A dream too far: Lessons from Selma


There is something tragic about the civils rights movement—the very fact that it was needed in the first place. Why did it have to be such a big deal to give Blacks the right to vote? By today’s standards, it seems downright absurd to deny Blacks, or anyone else for that matter, this fundamental right.

It was that simple notion of voting that lingered anxiously in my mind this past Shabbat as I walked for hours through the streets of Selma, Alabama. I was on a Martin Luther King weekend solidarity mission organized by my friend Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, who runs the modern Orthodox Ohev Shalom synagogue in Washington, D.C. A few months ago, at his Shabbat table, Herzfeld invited me join his community for the three-day journey to honor the civil rights movement. Having a teenage daughter who loves any idea that includes the words “social” and “justice,” I signed up for the adventure.

Among the many things we did—including praying in a 117-year-old synagogue in Selma, visiting the home where Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel spent the night before marching with King, and crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge that kicked off that famous five-day march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965—I think what stuck with me the most was that long afternoon walking with my daughter through the decaying town of Selma.

Two ideas clashed during our walk—hope versus despair. In a museum, I would see words of hope from heroic quotes such as this one, from President Lyndon Johnson in 1965:

“The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.”

This is the part of Selma that reminds you of how oppressive things used to be during the days of segregation, when Blacks could not even pull up at an ice cream counter or register to vote.

But as we walked through streets with abandoned buildings and broken down homes, with one storefront after another peddling “pay day loans” and a boarded-up building with an old “Rite-Aid” sign, I couldn’t help thinking about the limits of Johnson’s “most powerful instrument ever devised by man.”

What good is the powerful freedom to vote if you’re living in a place that feels like an enormous prison with a Walmart?

What good is the right to pick your political leaders if those leaders keep betraying you?

President Johnson saw this coming in his 1965 speech, which is why he challenged Black leadership to move beyond the success of the civil rights movement:

“This act is not only a victory for Negro leadership. This act is a great challenge to that leadership. It is a challenge that cannot be met simply by protest and demonstrations.”

When you see the sad state of Selma today, it’s hard not to conclude that this town of 20,000 mostly Black residents is in need of strong leadership– at the local, state and federal levels.

One of the few remaining Jews in Selma shared some candid thoughts with me about how Selma is often used by political leaders at all levels for “photo-opportunities”— to burnish their street cred for fighting for Black rights.

Fighting for “rights,” though, doesn’t seem to be the dream of the day in Selma. They have every right to walk into a movie theater, but the theater burned down years ago and was never replaced. They have every right to vote for the candidate of their choice, but their lives are as miserable as ever.

No, the dream I saw as I walked through Selma on Shabbat was the dream to make a decent living and put those “pay-day loans” hustlers out of business. 

We saw a ray of hope at our Shabbat dinner Friday night. His name is Darrio Melton, the young new Black mayor of Selma. If he takes his job as seriously as he takes his city, there is hope. “Selma is the birthplace of American democracy,” he told us, meaning that until Blacks got their civil rights, America could not claim to be a real democracy. 

In speaking with us, both publicly and in private, it was clear that Melton would love nothing more than to attract more visitors to his little town. Maybe that’s why his key campaign promise was to address the city’s current crime problem. He understands that no city can succeed and attract jobs and businesses until it makes it safe to do so. 

Melton has benefitted from the Black right to vote. If he fails to deliver on his promises, he will diminish the power of this basic right. But if he does deliver, he will honor the “most powerful instrument ever devised by man” and the many who were forced to fight for something they should never have had to fight for.

How do we regain black-Jewish love?


Of all the complicated issues running through American Jewish life, one of the most complicated is surely the relationship between Jews and African-Americans, which has frayed in recent years. A key question for both communities as we go forward is: How can we inject more love into the relationship?

There were times when the two communities were a lot closer. As Michelle Boorstein wrote in 2013 in the Washington Post, “Jews were extremely active in the civil rights movement, and they played a role that was especially remarkable in light of their making up such a small part of the nation’s population.”

Unfortunately, the good vibes of the ’60s didn’t last. By the 1980s and 1990s, the relationship was “strained by such points of contention as the opposition of some Jewish leaders to affirmative action and anti-Jewish comments made by black leaders Jesse L. Jackson and Louis Farrakhan.” More recently, the division over controversial Israeli policies has frayed the relationship even further.

There are also elephants in the room no one likes to talk about, like vestiges of racism and anti-Semitism. And let’s face it, as Jews became more and more successful, it became harder and harder to identify with oppressed minorities.

Like I said, complicated.

But I found a ray of hope last Saturday night at a movie screening dedicated to Black History Month. Hosted by the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue, which houses the Malibu Film Society, an ethnically mixed audience of about 300 watched a 40-minute excerpt of an unfinished documentary produced by Spill the Honey, a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening the ties between the two groups, titled “Shared Legacies: Honoring the Jewish/Black Civil Rights Alliance.”

The film chronicles the intense bond between Jewish and Black activists during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. But the heart of the film is the deep affection between two giants, Martin Luther King Jr and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who famously marched together in 1963 during a civil rights march in Selma, Ala.

As much as I value complexity, what moved me most about the film was that it honored morality and holiness. King and Heschel were brothers bonding over a common cause. There was no agonizing. There was no doubt. There was no hesitation in their compulsion to fight for justice.

This sense of moral clarity and brotherly love came through in a panel after the screening that featured actor Louis Gossett Jr., Boston University professor Hillel Levine, King confidant Clarence B. Jones and Dartmouth professor Susannah Heschel, daughter of Rabbi Heschel.

Maybe it was the moonlight drive along the coast that put me in a wistful mood, but as I drove home, I couldn’t help but wonder: “How can we get this Black-Jewish love back?”

It was something Susannah Heschel said to me over the phone a few days later that got me thinking.

“Martin Luther King made the Hebrew Bible central to his civil rights activism,” she told me. “This brought tremendous pride to Jews. Here was the most important moral movement of the century, and King put our holy book at the very center.”

Her subtle point was that the relationship was a two-way street. As much as Jews honored Blacks by fighting for their rights, King honored Jews by elevating their holy story.

I found in her answer a sign of how Jews can bring more love to our relationship with the African-American community: We can show them we need them as much as they need us.

It was Rabbi Heschel himself who said that one of the greatest human needs is to feel needed. His great insight is that making people feel needed is an expression of the deepest love.

As much as Jews must do more soul-searching and increase our fight for economic justice for Blacks, we must also embrace areas where Blacks can help us– such as, for example, in the area of prayer.

“My father once said that hope for the future of Judaism in America lies with Black churches,” Heschel told me. “Their prayers reminded him of Chassidic shtibls. There is a passion of praying to God, of wanting to be heard by God.”

What a powerful thought: Blacks teaching Jews how to pray with more love and more passion. Maybe someone should start a Black-Jewish Prayer Alliance, where Jews of all denominations would regularly visit Black churches to feel the passion that so inspired Rabbi Heschel.

None of this will eradicate the dark impulses of racism and anti-Semitism. But if there’s one thing Jews need, it is for God to hear our prayers. If our Black brothers and sisters can show us the way, well, that’s a dream worth having.

The original Rachel Dolezal was a Jew named Mezz Mezirow


[Forward] As we all know, Rachel Dolezal was by no means the first white American to take on aspects of African-Americanness in her persona — calling Elvis, is anybody home? — although she will go down in history as one of the all-time champions of the syndrome based on the sheer chutzpahdik of her transformation. But blackness has always been an integral part of American identity, and has only grown more so with the passage of time (think of white-rap pop star Eminem and black President of the United States Barack Obama for two recent mirror-image examples), so that for any American, it’s nearly impossible not to take on some degree of Afritude without even trying.

Read about Mezz Mezzrow, the original Rachel Dolezal, here.

NAACP official who resigned says she identifies as black

Rachel Dolezal, right, is interviewed by host Matt Lauer on the NBC News “TODAY” show in New York on June 16. Photo by NBC News' TODAY show/Anthony Quintano/Handout via Reuters

[Reuters] Washington state civil rights advocate Rachel Dolezal, who has been accused of falsely claiming she is African-American, said on Tuesday she identifies as black and has been doing so since she was 5 years of age.

Dolezal, in an interview on NBC's “Today” television show, said a major shift in her identity came when she was doing human rights work in Idaho and newspaper stories described her as transracial, biracial and black.

“I never corrected that,” she said, “… because it's more complex than being true or false in that particular instance.”

Dolezal, 37, who grew up with adopted black siblings, resigned on Monday as president of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a leading U.S. civil rights organization, amid reports that her parents are white.

Her own concept of her race began when she was 5 years old, Dolezal said.

“I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon and the black curly hair,” she said.

Shown a photograph of herself as a teenager with fair complexion and blond hair in the TV interview, Dolezal said, “I would say that visibly she would be identified as white by people who see her.”

Dolezal took issue with critics who have said that by presenting herself as African-American, she was putting on a black-face performance – an outdated act in which white actors used makeup to portray black stereotypes.

“I have a huge issue with black-face,” she said. “This is not some freak … mockery black-face performance. This is on a very real, connected level. I've actually had to go there with the experience.”

Dolezal had represented Albert Wilkinson, a black man she worked with in Idaho, as her father and she said they had a family-level connection, according to media reports.

“Albert Wilkinson is my dad,” Dolezal said. “Any man can be a father. Not every man can be a dad.”

Dolezal said her two sons, who are black, had been supportive of her identity.

