Human Rights Shabbat D’Var Torah – Part2

This is the second part of the talk I gave on Dec. 12 for Human Rights Shabbat. Lunch and Learn is a weekly group at the synagogue where I lead discussions, based on texts, centered around relationships between African Americans and Jews. We focus on ways for us, as Jewish Americans, to become more actively  and consciously anti-Racist.

In Lunch and Learn, we often discuss the gradual process by which Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants and their descendants became white. In the area of citizenship and voting, the process was more immediate. Once any immigrant naturalized, they could vote. Before 1920, this meant fathers and sons. After passage of the 19th Amendment naturalized female immigrants could vote, making them more fully citizens. An untold story of the suffragist fight for the franchise was the role of black women. Their involvement in expanding American freedom continues to this day. In 2020, the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, I believe black women saved our democracy.

Southern whites, in enacting Jim Crow, to replace slavery as a means of enforcing racial separation and hierarchy, used a variety of methods to prevent African Americans from voting. Southern legislators placed the poll tax at a high enough rate that it was effectively out of reach for all poor people, black and white. The rigidly hierarchical nature of post-Civil War Southern society meant most blacks and many poor whites did not own property which was another Jim Crow requirement for voting. Southern states also had literacy requirements which were difficult for poorly educated blacks and many poor whites to pass.  Again, naturalized Jews, living in mostly Northern urban areas faced none of these hurdles when going to vote.

Many of the current requirements in various states around voting which we probably take for granted and assume they have always existed include voter registration which often ends as early as a month before election day and identification requirements. Most of these were enacted in the Progressive Era of the late 19th and early 20th century by both white Jim Crow Southerners and white northern reformers to limit voting access for blacks, immigrants including Jews and Italians and poor whites.

In 1948, when the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, President Truman, a Democrat, proposed a suite of legislation that would have made a significant dent in the Jim Crow edifice. He advocated the creation of a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, an anti-lynching law, anti-poll tax legislation and the prohibition of discrimination in inter-state transportation facilities.

Today’s parsha ends with Joseph in jail. He has been falsely accused of attempting to sleep with his master’s wife. In the Jim Crow South black men were routinely accused of trespassing with white women and were frequently lynched for this supposed crime. Lynching was the underpinning of a system of ongoing and daily intimidation by whites of black people. This continuous intimidation served as another barrier to voting.

Truman’s Civil Rights program went nowhere because southern senators and congressmen, overwhelmingly Democratic, vehemently opposed it. Progress towards dismantling Jim Crow would have to wait for almost 20 more years. One of the first cracks in Jim Crow disenfranchisement of African Americans came, in 1964 when the 24th Amendment, prohibiting poll taxes in federal election was ratified.

On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson, with Martin Luther King, Jr. by his side, signed the Voting Rights Act. This deeply significant piece of legislation was enacted after the longest filibuster in American history. People, marching from Selma to Montgomery endured great violence and sometime death to help secure passage of the Act. Demonstrations in other places, such as St. Augustine, Florida also convinced the nation that it was time to make the Jim Crow system of segregation illegal.

Next week, I will post the final  part of the D’Var. Happy Holidays!

Human Rights Shabbat D’Var Torah – Part 1

This is the first of three parts of the talk I gave on Saturday at the Jewish Community of Amherst.

Shabbat Shalom,

Today is Human Rights Shabbat. Every year, Tru’ah, which used to be called Rabbis for Human Rights invites congregations to celebrate the 1948 UN signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year Tru’ah is focusing on Article 21 which states, unfortunately in patriarchal language, :

(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.

(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

In 1948, when these very inspiring words were adopted, African Americans living in Jim Crow South did not have access to any of these rights.  In 1920, almost 2,000 blacks lived in Charlottesville, Virginia. Only 30 voted in the 1920 presidential election.

Today’s parsha begins the Joseph story. In preparing for this D’Var, I read the whole tale which spans four Shabbats. Looking at the arc of the story, it can be read as Joseph’s journey from Slave to Citizen. Co-incidentally, that is the title of a book by Frank Tannenbaum which Branch Rickey read when he was contemplating choosing Jackie Robinson to break the color line in professional baseball.

More broadly, Joseph’s life was also the story of a foreigner and his descendants achieving great success in a foreign land. This immigrant story, read on its own as a novella, is resonant with the success of Jews in America. Joseph was able to move from having been bought and sold to becoming the chief economic advisor to the Pharaoh. The number of Jews in President-elect Biden’s cabinet reminds us of Joseph’s success.

