Silence drowns out self-respect

The NBC series “This Is Us” has become a ritual in our home. It is reminiscent of “Thirtysomething” in its cadence and examination of relationships, which may not be surprising considering that Ken Olin, one of the main actors from “Thirtysomething,” is a director and executive producer on the series.

Rather than exploring friendships, however, the overarching storyline in the current series primarily is focused on the Pearson family. Jack and Rebecca Pearson are the parents of triplets — Randall, Kevin, and Kate. Randall was adopted but born on the same day as Kevin and Kate (and to get more details, you will need to tune in). Right now, fans are waiting for an episode that will air immediately after the Super Bowl that finally will reveal how Jack, their dad and Rebecca’s husband, died just before the kids finished high school. This episode should result in impressive ratings.

In the most recent episode, the brothers were talking about mortality, and Randall made the point that they now have lived longer without their father than they had with him. Seems like a simple, almost throwaway line, but the gravity of this simple statement of fact is palpable if this is part of your own life story.

My dad died suddenly just as I finished my sophomore year in college. His death was so unexpected that his own doctor was in as much disbelief as were we. And though life continued, there is not a day that I don’t think of my father and all the lessons he taught my brothers and me in those brief 19 years. And I clearly remember that seemingly innocuous and yet consequential day that Randall was talking about — the moment when you now are living longer without your loved one than you had with them. It was a very strange feeling, as so many of the things he taught me, through both words and by example, fill my head. There were so many lessons about living life to its fullest, about never giving up, and about survival if the world goes dark.

There isn’t a week that goes by that issues my father talked about decades ago are not in the news, but I think the most important lesson I learned from him was not to be afraid to stand up for who you are, whether as a woman, an American, or a Jew. He showed us in so many ways that if you don’t respect yourself, no one else will. And respect is key to any relationship, professional or personal.

Though words are important, actions convey so much more, as it was with this life lesson. My parents decided to invest in a business that sold and repaired trucks in the 1970s. The firm had been my father’s client for many years, and when one of the original partners died, he was offered the opportunity to buy in. At that time, the business had an arrangement with Mercedes Benz in Germany for the trucks, but they used American-made Leach chassis. My father’s stipulation was that his location wouldn’t sell any of the trucks, but that they would repair them. All the partners agreed, and the deal was signed.

When the executives at Mercedes in Germany learned of the new partner, they wanted to send my father a Mercedes-Benz car as a gift. He thanked them, but declined the offer. The person offering the car, however, was a persistent senior executive who wouldn’t quit. He kept offering the car and my father continued to decline graciously. Then one day the man came from Germany to visit my parents’ shop in Mount Vernon. During their conversation, he told my parents that they must visit Germany. My father’s response was cordial yet direct. “I will go if you will take me to the lampshade and soap factories.”

The executive was stunned into silence.

From that moment on, this senior executive would work with no one but my father, even though two of the partners were of German heritage, and one had been born in Germany. This man respected my father. He, like my dad, had lived through World War II, and from this interaction he understood that my father was principled and couldn’t be bought, either as an American or as a Jew. They both knew that a luxury car meant nothing compared to Mercedes’ support of the Nazi dictatorship and exploitation of forced laborers.

Think about how the world would be different if we spoke about countries having respect for each other. What about respect deals rather than peace deals? Sound silly? When is the last time you heard of someone who willfully murdered someone they held in esteem? How different might the world be if governments respected their people’s opposing opinions rather than suppressing them with the threat of terror and murder, as we see in too many countries around the world, from Iran to Cuba and Russia, to name just a few?

And what about standing up together as American Jews, calling out anyone who stands with the anti-Semitic, anti-American, racist leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan?

Askia Muhammad is the photographer who shot a photo of then-Senator Barack Obama smiling with Farrakhan at a meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus. According to Mr. Muhammad, the photo was taken in their room at the Capitol in 2005. When he was asked why the photo never appeared until this month, Mr. Muhammad said that he didn’t publish it after receiving an urgent request from a member of the Congressional Black Caucus immediately following this meeting. Thus far, there have been no denials about the meeting taking place, nor the request. The question now is what are we going to do?

Are we going to be silent, or are we going to stand up and ask the Congressional Black Caucus about this story, and whether anyone in their caucus has a relationship with Farrakhan now or has hosted him or the Nation of Islam in the years since this photo was taken? And which member issued this urgent request to bury the photo years ago? If the caucus invited Farrakhan to a meeting room in the Capital, don’t we have the right to full disclosure?

Was Congressman John Lewis present? Did he know about the meeting? What about Congresswoman Maxine Waters? Or James Clyburn, the current assistant Democratic leader in the House of Representatives?

Hosting someone in the Capitol who spews hatred is abhorrent. If it were a congressional meeting with David Duke, we would demand answers. If we don’t find out why this event took place, who supported it, and what the current relationship between the Congressional Black Caucus, their members, and the Nation of Islam is now, how can we — as Americans and as Jews — respect ourselves?

About the Author
Martha Cohen is an award winning producer and creative executive. She is a Berrie Fellow and currently sits on the JFNNJ JCRC and StandWithUs East Coast Boards. She chaired the JFNNJ Partnership2Gether when the Young Leadership program was developed and executed; and, continues to be closely involved. Martha and her husband David live in Fort Lee with their son, Harry.
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