Rabbi Michael Rothbaum: "Ferguson/Fargesn" (Delivered on Rosh HaShannah 5775 at Congregation Netivot Shalom)
© Rabbi Michael Rothbaum
Delivered on Rosh HaShannah 5775
Congregation Netivot Shalom
Do you remember?
The crowd was much larger than the police expected. The funeral procession snaked through the bustling downtown district, picking up mourners at each stop. The death brought the community together in ways nobody would have imagined. He wasn’t the man some would have hoped for. But he was theirs. And they would mourn him however they saw fit. No matter what anyone said.
The procession filed past a venerable old building, mostly like any other, albeit much larger. The building had no beef with the mourners, their clothes, their way of speaking. The building never said their kids were too loud, too brazen. The building never called them out for being lazy, shiftless, criminal. The building didn’t seethe and heave with hate.
But the people inside the building? The people were another matter. They leaned out of their windows, out of their spaces, into the spaces and faces of the mourners. At first it was just taunts that exploded out of that old building. But then metal screws and bolts. But then chemical-soaked rags. But then buckets of water. At a funeral procession.
And so the building would be entered. And so the people inside the building would be confronted. With words, and fingers, and bricks, with whatever the building had vomited out of its windows. It would all be returned. The mourners made certain that an equilibrium of anger would be maintained.
But then something upset that equilibrium. The crowd was, after all, much larger than the police expected. And so the action, and the reaction, brought a police action. Not against the people in the building. The police came for the mourners. They led not with moral authority or even common decency, but with stick and club. Blood boiled. Blood was spilled.
One paper reported, “Men were flung down, women were dragged out by arms and shoulders and pushed headlong down the street.” Inspector Adam Cross, the official in charge of the police detail, instructed his men, “Club their brains out.” Eyewitnesses reported police pursued and attacked several people as they tried to escape, and at least two would claim that officers choked them in patrol wagons. Another paper on the scene reported, “[The words] ’Lynch them! Those animals! Those dogs!,’ [could be] heard from all sides.”
In the aftermath, after the mourners were arrested, after the mourners were booked, after the mourners were brought before the court — 93 in total — a judge lectured each of his defendants. He rebuked one, a wife and mother who lived at 420 Cherry Street, with the scold, “you aren’t allowed to riot in the streets.” And she, in turn, rebuked the judge. “We don’t riot,” she said plainly. “But if all we did was weep at home, nobody would notice it; so we have to do something to help ourselves.”
As stark as the similarities may be, this is not an account of Ferguson, Missouri. Or East Oakland. Or East LA.
It happened on the Lower East Side, in New York. In 1902. The victims of hate were not, as we might imagine, African-American. The funeral was for Rabbi Jacob Joseph. And the victims were Jews.
Accounts vary, but there is one constant. Fierce, furious, police action, directed at Jews. “For years I have known that the police had no use for the Jews of the East Side,” recalled one resident, “but their dislike never was evidenced as brutally as in this riot.” The Yiddish daily Forward accused police of a “blood thirsty anti-Semitism” and claimed that officers on the scene were “beating up anybody who looked Jewish.” The Yiddish press regularly referred to the riot as a “police pogrom.”
Between the Oscar Grant shooting at Fruitvale Station, the George Zimmerman acquittal in the Trayvon Martin case, and the ugly pictures coming out of Ferguson following the killing of Michael Brown, many Americans are finding themselves grappling for the first time with issues of racial bias in the criminal justice system.
From a statistical standpoint alone, the picture is an ugly one. People of color constitute roughly two-thirds to three-quarters of our prison system. Despite comparable rates of drug use, African-Americans are one-third more likely than whites to be arrested for drug offenses. Young men of color are more often stopped, questioned, and frisked. And — tragically — those who are stopped are more likely to be shot.
And increasingly, Americans of European heritage are imagining what it’s like to be a targeted minority.
For Jews? It doesn’t take much imagination. Throughout our history, Jews have grown accustomed to looking over our shoulders, to watching what we say, to following orders, sensible or otherwise. From Crusaders to Cossacks, from bank conspiracies to blood libels, Jews know the reality of living with fear. Fear that our martyrs —many of them young men and boys — would be abducted and slaughtered.
And today? Is it not, invariably, men of color? Social science research routinely reveals subjects to be more likely to shoot unarmed blacks over unarmed whites. One study involving mostly white, mostly male, police officers found that they were statistically more likely to let armed white suspects slip, while shooting unarmed black suspects instead. Notwithstanding the presence of men and women of deep integrity among America’s law enforcement officers — and I have met a good number of them — department rules often reinforce our worst instincts. Official Oakland P.D. policy requires officers to “consider any high-risk suspect to be armed until they have personally assured themselves otherwise.”
