Some things in life get more and more complicated. Some
things actually get simpler. Over time, the sounds of a language merge together, moving toward simplicity and economy. For example, in America’s South, a short ‘i’ and a short ‘e’ have merged, becoming the same sound. A ‘p-e-n’ and a p-i-n are both a [peyn]. It’s fine to move toward simplicity, but when things become too much the same, the language has to move to disambiguate – to make things distinctive and clear again. So, if I want something to write with, I would ask for a ‘writing pen’ [rahtn’ peyn]. I know this not just because I love the study of linguistics; I know this because I grew up in the South.
[sing] I [ah] wish I was in Dixie Hooray! Hooray!
In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand To live and die in Dixie
Away, away, away down south in Dixie.
Every morning of my elementary school years, from Kindergarten through the sixth grade, we sang Dixie. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, then the still proud capital of the Confederacy. (No, not in the 1860’s.) The Civil War, or The War Between the States, as I was taught it, had ended almost a century before, but the pride persisted.
So did the efforts to keep black people down, poor and out of sight. One wouldn’t know that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled unanimously, 9-0, that separate education was inherently unequal in its landmark Brown v the Board of Education decision. I never saw a black child in my schools. Not elementary school; not junior high school. But most important, I didn’t realize that I didn’t see a black child. I didn’t see.
Was I a racist? Was I pro-segregation? Hardly. My father, a congregational rabbi, also taught Bible at Virginia Union Theological Seminary, and members of its African-American faculty regularly joined us for Shabbat and at our Seder table. My parents actively worked with white and black couples to desegregate restaurants, asking to be seating together, efforts that were often not successful. We were Northern Jews, transplanted into a Southern culture, and I was quite sure that we were not racist.
My awakening came in Israel. My family spent a sabbatical year in Jerusalem; I was in the fifth grade. We had rented an apartment on Balfour Street, an area of Jerusalem still dotted with consulates and government offices. Walking home from school one day, I saw a black man walking from the other side, across the street. Something caught me off guard. He was tall and regal, wearing a turban and flowing robes. And he walked like a prince (which of course, he was – a prince from Africa.) But what caught me off guard was the sudden realization that I had never seen a black man walk that way – so tall and so proud. And then I understood that I carried racism within me.
We have all been affected by racism – whatever our color. Racism – North and South – has woven itself into the fabric of American consciousness.
As Jews, I want so much to believe we are different. Jews who came to this country, whether from Sephardic Jewish cultures in Spain and Portugal in the 15-and 1600’s, or the Ashkenazi cultures of Eastern and Western Europe in the 20th century, wherever we came from, we fled persecution – whether it was the Inquisition, pogroms, ghettoes or gas chambers. We fled from worlds largely divided by religion. Christianity was dominant, and for the greater part of two thousand years, Jews were on the wrong side of that religious divide. We came to these shores, and though there were challenges to religious freedom, the divide in America was not primarily religious; it was a divide of color. Would we maintain the outsider status we brought with us, or would we try to blend? For Jews who were white, they, we, largely chose to identify with white society and its values.
Jews of the South participated in all aspects of the slave trade, in proportion to our numbers in the general population. Only one American rabbi (North or South) spoke out against slavery. Rabbi David Einhorn, a Reform rabbi in Baltimore, delivered a sermon in 1861 in which he stated that the institution of slavery in the South was incompatible with Jewish values. A riot broke out after the sermon, in which a mob chased after the rabbi to tar and feather him (an all-time low in rabbi-congregant relations.) For Einhorn’s congregants, and for the overwhelming number of American Jews, they were finally on the “right side” of the divide and they were going to stay safely there.
There was so much I didn’t see growing up in Virginia; there is so much that we don’t see, even though it is right in front of us. The scars of a brutal exploitation of human beings are all around us. Half of all slaves were separated from their spouses and parents as a result of the domestic slave trade. Rape and sexual violence were commonplace. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and ratified as the Thirteenth Amendment (abolishing slavery) in 1865.
But resistance to slavery has persisted for the last 150 years. The Thirteenth Amendment was finally ratified by the state of Mississippi in 1995. Since Emancipation, fear, intimidation, violence and incarceration have been used to seize and maintain political control and reassert social dominance. Seventeen years ago, I bought a book called Without Sanctuary – Lynching Photography in America. Since 1877, a decade after the end of the Civil War, more than 4,000 black men, women and children have met the end of their lives at the end of a rope. Most recently as 1950. As if this were not horrible enough, these lynching were a source of public gatherings and entertainment. Spectators took photographs of these lynchings, and made them into postcards that they mailed to friends. The book I bought is a photographic record of hundreds of postcards. The book is still wrapped in its original cellophane cover. I can’t bear to take it off.
