Oma’s Stories, And What I Don’t Think of Them

Oma, my maternal grandmother, during our weeklong visit this month. She is a goofball.

I thought I knew Oma’s stories. Back in middle and high school, when we were tasked with writing oral histories or interviewing elders, Oma was my go-to source. Growing up poor in Vienna. Marrying a camp-surviving Jewish man 20 years her senior, after the war. Emigrating in 1949 on a refugee boat and landing in New Orleans on Labor Day, only to wait another day on the ship because all the dock workers were on holiday. Being overawed at the opulence of Safeway on her first US grocery shopping trip. Discovering with horror that the racism she thought she had escaped was still being visited here on Blacks and “foreigners.” Even in America.

This story never made it into my school reports, though. I don’t remember when she started telling it (meaning, most likely, at what age she felt I was old enough to hear it). But now she repeats it on every visit. (What a perfect jigsaw-fit for aging: losing her short-term memory while vividly recalling her childhood. The ‘intelligent design’ of transmitting elder wisdom, huh?)

It goes like this.

*Trigger warning: rape, war, threatening with weapons, and vicarious trauma.*

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(Bar) Mitzvahs For Everybody

Feminism teaches us that “accommodating” people’s differences and dis/abilities doesn’t have to be a chore. In fact, it often leaves everybody better off. Prime example, my cousin Alexsander’s bar mitzvah last weekend.

Oma (my grandmother) being silly and wonderful

I haven’t attended a ton of these ceremonies, so I don’t have a huge sample for comparison, but I can say that this was one of the most fun, heartfelt, and moving coming-of-age traditional ceremonies I can imagine. Musical, personal, participatory. Precious community and sympathetic joy in abundance. And Sander took to the mic like anything.

Much of the brief ceremony featured Sander's beautiful singing of prayers.

Sander wasn’t the only one in attendance whose bar mitzvah was a special celebration of triumph. His grandfather, Hans, risked his own life in World War II by performing his bar mitzvah in a concentration camp. As my oma would say, “Can you imagine?”

New-man Sander lets out a kingly yawp.

Of course, the whole event was emotional, but the moment that really wrung the tears out of me was the speech by Sander’s mom, my cousin Suzie.

Today Alexsander becomes a man and yet it seems like yesterday when we sang nursery songs together, took stroller walks and read Dr. Suess books. It is from the Dr. Suess book “Gerald McBoing Boing” that I wish to paraphrase to describe my pride in our son, Sander.

They say it all started when Sander was two.

That’s the age kids start talking-least, most of them do.

Well, when he started talking, you know what he said?

He didn’t talk words- he went “meow” instead!

And as little Sander grew older, he found when a fellow repeats

No one wants to give him treats.

When a fellow goes “skreek” he won’t have any friends,

For once he says, “clang, clang, clang,” all the fun ends.

And as the story goes, Rabbi Mintz seeks out Sander’s talent.

“Your Hebrew is terrific, your pitch is inspired!

“Quick – come to Friendship Circle, Sander! You are admired!”

Now his proud parents are able to boast

That their son’s singing is known coast to coast.

Now Sander has friends, and makes his bed

‘Cause he sometimes speaks words but mostly sings instead.

[A note about the title: while a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah refers to a particular Jewish rite of passage, colloquially a “mitzvah” can also mean an act of human kindness. For me, Sander’s bar mitzvah was a great reminder of the many mitzvahs we can all do for each other every day, simply by accepting and honoring each other as we are.]

Birthday Blogging Break

Faithful Fools officewear

Tomorrow is my birthday, friends, and a historic birthday it will be.

Not only because of sea otters (more on that in a second), but because — and I’m fairly certain on this — it will be the first cold-weather birthday of my entire life.

August in Sacramento, Barcelona, Agra (India), New Orleans, Boston…see a theme here?  HEAT.

I love heat!  Ungodly, crazy heat!  The kind of unmitigated heat that gives everyone an excuse to be sweaty and dirty all day long.  Where is this heat???  What happened to summer?

As evidenced by the above photo, in San Francisco we have no excuse to get all sticky and grimy.  We have sweater weather.  Sweater, scarf, wool sock and hat weather, plus a jacket for going outside.

