Category Archives: Atheism

Synagogue of the Virgin Mary

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

Have you ever been in the London Eye? If not, it’s a super sized ferris wheel on the south bank of the Thames with a bird’s eye view of Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament and much more. 

Imagine, being in the Eye, watching yesterday’s terrorist attack unfold. The confusion, the fear, maybe some twisted excitement, the plain-old inconvenience of being stuck up there until thd police gave the all clear. 

Will this attack hurt London’s tourist economy? I doubt it. No matter how many of these incidents happen, most of us have the capacity to believe it won’t happen to us.  And statistically, it won’t, so keep on traveling.  

Day Two in Toledo. Today we would visit the Synagogue of the Virgin Mary and the Mosque of Christ the Light.

“I can just hear the Christians saying, ‘There, we showed ‘em!’ as they nailed up the new signs,” I said.

The so-called synagogue which hadn’t been a synagogue in hundreds of years was just steps from our hotel.  The website, which I won’t link to here, makes it look like you could spend days there.  It was lovely, but there wasn’t much to it:

There was a nun in the back of the now-church, and she sort of floated through the place and out a side door.  We followed her, since there was nothing else to see in the main building, and she went into a small out building which we entered to our regret.

You know how you walk into a place and immediately wish you hadn’t? The nun was there, seated behind a table piled with books and pamphlets and art prints.  The walls were hung with drawings.  The nun was ecstatic, in the original sense of the word, “involving an experience of mystic self-transcendence.”

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I was raised in a Catholic family but never felt Catholic. I explored various religions and somehow knew I was Jewish immediately upon beginning to study Judaism.  So I’ve been Jewish since I was 18, which is a long time ago.  I’m also an atheist, which, conveniently, isn’t incompatible with being Jewish.

All this is background to saying that—having been schooled by nuns for 14 years— when I saw this nun I knew her type.  In fact, she was a dead ringer for Sister Mara, my 8th grade teacher.  I recognized the glassy-eyes, the never failing smile, and most of all, the enthusiasm to share what she had discovered with others, whether they were interested or not.

Fervently religious, or mentally ill? They are often intertwined, regardless of the faith.  None of this was triggering Lynn, who has neither Catholic or Jewish baggage.

The art, pamphlets, and books were all by and about some guy—possibly still alive and living in a monastery or cave in the mountains—who had converted from Judaism to Catholicism after having a vision.  He was an artist, a poet, and (naturally) a visionary, the nun told me breathlessly in Español muy rapido.

The art reminded me of Peter Max (example below), which made me wonder if her visionary also took drugs, but it was executed like my three-year-old nephew’s drawings, which feature people with pumpkin heads and tooth-pick legs.

It was better than I am making it sound.  I wish I had taken a photo to show you but I didn’t want to demonstrate too much enthusiasm.  The nun had moved on to how Israel was wrapped up in the vision, so it was time to break in and say, “Thank you very much, it’s been fascinating.”

Even the tiniest tourist attraction in Spain has a gift shop, and the ex-synagogue one had this on display:

As usual, the non-Jewish author had used a photo of an Orthodox Jew at the Western Wall, instead of a picture of me, a much more typical Jew.

Fa la la la felon

It’s Christmas Eve and I thought I’d share this post my son, Vince, wrote from prison two years ago.  If you’re feeling lonely today, write a letter to a prisoner, then contact your local Department of Corrections or a nonprofit prisoner support organization on Tuesday to find out how you can send it.  Half of prisoners never get a visitor, and many never get any mail.  Vince is doing great now.  In fact today he’s on his way to San Diego to spend Christmas with his aunt and uncle and cousins.  If you’re interested in following his adventures, he blogs at Fixing Broken.

I haven’t written any blog posts in nearly a week. My job keeps me busy, and I’ll say that there is a little more effort involved in the actual writing vs. typing a blog, from my point of view, anyway.

My co-blogger, aka Mom, came to visit me today. Like everybody else, she had a good laugh at my prison-issue glasses. But then we sat down and talked for two hours. We could have talked for two more and time would have flown by just as quickly. It was really nice to see a familiar face. We spoke on topics ranging from family health to sign-language-interpreting gorillas. It will probably be my only visit during my whole tenure as a prisoner, and it was a good one.

Last night I started reading Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. I only made it through 40 pages and I had to get to sleep but so far I’m interested. I’m sure once I leave prison I’ll go back to reading zero books. My mind is impossible to control so I’m easily distracted. Sometimes I can’t get through a page without daydreaming. I’ll catch myself. And do it again minutes later. Brain. Bad brain.

