I'm Jon Spira-Savett, rabbi at Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire. This website and blog is a resource for Jewish learning and Jewish action. It is a way to share my thoughts beyond my classes and weekly Divrei Torah. You'll find blog posts, standing resource pages with links and things to read, and podcasts as well.
We start the annual cycle of reading and studying Torah once again this week! So, what is the Torah when you zoom out and think about it as a whole, and not just story by story or teaching by teaching?
Assignment: Complete this thought -- "I am about to begin a year of study about America..."
This is the final bit of preliminaries, before delving into history and literature. I wanted to put down a few of my own goals in taking a sustained, hopefully deep survey of American history since colonial times.
I used to think of history, sort of, as a series of case studies where people faced social-ethics dilemmas like the ones we do, and we can see various approaches and arguments from the standpoint of completed episodes. In a certain sense, people in the past are like us, minus some technologies and mostly minus the idea that women and men are equal.
I guess that approach owes something to John Dewey's decidedly non-industrial, non-training-only view of education from the Progressive Era. Now I know that every period, even of the history I have lived in my own life, has a texture of its own and you can't easily analogize or extrapolate. If you want to, you have to make a case for the analogy.
I still hope to learn some in that analogy vein. But maybe more so, I want to understand better that we live in a different part of the American story, and I live in a different part of the story than when I had my formative American education. So I should look not just for parallels, but for things that my current experience would otherwise miss. Some of those things may have clues to what I miss about America today.
At the same time, I am looking for a thread of ideals and the story of challenges, stress-tests, and refinements of those ideals. The citizen as "connected critic" that I articulated already on this thread. I have always thought the challenges were about expanding who is included, and the blindnesses that impaired or prevented that. I'm looking to test that idea as well. I want to believe in American ideals -- freedom, equality, pluralism, diversity -- I have a rooting interest. I hope I'll look with a critical spirit and that people here will join me in learning and helping test my own reflections.
On “The Good Place” Chapter 7 is the classic lying episode, and on the podcast Rebecca Rosenthal and I jump off from the Talmud’s analysis of white lies to talk about truth and relationships, how and when we tell people important truths, and how truth emerges between people not just by telling.
Before year 1 of the course, Leslie thought this book would pair well with my Michael Walzer, “connected critic” idea, since Lame Deer was a Native American, an outside observer. I was skeptical but now I’m glad we did it. It got me to thinking about what a “connected critic” does with criticism from the outside or from a group who you would think couldn’t possibly be made integrated into the main American narrative, the way I can. I’m a member of a group persecuted in other lands throughout history and intermittently discriminated against here, but clearly eligible to be an American partner. Much different from a Native American living here.
It’s easy for a connected critic to romanticize a Native American critic – to fantasize about being able to say things one can say without the responsibility of being part of the group. It’s easy to nod at Lame Deer’s anti-Horatio Alger diagnosis of our materialism, our destructive individualism, our superficial approach to learning, which is packaged in this particular book with a smile. But I realize as I write this that I’ve been constructing my own account of a Native American critic, to serve my own critical posture. To make it easier to defend myself to the critics-of-my-criticism by pointing to my own connection. At the same time, reading a Native American critic forces me to take responsibility for my involvement – I don’t have the right to hurl at others or deflect from myself critiques that I am implicated in.
I experienced something really thought-provoking a few months ago, at a community rally called in response to some local hate activities. The first people invited to the stage were Native Americans, and I expected to hear about ethnic cleansing and genocide, and a reminder not to forget about that part of the American story while standing up for Latinos, African-Americans, and Jews. But the representatives welcomed us and blessed us, and invited us to live well and peacefully and with integrity on this land, in the name of the people who were once entrusted with it and the spirits who are still present. It was incredibly gracious, it wasn’t at all cramped, and it did not force any of us to renounce our Americanness, our white-ness for those of us who are white, or our hope. I am still sitting with this.
Rabbi Dan Ross and I co-host once again. On “The Good Place”, Eleanor tries both to keep and not keep her promises to Michael — and on the podcast, Dan and I trade stories of dog-watching gone wrong and explore why promising is such a big, Yom-Kippur-level matter in Judaism. (That's Dan below!)
Leslie and I experimented with the readings for a short opening unit on how to study America. I advocated the first year for excerpts from the political philosopher Michael Walzer's Interpretation and Social Criticism. Walzer articulated the idea of the "connected critic", someone who was inside a society enough to be committed to its people and its narrative and its articulated values, and able to criticize in the name of those values and out of shared commitment. It's when Rev. King said that his dream was "deeply rooted in the American dream", even as he called out America. For Walzer, the alternative is the disconnected critic who might not care enough about fellow citizens and/or who speaks a language entirely foreign to the society the critic hopes to change or improve. Another alternative of course is someone so identified with things as is that they cannot criticize at all.
