I grew up in a neighborhood that was like a war zone. We Jews lived in the Co-Op Apartment Buildings feeling like embattled Israelis, with our backs to the sea: in our case it was the East River, not the Mediterranean. Across our Demilitarized Zone, the parking lot, was Vladeck Houses, the city housing projects, where “they” lived—the Hispanics and the Blacks. Any Jewish kid who crossed the lot had a good chance of getting beat up. We were very relieved when a Housing Police Station was built there, in the mid-1970s; it would help to control “them.”
Near my Bubby’s, my Polish grandmother’s, apartment adjacent to the Williamsburg Bridge was Alphabet City, called so because the avenues were named A, B, C, and so on. Parts of it have been gentrified now, I believe, but, years ago, it was a place of crime, tragedy, and poverty, a better place to buy hard drugs than to dwell. My mother was crossing under the bridge with a friend one time during the 1960s, when a mugger tried to snatch her pocketbook: Mom hung on to one strap; the mugger pulled the other, but my short, tough mother would not let go. The thief finally gave up and ran off; for years afterward, any pocketbook Mom bought had to have two straps—one for her, one for the mugger.
When I was ten, my parents found out that a nearby community center had free after-school activities for local kids: arts and crafts, including a workshop with real wood and real tools. About five of us kids from the East Side Torah Center Hebrew Day School walked over there one afternoon. We had a great time, until we left, as the sun was setting. A bunch of Hispanic kids were waiting for us to leave the building; they chased us out of “their” neighborhood. We learned the lesson, and never returned.
I carried a can of pepper spray all during high school and college, traveling on the buses and subways. I never “fired a shot in anger,” but it gave me a sense of reassurance. More than once, I curled my fingers around that little red-and-white container. I believe that, by the time I reached my senior year of school, the spray would no longer have worked, but it was my little security blanket.
I grew up in a building where everyone was white, all except one Black family: the Chestertons, in the D wing. My father pointed out Mr. Chesterton, a quiet, light-skinned man from the Caribbean. “You see Mr. Chesterton? You know why he lives here? Because he went to college. One day, you’ll go to college.” I was five years old; I had no idea what, or where, “college” was, or how it would qualify a person of another skin color to live in our building, or why the “others” did not live there. I went to day camp at the Educational Alliance on East Broadway with Mr. Chesterton’s son, Lenny. We were not close. I don’t know what happened to him. I did go to college, however.
My only interracial conversation took place at some point, during the late 1960s. There was a small public park across the street from the elementary school I attended, which was also our synagogue (there were, then, a lot of synagogues on the Lower East Side), the East Side Torah Center. I don’t recall how we got into our conversation, but a friend and I were, somehow, trying to explain to this girl, a stranger, that Jews were OK, and not bad people. We asked her what religion she was.
“Baptist!” she spit out, as if it were a bad thing. I had no idea what that meant. That was the end of our dialogue; the girl walked away.
It all came to a head for me during the long, hot summer of 1968. America was a mess. Nixon had taken office, after a close presidential race between him and Hubert Humphrey; the Chicago Democratic Convention had been assailed by hippie protestors; the Tet Offensive in Vietnam had proven the hollowness of our military ability there (part of Nixon’s attractiveness to the electorate was his “secret” plan to get us out of Vietnam with honor). Both Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. The world was in turmoil, but I was oblivious to most it, in my own private hell: I was in danger of flunking both Talmud and Calculus.
For years, I had had difficulties with Talmud. I was not a bad student: indeed, my Hebrew language ability was definitely above average. It was simply that the age-old yeshiva approach to Talmud—that of immersing, or, in effect, “dunking” (or, in my case, drowning) the student in the sea of Talmud with no introduction to its style of reasoning, or even its grammar, made it incomprehensible to me. What did I care about lost strings of dried figs, writs of divorce brought from countries beyond the sea, or pieces of chametz (leavened food or other matter), dug out of walls by dogs during the Passover Festival? Add to that the interminable comments of medieval rabbis such as Rabbi Shimon ben Yitzchak (RaSHi), who had been my intimate friend during Torah study, and his grandsons, the Ba’alei Tosafote, whose only raison d’etre, it seemed, was to disagree with Grandpa over the interpretation of a Talmudic text?
