The Persistence of Racial Inequality

From Seth

The past few days have been an intense confrontation with the narratives and sites of the civil rights movement and African American history in our country. This was at the heart of why we wanted to take this trip. With issues of white supremacy and racial justice still at the forefront of our contemporary societal discourse, we felt it important to see for ourselves–and show our children–this history firsthand.

After a detour to Charlottesville and a stop to see family, we made it to Atlanta, and then on to Montgomery and Selma. Over these past few days we have visited the Center for Civil and Human Rights, the MLK National Historic Site, the King Center, Ebenezer Baptist Church, the Civil Rights Memorial, the Dexter Avenue Church, the Atlanta State Capitol, the site of Rosa Parks’s bus stop, the Legacy Museum, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Route 80 between Montgomery and Selma, and the Edmund Pettis Bridge.

Each of these experiences was a new learning opportunity. Whether a museum or a historical site, we have walked away from these few days enriched with a deeper understanding of the history of our country.

Today in Montgomery we visited the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, joint projects both newly opened in the past few months. The Memorial is dedicated to the victims of lynching, a long overdue tribute to a horrific part of our history.

The Legacy Museum wove a powerful narrative of the African American experience in the US, beginning with slavery. Montgomery as we learned was a center of the slave trade–the museum is in a warehouse where slaves were kept and is located a few blocks from the slave auction site. (The Rosa Parks bus stop overlooks this site, now the location of a beautiful fountain.)

The narrative follows from slavery to lynching to Jim Crow laws to mass incarceration. The first three are the past, the last one is the present, all together making up one coherent narrative of institutionalized racism and inequality. Essentially, as one institution is dismantled, another arises to take its place. Institutionalized racism existed at the founding of our country and has persisted in different forms throughout the years, made possible by the attitude that African Americans are less than human. If you can chain a person once, it seems, you can chain them forever.

Because it was institutionalized, these acts of terror and racism were carried out either by the authorities or by others with (explicit or implicit) permission of the authorities. This was the fact that was perhaps both the most known and the most shocking to me to revisit. To know that only 1% of those who carried out lynchings were ever prosecuted, or that it was state troopers who beat people trying to register to vote, or local police who looked the other way when gangs came to harass lunch counter protesters, is to know that racism was built deep into the fabric of society.

At the memorial–a beautiful and evocative design–there is a prayer/dedication on the wall that reads in part: “For those abandoned by the rule of law.” This phrase perfectly captured this idea of institutionalized racism. It treats people not “above the law” but “below the law.” It excludes and treats a class of people as not worthy of full citizenship, of full participation in society.

And it persists today. The museum and the Memorial are projects of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, which addresses racial injustice and fights for racial equality in the criminal justice system. At the end of the Museum is a series of touch screens inviting the visitor to get involved on the issues and provides both national and local (by state) resources.

This is always a good place for a museum such as this to end. Confronted with the challenges of the past and the present, we can commit to remake the future.

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Witnessing Hatred, from Ancient Jerusalem to Contemporary Charlottesville

From Seth

On Tisha B’Av, we commemorate the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem. The center of the Jewish community, their destruction led to disruption, chaos, and exile. The day is marked with fasting and the reading of the biblical book of Lamentations, and is sometimes called the “saddest day on the Jewish calendar.”

Historically, the two Temples were destroyed by foreign powers: the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the Romans on 70 CE. But our ancient rabbinic commentators sought to find other reasons–internal reasons–that led to the Temples’ fall. One such reason given is that the community at the time was plagued by sinat hinam, usually translated as “senseless hatred.”

Hinam also has the meaning of “free,” as in “hatred freely given.” And so it was fitting that on Tisha B’Av we stopped by Charlottesville, VA which, a year ago, was the site of one of the most public, largest, most frightening displays of sinat hinam in recent memory. Then, white supremacists marched through the town with Tiki torches chanting, among other things, antisemitic chants (“Jews will not replace us”). They marched through town, including by the local synagogue.

