When a birthday fall on the Jewish New Year, thoughts of living and dying take on cosmic proportions. Fortunately, it’s rare for the two milestones to collide given the differences between the secular and Jewish calendars. Both are celebrations, but the New Year begins ten Days of Awe, a sacred time when the celebration of life is combined with contemplation its finite nature. This year, I had a double dose of introspection on living and dying. I celebrated with the traditional New Year’s apples and a piece of gluten-free birthday cake with non-dairy cheese. Still recovering from surgery for a life-long health challenge, I spent the day in silence and solitude. My mind sought the path separating living from dying and wandered from wonder and gratitude to mourning and humility.
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Morehouse College’s 11th president, Dr. John Silvanus Wilson, Jr. We explored his background in both religion and education, his experience in universities and government, and his plans for Morehouse’s future. A deeply religious man, Dr. Wilson’s faith has been the driving force behind his many achievements. Writing this article, I drew on my own interfaith experience in Chicago as a member of its Black-Jewish dialogue and coordinator of Black-Jewish Seminarians Conferences for the American Jewish Committee. The Black-Jewish dialogue lost steam over the years, but remains strong at Morehouse.
The first time that I agreed to serve on the local Holocaust Remembrance Day Committee was painful, even after almost seventy years since the end of World War II. I agreed to assist in promoting the event beyond our Jewish community and I agreed to participate in the reading of the names of the victims. And I resigned myself to being an usher at the event, not my favorite thing. What I didn’t bargain for was a seat on the stage when I offhandedly shared that I was helping in memory of my father who was a U. S. military intelligence officer during World War II. Aaron Levine was an army translator of German and French. And by the way, he was a liberator of a labor camp.
Religion today provides more sensational headlines and political debate topics; more inspiration to make a difference and more despair about the future than it has in decades. Few issues are more emotional than religion and few issues are more relevant today to peace and prosperity. Are faithful followers ready to confront the challenge of religious pluralism? Can we find ways to come together for the sake of our communities? Yes, I’ve learned that it’s possible, but only if we “Harmonize NOT Homogenize.” Here’s how I discovered that truism, and why I’m choosing to share my story now.
In May of 1941, my grandparents sent round-trip tickets to their eldest daughter, Estelle, to bring her young man, Aaron Levine, to visit them in Bermuda. Estelle, my mother, had met Aaron when she was a freshman and he was a sophomore at Harvard University. The trip was a chance for Myer and Ida to check out their prospective son-in-law. A photograph of Aaron and Estelle on a Bermuda beach shows two young college students, a sweet-faced girl and a skinny young man. She’s kneeling in the sand, smiling unguardedly into the camera. Aaron stands behind her looking proud, defiant and possessive: Bermuda Jews in the making.
I sat in a restaurant overlooking Hamilton harbor pondering my morning researching Bermuda Jews in the island’s Archives. I’d spent many hours reviewing Bermuda’s Jewish tourism prior to World War II. Yes, my family had mentioned ‘restricted’ places where no Jews were allowed. But mostly I remembered their stories of Bermuda’s war-time kindness to Jews. Dr. Hollis Hallett, the Archives founder, directed me to documents from the 1930s showing the impact of an increasingly global anti-Semitism on Bermuda tourism. What should I write about this ugly period?
In the early 1900s, Jewish tailors among the Eastern Europeans who arrived in America in droves. Only one tailor, my great grandfather, ended up as one of few Bermuda Jews. Picking up an Americanized version of his Russian last name, he became Axel Malloy passing through Ellis Island in New York City. He was better known by the first name of David, a name change that happened when he seriously ill. The family kept to the Eastern European Jewish tradition changing one’s name to hide from the Angel of Death.
In the 1990s, I made my first trip to Bermuda in fifteen years. My family, once the mainstay of Bermuda Jews, were long gone from the island. The first whiff of salty sea air hasn’t changed but the airport is a jumble of construction. A short jog across the tarmac should end in a hushed wait for the appearance of a customs agent, sitting patiently on the dark wood furniture of the terminal’s old-fashioned waiting room. Today, official greeters wave us through a temporary cordoned maze to a terminal with a second story, a food court, and customs agents encased in glass booths. An electronically-enhanced steel band strikes an earnest rendition of “Island in the Sun” where a portrait of a young Queen Elizabeth once hung.
I phoned the Los Angeles County Bureau of Adoptions. The switchboard operator asked me to please hold. Finally the director, Jessica Keebler, came on. “Yes, Mr. Barlin.”
“It’s been two years since we put in our application—”
“There are still no Jewish children available, Mr. Barlin.”
For those of you who have not yet heard the story of the Maayan Babustan/Ein Bustan kindergarten, this is a Waldorf school, a kindergarten that is run in two languages – Arabic and Hebrew. The kindergarten is situated in the Arab village of Hilf, within the municipality of Bosmat Tab’un, 7 minutes drive from the nearby Jewish town of Kiryat Tivon. The kindergarten is attended by 27 Arab and Jewish children, in two age groups. The staff is also comprised of Arabs and Jews: in each class there is a Hebrew speaking teacher and an Arabic speaking teacher. In addition, we are pleased to have two interns, two young Bedouin Arab women who are fulfilling their “Year of Service” by working as assistants in the kindergarten, one in each age group.