“I actually was talking to one of my sons yesterday,” she said. “He said, 'Mom, racially, you're human and culturally you're black.”

Incoming councilwoman: Knockout attacks may be caused by black-Jewish tension


An incoming New York City councilwoman said the wave of so-called knockout attacks may be caused by tension between blacks and Jews.

Councilwoman-elect Laurie Cumbo, who was elected to represent the Crown Heights neighborhood and will take office next month, made the statement in a Facebook post on Tuesday calling for a zero-tolerance policy toward the “knockout game” and for strengthening the relationship between African-Americans and Jews.

In the game, attackers try to knock out someone with one punch. At least ten such attacks have taken place in the Brooklyn borough of New York City since September, most directed at identifiably Jewish people, according to reports.

Cumbo said that she had many discussions with local residents during the primary season and that “many African American/Caribbean residents expressed a genuine concern that as the Jewish community continues to grow, they would be pushed out by their Jewish landlords or by Jewish families looking to purchase homes.”

The councilwoman-elect said she did not mean to bring up the issue “as an insult to the Jewish community, but rather to offer possible insight as to how young African American/Caribbean teens could conceivably commit a ‘hate crime’ against a community that they know very little about.”

Cumbo stressed her admiration for the Jewish community. However, she added, “I also recognize that for others, the accomplishments of the Jewish community triggers feelings of resentment, and a sense that Jewish success is not also their success.”

She called for the communities to “gain a greater understanding of one another so that we can learn more about each other’s challenges and triumphs despite religious and cultural differences.”

Cumbo called for a detailed investigation of the knockout attacks, leading to “arrests and legal action.”

“If one person attacks another, regardless of the motivation, there is no justification for such an action,” she wrote.

Jewish leaders reportedly criticized Cumbo for her assertations.

The Anti-Defamation League said that Cumbo’s statement “evokes classic anti-Semitic stereotypes.”

“As an organization that has worked for more than 20 years to improve Black-Jewish relations in the aftermath of the Crown Heights riots, we are troubled by the incoming councilwoman’s sentiments, particularly her comment about resentment over Jewish economic success, which evokes classic anti-Semitic stereotypes,” New York Regional Director Evan Bernstein said in a statement.

Other incidents of knockout attacks have occurred in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., The Associated Press reported.

Black students group slams ‘apartheid’ abuse


An African American students group took out ads in college newspapers blasting “Israel Apartheid week” organizers for abusing the term.

In a full page entitled “words matter” and appearing in the newspapers on April 7, Vanguard Leadership Group accuses Students for Justice in Palestine of a “false and deeply offensive” characterization of Israel.

“SJP has chosen to manipulate rather than inform with this illegitimate analogy,” Vanguard says in the ad, signed by its members attending a number of historically black colleges. “We request that you immediately stop referring to Israel as an apartheid society and to acknowledge that the Arab minority in Israel enjoys full citizenship with voting rights and representation in the government.”

The ad appeared in newspapers on campuses that saw “Israel Apartheid Week” activity in February, including Brown University, the University of California-Los Angeles, Columbia and the University of Maryland.

Vanguard, a leadership development group for students from historically black universities, has in recent years forged ties with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its members have visited Israel.

Farrakhan appearance dividing Pittsburgh’s black, Jewish communities


A planned appearance by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan in Pittsburgh has caused friction between the city’s Jewish and black communities.

Farrakhan, who has stepped up his campaign of anti-Semitism in recent years, is scheduled to appear on a panel Friday on a live radio broadcast from the Pennsylvania city.

Bev Smith, who hosts a nationally syndicated radio show, blamed Jewish and white Christian organizations for the withdrawal of a panel member.

Melanie Campbell, CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, withdrew from the panel, which includes Farrakhan and U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.)

In an editorial posted on its website last week criticizing the decision to include Farrakhan in the program, the second in a series of programs about challenges facing predominantly black communities, the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle wrote that “We’re disappointed that Farrakhan will appear at so prestigious a Pittsburgh cultural address, but when the program ends, nothing will change. Blacks and Jews are still two people forged by similar experiences and the same dreams.”

Smith said the Jewish Chronicle has made her “outraged” that “efforts to talk to people we feel are relevant to our community is an offense against the Jewish community,” according to the Jewish weekly.

 

First black female rabbi to leave congregation


The first African-American female rabbi will leave her congregation this summer.

Rabbi Alysa Stanton’s contract with Congregation Bayt Shalom in Greenville, S.C., was not renewed, the Forward reported Thursday.

“We felt Rabbi Stanton has brought a lot of gifts to the congregation, but we felt she wasn’t a good fit for the direction we’re going,” board president Samantha Pilot told the Forward. “I can tell you with certainty that race—I never heard that come up once during her tenure or now. It’s a non-issue.”

Bayt Shalom is a small Conservative congregation that also is affiliated with the Reform movement.

Stanton said she will serve out her contract, which expires at the end of July.

Stanton, 47, a convert and mother to an adopted teenage daughter, was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in June 2009, and took up her full-time pulpit shortly thereafter.

The former Pentecostal Christian converted 20 years ago while in college. She is a trained psychotherapist who specializes in trauma and grief.

Jackie Mason Calls Obama the ‘SCH’-word


NEW YORK (JTA)—Comedian Jackie Mason called President Obama a “schvartze” during a performance in New York, angering some audience members.

The Web site TMZ reported Sunday that Mason used the term, which means “black” in Yiddish but is considered derogatory by some, during a performance at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency in New York City on March 12.

TMZ quoted one audience member as saying, “He’s more offensive to the Jews than Madoff tonight.”

“I’m an old Jew. I was raised in a Jewish family where ‘schvartze’ was used,” Mason told TMZ. “It’s not a demeaning word and I’m not going to defend myself.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton reminded TMZ that in 1991, Mason apologized for calling then-New York mayoral candidate David Dinkins “a fancy schvartze with a mustache.”

“At this stage in Jackie’s life and career, he should get our prayers more than our responses,” Sharpton told TMZ Sunday.

It can’t happen here


A coalition of black and Mormon leaders have begun laying the groundwork for a 2012 California ballot initiative that would ban Jews from marrying Jews.

Flush from the passage of Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in the state, the leaders say they want to extend the ban to Jews whose emphasis on in-marriage, they say, contravenes Scripture and promotes intolerance and segregation.

“In-marriage is against Scripture,” said one organizer. “We are all God’s children. It sends a message that one group’s blood is too good to mix with another group’s blood.”

“What are we,” the organizer added, “chopped liver?”

Defending what is bound to be a controversial measure, the organizer said strong support for the passage of Proposition 8 in the black, Latino and Mormon religious communities proved that, in four years, more “so-called civil rights” could be reshaped by popular will.

As evidence, he cited pro-Proposition 8 statements from Dr. Frederick K.C. Price, who leads the 22,000-member Crenshaw Christian Center.

“Marriage is between a man and a woman,” said Price on behalf of Proposition 8. “Let us stand with God in saying the definition of marriage must not change.”

At the urging of their church leaders, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also called the Mormon Church, donated an estimated $22 million to promote Proposition 8 and backed Web sites urging voters to support it.

A letter sent to Mormon bishops and signed by church President Thomas S. Monson and his two top counselors called on Mormons to donate “means and time” to the ballot measure.

“Marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God, and the formation of families is central to the Creator’s plan for His children,” Monson wrote.

The authors of the anti-Jewish marriage initiative say when leaders believe they have Scripture on their side, they can get their followers to fix any flaws in any constitution.

“People choose to remain gay, and people choose to remain Jewish,” said an organizer. “Why should the majority of us be forced to honor that choice?”

The Jewish prohibition against intermarriage is commonly attributed to a biblical passage, Deuteronomy 7:3: “Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son.”

But one church leader said they have an entirely different interpretation of this passage.

“It only applies to Hitties and Amorites,” he said, “and I don’t see a lot of them around.”

By his calculation, the Torah only prohibits intermarriage if the children that result from such a union are turned away from their Jewish faith.

“Moses married Tziporra, who was the daughter of a Midianite priest,” said the preacher. “Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David, was a convert. Queen Esther, who saved the Jews from Haman in the Purim story, was married to the Persian, non-Jewish King Ahashverus.”

“Don’t tell me the Bible doesn’t understand intermarriage.”

Asked whether he wasn’t simply asking voters to impose their interpretation of the Bible on a minority group, one black church leader countered, “Well, what do you think we did with Proposition 8?”

The organizer admitted that the initiative to ban Jewish-Jewish marriage was the first step toward other initiatives to ban kosher slaughter and ritual circumcision, two widespread Jewish practices that the Christian gospel does not follow.

Defending this plan, one organizer cited Pastor Beverly Crawford of Bible Enrichment Fellowship International’s defense of her support for Proposition 8: She wasn’t saying no to gays, she told the press, but “yes to God” and doing what “the Lord Jesus Christ” would do.

“We think the same rule should apply to all laws, not just marriage laws,” said one organizer. “We’re not saying no to Jews. We’re saying yes to Jesus.”

Organizers know they will face a tough battle — but just among Jews. Some 78 percent of Jewish voters in Los Angeles opposed the ban on gay marriage, and just 8 percent supported Proposition 8, according to exit polling by the Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.

Meanwhile, a relative handful of Mormon, black and Catholic leaders stood against their churches on Proposition 8. Contacted by The Journal, these leaders said their position was rooted in Scripture and the principle of the separation of church and state. They said they hoped their small example would convince more of their church members to oppose future attempts to curtail civil rights.

