Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Simon Wiesenthal: 1908-2005

It was 1976. I had just moved away to college from Detroit, which had a large Jewish population (at least in my neck of the woods). I had converted to Judaism about a year before; I was into all things Jewish and I was full of fresh enthusiasm for the faith I had unofficially embraced since I was 14 years old.

The college town I moved to was Kalamazoo, Michigan. I was studying philosophy and religion at Western Michigan University, hoping to become a rabbi, which would have made me one of very few female rabbis at that time.

There were Jews in Kalamazoo, but far fewer than I was used to, and finding Jewish culture there was a challenge, to say the least. There was a lot of ignorance about Judaism in Kalamazoo back then, like the time I went to a delicatessen and asked for some matzoh because it was Passover, and the waitress explained patiently that their matzoh only comes in balls. But much to my relief, I encountered very little actual hatred against Jews.

No, my exposure to anti-Semitism was of the remote variety. Reading Night by Elie Wiesel, for example, and learning about the Holocaust here and there throughout school.

Somewhere along the way, I heard about Simon Wiesenthal. I don’t remember how. I just remember learning about this old Jewish man who was working, sometimes all by himself, to capture Nazi war criminals. For me, his story was about the responsibility of the individual, and about one person’s ability to make a difference.

At any rate, there I was in Kalamazoo, Michigan, taking classes in anything I could find related to Judaism, including Middle East history, Hebrew, and Jewish history. One day, I ended up in the leaflets files at the library – you know, the stuff that’s too small to be shelved, like pamphlets and newspaper articles. Specifically, I was looking in the file marked “Judaism.”

And there, in that benign-looking manila folder, anti-Semitism was no longer remote. For there in the file was the real thing: historical-revisionist pamphlets that said the Holocaust never happened; vile anti-Semitic pamphlets that depicted Jews as lechers and thieves who had big noses and rough features. A whole file full of the stuff that purported to describe me and people I cared about.

Distressed, I told my Hebrew teacher about it and together, we decided something ought to be done. So we talked to the librarian. It wasn’t the presence of the material that disturbed us; as disgusting as the propaganda was, we believed in the power of the First Amendment. Our problem was with the fact that it was filed under “Judaism” instead of under anti-Semitism; its presence there implied that the propaganda was true.

Much to her credit, the librarian agreed to refile the material. Now that I’ve been to library school, I know recataloging the pamphlets probably took an act of G-d or Congress (the Library of Congress, to be exact). And I’m beholden to that librarian for taking the action.

It wasn’t much, that visit with the librarian, but it was my little opportunity that semester to take action.

So what does this have to do with Simon Wiesenthal? Just that each person’s life touches us in small ways that we don’t always acknowledge at the time. From a story I read somewhere about a little old Jewish man, I learned that one person can make a difference and that each of us has a responsibility to act according to conscience. So when the opportunity arose, I was moved to act.

I’ve long since evolved (or devolved, depending on your point of view) from my desire to be a rabbi. And sadly, I have lost much of my passion for all things Jewish, though I hope someday it will return. But I have never forgotten the lesson of Simon Wiesenthal.

Now in the end, I didn’t agree with everything Mr. Wiesenthal said. But that doesn’t diminish his message.

Every time I take action – whether it’s refusing to laugh at a racist joke; supporting or even protesting an Israeli action; holding my wife's hand in public; or even just visiting a librarian;.. every time I turn conscience into action – I honor the memory of Simon Wiesenthal. His memory reminds me that each person has a place in history – even if it’s a very small place – that can’t be filled by anyone else.

Goodbye, Mr. Wiesenthal. I know G-d is with you.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Cars are Easy

I’ve been noticing lately how rarely I get to share my wisdom with others. Since I could get hit by a truck tomorrow, I think I had better share it here and now. I’ll begin with cars, since – as you will see – I’ve learned quite a lot about them over the years.
1. Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to put diesel gas in a regular-gas automobile. You just have to try inserting the nozzle at a few different angles, and push and push on it until it finally goes in. Then hang on tight so it doesn't fall out.... Huh... Sounds a lot like my first marriage.
2. If you suddenly pull the gas nozzle out of your car (say, because you realize you’re accidentally putting diesel in your tank), it’s best to shut the nozzle off. Otherwise, the gasoline pours out very, very fast.
3. It’s important to maintain your car on a regular basis, without going to extremes. Take brakes, for example: The dealership would like you to think you should replace the brakes when they start to squeal. Poppycock! Wait for a horrible grinding noise every time you brake; that's when you're getting close. Don't panic, though. Start watching for a big hunk of metal to fall off of your car. That’s when you’ll know it’s time to replace the brakes.
4. Back to gassing up your car…If you drive off without taking the nozzle out, not to worry; the hose will disconnect from the pump and fly right along after you.
Oh, there are plenty more tips I could give you, but sharing these pearls has left me drained. I must rest now.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Sausage Toes

