Tag Archives: Religion

Building Peace Means Letting Go

I saw something beautiful yesterday.

I saw two small children, giggling. They were playing on what is supposed to be a pull-up bar in one of the exercise parks that are all over Singapore. The three adults with them held the children’s hands over the bar and pumped their legs back and forth. The children laughed and squirmed, ready to get down. Once on the ground, they ran off on unsteady, fat little legs. I watched tight little curls and wisp of a ponytail bouncing. The adults reached for the children’s hands and the children reached for each other’s. They couldn’t have been much more than two years old. I watched this scene until the group turned down a lane at the end of the road.

Those children will grow up fast. I wonder what the world will look like as they do. I hope it’s a more peaceful world than the one we have now, and I’m beginning to think that creating that world means letting go of much of what separates us from each other, what makes us see “us” and “them” and not just “people”.

War
Like every Ashkenazi Jewish family, my family has a Holocaust history. But since all of my grandparents and one or two great-grandparents were born in Canada, it’s such that those who didn’t come to Canada before the war (with one exception, I think) didn’t survive. We’ve been Canadian for a long time and it’s my grandparents’ stories about Canada in the 40s and 50s that I grew up hearing.

My sister and I were recently talking about our shared desire to visit Eastern Europe and the conversation revealed different understandings of the role that Poland, Russia, and Lithuania play in our lives. She spoke about feeling ancestral ties to those countries but also regret for not being able to see what our ancestors saw because none of that is there anymore. On the other hand, I’m interested in the people’s history rather than the government and military history that I learned in school. I’m interested in economic recovery and development. It didn’t occur to me to have ancestral ties to anywhere.

We also talked about the concentration camps, which my sister said she had never really been interested in seeing. We talked about the fatigue that is a side-effect of so much study of so much tragedy. There is a point at which you simply can’t take in any more and you stop. I was glued to Holocaust books as a kid and even into college. I haven’t read one since.

But I am and have always been interested in seeing the concentration camps. I’ve always thought of it as an act of defiance. An act of standing my ground and proclaiming my existence. You didn’t want me here. But here I am.

Reconciliation
A conversation with a friend about a month later, however, prompted me to rethink the whole thing. Going over both conversations in my head while out for a run brought a new realization to light and prompted me to write this post. It seems that the way I’ve been thinking about everything above is misaligned with my firm belief in the necessity of peace. I went through a transition with my thinking on peace last year, specifically when I revisited all of my ideas about Israel. It seems that I’ve taken a step back (or perhaps sideways, if I’m being generous to myself) and I would like to correct it.

This is began to understand on my run:

For as long as I can remember, I thought I’d visit the concentration camps with an attitude of victory. We won, you lost. And I’d never really thought past that. But in this scenario, there’s still an “us”, still a “them”. There’s still the misunderstanding and fear that lead to hatred, the result of which is all too apparent far too often.

But now I think that attitude actually misses the entire point. The camps have been preserved to bear witness, to provide evidence, to serve as a constant reminder of what happens when we separate ourselves, invent distinctions between groups, and cut one another off. The camps are a monument and a memorial. They are where the ghosts of the past urge us to do better, to be better. They are not about winning or losing.

So, it is quite another thing for me to visit the concentration camps the way I have visited the beaches at Normandy or killing fields of Cambodia. Visiting the camps in this light means mourning, paying respects to those whose lives were lost too soon. It means being a witness to what happens when we look at life through a lens that compartmentalizes individuals into categories. It means finding the courage, like countless others throughout history, to stand up for what is right in the face of the strongest adversity.

Peace
When I do make that trip to Eastern Europe, I need to make a dedicated effort to deepen my understanding of humanity and the importance of holding all humans together under one umbrella. As a teacher of peace, I cannot approach a conflict without first looking at the humans affected by that conflict. It’s when regular people become the focus of our teaching, our looking back at history, that we can hope to let go of everything that pulled us apart.

That is what peace means.

Peace means looking at the world that we live in and choosing to come together because it’s the only world we have. It means respecting each other’s losses, being happy for each other’s gains, and working for the good of all humanity. It means letting go of what separates us from each other and fighting to maintain what brings us together. It means doing whatever we can so that children the world over can laugh like the children I watched yesterday.