But Proposition 8’s supporters said they feel the wind at their backs, and they are going forward with their next initiative. Asked how he could possibly succeed in denying the civil rights of a minority based on one narrow interpretation of the Bible, one organizer summed up the feelings of the Jewish-Jewish marriage opponents.

“We did it once,” he said. “We can do it again.”



Yes, this is satire. No such proposition is in the works, or even a gleam in any group’s eye. The Jews have not been singled out for discrimination, just homosexuals. So why worry?




Frank Zappa/The Mothers of Invention: ‘It can’t happen here!’

Turning a page in the history books


But he’s a Muslim!


It made me think of my own family.

Having coined “O’Bama” for the Irish working-class values that Joe Biden brings to the Democratic ticket, MSNBC motormouth Chris Matthews called his family in Pennsylvania — where Scranton-born Biden is known as the state’s “third senator” in some quarters — to ask whether now they’d be voting for Obama.

“But he’s a Muslim!” That’s the reply Matthews told his viewers he got.

The Matthews clan is not alone. Going into the Democratic National Convention, depending on which poll you read, somewhere between 10 percent and 15 percent of American voters thought that Obama is a Muslim. A Newsweek poll found that 26 percent thought he was raised as a Muslim (untrue), and 39 percent thought he grew up going to an Islamic school in Indonesia (also untrue).

I’m not shocked by Americans’ ability to think untrue things. After all, under the relentless tutelage of the Bush Administration and its media enablers, nearly 70 percent of the country thought that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in planning the Sept. 11 attack.

In fact, if you told me that double-digit percentages of voters believe that Jewish workers were warned to stay home on Sept. 11, or that the American landing on the moon was faked, or that every one of the words of the Bible is literally and absolutely true, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. It might make me think about the downsides of universal suffrage, the challenges facing public education, the limitations of “fact-checking” as a corrective to Swiftboating, the coarsening of public discourse, the devolution of news into entertainment, the risks to democracy of Rovian demagoguery — stuff like that — but it wouldn’t make me question the methodology of the polls.

On the other hand, “But-he’s-a-Muslim!” does raise the issue of whether people lie to pollsters when they’re embarrassed to say what they really think. This argument — called “the Bradley effect,” after the Election Day disappearance of the lead that Los Angeles’ African-American mayor, Tom Bradley, had held until then in the gubernatorial campaign — says that the percentages that black candidates get in polls should be discounted by the reluctance of no small number of white voters to admit that race is a factor in their choice.

Race, of course, is already an issue in this presidential election, though it has largely been discussed via the proxy issue of ideology — black ideology, and ’60s black ideology in particular. It’s way more comfortable to ask whether the Obamas’ membership in Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s church, and whether the thinking in Michelle Obama’s senior-year college thesis, “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community,” are evidence of their now-concealed belief in black separatism, black power and black liberation theology, than it is to interrogate our nation’s melting-pot self-image, or to figure out why our prison population and our intractable economic underclass are overwhelmingly African-American.

The Muslim issue is a way to talk about race without talking about race, and without having to squirm about saying that race is not an issue. To enough voters that it matters for the outcome of this election, Muslims are as other, if not more so, as blacks. A Muslim running for president of the United States may just as well be the Manchurian Candidate, with al-Qaeda, the Palestinians, the Saudis, your-Islamic-bad-guys’-name-here, playing the role of the brainwashing North Koreans nefariously plotting to plant one of their own in the White House.

It’s entirely conceivable that the McCain campaign’s harping on Obama’s alleged “elitism,” his popularity in foreign crowds, is their way of hitting low notes meant to resonate with his otherness. They can’t very well come out and call him a Muslim or directly question his patriotism in their ads, but when they charge that his foreign policy is a gift to the Iranians, the Russians or the terrorists, they are deploying the same tactic that labeled John Kerry as “French” — that is, as a national of the weasel country that opposed the pre-emptive war in Iraq.

I don’t know whether the family that Chris Matthews comes from, despite their kinship with kitchen-table Catholic Joe Biden, is fastening on “But-he’s-a-Muslim!” as a surrogate for their discomfort with his race; in their case, maybe race plays no part at all. But it does make me wonder what my own parents, may they rest in peace, might be thinking about this election.

Though lifelong Democrats, they were not among the Jews who joined arms with the civil rights movement. Though their relatives were killed by Cossacks just because they were Jews, they saw no irony in judging others just because of their religion or their race. Philip Roth, another kid from the Weequahic section of Newark where I grew up, was reviled for telling goyim about some of the values held in our ‘hood that our clan thought best kept private, so it will come as no surprise, though it is no less discomfiting to recall, that in the four-family houses on the block where I was raised, the word shvartze was not used merely to name a color.

I wonder how my parents would be dealing today with the dilemma I imagine Obama would pose for them. I suspect that the Muslim thing would be weighing as much in their thinking as the black thing. I suspect that my protestations — it is factually untrue that Obama is or was a Muslim — would be met with clucking condescension toward my naivete. For them, in the contest between voting for a Democrat and voting for Obama, I’m pretty sure it would come down to the Is-he-good-for-Israel? thing. And I can’t imagine that the secret-Muslim belief I posthumously, perhaps unfairly, impute to them would make it a no-brainer for them to vote, as they always had done before, a straight Democratic ticket.

If this election remains as tight as it is today, its outcome will once again turn on how the undecideds break. (Yes, there is a chance that an unprecedented youth turnout, or an unprecedented black turnout, or an unprecedented formerly-nonvoter turnout, will change that calculation, but that would be, well, unprecedented.) That same Newsweek poll saying four out of 10 voters believe Obama went to a madrassa also said that 85 percent of undecided voters are non-Hispanic whites and that nearly 80 percent of those undecideds do not have a four-year college degree. In other words, demographically, they’re like my parents. I would like to think that the free press is equal to taking the “But-he’s-a-Muslim!” urban legend off the table for those voters. But if Chris Matthews can’t do that for his own parents, I don’t yet see how that’s going to happen for anyone else.


Marty Kaplan, who worked for several Democratic presidential campaigns, now holds the Norman Lear endowed professorship at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. He blogs @

Being an African American candidate is different


I never imagined that there would be an African American presidential nominee of a major party in my lifetime. Now that the Democrats are on the verge of nominating Sen. Barack Obama, I’m only just beginning to absorb how different it is. Most of what we know about black candidates comes from mayoral races in big cities. Quite a bit of that experience is useful, but some of what we’re experiencing now is uncharted territory.

Since 1968, Republicans have wielded the race card to divide Democrats and elect presidents. From Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy to George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton, Republicans have lovingly cultivated the racial reservations of working-class white Democrats, while at the same time appearing reasonable and above the battle to moderate white voters. The strategy has largely failed with one group of white voters, Jews, who have mostly stayed with the Democratic candidate.

Democratic candidates have struggled to find an approach that will cross racial boundaries and keep African American and white voters in the same tent. Again and again, Republicans have smashed Democrats with unanswered personal attacks on racially and ideologically charged issues.

The most successful Democrat of the era was Bill Clinton. Clinton could speak to hard-edged white audiences and leave them feeling that he understood where they were coming from. He could also deliver an attack against the Republicans without appearing negative. He liked to call his charges “comparative,” rather than negative.

After flirting with an ineffective high-road strategy, Sen. John McCain has now loosed the traditional Republican attack machine. It’s working much better than his original strategy. He managed to inject the race issue into the debate and get Obama blamed for it.

Obama is suddenly in rough waters, with the attacks sticking, his polling dropping and his party worried. McCain is having fun. Nobody is asking him any hard questions anymore about the difference between Shiites and Sunnis or about birth control policy. Now they only ask about his ads, and he’s delighted to talk about them.

Minority candidates especially when they are running for the first time carry the burden of their whole people. When we get to know them better, we are embarrassed by what we initially believed.

How many Angelenos in 1969 decided that Tom Bradley was a closet Black Panther because Sam Yorty said so? How many thought in 2001 that Antonio Villaraigosa was a friend of drug dealers?

Charges stick against Democrats, and they stick like glue to a new minority candidate. How many otherwise attentive and politically informed Jewish voters believe whatever anonymous e-mailers say about Obama, including the false charge that he’s a Muslim?

The question about Obama, one that is of deep concern to anxious Democrats, is whether he is more like those nice Democrats who show up every four years to get their lunch money stolen by the Republicans or like the tougher, quicker Bill Clinton. It’s so utterly obvious that Obama has to get off the defensive and go on the attack that it makes one wonder what’s been taking so long.

The purpose of attacking is not to be negative for its own sake but to recognize that an election is a choice between two paths and two leaders, not just a referendum on whether the Democratic candidate has passed a threshold to replace a discredited administration. An aggressive campaign does not have to be angry or ugly. It can be funny. It can be positive. It just has to be clear, simple and devastating.

But an African American candidacy is different. Obama can’t easily be the racial middleman as Clinton was. And being aggressive carries its own special dynamics. It may be that the timing is different for a black candidate.

First-time black candidates often confront evidence that their attacks on white opponents generate some voter backlash. One possibility is that Obama has been waiting for McCain to show his hand and chose to absorb the first attacks, thereby making it easier for the black candidate to be aggressive. Perhaps he feels that McCain’s harshness will weaken the Republicans among his media worshippers, and some of that has happened.

It’s also possible that the Obama people are only now coming to see that they need to change their strategy. The Obama campaign may be doing what it does magnificently well grass-roots organization and avoiding what it does poorly campaign messaging. His recent burst of ads on energy is a promising beginning.

