Coalition and Redemption

What does change taste like?

How do we know whether we’re really getting out of that narrow place of servitude or just dragging the whole of that mythical Egypt with us but calling it change? This year, approach Passover with some new imagery, focusing on how we build coalition and move together toward redemption. It starts, this short book suggests, in being honest about how the “millstone that is Egypt” affects different populations differently: In the fight for racial justice in the U.S., we are NOT all marching together from the same starting point — that millstone has been weighing differently on Black and brown and white populations for many decades.

Exodus and Exile: Thoughts on Coalition and Redemption focuses on what it means to leave a place, people, or ideas behind and head out toward something that works better for everyone. It is meant to prompt some new thinking, particularly around racial justice issues.

A PDF download is available here, free of charge. If you are able to contribute to the cost of this production, please consider doing so through the “A Song Every Day” Support link.

The printer is preparing a batch of hard copies to be ready on Tuesday, March 19, in time for Purim. If your synagogue or other group would like some copies, please let me know ASAP. Print copies are also available free of charge, but a contribution of $6 toward the printing and other hard costs is appreciated.

Every error or exasperating element of this book is my own, and I appreciate gentle readership. The book will be challenging to some for different reasons. It was challenging to me for many reasons, too. I am still considering this a BETA version with the hope that a fuller work, including additional perspectives, will develop in time. Comments are welcome.

I repeat that any error — of interpretation, fact, spelling, whatever — is mine. But I also thank many who helped with this project in various ways.

Some Essential Connections and Thanks

Thanks to Rabbi Gerry Serotta, director of the Interfaith Council of Greater Washington, for much support and teaching over the years and, in particular, for encouragement and ideas that helped shape this project. Thanks to Norman Shore, independent teacher of Torah in the DC area, for his support and teaching over many years and, in particular, for encouragement and corrections as my thinking evolved on the blog, “A Song Every Day.” Thanks to Rabbi Hannah Spiro, of Hill Havurah, for her enthusiasm and detailed comments on an earlier version.

Thanks also to Barbara Green, Bob Rovinksy, Norman Shore, and others who have supported “A Song Every Day” financially. And thanks to readers of earlier versions for comments and corrections and to those who contributed thoughts over the years, on the blog and via Facebook or other platform, on related topics.

I am also deeply appreciative of the work of every author quoted here, living or not. I am in particular dept to Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Phyllis Trible, Galit Hasan-Rokem, Rabbi Shais Rishon (MaNishtana), and Marc Dollinger. I am also grateful to DC’s Cross-River (Black-Jewish) Dialogue for helping hone my thinking.

Download Exodus and Exile: Thoughts on Coalition and Redemption. (PDF HERE)

To pre-order copies for your synagogue or other organization, contact me at songeveryday @ gmail(dot)com

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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You are ALL standing, with Ariel Samson: Freelance Rabbi &Co

“You* are standing this day all of you before the LORD your God: your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, even all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and your stranger that is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood unto the drawer of your water…
— Deuteronomy 29:9-10 (see note on masculine plurals below)

As we head into the new year, this week’s portion (Nitzavim, Deut 29:9-30:20) offers some dire warnings to ponder: how easily blessings turn to curses when we forget the Source of Blessing, how severe the consequences should we fail to actively choose life, how heaven and earth are called to witness against us this very day. And it all starts with that statement that we standing, all of us, together before God.

In recent decades, and over the centuries, Jews have worked hard to read that masculine language more inclusively, so that women and men can see themselves as standing together before God. We’ve got a ways to go, especially in regard to including people whose gender is not so binary or who otherwise have felt excluded. And we have a much longer way to go than some of us would like to think when it comes to ensuring that we really see people with various skin colors, ethnic backgrounds, and other variousness as truly among all those who “are standing this day” together.

With this in mind, hasten to get your hands on Ariel Samson: Freelance Rabbi by MaNishtana.

It’s Not So Far Away

The author is “100% Black, 100% Jewish, and 0% safe,” an African-American Orthodox Jewish writer and rabbi who takes direct aim at issues of racial and religious identity. Ariel Samson: Freelance Rabbi is semi-autobiographical. The work is a compelling, very funny, and extremely sharp — in many senses of this word — fictional look at the ways in which our workplaces, neighborhoods, and Jewish communities fail by making assumptions and then sticking to them, all evidence to the contrary. See Publisher’s blurb below for a brief look at the story.

Although I have not yet finished the tale, I’m told that it, perhaps unsurprisingly, comes around eventually to touch on this week’s portion. I won’t spoil the ending for myself or other readers. Instead, I’ll take us back to the portion in my own way: MaNishtana is offering a tremendously generous gift by helping to open our eyes, as individuals and — as the book is discussed amongst us, I hope — as communities in an entertaining, clear way.