Things turned violent when someone drove a car into a crowd of counter protesters, killing one, Heather Heyer. We visited the street where this happened, paying homage at the memorials both formal (the street was renamed) and informal (flowers on the sidewalk and chalk messages on the brick walls lining the street.) A clear and contemporary demonstration to the power of sinat hinam.

Viewing this on Tisha B’Av gives new meaning to this day. The hatred that has the power to destroy communities and level institutions did not just exist back then, it exists right now. It is on us to identify and name it as such. In addition to fasting and reading ancient texts, this day could be observed through this type of witnessing.

But really this type of work can’t be relegated to one day a year. It must be done every day.

When we mark Tisha B’Av today, we do not hope for the Temple’s return. That too would cause disruption, chaos, and exile. But we do hope for a time when hatred ceases. Memory is the first step, whether the events happened thousands of years ago or one year ago. Putting that memory into action is the next.

America the Beautiful Colorful Culture-ful

“Everywhere I turn all the beauty just keeps shaking me.”

Indigo Girls, World Falls

Family visit to Arab American National Museum

From Yohanna

Being American has always been significant in my life. Probably because I am a dual citizen of Israel and the United States. No one forced me to choose but I have always had a distinct preference for one identity over the other. I lived in Israel for 5 full years out of my 45 years of life but I never felt at home there. I always feel like a cultural outsider in Israel-even though I love the land and the people as I do my own family. But the USA? I feel securely at home here-in this vast expanse of land. From sea to sea. This is my true home. I was made to be an American. To embody multitudes. To carry many within. To identify and appreciate all contained within this land.

Growing up in the Pacific North West, I felt a connection and affinity for the Native cultures surrounding me. A Native American teacher in 5th grade, Mrs. Ward, opened my heart and mind to the living native cultures of our nation. As I learned about the local cultures and history of First Nations, the past and the present, I took it all in. It became a part of me. I did not appropriate. I would never wear a headdress or take a Native name. I would never participate in Native rituals as though they were my own. Nothing like that. But as an American, the culture and legacy of the Native people of this place somehow became an important part of me. I feel deep love and respect and a sense of responsibility for my Native neighbors. The First Nations of this nation.

This is not the only “foreign” culture I took in as a Jewish American young person. The African American story and their culture and their community became a part of me too. My love and appreciation of this community continue to this day. Their full liberation is as precious to me as that of my own people. From bell hooks to Beyoncé to Barak Obama to the African American women in my own family-I feel fed, developed, deeply influenced and inspired by the legacy and living culture of African Americans.

This is the great joy of being an American. No matter where I go, I can experience cultures and communities not my own. The other. Difference. Taste, smell, colors, languages, religious and spiritual practices…there is so much difference to enjoy. And share with each other.

This trip cross country has reminded me of my love of this nation. My Israeli American cousins who live in a Chicago, Ainat and Zach, reminded me that being cosmopolitan, being educated and appreciating difference does not put me in a bubble. My reality is not the bubble. Those who live in this country who claim cultural superiority and dominance, those who refuse to learn about and appreciate the diversity of this place, THEY are the ones living in a bubble. I am free. They are trapped.

Last week I was free to visit Dearborn Michigan where we spent time in the Arab American National Museum and at the amazing Middle Eastern bakery. There we immersed ourselves in the cultures of our Arab American neighbors and dedicated a day of our lives to their American experience. What a joy!

In Centreville Virginia, we spent the afternoon at a Korean Day Spa and immersed ourselves in the healing and relaxing culture of Korean Americans. We gave ourselves over body, mind, and spirit to a culture not our own. We took in what it means to renew and refresh the Korean way. What a joy!

Today we drive to the American South. A place none of us have ever spent time. We plan to immerse ourselves in the experience and culture of African American people upon whose backs this nation was built. To expose ourselves to the pain and the beauty of those brought here by force. Those who ancestors did not choose to be American but who made America.

Native, Arab, Korean, African, Jewish…all of this is a part of me. I love my own culture and community. But I also love and appreciate and seek to honor those of my neighbors on this land.

What a coat of many colors our nation is! What a vast expanse of diversity and of thriving communities. What a true joy it is to be an American.

