(AJS) The Party (2018)

the LAURA Party

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Digital Judaism (Lex Rofeberg)

digital judaism

I really liked this piece which I found here online about digital Judasim and Lex has given me kind permission to post it in full here. Lex is a rabbinical student at ALEPH, about which you can find more here. The thoughts reflected here are very much in synch with theorists writing in new media and posthumanism (Manovitch, Hansen, Hayles, Terranova). The main idea is that digital media are not simply tools external to the human user, but are fundamental to human situatedness. Relating to media and mediation, there has been very little attention to this kind of content in Jewish Studies, at least not in Jewish philosophy and thought.

Transcending ‘Digital Resources,’ Embracing Digital Judaism

Lex Rofeberg

“It’s great to meet you, Lex! Where do you work?”

This question, asked of me almost every time I meet someone new, couldn’t be more straightforward. At least, in theory.

“Where do you work” seems like it should yield, obviously, the name of an institution for which one is employed in one form or another. To the extent that I have ever heard any pushback on the question (and I have, occasionally), it has been due to two key assumptions. First, when asked as a universal kind of “first question,” it implies that everyone of a certain stage of life “works” as their primary activity, erasing those who are students or those who do not “work” in a traditional sense. Second, when prioritized over other questions, the question can suggest that “work” is the centerpiece of life and more important than where one learns, prays or protests.

For me, this question is really hard. While those two aforementioned issues are important, neither is the primary reason why I struggle to answer. “Where do you work?” is tricky for me because I literally don’t know what the answer is!

I’ll explain a bit more. I do have a job—a traditional one, where I work from approximately 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. The organization I work for is a nonprofit called the Institute for the Next Jewish Future, and the projects I work on for it are collectively entitled Judaism Unbound. Those two things are certain. But the problem is … I literally don’t know where my own organization is located.

Because when you work for a digital organization, “where” becomes a funny, complex and incredibly challenging word.

Let’s Dive In

This essay is a prolonged, hopefully articulate attempt at self-care. While I won’t be carrying around copies of it to deploy at awkward cocktail-party conversations (though I’ve had worse ideas), I do hope that writing it helps me confront the next “where” question I face more effectively.

But it’s also much more than that. I take Evolve’s “Groundbreaking Jewish Conversations” tagline seriously because our Jewish world needs more broken ground. Beyond serving my own selfish need to have better small talk, I fundamentally believe that we are in need of a total overhaul in how we conceptualize digital Judaism.

In short, I wish to challenge the following three prevalent ideas:

1) That the internet, and its role in the Jewish world, should be understood primarily through the language of “resources” or “tools”

2) That digital modalities are valuable only to the extent that they provide leverage for projects that are “on-the-ground”

3) That “in-person” interactions are, as a general rule, more tangible, and meaningful, than online relationships, and “in-person” forms of programming inherently deeper than “virtual” gatherings (think of the phrase “real-life” and its linguistic usage as equivalent to “not-digital”)

I will assert, in response to them, my own set of three ideas:

1) That the internet should be understood not only through the language of “resources” or “tools,” to harness for Judaism, but also through the language of “location” or “place” — as a site (pun intended!) where Judaism dwells and experiences reconstruction

2) That digital Judaism is not only instrumentally valuable, as leverage for Jewish projects located offline, but inherently valuable as an end in and of itself

3) That we must approach both offline and online forms of Jewish life, equally, as potentially transformational along spiritual, intellectual, and communal axes — that Jewish belonging, behavior, and belief can develop no less inspirationally at addresses ending in .Com or .Org than they do at those who suffix is Avenue or Street.

Beyond ‘Harnessing’

There is an incredible spike occurring in the quantity of digital Jewish material and communities—a spike that may continue to crescendo—but a marked paucity of analysis and framing of that spike. The forum created by Evolve to explore the intersections of technology and Judaism is therefore of the utmost importance, as one of the only places ready to take on that task.