An important blessing is in front of you, and failing to take advantage of this fun and thought-provoking gift is a grave mistake…. yes, I know, it’s a novel, but it’s an opportunity to choose life for ourselves and our communities. So do that.

May we all be inscribed, together, for a better year.

ArielSamson_Rabbi_web

 

Publisher’s Blurb and Ordering Info

Ariel Samson is just your run of the mill anomaly: a 20-something black Orthodox Jewish rabbi looking for love, figuring out life, and floating between at least two worlds.

Luckily, it gets worse.

Finding himself the spiritual leader of a dying synagogue, and accidentally falling into viral internet fame, Ariel is suddenly catapulted into a series of increasingly ridiculous conflicts with belligerent college students, estranged families, corrupt politicians, hippophilic coworkers, vindictive clergymen, and even attempted murder. (And also Christian hegemony, racism, anti-Semitism, toxic Hotepism, and white Jewish privilege. Because today ends in “y.”)
— publisher’s blurb

Availability update: Book is now (as of 9/15/18) available at Barnes & Noble and appeared on Amazon in ebook or paperback the Friday before Rosh Hashana.

If you are in the DC area and interested in participating in bulk purchase, please contact me off-blog at ethreporter at gmail (dot) com. If you are somewhere else and interested in bulk orders, you can contact MaNishtana through his Facebook page.
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NOTES:
*Atem is masculine plural, and most of the possessives are masculine plural, with two masculine singular. The plurals could be understood to include all, as any men in the group turns a plural masculine; the singulars might be understood in the now thoroughly old-fashioned way in which we were once taught to use masculine for any undetermined person. However, it still seems unlikely that a group including women would be addressed about “your wives.”
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Dick Gregory and Rabbis Under Rome

Exploring Babylon Chapter 9.2

Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales with Commentary offers insights on the Joseph Story, begun in last week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev (Gen 37:1 – 40:23).

His remarks begin with notes on dreamers and dreaming:

Joseph found out it’s dangerous to be a dreamer. Just like Joseph’s brothers, society today has three ways of dealing with dreamers. Kill the dreamer. Throw the dreamer in jail (the contemporary “cisterns” in our society). Or sell the dreamer into slavery; purchase the dream with foundation grants or government deals, until the dreamer becomes enslaved to controlling financial or governmental interests. Society tries to buy off the dream and lull the dreamer to sleep. It’s called a “lull-a-buy.”
Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales, p.70 (full citation below)

Gregory (1932-2017) goes on to say, in his 1974 publication, that this country used all three tactics on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., adding: “Dreamers can be killed. Dreams live on.”

Gregory then suggests: “Maybe Joseph was a Black cat. That would certainly explain his taste in clothes and the wild colors he wore.” He relates Joseph’s experience with Potiphar’s wife (Gen 39) to the many Black men in this country “falsely accused of making advances to white women” (Bible Tales, p.72).

Regarding the final story in Vayeishev, Joseph’s incarceration and interpretation of dreams for fellow inmates (Gen 40), Gregory writes:

The butler in the Joseph story symbolizes America’s treatment of Black folks. The butler used Joseph’s talent as an interpret of dreams and he promised to tell Pharaoh about Joseph. As soon as the butler got himself comfortably back in Pharaoh’s palace, he forgot about his word to Joseph.

America was built on the sweat, toil, and talent of Black folks. But when the work was done and the talent utilized, America quickly forgot its debt to Blacks. Black folks helped lay down the railroad tracks, but they could only work as porters after the trains started running. Black slaves picked the cotton, but the garment industry belonged to white folks.
Bible Tales, p.73

Gregory’s commentary struck me as very like the commentary of the Rabbis under Roman rule. One famous example is this teaching of Gamaliel, son of Judah (Gamaliel III):

Be wary in your dealings with the ruling power, for they only befriend a man when it serves their needs. When it is to their advantage, they appear as friends, but they do not stand by a person in his hour of need.
Pirkei Avot 2:3

 

Torah of Exile, Again

The previous episode discussed the “Torah of Exile” and the Academy of Shem and Eber, offering lessons on keeping the faith when the surrounding culture seems alien, even hostile. The above-quoted passages from Gregory’s Bible Tales fit this curriculum in two importantly different ways.

First, dreams and dreamers. People from many communities — in 1974 and today — can relate to Gregory’s characterization of a system that tries to buy dreams in order to squash them. So, his comments on this comprise one kind of “Torah of Exile,” comfort and instruction for exiles.

…Let’s note, before continuing, that an individual might feel exiled around one aspect of life (gender or sexual orientation, for example) while feeling integrated into the surrounding community in other ways….

