August 19, 2019

Jews and Jim Crow

After Shabbat services two weeks ago, I nearly quit my job.

That reflex came after a community discussion on Michelle Alexander’s 2011 book “The New Jim Crow,” about racial injustice and inequality in America; I found it impossible to fend off very dark thoughts urging me to expand my mind, my work and my life. What could be more meaningful, more purposeful than devoting oneself to stamping out institutionalized racism?

On the way home, I passed a badly aging apartment building I knew to be inhabited by several black families. I lingered in the doorway, listening to the echo of voices, peering up into shaded windows, paralyzed by curiosity as I imagined interviewing someone in the building. I could knock at a random door, all investigative-reporter-like, and begin writing a series on race in L.A.

After all, these are our neighbors.

That I often leave shul incredibly agitated and deeply inspired, morally challenged and not the least bit perturbed that I have to spend the rest of Shabbat rethinking the purpose of my existence is one of the reasons I love it. As my writing idol Leon Wieseltier, “Is conscience in such fine shape in our time, is compassion so sturdy, that we may all wander off to the satisfactions of private experience? I like that being in shul roils my insides, discomfits the status quo, exhilarates and depresses me all at once. It’s like alcohol, only less toxic.

On that Shabbat, I sat transfixed, as if in a wine-soaked stupor (only I’d drunk nothing but grape juice) as a group of Jews engaged in a public discussion about social justice issues. Many shared their responses to the book itself, but just as many shared stunning personal encounters echoed in its content — experiences with and of the black community, encounters with racism and the impact of racial politics on our country. In the 1980s, Rabbi Brad Artson, now dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, served as a legislative aid to Democratic politician Willie Brown, who later became San Francisco’s first African-American mayor. Who knew?

For days afterward, I agonized. Not only does this work matter to me, it matters. But what on God’s beautiful, burning Earth can I do? The pain in this world is overwhelming; I’m about to complete a yearlong fellowship of global justice training with American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which exposed me to a whole other realm of misfortune; and moments before this writing, the Israeli government confirmed our worst fears that the three kidnapped Israeli youth — Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel — had been murdered.

But as AJWS’ Ruth Messinger often says, “We cannot resort to the convenience of being overwhelmed.”

When I was in high school, my mother (z”l) worked as a counselor for “severely emotionally disturbed” teenagers at an inner-city school in Overtown, Miami (Google “Overtown, Miami” and the second item that comes up is “Overtown Crime”). Every Friday at the Shabbat dinner table, she’d regale us with that week’s horror story — someone’s infant sibling had drowned in a bathtub from parental neglect; a cocaine-addicted mother beat the child who worked the night shift at a supermarket to help her pay the rent; a girl was raped by her father — it was endless. Every week, we’d hear about parents in prison, gang violence, kids forced into the drug trade just to survive.

Shabbat became a real bummer; a few times, my mother even risked her job to bring her students home with her. She feared that if they went “home,” she’d never see them again, so she offered up our guestroom. That was my mother’s response to feeling overwhelmed. 

Years later, working at another high school, she was assigned a 16-year-old Congolese refugee named Aime Kalangwa, who’d watched as Laurent Nkunda rebels slaughtered both of his parents and nine of his 10 siblings. “As a way of killing my father, they plucked his eyes out, cut out his tongue and cut off his two arms. They then threw him into a drum of oil and boiled him alive,” Kalangwa wrote in an unpublished account called “Struggles in Life.” It’s sickly absurd suggesting what they did to his mother was worse. On the front of the packet containing his memoir — which my mother gave to me because she thought it should be turned into a movie — it says, “Don’t cry when reading this story.”

Walking home from a morning coffee the other day, I was contemplating a world on fire. Violence in Congo, Syria and Iraq, Israel and Palestine, the Global South, the streets of American cities. What is an adequate response to deep and systemic suffering? Is any response truly adequate? Where does it begin?

It’s hard enough, I thought, being consistently kind and compassionate  — our best selves — with those closest to us, with those whom we love. The seeds of dignity, empathy and civility are sown at home. It is hardest to do your best with the people who know your worst.

In college, after watching a documentary about the privatization of water in impoverished South American communities, I turned to a classmate in the film lab who was not nearly as unnerved by it as I was. “How are you OK?” I pleaded. “How do you not throw your arms up in despair amidst all the brokenness that needs mending?!”

My classmate’s name was Ruth. And for as long as I live, I shall never forget what she taught me. “I can’t make the whole world good,” she said. “But I can live everyday as an emanation of goodness.”

Remembering that advice may have saved my job.