As it (“we” from here on out since I’m becoming part of Evolve through this essay) does so, we must think very carefully about the language we use. In short, our society writ large and Jews in particular have engaged with the idea of the Internet as a “tool” to be used and “resources” to be utilized since it began. However, I think that in 2018, that is only one part of the story of what the digital world is and does.

While it is without a doubt the case that the Internet can be, is and should be an instrument mobilized for all sorts of productive purposes, we must also recognize that it is a place. When I speak about the digital “world”—and digital Jewish “world” in particular—I don’t mean it figuratively. The landscape of digital Judaism is a kind of universe. Websites (note the connotations of the word “site”) are, in a non-trivial sense, locales that people “visit.” Our email addresses (indeed, they are “addresses”) serve as a home base for many of us in a way just as legitimate as our “snail-mail” addresses.

OK…the Internet is a place, but so what?

The ramifications in this shift of digital consciousness are broad for our Jewish communities. First and foremost, the recognition of the Internet as a place means that its Jewish addresses exist side-by-side with offline institutions as locations of Jewish practice. It means that we could understand the proliferation of Jewish Facebook groups (the landscape of such groups is often referred to as “Jewbook”), for example, as comparable to a construction project, in which hundreds of Jewish spaces were built in just a few years. Millions of Jews and billions of human beings have been offered the chance to experience elements of Judaism, no matter their geographic location.

This rapid change means that when somebody asks me “How many Jewish institutions are there in Providence, Rhode Island” (where I live “on the ground,” in addition to my digital addresses), the correct answer is not “three synagogues, a Jewish Federation and a half-dozen or so other spaces,” but “a few thousand online institutions, of a variety of sizes, and 10 or so offline.”

Think about that for a second. We live in an unbelievably exciting moment! Imagine, 40 years ago, that it’s a Tuesday at 10:30 p.m. You’re having trouble falling asleep. You randomly think to yourself, “I have a nagging thought or question about Judaism.” What would your options be?

Even in a large Jewish community, synagogues and other Jewish institutions are closed at that time, and the best you could do would be to head to your bookshelf (if you have one) and page through some Jewish books (if you have them) to find an answer—a time-intensive activity since hard copies don’t provide the option of “Ctrl F”!

Today, that 10:30 pm experience is a regular, rhythmic part of thousands of Jewish lives. They have a moment of Jewish curiosity, and there are hundreds of related pseudo-institutions—websites, conversational groups, applications, videos—that in effect are “open for business.”

More than merely “accepting” the reality of digital Jewish life today, we need to jump into it excitedly and wholeheartedly because the potential it possesses for transcendent experiences of Jewish meaning and community is hard to overstate.

It’s Not a Competition

Let’s confront an elephant in the room. When I advocate for an embrace of digital Judaism in conversation with institutional leaders, I almost always hear a particular response that should not be dismissed. These leaders express nervousness—anxiety even—that digital modalities of Judaism will cause people to dismiss offline opportunities as unnecessary. They argue, not unreasonably, that digital resources and spaces may contribute to a culture in which Jews and others prioritize forms of individual identity over collective experiences.

This point is crucial, and I need to be crystal-clear that it is not trivial. We cannot (yet) hug one another via video chat. There are elements of offline interaction that simply aren’t replicable (yet) in digital spaces. I actively wish to combat forces that would eliminate any opportunities for interaction in a shared physical space.

The way I wish to do that, strangely enough, is precisely by building our infrastructure of digital Judaism. Because, much as some try to frame digital Jewish life as an alternative to “in-person” Judaism (I will come back to “in-person” as a phrase later), I have seen and lived how it actively catalyzes and even creates from scratch offline relationships and communities.

