Of Walls, Donuts and Democracy

Yesterday was a most unique Tisha b’Av, the events of the day blending my dual identities in that sacredly synchronistic way that sparks my activist soul into action. Growing up in Akron, Ohio, the 9th day of Av was not a meaningful day on our Jewish calendar.  My first memorable encounter with our People’s historical day of destruction was in 1979 on my first trip to Israel. As I recall, our AZYF college group (i.e., the Jewish Agency) spent that day in a rundown retreat center with programming that was just as outdated. Many years later, empowered by my Wexner Heritage Foundation education and rooted by our home in Jerusalem, I immersed myself and my children in the Israeli Jewish style of observance which reflects the complexities of modern day Israel.

Wednesday night I found my way into the zoom room of The Park Synagogue, the conservative synagogue that was home to my family for the first part of the kid’s childhood and the place where Bill and I first sang High Holidays together.  Thanks to the disruption of the pandemic and the magic of zoom, I spent this Erev Tisha B’Av with my first Cleveland rabbi Joshua Skoff, who like me, graduated from the University of Michigan, my dear friends Mitch and Tom from our family chavurah, Sharon, who was the conductor of HaZamir Cleveland when my daughter Sarah was involved in our chapter and to my surprise and delight, my friend from USY days, Eric Fingerhut, who is now the professional head of the Jewish Federations of North America, who grew up here in Cleveland at Park Synagogue. Sitting on the floor of my bird room with this community on my iPad screen, I was able to travel back and forth in time and place, which is the power and essence of Jewish historical memory. How easy it was for me to imagine myself at the Western Wall, lamenting not just the historical loss of the First and Second Temples, but also the current challenges and difficulties of building a world that deserves to be called the “Beloved Community.”

How fitting that on the day my Jewish narrative was singularly focused on the consequences of baseless hatred, my American narrative was celebrating the life of Rep. John Lewis, z”l, who battled hatred his entire life. For over three hours yesterday, we participated in the most remarkable funeral of a modern day Founding Father. The power of these public rituals during these pandemic times is profound and palpable. I found myself in tears throughout the service. The historic setting of the Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr. Martin Luther King preached, the soaring oratory of the speakers, from Dr. King’s daughter who referred to him as “Daddy” to the broken-hearted 12-year old boy, a friend of Rep. Lewis’s, who teared up at the end of his poetry reading. I confess that I shed more tears on 9 Av 5780 than any in recent memory as I mourned the death of a Civil Rights Icon, knowing in my heart that the state of this Nation is in utter despair. Yet, that despair, laid so bare by the impact of Covid-19, is the fire that is fueling the current movement for Racial Justice, the Civil Rights Movement of the 21st Century.

It was my need to be a part of that movement that led me to get involved with the Beachwood students to plan last month’s Rally for Racial Justice.  I followed my natural impulse, “to answer the highest calling of (my) heart and stand up for what (I) truly believe in.”  As Rep. John Lewis wrote us to us in his final letter, published in yesterday’s New York Times,  I needed to “walk with the wind,” guided by “the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love” to demand Racial Justice. Given that spirit and the ease of planning the Rally, I was blindsided by the anger of the students as to how the Rally unfolded and my role in it.  What I’ve learned is that I did become a personal proxy for the older generation, for the establishment, and in one case, for a student’s parents. 

In the seven weeks that have passed since the Rally, I’ve been a part of the reckoning and hopefully the reconciliation that is necessary for the Civil Rights Movement of the 21st century to truly achieve the goal of Liberty and Justice for All. Perhaps the most difficult moment was when one of the young women from Cleveland Heights who intervened in the Beachwood Rally asked me to explain myself, playing an unauthorized recording of the heated debriefing meeting I had with the Beachwood students, during our meeting a few weeks ago. Taking a deep breath and grateful that my mouth was covered by a mask, I explained myself, noting that unfortunately, stereotypes are often rooted in facts and unfortunately my comment reflects the general inequities found in inner city public schools. After the meeting, realizing that I was perceived as a racist amongst the young Black Lives Matter community, I needed to understand why the students had turned against an obvious ally in this manner.

