In 1944, Jewish poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote the following poem,
“To be a Jew in the Twentieth Century”
To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse,
Wishing to be invisible, you choose
Death of the spirit, the stone insanity
Accepting, take full life. Full agonies:
Your evening deep in labyrinthine blood
Of those who resist, fail, and resist; and God
Reduced to a hostage among hostages.
The gift is torment. Not alone the still
Torture, isolation; or torture of the flesh.
That may come also. But the accepting wish,
The whole and fertile spirit as guarantee
For every human freedom, suffering to be free,
Daring to live for the impossible.
Daring to live for the impossible. That was an existential concern for Jews in 1944. To dare to remain a Jew. In the past century, what did our parents and grandparents choose? What was Muriel Rukeyser’s choice?
If you don’t know about the poet Muriel Rukeyser, you should. Rukeyser was an American journalist and activist all her life. She was arrested while covering the trial of the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama and witnessed the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. She spoke out as a feminist and partnered with a woman long before it was safe. She traveled to Hanoi with poet Denise Levertov on an unofficial peace mission and was arrested in Washington D.C. while protesting the Vietnam War. She wrote this poem as a Jewish response to fascism under Franco and under Hitler.
But Rukeyser, like most of us, was more complicated than that. Like many activist Jews of her era, Rukeyser grew up without Jewish observance, as she put it “no stories, no songs, no special food.” Yet her mother passed on a story to her as a child, a story that gave her a deep connection to her heritage. Her mother claimed that she was a direct descendant of one the greatest rabbis of the Talmud, Rabbi Akiba. Her mother described the famous rabbi as a martyr who resisted the Romans in the 1st century by teaching Torah publicly, knowing the penalty was death. She described to her daughter how Akiba was tortured and how he died saying ‘I know that I have loved God with all my heart and all my soul, and now I know that I love God with all my life.’ This story shaped Rukeyser’s own connections to Judaism for the rest of her life
So here we are, all of us descendants or disciples of Rabbi Akiba, and we ask ourselves, what does it mean to be a Jew in the 21st century? Does the experience of being a Jew look different from being a Jew in the 20st century?
Until a year or so ago, I would have enthusiastically answered, yes, it does look different. We no longer need to choose to be invisible. We can walk proudly as Jews in almost every corner of American life. Yiddish words like schlemiel have entered the American vocabulary. Bagels are no longer ethnic food. Jerry Seinfeld became a household representative of the Jewish people: insightful, funny, a bit neurotic, and successful. Moreover, while some of us have known anti-semitism personally, most of us in this room have never felt persecuted as a Jew, never been victims of anti-semitic taunts, of vandalism, of threats to our life and well-being.
But like so many other places where Jews have risen to prominence: Spain, England, France, Germany, our position is always tentative. Like so many before us, the Jews of America have safely accepted the illusion that we can integrate ourselves seamlessly into American culture.
That is, until the dramatic rise in anti-semitic acts immediately following the election. Until the vandalism in Jewish cemeteries following the inauguration. Until the shattering of the Boston Holocaust Memorial this summer. Until Charlottesville.
What changed at Charlottesville was that the anti-semitism of the tiki-torch-bearers, the assault-rifle-toters, and the marchers in riot-gear chanting hate slogans—the hatred—came out in the open. Not only that, the police stood by and allowed it to happen. With the president’s unrepentant acceptance of support from the Nazis and the KKK and other white-nationalist groups, their actions appear to be state supported, if not explicitly state-sponsored. The president’s own rhetoric has given permission for others to do and say what until now, our government has not dared to do or say. This is what the ADL refers to as “an unprecedented mainstreaming of hate and discrimination in our communities.”
After Charlottesville, we have no choice but to discuss anti-semitism. And to stand up to it wherever we find it.
It’s easy to decry the KKK and the Nazis. But what happens when the hatred comes from someplace closer to home, from people we consider allies?
Many of us were heartbroken to hear earlier this summer about the Chicago Dyke March, an annual Gay Pride event, where three Jewish women were asked to leave the March because they were carrying rainbow flags with Stars of David. According to one of the women, they were shouted over, cursed at, interrogated, and ultimately forced out by organizers. Later, March leaders issued a statement asserting that the Chicago Dyke March was explicitly “anti-Zionist” and stated “Zionism is an inherently white-supremacist ideology.”
Banning people for carrying a Star of David flag is not anti-Zionist. It is anti-semitic. These women were not there as spokespeople for Israel. They were Jewish lesbians who had attended the march for years, who were told that by expressing their identity as Jews, they were promoting a white-supremacist ideology.
No matter what our views on Israel and Palestine, we need to pay attention to this painful story. When we hear familiar anti-Semitic tropes, such as the claim that Jews are in control, we need to be prepared to decry those attacks as vigorously as we decry the alt-right. It is one thing to criticize a country, even Israel, if you believe it is failing to live up to its human rights obligations. But as Rabbi Jill Jacobs of T’ruah, The Rabbinic Voice for Human Rights, argues, “if you think Israel is the cause of all of the world's problems, that Zionists are pulling strings everywhere, you're in anti-Semitism territory.”
