2017 Conference Keynote by Madeline Burns
I know nothing about the blues. I knew the couple of songs that I liked and what both a high school and college level World Music course had taught me. Funnily enough, they didn't decide that Jews in Blues was a topic that needed much attention. I know, I'm a shocked as you are.
Ok, so talking about the blues is out. But what could I talk about? Well, I knew that what we contemporarily know as the blues originated with Mississippi Delta Blues, with pioneers like Lead Belly and Muddy Waters leading the movement that was swollen by the great migration, the large move of African Americans post slavery era from the south to the north, specifically Chicago. Still doesn't sound like a whole lot of Jews to me. We have a whole separate holiday for that, we call it Passover, it was about 2 months ago.
However, it did make me wonder, were Jews involved with the Great Migration? What was the Jewish view point in the anti-bellum south? How did Jews play into African American history? And what about the other way around? Well, as it turns out as two of the most marginalized groups in the world, Jews and African Americans have a long history of standing together in the face of adversity. From the beginnings of the country, to post civil war America, to World War 2, to the Civil Rights movements to today, history tried to break us, bury us, and forget us, yet here we stand.
Every year the Jewish people reflect on the atrocities of slavery, and give thanks that they were delivered from slavery in Egypt. Thus, when Jews begin to arrive in America, starting as early as the 1500 to avoid persecution in Europe (What else is new), the question of slavery was one that every Jewish person had to face. While approximately 350, or 1.25% of slaveholders were Jewish and somehow could sit through a Passover Seder served by slaves, most Jewish people in America at the time were against slavery. With the new-found freedom that many Jews enjoyed in America, many set to work to help free the African slaves and abolish slavery.
In 1780, a Jewish Pennsylvania man names Aaron Levy purchased a black slave, Rachel- No last name, most likely from Maryland. Instead of leading her to a plantation, Levy took Rachel to Philadelphia, where he freed her and educated her. The two eventually married and Rachel converted to Judaism.
In 1828, a Jewish farmer in Florida published A Plan for the Abolition of Slavery. As one might expect, this work wasn't received well in the south, though hailed around the world as a ground-breaking piece in the antislavery campaign.
In 1848, a young Jewish man named August Bondi moved to St. Louis, Missouri at 15 years old. There he saw the horrors of slavery and struggled to understand how anyone could treat another human being as he saw black slaves being treated. In 1855, when Bondi was 22, he and two other Jewish men answered the call to "hurry out to Kansas to help save the state from the curse of slavery" Both their religion and their abolitionist ideas weren't welcomed. Their cabin was burned, their livestock stolen, and their trading post destroyed. Undeterred, they joined the Kansas Regulars, a group of local, determined abolitionists. Their determination was rewarded, Kansas joined the union as a free state. Bondi's house in Kansas became a stop on the underground railroad, and he joined the Union army in 1861 to fight against the evils of slavery once again. In his autobiography, Bondi wrote "as a Jew I am obliged to protect institutions that guarantee freedom for all faiths."
Post slavery this relationship continued. In 2002, PBS broadcast a piece called "From Swastika to Jim Crow: Black-Jewish relations." In it, they said "In the early 1900s, Jewish newspapers drew parallels between the Black movement out of the South and the Jews' escape from Egypt, pointing out that both Blacks and Jews lived in ghettos, and calling anti-Black riots in the South "pogroms". Stressing the similarities rather than the differences between the Jewish and Black experience in America, Jewish leaders emphasized the idea that both groups would benefit the more America moved toward a society of merit, free of religious, ethnic and racial restrictions."
In the early 1900's many groups were ostracized in America, their race, country of origin, or religion barring them from joining clubs, entering schools, and having decent living conditions. In these times, when it was dangerous to walk out of your front door, was when Black novelist James Baldwin grew up in Harlem. Baldwin's work was most recently seen in the 2016 academy award nominated film, I am not your Negro. Baldwin wrote "The first white man I ever saw was the Jewish manager who arrived to collect the rent, and he collected the rent because he did not own the building. I never, in fact, saw any of the people who owned any of the buildings in which we scrubbed and suffered for so long, until I was a grown man and famous. None of them were Jews. And I was not stupid: the grocer and the druggist were Jews, for example, and they were very very nice to me, and to us... I knew a murderer when I saw one, and the people who were trying to kill me were not Jews."