One common example of this phenomenon comes from the world of Jewish Facebook (affectionately: “Jewbook”). A wide variety of groups have arisen, specifically looking to serve as a home for leftist Jews (often LGBTQ and/or anti-Zionist), a population that often experiences marginalization in institutional Jewish spaces located offline. Spread all around the United States and the world, people seeking Jewish spaces where their political views aren’t merely “tolerated,” but centralized, have been empowered by their existence and popularity (one particularly active and notable group, Cool Jews, has 2,600 members as of November 2018, though there are dozens of others).

These groups are full of Jewish conversation, and they often lead to on-the-ground forms of interpersonal connection. Individuals have realized that they live in the same city as many of their fellow group members (whom they may never have met without this digital space), and they start local groups, often built around Shabbat observances, holiday gatherings, and/or shared political activism through a Jewish lens.

A recent post in Cool Jews featured a picture of five group members in Central Florida (by no means a Jewish metropolis) who connected for an evening of Shabbat singing and dinner after meeting each other and then bonding through shared membership in this Facebook space.

The digital is and can be a channel toward the proximal, and vice versa. It’s time for us to collectively transcend the mindset that offline and online manifestations of Judaism are competing against one another, and channel the unique benefits of each into the development of the other.

Time to Contradict Myself

It is a profound and ancient Jewish tradition to pose two largely conflicting points and then argue that each of them, simultaneously, can be true. I will now seek to model this.

I just asserted that a huge benefit of digital Judaism is that it can, and often does, lead to holy experiences in a shared physical space.

We collectively and I individually should make this point less frequently.

I have built dozens of relationships online that have led to shared meals, deep conversations, harmonious communal singing and more. I cherish that fact and actively seek ways to supplement the meaningful, but incomplete “face-to-face” of video chat with the meaningful and sometimes more complete “face-to-face” that comes around a table in a coffee shop or bar.

But I need to say this as well: I, and so many others, have dozens of genuine, deep relationships with people that have only manifested through digital mechanisms and/or via phone. I refuse to write off these connections as insignificant, superficial or less than other experiences. They are absolutely and fundamentally a vibrant component of my web of social relationships, and I cherish them just as I cherish my relationships with those who I interact with exclusively offline in shared physical space.

We all need to actively work against forces that suggest to us that relationships created and fostered online are inconsequential—that they are artificial until we have “finally met in person.”

I recently made a vow to myself that I would avoid that phrase when I do have the pleasure of connecting someone for the first time offline. Why? Because it implies the relationship was incomplete beforehand. While a great deal can be (and usually is) added to a relationship when connecting on the ground, we need to celebrate the reality of digital connection as well.

Why? For a wide variety of people, especially those who are starving to find people whose identities or worldviews resemble their own, the digital world is a godsend (I don’t use God language very much; I mean this in every transcendent sense).

In small towns, in particular, but sometimes even in cities with a large Jewish population, there are far too many Jews (and human beings) who have been sidelined by our society. Along the axis of identity, we can name Jews of color, LGBTQ Jews, Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews, among others. In addition to theme, Jews with physical disabilities are worth lifting up here because Jewish institutions are often inaccessible to them. The ability to enter a digital Jewish space from one’s home can absolutely be life-changing (just as taking steps to ensure the accessibility of on-the-ground Jewish spaces can be life-changing).

All of these aforementioned groups are well-represented in digital Jewish spaces—often more so than in “on the ground” institutions—precisely because what they find in their physical communities often disempowers and marginalizes them, causing them to look to the digital realm for belonging.

Along issues of belief, many who identify with Reconstructionism, Jewish Renewal or Humanistic Judaism may be located in areas that lack a synagogue that aligns with their worldview. If they do have one, it might be very small. For non-Zionists—a large and growing segment of the American-Jewish population—the absence of similarly minded people nearby can likewise be frustrating and alienating. The existence of digital spaces where all of the above affiliations are “normal” is therefore crucial. The fact that hundreds of people who hold these identities and worldviews can learn, grow, joke and act together through a Jewish lens can be immensely liberating. We should be doing everything in our power to ensure that that holy work can reach anyone and everyone who feels sidelined in Jewish institutional life.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I believe, with complete faith, that the storehouse of Jewish practices and beliefs and teachings and texts is a gift.  It is a gift that we received from our ancestors, which we have the privilege of molding and which we will re-gift to our descendants. They will shape it in their image, celebrating and amplifying some elements of what we did with it, and rejecting others.

