“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

Trouble to See #4: Peeling Back Some Tricky Layers


Peeling back another layer….

A few more layers of racial-justice-related issues to peel back in taking “Trouble to See,” using the fictional world of “Dirty Dancing” as an aid (see “Beyond the Romance“).

Consider that the integrated dance floor — where  non-Jewish staff mix after hours — is moving to Otis Redding, The Contours, and other African American performers. We know – even if the young dancers don’t yet – that white performers will achieve far more financial and popular success with versions of the same music adapted for white audiences. In the main ballroom, the mambo and meringue are all the rage (topic for another day, perhaps.) And so, if we look more closely at the dance floors, we might notice the fine line between cultural sharing and cultural appropriation.

We know, too — from our vantage point in 2016 — that prominent among the promoters of black music will be Jews, sometimes recognized as supporting important black music and sometimes seen as using black music to support themselves. See, for example, varying views on the earlier history of Chess Records as well as later involvement of Jews in soul and other music genres.

Here is just one contemporary remark, illustrating a common viewpoint, from a website devoted to hip hop music:

And the sad truth is that rappers might be rich while they are hot, but Jews and other white men that own the labels (and thus own the music) continue to stay rich after the rappers have faded off the scene.

The Civil Rights movement did not address these dynamics. Focusing on marches and sit-ins of the 1960s does not give us a perspective that is wide or deep enough to help us consider the complicated history of Jews and Racial Justice.

A Deeper Layer

At least from the early 20th Century, mainstream, White press and popular sentiment railed against music considered too sexually explicit and encouraging of inappropriate behavior in its fans. The story was repeated with ragtime, blues, jazz, rock and roll, up through hip hop. At each stage, what White people performed on stage and did on the dance floor was eventually accepted, while “Black music” was continually viewed in many quarters as retaining some “jungle” element:

“Jazz. Here in Germany it become something worse than a virus. We was all of us damn fleas, us Negroes and Jews and low-life hoodlums, set on playing that vulgar racket, seducing sweet blond kids into corruption and sex. It wasn’t music, it wasn’t a fad. It was a plague sent out by the dread black hordes, engineered by the Jews. Us Negroes, see, we was only half to blame – we just can’t help it. Savages just got a natural feel for filthy rhythms, no self-control to speak of. But the Jews, brother, now they cooked up this jungle music on purpose. All part of their master plan to weaken Aryan youth, corrupt its janes, dilute its bloodlines.

“…we was officially degenerate.

“…And poor damn Jews, clubbed to a pulp in the streets, their shopfronts smashed up, their axes ripped from their hands. Hell. When that old ivory-tickler Volker Schramm denounced his manager Martin Miller as a false Aryan, we know Berlin wasn’t Berlin no more. It had been a damn savage decade.”
— Sid, Black musician narrator, in Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edyugan (NY: Picador, 2011), p.78-79

Half-Blood Blues is set in Germany, but the illustration of how Jews and Blacks were viewed in the 30s in Berlin has a parallel in U.S. history. As with many other groups of new immigrants to the U.S., Jews were once considered exotic, often hyper-sexualized degenerates. When the U.S. eagerly and legally classified people by race, Jews were non-White. The lynching of Robert Frank, a Jew accused of raping a “White” girl, in the early part of the 20th Century is part of that non-White Jewish history.

half-bloodThe view that Jews are involved in Jazz “on purpose,” while Blacks cannot help themselves, had parallels in the U.S. as well. Jews are occasionally still subject to this stereotyping in U.S. mainstream press and public opinion. It is all too common still, in 2016, in White Supremacist comments, including some from current candidates for office. But Black people in 1963 regularly faced this kind of stereotyping – still do in 2016 – and this has dangerous repercussions in everything from housing to education. It has particularly deadly ramifications in policing.

The related image of Black youth as part of a “thug life,” promoted by the hip hop industry, benefited and still benefits quite a few people outside black neighborhoods, non-Jews and Jews, who do not live with the consequences of that image in their daily lives.

Related References

Collis, John. The Story of Chess Records. NY: Bloomsbury, 1998. See also 4-part YouTube series called “The Chess Records Story”

Stratton, Jon. Jews, Race, and Popular Music. Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2009.

White, Miles. From Jim Crow to Jay-Z: Race, Rap, and the Performance of Masculinity. Univ. of Illinois Press, 2011.

Whitfield, Stephen J. American Space, Jewish Time: Essays in Modern Culture and Politics. North Haven, CT: Archon Books, 1988

and a few notes:
Half-Blood Blues stands on its own as literature and entertainment. It’s also a great opportunity to turn the neck, getting perspectives — from a black woman writer (from contemporary Canada) describing the lives of black musicians in Berlin in the 1930s — we might otherwise miss. This particular story also gives us a non-Jewish narrator, a Black man at risk for reasons unrelated to Jewish heritage, relating the rise of the Nazis from a vantage point we don’t often see.

