Tag Archives: African-American

For Afro-Yiddish Performer, the Past is not Past

Anthony_Russell_finger“The past is never dead. It’s not even past…”

When William Faulkner wrote these words in Requiem for a Nun, I’m pretty certain he didn’t have a formerly opera-singing African-American performer of Yiddish in mind. Nonetheless, for me Faulkner’s words still manage to apply.

I spend most of my time dealing with one past or another. There’s my ethnic past and present as an African-American. There’s my acquired past as a convert to Judaism and a Jewish educator. And finally, there’s the past in my work as artist: previously as an opera singer and presently as a performer of Yiddish. In my professional life, I’ve impersonated everything from an 18th-century Spanish peasant to a Union soldier to a shtetl shames calling Jews to prayer. My future seems firmly rooted in the past, and I thoroughly enjoy it.

Singing in Yiddish really brought this stuff we all so dismissively call “the past” sharply into focus. I didn’t have to imagine the lives and customs of the Hasidic world my repertoire often describes. I just took a train one Shushan Purim to Brooklyn and experienced it for myself. I didn’t have to pull out a library card to find artists and critics who worked in Yiddish. I just had to stop by a bar to hear Sarah Gordon perform and wait for Rokhl Kafrissen to accept my Facebook friend request. (She totally did, by the way).

Last Slichos, I picked up an old book from a used book sale at a synagogue I was performing at in Irvine, CA. When I first cracked it open, it struck me as a little odd. First the book was in Yiddish. Then it was in English. And then Yiddish again.

The title page read in Yiddish and English, “Key to the Exercises of Ollendorff’s Method by Alexander Harkavy.” The Yiddish inscription differed from the English by stating that it was Ollendorff’s Method “tsulernen english”—”to learn English.” The English stated that it was published in New York by the Hebrew Publishing Company in 1908. In 2014 I took it home and started using it to improve my reading in Yiddish.

Anthony_address2I used the book backwards (undoubtedly to the horror of Ollendorff and Harkavy), the English giving way to English words and phrases transliterated into Hebrew letters and then, eventually, instructions on the rudimentary elements of the English language written in Yiddish. It was in this last (first if you read in the other direction) section that the past popped up to declare itself, well…not past. A brown, very fragile scrap of paper was between pages 88 and 89. It had been there so long that the acid from the paper had left dark impressions on the pages. In a beautiful cursive hand, it read: “Mrs. Silberstern 1018 E. 163 St Bronx.”

I instantly went to Google Maps street view in order to look up the address and there it was: an old, pre-war-looking building with three people—a young black boy, a young black girl down the block and, perhaps, their mother, caught in a blur of movement—exiting the building. This was the place where Mrs. Silberstern lived.

Was the book hers? Or somebody who knew her? Was the owner of the book teaching another Yiddish-speaker English, perhaps Mrs. Silberstern? Or maybe Mrs. Silberstern was teaching herself English? And how in the world did the book get from the Bronx to Irvine, CA? How did Mrs. Silberstern get to the Bronx?

I’ll probably never find the answers to these questions. Between this scrap of paper, this book and Faulkner’s statement, I just find more questions.

Is the past ever really past?

Posted on January 27, 2015

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“Selma” A Jewish Take

selma-movie2

This week I had the privilege of viewing an early showing of Selma, a movie about the historical events that took place in Alabama during the summer of 1965. The bombing of the 16th St. Church, in which 4 young girls were killed in 1963 and the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were not far from the public consciousness then. And the battle between hate and rights that unfolded that summer in Selma changed the course of American history in profound and essential ways.

There are those who will and have already begun to quibble with the historicity of “Selma” but as a white rabbi who trained as a historian and has devoted the last five years to civil right in the Jewish community through my work at Be’chol Lashon, it is my hope that ALL Americans, no matter race or religion go to see the film.

