Tag Archives: Diversity

The King’s Gate

Grand_Choral_Synagogue,_St._Petersburg,_Russia,_main_hallEverything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.–Viktor E. Frankl

This idea came from a Holocaust survivor, no less, who decided in the death camps that he can determine the fate of his inner world, and later suggested in his book Man’s Search for Meaning that your identity does not need to depend on what is going on around you, and that you can control the spirit’s choice as how to respond to any given the situation. Indeed, also under the harshest realities of the African slave-trade, what did many of them do? They stood above their oppressors by singing soul songs, Spirituals, to channel their souls cry of inner yearning. Yes, while in the net of captivity, the heart soared with the eagle’s eyes protecting the soul, but what about the lions kinship to protect their physical freedoms? Would the spirituals freedoms be enough?

“Build for me a sanctuary so that my presence may dwell among you (25:8)”

Busying up nearly 1/3 or the Biblical text, the Mishkan takes the cake as the single most important Biblical creation made by Man. One artistic craft found in the Mishkan’s blueprint, that joins the sacred and the profane, the subtle opposites found in our human experience, are the curtains which serve as the inner and our ceiling covers. From within the Tabernacle, says the Talmud (Yoma 72b), one could see “A lion from this side, and eagle from that side.” From above the Tabernacle, one could see the Tachash hide, which as mentioned by the great Biblical commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (RaSHI), was multi-colored animal that only lived during that specific generation (26:1).

An Eagle (spiritual) and a Lion (physical), have you, needed to be interwoven into the very fabric of our existence—literally. For without this space, and joining of dualities, Mankind, and the legacy of Abraham would cease to exist. This edifice of hope, this manifesto, of the spiritual to dwell in context, and freely among the physical, was the Tabernacle, the Mishkan.

That is why, according to Rav Kook (Orot HaKodesh 2:439), that the holiness of the Holy of Holies only comes into creation, after we separate a location as something above what the individual relates to, and rather to name it as a light-house for all to reference. Because by saying that you and me both can call the same thing special, is the way that the Lion comes to lead on soil and the eagle comes to lead in the skies. It is by joining the song within the sanctuary that causes the outer to reflect the inner: A Tachash, a diverse, colorful people with many layers, many colors, and many thoughts, to all dwell within the Holiest of places.

Similarly, Purim is just two weeks away! And today marks the head of the new month of “Adar!” J J J Our Rabbis teach that one reason why King Achashreirosh was considered an evil person was because he confused the Jews out of spiritual longing, by creating lavish parties, a physical place without a soul. He caused others to think that the soul’s deepest desires do not come from the same place as your neighbor’s, namely the Temple (Mishkan), but rather “according to each person’s desire (Esther 1:8).”

Mordechai the Jew would not show to these events, but waited always, at the “Kings gate,” he stood above. But as the story unfolds, it was not enough to dwell with individual holiness, a Mishkan was needed so that fate of my soul and yours are linked. The place of the Lion and Eagle could not be forgotten.

“Ba’yamim HaHaym, Bazman Hazeh—In those days, and in these.”

Posted on February 19, 2015

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

The Rabbi, The Pastor and the Torah of Mankind

Downtown_Gondar

The baggage claim at the airport in Gondar, Ethiopia is still by far the most humorous way I have yet to collect my luggage after flying. A massive crate is hauled from the plane and dumped into a heaping pile of blues, blacks and greys, with all the creative markings to let each person know which bag belonged to them. As we all pushed and pulled bags aside looking for our own, I noticed other farengie–Amharic for light skinned people, claim their belongings. Though a few glared at my kippah and Tzizit in perplexity, I was used to it, and smiled in return. Later that night, as I walked from my hotel-room for dinner I passed by an open room and looked inside while passing. I noticed some of the same people from the airport! Before I was even a meter away from their door, one calls out “execuse me, man from the airport!” I turn back and stand at their doorway and begin interacting with them around global service.

It turned out they were on service trip as a part of their church from New Orleans, and the room that I was neighboring was the pastor herself! She exclaimed “I didn’t know that Jews like yourself do work like this!” I told her all about the organization my cohort was representing, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and how this organization has been honored by many high ranking officials for their work in the region, she was delighted. We exchanged words of Torah, discussed the power of religious values in helping the underserved populations around the world. Before leaving, I shook her hand and kissed my own. When asking me why I kissed my hand, I asked her: “what does one do when they drop the Bible on the floor?” she quickly responded with a smile and thanked me. I said the Bible has God in it, and so do you, to that I turned to leave and said “we are in this together.”