It's a curse of being overweight and working two sedentary jobs: Along about 5 pm every evening, the skin on my feet begins to crackle, like the outside of a hot dog cooked to perfection on an open spit. I stretch out my feet and point my toes to see if it's really happening. And sure enough, it feels just like someone has wrapped them up in duct tape. Tightly. My feet should be bright red and about to burst open, but when I look down, there are the same pale and serenely swollen toes staring back at me as always. Yes, it's 5 pm; I can nearly set my watch by it these days. Like a werewolf at the onset of a full moon.

Only five more hours to go until I begin the long drive home.

The Subversive Librarian

“The subversive librarian.” Now, that's an oxymoron . . . . or is it?

The archetype librarian is about as subversive as, well, spinster Donna Reed in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” We all know the stereotype, and there’s no point in flogging it to death here.

Librarians take great pains to prove that we’re really nothing like our stereotype. In fact, listen in on a library listserv and sooner or later, someone will start a thread about how utterly cool we really are. First, there will be a picture of a librarian on water skis. A flurry of comments and photos will quickly follow. Before it’s all over, somebody will post a picture of a half-naked librarian sporting his huge Marilyn Manson tattoo and multiple tongue piercings. Ok, I concede. There are some cool librarians.

Unfortunately, none of that silliness undermines (or subverts, if you will) the one stereotype about librarians that has spawned all the rest: Librarians love their rules – at least when it comes to books.

This rule thing has nothing to do with coolness. I don’t care if your librarian did get arrested in Juarez last May for peeing in the fountain at Plaza de Armas. He’s still not going to let you check out more than two books with the same call number. Why? Because it’s the Rule. And that’s why the words “subversive” and “librarian” just don’t seem to go together.

I’m not here to defend your librarian’s peculiarities. I’ve been to library conventions and frankly, some librarians are just plain weird. Especially law librarians.

But (and isn’t this predictable?) I do want to tell you why I think librarians are cool. Our coolness lies not in our hobbies, or what we look like, but in the profession’s fundamental subversiveness. And yes, I do mean that as a compliment.

What does it mean to be subversive? Well, according to my Brand X dictionary, to “subvert” is to destroy completely; to undermine character, morals, or allegiance; or to overthrow completely. I checked a couple other dictionaries and they said basically the same thing.

But that’s not what subversion means to me. The word “subvert” comes from the Latin sub, meaning below, and vertere, to turn. To me, that doesn’t say destroy. To me, it says dig, explore, and turn the soil if you need to. Even – especially – if someone says you’re not supposed to. And isn’t that just what librarians do?

I’m not the only one that thinks librarians are subversive. Author Michael Moore thinks so, too. We revealed our true nature after a publisher threatened to drop his book because it contained comments criticizing the President:
I didn't know who any of these people were. They -- this one librarian found out about it, and she got in a, I don't know, library chat room. Or she sent a letter out to a list of librarians, and they sent it out to a bunch of people, and the thing kind of mushroomed from there. . . . I really didn't realize the librarians were, you know, such a dangerous group. . . . They are subversive. You think they're just sitting there at the desk, all quiet and everything. They're like plotting the revolution, man. I wouldn't mess with them.
Now is that cool, or what?

Of course, some people are afraid of subversives, but that just means they think we’re powerful. A few years back, the American Library Association came out opposing mandatory Internet filters on library computers. Dr. Laura Schlessinger accused the ALA of “boldly, brashly contributing to sexualizing our children. . . . [a]nd . . . mak[ing] sure your children have easy access to pornography, under the guise of free speech." We did all that? Of course not. But I figure if we got that kind of reaction from Dr. Laura, we must be doing something right. By the way, whatever happened to her?

At any rate, that makes at least three people – Michael Moore, Dr. Laura, and me – who know just how subversive and powerful we librarians are. And while I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, I sort of like being feared for my unbridled power.

