Sunday, January 16, 2011

An Open Letter to the Anonymous Man on the Bike

To the anonymous bike rider,
Greetings of Peace!

You may remember us from Saturday morning. I was the Jewish guy in the round hat and the long coat. I was walking with my daughter, the one with the curly reddish hair. We were just over the bridge headed toward the lake when we met you, well kind of met you. Its our Sabbath and we were on the way to synagogue. We don’t drive so it gives us time to talk and solve all the world’s problems. A whole bunch of bicycles passed us in a big group. I think you were just about the last in the pack. As you turned the corner and rode past us you shouted “Free Palestine!” (I found out later that you have done that before to other religious Jews on other Saturday mornings in the same neighborhood.) I joked to my daughter, that to give you the benefit of the doubt, maybe you believe that either my daughter or I are superheros (my daughter could be, I for sure am not) and you figured that we could free Palestine with our superpowers right then and there. Ok, sadly its not so simple but at least your heart would be in the right place. But, as generous as it is, its an unlikely hypothesis.

Lets face it, what you really wanted was to piss me off. Granted, maybe it’s a fair bet. A lot of Jews probably would be upset at the message itself. (Though, you might want to get a field guide to Jews because guys with round black hats and long shiny coats don’t tend to be real political and are often not Zionists at all.) So you were pretty sure this was going to make the Jewish guy angry. Well, you were right but for the wrong reason. Having never met me or spoken to me in our lives, you simply assume that I am a rabid nationalist (I am not) or that I do not want peace and freedom for Palestinians (I do.) Instead of seeing my daughter and I walking and enjoying each others company on their way to pray to G-d, you see a cardboard cutout of your favorite villain at which you can feel free to toss your bumper sticker message like a verbal grenade and run away on your bike. Yeah, I am angry at you, not because you support the cause of Palestine but because in the way you communicate to me you demonstrate that you don’t see ME at all. You don’t see my daughter at all. You are interested in scoring points and not in communication. That makes you part of the problem instead of part of the solution. How much longer do you think we can afford the luxury of talking past one another? How much longer do want to keep dehumanizing each other? Next time, do us both a favor and get off your bike and talk to me. It’s the courageous thing to do. Had you talked to me you might have seen that I am not your enemy, you might have seen that my daughter is one the kindest people you will ever meet and you might have had a forum on this blog to communicate your thoughts with all sorts of people, people who might actually be able to hear you.

The Baal Shem Tov taught that everything one experiences in life has a positive lesson for the service of G-d. I did learn something from you. You were working pretty hard on riding that bike, and yet as busy as your body was peddling, the cause was on your mind and the very moment you saw me the words leaped from your lips.

Ribbono Shel Olam (Rab ul Alameen), no matter how hard I work in this world, no matter how hard I spin my wheels, let my thoughts never stray far from You and may Your great Name always be on my lips. May Your praise leap from my mouth the moment I see the beauty of Your creation. Give peace and purity of heart to my new teacher, the anonymous man on the bike.

Kol tuv (all the best)
I hope we talk soon
-Lee Weissman


  1. Amen! And despite your assertions to the contrary, you are my superhero. I love you!

  2. Can a man blush on his own blog? (Umm.. that was my wife.) *adjusting my cape*

  3. How sweet of your wife. Great post.

    Often when folks see me in hijab they assume I'm a terrorist like they assume you're a Zionist and they yell " go home" to me. Where do I go? I am already home.

  4. Thank you for this great post.

    Safiyyah, personally what I took away from this post is that it is wrong to judge people based on preconceived notions...even if we know for a fact that someone belongs to a specific group, we should still take the time to get to know them as an individual rather than applying the group stereotypes to them.

    I could very well be misunderstanding you, but I can't help but feel that in your post you compared "zionist" with "terrorist"....and while we all have different perceptions of zionism, I would challenge you , next time you see or meet a "zionist" (whatever that even means), don't just brush them off as another "zionist"...because I promise you there are also many zionists that want to see freedom and prosperity for palestinians....and even if they don't, they are still human beings, and i am sure both you and them could both learn and benefit a lot from talking.

    Anyways, my sincere apologies if I misunderstood you...just a couple thoughts I thought I'd share :)

  5. We cannot see one of the most important features that make us who we are. A Scottish poet I once knew called it "our bag of pain." It's invisible, but its weight is undeniable. The longer we carry it, the worse we feel, especially if we do not have sense enough to put it down. Often the bag becomes so heavy that we feel as though it will crush us. That's no illusion; pain is all too real. How we like to discount it because we can't see it. You bike rider's bag sounds pretty full, and again you can not see the reasons. It takes time to stop and talk, and to talk enough to encourage the other to put down his or her load. Living in a world of strangers as we do, it might serve us well to observe the outlines of the load as it bends our backs. You may not see the bag, but you can always observe how a body struggles against it. Then the question becomes not whether "my bag in bigger than yours," but how to put your own bag down long enough to help another rest.

  6. I am thinking carefully how to work up to a productive discussion of Zionism. Suffice it to say for the moment, that many Muslims will be surprised at what some Jews mean when they call themselves "Zionist." There is a pretty wide range of meaning to it. Certainly the man on the bike was ascribing to me an ideology (likely what he would call Zionism -as Saffiyyah said) which has little to do with what I may actually believe.

