In his masterpiece of prose poetry, Chicago: City on the Make, Nelson Algren wrote:
…All the creeds that persecution harassed out of Europe find sanctuary on this [Chicago] ground, where no racial prejudice is permitted to stand up.
We insist that it go at a fast crawl, the long way around.
The Negro is not seriously confronted here with a stand-up and head-on hatred, but with something psychologically worse: a soft and protean awareness of white superiority everywhere, in everything, the more infuriating because it is as polite as it is impalpable. Nobody even thought such a thing, my dear.
— in “Love is for Barflies,”
p.45 60th Anniversary Edition (Chicago: Univ. of Chgo Press, 1951)
Algren’s brilliant expression — “No racial prejudice is permitted to stand up. We insist that it go at a fast crawl, the long way around.” — remains all too apt, across much of the U.S.
Does the persistence of this reality have implications for our prayers?
(This post was edited and amended after initial publication.)
Algren’s Chicago, 1951 and 1961
In 1951, Algren quotes Big Bill Broonzy’s “Black, Brown, and White” — “If you’re white, awright…if you’re black, step back” — and continues, telling Black Chicagoans to expect higher rents, and warning:
And no one will ever name the restaurants you mustn’t eat in nor the bars you mustn’t drink at….Make your own little list. Of the streets you mustn’t live on, the hotels where you can’t register, the office you can’t work in and the unions you can never join.
— ibid, p.46
Major Chicago reviewers at the time said the work exhibited a “distorted, partial, unenviable slant” and demanded “revocation of the author’s poetic license.” But ten years later Algren only marveled at others’ failure to recognize what he saw, in 1951 and 1961. In the 1961, he wrote:
One cannot help but wonder what the reaction might have been had the book cut in closer to what the lives of multitudes are really like on the city’s South and West sides. This book didn’t begin to tell that story a decade ago; and the story is fully as terrible today as then.
— ibid, pp.95-97
(Google Books offers a substantial preview)
Bilhah and Zilpah, Text and Prayer
At the start of the week (see “Beyond 21“), we began to explore the idea of including Bilhah and Zilpah, the concubines of Jacob and mothers of four of the twelve tribes, in the opening blessing of the Standing Prayer.
Most prayer books used in non-orthodox congregations have included the four Matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah) along with the three Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) in the blessing that calls on God who “remembers the love of our fathers (and mothers),” at least as an option, for many years. But most prayer books do not include the maids at this point:
- Does listing all six mothers foster a sense of inclusion?
- Or does it serve to gloss over difference, given that backgrounds of Bilhah and Zilpah are not addressed in the biblical text?
- Does including Bilhah and Zilpah in the blessing raise their status and our awareness of their contributions?
- Or does it make their inferior legal and social status invisible?
- Is adding Bilhah and Zilpah an act against allowing prejudice to stand?
- Or is it asking it to “go at a fast crawl, the long way around”?
A few thoughts to further consideration —
Orthodox prayer books do not include any of the mothers in the Amidah, retaining ancient language and often noting that the phrase “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob” is biblical (Ex. 3:6) and so not to be amended. Chabad notes, in addition, that Bilhah and Zilpah had souls “not as lofty as the Matriarchs” and act as “agents of Rachel and Leah” when they bear children.
Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (CBST) is a NY community that “attracts and welcomes gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender, queer and straight individuals and families who share common values. Their Siddur B’chol L’vav’cha, With All Your Heart, includes Bilhah and Zilpah, “recognizing all of our mothers, not just the ‘legally married ones.'”
The Movement for Reform Judaism (UK) points out that the addition has been controversial, adding a note from a classical source:
A powerful rabbinic midrash asks the question why the children of Israel had to endure slavery in Egypt. It answers that the sons of Rachel and Leah dismissed the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah on the grounds that they were the children of slaves and of less worth. By experiencing slavery in Egypt all the descendents of Jacob were made equal in this regard.
“Prayer Book in the Making“
What, if anything, does including Bilhah and Zilpah say about our understanding of oppression and how to move beyond it?
More to come.
We counted 23 on the evening of April 26. Tonight, we count….
Making the Omer Count
from On the Road to Knowing: A Journey Away from Oppression
A key element in the journey from liberation to revelation is understanding the workings of oppression, and our part in them. We cannot work effectively to end what we do not comprehend.
So this year, moving from Passover to Shavuot, I commit to learning more about how oppression works and how liberation is accomplished. I invite others to join me:
Let’s work together, as we count the Omer, to make this Omer count.
Thoughts and sources welcome.
Share this graphic to encourage others to participate.
Aware that we are on a journey toward knowing God — from liberation to revelation — I undertake to know more today than I did yesterday about the workings of oppression.
I bless and count [full Hebrew blessings in feminine and masculine address]:
Blessed are You, God, Ruler/Spirit of the Universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us to count the Omer.
Today is twenty-four days which are three weeks and two days in the Omer.
Hayom arba’ah v’esrim yom shehaym shloshah shavuot ushloshah yamim la-omer.
In the spirit of the Exodus, I pray for the release of all whose bodies and spirits remain captive, and pledge my own hands to help effect that liberation.