Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Zimbabwe and Mishpatim

Who knew?

Simon Anolick also has a Jewish identity in African story.

  1. Mishpatim is a rich portion of laws, the laws of worship, property and moral behavior. What a perfect portion for a lawyer to talk about, capital punishment, an abhorrent practice, criminal law, borrowing money, evidence. But I am a patent attorney, and there is not much connection between patents and Mishpatim. I have to say, people just stare at me with glazed eyes when I say “patent attorney.” With that in mind I fear I might bore you all. Their eyes light up, however, when I say my father is from Africa, from Zimbabwe. So let’s talk about Zimbabwe and Mishpatim.

  1. A little history: I am a first generation American. My mother was born and raised in London, but her parents were from Amsterdam. My father, as I said, was born in Salisbury, Rhodesia, now Harare, Zimbabwe. His parents were from Lithuania. Including me, that’s 3 generations, 5 countries, 6 cities and for just 7 people. That is a lot of leaving countries, finding new cities, building homes and trying to build community. It is a difficult choice to leave one’s home and family for something new, but that choice is for something better for oneself and one’s children. These are choices that many us of make in our lives. It is vividly displayed in my family.

  1. I don’t know the reasons why my maternal family left the Netherlands, but I do know the stories of my paternal history. My grandmother left the pogroms of Lithuania after World War I. My grandfather went to France to study and then to Southern Africa for the opportunities that Lithuania could not provide. Use your imagination and think of the attraction and opportunities that the frontier of Southern Africa, including Zimbabwe, provided to anyone who wanted to go, and that included some young Jews fleeing Eastern Europe. Not many went, but there were enough to build thriving Jewish communities in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Bulawayo, Harare and elsewhere. In Harare, my grandparents met, married, raised a family, built a successful business and were leaders in the Jewish community. My father speaks of an almost idyllic childhood of friends, bikes, sports, school, mischief and even cheder. And there was always someone around to make the bed, to bring the meal, to cut the grass, what could be wrong. Most importantly he speaks of his of extended family and how it was joyously held together by my Granny and Grandpa, or to everyone else Auntie Rosa and Uncle Boris.

  1. My parents came to this country in 1964 for what I believe are three reasons, none of which was intent to settle here. The reasons are (1) love and the spirit of adventure for a newly married couple, (2) their, and I attribute this primarily to my father, foresight into the future of Rhodesia and his distaste for the politics of that country. My father effectively left Rhodesia when he started university in 1954, long before legalized Rhodesian apartheid. Even though he was being groomed to take over the successful family business, he saw the faults of the society he was raised in and was uncomfortable with what it portended for his future. Not many left at that time, not many left when they were 18 and ambitious for Zimbabwe was full of opportunities in those days. It took almost 30 more years for my grandparents to leave Zimbabwe. But after leaving for university it became clearer and clearer that he could not return. And in those years, he met my mother. And the third reason my parents came to this country was, and this I attribute primarily to my mother, their inability to see how she could make Zimbabwe her home. In Zimbabwe, she was the outsider.

  1. It is this legacy that I add my own experience. I am the older of two kids and grew up in a relatively small Jewish community. My parents did not know from US history. They did not know the ins and outs of applying to college or college life. They did not know about football or baseball. I did not have an older sibling to pave the way through these experiences. My parents and I made our way together.

  1. My Judaism set me a part as a child. I have always had a strong Jewish identity, but the Judaism of my childhood home was very different than the Judaism that I live today. My mother’s Jewish experience was non-existent and we were a long way from the Jewish community and Jewish family in Harare that was familiar to my father. As a child, I did not have the infrastructure and support to guide me and help me grapple with my desire to see the world through a Jewish lens. As a child, I struggled at it alone and then with the guidance and skill of a most fabulous teacher I was able to open my eyes and experience the world as a Jewish adult. Nonetheless, I felt as a child, and continue to feel today, that being Jewish and a first generation American is like being a stranger.

  1. Twice in Mishpatim we are reminded that we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Chapter 22 verse 20: “You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” Chapter 23 verse 9 once again: “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the feeling of the stranger having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” I read these lines and think of my family’s history, we came out of Africa too. My family were strangers first in Eastern Europe, then as a part of the Jewish minority in the Zimbabwean white minority community and now as Jews in this Christian country. We were not just strangers in Egypt; for my family we are strangers everywhere we go. The question in my mind is, will we always be strangers?

  1. Mishpatim is not the only time that Torah reminds us that we were in Egypt and how to act because we were there. This central Jewish theme is repeated and amplified during Shabbat and High Holiday liturgy, it becomes like an anthem. We celebrate Pesach because G-d led us out of Egypt and out of bondage. Egypt is synonymous with slavery and oppression and the alienation that arises out of being a stranger. Mishpatim begins with the laws relating to slavery. Immediately after we are led out of slavery we are taught how to be the slave’s master. Excellent timing for such an important lesson. After leaving Egypt, it is very powerful and extremely convincing for G-d to say “Don’t oppress the stranger because you suffered the ultimate oppression by being slaves in the land of Egypt.” In Mishpatim, we are taught something else too, something just as powerful, but more subtle. The reason we are given for the law is because we were strangers too. Linguistically Mishpatim works nicely; we don’t oppress the strangers because we were strangers. It is easier for me to identify with the stranger than it is to identify with the slave. In Mishpatim, we are taught not to oppress the stranger for reasons more than just because of what Pharaoh did to us, that we were his slaves, but simply because we were there. Before we were slaves, we were strangers in Egypt. The stranger, the outsider, has the heightened risk of experiencing oppression, and oppression can lead to slavery. We were vulnerable when we arrived in Egypt, and then we experienced slavery. We know the extreme vulnerability, as slaves we were at the nadir of oppression. G-d is teaching me to embrace the feeling of the stranger. From there, I can protect the vulnerable, and I am more prepared to embrace Torah. Because I am a stranger, I have found another entry point into the teaching of Torah and into myself.

Simon Anolick

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