Telling the story of a movement set in the context of 200 years of history, in 127 minutes means that inevitably some of the lines between history and myth will be blurred. But do not underestimate the power in the cinemagraphic telling of history. Color returns dimensionality to images that we know only in shades of black and white. Camera angles bring out the intimacies and tensions that go into the small moments that make up epic events. In the rabbinic tradition we call filling in of the official narrative, midrash, or interpretation. And midrash is one of most powerful tools we have to teach us about the past, remind us of our values and focus our actions for the future.

Copyright limitations, for example, mean that the words spoken by the fictional Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are not direct quotations. Nonetheless, the power with which David Oyelowo delivers his portrayal of Dr. King provide us not only with the inspirational Moses figure to whom a monument stands in Washington DC but also the flesh and blood man who struggled with frailty and doubt even as he rose to the challenges of leadership. These nuances encourage us to reach beyond our failing and to see the possibilities of action.

Watching, it was hard at times for me to engage with Oprah Winfrey’s portrayal Annie Lee Cooper. In contrast to the real life powerhouse and billionaire Winfrey, Cooper was a middle school dropout and worked in an old age home. Cooper came to fame after her repeated attempts to register to vote led to a confrontation with the county Sheriff and her punching him. On the one hand I was too aware of Winfrey’s sophisticated real world persona to fully embrace the portrayal. But on the other hand, I saw the casting as a tribute to the extraordinary power of the everyday African Americans who, in standing up to Jim Crow white power, were no less regal than the real life Ms. Winfrey.

Within the Jewish community I hope that white Jews will look beyond the desire to have Jewish contributions to the historic Civil Rights movement recognized. Past involvement is no free pass for present day obligations. This movie should inspire white Jews to take a look within our synagogues, schools, picture books, and organization and to consider how to engage with African Americans and other Jews of Color not as the “other” but as members of our own communities. Are white Jews able to say that we do not question their membership? Their right to vote? Or legitimacy? There are many tools and approaches that we can incorporate into daily Jewish life that can and will make a profound difference, now, today and for the future for how Jews think and act around race and ethnicity.

Our sage Hillel, one taught that the entire Torah can be summed up in the maxim, we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. The rest he assured is commentary, but it is commentary that we are obligated to learn. If the movie Selma does not fulfill all the historical details faithfully, or speak to all of our needs, it does present us with a strong case for the importance how we treat our neighbors. If we walk away inspired to aim higher in creating a more fair and inclusive world, to learn and do more, then we have achieve something momentous.

Posted on January 8, 2015

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My Magen David, My Identity

star3_final_2My daughter Maya and I had been walking along 125th Street in Harlem, past the larger-than-life statue of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., pastor, politician, and Civil Rights activist; the Studio Museum of contemporary African art; and the landmark Apollo Theater that launched so many careers. Somewhere along the way, we saw an enormous American flag, all in red, green, and black, the African American colors.

“Hey wouldn’t it be cool if the stars were six-point stars?” my biracial daughter said as she fingered the silver Jewish Star pendant she always wore.”That would be me.”

Realizing that Maya did not consider herself to be a large rectangular piece of fabric flapping in the wind, I thought about what the colors represent. They come from the flag adopted by the UNIA (United Negro Improvement Association) in 1920. Red signifies the blood that unites people of Black African ancestry – and that they shed for liberation; black represents the Black people; and green color represents the natural wealth of the continent of Africa.

Combine that with a Magen David, so named because the design adorned King David’s shield when he led the Israelites into battle, and you have an unnecessarily militaristic mash-up. These days, though, both images are really more cultural symbols than anything else.

So when it came time to get a gift for Maya, I thought that a Star of David necklace with the UNIA colors would be perfect.

Easier said than done, though, as it turned out.

I searched a myriad of stores and pawed through countless street hawkers’ tables all over New York City. I waded through innumerable online venues getting seasick by the frightening quantity of options, none of which quite fit the bill. I even considered making a necklace for my kid, but a quick trip to the local crafts store put an end to that whim. I wanted something she would be proud, not embarrassed, to wear.