What I learned is that the young man who made that unauthorized recording and then sent it to the Cleveland Heights activists is a recent graduate of a private school in the outer suburbs of Cleveland. I assumed he lived in Beachwood; another assumption proved wrong. In fact, Marty lives in a far eastern suburb on 10 acres of property in a very large home; he is neither a Beachwood High School student nor a resident of Beachwood. Yet, Marty needed to get involved in the Black Lives Matter Movement because his personal story is one that he is ashamed of. Marty’s parents are immigrants to the United States from Johannesburg, South Africa, where racism was an institution until Nelson Mandela changed the civil society. I learned Marty’s story when I spoke to Marty’s mother last week. I called her to explain to her that her son had made an unauthorized recording of me and then sent it around as an example of a racist bigot, defaming me, and that I had rights he had violated. As a lawyer, I know my rights; as a civil rights activist, I try to do the right thing. As a mother, I know that young people need to be guided and if my children had behaved in this manner, I would want to know. For all these reasons I reached out to Marty’s mother.

I introduced myself and asked Marty’s mother if she had been at the Rally. When she answered yes, I identified myself as the woman who planned the Rally with the students. She responded, “the woman with the beautiful voice” and we went from there. I learned she and Marty’s father were at the Rally and were deeply moved. She thanked me for my role in the Rally, gave me the family background and went out of her way to let me know they were Republicans. She then went on to explain how very difficult Marty has been since the death of George Floyd, z”l. So difficult that he vetoed many of the ideas she had for his graduation party, especially the donut wall. I had never heard of a donut wall until that moment but assumed, correctly, that it is a festive way to serve fancy donuts at a party. Marty, so ashamed of his family’s good fortune, would not allow a frivolous donut wall  a his graduation party. The picture became much clearer in that moment.

 I assured Marty’s mom that as an activist myself, I applauded young people who answer the moral imperative to pursue racial justice. In this case, however, Marty went a bit too far, violating my constitutional right to privacy, perhaps violating wiretapping laws while defaming me by portraying me as a racist. Now, this is a smart young man who is a National Merit Semi-Finalist, so I think he could follow  simple logic: Someone who is a racist will not put herself out there in the public sphere to demand racial justice. Simple logic. But young people, enraged by injustice, angered by a pandemic and ashamed of their own personal narrative may not have the ability to be thoughtful, logical, empathetic, strategic. After all, that is what makes them the young generation.

How blessed this American democracy is that young John Lewis was so different from Marty and the other student activists. This “boy from Troy” who had every right to be enraged, angered and insensitive to the plight of others found the way to change civil society and then walked the Halls of Congress for 33 years. Rep. Lewis understood that the US Constitution is our American “Tree of Life” and that words, images and optics matter in the pursuit of social justice. He knew that there was dead wood hanging from that Tree and that the power of the people’s vote is the force that can finally cut away that dead wood. His letter called on the young generation to “study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time…….The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time.” These were some of the lessons I was trying to teach the students in the short week we planned the Rally. The timing of Rep. Lewis’s death, just at this moment in American history, presents the young generation of activists an opportunity to embrace his more excellent way of making social change. A strong alliance with the Jewish People, a people that knows slavery and oppression, is key to the political activity that is needed to keep moving toward a more perfect union. While Jews did not experience the Black experience, the Black experience was strengthened by the faith that the Jews brought to the world. Recent American history demonstrates our two communities are strengthened when we walk together.

So it was that on this 9 Av, despite my deep despair over the state of affairs in both democracies I care about, the US and Israel, I was able to find comfort in the soaring tributes to Rep. John Lewis as well as the words of deep faith, many from Jewish text. Noting that it was exactly 7 weeks from the day of the Rally for Racial Justice to the day of Rep. Lewis’s funeral, I smiled knowing we are now embarking on the 7 weeks of consolation, with a special Haftarah reading marking each week. Tomorrow, Jews around the world will read the comforting words of Isaiah, “Nachamu, nachamu, ami…..Comfort, oh comfort My People, Says your G-d,” moving us away from a state of sadness to a place of joy and love. Yesterday, we read the prophetic words of John Lewis who reminds us that “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.” He goes on to proclaim that “Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society.” It is that vote which has the power to “redeem the soul of our nation.” I hope Marty and his peers understand this simple truth which unfortunately, is not always self-evident. Being a living witness to this truth is to walk in the ways of John Lewis. I hope they follow his lead. 

Just as powerful Jewish memories inspire us to work toward building a better world, may the memory of John Lewis inspire all of us to work toward the “Beloved Community”. In the 7 weeks between now and the dawn of a new Jewish year, may both the people of my Home and the People of my Homeland find the strength, wisdom and compassion to defeat both Covid-19 and the mega-virus of racism, bigotry, intolerance and corruption. And perhaps, in both places, we’ll eat a few donuts along the way.

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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