Peace has to come from me. It has to come from you. From all of us. I will do that by letting go of the anger that morphed into defiance that miscolored my perception of how to move forward. Peace is not a contest. It’s not a race. There is no winning and there is no losing. Rather, peace is about opening my arms and letting in the world with all of its bruises, scars, rights, and wrongs. It’s about recognizing myself in you and you in me. Peace is about gratitude for having found you there.

This is where peace comes from. This is the way I want to live and the world I’m committed to building.

Playing Tourist

My sister has been here visiting since Tuesday and it has been so great having her here. It’s nice to share my life with her and show her the city that has become so important to me. It’s also a lot of fun to play tourist along with tour guide, indulgently doing all the things that are on the list for “someday”. For example, the Red Dot Design Museum was completely new to me and having my sister here was reason enough to visit the 50th storey skybridge at The Pinnacle@Duxton in Tanjong Pagar:

What has also been interesting is that my sister’s visit to Singapore has included visits to several religious buildings. Unlike when I travel, I don’t seek out religious buildings to admire here. I often pass by them and peek inside, but I don’t purposely find them like I do else. However, I was at Chijmes shortly before my sister’s arrival . . .

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. . . and have since visited Masjid Abdul Gafoor, which my sister asked to see . . .

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. . . and Thian Hock Keng, which we passed completely by accident while walking through Telok Ayer. . . .

There have been others, too, but these have been new for me. It’s nice to share something new with my sister, too. We don’t do that nearly often enough now that we live so far apart.

My sister’s visit has reminded me that no matter how much time you spend in a place, there’s always something else waiting to be seen. I love that about the world.

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In a few days, we’re off to Hanoi, Sapa (new for me!), and Chiang Mai. Looking forward to going back and looking forward to going anew!

Judaism Without Religion

The Most Current Version of You
Being in a new place provides incredible freedom to be the most current version of yourself. We are all constantly learning, changing, growing, and adapting, but sometimes it’s challenging to openly do that around people who have certain expectations of us, certain experiences with who we are and desires for who we should be.

In a new place, however, meeting people who have no experiences with, or expectations for, you and your behavior means that you enter with a clean slate. You present the newest version of yourself because that’s who you fundamentally are in the given moment. There’s no one telling you otherwise, surprised when you respond a certain way, or waiting for you to do A when you really want to do B.

While I’m not new to Singapore, I am meeting new people both at work and outside of work. This has given me an opportunity to present myself with the background of the past year, a year during which I learned a lot, experienced a lot, read a lot, and gained some clarity about the way that I understand the world and myself.

My Jewish Self
About two months ago, I had a conversation with a new friend in which I described myself as culturally Jewish and denied feeling a sense of traditionally “religious” connection to the group that I’ve affiliated with for my entire life. I talked about religious practice as a way of connecting with a community separate from having any sort of “belief” in anything supernatural. I also acknowledged that this understanding, the separation between culture and religion, had been an extended process, one that I was only beginning to feel comfortable articulating.

Recently, my friend reminded me of that conversation. “But,” he added, “I think you’re a lot more spiritual than you said. Maybe not quite religious, but you’re not just doing what you’re doing and thinking what you’re thinking in order to maintain a cultural connection with a group. It seems like there’s something else.”

I smiled. He wasn’t wrong. I had described myself as spiritual rather than religious for years and have only recently (in the current iteration of myself, in fact) stopped doing that, opting instead to speak more broadly of culture. So in that sense, my friend wasn’t right, either.

Reflecting on that conversation, and appreciating both my friend’s perceptivity and his willingness to highlight what he saw as incongruence between what I said about myself and what I did (specifically in reference to taking off work on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, so that I could go to synagogue and pray), has left me thinking about my trek from a belief in a higher entity to where I am now.

Religiosity
Being religious means following the letter of a specific text for no other reason than the text is called sacred. It means believing that there’s a higher being, likely omniscient and all-powerful, controlling the Earth and the skies, the world and its people. It’s the tradition of replying, “Blessed is God” when asked how you’re doing, of ceasing all work after sunset on the day of rest, of avoiding certain substances because of their uncleanliness or mind-altering properties.

Being religious means praying about real questions, like whether to go ahead with plans that seem dependent on the weather, and believing that you have been given (though not that you’ve found) a real answer. Often, being religious also means denying scientific explanations for phenomena that we see in nature and in ourselves. Instead of searching for the answers, being religious means trusting (having faith) that the answers will be revealed, all in good time.

