Thursday, March 28, 2019

On Why I No Longer Do Speaking Engagements

"Hello.  I'm Rabbi Gershom, and I'm autistic..."

This is how I often introduce myself to a group nowadays, because I find that being upfront about my autism helps people get beyond my personal quirks.  Those of you who dislike labels should try being me without any kind of explanation.  Believe me, owning the label is much better.

Back in 1992, when my first book, Beyond the Ashes: Cases of Reincarnation from the Holocaust came out, I did not yet have a diagnosis.  Asperger's Syndrome (now considered a form of autism) wasn't even on the radar yet.  I was aware of my lifelong struggle with clumsy social skills, but nothing could have prepared me for the humiliating experiences I had on the speaking circuit.  Once the book came out, everybody and anybody wanted to meet the author -- and were deeply disappointed that a jabbering nerd like me was the guy who wrote it.

Within the Jewish community, I had functioned reasonably well, since we tend to be intense debaters who sway a lot and wave our hands around when we talk.  During worship we pace, shout, rock to our own inner rhythms -- what autistic people now call "stimming."  I have often joked that if  an uninformed person walked into an Orthodox study group, he or she might mistake it for a support group for autistic adults.  Which is probably another reason why my own autism went undiagnosed for so long.  In Jewish culture, rocking and swaying are considered normal.

And it was in a Jewish context that the book was written, where I was seen as a Jewish teacher talking about Jewish kabbalah.  Most of the reincarnation interviews were done one-on-one, which I'm good at.  Some people sent me written stories of their past-life memories, too, or copies of their past-life regression tapes.  Plus there were many phone interviews, also one-on-one.  From this material and my own academic research, the book Beyond the Ashes was born.

But when the book came out in 1992, everything changed  People read books in their own inner voice.  They form an idea of what the author is like, based on their own feelings and impressions.  This image becomes a sort of idol that they expect the author to live up to.  When it comes to spirituality, the New Age image is one of a calm mellow, laid-back personality, a sort of guru sitting cross-legged on a pillow, chanting "Om."  Google "spirituality images" and you get this:

An image that I do not fit at all.  Not one photo in there of Orthodox Jews dancing, swaying, rocking back and forth in ecstasy.  Which is why I was mostly a one-gig speaker.  A guy who disappointed his audience and was rarely invited back.

At one workshop, a participant flat out told me that if he had known I was a "typical New York Jew," he would never have signed up.  (I am not from New York. And yes, I do see the antisemitism in this attitude, but that's a whole other story.)  At another workshop, my bluntness was seen as insensitivity.  In Germany, where my book had just been translated, my mannerisms were mistaken for nervousness.  As for the written feedback forms...  I could go on and on, but you get the point.

 There were times when I regretted writing Beyond the Ashes, this book that took over my life and typecast me so completely that nobody wanted to hear about anything else  Yes, it helped many people, but it also left me tired and drained.  I came to understand why Leonard Nimoy wrote I Am Not Spock after the original Star Trek series ended.  I began to see myself as something separate from the "Rabbi Gershom" who wrote about Holocaust reincarnations.  He became a role I was playing -- not very healthy, to be sure.  I was disassociating from myself as author of the book.

The final straw came in the late 1990s, when I was castigated in front of the audience by a program organizer for not being "spiritual enough," and for going "off topic" on a question that didn't have to do with reincarnation per se, but which was relevant to explaining the Jewish worldview.   He actually said, "This is not what we hired you to talk about."  All they wanted to hear was Holocaust reincarnation stories, without much Jewish context. I came home from that gig emotionally drained and vowing never to do that again.  Dayenu!  Enough already!

The diagnosis changes everything...

It was during the 1990s, in the middle of all this chaos, at the age of 55, that I was diagnosed, first with ADHD, and later Asperger's (which I now believe can overlap each other.)  Suddenly a light went on in my head.  Things began falling into place.  I went online and read everything I could find on autism, joined numerous discussion groups and began putting my life back together.   Had I known more about my autism during those years on the speaking circuit, had I been able to give a name to the mannerisms that the audience found so uncomfortable, things might have gone differently.  Heck, if I had known about it in childhood, my whole life might have been different.  But that is, as they say, water under the bridge.

