, fairly and with compassion. The issue of refugees and illegal immigrants is a delicate and sensitive one in every country, and more so in Israel - a country built on immigrants and refugees. It is a complicated situation and I can offer no solution. I feel for the refugees, but, at the same time, I understand the difficulties Israel (a country of only 7 million people) faces with this complex issue of illegal refugees. As Jews, we are commanded to love the stranger - but, is loving the stranger an automatic granting of Israeli citizenship, or, is it somehow trying to change the situation in the home-country of these illegal immigrants and make things better for them there? How does Israel make this wrong - a wrong it did not commit and a wrong which it has been dragged into unwillingly - right? I don't know the answer - but I don't think automatically granting every single one of these poor people Israeli citizenship will solve the problem. Do these people even want to live in Israel? Do they want citizenship in a country which speaks a language, practices a culture, and lives a religion entirely different from everything they know? Or are they simply there because they are waiting it out - waiting for things to get better back home? For every sharer of that video who condemns Israel for being supposedly "racist" against the illegal refugees, I must draw a parallel to your own racism: you are assuming these people want to be in Israel, and want Israeli citizenship. Your stereotyping underlines your own racism and refusal to look at these poor souls as individuals with different hopes, dreams and aspirations - many of whom, I'm sure, would love nothing more than to be back in the comfort and familiarity of their home country, with the promise of a peaceful, secure and economically-viable future to look forward to, rather than living in the very foreign Israel.
My heart goes out to these people who are coming to Israel and seeking asylum in the Jewish state, but at the same time, why has there been no recognition of the fact that Israel has let these people in and allowed them to stay? Why is there no coverage of Egypt's treatment of these people: brutal execution, rapes, or immediate deportation back to their home country where certain death awaits these poor souls?
In discussing this current dilemma Israel faces, we cannot ignore the glaring fact, that, with the influx of illegal immigrants, there's been a huge upsurge in crime (murders, rapes - including rape of elderly Israeli women - and theft) and southern Tel Aviv is now, practically, unlivable for Israeli citizens. I understand that Israel - given its unique Jewish history regarding the holocaust - would be judged by a different standard than the rest of the world; and one would expect Israel to just take these poor people in, since the country was founded to take in the Jewish oppressed and poor of the world - but the question to be asked is: how? How does a tiny country like Israel deal with a refugee crisis of this magnitude? Should Israel grant them all citizenship? How? Does every Syrian refugee get citizenship in Turkey? Has Lebanon, or Syria given any Palestinian refugee citizenship? No (interestingly, the only place where Palestinians got citizenship was in Israel - 20% of the Israeli population are Arabs, but not many know that). So how does Israel deal with this situation, pray tell?
Furthermore, once again, in the comments being left by viewers of the video, we see words being twisted to describe this situation; words which were created reflect the unique horror of Jewish history, but, which, instead, are a modern, sick twisting, to turn the formerly oppressed into today's oppressors. Words like "pogrom", "Nazi" and "gas chamber" are used in response to the dispensation of this video. These words have been bandied about to, simply, discredit Israel and add legitimacy to the claim that Israel is an oppressor nation. I'm not sure what the conditions are like in the camps being built to house these people - and, to be sure, I'm sure it's not a place any of us would like to live. However, at the end of the day, Israel is trying it's best to give these people shelter and isn't sending them back to the murderous regimes in power in their home countries. Israeli money is being used to build these camps (termed "prisons" in the video) to keep these people safe and fed. Israel continues to open its doors for these illegal immigrants - while Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan and all the other countries which border the troubled state of Eritrea don't. What's factual is that none of the racist Israeli people in the video ever called for killing any illegal immigrant; rather, they agitate for, simply, the deportation of these souls. Israel may not be perfect - and it may not be handling this situation according to what other's think it should do - but until one of the people who share this video and believes in it's veracity start agitating for the Eritrean refugees to come to their countries, or until they start sending money for Israel to raise the living conditions in the camps, then I think they're being pretty hypocritical and simply demonstrating that this has less to do with the refugee crisis, and more to do with bringing down the Jewish state.
In my life, it's been somewhat of a struggle for me to not cast people, ideologies, religions and everything else into certain clearly defined roles: he's/she's/it's either good, or bad, without considering the fact that there are a host of other options which fall in between. It was always either one or the other: good or bad. Simple and easy - but not exactly the best approach to judging people, places, things or situations. As I've grown older and, (thankfully) grown up a bit, I'm starting to realise that life isn't just about those two extremes, rather there is a full intermediate spectrum of greys to which everything belongs, without anything ever really being fully "good" or "bad", rather everything comprises a bit of both to some degree.