I haven’t been sick in years. Years! I am in the middle of a terrible cold, and I don’t like it. I have been told several times over the years that, despite my claims, I am not a doctor. Even if I were, there’s little I can do to suppress the effects of the virus. So I’ll do the standard: rest, drink plenty of fluids, and complain.

I’m not at all religious but I went to a Christmas program for something to do, and I had a blast. There were six or seven musicians, all in their 70s or 80s, from some denomination whose name I cannot recall. Each played a different instrument ranging from accordion to piano to guitar. They had 50 grown men, drug dealers, pimps, and armed robbers, singing Twelve Days of Christmas and even doing the chicken dance. That was the best. We were all laughing. And we all needed that.

I think it may have been the first time in a while that some of the guys smiled.  Which will usually, unfortunately, later, lead to crying.  Quietly, so your cellmate doesn’t hear.  We will be thinking of our friends, families, and why we can’t be with them this holiday season.  I am one of the lucky ones.  I won’t be locked up next year.  Some will.  Some will be forever.  And although they are here permanently for a reason, it will still hurt.  They may not show it, but they will surely feel it.

Tsouris, Tikkun Olam, Teshuvah

Another week, another shooting of an unarmed black man by police.  Three, actually: in Columbus, Ohio; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Charlotte, North Carolina.  The kid shot in Columbus was carrying a BB gun; you can understand why that could put a cop on edge.  The cop who shot the man in Tulsa has been charged with manslaughter.  That seems just, except it’s a female cop.   She may be guilty, but I think some of the officers involved in previous shootings (all men) were as well, and most were never charged.   Is a woman seen as easier to prosecute?  No one can agree whether the guy in Charlotte was carrying a gun or a book.  A book.  I think even I could tell a book from a gun.  It’ll be interesting to watch these investigations unfold.

It is emerging that no one who should be collecting statistics on police shootings has been doing so.  The best source seems to be the Washington Post.  Its running list illustrates something similar to the situation I’ve written about in our prisons.

Of the 1,500 people killed by police between January 2015 and July 11 of this year, 49% have been white while 25% were black.  Whites comprise 62% of the US population and blacks are 13%.  Does that mean blacks commit more crime, or that they are singled out and treated differently by police?  That’s impossible to know unless all the white people who have committed crimes and gotten away with them step up and admit it.

There were also two terrorist incidents this week.  You probably heard about the man who planted four bombs in New York and New Jersey.  The police managed to take him alive, even though he actually had a gun and was firing at them.  Hmm.  Ahmad Rahami was born in Afghanistan, came to the US when he was seven, and was apparently radicalized after visiting Afghanistan.

In St. Cloud, Minnesota, where my son Vince was incarcerated for six months, a man attacked nine people with a knife. Dahir Aden was a Somali born in Kenya and also came to the US when he was seven.  He was apparently radicalized by online ISIS propaganda.

People were injured but no one died in either episode except Aden.  To paraphrase a blog post Vince wrote about the St. Cloud attack, we needn’t live in fear of terrorist attacks, because these guys are incompetent.  The ones who should live in fear are African American men.

So much tsouris in the world.  That’s Yiddish for suffering.

As I’ve written before, Vince and I have been getting involved in Jewish Community Action’s campaign to reform the criminal justice system, including mass incarceration.  On Monday night we’ll attend a phone bank event where we’ll call ex offenders to make sure they know they may be eligible to vote and to tell them how to register if they are eligible.  Vince may not be able to vote, but he can help others to do so.

Next Thursday, we will speak at a JCA event hosted at my workplace, the Center for Victims of Torture.  A CVT psychotherapist will talk about the psychological effects of imprisonment.  A CVT volunteer physical therapist will speak about the physical effects, and Vince will talk about the fallout on relationships.  If you are local, please join us for either or both or other events.

So much tsouris.   I feel my share of despair and helplessness, but doing something helps.  I’ve been estranged from organized Judaism since Vince’s troubles began, when our rabbis were less than supportive.  Lately, I’ve felt pulled back toward the community by my involvement in JCA.  That’s because the essence of Judaism is tikkun olam, or healing the world.  Doing something to right injustice, even if progress is slow.

Last week I took a big step and went to my old synagogue because I heard there was a new prayer book that acknowledges doubters and atheists.  I went to a study session with one of the (new) rabbis was a dead ringer for my aunt.  I don’t believe in signs, but this did make me feel like I was literally returning to the family.