It is by way of logic that Mankind understands the importance of one another.  Everything from scientific discoveries within medicine to your community shopping center involves your fellow human being. We share the same air and benefit from the billions of organisms within nature. With all this in mind our religion, language, and personal egos drives us away from one another, limiting the opportunity to connect to other souls of G-d (Jewish and non-Jewish). But that is not the Jewish way…

“Rabbi Yehuda Ben Levi said if you see a black, red, white, fat, or short person, say Blessed are You our G-d King of the Universe who makes his creations different (Brachoat 59a).”

Regardless of our religious or political preferences, morals are at the core of our family framework and even societal practice. We are reminded of these morals on a day to day basis, because they are fueled by logic and common sense. The laws introduced to us in this week’s Torah portion are not only the focus of nearly one third of the Talmud, many of them are not dependant on ethnicity, religion, kind or creed. “These are the laws that you should set before them (21:1).”

In the heart of this week’s Torah portion the verse states “do not oppress the stranger amongst you for you know the essence of stranger-hood since you were a stranger in the land of Egypt.” This is a law so significant that it is the essence of mankind, despite all this ritual purity triumphs, haughtiness penetrates and loneliness overcasts. Is this commandment logical? “To not oppress the stranger amongst you,” if one were stuck on an island with a total stranger, there is a greater chance of survival if the stranger becomes comrade. Unfortunately thought, these teachings placed before us have become a secret to the masses, and the disconnect between what we believe and what practice is still present.

Whether we shame ourselves for our ancestry because of evil’s undying power, or we believe that doubt and isolation is the cornerstone of our existence, we must remember that our continuous desire for clarity and comfort amongst each other, and even those who are foreign to us is acquired through common ties, and universal morale, stating clearly, that even in Gondar, Ethiopia, we are in this together.

Our very existence depends on the stranger amongst us. Remember you too are a stranger if not in your comfort zone, you too have been challenged by your neighbor and cast into isolation. Rabbi Akiva of the Talmud lived in a time when Torah was forbidden to be learned or even practiced, and he was murdered because of his desire to find residence within a time of chaos, to create a place for all strangers to go to. As he took his last breathes, his last words were “echad,” one. Rabbi Akiva brought all people together regardless of who they were, why? Because he too was a stranger — his last word: unity (Echad). There is not enough time in the world for us to remain divided. Unity is what will save our micro and macro, community and national identity.

Posted on February 12, 2015

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

Created In G-d’s Image

Paige_2L’chaim- to life, but to celebrate without knowing, would merely divert those from seeing my true being. You see, what you see is nothing short of brilliance, of strength, of success and triumph. But that is something that took decades to discover.

My entire life has been surrounded by the question, what are you? Rather than who are you? And though they say your past makes your present it was never a present hearing that question.

My personal favorite, are you like actually Jewish? Because we were just wondering what you are because I mean, obviously you don’t look Jewish.

I stared blankly, suddenly overcome with true emptiness. I responded with … Nothing, because an answer would mean just that, nothing. Because I would never look Jewish enough and I would never sound authentic enough because to them I wasn’t enough. But I felt like I should have been more than enough.

My life consisted of not black enough, not white enough, not Jewish enough. Hair not straight enough, not curly enough. Skin not light enough not tan enough. Hips not small enough, nose not big enough. Lips well … Lips … just shut enough to never utter a word about how I felt.

How I felt hearing the phrases nigger, kike, schvartse, dirty Jew, Oreo, mullato, outcast, different, rare and exotic.

Lips just shut enough to never tell anyone how it felt to be me. How it felt to see your mouth drop when my black father attended events at my all white elementary school. How it felt to hear you say that I was just another money hungry Jew. How it felt to see you cringe and clench at the sight of a black man walking down the street. How it felt to hear your forced apology after making a sick Holocaust joke.

And how it felt to hear you deny me of myself, deny the very essence and make-up of my being.

Now, here I am. And from this point forward I will not, and can not be silenced! I am here to give voice to the voiceless. To speak for those who never got the chance. For those who were disregarded, beaten, and forced into slavery. For those who were stripped of their family, dignity, and life, in the Holocaust.

I am here, and I am proud because I am mixed with the two races whom experienced the most hatred, bigotry, discrimination, and racism in the world, but still manage to be here.

I know what it’s like to hate everything about yourself. I know what it’s like to pray to Hashem, my G-d, to make me like everyone else. I know what it’s like to have my own relatives make excuses for my racial identity. I know what it’s like to stand out, and to be the outcasted other. I know what it’s like to hear your closets friends make slurs and remarks that could kill, about who you are. I know what it’s like to want to run and hide from the world.

But I also know what it’s like to discover that all of that gave me the strength I needed to share this with you.

Now, I smile at the reflection in the mirror. Now, I thank G-d everyday for making me who I am. Now, I couldn’t wish to be anything less than what I am. And now I pray, in the words of my Hebrew brothers and sisters.

