“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

Coates and Tyfereth, Algren and Mobley (Beyond 33)

“Passover is a time of remembrance but also one of renewal — of looking ahead toward the spring and new growth that will sustain us through the seasons to come. Once we spent spring in the desert. It was harsh and difficult but from that journey grew a people who have endured for centuries. What would happen if we took that journey again, not alone in the wilderness but surrounded by friends and allies, leaving no one behind?”
— from JFREJ Haggadah

from Baltimore, 2015, and Chicago, mid-20th Century.
In stereo.
With no comment:

2015

part 1: “Family Breakdown”

Jim Crow was one heck of a barrier to entry, but it hasn’t been legal for decades. If legal barriers are no longer restraining African-American wealth growth, then what is? A cycle of poverty, but why? Coates dismissed family breakdown, but I suspect that’s closer to the truth than white supremacy.
— “Tyfereth,” on-line commenter at Atlantic Magazine, responding 4/30/15 to “Nonviolence as Compliance” by Ta-Nahisi Coates
—- See “In the Wake of Baltimore” — scroll, past the picture of two-year-old Ta-Nehisi, down to Tyfereth’s comments

part 2: “Out-of-Wedlock”

…I’ll leave it to the commenter to define, specifically, what they mean by “family breakdown.” I assume the commenter means children born out of wedlock. As the product of such a family—and as a Dad who fathered his only child out of wedlock—I reject the label. Nonetheless, whatever we call it, the “out of wedlock” theory has a serious problem—the out of wedlock birthrate in the black community is at its lowest point since the CDC began keeping stats. Indeed the gap between black and white women has been shrinking for the last 15 years. (I suspect that much of that shrinkage is the result of the rapid decline in teenage pregnancy in the black community.)

If the main driver of black poverty is black out-of-wedlock birthrate, and yet that birthrate is in decline, what explains the yawning chasm between black and white America?
— Ta-Nehisi Coates, responding to Tyfereth (see above), 5/6/15

1960s

part 1: “Illegitimate…All and on Welfare”

These 200,000-plus fatherless children…equal the combined populations of [Chicago suburbs] Arlington Heights, Evanston, and Oak Park.

No records are kept of how many of these children become public charges. A conclusion may be drown, however, from welfare figures….

In the 1950s my work took me into the homes of many disadvantaged persons. It was common — and shocking and frightening — to walk into a living room and confront 8 or 10 children and women, representing four generations, all on welfare, and more on the way.

…Do men and women, in or or out of marriage, unable or unwilling to emotionally and financially support a child have a moral and legal right to produce that child?
— Columnist Jack Mabley
from a 1970s column in the Chicago Tribune, similar in content to Mabley columns in the long-gone Daily News and longer-gone Chicago American

part 2: “Like Guinea Pigs”

To say “Each man’s death diminishes me” today only rouses cries of “they’re like guinea pigs out there.”

WhoLostNot to be surpassed in public service, the Evening [Chicago] American offers a new crusade by Chicago’s most heavily decorated fink; one whose honors are all self-awarded. While keeping an eagle eye on the broken brutes of Skid Row’s broken walks, he also finds time to expose mothers of illegitimate children found in movie houses while receiving state aid. This Malthusian revisionist’s cry is, “They’re multiplying like guinea pigs out there!” Implying that his kind of people have hit upon a method of reproducing themselves different from that of guineas pigs.
— from Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make (1961 addendum, see also) and Who Lost an American? (NY: Macmillan, 1963)

“What would happen if we took that journey again, not alone in the wilderness but surrounded by friends and allies, leaving no one behind?”

We counted 33 on the evening of May 6. Tonight, we count….

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Prayers on the Makeshift (Beyond 23)

In his masterpiece of prose poetry, Chicago: City on the Make, Nelson Algren wrote:

…All the creeds that persecution harassed out of Europe find sanctuary on this [Chicago] ground, where no racial prejudice is permitted to stand up.

We insist that it go at a fast crawl, the long way around.