Truly, I do not want to sound disparaging. I did not grow up in a religious household but I did attend a religious school. As a child, I was taught many of the views and practices described above and I clung to them because they helped me organize my world. They helped me find comfort in what I did not understand and could not otherwise handle. From that perspective, I appreciate the good that religion does for individuals. I have experienced its calming influence and sense of security.

But, as a student and teacher of history, I have also learned to be wary of religion. Countless wars. Death. Destruction. Avoidance of responsibility. Lack of political action. Barriers to scientific research. Discrimination. Hatred.

No one person’s belief should cause such anguish to others.

What I Used to Call Spirituality
It has been a long time since I’ve held any specific religious views and a very long time since I’ve sighed with resignation and performed (or not) an action because of a supernatural being. But I still find joy in community experiences that have religious origins. What stands out to me in these experiences, however, is not the religion but the collectivism, the understanding that we are all coming together because we value one another as individuals and have chosen to create a community.

An example to illustrate:

I was last in Israel with the grade 8 students at my school and we spent our first Shabbat (Hebrew for Sabbath) together as a group in Jerusalem. According to Jewish tradition, the day begins at sundown (because, as scripture says, “It was evening and it was morning. The . . . day.”) and we walked up to a sort of promenade overlooking the Old City. It was dark and we could see some cars still out and about, but for the most part, it was quiet.

We sat in a circle for the Friday evening prayer service, which is full of singing to welcome Shabbat. At one point, a few of the kids stood up and starting dancing. Before the rest of us quite knew what was happening, we were all on our feet, singing and dancing, laughing in our circle overlooking ancient history, juxtaposed with modernity in the cars and neon lights just below us.

My heart caught in my throat and there were tears in my eyes. To feel so much a part of something, to be in this beautiful place with my friends and my students. There was a very real collective energy in the air, an understanding that each of us had a place in the community we had created.

So for me, it wasn’t the prayer. It wasn’t the religious aspect of ceasing work Friday night to sing songs welcoming the day of rest. It was the fact that we were all together as a group, that everyone was welcomed and valued as an integral part of the community. For many present, this was a religious experience. But for me, this was a moment of transcendence because of the community itself regardless of the religious elements around which the community coalesced.

And that means that none of this has anything to do with spirituality at all.

What is Actually Cultural . . . and Then Some
Talking this over, another friend reminded me that finding joy in shared experiences is a common element of humanity. As humans we strive to connect to others, to relate to them and find a sense of belonging with them. Humans are social, tribal animals and we develop groups to help us feel a sense of safety and security. We like to be together because we survive better in groups than we do on our own. We support others in order to feel a part of their lives and to let them in as a part of ours. Culturally, we seek out connection with those around us because it makes us happier.

Additionally, sharing this experience with students was a moment of pride for me as an educator. My students had set aside their differences for a time and come together out of the sheer joy of the experience, the release of inhibition that comes from total engagement singing and dancing in the open air.

Looking around at my colleagues, I saw my own happiness and love reflected on their faces. We’d been traveling with students for about three days at that point and we were anxious and tired (and getting tired of them) but in that moment, it didn’t matter. That was why we worked as hard as we did. That was why we put up with what we did. We had worked to build a community and we were watching it develop and grow.

What was significant, then, on that promenade overlooking Jerusalem, was the sense of belonging that comes from being part of a group and the joy that stems from positive engagement with others. For me, then, this was a cultural experience.

A cultural experience . . . and then some. We can think about culture in terms of the anything that makes up the way of life of a group of people. This includes what we immediately see (food, clothing, celebrations) and also what we don’t immediately see but might be able to figure out given time (concepts of beauty, ideas of success, what constitutes a good life). Belonging, connection, relatedness, and shared experiences are all part of culture but exist on their own, too. So this experience was cultural, yes, but there’s more than culture that matters here. There’s an emphasis on shared humanity that transcends the culture of any one group.


As always, I’m glad for the dialogue that sparked these reflections. I’m glad to have a deeper understanding of myself from looking through the eyes of others and letting their ideas probe my own. I’m always willing to think, discuss, and clarify and it’s helpful to be around people who are responsive to that.