Second, the butler who “symbolizes America’s treatment of Black folks.” Gregory’s notes on the butler story are more specific to a particular form of exile. It’s not that people outside the Black community cannot relate to being used. But those of us who don’t directly experience what he is describing must pause and be sure to really hear what is said about an experience we don’t share. This is a second kind of “The Torah of Exile”: discomfort and instruction for those who are in relative safety with regard to a particular form of exile.

We should all, of course, seek to learn from many sources. We need all the ancient and contemporary wisdom we can find, and all that’s in between, to help us understand our own exilic circumstances and those of our neighbors. It’s essential, though, that we stay clear on the two kinds of Torah of Exile and be careful to learn about others’ suffering without mistaking it for our own.




Gregory_BibleTales
Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales with Commentary, James R. McGraw, ed.
NY: Stein and Day, 1974

This volume, by the way, is very funny and oddly current.
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Learning to See

Where one lives plays a crucial role in determining access to opportunity, and learning to see “opportunity” and its effects is an important part of understanding our world and how to pursue justice in it. “Opportunity mapping,” a creation of the Kirwan Institute at Ohio State University, helps us visualize access to education, health, employment, housing, transportation, and public safety.

Students in the “Mapping Inequity in DC” class at the Maret School in the District of Columbia created an Opportunity Map, under the director of their teacher, Ayo Heinegg Maywood. The results, even for people who knew — or at least suspected — the expected outcome, are staggering. Here is what the students tell us:

This opportunity map suggests that in the 2010-14 period, opportunity (access to quality health, education, housing, public safety, and employment) is clearly concentrated geographically in the Northwest of Washington DC (particularly ward 3), an area that is disproportionately white and wealthy.
— visit “Opportunity Map for DC” for much more detail

This information is relevant to all who live, work, or worship in the District — and to those who otherwise care about the city and its residents, as well as anyone who just wants to understand how “opportunity” works. It’s of special interest to Temple Micah, a synagogue less than one mile from Maret.

The congregation, originally located in Southwest and called “Southwest Hebrew Congregation,” changed its name to “Temple Micah” — to reflect the prophet’s vision that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” — in 1968. In 1995, after a struggle to find an existing worship space for renovation or land for building near the old location, Temple Micah moved quite a distance, to the Glover Park neighborhood (Northwest DC, in Ward 3).

Social Justice efforts, including some partnerships with organizations in the “old neighborhood,” have long been central to Temple Micah. But the “new” location — that is, Temple Micah’s home for more than two decades! — brings different realities. One of them is that the congregation is now firmly situated within the area that Maret students found to be “disproportionately white and wealthy.”

The work of Maret’s “Opportunity Map” project is helping us visualize what most of us have long known, but may not have seen quite so clearly, about our own city and our place in it. Read more in this sermon — known in Hebrew as dvar [word of] Torah — which focuses on the call to keep our hands open to the poor and needy (Re’eh, Deut. 11:26-16:17):

  • How we visualize and speak about people in poverty is part of caring for the needy.
  • How we see circumstances and history contributing to poverty influences the flow of blessing; and
  • Paying attention to whom we view as brothers is part of how we train our hearts and hands and minds to respond.

Especially as we head into the season of reflection and repentance, the information in this mapping project can help us better understand our world and its needs.

 

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Noah, Covenant, and “Cursed be Canaan”

Curse and Covenant

The “curse of Ham” — with related ideas about slavery and race, unsupported by the the text itself — emerged over the centuries from the biblical story of Noah. Regardless of our particular faith community’s approach to this curse concept, there is no denying the damage done by what one author calls “the single greatest justification for Black slavery for more than a thousand years” (Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham). Racism and oppression have become inextricably linked with the Noah story.

This moment in U.S. history seems to demand that we acknowledge the damaging legacy of our collective textual heritage. Some readers might find it worthwhile to examine the complex religious career of the “Cursed be Canaan” text, its development in Abrahamic teaching and its role in Western history and culture. A few references are shared here toward that purpose. But we need not pursue an academic route in order to answer the ethical call of this week’s Torah portion.

Immediately after the Flood, God’s introduces a covenant, symbolized by the rainbow (Gen. 9:17): God promises never again to destroy everything by flood, and humans are expected to obey basic laws. The prohibition against shedding human blood and some of the other “Noahide Laws” are specified in this week’s portion; others, according to Jewish tradition, are found in or derived from other passages in Genesis.

Seeing a rainbow, we are to be reminded of the covenant, of God’s mercy and of our own obligations. Some teachers see the rainbow as a reminder to repent and spur repentance among others. With this in mind, watching Ava DuVarney’s documentary, 13th — about mass incarceration of black people as an extension of slavery — seems a useful step in beginning to respond to the long legacy of “cursed be Canaan.”

