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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Multiple Narratives and Many Truths about the Same Facts Emerge If We Only Listen

by Krista Tippett, host

I first discovered Yossi Klein Halevi in the early days of this program. I picked his book Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist off the shelves of the public library and was riveted by this son of a Holocaust survivor’s journey into, and then beyond, violent rage.

In the 1970s, in Brooklyn where he was growing up, he got very close to a charismatic rabbi who inspired his followers to bomb Soviet embassies to liberate Jews in that now-vanished empire. A deeper connection to the spiritual core of Judaism drew him out and took him to Israel. And there, in heady days of the Oslo Accords of the 90s, he undertook another kind of journey inward and outward — an experiment in religious empathy.

He sought knowledge of the religious others in his land by way of their devotional lives rather than their religious, political, or civic identities. He prayed with monks and nuns and sheiks. He knelt in prayer with his skullcap on in Palestinian mosques. He came, as he described it, not merely to revere but to love Christianity and Islam.

And even as Yossi Klein Halevi was testing — and defying — the border crossings between faiths, the Oslo process was unraveling under bad faith and broken promises on both sides. The second intifada in the early years of this century made Yossi Klein Halevi’s project unthinkable. It also ultimately brought an end to the simple freedom of movement and human contact that had made it possible. Meeting him in person for the first time as a guest in his home in Jerusalem earlier this year — I looked out his window at the wall that obscured what was once an expansive view of desert and of the Palestinian West Bank.

Krista Tippett and Yossi Klein Halevi

During our days in Israel and the West Bank, of course, we also experienced that same wall from the other side — from Palestinian refugee camps and communities where it has sliced life and dreams apart. In this newest most tangible representation of the divide between Israelis and Palestinians, a quintessential characteristic of multiple narratives about the same “facts” emerges. For one side, the wall signifies security and safety; for the other, separation and oppression. Both reactions to it are valid on some deep level.

"There are no facts here," someone said in our early days in Jerusalem. Yossi Klein Halevi admits the maddening intensity of life in a place where the abyss between different interpretations and enactments of the same history, the same facts, obliterates any sense of shared reality, much less a basis for dialogue or peacemaking.

Yossi Klein Halevi — with his own personal wells of integrity and eloquence, of grief and despair — asks provocatively how the dynamics of the Holy Land could be any less dramatic, any less extreme, on their way to whatever resolution, whatever “miracle” they must be leading towards. The Jewish story, after all, is a test case of intimacy with God; Jerusalem in particular is a crucible of sacred sites and stories that trace dispersed glimpses, as he understands it, of “different faces” of God. Yossi Klein Halevi calls this a city where not just religion but the essential human story is played out with a particular intensity. It is messy like the Bible is messy. Like human life, it is treacherous and purposeful at once.

I can’t help but correlate this observation with a conversation I just had with a great astrophysicist, Martin Rees. He recently ended a term as the president of Britain’s Royal Society, the academy to which Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Stephen Hawking have all belonged. And after more than four decades immersed in the study of complex phenomena in the cosmos, Rees freely contends that human beings are the most complex systems in the universe. It is far easier to make definitively true statements about the constitution of stars, he says with no irony, than about dieting or child care. Imagine the Holy Land, then, as a kind of human, geopolitical black hole: space becomes time and time becomes space. Here land becomes memory and memory, land.

I can’t sustain this analogy for long, though. The Holy Land is not a place from which no light can escape. I was captivated by the human courage and long-term (if not short-term) hope that digs roots there right alongside conflict and the death of dreams. In my conversation with Yossi Klein Halevi, as with my recent conversation with the Arab-Israeli civic leader Mohammad Darawshe, I experience an incredible counterintuitive weight of human dignity and possibility.

Israelis and Palestinians both said to me, applying different words but kindred visions, that what is needed — indeed what is underway, however painfully slowly — is something like a human evolution, a maturing of people and peoples. They and I hold on to that promise, even as they also see that history progresses here one step forward and then at least two steps back, with severe trauma on both sides all along the way. To be merely hopeful would be foolish.

