Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Thursday, May 27, 2021
In This Moment, May 21 - Tulsa and Kishinev, Are Cicadas Kosher? Memorial Day
In This Moment
The Shabbat Announcements are sponsored
by Hayley and Josh Levine in honor of their son, Wesley,
As we reach Memorial Day weekend, we are especially mindful this year of the supreme sacrifices made by those who fought to defend freedom and democracy here and around the world. As I have in prior years on Memorial Day weekend, I share with you the words of Rabbi Roland Gittlesohn in a speech delivered at the dedication of the 5th marine Cemetery on Iwo Jima, in March 1945. It has been called one of the great battlefield sermons to come out of World War Two.
Here lie men who loved America because their ancestors generations ago helped in her founding, and other men who loved her with equal passion because they themselves or their own fathers escaped from oppression to her blessed shores. Here lie officers and men, Negroes and whites, rich men and poor . . . together. Here are Protestants, Catholics, and Jews together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men, there is no discrimination. No prejudices. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy ...
Whosoever of us lifts his hand in hate against a brother, or who thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery. To this, then, as our solemn duty, sacred duty do we the living now dedicate ourselves: to the right of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, of white men and Negroes alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them have here paid the price ...
We here solemnly swear that this shall not be in vain. Out of this and from the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn this will come, we promise, the birth of a new freedom for the sons of men everywhere.
Those sacrifices can not be allowed to have been made in vain. But that requires our vigilance. We need to fight hate and discrimination wherever we find it. No blind spots are allowed. That might mean being critical of our own country once in a while, and fighting hard for police reform, voting rights and a bipartisan review of one of the greatest crimes committed against our democracy, on January 6. it might also mean assisting Israel, in the wake of this month's destructive and pointless war, to address both the external threat of the hateful terror group Hamas and the strains of hatred and mistrust that threaten to tear the fabric of Israeli society apart from within. And it now also means addressing head-on the spike (an 80 percent increase is not an "uptick") in anti-Semitism in the US. Memorial Day will bring with it some welcome relief from Covid hibernation for many of us, as more and more are fully vaccinated; but it also is a sobering time for us, as Americans and as Jews. Sobering yes, but precisely NOT the time to go back into hiding. That's why I attended the anti-anti-Semitism rally on Monday. Now is the time to show special pride in being Jewish and to demonstrate it in public. Now is the time to show our love for America and for Israel, despite our concerns, and even because of them.
Here is some suggested reading material, from many vantage points, for your holiday weekend:
How can I support Palestine without contradicting my beliefs that Israel should exist?I really don’t think we have to choose. We can support Israel’s right to exist and criticize its government’s treatment of Palestinians — just like we believe in the United States but might think the way it treats immigrants or poor people is unfair.
Israel, the world’s only Jewish-majority country, is a subject of special concern to many Jews in the United States. Caring about Israel is “essential” to what being Jewish means to 45% of U.S. Jewish adults, and an additional 37% say it is “important, but not essential,” according to a new Pew Research Center survey that was fielded from Nov. 19, 2019, to June 3, 2020 – well before the latest surge of violence in the region. Just 16% of U.S. Jewish adults say that caring about Israel is “not important” to their Jewish identity.
What began as a disorganized romp of rowdy teenagers evolved into something much more destructive. In the end, 49 Jews were killed, an untold number of Jewish women were raped, and 1,500 Jewish homes were damaged. The destruction in Tulsa was comparable. In the wake of the violence, 35 city blocks lay in charred ruins, more than 800 people were treated for injuries and contemporary reports of deaths began at 36. Historians now believe as many as 300 people may have died, brutally butchered by the mob.
The New York Times account of Kishinev states that on Easter Sunday, as people left their churches:
The mob was led by priests, and the general cry, "Kill the Jews", was taken-up all over the city. The Jews were taken wholly unaware and were slaughtered like sheep. The dead number 120 and the injured about 500. The scenes of horror attending this massacre are beyond description. Babes were literally torn to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob. The local police made no attempt to check the reign of terror. At sunset the streets were piled with corpses and wounded. Those who could make their escape fled in terror, and the city is now practically deserted of Jews.
The sheer destruction only tells a small part of the story, however. In both cases, for Tulsa and Kishinev, the causes were eerily similar and the long-term psychological and historical impacts were profound.
