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Will You Be My Neighbor?  (Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon)

09/21/2018 07:48:07 PM


Hannah Orden

            Tonight is the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, which means Yom Kippur can’t be far behind.  Which means it’s time to start confessing.  It’s an old Jewish tradition.  Well, really, it’s more than a tradition.  It’s required.  So, here is one of my confessions for this year: I have never thought of Jews as nice people.  In my defense, this is the way I was raised.  Someone once told my mother that she was a nice woman, and my mom was terribly insulted.  She did not want to be “nice.”  She wanted people to think she was interesting, avant-garde, intelligent, edgy.  But definitely not “nice.”  She also was a New Yorker and raised us in the Midwest as displaced New Yorkers.  Midwesterners have a reputation for being nice.  But that, my mother made very clear, was not us.

            With this background in mind, you may understand that I was never a big fan of Mister Rogers Neighborhood.  I was already in high school by the time the show began in 1968.  But it was still going strong 20-some years later when our daughter Bella was young.  Bella loved Mister Rogers.  I kept trying to get her to watch Sesame street which was fun and colorful, multicultural and maybe even a little edgy.  Not everyone on Sesame Street was nice.  There was Oscar who was grouchy.  And Miss Piggy who was a bit of a diva.  And the Count who was a vampire.  But Bella had no interest in Sesame Street.  She liked Mister Rogers.  I would spend five minutes watching with her and then have to leave the room before I tore my hair out because Mister Rogers was the epitome of “nice.”  There was Mister Rogers feeding his fish, putting on his sweater, singing “Won’t you be my neighbor?” And there was Lady Evelyn who couldn’t have been sweeter if you had drenched her in syrup, and there were the dingy old puppets that seemed to belong to a bygone time.  I couldn’t quite fathom how this show managed to stay on the air, even if it was public television.  

            If you have ever seen the show, you may remember that, there was a trolley from Mister Roger’s neighborhood to the Land of Make Believe.  However, it always seemed to me the whole Neighborhood was “make believe.”  I experienced it as representing middle class, white, Protestant America, a world where everything is “fine” and no one has bad feelings.  I thought it was the world of Dick and Jane that we read in school when I was growing up, a world where little blond children lived in a house with a white picket fence and a dog and ran and jumped and played all day long.   As a child I felt bad because I didn’t have that life.  I lived in an apartment building in the city with a mean janitor who wouldn’t let children play in the yard behind the building, a world where parents argued and worried about money, and life was messy but real.

As you might imagine, when I heard there was a documentary film about Mr. Rogers, I had no interest in seeing it until I heard an interview with the director on Fresh Air and realized that there was more to the neighborhood than I had noticed.  Don and I went to see the movie while we were on vacation, and I saw it again when we returned to New Jersey.  There’s a scene in the film when Fred’s wife says that he had a lot of anger because people didn’t get the depth of the show.  Bingo!  Guilty as charged!  But once it was pointed out to me, I began to see what he was trying to do.  He believed in goodness and kindness and love, but he also addressed difficult issues in ways that children could understand.

            Congregation Beth Hatikvah has chosen “Breaking Down Barriers” as our theme for this year.  We will be talking more about the theme on Yom Kippur.  But over the past few months I have thought a lot about what qualities we need to develop in ourselves so that we can break down barriers.  And I think Mister Rogers has something to teach us about that.

Fred Rogers got his start just as television was becoming popular.  He had a vision of what television could be.  Instead of violence and slapstick, he wanted to use it as a tool for good.  In an interview he said that people say to children “come on, let’s watch a cartoon, without even thinking about what the cartoon is saying about human dignity.”  He believed that television had a “chance of building real community out of the whole country.”  We all know that it has not turned out that way.  Television has contributed in some very harmful ways to the divisions in our country.  But for many years Mister Rogers did create community among the children of America.

The show began in 1968, a year of conflict over the Vietnam War and race relations. There were protests on college campuses, and riots in inner cities.  It was the year that Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.  And the show addressed all of these issues.  In the Land of Make Believe, King Friday the 13th was against change. In one episode, he worries about protesters, so he builds a wall and sets up a border guard. The king says: “Down with the changers!”  Outside the palace, on the other side of the wall, the puppets are attaching little notes to balloons.  The notes say things like: “Tenderness,” “love,” “stop all fighting.”  The puppets send their notes over the wall as messages to King Friday.

            In another episode Officer Clemens, who is black, stops by while Mister Rogers is cooling his bare feet in a wading pool.  It’s a hot day and Mister Rogers asks Officer Clemens to join him.  On the surface, it seems like nothing is happening.  The camera shows four feet in the water – two black and two white while Mister Rogers talks abut how good it feels to cool your feet on a hot day.  But the message was there without having it spelled out.  Children all over the country were watching this and seeing that it’s perfectly good and normal for those four feet to be in the water together.  Years later, at a commencement speech at Middlebury college, Fred Rogers said “The picture of those four feet together in the water said as much about neighbors and possible neighborhoods as all the words I could have thought to say.”

            By his example, Fred Rogers showed children how to treat others with dignity, respect, and kindness.  He was an ordained minister, but instead of preaching in a church, he used the medium of television to spread his message.  Someone in the film observes that: “Fred’s theology was love your neighbor and love yourself.”  He wanted all children to know that they had value.  He sang a song, which I always thought was sappy because I really didn’t understand what he was trying to do.  He sang: “It’s you I like, it’s not the things you wear.  It’s not the way you do your hair.  But it’s you I like, the way you are right now.  I hope you remember, even when you’re feeling blue, that it’s you I like, it’s you yourself, it’s you.  It’s you I like.”  He believed that children needed to hear that.   He believed that people can’t grow unless they are accepted just as they are.