Obama has a few advantages over African American mayoral candidates. Big- city mayors can’t do much about the economy or the economic needs of working-class whites. The president can do a lot.

Obama can present a strong economic message say by borrowing Sen. Hillary Clinton’s last several months of speeches and pound it home and link President Bush and McCain in the process. He has a whole party of allies, many of whom are white, who can go on the attack for him. Surrogates are far more important for a black candidate, and they can go places and say things that he can’t. He can pick a tough vice presidential candidate.

For all their previous success, Republicans are playing a declining hand by not expanding beyond white voters. Obama’s success with Latinos so far means that the Republicans have no margin for error. Obama will win the overwhelming share of African Americans in a very high turnout.

If Republicans can’t dominate with whites, Obama wins. If Obama can stay above the race issue and win on the economy, he will prevent a wholesale white defection.

With Jewish voters, Obama has to deal with the whole baggage of the complex relationship between African Americans and Jews, a mixture of close alliance and bursts of conflict. That one is still very much a work in progress.

A presidential campaign isn’t a graduate seminar — it’s more like a street fight.

Expect one.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton. Read Sonenshein’s blog on the Jewish vote and the presidential campaign:

Final aliyah flight leaves Ethiopia for Israel, U.S. revokes Fulbright winners’ visas


Last Ethiopian Airlift Heads to Israel

The last official airlift of Ethiopian Jews was scheduled to land in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, bringing to an end a state-organized campaign that began nearly 30 years ago and brought in some 120,000 immigrants from the east African nation.

The Jewish Agency for Israel said its emissary to Addis Ababa had been recalled, though Jerusalem officials could still be sent out to help an estimated 1,400 Ethiopian crypto-Jews, apply to immigrate as part of efforts to reunite them with relatives already in Israel.

“But we will no longer be seeing anything on the scale of Operation Moses or Operation Solomon,” Jewish Agency Chairman Zeev Bielski told Israel Radio, alluding to major missions to bring in Ethiopians by air and sea in the 1980s.

He called on the government to reinvest its energies in helping the Ethiopian community in Israel, many of whose members live in poverty and complain of inadequate social integration.

U.S. Revokes Visas for Palestinian Fulbrights

The United States revoked the entry visas of three Palestinian students who won Fulbright scholarships.

The State Department announced Monday that the three Gazans would not be admitted to the United States after “new information” was received about them. U.S. officials declined to give further details.

In June, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came out in support of the three Fulbright scholars after Israel, citing security concerns, refused to give them permits to leave the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

Four other Palestinians who won Fulbrights were allowed to leave Gaza.

Israel ‘Knows’ Where Shalit Held

Israel knows where Gilad Shalit is being held captive, the Israeli armed forces chief said.

“We know who is holding Shalit, and where,” Israel Radio quoted Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi as saying Monday in an address to new military draftees.

The remarks stirred speculation that Israel could be preparing an operation to rescue Shalit, a tank crewman who was abducted to the Gaza Strip by Hamas-led gunmen in June 2006 and has been kept mostly incommunicado since.

But Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter told the radio station that there has been no change in Israel’s intelligence gathering on Shalit or policy of holding Egyptian-brokered negotiations on his return.

Hamas has demanded that Israel free hundreds of jailed Palestinian terrorists in exchange for Shalit, but Jerusalem has balked at the asymmetry of the proposed swap. Israel Radio quoted Ashkenazi as saying that retrieving Shalit is crucial so that all those serving the Jewish state know they will not be abandoned on the battlefield.

Israeli Family Leaves Girl, 3, at Airport

A 3-year-old girl was found wandering at Ben-Gurion International Airport after the rest of her family boarded a plane to Paris.

Police accompanied the girl to the boarding gate but the plane already had taken off with her parents and four siblings aboard. The girl was flown to Paris later Sunday, and her family met her at the airport.

Police will question the parents upon their return to Israel.

Last week, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that an 8-year-old boy traveling alone was flown by El Al Israel Airlines from Ben-Gurion Airport to Brussels instead of to his destination in Munich.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Student on track to become first black female rabbi


Alysa Stanton-Ogulnick isn’t particularly interested in being a standard-bearer.

She’s proud to be black, proud to be a woman and proud to be a 45-year-old single mother who raised her adopted child on her own.

And when she says that next year, following her ordination as a Reform rabbi, she will become the first black female rabbi, the huge grin on her face lets folks know she feels pretty good about that, too.

But Stanton-Ogulnick, who is studying at the Cincinnati campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), didn’t set out to be the first. It just kind of happened, like so much else in her life.

“If I were the 50,000th, I’d still be doing what I do, trying to live my life with kavanah and kedusha,” she said, using the Hebrew words for intentionality and holiness. “Me being first was just the luck of the draw.”

Stanton-Ogulnick — she’s still getting used to the second part of her hyphenated last name, the product of a recent marriage — was recently in San Francisco for a conference of ethnically and racially diverse Jews and Jewish communities sponsored by Be’chol Lashon, an organization that supports their efforts to enter the Jewish mainstream.

That’s something the future rabbi knows a great deal about — as a woman, as a convert and as a Jew of color. She’s had to fight for success and acceptance in a world that wasn’t always welcoming.

“At this conference there are people from all over looking for their identity,” Stanton-Ogulnick said. “Maybe I can help them on the path by breaking down barriers.”

That’s among her goals as a rabbi, she says: breaking barriers, building bridges and giving hope.

Like many rabbinic students now, Stanton-Ogulnick is on her second career. She came to the rabbinate as a licensed psychotherapist specializing in grief and loss issues.

Stanton-Ogulnick has worked with trauma victims in Colorado for the past 16 years, at the same time becoming more active in Denver’s Temple Emanuel. She has served the synagogue as a para-chaplain, religious-school teacher and cantorial soloist.

Raised by Pentacostal parents, Stanton-Ogulnick spent her childhood and young adulthood as a spiritual seeker, making the rounds of various Christian denominations before finding her home in Judaism. She converted more than 20 years ago.

“People look at me and ask if I was born Jewish,” she said. “I say yes, but not to a Jewish womb. I believe I was at Sinai. It’s not as if one day I scratched my head and said, hmm, now how can I make my life more difficult? I know — I’ll become Jewish!”

Stanton-Ogulnick made her choice to join the Jewish community as an adult, well aware of the difficulties that might arise. Her daughter Shana, now 13, didn’t get to choose; she was dipped in the mikvah (ritual bath) as an infant.

The year they spent in Jerusalem, Stanton-Ogulnick’s first year as an HUC-JIR student, was the most difficult. Shana, then 7, faced daily prejudice at school.

“She was beat up, and once was literally kicked off the bus,” her mother said with quiet anger. “We’d been in Israel three months and her only friend was a cat.”

One day, Shana came home from camp beaming because one of the other children held her hand.

“‘Nobody ever holds my hand, Mommy,’ she said to me,” Stanton-Ogulnick recounted. “I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Because I’m shochor,'” or black.

“Ani lo tov, ani lo yafah,” the little girl told her mother, using the Hebrew for “I’m no good, I’m not pretty.”

Even telling the story now, six years later, Stanton-Ogulnick shakes her head.

“Sometimes I’ve been in tears with what I have put this child through,” she says.

Stanton-Ogulnick relates some of the difficulties of her life’s journey in a monologue she created last fall called “Layers.”

First performed at a conference of Reform religious-school educators in October, the piece opens with her standing on stage with her head in a noose, a shocking evocation of slavery. The monologue deals with her journey to Judaism and other major changes in her life, including a recent weight loss of 122 pounds.

Pulling out an old picture of herself at her former weight, Stanton-Ogulnick shakes her head again. Is she really no longer that person? Is she really about to become a rabbi?

It’s all so remarkable, she muses.

At the end of one performance, she says, a woman came up to her in tears, saying, “You told my story, thank you.”

“It’s those moments,” Stanton-Ogulnick said. “Even though the journey is long and the path difficult, if I can provide someone with a little hope and a sense of purpose, it’s worthwhile.”

It’s experiencing those moments that she is most looking forward to as a rabbi, whether she ends up in a pulpit, working as a chaplain or in some other position.

“That moment, that ‘a-ha, I’m not alone’ that comes when I’m talking with a congregant or an individual struggling with something and I’m helping them find a solution,” she said, “that a-ha moment is what it’s about for me.”

We Mourn ‘First Lady’ of Civil Rights


The Jewish community mourns the passing of the first lady of the civil rights movement.

Coretta Scott King understood that a people who fight for their own rights are only as honorable as when they fight for the rights of all people. In this spirit, she championed the legacy of her late husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in strengthening black-Jewish relations, in fighting for the civil rights of Jews and in supporting the issues and concerns of the Jewish community with the State of Israel in particular. Coretta Scott King, who died Jan. 30 at the age of 78, was honored Tuesday in a tribute attended by four presidents and an estimated 10,000 mourners. She recognized that in the civil rights struggle, no segment of American society had provided as much and as consistent support to her husband and to blacks as did the Jewish community.

In 1995, at a time of heightened tensions between blacks and Jews, in the aftermath of anti-Semitic pronouncements by Minister Louis Farrakhan, King accepted my invitation to come to New York, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, to address leaders of national Jewish organizations on the state of black-Jewish relations. At this landmark gathering, held at the World Jewish Congress, King reaffirmed her husband’s deep sensitivity for Jewish concerns and tradition. She repeated the words of her late husband, spoken at the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly 10 days before his assassination in 1968: “Anti-Semitism is as vile and contemptible as racism. Anyone who supports it, including African Americans, does a disservice to his people, his country and his God.”

