Lights for Liberty: An Intention

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Rabbi Yose son of Judah taught: Two ministering angels, one good and one evil, accompany a person home on the Sabbath eve. If a lamp is burning, table set, and seating arranged, the good angel says, “May it be thus on the next Sabbath,” and the evil angel unwillingly answers “amen.” If not, the evil angel says, “May it be thus on the next Sabbath,” and the good angel unwillingly answers “amen.” (based on B. Shabbat 119b)

For too many Sabbaths, our national home has been devoid of safety, nourishment, and comfort for those seeking refuge and asylum, and for many others in our midst. Each week of these conditions reinforces toleration of the same next week, with our good angels, however unwillingly, answering “amen.” This Friday, we gather for a turning point, calling forth new and better angels.

In the spirit of “Lights for Liberty,” in Washington DC and beyond, a prayer:

Holy One, wherever lamps are burning,
tables set, and seating arranged on Sabbath Eve,
nurture those gatherings;
inspire all who experience this sanctuary in time
to renewed effort toward safety, nourishment, and comfort for all.

Hear this, too, Holy One —
wherever light is lacking,
food sparse, and conditions rough this week,
accept no prayer — angel or human — on our behalf for a continuation of suffering.
Let no appearance of indifference, helplessness, or political confusion
be understood as a plea in our name for the perpetuation of evil.

Holy One, we welcome the Sabbath
in gratitude for its peace and blessing
and we dedicate ourselves, and beg Your help,
to extend that peace and blessing to those most in need.
Help us, as we work to end the horrors perpetuated in our name.
May this week’s lamps and tables and seating persist and multiply. And we all say: Amen

For study passages and another prayer, visit Jews United for Justice resource page. Here is a PDF of this kavanah with Talmudic introduction (not shared on the JUFJ website).

Visit http://www.lightsforliberty.org for details of July 12 anti-Concentration Camp gatherings around the country.

Visit https://jufj.org for details about DC- and Baltimore-area Jewish justice efforts.

Visit https://www.neveragainaction.com/ for national Jewish responses.

Black and Jewish Communities Sharing History

UPDATED 9/3/18

We Act Radio “Sharing History” for the District and for every place where black and Jewish communities have some things to learn about one another.

Listen here —

“We Act Radio: Black and Jewish Communities Sharing History”
Audio excerpts below

Previous We Act Radio piece, “Misunderstandings are growing…”

Our “Junetenth Building Bridges” party led to further meetings between some interested community members and the launching of the “Cross River (Black and Jewish) Dialogue.” Stay tuned for more as this work develops. Our first effort was the placement of this essay on the Anniversary of Charlottesville in the Forward’s Scribe section.

juneteenth_sharing.jpg

Audio Excerpts:
…Jews always know, from history, that any sense of physical security or relative economic ease is a fragile thing, easily destroyed by the kind of hate speech that labels Jews as others to fear and defeat. We know it’s not a long stretch from muttered conspiracies about Jews controlling world capital to crowds chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” And we can’t forget how quickly co-existence in Europe devolved into destruction and death camps.

At the risk of sounding flip, I adapt a slogan from my youth: “Just because a Jew seems paranoid or over-reacting doesn’t mean folks aren’t out to get them.”

By the same token, if someone from east of DC’s Anacostia River sounds overly-sensitive or paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong….

…Black people know from history that any level of economic ease or sense of physical security – such as the ability to enjoy a public park, or close one’s eyes in a common college space, or meet colleagues in a coffee house, or work or vacation or walk to grandma’s house – is an extremely fragile thing. It’s not a long stretch from a few muttered remarks about people not knowing their place to a police call that can so quickly destroy one life, or many. And black communities in the U.S. today suffer disproportionate levels of incarceration, unemployment, and poverty because of centuries of anti-Black sentiment, policy, and action.

The city of DC, like much of this country, has arranged life for many White people so that the dangers and suffering black communities face today are out of sight and out of mind. Another result of our segregated lives, in DC & much of the country, is that black and Jewish communities are too often strangers, even when our communities overlap. This means we are too readily convinced to believe evil stories about the other without easy avenues of communication to correct misunderstandings or opportunities for community building.

We Act Radio, WPFW, and additional partners are working on opportunities for more bridge building, including an Election Day-Juneteenth gathering.
Juneteenth Building Bridges Election Watch Party

Babylon and the Writing on the Wall

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Exploring Babylon: Chapter 5.1

The song, “Mene, Mene, Tekel” (Harold Rome, 1939) takes its name and chorus from the original, now proverbial, “writing on the wall” (Daniel 5:25):

MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN
מְנֵא מְנֵא, תְּקֵל וּפַרְסִין

Rome’s satirical translation of the “writing on the wall” seems as appropriate to 2017 as to 1939, and it’s quite faithful to the biblical text:

King, stop your frolicking, stop your flaunting
you’ve been weighed and you’re found wanting
all your days are numbered days
the Lord don’t like dictators or dictators ways
— H. Rome “Mene, Mene, Tekel”
(Joe Glazer’s version; full lyrics, original and adapted)

This song also leads to further questions about how we understand and interact with sacred text, particularly at times of crisis. And it will give us a slightly different perspective for #ExploringBabylon.