I would hate to ever have to leave this place. A thought that crosses my mind more and more frequently as the corrupt and disgraceful leadership of our country puts our liberties and diversity at risk. My ancestors have had to leave every place they have called home leading up to the 20th century. Poland, Morocco, Ukraine, Spain, the Land of Israel. We have wandered. My people have crossed all the seas to find a place of safety. To find a home. And this is my home. And that of my children. And I pray my great great great grandchildren too. God willing.

I pray future generations of my family will know what it means to contain a multitude within. To feel at home in an Arab bakery and a Korean spa and a Native longhouse. To cook the foods of many peoples in their homes. My great great great grandchildren to be fed the spices and old recipes of many nations. To listen to music of Americans of all backgrounds. To wear the clothing of designers who are influenced by the colors and cuts of the world over. To hold this nation in all its diversity and to maintain this place as a land for people from all over the planet.

How beautiful is this place? How grateful I am to have a home here. And I am more dedicated and inspired than ever to maintain the diversity of our nation. To affirm who and what we really are. Not the land of the white man, the land where Europeans profit off of the labor of others, where people crossed seas to rape the land and its people. No. This is not going to be our legacy. Our legacy will be children who contain many cultures and communities within. A land of global citizens. I can see it already within my own children. I can see the true possibility of this place.

This is appreciation, not appropriation. To love and appreciate the other as your own, though they are not your own. And that is just fine. To maintain that balance. Being American means that the other is always a part of you. And it feels Divine.

“We, the People, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.”

Barack Obama

America and the Holocaust, Then and Now

From Seth

Though we were staying in the Washington, DC area for a few days after our retreat to visit family, we did continue our justice tour on Friday with a visit to the US Holocaust Museum, specifically to tour the new exhibit on America and the Holocaust.

The exhibit is exceptionally well done both in terms of education and engagement; many of the displays were not only very informative but interactive as well. We felt this would be an important stop to include because, if we are going to be looking at the various examples of hatred and oppressions throughout our country’s history, we need to include antisemitism as well.

It was antisemitism in large part that drove much of the American response to both the Holocaust itself and World War II in general. The setting of immigration quotas prior to the war that cut off immigration, the refusal to let in refugees during the war itself, and the decision not to bomb rail lines as the extent of the Final Solution became known–these were in large part driven by fear and suspicion of the Other, the immigrant, the Jew.

Some of this history I was familiar with, yet organized into a coherent narrative and organized framework was helpful and illuminating. And there were surprises and new insight as well. One interactive display showed how newspapers around the country were reporting on the antisemitic policies of the Nazi regime in the mid-30s. And how, both in contrast yet also eerily similar, Life magazine after the war published powerful images from the camps, without mentioning Jews once.

Antisemitism was not confined to the leaders. Statistics displayed in the exhibit told how, in 1938 for example, 2/3 of Americans believed that Jews in Germany were responsible for their own persecution. And even some Jewish groups were reluctant to press the government on the matter of European Jewry because they felt it would be detrimental to their standing in the US. Prior to the war, the America First Committee tried to get the US to stay out of the war, and blamed Jews in part for their outsized influence.

It is, of course, hard to not see parallels to today. (Even some of the language is the same.) We know as Jews what it is like to be on the other side of an immigration policy or refugee decision. It is our story, yes. And it is a human story.

So rather than belabor the connection I’ll just mention two personalities that emerged from the exhibit, one villain and one hero.

The villain is Breckinridge Long, the assistant Secretary of State who was in large part responsible for limiting visas and slowing the admission of refugees. When Congress was debating in November, 1943 to establish a body to help European Jews, he deliberately misrepresented facts during secret testimony to a Congressional committee, overstating the number of refugees the US had admitted. His lies were uncovered and widely criticized, and he resigned from his position the following year.

