“Build my house of love:” Kol Nidre 2018/5779

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Rabbi Lisa Edwards

When my brother and I were kids in suburban Chicago, we had a playground in the backyard that included, besides the typical swingset and sandbox, a log cabin big enough for the two of us to fit in comfortably, even perhaps a friend or two. Over the years, I don’t remember how, the roof developed a hole big enough for us to climb through. Since it had no door, nor any glass or plastic covering the windows, we didn’t really need the roof entrance, but i think it was nonetheless our main route into and out of our backyard home. Mine anyway. My brother is four years old than I am. He grew up sooner than I did, so I spent a lot of time alone in that log cabin which — since I was growing up in the Walt Disney Hey Days (oh, did those ever end?) — could as easily be home to Davy Crockett as to Wendy in Peter Pan, well, actually less Wendy and more Peter Pan himself. Mary Martin is far from the only “girl” to play Peter Pan when given the chance. In fact, just as “friends of Dorothy” has become a not very veiled code phrase for gay men, so too ought there be a “friends of Wendy” or maybe “of Wendy and Peter,” for I’m far from alone in noticing the queerness of the Peter Pan stories: the lost boys are all boys who happily live together; Peter seems asexual; historically and still today women play Peter Pan far more often than men or teenage boys;[1] young trans and non-binary gendered people report identifying or at least appreciating the ambiguities of Peter Pan[2]

Do you remember the house that the lost boys made for Wendy when she arrived in Neverland and was shot with an arrow by one of the boys (Tootles) who mistook her for a bird (a Wendy bird)?

They build a house around her to protect her while she recovers. In 1904, for the original staged version of Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, J.M. Barrie himself, author of Peter Pan, created a tentlike structure that could be set up on stage while Wendy sings:

I wish I had a darling house

The littlest ever seen,

With funny little red walls

And roof of mossy green.[2]

This past summer Tracy and I had the wonderful opportunity in London of going to the outdoor theatre in Regent’s Park to see a production of Peter Pan created for the centenary commemoration of World War I. The familiar story was framed by a new one — Peter Pan drops by for the stories being told NOT at the nursery in the Darling household, but to a World War I field hospital where wounded British soldiers are cared for by a nurse named Wendy who reads to them at night from a copy of Peter Pan that one of the soldiers had hidden under his pillow.

When Peter arrives, the soldiers morph into the lost boys who Peter takes with him along with nurse Wendy to Neverland.

The wounded soldiers of our Peter Pan production morphed into the lost boys, but they also, like the original lost boys, and Wendy too, opted to go back home and grow up. It was a poignant painful moment near the end of the play when the audience realized what that meant — in opting to go home and grow up, they would become the “lost boys” — the boys lost in the devastating war meant “to end all wars.”

This production was in part tribute to George Llewelyn Davies, the eldest of the 5 Davies brothers befriended and later adopted by J.M. Barrie, for whom Barrie wrote the Peter Pan stories. Upon hearing Barrie speak of dead babies who went to live in Neverland, little George is credited with saying what became one of Peter Pan’s most famous lines: “To die will be an awfully big adventure.”[3] George volunteered for service when the UK entered World War I; he died of a gunshot wound to the head at age 21 (not quite) in the trenches at Flanders.

Sadly, another one of the 5 brothers also died at age 21 (a month shy): Michael drowned while a student at Oxford, his body was found enfolded in the arms of his “best” friend, Rupert (Buxton). A suicide pact between lovers was suspected but never verified.

According to Wikipedia, The Oxford Magazine published the following in an obituary for the pair:

Two House men whose loss would have been more widely and more deeply mourned, it would be impossible to find. They were intimate friends, and in their death they were not divided. It is we who must learn to live without them.[7]

In the Peter Pan production we saw last summer the house that the lost boys created for Wendy was a magical piece of stagecraft. Out of the field hospital beds a charming house for Wendy rose up before our very eyes.

We need some of those clever lost boys to help us put up the BCC sukkah next Sunday afternoon — any lost boys here who might help? Ask me about it later — it’s really fun.

