Forward Thinking

6 Jewish Memories of Maya Angelou

By Hody Nemes

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Maya Angelou, who has died at 86, was a celebrated poet, author, and chronicler of the African-American experience.

Angelou also had several memorable interactions with the Jewish community. Here are six Jewish memories of Maya:

1) Poignant Poetry

In one of his final acts in office, President Bill Clinton appointed Angelou to the board of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in 2001. During meetings, she would occasionally read poems to focus board members on their shared mission.

“Maya Angelou brought a unique voice,” recalled Sara J. Bloomfield, the museum’s director. “(She) would take us beyond the business at hand and remind everyone of the importance of the museum’s mission in promoting human dignity for all people.”

2) Farrakhan Flap

Angelou’s seemingly straightforward appointment to the museum’s board was not without some controversy. She came under fire from Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who criticized Angelou for accepting a speaking invitation from Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam who is considered by many Jews to be an anti-Semite. Angelou had recited a poem at the 1995 Million Man March organized by Farrakhan, which brought hundreds of thousands of blacks to the Washington Mall.

She “bestowed her name and prestige upon a man whose anti-Semitism and racism were by then unquestionable and who referred to the murder of Europe’s Jews as ‘the so-called Holocaust of the so-called Jew, the imposter Jew,’” Cohen wrote.

“Maya Angelou doesn’t belong in its board room. She belongs, instead, in the museum’s exhibition rooms. She has lots to learn.”

3) Call Me Jewish

In a 2000 interview with Oprah, Angelou seemed to describe herself as a Jew — and a Muslim, too.

Oprah: When we see you, we’re seeing all of your history.

Maya: That’s right—all of my history as an African-American woman, as a Jewish woman, as a Muslim woman. I’m bringing everything I ever knew [and all the stories I’ve read]—everything good, strong, kind and powerful.

4) Farewell at Shul

One of Angelou’s last speaking engagements was at a Reform temple in January.

“Her sense of humor was unabated by her age and physical limitations,” said Rabbi Robert Silvers, of Congregation B’nai Israel in Boca Raton, Florida, which hosted Angelou at an event over the Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend. “Everybody that was there that night walked away truly inspired by her.”

Silvers said Angelou was inspired to attend by the congregation’s 30 year relationship with a local black Baptist church, Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church.

About 1,200 people, including many members of the church, turned out to hear Angelo speak about race relations.

But they were in for a surprise.

“She got up there in a wheelchair, and she said, ‘I know you want to hear about race relations, blah blah blah. I’ll speak and share what I want,’” Silvers said. “She read some of her poetry, she shared some of her opinions. That’s kind of the women she was. She laughed and she made us laugh.”

5) Chatting With Elie

Wiesel and Angelou appeared together in 1998 at a speakers series event at Foothill College in Cupertino, California. The two had a meandering discussion about their lives, religion, and racism, and Angelou revealed that she was a devoted reader of Wiesel’s work.

She also had fun. “[Do] whatever helps you to see yourself in your sister and brother,” she said. “People look at me and see a 6-foot-tall, African-American lady. I’m actually Elie Wiesel,” she joked.

“Then, what am I doing here?” Wiesel responded.

6) Speaking of the Shoah

Angelou narrated “As Seen Through These Eyes,” an award-winning 2009 documentary about Holocaust victims who created art to document the horror around them. The movie opens with Angelou reciting part of her acclaimed poem, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.”


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