Music of Protest and Power

When new, the song was banned from the radio and protested by both the Daily Worker and the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, among others. It was a later addition to the already controversial musical revue, Pins and Needles, November 1937 to June 1940. The satirical revue ran for 1108 shows, a record for Broadway shows at the time, and was performed throughout most of its run by amateurs from the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.

Labor and other social justice issues were frequent topics for Rome (1908 – 1993). For more, see 1993 NY Times obituary and the 2014 biography.

Joe Glazer (1918-2006), known as “Labor’s Troubadour,” often performed “Mene, Mene, Tekel” along with other organizing and protest songs (2006 NY Times obituary). Glazer settled in Silver Spring, MD and lent his voice — including renditions of this song — to early Jews United for Justice Labor Seders.

In a 1981 live performance, Glazer introduced the song’s historical and biblical background:

I want to close with one of the great song’s by Harold Rome. He wrote it at the height of Hilter’s move through Europe, Africa…he was gonna invade England. He was taking over everything, it looked pretty, pretty dark.

Old Harold Rome he took out the Bible, and he checked the Book of Daniel. He saw that old Belshazzar — he was riding high one day, and he got his comeuppance, because he saw the handwriting on the wall. It said: “MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN,” in old Aramaic. “You have been weighed in the balances and you have been found wanting.”

He just took that story and he wrote it up. And that’s what helped to bring old Hitler down, I’ll tell you that.
— from “The Jewish Immigrant Experience in America”
Collector Records, Smithsonian Folkways

Smithsonian Folkways shares Glazer’s introduction and song here–

Rome’s 1962 Anniversary recording, lyrics (Rome and Glazer versions), and more posted here.

Guests were Shagging

Most of Glazer’s alterations to Rome’s lyrics are stylistic, including rhythm and story-telling preferences, and some changes to dialect. One of the biggest changes is the use of “the joint was jumping” in place of Rome’s “guests were shagging.” And this raises some interesting questions about study and use of the bible.

In the US in the 1930s, “shagging” was a relatively new term for a form of jazz dance. Swing dancers, especially in the South, still use the term, although the style has changed over the decades.

Someone more familiar with the history of British slang would know if “shag” was used in the 1930s for sexual intercourse — and if such usage was commonly known in the US; this would create a double-entendre. But it seems likely that the primary meaning in “Mene, Mene, Tekel” was that the banquet included spirited dancing, maybe something like this (from “A Day at the Races”) —

— or maybe this (Arthur Murray instructions):

By the latter part of the 20th Century, the dance meaning was less generally current, and the Britishism had gained popularity in the US. So saying the “guests were shagging” at that point, when the song was in Glazer’s repertoire, could just sound crude.

This tiny example of how a change in language usage — even among primary speakers of the language alive to recall some of the shifting — is offered as a reminder of just how complex a project it is to interpret an ancient text that has traveled continents and cultures.

It can also point to a bit of what (mostly Christian) bible scholars call “reception history,” that is, how sacred text is understood and used in different generations. More on the general concept in the future.

Guests were Shagging?

Whatever Rome originally intended by “shagging” — an eager student of Broadway and dance could no doubt uncover this, if it’s not already known — sexuality and partner dancing are always closely entwined. Moreover, we are told in the Book of Daniel that Belshazzar is feasting with his “consorts and concubines” — “court and concubines” in the song lyrics (both versions). In addition, sexual license is an aspect of the ill-repute Babylon developed through the centuries (partly via Christian Scripture). More on this later, too.

In this respect, it’s unclear how much “sex” is included in any description of dancing at Belshazzar’s party. But the descriptions of partying in “Mene, Mene, Tekel” don’t sound like a condemnation of sexy jazz dancing, or of anyone but the king.

A musically-oriented interpreter with an ear to Europe in 1939 knows that the Reich was banning jazz as “degenerate music,” for its Jewish and Black associations. (See US Holocuast Memorial Museum just to start.) In that context, what does it mean that “guests were shagging, horns were blowin'” during Belshazzar’s banquet?

We have a hint in the song’s conclusion:

Now, the king of Babylon was slain
But the children of the Lord remain
All his idols turned to rust
crumbled are his kingdom and his power to dust

It’s not the dancers and horn players who turn to dust but the king and his power. More on all this as we continue #ExploringBabylon.


