On Jews and Whiteness

Image: Presentation of the film “BlacKkKlansman” at Cannes : Damaris Lewis, Jasper Pääkkönen, John David Washington, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Spike Lee, Adam Driver, Corey Hawkins. Photo: Georges Biard, with permission.

I have a new favorite movie: BlacKkKlansman. I am not writing a review here, so I’ll spare you the long list of reasons I like it. I want to focus on one moment in the film, one stark question.

Warning: Spoilers follow.

It is the moment when Ron Stallworth, the black cop played by John David Washington, tells Flip Zimmerman, a Jewish cop played by Adam Driver, that the two of them are going undercover to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. Here is the scene:

from BlacKKKlansman (2018)

The moment that I want to focus on comes at the 32 second mark:

Ron asks, “Why you acting like you ain’t got skin in the game, bro?”

Flip: “Lookit, that’s my f—–g business.”

Ron: “It’s our business. Now I’m going to get you your membership card.”

One of the subplots in the film is Flip’s gradual discovery that he does indeed have skin in the game. In an early scene he is asked by a co-worker if he’s Jewish, and he says, “I dunno – am I?” He is an assimilated secular Jew, and he is invested in that assimilation without being particularly conscious about it.

Because one of the Klansmen is suspicious that he might be a Jew, Flip spews a lot of anti-Semitic invective as cover, throwing around not only words like “kike” but a horrific speech on the “beauty” of the Holocaust and the need for “those leeches” to be exterminated. It is a heart-stopping moment, perfectly acted: we see the performance for the Klansman, and deep behind it, in Driver’s eyes, the terror of his own words. We see him recognize his skin in the game at the moment in which he is most desperate to save his skin from the Klan.

Spike Lee has a complicated history with American Jewish audiences, but he and the writers of the film (two of them Jewish, by the way) have articulated the question for American Jews at this moment. There has been a considerable squabble lately about Jews and whiteness, and considerable anxiety about the rise of white supremacy in our world. This movie slices through all the nonsense to the essential question:

“Why you acting like you ain’t got skin in the game, bro?”

The point is, my fellow liberal Jews of all complexions, we do have skin in this game. The question is, are we going to recognize it and drop the fantasy that if we act white enough – if we are cultured and educated and assimilated and meet standards of white beauty – that the white supremacist will somehow pass by our houses? Because that has been our strategy for the last century. It has been a successful strategy, up to a point: Jews are now seen by whites as such desirable mates that there’s talk of an “intermarriage problem,” to give but one example.

But here’s the thing: if we are so focused on those assimilated values of whiteness and homogeneity, we will never notice how that very assimilation causes us to behave to those in our midst with different complexions, the Jews of Color who cannot (and should not have to) pass. We will never notice because we are invested in whiteness.

I can imagine a reader saying now, “But rabbi, what you are saying is that Jews aren’t white!” That compels me to ask why do we keep acting so darn white? Why are we so fragile, waving frantically at photos of long-dead Jews marching with Martin Luther King, insisting that “not all” of us participate in racism? If we don’t want to be the bad guys (which is what I hear when I hear a light skinned person insisting that they aren’t really white) then why do we keep acting like the bad guys?

Why are people of color made unwelcome in our communities, treated like outsiders? Why do we quiz them, or assume they are the janitor or a convert? Why, upon seeing them, do we feel we have to comment on their difference?

We will be white as long as we continue to deal in white privilege.

We will be white until a Jew of Color can walk into our service and simply be accepted without comment.

On that day we will become One: one People of the one God.

Thus it has been said: Adonai will become Sovereign of all the earth. On that day, Adonai will become One and God’s Name will be One.

Zechariah 14:9, quoted in the daily service

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Meet the Velveteen Rabbi

If you do not already know her through social media, I recommend you read some of my colleague Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s work. Her writing is well worth your time and attention.

Here’s a taste, a “d’varling” on Parashat Mishpatim:

https://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2019/02/right-speech-sapphire-sky.html

Black Power, Jewish Politics

Image: The cover of Black Power, Jewish Politics and photo of author Marc Dollinger.

You may think, “I know what that book is about,” when you see the cover of Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960’s. Certainly that was my first thought.

I had been taught that American Jews reached out to assist the Black community in securing more civil rights, and for a while, all was good: we marched together, we accomplished a great deal. Then came the Black Power Movement, and things began to fall apart. Black anti-Semitism pushed the two communities apart. Farrakhan and other figures vilified the Jews. Today there have been many missed connections and misunderstandings around Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March with “intersectionality” as the villain. It is all very sad.

The paragraph above is the received wisdom among many liberal Jews. I certainly had not questioned it. Turns out, I didn’t know much. Black Power, Jewish Politics tells a story that is much more interesting, complex and uncomfortable than that. 

