Maya Angelou was born in St. Louis, but raised in rural Arkansas. She lived many lives in many places, and died peacefully in her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In its memorial to her published this morning, the New York Times hailed Angelou as a “lyrical witness of the Jim Crow South.” She was so much: a Southerner, a traveler, a poet, a dancer, an activist, a leader, a reader, a teacher, a champion. She used her words as a tool to inspire change.
Many of her quotes talk about how we approach service, and how we think about those “in need” in a more human, nuanced way. I chose this quote to think about today:
“My mother said I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and more intelligent than college professors.”
May Maya’s memory be a blessing.
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You might have seen these adorable pictures on our Facebook page of smiling children with a Hamsa in the background. We thought we’d lend a Hamsa—er, hand—and share how we put our class Hamsa together!
First, we discussed the root of the word Hamsa, which shares the three Hebrew letters that can be found in the word Hameish, meaning “five” in Hebrew. A hand has five fingers. We also talked about how we use our hands. In addition to holding or taking something, we give with our hands. In addition to giving things to people, we may consider helping others fulfill their needs.
To better understand what these needs might be, we took some time to consider our own needs. We found that in addition to food, clothing and shelter we all share some universal needs. We pointed out that even the rabbi of a community and the religious school teachers have these needs.
To start, we considered the universal need of belonging, meaning to feel connected to and accepted by others. Each student received a sticky note and was asked to do one of two things. The students could either draw a picture of a situation where they feel a sense of belonging OR they could write a word or sentence that describes how it feels to have the need of belonging fulfilled. The students drew pictures of themselves with people who gave them a strong sense of belonging and wrote what the experience of belonging felt to them. Each student then came up and stuck their sticky to one of five fingers that was labeled belonging. We repeated this part of the activity four times, each time for a different cluster of needs including power, the needs to feel important and respected; security, feeling safe from put-downs and other harm; fun, enjoyment of life; and freedom, the ability to make choices.
The students had the chance to talk about when they each felt most content and assured that their needs were met. We talked about what it must feel like not to have some of the needs. If we weren’t having such a great discussion we might have had some time to work on a Hamsa of how we can give to others as they seek to fulfill their universal needs. Instead we brainstormed ways in which we could do something if we notice that someone doesn’t seem to feel like they belong. We could invite them to play with our friends or spend some time talking with them individually.
Please feel free to try this activity in your community and let us know how it goes!
Years ago, one of my high school teachers gave us a hint to help us spell the word “privilege” correctly. She said that it was a privilege, to have two eyes and a leg and the word itself has two “I”s and the word “leg” contained within it. That’s a simple definition of the word, as well as a spelling reminder: not everyone has a whole and healthy body and therefore not everyone has the benefits associated with health. Privilege can seem basic, but it still shouldn’t be taken for granted.
This weekend, there was a lot of discussion about Tal Fortgang’s article, “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege,” in The Princeton Tory.
Tal, a freshman at Princeton University, shared his legacy—a legacy shared by many Jews—of anti-Semitism, persecution and survival.
His point: while he is privileged to have benefited from the support of his ancestors, he is not going to apologize for this privilege because it was the outcome of the sacrifices made by them and on the basis of their “formidable character.”
There is so much that is problematic in his article, which has been both praised and heavily criticized. Not all privilege can be earned simply on the basis of “formidable character.” Reflecting on the spelling lesson, for instance – having the privilege of health is not correlated with formidable character. Similarly, for those Jews who are White, the color of their skin is not a reflection of their hard work. Yet, it is undeniable that sadly, at this point in time, there are benefits that are associated with Whiteness that have nothing to do with character and at the same time, there are White people and people of all races who work very hard and have great character.
But it is the last line of his piece that is particularly striking. “I have checked my privilege. And, I apologize for nothing.”
My response: “Who asked you to apologize?”
Asking someone to check their privilege doesn’t necessitate that the person apologize for having privilege. Instead, it is asking one to be aware that not everyone shares that privilege and therefore it might be worthwhile to find ways in which people who don’t share that same privilege can experience some of the benefits associated with the privilege. In other words, recognize that you have something others do not have.
Why is that so much to ask? The consequences of reflecting upon your privilege only helps a person appreciate the challenges others face to achieve similar benefits and find opportunities to minimize some of the barriers that make these benefits less accessible to people who do not share some of the privileges we have.
I believe that Judaism, the legacy Tal and I share, teaches empathy. We can learn empathy from Jewish liturgy, from Jewish history and from present day Jewish experiences. The Jewish story teaches us what happens when people don’t “check their privilege.” For many of those who persecuted Jews, they were privileged in the sense that they were a part of a majority and the Jews were a less privileged minority. Would persecution have been impacted if these majorities “checked their privilege?” I don’t have the answer to that question. But, I would argue that it is critical to empathize with people who do not share the privileges we have. As people who have seen the consequences of a privileged majority and oppressed minorities, I will posit that part of our legacy is to constantly check our privilege, to ensure that we handle it responsibly.
Maybe it could even be thought of as a modern mitzvah. Not simply a good deed, but literally an obligation.
In conclusion, may I suggest an alternative ending to an opinion piece on this topic?
I am thankful for the many privileges I have, among them, good health and a legacy of empathy and survival. I wish that everyone could say the same and I hope that I continue to check my privilege.
What do you think?
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