In my reticence to open the cover, I do not feel very brave. My mother-in-law would have been braver. Our children grew up with her stories of resistance against the tightening grip of anti-Jewish discrimination and terror in Germany of the 1930’s. Like this one: Riding home on her bicycle one afternoon, she spotted a line of young men, all dressed in brown uniforms, making a chain across the street to block her passage. They were a block and a half ahead of her, anticipating her approach. She could have turned at the corner and avoided them (a tactic I probably would have chosen.) But not
Ruth. She reasoned to herself, “If I avoid them now, they will continue to harass me.” And so she closed her eyes, pedaled as hard as she could, and smashed right through the line of boys – who did not bother her again.
Ruth saved her family from their home’s destruction on Kristallnacht, fled from Germany on forged work papers, worked as a scullery maid in England, took a trip to London and laid down on the floor of the Jewish Agency office and refused to move until they issued exit visas for her mother, her father and her sister – which they got in August of 1939, days before the Germans invaded Poland and World War II began.
This is our first Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur without Ruth. She loved being here, with family, with you. This summer, David and I were invited to participate in an interfaith conference held in Germany, not far from Ruth’s hometown. We had traveled in that area 44 years ago, when we were first married, an important opportunity for me to connect with the family stories that were so important to David. But some of the stories remained still undiscovered. One branch of his family had lived for a thousand years in the town of Windesheim, in the Rhine Valley. So this summer we decided to find the town and search out its Jewish cemetery. Certainly there would be some remnant, some reminder that they had been there. The town is nestled among hills and vineyards (the Rhine Valley is famous for its white wines.) We turned into its narrow and winding lanes in the late afternoon of a hot summer day. So hot that that all the stores and cafes were shuttered; there was not a soul out. We found one older man watering his plants, dressed in nothing but a pair of boxers. David asked him in German where the Judenfriedhof, the Jewish cemetery was. He answered that there wasn’t one in that town. We drove around ourselves, like looking for a needle in a haystack, haplessly up and down random streets, hoping for a clue. But it was getting late, and our rental car was low on gas, and we did see an open gas station. So we pulled in and filled up the car. David walked into the station to pay. “What brings you to our town?” the woman behind the counter asked.
“My family lived here for generations,” David said. “I’m looking for the Jewish cemetery. Is there one?”
“Yes,” she said. “My husband knows where it is.”
“I know better than where it is,” her husband said walking out of the office. “I know the man who has the key to the cemetery.”
He hopped into our car, we drove to the home of the self-appointed town historian and caretaker of the Jewish cemetery, who
also hopped into the car, and the four of us drove up into the hills, through vineyards and corn and potato fields, to the edge of the forest, where we parked the car. And walked along a path to a clearing, a fence and locked gate, to a simple and beautifully maintained cemetery. Over the centuries, stones have been taken or destroyed or have weathered and faded. Maybe 20-30 tombstones remain But there, among them – Jakob Wolf, David’s great great great grandfather.
Jakob’s grandson married and moved to Krefeld, where his descendants married into the Solomon and Servos families. One August afternoon, in 1902, Theresa Solomon Servos’s neighbor brought her a ripe peace. But it was Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av, the Jewish fast day that commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and Theresa was fasting – notwithstanding that she was 87 years old. She put the peach by her bedside, to save for the end of the fast, and took a nap in the late afternoon. From which she never awoke.
Nearly a century later, our son, Noam, was in Germany for the summer, in an intensive language course. He sent an email on Tisha B’Av, saying only, “I broke my fast with a peach.”
We found Theresa’s tombstone, too – the ninth of Av.
We would have loved to tell Ruth that we found Jakob Wolf’s tombstone in Windesheim – and Theresa’s tombstone in the cemetery near Krefeld. But she is not here for us to tell her.
A last stop – a small museum in Krefeld, in the mansion of a prominent Krefeld citizen – Jewish and gay – who had been deported and killed. The museum is devoted to the stories of the Jews who once lived in Krefeld. In one room, an exhibit is displayed on a white door. Life-size figures, like holograms, step into the light momentarily, look around – and seeing that no one is paying attention, they turn away and disappear. If you press a button, they will stay. They are all young actors – and they are each holding a book. A young woman stepped into the light. We pressed the button. “Mutti, Vati,” the voice of the young actress calls out. It is a voice describing the horror of the night of broken glass, of Kristalnacht, November 9th, 1938. The diary she is reading from is the young Ruth Meyer, David’s mother.
And Ruth is not here for us to tell her.
On August 113h, Friday night, I said to David, “I am so glad Ima Ruth is not here.” What would she have done, if she had seen the coverage of hundreds of people marching with torches in the night, chanting “Jews will not replace us” and Nazi slogans? What would
she have done? And listened as our president refused to take a clear stand against them? Originating as a protest against the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee (a Virginia boy), white supremacists gathered from all over the country to openly display their hatred. Confederate and Nazi flags side by side. We might have thought that here in America, at least those of us Jews who are white were finally on the right side of a divide that was primarily one of color. But now we see it clearly. We are on the side of any group that is targeted for bigotry and hatred.