The hero is Helen Roseland of Eagle Grove, IA. After being fired from his teaching job in Vienna in 1938, Franz Goldberger was looking to emigrate to the United States. Needing an American sponsor but knowing no one, he wrote letters to people he didn’t know–through professional organizations, for example–looking for someone to provide an affidavit. His plea found its way to Roseland, who agreed to be his sponsor and raise the money. Navigating the bureaucracy and providing the necessary paperwork took about four years, however, during which time Goldberger died in a concentration camp.

As Jews we desperately believe that the story of the Holocaust, and America’s response, needs to be told and taught. Everyone needs to know this history and how antisemitism operates. And we also need, in our day, to identify the Breckinridge Longs and be inspired to be the Helen Roselands.

A Field of Memory and Prayer

From Seth

We break our radio silence after our four-day reteat with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, during which time we disconnected from our devices (for the most part). And, since we were taking a break from road tripping as well, we took a break from the blog.

The retreat was in two parts: one part spent in prayer, meditation, yoga and silence to support our own spiritual practice, and the other part was spent in study and training. Yohanna and I spent the week with eight other rabbis and cantors studying about prayer.

As part of this, we investigated the process of hitbodedut, a Hasidic practice which is essentially “freely talking to God.” Made popular by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslov, one engaging in this practice would put aside the prayerbook, find a private place, and open up their heart to God, saying whatever came to mind.

More on this at another time, maybe even another blog, but for now, you could just know that in one of Rabbi Nachman’s teachings on the subject he speaks about going out to the fields to engage in this practice. And this reminded me of another field that we saw right before the retreat.

One of the nice things about road tripping is that you can make a stop or change direction on a whim. In our original itinerary for the trip, we had planned to do a long day of driving from Ypsilanti, MI to my parents in Bethesda, MD. (The kids were going to be spending a few days with their grandparents while we went to the retreat.) However, since we had done some long days, we decided to break up the trip and picked a spot along the way to pull over for the night. After exploring Pittsburgh for part of the afternoon, we stopped in Somerset, PA.

This was just an overnight pitstop until I looked up Somerset on Wikipedia to learn more about the area. It was then that I discovered that we would be just 20 miles away from Shanksville, PA where, on September 11, 2001, the fourth hijacked plane–United 93–crashed in a field after the passengers confronted the hijackers. Because of this, it never reached its intended target somewhere in Washington, DC.

For a generation 9/11 is a key event, one of those events you remember where you were when you heard about it. I had visited the memorial in lower Manhattan with its cascading waterfalls at the footprint of the World Trade Center. Now we would have the chance to visit the Flight 93 National Memorial, which is formally a part of the US National Park Service.

The memorial was very powerful. The museum in the visitor’s center was informative and thoughtfully done, including details of the day and the aftermath, focusing on the story of the plane, the investigation, and the local community (including recordings of phone calls from passengers to loved ones.) But beyond the museum, the memorial’s design succeeds in being just that–a memorial. From the parking lot, one walks down a long black granite walkway to a platform overlooking the field in which the plane crashed. The power of this walk is that the walkway is constructed along the flight path, so one literally walks the exact path and direction the plane was travelling until arriving to see the actual crash site.

At the end of the walkway at the overlook, engraved in glass, is the phrase, “A common field one day. A field of honor forever.” It is interesting to think how the events of 9/11 and Flight 93 did turn this ordinary place–a beautiful, pastoral field in rural Pennsylvania–into first a site of terrorism and a crime scene, then to a gravesite for the victims and a focal point of national memory and history. The ordinary can become extraordinary.

Which is the other takeaway of the visit. We don’t know actually what happened aboard that plane, the specific sequence of events, but it seems pretty clear that the passengers (who had heard about what happened at the World Trade Center) organized to disrupt the hijackers plan. Whether the passengers were able to wrest control or the hijackers grounded the plane or both, for example, we do not know. What we do know is that they did act.

Here, too, the ordinary became extraordinary. Ordinary people on a flight to San Francisco faced with a difficult situation rose up to take extraordinary action. I thought to myself, what would I have done if I was on that plane? Its a question that we often ask ourselves when thinking about historical events: what would I have done if I was there? But it is not just an exercise in history–this is the question we need to ask ourselves right now. It is the perennial question when it comes to the social justice issues of our day: will we rise up to take action when the situation demands it?