And then, there was Calculus. My teacher was the infamous “Fat Lenny” Rothman, a petty tyrant who terrorized his students, to the extent of telling us what to wear. Granted, it was Yeshiva University High School for Boys—Manhattan, and, granted, the school “uniform” was ties, dress shirts, and slacks. (My own small rebellion against these hardly-draconian rules was to wear the most garishly colorful ties I could find—it was the 1960s, after all, and Peter Max and psychedelia were the order of the day.) One rainswept, cold, October day, thinking of the long trek up the hills of Washington Heights, I decided to wear jeans to class (we still called them dungarees), and Fat Lenny personally sought to bar me from class, standing like a stone wall in the door of his classroom.
I panicked: missing even a single session of math would doom me, and I did not wish to re-take the course in Summer School.
“No jeans,” he rasped, his three chins quivering.
“Mr. Rothman,” I begged, “it’s pouring rain out there—and I ride the subway—and bus!”
He relented and let me into class, the bastard.
There was also the everyday pressure of attending Yeshiva High School: after taking a test and leaving the classroom, there was the inevitable discussion:
“Wadjaget?” which translated to, “What grade did you get on the test you just took?” along with comparing answers to questions, in order to play the inevitable game of “Can-You-Top-This.” Our school was, in those days, an enormous crucible of concentrated Jewish adolescent brain power and, having no girls there to relieve the sexual tension through normal teenage socializing, the energy fed off of itself, until it felt as though the very copper-stone-and-brass-trim would explode off the windows from all the concentrated testosterone. In college, the pressures of Final Exam Week would inevitably result in Water Fights and tossing toilet paper out of the windows—a symbolic, yet pitiful, form of group masturbation. One time, a stray roll clipped a gypsy cab on the roof: the frightened immigrant driver called for backup and, within fifteen minutes, Amsterdam Avenue was full of gypsy cabbies looking up in amazement at a dormitory building full of college—men?—whooping and catcalling at them. The eventual arrival of the police quieted the situation down, and we returned to our textbooks, once again, quieted for the evening.
There were no such shenanigans in high school, because most of us commuted. Despite the momentous events of the ‘60s occurring, I had little time to spend on current events, and cared less: America might have been crumbling outside the rugged walls of my Yeshiva citadel, but I was, clearly, crumbling within.
What did race have to do with all this?
Summer was coming, and, with it, the promise of the best Orthodox Jewish sleepaway camp experience I was ever to have in all of my young life. I was to be a Camp Waiter—the crème de la crème of camp staff, almost as good as a counselor, though I was only sixteen. We were to wait on tables, and deal with the finickiness of younger campers, but we would be the object of their envy, as well. We would have our own bunk, our own curfew, our own pick of the female campers (within the norms of Modern Orthodoxy, of course, but rules were made to be stretched, though not broken), and, as an end-of-season reward, a trip—perhaps a canoe expedition up or down the river, or some other mysterious voyage—Waiters Only. It is both significant and crucial to note that camp summers were also the only time I got to socialize with girls, and to behave in any natural or normal manner for a young heterosexual man, Jewish or otherwise.
This was not to happen. Open School Day came, and my parents got a summons to appear before Rabbi Helfgott, my Talmud Rebbe. Things were not going well.
It was not like I hadn’t given it my best shot. On one occasion, I had sat for hours one Shabbat afternoon, using a thick 1903-reprint two-volume Talmudic language lexicon edited by Marcus Jastrow (1829-1903) to puzzle out a long paragraph of Tosafote, struggling word by word, and finally (I thought) achieving its meaning, or nearly. Then, I went off to meet with a friend from synagogue, a Talmudic scholar, Zelig Borenstein, whose Talmudic prowess was deemed legendary in the congregation. Alas for me: in the style of the Old Country, Zelig was, indeed, masterful—but his mastery lay in his ability to translate the text from the Talmudic Aramaic to old-school Yiddish, a language I did not comprehend. Ironically, my parents had used it as their “secret language” in which to communicate when my sister Pearl and I had been little, as my father’s parents had used Polish when he was young. Their stratagem had doomed me to Talmudic hell: I had no Yiddish; Zelig could not teach me Talmud in English, but he knew enough to tell me that my jury-rigged Tosafote translation was all wrong. I was in despair.