Her empathy and outspokenness showed the bravery and the firmness of her conscience and her supreme commitment to our two communities that the history of blacks and Jews is a story of two groups of people who have suffered uncommon persecution but who have persevered with uncommon faith.

At this assembly, I announced that in tribute to her late husband, various sections of the World Jewish Congress, including Asia, Europe and South America, were to commemorate King’s 65th birthday.

In 1998, I visited with her to receive her blessing for my new book project, “Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Jewish Community.” I remember the conversation well. She felt it was time that the torch be passed to the next generation and suggested that I ask her son, Martin Luther King III, recently elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to write the foreword on behalf of the family. This collaborative effort led to a personal and intimate relationship with Martin and the King family that continues to this very day.

I also recall fondly in September 2003, before Martin and I traveled to South Africa, King’s expressions of elation and joy that the two of us were bringing the model of black-Jewish relations to Johannesburg and Cape Town with the participation of President Thabo Mbeki.

The Jewish community mourns the passing of this noble woman of valor and dignity who devoted her life to her husband’s dream of human rights and human freedom and was instrumental in revitalizing black-Jewish relations at a critical juncture. May her memory encourage people of all faiths and ethnicities to continue the struggle for justice and equality.

Rabbi Marc Schneier is president of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, based in New York and Washington, and is author of “Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Jewish Community” (Jewish Lights, 1999).

Article courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

 

Rosa Parks’ Message for Today


There’s been considerable coverage these last days of Rosa Parks, whose death a full half-century after the brief episode that rendered her an “icon” calls to mind a long-ago time. But there’s been little evocation of the events and circumstances that earned Parks her iconic status, still less to the overriding moral of the story.

The year is 1955, the date is Dec. 1 and the place is Montgomery, Ala. On that day in that place, a 42-year-old black seamstress named Rosa Parks left the Montgomery Fair department store late in the afternoon for her regular bus ride home. There were 36 seats on the bus, and all of them were soon filled. Twenty-two black people took the rear seats and 14 white people sat in the front. When a 15th white passenger got onto the bus, the driver called for the four black people in the row just behind the 14 seated whites to move to the rear, where they would have to stand. That was not merely the custom in Montgomery; that was the law. And when Parks refused to give up her seat, the driver, exercising his emergency powers to enforce the segregation codes, arrested her. She was taken to the police station, where she was booked, fingerprinted and jailed.

Martin Luther King Jr. later would describe what Parks did that day in these words:

Mrs. Parks’ refusal to move back was her intrepid affirmation that she had had enough. It was an individual expression of a timeless longing for human dignity and freedom. She was not planted there by the NAACP, or any other organization; she was planted there by her personal sense of dignity and self-respect. She was anchored to that [bus] seat by the accumulated indignities of days gone by and the boundless aspirations of generations yet unborn.

When Parks’ mother learned of her daughter’s arrest, she immediately contacted E.D. Nixon, the long-time president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and perhaps the most politically potent black man in Montgomery. Nixon knew well that Parks was in immediate physical danger, because there was real risk to those who dared to violate the race laws. Nixon, in turn, called Clifford Durr, a white southern patrician lawyer, a Rhodes scholar and co-sponsor of the legendary Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Together they went to the jail and posted bond for Parks. And together they proposed to Parks that here, at last, were the makings of a case that could shatter the laws of segregation throughout the South. Soft-spoken but plainly not timid, Parks, then secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP, consulted with her mother and with her husband, a barber who was terrified at the prospect of converting this isolated incident into a political cause. But Parks nonetheless decided to go forward, and late that Thursday evening, a black woman named Ann Robinson, a professor of English at Alabama State, the youngest of 12 siblings and the first to have gone to college, learned of what had happened and convened the Women’s Political Council, most of whose members were active in King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. That very night they mimeographed a leaflet that said, “The next time it may be you, or you or you. This woman’s case will come up Monday. We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses on Monday in protest of the arrest and trial.”

And that is what happened on Monday, from the early morning buses that were normally full of black maids on their way to work through the day — throughout the whole day.

That same afternoon, the Montgomery Improvement Association was founded, and King was elected its president. That Monday evening, a crowd of perhaps 10,000 blacks gathered at the Holt Street Baptist Church, and King, 26, delivered his very first political address.

“There comes a time,” he said, “when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression…. We are here because we are tired now.”

And his tired congregation, swollen to nearly 40,000 former bus riders, walked to work or stayed home or rode in one of the 150 cars whose owners lent them to the boycott. Through the cold months of winter, they persisted. When the police harassed them, they persisted; when King was arrested, they persisted; when his house was bombed, they persisted — and they did not stop even when the entire leadership of the boycott was arrested.

Through the winter, through that spring and summer, through the fall and on into a second winter, for 381 days, the blacks of Montgomery prayed with their feet, miles each way, each day. And finally, on Dec. 20, 1956, the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the judgment of the U.S. District Court declaring the laws requiring segregation of the buses unconstitutional.

The moral — these many years later — is not immediately obvious. Yes, it’s about what one person can do, but it is about much more than that. It’s about leadership and about community organization. King without Parks might not have become who he became, but Parks without Nixon and Durr and Robinson would not have become an “icon,” and none of these would have so powerfully entered the American story were it not for 40,000 tired blacks, ordinary heroes who conquered their fear and ignored their fatigue and did not break.

So, what shall we do about the persistent, grinding poverty that still exists in our country, that came into view so emphatically in the wake of Hurricane Katrina? What in the world does Rosa Parks lying in the Capitol Rotunda mean unless we organize to address that question?

Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).

 

Jews Note Role in Historic School Case


Esther Swirk Brown wasn’t the Brown for whom the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case desegregating schools is named — but she is the Jewish woman who helped find Oliver Brown, no relation, to be the lead plaintiff in the historic case.

As a young woman in Kansas, Esther Brown was horrified by the conditions of the school that black children, including the children of her housekeeper, were forced to attend. The one-room schoolhouse in South Park had dilapidated walls and missing light bulbs.

"She went to a school board meeting to press for equal education and was told to go home and mind her own business," said Miriam Katz, who impersonates Brown as part of a one-woman show honoring historic American women that is touring the Midwest.

Instead, Esther Brown stopped black children from attending the school, choosing to home school them in her own house and getting friends to serve as other teachers.

When she took her fight statewide to the capital in Topeka, she met Linda Brown, a young girl, and raised money so that Linda Brown’s father, Oliver, could sue the city’s board of education.

"She just wanted rights for everybody," Katz said. "Maybe she felt like she had to make things right."

As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, which changed the face of the civil rights fight, Jews are noting the historic role their community played in pushing the movement forward.

"It was disproportionately black and Jewish lawyers that were fighting the civil rights cases," said David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism and a board member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Charles Black, a member of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund team that argued Brown, used to joke that he was the only non-Jewish name on many of the briefs in that case.

Several Jewish groups are marking the anniversary and the Jewish community’s participation in the landmark case.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has created a six-part educational program for schools on Brown’s legacy, including a section on key alliances, which tells the story of Esther Brown.

At its annual Washington meeting last week, the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee) showcased a video about the group’s role in the civil rights movement. It featured several television advertisements the AJCommittee funded to promote tolerance.

A predominantly liberal community, Jews felt empathy for the plight of black Americans.

"In the fight for the rights of African Americans, Jews were also in a fight for the rights of all minorities in America," Saperstein said. "There was implicit recognition that Jews wouldn’t be safe in America until they created a country with no room for discrimination."

Jewish organizations lent their names to the civil rights cause, filing amicus briefs for the plaintiffs and funding some of the legal efforts. In fact, the AJCommittee funded research by Kenneth Clark on the effects of prejudice and discrimination on personality development that Chief Justice Earl Warren cited in his unanimous Supreme Court decision handed down on May 17, 1954.

Many individual Jews, like Esther Brown, were part of the effort as well — perhaps none more than Jack Greenberg. As an associate counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Greenberg was one of several who argued Brown vs. Board of Education in front of the Supreme Court. He later succeeded Thurgood Marshall as the fund’s director and counsel for more than 20 years.

"Being Jewish can lead you in any direction," said Greenberg, now a professor at Columbia University’s School of Law. Greenberg said he wasn’t driven by his religion but more by his upbringing in the socialist Zionist movement of Jews who had immigrated from Eastern Europe.

"We were social activists," he said. "Back then, we’d call them socialists; now you’d call them liberals."

Several other Jews who aided the NAACP went on to distinguished legal careers, including Judge Jack Weinstein of the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn and Judge Louis Pollack of the U.S. District Court for the East District of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

But, Greenberg said, not all Jews were "on the good side."

"Some of the lawyers in the South who led the opposition were Jewish," he said.

The Brown case led to a partnership between blacks and Jews that helped herald the civil rights era.

"It was a landmark in what the relationship could achieve," Saperstein said. It led to the drafting of civil rights legislation.

"This really did prove to them that they could use the political legal system to achieve integration and stop legal discrimination in America," he said.

But blacks and Jews have not enjoyed an entire half-century of friendship. Most significantly, many Jewish organizations broke with black groups in 1978, coming out against the affirmative-action policies for which many blacks were fighting.

The ADL’s leader at the time, Nathan Perlmutter, was one of the leading spokesmen against race-based criteria for admission to colleges and universities. Leaders of Jewish groups said the rejection of quotas for affirmative action came largely in light of numerical limits on Jewish enrollment in European and American universities in the 1920s.