NOTES

Note 1: Daniel and the Writing
The Book of Daniel comes to us partially Hebrew and partially, including Chapter Five, in Aramaic. These four words on the wall, and Daniel’s interpretation of those mysterious words, is the heart of this chapter’s story. So, the words are generally left untranslated and rendered (IN ALL CAPS, e.g) so as to stand out.

It’s pronounced something like “menny, menny, teckle, oo-farseen.”

And this is the writing that was inscribed: MENE MENE, TEKEL UPHARSIN.
This is the interpretation of the thing: MENE, God hath numbered thy kingdom, and brought it to an end.
TEKEL, Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.
PERES, thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.’
Then commanded Belshazzar, and they clothed Daniel with purple, and put a chain of gold about his neck, and made proclamation concerning him, that he should rule as one of three in the kingdom.
In that night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was slain.
— Daniel 5:25-30 (Old JPS) Mechon-Mamre

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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.

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Expelling Creases from the Fold

Creases

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!!)
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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…
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Endurance and Leadership (beyond 27)

The close of the Netzach [“Endurance” or “Leadership”] week of the omer journey seems an auspicious moment to share some resources for leading conversations and action within the Jewish community.

Are communities in which you’re active having the necessary conversations? It takes many forms of leadership to get discussion started in ways that allow everyone to listen and be heard. And it takes endurance and additional leadership to keep it going for the long-haul.

The omer count below is for Friday night. This post is scheduled to go out early on Friday in case anyone wants to share resources with their congregations this Shabbat.

Conversation and Sermon Sparks

“We are, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, in the midst of ‘the fierce urgency of now,’ write leaders of Jews United for Justice, introducing a set of resources meant for rabbis, but applicable to anyone who teaches or otherwise leads Jews. “Our partners in the Black community tell us that one of the most important things you can do…is to begin or deepen a conversation with your community about racism, police brutality, and inequality in Baltimore and beyond.” To that end, you’ll find background material, some texts, and sermon starters.

T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights offers serman sparks on mass incarceration, a Prayer for Ferguson, and a number of other useful materials. They also issued a statement standing with Baltimore.

Resolutions: Then and Now

The Union for Reform Judaism adopted a Resolution on the Crisis of Racial and Structural Inequality in the United States in December; action items include two particularly relevant to congregations:

Encourage our congregations to establish and sustain relationships with diverse racial, ethnic and economic sectors of their communities, participate in community-based dialogues pertaining to race and community-police relations, and work to enhance violence prevention and conflict resolution procedures.

When appropriate to the size of a community and in cases of a clear, ongoing pattern of excessive police violence in general or against specific segments of the community, consider the efficacy of establishing a representative police review board with subpoena powers.

The 2014 resolution makes reference to a 1969 resolution, noting with sadness that it “rings as true today– if not more so”:

“Race and the U.S. Criminal Justice System”
50th General Assembly
October 1969
Miami Beach, FL

The current demands made by the American black community painfully remind us of the appalling hurt done by our nation to a long oppressed multitude. Certainly we in the Reform Jewish community cannot allow our country to ignore the plight of America’s impoverished millions. Jewish imperatives require that we be ever sensitive to the aspirations and just demands of our country’s minorities.

WE, THEREFORE, URGE our congregations to redouble their efforts in support of those who have been exploited by our society. Synagogue programs supportive of oppressed peoples, the raising of funds for minority group use, pressure upon our government for massive action, are vehicles that we must employ to heal the deep wounds inflicted.

More

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has materials about Selma and Civil Rights and related topics.

Israeli struggles with race, class, and color are not identical to those in the U.S. but are mutually illuminating. A recent article on 972mag [on on-line publication named for Israel’s telephone code] asks Jews of Central European background to understand the struggles of Syrian and other Jews of Middle Eastern descent:

In a world where skin color has consequences for the future of your children, colorblindness is not a virtue, it’s a serious problem.

Thanks to Michele Sumka for sharing the 972mag article.

Links, suggestions, and guest postings welcome.

We counted 27 on the evening of April 30. Tonight, we count…. Continue Reading

Strength and Boundaries, Imperfection and Hope (Beyond 7)

With the close of Shabbat and the end of Passover, we move into the “gevurah [strength, boundaries]” week of the omer, on our journey away from oppression.

In the spirit of gevurah as strength, I suggest we begin this week by honoring the strength of individuals of color, persevering in a society that too often sees them in ways that do not celebrate their humanity. In the spirit of gevurah as boundaries, I suggest we begin this week by honoring the many different routes such perseverance can take.