Notes from an Anglo-Irish-German-Czech-American Jewish Atheist

This is the latest post in a series about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

Desra gave us a ride back to the Air B&B.  Inside, Lynn said pensively, “If I went to dinner in London with someone who was Afro Caribbean, I don’t think the subject of race would even come up—but we spent the whole dinner tonight talking about race.”

Of course they don’t have African Americans in England.  The race labels were confusing when I lived there, especially who was covered by “Asian.”  In Minnesota, Asians are Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao, and Thai.  By far the largest group, the Hmong, are mountain tribes people from Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and China—where they are called the Miao. That’s pronounced “meow.”  Our newest arrivals are the Karen, an ethnic group from Burma/Myanmar.

In England, an Asian is most likely from India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh.

Lynn herself is Anglo Indian because her ancestry is English and Indian.  Note that the Anglo comes first, whereas in the U.S., we say “African American” or “Muslim American.”

This labeling is all very fraught with the peril of offending one side or another.

“What if you were having dinner with a Pakistani or other Muslim?” I asked Lynn.  “Would race or religion be a theme in every angle of the conversation?”

“Hmmm…maybe,” replied Lynn. “Yes, that might be it.  It’s not that we don’t have prejudice in the UK.  But I think it’s the Muslim population that’s getting the brunt of the suspicion and animosity, especially since September 11 and seven seven.”

July 7, 2007—the day on which 52 people were killed and 700 injured on the London transport system in an Islamist terrorist attack.  I remember watching it on the news, in Spanish, from my bed in a hotel in Cusco, Peru, where I was vomiting my guts out into an ice bucket after eating some bad guinea pig. That’s a story for another post, but here’s a free tip for you: never use a hotel ice bucket for ice.

We reference so much with these simple dates: 9/11, 7/7.   So much has changed.  In the U.S., half the population—the conservative half—replaced its constant fear of a mass attack by communists with fear of a Muslim attack, which has made possible the rise of a demagogue like Donald Trump.  The strange thing is, they don’t fear the white guy next door with 50 guns who just lost his job and his wife and is acting strangely—just “the Muslims.”

The third major terrorist attack in the west was 11-M, the train bombings in Madrid on March 11, 2004.  Almost 200 people were killed and 2,000 were injured.  I don’t remember where I was that day.  But I do vividly recall being in Spain sometime after 9/11 but before 11-M studying Spanish.  I was chatting with a British woman and somehow 9/11 came up.

“Now you lot know what we’ve been living with all these years from the IRA,” she said casually about the attack in which nearly 3,000 people died.

Back in St. Louis after a good night’s sleep, Lynn and I were preparing for our last day on the road.

“What do we do with the doughnuts?” she asked.

I carried the box out with us, thinking I would take them home to Vince.  Then I spotted a kid on the porch of the house next door and approached him.

“Hey kid, want a box of doughnuts?”  He was chubby and his eyes said Yes as he also backed away from me toward the door and called, “Daddy!”  The father came rushing outside, looking panicked. I could just picture myself at the police station: “No officer, really! I just wanted to give him the doughnuts; I wasn’t trying to lure him into my car.”

I offered the box to the father, who looked inside to make sure they really were doughnuts (I wonder what else he suspected could be inside?  Snakes?).  He looked up at me with a grin, thanked me, and the two of them hurried inside, where I could hear the boy calling out excitedly, “Mom! We got doughnuts!”

Oxford to St. Louis via Festus

This is the latest post in a series about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

While Lynn slept, I explored the breakfast bar at the Quality Inn in Oxford, Mississippi.  It offered weak coffee, powdered “milk”, white bread for toast, single serving boxes of corn flakes, single portion bags of instant grits and oatmeal, and … do-it-yourself waffles.

These weren’t toaster-ready waffles. I watched people try to figure out the waffle maker one after another as I ate my instant grits.  Where was the batter?  How did it come out of the container?  Where did it go into the waffle maker?  Then what?  How long did you keep the lid closed?  Where you supposed to flip it over?  How did you get the waffles out?  It looked simple, but to someone from…oh, let’s say China, it must have been about as familiar as I would have felt trying to make dim sum.

Meanwhile, I was keeping an ear on the conversation of two guys at the next table, who appeared to be truckers.  I had heard the word “Jesus” and “Bible” and assumed they were fervent Christians, so I avoided eye contact.  One was flipping through a pile of magazines.  Maybe they were having a bible study at the Quality Inn.  Finally I was able to pull my attention away from the Chinese guy fumbling with the Made-in-China waffle maker and was able to listen in on the conversation next to me. “These born agains are fucking crazy,” the guy with the magazines said.  “They don’t reason.  They cain’t tell the difference between opinion and fact.  They only know what they’ve been told to think by their preachers.”