In the year 2000, as my millennium resolution, I pulled out of the spirituality workshop circuit altogether.  I had given 20+ years of my life to this
topic and it was time to move on.  There were now plenty of therapists and psychiatrists who were getting paid way more than me to do this Holocaust reincarnation stuff.  So let them have it. My book opened the door. Others walked through.  My role was over. And I was, quite frankly, tired of being typecast as “The Holocaust reincarnation rabbi.” I was tired of getting calls in the middle of the night from people who wanted free counseling and did not bother to check time zones. It was time to pass the torch to the next generation and begin a new chapter in my own life. So I did.

What is "spirituality" anyway? 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "spirituality as "The quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things."  There is nothing in that sentence about body language, eye contact, voice inflections -- all of which are, after all, the very "physical things" that spirituality is supposed to leave behind.  So why judge me for not fitting into the New Age stereotype?

Nevertheless, that's what happened.  It traumatized me to the point that I no longer want to do workshops and have pretty much become a recluse, living with my wife and my animals in northern Minnesota.  What I have to say, I communicate through my writing.  It was, after all, a book that originally started all this, and, if I may say so myself, I'm a darned good writer.  Let people read in their own inner voice, without the distraction of my autistic personality.  Maybe in that way, I can get something of my true spirituality across.

There are probably readers out there now thinking to themselves, "Well, he can't be much of a spiritual guide if he can't even handle a little criticism."  First of all, I never claimed to be some sort of guru.  And second of all, there is no reason I should have to put up with emotional abuse.  Constructive criticism of my work I can take, but all this personal rejection did very little for my self-esteem.  If anyone is being "unspiritual," it's those people who insist on projecting their own expectations on me.

Today, I find myself wondering how many other autistic people have been rejected because of New Age stereotypes about what it means to be spiritual. We are frequently misread as "having no empathy" or being "unable to love" because we don't look people in the eye or enjoy being spontaneously hugged.  Many of us are unable to sit still without fidgeting, which pretty much rules out zen meditation.  I was also seen as "unsocial" at all those speaking events because I didn't hang around the hotel bar to chitchat afterward.  After the intensity of doing a speech and/or leading an intense workshop, I need solitude to recharge.  The last thing I need is to be surrounded by the audio-visual chaos of a party.

I  puzzled for years over why God would have chosen me to be the person to write Beyond the Ashes.   I finally came to the conclusion that God did not want this thing to turn into a cult.  So he chose an autistic nerd with zero charisma, a guy with a memory for details who could put it all together with a certain amount of emotional detachment, but not become a cult leader.  The Aspie tendency to hyper-focus on one topic at the exclusion of all other interests served me well in making Beyond the Ashes a useful book that remained in print for 18 years.

Not many people get to "write the book" on a topic.  I did exactly that, not only opening the door to talk about Holocaust reincarnations, but also, as so many people have told me, opening up Jewish spirituality.  At the time Beyond the Ashes first came out, there was very little available in English about Jewish reincarnation teachings. This made it a groundbreaking work in the spirituality field. The book has had a profound and positive effect on how people in the New Age and past-life therapy communities are now interpreting the “karma” of the Holocaust.  Today it is a classic.

Yes, I can see the irony in that.  "Autistic nerd writes major book on spirituality."  If I were a true New Ager, I would claim that I channeled it, that some other entity besides Yonassan Gershom is the true author.  But I know differently.  The book happened precisely because of my autism, which provided a perfect storm of just the right abilities at just the right time.  That is my genius.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Give your cat a cage of catnip

"Why is that plant in a cage?" my grandson asked. " Is it dangerous?"

Not exactly. Here's the story.

Every cat person knows how much kitties love catnip. But anyone who has ever tried to grow it for them also knows how quickly they will crush the plants. Well, a couple years ago I hit on a solution that is not only useful, it's fun for both cats and people:  Put a pot of catnip in a cage!

Any cage will do, as long as it is strong enough to support a cat or cats sitting on it. Because sit on it they will, as well as roll around in glee.  I found the one pictured here at a garage sale for $2 and it has served us well.

The catnip plant I got at a garden center. (Previous attempts to start seeds indoors met with disaster, as cats ate the seedlings and knocked over the pots.) Plant it in a pot that fits in the cage.  Water and fertilize regularly. No need to pinch back or prune: cats will do that for you.  They can nibble leaves that grow through the wire, but won't kill the plant.