The images of Charlottesville were terrifying. If you were afraid, know that you are not alone. You are surrounded here by a strong, loving and courageous community. Now is the time to strengthen these connections – for you, for your children and grandchildren. And, as Rabbi Rachel Timoner writes, “We are in good company. We are strong as a Jewish community; we are stronger still when we join company with all those who are targeted by neo-Nazis and white supremacists – people of color, immigrants, Muslims, [gays], disabled people, and all decent people who stand with us…We are part of a beautiful majority.” [letter to CBE, August 18, 2017]
Another rabbi, Milton Grafman, spoke to his congregation: [excepted] “Friends, it’s with a great deal of fear and trepidation that I stand before you at this moment and begin to speak to you, when the
Rabbi is supposed to bring some message of hope and inspiration, or help carry you not really through the day but through the year to come. Very frankly, this has been a horrible summer! These are troublesome times. Anybody with a shred of humanity in him could not have been but horrified by what happened [this weekend] . And I’m sick at heart for a lot of reasons. I’m here to say if you want to change this, you are going to have to start standing up and being counted. And let me tell you, these people are primarily anti-Semitic and this is where you have got a stake. Because let me tell you, if they get away with this, nobody’s going to be safe including us, members of the Jewish community.”
This was not 2017. Rabbi Milton Grafman delivered this Rosh Hashanah sermon in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 19th, 1963, four days after the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed and four young black girls were killed, a turning point in the struggle for Civil Rights in America.
A lot of us didn’t see it then. We still thought we could pass, and were even relieved that the hatred and the violence were not directed against us. But now we see clearly. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “We may have come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”
As a Jewish community, we need to profoundly reconnect with the legacy of slavery and the ongoing struggle for civil rights. We’re going to hear stories this year, of white Americans of both the North and the South, who began to untangle their families’ complicated relationship with slavery. A Synaplex speaker, Karen Brannan, researches her family tree, only to learn that the tree on her family’s plantation was one from which people were lynched. Kol Ami is traveling on an intergenerational Civil Rights journey in November – four days to Atlanta, Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery. Kabbalat Shabbat with Jews of Birmingham, Havdalah on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Sunday in Church in Montgomery. Confronting a complicated legacy, but also listening to first-hand accounts of both African Americans and Jews who were and who are standing up to be counted.
Noam our son was back in Germany this summer, this time for contemporary art research. He sent a different note to us and to his siblings:
“A long and somber note. I’m a fellow at a research institute in Weimar Germany at the moment and was asked last minute to accompany and lead a discussion for a group of graduate students on their visit to Buchenwald, a concentration camp that lies horrifyingly close to the city. Mostly as a favor to a colleague, I immediately agreed. But I soon realized that my whole relationship to the past, to our past, had undergone a seismic shift this year, of which I somehow remained unaware. For the whole of my adult life (and before), Ima Ruth was the guardian of the story of the Holocaust and I was the grandchild who returned to Germany to honor that story but also complicate it. Praise the Germans for their willingness to memorialize the horrors they themselves committed. Criticize Americans for our failure to own up to American slavery. And so forth. I still believe in the difficult work of honoring and complicating the legacy of the Holocaust. But for the first time I recognized an obligation to guard that legacy, a role I had always entrusted to Ima Ruth. I don’t know what to do with this knowledge, other than bearing witness at Buchenwald. But I do know that I miss Ima Ruth dearly, and less existentially, you as well. I hope you can feel my embrace from across the Atlantic. I most certainly feel yours. And Ima Ruth’s.”
I am grateful that Ima Ruth didn’t live to see these days.
We, you and I, have been bequeathed a covenant of vulnerability and of courage. Not just my family. All of us.
I, for one, would not have believed that anti-Semitism is alive and well in America. And not only in the South – right here in Westchester neighborhoods.
I would not have believed that our government would continue to seek ways to limit voter access for poor communities of color.
That the same country to which Ruth could flee as a refugee is closing its doors to others.
I would not have believed that an Orthodox Jewish woman and her daughter were attacked on a Queens subway, mistaken for being Muslim.
I did not know how much systemic discrimination and bigotry continue to destroy the fabric of life in communities of color.
But I do know now how closely we are connected. This I know for sure: When one group is targeted with hatred, we are all at risk.
And I do believe that we will stand up and be counted, and that we will overcome. Deep in my heart, as a Jew, I do believe. We shall overcome.
For deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome one day.
Bayom ha-hu, bayom ha-hu, yihiyeh adonai echad, u’shmo u’shmo u’shmo echad.