Thursday, December 31, 2009

In Someone Else's Moccasins

For a long time, I have wanted to learn Hebrew. This fall I finally got started. It has been a very humbling experience. Everyday I argue with myself about the benefits of staying with it. Learning a new alphabet, learning to read and write from right to left, learning a new idiom and vocabulary should give my brain a healthy work-out that bodes well for my mental future. So there is method to my madness. But the letters seem to have a life of their own and the shift of one little vowel sign can change the meaning of a word. It will be a long time before I can communicate anything in this new language.

I meet with my tutor once a week. She is very patient and does not lose hope for me. Still, at my age, I am reduced to feeling like a 1st grade student learning everything for the first time. I feel self-conscious about not being able to remember all the amazing discoveries I have made during the preceding week. When I look at what I have written in modern Hebrew script, I can barely read it. I have to sound out words letter by letter. When I have to read out loud or attempt a dialogue with my tutor, I feel extremely tentative about finding the right word. Every other word needs some adjustment in pronunciation. Conjugating more than a dozen different classes of verbs is almost beyond me. My tutor is the soul of compassion. She has been there.

My island community is blessed with a fairly large Brazilian immigrant population. They bring beauty and color and a certain vibrancy of faith to our staid New England milieu. With them comes a strong work ethic and a healthy sense of family and community strength. As Brazilian cooking finds its way into the mainstream, new and strange items appear on the supermarket shelves, their labels unreadable to those of us who have only English. I hear attitudes voiced around me. “Why don’t they speak English?” “Why do they keep to themselves?” “Why are so many of them landscapers and house cleaners?”
Having the experience of learning a new and different language as an adult is giving me the experience of “walking a mile in someone else’s moccasins.” I have learned how uncomfortable it is not to be able to speak another language clearly and fluently. I have felt the almost child-like tentativeness that comes with uncertainty about saying a word correctly or putting the right verb form with the right pronoun. I know what it feels like to be unable to come up with the right Hebrew word and to have to revert to English.

My tutor assures me that by the time I have finished the workbook I am using, I will have enough Hebrew to be able to apply for a job if I live in Israel. The workbook is one that is used in the intensive language training given to new immigrants in Israel. But even with a master’s degree, I’m fairly certain I would be applying for a job in the service industry in order to be able to function at all, just as many well educated Brazilians find themselves doing when they come here.

This has been a humbling exercise in learning compassion for newcomers to our community. It helps to offset the arrogance that characterizes our American culture with regard to our immigrant populations and what we expect of them. Walking in a strange pair of moccasins is uncomfortable as best, but maybe that’s what needs to happen if we are to live together in greater harmony and compassion.

Vicki Hanjian

Saturday, December 26, 2009

In the Beauty of Darkness & Light

The beauty of darkness and the beauty of light come together during this season of light, each accentuating the beauty of the other. Chanukkah candles and Shabbat candles came together twice during this Chanukkah, first night and last night, their glow expanding, brighter yet in the presence of old friend darkness…; shades of Simon and Garfunkle, “Darkness my old friend, I’ve come to walk with you again….”

At an interfaith clergy meeting there was a discussion about light in relation to Advent and Chanukkah, But how do we understand darkness in this season of light? One of the ministers present, a mother of two African American sons, spoke of being sensitive to the subtle message conveyed in common usage of “light and dark.” Whether celebrating Chanukkah or Christmas, it is important to remember that there is neither intrinsic good nor bad in darkness or light. Darkness can be warm and comforting, its presence a time for thought and reflection; or it can be the opaque darkness of sadness and despair. Light can be the glow we feel in the presence of another, the light that guides us on life’s path; or it can be the blinding flash of a bomb or the fire of hate.

On the first Shabbat of Chanukkah, in the lingering glow of the first candle, we also announced the arrival of the new moon. With Rosh Chodesh, the new month begins in a time of darkness. The moon is not visible due to the conjunction of the sun, the moon, and the earth. It is a darkness of hope and possibility, a time of celebration. Like the birth of a child, the emergence of the new crescent of light from the darkness of Heaven’s womb, sings of darkness and light as of pregnancy and birth.

For Shabbat, for Chanukkah, for every festival, we light our candles in that indeterminate time between day and night, when the sky is streaked with dark and light. The rabbis called that time neither day nor night, but beyn arbayim/between the evenings, or beyn hashmashot/between the suns. It is a time of soulful yearning, of wholeness in the presence of two realities joined as one. It is a metaphor for Messianic time, when swords will be turned into plowshares and spears to pruning hooks, as we sing at the end of the Passover Seder, “Draw near the day that is neither day nor night.”