Set the cage in an open sunny place outdoors.  Then sit back and enjoy the fun!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Franken's Apology: A Jewish Perspective

By now the whole world has heard about Leeann Tweeden's accusation that, in 2006, not-yet-Senator Al Franken kissed her too aggressively during a skit rehearsal and later posed for an embarrassing "joke" photo where it appears he is groping her. There is plenty of discussion about these events all over the Internet, so I'm not going to go into more details here.

Rather, I want to look at the ethics of his apology from a Jewish perspective. Why Jewish per se?  Because Franken himself is Jewish and has said that his Jewish roots are part of his approach to public service. (Read more on that...)    Although I am not his rabbi, I did know Rabbi Shapiro of Temple Israel in Minneapolis (who was), and can attest that Al Franken grew up in a positive Jewish environment. So I think it is fair to look at the issue from the standpoint of Jewish law & ethics.

But first, three disclaimers:

(1)  I do not speak for Senator Franken, and I have not discussed religion with him.  Therefore,  all opinions in this post are my own.

(2)  I am not in any way, shape, or form trying to claim that what Franken did to Ms. Tweeden was OK.  If I thought that, there would be no need to discuss apologies.

(3) I have been a Franken supporter since his first campaign in 2008 and I still am.  However, this does not mean I am blind to his faults, or that I enjoy raunchy sexual humor (Not!)  No leader is perfect.  Even Moses made mistakes.

Forgiveness and apologies in Judaism

Judaism teaches that for sins between human beings and God, it is enough to simply pray to God for forgiveness.  So, for example, if I eat a ham sandwich, all I need to do is acknowledge the sin, ask God for forgiveness, and hopefully not do it again.  However, if I harm another person - whether physically, monetarily, or through embarrassment --  I cannot be forgiven by God until I have made amends directly to that person.  In this, Judaism recognizes the right of victims to have their pain and suffering directly acknowledged.

This is exactly how Franken has handled the Tweeden accusation against him. Within 24 hours of Tweeden stating her case on CNN, Franken issued a full public apology to reporters, as well as sending an apology directly to Ms. Tweeden, which she read and discussed on The View.  During that interview she said she accepted his apology and stated, "I sincerely think he took it in and realized that -- man, he looks at it now and says 'I'm disgusted by my actions'..." She also stated that it is not her intent to get him to resign, that the people of Minnesota should decide this.  All in all, she accepted his apology and change of heart as genuine. (Watch the full interview on YouTube)

Unlike Weinstein, Moore, Trump and others, Franken did not retreat into denial.  There was no degrading of Tweeden, no calling her derogatory nicknames, no threats of defamation lawsuits,  no Twitter storm attempting to divert attention from himself, no coverup.  Franken fully owned his guilt and manned up to apologize. Twice.  I respect that.

Publicly humiliating someone is a sin

Let me point out that Jewish law takes a very dim view of embarrassing someone in public; it is, in fact, a serious sin that the Talmud compares to shedding blood (Bava Metzia 58b).   So even if Franken did intend the now-infamous photo to be a practical joke, the fact that it humiliated her made it a sin that he must atone for.  The same goes for the kiss, about which he says, "I certainly don't remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way, but I send my sincerest apologies to Leeann." Some people have nitpicked this statement, claiming that he is denying her story.  I don't see it that way.  It is perfectly possible for two people to remember the same event in different ways.  What seems trivial in one person's mind can loom large in the mind of another.  For him it was probably just a rehearsal.  To her, it was devastating and made her angry for years.

So why didn't he apologize back in 2006?  Because apparently he did not realize the seriousness of its impact on her until she told her story last week.  Some people have implied that he only apologized because he got caught, but this contradicts her own story on CNN, where she says she saw the photo after they got back from the USO trip.  For whatever reason, she did not confront him about it back then.  What matters now is that as soon as he became aware of the impact on her, he owned it.

However, we should note that pillorying Franken  in a social media feeding frenzy is also wrong.  Ms. Tweeden has stated that it was not her intention to get him fired, she simply wanted to tell her story and get an apology.  She got that and has accepted it.  If the victim does not want to press it further, shouldn't we respect that?  Must we continue to drag both of them through the media?

Loshon hara (evil gossip) is also a serious sin: "You shall not go back and forth as a talebearer among your people." (Leviticus 19:16) Reporting the news is one thing. Vicious gossip is quite another.

Is "joking around" an excuse?

