Rosetta, Miami Temple, and the Winter Jews

As a child singing in front of a choir, Rosetta Nubin was forbidden by her mother to bend over and pick up coins tossed at her by white visitors to the church. She discovered by accident, however, that a large brimmed hat could collect coins without her bending or her mother’s knowledge. This particular recollection, shared in the play, Marie and Rosetta, by George Brant, may be fictional. But the history behind it is quite real:

“The Jews from Miami Beach would come to our church every Sunday night to hear [Rosetta] sing. It would be packed with winter Jews [vacationers from up north]…. They came in droves to our church. Buses and limousines. They didn’t mind parking in the ghetto for that. They weren’t afraid.
When the saints would shout they would throw money down at them. It was, let’s go see these niggers. It was amusement to them.”
— Zeola Cohen Jones, member of Miami Temple and cousin of its founder,
quoted in Shout, Sister, Shout! (more below)

In the 1930s, Reverend Amaziah Cohen, founder of Miami Temple Church of God (now A.M. Cohen Temple), had begun broadcasting services featuring singing and guitar playing of Rosetta Tharpe.

The people at night would come from all areas; sometimes we had more whites than blacks,” recalls Isaac Cohen. The visitors, including many Jews, sat in a horseshoe balcony, while church members gathered on the main floor, up front. Eventually, Elder Cohen says, the church established a policy for mandatory offering, “because we didn’t have room for everyone.”

Moreover, Wald writes, when the church started charging admission to take advantage of all of the outsiders who came on Sundays, “the poor people couldn’t attend.” On the other hand, Zeola Jones goes on to explain, some people would come just for the Sunday night broadcasts and jump for the money. The fact that these same visitors were also funding church renovations and a college fund, the reminiscence continues, did nothing in her view to “compensate for the ugliness.”


More on Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight, including musical clips. “Marie and Rosetta” runs at Mosaic Theater Company of DC through September 30.
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Back at Beer Lahai Roi

The character of Rosetta, in “Marie and Rosetta” as performed at Mosaic Theater, does not mention Jews when she tells of white people and their coins.** For people like Zeola Jones, however, these scenes are part of their picture of Jews. This and so many scenes like it — with charitable behavior never quite making up for the egregious disrespect shown in other ways — are a part of the history that Jewish and Black communities today share, whether we acknowledge this or not.

There are wider and deeper issues highlighted by this story and some other aspects of “Marie and Rosetta,” too: how outsiders — Jews and non-Jews — visit black communities to view entertainment and cultural expressions, for example. How pain specific to Jewish and Black communities is expressed in art, if/how it can be shared, and what we can learn from singing and performing together and apart. If we are to use the model of Isaac and Ishmael, living side-by-side at Beer Lahoi Roi, as a model of Black and Jewish communities “renewing cousinship,” we have a lot to explore on this score.


Shout, Sister, Shout! and Book Event

For more on this, read Gayle Wald, Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007).

Gayle F. Wald is a professor at George Washington University and the author of Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe and It’s Been Beautiful: Soul! and Black Power TV. She was a consultant for the film “Godmother of Rock and Roll.” Wald lives in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter at @gaylewald.

If in the DC area, stop by event at Solid State Books, cosponsored by Mosaic Theater Company of DC. Free and public (event link):

Solid State Books
600 H Street NE
7 – 8 p.m. Sunday September 16.

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NOTE:
**I have not see the play in print, and it is possible I missed this reference in performance; if someone knows different, please advise.
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The Well of Sight, Seeing, Seen

Ishmael, Isaac, and a Reunion of Cousins” raised questions about what it means for Isaac to settle at Beer Lahai Roi, the wellspring that is already home to Ishmael, after the brothers have buried their father, Abraham. The Shalom Center proposes bringing this story (Gen 25:7-11) into the Days of Awe to suggest “turning and healing” of the painful Torah passages read at Rosh Hashanah. And in the context of the high holidays, the wellspring’s history seems particularly powerful.

On the run from ill-treatment by Sarah, Hagar has a divine encounter in the wilderness. An angel finds her at a wellspring on the road and demands: Where have you come from and where are you going? (Gen 16:8). An essential question for individuals at the season of repentance and return. Also key for “renewing the cousinship” of Blacks and Jews, another relationship in need of “turning and healing.”

At the conclusion of Hagar’s wilderness encounter, we read:

וַתִּקְרָא שֵׁם-יְהוָה הַדֹּבֵר אֵלֶיהָ, אַתָּה אֵל רֳאִי: כִּי אָמְרָה, הֲגַם הֲלֹם רָאִיתִי–אַחֲרֵי רֹאִי
עַל-כֵּן קָרָא לַבְּאֵר, בְּאֵר לַחַי רֹאִי–הִנֵּה בֵין-קָדֵשׁ, וּבֵין בָּרֶד
And she called the LORD who spoke to her, “You Are El-roi,” by which she meant, “Have I not gone on seeing after God saw me!”
Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it is between Kadesh and Bered.—
— Gen 16:13-14

In her 1984 Texts of Terror, Phyllis Trible pointed out extraordinary aspects of this story, including the fact that Hagar names God — the only biblical character to do so (more here). And the name she uses has a lot to tell us.