ברוך אתה ה’ אלוקנו מלך העולם שעשני כרצונו   Baruch Atah Adonai, Alohaynu melech Ha’Olam, sha-asani keertsono. Blessed are you Lord our G-d, king of the universe, who made me according to his will.

ותודה לה’ שנתת לי כוח V’ Todah L’Hashem shenatata li koach.

And thank you G-d for giving me strength.

Posted on February 3, 2015

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

The World of Jewish Music

worldThere is a myth that Jewish music is “always in a minor key,” and often echoes themes of pieces like “Hava Nagila” and “Kol Nidrei.” So last spring when I met with Judi Lamble, the coordinator and Michael Olsen, the conductor of the Twin Cities Jewish Choral, we knew that a global Jewish music concert was the best way to debunk the myth!

Because Jews have settled in countries around the world throughout history and have adopted the sounds, tastes and customs of their host countries, our music has often taken on the styles of the countries we have lived in.  So it is not unusual to have a Jewish folk song that sounds like a Yugoslavian dance, a “L’cha Dodi” that rocks to an African beat, or a love song written in Ladino, which grew out of Medieval Spanish.

When I was in my first year of cantorial school in Jerusalem, Eli Schleiffer, the director of the cantorial program, took us to Shabbat evening services in different synagogues every few weeks.  Afterwards, we would gather in someone’s home for Shabbat dinner, and Cantor Schleiffer would lead Kiddush in the musical style of the synagogue we’d just visited!  I was astounded that the same text could be sung to so many different tunes, and thus was born my fascination with Jewish music from around the world.  I loved that we had this treasure trove of wildly varied music that we could call ours.

This intrigue led me to write my senior cantorial thesis, accompanied by a recital of the same theme, about Sephardic wedding music. Under this one umbrella, I was able to write about and sing music from Greece, Morocco, Spain and Yugoslavia.  I was even able to study directly with Flory Jagoda, a Bosnian Jewish living legend, who has perpetuated a centuries-old tradition by writing new Sephardic music including “Ocho Kandelikas,” a well-known Hanukkah song.

So when I had an opportunity to plan a concert with another choir, I mentioned the possibility of featuring Jewish music from around the world.  The idea was met with great enthusiasm.  Our children’s and teen choirs are deep into rehearsing a Yiddish song, a Sufi-tuned “Hinei Mah Tov,” a Ladino children’s song, and a psalm from Calcutta.  I am proud to pass along the chain of Jewish tradition that has so many interesting links, and the kids love it.  Our adult choir, along with the Twin Cities Jewish Chorale is learning a choral arrangement of “Ocho Kandelikas,” a Ugandan “Hinei Mah Tov,” and, of course, some Israeli music.

I look forward to presenting this concert in our sanctuary, designed by the German Jewish architect, Erich Mendelsohn for a then Classical Reform American synagogue that now features Jewish music from around the globe and throughout history.  I know there will be much interest, many surprises and, hopefully, a lot of questions.

Posted on January 22, 2015

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 Big Happy Greek-Ashkenazi Family

GreekWeddingA2When I was in Israel this fall, I ended up going to a Sephardic synagogue one Shabbat morning, and served as the impromptu teacher for the rest of my group who very clearly had never been to a non-Ashkenazic synagogue and were unfamiliar with the unique and different customs, tunes, and liturgical readings that came along with the shul. The following Shabbat, I found myself in a traditional Ashkenazi shul, like any you would find here in the US, and was fully able to participate in the davening (prayer). I was able to successfully pass in both communities.

In reflecting on my experiences, I was reminded of a line that I heard from time to time growing up, “so your dad is Greek and your mom’s Jewish,” an assumption that was wholly incorrect. I am the product of an intermarriage of sorts, but not the kind you’re probably thinking of. My mother’s family hails from various parts of Eastern Europe, and my dad’s family comes from Greece, and all sides of my family are historically Jewish. When I explain this, I usually get the line, “so then that makes you Sephardic right?” Not exactly. The Greek Jews that I descend from are called Romaniote, with a history in Greece dating back to Roman times. According to the legend, when the Romans were sending slave ships back to Rome after the destruction of the Second Temple (so around 70-80 CE), one of the ships hit some sort of rock and was sinking. The captain of the ship let the slaves free, saying if they could swim to shore, they were free to go. They ended up coming ashore on the coast of Greece, and thus followed thousands of years of history, unique liturgy, tunes, and foods.

