We lived in Charlottesville.
The scenes of violence, mayhem and death recently broadcast from Charlottesville, Virginia were emotionally wrenching for me, not only because of Christopher Cantwell’s and Robert Ray’s terrifyingly unapologetic white supremacist, anti-Semitic rant that was captured by Vice news, but because this was my “old stomping ground:” I lived in Charlottesville from 1985 to 1995, serving as an artist-faculty member of the University of Virginia’s Music department. My family and I also attended Beth Israel Synagogue, the only one in town. On the day of the rally, which happened to be Shabbos, shul members were forced to leave by the back door (they took the Torah with them) to avoid the stream of heavily armed white-supremacists streaming by out front, letting loose, as the shul president commented, a “stream of crude comments using fake ‘Brooklyn’ accents.”
Clearly the “alt-right” demonstration and the counter-protests that greeted them were not primarily about the removal of a monument to General Robert E. Lee, perhaps the most famous Virginian (with the exceptions of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington). The conflict was both about history and two very different visions of society. But why Charlottesville? A bucolic university town identified with founding father Thomas Jefferson would seem to be the last place the alt-right would rally. Why here?
Indeed, Charlottesville’s particular circumstances make it a toxic American ground zero for racial and political unrest. Life there reflects tensions between the competing narratives of extreme left and right visions of society: a town where the intellectualism, wealth and (relatively recent) political correctness of the campus holds itself uneasily separate from a larger community, where poorly educated systemic poverty is the norm.
I know this from my volunteer work with Interfaith Charities in Charlottesville. For blacks, lingering, racially charged historical resentment is met with white xenophobic country crudeness. Blacks and whites in both city and country live side by side yet often far apart. Since the American Civil War (when we lived there, we heard it referred to euphemistically as, the “recent unpleasantness between the States”), Charlottesville has, since the end of the Civil War, existed precariously on the American dividing line between black and white realities, and it is here, in this troubled soil, that hostility was planted long ago, still constantly repressed, and now tragedy is the harvest. If we are shocked by what happened there, we shouldn’t be. The only surprise, really, is how long it took to boil over.
Arriving as at UVa as young faculty family in 1985, one of the first things we did was tour the famous home of Thomas Jefferson, founding father, author of the Declaration of Independence, third president, and later in his life, founder and architect of the University of Virginia, where his architectural vision is preserved in the famous design of the “Lawn” and the Rotunda. TJ, as he is locally known, looms large. Incidentally, the McIntyre Department of Music, where I served as artist-faculty, had offices on the Lawn that faced the august Rotunda, and I played many concerts there and around campus.
The iconic Monticello is truly a magnificent home, filled with interesting and quirky design, it was for many years featured on the American nickel, and it is worth a visit. It sits on spacious and equally impressive grounds, the home of a worldly intellectual. But one aspect of Jefferson’s life that was not mentioned in the tour, however, was his entire existence would have been impossible without slaves: they built and maintained Monticello. And TJ used his slaves for more than work: he had two primary female relationships, one white and one of mixed-race. After Martha Jefferson died, Jefferson began a liaison with his slave Sally Hemings, herself, significantly, Martha’s half-sister, the product of Martha’s white father and his slave Betty Hemings. TJ and Sally’s union is generally thought to have produced six children. One racially charged consequent of this now-famous relationship — in Virginia anyway — is the apparent “controversy” over whether Sally was actually the mother of TJ’s children, despite family tradition and the 1998 DNA match between Jefferson and Eston Hemings, Sally’s youngest son.
While writing this blog post, I checked the Monticello website. Remarkably, TJ’s official Monticello web biography does not mention Sally Hemings by name. It only mentions that Jefferson freed seven slaves and they were “all members of the Hemings family”. In any event, Sally’s name was never mentioned in the tour. My wife tells me that when she toured Monticello in the early ’80s, the slaves were referred to as “servants.” Euphemism again, unforgivably, used to obscure the truth. The stunning irony here is that Virginia culture and politics are stuck on arbitrary definitions of “white” privilege and “black” lack thereof. Sally, was in fact, racially, more white than black, but in any event mixed, as are all her descendants. TJ, along with many “owners,” unforgivably, straddled the race line, blurring racial definitions and hence undermining the axiomatic racial viewpoint of Virginia society.