Then came the summons for Open School. My parents and I journeyed uptown on the “A” train on a perfectly good Sunday afternoon, which I ought to have used for my severely limited leisure activities, such as sleeping late and reading something I wasn’t required to read—I did love to read. Instead, we were going to meet with Rabbi Helfgott, whose pedagogical strengths lay in his ability to put most of the class to sleep, rather than communicate the secrets of Talmud to them.
I would enter his classroom at 8:45 am, after having gone to bed at 11 pm the night before: homework took that long, when one did not get home from school until 7:30 pm. Class began promptly at 9; by 9:15, I would cup my right hand against my forehead, brace my right elbow against the large, weighty tome of the Talmud, and close my eyes. To the uninitiated, or to Rabbi H., who sat before me, it appeared as though I were in rapt Talmudic thought. I was actually in a light sleep. The Rabbi’s monotone acted as a soporific. If he called upon me, I depended on the boys on either side to jam their elbows into my sides to awaken me.
When Helfgott left the room and trusted us bochrim (Hebrew-Yiddish slang for “chosen scholars”) to review the text together, we would either schmooze, or Izzy Pickholtz, a thin, wiry fellow from the back, would begin to intone the first lines of The Doors’ rock anthem, “The Soft Parade”:
When I was back there in seminary school
There was a person there who put forth the proposition
That you can petition the Lord with prayer
Petition the Lord with prayer
Petition the Lord with prayer
(Izzy would here pause, and then, we would all shout together:)
YOU can-NOT peh-TI-tion the LORD with PRAYER!
It seemed to fit: we were, after all, in seminary school. And the Lord was, very clearly, not answering our prayers.
As for Talmud, I tried, as I said, everything: I had a set of Soncino Publishing translations of the Talmud, but they were poorly done, difficult to follow, and did not include any of the commentaries. The English of the Soncino was British-style, and read pompously and obscurely, making the Talmud’s nit-picking logic all the more difficult to follow.
As for Calculus, as it had been for Algebra and Geometry before it, my father’s yelling at me when he tried to “tutor” me in math was legendary, if routine: he would shout, I would burst into tears, and my mother would prowl back and forth in the foyer outside my room, intoning, “Saul, he doesn’t understand you: you have to repeat what you’re saying. Be patient, Saul! Be patient!”
Even prior to the Summons from Rabbi Helfgott, from my depths of Talmudic suffering, I challenged my father, saying, “You don’t understand what I’m going through with Talmud. You have no understanding at all!”
I will commend Dad: he did try to sit and puzzle it through with me, but I got as exasperated with him, I suppose (payback’s sweet, after all), as he did with me over Math.
So we three sat there, in Rabbi Helfgott’s classroom that Sunday in May, and the Rabbi proceeded to tell my folks what a Talmudic dunce their dear son was. (At least, he didn’t tell them that I fell asleep in his class. I don’t think I was the only one who did.) I don’t recall the details of the conversation, but I do remember my mother asking, very innocently, “Does this mean that he won’t be able to become a rabbi?” and the look that Rabbi H. gave her, as though she had just spat on his tie, or something. What nerve of this woman, he must have been thinking, to suggest that her idiot son could ever hope to enter our exalted brotherhood of rabbis!
Well, I did become one, in the end, so there.
Sadly, however, he did flunk me. I did deserve to fail Talmud; I admit it. I wish that there had been some realization that the age-old way of teaching that subject was not working, but I have every belief that the same old mistakes are still going on, and that, even as I write this, some dozen—fifty? A hundred?—other hapless yeshiva students are going through the same Talmudic hell in which I lived for all those years.
After Rabbi Helfgott symbolically ripped the buttons off my Yeshiva uniform and broke my rapier across his knee—I’m exaggerating a bit, here—I was sentenced to attend Talmud Summer School. I never made it to camp; I never became a waiter. It wasn’t a total loss: I did go to typing school, that summer—my mother’s idea—and I learned how to type, and got better as the years went on. Oh, and my sister Pearl got married, so I had something to do with the preparations, and, of course, participate in the ceremony, wearing formal wear (a white dinner jacket; it was, of course, summer). That was nice. So I got eventually got her bedroom, which was bigger than mine.