My job as a librarian is to help you dig and explore so you can turn the soil if you think it needs turning. It’s really none of my business whether you want to start a new chapter of the Communist party or just find a recipe for cabbage au gratin. Do I make judgments about you? Well, yeah! But do I tell you what I think, or discourage you from digging, or censor what I give you? Nope. I just give you a wise and mysterious look – kind of like the Mona Lisa – and wonder why on earth you would eat cabbage if your mother isn’t making you.

Still, what’s so subversive about that, and what’s so cool about being a librarian? I mean, aside from the fact that last year I got to go to a seminar on mold prevention (as if that weren’t enough!).

There will always be someone who doesn’t want you to know something. In some cultures, women are prevented from reading – supposedly for their own good. The entity that’s trying to keep information out of your hands claims to have good reasons too. But being sincere doesn’t make it right.

Librarians get to right the wrong. We get to put the decision-making process back in your hands, where it belongs. We get to provide the digging equipment, let you find what you find, and let you decide what to do with it. And sometimes we get to watch your garden grow, knowing that we helped plant the seeds.

And if it’s bad? Well, then, soon enough, another of you will come looking for a way to fix it, and we get to help plant those seeds as well. In fact, every once in a while, librarians are the only ones willing to help you start digging. And if the government will let us (and for some librarians, even if it won’t), we even get to keep your secrets.

Quietly subversive. Just powerful enough. And very cool.

KEYWORDS for FBI file on Lynne RhysSubversive. Librarian. Communist. Cabbage.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Jewish Trailer Life

All right, so I'm not exactly homeless, contrary to what I said in my first post. But it's seriously rustic. Our water supply consists of a well and a hose. We are using a rather primitive alternative to the septic tank. We have an older 32-foot travel trailer that, while fairly comfortable, can only be air conditioned for a couple hours at a time.

And we have a 30 x 60 building shell on a slab which was to become our house until we discovered that the builder didn't know (or didn't care) what the hell she was doing when she put it up.

But we have a lot more than the folks on the Gulf Coast have right now. In addition to occasional air conditioning, we have a pretty decent barn for the horses. And we have ten acres. Ten very pretty acres, except for the mud that appears whenever it rains (and this is Georgia, after all). And our cellphones work just fine here. If we're outside. In the driveway. Right over there at that tree.

So can a middle-aged Jewish woman find happiness on Green Acres? Well, ask me when we've gotten our mobile -- um, I mean, manufactured -- home. After all, Jews don't live in trailers.

In the meantime, I'll concentrate on what we do have: love; a fabulous view of the stars at night; and -- this is key -- satellite television.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Pity the Poor Penguins

Since when did the penguin become a political football? Since conservatives fell in love with the documentary March of the Penguins.

Today Jonathan Miller (New York Times) described neocons' new love affair -- figurative only, of course -- with the blubbery bird. What's the attraction? Simply that penguins are monogamous. Maggie Gallagher, for example, said: "it is hard not to see the theological overtones in [March of the Penguins]. Beauty, goodness, love and devotion are all part of nature, built into the DNA of the universe." Ok, I agree.

But wait a minute. Isn't this the same Maggie Gallagher that, in column after column, has railed against gay marriage?

So what does Maggie make of Wendell and Cass, the celebrated -- and very monogamous -- gay penguin pair at the New York Aquarium? Or the other pairs of gay -- and monogamous -- penguins that have graced zoos through the years? What would she say about the failed efforts to separate the pairs and make them mate with females? Would she acknowledge, with the same enthusiasm, the "love and devotion" that these pairs showed?

But what am I doing??? I'm politicizing penguins myself (sounds like a Tom Lehrer song: "Politicizing Penquins in the Park"). Surely, Wendell and Cass wouldn't approve. After all, they just want to be left alone.

So here's to W and C and all the rest, gay and straight -- who are quite capable of carrying G-d's message of love, devotion, and monogamy without any help from us humans.


Monday, September 12, 2005

So this is blogging, hmmm?

So just what does a 48-year-old law-librarying, mother-of-one who's an out-and-proud, homeless lesbian farmer writer-wannabe write about, anyway? Our six horses, four dogs, and too-many cats? My many Moonlighting Adventures? My delicate and blessed sobriety? My great kid?

Or perhaps my nervous breakdown (pick one), or the time I contemplated jumping out of my lawyer-type office? Or gossip about my ex-husband. Or the President.

Ah, well, perhaps my energy is better spent trying to make sense of that hideous first sentence. Naw; let the reader make of it -- and me -- what she will.