The in-between area of the good-bad dichotomy is comparable to Kinsey's Sexuality Scale, which posits that no one is fully hetero- or homo-sexual, rather, we all fall somewhere along the ambiguous continuum of "bisexual", with heterosexual and homosexual being the two extreme ends of this spectrum. Kinsey's theory seems to apply to many other spheres of life as well: that none of us are neatly one thing or the other, rather, we are someplace along a continuum between any two extremes.
Regarding the issue at hand, I've come to realise that no one is either entirely good or entirely bad. None of us are fully saints, nor are we fully sinners. History may paint us in retrospect as villains or heroes, but history is never always fully explored by the average person. We are oftentimes remembered for one act which will forever cast us in the light as good, or in the dark as bad. Oscar Schindler is reported as being a businessman of questionable repute, though he is (rightfully) not remembered for this; rather, he would forever be recollected as the man who saved Jews, immortalised as such in "Schindler's List". Schindler has been labelled good, and thus he will remain for perpetuity.
Is this right, however? Aren't these simplistic, conclusive labels of good or bad a slap to our intellectual capabilities of digging deeper and finding the truth? Because the truth is rarely ever simple. The truth is often quite complicated and not easily labelled or defined. Good and bad are easy ways for us to put a handle on difficult situations. But difficult situations are difficult for a reason - and they are not always meant to be summed up in such neat summarisations as simply "good" or "bad".
The composite of who a person is, is inspired by a mind-boggling number of variables which are hard to keep track of: personalities, experiences, upbringing, culture, race, education-level, background, emotional intelligence-level, religion, genetics, etc. All of these variables coalesce together to form who we are. This unique composition of who we are, at any given moment, results in our words, deeds and actions. Would Schindler have acted differently if he had been born to a different mother? Or what if he'd married a different woman? Or what if he'd gone to a different school? What if the victims had been black and not Jewish? What if he'd been a poor man and not a member of the German bourgeoise class? What if he'd been raised in the Caribbean, or in some other tropical, colonial region?
Would Schindler have acted differently had any of the variables been different, and, thus, would he be considered good otherwise?
Good and bad; white and black; day and night; up and down; yin and yang; action and reaction; calm and storm; powerful and weak; at rest and in motion. Nature abounds with overt examples of a struggle between opposing forces, while the vast spectrum which exists between the extreme forces are oftentimes not as easily discernible. The dominant, opposing extremes have led to an inability to see the area of grey which exists between the two absolute states. In a simplistic way, this struggle between two absolutes has given rise to the concept of good vs evil in theology. We first see this being theologically demonstrated in the Zoroastrian religion, where a god of good - Ahura Mazda - is positioned directly against a god of evil -Angra Mainu - and neither the twain shall meet. This concept was adopted by Judaism, only to be later dropped as heretic, but fully endorsed by Christianity and Islam in the theologies of one God versus one Satan, the ultimate personifications of the good and bad struggle. Due to the enshrining of the good versus bad concept into the intrinsic theologies of these two powerful religions, man as a whole has adopted this easy way out and accepted as fact that there is simply good and bad, disregarding the truth of the spectrum which exists between the two.
When we, as individuals and as society at large, judge another person, another society or another ideology to be absolutely good or absolutely bad, we are, in effect demonstrating who we are. By omitting the spectrum which exists between the two seemingly opposing forces of good and bad, we are clinging to absolutes in the most puerile way of trying to make sense of the world around us. It takes a person (or society) of high intelligence, creativity and compassion to discern the good and bad in someone or something other than ourselves; to recognise that someone/something other than ourselves is neither wholly good or wholly bad. Introspect allows us to look at ourselves with all the information at hand, readily examinable to weigh our words, deeds and actions. It's easy to be introspective. To be "extrospective" about another entity means digging deeper; it's about attempting to be unbiased and fair in characterising that other entity. Trying to discover why someone acts the way they do/says the things they do is not an easy feat. Trying to understand why and how a theology, ideology, belief or faith different from our own can contain good and truth within is a worthwhile challenge. The recognition of good in the other does not detract from the good within ourselves or what we believe. The earnest recognition that good exists in the other is a sign of intellectual honesty. The open admission that bad exists in aspects of ourselves demonstrates emotional and spiritual maturity.