And it is not just about major isolated events. We know that 9/11 also led to increased Islamophobia and distrust of Muslims in this country, leading up to our current president’s Muslim travel ban. Will we rise up to take action when the situation demands it? Will we stand up for the oppressed, the targeted, the unjustly hated? Will we oppose a climate that fuels the flames of xenophobia, links the actions of some to an entire group, excludes rather than includes?

Looking out at that field in Shanksville, it was my prayer that we recognize our human imperative to answer “yes.”

Eating Baklava as a Step Toward Justice

From Seth

Our driving listening repertoire has been varied. I finally listened to Hamilton, maybe the last person in America to do so. And we have also listened to a lot of NPR and podcasts. (Haven’t made it to any audiobooks yet.)

One podcast we listened to is Hidden Brain, which examines different aspects of human behavior. We listened to several episodes, and one in particular that stands out is called “The Edge Effect” about diversity and creativity. In short, it discussed how rather than sticking with people who were similar to us, it is deep interactions with others unlike us that breeds the most creativity.

This was fitting for the trip in general but in specific as we made our way through Michigan. I had known that the Detroit area had one of the largest Arab American populations in the country, and it was not until this trip that I was able to visit and experience it.

As we were making our plans to stop in Ypsilanti, MI–near Ann Arbor and outside Detroit–to visit with more family, Yohanna’s aunt suggested visiting the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, where the Arab American population was centered. It was a beautiful and well-done museum, with exhibits first on Arab history and culture, and then moving to the Arab American experience including topics like immigration and settlement, challenges and successes, and contributions by Arab Americans to the American experience.

There was also examples of contemporary Arab and Arab American art, including a photo series titled Magnetism I-IV by the artist Ahmed Mater, which recreates images of the Hajj in Mecca using magnets and iron filings.

The exhibits were informative, thorough and engaging. I learned a lot, and, without discounting the specific experience documented, was also struck at the parallels to the Jewish American experience. Some of the exhibits, with some change of detail, could have been found in a museum about American Jews. A display about Arabs immigrating to the US and becoming peddlers, for example, roaming the west and eventually settling down and opening shops, could have just as easily been about Jews. (And we Jews love holding up other Jews who have made contributions to America.)

But it wasn’t. And the Arab experience has its own narrative which is important to learn. Yes, it is important to find similarities among experiences, that is how we develop familiarity, empathy, and compassion. And at the same time, it is also important to hear the individual stories and honor the differences among us. That is also how we develop appreciation for diversity, for others, for new ideas that challenge our preconceived notions.

Another learning point for me was how the museum told the story of Palestinians in the US, recognizing the displacement of Palestinians after the establishment of the state of Israel, of activism among Arab Americans on behalf of Palestinians, and, at the same time, noting how Palestinian immigration to the US began earlier under the Ottoman Empire.

Museums exist to educate and inform, and if we are willing to enter into them with a spirit of inquiry and openness, then we are able to be changed for the better.

It prepared us for the next stop of the day, Shatila Bakery. After driving past Arab groceries, mosques, and real estate offices with Arabic on the signs, we arrived at the bakery and cafe with a large central seating area and display case upon display case of sweet and savory treats.

For me, this was a greater learning experience than the museum. Here we were immersed in it, not knowing what many things were, or what they were called, or even the ingredients. We asked questions, pointed to the case, and tried new things. We sat down with a pot of Turkish coffee and a variety of treats to taste and enjoy.

At the end of the episode of the Hidden Brain, the host Shankar Vedantam says,

Consider this. The United States, a country that accounts for about 5 percent of the world’s population, has won about 60 percent of all the Nobel Prizes ever awarded. From the motor car and the airplane to Facebook and Google, from the telephone and the Internet to Hollywood and Wall Street, scientists, entrepreneurs and entertainers from the United States have powerfully shaped the world in which we live. Could some of this outsized creativity have to do with the extraordinary diversity of America, the waves of immigrants who arrived here over the centuries? I’d like to think the answer is yes.