The novel touches on the history of Rhineland Bastards. Learn more at USHMM, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum website.

Trouble to See #3: Beyond the Romance

I never visited the Catskills in the heyday of Jewish resorts. But Eleanor Bergstein’s portrait of one liminal summer there reflects something essential in my own experience, albeit in a non-Jewish neighborhood of Chicago, and in the story of “Jews and Racial Justice.” Thus #3 of “Trouble to See,” my singular excursion — with background and resources — into the topic of Jews and Racial Justice.

I do realize that many viewers actually enjoy the movie, “Dirty Dancing,” for its dance and music and love story. (I don’t think anyone loves the plot-line about the dancer facing a life-threatening, illegal abortion – although it represents another important a chapter in our history.) But I am pretty sure that Bergstein and I are not alone in also holding a soft spot in our hearts for a time when, as she puts it, “you could reach out your hand, and if your heart was pure, you thought you could change the world forever.”

Beyond the Catskills

The Chicago school boycott of 1963 is less well-known than other events of that year in the Civil Rights movement. But it illustrates a great deal about the Chicago of my youth, organization in the Black community to achieve equity, and efforts in many quarters to create positive change that would work for all residents and all neighborhoods.

Nevertheless, Chicago remained one of the most hyper-segregated cities anywhere, with powerful color lines as well as lines between areas welcoming to Irish and Italian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian residents, etc. Sociologists at the time called the neighborhood change we experienced “invasion-succession.” There may be a less war-like term for it now. But it was pretty devastating for all concerned:

Near my home, Urban Renewal razed one whole commercial strip, replacing it with rubble and a sign that read, “Courtesy: Richard J. Daley, Mayor.” They eventually put up a senior citizens home, at that point isolated from pedestrian traffic and with virtually nowhere for residents to walk. A few blocks away, the Arson Squad was kept busy while owners of another commercial strip bailed. In the same time period, we later learned, the Chicago Police Department’s “Red Squad” – organized decades earlier to root out communists and others they considered subversive – infiltrated the Organization for a Better Austin, which, along with the rival Town Hall Assembly, was supposedly attempting to create a stable, integrated neighborhood.

There were more than 80, mostly White, students in our class in first grade. We graduated with 24 students, a very different mix of kids, and we were the last graduating class of the school. Despite many community meetings, the Archdiocese of Chicago decided not to prioritize neighborhood stabilization, instead closing first the local high school and then the elementary school, where I was a student, followed shortly afterward by the church. Patterns similar to this were seen in places like Philadelphia when synagogues fled the city.

Beyond the Romance of Civil Rights

All of the above made for a pretty wild ride in my first 14 years on the planet, as my family remained in the same apartment while everything changed around us. Eventually, our landlord decided to sell, and – after exploring affordable options inside the city – we moved a mile west, to the village of Oak Park. The whole thing left me with pretty dim views of every major institution charged with promoting the common good. And also with some very particular ideas about how racial integration does and does not work — and what it can and cannot accomplish.

I retain a deep affection for that brief sliver of struggle-filled, yet hopeful, time – when we thought a better, racially just world was right around the corner. As grown-ups, though, I think we have a responsibility — “we,” meaning here “White” people, in general, and Jewish communities, in particular — have to look beyond any romantic views of Civil Rights. We have to admit that, exciting as that season might have been, full of possibility and hope, we let ourselves ignore some of the realities. And, even though we probably couldn’t have known any better then, now we must look seriously at what has transpired since then and ensure that we make different choices today, ones that work for all parties involved.

In the meantime, regardless of past history and how it evolved, economic and political equity did not appear. As a journalist covering two of the poorest wards in the city,  both predominantly black, I can testify that whole areas of the District  have been been short-changed for generations on education, housing, and employment opportunities while being over-policed and over-incarcerated.

So, I want to go back to the fictional Catskills and take the trouble to see a little more carefully.

Continued in “Trouble to See #4”

Trouble to See #2: Beyond Central Casting

further thoughts and references on Jews and Racial Justice….

“Bernie Sanders Looks Like Everyone’s Jewish Grandpa…,” read a headline on the Jewish Daily Forward website earlier this election season. But Sanders doesn’t look anything like these Jewish men, some of whom are probably grandpas, or like many Sephardic grandpas. He doesn’t look like the grandparents of many Jewish children in the United States. Bernie Sanders looks like Jewish grandpas from only one part of the world.