I wanted our students to see themselves as connected critics of America. It was a bit easier to articulate for American Jewish students, for whom inside-outside is already set up.
"Connected critic" is always a position of built-in tension. It's a challenge to nurture your own connection and your critical outlook. Particularly when you are just learning about your own history, and the history of your own society.
In the past few years, the "connected critic" view of founding American ideals has been called into question, and I am hoping for a way to vindicate it nonetheless. Does Thomas Jefferson's slaveholding mean that "created equal.... life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are bankrupt? I accept the challenge of those who answer yes. I have to consider the alternative, and/or come up with an account of the citizen as connected critic that does not whitewash anything.
#integratingamerica Oops, I posted two items out of order!
Two months ago I posted an almost-vow, and in the Jewish year we're headed into the season when we think about our vows... In reflecting on my state's new law around teaching about controversial topics, I suggested in July I might go back this year and re-learn the American Studies curriculum Leslie Bazer and I created and taught for three years at the Solomon Schechter High School of Long Island from 1996-1999. We called it "Integrating America", to reflect that it was both an integrated literature and social studies curriculum, and that it was about how we integrate ourselves individually into the collective and how different groups integrated into the collective -- certainly American Jews but not only.
I didn't vow then, but I'm expressing a strong intent to follow through.
So I thought I'd post my intent and an invitation about how this will work, for anyone who wants along for the ride.
1. First, if anyone out there was part of the class I'd always welcome your comments or your own posts!
2. I'm going to track the curriculum as it was and post some kind of short reflection on that day's lesson or assignment.
3. The goals of the program included both learning about the past and learning how to be an engaged citizen. So if you want to comment on any of my posts, keep that in mind.
4. The curriculum had blind spots, reflective of me for sure and perhaps of the time. I won't sugarcoat that -- this is the point, what have I learned since or what did I overlook -- and I'll try to comment on that.
5. If you want to post yourself on your own page in relation, I'd love if you'd use #integratingamerica so I could try to keep up!
The first assignment was to bring in an artifact that represents America to you right now. I'll comment on mine in the next post (which is actually on the blog the previous post.)
Assignment: Choose an artifact that to you represents America, American society, or American culture. Feel free to share an image and/or explanation in the comments here or in your own post.
When I began co-teaching the course, the artifact I chose was the book and album “Free to Be You and Me.” It’s a 1972 project created by Marlo Thomas. For the younger people here, that’s Rachel’s mother from “Friends”, and this project is one reason why that casting is so amazing in a counter-to-type way (read on).
“Free to Be You and Me” was a series of songs and stories for kids aimed at breaking down gender stereotypes. What a boy and a girl has to be like, want to be when they grow up, etc.
I chose this as my artifact for three reasons.
The really interesting take on the ideas of freedom and equality and how they intertwine. Not being limited by preconceived gender roles is presented as freedom; this is the era of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment)!
The interplay between self-expression and banding together. My favorite piece is called “Atalanta”, a princess who enters the footrace with all the male suitors who wants her hand. In the end, it’s tie between Atalanta and Young John, who wants to be her friend, and they spend a day together before going off on their own explorations of the world.
The money line in the title song: “There’s a land that I see where the children are free/and I say it ain’t far to that land from where we are.” The vision of freedom, the awareness the land of freedom isn’t completely here yet, but it’s not far and we could get there together.
This last point in particular is what I want to interrogate through the course of this year. That assumption, and whatever knowledge I need to gain and reflect on in order to assess how far it is.
That's Rabbi Sari Laufer, my partner for Chapter 5 of Tov!
"To Measure or Not to Measure" -- on “The Good Place” Eleanor is excited when she is polite for the first time without thinking, Tahani’s philanthropy doesn't score enough points with her parents or the algorithm, and Chidi doesn’t find pleasure in doing the most good. So on the podcast Jon has his first stomach ache and Sari Laufer (new rabbi on the team) helps us think more about where measuring goodness does and doesn’t make sense. Oh, and where intellectual vs. sensual pleasure fits in!
On “The Good Place” Michael tries to guide Chidi and Janet toward new things, but it’s Eleanor who finds unexpected inspiration because of Tahani. So on the podcast, Jon Spira-Savett and Audrey Marcus Berkman explore reincarnation Jewish-style and who the teacher you need turns out to be.