What does all of this have to do with racism?
I was angry about having to be stuck in the city that summer. It was as hot and muggy there as my mother had predicted all those years before; that was why she had sent me to sleep-away camp in the first place. I had to ride the subways—I don’t think they were air-conditioned yet—and shlep up to Yeshiva every morning of the week, and write teeny-tiny notes in my Talmud—it was Kiddushin, this time, dealing with getting married—always a relevant subject for a 17-year-old high school senior, I figured—and that gave me a leg up in the first few months of Talmud class; at least, until the spring, when we broke new ground in our study, and I ran out of the pages we had covered that summer. By that time, I was getting ready to graduate, and just wanted to see the end of high school, as did my classmates.
What about racism? I was, as I said, hot, young, and angry about being stuck in the city. Dad made me go to shul every Shabbos, which was dull and boring. There was no one for me to talk to, or hang out with; it was a shul made up of, and for, mostly old guys. (Though I suppose that most of them were my age now, or younger; old age is relative, in the end. An Old Guy was, for me, anyone over 21.) Rabbi Tallman, rabbi/owner of the East Side Torah Center, was still not inclined to let me lead services; he followed the custom of giving the honor to someone who had a yahrzeit; that is, observing the anniversary of the death of a close relative. That person might make a donation to the shul; I was just a pisher (Yiddish, lit. “pants-wetter,” someone too young to make a real difference). So I had nothing to do, except be bored. I used to read “The Song of Songs” in the Chumash/Pentateuch on the sly, but even King Solomon’s erotic meanderings got dull, after a while.
Dad made me go to shul, not only on Saturday mornings, but also afternoons. We would have a big lunch after shul services on Saturday mornings, and then, I would read a little from my enormous pile of library books, and take a nap. (One of the nice things about being Orthodox is that it’s forbidden to write on Shabbos; that’s your excuse for not doing homework.) It was always hard to wake up from a short nap on those long, hot afternoons, with only a box fan to cool my room—the wiring in our apartment building was post-World War II, and each apartment was allowed only one window unit air conditioner. We had tried to put a second one in my bedroom, calling it a “humidifier,” but mean old Mrs. Himmelfarb, a termagant with dyed-flaming-red hair who lived in the next apartment over and had a clear view of my bedroom, had reported us to the Co-Op Housing Office. So, I sweated with my box fan.
“David, wake up!” Dad said, with his customary tact and warmth, “I’m going to shul now, for Mincha (afternoon service). Get dressed and come, as soon as you can.”
What difference does it make, what time I come? I asked myself, groggy from sleep and the heat, and pulling on my shirt and slacks, It isn’t as if I have anything to look forward to.
I strolled over to the shul—it was a five-minute walk from the house—taking my time. All over Grand St., ordinary folks, most of them secular Jews, were wearing T-shirts and shorts, like normal people; only I was sweating in my polyester slacks, jacket, and tie. By the time I got there—afternoon services were held in the downstairs chapel; we called it the “downstairs Bais Medrash,” because there was a chevra (study group) that met there during the week. Mincha was finishing up, and a couple of men were putting out the plates for the Shala-Sheedis, or the Third Meal of Shabbos, which was pretty basic: just some challah-bread, and a couple of plates of arbess, or chickpeas, also known as garbanzos. The men who participated sat around two large tables at the back of the bais-medrash, and began discussing some Torah, while others began to sing a Chassidic nigun (tune). I would have preferred to stay indoors, where it was, at least, air-conditioned, but Dad never participated in Shala-Sheedis; he disapproved of some of the men who took part; they didn’t wash their hands, or something, and would go hand-diving into the plate of arbess; it wasn’t sanitary. He liked to stand on the curb outside the shul as the oppressive sun began to go down, and a slight breeze might begin to blow. This was Dad’s element, mostly why he came to shul: to talk to God, but also to schmooze with his buddies. For lack of something to do, I stood near him, although I had no interest in sports, politics, or Wall Street.