Judging people/things with an outcome of simply two absolutes - good or bad - opens a door to easy hate (in the case of judging someone/something as wholly bad) or to needless gullibility (in the case of judging someone/something as wholly good).
It is easy to brand the other as bad. He's/she's/it's different from us/offended us/hurt us, therefore, he/she/it is bad. And if we've relegated something to the garbage-bin of bad, then, in all likeliness, it won't be our top choice of suitors to dance with at the upcoming dance. We don't struggle to understand, and thus, we are apt to lapse into adopting a negative view since we don't consider that good and bad exists in the person/thing that's different. Life is relative - so is good and bad. The right and practical thing to do is to look for an impartial view of the different person/thing, because to do otherwise implies that we are prejudiced against him/her/it. We usually judge someone/something to be bad because of it's very difference from us - and in saying he/she/it is bad because he/she/it is different and not like us, we are saying that we are better. The notion of superiority is a sign of prejudice. Prejudice is a sign of hate. And if we were so good, how could we hate?
Equally dangerous is when we accept in our heart of hearts that someone/something is wholly good. In cases like this, we are oblivious to the true nature of the person/thing we are glorifying, and, thus setting ourselves up for huge disappointment, or, worse, total brainwashing. When people are sucked into cults, it's because they've judged the cultish entity to be wholly good - and have not objectively investigated the organisation they are joining. When an organisation is not transparent and remains unquestionable to it's followers, it raises alarming red flags to the more discerning individual and society. To the ones who've been sucked into thinking the organisation is wholly good (or blessed of God, or perfect, what have you) they unflinchingly follow whatever they are told. Similarly, when we judge individuals to be wholly good (religious leaders, politicians, other various persons we esteem), we don't allow ourselves to appreciate those people in totality. We ignore the fact that they are just like us - they are human, and, thus, encompass both the good and the bad. Inevitably, we are let down when they don't live up to our expectations of them as completely good beings. Hitler rode in on a wave of messiah-ship. So did many other leaders. Do we blame them for our immature acceptance of them as wholly good when they do things that are not so good? Or do we become brainwashed so far as to ignore our own notions about right and wrong and blindly follow whatever these people dictate?
One of the most powerful statements in the Hebrew Bible comes from Isaiah 45:7. It says: "I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe - I, the Lord, do these things" (JPS Tanakh translation). In Jewish tradition there is no opposition between good and bad. Both are merely creations of the Creator, from Whom everything was allowed to be created, and through Whom creation is sustained. The idea of an all-powerful God means, simply, that nothing can oppose Him, and, thus, everything serves His purpose. The good has its purpose; so, too, does the bad. There can be no repentance without there first being wrong-doing. There can be no compassion without there first being sadness. There can be no good without there first being bad. The comparatives are what make them tangible. Without the opposing extreme, the other would cease to exist. The good exists because there is the bad to compare it to. Recognising the truth that good and bad are not independent of creation, but, rather, are creations themselves, is the first step into recognising that good and bad are not absolute. They are merely points of reference, between which an important spectrum of ranges are waiting to be acknowledged. This is an important truth we need to be aware of: the fact that good and bad both exist simultaneously within the other and within ourselves.
difficult to change once established, yet not the whole picture of who a person truly is. "Good" and "bad" are not absolute. They are simply the two ultimate ends of a particular spectrum, and we fluctuate along that spectrum at any given moment. To capture the position along that spectrum at one moment and use it as a measuring-stick of a person, is a disservice and a disgrace to the individual, and, more importantly, to our intellectual capacities.
Also, it is imperative we note that "good" and "bad" are relative and are not universal. Indeed, there are universal ethics, morals and values which transcend cultures, religions and socio-economic boundaries and apply equally to every person, every culture and every nation, but, at the same time, what one views to be "good" may not be so from another's viewpoint. One man's garbage is, quite often, another man's treasure. For instance, I may aspire to write. This is good in my eyes. Someone may aspire to trek the Himalayas. That's good in their eyes. Neither invalidates the other, but they both are different things we deem to be good/desirable, based upon our personal preferences. It is so easy for us discard of people and things which differ from us, hurt us, offend us, scare us and brand them as "bad"; to cast the "other" in the role of villain in the novel of our lives. Just as every person has a unique viewpoint based upon his/her experiences, culture, genetics, background, upbringing, personality, intelligence and emotional wisdom, so must we accept that every person brings a completely different viewpoint about what is deemed good and what is deemed bad. The individual understanding of good and bad is not universal. It's individual. As differentiated from ethics, morals and values, the judgment of what's good and what's bad, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. Author Stephen Prothero captures this perfectly in his book "God is not one", where he demonstrates how differently God is envisaged through the oft-contrasting perspectives of eight major world religions, and, consequently, how the ideas of good and bad differ dramatically among them all. If the world's major religions diverge on this issue, how much more do we diverge on a national, societal, cultural, individual level as to what is good and what is bad?
