Of Blossoms, Blessings and Blunders

Today marks exactly 4 months since I left my 11th floor perch above Broadway and 108th St to shelter in place here in Beachwood, in the comfort of my home of 10 years, surrounded by the love of my family. While NYC is no longer the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic, traveling between two places, especially via plane, places one at greater risk of exposure. So it is that once again, Bill and I are relaxing under the beechwood tree with only Sammy to play with to protect Rachel and family from the virus. The irony is that when Bill leaves Cleveland to return to NYC next week, he has to register with the State of New York because he is coming from Ohio, a viral hot spot.

During these days when the world around us is swirling out of control, I find simple comfort in my garden which consists of potted flowers scattered around the yard, as well as ferns, vines and other flowering bushes. Due to the pandemic, I bought my plants at the local Giant Eagle grocery store, rather than the plant nursery which is my yearly ritual. As I didn’t expect much from these plants, I have been delighted that they have bloomed and continue to bloom through this hot month of July. Of special joy are the two hibiscus plants I bought in the spring that sit on my deck which are in their blooming glory! 

When we moved Mom moved up to Moreland Hills in the wake of her cancer 14 years ago, we brought with her those things from Hampton Ridge that would provide her comfort as she faced her cancer journey. So it was that Mom and Dad’s two majestic hibiscus trees found their way from the deck of Hampton Ridge to the beautiful back deck of our home on W. Juniper Lane. In the difficult months after Mom’s death, each red blossom brought me a measure of comfort during a time of deep and profound grief. I still am deeply comforted with each red flower, remembering how much joy Mom and Dad derived from the simple act of gardening together. Their love for each other, and the memories that love evokes, continue to be a beautiful blessing.

Those of us who have been able to weather the storm of the pandemic in the comfort of our beautiful homes, living and working in a manner that provides the most protection from the virus are truly blessed. Since the beginning of this pandemic, I have been acutely aware that I enjoy the Blessings of Liberty promised by our Founding Fathers. By virtue of my personal story, the zip code I was born into, my family of origin, the education and opportunities I received, the decisions I made, I am able to live a life free of economic worry and systemic discrimination. My children and grandchildren are well provided for. I am part of a philanthropic community that allows me to channel my concern for the greater good into concrete action through a network of agencies and institutions that are an essential component of our civil society. I am blessed to have the resources to follow my activist calling and contribute in constructive ways to the social change movements I believe in.

A decade ago, on July 12, 2010, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, I witnessed gross injustice and naked abuse of police power as part of a Women of the Wall Rosh Hodesh minyan. I needed to raise my voice, call out the injustice and demand societal change. “Sacred Rights, Sacred Song” was born out of a need to educate an unaware American Jewish public of abuses of civil rights in the State of Israel. With my relocation to New York, I have joined forces with like-minded activists within the structure of the New York-UJA Federation’s Israeli Judaism committee. It is disheartening, to say the least, to see that despite major legal achievements on behalf of religious freedom for all Jews in Israel, the government remains hostage to the medieval views of ultra-Orthodox rabbinic and political leadership. We had hoped that with Benny Gantz in a leadership role we would see some significant change. We are still waiting.

Here, in the United States, however, the demand for societal change is raw, fierce and dynamic as the brutal murder of George Floyd in the midst of the wreckage of the pandemic has ignited a call for racial justice. Just as I was called to action 10 years to raise my voice against injustice in Israel, in June of 2020 I felt the moral imperative to somehow take to the streets to say yes, Black Lives Matter, and to call for the comprehensive systemic changes that must be instituted to address the toxic legacy of slavery in this country. It was that well-intentioned desire to build a demonstration that would allow the residents of Beachwood to raise our voices to demand racial justice that led to the series of events that have been anything but a blessing. (See my previous blog, Of Mayors, Marches and Muck which tells my back story of Beachwood’s Rally for Racial Justice)