El-roi” is translated in a variety of ways and sometimes, as in the 1985 JPS (above), not translated. But all the renderings revolve around sight: God of vision, God of my seeing, God who sees me. This, I think, points to one meaning of Isaac moving to this place: Reconciliation in unlikely if estranged parties cannot see and feel seen, so the brothers both settling in a place of seeing bodes well.

“Renewing the cousinship” of Blacks and Jews requires a lot of seeing. Coming to a place with a powerful history of seeing by/of oppressed and traumatized people could be a great beginning.

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Ishmael, Isaac, and a Reunion of Cousins

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What can the story of Ishmael and Isaac, especially its conclusion in Genesis 25:7ff, tell us “about renewing the cousinship of Blacks and Jews — and of people who live in both communities — when white nationalists are threatening both”?

The Shalom Center suggests that the Torah reading(s) for Rosh Hashanah, which highlight the endangerment and separation of Ishmael and Isaac, “cry out for turning and healing.” Toward this end, Rabbi Arthur Waskow proposes an additional reading for Yom Kippur: Gen 25:7-11, wherein the two brothers join together to bury their father and “Isaac goes to live at the wellspring that is Ishmael’s home.”

Arthur suggests that reading this tale at the end of the Days of Awe “can remind us as individuals that it is always possible for us to turn away from anger and toward reconciliation.” In addition it can remind us that the descendants of Isaac (Jewish people) and of Ishmael (Islam and Arab peoples) “need to turn toward compassion for each other.” (More on this idea at “5 Offerings for a Deep and Powerful Yom Kippur. The “cousins” paragraph, quoted above, is from a print Shalom Center communication elaborating on this Yom Kippur reading suggestion.)

Renewing Cousinship

Arthur taught at Fabrangen Havurah, probably twenty years ago, on the topic of Ishmael and Isaac jointly burying their father. Since then, I’ve thought many times about this part of the tale and its power to point us either toward reconciliation or toward less helpful paths. I don’t think I ever explored it in terms of “renewing the cousinship” of Black and Jewish communities before, however. And, because this is an on-going and strong concern for me, I plan to pursue this in some detail in the days ahead — for the high holidays and beyond. Our communities are much in need of turning and healing.

I am not yet sure if this is a continuation of last year’s #ExploringBabylon or a new direction. Either way, I hope you will join in, by subscribing if you have not already done so — follow buttons are now at the VERY BOTTOM of posts — and contributing your thoughts.

Life at the Wellspring

“Isaac goes to live at the wellspring that is Ishmael’s home.”

This is what struck me most powerfully in Arthur’s teaching this year. In year’s past, I thought in terms of interfaith understanding, of the wellspring as a fundamental source that Isaac and Ishmael share and a common link to Hagar. Viewing the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael as members of Jewish and Black communities today, however, raised new questions:

  • Beer Lahai Roi is where Ishmael settled after being expelled from the family home. So what does it mean that Isaac is now living there?
    • Is this true brotherly reunion, generally accepted by others in the neighborhood?
    • Or does this look to some like colonization of the exiled brother’s home?
    • Do the brothers fairly share a joint family heritage in the wellspring?
    • Or is Isaac somehow appropriating what had been Ishmael’s?
  •  Beer Lahai Roi is a powerful place of God-connection at times of severe travail for Hagar. So what does it mean that Isaac settled there?
    • Did separate traumas experienced by Isaac and Ishmael lead them, by divine guidance, perhaps, to a joint source of healing?
    • Or did Isaac seek out Ishmael hoping his older brother could guide him?
    • Do the brothers learn from one another?
    • Or do they, with some rare exceptions, like burying their father, retreat into their own pain?

Perhaps midrash — ancient, modern, or newly discovered — will reveal some answers. Maybe some of these questions are best left open.

Rosh Hashanah Torah Reading(s)

In Reform and some other congregations observing one day of Rosh Hashanah, the Torah reading is generally the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, Genesis 22:1-24. Where two days are observed, common practice is to read the Akedah story on Day Two and the story of Hagar and Ishmael being cast out, Genesis 21:1-34, on Day One.

In midrash, Sarah dies as a result of the near sacrifice of Isaac. So, whether or not Genesis 21 is read at the holiday, these stories highlight endangerment of both sons and both mothers and a family torn apart.

Genesis 25:7ff, when the brothers bury Abraham, is read as part of the regular Torah cycle, parashat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18) but is not part of the traditional readings for the Days of Awe.
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Lekh Lekha: Language and Translation

The Stranger’s Strange Words: a theology

Chapter 16 of Breishit/Genesis introduces the character of Hagar — as in stranger [ger] — who serves as Sarah’s maid and bears Ishmael to Abraham. In one of two episodes in which we find Hagar (and Ishmael) out in the wilderness, she meets an angel/messenger of God [malach yud-hey-vav-hey]. Translators note difficulty working out Hagar’s words after she sees God (and/or was seen by God) — ra-iti acharei ro-i — or, perhaps, as one translator has it, after she sees the back of God.
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