This brings us to the question of whether "it was clearly a joke" could be an excuse. The Jewish answer is no, not if it causes harm to the brunt of the joke.  In a discussion about embarrassment and nicknames, the Talmud (Baba Metzia 58b) says that one who calls someone a derogatory nickname -- even if he or she is used to it -- will spend eternity in Gehenna.  This may be hyperbole, but it does indicate the seriousness of humiliating somebody in public. (President Trump should listen to this.  Although he is not Jewish, one would hope that his Jewish daughter and son-in-law would point out it him.  Maybe they have but he doesn't listen?)

Humor is always tricky.  What is funny to one generation can be downright disgusting to another.  Even from group to group or person to person, what is acceptable can vary widely.  To be sure, much of Franken's humor back in his Saturday Night Live (SNL) days was very raunchy and misogynist.  (Read more...)  SNL today remains a venue where comedy often crosses the line into offensiveness.  This is not to make excuses, it just is what it is.  Perhaps we should all take a long hard look at ourselves and how we feed into this national obsession with raunchy sexist humor.

Again drawing on Jewish thought, Psalm 1:1 tells us not to "sit in the seat of the scorners," i.e., those who mock others. Good humor does not put others down.

Franken's humor and the 2008 Senate race

Here in Minnesota, when Franken ran for the Senate in 2008, his humor became an issue during the campaign.  The Republicans jumped on various articles and skits he had written or participated in (or sometimes just pitched but never produced) as "proof" that he was morally unfit to lead.  Even among Democrats, there was concern about his public image . Focus groups said loud and clear that they did not want Minnesota represented by a clown, especially a raunchy one.

Here again, Franken looked at his behavior and sincerely apologized: “For 35 years I was a writer," he said at his nomination speech. "I wrote a lot of jokes. Some of them weren’t funny. Some of them weren’t appropriate. Some of them were downright offensive. I understand that. And I understand that the people of Minnesota deserve a senator who won’t say things that will make you feel uncomfortable."

So a lot of the bad comedy material from the past that his enemies are now dredging up is old news to us Minnesotans, who elected him in 2008.  In 2014 he won the Democratic primary with 94.5% of the vote and the general election with 53.2% of the vote.  Obviously, Minnesota feels he has grown beyond his past off-color humor and is now doing a good job representing us.

Unfortunately, the rest of the country apparently hasn't followed Minnesota politics that closely.  A whole new generation, who weren't even born in 1975 when SNL began, are discovering anew that Al Franken the comedian wrote offensive jokes before he became a senator.  What they are missing is that during the campaign he promised to turn over a new leaf --and he did.  He went so far as to not tell jokes -- even acceptable ones -- suppressing his inner clown to take on the seriousness of governing in the Senate.  (Read more...)

Is Franken unfit to lead?

Now that the Tweeden story is out, certain people are calling for Franken's resignation.  Abby Honold, the Minnesota rape victim who helped Franken craft a bill that would help train First Responders to better help victims of sexual assault, called Franken to say he was no longer fit to sponsor it.  For the good of the cause, Franken turned it over to Senator Amy Klobuchar.

But I find myself wondering if Honold is really right.  Is Franken really unfit to lead on women's issues or anything else?

Recall again that the Tweeden case, as well as his sexist humor in general, occurred before he was elected to the Senate. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, 14 women staffers who worked for Franken signed a statement saying that he never acted inappropriately towards them:

“Many of us spent years working for Senator Franken in Minnesota and Washington,” their statement read. “In our time working for the senator, he treated us with the utmost respect. He valued our work and our opinions and was a champion for women both in the legislation he supported and in promoting women to leadership roles in our office."

(UPDATE 11/21/2017:   Three dozen women who worked with Franken on SNL also signed a letter defending him: "Saturday Night Live" Women Defend Franken after Groping Allegations, stating "not one of us experienced any inappropriate behavior.")

So it would seem that he really has turned over a new leaf.  I find myself thinking about how, in many recovery programs, the best outreach counselors are those who have been there.  Ex-alcoholics, ex-addicts, ex-gang members, ex-convicts -- the list goes on of people who can speak convincingly to offenders precisely because they once were offenders themselves.