once for the year, does that make me charitable? Or is it the constant contributions to charity over the course of time which makes me charitable? Alternately, is George Zimmerman to be considered "bad" for the one time he admittedly shot and killed Trayvon Martin? How many "good" actions are needed to equate the actor as "good"; and, conversely, is one "bad" action enough to judge someone as "bad"? Of course, there are exceptions to every rule: Hitler's brutal massacre of six million Jews has led to an enshrined, collective opinion by educated westerners that this man was obviously and irrecoverably "bad"; whereas Schindler's one act of saving Jews became his eternal cause de celebre(1). Can one big act of good cancel out many other acts of bad? Or do we need many small acts of good to redeem ourselves? Or, is it that we differentiate between sin and sinner, good and do-gooder? Hate the sin but not the sinner, but oftentimes, it is difficult to separate the two. The person and the action are, actually, two separate issues. Though the action is as a result of the person, the action is, still, separate from who the person is. Consequently, the action may be deemed good or bad, but we more often than not use the action to evaluate the person as a whole. Isolated actions do not necessarily equate the individual(2). A composite of all actions, however, gives a fuller and more holistic picture - and allows us to better place the individual on the good/bad spectrum.
This discussion of the opposing forces of good and bad is far from over, but there isn't much more I can say on the topic. Good and bad are merely tools created by the Creator. They are not end results; they are not ultimate achievements. They are simply there to serve His purpose. When we look beyond the pale of good and bad - black and white - we realise the full spectrum of colours available to us, we realise the other isn't so easily defined and should be embraced and attempt to understand the other, and, most importantly, we realise more about who we are and where are on this evolutionary path which is our lives.
(1) I was conflicted to lump Oskar Schindler's good deeds of saving Jews into one defining "act", for his efforts saved around 1,200 Jews - each life he saved, recorded as an isolated good deed in itself. However, since it was the same good deed repeated, I chose to simplify things by transcribing them as one act. Schindler's acts of goodness are not to be diminished in any way - he saved the lives of so many, and, today, the descendants of these people he saved number over 6,000. Schindler was a selfless giver and savior of human lives, and I remain ever in awe of his goodness. May his memory be a blessing.
(2) By no means am I saying that people should not be rewarded or punished for their actions according to laws and regulations. Rather, I'm positing that there be a differentiation between action and actor, not between action and appropriate reward/punishment.
I've been thinking alot about my blog and where I want it to go. Do I want it to be Food blog (since I love food?), or just a general blog of the goings-on in my life (since I'm narcissistic/unhinged enough to think the goings-on in my life are worth broadcasting?), or even just a purely Jewish blog where I comment on things happening in the Jewish world?
I've decided to do none of these things. I want a regularly updated blog with some of my stories: new short ones bubbling about in my brain, and excerpts from the long ones. I want to write about everything - Jewish living, Everyday living, Living as a Jew in the Diaspora, Philosophy, writing novels, my takes on things of the day - I want a blog with no border to limit what I can write or will write, and I hope the readers appreciate, understand and enjoy the mad collection of things I choose to write about. This is the joy of being a blogger - there is no editor or publisher to rein in my imagination. I can write as much as I want, as little as I want; be as verbose or obtuse as I choose to be. That's what blogging is about: no limits.
I've got tons of interesting things I think of blogging but never do because of: 1. pure laziness, 2. timidity, 3. fear of being vulnerable, 4. fear of being criticised, 5. pure laziness. Though your greatest hope is that the internet traffic on your site goes beyond a total of three persons (i.e., yourself, your mom, and that one hit from Azerbaijan), as a blogger, you still worry about the repercussions of what you write. The very freedom which one enjoys in having no editor, publisher, circus-master, means that there's no one to tell you what you're saying is ridiculous, offensive, cruel or so yesterday. A blogger must be impassioned writer and unbiased editor in one person. And that's a difficult two caps for one person to wear. But, we must learn to do it - for that's the price we pay for the freedom. We have to learn to adopt the Tim Gunn mantra of: edit, edit, edit.