Luckily, my record birthday low will be tempered somewhat by an overnight flight to Massachusetts.  (To volunteer at/attend the Zen Peacemakers’ symposium on Western Socially Engaged Buddhism — remember that?)  At least I will be traveling toward warmth!

Additionally, it will be an awesome birthday because before my 10pm flight there will be kayaking with sea otters and human friends at the Elkhorn Slough, a coastal wetland reserve near Monterey.

Why does any of this matter to you?  It doesn’t, really, except to say that I will be traveling a lot in August (to hot places, hooray!), and will take a break from blogging.  Those of you who’ve been following for a while know this is not an uncommon occurrence!  I often disappear for months at a time, with no warning.

Anyway, in my opinion, with a mindful blogging praxis it’s good to get out of the internet for a while. Stretch the legs.

I am so grateful to all of y’all for reading, commenting, sharing links, and supporting me (and each other) through this little project over the last couple of years.  It’s been an honor and a lot of fun to build and dialogue with you, and I hope some of the stuff you’ve found here has proven useful in your own life.

Big hugs, everybody, and take care!

Crunch on the Overturning of Prop 8

An excerpt from today’s post on …or does it explode?

To make it clear I am against discrimination of any kind, but to oppose the oppression without analysis of the fight back is not scientific and not conducive to progressive results. A similar case can be found in the debate over “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” (DADT) Of course I want equality but I also will not hold back in discussing that entering the army means entering an institution, bankrupt of morality, that serves as the state imperialist arm as it seeks to find capital through expansion, genocide, and exploitation. We must have open criticism to have a successful movement, because all oppression and exploitation is connected under the world capitalist system and we cannot afford to gain at the cost of others.

Does this now mean that I am against gay marriage and should join the West Borough  Baptist Church as the claim that god hates fags? No. That’s the same foolishness and dogma, which draws these “pro gay”/ “anti gay” binaries, that has kept the discussion and critical thought at a minimum. This entire posting merely means that I am against the state objectification of social relations for the strengthening of capital. If people choose to couple monogamously that is their choice as is the opposite. However, bourgeois society has conditioned us to think negatively of the latter and believe that the former is perfected in a union under the state. And since the battle for liberation is also a battle for transformative thought, it is a dis-service to the movement to remain silent.

Sadhu/ Amen/ Well said.

Dangers Of Compassion

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Last night, at a Berkeley fundraiser for the East Bay Meditation Center, prominent Insight meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein gave a general talk on Buddhism, and as he spoke in his gentle, warm, candid, funny, luminously clever way, I felt a familiar tightening in my stomach.

The talk started out like this.  There is tremendous suffering in the world.  It’s not hard to see.  War, oppression and destruction.  But if we look closely, we find that the root of that suffering is in the mind.  Greed, fear, and hatred.  And it’s not just “other people” who have this greed, fear, and hatred; it’s us, too.  Therefore, using Buddhist teachings, we turn our attention inward toward the mind/heart, healing suffering from the inside out.

Later, when asked whether his Buddhist practice could be formulated into a plan for social change, Goldstein said Yes: through  compassion.  Not a simplistic type of compassion, but a compassion that is born out of nearness to suffering.  This is more difficult than it sounds, he noted, because our deeply ingrained habit pattern is to try to push suffering away from ourselves.  Get rid of it.  But in order to have strong, profound compassion, we need to go toward suffering.  Without romanticizing it, but seeing it for what it is.

Now, I like Joseph Goldstein.  I saw him speak once before at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, and he’s hilarious and wise and a gifted storyteller.  And on one level, I agree with what he said last night.

The problem, for me, was what went unsaid.

As Buddhists and dhamma practitioners, I would love to see us having more conversations about what compassion and social change actually look like: locally, on the ground, in practice.  Because it’s too easy for us to invoke these words — compassion, inner work, social change — and assume that everyone is on the same page.

The truth is, we’re not all on the same page.  And it’s not until after the event is over, on the subway ride home, when a gaggle of us start discussing in detail the relationship between inner and outer work, that these fundamental differences emerge, sharp and cold, like mountain peaks, from the soothing golden fog of Buddhist unity.