It wasn’t until we saw Peter Pan in London that I learned that backyard log cabins and playhouses are called Wendy Houses, named for Wendy’s little house in Neverland.

Did you all know that? It’s mostly so in England, and in South Africa where Wendy Houses are small prefabricated houses for low income people — often put into backyards of other homes.

Toy companies have been selling Wendy Houses since the early 1900s when Peter Pan first became popular. Of course they range from the simplest cloth over a card table to the most elaborate — a pint size but fully outfitted thatched roof Wendy House was given to then Princess Elizabeth by the country of Wales for her 6th birthday. Queen Elizabeth’s grandchildren play in it today, and soon her great grandchildren will.

The City of Los Angeles is looking into the possibility of helping fund Wendy Houses of the South African variety (though I don’t think they’re calling them that) in people’s backyards as homes for homeless people. The plan would be to match up vetted people in need of housing with those of us who may have the space in our yards and our hearts to help house them. The city would lend homeowners money to build the places and forgive a little on the loan year by year for 10 years and then the rest, providing formerly homeless people occupy the tiny homes all those years. Some of us at BCC might be able to look into this promising possibility.

The potentially sad part of Wendy houses is that they are built only for one or two people (or children). There is little room to share or even to have company over. Wendy Houses are meant to make you want to move out of them eventually, to leave them to go back home to family (as Wendy did), or to have room to grow up.

In a way, these tiny houses of childhood, fun though they may be, are the opposite of what Jews hope our children or we ourselves will come to desire in terms of where we live. By which i do NOT mean Jews should aspire to live in mansions and palaces, though some Jews do. Rather, I mean that we also learn to look beyond ourselves, a tiny playhouse might be fun for a while, but it can get lonely.

On Rosh Hashanah I spoke some about the Hebrew word for house — bayit, and its construct as found in the name of our congregation: Beth/beit Chayim Chadashim – House of New Life.

Chayim is one of a handful of words in Hebrew whose singular and plural forms are the same. When we say House of New Life, it’s left to interpretation whether we mean that as one life or as many lives, whether we’re to take that very personally — a new life for me, or as a house of new life because because it is filled with many lives, many people coming together in community. In the case of our congregation, the ambiguity — the double meaning — seems appropriate. By creating what we hope is a safe space, a warm blanket, for everyone, we create a living room — a place that breathes life into each of us, that allows us to come together to celebrate our achievements, mourn our losses, find protection from the scary world outside, even as we gather to organize and prepare to act together to change what’s scary.

In her essay called “The Bayit and the K’neset,” found at the beginning of our Yom Kippur mahzor, Dr. Dalia Marx, one of Cantor Juval’s treasured teachers, considers the Hebrew term for a synagogue. Because of the way Hebrew uses the term Beit to construct the names of so many things (I gave a bunch of examples last week), it stands to reason that the generic term for a synagogue would begin with Beit and indeed it does. But what would you guess it to be? Beit Tefilah – the house of prayer, perhaps, or Beit Elohim – the house of God. Yes, those terms are sometimes used, but the more common, generic term is a Beit K’neset, the House of Gathering. Dr. Marx in her essay reminds us of the dedication of the First Temple in Jerusalem, that massive structure that took many years and thousands of people and forests of trees and mountains of rock, and most of King Solomon’s life and wealth to build, and at its dedication King Solomon said: “Behold, the highest heavens cannot contain You; how much less this House that I have built” (1 Kings 8:27).

“God does not require a home,” writes Prof. Marx, “God cannot be ‘housed.’…the Temple,” she reminds us, “was meant for the people.” (Mishkan Hanefesh, YK, p. xix)

It may be where we go in community to talk with God, because Jewish tradition calls us together in prayer, not to lonely mountaintops or tiny Wendy Houses, but we don’t come to synagogue only in our search for God.

Prof. Marx notes that Jewish tradition also teaches no one should be left out, thus she reminds us that tonight before Kol Nidre, just a little while ago, we recited a version of the 13th century formulation by Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg proclaiming that all Jews everywhere “hold it lawful to pray with those who have transgressed.”