“There’s such a thing as trying too hard,” a friend told me. But, honestly, I like a good treasure hunt, especially one with nothing serious riding on it; life would go on if Maya didn’t get a necklace that she didn’t even know was out there. Or, perhaps I should say, a necklace that didn’t yet exist.

Then, one evening, I was determinedly scrolling through more online options and saw a vendor who offered Star of David pendants in a variety of pastel shades. Not exactly what I had in mind. But I figured if she could offer different color options, perhaps she could create the design with the hues I had in mind?

I emailed the artist and asked; she was happy to give it a shot. Her first attempt involved a mint green that didn’t quite fit the bill. I sent her a Google image of the Black Liberation Flag – and she came back with two beautiful options. I had it in my hands in just a few days.

When Maya unwrapped her gift, she gasped. (It’s not easy to surprise a teenager.) She took off the silver pendant she’d chosen herself in Jerusalem, put on the mash-up jewelry – and has worn it ever since.

Posted on December 30, 2014

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#BlackLivesMatter, A Jewish View

Jonah_Josh_EthanBlack Lives Matter, on the first night of Hanukkah and also on the second night, the third night and every other night and day of the year.

On the first light of Hanukkah, some in the Jewish community are taking the opportunity to express the sentiment that “Black Lives Matter.” We at Be’chol Lashon could not agree more. We dedicate ourselves to making the Jewish commitment to racial equality part of the everyday fabric of American Jewish life.

We believe strongly in society’s potential for transformation, but simultaneously know that protests alone are not enough. Real change requires long-term day-to-day work in the streets as well as in our synagogues, schools, camps and organizations.

First and foremost, as Jews we need to recognize that when we talk about Black lives, we are not talking about “them.” Studies show that 20% of the Jewish community identifies as something other than white or Askenazi. Unfortunately, our organizations, our narrative and the boundaries of our community do not always reflect this reality.

In order to affect change at the American societal level, we must begin at home. Be’chol Lashon has identified sustainable options to help the Jewish community be the change they wish to see in America.

Engage

First person stories and exposure are essential to helping people understand unfamiliar points of view. It is important to open ourselves to the plurality of voices and experiences that exist in the Jewish community. Jews of color, like all Jews, have a range of experiences and points of view. Be’chol Lashon’s media and speakers, such as recent documentary Little White Lie, are powerful tools to engage in discussions about race, identity and family. Get to know these stories, bring them to your communities to encourage proactive, positive conversations about race with Americans of all backgrounds.

Educate

Combating prejudice and racism starts with teaching children to

connect across differences, navigating diverse cultures with curiosity, sensitivity and confidence. Our curriculum—Passport to Peoplehood—expands children’s awareness of themselves in relation to the racial diversity of Jews and others around the world. Partnering with camps, JCCs, and schools we foster an understanding of the historic and contemporary reality of the Jewish people. Youth readily internalize new patterns of thinking and race and diversity must play a core part of Jewish education at every level.

Bring Light

Most people struggle when it comes to talking about race but true progress lies in our ability to broaden discussions beyond events such as Ferguson. The Race Project provides trainings to actively engage in crucial conversations and unravel race as a social construct. Just as we have come to realize that conversations about Israel are more productive when people are trained to listen or have facilitators assist the process, so too when it comes to race.

Outrage is understandable, but it is not a solution. Sustainable change needs time, work and commitment. Be’chol Lashon is devoted to bringing these kinds of opportunities to the Jewish community, because black lives matter both within and beyond the Jewish community.

Posted on December 16, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

From Ferguson Child, to Cop, to Criminal Attorney

VWPoliceWhen I think about Ferguson, Missouri I think about the Star Wars Trilogy. I spent every summer between the ages of 10 and 25 in Ferguson; and, I also spent a few weeks over the winter holiday there as well. So, I always waited with baited breath for summer, and the next movie in the trilogy. Every Saturday during those times, we ate Faraci’s pizza. When the riots first happened, I remember thinking, “I hope they leave Faraci’s alone because I really want some when I go back”…and I was grateful to see Faraci’s still standing when I went back to Ferguson for my mother’s 85 birthday party.