As I have set out on my own, apart from my parents, I have come to realize that I have a foot in both worlds, but at the same time, in neither. During Barak Obama’s first presidential campaign, I remember seeing a news talk show talking about how he was too Black for white people and too white for Black people, and feeling a sense of “that’s how I feel too,” everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Don’t get me wrong, I have an amazing family and wouldn’t change them for the world, but each time someone says “so you’re half Jewish,” or in the Greek world jokes that I’m not “fully or really” Greek, it feels like a punch to the gut.

leeks1I grew up on matzah ball soup, but also on prassa keftedes, a Greek food made of leeks, onions, scallions, and spices all shredded, mixed together, and fried in small patties (think potato latkes, but sub leeks for potatoes). I am reminded of a story I heard countless times growing up. My mom and her parents were invited by her fiancé (my dad) to his family’s seder, replete with Greek tunes and customs. Out came the meal, and my maternal grandmother was shocked and confused to see what looked like mini hamburgers that looked extra well done. Little did she realize that these were leek patties, something that she would enjoy for years to come. Fast forward about 25 years to the first year I was married and we had all the sides of our family over for an all-encompassing seder, replete with all the trimmings, both Greek and Ashkenaz. Sure enough, when we went to serve the soup course of matzah ball soup, members of my Greek family looked puzzled and asked what it was, since it was a food that they were unfamiliar with.

Unlike the questions from strangers that felt intrusive, the questions posed by my grandparents felt welcome. They came from a place of love and relationship not random curiosity. My personal Jewish story is unique, like so many American Jewish stories. I don’t want to be treated like an exhibition in a museum and have people prey and prod. Rather I welcome opportunities to share my story and my unique Jewish knowledge, like I did in Jerusalem. It is my hope that we can change the conversation from one of “how you are Jewish?” to one of “I’d love to hear about your Jewish experience.”

Praso Keftethes -Leek Patties

recipe2

The handwritten original, stains and all.

4 bunches of leeks
3 medium onions
1 tablespoon parsley (dry)
1 tablespoon dill (dry)
1 egg
¼ cup matzo meal
½ pound ground meat Optional
Oil for frying
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

Cut off the heads and ends of leeks leaving only about an inch of the green.
Slice each leek length wise and then into three pieces.
Rinse well in cold water to ensure that all the sand is removed.
Boil until very soft.
Remove from water but leave water boiling for other onions.
Drain well in colander and squeeze until as much excess liquid is possible is removed.
Finely chop with meat cleaver or food processor until all are finely chopped and a little wet.
Put leeks in mixing bowl.
Chop onions and put into pot to boil until soft and translucent.
Drain onions in colander.
Add parsley, dill, egg, matzo meal, salt and pepper. Optional ground meat can be added at this point as well.
Mix well then form into 2-inch patties.
Heat about ½ inch of oil in a pan.
Fry patties until crusty and very dark brown almost burnt.

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Posted on January 20, 2015

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

We Need More than a Sneeze

sneeze2Before attaining my Master of Social Work, I had the honor of helping many sick people live out their final months comfortable in hospice. Clients passed away, loved ones wailed as the coffin is lowered, and me, the social work intern, was left to support, love, guide, facilitate. Out of all of the things I have learned (so far) in this capacity, the most compelling is that the fragility of life calls to the healthy to breathe deeply, laugh loudly. Let the sobriety of personal grit and ambition keep you sensitive to what life has in store for you.

Easier said than done.

Regardless of age, the thought that lays at the base and forefront of most human consciousness is the uncertainty as to what will become of our existence. A person may be an established teacher, CEO or other sorts of professionals, and may have eloquent and intellectual capacities, and even have the riches of a king but no matter what they achieve, each and every person carries an unknown fate – we do not know when we will die. The billions of eulogies throughout world history cause the same emotional response in the listeners. As the deceased is lowered in the ground, we wonder, “what will become of me?”

In this week’s Torah portion we learn about the death of Jacob and then his son Joseph: the two individuals whose stories engage nearly half the book of Genesis, and whose blood lines ultimately establish the Jewish people as a nation. Jacob’s death was no happenstance. Jacob awaited to see his son Joseph and his brothers, though in a foreign land, together again.

The Talmud (Bava Metzia 87a) teaches that before Jacob, there was no illness to indicate death was imminent. Death was sudden. A person would sneeze, and his soul would depart. Jacob prayed for sickness so that there would be a sign for the individual, so s/he could properly prepare a will for his offspring and bid farewell to the physical realm systematically. As the Torah tells us in Genesis 48:1, “And it was, after many things transpired, he said to Joseph ‘behold your father is ill.’ He took his two sons, Ephraim and Menasheh with him (to be blessed).” Illness provided Jacob time to say his good byes and bestow blessings.

Death is inescapable, and happens to each person regardless of financial status, skin-color or political party. We cannot pray for immortality, but there is something worth praying for! We can pray for the gift of time-consciousness, the living reminder to bless, feel blessed, and be blessed. We can pray for that inner voice to remind us periodically, that health is a privilege not a guarantee. We should take the time we have and make the most of it.

“Heal us HaShem and we shall be healed, Save us HaShem and we will be Saved.”

Posted on December 31, 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 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

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

#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

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

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