Acknowledging uncomfortable truths can be liberating. White-identified American Jews can look directly at the fact that they have benefited from government policies and programs that were granted at the expense of people of color.
I recently read Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, which narrates the great migration of African-Americans from the South to the North and West. In it, Wilkerson conveys this history through stories of three individuals and their families. One of the migrants, Ida Mae Gladney, fled with her family from Chickasaw County, Miss., and eventually settled on the South Side of Chicago.
The Gladney family story pulled me in from the start. Three generations before me, my family also migrated to Chicago’s South Side. I read with curiosity each time that the book returned to their story: the moves from one overpriced (for Black people), ill-kept flat to the next, and the relentless struggle to keep their children fed and warm on the wages Ida Mae and her husband could muster. Eventually, 30 years after fleeing the South, they had enough saved for a down payment on a home. They found one in the South Shore neighborhood and moved in. Within weeks, there were moving trucks up and down their block, and in little time, the neighborhood had transformed from all-white to nearly all black.
My fascination with Ida Mae’s story went beyond the Chicago connection. My maternal grandmother, who lived her entire life on the South Side, was also named Ida. And as it happens, they were both born in 1913. Initially, I was amazed by these connections and mused to myself about the parallel lives these two women were living.
But when Wilkerson recounted the events surrounding the Gladney’s home purchase, I began to see how my family’s story intersected with theirs. South Shore was actually the neighborhood in which my grandparents lived and raised their children: my mom and her siblings. It was one of the neighborhoods in which my parents lived before moving to the suburbs in the early 1970s, a handful of years after Ida Mae and her family moved in. Around that same time, my grandparents moved a bit north to the neighborhood of Hyde Park. Which is to say that the lives of these two Idas weren’t parallel; they were perpendicular.
I feel uncomfortable with my place in this story. Mind you, my great-grandparents and grandparents and parents were and are generous and caring people. My mother taught in the Head Start program at the Stateway Gardens housing project, and my father volunteered as a coach of a Little League team in their neighborhood before they had kids of their own. And my family story is similar to innumerable stories of Jews who escaped persecution. Ida’s father, my great-grandpa Max, left Russia on his own at age 16, fleeing the Czar’s draft. My son Lev is currently 16, and I shudder to imagine him on that journey. Each generation, beginning with Max’s first scrap-metal operation, has worked hard to achieve success.
Whether my parents’ decision to move to the suburbs was right or not is not the question I am asking. Rather, what this story highlights for me is the fact that they could move — that they had freedom, access and mobility that families like the Gladneys were not granted, even though they worked just as hard, if not harder.
This distinction is not incidental. My family’s success was enabled in various ways by race — by the racial caste into which we were placed (even if not immediately). By systematically providing some people with resources and access, and others not, our society creates realities. These realities lead to stories we tell about ourselves and others that simply are not true. So to consider my family’s success without acknowledging these factors is to tell only part of the story, and in so doing, hides some very important truths.
Naming What Is True
The endeavor of naming what is true — both in our lives and in the world — is a challenge and a moral imperative. An essential step to any positive change is to perceive as clearly as we can the true nature of who we are and how we arrived at this moment. As my friend Rabbi Yael Levy offered when we discussed this topic, “It is so hard to stand in the truth. There are so many ways to duck. So many reasonable ways to duck.” I want to explore the practice of not “ducking” from the truth. Of saying Hineinu: “Here We Are” by being with what is true. Even, or especially, when that truth is uncomfortable.
What does it look like, what does it feel like, to abide in the truth of our lives? I’m not speaking about some objective, philosophical truth. Not the truth. But truth in the sense of integrity, alignment with our commitments and values, recognition and awareness of what is happening within and around us, what has shaped our perspective and our environment, and what motivates us to act one way or another.
Beginning on a very personal level, I recall a seemingly mundane story from my time in rabbinical school. I was in a challenging class, taught by a smart and demanding teacher, learning alongside some very smart colleagues. It was a particularly difficult session, and I tried to get my head around the section of Talmud we were learning. At one point, I offered an interpretation that didn’t cut it. I got a lukewarm response from the professor and nothing from my classmates.
I fell silent and grew emotionally distant from the group. The discussion was esoteric and pointless, I told myself. They’re not listening to each other, I judged; they just want to hear their own voices. As the hour went on, I found myself increasingly annoyed.