That’s when it all began. Our synagogue stood on Henry St., across from a small public park containing concrete barrels and other apparatus designed to withstand the rough-and-tumble of New York children at play. We had shared it, somewhat uneasily, with the neighborhood people over the years I had attended the elementary school of the East Side Torah Center. Although we had never had any confrontations or incidents—I did recall my mother berating a couple of young boys who had killed some pigeons with an air rifle and were, for some macabre reason, parading around with the ghastly bodies of the dead wildfowl, which were good neither as trophies nor food—the tension between us Jews and the area Hispanics and Blacks had always been palpable. In the long, hot summer of 1968, with Richard Nixon in the White House, US troops fighting and dying in Vietnam, a disproportionate number of them minority, and both Bobby and Martin dead, New York City was a tinderbox waiting for something to happen.
I stood outside, on the sidewalk, talking casually with another couple of boys my age. And then, they came along: two Hispanic boys, perhaps ten and twelve, riding bicycles. There was nothing unusual about this, except that these two made a point of riding around and around our clump of Jews on the sidewalk outside the shul, there on a Saturday evening, with the soft sound of dozens, hundreds of conversations from the parks and stoops and open windows around us, in English, Spanish, Yiddish, and other New York tongues. Farther away, I could make out the sounds of bongo drums, and, still farther, steel-drums. It gave our neighborhood an exotic, jungle-ish tone, mixing as it did with the Yiddish-inflected speech of my fellow Jews, my own tribe.
The two Hispanic boys were riding their bikes. If they had just passed by, it would have all been different. But they kept riding around, and around, and around us, deliberately cutting through our group, as if daring us to do something. The Jewish men grimaced, and scowled, and said something in Yiddish, perhaps, but no one did anything about it. It was as though, being Jewish, we just had to grin, or scowl, and take it. Jews could not fight back: at least, not in New York.
I must add that we New York Jews were still riding high, emotionally—at least, just a little—from the Israel Independence Day Parade we had had in May. Just the year before, Israel had beaten back the combined forces of Israel, Syria, and Egypt, with some military contributions by other Arab nations, in just six days. Israel, the doughty underdog, had been supplied by France, itself a swimmer against the current of Western Europe under the contrarian De Gaulle.
And so, I thought to myself, why were we so quick to suffer the insults of two young Hispanic boys? It was all coming to a boil in my soul and body: the loss of my ever being a camp waiter; having to suffer through a Talmud class when I would have rather been a waiter in camp, among the elite; living at home with my parents, under the relentless thumb of my father’s unbending Orthodoxy, and now, this: two lousy, punk kids on bikes. Who gave them the right? Who--?
The boys rode their bikes, round and round, through the crowd of muttering, grimacing Jews.
As the bigger boy slowly rode his bike through the crowd of Jewish men and boys, passing me, I impulsively grabbed his arm, at the elbow. His bike executed a half-turn, and he skidded to the ground, scraping both leg and arm. Instantly, he was up, coiled like a steel spring:
“Why’d you pull me down, motherfucker?” he lashed out.
“Who asked you to ride your bike through us, you little bastard? We were just standing here, we weren’t bothering anyone….”
We stood there, yelling and arguing back and forth, in true New York fashion. Why was I yelling at this boy? Why was I angry at him? I realize now that I had made him my scapegoat—he had done the wrong thing, true, by harassing us Jews, but I might have stopped him with an upraised hand, and said, “Please, go ride your bicycle somewhere else.” Instead, I had scapegoated him: yelling at him, I now realize, I was yelling at my fate: being stuck in the steaming-hot city in August, when I might have been an aristocrat at camp; being forced to take a Talmud course, which challenged my brain, my imagination, my creative faculties, not at all; having nothing to look forward to but my senior year in high school, and an anxiety-ridden process of applying for college thereafter (I always excelled at pre-event anxiety, to this day.).
I became dimly aware, in my peripheral vision, of a crowd gathering—Jews, but mostly gentiles, from the surrounding park and buildings. The boy and I were trading racial insults, but never once got to blows. We were circling, like young bucks about to clash antlers.
Then, suddenly, I felt an arm on mine. I turned, and my father was upon me.
“David, get in the shul!” he shouted in my face, “Get in the shul! Go downstairs!”