Historian Marc Dollinger of San Francisco State University tackles the subject of Black-Jewish relations in the 1960’s with energy and curiosity. He explains the origins of the received narratives in play, and holds them up against the time line of events in the 1960’s and 1970’s. There were indeed Jewish activists who risked life and limb in the Civil Rights Movement, but the vast majority of American Jews were not actively involved in it, and in fact got very nervous any time local African Americans began acting as if they were truly equal. Rabbis who got actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement did so at much more risk of losing their jobs than of losing their lives.

And as for the Black Power movement, that’s a much more interesting story as well. There was a rich interplay of ideas between the Black Power movement leaders and Jewish American leaders, as the Jews began to take inspiration from the Black Power leaders and cultivate their own ethnic national movements, including the popularization of widespread American Jewish Zionism. 

By far the most provocative part of the book is in the Epilogue, in which Dr. Dollinger observes the current scene: the Jewish-African-American conflicts over Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, and intersectionality. At a time when conversations are breaking down right and left, I see his effort to check out the old narratives as a hopeful first step in reigniting authentic dialogue.

I attended a book launch event at which Dr. Dollinger presented his book along with a dialogue with Ilana Kaufman, the Director of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, a national effort focused on building and advancing the professional, organizational and communal field for Jews of Color. Ms. Kaufman pointed out that one serious limitation of Dr. Dollinger’s thesis is that he does not account for the fact that “Jews” and “African Americans” are in fact not separate categories of people. Jews of Color straddle the borderline between these two populations, legitimate members of both, but largely ignored by the Jewish community.

Dr. Dollinger observed that the next generation of discussion on this topic is already in motion, and Ms. Kaufman is one of the Jewish leaders carrying it forward. Onward!

I recommend this book heartily, and hope that some of my readers will give it a look. Clinging to self-congratulatory fairy tales does not serve us well. If we want to progress, we must continue to pursue the facts where they take us.

Full Disclosure: I serve on a non-profit board with Dr. Marc Dollinger, and consider him a friend.

Washington’s Letter to American Jewry

Image: Signature of George Washington.

Acceptance of religious differences and specifically of the Jewish People is deep in the DNA of the United States. To anyone who doubts that, here is a letter written by George Washington to the members of the Jewish congregation in Newport, RI, after receiving their congratulations on his inauguration.

The words of the first President of the United States:

To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport Rhode Island.

Gentlemen,

While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and happy people.

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig-tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

G. Washington

The emphasis in bold is mine, and of course, the words about bigotry reek of irony, given that Washington was himself a slaveholder. Still, the intent, the aspiration is there, to be fulfilled by future generations.

Let it always be known that anti-Jewish hatred is antithetical to the America envisioned by our Founding Fathers.

Letter to Touro Synagogue
The actual letter to Touro Synagogue in Washington’s own handwriting.

In A Time of Fear

Image: A mail bomb on display at the National Postal Museum (Wikimedia) Some rights reserved, see link.

Mail bombs were sent yesterday to prominent African-American political figures, to prominent women in the Democratic Party, to a prominent Jew, to leaders in the Democratic Party, and to the offices of a major cable news outlet.

Let that sink in – this how low the situation in the United States has gone. With an election only days away, and in some states already underway, some Americans have chosen to vote with bombs. They have chosen domestic terrorism – the spread of fear – as their strategy of persuasion.

The rhetoric of the President and his party over the past weeks has been full of dire warnings about a “caravan” of Latin hooligans and Middle Eastern terrorists headed to the U.S. Journalists, doing their job, investigated the “caravan” and discovered a group of desperate people, mostly from Guatemala and Honduras, mothers with children, a few men, and no Middle Eastern terrorists. By all accounts, the evidence is that they are people seeking asylum from the extreme gang violence in Central America.

It is perfectly legal to approach the border and ask for asylum. All of the evidence suggests that this is a peaceful group of people who are begging for safety.

The President, when asked for evidence of his claims, said, “There’s no proof of anything. But there could very well be.” In other words, “Don’t think. Just be afraid.”

Jewish tradition offers an alternative to mindless fear. We see the beginnings of it on the beach at the Red Sea:

As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”

Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again.14 The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. – Exodus 14:10-15

The Israelites are terrified of the Egyptians. Moses tells them not to be afraid, that God will take care of them. God says to Moses, “Quit crying and praying – get going!” The miracle comes only after the Israelites move to save themselves.

The refrain “Al tira-oo!” [Do not be afraid] appears regularly in the Bible. According to Maimonides, this is actually one of the 613 commandments. We are commanded not to fear.

In fact, there is only one fear permitted to us: fear of God. Yirat Adonai – fear of the Holy One – is considered a virtue. Any other fear borders on idolatry, because we are commanded not to fear anything but God.

The world is full of things that scare us. Jews have always had to deal with plenty of scary people. Our ancestor Abraham was so scared of two different kings that he swore his wife Sarah was his sister! Isaac did the same thing. Every time it got them into trouble. Every time it did them no good at all.