While racial tensions were high in America during World War 2, over 1.2 million African American soldiers were enlisted by 1945. Many saw the atrocities and inequalities that were happening to millions of people in Europe at the hands of the Nazis and flew into action to help. Though segregation in the army was still an issue, as author Stephen Ambrose wrote "The world's greatest democracy fought the world's greatest racist with a segregated army" there were many who felt that if they could win this war against the Nazi's in Europe, then they could battle racism back home. The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the largest black newspapers in America came up with the term "Double V" Campaign, meaning victory abroad, and victory at home. The segregated units were often treated unfairly, seen as less than others, but that changed as the war went on.
During the Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive campaign, the Americans took the brunt of the attack. General Eisenhower's white troops were decimated, and the Americans badly needed supplies and assistance. In such dire circumstances, Eisenhower called for 2000 blacks soldiers to replenish the white companies. The black platoons served with distinction, and were praised by the white troops after the battle. While we will never know what would've happened, many historians agree that the arrival of the black troops was a turning point in the battle that allowed the allies to maintain their position and win the fight.
It was some of these same black platoons that would go on to liberate concentration camps. There is still some lingering doubt among historians if this did in fact happen, mostly based on semantics of what the definition of liberation is and the fact that the U.S. Army Center of Military History reported that it had no records "to prove or disprove that there were African American units that participated in the liberation of Dachau." However, when I was a Jewish Children's folkshul, I had the privilege of speaking with one of the African American soldiers who was at Dachau. He told me "They didn't look human, but that's not what haunted me. All I could look at was the piles of children's shoes."
Survivors of Dachau have also come forward to relay their story. One such survivor, who chose to remain anonymous, remembered that he was filled with wonder. It would have been monumentus enough to be liberated from the camp, but since he grew up in a Polish shtetl, he had never seen a black person before. Another survivor named Benjamin Bender recalls the arrival of the black soldiers who liberated Buchenwald. Like many in the camp, he had also never seen a black person before. E. G. McConnell was one of those soldiers. A member of the all-black 761st Tank Battalion, the young American soldier from Queens, looked at these people who were sick, weak, and starving, and saw what hate and fear and prejudice did to people, and he started to cry.
Bender said "I could not understand why people wielding arms and steel would have tears in their eyes. I didn't cry. I was 17 years old. In Buchenwald, they didn't cry. I never saw an inmate with tears in his eyes. The moment when I saw them was like a legend. I stood maybe 15 yards from the gate. I was watching them and I couldn't understand. This wasn't real. It was something abstract. This was something beyond time. I wanted to say something. I couldn't. And I saw them crying and taking care of the wounded and dying. I saw hands of inmates, lying on their elbows and stretching out their hands. 'Help me, I am dying. Give me your hand.' And they gave them their hands. They were crying. [They gave them] the Gift of Life."
Civil Rights Movement
The end of World War 2 brought forth a generation of people educated by war, who refused to be seen as less and made their feelings known with the civil rights movement. With the Brown. V. Board decision in 1945 becoming the unofficial start of the civil rights movement, the hope of moving towards a more inclusive and tolerant world became the dream of many, including some people in this very room.
Nearly 50% of the white supporters who went to march in the south to challenge Jim Crow laws were Jews. 90% of the lawyers representing clients from the civil rights movement in Mississippi were Jewish, as well as 30% of the white volunteers of the Freedom Riders. Julius Rosenwald was one Jewish man as much as he possibly could.
A very wealthy businessman from Chicago, Rosenwald became heavily involved in the Chicago Sinai congregation, where philanthropy became a passion of his. Over his lifetime, Rosenwald donated millions of dollars to the education for African American children in the south. He bought books and supplies, fixed existing schools and built nearly 2,000 of his own, and well as 20 black colleges, some of which are still HBCU's, like Howard University. Rosenwald also made significant contributions to the NAACP in its early decades.