I am reminded, in reading those words, of a time in BCC’s history when that traditional declaration before Kol Nidre was actually used against our congregation.

Last week at Rosh Hashanah you might remember that I made use of some of the history of our congregation compiled by two of BCC’s historians — Steve Sass and Larry Nathenson. In their history of BCC comes the story of the responses (responsa) written in support of and also more famously AGAINST BCC’s application in the early 1970s when our fledgling congregation asked to become a member of the Reform Movement. While rabbi friends and allies of BCC such as Rabbi Erwin Herman, Rabbi Leonard Beerman and Rabbi Sandy Ragins wrote in support, the highly influential Reform Rabbi Solomon Freehof wrote in opposition. All were in answer to the question asked in 1973 from then President-elect of the Reform Movement Rabbi Alexander Schindler (who later became one of our community’s staunchest advocates). Here’s how it was described in the published collection of responsa: “A rabbi on the West Coast [Rabbi Herman] has organized a congregation of homosexuals. He has said: ‘These are people facing their own situation. They have become a social grouping.’ Is it in accordance with the spirit of Jewish tradition to encourage the establishment of a congregation of homosexuals?”

Among the reasons given for his vehement opposition, Rabbi Freehof picked up on the same passage from our Kol Nidre service as Dr. Marx. In essence he said, we are obligated to pray with sinners, therefore we shouldn’t encourage homosexual sinners to gather in congregations on their own, but rather to be a part of our congregations. This was the most gentle of his arguments against us (which included don’t give them an opportunity to gather and be “available to each other”). Despite his opposition though, the Reform Movement’s congregational arm overwhelmingly approved BCC’s membership on June 9, 1974, and according to our website history: BCC’s admission to the UAHC [Reform Movement] marked the first time a synagogue with an outreach to gays and lesbians was accepted by any of the Jewish movements. It was also the first gay and lesbian congregation of any faith accepted into membership by a mainstream religious denomination.

By continuing to build a safe home for ourselves despite opposition, we were able to help other congregations too organize and be recognized, to become one safe haven of many to those seeking safe shelter and the comforts of home.

What was magical at the outdoor theatre last summer was that the charming Wendy House could be built right in front of us. But more compelling — what made it magic — was the lost boys coming together to build it, to protect someone they didn’t yet know, to give her a home and in so doing help literally to restore her to life.

It is what is magical to me about BCC too, our Beit Chayim Chadashim, we built all those many years ago, not only out of need but also out of desire, and we maintain it for those reasons as well — we’re here because we want to be here. We build a house together to protect, to nurture, to take care of one another so no one need live alone unless by choice.

And although we do not today — I hope not anyway — find the kind of resistance in the Reform movement that we found in the 1970s, we have only to look not very far beyond our doors and windows to find resistance bubbling up from elsewhere, to realize that younger generations – our children – our queer siblings — well, all of us, may yet face the kinds of oppression and threats we might briefly have thought were coming to an end way back in 1973 when Rabbi Ragins wrote his hopeful closing words in our support, saying: “homosexuals who want their own congregations should not only be allowed to have them, but encouraged and assisted, and accorded full membership in [our Movement] the UAHC. To do anything else would make us accomplices of the repressive patterns of our culture, patterns that should be broken and discarded on the junkheap of civilization.”[4]

And beyond the threats to the queer identified among us, there are also so many larger threats that can be faced more safely, more easily, more successfully if we work together.

I’ll talk more about some of this tomorrow morning, but for now i invite us all to think about what it means to continue building a house, making it a home, a place for all of us.

Down the road at our true BCC, our own Beit K’nesset House of Gathering at 6090 W.Pico, I often point out the many windows and doors in our sanctuary. You can see it here too, because it is Jewish tradition to have windows in a sanctuary, preferably ones that open. It harkens back not to Wendy Houses but to the story told in the Book of Daniel when Daniel, far from Jerusalem, prays facing it through a window in his room. Because God hears Daniel’s prayers, we also include windows in the rooms in which we pray.