For Joseph, slavery was not a permanent status or mark. For African Americans, brought in chains to this land, beginning in 1619, slavery was a permanent condition. The Civil War ended this inhumane institution and the brief equalitarian period of Reconstruction brought constitutional amendments which enshrined citizenship for all people and voting rights for all men, black and white.

The 13th amendment abolished slavery and the 14th and 15th established birthright citizenship and granted black men the right to vote. The 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870; at that time Federal troop still occupied wide swaths of the former Confederate States. Once federal troops were withdrawn, following the 1876 election, jurisdiction over voting returned to the individual states. By the late 19th century, most Southern blacks had effectively lost their voting rights. Since citizenship and voting, in a democracy, are inextricably linked, the disenfranchisement of blacks was complete.

Next week I will post the second of the three parts of this talk.

Kamala Harris and Black Sororities

Kamala Harris is the presumptive Democratic vice presidential nominee[. The first African American and South Asian American nominee of a major political party, Harris is a graduate of Howard University, a historically black university, and a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the oldest African American sorority in the country.

Here is an article about AKA today and Kamala Harris.

In one of one chapters of my book on faculty wives, I discussed the founding of AKA, at Howard in 1908.

Here is an excerpt:

Lucy Diggs Slowe was the first Dean of Women at Howard University from 1922 to 1937. Although she was not a faculty wife, Slowe’s involvement in national organizations connected her to that first generation of nationally involved African- American wives. Slowe was a graduate of Howard and in 1908 one of the founders of the first national Black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha.

Norma Boyd, a 1910 graduate of Howard was also a founding member of AKA. Boyd, a native of Washington, D.C. attended Armstrong High School and then went on to attend college at Howard in 1906. She described Washington as “the intellectual center for Negroes in the United States. Mrs. Mary Church Terrell was on the Board of Education. When I was a child about ten years old, I decided I wanted to be like Mary Church Terrell.”

Boyd was a sophomore when the senior students including Lucy Slowe founded the sorority. She described how she became involved. “You see, this the oldest colored sorority. … The very first. So, they decided to have a sorority but who was going to carry it on after they left. There were seven girls in my class – six or seven – and they asked us to come in. Now you were expected to have scholarship and the idea of service to be a member. So, they asked us to come in and we did. They called us founders because, although it was not our idea, we were in on the ground floor. It was not incorporated until 1913 and then I was one of the incorporators”

Although Alpha Kappa Alpha was a sorority based at Howard, it was unusual because it had graduate members. Because many of the African American sororities had adult members, they functioned more like the national club associations. Like NACW, the Tuskegee Woman’s Club and the Atlanta Union, AKA also had a social activist agenda. The organization pursued projects in health care and sponsored fellowships.

By the time Slowe became Dean of Women Students at Howard, there were three sororities, AKA, Delta Sigma Theta, and Zeta Phi Beta. Delta Sigma Theta grew out of AKA due to a desire for some members in the early years to expand beyond Howard. Five female students founded Zeta Phi Beta in 1920. These organizations still exist. Most of the prominent Afro-American women of the mid and late twentieth century belonged to one of these sororities.

©AmyMittelman 2020

 

Retreat

Last week I attended a virtual four day Jewish Women’s silent retreat. It was sponsored by Awakened Heart Project and Or HaLev. The  leaders were Sheila Katz, Rebecca Schisler and Rabbi Batsheva Meiri. Paige Lincenberg was the retreat manager.

Because it was a mindfulness retreat, there were many opportunities for meditation throughout the day. You can do a formal mindful practice in a variety of postures including walking, sitting, lying down and standing. Yoga can also be a mindful activity. The last day of the retreat, Rebecca led us in a practice, The Five Rhythms, which is contemplative dance. I really enjoyed that.

During the retreat I mostly sat which I found difficult. When one of the leaders guided us and we were all sitting together (via Zoom), I could calm my mind for a more extended period of time. It was harder to sit by myself without any guidance. Now that I am “home”, I am trying to sit for thirty minutes, first thing in the morning.

Overall, the retreat made me want to be more mindful and less reactive in my relationships and in how I lead my life. One of the most liberating  and revelatory aspects of the retreat was how it felt to not look at my phone or anywhere on the Internet, except for Zoom for four full days. It was a tremendous relief to not have to deal with email for that period of time.

