Don't Jump Behind the Fence:
Reflections on M4RJ, Whiteness and Isaiah
Written by Franny Silverman
Shared by Franny and ninth grader Zelie Goldberg-Little
Sunday, September 24.
It's just days after the official start to fall, and the temperature outside is 90 degrees fahrenheit.
Yesterday the President of the United States called NFL players who kneel during the Star Spangled Banner “sons of bitches” and now #takeaknee is trending on twitter.
I am working on this call to action, a 2017, Trump-era interpretation of Isaiah’s cry to the people to wake up.
I am looking for distractions.
I donate money to a Puerto-Rican-American founded organization which provides plant-based meals to hungry folks and whose founder is on her way to Puerto Rico to help with relief efforts.
I google “pony ride ethics” after receiving a super cute text of my four year old who is usually terrified of four legged creatures riding a pony in 90 degree heat on Atlantic Ave.
I check the March for Racial Justice Facebook page for updates.
Jeffrey Wright tweets “If a knee in Freddy Gray’s back upset you as much as a knee on the ground, this would be over.” “Like”.
Syreeta McFadden tweets “These are truly the days of awe…” “Like”
I am looking for distractions.
I am feeling sad and tired and broken and the truth is I’ve been feeling this way for a long time and I’m just now coming around to saying it out loud. I'm no Isaiah.
I'm thinking about something Ernst Mohamed said at a Race Working Group meeting this summer: don't jump behind the fence. He was talking to me about my whiteness fence. The one I get to have because I'm a white person - because I have white access. He was responding to a confession I made -- a moment in which I might have stepped up, in which I wanted to, and didn’t. It was at a time when yet another police officer was acquitted of the charge that he murdered yet another black man in cold blood. I was at a Shabbat service which was nearing its end and the Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, was approaching. This acquittal was so on my mind, that I was sure something would be said in reference to it, I was sure it was so present in everyone else’s mind, I was sure we’d be asked to stand for all the people of color killed by the state, or to stand for this man in particular. I kept waiting, I was so sure it would happen. But as the kavannah-- the intention-setting-- led up to the prayer, I wondered if maybe it wouldn’t. Should I call out? From the congregation? I didn’t want to publically dishonor or shame the people leading, but also I didn’t want this service to be one more white-dominated space where the names of people of color killed by police go unsaid aloud. The kavannah/intention ended. I hadn’t said anything. Neither did anyone else. I stood up quickly and joined in the familiar Aramaic:
Another white lady who kept her mouth shut because she could, crying tears for another black man who died in vain who she didn’t know.
I jumped behind the fence. Ernst was right.
(ה) הֲכָזֶ֗ה יִֽהְיֶה֙ צ֣וֹם אֶבְחָרֵ֔הוּ י֛וֹם עַנּ֥וֹת אָדָ֖ם נַפְשׁ֑וֹ הֲלָכֹ֨ף כְּאַגְמֹ֜ן רֹאשׁ֗וֹ וְשַׂ֤ק וָאֵ֙פֶר֙ יַצִּ֔יעַ הֲלָזֶה֙ תִּקְרָא־צ֔וֹם וְי֥וֹם רָצ֖וֹן לַיהוָֽה׃
Isaiah cries out God’s message to the people: You think this is what I want?! 25 hours of starvation and breast-beating and standing and bowing and wearing uncomfortable shoes?!
You call this a fast day?!
You think this is going to change the world for better, huh?
I feel like many of us have a dynamic relationship with fasting. I simultaneously think that it's an empty symbol and on its own doesn’t matter; and also that the way it’s used as a marker of Jewish commitment is actually harmful; AND I also like that it’s tangible, that I feel it. By 11am if I haven’t eaten anything or had coffee, I feel it -- first in my stomach, later in my head. Prayer is far less tangible. It's much less likely to change me physically. Maybe emotionally, but… there’s no getting around it: fasting I feel. And at the same time isn’t that feeling just a kickstarter to an inner change that is supposed to be taking place that lasts longer than one day and isn’t dependent on the external factor of the removal of fuel?
This universe, or god, isn’t crying out for a fast-- that’s not what this world needs.
אֵ֣ין שָׁל֔וֹם אָמַ֥ר אֱלֹהַ֖י לָרְשָׁעִֽים׃
There is no peace for the wicked, said my God.
In other words: No Justice, No Peace.
Today, thousands march on Washington in the March for Racial Justice. Why today? Because on this day, September 30, in 1919, over 100 black sharecroppers gathered together in a church in Elaine, Arkansas as the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America to collectively demand better pay from white plantation owners. A shot rang out in the church. In response to these sharecroppers organizing, white mobs came and massacred an estimated 200+ black Americans. The only people who were jailed following the killing spree were black people.
That’s why this day.
A year later, activist/journalist Ida B. Wells published a short book, an investigative account of the events of that day and what ensued. This is how it begins:
"The press dispatches of October 1, 1919, heralded the news that another race riot had taken place the night before in Elaine, Ark., and that it was started by Negroes who had killed some white officers in an altercation."
Several sentences later...
"Columns were printed telling of an organization among Negro farmers in this little burg who were banded together for the purpose of killing all the white people."
Her report continues…
"One month later they were indicted and tried for murder in the first degree."
That’s the black union members-- the ones who survived the attack -- they were indicted and tried...
...and the jury found them guilty after six minutes of deliberation. Twelve were sentenced to die in the electric chair… and seventy-five of them were sent to the penitentiary on sentences ranging from five to twenty-one years!