While the subsequent American chronology of ’60s race riots and the civil rights movement seemed to lead Americans towards acceptance of minorities, it is telling that as late as 1999, a full year after the DNA match, some white Jefferson descendants were still in denial about “black” Jefferson descendants. As reported by the Washington Post on May 17, 1999, 35 Hemings descendants, e.g., Jefferson cousins, were invited and then ejected, presumably on a technicality, but clearly with hostility, from a meeting of the Monticello Association, a group of Jefferson descendants from Martha’s (white) line. During a contentious three-hour confrontation, Hemings descendants reported being asked to leave a mixed-race table.
This kind of racist historical repression over who-is-descended-from-whom is but one aspect of a society that can tap very easily into seething subterranean resentment and anger.
Although President Trump has been faulted in the media for not condemning the right more completely, what I heard as I watched his infamous press conference was him trying to allude to and reject –admittedly in an impolitic way — the vision, in nascent form, of a situation resembling the conflict between Communists and Fascists in ’30s Germany duking it out in the streets while the moderates (read Jews) ran for cover. Neither side in this conflict is particularly Jew-friendly. Never has the verse in Parshas Balak that refers to Israel as “a nation that dwells alone” seemed so relevant.
And so, the most chilling aspect of the whole sorry situation should not be buried under the main clashes downtown. Rabbi Avi Weiss, who went to Charlotteville to offer support to the Jewish community (yashar koach!) relates in an article in New York Jewish Week that the local rabbi, Tom Gutherz, when informed by local authorities erev Shabbos that the synagogue was threatened, asked for protection and was told that none was available. This, of course, was another Charlottesville police euphemism for asking the Jews of Charlottesville to stay home on Shabbos, a remarkable event in what until now has been, certainly in the eyes of most American Jews, an unquestionably safe environment.
Shabbos morning, there were three neo-Nazis standing in front of the shul with automatic weapons. As their numbers swelled, the rabbi again asked for protection. Again, none came. The Jews had hired a lone armed guard who stood outside the shul, but he was clearly outgunned. As alt-right numbers continued to surge, congregants left by the back door, a sickening reminder of earlier, even more dangerous times.
From living nine years in the South, it is clear to me that this lack of Charlottesville police response hearkens back to Reconstruction. It reeks of anti-Semitism. Charlottesville feels like some kind of tipping point, either for good or ill it is too soon to tell. Expressions of compassion by non-Jews may be emotionally comforting, but there may come a point when they too will stay home. In the meantime, if I were living in Charlottesville, I would be davening hard and thinking about aliyah.
And as for the issue of whether to take down that statue of Robert E. Lee, the only question I have is where to draw the line. Let’s say we agree that Lee was a racist and a traitor and shouldn’t be celebrated with a statue. How about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington? Everybody could make their own list, and we could sanitize public spaces of everything that anyone thought was unjust. On this question, I apparently find myself aligned with the president. Why not use these statues as teachable moments? Torah is full of unpleasant characters and dubious acts, yet as Jews we cheerfully deal with complexity. Perhaps what sets Jews and their Torah values apart as America threatens to divide into extreme left and right is the rejection of simple answers to complex questions. On this question of race and history, though, there is no question that although Jefferson lived in and benefited from a racist society, he well understood the moral cesspool he was in. “I congratulate you, my dear friend,” he wrote in 1787 to Edward Rutledge, “on the law of your state for suspending the importation of slaves, and for the glory you have justly acquired by endeavoring to prevent it forever. This abomination must have an end, and there is a superior bench in heaven for those who hasten it.” RC (PHi). PrC (DLC). Published in PTJ, 11:587–9. Perhaps this quote could be fastened to statues of Jefferson everywhere rather than taking them down.