One day, as I was writing at my desk, the phone rang. From Washington, it was the leader of a Muslim civil-rights organization on the line.
“Rabbi, one of the big airlines just threw a number of imams off the plane because some passengers thought they looked suspicious,” he told me. “We would like to do a ‘pray-in’ at their airport gates here at National Airport in Washington. Can you come?”
Groan. I’m busy. Way behind. Long trip to Washington and back. I open my mouth to say “No.”
But before I can speak, a memory rushes into my head.
I was about seven years old, in 1940 or thereabouts. My grandmother, who had been born in Poland and had come to the United States in 1906 after Cossacks came marauding into her home town and her parents insisted she leave for America, came back from the kosher butcher a few blocks away.
She was half crying but shining through her tears.
“I was in line at the butcher shop, and some of the other women started talking contemptuously about the ‘shvartzes,’” or black people, she related. She told that she interrupted the fellow shoppers: “That’s the way they talked about us in Europe. This is America, and we must not talk like that!”
My grandmother was right, I thought. This is America, and we must not act like that.
I turned back to the Muslim leader on the telephone.
“Yes, of course,” I told him. “When and where do you want me?”
Rabbi Arthur Waskow founded and directs The Shalom Center.
I am lucky to have never heard the word nigger used towards me. As a black woman in the United States this is rare, even rarer since I spent the majority of my childhood summers in rural North Carolina with my mother’s family.
I have vivid memories of riding in the back of my uncle’s pickup truck, red dirt kicking up in clouds behind us. I also remember my cousins telling us to get down in areas where the Klan was known to harass black people. Having no real context for what this meant I followed suit and made my body small and flat against on the floor of the truck’s bed. This happened a few times in my summers in the south, but still I had no experience with the word other than in books.
The first time I heard the N-word used in anger was on a New York subway coming out of the mouth of an Asian teenager a few months ago. He and his mother boarded the crowded train at Canal Street just as an older black man pushed his way onto the train and into the seat the mother was about to take. I was equally annoyed that this man rudely took the seat of an elderly passenger. But I quickly noticed by his erratic gestures that he was mentally ill.
Boiling with anger, the teenager called the man a “dog” and a “nigger.” The man became visibly aggravated and began rocking himself as the teen continued to spew racial insults. The train grew silent and all of the fellow passengers — many of us black and a few Jews in kippahs — looked on in disbelief. None of us said a word. It was their problem not ours.
I’m not sure what I could’ve done to calm the angry teenager down on the subway, but I often wonder if he would’ve stopped his insults if I’d said something. It is for this reason of “saying something” that I often write about the intersections of race and racism that I hear, read about and experience within the Jewish community. It is my hope that raising awareness will lead to change.
That’s why I have written about the word “shvartze.
The lede, as we call it in the journalism biz, sat there silently on the computer screen, like an IED waiting to explode:
“… or as he put it, ‘a shvartze,’” it said at the end.
The phrase reported accurately the word Rabbi Hershel Schachter used to describe the reason he resisted the idea of rabbis reporting cases of child sexual abuse within the Jewish community to the police. It was not, he said, that reporting such cases — after some rabbis judge them genuine — violated Talmudic strictures against turning a Jew over to secular authorities. But even if the accused Jew is guilty, said Schachter, he could end up in jail with a black man — “a shvartze.”
Forward staff reporter Paul Berger and I knew what kind of outrage would ensue once Forward web editor Dave Goldiner pressed the button sending this story out into the Internet. And we’d already been arguing over the wording of that lede sentence for something like an hour. It was getting late. We both had to go home. But as the Forward’s news editor, I knew that in its compression of the full quotation given in the story, this lede was missing something, and I couldn’t put my finger on what.
As a college student in the early 1970’s, I had lived for a year in Mississippi working for civil rights organizations. I learned a lot about racism then. I knew it came in many different flavors, even there. While arguing with Paul, I thought about how a few years before I arrived in Jackson, there were gargantuan battles there over the integration of municipal swimming pools. This was the fear of black people as contagion.
There’s a telling moment in David Brooks’ New York Times column today about the growth, and attraction, of Orthodox Jewry. He describes the educational background of Layaliza Soloveichik, the wife of Meir Soloveichik (Brooks’ “tour guide” around Haredi Brooklyn) in this way: Layaliza was admitted to Harvard but went to what Brooks describes as a “religious college, Yeshiva, instead.”