While the vast majority of white and Jewish supporters came from the north, there was a small portion of help from the south. In 1949, Rabbi Julian Feibelman in New Orleans hosted Ralph Bunche, an African American UN ambassador who would go on to be the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize the following year. That speech was the first major integrated audience in New Orleans history. In 1957, Rabbi Ira Sanders testified in the Arkansas Senate against segregation bills. Rabbi Perry Naussbaum in Jackson, Mississippi. Rabbi Jacob Rothschild in Atlanta, Rabbi Emmet Frank in Virginia, Rabbi Charles Mantingand in Alabama.
The list could go on. However, one of the most well-known Jewish supporters of the civil rights movement is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel was born in 1907 in Warsaw Poland. In 1938, he was living in Frankfurt, writing Yiddish poetry. He was arrested by the gestapo and deported to Poland, where the President of the Hebrew Union College helped him to escape to London, and eventually America. He would lose the rest of his family to the concentration camps. He refused to ever return, writing "If I should go to Poland or Germany, every stone, every tree would remind me of contempt, hatred, murder, of children killed, of mothers burned alive, of human beings asphyxiated." It was with the memories of the horrors he had seen that he joined Martin Luther King jr., praising his work, his vision, and his methods.
"Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us...his mission is sacred...I call upon every Jew to hearken to his voice, to share his vision, to follow in his way. The whole future of America will depend upon the influence of Dr. King." One of the most recognized moments in this friendship was the famed Selma to Montgomery march in 1965. Nearly 2000 people set out from Selma, Alabama to march the 54 miles to the state capital of Montgomery in protest of the voting laws that demanded ludicrous requirements to be fulfilled before a black person was allowed to vote.
After the march, Rabbi Heschel said "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." The mutual respect and admiration between Heschel and King was apparent to anyone who held them speak together, their visions for the future so bright that we still have yet to achieve it.
For his part, Dr. King was an ardent supporter of Israel and the Jewish people in America. He spoke out against anti-Semitism and participated in efforts to ease discrimination against Jews in the Soviet Union, as well as constantly trying to create tighter bonds between the Jewish and African American communities in the States. In 1965, just after the deaths of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi, Dr. King asked "How could there be anti-Semitism among Negroes when our Jewish friends have demonstrated their commitment to the principle of tolerance and brotherhood not only in the form of sizable contributions, but in many other tangible ways, and often at great personal sacrifice. Can we ever express our appreciation to the rabbis who chose to give moral witness with us in St. Augustine during our recent protest against segregation in that unhappy city? Need I remind anyone of the awful beating suffered by Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld of Cleveland when he joined the civil rights workers there in Hattiesburg, Mississippi? And who can ever forget the sacrifice of two Jewish lives, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, in the swamps of Mississippi? It would be impossible to record the contribution that the Jewish people have made toward the Negro's struggle for freedom—it has been so great"
"The horrors that are due to race prejudice come home to the Jew more forcefully than to others of the white race, on account of the centuries of persecution which they have suffered and still suffer."-- Julius Rosenwald, 1911
"as a Jew I am obliged to protect institutions that guarantee freedom for all faiths." -- August Bondi, 1861
"The moment when I saw them was like a legend, [They gave them] the Gift of Life" -- Benjamin Bender
We now find ourselves once again in a political environment that is unstable, to say the least. We see that young black children can be murdered on the street and the murderer need not even fear persecution. The Black Live Matter movement had been denounced as a terrorist group while we debate the legality and morality of punching a Nazi in the face. We've seen countless amounts of Jewish centers be threatened with bombs, and Jewish cemeteries desecrated. People have woken up with swastikas painted on their houses or with a cross burned in their year.
And through all this hate and destruction, we've seen members of this world come together. We saw millions of women match worldwide. We've seen a Jewish child and a Muslim child sit side by side on their parent's shoulders at a protest. We've seen white students make a human shield with their bodies around protesting black students because they knew that the police wouldn't harm them with the same absence of morality that they could their black counterparts.
There are people in this world who want to see it burn. They want to inject fear into every aspect of our lives, they want to sow hate and discord between us, and we cannot let them. The Jewish and African American communities have been two of the most abused groups in America, yet here we stand. We must continue to help each other. One of the strongest pillars of secular Judaism is Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. When hate is spewed every day, we must take it upon ourselves to stand with our neighbors, our friends. Tell someone they belong. Defend someone who cannot defend themselves. Try to make the world a kinder place than we found it.