With anti-semitic rhetoric coming from the people we thought were our allies as well as people we despise, we might indeed refuse the gift, wishing to be invisible.
I want to share a story that illustrates this lose-lose situation. It took place in a different time, in a small Tennessee town. I’ll tell the story as recounted by the author years later, in 1968.
“As a result of state legislation, the local buses had just been integrated. A city statute, however, sought to defy the state and force Negroes to sit only in the rear of the buses. Testing segregation, a few Negroes sat in the front of the bus and they were arrested. Someone put up the required bail money and they were released.
“In the lobby of the whites-only hotel in that town, this is what you could hear from more than one patron: ‘Don’t go to Cohen’s Department Store. Cohen is the one who bailed them out.’ (Alas, Cohen was in the Bahamas at the time and was not involved in any way.)
That same day, however, you could walk across the street to Cohen’s Department Store and this is what you would have seen: Negro pickets parading in front of the store with signs reading: ‘Don’t patronize Cohen’s Department Store! Cohen’s has a segregated lunch counter.’”
This story came from activist Rabbi Robert Marx. Founder of Chicago’s progressive Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and a founding board member of Interfaith Worker Justice, Rabbi Marx is still considered one of the most important leaders in strengthening relations between the Jews and Blacks of Chicago for fifty years.
Obviously, we would claim that the picketers in front of Cohen’s store had adequate cause to protest, while the patrons in the hotel had none. As Marx described it, the two perspectives on Cohen's Department Store provide an example of how Jews can be depicted as the enemy of both parties to a social conflict. In telling the story Rabbi Marx wanted to point to the subtle ways in which the Jewish community plays both sides in a conflict.
The story comes from his 1968 essay, “The People in-between,” where Rabbi Marx offered a compelling analysis of the Jewish condition. Just as the story demonstrates, Jews have been the target of attacks from all sides throughout history, all of whom see Jews as Other.
He explains, “The Jewish community was truly interstitial, truly located between the parts of the social structure of western societies. Neither a part of the masses nor of the power structure, Jews were uniquely positioned so that they fulfilled certain vital yet dispensable functions. They discovered that they were totally dispensable in the society in which they lived…. Interstitiality… may open a path to the gas chamber or it may lead to prophetic heights that enable the Jewish people to rise above parochialism or nationalism.”
This vulnerable position of being somewhere in-between the powerful and the powerless started with Joseph serving as Pharaoh’s viceroy in Egypt, and continues even today. To join with the powerful can offer a promise of protection, as Joseph was able to save his family from famine. But when the powerful change, or simply change their minds, we are left more vulnerable than before, subject to a king “who did not know Joseph.” That story ended in the enslavement of Joseph’s descendants, only to be liberated by another outsider, Moses, who was raised in the palace despite being a Hebrew. On the other hand, to join with the powerless may appear to weaken us, but in the end, such alliances strengthen all who are oppressed.
Just as the poet invites us to accept or refuse the gift, in every age our ancestors have been forced to decide: Do we ally ourselves with the powerful to gain protection for our people? Or do we ally ourselves with the powerless so that together we become powerful?
Even though not all Jews are white, we have benefited from white privilege in America, being lifted up the economic ladder while people of color were kept down. Yet you and I know that we are not as powerful as those who hate us believe. One of the characteristics of anti-semitism is the belief that Jews have outsized power. As researcher and organizer Eric Ward has said, “In oppression, identity is forced on you.” In his recent essay, “Skin in the Game: How Anti-Semitism Animates White Nationalism,” Ward describes how White nationalists see Jews today. Having studied White nationalism for almost three decades, Ward tells us, “White nationalists argue that Whites are a biologically defined people and that, once the White revolutionary spirit awakens, they will take down the federal government, remove people of color, and build a state … of their own.” He asserts that “antisemitism forms the theoretical core of White nationalism.” Surprisingly, Eric Ward claims, to White nationalists Jews are not white.
Ward tells us, “Jews function for today’s White nationalists as they often have for anti-semites through the centuries: as the demons stirring an otherwise changing and heterogeneous pot of lesser evils.” These evils, he explains, include civil rights, gay rights, and women’s rights. In the eyes of White nationalists, Jews are at the heart of a vast international conspiracy, controlling “television, banking, entertainment, education, and even Washington, D.C.” Furthermore, according to Ward, they believe that Jews have brainwashed white people into giving up their own race consciousness by supporting non-whites and other marginalized groups.
What has changed after Charlottesville is that white Jews can no longer depend on our white privilege to protect us. While American Jews have benefited from oppression of people of color, we are also the targets of oppression. Understanding our place as the in-between people, our fate depends on forming alliances with all targets of oppression. Our oppression is linked inextricably to the oppression of people of color in this country. And the marchers in Charlottesville made that link explicit, along with the oppression of women, Muslims, and the LGBTQ community.
If we choose to deny that link, if we abandon our common struggle for justice, then we are complicit in handing victory to those who can only gain by dividing those they oppress.