            One of my favorite scenes in the film was when the tiger puppet Daniel says to Lady Evelyn – “I’ve been wondering if I’m a mistake… I’m not like anyone else I know.  I get to dreaming I’m just a fake.”  Lady Evelyn in her typical sweet and kind way responds: “I think you’re fine just as you are.”  She sings to him “You’re not a fake; you’re no mistake; you are my friend.”  But instead of Daniel being reassured and happy, he keeps singing about wondering if he’s a mistake and a fake, and the song becomes a duet.  One of the producers of the show says it’s a recognition that “it’s not so easy to quiet our doubts and fears.”

            After we saw the film, I asked Bella what she liked about Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, and she giggled and said: “I don’t know... I just liked him.”  And I started to get it.  Mister Rogers made a relationship with each child who watched the show.  He said: “When I look at the camera, I think of a person I am talking to, not any particular person, but one person who is watching.”    The children felt that he knew them and cared about them.  He told them they were special. 

              Each time Fred Rogers gave a commencement speech, he told a story about the Special Olympics in Seattle.  He always asked: “Have you heard my favorite story that came from the Seattle Special Olympics? Well, for the 100-yard dash, there were nine contestants, all of them “so-called” physically or mentally disabled. All nine of them assembled at the starting line, and at the sound of the gun, they took off. But not long afterward, one little boy stumbled and fell, and hurt his knee and began to cry. The other eight children heard him crying. They slowed down, turned around, and ran back to him. Every one of them ran back to him. One little girl with Down Syndrome bent down and kissed the boy, and said, “This'll make it better.” The little boy got up, and he and the rest of the runners linked their arms together, and joyfully walked to the finish line. They all finished the race at the same time. And when they did, everyone in that stadium stood up, and clapped, and whistled, and cheered for a long, long time. People who were there are still telling this story with great delight. And you know why? Because deep down, we know that what matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win, too. Even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then.”

            If I had heard that story before seeing the documentary, I probably would have thought: “Well, isn’t that nice,” and not paid much attention.  But I am beginning to realize that “nice” and “kind” is not the same thing as superficial or fake.  True kindness just might be what the world needs most right now.  I seem to have a blind spot when it comes to noticing the value of simple acts of kindness.  It came up again at the end of the summer when I read a rabbi’s response to the Broadway Musical The Band’s Visit.  Several people had told me how much they loved it, so Don and I went to see it.  I thought it was unbearably slow.   Nothing much seemed to happen.  I was having the same reaction I used to have to Mister Rogers.  I wasn’t quite ready to run out of the theatre, tearing my hair, but I was eager for the show to be over. Then I read a commentary by Rabbi Jeff Salkin who said: “Sometimes a Broadway show is not just a performance.  It is a dream set to music.”  My first thought was: “Did he see the same show I saw?”  But as I read on, I realized I had missed something important, just as I had missed the depth of Mr. Roger’s neighborhood.  Rabbi Salkin says; “The Band’s Visit is almost a messianic moment.  Israeli Jews provide hospitality for Egyptian strangers – just as Abraham did for strangers in the same desert.  People see themselves as merely people – with secrets, longings, and love.”  He concludes: “The Band’s Visit reminds us of what could be.”

            That phrase stuck with me, and I realized that simple acts of kindness not only are helpful and nice, but they have the power to remind us of what could be.  They remind us that it is possible to build a better world, step by step, with many small acts of caring.  This idea hit home for me when I began my personal preparation for High Holidays.  It is my practice in the month before Rosh Hashanah to think and write about when I have experienced light and help in the past year.  This year, as I began to write, the first thing that came to mind was the kindness of some members of Congregation Beth Hatikvah when I experienced a painful loss.  A hug, a listening ear, a kind word, those were the things that meant the most to me this year.

As we try to reach across the barriers that divide us, as we try to see more and more people as our neighbors, as part of our neighborhood, we will need to develop our capacity for kindness and compassion.  Perhaps we will need to dip our toes in the water with people who are not quite like us even when we don’t feel entirely comfortable.  We may have to send messages of tenderness, love and peace over the physical and metaphorical walls we have erected, floating trial balloons to see what kind of response we get.  We will certainly need to know that we are worthy of love just the way we are and so is every other person we come in contact with.  We will need to welcome those who seem like strangers and find our common humanity.  We will need to connect deeply with individuals.  We might need to learn to say, “It’s you I like,” even to people who don’t seem likeable to us.

            If we are going to break down barriers, we will have to know that we are all in this together.  We may not get there first if we stop to help others, but ultimately, we will all go farther.

            And what better way to break down barriers between people than to say, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”  Fred Rogers said it in so many words.  The people in The Band’s Visit said it by their actions.  It is always an invitation to a relationship.  As Mister Rogers said: “The greatest thing we can do is let everybody know that they are loved and capable of loving.”

            Toward the end of the film, Fred Rogers mentions the Hebrew phase: Tikkun Olam.  “No matter what our job,” he says, “we are called to Tikkun Olam, to be repairers of creation.  Thank you for whatever you can do to bring love to others and yourself.” 

V’ahavta l’reiacha kamokha, the Torah tells us: You shall love your neighbors as yourself.  What a good message to take with us into the new year.

Tue, August 11 2020 21 Av 5780