Here are a few of my disagreements with what I hear as spiritual liberalism, coming from my friends in dhamma.  Again, even as we all work toward developing compassion and reducing global suffering, we have tremendously divergent views on what this means.

1.  Mystified Mechanism. When we start doing the inner work of developing compassion and insight, our outer social justice work will automatically get good.

How?  Sometimes folks talk about spirituality helping to reduce burnout, or converting the motivation of anger into the motivation of compassion.  But while both are wonderful benefits, neither speaks to the testable effectiveness of the particular outer work itself.

2. Healing As (Total) Resistance. Smiling at strangers on the subway is resisting militarism.

Well, I disagree.  Our healing work, spiritual work, and structural resistance work ought to inform each other, but they are not interchangeable substitutes.  Mandela didn’t inspire a movement and challenge the status quo just by praying compassionately for the liberation of the oppressor. (Though he did that, too.)

3. Social Change Relativism. Together, a growing movement is working for peace and justice in the world.  From green business to prison meditation to high-school conflict resolution programs on MTV, signs of hope and change abound.

Are all forms of progressive activism equally useful?  No.  But the shorthand of social change frequently obscures this fact.  Coupled with a feel-good engagement paradigm, the ‘every little bit helps’ idea makes it very difficult to hold each other accountable for our political work and its actual outcomes.

4. Root vs. Radical. Radical political agendas fail to grasp the root cause of oppression: dualism.  And ultimately, the best ways of overcoming dualism are through meditation and small-scale, intimate, interpersonal, compassion-building exercises.

Even if dualism is the “root cause” of oppression, that doesn’t make it the best or most actionable point for resistance, always.  Besides: why is this idea of dualism so pervasive and tenacious, anyway?  In large part because of the political and material structures (i.e. schools, economies, hierarchical religious institutions) that train human beings.  Without changing the power relations governing those material structures, there’s little hope of giving non-dualistic living, and appreciation for inter-being, a real shot on a global scale.      

5. Buddhopian Visions. Gandhi said it best: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Often, this gets construed to mean: build the best alternative society you can, and slowly it will change the entire society.  Especially in Buddhist communities that prize extended retreat time, a decade of study with a realized Asian master, and this sort of removal from everyday householder affairs, there’s a danger of trying to build our sanghas into utopias, and assuming that they will automatically radiate peace and well-being into the world.  Might be true on an individual or small-group level, but why should we believe that we can scale up well-being from personal transformation to world peace, without specific strategies for tackling enormous material systems?


Compassion lies at the core of the dhamma, one of its most beautiful and powerful dimensions.  But when we treat it as self-evident in conversations about social liberation, putting it at the end of the sentence instead of the beginning, I fear we do great injustice to its meaning.

Looking forward to finding and contributing to a radical sangha in the Bay Area whose work extends beyond the healing, service, electoral-political and identity realms.  (Where dhammic folks are already great and strong.)  Any leads?

Otsu: Yes, It’s As Good As It Sounds

ahhhhhhh bowl o' otsu

Time for another favorite recipe.  Courtesy of (surprise) Heidi Swanson’s

I made this the other night for a semi-potluck, and as usual,* it was a hit.  Sesame-ginger-honey-lemon-cayenne dressing over buckwheat soba noodles, diced cucumbers, and pan-fried tofu, finished with sesame seeds and with green onions and cilantro, if I’ve got ’em on hand.

Swanson actually got this recipe from a restaurant here in San Francisco called pomelo.  The in-store version is mighty tasty (their tofu is especially nice), but it’s simple enough to make at home — no outlandish ingredients or particularly finicky prep.  (A food processor does come in handy, though.)

My minor tweaks: more cayenne, more cucumber. (I’ll use 1.5 or 2 cucumbers instead of one-half.)

I could eat this every day for a week, people.

Well, that’s true about a lot of foods.  But this one especially.



*One fairly disastrous exception was the time I tried to make it for my wonderful CouchSurfing hosts in Barcelona.  The effort was doomed by my inability to find Japanese ingredients in Catalunyan grocery stores.  The result was a brownish, ginger-less spaghetti slop with rock-hard tofu nuggets.  Pretty humiliating.  But they were totally sweet about it, bless their hearts.  Maybe someday they’ll visit me in San Francisco and I can redeem myself with a proper version.