The sense of relief and ease I experienced not being connected to my phone, the Web or social media has made me rethink my relationship to those platforms. For the first time in over three years, this past month I did not tweet every day. You won’t be surprised to learn the world didn’t fall apart.

Connected to cutting the cord is another aspect of the retreat I am trying to bring into my daily life. A meal should just be a meal without any multitasking, looking up things  on the internet or reading  things on the phone. Eating silently is actually a lovely way to concentrate. I enjoyed the silence of the retreat and I hope to have more quiet, peaceful time in my day.

My favorite parts of the retreat were the ones with Jewish content. Every morning at 9:30, there was a chanting service which was a beautiful blend of traditional Jewish ritual and contemplative practice. Wednesday night into Thursday was the Jewish holiday Tisha B’Av, the low point of the Jewish year. It commemorates the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple. Over the years, the holiday has also become associated with other Jewish tragedies including the Holocaust.

To observe Tisha B’Av, we chant from Lamentations, one of the books of the Jewish bible. Rabbi Batsheva led the service and Paige, who is a rabbinical student, chanted. Her chanting was beautiful and deeply soulful. I had never really read Lamentations before. It is a raw expression of acute pain and sorrow. The complete bewilderment of the Jewish people about what would come next following the tragedy evoked in me the feeling I have about the pandemic and the situation our country is in.

Observing Jewish rituals throughout the retreat made me grateful that I am a Jew. I came away with a commitment to be more Jewish, which feels like a funny thing to say. The retreat ended on Thursday; I was really excited that the next evening was Shabbat. Built into the Jewish religion is a time every week to be more contemplative and peaceful. Attending a four day silent retreat was a very powerful experience; the power is actually increasing as I process and live with the experience.

Summer Vacation – Sort Of

I will not be posting next week. Unlike previous summer where we would probably be taking a summer vacation, I am staying home. I will be attending, virtually,  a Jewish women’s silent retreat.

I have always wanted to attend such a retreat but I have never had the chance. I am curious to see if I will be able to keep silent during most of the day, given that I live with someone.

I am going to be social media, email, and internet free for  at least the four days of the retreat. You are also supposed avoid reading materials, so no books. I might extend the device free time from the Friday evening before the retreat, which begins on a Monday, to the following Monday morning. That is the part that feels most like a vacation.

I  will let you know how it went when I resume posting on August 5th. Have a nice two weeks.

Maine, last summer.

Hallmark Does Hanukkah

This holiday season both Hallmark Channel and Lifetime have produced Hanukkah movies along with the usual staple of Christmas movies. Calling something a Hanukkah movie would imply it was about that holiday and its celebration. The three movies had different degrees of success in meeting that standard.

Only one of the Hallmark movies, Double Holiday, was about celebrating Hanukkah and it was the best of the three. Rebecca and Chris are coworkers who must produce a holiday party for their company. How well the party does will help determine which one of them gets a promotion. Because the eight days they have to prepare coincides with Hanukah, the two wind up celebrating together.

Rebecca celebrates with her family and Chris appreciates their warmth and sense of social obligation. The Hoffman’s only exchange gifts one night and the other nights are dedicated to charity and volunteering. Chris is open to learning about Hanukkah; in the course of the movie the blessing for lighting the candle is recited three time.

The movie stresses that people celebrate in different ways. This is at least a tacit acknowledgement that the fantasy Christmases of Hallmark movies is not for every one. Although Double Holiday did, to some extent, equate Hanukkah and Christmas, it was respectful of Jewish traditions. The plot did not involve Rebecca coming to love Christmas, rather Chris came to a better understanding of Hanukkah.

The other two movies, Lifetime’s Mistletoe and Menorahs and Hallmark’s, Holiday Date are both Christmas movies that include a Jewish person.  Holiday Date was the worst. It has a convoluted, unrealistic plot and verged on being condescending and patronizing about Hanukkah.

The best thing about watching these three movies was that I heard “Hanukkah Oh Hanukah” sung multiple times and heard the candlelight blessings several times as well. Double Holiday had the extra bonus that no Christmas music was played.

***********Happy Holidays! Merry Christmas!***********

***********Happy Hanukkah! Happy New Year!**********

 

Stop The Bans

Yesterday I attended a  Stop the Bans rally in Northampton. Similar demonstrations  were held all over the country in response to the draconian anti-abortion laws that Alabama and other states have passed. It is very depressing to me that  reproductive rights are so threatened in 2019 when I can remember marching for the right to have an abortion in New York City in  the late 1960’s.  Abortion became legal in New York State in 1970.

