February 28, 2020

Reflecting on my trip to Birmingham with The Temple

“You’ll be the first in our family to set foot in Alabama,” my mom half-joked over the phone from L.A., when I told her where I was going. “Well, I was the first one to set foot in Tennessee,” I quipped back.

Before moving to Nashville two years ago to pursue my music career, some of my parents’ friends were aghast. Are there any Jews there? It's the South–everyone will be racist. And anti-semitic.

Truthfully, I didn't know what to expect. To my surprised delight, it turned out that Nashville has a vibrant Jewish community that welcomed me with open arms.

Shortly after arriving in Music City, I stopped in at the JCC. “I'm new in town,” I announced to the receptionist. “I wanted to meet some Jews.” In short order, I was introduced to a group of twenty- and thirty-somethings, and learned from them that Nashville has, not one, but – count ‘em — five synagogues.

Two new friends invited me to Shabbat services and dinner at their Reform temple. Even though my own background is Conservative, after just a few Friday nights, I knew I wanted to become a member of Ohabai Sholom — known around town simply as “The Temple.” Besides the warm friendliness of its congregants, what drew me to my new synagogue was the congregation's strong commitment to social justice. Which brings me to how I got to Alabama.

The Temple had chartered a bus to go to Birmingham to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Highlights were to include a stop at the 16th Avenue Baptist Church, site of the infamous 1965 bombing that took the lives of four young black girls – which put national attention on the civil rights movement — followed by a tour of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a large research institute and multimedia museum.

When I boarded the bus for the three-hour ride, Rabbi Mark Schiftan and temple members of all ages filled the seats. During the journey a long-time member started a conversation about Randall Falk, The Temple's rabbi from 1960 until 1986.

I was fascinated to hear that he had been a champion of social justice and one of Nashville's most vocal and active clergymen for civil rights.  (Although I am repeatedly told by native Nashvillians that their city is a blue dot in a red state, I always marvel at that fact. I was even more surprised to learn that during the Civil War Nashville and east Tennessee tried to remain free of the Confederacy.) Growing up in liberal Los Angeles I had the impression that all Southern cities were mirrors of the injustices that were commonplace in Selma, Birmingham and elsewhere. While I know that strict segregation was enforced in Nashville, too, somehow belonging to a Jewish community historically committed to equal rights made me immensely proud.

Before we hit the off-ramp, Rabbi Schiftan picked up a microphone. “Passover is coming,” he reminded us. “We’ll be forced to taste the bitterness in our mouths — of slavery, of being the other, the marginalized. The Seder is our yearly reminder to put ourselves in others’ shoes and work toward freedom and equality for all.”

The oppression of African Americans felt overwhelming vivid. Among the array of historic “relics” were yellowed “colored only” signs that had hung over water fountains in this city only mere decades ago. In one gallery hung caricatures of African Americans. The vicious cartoons were reminiscent of hideous Nazi depictions of Jews I have seen.

To be sure, I had studied the Sixties cursorily in Jewish day school and again in high school. But actually being in the South brought civil rights history to life.

The photos, recordings and documents even helped me pull my own family history into sharper focus. My father had often told me about the time when as teenagers he and his sister were arrested at a Los Angeles sit-in demanding that the National Guard be sent to protect the marchers at Selma. And now, here I was in Alabama. Ground zero for so much tragedy and so many bitter struggles.

A larger than life-size video projection of Dr. King delivering his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech drew a throng of people. Even though I had seen it many times on YouTube and television, I stopped to watch it again. I lingered for a moment before turning toward the exit, still moved to my core by the sonorous oratory.

Uplifting as it was, Dr. King’s prophetic vision saddened me because it is so far from being realized. Driving to work down Old Hickory Blvd. every day I see a Confederate flag flying from the mailbox of a grand estate. And only a few months ago walking to a downtown gig, guitar in hand, I crossed a long line of demonstrators chanting “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.”

True, our country now has nominal integration of schools and public places, a Voting Rights Act and laws against hate crimes. But recent events teach us that we are far from the Promised Land of full equality.

On the bus home, I learned that the speaker who preceded Dr. King on that historic day in Washington was the President of the American Jewish Congress, Rabbi Joachim Prinz. (I knew about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's close association with Dr. King, but Rabbi Prinz's name was new to me.) With Pesach still in mind, Rabbi Schiftan read to us some of what the rabbi said at the Lincoln Memorial that day:

When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.

Avadim hayinu: we were slaves. Ata b’nai horin: now we are free. Remembering the words in the Haggadah I used growing up, I thought: “Until every person is free, none of us is free.”

This year will mark my third Pesach in Nashville, and my parents’ friends would be reassured to know that I’ll be sitting at seder tables crowded with fellow Jews. When it comes time to ask questions, I’ll ask how I, and they, will — in Rabbi Prinz’s words — shun the shamefulness of silence. Telling our ancient story aloud is only the first step. 


When she is not writing music or performing, Elizabeth Flier teaches Hebrew and music in Nashville. You can hear her work at ellieflier.com.