Fateful conjunction of slavery and race

Upon realizing “what Ham had done to him,” Noah responded: “Cursed is Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” Noah goes on to specify that Canaan, son of Ham, will be a slave to his uncles, Shem and Japheth (Genesis 9:25-27). Only Canaan is mentioned, but the curse is often understood to apply to generations of descendants of all four of Ham’s children. And, while there is no biblical reference to skin color at all, the curse of slavery became associated with black skin.

…it is not clear when to date the fateful conjunction of slavery and race in the Western readings of Noah’s prophecy….the application of the curse to racial slavery was the product of centuries of development in ethnic and racial stereotyping, biblical interpretation, and the history of servitude.

Nevertheless, by the early colonial period, a racialized version of Noah’s curse had arrived in America.
— Stephen R. Haynes. Noah’s Curse, pp.7-8 (citation below)

noahgraphicDuVarney’s 13th looks at slavery — outlawed by the 13th Amendment, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted — and its re-incarnation through mass incarceration. 13th does not explore biblical text or religious teaching. It looks at the U.S. criminal justice system today and its relation to the broader history of racism, oppression and subjugation of black people.

“We take you from 1865 and the abolition of slavery and the enactment of the 13th Amendment all the way to now and this Black Lives Matter movement,” DuVernay told Democracy Now. “And we trace, decade by decade, generation by generation, politician by politician, president by president, each decision and how it has led to this moment.” (more on the movie)



Three of the key Noahide laws are

  • prohibition on murder, with the reminder that every human is created in God’s image;
  • prohibition on stealing, understood broadly to include kidnapping and other forms of theft; and
  • establishment of a courts and a system of law.

What is the rainbow saying with regard to our record on murder, stealing, and courts?

NOTES:

1) The story of the Noah is found in this week’s Torah reading (Genesis 6:9-11:22). The verses discussed here (9:20ff) cryptically describe a post-Flood incident involving drunkenness on Noah’s part and Ham’s witnessing “his father’s nakedness.”

וַיִּיקֶץ נֹחַ, מִיֵּינוֹ; וַיֵּדַע, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לוֹ בְּנוֹ הַקָּטָן.
וַיֹּאמֶר, אָרוּר כְּנָעַן: עֶבֶד עֲבָדִים, יִהְיֶה לְאֶחָיו.
Noah awoke from his wine and realized what his small son [Ham], had done to him. And he said, “Cursed is Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”

Various explanations have been suggested for why Canaan was cursed rather than Ham. Genesis Rabbah, for example, says that Noah couldn’t curse Ham, because God had already blessed him (Gen 9:1). Another possibility put forth was that Canaan was really the instigator. While the text speaks of individuals and not whole communities, many commentators over the centuries focused on moral factors which they believed might result in one people being subjugated to another.
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2) Race and Slavery in early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. David M. Goldenberg. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.

[Goldenberg] concludes that in biblical and post-biblical Judaism there are no anti-black or racist sentiments, a finding that some scholars dispute. He also contends that the notion of black inferiority developed later, as blacks were enslaved across cultures. His findings, he said, dovetail with those of other scholars who have not found anti-black sentiment in ancient Greece, Rome or Arabia.

”The main methodological point of the book is to see the nexus between history and biblical interpretation,” Mr. Goldenberg said. ”Biblical interpretation is not static.”
— “From Noah’s Curse to Slavery” in New York Times

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3) Stephen R. Haynes. Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery. Oxford and NY: Oxford University Press, 2002.
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13th: A Documentary

“13th strikes at the heart of America’s tangled racial history, offering observations as incendiary as they are calmly controlled,” writes Rotten Tomatoes, where the film gets a 98% positive rating from critics and a 94% positive audience score.

“A damning but cogent argument for wholesale reconsideration of the so-called prison industrial complex,” is how the Chicago Tribune characterizes 13th.

See also The Guardian, Black Youth Project’s review, with more at DuVernay’s website. The National Review‘s response is also fascinating in its way.

The New York Times calls it “powerful, infuriating and at times overwhelming.” Many people, this blogger included, report needing to watch the movie in installments.

In addition to some local screenings, 13th streams on Netflix. Sign up for a free month, if you don’t already subscribe or have a friend who does.
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“Let us search and try our ways”: Trouble to See prelude

The lowest point of the Jewish calendar, the day of mourning known as Tisha B’av, commemorating destruction of the Temples and other calamities, calls us:

“Let us search and try our ways, and return to the LORD” (Lamentations 3:40).

As we move on from this day, through the season of repentance and beyond, I invite Jews — and others interested — to join me in an effort to “search and try our ways,” looking closely at the ways in which race has formed our lives and the life of this country so that we might build something new.

Here is my beginning, with resources and background —

Trouble to See #1: Expelling Creases from the Fold

Trouble to See #2: Beyond Central Casting

Trouble to See #3: Beyond the Romance

Trouble to See #4: Peeling Back Some Tricky Layers

Trouble to See Related Resources