Even last year, when the University of Michigan’s affirmative-action policies came to the Supreme Court, the Jewish community was split. The ADL opposed Michigan’s standard of giving minority applicants 20 extra points on a 100-point admission-scoring scale, while the AJCommittee reversed course from 1978 and backed Michigan.

The court ruled last June that affirmative-action programs are legal but struck down the point system Michigan used for undergraduate admissions.

More recently, black and Jewish groups have sparred over policy priorities, each seeking more support than the other for key legislative agenda items. In addition, anti-Israel and anti-Jewish comments by some blacks have fueled tensions.

The black community was angered by Jewish groups’ call for a boycott of the 2001 United Nations Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa, because of the conference’s vehement anti-Israel rhetoric.

But black and other non-Jewish groups chose to back the Jewish community last month when it worked to minimize European anti-Semitism at a conference in Berlin.

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights joined Jewish leaders in Germany, providing information to European states on tools to combat discrimination.

The Other Side of the South


When director Warner Shook saw Alfred Uhry’s "The Last Night of Ballyhoo" in 1997, he immediately recognized the story.

Shook ("The Kentucky Cycle") was familiar with genteel Southern anti-Semitism and its repercussions — but from the non-Jewish side. "I grew up a privileged WASP," he said.

His great-grandfather, Braxton Bragg Comer, was governor of Alabama and a founder of the textile mill Uhry refers to in his play, "Driving Miss Daisy." Like Daisy, Shook’s parents employed a black chauffeur who was close to the family.

Nevertheless, his childhood in Birmingham, Ala., was white and segregated. His few Jewish friends seemed to live in another world: "Our home was very chintz and Chippendale, and I recall going over to a Jewish friend’s house that had velvet and looked different," Shook, 54, said. "Even the smells were different — not a clove of garlic passed through the Shook house — and it just seemed very exotic to a little WASP boy."

Yet, young Shook understood that his friend couldn’t join his restricted country club; nor were Jews welcome at the cotillions where his sisters made their debuts.

"So the Jews of Birmingham had their own country clubs and debutante balls, a phenomenon described in ‘Ballyhoo,’" he said.

What surprised him was the play’s reference to Jewish bigotry: "I had known nothing about the conflict between German and Eastern European Jews," he said. Shook was so fascinated he decided to direct the piece; to learn more, he read books on Jewish Atlanta and watched documentaries such as "Delta Jews," narrated by Uhry.

He had his cast do the same while rehearsing Ballyhoo at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre in 1999 and last month at South Coast Repertory.

During recent rehearsals, he found himself acting as a "translator" for his actors, none of whom are from the deep South. "Some of the characters’ behavior seems foreign to them," he said. "So I tell them stories about my family and about people I have known. I offer insights about Southern behavior that, I think, add to the patina of the play."

He spoke of his family estate on Shook Hill Road, an exclusive neighborhood similar to the Habersham Road address described in the play; he talked of learning to ride a bicycle in the resort town of Point Clear, Ala., which is mentioned in "Ballyhoo;" and of the veneer of graciousness his mother sometimes used to her advantage ("She could charm a snake," he said).

He emphasized that while the behavior is Southern, the message is universal. "The play is a testament to self-acceptance," he said.

Men in Black


The 74th Annual Academy Awards program will be remembered, at least by me, for women’s gowns with faux see-through gauze fronts and men’s suit jackets down to the knees.

Sunday night. For my town, Malibu, Oscar night is a kind of Yom Kippur. Roads are deserted; the local restaurants close early. The sky sparkles with possibility, in which any kind of magic or healing might occur.

It was 9 p.m. I was at home with my parents, having already cried over Sidney Poitier’s tribute and drooled over Denzel Washington. Now I was deep into analysis of Gwyneth Paltrow’s sheer frontage when the doorbell rang.

There in my darkened doorway were two men in black mid-length coats with long, curly beards and black hats; a younger and an older man, with eyes burning so clear and bright that they seemed to be reading from an inner script. There was about their smiling countenances such a sense of purpose, that the word "messenger" sprang to mind. They knew and I knew. They had come for me.

If you read enough Torah, it can come easily to life: a blending of the "then" and the "now," the foretold and the foregone. The slightest stimulus revives the age of prophecy to our own time. Seeing these two men in black, I pictured myself alongside the biblical Abraham as he sat in his tent, healing from his circumcision, awaiting word from the three angels.

Abraham wanted an answer. So do I. Angels always come in human form. Here they were. For a second, I expected these two messengers would present me with a ticket to my destiny. If so, I was relieved to be wearing my wig, ready to go.

"Malkah!" I was shaken from my reverie by the friendly voice of Rabbi Chaim Cunin of our local Malibu Chabad, addressing me by my Hebrew first name. He waves to me on my daily walks as he drives his SUV and talks on his cell phone.

"My father was in the neighborhood and wants to give you a prayer." Sure enough, the older man was Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, director of West Coast Chabad Lubavitch.

"It’s the Rebbe’s birthday!" the elder Cunin booms out. "You need a blessing."

I certainly do.

Now let us talk about the power of suggestion: How much do you want something, and to what length will you go to get it?

As a person with lung cancer, I know there is only so much that medicine can do. After that, prayer must step in.

The other day, I began a new form of drug, an experimental clinical trial. The drug is so new it only has a number, not a name. It has the potential to work a miracle. That miracle is my prayer.

I am not the only one who is praying. Each time I see my oncologist, he looks at me for answers. His eyes get focused and he studies me for responses. The expert and the novice, neither of us know.

Prayer is possibility; it is the statement: "I don’t know all." Prayer asks, take me beyond my current knowledge to do good work.

Even the traditional kinds of prayer seek the extraordinary, the new.

I invited the rabbis into the living room where my parents were busy looking for Russell Crowe.

The Cunins presented us with a box of shmura matzah.

The elder Cunin asked my full Hebrew name.

"Malkah bas Henya," I said.

Then, while the TV screen showed Halle Berry’s sheer gown embroidered with silk flowers, the Chabad rabbi chanted at great decibel, for God and all of Malibu to hear, the traditional prayer for a full and speedy recovery.

I am getting answers to questions I have not asked.

Meanwhile, Back in Florida…


While the nation watched and waited as the battle over the presidency continued to unfold, two old friends met in Florida last week to try to bring a resolution to the dispute over the ballots in West Palm Beach. Rabbi Steven Jacobs of Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills and his longtime colleague, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, spent the week after the election touring the state, attempting to bring together what they called the disenfranchised voters of Florida’s Black and Jewish communities.

The pair visited polling places, interviewed voters and organized a rally Sunday morning at Temple Israel of Greater Miami featuring Kweisi Mfume, president and CEO of the NAACP, and Ralph G. Neas, president of the progressive political organization People for the American Way.

“The crisis in Florida is a testing ground for how you would handle a national or international crisis,” Jackson told the crowd. “The moral issue is not who will be president. It is the integrity and sanctity of the vote that is the heart of this debate. Once again, sons and daughters of slavery and Holocaust survivors are bound together with a shared agenda, bound by their hopes and their fears about national public policy.”According to Jacobs, poll officials recognized the problem with the ballots before Election Day ended. At 5 p.m., a notice signed by Theresa LePore (whose ballot design is at the heart of the Palm Beach County dispute) was distributed to poll workers asking them to “please remind all voters coming in that they are to vote only for one presidential candidate and that they are to punch the hole next to the arrow next to the number next to the candidate they wish to vote for.”

Jacobs said that such measures prove the ballot had serious flaws.

“This is not matter of someone just being angry with how the election turned out. These are verifiable kinds of problems,” he said. “We were shown this piece of paper that was handed out to the officials running the polling places on election day, telling people to tell voters to vote for only one president. So you knew there were complaints all day long, but it was 5 o’clock before they had the word out.”

Since many voters involved in the dispute are Haitian immigrants, African Americans or elderly Jews, the team of Jackson and Jacobs are using the opportunity to unite Florida’s Black and Jewish communities. The two activists have often made the same attempt in other cities under a variety of circumstances, including Los Angeles following the riots in 1992.

“This is an alliance that goes back to the beginning of the 20th century, when Jews and Blacks were being lynched over the right to vote,” Jacobs said. “Jews and Blacks together formed the NAACP. Then there was the civil rights movement, with Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, two Jews and a Black man, being murdered [while promoting a massive voter registration drive]. A vote meant that much to an individual. Since then, it seems we had become cynical about elections, but look how much we care!”

Some Jewish leaders, however, feel there is no legitimate reason to bring race or religion into the voting issue in Florida. David A. Lehrer, director of Pacific Southwest Region of the Anti-Defamation League, said he has been in touch with staffers at the Palm Beach office, and their report contradicts any allegations of discrimination.

“We have no evidence of anti-Semitic intent in the voting confusion in Palm Beach County,” stated Lehrer. “Our folks [in Palm Beach] see no motivation to disenfranchise Jews.”

Jacobs said he felt a re-vote in West Palm Beach would be a fair solution to the dispute. He declined to say who he believed would be the winner once all the state’s votes were in, but pointed out that assuming all absentee ballots from military personnel would go to Gov. Bush was inaccurate, since many minorities serve in the U.S. military who might be more inclined to vote for a Democrat.

“The bottom line is, this is not about Gore and not about Bush,” Jacobs said. “This is about the integrity of our democracy. There are masses of people out in the street, angry but peaceful. They want their votes to count. If Mr. Bush wins, he will win fairly and squarely, by the vote.”