So these were/are my obstacles in the way of my blogging, and I'm ready to move beyond the scope of hoping and dreaming and wishing and wanting. The writing world today is not merely about talent and ability, it's about the name you've built up for yourself and whether your story fits into a certain niche market. The profit-or-loss world of publishing forces the writer to turn himself into a keen marketer. And blogging is one simple and wonderful way we aspiring writers can use to hone our craft and gain the interest of readers. I'm not saying that the publishing world is the big, bad wolf. I understand that like all things in this dizzyingly fiscal world we live in, publishing, too, is governed by the laws of demand and supply. If there is a demand, the publishers will supply it. And demand only happens after the wily marketers can generate buzz and interest - and with aspiring (and poor, unpopular) writers such as myself, we have to generate the marketing buzz for ourselves. And this is the simplicity which comes with being a blogger - you get to market yourself to the world.
Blogging is not just about writing. It's about promoting, it's about interaction, it's about dialogue. Although I will write about what interests me and not be curbed by an editor when it comes to topics and scope - blogging, at the end of the day, is still greatly determined by the readers. If my blogs of my puppies or my adventures on Ambien don't get hits, but my blogs about Israel and/or Trinidad do, then, like the world of publishing, I'll stick to those. The readers (through comments, feedback and a monitoring of internet traffic) are the ones who let us know what's good and what's not. And that sort of raw critiquing is priceless for any writer.
I'm learning that I need to make a name for myself as a writer. It's almost impossible for someone to become a novelist by being an unknown. The chances are slim to none. You can write as much as you want, but it's not going to happen unless you've established yourself through some other means as a writer (be it blogging, magazines, op-eds). Charlaine Harris, Stephanie Myer and JK Rowling were the lucky ones - and I'm not even sure if they had their own columns/blogs/pieces coming out prior to becoming established novelists. Most other writers I know of (A.J. Jacobs, Rich Cohen, Mike Gayle, Nick Hornby) are established columnists. So it would be great to follow in the footsteps of such greats: i'm going to write and write and write some more, and ope that you kind folk take pity on me and sometimes click the link to nicholasjagdeo.com, just to read my pitiful offerings and allow me this wonderful opportunity to share myself with you, because, at the end of the day, that's what writing is all about: expressing oneself.
So, in a nutshell, this is what my blog is about. It will capture all my main thoughts - all the mad ones - and I'll write them here for your edification, clarification, education, enjoyment and many critiques and debates which will undoubtedly happen.
When I first read that basketball star Amar'e Stoudemire was Jewish, I felt immediately a surge of pride, as I'm sure many other Jews did. Another accomplished Jew. Another Drake, another Sammy Davis, another Lenny Kravitz, another Jerry Seinfeld, another Omri Casspi. Another Jew who showed that Jews were multi-colored, multi-dimensional and multi-talented.
"See? Jews can jump." The thought made me smile.
But that smile quickly faded away and was replaced with a raised eyebrow as I continued to read: there was no mention of how Stoudemire was Jewish, rather, only vague assertions made on his part that he was "Hebrew through his mother's side".
Yes, even the least Jewishly-educated person out there knows that this is a red flag of the highest proportions. Jews are Hebrews, yes, but we don't really use this archaic term anymore - rather, this term has been adopted by many oddball non-Jewish, non-Hebrew cults to assert that they are the true Heebs and we are... well... not. To say one is "Hebrew", rather than Jewish instantly warns the Jewish person that something is amiss. Black Israelites, Messianics, Jews for Jesus - all these subversive groups consistently and routinely use the word 'Hebrew' as a means to covertly enter the Jewish fold and distinguish themselves from the rabbinic Judaism which world Jewry today descends from. Even perfectly fine and accepted-by-mainstream-Judaism groups as the Samaritans and Karaites use the term 'Hebrew' to distinguish themselves from Judaism and Jews.
So does Stoudemire, apparently.
Yet, no one seemed to find anything amiss here. Stoudemire was famous, and rich; a man of substance in this fickle world where celebrity is the new idol-worship. Jewish publications ran the story with glee: Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, Times of Israel. Everyone was touting Stoudemire's Jewishness without any journalistic integrity of delving into facts, and, instead, promoting this man's assertion. All of these Jewish websites, heralding the coming of Stoudemire as the New Jew on the Block, did nothing to research the most important and basic question: just how is Amar'e Stoudemire Jewish, or, to use his word, 'Hebrew'?