At the break, I got up, walked out of the room, down the stairs and out the front door of the building. Directly across from the school is an arboretum. I headed straight to it and started speaking out loud, voicing my criticism of the class, the material, my classmates (some of whom were good friends of mine). And the program in general — it wasn’t right for me; I didn’t really fit in this community. I decided I would stay out in the arboretum and then head home. I was not going back into that classroom.
Then I heard the words: Maybe you’re just feeling insecure because you’re struggling in the class. You need to go back in there.
As I have narrated this story to myself over the years, I call it God’s voice. It doesn’t matter what you think of that or who or what that voice was. The point is that it was the voice of truth. It was crystal-clear, and it was right. And I had no defense against it. I could have resisted it, but I knew that if I did I would only suffer more. I hated having to go back into that classroom. I didn’t have my blame and judgment as a defense anymore. But the truth with which I was faced, while it was something I would have avoided if I could, was also a gift. It gave me a chance to grow and learn, and draw closer to others rather than more distant.
James Baldwin taught:
“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”[fn]From Notes of a Native Son.[/fn]
My example is a pretty tame version of that, but it David Whyte, still is about hiding behind blame and judgment, in which the seeds of hatred are sown. Seeing the truth of a situation is uncomfortable. But the alternative is toxicity, towards ourselves and others.
Truth and Faith
We are given so many opportunities and challenges to live in truth. Moments when we are awakened or have the potential to be awakened from small omissions or mis-tellings, as well as from larger deceptions and betrayals. Infidelities in a relationship or to our commitments. Ways in which we tell ourselves certain things to avoid what is truly being asked of us. And each time we do, it is not that we are failing to obey some external God of judgment. It is that we are missing opportunities to access our potential for learning and connection, and to facilitate healing and transformation. The Hebrew word for “truth” is emet. Its root is the same as the root of the word emunah, “faith.” The capacity to encounter and abide in truth emerges out of faith, trust — in ourselves, in our loved ones and our relationships, in this life and in its potential for meaning and wholeness. Sharon Salzberg writes,
“Faith enables us, despite our fear, to get as close as possible to the truth of the present moment, so that we can offer our hearts fully to it, with integrity. … Faith gives us the willingness to engage life, which means the unknown, and not shrink back from it.”[fn]Salzberg, Faith, p. 87f[/fn]
When we have faith in the value of this life and our world, we are more able to encounter truths even when they are difficult.
The Tendency to Hide
The poet David Whyte offers this:
Confession is a stripping away of protection, the telling of a truth which might once have seemed like a humiliation, becomes suddenly a gateway, an entrance to solid ground; even a first step home. … To confess is to declare oneself ready for a more courageous road.[fn]Whyte, Consolations, p. 33[/fn]
If we view the confessions of the High Holy Days as self-deprecating, we miss the point. Instead, we name what is true as a gateway onto that more courageous road. At the heart of vidui, confession, is a loving presence that assures us that we no longer need to hide, or that we can hide just a bit less.
This tendency to hide is deep and old within us. From almost the very beginning of Torah, we hide. After Adam and Eve eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, God asks, Ayeka? “Where are you?” It’s as if the Divine is setting them up to say, “Hineinu — Here we are. This is what we did. How do we make amends?” Instead, of course, Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the serpent. Interestingly, though, before blaming Eve, Adam explains that they were hiding because they knew they were naked. He acknowledges the hiding, as if the inclination to confess almost breaks through. But that inclination is quickly cast aside.
I love this detail in the text because it acknowledges that we cannot always face the truth directly. We cannot always say the full Hineinu. Sometimes, it’s too painful or too frightening to be with life as it is. But even when we can’t, we can be truthful about our hiding from the truth. And that is often the crucial first step.
Truth in the Public Sphere
Each time we are truthful with ourselves, we condition ourselves to stand up for truth in the public sphere. There is growing falsehood in the world. It is dangerous, and we need to shine a light upon it boldly. Timothy Snyder, in his essential little book On Tyranny, puts it simply: “Post-truth is pre-fascism.” This we know already. He also writes this: “You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case.” And so we must be diligent, not only in calling out others but also in interrogating our own perspectives, our own narratives of who we are and how we got here. We must be willing to not know, must be willing to encounter new truths when they present themselves.
The Unexamined Past
In a work in progress, Havurah Shalom member Rebecca Clarren is exploring her family’s history as ranchers in South Dakota. Her ancestors escaped antisemitic persecution in Russia. Enduring great toil and discomfort, they built a life for themselves and their descendants in the American West.