The Negro is not seriously confronted here with a stand-up and head-on hatred, but with something psychologically worse: a soft and protean awareness of white superiority everywhere, in everything, the more infuriating because it is as polite as it is impalpable. Nobody even thought such a thing, my dear.
— in “Love is for Barflies,”
p.45 60th Anniversary Edition (Chicago: Univ. of Chgo Press, 1951)

Algren’s brilliant expression — “No racial prejudice is permitted to stand up. We insist that it go at a fast crawl, the long way around.” — remains all too apt, across much of the U.S.

Does the persistence of this reality have implications for our prayers?

(This post was edited and amended after initial publication.)

Algren’s Chicago, 1951 and 1961

In 1951, Algren quotes Big Bill Broonzy’s “Black, Brown, and White” — “If you’re white, awright…if you’re black, step back” — and continues, telling Black Chicagoans to expect higher rents, and warning:

from Wikipedia page

from Wikipedia;
cover photo from 1951 edition

And no one will ever name the restaurants you mustn’t eat in nor the bars you mustn’t drink at….Make your own little list. Of the streets you mustn’t live on, the hotels where you can’t register, the office you can’t work in and the unions you can never join.
— ibid, p.46

Major Chicago reviewers at the time said the work exhibited a “distorted, partial, unenviable slant” and demanded “revocation of the author’s poetic license.” But ten years later Algren only marveled at others’ failure to recognize what he saw, in 1951 and 1961. In the 1961, he wrote:

One cannot help but wonder what the reaction might have been had the book cut in closer to what the lives of multitudes are really like on the city’s South and West sides. This book didn’t begin to tell that story a decade ago; and the story is fully as terrible today as then.
— ibid, pp.95-97
(Google Books offers a substantial preview)

Bilhah and Zilpah, Text and Prayer

At the start of the week (see “Beyond 21“), we began to explore the idea of including Bilhah and Zilpah, the concubines of Jacob and mothers of four of the twelve tribes, in the opening blessing of the Standing Prayer.

Most prayer books used in non-orthodox congregations have included the four Matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah) along with the three Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) in the blessing that calls on God who “remembers the love of our fathers (and mothers),” at least as an option, for many years. But most prayer books do not include the maids at this point:

  • Does listing all six mothers foster a sense of inclusion?
  • Or does it serve to gloss over difference, given that backgrounds of Bilhah and Zilpah are not addressed in the biblical text?
  • Does including Bilhah and Zilpah in the blessing raise their status and our awareness of their contributions?
  • Or does it make their inferior legal and social status invisible?
  • Is adding Bilhah and Zilpah an act against allowing prejudice to stand?
  • Or is it asking it to “go at a fast crawl, the long way around”?


A few thoughts to further consideration —

Orthodox prayer books do not include any of the mothers in the Amidah, retaining ancient language and often noting that the phrase “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob” is biblical (Ex. 3:6) and so not to be amended. Chabad notes, in addition, that Bilhah and Zilpah had souls “not as lofty as the Matriarchs” and act as “agents of Rachel and Leah” when they bear children.

Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (CBST) is a NY community that “attracts and welcomes gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender, ‎queer and straight individuals and families who share common values. Their Siddur B’chol L’vav’cha, With All Your Heart, includes Bilhah and Zilpah, “recognizing all of our mothers, not just the ‘legally married ones.'”

The Movement for Reform Judaism (UK) points out that the addition has been controversial, adding a note from a classical source:

A powerful rabbinic midrash asks the question why the children of Israel had to endure slavery in Egypt. It answers that the sons of Rachel and Leah dismissed the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah on the grounds that they were the children of slaves and of less worth. By experiencing slavery in Egypt all the descendents of Jacob were made equal in this regard.
Prayer Book in the Making

What, if anything, does including Bilhah and Zilpah say about our understanding of oppression and how to move beyond it?

More to come.

We counted 23 on the evening of April 26. Tonight, we count….

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