“Ah know, ah know,” replied his companion.  “They’re wreckin’ ar country.  We used to be superior for our inventions and idee-urs but now everybody’s laughin’ at us.”

“Everybody but Saudi Arabia,” replied the first guy.  “They probably love that we’ve stopped using our brains.”

This went on for some time and I was able to very subtly—I hope—get a look at the magazines, which included Popular Mechanics and National Geographic.  So they must believe in evolution!  Did you know that 42% of Americans believe God created the world in seven days?  I can barely bring myself to type that, it’s so embarrassing.  That’s an average, of course, and a much higher percentage of young people, urban dwellers, and yes—northerners believe in evolution.

I’m aware it can be irritating when I reproduce people’s accents in writing, but I did it above to make a point.  Well, two points.  First, I’m aware I’m prejudiced against southerners and second, there are southerners who don’t fit my stereotypes.

I had the urge to reach across and introduce myself, “Hi, I’m Anne!  I’m from Minnesota, and I’d just like to say how thrilled I am to discover free thinkers in Mississippi!”

Instead I went next door to Starbucks and got a decent cup of coffee.

We headed north again, toward St. Louis.  This would be a short day: we would only put around 400 miles on the odometer.

The drive was uneventful. We passed by Memphis, then veered northeast near the town of Marked Tree.  We passed Osceola, Tennessee; Blytheville, Arkansas; Hayti, Missouri; then Portageville, Tiptonville, Sikeston, Cape Girardeau, Pocahontas, Ste. Genevieve, Prairie du Rocher, and Festus.

St. Louis was the first place I used Air B&B.  We were staying in the upper part of a fourplex on Flad Avenue, in the Shaw neighborhood, chosen because it was a short walk to the Missouri Botanical Garden.  Shaw appeared to be a historically African American neighborhood that was being gentrified.

Flad ave

We had been instructed to park behind the building, but a pack of bearded, plaid-shirted hipsters who resembled Neanderthals were unloading a truck in the alley.  They smiled dumbly at us and clearly weren’t going to put themselves out to get out of our way, so we parked on the street.

I had received several texts from the Air B&B owner, Yuri, about gaining entrance, and it went without a hitch.  There were two bedrooms, a bath and a kitchen that would be our base for exactly 17 hours.

Hail, Prince

I’m interrupting the series about the road trip to New Orleans to write about Prince’s death.  It’s very sad, and we in Minnesota will miss him.  He had a huge impact on the local music scene.  In the Minneapolis Star Tribune today, Doomtree rapper P.O.S. credited Prince with making Minneapolis “a city full of musical weirdos.”  That’s a good thing. You want artists to feel free to experiment.

Prince

Bob Dylan, another tiny weirdo superstar from Minnesota, lives in Malibu, California.  Prince stayed here, and like most locals I had gone to First Avenue, the club he founded, hoping he would show up for one of his impromptu concerts.  Last year I went to a party there celebrating the 30th anniversary of Purple Rain.  They showed the movie on a big screen and local musicians, including P.O.S, played songs from the album.  Lots of people I know have stories about hearing Prince at some small local venue, or meeting him at a restaurant, and they all describe him as friendly and warm.

1st ave Ist ave stars

The headline in the Star Tribune today was irritating: “Lonely death scene despite legions of fans.”  Yes, he was alone when he died, but does that mean he was lonely?  It’s just such sloppy writing.  Probably the person he would have most wanted to be with in his dying moments would have been a paramedic.  The Strib also referred to his “passing,” which is one of my pet peeves.  It’s sad enough that he died. Can’t we just say it?

I once had a tangential connection to Prince.  I dated his ex manager for a while.  He and I hung out with Prince’s ex drummer, ex driver, ex chef … you get the idea.  Prince was not an easy boss.

I’ll call my ex Larry.  Back in the late 90s there was still a matchmaker for the Jewish community in the Twin Cities.  She also ran the Big Brothers/Sisters mentoring program.  She had matched me with my Little Sister, and after a rocky start it had turned out to be a perfect fit.  Almost 40, I went to her to see if she could do as well with a man.  She was a tiny lady named Bobbie Goldfarb.  She peered at me and said, “Honey, at your age the odds are good, but the goods are odd.”  That turned out to be true.