I tend to agree. And especially if we put ourselves in uncomfortable and vulnerable situations, and not be afraid to ask questions and point to a display case, then that’s how we grow as people and draw closer to one another.

Art and Popping the Bubble

From Seth

No driving today as we spent the day exploring Chicago and visiting with family: Yohanna’s cousin and her husband. We took the train downtown from their home and after walking around Millennium Park, we made our way to our main destination of the day, The Art Institute of Chicago.

It is such an impressive and important museum. I had been there years ago when a work trip took me briefly to Chicago and I had a window of opportunity to visit. Yohanna had actually been here just a few weeks earlier when she went to Chicago to attend her cousin’s daughter’s bat mitzvah. But we wanted to go because while the thrust of our trip is justice and civil rights, we do want to do things as a family that both involve the outdoors and cultural activities. Yesterday we visited the beautiful gorges at Starved Rock State Park. Today the art museum.

There are pieces in this museum that I definitely wanted to see. After my the-praying-jew-rabbi-of-vitebsk-1914.jpg!Largegrandparents died I claimed for myself their framed copy of a print of

Chagall’s The Praying Jew. I had seen it all my years growing up, and found its color and form so striking: I felt it belonged in a rabbi’s office. Now I had the chance to see the original. And I had a chance to see the original Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, a ubiquitous image, yes, nighthawks.jpg!Largebut one that still strikes a chord. I love how the ambiguity of narrative in the image makes this almost a Rorschach Test for an individual’s experience.

Two other works of art brought up new ideas and thoughts for me today. One was another Chagall in the same exhibit space as The Praying Jew—an image called White Crucifixion. In it a figure of Jesus in the center is surrounded by other images of Jewish persecution. My 11-year-old son and I had a deep and intense conversation about it, about the imagery and meaning. Here Chagall is white-crucifixion-1938.jpg!Largeemphasizing the Jewishness of Jesus—through the image of his garment, which looks like a tallit (prayer shawl), and his name in Hebrew on the top of the cross—as a means of connecting the suffering of Jesus with the suffering of Jews throughout history. It struck me that Chagall is not making a theological statement, but rather seems to be calling out and admonishing those who would watch this persecution of the Jews happen. Chagall was a refugee from Europe; someone who experienced such persecution first-hand. You can not uphold the suffering of a mythic Jew, he seems to be saying, if you are unwilling to combat the suffering of actual Jews. One can not profess one set of values and live another.

The other was an exhibit was a series of photographs of the African-American experience in Chicago from 1950-1980. It was a collection of different photographers capturing different aspects of life. Two things stood out to me from these photos. One was simply the portrayal and documentation of an experience unlike my own, and the necessity of both witnessing it and honoring it. The second was how much religion was a gordon parkspart of this experience. Photographs captured both church life and the Nation of Islam. And to see photos on the wall in close proximity to one another of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King addressing a crowd and Malcolm X leading worship was a reminder that the movement for justice and civil rights in this country had a religious foundation. A spiritual life gives one a rootedness in the past and tradition, a means for organizing and mobilizing community, and a vision of the future and what could be. Justice requires spirituality, and spirituality requires justice.

Throughout our time at the museum my mind went back to a conversation we had over breakfast that morning with our relatives. The conversation drifted to politics, of course, and we talked about the notion of a “bubble.” Both we, in our blue western Washington, and they, in their urban Chicago, live in what is usually referred to as a “bubble”—local communities sustained in their mutually-affirming liberalness. Challenging that notion, we asked, what if it is reversed—that it wasn’t us living in a “bubble,” but everyone else?

We are fed this common rhetoric that liberalness exists in a bubble out of touch with “real” America. But why is that the case? (Remember, our current president did not win a majority of the votes cast in the last election.) It seemed to us that it is those who do not experience a diverse community, who fail to appreciate and celebrate different cultural experiences, who are unable to understand alternative historical experiences, are the ones who are living in a bubble.

Art is one way to break down these barriers, portray diverse ideas and experiences, and pop the bubble. Because of this, art is spiritual, art is necessary, and art is revolutionary.