Suddenly, looking around, I saw that Hispanics, Blacks, seemed to be slowly closing in on our crowd of Jews. As I watched—as my father hurried me to the door of the Torah Center—I saw that no one from our group seemed afraid: instead, they closed ranks. We had war veterans among us: men who had fought in World War II, Korea; former soldiers, not only of America, but the Soviet Union, and survivors of Hitler’s ovens. We had men among us who worked with their hands: the Lukowitz Brothers, all three, were kosher butchers, with big shoulders, and arms like football linebackers. Other men worked in factories, or in shops, hoisting heavy loads. Our men suddenly stood in a group: they would not go down easily.
My father pushed me before him; I almost stumbled. He caught me; he was pushing me towards the heavy glass-and-steel door of the shul.
“I want to stay—I’m not afraid!” I said.
But Dad thought it might be a pogrom, or a lynching. He hauled me by main strength to the door of the shul. “Get inside—go downstairs!” he shouted, and pushed me inside.
As I thudded down the stairs, I passed Rabbi Tallman going up. He smelled of Old Spice and Parliament cigarettes, but was calm. It was as though he knew something like this could happen, and I knew he was friendly with the cops from the Seventh Precinct.
I went downstairs; the group that had been celebrating the Third Meal for the Sabbath Bride was gone; I was all alone. I heard noises from the street, but no screaming or fights. Then, I saw the reflections of revolving lights: red-white-blue; red-white-blue.
The police had come. I stayed in the bais medrash—me and my God, all alone together—until the men came in, laughing and joking. Nothing had happened. The cops had come, and the gentiles—they did not call them that; they used crude racist epithets for the Others, the gentiles, the Ones who had, throughout the centuries, been thirsty for Jewish blood—had been driven back, back into the rat-holes whence they came. Not for nothing did we Orthodox Jews keep to the well-lighted streets, and travel in groups whenever possible; we were all Survivors, in every sense of the word.
It was no accident that our rabbis, from elementary school on, drilled into us the post-Holocaust Jewish mantra: “If Hitler comes to America, Israel will come to our rescue.” I learned it; I believed it, and I taught it to generations of Hebrew School students of my own, until one little girl went home, and told her parents, and her grandparents what the rabbi had said.
And her grandfather, a WWII veteran who had fought in Europe, who had seen with his own eyes what hatred could do to innocents, asked her to ask the rabbi: “If Hitler comes to America,” he said, eloquently and simply, “why can’t we fight him, right here?”
That was years later. What began to change things for me was becoming a rabbi, and leaving New York City. It was time: I was nearly thirty years old, a newlywed, and fulfilling the advice of my teachers and colleagues at the Academy for Jewish Religion: “If you want to be a pulpit rabbi,” they counseled, “you will have to leave New York.” (I am grateful also to Rabbi Robert Aronowitz, Ph.D z’l, for helping me to, finally, tame my Talmudic dragon.) This was also around the time that then-Mayor Ed Koch was lamenting, “Why’s everybody leaving NYC?” So we left, my bride and I, for points south, and wound up in Fayetteville, NC.
We were a minority among minorities: Fayetteville was an Army town, its chief industry being the peacetime Army at Ft. Bragg, home of the 82nd Airborne Division and Pope Air Force Base. These were the Reagan years, full of relative prosperity, the end of the Cold War, and the implementation of the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel.
There were fully 500(!) churches in Fayetteville proper and the environs; I sat down one day and counted all the houses of worship in the “Religion” column of the Fayetteville Observer. There was one synagogue (not counting the Jewish Chapel on base), and I was The Jew. Outreach to the Christian community was an essential of the job, as it is in most small communities, and I became used to being introduced: “We have here as guest speaker a GEN-you-ine Jewish rabbi….” Along with being asked whether we Jews still offered sacrifices, and why we didn’t accept you-know-who as our Lord and Savior: the usual stuff. It is always crucial for rabbis—indeed, for all Jews—to have sufficient knowledge of their faith to be able to answer questions of this nature. It is the first step towards knocking down the walls which religion places between people.
Coming as I did from being a religious majority in NYC to being an instant minority in Fayetteville caused a welcome sea-change in my thinking. We Jews have the concept of asking forgiveness, and something began stirring in my brain to reach out to those of other races—it may have been my way of doing teshuva, or penance, for both fearing, and, perhaps, hating them, when I was growing up. It’s always easy to fear those whom you don’t understand, or even talk to. I am proud and happy to report that, while I was rabbi at Beth Israel Congregation, our temple instituted the practice of Interfaith Thanksgiving Services, held every year at a different house of worship; the first year we, of course, hosted the service.