This was nearly 100 years ago. And how different is this really from today? Are “news sources” still reporting racist fake news, inciting people to violence? Are white people still more likely to get a pass when it comes to breaking the law and facing the consequences? Are innocent black people still being harassed by “law enforcement,” arrested, wrongfully convicted, and murdered?
הֲכָזֶ֗ה יִֽהְיֶה֙ צ֣וֹם אֶבְחָרֵ֔הוּ
This is the fast you think I want?!
You all missed the point.
(ו) הֲל֣וֹא זֶה֮ צ֣וֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ֒ פַּתֵּ֙חַ֙ חַרְצֻבּ֣וֹת רֶ֔שַׁע הַתֵּ֖ר אֲגֻדּ֣וֹת מוֹטָ֑ה וְשַׁלַּ֤ח רְצוּצִים֙ חָפְשִׁ֔ים וְכָל־מוֹטָ֖ה תְּנַתֵּֽקוּ׃
Is THIS not our chosen fast day: A day to break open the shackles of injustice, to break out of the yokes of oppression, to liberate all oppressed people? We are not free until we are all free.
As our siblings March on Washington for Racial Justice today, let us amplify their message here.
Pulled directly from the M4RJ mission:
End: mass incarceration and the unequal treatment under the law and the state-sanctioned destruction of Black, Brown and Native lives.
End: state-sanctioned and interpersonal violence against trans people and attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer civil rights protections.
End: violence against Muslim communities abroad and at home and the erosion of their civil rights in the racist and Islamophobic “war against terrorism”.
End: the normalization of rape culture, increased violence against women and infringement upon their rights to control their bodies, and the lack of equal pay for equal work, all overly impacting women of color.
End: continued environmental violence against people of color. From the Native peoples of the Oceti Sakowin Camp at Standing Rock to the residents of Flint, Michigan.
End: the inhumane treatment of people with disabilities, of the working class and low-income by threatening and barring access to affordable healthcare.
End: the criminalization of the poor and immigrants both undocumented and documented.
End: a resurgence of anti-semitism and hate speech.
NOT ONE MORE DEATH
NOT ONE MORE VICTIM
NOT ONE MORE HASHTAG
(Repeated by congregation)
Jews of color and other folks of color in the Kolot community, thank you to so many of you for your leadership, and for your patience and pushing-- with me and with this community.
Jews with white access and other white folks in the Kolot community who are here today, I invite you to join me in the commitment of not jumping behind the white fence. May we listen to people of color and center their leadership, and also may we do our own work as individuals and collectively to end white supremacy. May we step into the discomfort of talking about race. May we speak up even if we’re not sure of the perfect thing to say. May we own the mistakes we will inevitably make, and may we ask forgiveness and double-down on our efforts.
We are all in this together.
In Ida B Wells’ account of the Elaine Massacre, she includes the lyrics to a song attributed to Ed Ware, one of the organizers sentenced to death. I tried to find more info, but could only find a scratchy recording of the Blues singer Blind Gussie Nesbit singing similar words, but I couldn't get the tune enough to share. But Zelie will share some of the lyrics:
My heart is overwhelmed with sorrow,
My eyes are melted down in tears;
But I have called to the God of Heaven,
And I know He always hears.
And I just stand and wring my hands and cry,
And I just stand and wring my hands and cry, Oh Lord!
Sometimes I feel like I ain't got no friends at all,
And I just stand and wring my hands and cry.
May the deaths of those killed in the Elaine Massacre not be in vain. May the deaths of Philando Castille and Ramarley Graham and Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice and over 800 other people killed by police in 2017 so far, may their deaths not be in vain.
We are not free, until we are all free. I want to tell this to Ed Ware who felt like he “ain’t got no friends at all.”
Yavilah McCoy wrote a stunning adaptation of the Al Chet, the confessional prayer, and she captured this sentiment in relation to how we say this prayer in the plural:
"In my personal observance of this ritual prayer, saying Al Chet in plural form welcomes my attention to the fact that in seeking truth, reconciliation and repair, I stand as one with my people, and my people, and my people- all of us commonly indicted and commonly responsible for doing what we must to repair the brokenness of our world."
She continues into the prayer highlighting the we over the I. I want to finish with this excerpt:
"For the sins we have committed through conscious and unconscious racial bias.
For the sins we have committed through hardening our hearts to the need for change.
For the sins of colluding with racism both openly and secretly.
For the sins we have committed through uttering racist words.
For the sins we have committed through acts of racial micro-aggression.
For the sins we have committed through the denial of the tzelem elokim (the divine spark) within Black bodies
For the sins we have committed through segregating Jewish souls in Black bodies from participation and leadership within our institutions
For the sins we have committed in deceiving others by not teaching our children the worth and value of Black people in Jewish space.
For the sins we have committed in not honoring and protecting the journeys of Black elders and Black children in Jewish space.
For the sins we have committed in exploiting Black people and Black bodies in our business dealings.
For the sins we have committed in not caring for the ways that race and class intersect in our effort to welcome Black people in Jewish space.
For the sins we have committed through turning Black bodies into objects of lust and sexual gratification.
For the sins we have committed through confessing our commitments to ending racism insincerely.
For the sins we have committed that desecrate the divine name by allowing White Supremacy to shape/determine our practice of Judaism.
For all these, we seek pardon, forgiveness and atonement."
ועל כולם אלוה סליחות: סלח לנו, מחל לנו, כפר לנו.
V’Al kulam eloha selichot: s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, ka-pair lanu.