But just as a we know the House we build together is not for God to dwell in but for us, so too do we know that the windows and doors aren’t for God to come and go, but for us. Thus in our sanctuary we have a skylight to look up toward the heavens, and a window to look out to the glass doors we throw open to welcome newcomers, and that we use to come and go through the garden in our backyard, and we have windows and a door that look out on and open onto Pico Blvd. itself — the neighborhood we live in, not all of it so beautiful, but this way we remind ourselves not to remain apart from our neighborhood, not to hide behind our walls, but to stay alert and a part of the city in which we live, in which we chose to build our House of Gathering, our house of new life.

How do we make a house a home? In Hebrew it’s easy — bayit means house and it means home. But in life it’s not always so easy. It requires diligence, it requires conversation, it requires a genuine desire on everyone’s part to turn our hearts toward one another, to gather together within a sacred space, but also to walk out the doors of our synagogue hand in hand to work together on making our larger world — our neighborhood, our city, our state, our country, our planet — also feel like home.

For many years Tracy and i had a piece of art hanging in our home built around two verses from Proverbs. Our art piece translates this way:

Wisdom builds a house

Understanding establishes a home

Knowledge furnishes the rooms

With all that is precious and pleasing

Proverbs 24:33-4

I showed it to Tamara Kline recently wondering if it seemed at all musical to her.

Where’s the heart? she asked. Where’s the love?

Oh i said, you’re right. I need a different text for a song about building a home.

I found it in a version of…Peter Pan…but not the Disney version or the Mary Martin version, but rather a more obscure stage production from 1950, starring Jean Arthur as Peter Pan and Boris Karloff as Captain Hook. The music and the lyrics are by Leonard Bernstein, the brilliant composer, conductor, teacher, peace activist, bisexual, Jew, whose 100th birthday has been commemorated this year (he died in 1990) all over the world with concerts and festivals and even a revival of his barely remembered version of Peter Pan, sung once at BCC, Cantor Juval reminded me, by his friend Cantor Ken Cohen for the cantors’ concert Juval hosted and produced in 2011 at BCC in celebration of — what else? — Our new home at 6090 W. Pico. Cantor Juval will sing it to us in a few moments.

Without wanting to make too many assumptions about what home means to you, looks like to you, I’m asking some friends to send around a little — very little — gift from me to you — choose whatever home “symbol” feels right to you + a safety pin to hold it — may your dream, your vision of home hold you safely, inspire you, remind you of this community, this night, these Days of Awe we’re blessed to spend together, and yes, I hope, of me. G’mar tov — May we all continue for many years to come together to build our house with love, and to make our house a home for everyone who desires to live in community with us.

PETER PAN: BUILD MY HOUSE
Music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein

Will you build me a house?

A house that really will be mine.

Then let me give you my design.

A simple scheme of … the house I dream of.

Build my house of wood.

Build my house of stone.

Build my house of brick and mortar.

Make the ceiling strong.

Strong against the storm.

Shelter when the days grow shorter.

But build my house of love.

And paint my house with trusting.

And warm it with the warmth of your heart.

Make a floor of faith.

Make the walls of truth.

Put a roof of peace above.

Can you build my house of love.

 

———

[1] “Seeing a female-bodied character embodying the sort of roughness, recklessness, and confident swagger socially afforded to boys is a rarity and thus, a sort of treasure—particularly for queer women, and queer or questioning girls, so often denied popular representations of their own likeness….For me, …watching female Peters like Mary Martin flirt unabashedly with Wendy became a personal milestone for coming into my queerness…”

Shannon Keating, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/12/peter-pan-queer-icon/383422/

 

[2] Trans writer Austin Chant: I once attended a panel about the unique ways that trans people experience age discrimination. The panel host, who was nonbinary, recounted being treated as if they were younger and less experienced than their coworkers of the same age; their androgyny was seen as “immaturity”. This is a problem I’ve frequently noticed affecting trans men as well, particularly those who don’t pass and/or haven’t undergone medical transition: we’re seen as “boys” much more readily than “men”, regardless of our actual ages. As a result, I think many of us internalize a sense of being forever cut off from adult masculinity. The androgyny of youth makes “boy” an easier, safer space to inhabit — but we also get stuck there, often whether we like it or not.