The blurb was meant to be cute, sure, but it still promotes an extremely limited view of who “looks Jewish.” (Sadly, the Forward lets the same sloppy “Jewish looks” idea inform news stories as well.) This, in turn, helps validate widespread challenging of anyone who doesn’t look like “a Jew” Central Casting might send.

Jews of color, in particular, report being frequently singled out and questioned about their background — despite that fact that this is contrary to a number of Jewish teachings.

This is just one way in which Jewish communities have work to do, more than most of us would like to admit,
in the area of racial justice.

(How) Are You Jewish?!

Not all Jews of color are Jews by choice. But the Talmud’s specific stress on not embarrassing a proselyte or child of a proselyte (Baba Metzia 58b) seems apropos. As does Jewish law forbidding differentiating between Jews by choice and Jews by blood (see, e.g., Yebamot 47b).

More generally, Jewish tradition teaches “verbal wrongs”
are more serious than monetary ones
and that shaming a person in public is the same as shedding blood
(Baba Metzia 58b, again).

It is sometimes argued that people are “merely curious” and not attempting to shame a person who looks “different.” But this ignores what Jews of color, and others who don’t necessarily resemble Ashkenazi Jews, have repeatedly said: Being harassed with demands to explain yourself and your connection to Judaism is not welcoming; it is exhausting to be singled out all the time and demoralizing to have one’s identity challenged.

Micah810_53Michael Twitty, an African American Jew, describes how other Jews regularly question his presence in Jewish space and often demand: “Were you born Jewish?” (Jews United for Justice “Racial Justice Seder“)

MaNishtana, “100% Black, 100% Jewish, 0% Safe,” has his identity challenged so often, he says, that he finally penned a book entitled Fine, thanks. How Are You, Jewish?

In her famous poem, “Hebrew Mamita,” Vanessa Hidary speaks about a man complimenting her with, “You don’t look Jewish. You don’t act Jewish.” Eventually, she develops this  response:

Bigging up all people who are a little miffed
‘cuz someone tells you you don’t look like
or act like your people. Impossible.
Because you are your people.
You just tell them they don’t look. period.
listen here

Jewish Diversity and Racial Justice

One organization that has been working for years to “foster an expanding Jewish community that embraces its differences,” is Be’chol Lashon: In Every Tongue. Among their offerings are research, resources, and diversity-celebrating materials.

Recognizing and celebrating diversity within Jewish communities also means addressing the discrimination and risk that fellow Jews face because of their color. See, e.g., “#MyJewish and Why It Matters.” This is another crucial element in the story of Jews and Racial Justice. (more soon)


The same publication has made factual errors in the past based on assumptions about who “looks Jewish.”

Trouble to See #1: Expelling a Crease or Two

[updated 8/15] At the invitation of Temple Micah‘s Lunch and Learn program (8/10/16), I shared some thoughts about Jews and Racial Justice. I appreciate the opportunity. As promised, I offer the references cited for anyone who wants to explore further: Jews and Racial Justice reference page. I also include below a link to the SongRiseDC rendition of Ella’s Song (from Ella Baker & Sweet Honey and the Rock) that I was unable to share during the talk.

And just to clarify: I share in these “Trouble to See” posts some views which are not my own, for purposes of learning and discussion. But nothing here is the view of Temple Micah.

Skip ahead:
Expelling Creases from the Fold
Trouble to See

Through this talk, I succeeded in annoying a number of people — including myself — for a whole variety of reasons. (I’d like to think that’s some sign of success, given the topic.) At best what I shared can only be the beginning of a long, complicated — and, ultimately, very difficult — conversation.

Trouble to See

We began this afternoon, and I hope we can all continue exploring, with the idea of taking “trouble to see,” based on commentary about Moses at the Burning Bush.  MicahTrouble1


Here’s the commentary —


and the questions I hope we can ask, as we look back on what we think we know about race and racial justice:MicahTrouble2

This is the original post, from 2015, exploring the idea of taking “trouble to see” following the death of Walter Scott.


Expelling Creases from the Fold


As part of this exercise in turning the neck, taking “trouble to see” aspects of our past experience in new light, I shared a portion of my memoir/essay, “Skins,” which will appear in the forthcoming Expelling Creases from the Fold, an anthology published by Liberated Muse Arts Group. Thanks to Liberated Muse for allowing me to share this material in advance of its publication.

Here’s a link to the full talk. The reading of “Skins” begins around minute 18:00. (Not the best quality video, sorry. Looking forward to the anthology!!)

Ella’s Song

Sorry I could not share the SongRise version of “Ella’s Song” during the lunch today. For all in the room today — and anyone else who does not know “Ella’s Song” — as SongRise’s Sarah Beller explains in her introduction: The lyrics are words of Ella Baker, one of the founders of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the music was created by Sweet Honey and the Rock.