In a follow-up interview on CNN, Tweeden herself blames our culture, and said that change is going to come "not from the victims coming out, and talking about it, I think its gonna come from the people who may be doing the abusing that don't even realize they are abusing because it is so a part of the culture..." . (Watch the  video)

Take Alan Alda, for instance.  If  you watch the early seasons of M.A.S.H., there's a great deal of material that comes across as sexual harassment.  Then, partway through the series,  Alda became a feminist. And if you watch the episodes in order, you can see the show evolve into a more respectful treatment of female characters.  Having followed Franken's career here in Minnesota, I have seen a similar evolution in Franken's attitude.

So why can't Franken be an advocate for women's rights?  It would seem that a man who himself once degraded women on the stage and in his writing -- but who has since repented and reformed -- would be the ideal person to convince other men to do the same.  In other areas we support --even praise! -- ex-offenders who do such education and outreach.  Why should  this be any different?

As I write this, the news just broke that Senator Franken does not intend to resign.  Frankly (pun intended), I'm glad.  So far, he is the only one of the many powerful men recently accused of sexual misconduct who has had the guts to take full responsibility and admit his mistakes.  That shows  courage and strength of character. We need more of that kind of leadership.

*  *  *

UPDATE: Listen to Al Franken's Full 18-minute interview with Cathy Wurzer on NPR, Sunday, November 26, 2017

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Kabbalistic Musings on "Life of Pi"

On the first page of the novel, Life of Pi, the main character, Pi Patel, states that one of his two academic majors was in religious studies, with his thesis focused on "certain aspects of the cosmogony theory of Isaac Luria, the great sixteenth-century Kabbalist from Safed."  Luria, also known as the "holy Ari" (Lion), is still revered as one of the greatest of all Jewish mystics.

In the movie, Pi does not mention Luria by name, but he does say that he lectures on Kabbalah at the university. Given this reference (and a few others I will explain below), I feel justified in assuming that there are Jewish mystical themes encoded in the story, even though they are presented mostly in terms of Hinduism.  As I am a visual-oriented person (one of my autistic gifts), I will focus primarily on the movie, while using the book for more background references as needed.

(Warning: If you read beyond this point, you will encounter spoilers, so if you have not read the book and/or seen the movie, stop here or proceed at your own risk!)

In both the book and the movie versions, Pi Patel's father owns a zoo, so he grows up with a lot of practical knowledge about animals.  He is also very interested in religions. In addition to his mother's Hinduism, he  explores Christianity and Islam, finding truth in all three paths and combining their practices in his daily life. His brother ridicules him for this, while his father tries to convince him that "religion is darkness" and that rational thinking -- science -- is the way of "the new India."  Pi replies with the words of Mahatma Gandhi: "All religions are true."

The book goes into considerable detail about the three theologies and the differences among them, while the movie relies more on visual scenes of worship to get this point across. The book has a poignant -- if hostile -- marketplace encounter, with Pi's three religious teachers each claiming him for their own faith.  The movie leaves this scene out, perhaps because it might offend viewers, or else be over the heads of children in a PG audience.  It is well worth reading if you haven't already.

Pi is especially puzzled by Christianity, because he cannot understand why God would allow his innocent son to suffer for the sins of the guilty.  To him this makes no sense at all. The question of suffering recurs throughout the story.  How can a God who loves us still allow us to suffer?

The shipwreck

Because of political changes in India (during the administration of Indira Gandhi), Pi's father decides to close the zoo, sell the animals, and move the family to Canada. They will travel with those animals headed for North America on a Japanese-owned freighter named the Tsimtsum.  Which brings us to the second Kabbalistic reference in the story.  Although Tsimtsum might look like a Japanese name, it is in fact Hebrew, and means "contraction" or "withdrawal."  It refers to the teaching of Isaac Luria which says that, before the Creation, everything was infinite God-essence.  In order for God to create the universe as we know it, God first had to create a vacant space -- a void -- for it to exist in.  God did this by withdrawing -- contracting  -- Him/Herself.  Within this void, God is hidden, allowing for free will and for independent creatures like us to exist. 

That's all very interesting, but why did author Jann Martel name the ship Tsimtsum?  

In a blog article on this topic, David Sanders quotes Martel on this question: “I wanted a representative scoop of religions in the book – Hindu, Christian, Islam. I would have loved to have Pi be a Jew, too, but there are no synagogues in Pondicherry [where the family was from in India]. So I chose Tsimtsum as the name of the Japanese cargo boat because, although it sounds Japanese, it is a Hebrew word.”