  7. Anonymous- What you said reminds me of a comment by a chassidic master (I think it was Reb Simcha Bunim of Psishcha) who said if everyone could hang their pack of troubles at the door when they came in.. they would pick up their own pack when they went out. We each carry our own pain.
    Still, with the will to communicate and a few words we can actually know one another.
    The uniforms we wear, the labels we ascribe to ourselves say something about us, but so often the message is garbled by our own preconceptions or our limited information or simply the power of our own pain. The challenge for all of us is to actually talk and find out what is underneath. (I hope in a modest way this is an opportunity for that) Mostly, the more I know people the more I am dazzled by them. I may not end up agreeing with them but there is a benefit to getting into their world and seeing how they make sense in that world. Does that make sense?

  8. Great post. The assumptions people make are amazing and so often so wrong. I am a Muslim, but with a very Jewish sounding name, although I dont come from a Jewish background(maybe hundreds of years ago?) so people feel free to make all sorts of comments to me about "the other" thinking I am Jewish, or because I am a big white guy, that I probably hate Muslims, ect.

    They all get it wrong. I am a Muslim with major respect for Judaism, Jews, Islam, Muslims, and the West.

    Dont judge a book by it's cover because you'll ALWAYS be wrong. I look like a big biker, but me reality couldnt be farther from it.

  9. Isn't the definition of zionism the movement to establish a jewish homeland in zion (jerusalem)

  10. Rabbi Weissman, I sincerely apologize that you and your daughter had to endure this. This is not from the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and I personally am ashamed of whoever yelled out to both of you like that. As Muslims (I don't know if he was Muslim or not), we of all people should know not to judge somebody based off of what they look like or what they are wearing. I will be forwarding your post to our community members and asking if any of them was the one who yelled at you to please step up and do the right thing and apologize to you and your daughter. If there is anything else that I or any of us who reads this blog can do, please let us know.

  11. Reb Zvi, I am very much pained to read this post, but unfortunately it is all too true, and has happened to me also. I have a beard and long payos (sidecurls), always wear a hat or large knitted yarmulke, and although I don't always dress in black, I'm visibly a religious Jew.

    Back in the 1984 I wrote this poem about a similar street encounter with an angry Palestinian in Minneapolis which, fortunately, ended better than the one with your heckler:


    Face-to-face we met
    Between the heaps of snow,
    With only room for one to walk...
    You stopped and stared, sized me up,
    saw my skullcap, curling sidelocks --
    saw a JEW --
    hated enemy, one of THEM!!!
    I heard you call me Hitler,
    Zionist oppressor,
    blamed me for invasion
    of a land I've never seen..
    What to do? I stood and listened,
    cardboard symbol of oppression,
    target for you rage and pain...
    Silently I said a prayer,
    then touched a button on my coat:
    "PEACE" it said in Arabic and Hebrew.
    Our eyes embraced, then clasping hands,
    We stepped aside to help each other pass.
    Two human beings,
    walking on a very slippery trail.

    (Copyright 1984 by Yonassan Gershom, included in Eight Candles of Consciousness: Essays on Jewish Nonviolence, Lulu Press, 2009. A much longer version of this story was included in an essay I wrote for The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (a pro-Palestinan magazine) in the April 1991 issue called "The Peace Stone," which was reprinted in the same Eight Candles book mentioned above.

  12. Anonymous: You are more or less right but there are all sorts of shades of "Zionism". Hopefully some of the folks here will share their ideas of what Zionism means to them, so you can see what it looks like in its variety.

    Touqeer Ahmed: It never occurred to me that he might be a Muslim. (Too many female bicyclists in spandex out in front of him - 'nuff said) I have been walking to synagogue like this for many years and while a lot of people are really nice (I feel like a celebrity- strangers wave at me) frequently people do yell hostile things at us. Mostly, they are moving so fast that I can't make it out. I imagine they are just random slurs. In our prayers we say "To those who curse me let my soul be as dust." I take it as a kapara (an atonement for my sins) - I would rather this than other punishments I might deserve.
    I can say though that in close to 20 years of this, not ONCE has the person been identifiably Muslim (not once even identifiably Middle Eastern or South Asian). On the contrary, in my dealings with the Muslim community, I have been treated with exemplary respect. (Particularly by the students at UCI) I was at the RIS conference last year, just me and thousands of Muslims when the news came in of the Israeli boarding of the flotilla to Gaza. As upset as folks were, NOT ONE single person in a crowd of thousands chose to direct their anger at me. People continued to be friendly and respectful. I answered more insightful questions about Judaism that day than in any other single day of my life.

    Reb Yonassan: I am so glad that you are sharing your very compassionate voice with us. (BTW. Were you around Reb Zalman 1976-79?)

  13. Reb Zvi, concerning Reb Zalman: Yes, I was with him in the late 1970s-mid 1980s. I taught the first "Jewish visionquesting" workshop at the Fellowship Farm Shavuot retreat in 1980. My wife and I lived in the old B'nai Or house on Emlen street in Philly from 1982-83. I left the group after all the changes in 1985. But I learned a lot of wisdom from him back then, much of which I still carry with me.

  14. The courage to stop is one level, the courage to speak on a higher one, the courage to really listen higher still.
    Obviously it takes no courage at all to sling an insult from a car window, or a bike for that matter.
    As we walk to shul on shabbos, the occasional shouts emanating from the windows always land on my ears like the threats of a coward.

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