Being in Trinidad has taught me a number of things about Jewishness: it's a prize. There are many weirdos out there who want to be considered Jewish for reasons which have nothing to do with God, the people of Israel, or even Judaism. There's an odd, almost insane compulsion by many to assert they are Jewish and invent fanciful stories to boost their own sense of self-worth. Perhaps they are just as sincere in wanting to be Jewish as any sincere convert, but their methods signal deeply disturbed self-images and egos. I've had members of the local Jewish community lie about their Jewish backgrounds; I've come across messianics who contact me with lies about their true faith, and, instead, assert themselves as Jewish; I've heard Christian Pentecostal pastors deny their true ethnic heritage and claim a Jewish one instead. To be Jewish in many corners of the earth is a thing of pride. Perhaps it's the Jewish sense of survival across the millennia against all odds, or maybe it's the Jewish narrative of chosen-ness which captivates them makes them think the conversion process is beneath them and that they could just be Jews, just because they said so.
Although anti-semitism is on the rise, there is an equally disturbing trend of Jewish-philes on the rise today - Jew-philes who attempt to masquerade as Jewish but who aren't Jews in actuality. These people can do just as much to hurt the Jewish people as an anti-semite, since they do not represent Judaism/Jews/Israelis/Hebrews in any way, shape, or form, yet they purport to know who we are, what we're about, where we are now, and (most alarmingly) to be Jewish. Perhaps my experiences in Trinidad have made my a cynic, but in my mind, these people need to be shunned and ignored by world Jewry. To acknowledge their madness is to give it (and them) credence. Judaism is being painted black by the crazy anti-semites. We don't need another type of crazy to add to the mix.
Comb the annals of the internet, there is not one reference to answer the puzzling question of Amar'e Stoudemire's Jewishness. I did, however, come across one site which investigated the possibility that Stoudemire may have had a Jewish bubbe - but that site, after thoroughly researching marriage certificates and names, came to the ultimate conclusion: Amar'e Stoudemire is not a Jew.
To me, it's all fine and dandy if any random wants to call himself/herself a Jew, but it becomes hurtful when the Jewish establishment takes these people seriously, primarily based on their fame/fortune/combination of the two. Would anyone in the rabbinut schedule a meeting with the lady who wrote me on Facebook in 2010, insisting that she be introduced to the head of the Jewish community in Trinidad because she needed to explain to him how his denial of Yeshua as messiah invalidated his Jewishness and, instead, validated hers? Or would the Jewish Agency consider assisting the lady who claims she is Jewish because her ancestor in the 1600's had been born Jewish?
The answer is a resounding no to both instances.
No rabbi in the world, no one in the Israeli establishment, no one in world Jewry would consider either of these ladies to be Jewish because the fact is, neither of these women are Jewish.
However, what if these women were famous, celebrated for some skill or talent? What if these women commanded fortunes in the hundreds and thousands of millions? Would they be considered Jewish - based on their fanciful tales, ideas, delusions?
This week, Jerusalem Post ran an article which says that Stoudemire is considering making aliya.
Perhaps Jewishness is not so much a matter of descent or conversion, but rather one of bank account and celebrity.
That the Jerusalem Post chose to publish this story that Stoudemire is considering making aliya is a slap in the face of every convert who struggled before a bet din, and every potential candidate for aliya who was told their conversions are not recognised by Israel/RCA/charedim/whoever. It's dismissal of all born Jews who have no documents to back up their Jewishness, and, who, thus, cannot get married or buried in Israel.
I have no problem with Jews of color (hello! I'm a Jew of color!). I love the stories of hearing of Jewish celebrities who don't fit the popular mold of white Jew, maybe because one of their parents was black, or because they converted, or because they found out one of their distant ancestors was Jewish, or because they come from other diverse Jewish communities like the Indian Jews or Ethiopian Jews or Mizrachi Jews.
My problem stems from the fact that the rest of us are put through the wire proving our Jewishness while this man just stands up and says he is and is taken seriously by the establishment - be it Jewish media, the Israeli government and/or the rabbinut. I doubt the Ministry of Absorption in Israel would seriously consider Stoudemire's claims, and I'm pretty certain that the rabbinut wouldn't either. But the mere fact that the defender of truth in the highly democratic world of Judaism and Israel - the media - would continue to give this ridiculous man and his story space in their publications leave me worried for the future of Jewry, and hurt that he would be touted as Jewish when he clearly isn't, just because he is famous and rich.
May the day come that Amar'e Stoudemire joins the Jewish people through the recognised and established medium of conversion. When that day comes, he will be a credit to all of Israel, but as it stands today, Amar'e Stoudemire is not Jewish - and his assertions otherwise should not be given credibility.