Yet somehow — as Martin Rees helps me take seriously — the very complexity of a Yossi Klein Halevi, or a Mohammad Darawshe, is redemptive. It complicates my hearing of the news from this region. The future is always, undeniably and everywhere, a far more fluid, expansive, and surprising thing than we ever take for granted. And as I’ve heard from diverse Israeli and Palestinian conversation partners across the years, the rest of us serve the possibilities of now unimaginable futures when we insist on seeing lives of dignity and courage amidst more prevalent images of despair.

About the image: Yossi Klein Halevi and Krista Tippett speaking in his offices at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. (photo: Trent Gilliss)


Bouncing Off Language and Meaning
Marc Sanchez, associate producer

We recently aired our show "Language and Meaning — an Ojibwe Story," with Ojibwe linguist David Treuer. The show prompted a letter from a listener and fellow linguist, Miriam Isaacs.

She teaches linguistics and Yiddish at the University of Maryland and writes, “I just finished writing an essay about how it felt when I met some Zapotec speakers in Oaxaca, how their experiences about their children being ashamed of their own language related to how many immigrants felt about Yiddish.” This video features Professor Isaacs reading her essay as part of the Marian M. Jenkins Memorial Speaker Series at the National Museum of Language in College Park, Maryland.


Weaving Personal Narrative and Others’ Stories
Eboo Patel, Guest Contributor

Meeting Laurie Patton reminded me of a basic truism about life: the best storytellers are also the best listeners. Listening in a way that evokes other peoples’ stories is, after all, how storytellers begin the process of collecting the pieces that they then weave together into the narratives they turn around and offer the world.

I got a glimpse into professor Patton’s gifts for listening on a recent trip to Atlanta. She moderated a panel with Andrew Young and myself, artfully integrating Reverend Young’s story as a senior African-American Christian leader involved in the civil rights movement and my story as a young American Muslim building a global interfaith youth movement.

Two days later, I caught up with Laurie again and convinced her to share some of her own pioneering story — as one of the first female chairs of a major Religion department, as a person who chose to convert to Judaism, as one of the most renowned scholars of Indian religions in America, as a poet and institution builder, and as a person who thinks the shortest distance between two people is — as story.

Watch the video, and take a listen for yourself.

Eboo Patel appeared on SOF as a guest in "Religious Passion, Pluralism, and the Young." He’s also the founder and executive director of Interfaith Youth Core, a contributor to the Washington Post’s "On Faith" blog, and author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.


Awe-some Music Inspired by the Jewish High Holy Days

Colleen Scheck, Producer

If you’ve never listened to the SOF Playlist that accompanies each program, I highly recommend checking out the list for this week’s show exploring the meaning and sounds of the approaching Jewish High Holy Days, "Days of Awe." You can hear full-length tracks of each song played in the program.

As we were preparing this program for rebroadcast, I was struck by the beauty and diversity of the music Mitch compiled, which is inspired by this sacred time. I looked a little more closely into the background of some of the songs, discovering some interesting history and modern context. Here are a few examples:

"On Rosh Hashanah"
Bassist David Chevan’s 10-minute rendition of “On Rosh Hashanah” is a contemporary jazz composition that fuses Jewish and non-Jewish musical influences. Chevan, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia, grew up in a Conservative-Egalitarian synagogue where he led services from the age of 10. He’s melded sacred music with jazz for years, and he currently performs with an ensemble called The Afro-Semitic Experience. Their compositions blend a wide range of music influenced by both Jewish and African-American traditions, from 18th-century cantorial works to the music of Sly Stone and Mahalia Jackson. In this 2002 NPR profile of Chevan and Afro-Semitic pianist Warren Byrd, they describe how the point of their collaboration is to address differences and commalities among faiths and races in America.

"On Rosh Hashanah" is from Chevan’s 2003 album, The Days of Awe: Meditations for Selichot, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur. A review of the album called it a “groundbreaking work if only because it is the first time that a jazz musician (or any instrumental musician) has ever made a recording solely devoted to the music of the Jewish High Holy Days.” ”On Rosh Hashanah” features Chevan, The Afro-Semitic Experience, and trumpeter Frank London. Like many of the works on the album, it’s based on a 1907 recording by the famous early 20th-century cantor Josef “Yossele” Rosenblatt.