The first word of the Torah portion that welcomed Chanukkah, Parashat Vayeshev (Gen. 37-40), reflects both the tension and its resolution. In one grammatical form, vayeshev means and he settled, as in “dwelled.” In another form, vayiyashev means and he made peace, or “settled” a conflict/yishuv sichsuch. Embraced by the dark warmth of night unfolding, inspired to hope by the delicate dance of flickering candlelight, may our kindling of light be a prayer for harmony in all the places where people dwell, in the beauty of darkness and of light.

Rabbi Victor Reinstein

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Value of a Mission

“In a community high in the mountain called Peña Nevada in northern Mexico, a poor farmer named Homero, my friend, came to me and placed a coin in my hand. He asked, ‘How much is this coin worth?’ I looked at it and read the script that was written in English on the top of the coin’s face. “No cash value.”

Then, I turned the coin over and saw a funny clown face stamped on the other side. Immediately, I realized that this coin was a ‘token coin’ that came from an amusement park or a fair playground and it is used to pay for children’s rides and games. I answered Homero, saying that this coin did not have any monetary value.

After answering him, he smiled and said, ‘I give you this coin as a present.’ I smiled back and thanked him for this gift. Later on, I learned the great spiritual value of this coin.

Many thoughts came to mind as I was flipping the coin, scrutinizing its two faces. I realized that when you have a mission in life or a path to accomplish, this is a duty, and the duty has come from our faith or our conscience. This mission of duty has ‘no cash value’, which means that these actions are fulfilling a spiritual goal. These goals do not give back any monetary rewards during our lives. And that it’s a duty that makes us, by choice, fulfill and accomplish it.

In my opinion, missions in our life can be paid with these illustrative coins. And they should always be, figuratively speaking, in our pockets or wallets to remind us of our commitment to this mission and our spiritual goals.

I recognized another message on the other side of the coin with the funny clown face. This image told me that we have to see our mission with a child’s mind, without discrimination of any kind, with a joyful spirit, having fun with what we do even if it means making a choice or sacrifice, always looking for the feeling of joy as the result of serving. We have to see our mission from a child’s point of view and child’s heart.

Rabindranath Tagore’s poem summarizes the essence of our mission.

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy, I awoke and saw that life was service, I acted and behold, service was joy”.

“God has created everything, including our mission, and in making our mission joyful, we bless all creation and ourselves as well; that is why we should not expect any rewards for our duty, because we have been blessed already.”

Fernando Ferrara


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bodo Land Youth Pledge

It was a quite extraordinary expression of resolve. Thousands of Bodo youth, who gathered at a function to pay homage to the world’s most acknowledged apostle of peace and non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi, signed onto a pledge to shun the path of violence and use of guns.

Young boys and girls lined up at the site of the ‘People’s Assembly on Non-Violence’, organized by the influential All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) at Kokrajhar, to enlist their name in a public campaign ‘to build an arms and violence free society’.

A huge white ‘democratic wall’ was erected at the entrance of the venue, where anyone who wanted to end the cult of guns, could sign it to express his or her voice against militancy in the autonomous Bodoland Territorial Council areas of Assam.

ABSU chose the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, celebrated country wide as Gandhi Jayanti, as the occasion to start off this civil society movement against violence and gun culture. The idea is to collect as many signatures as possible of people of Bodoland who are against the pervasive violence, who can then be mobilized to pursue peace.

“There is possibly no way to secure justice other than the principle of non-violence so effectively employed by the Mahatma to free our country of foreign rule. The same holds true even today,” said ABSU president Pramod Boro.

He said the Bodo society today was cowering under the shadow of the gun. A section of politicians and opportunist people are promoting this culture of violence to perpetuate their personal ambition and vested interests.

“The most distressing fact is that young people , who are lost and find themselves without any direction and hope, are being sucked into this evil design, and it's tearing apart the social peace and harmony” Boro said. As a result, a naturally peace loving, gentle and democratic society finds itself in a situation where people cannot express their opinion freely, fearing retaliation from the arm wielding men.

