The Jew in the Street: A New ZEEK Column About Standing Up for Justice

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November 25, 2014

Fathers, mothers, children, raising barricades,
Workers’ battalions taking to the streets.
Father left home early, to the factory gone,
Won’t be coming home to us any time too soon.
The kids know well the reason why father won’t return,
He’s taken to the streets today and brought along his gun.
Mother too is in the street, off to sell some apples,
Leaving orphaned in the kitchen all the pots and dishes.
Don’t expect to eat, says Khanele to the boys,
Because Mother has gone to help Father…

— “Barikadn,” Yiddish song, written by Shmerke Kaczerginski, 1926

A Prayer of Thanksgiving, Deborah Ugoretz, cut paper,

Deborah Ugoretz’s “Prayer for Thanksgiving” is inspired by the morning prayer “Ei-lu Pinu Maleh shirah ka-yam…”

On Thursday, millions of Jewish Americans — like most other Americans — will sit down to lush Thanksgiving tables, overflowing with the blessings of a country we now call home. Among American holidays, Thanksgiving has long been a Jewish favorite. No Christian iconography, no present-bearing fantasy figures to forbid to our children, no taint of foreign saints or hazily understood pagan practices.

Instead, the traditional Thanksgiving narrative celebrates a sweet and tidy creation narrative, in which hearty pilgrims break bread with their new first-nations neighbors. The oddest of odd couples — topped with yummy cranberry sauce! If Thanksgiving didn’t exist, a schmaltzy Hollywood producer would’ve had to invent it.Even better… its theme is gratitude! So wholesome! So Jewish. Nu? Be grateful! And so we get it all: a good meal, a feel-good vibe, and — to top it off — we get to feel good about being American. What better way to sew a Jewish patch into an American quilt?

For Eastern European Jews assimilating into American society, the grateful and pious immigrant pilgrims were presented as great role models. Some of us (myself included) have even proposed with pride that the first Thanksgiving might have been a Jewish invention, a Pilgrim gloss on Sukkot.

But how much did our Jewish pilgrims really share in common with the colonial Pilgrims?

The problem is that too many of us know too much. The fuzzy glow of that first Thanksgiving story dissipates real fast when put under the light of historical scrutiny. There’s more than a bit of disingenuity hiding in the peaceful parable of Plimoth Plantation.

Sure, our immigrant ancestors might relate to the story of hearty transatlantic voyagers. Both European Jews and the Pilgrims left for America in search of greater economic opportunity. But that’s where the similarities end. European Jews sought escape from ethnic oppression. The Pilgrims thought the New World would be a great place to proselytize.

And once the Pligrims landed? The ugly reality faced by Native Americans in the centuries that followed has been well documented. I think it’s likely that our Jewish ancestors, harassed by Crusaders and Cossacks, would relate more closely to the Native American experience than that of the enterprising Pilgrims.

How about today? What story resonates with us? To be sure, Jewish text and tradition teach that there is Godliness in everyone. But when we think of our identity as Jews, do we identify with the conquering pilgrims, or the embattled Native Americans? Upon what history do we draw in formulating our modern American Jewish identity?

And, in doing so, what role do Jews play in helping shape the modern American political landscape?

This is the first of my “Jew in the Street” columns for ZEEK. Why name the column “Jew in the Street”? Look at that song excerpted at the top of this column. Kaczerginski, clearly a revolutionary, lived a life of danger and principle that can scarcely be believed.

We’re taken aback by his depiction of Jewish parents on the front lines of a class war, leaving their kids to fend for themselves at home. This is a far cry from the classic portrayal of Jewish parents, teaching their kids to keep their heads down, to study hard, to “make it” in gentile society. Instead, in Barikadn the message is clearly, “Hey kids, learn to cook! Mom and Dad are revolutionaries, busting things up in the street!”

Jews have been in the streets for generations, both in Europe and in this country, at the forefront of a panoply of social justice movements. I’ve been happy to get arrested twice since moving to the Bay Area two years ago, both times for protesting in the street. I’ve been amazed at how positively people have reacted, even when they might feel differently about the issue than I do. It is certainly true that Jews have generally made a nice living for themselves in the United States. But, like our great-grandparents did, Jews still respect the willingness to stand in public for our core values.