Our molding work, in this 21st-century moment, needs to prioritize as one of its most central projects the formation, amplification and sustenance of a digital Jewish universe.

Because here’s what I realized about that question people always ask me: “Where do you work?”

The answer isn’t what I would say at first—that “I work from home.” It’s not “I work in Providence, Rhode Island” either. It’s not even that I work “wherever it is that people listen to our podcast.”

I’m a wandering digital Jew, who spends his workdays traveling between offices that end in .com or .org, all from a desk and computer that could be located anywhere.

My work address, loosely, is JudaismUnbound.com. My school can be found at Zoom.us, where many of my rabbinical school classes take place. The address for much of my Jewish activism is IfNotNowMovement.org, though you will frequently find me in the streets of Providence and Boston as well.

I am part of a few dozen extracurricular clubs devoted to Jewish history and culture, and they gather, 24 hours a day, seven days a week (sometimes six, Shabbat Shalom!) in a tiny blue square on my phone called “Facebook.” My weekly dodgeball league isn’t located online just yet, which is good, because my computer screen is grateful that it avoids repeated contact with flying foam objects.

None of these facts make me less excited to be a synagogue member (shout-out to Agudas Achim in Attleboro, Mass.), set up dozens of Jewishly rich coffee dates in my city or host holiday celebrations at my home. None of these facts, much as I hate to say it, make me particularly interesting or different in a dynamic Jewish world where Jewish growth happens for thousands of people, online and off, every day.

That normalcy is itself precisely what energizes me. We can take for granted as a mundane fact the ability of all human beings to access and reconstruct Judaism from any location on the planet with Wi-Fi or LTE!

What that means for Jews or the world isn’t entirely clear to me just yet. But I’m excited to find out.

That the Internet and its role in the Jewish world should be understood primarily through the language of “resources” or “tools.”

That digital modalities are valuable only to the extent that they provide leverage for projects that are “on-the-ground.”

That “in-person” interactions are, as a general rule, more tangible and meaningful than online relationships, and that “in-person” forms of programming are inherently deeper than “virtual” gatherings (think of the phrase “real-life” and its linguistic usage as equivalent to “not-digital”).

That the Internet should be understood not only through the language of “resources” or “tools” to harness for Judaism, but also through the language of “location” or “place”—as a site (pun intended!) where Judaism dwells and experiences reconstruction.

That digital Judaism is not only instrumentally valuable as leverage for Jewish projects located offline, but inherently valuable as an end in and of itself.

That we must approach both offline and online forms of Jewish life equally as potentially transformational along spiritual, intellectual and communal axes—that Jewish belonging, behavior and belief can develop no less inspirationally at addresses ending in .com and .org than they do at those whose suffix is Avenue or Street.

 

 

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Central NY Religious Studies Consortium (And The Study of Modern Judaism

CNY Religion

At a time when study in the Humanities is under pressure by strong social headwinds, the Central New York Religious Studies Consortium has now been finally finalized. Formed on the basis of a grouping of courtesy appointments at the Department of Religion at Syracuse,  the consortium includes faculty colleagues from Syracuse, Cornell, the University of Rochester, Colgate, Hamilton, and LeMoyne. You can read about it here and find a list of participating faculty here 

Being the only department of Religion in the Central New York region with a graduate program, Syracuse was uniquely positioned to make this happen. At the moment of shrinking resources and instead of faculty-contraction, the Consortium pulls together colleagues from across the region to enhance scholarly research, programming, and graduate studies in Religion. The consortium deepens research and study in areas (e.g. early Christianity, American Religions, Islam) and methodologies (theory, philosophy, ethnography, history, and textual studies).