Bodos by the large believe in mainstream and democracy, even as a section took to arms to achieve social justice and political rights for the Bodos. After decades of violence and bloodshed, two peace accords were signed in 1993 and 2003 to achieve self rule and all round development in the Bodoland areas. Bodos whole heartedly supported creation of an autonomous Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) hoping that would bring peace and development in the violence ravaged areas. “We did achieve some semblance of peace and development in the past few years,” ABSU president said, but even this, he felt, was now in jeopardy with the spreading of corruption and suppression of democracy by brute force.

“We are now in a situation which is governed by the gun, inflicting unbearable suffering on ordinary people,” the ABSU president said. In the past one and a half years, at least 107 people died in fratricidal killing or encounters with the security forces. All together, 34 women lost their husbands while 74 children never saw their fathers again, he said.

“We (ABSU) can no longer remain a silent spectator to this mayhem; we need to come together and help rebuild our society rooted in non-violence and democracy,” Boro said. ABSU had always stood for peaceful resolution of all problems and would continue to work for that goal.

“This (call against violence) is a timely step and also a very significant development in the region, which is mired in mindless violence” said noted Gandhi worker Padmashree Natwar Thakkar, who was invited as the key speaker on the occasion.

The youth, which is often seen as the purveyor of violence, pledge to non-violence as a means to secure social justice and peace, is not only praiseworthy but also exemplary, Thakkar averred. He also praised ABSU, a highly efficient and organized student body in the region, for spearheading this silent but highly motivational campaign for non-violence.

“In fact, non-violence is not a mere slogan; it’s a potent weapon of peace which is being advocated across the world,” the noted Gandhian worker said. He suggested that the ABSU carried out a year long signature campaign against violence and use of arms launched on the auspicious day of the Mahatma’s birthday at the people’s Assembly on Friday. “Move out to village to village and enlist support for non-violence, which eventually can be used as a people’s referendum against violence,” he opined.

Speaker after speaker, including former Bodo Sahitya president Brajendra Brahma and national Sahitya Academy awardee and leading intellectual Mangal Singhj Hajowari, passionately reminded the youth of the futility of violence and armed action, which is self-destructive. They exhorted the people of Bodoland to follow the path of non-violence shown by the Mahatma, which is the only way of sustained peace and social harmony.

The new initiative of non-violence, though it failed to attract enough media attention, if sustained could have an overwhelmingly positive impact on the entire trouble –torn region.

Sanat K Chakraborty/ Guwahati
Originally Appeared in The Pioneer, October 6, 2009
Submitted by M.P. Mathai

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Trust in God

One of the programs of Nonviolent Alternatives over the years has been providing opportunities for people to experience the work of nonviolent activists in Gandhis' India. Usually, the programs range from three to four weeks long and are held in three or four different venues. Anyone interested in the program applies to participate and fills out a fairly extensive questionnaire that includes health status and special needs. One year, an applicant skipped the health part of the application.

We started the India program in Bangalore. We had only been there a couple of days when one of the participants approached me. She reported that her roommate was having severe headaches, dizziness and vision problems. All three of these symptoms were signs that she needed medical relief. She had a brain tumor. Her doctors had instructed her that should she experience such symptoms, she was to return to the U.S. and their hospital immediately. The tumor was inoperable, but by draining fluid and reducing pressure they expected to keep her alive, for, who knows how long. The young woman with the tumor hadn't told us any of this, fearful that we might not accept her for this experience of a lifetime, a lifetime she expected to be far too short.

So I talked with her. She didn't want to go back to the states. She wanted to continue the program. This experience was of the utmost importance to her. She believed that the symptoms could be managed and she wasn't afraid or anxious. She understood that we would be leaving the city for the countryside the following day and it would be difficult to get her to adequate medical care, or back to the states, once we left Bangalore. I was left in a quandary by our conversation. I didn't have a clear idea about what to think or do.

So I explained the situation to my co-leader from India, Ramachandran Potti. Potti, God rest his soul, was one of the most devout Gandhians I ever expect to know. For several years he assumed the duties of the Director of the Gandhi Peace Foundation in New Delhi. For me, he was a kindred spirit and an elder brother. We were riding in a rickshaw through the streets of Bangalore as I explained the situation to him. I told him I believed the young woman was spiritually driven, not self destructive. Potti just listened. A long silence followed. Then he said, "she should come with us. We will trust in God."

So simple and yet so profound. It speaks to me of the way of nonviolence. When it comes down to the bottom line, the final decision, when it comes to matters of life and death, you trust in God. Enough said!