Coalition Politics That Work


“It’s almost magical,” said Jon Friedman, a Democratic activist, of the effective coalition politics waged by the 47th Assembly District Committee. The committee, which covers a wide rectangular area including Culver City and the South Fairfax and Beverlywood neighborhoods, and extending east as far as central city areas north of the Inglewood city line, is comprised mainly of Black and Jewish members who have formed a bond of closeness and trust. The ages ranges from 20’s to 70’s. Members are civil servants, teachers, lawyers, show business folk, small business people, health care technicians.

“The most marvelous thing about the 47th,” Friedman said, “is the extent to which all of the elements participate. Blacks and Jews and others get together, work together and treat each other with serious respect.”

“I have many friends who are politically active with the 47th,” U.S. Rep. Julian Dixon, who represents the 32nd Congressional District, told The Journal. “They are deeply committed to the goals and principles of the Democratic Party. And they represent the finest tradition of volunteer political activism.”

A district committee is essentially a vehicle for activists who are committed to carrying out the agendas of all of the major elements of the Democratic Party: the elected and appointed party officials and all of the Democratic clubs. Committee members do the nuts-and-bolts work on a volunteer basis: fundraising, voter registration, working in the campaigns and getting out the vote. The orientation of the committee is local and specific – what Friedman defines as “life-affecting, in-your-face kind of issues.”

In the 47th, those issues have drawn together a rare coalition. “The 47th committee is one of those wonders of nature,” said Howard Werlensky, a leading Democratic activist and former head of Democrats for Israel. “An arbitrary set of lines was drawn – in this case by the courts – that forms an assembly district that joins a significant Black population with a significant Jewish population. And the result is a grass-roots Democratic organization that works together very effectively and has some very strong, deep relationships.”

The element of trust comes from the candid level of dialogue. “When you can discuss how you feel in an honest manner, you have a relationship,” said Werlensky, who will receive an award from the NAACP. “When you feel like you’re afraid to discuss it, hold it within, then you can’t achieve much. The other thing about this group is that they have a common goal: the goal is people who believe in the Democratic Party. So that keeps them focused in the right direction. They’re not coming together because of some sort of artificial ‘Well, here we are to have a Black-Jewish dialogue; let’s talk.'”

Friedman was especially moved by one of his early experiences with the committee. The group had scheduled some of its activities on Saturdays. “I went privately to the head of the committee, who was Black,” he recalled. “And I said to her, ‘This is a problem. You’re excluding observant Jews.’ And she said, ‘Thank you for telling me this. I wasn’t aware this was a problem. We’ll schedule our events on Sunday afternoons instead.’ And ever since then, all of the major functions of the 47th have been on Sundays or weekdays.”

“These people take the open door seriously,” Friedman continued. “They’re really committed to making the Democratic Party accessible to everybody. They value diversity not just with their mouths but with their hearts.”

Friedman traces the atmosphere and moral values of the committee to the impact of Dixon, who for 25 years has had close relationships with Jewish elected officials like Howard Berman and Henry Waxman. “Part of this starts at the top,” Friedman said. “People see that cooperation is not just possible but is a good and valuable thing.”

Ed Johnson, field deputy for Dixon, sees the committee as filling a need for activists who have seen a drop-off in activities since the heady days of the 1960s.

In addition, the committee provides an experience in intergroup relations that is significant for them. “There aren’t a lot of places where you can go and have an experience of interacting dialogue,” Johnson said. “People who are involved in the Democratic Party are, by definition, there to reach out to other people and to find common ground. And it’s a different experience. You can’t just do it through your own tribe. You’ve got to convince a lot of people to join you.”

Johnson has been a member of the committee for almost 20 years, and some of his closest friendships, with Werlensky, Friedman and Bob Manley, another member of the committee, have been forged there. For him, as for many, the personal and the political come together in the committee. Moreover, his commitment to the district committee is based on a carefully considered political philosophy. “We are now a state of minorities,” he said. And so if you are a political activist, if you want to be able to impact how government treats you and your community, or you are interested in exercising political power, it’s going to hinge on your ability to weave together communities of interest that may be different from your own.”

Manley is regional director of the state Democratic Party. Like Johnson, he is an African American deeply committed to the 47th district committee. “I love it,” he stated. “Cause we work, man! For example, we’re planning to have a fundraiser? We’ll find somebody that’s willing to submit their house. And it could be a Jewish person, or it could be anybody. And we say, ‘Look, we’re ready to do this,’ and it takes about two weeks, and we got it together. And it’s together. One of our members, Lee Werlensky, she is a great lady. Five years ago we were at a convention and we were leaving to go to the African-American caucus. And Lee wanted to know if she could go. We said, ‘You’re damn right you can go. You’re with us. Come on, let’s go!’ It was unanimous. She’s a member of the caucus now. She votes, she’s an active member, she stands up for what she thinks is right. She’s not intimidated. She’s a tough lady, man.”

If there’s magic to the 47th committee, it’s not ethereal magic. It’s the result of people being candid with one another. One of the reasons the 47th committee may function so well is that differences between members are not papered over. “We may have different views on certain issues,” Manley explained. “Some Black people might not be such strong supporters of Israel as some Jewish people are. It’s not because they don’t respect them. It’s just that they have other issues that they’re more concerned with.

“But we get into it and discuss it. Because Jewish people are white first. They see themselves that way. And Black people always see themselves as Black. They can’t see themselves as white, because they’re not allowed to. So there’s a little conflict there. Jews understand the Holocaust. Blacks understand it as well as Jews understand it. But Jews don’t always understand Black views.”

Take Louis Farrakhan, once again in the news after vice-presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Lieberman agreed to meet with him.

“They really were jamming us about Farrakhan,” said Manley, “and Farrakhan is a Muslim. He has some views that I don’t agree with. They want to hold that against us. Look, Israel sold guns to South Africa. They know that. So what are we talking about? We don’t hold that against the Jewish community. We’ve got to get over with that.”

“Before this, I did not know Jewish people. There’s sensitivity and creativity in what they do. As a minority, that’s very important to me. They know about my culture; they’re interested in other cultures. You cannot be in only one group, especially when you live in L.A.,” said Manley’s wife, Lorenza.Lee Werlensky, who has received an award from the 47th for her activism, said her experience with the Black community in the committee has deepened her perspective. “It’s a nice close working connection. This is the way I think it should be.”

Terenc
e Montgomery, a water pollution control technician, has headed the 47th district committee for six years, keeping it focused on common goals and, above all, compromise.

Moderation wins out in the end. He too cites Farrakhan as a source of conflict within the group. “Our Jewish members look at Farrakhan from a Jewish perspective as being a real problem,” Montgomery said. “Whereas in our community, we looked at him as being part of a small minority that doesn’t really reflect the mainstream or how a majority of African Americans feel toward Jewish people. One thing that came out was, okay, Farrakhan is a hothead. But then JDL, I guess, is the hothead on the other side. Hey, you know, we are the moderate people, we are the people who work to get things done. And we have to make sure that we stay focused and involved in public policy debates. Because if you let the hotheads take over, then you have real conflict.”

Soft-spoken and contemplative, Montgomery expands on his philosophy. “It ‘s hard for me to evaluate myself, and I depend on feedback,” he said. “But I do have some core beliefs: that we transcend ourselves as a race of people into the human race. Some people can’t make that change and some can: to realize we have more things in common than we don’t have. And that we have to all work for that common good. Someone once said to me, ‘If you peel this outer layer of skin off our bodies, you’d realize how much more we all have in common.'”

Death of a Patriarch


Tom Bradley was buried Monday, hailed as Los Angeles’ longtime mayor, statesman, leader and friend. His is a grand biography; a son of Texas sharecroppers and the grandson of slaves, Bradley broke down ethnic and class barriers and forged a new multiracial political base that re-created this capital city of the Pacific Rim.

For the Jewish community, his is the death of a patriarch. By the time his 20-year term as mayor ended in 1993, the vaunted black/Jewish coalition that brought him to City Hall was already falling into disrepair, as both blacks and Jews struggled to mediate the city’s complex ethnic realities. When Bradley this week was extolled as a “Moses who could not bring his children into the Promised Land,” many in our own community knew what was meant.

As I sat with the well-dressed, respectful crowd that sweltered in bright sunlight outside the First AME Church, only the vestiges of that historic coalition remained. When Tom Bradley was hailed as a bridge-builder, no one mentioned the bridge extending from black Leimert Park to Jewish Fairfax and Westwood. Those seeking “closure” will be meeting in our own community to mourn the Tom Bradley we knew.

How shall we mourn him? Together, blacks and Jews came to power, but what have we learned? The obituaries have been kind, stressing, as they should, Bradley’s idealistic beginnings. Our own community’s great founding fathers and mothers — Judge Stephen Reinhardt, Ed Sanders, Richard Giesberg, Roz Wyman, Maury Weiner, Fran Savitch, Valerie Fields, Bruce Corwin — figure prominently in that triumph. Many of them were with Bradley even during his first try at City Council, in 1961, a recall bid against Sam Yorty-appointee Joseph Hollingsworth for the 10th District seat. Those early days and their alliances foreshadowed Bradley’s 1969 mayoral defeat followed by victory in 1973.

Yet, in the mayoral war stories, retold often this week, I learned something new. True, Jewish leaders recognized a winner in Bradley, a man who could forge a more progressive Los Angeles. But I hadn’t known that, in order to get him into power, they had to change not only the minds of bigots in the larger non-Jewish community but those of their fellow Jews as well.

