“In the Nazi concentration camps of Germany people had seen the end results of racism.”- Lee Lorch to New York Times interviewer William Kelly
As a recently returned WWII veteran, Lee Lorch was in need of a place to live. Like many other veterans, Lorch and his family moved into Stuyvesant Town, a housing development in Manhattan.
Lorch was lucky enough to be a prime housing candidate for this development, as he was recently quoted as saying in a New York Times tribute, “A steady job, college teacher and all that. And, not black.”
Lorch, who identified as Jewish, joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the American Jewish Congress, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in many efforts, and even one failed lawsuit, to rectify the wrongs wrought by housing discrimination.
Because of his role as a civil rights activist and his suspected involvement with the Communist party, Lorch was forced to leave three teaching positions at three different academic institutions, two of which were historically black colleges in the South (one in Tennessee and one in Arkansas).
Lorch died recently at ninety-eight, professing his unfaltering belief that he had done the right thing, only wishing he could have done more, until the very end. You can read his obituary in the New York Times here.
As a non-Jew, I find the role his Jewish identity and the role of the American Jewish Congress in fighting housing discrimination based on race fascinating and captivating, particularly because the white Christian community was not particularly involved with this struggle at the time. In fact, many Christian organizations (the Ku Klux Klan comes to mind) actively fought, often times violently, for oppression.
As a person who grew up a white Christian and still ascribes to a particular type of Christian spirituality, I consider it of utmost importance to examine the dark parts of the religion, not only in its history, but also in modern times. As LexRofes mentioned in his most recent blog post, Senate Bill 2681 is being fought for in Mississippi. This bill legalizes discrimination under the guise of religious freedom. As Lex reflects upon how his Jewish identity calls for him to reject this bill due, in particular, to the negative implications it might have for the LGBT community, I would like to call upon how my Christian identity also calls me to do so.
Fundamentalist Christians are notorious for preaching discrimination and oppression for and against people groups they consider different from themselves. Citing ancient and out of context passages from the Bible, they conjure images of fire and brimstone and promise that homosexuality is abhorred by god. The infamous Westboro Baptist Church is almost entirely built upon their motto: “God hates fags.”
I find it incredibly embarrassing that I even in name share a religious identity with this church. My understanding of the teachings of Jesus are so deeply steeped in love that it is completely impossible for me to understand how people can call themselves Christians and yet act so hateful, so un-Christ-like. Coming from a Christian perspective, I beg the leaders in Mississippi government, most of whom identify as Christian, to consider Christianity’s in part discriminatory past and not allow history to repeat itself.
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I’d like to preface today’s post by saying that while I *wish* this were some sort of April Fool’s Day joke, it is not.
A friend just sent me this article about a controversial art installation in Germany. In this installation, now informally dubbed “Jew in a Box,” visitors can see, encased in glass, a living person of Jewish descent. They can ask that person questions about what it’s like to be a Jew in Germany, about Jewish beliefs – anything they have ever wanted to ask a Jewish person, they can pose the question to a Jew in a box.
When my friend (who is not Jewish) sent me this article, her email asked me just one question: “How do you feel about this?”
My immediate response to her, after reading the article, was “SO FREAKING WEIRD.”
There is something deeply unsettling to me about this exhibit – this stark presentation of “us” and “them”; a venue where people are literally put in boxes. I read the curator’s rationale, about how this will catch folks’ attention, and be in their face, and give Germans a chance to interact with a real, live Jew.
But is this the sort of interaction we want?
Why not actual interaction? Something more organic, and less disparate? Jewish docents, perhaps? Moderated conversations? An exchange, even if it’s still in-your-face? As an educator, it seems counter-intuitive to me to humanize someone, or some group, by putting an actual wall between people. It seems to me that this does not emphasize unique-ness, but other-ness. And isn’t that the problem Germany is still painfully recovering from, decades later?
I also had to wonder why on earth someone would get in the box. Who would volunteer? Luckily, the article covers this, with a volunteer Jew-in-a-box describing why he is participating in the installation:
“With so few of us, you almost inevitably feel like an exhibition piece,” volunteer Leeor Englander said. “Once you’ve been `outed’ as a Jew, you always have to be the expert and answer all questions regarding anything related to religion, Israel, the Holocaust and so on.”
I considered this. After all, I live in Jackson, Mississippi. I have been several people’s FJF (First Jewish Friend, y’all). I’ve had to answer questions about Jewish culture and religion, although I’m quick to point out that I can’t speak for all Jews. In other words, yes. I do understand what it’s like to feel ‘outed’ as a Jew in a place where we are so few. I do understand what it means to “feel inevitably like an exhibition piece,” as the installation volunteer puts it – but that doesn’t mean I would want to actually be an exhibition piece.
Still – this exhibition is resonating with some folks, even as it irks others. And here’s the real kicker, in case you didn’t already click on the link and read the whole article already – what museum is hosting this exhibit?
The Jewish Museum. And the curator, Miriam Goldmann, is Jewish.
By the way, the actual name of the exhibit is “The Whole Truth: Everything you always wanted to know about Jews,” and in addition to live people in boxes, it includes installation such as a wall posing the question How Can You Recognize a Jew?, with hats and yarmulkes and “traditional Jewish garb” on display in front of the wall.
The whole truth? How can you recognize a Jew? It reminds me of the last time I went to a zoo, and the various species of birds and monkeys were being described. The more I read about it and the more I thought about it, the more my initial reaction seems to sum it up: SO. FREAKING. WEIRD.
And more than that – a little frightening.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below…