I also remember trudging to Schnucks grocery store during the “great blizzard” and I got my very first job bagging groceries at that same store. The summer I turned 24, I spent jogging the streets of Ferguson as I prepared for the physical agility part of the police application process.

Having grown up spending time in Ferguson, served as a police officer in Columbia, Missouri, and a career as a criminal defense attorney, I had lots of personal reactions to the death of Michael Brown. After the news broke about his death the inevitable media rush to the bottom began to occur. Everything about Ferguson, the citizens, the population, the police was fodder for debate and commentary. I began to wonder if I lived in a Ferguson vacuum. I never, ever heard my family talk about racism, racists cops anything that suggested things were as bad and one sided as the media suggested. None of my family ever told me, “hey be careful, you know the cops will harass you if they see you jogging down the street”; no one ever said, “hey be careful while you’re driving”. They alerted me to speed traps but nothing about bad cops. But then I realized…that was literally 25 years ago. My, how things have apparently changed.

One week before Michael Brown was killed, I was stopped for speeding in Calverton Park, Missouri, just around the corner from Ferguson. I was stopped by a young, white cop. I was driving a 2014 SUV with Florida license plates (a rental) and I was speeding. The cop was young, but professional and friendly. He did not approach with his hands on his gun and did not approach with an attitude of fear.   I believe it is because I go through the same ritual when stopped by the police for any reason: I turn the car off, put it in park, roll down my window, and stick my hand out the window. If it is night time, I turn on my dome light to illuminate the interior. It is these “Hey, I’m not armed” rituals that dictate how the cop approaches me. It is these little things people of color have to do that Anglos do not have to do in order to survive police encounters.

Racial profiling does exist. It can be very dangerous. And so much went horribly wrong in the case of Michael Brown.

With my personal and professional experience both of the St. Louis area and the criminal justice system, I could write volumes about the specifics of this case and that Eric Garner. Every piece is complex and worthy of analysis, from the way Michael Brown’s body lay uncovered for hours in the street, to the media sympathy for Darren Wilson, to intricacies of the Grand Jury system. In the both the Brown and Garner cases, the Grand Juries decided after all they heard there was not enough to charge the officer(s) with a crime. But what were they told? Did they have the information to do their job? The tools—or lack thereof—they were given to arrive at that answer is the real injustice.

But let me leave you with a few thoughts, while black men are killed by cops disproportionately, people fail to realize and remember police also kill white men without punishment. The fact is that they can apparently kill anyone regardless of race and/or color makes this a misuse of power and authority issue, not necessarily a racial issue. I think this is why many people of all races should be concerned: the police can kill their children too and not be held accountable.

Here are 3 facts I want you to remember about these incidents and the rest of the incidents that will follow:

Just because something is unjust, does not mean it was illegal or against the law; secondly, just because a death event has been labeled a homicide, does not mean it was murder. Lastly, the purpose of a grand jury is to answer one question, and one question only: Is there enough evidence to charge this person with a crime. Period. Guilt/Innocence is not the question or the issue.

Posted on December 9, 2014

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Defusing the Racial Timebomb

Diane_Jonah_Tobin_72 (2)Over the last few weeks, as America waited for the Grand Jury decisions in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, we have been touring with our documentary, Little White Lie, encouraging proactive, positive conversations about race and identity with Americans of all backgrounds. The outrage expressed at the grand jury decisions tells us two things. One, race remains a volatile and potentially dangerous third rail in American society and two, so long as we continue to wait for moments of crisis to talk about race, it will remain so. It is difficult for us as Americans to talk about race, and even harder to do so when we do not have to. As the mother of a Black teenager, I know that in the current racial climate, no matter how much my son individualizes, he will be forced to deal with the harsh reality of toxic racial dynamics.