Abortion was not legal in Massachusetts until Roe v. Wade in 1973. Massachusetts was also one of the last states to legalize birth control. However, last year, Gov. Baker, a Republican signed  the Nasty Women Act which repealed several old laws regarding abortion and birth control.  Nasty stands for Negating Archaic Statutes Targeting Young Women; legislators felt  the bill was necessary in the wake of Brett Kavanaugh ‘s appointment to the Supreme Court.

Several of the speakers at yesterday’s rally spoke about pending legislation in Massachusetts, the Roe Act.  This legislation would remove the requirement of parental consent for  an abortion for people under the age of 18.  The Roe Act also provides health care coverage for abortions for people who don’t have Mass Health.

Current Massachusetts law does not provide abortion coverage after 24 weeks. The Roe Act would extend that time period in cases of fatal fetal anomalies. Other provisions of the bill include ending the currently required 24-hour waiting period, and codifying the principles of reproductive freedom into state law. You can get more information about the Roe Act here.

Summer

As I have said before, this year it has been difficult for me to find time to blog once a week. Because I don’t have a lot of time. finding topics is harder. Unless I am writing a more personal post like this one, I do have to spend some time  researching and preparing the topic.

Already this summer I have been to New York a couple of times for Yankee games, stayed over for a few days once, gone to a  Jewish retreat and next weekend I am going to an adult skating camp. I also work one day a week at the Take Back the House office in Northampton where I am the office manager. Besides all this, there have been social engagements, regularly scheduled meetings as well as a demonstration against Trump’s immigration policies. I have been making slow but steady progress on my book which is good. In other words I have been living my life rather fulsomely.

Aleph sponsored the Kallah which I went to last weekend. Aleph is one of the branches of Judaism in the United States. It is Jewish Renewal which is a mixture of Kabbalistic or mystical and Hasidic traditions with music and dancing thrown in. The Kallah was a week-long but I only went for Friday afternoon through Sunday morning. Spending Shabbat at Kallah was really a unique and very lively experience.

The Take Back the House office is a coordinated campaign which a coalition of groups is sponsoring. The groups include Swing Left and Indivisible. We are focusing on two races in nearby states: NH2 where there is a Democratic incumbent, Annie Kuster and we are trying to help her hold her seat.

The other race is NY19 where there is a Republican incumbent, John Faso who it would be great to defeat. His opponent is Anthony Delgado. The TBTH office is having its grand opening, July 19 from 5-6:30. It is at 18 Center Street, Northampton. It would be great if any of my local readers  showed up.

The Adult Skating Camp will also be a rather intense experience since I will be doing hours of both on and off ice work. I’ll write more about it after I get back.

 

Death

There was recently a death in my family. Several other people I know have also lost members of their families recently. In honor of all these losses, I offer two poems that I have found comforting and meaningful at times of sorrow. I read this poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay at my brother’s memorial service several years ago. She is one of my favorite poets. 

Dirge without Music
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the
love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not
approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the
world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

I saw the following poem on a subway in New York City. I find it very moving.

Heaven
by Patrick Phillips

It will be the past
and we’ll live there together.

Not as it was to live
but as it is remembered.

It will be the past.
We’ll all go back together.

Everyone we ever loved,
and lost, and must remember.

It will be the past.
And it will last forever.

“Heaven” by Patrick Phillips, from Boy. © The University of Georgia Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission.

Black Friday

This Facebook post by Robert Reich  https://www.facebook.com/RBReich about all the stores that will be open on Thanksgiving made me reflect on how I have spent Thanksgiving and the day after over the years.

Before I  was a nurse, I briefly had a job as a bell-ringer for the Salvation Army.  People didn’t call the day after Thanksgiving “Black Friday” then but it was a huge  shopping day and  the kickoff for the holiday season.  Now the holiday season starts before Halloween which is one sign that our economy is not doing great.  It felt funny to me, as a Jew, to be ringing the bell for this Christian organization but people didn’t realize that I was being paid and thanked me for my service.

Once I became a nurse I often worked on Thanksgiving. If I was working a 7-3 shift when I got home we would go out to eat. One year my husband and one of my sons cooked dinner which was a real treat. When I worked 7-7 my family met me at the hospital and ate in the cafeteria with me.

This year my Thanksgiving  and Hanukkah will be spent with family and not shopping. Thanksgiving is a nice holiday because it is non-denominational and a time to relax. In our 24/7 society we need days of rest and no commercial activity.