Terrifying as the story of the Dyke March is, the threat of anti-semitism from individuals on the left cannot be compared to the dangers of institutional anti-semitism. As Robert Marx says, “anti-semitism on the part of a minority group is not nearly as dangerous as when a majority group seizes upon it as a way of maintaining power.
To be a Jew in the 21st century, we must speak out against anti-semitism in all its forms, whether from friend or foe. When we makes claims on our allies, we help them recognize what we have come to understand: that we all bound together in the struggle for justice.
To be a Jew in the 21st century is to be given a gift. The gift, however, neither allows us to be invisible, nor does it require that we close ranks, us against the world. The gift is to make a choice that brings honor to the Jews and justice to the world.
We live in a world of complexity, where diversity does not only exist on the outside, it lives within each of us. Our community is comprised of Jews as well as their Christian and Muslim and Hindu and UU family members. We are white and brown and black. We are individuals who hold many identities inside one body. We are each a combination of privileges and oppressions, victims and oppressors. Just as the Torah insisted that we advocate and care for the orphan, the widow, the stranger, and the poor among us, today we must continue to open our doors to those on the margins. Our response to oppression as a Jewish community must likewise be complex and nuanced.
And we need to remember that as frightening as it is, anti-semitism in America does not have the force of racism, which is baked into American history, pervading every aspect of society from education to housing to criminal justice to jobs. Anti-semitism is not systemic in America. The threats to Jews and Jewish institutions are the result of American terrorists, not government policy. When we stand with our allies against oppression, against intolerance, against hatred, it is not out of a shared sense of fear, but a shared sense of justice.
This summer’s events could mark a turning point in uniting those who stand against hate in all its forms. You may be aware that tomorrow, September 30th, the March for Racial Justice will take place in Washington DC. When Jews first learned that the planned march coincided with Yom Kippur, accusations of anti-semitism inundated social media. Fortunately, thoughtful Jewish leaders including Rabbi Jill Jacobs of T’ruah decided to take a different route. They reached out to the organizers to ask questions and to share the concerns of the Jewish community, many of whom did not want to make a choice between Yom Kippur and standing for Racial Justice.
The March organizers explained that this date was chosen for its symbolic meaning to the African-American community. It recalled the Elaine Massacre on September 30, 1919, one of the deadliest racial attacks our country has known. White mobs in rural Arkansas attacked and slaughtered over 200 black men and women, many of whom had recently returned from military service in World War I. The date harkens back to events that eerily resemble today’s racial animus.
After hearing from Jewish leaders directly, the March organizers spent some time considering how to respond.
Three days after the Charlottesville clashes, on August 15, the organizers of the March for Racial Justice issued a lengthy public apology. I’d like to share some key sections from that apology, because they demonstrate the power of dialogue, of relationships, and of seeking to work together rather than standing apart.
The statement reads: “The March for Racial Justice is committed to standing for racial justice with allies from across all races, ethnicities, and communities. We believe that none of us are free until all of us are free.
“The organizers of the March for Racial Justice did not realize that September 30 was Yom Kippur when we were factoring … other considerations and applying for permits.
“Choosing this date, we now know, was a grave and hurtful oversight on our part. It was unintentional and we are sorry for this pain as well as for the time it has taken for us to respond. Our mistake highlights the need for our communities to form stronger relationships.
“…We have learned from our Jewish friends that Yom Kippur is a day of making amends and of asking and receiving forgiveness. We hope that our sincere apology will be received with compassion, and that we will build a stronger relationship among all our communities as a result….
“We are marching in solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters who are observing the holiest of days on the Jewish calendar. Holding fast to Jewish tradition is also an act of resistance, in the face of growing anti-Semitism.”
The organizers taught us an important lesson about teshuva, worth sharing on this holy day, and worth responding to with compassion.
They also taught us another lesson many of us had forgotten:
“Holding fast to Jewish tradition is also an act of resistance.”
Which brings us back to Rabbi Akiba. Just as Rabbi Akiba continued to teach and practice Judaism publicly knowing it meant a death sentence, we can proudly hold fast to Jewish tradition as an act of resistance.
Praying together is an act of resistance.
Taking time for Shabbat is an act of resistance.
Becoming knowledgeable Jews is an act of resistance.
Teaching our children is an act of resistance.
Being authentic and true to our heritage is an act of resistance.
The main difference I see between Jews of the 20th century and Jews of the 21st, is that today we know that we cannot build our identity on fear of persecution. In a pluralistic society, we cannot build our Jewish lives in isolation. And we also know that we cannot be invisible allies. It is not enough to show up; how we show up matters. Proudly as Jews, as a Jewish community, we hold fast to our values, to our teachings, and to our practices. We do not trade away what is precious and timeless for what is fleeting. When we form alliances, we bring our full selves, as people of Torah and mitzvot, without shame or fear. And when we need to, we speak our truth.
To be a Jew in the twenty-first century is a gift.
May we all find the courage, the dedication, and the wisdom to accept that gift, even with the torment that comes along with it.
As the poet wrote,
The whole and fertile spirit as guarantee
For every human freedom, suffering to be free,
Daring to live for the impossible. Ken yehi ratzon.
Rabbi Barbara Penzner
Yom Kippur 5778.