She set me up with Larry and it was great for a couple years.  Larry had all sorts of Prince and other music memorabilia in his basement, including gold and platinum records.  He told of how Prince came to live with him when Prince was a teenager.  Prince could play the piano with one hand and a guitar with the other at the same time.  He could do it standing on his head.  Well, slight exaggeration but that’s just to say he was a whiz bang genius musician.  Prince also had a wicked sense of humor.  Larry told me a story of how he’d lifted the toilet seat, put plastic wrap over the bowl, and put the seat back down.  You can imagine what happened to the next person to use the bathroom.

Larry rented a converted garage in Los Angeles that was his second home.  It was a lot nicer than that sounds.  You can live in a converted garage in Los Angeles and be perfectly happy, because you can sit outside surrounded by fragrant night-blooming jasmine and all the other lush growing things that can’t survive in Minnesota.  And there was a pool. I love staring at a pool even if I never get in it.  I have Larry to thank for my love of L.A.

New Year’s Eve, 1999.  Larry and I went to a party in a house on the beach near Santa Monica.  There was a sushi chef.  There were fireworks over the pier.  It was a nice night.  Two months later I turned 40, Larry dumped me, I was fired from my job, and I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.  I was devastated and played Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 You” (written by Prince) over and over and smoked and cried…such a great wallowing song.

Thanks, Prince, for the music, and for inspiring weirdos and sad people everywhere.

Feelin’ the Bern

Before I leave the series on Cuba that started here, I have to tell you about the Bernie Sanders rally I attended last week. I was vaguely aware that it was happening, when my cousin called and said her two youngest kids (ages 14 and 18) were begging to go. So they drove the one-hour drive from Wisconsin to see Bernie. We bumped in to another nephew; he’s 18, too. The 18 year olds are looking forward to voting for the first time, mainly because of Bernie.  Vince won’t be able to vote for at least seven years.

The rally was at the Roy Wilkins Auditorium in downtown St. Paul. I was also vaguely aware that Roy Wilkins had been an African American civil rights leader but was wowed when I Googled him later and read his bio: He was a leader with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for 40 years, where he succeeded W.E.B. DuBois as editor of Crisis Magazine. He was an advisor to the War Department during World War II and a consultant to the American delegation at the United Nations conference in San Francisco in 1945. He led the fight to end school segregation. Lyndon Johnson awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the US’s highest civilian honor. When he died, Ronald Reagan ordered all government flags be flown at half-staff.

What a cool guy. And what a perfect venue for Bernie to hold his rally, since he’s way behind Hillary on support from African Americans.

I wondered if many in attendance had ever heard of Roy Wilkins. When I walked in, I must have lowered the average age by about 20 years. Bernie drew a crowd of almost 15,000 people, and my guesstimate is that 90% of them were under the age of 30.

We found seats in the overflow room and watched on a big screen while Bernie was introduced by a young Somali American woman. Then, Bernie himself walked into the overflow room—and the crowd went wild. We were on our feet, chanting, “Ber-nee, Ber-nee Ber-nee!” and “Feel the Bern!” I hadn’t been paying much attention to the race until now and was hesitant to stand up and cheer a candidate I knew next to nothing about, but the enthusiasm was irresistible.

Bernie delivered a brief but fiery speech, even though he was clearly on the verge of laryngitis. Then he headed for the main auditorium to the accompaniment of more stomping and cheering. Back on the big screen, Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison was introducing Bernie to the main room. I was surprised. Endorsing Bernie was, in my opinion, a move of conscience, one the Democratic Party will not be happy about. But Ellison, who is the first Muslim member of Congress, seems to be a man of principle. I’ve heard him referred to as the Muslim Paul Wellstone—our beloved, principled Minnesota Senator who died in a plane crash a decade ago.

Like Wellstone (and me), Bernie is a Jewish Atheist. I didn’t think anyone in the crowd would be put off by that, but having Ellison and the Somali woman introduce him can’t hurt with African American and Muslim voters.

Bernie’s message was loud and clear: We need a revolution! We need to stop all the money flowing to Wall Street. College should be free for everyone! The minimum wage should go up to $15 an hour! And so on with a long list of drastic reforms.

As usual, I’m skeptical. Bernie’s ideas tap into a deep anger among many Americans who feel they’re being screwed by the system. I get it. But would he be able to accomplish much, pitted against an oppositional Republican majority in Congress? Also, economics is complicated. You pull a string out of a tangle and you can’t necessarily predict what other strings are going to become more tangled or come loose as a result.

The day after the rally, I read this article about US relations with Cuba which laid bare our opposing systems: the US wants to do business with entrepreneurs and small businesses, while Cuba insists that we deal only with their government. Bernie calls himself a Democratic Socialist. Is that some sort of hybrid system? I need to educate myself more.