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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“Wrestling Jerusalem” and Listening thru Oppression

“…but they did not heed because of shortness of spirit-breath” (Exodus)
“It’s complicated…” (“Wrestling Jerusalem”)


Early on in the Exodus story, we learn that the Hebrew slaves in Egypt were unable to absorb Moses’ message of imminent redemption because of “shortness of breath” or “crushed spirit” due to “hard work” or “cruel bondage” (Exodus 6:9; see note below).

At this point, Moses asks God how it is that he, of “blocked speech,” will be able to communicate God’s message to Pharaoh, when even the Israelites won’t listen to him. The story continues with a strong focus on Pharaoh’s inability to hear, alternately attributed to “stubbornness” (e.g., Ex 7:13) and “hardness of heart” (e.g., Ex 8:11). Hebrew below.

Aaron Davidman in Wrestling Jerusalem (Photo: Teddy Wolff)

Aaron Davidman in “Wrestling Jerusalem,” now at DC’s Mosaic Theater (Photo: Teddy Wolff)

So, at the center of the Exodus story is a massive, multi-faceted failure to communicate: a prophet/leader with blocked speech (more literally: “uncircumcised lips”), slaves who cannot breathe well enough to communicate clearly, and a ruler who cannot even hear his own magicians (Ex 8:15) and servants (Ex 10:7). The story reminds us how difficult it is for communication to succeed across communities and through oppression. And the story warns us of the dangers of failing in those communication attempts.

Aaron Davidman‘s one-man play, “Wrestling Jerusalem” — currently [January 2016] at Mosaic Theater Company of DC — embodies at least 17 different voices, from across Israel and Palestine, in monologue and in argument. Each voice provides a very specific perspective, unique to the conflict he is exploring. Throughout the performance, however, echoes of the U.S. conflict come through loud and clear.

Wrestling Jerusalem and the U.S.

In the play, one Palestinian voice explains that the only Israelis he has met are soldiers who often mistreat him and rarely recognize his humanity. How many people of color in the U.S. have a similar experience with white people?

Photo: Teddy Wolff

Photo: Teddy Wolff

Many Black communities in the U.S. view police, not as protectors of peace, but as a “White” power structure occupying and terrorizing their neighborhood. Too many people of color know white people only as government representatives and developers ready to view them as problems to be “fixed.”

“Wrestling” characters, alternately inhabiting Davidman’s body, argue about Hamas: Is it a community organization with a strong feeding program? or an armed group bent on the destruction of Israel? Would donations ear-marked for food programs simply enable violent resistance? With minor changes, these same words have been used to discuss the Black Panther Party or the Nation of Islam: Caring for the ‘hood? Or plotting the downfall of the U.S. power structure?

It’s Complicated
The performance opens with a brilliant “multi-logue” beginning with the pronouncement: “It’s complicated.” Davidman tries to identify the conflict’s start: With the ’67 war? Or 1948 — called either “the Catastophe” or the “War of Independence,” depending on one’s perspective? Maybe with earlier Arab or Jewish violence…or with the British or the Romans? It closes with cries of “If only the world would just leave us alone!” and “If only the world would get involved!”

It’s hard not to hear another set of wrestlers with a parallel litany of “how it started.” Beginning perhaps with Sandra Bland or Trayvon Martin, extending to Emmett Till and Medgar Evers, lives and livelihoods lost in riots of the 20th Century or the 19th, uprisings and mobs of the 18th Century. Then stretching back through U.S. economic dependence on labor of enslaved people and beyond to European views of the “Dark Continent.”

“Help us!” “Leave us alone!”
We might also hear, echoed in the final lines, calls for police to stop “occupying” black neighborhoods and for “Displacement Free” development zones, on the one hand, and on the other, attempts to involve the the U.N. in human rights violations within the United States.

Photo: Teddy Wolff

Photo: Teddy Wolff

The “Aaron” character of “Wrestling Jerusalem” tells us, as he rides the bus through security checkpoints, that he’s been to Israel many times but never before crossed into Ramallah. Likewise, how many residents of north or west Chicago rarely, if ever, cross 75th Street to the South? How many residents of western Washington, DC, seldom cross the Anacostia River? And, of course, vice versa.

Listen!

So many other elements of “Wrestling Jerusalem” — from description of inter- generational trauma to discussion of if/when to take up arms — apply equally to the United States. Davidman’s gift to the conflict around Israel is in embodying and weaving together, with respect, so many voices: Arab and Jew, Israeli and Palestinian, settler and soldier, partier, tourist, and long-time Liberal Israeli rabbi. Each is given the floor and heard in turn. In giving them each something of himself as well as their own unique voices, commonality and difference, Davidman helps us listen across conflict and through oppression.

In a sense, “Wrestling Jerusalem” is an antidote for the Exodus’ failures to communicate. May we listen equally well to the many, often-overlooked perspectives of conflict in the United States.

-1Tickets still available for limited DC run, through January 24.



Thanks to Elliot Eder and participants in Fabrangen West and to the LCVY Hill Torah Discussion Group for Exodus insights that inspired these remarks.

Exodus 6:9
וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה.
Moses [delivered God’s message of imminent redemption] to the Children of Israel. But they did not heed Moses, because of shortness of breath and hard work [or crushed spirits due to cruel bondage].

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ mi-kotzer ruach
ruach = “breath” and “spirit”
mi-kotzer ruach = “shortness of breath” or “crushed spirit”

וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה m’avodah kashah
avodah = “work,” “bondage,” and “worship”
m’avodah kashah = “hard work” or “cruel bondage”

וַיֶּחֱזַק לֵב chazak lev
“stubbornness” (literally: strong of heart; e.g., Ex 7:13)

וְהַכְבֵּד אֶת-לִבּוֹ kh’veid et-libo
“hardness of heart” (literally: heavy of heart; e.g., Ex 8:11)
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