For modern Judaism, the Central New York Religious Studies Consortium creates real depth. Integrating Jewish Studies and Religious Studies, Syracuse University and Central New York is now uniquely positioned to advance research and graduate education in fields of Modern and Contemporary Judaism inside and across the disciplines of Jewish cultural studies, philosophy and thought, literature, and ethnography. Prospective and current Jewish Studies graduate students interested in Religion can now pursue more coordinated study, including coursework and dissertations, with participating Consortium faculty at Syracuse, Cornell, Rochester, Colgate, and Hamilton. Continue reading

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My Great-Grandfather Wasn’t a Bundist (Rokhl Kafrissen)

bund

As the eight days of Hanukah draw to their final close, it’s an apropos time to think about the hagiography of heroes and militants in modern Jewish culture.  I’m posting this link which you can read here by Rokhl Kafrissen which was posted at Medium and which I found on Twitter. From her place on the contemporary non-Zionist (?) Yiddishist left, Kafrissen takes apart the idealization of the Bund by Jews today, especially on the Zionist-left who thrill to the memory of the Bund as representing a piece of the usuable past upon which to build a viable political alternative for Jews today.  Kafrissen suggests that this basis is paper thin, and provides a more careful historical nuance.

Referring to an essay by Molly Crabapple that was recently published in the New York Review of Books, Kafrissen writes,  “I read ‘My Great-Grandfather the Bundist’ with some alarm. This kind of zero sum, winners and losers approach to Jewish history only replicates the Zionist triumphalism many of us believe has squeezed out competing Jewish narratives. And therein lies the danger in writing personality driven corrective histories and the reason we must be so attentive to their appeal (and limits).”

Kafrissen’s own interest lies in the more complex position of the Bund in East European Jewish society and the inter-group tensions on the Jewish left. Regarding the latter, what determined the fate of the Bund historically and in Jewish collective memory was not just the antagonism between the Bund and Labor Zionism (which is the usual focus in much popular writing about the Bund on the Jewish left). What goes almost utterly ummentioned were those between the Bund and the Communist Party.

Her own concluding takeaway is this. “Bundists sought a way to integrate the best of Jewish life with a new political engagement. Its importance to us is its creativity, its struggle to synthesize a new way of being both modern and rooted in Jewish life. The anti-Zionism of the Bund emerged from that struggle and that time. It cannot be cherry picked out of its milieu, apart from the languages that formed it, apart from the political rivals that sharpened it. History’s gift to us is its bottomless depths, not its low-hanging conclusions.”

About my own post: The image above of the strapping young Bundist is of a piece with those young forward-looking muscle Jews familiar to students of early Zionist hagiography. The burning torch carried by him reminds me of old Hanukah menorahs with marching Maccabee figures holding the candles.

You can follow Kafrissen, a real deal Yiddishist, here at this truly exceptional blogspot, Rootless Cosmpolitan.

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(Jews Are A Minority Everywhere) Edward Said Worried About A One State Solution

Edward-Said

I wrote this and it appeared in published form a number of years back. I am returning now to my digest of this old interview with Edward Said now that people are talking, for the moment, about a Free Palestine from the River to the Sea. What does this slogan mean and not mean, and what it might mean and what it might not mean for the country and for the Jews? I am especially thinking about activists on the anti-Zionist left who are so sure that a “single secular democracy” in all of Historic Palestine is as simple and clear a thing as it sounds. Said’s worry here about a Jewish minority status in a One State Solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict are both rare and bracing in their honesty.