In Egypt, it was Pharaoh. Fearing Pharaoh did not get us out from under his thumb. Fearing God got us out of Egypt. Fearing God propelled us across the wilderness, to the edge of the Land, where Moses sent in the spies, who brought us back more scary news:

So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. 33 And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” – Numbers 13: 32-33

… and back we went to the wilderness to learn to fear God, not anyone else. Many centuries later, brave men and women settled the land of Israel again, and again there were scary things: war, and terrorism, and evil dictators flinging SCUD missiles. And again, the smart thing to do is to not be afraid: al tira-oo!

Al tira-oo: Do not be afraid.

Al tira-oo: Do not let your fears dictate to you.

Al tira-oo: Feel the fear, and go right on walking in the right path.

This is another testing moment. This is a moment not for violence, but for voting, for the peaceful practice of democracy. My vote-by-mail ballot sits on my desk, waiting to be filled out. For each American reading this, a ballot or a voting booth is waiting.

Don’t bomb. Don’t be afraid. VOTE.

 

 

A Blessing for Voting

Image: Photo of an “I Voted” sticker with an American flag. (Photo by Ruth Adar)

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of All that Is, who knows the hearts of human beings.

Let me bring my best self to the marking of this ballot. Let me think clearly and fairly to elect people of judgment and good character. If this ballot also contains other matters, let me bring deliberation and good judgment to my choices.

Let no pettiness or selfishness inform me, but rather my best hopes for the greater good. May I not be influenced by fearmongerers or the words of fools.  Keep greed, fear, and smallness of spirit far from me.

May I vote like the tzaddik, the righteous person who  pursues justice and prizes peace.

May my vote join with other votes, counted fairly and in full, to bring about a just and peaceful society in which each may dwell “under the vine and under the fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.” (Micah 4;4)

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of All that Is, who has given the citizens of this land the awesome power of self-government.

Storm-Tossed? 10 Spiritual Stabilizers

Image: A ship on a stormy sea. (comfreak/pixabay)

I have spoken to many people who are suffering from extreme emotions right now. Some ideas for keeping your own ship on course:

  1. If you have a spiritual practice, stick with it. Go to services, or meditate, or take a walk in a peaceful place. Connect to the Holy One in whatever way works for you. Don’t say, “I’ll do it when I feel calmer.” Do it in order to feel calmer.
  2. If you have children or vulnerable people in your care, compartmentalize. As helpless as you may feel about the world, remember that the people who depend on you will find it doubly frightening if you radiate panic. Comforting others can be a tonic for a troubled heart: concentrate on making those around you feel calm and safe and you will feel calmer yourself.
  3. Do mitzvot. That is, do the good things that our tradition teaches us to do. Greet people cheerfully, honor parents, teach children, count your blessings and express gratitude for them. For more ideas about this see Living on the Mitzvah Plan.
  4. Get Enough Sleep. If falling asleep is a problem, try out a time-tested Jewish tradition, the bedtime Shema. To learn about it, check out What is the Bedtime Shema?
  5. Be Moderate with Food, Drink, and Chemicals. Chocolate, ice cream, liquor, or drugs may seem very tempting as a quick feel-better fix. Be careful about them, and if any of them have been trouble in the past, don’t invite trouble now – you already have plenty, right? Of course, if there are meds you take for health, then be sure to take them as directed and on schedule.
  6. Help someone else. Helping others can be a great way to get out of our own heads and get a little perspective on life. However, take care to fuel it with love or duty rather than anger. Focus on the person you are helping.
  7. Take time to recognize the humanity of every person you encounter. Do you know the name of the person who runs the cash register at that store you visit once a week? Take time to introduce yourself and ask their name. Then use their name. Focus on them as a person, not as an opinion. This spiritual discipline (and yes, it is a spiritual discipline) can transform your day.
  8. Bless. Take a moment to be grateful for anything that is good. You don’t need to know the Hebrew, just say, “Blessed are You, God, this weather is beautiful!” “Blessed are the hands that picked this produce and brought it to market.” “Blessed are You, God, who created friendly little dogs.” See how many things you can find to bless and for which you can express gratitude. For examples, see Blessings for Vegetables and Fruit.
  9. Pray. This may be a time to try prayer, if it is not something you’ve done before. Prayers take all sorts of forms: those blessings of thanksgiving are prayers, for instance. Another kind of prayer is petitionary prayer, and you don’t have to believe in God to do it: “Please let our country be just and safe for all.” Lift that wish up; express your hope or your fear or your anger. Let the heart of the universe, whatever you want to call it, hear what is in your heart.
  10. Breathe. In Genesis, when God creates human beings, God breathes life into them. The Hebrew word for soul is the same as the word for breath: neshamah. When I cannot be grateful for anything else, I can be grateful that the air is still moving in and out of my lungs. When I am upset, I can calm myself by breathing slowly and deeply. When I don’t know how I feel, I can often find out by noticing my breath: fast? slow? sighing? or holding? Breath is a tangible aspect of the soul.

May the Source of all Tranquility bless us with peace and wholeness, and bring peace to all the world. Amen.