That was a banner year: so many Christians attended the service at our temple, that we almost violated the 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not run out of cake at the post-service Kiddush, or reception. To forestall this calamity, members of the Temple Board circulated amidst the crowd in the social hall, whispering, “Are you a temple member? Please, don’t eat the cake!” Inevitably, some of our gentile guests overheard this warning, and assumed that something was amiss with the baked goods. Eventually, the temple president got on the loudspeaker to explain the cookie shortfall, we all had a good laugh, and the schmoozing went on.
Two years later, when we celebrated our Thanksgiving Interfaith at a congregation whose membership was largely African-American, I noticed a significant—not precipitous, but significant—dropoff in the number of white attendees. I queried one of my congregants, a woman member who had been particularly outspoken in our need to support outreach to our neighbors:
“You see, Rabbi,” she said, “for most of us, this is the very first time anyone has ever been in a Black church.”
And this was the mid-1980s, in North Carolina, a relatively progressive southern state, and in Fayetteville, where the Army had, I believe, an ameliorating effect on the population. This was because the 1940s-era veterans had returned with German and British war brides, the 1950s with Korean; the ‘60s with Vietnamese, and, by the time I left in 1986, a number of troopers had returned with Israeli wives, the result of the Airborne’s being placed in the Sinai Peninsula as part of the Egypt-Israeli Separation of Forces Agreement. These “tripwire troopers” would go to Tel Aviv on their Rest & Recreation leaves, and meet Israeli women there; some married them, and brought them home to Fayetteville.
My twenty-two years as rabbi of Temple Israel in Portsmouth, NH, were joyful and soul-satisfying in many ways; I made many friends among my fellow clergy, in particular, the Rev. Dr. Arthur Hilson, who kindly invited me to speak at his congregation many times over the years, often in celebration of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is still a controversial part of New Hampshire’s state history that the Granite State was last among the fifty to make Dr. King’s birthday a state holiday; when it did happen, however, it was welcomed by all.
Dr. Hilson loved to tease that, when I spoke before his congregation, their enthusiastic response to my words would cause me to “release my inner Baptist.” That is very true: unlike most Jewish congregations (with the exception, perhaps, of Jewish Renewal), which sit studiously and attentively, many African-American congregations (I mean this as a compliment, not a stereotype) participate wholeheartedly in the preacher’s address, by a means called “call-and-response.” The only trace of this left in Jewish liturgy comes when the shliach tsibur (lit., “messenger of the congregation,” or prayer leader) says, “Baruch atah Ahdonoi” (Blessed are You, O’ God”), and the congregation is supposed to respond, “Baruch Hoo oo’varuch Sh’mo” (Blessed is He, and blessed is His Name). This frequently does not happen at all: I compare it to the leader praying at the congregation, rather than with them.
My current position—rabbi’ing (as I call it) on weekends at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach, and teaching college English at Everglades University during the week—is very fulfilling. In my classes, I have met a wonderful sample of the diverse population for which Florida is famous. In turn, I am often the first Jew, and certainly the first rabbi, most, if not all, of my students have ever met. I have discovered that not all Hispanics are the same, and that, if an Ecuadorean tells a joke about a Guatemalan, the Guatemalan is justified in feeling insulted; I have told my students that I, as a Jew, can tell an anti-semitic joke, but that they cannot; they can well understand this. In our English Composition class discussions, I have listened to and advised a young man who is African-American, born in this country, and married to a young woman of his same race, who was born in the Caribbean. They are expecting their first baby. In what culture should they raise this child?
I speak to him in the same way I counsel interfaith families in my rabbinical practice: “It is all very well for you to know who you are, and what culture you come from,” I tell him, “and for your wife to know hers. But in what culture will you raise this wonderful baby with whom you have been blessed?” My students and I have had many productive and revelatory discussions on topics such as these; we begin to understand one another; we begin to bridge the gaps that race, color, ethnicity, and culture have laid between us. In the end, we are people, dealing with common problems, and it is through dealing with these same problems that we become one, become whole.