 So my intuition was correct: Martel wanted to include Jewish mysticism in the mix, but like God in the cosmic tsimtsum, it is hidden. However, I think the symbolism goes deeper than that.  Genesis says that the world was "void and formless," with the spirit of God moving upon "the deep," often visualized as a vast ocean. The Zohar describes Creation as beginning with a primal point (singularity?) within the void, which then expanded.  When the ship sinks, Pi's world is contracted into a single point -- the lifeboat -- on a vast formless ocean, reversing Creation to chaos, so to speak. The imagery in the movie shows this in several scenes, with Pi's boat a mere speck upon the ocean. Director Ang Lee has stated that he specifically researched the philosophy of Isaac Luria to understand the concept of tsimtsum and incorporate it into the film. (source)

"As above so below" -- the clouds reflecting in the water
make it appear  as if the boat is in the sky
The movie also uses another common Kabbalistic theme: "As above, so below." This is the idea that the physical world "below" is a reflection of the higher spiritual world "above."  In numerous scenes we see the sky reflected in the water to the point that there is no horizon, no differentiation between the two. In the contraction of Pi's world, everything blends into one.

In one scene, Pi looks into the ocean and sees the whole universe reflected -- reminiscent of a childhood story told earlier by his mother, about how the Hindu god Krishna opened his mouth and the universe was seen within it.  (The CGI graphics of the two scenes are very similar.)   Once again, we are reminded of the spirit of God moving upon the waters in Genesis. 

The voyage

Pi makes it to the lifeboat, along with four animals: a wounded zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a tiger named Richard Parker, a name he got through a mix-up of paperwork.  There is a lot of focus on name changes in this story.  Pi's first name is Piscine, from the French. But the bullies in his school take to mispronouncing it as "Pissing," so he re-names himself Pi. (In the movie he impresses everyone by writing out the number Pi to hundreds of digits.)  The Tiger was supposed to be called "Thirsty," but ended up as Richard Parker instead. In both cases, a less dignified name was replaced by a better one.  In the Bible, a number of characters are given new names to reflect a new status.

The zebra and orangutan are killed by the hyena, which in turn is killed by the tiger.  This leaves Pi alone with a vicious, hungry predator.  At first Pi is terrified, but he soon realizes that he and the tiger must co-exist.  He therefore works to establish his dominance and define their territories, using the methods of a circus trainer.  Various interpretations for this relationship have been put forth, most centering on some form of the tiger being his animal self.  This also fits with Jewish thought, where we have both a good side (yetzer tov) and a bad side (yetzer ha-ra.)  One cannot destroy the bad side, but one can learn to control it, as Pi does with the tiger.  In the book he considers various ways to destroy the tiger, but comes to realize that they need each other to survive.  "My fear of him keeps me alert, tending to his needs gives my life purpose," he explains. Jewish mysticism would say the same thing about the yetzer ha-ra.  Properly controlled, it motivates us to keep going in this world.

The carnivorous Island

One of the strangest episodes in Pi's voyage is the floating island full of meerkats.  Safe by day, the island becomes carnivorous at night.  This is so weird that many readers see it as pure fantasy.  I would like to suggest it is a combination of reality and imagination.  No, there are no ecosystems like the one Pi describes. However, there are many small islands in the Pacific, and floating islands of volcanic pumice -- some with trees -- have been reported. (Read more...) Carnivorous plants also exist in some places. So these elements do have a ring of truth.

By the time Pi gets to this island, he and Richard Parker are so close to death as to be delirious. In the movie they have just gone through a terrible storm where Pi cries out to God, "I lost my family, I lost everything. I surrender. What more do you want?" He has reached the depths of despair, the deepest dark night of the soul.  He fully expects to die.  So why couldn't there be a real island with some sort of animals on it, that Pi mis-remembers in this state of confusion?  If you compare the images of the island trees with the banyans he walked among back in India, they are very similar. And the meerkats do look more ratlike as they run up into the trees.

Screen shot of The Island, enhance by me to make the
reclining Vishnu shape stand out more clearly. 
Another aspect of the island is mystical. In the beginning of the movie, we are told that the Hindu god Vishnu "sleeps on the boundless ocean of consciousness" and the universe is his dream.  After Pi learns about Christianity, he thanks Vishnu for leading him to find Christ, and touches a small statue of Vishnu reclining.  When we see the island from afar, it has this same shape, formed by the outline of the trees. This suggests the possibility that the island may be some form of miracle, that God is watching over Pi and Richard Parker even if hidden. 