In “My Right of Return,” his interview with Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, Edward Said opined in opposition to Zionism. “I don’t find the idea of a Jewish state terribly interesting. The Jews I know – the more interesting Jews I know – are not defined by their Jewishness. I think to confine Jews to their Jewishness is problematic.” (The precise point underlying political Zionism was to turn the Jews into a normal people “defined” but not “confined” by Jewishness.) On the status of the Jews in the bi-national state he tirelessly advocated, Said told Shavit, “But the Jews are a minority everywhere. They are a minority in America. They can certainly be a minority in Israel.” Regarding the fate of that minority in Arab Palestine, Said conceded, “I worry about that. The history of minorities in the Middle East has not been as bad as in Europe, but I wonder what would happen. It worries me a great deal. The question of what is going to be the fate of the Jews is very difficult for me. I really don’t know. It worries me.” In addressing this concern, the critic of imperialism looks to “the larger unit” and recalls another empire. “Yes. I believe it is viable. A Jewish minority can survive the way other minorities in the Arab world survived. I hate to say it, but in a funny sort of way, it worked rather well under the Ottoman Empire, with its millet system.  What they had then seems a lot more humane than what we have now” [the original text being sourced here is Edward Said, “My Right of Return,” in Gauri Viswanathan (ed.), Power, Politics, and Culture: Interviews with Edward Said, New York:  Random House, 2001), pp.453, 455.]

Clearly in the interview, Said does not want to kick the Jews out of Palestine. He wants to integrate them into the region as part of the social fabric. His world-view is liberal and humane. But in that wistful and revealing moment mentioning “empire,” of all things, namely the Ottoman millet system, perhaps Said understood that Jews and Palestinians should not be left alone together at each other’s throats in a one state compact without a powerful overriding external authority.

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Do Gentile Progressives Not Understand That “Free Palestine From the River to the Sea” Means No Israel?

river to seariver to sea1

Gentile and Jewish anti-Zionists, about the specious claim that “From the River to the Sea” does not actually mean the elimination of Israel, can we at least have an honest disagreement? A quick Google image search here for “from the river to the sea palestine will be free” will do more than indicate the dominant meaning of the message behind the slogan. A Free Palestine from the River to the Sea includes no room for Israel in any form or function. If you support a one state solution to the conflict and a comprehensive Right of Return for UNRWA designated Palestinian refugees, then by all means do. But you owe it to yourself and to others be upfront that a Palestine Will Be Free means that Palestine is Palestine, not Israel. Please also admit that you are okay with the erasure of the 1967 armistice lines and the elimination of Israel as a country with a Jewish majority, that you are okay with a Jewish minority status in Historic Palestine that might include civil rights and even constitutional protections if and only if everything works out that way. Please also understand that power is never given, but taken, which means that securing the freedom of Palestine from the River to the Sea would require more than BDS and nothing short of catastrophic violence. Please also register that you are okay with the proposition that Diaspora Jews are just members of a “religion” and have no political stake in Palestine.

I am thinking here of well-intentioned gentile progressives. These are the ones who are not personally anti-Semitic but may or may not understand anything about the character of structural anti-Semitism. It is easy to understand this point of view after more than a decade of a reactionary rightwing Israeli governments under the leadership of Prime Minister Netanyahu, a half a century of military occupation and illegal Jewish settlement in the West Bank, grinding poverty and violence in Gaza, and war in Lebanon. If you do not follow the news carefully, the power differential seems simple enough, even absolute.

Having said  that, I do not think non-Jewish progressives, the ones with the best intentions, fathom why Israel is so important to so many if not most Jews, and particularly the ones most active in the community, even for liberal and many progressive Jews, and why a 2 state solution is so vitally important. I would hate to think that they don’t care about Jewish historical, cultural, and religious sensibilities, so I’ll assume that most of them simply don’t know. Outside of the conflict and in their own comfort zone, they do not understand what slogans like “Free Palestine” and “From the River to the Sea” actually mean or why these kinds of slogans, along with the idea of a 1 state solution is so triggering for so many Jews in the Diaspora. And when they encounter this resistance from Jews to ideas that seem to be a simple articulation of justice and equality, they begin to suspect. Maybe, after all, there is something wrong with Jews, even something duplicitous about these kinds of Jews, the bad ones, the ones for whom Israel and Jewish life and political self-determination in Israel mean a great deal.