I hope to draw a line from today back to those ancestors. Like the old-time TV reporter probing for reactions from the proverbial “man on the street,” we call out to today’s Jews in the street. Jews at work, engaged in the matters of their communities, speaking in the public square. Jews who identify less with conquering Pilgrims and more with undocumented immigrants, Native Americans, low wage workers, LGBT citizens, young men and women of color. Those are the Jews this column seeks to raise up.

The Torah portion for this Thanksgiving week is, interestingly, parashat Vayeitzei. In it, the fugitive Jacob goes to work for his uncle, the slippery Laban. Jacob offers to work in exchange for the right to marry Laban’s daughter Rachel; Laban substitutes her sister Leah. Laban offers Jacob sheep as payment; he then accuses Jacob of stealing them. After 20 years of work, an exasperated Jacob howls at Laban (Genesis 31:41), “You changed my wages ten times!”

By the standards of respectable society, Laban is a success. He has wealth, servants, status. But to our sages of blessed memory, he is a model of the unscrupulous employer, changing his workers’ wages and working conditions time and time again.

And how about us, today, in this land? Who do we relate to more — the landed Laban or the persecuted Jacob? In our desire to live the American Dream, what have we sacrificed? In the pursuit of the suburban cul de sac, have we neglected those in the street?

Perhaps, in our drive to become Laban, we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be Jacob?

A Confrontation at the Barricades

Last night my fiancé, Anthony, and I went to see the film Food Chains, a documentary about underpaid and abused farmworkers, right here in the United States. And as we filed out of the theater, word quickly spread of the grand jury’s decision, in Missouri, not to indict Darren Wilson in the death of Mike Brown. Stunned, if not surprised, we headed to downtown Oakland. We walked briskly along with the angry crowd, two Jews in the street, marching in memory of the slain teen.

Until the crowd came to a halt. We found ourselves face to face with a line of Oakland police in riot gear. A confrontation at the barikadn. At the barricades.

At this moment of national confrontation, as we prepare our Thanksgiving feasts, we ask ourselves: who do we relate to? Not whose side do we take, for there is humanity, divinity, in all people — even in the evil Laban. No, the question is a deep question of identity, of Jewish identity.

As Jews, toward whom do our hearts gravitate?

The invading Pilgrim, or the indigenous Native American? The supermarket executive, or the Guatemalan tomato picker? The Black Friday bargain-hunter, or the big-box-store wage worker? The armed officer, or the unarmed black teenager?

Laban or Jacob?

Are we ready to reclaim our Jacob identity? Do we, modern middle-class Jews of considerable comfort, dare inhabit the stance of the Jews at the barikadn? Or, at least, repurpose their lessons for us today? Are we ready to be the ones forging new ways to be Jews in the street? At which barricades? And where? And, if not with a gun, then with our hearts, our hands, our feet?

Rabbi Michael Rothbaum serves as rabbi/educator at Beth Chaim Congregation in Danville, CA, and lives in Oakland with his partner, Yiddish singer Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell. Rabbi Mike has received accolades for his efforts in religious school, b’nai mitzvah, youth group, and camp settings. He has worked extensively with faith-based social justice organizations, including Bend the Arc, JFREJ, and AJWS. He’s appeared on WAMC, CNN and WABC-TV, and one of his sermons is included in the anthology “Peace, Justice, and Jews: Reclaiming Our Tradition.”

About the Artist: Deborah Ugoretz is a fine artist who specializes in handpainted illumination and decoration, calligraphy in Hebrew and English and paper cutting. She has received commissions from the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, the University of Michigan, Jewish Theological Seminary, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Cathedral of St. John the Divine and others, and her work has been included at exhibitions at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York and at Hebrew Union College. Her paper cuts are included in The Museum of Art and Design’s catalogue for “Slash!, Paper under the Knife.”

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