"Rivers of Babylon"
Rabbi Sharon Brous sent us this version of Psalm 137 (expressing the yearnings of the Jewish people in exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem) as one example of “the vibe of services at IKAR.” Originally recorded for an IKAR Shabbat CD, she says it is also used for High Holy Days, and she calls it “one of the most soulful compositions” she’s ever heard. It’s based on the 1972 version written by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton of The Melodians — a 1960’s Jamaican rock-steady reggae trio. It first appeared in the sound track to the 1972 movie The Harder They Come — a film based on the life of Ivanhoe “Rhyging” Martin, a Jamaican criminal who achieved fame in the 1940s. Many other musicians have covered it, including Boney M, Sinead O’Connor, the Neville Brothers, and Sublime.

As in her conversation with Krista, the influence of the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on Brous surfaces again in this quote from IKAR’s Web site: “Heschel taught that music is the only language that is compatible with the wonder and mystery of being.”

The lead female voice on “Rivers of Babylon” is Jessica Meyer, a former IKAR member who taught prayer music to children and sang at services. A former actress (she was in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist), Meyer gave up a burgeoning Hollywood career to become a cantor. She recounts what drew her to IKAR:

"I was a Hebrew School dropout. Disgusted with the Judaism ‘Lite’ espoused by the Conservative synagogue of my childhood, I went in search of a spiritually vibrant, politically engaged Jewish community committed to a culture of Jewish learning and prayer. I did not find it until I came to an IKAR service…

The music of prayer at IKAR is electrifying. The melodies range from Ashkenazi old school to Carlebach, to one inspired by a Sufi chant! The people who lead services are not performing, they’re praying. (It is amazing how much closer people can come to a prayer when they have the freedom to explore for themselves – when there isn’t a someone performing it for them.)

It took me many years, and three continents to find Ikar. It is a blessing to be a part of this community.”

Check out the “Days of Awe" play list for other songs by Leonard Cohen, the BBC Symphony, and Barbara Streisand. Which ones resonate with you?


The Language of Money

Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
toddler: (holding up a penny) Uh-dakah!
father: (leaning in) Dollar?
toddler: (thrusting penny in the air) Uh-dakah!
father: No. That's a penny.
toddler: Uh-dakah.
father: That's money. Can you say mun-eeeee?
toddler: Money! Dakah.
father: You buy things with it.
father: (looking quizzically at mother): What's he keep saying? I can't understand him.
mother: I don't know. (turning to toddler) Penny.
toddler: Dakah.
mother: (to father) Maybe it's the Hebrew -- from school.
father: I don't know the Hebrew word for money. Do you?
mother: No.
father: Google it.
mother: (searching)
father: I learned about this on the show. Isn't it zakat or something? No, wait. That applies to Muslims. Maybe zedekah... or something similar.
mother: Here it is. Tzedakah. Charity.
father: Hm.
mother: Here he sees a penny and thinks of giving it away. And we see it and instantly thinking of buying things.
father: I guess we just learned something from a two year old about money.
mother: I think so.
father: Man. We better sign up for some Hebrew lessons...

Asking the Questions, Developing the Answers

Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

Pesach (Passover) is upon us. In a recent entry by Rachel Barenblat (a rabbinical student who writes the Velveteen Rabbi blog), she recounts a seder in which three questions were asked and were answered with prescribed responses. A Sephardic custom (according to Barenblat, Iraqi or Afghani in origin), the seder opens with a person circling the table of participants asking:

Who are you? The answer: “I am Yisrael.”

Where are you coming from? The answer: ”I am coming from Mitzrayim.”

Where are you going? The answer: “I am going to Yerushalayim.”

As Barenblat sees it, these questions call us to think more deeply, to examine the nature of our true selves, and open ourselves up to the possibility of emergence from narrow, confined places and look ahead to a more generous future.

My two sons attend an early childcare facility run by a Jewish community center. Although our family’s not Jewish, we, by default, loosely observe shabbat on Friday and various holidays simply through scheduling and songs and rituals celebrated at school (I’ll be taking a vacation day tomorrow to be with my boys because the daycare center is closed).

