For the Questions We Have Failed to Ask, O God, Forgive Us

Image: Intersection of 4th Avenue and Main Street in Franklin, Tennessee today, not far from the place where Samuel Bierfield was murdered. (ichabod via wikimedia, some rights reserved.)

This is a story about teshuvah: mine.

I grew up in Williamson County, Tennessee, a rural county south of Nashville. Today it is filled with suburbs and shopping centers, but back then there were few paved roads and no city water. We were acutely aware of the Civil War, because the countryside was littered with minie balls and other detritus from the battles.  People make pilgrimages to visit the Carter House, which is still riddled with bullet holes.  For the most part, what I heard from adults about “the War” was the standard Lost Cause story. There was little discussion of the institution of slavery and absolutely none of Reconstruction or the years that followed.

This situation is changing for the better.  I see on the Battle of Franklin Trust website that they have recently added a “Slavery and the Enslaved” tour to recall Frank Carter and the other souls who worked the land and built the economy of the area.  At its peak, in the 1850’s, the Carter House farm made use of 28 enslaved human beings. My thanks for that information to Kristi Farrow, a genealogist with the Battle of Franklin Trust. I am glad there are many people now involved in the holy work of remembering what should not be forgotten.

Last week I saw a CNN piece about the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice soon to open in Montgomery, AL. The museum has exhibits about slavery, about Reconstruction, and about Jim Crow. There is a memorial to the “more than 4400 African American men, women, and children were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, and beaten to death by white mobs between 1877 and 1950.” (Quotation from the memorial website.) I realized, not for the first time, that although I was raised in a place that was absolutely obsessed with history, there was a lot of history I didn’t know about the place I grew up.  On a whim, I googled, “Williamson County Tennessee lynching.”

I got an education.

I learned that there had indeed been lynchings in my home county.  I, who had written a history for a church in Franklin, who could at one time tell you reams of detail about Franklin life in the 19th century, had no idea that there had been public hangings from the courthouse railings. I had no idea how active the KKK had been in Williamson County. I had no idea that there were many, many lynchings in the town and in the green hills of the countryside. It had never occurred to me to ask questions about any of this; I was as guilty as everyone else who has failed to ask and failed to remember. 

Farther down the Google offerings, I found another surprise: the first Jew ever lynched in the United States was a man named Samuel Bierfield, murdered in the summer of 1868 on Main Street in Franklin. The whole story, with all its complications, is beautifully laid out in The Untold Story of the First Jewish Lynching in America by Paul Berger in The Forward.

In 1868, the county was in the first stages of Reconstruction, and Bierfield was undeniably a “carpetbagger” (new resident from somewhere north, with an eye to opportunities in the postwar South) and a “foreigner.” He moved from Riga, Latvia to Toronto in the late 1850’s. In 1866 he moved south to Franklin, TN in hopes of making his way in the world. His letters back to family in Toronto reflect the ups and downs of his dry-goods store on Main Street in Franklin. On July 6, 1867 he wrote a letter to his parents about his losses due to a riot the week before, a battle between white and black citizens on Main Street.

1867 was a volatile time in Middle Tennessee. Blacks who had until recently been enslaved were now free and had high hopes for a better life. Most white men were Confederate veterans who had thereby forfeited their right to vote in the renewed Union. There was devastation all around and a great anger in many people.  Where, exactly, Samuel Bierfield fit into that mix is uncertain; perhaps it would be more true to say that he likely did not fit in at all. He had an unusual accent and he wasn’t a citizen, although he applied for citizenship in 1867. He is known to have waited on blacks in his store, which would be evidence enough for angry whites to decide that he was the enemy. We have no record that the lynching was about his Jewishness. Rather, it was more likely over his friendliness to the freed men and women in Franklin.

So why write all this on my “Basic Judaism” blog? I am writing to say that it is absolutely imperative that we all keep learning. I was so certain that I knew “all about” Franklin and it turns out that I knew only the parts of the story that I had been told.

God gave us brains. We can continue learning past age 13.  Whether the conversation is about race in America or the situation in Israel, we have to keep our ears open for the story we have not yet learned. If we only listen to the stories we like, we limit ourselves and do an injustice to others. Instead of framing things as “our” side of the story and “their” side of the story, it is time we recognized that we are in all the stories – together. When the two “sides” don’t match, maybe there is still more to learn.

So what’s my teshuvah plan? I’m going to keep learning for my own knowledge, but I won’t stop there. I’m gathering information about how best I can support education about the journey from slavery to freedom, so that the next generation will be less ignorant than I was.

For all the questions we have failed to ask, O God, forgive us! Let us go forward seeking both shalom (peace) and tzedek (justice.)

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rabbiadar

Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi based in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, mom, poodle groomer, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at https://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ as the Coffee Shop Rabbi.

One thought on “For the Questions We Have Failed to Ask, O God, Forgive Us”

  1. Love your posts on Judaism. I live in Marietta, Georgia not too far from the place where Leo Frank was lynched. When working on a history of my church, I learned to my shame that some prominent members participated in that horrid event.

    Regarding your article about teshuvah, it reminds me of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’ distinction between “cheap” and “costly” grace which he describes in his book The Cost of Discipleship.” Also, many Christians define sin as “missing the mark.”

    I also truly believe that I have become a better Christian by listening to the rabbis. Thank you for helping me to continue to learn, even at age 67.

    Like

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