Oh, Those Fickle Gods

By Joan Kurtz

The New York Times Sunday Book Review recently hailed a new translation of Homer's "The Odyssey" by its first female translator, Emily Wilson. I signed it out of my public library along with another translation (for comparison) and a middle school-level book on "The Odyssey" (to refresh my memory of the story). So much of this book came rushing back to me as I read it in college as many of us had: the Trojan war with the Trojan horse; choosing to go between Scylla and Charybdis; hearing the Sirens sing; blinding the Cyclops; the constant praying and offering sacrifices to the various Greek gods: Zeus, Poseidon, Athena, Hermes, Aphrodite, etc. The translation flows evenly and is enjoyable to read.

Now, as a secular Jew, I look at Odysseus's tragic adventure of trying to get home rather sad. No matter how many prayers and sacrifices he makes, if the god(s) is upset with a minor detail with Odysseus's actions or words, he is beset with storms, lightning, wind, blackness, death! The gods are as capricious and fickle as all gods are. And no matter what he says or does, sometimes they listen; other times they don’t. Trying to figure out where he went wrong is a total waste of time …as is prayer.

Fortunately, I discovered this out shortly after I left college. I will stick with my forging ahead, doing whatever I can wherever I am without relying or beseeching assistance from an entity that does not exist. Too bad that Odysseus didn’t come to the same conclusion as I did. Then again, "The Odyssey" would not be as much fun to read if Odysseus didn’t have all these obstacles to face and overcome.



Debrief from the Secular Social Justice Conference

By Adam Beardsley

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the Secular Social Justice Conference in Washington, DC. It was hosted by the American Humanist Association. It was a very interesting and insightful conference to attend. There were a variety of secular social justice workers who spoke about their work and the issues that concern them. Many of them discussed strategies for non-violent direct action and protesting/demonstrating. Almost all of the speakers were people of color and focused on identity-based social justice issues.

There were presentations on differences in the criminal justice system between white people and people of color; harm reduction strategies, especially in regards to drug use and addiction; and the tie between the Evangelical Christian community and the Trump wing of the Republican Party.

This conference was especially powerful for me as someone involved in a couple of different social justice and political organizing spaces. Considering the current political climate, my big take-away is that social justice work is necessarily intersectional. In order for Black Lives Matter to be successful they need to fight against white supremacy and oppression as a whole. This means that ignoring the (especially negative) impact white supremacy and oppression has on other groups (Jews, atheists/Humanists, women, and any other persecuted/oppressed group) only hurts the effort by any of these groups to achieve liberation. In addition, almost every speaker highlighted the importance of people in the (mostly white) crowd to show up not as allies, but instead as co-conspirators (i.e., white people putting themselves between BLM protesters and the police instead of just being part of the crowd) in causes that don't directly affect them. When we are working for social justice, we need to consider everyone who is affected by oppression and not just ourselves.

I am planning on hosting a workshop discussing what I learned at the Secular Social Justice Conference during our annual CSJO Conference being held on May 25-28 in Chevy Chase, MD. Stay tuned for more information about this particular workshop, and make sure you register for the conference.


Language Learning: Hebrew, French, and Japanese

By Samara Cogan

I inherited many things from my father. His smile, his quiet persistence, and his inability to retain a language other than English are a few examples of the things we had in common. His first and final attempt to learn Hebrew was the Torah portion he was required to read for his Bar Mitzvah. He ended up memorizing a recording of the portion, and after the ceremony, he never thought about Hebrew again.

I, too, struggled to learn Hebrew. Though in my case, it wasn't for my Bat Mitzvah (thank you, Folkshul, for not having a language requirement!). My next door neighbor, who was a bit more observant in her Judaism than I was, took me on as a Hebrew student when we were both in middle school. This lasted for one whole afternoon, and then we never spoke of it again. I can't pinpoint exactly what went wrong. Was it the new alphabet? Was it reading the letters backwards? Whatever the reason, I just didn't get it.

Next up was my attempt to learn French. This lasted a bit longer than one afternoon. I took French classes for six years in middle and high school and one semester of French in college. The root of my struggle to learn French was easy to suss out: I hated speaking in front of other people. I got that from my dad, too! Speaking in front of others in English was nerve wracking enough, but speaking (and making mistakes) in front of other people in French? My worst nightmare. I dreaded each class, but I managed to get passing grades. Writing and listening balanced out how badly I stumbled during speaking lessons. I still have some French vocabulary retained; pamplemousse is a favorite of mine. But other than that, I haven't practiced speaking, reading, or writing in French for years, and much of what I learned has faded away.

All of this brings me to my current efforts to learn another language: Japanese. This may seem like a random choice, but it is related to my father. During the Vietnam War, he was stationed at a military base in Okinawa, Japan. He developed a taste for sushi, adopted a dog (RIP Eloise), and picked up a tiny bit of Japanese. He's the reason I know how to use chopsticks, and his love for Japan is reflected in all of the pieces of art in our house that he brought back with him after he was finished serving. I have wanted to visit Japan for years, particularly to see Okinawa and Tokyo. Now that I have enough money saved up and a date in mind, it's time to buckle down and learn some Japanese!

The difference in my language-learning endeavor this time is that I have a personally motivating and specific goal in mind. I want to learn enough conversational Japanese to make my trip more enjoyable. I have heard that the Japanese are usually encouraging of visitors who try to speak the language, even if they make mistakes. I'm not focusing on Kanji (characters used in the Japanese writing system), and I don't have to learn every Japanese word ever uttered. All I have to do is study common Japanese phrases that are useful while traveling. Still a challenge, but not impossible for me to accomplish.

Who knows? Maybe my study of the Japanese language will reignite the spark in me that gave up on French and Hebrew! We shall see.