But although the island suggests sweet repose, it is a false peace.  All that the island gives in the daytime, it takes away at night.  And it is lonely.  Pi could have stayed there forever, eating plants by day and sleeping with the meerkats in the trees by night, but it was an empty existence. When he finds a human tooth embedded in a fruit (which opens like a lotus in the movie) and realizes that some previous castaway had died there, he decides to leave and takes the tiger with him.

The two stories
Richard Parker walks off into the jungle

After 227 days of survival on the high seas, Pi is washed ashore in Mexico.  As he lies exhausted on the beach, Richard Parker walks off into jungle without even looking back  The tiger is never seen again. This deeply saddens Pi, who even years later wishes there had been some sort of final look or growl in parting.  

In the book, during the first part about life in a zoo, Pi told the story of a black panther that escaped the Zurich zoo in winter and survived on its own for several months.  Now we know this was to lay the groundwork for the possibility that Richard Parker also survives in the South American jungle. Still, Pi misses him deeply.

Once back in civilization, parts of the voyage sound too strange to be true. The two Japanese insurance investigators don't believe him, and ask for an ordinary story to put in their report, one that their company will believe. So he obliges them and tells a more common type of lifeboat survival tale, one of treachery, murder and cannibalism, in which only he survives. In this second story, the zebra is a wounded sailor, the hyena is a barbarous cook, the orangutan is his mother, and he is the tiger.  In its own way, this tale is also hard to believe, because his mother and father can't swim, his brother refused to get up to investigate the loud noise or explosion, and all three were down below when the ship sank. Only Pi was on deck because he went up to see the storm.

So which story is true?  In both stories the ship sinks, Pi loses his family, suffers for 227 days at sea and is the sole survivor.  In the end, neither story explains why the ship sank. Neither explains Pi's suffering. Neither can be proven true or false.  The only witness other than Pi is Richard Parker, who disappeared into the jungle, so Pi cannot prove he ever existed. On a pragmatic level, does it really matter?

Pi then asks, "Which is the better story?" The writer who is interviewing him says that the one with the tiger is better.  The Japanese insurance men apparently agree, because in the end, they include the tiger story in their report. I myself also agree: the first story is the best one. 

As Rebbe Nachman of Breslov once said, "Not all the stories are true, but when the people tell them, they are holy." One cannot prove religion one way or another.  Is rationalism really better than mysticism?  What if life really is a random jumble of meaningless events?  Can we live with that?  It is the nature of human beings to seek meaning in life, to bring order out of chaos.  Whether or not Richard Parker was real, without the tiger, Pi would not have survived.

"Above all things, don't lose hope," read the survival manual in the lifeboat. 

"Never despair!" taught Rebbe Nachman. 

The better story is the one with hope.

(This post was updated by the author on 11/1/2017)

Monday, September 25, 2017

Guest Column: "To Save a Life" by Rocky Schwartz

Editor's Intro: Each year I write a column about why I oppose using chickens for Kapporos, the pre-Yom Kippur ceremony practiced by some Orthodox and Hasidic Jews. I have written about it from the standpoints of history, of Jewish mysticism, of public opinion, of culture wars and politics.  In all of those stories, the chickens themselves were anonymous, suffering en masse in the background. This year, I received this story about one individual chicken whose life was spared at a Kapporos site, and the compassionate way that came about.  I was deeply touched by this true tale, and so I offer it to here, my readers. Perhaps seeing one chicken as an individual life will help you to see all of them as God's creatures, each with his or her own story to live. (Rabbi Gershom) 

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To Save a Life

by Rocky Schwartz

On a Monday night in October, we walked into hell. We had come to protest an Orthodox Jewish ceremony called Kapporos, in which chickens are slaughtered before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  Although I myself am Jewish, I am not Hasidic and did not grow up practicing Kapporos.

Kapporos chickens in a crate
On a busy street corner, men were grabbing six-week-old baby birds, flipping them upside down and slicing their throats. Behind them, a truck sat on the sidewalk, filled with crates stacked upon crates of more babies.

When I immediately began sobbing at the horror of the sight, a dozen little boys gathered around me, mocking and laughing. Someone shouted, "Kill it right in front of her!" He swung a young peeping chicken by her wings.