For its part, the anti-Zionist Jewish left enables this ignorance and this tone-deafness to powerful currents in the Jewish community. There are probably enough anti-Zionist progressive Jews in the orbit of gentile anti-Zionists telling them things (rejecting Zionism in all its forms is okay, Judaism is not Zionism, anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish) that they think it’s also okay with so many if not most Jews for whom radical anti-Zionism is unreflexively not okay. For so many Jews across the political spectrum Israel represents something precious and safe after centuries of persecution and anti-Semitism, the one and only place in the world where Jews and Jewish life are not subaltern and marginal.

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(Black Christian Religion) Letter from a Region in My Mind (James Baldwin)

baldwin

The 1946 photo of James Baldwin is by Richard Avedon, which makes me wonder if Baldwin was already that famous that early on. It accompanies and this piece which you can read here. It was republished in this week’s New Yorker, and was originally published there in 1962. I almost typed in “Letter from a Religion in My Mind,” which would have been fitting. The Letter from a Region in My Mind” is all about James Baldwin, a portrait of an artist as a young Christian in 1940s Harlem.  There are so  many things here about Harlem street life, the overwhelming negative force of whiteness in the world, the whiteness of God, the somatic quality of overwhelming religious experience,  the problem of theodicy, Jews, the Bible, Dostoyevsky, Islam, the Christian church.

About his Jewish friend in high school and the Jews he wrote:

“Again, the Jewish boys in high school were troubling because I could find no point of connection between them and the Jewish pawnbrokers and landlords and grocery-store owners in Harlem. I knew that these people were Jews—God knows I was told it often enough—but I thought of them only as white. Jews, as such, until I got to high school, were all incarcerated in the Old Testament, and their names were Abraham, Moses, Daniel, Ezekiel, and Job, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. It was bewildering to find them so many miles and centuries out of Egypt, and so far from the fiery furnace. My best friend in high school was a Jew. He came to our house once, and afterward my father asked, as he asked about everyone, “Is he a Christian?”—by which he meant “Is he saved?” I really do not know whether my answer came out of innocence or venom, but I said, coldly, “No. He’s Jewish.” My father slammed me across the face with his great palm, and in that moment everything flooded back—all the hatred and all the fear, and the depth of a merciless resolve to kill my father rather than allow my father to kill me—and I knew that all those sermons and tears and all that repentance and rejoicing had changed nothing. I wondered if I was expected to be glad that a friend of mine, or anyone, was to be tormented forever in Hell, and I also thought, suddenly, of the Jews in another Christian nation, Germany. They were not so far from the fiery furnace after all, and my best friend might have been one of them. I told my father, “He’s a better Christian than you are,” and walked out of the house. The battle between us was in the open, but that was all right; it was almost a relief. A more deadly struggle had begun.”

In an essay so full of iridescent lines, these were one that for me burned most brightly:

“All I really remember is the pain, the unspeakable pain; it was as though I were yelling up to Heaven and Heaven would not hear me. And if Heaven would not hear me, if love could not descend from Heaven—to wash me, to make me clean—then utter disaster was my portion. Yes, it does indeed mean something—something unspeakable—to be born, in a white country, an Anglo-Teutonic, antisexual country, black. You very soon, without knowing it, give up all hope of communion. Black people, mainly, look down or look up but do not look at each other, not at you, and white people, mainly, look away. And the universe is simply a sounding drum; there is no way, no way whatever, so it seemed then and has sometimes seemed since, to get through a life, to love your wife and children, or your friends, or your mother and father, or to be loved. The universe, which is not merely the stars and the moon and the planets, flowers, grass, and trees, but other people, has evolved no terms for your existence, has made no room for you, and if love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can.”

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