At the close of Shabbat, we mark the division of holy and mundane, and Rabbi Jonathan Saks says:

By inviting human beings to engage in Havdala [dividing] at the end of Shabbat, God invites us to create worlds. Creation involves the ability to make distinctions, to rescue order from chaos, to respect the integrity of creation….The message of Havdala is: if we respect the integrity of boundaries, we can turn chaos into order, darkness into light.
— commentary to Havdala prayer, p. 726 Koren Saks Siddur

In addition, R. Saks teaches that the moment of lighting a candle to mark the transition from Shabbat to the weekdays also recalls the exile of Eve and Adam from Eden and how God showed them how to make light, so that they could become partners in the on-going work of creation.

Letting go of Shabbat is a moment of deep realization that the world is still imperfect and that we have work to do. But it is also a moment of special yearning and hope, as we breathe in the spices to fortifying us for the week’s work ahead. Havdala, and the going out of Shabbat, is thus a great time for considering strength and boundaries.
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The Facts of Jewish Diversity (Beyond 2)

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Continuing the theme of “not knowing” as a form of callous, insensitive “moral deficiency,” one we seek to leave behind this Passover season, let’s explore some facts about diversity in the Jewish community.

Upwards of 435,000 Jews — possibly as many as 400,000 in the New York City area alone — identify (also) as African American, Asian, Latino/Hispanic, Native American, or mixed-race, for a total of about 435,000 individuals. (See Be’chol Lashon; Bnai Brith).

And yet, the assumption in too many of our communities remains — even if many of us believe, or would like to believe, otherwise — that Jews mostly look like a Central Casting crew of Eastern European Ashkenazim. Most of us believe our communities are inclusive and welcoming, but the experience of many Jews belies this.

Central Casting Sent the Wrong Type

Jews of lighter hues, such as those of Scandinavian or Celtic background, are regularly assumed to be “other,” addressed as visitors or called out as converts, an attitude that is specifically forbidden in the Talmud: “Do not wrong a proselyte by taunting him with being a stranger to the Jewish people seeing that ye yourselves were strangers in Egypt.” (Baba Metzia 59b)

Jews of color across the country continue to tell stories that shame every Jew:

“Many people who are Jews of color have very painful stories to tell about having not been accepted in their congregations and having the veracity of their Jewishness questioned,” says Rabbi Appell, of the URJ. “Some tell of being shown the kitchen because someone assumed that they worked there.”
— from “Jews of Color,” March 2015

A few years ago, women from Washington, DC found a photo of their Rosh Chodesh service plastered in national media with a caption reading: “A non-Jewish woman is among those at a Torah reading at Adas Israel Congregation.” (See Who is a Jew and How Would the Forward Recognize Her?“) JTA and the Forward pulled the photo after widespread complaint without ever apologizing or explaining whom they assumed was a non-Jew. But it seems that at least several pairs of editorial eyes thought it more likely that a non-Jew was wearing a kippa and tallit [ritual garb] and actively participating in the Torah service at a Conservative synagogue [something the movement does not sanction] than that a Jew might vary from the assumed “look of a Jew.”

At Jews United for Justice‘s recent community seder, Michael Twitty of Afroculinaria spoke of fellow Jews demanding to be told how he came to be there, assuming he would want to share the particulars of his spiritual journey with complete strangers. His story surprised many who assume the relative diversity in the DC area would preclude such behavior, but such stories are common to Jews of color.

Jews Have Work to Do

We have much work to do, to make even our more diversity-assuming Jewish communities welcoming to all.

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb of Adat Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue in suburban Bethesda, Md., who is also the father of two adopted African-American sons, is emphatic that this mindset must change: “We must create the norm where we assume that people belong, and never inadvertently ostracize someone whom you may think ‘doesn’t look Jewish.’ Anyone looks Jewish, potentially.”
–from “Jews of Color” (linked above)

And one step in that work is ensuring that our Jewish organizations, congregations, and schools acknowledge the experiences of all parts of the community:

Jews of color are diverse, multihued and proud of it — proud of our Jewishness and proud of our Blackness. But though our lives are joyous and full, racism forces us down a narrow treacherous path. On the one hand we experience the same oppression that afflicts all people of color in America — racism targets us, our family members, and our friends. On the other hand, the very community that we would turn to for belonging and solidarity — our Jewish community doesn’t acknowledge our experience.
— from JFREJ‘s #BlackLivesMatter Haggadah Supplement

jfrej_blm_croppedBe’chol Lashon offers Diversity Training and Community Conversations through its Race Project. Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and several other organizations offer pertinent learning opportunities. How many of our communities are in need of such organized work?

One way to make this Omer count is to begin necessary conversations to ensure that all experiences within our Jewish communities are acknowledged and honored.

We counted two on the evening of April 5.
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