When Bradley lost to Yorty in 1969, it was in part because Jewish voters stayed away. A last-minute mailer from the Yorty forces, circulated on Fairfax Avenue, linked Bradley, a moderate in style and political philosophy, with black militants.

“There was nothing we could do. The community didn’t know him,” says Ed Sanders. In the ensuing four years, Jewish leaders made sure that such scare tactics could never work again. “Bradley went to a lot of bar mitzvahs,” Sanders tells me. “In 1973, he was a stranger no more.”

This explains a lot, including why Jewish voters stayed with Bradley for so long, after every other group was drifting away. In his definitive study, “Politics in Black and White,” Raphael J. Sonenshein shows that, in 1985, Bradley would have beaten favorite son Zev Yaroslavsky in Zev’s his own 5th District. Which is why Zev did not run.

“I would have stayed with Bradley against King David,” says Bruce Corwin, Bradley’s first fire commission president and, today, a strong Yaroslavsky backer. The Jewish community was loyal to Tom Bradley, perhaps ashamed by its first failure of nerve. Once its heart is opened, it does not easily close.

Sadly, I was there for one closing. By the time I came to this paper, Louis Farrakhan’s 1985 Los Angeles appearance had already done its damage. While not the most difficult moment of Bradley’s years — certainly the 1992 Rodney King riots would be — it was a huge debacle for black/Jewish relations. Bradley, a UCLA graduate always as comfortable among Jews as among his own people, was caught between the two. Black church and civic leaders, for whom Farrakhan represented a crisis in leadership, urged the mayor not to condemn the Nation of Islam leader until after he had spoken. Jewish leaders demanded that the mayor come out strongly against anti-Semitism.

“Black leadership didn’t understand how terrified we were,” says Richard Giesberg. “They thought we were white people, with the world on a string.” So began an era of distrust among longtime friends.

Why talk of the Farrakhan incident now? Like the 1969 Yorty-Bradley race, Farrakhan offers lessons from hindsight. Jewish leaders this week were candid in their self-questioning: Despite Farrakhan’s potent and terrifying rhetoric, were they wrong to lean on a friend in this manner? What are the obligations of coalition partners? And, today, with as many as five Jews expected to run for mayor — including Councilwoman Laura Chick, Recreation and Parks Commission President Steven Soboroff and, perhaps, Supervisor Yaroslavsky himself — on what basis will strong coalitions with Latino and Asian communities be forged? Do we understand them even as we ask them to understand us?

The glory of Tom Bradley is the easy part of his legacy. The pain must be dealt with too.

We buried a statesman, this week, a man, a leader and a friend.


Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address is wmnsvoice@aol.com

A One Woman Show With a Vengeance


Debbie Allen and Stephen Smith in “Harriet’sReturn.”
Harriet Tubman, the fugitive-slave andabolitionist, was a kind of African-American Mata Hari. During theCivil War, she frequently conducted scouting parties and raids behindthe Confederate lines and was one of the North’s most effectivespies. Before that, she had become the chief flagman of theUnderground Railroad, personally responsible for freeing over 300slaves and spiriting them into either the North or Canada. When shewas 23, her white master forced her to marry a fellow slave namedJohn Tubman. He was unfaithful to her; his only real claim to famebeing that his name attached itself to his exceptional wife for alltime. A visionary in the literal sense of the word, much of Tubman’slife was dictated by visions she claimed to receive from God. Shecould neither read nor write but her street smarts were prodigiousand her skill in avoiding arrest, astounding. Guided only by theNorth Star, she made her escape from slavery in 1849 and, throughinnumerable exploits which would be high melodrama were they nothistorical facts, became one of the more enduring legends in blackhistory.

Debbie Allen, the endless hyphenate(producer-director-choreographer-dancer- actress-singer) whoincarnates Tubman in “Harriet’s Return” now at The Geffen Playhouse,is something of an icon in her own right. A tough, sassy, fearlessand ambitious Texan, one can easily see her upholding the rule Tubmanimposed on slaves being ferried from the south to the north; namely,that anyone contemplating surrender would be summarily shot. Amongher other accomplishments, Allen, after a gestation period of 19years, produced the Steven Spielberg film “Amistad.”Allen’s grit andstick-to-it-iveness is almost a mirror image of Tubman’s and,according to gossip, she’s just as ornery.

Using a quartet of dancer-actors to illustrate herstory, Allen has created a kind of new theatrical form: a one womanshow with appendages. Virtually all the dialogue of the charactersinteracting with Tubman are played out by Harrriet, her “chorus”providing masks, mime and kinetic illustrations as required. This is,you might say, a one woman show with a vengeance, the vengeance beingthat the other performers, visibly talented and obviously capable,are reduced to being merely the chain on Allen’s shackle. Allenherself plays the roles of husband, parents, politicians,slave-drivers and fellow abolitionists — all dramatis personae inHarriet Tubman’s precarious and colorful life.

It may well be the most chameleon performance everseen in Los Angeles, couched in the drawling argot of the Southernblack and shuttling between modesty, mysticism, defiance and guile.Karen Jones Meadow’s free-wheeling script leaps across the mainevents of Tubman’s life as if they were stones gushing between a wildriver stream. We get flashes from Tubman’s life but being a solitarycharacter flanked by performers who are merely repercussions of thoseevents, we tend to lose both context and historicalperspective.

The greatest conflict in Tubman’s life appears tobe the demons which both taunt her and goad her on to ever moredaring acts. But the lack of opposition — the developing emnity ofboth southern whites and blacks and the vast American majority whocould never countenance the independence of what they took to be anignorant, fugitive-slave — makes the character seem to be operatingin a vacuum. If you are familiar with the details of The UndergroundRailway, the history of John Brown’s rebellion and the assistanceprovided by Quakers such as Thomas Garrett and friends like SarahHopkins Bradford (who helped Tubman write her memoir “Scenes from theLife of Harriet Tubman”), the play’s shorthand may be enough for you.But if you’re out of that loop, Meadows’ play does little to etch inthe social and political context in which Tubman stood out sodramatically.

After the first half of the show, one has got theflavor of Allen’s peripatetic take on Tubman’s interior life. By thetime the second half rolls around, it is no longer enough for thejumping-jack style to sustain our interest. One longs to experiencethe antagonism of the outside world which both defines Tubman andinspired her most courageous feats. One longs, in fact, for dramaticdevelopment rather than biographical tidbits and, being denied that,the more sympathetic part of the audience takes refuge in admirationfor the eponymous heroine while the others begin to deplore both thelack of tension and the absence of a corroborating socialmilieu.

At the end of the evening, Allen, ostensiblyaddressing a national association of “colored women” breaks theillusion she has carefully built up around her character and dealsimprovisationally with the Geffen audience made up, incongruously, ofmiddle-aged, affluent Jewish subscribers. This, like so much of theevening, amusingly puts dents into the imaginary fourth wall, butalso seems to acknowledge the fact that the privacy of thecharacterization has been too remorseless and something overtlytheatrical is required. The instinct is sound although the choice,rather gauche. What was really needed — a thrust of counteractivefigures from Tubman’s world — was impossible to have, given the soloform of the play. In a story that seems to cry out for clear-cutantagonists and human interplay, one is given only a subjectiveanalysis of one character’s journey from slavery to freedom.

Debbie Allen has a real knack for sniffing outdramatic episodes from black history and turning them into toughdramas. Tubman’s story, like the incidents in “Amistad,” is brimmingwith cinematic potential. But it’s the kind of story that seems todemand a socially-detailed, even panoramic canvas rather than theextended soliloquy offered in “Harriet’s Return.”

Charles Marowitz, a regular contributor for In

Theater magazine, writes fromMalibu.

All rights reserved by author

 

 

 

Questioning Judaism, FindingOneself

By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Actress Hildy Brooks
In her one-woman show, “When the RabbiLied,” Hildy Brooks starts out as a wisecracking substitute teacher,drafted at the last second to teach a class on “SpiritualJudaism.”

It is an unpromising beginning, but when Brooksturns serious, the play takes on a deeper hue as she probes for herJewish roots and spiritual identity.

Her transforma-tion is both internal and external,with Brooks’ dress code changing from short skirt and fashionablecoiffure to modest long skirt and head scarf.

In her new persona, Brooks, or Sippy in the play,retains some of her earlier sassiness, but it is now directed toquestioning the received wisdom in a Torah class, much to theannoyance of her fellow students and the rabbi.

In Sippy’s view, Judaism has evolved through aconstant confrontation between traditionalists and such innovators asHillel, Maimonides and the Baal Shem Tov.

Nothing too heretical about that, but when Sippytried to cast Jesus as a Jewish radical who might have contributed tothe faith of his birth had he not been rejected, she herself isexcommunicated from the class.

Her fellow students, who are more interested inknowing how long after eating a hamburger they have
to wait to enjoya milk shake (the answer is six hours), or how to avoid matzoconstipation during Passover, heave a sigh of relief.

Most moving is Sippy’s own reconciliation with herdead father, a Talmud scholar who never understood his rebelliousdaughter, and the contrasting warm, earthy relationship with hernon-Jewish husband.

Brooks is a fine actress, who appropriatelylearned the ritual and spirit of the frum lifestyle while researchingher role as the Chassidic rabbi’s wife in “The Chosen.”

“When the Rabbi Lied,” written by Brooks anddirected by Manu Tupou, runs Thursdays to Sundays, through March 15,at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in West Hollywood. Forinformation, call (213) 650-7777.