When I adopted my son Jonah in 1997, one of my primary concerns was that he would not see himself reflected in the American Jewish community—that his Jewish identity and his Black identity would be in conflict. I am gratified that after attending Jewish day school and growing up participating in Be’chol Lashon programs, he knows many other racially diverse Jews and takes his Jewish identity for granted. Now that Jonah is 17, I am aware that my concern has shifted and that in everyday life, the unique identity Jonah has developed will often be disregarded in favor of assumptions about his skin color.

Recently, Jonah came home and announced, “Mom, the supermarket security guy just asked for my receipt and took all the things out of my bag. I was racially profiled.” I realize that I must have conversations that I did not have with his white siblings—like making sure his hands are visible at all times if he happens to be stopped by the police. It is unsettling to instill distrust in my son for police officers. While it may be a necessary defensive measure, it reinforces how important it is to proactively work to reduce racial tension.

The racial dynamics on display recently present more than a physical danger—they threaten to derail the identity development of millions of young people of color. In middle school, Jonah was encouraged to write about himself in anticipation of applying to high school. In a particularly poignant poem he wrote, “I am not Jordan or Malik, I am Jonah. Why don’t people ‘see‘ that I am part of my family? Why do they only see ‘difference’?” Good question and one being asked by the growing population from mixed racial, religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds who identify beyond the boundaries of America’s racial divide. Teaching our children to keep their hands visible around police does little to answer this question. The safety of our children, both physical and emotional, lies in our ability as a society to broaden the discussion abut race beyond events such as Ferguson.

Jeff Chang insightfully articulates in his latest book, Who We Be, (http://whowebe.net/that, “We can all agree that race is not a question of biology. Instead it is a question of culture and it begins as a visual problem, one of vision and visuality.” Race was created as a social construct and as such it can only be unraveled through social engagement and discussion. Who We Be chronicles racial progress through cultural commentary. In one example from the early 60s, cartoonist Morrie Turner drew kids having profound discussions about race and community. In Wee Pals, Oliver, a white kid, introduced the neighborhood kids to each other—Peter “the Mexican-American,” George “the Oriental,” 11 Rocky “the full- blooded American Indian,” and Randy, who, Oliver paused to note, was “a Afro- American, Negro, Black, Colored, Soul Brother.” “And what are you?” Peter asked Oliver. “Very careful!” Oliver replied.

A half-century later, even though Americans have elected their first Black president and are in the midst of dramatic demographic and cultural shifts, works similar to Turner’s groundbreaking cartoons are no less important. Fortunately, the torch is being carried and with the revolution in social media, the opportunity to impact Americans through pointed social commentary is greater than ever.

Notable contemporary efforts include Kenya Barris’ new sit-com Black-ish and Justin Simien’s film Dear White People which, although rife with stereotypes, manage to be humorous while authentic and compelling, putting questions about race front and center. Journalist and NYU professor Liel Leibovitz comments, “We laugh because…the conversation about race is one enough of us are eager to have honestly and openly.” He suggests that these conversations are not just about race, but are about self, community, traditions, and history.

As an organization that celebrates multicultural traditions and history of Jewish communities around the world, we executive produced Lacey Schwartz’s touching tour de force documentary about her family hiding a Little White Lie and her journey to come to terms with her mixed black and Jewish heritage. It offers a unique and compelling personal narrative that speaks directly to the changes in American demographics and Jewish identity. Little White Lie is a powerful and timely educational tool to engage in necessary conversations about race, a crucial step in an effort to make sure our children will be “seen” as who they are.

The tragedy highlighted by both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases is that we still live in a world where Black men are seen as in fundamental conflict with law enforcement. This is a dangerous juxtaposition that underlines the fact that racial tension in America remains volatile and potentially violent. It pushes back directly against my desire to raise my son with a sense of agency over his own life. I will do my best to teach Jonah how to manage the perceptions of others and how to stay safe in a dangerous world. And I will continue to work daily to change the way the Jewish community talks and thinks about race. But Jonah’s safety, like that of many others, depends upon our collective ability as Americans and as Jews to push the conversation about race forward, even when there are no grand jury decisions to spur us on.

