One of jobs as a history educator is to take events that might be abstract concepts to my students and facilitate their making some sort of connection to prior knowledge. This is not only good for Xbox and Kardashian loving teens! We, as Jewish adults, can take our ancestral and personal histories to gain a deeper learning of history, and therefore ourselves.
February is Black History Month. While the history of African-Americans is over 400 years of both tragedy and triumph, an event that stands out in my mind is the Montgomery Bus Boycott and of 1955 to 1956 and the efforts led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (among others) to end the “Jim Crow” laws of the South.
Segregationist policies have also affected the Jewish people over the course of history. From Egyptian slavery to Roman occupation, oppression has place Jews behind physical, mental, and legal walls for millennia; the most recent being the ghetto walls during the reign of the Nazi regime in Germany, Poland and other European nations. Every Jew is raised with a historical awareness of this concept, so I won’t describe the how and why, but it is clear that the strife of both African-Americans and Jews is so similar. That is why during the Civil Rights movement, these two parties gained such kinship.
Many groups of whites, including many Jewish individuals and organizations from all parts of the country marched during the Civil Rights movement; Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was one of the more famous. Rabbi Heschel participated in the last of three marches to protest segregationist policies that persisted even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The message of tolerance, equality, and peace was clear. African Americans and Jews were standing, marching together. The parallels are clear. 3000 years prior to the marches in Selma and Montgomery, the Jews also marched; then under the name of the Hebrews, and not to protest injustice, but to escape it.
For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying. (Herschel)
In Judaism the act of prayer is about the relationship with individual and G-d, though we often do it as a community. What I think Herschel was saying here was that the act of marching was not only a massive effort of a group fighting for a cause but a collective community asserting to the Lord that the commandments and laws of the Torah (and therefore the Old Testament) would not be ignored. Those who continued to impose the unholy laws of segregation would know through the words and actions of the protestors that the America was changing and that change was inevitable. Though humans are given the ability of free-will, the commandments of G-d are constant and clear. Rabbi Herschel, along with Dr. King and the rest of the marchers were a physical manifestation of those mitzvot.
The relationship of African Americans and Jews over the last half-century or so reflects a common history. Even though that common history is separated by thousands of miles and thousands of years, its effects are still relevant to today. President Obama hosts a White House Seder during Pesach. He is the first president to do so. Is this important because the President is an African American; or because he is a Christian? Not specifically. Nor is this an indictment of previous Presidents for not hosting a Seder. What is clear though is that the President identifies and honors the relationship that Jews and African Americans share; the Passover Seder is the lynch pin in the common history of slavery and freedom of our peoples. This may not have been the intent, but beyond honoring the faith and culture of Jewish-Americans, is certainly a welcome result.
Along with studying Torah, I am going to take time this February to study the legacy of Jews and African Americans during the Civil Rights movement more extensively. I also plan on sharing this topic with my 7th Grade social issues and ethics class at my shul. L’dor v’dor; from generation to generation, I have the responsibility to pass down our faith and culture. Please join me in this holy endeavor.
Until next time, keep it real,
The Boston Mensch
Fishkoff, Sue, and JTA. ” A half-century later, rabbis recall marching with Martin Luther King | Nation | Jewish Journal.”Jewish Journal: Jewish News, Events, Los Angeles. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Feb. 2011. http://www.jewishjournal.com/nation/article/a_half-century_later_rabbis_recall_marching_with_martin_luther_king_2011011/
Heschel, Susannah. “Praying with Their Feet: Remembering Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King | Peacework Magazine.” Issue 396 – July/August 2009 | Peacework Magazine. Web. 06 Feb. 2011. http://www.peaceworkmagazine.org/praying-their-feet-remembering-abraham-joshua-heschel-and-martin-luther-king
NAACP | National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Web. 06 Feb. 2011. http://www.naacp.org/
“We Shall Overcome — Selma-to-Montgomery March.” U.S. National Park Service – Experience Your America. Web. 06 Feb. 2011. http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/civilrights/al4.htm