The Tulsa Massacre resulted from the growing resentment of whites at the relative prosperity achieved by Blacks, especially in the Greenwood section of the city, also known as "Black Wall Street." (See The New York Times' interactive exhibit). But the spark - the pretext - involved two teenagers in an elevator in the Drexel building in downtown Tulsa and morphed into a sexual assault accusation.
According to the Times, accounts vary about what happened between Dick Rowland, 19, a young Black shoe shiner, and Sarah Page, 17, a white elevator operator. The Times continues:
One common theory suggests Mr. Rowland tripped and grabbed onto the arm of Ms. Page while trying to catch his fall. She screamed, and he ran away, according to thecommission report. The next day, Mr. Rowland was arrested and jailed in the Tulsa County Courthouse. By that afternoon, The Tulsa Tribune published a front-page news story with the headline “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator,” which essentially mobilized a lynch mob that showed up at the courthouse.
The pretext for the Kishinev massacre was similar. When aUkrainianboy, Mikhail Rybachenko, was found murdered in the town ofDubăsari, about 40 km (25 mi) miles north of Kishinev, and a girl who committed suicide by poisoning herself was declared dead in a Jewish hospital, the Bessarabetz paper insinuated that both children had been murdered by the Jewish community for the purpose of using their blood in the preparation of matzahfor Passover.
In both cases, the hated "other" is accused of harming innocent minors, thereby igniting mob violence. Such accusations have found their way into current discourse as well - which is one reason why the incendiary (and false) insinuation that Israel deliberately targeted Palestinian children in Gaza evoked that anti-Semitic trope, and predictably, mob violence followed.
The destruction of Kishinev paled in comparison to the Holocaust that would follow, but it gave Jews a clue of what was to come - and that led many to decide to embark to America and to Palestine. They understood that there was no future for them in Russia.
Bialik's poem chided Jews for their passivity.
And all have eyes that are the eyes of slaves,
Slaves flogged before their masters;
And each one begs, and each one craves:
Those martyred bones that issue from your bags, And sing, with raucous voice, your pauper's ditty! So will you conjure up the pity of the nations, And so their sympathy implore. For you are now as you have been of yore And as you stretched your hand So will you stretch it, And as you have been wretched So are you wretched!
The Tulsa Massacre ripped from the Black community their hard-earned dignity, and with Jim Crow in ascent, it would be many decades before they would have a chance to regain it. For Jews and Blacks, then, these seminal episodes were designed to crush their spirits along with their bones, and for the oppressors, it was "mission accomplished."
But one hundred years later, a different story is being written. Yes, Jews, dispirited, left Russia en masse. But in doing so, millions of refugees and their descendants saved themselves from the genocide that would follow; and those who went to Palestine forged the foundation of the nascent Jewish State. After Kishinev, Theodore Herzl immediately embarked upon his plan to resettle the Jewish people in Uganda. That scheme was thankfully rejected (the falafel is lousy there), but it shows how profound was the impact of this pogrom in convincing Jews that they could no longer rely on God to save them, and that their future was elsewhere. While some stayed in Russia and enlisted in the fight against the Czars, others formed self defense groups in Palestine, which later led to the establishment of the Hagana. So the net result of Kishinev, as interpreted by Bialik, was one Jewish state defended by the most powerful army in the Middle East, and millions of living Jews in America (including me and possibly you) whose familiy would otherwise have been snuffed out a generation later. Even Tevye owes his fictitious life to the shock of Kishinev.
And for Blacks, the story of Tulsa is also still being written, in the growing dignity of this moment, with a Black Vice President, a reasonable chance at police reform, hope for renewed voting rights and true equality. We're not there yet - far from it - and our actions over the coming months will tell the tale.
The Kishinev pogrom was that moment when Jews turned away from "thoughts and prayer" passivity and moved decisively to action. At least some did, enough to make a difference. Those who came to these golden shores found a country that was not quite ready to accept them, but at least they could survive with a modicum of dignity and the possibility of a future for their kids. For the Black community of Tulsa, a brighter future beckons, but first they've got to reclaim their past.
And so, the mass graves of Tulsa are being exhumed, at long last, so there can be an overdue accounting.
Meanwhile, the graves of Kishinev are forgotten, tilting, bowed and burdened like the ancient, exhausted ancestors who lived and died there - while their youth went on to be reborn, as Bialik wrote in another of his famous poems, in distant, wondrous lands.