Posted on December 4, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

My Christian Great-Grandmother, My Jewish Inspiration

Michael_DeYoung2

Beatrice W. Hudson, known to me as Be Be, was my great-grandmother. She was one of the strongest, and most caring people I have ever met. Born May 10, 1918 in Suffolk, Virginia, she was the oldest of 13, and played a major part in raising her many siblings. Being a Black woman in the racially divided South presented many obstacles. Everyday, the Black minority experienced segregation and daily oppression by the White majority, yet my great-grandmother never strayed from her religion. She attended church every Sunday, celebrated every holiday, and said a prayer before going to bed each night.

Growing up as a bi-racial Jew, I struggle(d) with my identity on a daily basis. I was raised in a predominantly white town, and attended a Jewish day school and synagogue with little diversity. “Are you Jewish,” and “what are you?” were questions I was asked far too often. People’s doubts and confusion about my religious identity made it hard to feel accepted in the Jewish community. Knowing that my great-grandmother was able to live through times where being Black resulted in beatings and deaths, yet still maintain such strong religious beliefs inspired me to be proud of my Jewish heritage. Though the puzzled glares and questions still persist, my doubts have been extinguished. Judaism is an important part of who I am, and my great-grandmother understood and respected that. She knew who I was: her great-grandson.

Though we were of different faiths, she attended almost every religious event I was part of. In fact, the picture we took on my Bar Mitzvah became one of her favorites. Every time I came to visit, there it was on the table, housed in a beautiful frame. She would often tell people amusedly, “look at my handsome husband,” and smile. At the time, I was outwardly abashed hearing this so often, but internally, I was happy to have gotten this title. I could truly be myself around her; she loved me unconditionally. She was so proud to be my great-grandmother. She was Christian, I was Jewish, but we were family.

As her age began to take its toll, she struggled to remember who I was. On my final visit with her, I sat next to her bed, holding her hand for about an hour. She liked when people held her hand. Though the TV was playing in the background, she still wanted to make conversation. She would fluctuate between thinking I was Michael, or another family member. From time to time she would have me remind her who I was, and where she was. Interestingly, she was never startled when she didn’t recognize me. She still saw me as a member of her family. She often asked how are we were related. When I explained the connection, the expression on her face was like that of a child being presented with a trip to Disneyworld. She was so happy she was a great-grandmother and that she had, “such a good looking family.” It was very hard for me when my great-grandmother did not know who I was. The woman to whom I felt so connected, who loved and accepted me unconditionally, who would inspired me, did not know me for me. Yet, there was comfort in knowing that she sensed a familiarity with me. I was her great grandson, her husband, her brother, her cousin…her family, her future.

Posted on November 18, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Shul Shopping for Diversity

Making Challah, photo credit Town & Village Synagogue

Making Challah, photo credit Town & Village Synagogue

Some people want to find the nearest fresh fruit and veggie stand. Other people seek out good, fast take-out Chinese. When my family showed up in New York Citya white woman, an African American man, and two biracial childrenwe went shul shopping.

I was looking for diversity, though fully aware that most American Jews are white. Most of us are, like me, Ashkenazi, immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe. Yet according to Be’chol Lashon’s numbers, about 20% of Jews in America are non-White or non-Ashkenazi. Less than ten percent of American People of the Book are non-white (which is actually more than I’d thought before I looked it up). Some are historically Jewish, other joined the Jewish people from international adoptions, and there is a small but growing group of biracial marriages and mixed-race children.

So I tried to temper my expectations. After all, this may have been NYC, but it was still the USA. And, in fact, we saw diversity in terms of congregation size, clothing fashion, and number of women wrapped in talitot, but we were pretty much looking at white faces.

We decided, instead, to seek out a friendly environment and were busy on Friday nights, checking out services at Reform and Conservative synagogues.

