I signed up to be a volunteer usher at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco (the JCCSF) several months ago as a way to meet new people, participate in community, and also admittedly to see/hear their Arts and Ideas events for free.
I had volunteered for two events in the weeks before. When I showed up for the volunteer orientation (who is assigned where, etc) for the event this last Wednesday, it had been months since I signed up; I couldn’t remember who the speaker was. I saw her name posted — Shirin Ebadi. It was unfamiliar to me. I couldn’t remember what in her “bio” had drawn me.
There were two business-suited security guys attending our orientation. That hadn’t happened at my previous two gigs. When the whole orientation began focusing on security, I’m sure my heart rate and blood pressure started rising.
My mind raced back to experiences of walking past the JCC in recent years. Twenty-five years ago I had belonged to the gym for awhile in the old building. Then I moved to the other side of town and didn’t keep my membership up when the new building was erected. Occasionally I would find myself walking past the new JCC. I’d watch the security guard open the trunk of each car before it entered the underground parking garage. I couldn’t help but imagine that a really good terrorist would have their bomb or weapons better hidden than in full view in the trunk. I felt the inspections were too cursory. The scene always evoked anxiety in me.
While my father was probably the least religious Jew on earth, in his late years he became deeply concerned about anti-semitic attacks on synagogues and other Jewish gathering places around the world. He always wanted to show me the reports and statistics. There were lots of them.
I’ve heard and read that Jews aren’t the only ones who are repeatedly attacked; they’re just better at documentation. This may be true — about the better documentation I mean. Lots of minority groups are routinely targeted for attacks around the world. As a species we always seem able to find groups to vilify as the “other” and attack. That doesn’t take away from the degree of persecution and violence Jews have suffered for centuries and now. The very Trump supporters who hate and express violent intentions and actions towards Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans and other groups, also hold a deep hatred for Jews. Life is not so dangerous for Jews in America right now, but the potential is always there. I know this.
I grew up with the kind of anti-semitism that is ugly but covert. There were too few Jews in Phoenix for them to care much about us. I simply felt their dislike and disrespect, their “other-ing” of me, the only Jewish girl in the neighborhood or entire school. It was subtle, but not too subtle for a 7 year old to comprehend.
So when security was the main topic of the evening’s orientation, I suddenly remembered how I’d had to overcome my fear I felt witnessing security searches of every car at the JCC. How I had to intentionally find enough bravery in my self to enter the building on a regular basis. To sign up to be an usher. To routinely attend events at the JCC. Though I didn’t necessarily feel it (brave, that is), I was practicing bravery.
But now there was a particular threat, and as I said, I didn’t know the speaker or the level of danger. I felt keenly my ignorance and fear. I found out they have a color code for danger at the JCC, like they do at airports, like they do for fire danger in the wilderness. I found out the color Green is for Gun. They told us code green means there’s a person with a gun on the premises. My blood ran cold.
Who was this dangerous, endangered speaker?
Shirin Ebadi. Iranian. Muslim. Born in June, 1947, she is a full two months older than me. Sixty-eight year old females, both of us. Our lives could not be more different. As a young lawyer, in the time of the Shah, she was appointed to be a judge. She also held humanitarian ideals and welcomed the overthrow of the Shah, anticipating a more just society.
Here is where our paths briefly crossed though continents apart. I too believed the overthrow of the Shah would bring a freer, more democratic society to Iran. The Shah was corrupt and repressive — installed by a US CIA and British supported coup in 1953. In 1979 I was the co-organizer of a demonstration that marched down Market St and ended in a rally in Union Square to support Khomeini and the new Iranian regime. This is one of my more sobering reflections about how, with the best of intentions (because mine were) a person (like me for instance) can be so utterly wrong.
Ebadi also initially supported the new Iranian regime. Until the evidence started piling up. In short order, she and other female judges were demoted to being clerks or administrators. There would be no more female judges. Soon Ebadi became aware of the horrific misuse of power to impose death penalties on young people. The implementation of Sharia Law. In her book “Until We Are Free” she recounts the unfolding horror. I’m reading it now. Every page boggles my mind.
Under the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Ebadi had her work taken from her, was imprisoned, her daughter detained, her sister arrested, her colleagues harassed, her lectures shut down, her home attacked by mobs. She received death threats. (I read all this in the first five pages!) Still, she continued working tirelessly for human rights — children’s and women’s rights and to defend dissidents and minorities. For her work she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. After taking everything else from her, the Iranian regime stole her Nobel Prize. She has been living in exile since 2009.
This book is an amazing, courage-inspiring work. Ebadi is quite formal in her appearance and style of speaking. Quite serious. At the end of her talk at the JCC she stood up (from the center seat where she sat while being interviewed by Michael Krasny, who sat to her right, while her friend/interpreter sat to her left).
As she stood Ebadi said “Failure is just an opportunity for an introduction to a larger victory.” She walked to one side of the stage and took a large deliberate step back. She told us that taking a step back represents failure. Using her backward lean to thrust her energy forward, she began a light sprint across the stage, saying (here I paraphrase) “a backward step is only in order to leap higher and farther forward.”
Satisfied with her little demonstration and the sense that she had made her point well in a feisty and playful manner, she turned and smiled at us, and received the standing ovation we all too happily and reverentially gave her. I finally laid my fear of a possible Code Green aside as we all were swept into her sphere of courage and determination.
We each have our particular lives and circumstances, the particular courage we need to live fully in this world. There are people, women I’ll speak of here (but not only women), who have been born into the most trying of societies and historical times. Their courage and leadership astounds. Shirin Ebadi, Berta Caceres, Malala Yousafzai, Sabeen Mahmud, Aung San Suu Kyi, Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks. In a different way perhaps Elizabeth Warren. The list goes on and on. Those we have heard of and those we haven’t. These women all have at least three things in common — courage, truth-telling, and hard work. You know they will stand shoulder to shoulder with you, or step out ahead. That if a “failure” causes a backward step, it will only be a moment before they have taken the energy of that failure and leapt forward.