Last note: the SongRise video cuts off mid-way through their second powerful number, “A Change is Gonna Come.” more on that later…

April 22: 1968 and 2016

Who can say we’ve actually left Egypt?


from the King Archive

April 22, 1968 was the original launch date for the Poor People’s Campaign. As we approach the beginning of Passover, on April 22, 2016, the very basic demands of 1968 have yet to materialize. Can your seder, or your Passover week, include some moments to reflect on how far we’ve (not) come in the last 50 years and consider how we might do better?

Here is a link to King’s remarks in the Campaign press release, a month before his assassination.

Here are some sources on the Campaign itself, which drew thousands to Washington, and included Resurrection City, erected on the National Mall in May:

A New Telling

In the 48 years since the Poor People’s Campaign, too little has changed, on the one hand. See, e.g: The Unfinished March and The Unfinished March: an Overview.

On the other hand, we have seen decades of generational poverty and violence and other oppressive conditions disproportionately affecting communities of color. And one thing which has changed in recent decades is the further development of Whiteness Studies, exploring the facts and impact of systemic racism.

Is there is room in your Passover and Omer practice for THAT maggid, for recalling — and telling the young or uninformed — how it is that Whiteness developed in this country and what it has meant? Follow #WhitenessHistoryMonth on Twitter, and see more below, for some bits to include.

Who can say we’ve actually left? “Wherever you live, it is probably Egypt,” Michael Walzer wrote.

…Do you live in a place in which some people are more equal than others? In America, the unemployment rate for African-Americans is nearly twice as high as it is for whites. Black people are five times as likely to be incarcerated as whites. Infant mortality in the black community is twice as high as it is among whites. America is a golden land, absolutely, and for Jews, it has been an ark of refuge. But it has not yet fulfilled its promise….
[Updated, additional statistics**]
…aren’t we still commanded to bring everyone out of Egypt?
New American Haggadah (Boston: Little, Brown, 2012)

Some generally related resources:
American Jewish World Service
Jews for Racial and Economic Justice

More coming soon. Please share your ideas and sources.

I believe the “Seeing White” album, with some #WhitenessHistoryMonth contributions is visible to all. (If not, I’ll work on other options.)

**Newer, and additional, statistics

Unemployment still nearly twice as high for black Americans as for whites (NPR), as noted in New American Haggadah. In fact, Black Americans with college degrees have higher unemployment that White Americans without a high school diploma (EPI).

Infant mortality among black families is still twice that found in white families, while Native Americans experience an infant mortality rate 150% that of white Americans. (CDC)

Black people in the U.S. are now SIX times more likely to be incarcerated as white people (NAACP), up from five times when New American Haggadah was published. The Sentencing Project finds similar disparity for Hispanic Americans. In addition, here is the growing disparity for U.S. school children:

For black children born in 1978, by the time they reached the age of 14, 14% had experienced a parent’s incarceration. For children born twelve years later, the rate rose to one quarter of black children witnessing a parent’s incarceration. The rate rose for white children as well – from 1% of white children born in 1978 having an incarcerated parent by the time they reached age 14 to 3% of white children born in 1990 experiencing a parent’s incarceration.
Education Town Hall


Racism: Congenital Deformity, Sickness Unto Death

It is time to re-order our national priorities. All those who now speak of good will and praise the work of such groups as the President’s Commission* now have the responsibility to stand up and act for the social changes that are necessary to conquer racism in America. If we as a society fail, I fear that we will learn very shortly that racism is a sickness unto death.

*Nat’l Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder (report summary)

The president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference continues, calling racism a “congenital deformity” of the United States:

whereEver since the birth of our nation, white America has had a schizophrenic personality on the question of race. She has been torn between selves—a self in which she proudly professed the great principles of democracy and a self in which she sadly practiced the antithesis of democracy. This tragic duality has produced a strange indecisiveness and ambivalence toward the Negro, causing America to take a step backward simultaneously with every step forward on the question of racial justice, to be at once attracted to the Negro and repelled by him, to love and to hate him. There has never been a solid, unified and determined thrust to make justice a reality for Afro-Americans…. What is the source of this perennial indecision and vacillation? It lies in the ‘congenital deformity’ of racism that has crippled the nation from its inception.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.,
Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?
1967; Reprinted, Boston: Beacon Press, 2010

One month later, 48 years ago today, Martin Luther King was assassinated.

This year, Passover begins on April 22. Where do we go from here?
While everyone in the U.S. must be asking this question, it seems particularly incumbent on Jews as the annual festival of freedom approaches: None of us is free unless all of us is free.