We had thought Reform was our best bet, but it was actually a Conservative synagogue where the rabbi hopped down off the bimah while the cantor was leading a prayer, to say hello. He was very friendly and very genuine and made us feel right at home, if a little singled out. We introduced each other and he promised to chat during the oneg, which we did.

photo curtesy of Town & Village Synagogue

photo curtesy of Town & Village Synagogue

OK, this was a place where we might integrate the congregation but at least we felt welcomed. There was a smattering of diversity; I was sure I saw an Asian face.

When we signed up for Hebrew School, though, it turned out that we had hit the jackpot. Maya would be in the third grade class with a bunch of boys, which was her preference at that stage. But, somehow, Ari entered a preschool Hebrew class with four other children: one with two black parents, one from a single-mother-by-choice family, and another with an Asian mother. And one plain old double-Caucasian girl.

The older generations at the synagogue were all white, but Ari’s class gave us hope that the future would be more colorful and that our children wouldn’t be alone in ushering in that changing demographic. Maybe when they go shul shopping they won’t need to look so hard.

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Posted on November 11, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

African-Born Rabbi and Activist Dies

photo credit: Chester Higgins

photos credit Chester Higgins

Be’chol Lashon mourns the passing of Rabbi Hailu Paris, a native of Ethiopia who lived most of his life in the United States but never lost his connection to his native land.

Hailu Paris was born in 1933 in Addis Ababa. He spent his early years in an orphanage before being adopted by American Eudora Paris who had migrated to Ethiopia with Israelite leader, Rabbi Arnold Josiah Ford. However, the arrival of Mussolini’s fascist forces in Ethiopia forced them to flee in 1936. When Nazis looking for Jewish passengers stopped their ship in Germany, they did not suspect that the Black passengers with the Ethiopian child and a tightly wrapped bundle containing a Torah scroll were, in fact, Jews. According to Rabbi Shlomo Levy, when Rabbi Paris related this story he joked, “This was one time when we didn’t complain when people assumed we could not be Jewish because of the color of our skin.”

He matriculated from Yeshiva University in New York with a BA in Jewish Studies and a MA in Jewish education. His passion for education knew no bounds and he taught in the public schools for many years. Eventually he pursued rabbinic ordination. He served as the spiritual leader of Mount Horeb Congregation, was a founding member of the Israelite Academy  and was a teacher to many. A consummate bridge builder, Rabbi Paris was honored with the Brooklyn Jewish Heritage Committee esteemed Kiruv Award in 2010 with keynote speaker Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Executive Vice President of the New York Board of Rabbis.

In addition to being a teacher of Torah, Rabbi Paris worked tirelessly to help Ethiopian Jews. In the 1960s, long before American Jews really understood the plight of the Ethiopian Jewish community, Rabbi Paris joined early efforts to save the Beta Israel. According to Dr. Ephraim Isaac, another long-time activist, Paris never missed a meeting and worked throughout his life to promote understanding and support for Aliyah. He continued to make trips back to his native land and, according to Rabbi Capers Funnye, was planning one for 2015.

Rabbi Funnye, the leader of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, Chicago, is proud to have called Rabbi Paris “his mentor, teacher and friend.” As learned and knowledgeable as he was, Rabbi Funnye, knew Rabbi Paris to be, “an artist of humility, who understood that learning should never overpower our capacity to be humble.” He was the living embodiment of Torah, “For Rabbi Paris the words of Torah were written on his heart.”

Rabbi Paris left this world on the 10th of Heshvan 5775, November 3rd, 2014. The funeral service for Rabbi Hailu Paris will be held on Thursday November 6, 2014 at 11:00 am, at The Jewish Community Chapel, 630 Amsterdam Ave. (91st Street) Harlem, NY. Burial will be in New Jersey at Mount Moriah Cemetery following the funeral service. Donations can be made to a scholarship fund in his honor at Beth Shalom Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation.

