Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Difference! Part 2 

Growing up in the 1950’s, I had a sense of security. This came from many sources. We had a stable two parent, two child family. We went to a friendly, neighborhood school across the street. Officer Sy was so nice as he guided us across Salem St. We lived in, what we thought was a mixed neighborhood. There were Irish, Italians and Jews. It’s almost like we lived in a family-friendly sitcom. My sister and I went with my father OB”M to the corner drug store to get ice cream cones for a nickel. On Sundays, in the summer we went to the beach, and had a barbecue. The only Black we knew was Mr. Jackson, who was also on the Malden City Council, and spoke some Yiddish. Boy, did all that change when we entered the ‘60’s! 

Suddenly, the world didn’t look so rosy or safe or fair. 

I’m not sure which event changed my world view. Was it the Bay of Pigs? The Berlin Wall? The A-Bomb drills in school (Did we really think that crouching under the desk served some purpose, other than to scare us to death?)? But the event which moved my mind to another plane forever was the March on Washington. 

Embed from Getty Images

That event is on my mind, because even President Trump recognizes the symbolism of that august setting. There were a lot of big stars there, including Moses.

Embed from Getty Images

It was August 28, 1963. I remember the date so clearly. Sitting on the floor with my older sister, and enthralled by the unfolding events. Peter, Paul and Mary singing about a ‘hammer of justice, a bell of freedom, and a song about love between my brothers and my sisters’. Then I spaced out, because there were a bunch of speakers. There was a rabbi with a German accent. Finally, Martin Luther King got up to speak. The tears just rolled down my face as he kept telling us that he had a dream, and concluding: 

And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last! 

I can’t record the words without crying. My world was changed forever. 

Until the mid 60’s, Jews were very involved in the Civil Rights Movement. It’s sad how that changed, but that’s a story for another time and venue. But one story: the Love affair of Jews with the Movement broke for good in 1968. During the New York City teacher strike, there were clashes between Jews and Blacks in the Ocean hill-Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. Julius Lester had a radio show on WBAI, and had the following poem read on the air: 

Hey, Jewboy, with that yarmulke on your head / You pale-faced Jew boy — I wish you were dead! 

Irony of ironies, Lester converted to Judaism in 1982, and passed in 2018. 

When discussing how Orthodox Judaism came roaring back from the doldrums in the 1960’s, we can’t ignore the Civil Rights Movement, which made it permissible to be different. 

In previous posts, I mentioned a student at Brandeis who told me that he first felt okay wearing a kipa when an African American wore a dashiki. Yesterday, I quoted Rav Yisrael Deren telling me that the Lubavitcher Rebbe credited the Hippies for the success of the Ba’al Teshuva movement. 

When discussing the resurgence of Jewish observance and spirituality, we can’t ignore sociology. The great Jewish historian, Prof. Jonathan Sarna wrote to me that ‘it’s a big mistake to look at the Jewish events of the 60’s and 70’s outside of the full US context.’  

Rav Yosef Blau, senior Mashgiach Ruchani at YU, and my first Talmud rebbe, watched a lot of these developments, and observed: 

The 60’s played a number of critical roles. The Civil Rights Movement changed the concept of the Melting Pot. It was now permitted to be different; it allowed diversity. You no longer had to be a WASP to succeed. It didn’t force people to wear kipot, but it allowed the wearing of Kipot. Credit goes to the anti-discrimination laws for allowing Jews to keep Shabbat and Yom Tov. Nat Lewin took advantage of these laws to push an Orthodox agenda. 

It’s true. We must look at the remarkable Orthodox face-lift in a greater context, and acknowledge our debt to other ethnicities who found their niche.  

Before I end this post, just one comment about Nathan Lewin. He was born in Lodz, Poland in the 30’s and escaped to the States in 1941.  Mr. Lewin graduated from Harvard Law School, clerked for Supreme Court Justice John Harlan. He litigated many important First Amendment Rights cases for Orthodox Jews, including the Chanukiah case for Chabad against Pittsburg, PA, an Air Force officer for the right to wear a kipa, the Satmar community in upstate New York for benefits for handicapped school children, the right of Jewish chaplains to wear beards, and many cases in favor of Shabbat observing Jews. His most famous recent case was Zivotovski v. Clinton on the issuing of passports in Jerusalem being stamped Israel. An opponent once described Lewin as, ‘the guy who if they don’t let you wear a yarmulke and you’re an astronaut, he’ll sue NASA.’ 

I tried a number of times to interview Mr. Lewin. His secretary was very nice each time, but he’s been too busy to fit me in, so far. He’s continues to be an almost one-man force for Jewish Civil Rights in the US.  I said ‘almost one-man force’, because he partners with his daughter, Alyza, in this important work. 

Jewish Civil Rights in the US has been very fortunate, indeed, to have a champion the likes of Nathan Lewin, protecting our right to be different. Just as Thomas Jefferson intended.

Next: Jell-O, Again! 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.