A blunder is defined as “a stupid and grave mistake, a clumsy, foolish act or remark.” Blunder in verb form is defined as making “a stupid mistake because of ignorance or confusion.” In the wake of yesterday’s meeting with the two Case Western Reserve University undergraduate students who intervened in the Rally for Racial Justice, it is clear that my blunders with the student activists, both that night and in the subsequent debriefing “meeting,” created an impression of me as a racist bigot. While horrified, I was not surprised when one of the young women played a recording of my raw comments about the unplanned speaker, sent to her by one of the Beachwood students who recorded that meeting without my knowledge. Apparently, that is what this generation does. My comments, my blunders, were grounded in confusion and my so-called student planning partner knew that.  How foolish of me to assume that I was dealing with a mature group of student activists. The level of deception revealed in yesterday’s meeting was painful to hear yet I understand that someone had to take the blame. They needed to take my words out of context to shame an entire generation. In the process they smeared an activist of good will.

Fortunately, my true partner in this work of racial justice is the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League here in Cleveland. The meeting yesterday, which was a chance for the young women to call me out on my apparent racist stereotypes, was also an opportunity for me to introduce these young Black activists to the work of the ADL. At my core, I am an institutional activist. Before I return to my life in New York City sometime in the late Fall, I would like to help establish a program that connects these Black activists with their Jewish peers here in northeast Ohio, under the umbrella of the ADL. Hopefully, the college students will take advantage of this opportunity to build a bridge with other activist communities.

The final take away from my blunders is this – sometimes, “stereotypes” are grounded in factual truth, which is what makes them so powerful in both positive and negative ways.  Frustrated that a young Black college student spoke who was not on the program, having done my homework and learned his story, having connected with him and thinking I was building some type of artist/activist collaboration, I was dismayed to learn that my raw comment about him had been recorded, sent to him and then incorporated into a performance piece he dropped for Juneteenth. But here’s what I know – it is the rare adult who can get up at a moment’s notice and speak before 2,000 people. While some young people experienced in public speaking may be more confident than the average adult, I was simply surprised when a young Black man who appears to come from the inner city, boldly and confidently said his unplanned piece. Just as when my son-in-law wears his black hat on Shabbat he signals something about himself, there are certain headscarves young Black men wear that signal a piece of their identity.

There is also a raw truth which is part of the call for racial justice – despite well-meaning efforts, the majority of the inner city schools fail too many children who come from families of color. I know this because as a civic activist I’ve been part of efforts to improve the quality of inner city school education for decades. While in utter frustration I blundered into this comment about a “kid from the ghetto”, what appears to be a racist stereotype is a generalization that is grounded in factual truth. And that truth is part of the call for racial justice. But then again, I don’t expect total strangers to know my experiences, my perspectives nor the work I have done to improve the quality of life for those who have not been as blessed as me. 

Which brings me back to the hibiscus plants and the simple joy their blossoms bring me. Each day, I have a tangible reminder of the summer 14 years ago when my personal world began to turn upside down as Mom’s cancer diagnosis changed my life forever. Yet these are brand new plants, purchased at my local Giant Eagle during the height of the pandemic, coaxed along by liberal watering and some Miracle Grow. The beechwood tree that is the centerpiece of my backyard is well-rooted, reflecting how I feel as I celebrate 10 years as an artist/activist who had the courage to build a new life, despite the personal cost. Perhaps it is that feeling of being totally grounded here in my home in northeast Ohio that gave me the strength and courage to naively jump into the fray of the Black Lives Matter/Racial Justice movement as an activist at large.  May those blunders become blessings,  nourishing fruitful social justice action here in northeast Ohio and throughout our Land, so that the children of the two young women have a far better life, enjoying the Blessings of Liberty as we live in a society where there truly is Justice for All.

About the Author
Francine M. Gordon is an artist/activist who maintains homes in New York and Cleveland. From November 2010 through November 2016, through The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project, she produced over 10 Concerts of Concern in the US and Israel. Since establishing her New York residence, Ms. Gordon has become a member of the New York Federation’s Israeli Judaism committee which focuses on exactly the same issues as SRSS. In addition, she has become a proud member of the Zamir Chorale which allows her to express her Zionism through song.
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