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Posted on November 3, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Confronting Murderers and Finding Forgiveness

WashingtonVI think about the nature and concept of forgiveness literally on a daily basis. As a lawyer, my practice consists solely of defending persons facing the death penalty; my clients are either facing the death penalty at trial or they have already been convicted and are in the state appeals process. Persons on the outside would be astonished to learn how much justice, forgiveness and peace color the many decisions my clients make that impact their future.

At some point after a death penalty trial is over, but before pronouncement of sentence, the accused have the right to make a statement; to allocate to the court, jury, and gallery. During these statements, I have never had a client asked to be spared. The lawyers ask for it, families weep for it, but my clients do not. For the first time in a long process they get to speak freely and they use this time to say, “I am so sorry.” They blame no one, and offer no excuses. They believe in their heart of hearts that Justice requires their life in return for the one(s) they have taken.

Rabbi Milton Steinberg once wrote that “the upshot of the Jewish teaching on what I owe my fellows: I owe them the right, the just, the equitable.” I represented a man who was implicated in a double homicide that occurred 25 prior to his arrest for it. He spent that time of his life in a haze of drugs and alcohol. But one thing he maintained was that if he did those things he deserved to die. For him, the only way he could atone was to give his life in return. He was one of many persons I have met that are willing to give their life in return for the one they took. In other words, they too strive to give what they believe they owe their fellows.

As we approach the Yom Kippur, this year as in previous years, I think about lessons learned from the people I encounter in my line of work, killers and victims alike. I recall a mother looking at my client and saying with conviction, “I forgive you,” and that client breaking down and saying over and over, “thank you”; I think about the father who looked at one client and said, “I pray every day to find a way to forgive you, but I’m not there yet” and that client nodding his head in understanding; I think about the mother who looks at yet another client and says, “ I will never forgive you”, and he flinched as if struck. For one man, the gift of forgiveness; for the other, the hope of forgiveness; for one the despair of forgiveness denied.

My clients have also displayed an amazing capacity to forgive. To forgive the mother for turning tricks in front of them, to forgive the father for brutal beatings, to forgive the rapes; the tortures; the things no child should have to endure. Those clients who look at me and say “what I did is not their fault”; “she is still my mother and I love her”; “she had it rough, I understand.”

I once asked my rabbi, “how can you tell when you have forgiven someone”? and he told me, “when you can begin repairing the relationship.” So, when I look around a court room and death as a sentence is on the table, I see mothers who have never been at the side of their child before this time—are now standing there beside them. They are standing there with full understanding that the world knows about their faults, their failures, their transgressions against their child; and yet, they are there. When they get a turn to speak, they ask for forgiveness: they turn to my client and ask for forgiveness; they turn to the victim’s family as ask for forgiveness; and they turn to the jury and ask for mercy. I see the transformative power of justice and forgiveness. When you have those two, peace is sure to follow.

I once met a man named Billy Moore. Billy spent 24 years on Georgia’s death row for a crime he freely admits to committing. Immediately after the murder during a robbery gone bad, Billy was so eaten up by remorse he confessed, led the police to the murder weapon, and the meager proceeds of the robbery. Despite his sincere regret and remorse, he was sentenced to death. While on death row, he wrote to his victim’s family expressing his sorrow and apologies. The family had compassion and forgave him; and they wrote each other for over 16 years. That family was instrumental in getting Billy’s death sentence commuted to life and ultimately led to his parole.

When I met Billy, I was struggling with my own inability to forgive a loved one’s bad decision that indirectly led to my grandson facing many years in prison. Billy told me something I will never forget. He said, “you have to remember forgiveness is not for the other person, it is for you. Forgiveness sets you free to find peace. You must not forever link your grandson to another’s failures. You must love him independent, look at him and see love, not another’s mistakes. When you look at him and see only him, you will know peace.”

So as I struggle, I remember a promise: “Insomuch as ye have come before me in judgment and departed from me in peace, I do reckon it unto you as if ye have been created anew.” I’m working on it, but I’m not there yet. Shalom.

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Posted on September 30, 2014

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