Our terminally ill participant survived the program, without difficulties visible to those with her. She went immediately to the hospital and care of her doctors on our return. A year later, I heard she was facilitating groups of the terminally ill at a church in a midwestern city.

Carl Kline

Monday, December 7, 2009

"Simplify, Simplify"

"How much is enough?"

That's the question posed by this new multi-media work by blog contributor Phyllis Cole-Dai. It's a fitting question for a nonviolence blog, she believes, since much of the world's violence seems to stem from "the insatiable desire for More."

In this video, which is less than three minutes long, evocative photographs and gentle guitar accompany a few selected verses from The Book of the World, an unusual spiritual text created by an unknown author. This unique book of contemporary scripture, which represents no particular religion and speaks from a human rather than divine perspective, was first published on the Internet in 2007. It soon disappeared, however, having apparently been censored. To resist its suppression, writer/composer Phyllis Cole-Dai joined with a colleague to edit and publish a bound version of the anonymous work. "The Book of the World" is now available on her website,, and on, with net proceeds being donated to charity.

The music in this video is Cole-Dai's arrangement and digital recording of "'Tis a Gift to Be Simple." Credits for the photographs appear at the end of the piece.

Note: If for some reason you have trouble watching the video in the viewer below, try clicking here to see it in low-resolution on YouTube.

Simplify, Simplify from Phyllis Cole-Dai on Vimeo.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Standing in the Place Where the Other Stands

On Thanksgiving Day, Native Americans and supporters gathered on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts to observe a national day of mourning, as has been done on Thanksgiving every year since 1970. On what is the quintessential American holiday, drawing us together from wherever we have come, a nation of immigrants from the Mayflower onward, I have often wondered, what about those who were already here, the only ones whose ancestors weren’t immigrants? In an admirable effort to acknowledge what this day evokes for Native Americans, the town of Plymouth erected a plaque that explains: “Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assaults on their culture. Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggle of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.”

With Thanksgiving still in our consciousness, there is opportunity to reflect on the tensions inherent in this much-loved day, and by wrestling with them to be guided toward deeper understanding of other people’s realities. I do not share these thoughts to minimize or diminish the beauty that most Americans associate with Thanksgiving, the warmth and closeness of families gathered, or the importance of giving thanks. By acknowledging that there is another very different, more painful experience of this day, we deepen the positive meaning of Thanksgiving and our own experience of it. I share from a Jewish perspective a challenge that I believe every religious tradition calls its followers to strive toward. To live harmoniously with others, we all need to be able to hold more than one reality. For Jews, there is something in our very being that calls us to hold two realities at the same time. In the Torah portion that was read during the week of Thanksgiving, Genesis 28:10-32:3, the progenitors of the tribes of Israel are born. Among them, the fourth child born to Leah is Yehudah/Judah, from whose name derives the word Jew, which in Hebrew is Yehudi. The root of Judah’s name and the name and calling of every Jew is also the root of the Hebrew word for “thank you,” todah. Todah, however, also means “acknowledge.”

For all people, to thank and to acknowledge means to be able to hold two realities at once. To the degree that we can do that, recognizing the suffering of others, and reaching out from that recognition, even as we celebrate our blessings, adds profound depth to the meaning and sincerity of our gratitude. At the Passover Seder, when in the midst of joy and gratitude for our redemption, Jews pour off drops of wine even for our oppressors, we acknowledge the suffering of the Egyptians. In the same way, holding two realities and more, as we all must, it seems to me that as Jews we should be able to understand and acknowledge why the “flowering of our redemption” today, our return to the Land of Israel, is experienced by Palestinians, though I admit to wincing at the term, as the Naqba/Catastrophe. As Jews, whose calling is not meant to be in name only, as every people’s ideal calling is meant to be lived, we should be able to acknowledge the reality of both experiences of the same event. Only then can we work to bridge each other’s experience.

Even as the Pilgrims modeled the first Thanksgiving on the Jewish festival of Sukkot, the challenge in the word todah, to thank and to acknowledge, offers a way today to deepen the meaning of Thanksgiving. As a day of commitment to end all racism and oppression, Thanksgiving can become a day of national reconciliation. The Hebrew word hashlamah/reconciliation means literally to make whole or complete, shalem. When through understanding we can stand in the place where the other stands, the circle of reconciliation will be complete. Hashlamah is the root of the word and the goal of the way that is Shalom.

Rabbi Victor Reinstein