Not shockingly, I know a lot of trans men who, as boys who can never seem to grow up, relate to Peter Pan on at least a superficial level. However, I think the metaphor goes deeper than that. Firstly, Peter isn’t just forever young in the sense that he doesn’t age, but in the sense that he’s defiant of adulthood and all it entails. He rejects grown-up interference in his life; he rules over a world in which freedom, self-fulfillment, and imagination are paramount and builds a community with other abandoned children. It makes sense to me that this would appeal to a marginalized community who are threatened and excluded by mainstream society, told that they do not and will never belong.

Secondly, the trade-off of Peter’s eternal youth is that he is locked out of society and all the joys associated with it. In the epilogue of Peter and Wendy, Wendy gets married, builds a family of her own, and passes down a legacy to her daughter. Meanwhile, Peter’s only legacy is himself; his Lost Boys leave Neverland and become a part of Wendy’s life instead of his. (In the book, even Tinker Bell dies a few years after the story ends.) In this sense, I think Peter Pan reflects more than a queer/trans empowerment fantasy — his story digs into a set of very queer/trans anxieties about abandonment, infantilization, and exclusion.

https://austinchant.com/2017/12/06/peter-pan-as-a-trans-metaphor/

 

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Llewelyn_Davies

[4] http://bcc-la.org/about/history/

 

[1] “Seeing a female-bodied character embodying the sort of roughness, recklessness, and confident swagger socially afforded to boys is a rarity and thus, a sort of treasure—particularly for queer women, and queer or questioning girls, so often denied popular representations of their own likeness….For me, …watching female Peters like Mary Martin flirt unabashedly with Wendy became a personal milestone for coming into my queerness…” Shannon Keating, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/12/peter-pan-queer-icon/383422/

[1] Trans writer Austin Chant: I once attended a panel about the unique ways that trans people experience age discrimination. The panel host, who was nonbinary, recounted being treated as if they were younger and less experienced than their coworkers of the same age; their androgyny was seen as “immaturity”. This is a problem I’ve frequently noticed affecting trans men as well, particularly those who don’t pass and/or haven’t undergone medical transition: we’re seen as “boys” much more readily than “men”, regardless of our actual ages. As a result, I think many of us internalize a sense of being forever cut off from adult masculinity. The androgyny of youth makes “boy” an easier, safer space to inhabit — but we also get stuck there, often whether we like it or not.

Not shockingly, I know a lot of trans men who, as boys who can never seem to grow up, relate to Peter Pan on at least a superficial level. However, I think the metaphor goes deeper than that. Firstly, Peter isn’t just forever young in the sense that he doesn’t age, but in the sense that he’s defiant of adulthood and all it entails. He rejects grown-up interference in his life; he rules over a world in which freedom, self-fulfillment, and imagination are paramount and builds a community with other abandoned children. It makes sense to me that this would appeal to a marginalized community who are threatened and excluded by mainstream society, told that they do not and will never belong.

Secondly, the trade-off of Peter’s eternal youth is that he is locked out of society and all the joys associated with it. In the epilogue of Peter and Wendy, Wendy gets married, builds a family of her own, and passes down a legacy to her daughter. Meanwhile, Peter’s only legacy is himself; his Lost Boys leave Neverland and become a part of Wendy’s life instead of his. (In the book, even Tinker Bell dies a few years after the story ends.) In this sense, I think Peter Pan reflects more than a queer/trans empowerment fantasy — his story digs into a set of very queer/trans anxieties about abandonment, infantilization, and exclusion.

https://austinchant.com/2017/12/06/peter-pan-as-a-trans-metaphor/

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Llewelyn_Davies

[4] http://bcc-la.org/about/history/

 

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