I was horrified that such young people could be so callous toward baby animals suffering before them. The adults present either did not see what was happening, or they did not care.

After I composed myself (read: put up all the mental walls so as to not truly see the reality in front of me), I joined about 50 activists who stood protesting the slaughter. Tensions ran high on both sides, but I tried to remain calm. I walked among those who were swinging the birds, telling them:

They feel.

They feel pain.

They want to live.

They are fighting for their lives.

*You* have a choice.

Some people responded, "Yes, I have made my choice," meaning that they had decided to have their bird slaughtered. I told them the birds didn't have a choice in having their lives taken from them. Most ignored or mocked me, but one young girl, maybe 12 years old, spoke with me. She told me her name was Rose, and said a lot of people were listening to us and and having their minds changed, even if they did not say so in public.  She herself was torn. Should she follow the lead of her parents or not?

I asked her if she would do it if the animals being used were cats or dogs.

"Definitely not," she answered.

I told her the birds are no different, that they, too, feel pain and fear. I showed her the background on my phone, in which I'm hugging my late love, a rooster named Tabitha. I told her he was my best friend, but he died in January.

"And tonight," I told her, you have the choice not to take someone else's life."

"But what do I do?" she asked. "I already have a ticket!"

A fellow protester named David instructed me to ask her to still use her ticket to get a bird, but give the bird to me after the ceremony, instead of having her killed.

"I'll give her a safe home," I assured her.

"Okay," she said, "I'll find you."

I returned to the group of protesters, hopeful but not optimistic that the child would actually return and give me the chicken.

To my surprise, only five minutes later a young figure ran toward me through the crowd and shouted, "Here!"

Rose the hen at about six weeks old,
soon after she was rescued
It was the same girl. She quickly pushed a live hen into my hands. Then we ran in opposite directions, she back into the crowd and I toward the safety of my fellow protesters Vanessa and Steven's car. As I ran, I called out a stunned "thank you," clasping the trembling, feathered body in my arms.

On the way back to the car, I hid the small survivor behind my protest sign, shielding her from the crowd filling the street, who were killing her kin. I was also afraid someone might grab her from me. Once in the car, the chicken continued to tremble in my lap, but slowly accepted gentle petting and some water. I decided to name her Rose, after the little girl who had spared her life.

While I was sitting in the car, my partner Jay spoke with the girl. He told her how brave she was and asked if she wanted to be an animal rights activist. She told him her parents are extremely protective, that she doesn't even have a cell phone or email address. She wasn't able to protest publicly, but she did care about animals. I wondered how many others in the crowd didn't want to kill their chicken, but were not as brave as this child.

Vanessa and Steve returned to the protest, managed to convince one more man to spare a baby rooster, and then drove us home.

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Rose today, as full-grown adult
Safe at home, Rose the rescue hen sits contented in my lap, preening herself and my arm. Out in the expanse of our backyard, she chooses to stand beside me. When I go to put her to bed at night, she cries out in panic and runs after me toward my bed, until I sit with her as she falls asleep.

She still bears the marks of the life she escaped. Badly infected feet from days spent in filth and crammed into a crate. A too-big body for a six-week-old, still-peeping chick, the result of over-breeding for the meat industry.  Anxiety from her history of trauma.

But she is one of the lucky ones. Though she was specifically destined to be part of a religious ritual, her fate was to be no different from the 263 baby chickens killed for food in the United States each second, an incomprehensible 52 billion globally each year. The only difference for her? She was seen as an individual. And a child had the power to save her life.

The author, Rocky, and her new friend Rose

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Editor's postscript:  Rocky refers to the birds being slaughtered as "babies."  These are not fluffy baby chicks, but six-week-old broiler chickens who have been artificially over-bred to grow and gain weight as fast as possible.  It is not that the Hasidim purposely choose to use babies as such; rather, it is that these are the type of chickens available from the meat industry.  The days of mother hens raising their chicks to maturity are long gone.  If you eat chicken, the likelihood is that the bird on your plate was also a juvenile bird hatched in an incubator and killed when only a couple months old.  They go to their deaths peeping in panic, never living long enough to cluck or crow. 

For more on this issue read my previous 2013 post, Kapporos Chicken's Don't Sing!  about the peeping chickens, and why Hasidim do not understand that they are crying. 

See also The Baal Shem Tov did it with a chicken, so why do you tell me not to? which explains this question from the standpoint of Hasidic mysticism.