Like other immigrants at the time, the family received land from the federal government — 160 acres for free if they could turn prairie into farmland. Becca explores her realization years ago that the land our government had given her family and other settlers had, of course, first been stolen from native tribes. She reflects on how, amid all the rich stories passed down from her great-great-grandparents and their children — stories of genuine endurance and resolve — there were no stories of the native peoples who were displaced. She writes,
“That these particular stories are what have been handed down, selected from the slush pile of history, leaving other more problematic plotlines behind, is instructive. Because of course, both the stories we tell and the ones we don’t equally create the myth we pass to future generations.”
It is no small thing to tell stories that have lay hidden, to unearth what Becca calls the “previously unexamined past.” It is an uncertain and often risky path to travel because we don’t know how what we find will change our understanding of who we are, and of our identities, whether personal or collective, in relation to others whose histories were different. For those of us who have benefited from whiteness in this country, there is so much still to be examined.
I think of the way we describe our ancestors, whether Jewish or otherwise, as having “pulled themselves up by their boot straps” upon coming to the United States. It’s not that my great-grandparents, for instance, didn’t work hard when they got here. They endured sacrifices beyond anything I have had to suffer. But people who have amassed any amount of wealth in this country received government assistance along the way. The mortgage-interest deduction and tax breaks for capital gains are but two examples in which government assistance disproportionately aids people who already have some wealth. Implicit in the boot-straps narrative is that if you are poor, then your ancestors didn’t pull themselves up by their boot straps, at least not hard enough.
This ignores the fact that for some groups of people, assistance was denied or made so cumbersome that it was, in effect, inaccessible. Though the GI Bill, for instance, was ostensibly color-blind, it largely left out black veterans. And needless to say, Native Americans did not benefit from the Homestead Act of 1862, the law that provided settlers with those 160 acres of land. In addition, discriminatory housing policies, wildly divergent levels of investment in education and a criminal- justice system that targets black and brown people are just a few more examples of ways in which many of us have received a boost, while others, in particular those upon whose land and backs this nation was built, have been systematically denied access to accruing wealth and security. So while a family’s success may very well have involved some boot strap-pulling, that truth is partial enough that it conceals more than it reveals.
In a 2019 interview on National Public Radio’s program “Fresh Air,” Ta-Nehisi Coates, speaking about why memory is so important and powerful, offers that, “Much of [this] country’s history is premised on forgetting; [on] not remembering certain things.” And in an introduction to his groundbreaking article, “The Case for Reparations,” Coates writes, “To enact reparations would mean not simply an outlay of money but also a deep reconsideration of America’s own autobiography.”
Neither personally nor collectively do we want to remember things that are uncomfortable — ways in which we have caused harm, or bear some responsibility for injustice. So instead we hide. The first step towards healing and repair is simply to acknowledge what we know is true.
In our remembering, compassion is essential. For others and for ourselves. If we pursue truth with blame and shame, we will not be able to get close enough to it. If our approach castigates or diminishes, it will only fuel more suffering. One of my favorite midrashim, imaginative retellings of Torah, follows the people’s building the Golden Calf. God wants to destroy them, but Moses pleads on their behalf. According to the midrash, Moses became physically ill when he heard what the people had done. A later commentator, the Meshekh Hokhmah[fn]Meshekh Hokhmah, R. Meir Simhah ha-Kohen of Dvinsk, Riga 1927[/fn] runs with this and says Moses pleaded so hard on behalf of the people that he prayed himself into a fever, and in the depths of that fever, in a trance-like state, saw within himself the same capacity for faithlessness. He realizes that if he had been beneath the mountain without a leader rather than up on the mountain with God, he, too, might have reached for something to ease his fears.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, in that same “Fresh Air” interview, also says,
“History … and maybe moral problems in general, become really, really easy if you can’t see yourself in the people that you condemn. Because then you just get to feel better than other people. You know, ‘I would never do x, y and z.’ ”
When hard truths reveal themselves, sometimes we blame others, and sometimes we berate ourselves. Both are variations on hiding. The alternative path is to say Hineinu. Here we are. This is who we are, this is who I am. These are the ways in which we have, so far, become who we are. All that is wounded, all that is beautiful. Here we are. Let us navigate these waters together. Let us support each other as we take the risks we need to step out onto that “more courageous road.”
Adapted from a talk delivered at Havurah Shalom, Portland, Oregon, Rosh Hashanah 5780.