So, when I read these questions, I was shaken to the core, especially after a tumultuous, stress-filled week of work and family hiccups. They cause me to pause and ask myself about how I define myself and not the outside world. I look to the being who exists in that thin crevasse between closed eyelids and the breaking rays of dawn, and the vestige that reflects in the cab of his truck on the freeway home.

It’s in this interstitial space that I remember Avivah Zornberg’s retelling and interpretation of a story from a fifth-century Midrash:

You find that when Israel were in harsh labor in Egypt, Pharaoh decreed against them that they should not sleep at home nor have relations with their wives. Said Rabbi Shimeon bar Chalafta, ‘What did the daughters of Israel do?’ They would go down to draw water from the river, and God would prepare for them little fish in their buckets. And they would sell some of them, and cook some of them, and buy wine with the proceeds, and go to the field and feed their husbands. And when they had eaten and drunk, the women would take the mirrors and look into them with their husbands, and she would say, ‘I am more comely than you,’ and he would say, ‘I am more comely than you.’ And as a result, they would accustom themselves to desire, and they were fruitful and multiplied, and God took note of them immediately. Some of our sages said they bore two children at a time, others said they bore 12 at a time, and still others said 600,000. … And all these numbers from the mirrors. … In the merit of those mirrors which they showed their husbands to accustom them to desire, from the midst of the harsh labor, they raised up all the hosts. 

Dr. Zornberg: She says to him, ‘I’m more beautiful than you,’ and he answers her, ‘No, I’m more beautiful than you.’ So there is some kind of dare going on here. There’s some kind of game. As I understand it, it’s a game in which she is challenging him to see his own beauty. If there’s anything left in him at all of any kind of assertiveness, then how could he not somewhere swing back at her when she has said that to him? And the result is — and the Midrash is very unequivocal — the result is that they accustom themselves to desire, an extraordinary expression, as if desire is something that simply has disappeared from their repertoire. 

Ms. Tippett: Right. 

Dr. Zornberg: And I think there’s a sense here that what she’s got going here makes it possible for each couple to feel that they are capable of giving birth to all the many various possibilities. 

Ms. Tippett: And the possibility of freedom. 

Dr. Zornberg: Of freedom, of infiniteness, of unpredictability, which such multiple births suggests, and that it’s all done with mirrors, the Midrash says, mischievously, it seems to me. And I have a whole theory about these mirrors. It seems to me that, when one looks in a mirror, one is basically always seeing a somewhat changed version of oneself, a distorted version of oneself. So it means that the mirror represents fantasy. But from the point of view of the Midrash and from the point of view of God, who supports the women’s activities, it takes an act of this kind, a performative act of whimsy and imagination, not looking at things quite straight, in order to open things up.

From this story, I’ve created my own meaning and retelling of the idea to apply to my circumstances. I won’t go into it here, but the mirror is held up to me every day — and in it I’m creating my own midrashic story.


A Jewish Santa Claus

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, bearded at center, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a 1968 antiwar protest.Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

This wonderful anecdote about the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel brings deeper meaning to the holiday season and cultural relations:

"In 1965, after walking in the Selma-to-Montgomery civil-rights march with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was at the Montgomery, Ala., airport, trying to find something to eat. A surly woman behind the snack-bar counter glared at Heschel — his yarmulke and white beard making him look like an ancient Hebrew prophet — and mockingly proclaimed: “Well, I’ll be damned. My mother always told me there was a Santa Claus, and I didn’t believe her, until now.” She told Heschel that there was no food to be had.

In response, according to a new biography, Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, 1940-1972 by Edward K. Kaplan (Yale), Heschel simply smiled. He gently asked, “Is it possible that in the kitchen there might be some water?” Yes, she acknowledged. “Is it possible that in the refrigerator you might find a couple of eggs?” Perhaps, she admitted. Well, then, Heschel said, if you boiled the eggs in the water, “that would be just fine.”

She shot back, “And why should I?”

“Why should you?” Heschel said. “Well, after all, I did you a favor.”

“What favor did you ever do me?”

“I proved,” he said, “there was a Santa Claus.”

And after the woman’s burst of laughter, food was quickly served.

What a fabulous story; I can’t wait until we do our program on this great man.