I don’t know the Soloveichiks, but I’m guessing that Layaliza didn’t exactly go to Yeshiva as an undergraduate because, as a woman, she couldn’t go to Yeshiva. She went instead to Stern College for Women. It’s a subtle distinction, I know, but an important one, signaling that the education of girls and boys, women and men, is treated differently in this community and meant for different outcomes. Nowhere in Brooks’ column does he acknowledge the gender disparities in Orthodox Jewish life, which have grown ever more distinct in the last few decades.
There’s more that he doesn’t say.
In an effort to drive home the point that everyone, regardless of their economic standing, is required to study Torah, the Talmud cites a story of Rabbi Hillel the Elder.
Every day, Hillel worked and earned about half a dinar. He spent half of that to feed and clothe his family, and the other half on his yeshiva tuition. One day, after addressing his family’s needs, Hillel hadn’t enough money left to cover his tuition, and so he was barred entrance from the yeshiva. Rather than heading home dejected, Hillel climbed up to the yeshiva’s roof and pressed his ear to the skylight to hear the rabbis teaching below. Rapt in words of Torah, he failed to notice as it began to snow, and was soon covered from head to toe. The next morning, the rabbis noticed it was darker than normal in the beit midrash, and upon inspection saw a body slumped over their skylight. They raced up to the roof and there discovered Hillel buried beneath the snow. The rabbis dug him free, carried him downstairs, bathed and clothed him, and set him before a fire to thaw.
Then they charged him with multiple counts of felony infringement carrying a maximum sentence of 50 years imprisonment and up to $4 million in fines.
Actually, the last part didn’t happen to Hillel. Rather, his primitive act of copyright circumvention is lauded by the Talmud as exemplary of the spirit with which one should commit one’s self to the pursuit of knowledge.
But it did happen to Aaron Swartz, the 26 year-old hacktivist who took his own life last week after hearing that his latest plea bargain offer had been rejected by the U.S. attorneys prosecuting his case. Swartz’s supposed crime was legally downloading thousands of academic articles from the online database JStor with the intent to illegally share them on the Internet for free.
Swartz grew up in an Orthodox home in Highland Park, Ill., outside Chicago. And though he became an avowed atheist as a teenager, ultimately rejecting religion, his life’s work was nonetheless infused with deeply engrained Jewish values of inquisitivness, scholarship, iconoclasm and a passion for social justice.
When Rabbi Everett Gendler was released from jail in Albany, Ga., in 1962 he and the 11 other rabbis jailed with him for “public prayer without a license” each found a Western Union telegram waiting. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, sent to them a message with a verse from Isaiah 5:16 “And the Lord of Hosts is exalted by judgment, the Holy God proved holy by justice.” Rabbi Gendler said in a phone interview with the Forward that “it is clear that what he was saying is that this stance and this witnessing is what religion is about.”
At this moment when rabbis gave an invocation and a benediction at each of the major American political party conventions, the question remains what the role for religion should be in public life. Rabbi David Wolpe’s benediction at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte immediately after the roll call to nominate Barack Obama as the party candidate and Rabbi Meir Soloveichik’s invocation at the start of the Republican National convention in Tampa last week were very different addresses, both steeped in tradition.
They each began their address with “Ribbono shel olam” the Hebrew invocation “master of the universe.” After that, they differed, with Soloveichik taking as his Biblical text Leviticus 25:10, the verse inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, “you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof.” His emphasis was on liberty and on rights that are God-given not from government. Wolpe, by contrast, chose a prophetic teaching from Isaiah 1:17 about the sacred commitment of “defending the orphan and fighting for the widow.”
Wolpe invoked the Jewish ideals of creating a “kinder sweeter world than we have known” and requested leaders to have ”strength of soul” but never mentioned a candidate or a party by name.
A fast-rising young Modern Orthodox rabbi who is in contention to be Britain’s chief rabbi will give an opening invocation at the Republican National Convention on Tuesday.
Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik, the director the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and a rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York, will speak Tuesday afternoon, just after the singing of the national anthem.
Soloveitchik was reported by The Times of Israel to be one of two top contenders for the position of Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, currently held by Lord Jonathan Sacks.
A nephew of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the revered 20th century figurehead of Modern Orthodox Judaism, Soloveitchik has a history of conservative advocacy. In February, he testified in Congress against an Obama administration proposal to require employer-funded insurance plans to cover birth control.
He’s also written extensively for Commentary magazine.
You've successfully signed up!
Thank you for subscribing.
Please provide the following optional information to enable us to serve you better.
The Forward will not sell or share your personal information with any other party.
Thank you for signing up.Close