Who is most likely to be considered “high-risk?” Or, for that matter, a “suspect?”
Today it is black men who are targets. And, in the past, it was Jews. It was us.
Some may protest: “But that was anti-semitism! Look, I don’t want black kids killed either, but you have to admit, there’s criminal behavior in those communities.” If we’re honest with ourselves, we might have to acknowledge that part of us — or more than part — feels this way. There must be something that they’re doing. Those statistics must point to some problem, some cultural issue, some communal pathology.
Consider the words of a New York City police commissioner, nothing if not an expert on crime and its causes. New York’s top cop found it "… astounding that with a million" of one race living in New York, "perhaps half of the criminals should be of that race."
"Among the most expert of all the street thieves," the commissioner asserted, "are [their] boys under sixteen, who are being brought up to lives of crime. Many of them are old offenders at the age of ten." It must be said that the child "emulates the adult in the matter of crime percentages -- 40 percent of the boys... and 27 percent of those arraigned in the Children's Court being of that race."
Important data, to be sure. Except the Police Commissioner who said it was not current commissioner William Bratton, but Theodore A. Bingham. And the statement was made not in 2014, but in 1908, six years after Rabbi Joseph’s funeral.
And the "race" he was talking about was "Hebrews."
Bingham warned that “Hebrew boys” are "burglars, firebugs, pickpockets and highway robbers — when they have the courage."
Some have questioned the logic of well-meaning white Americans marching in solidarity with the African-Americans of Ferguson, chanting in unison, “Hands-up! Don’t shoot!” Some cringed when they saw white Americans donning hoodies and claiming, in solidarity with the Martin family, "I am Trayvon."
But make no mistake. For hundreds of years, it was Jews who were "stopped-and-frisked." For most of our history, perhaps more than any other people, our boys were Michael Brown. We were Trayvon.
If anyone could identify with young men magically deemed pathologically criminal for no other reason save their ethnicity, it would be Jews. If anyone could identify with anxiety about how their children would be treated by the ruling authorities in the streets of their cities and towns, it would be Jews. If any parent could imagine what it would be like to have your unarmed child stalked and killed — a born suspect — it would be a Jewish parent.
It would be Jews who would remember, who would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with African-Americans, united in a shared history as despised and targeted ethnic minorities.
The reality, however, is not so simple.
There’s a joke that my dad told me when I was a kid. Two Jews, both Yiddish speakers, meet for the first time. Introductions are made, and it turns out one of the Jews is named Sean Fergusson. “Sean Ferguson?” the first Jew asks. “Vi kumt a Yid tsu Sean Ferguson?”
“It’s like this,” the second Jew says. “My name was Moshke Rabinowitz. But to escape the Czar’s army, my papa told me to use a fake name. Yankl Katzenstein. I practiced it over and over: Yankl Katzenstein, Yankl Katzenstein, Yankl Katzenstein. And so I sail to America and suddenly there I am! Standing in line at Ellis Island! And getting more and more nervous all the time… And when it’s finally my turn I’m so flustered that I can’t remember my new name! The immigration official asks me what it is… and I can’t think of it! Finally, I stammer, ‘Oy, kh’hob shoyn fargesn!’
[In Yiddish, if you don’t know, kh’hob shoyn fargesn means “I’ve already forgotten.”]
“The man looks at me, stamps my paper, and says, ‘Welcome to America, Sean Ferguson!’”
And damn if it’s not a funny joke, until we ask ourselves: Have we already forgotten? The existential fear of Jews from Isaac to Moshke, from Mount Moriah to Ellis Island? Did we forget? From shoyn fargesn to Ferguson, Missouri? Was it easier to forget?
One of the names for Rosh HaShanah is Yom HaZikaron. The Day of Remembrance. The Day for Remembering. On this Yom HaZikaron, who maintains the memory of the Lower East Side funeral riot of 1902? Or Commissioner Bingham’s Jew-hating rant?
In the Unetaneh Tokef, we say of God: Tizkor kol-haNishkachot. “You remember everything we’ve forgotten.” Have we forgotten our history as genetic scapegoats? How could that be? Anthropologist Karen Brodkin Sacks, author of a book whose title says it all, How Jews Became White Folks And What That Says About Race In America, writes that the "GI Bill and FHA and VA mortgages were forms of affirmative action that allowed male Jews and other Euro-American men to... become professionals, technicians, salesmen and managers in a growing economy."
The brilliant social critic and historian Irving Howe is perhaps more blunt. “So long as native hatreds were taken out primarily on blacks, they were less likely to be taken out on Jews.” Howe continues, “If Jews have been the great obsession of Christianity, blacks have been the great obsession of Americans.”
At this season of confession, it’s time to confess: maybe many of us have been just fine with that arrangement? Maybe we have been more than happy to have ethnic amnesia? As long as those memories of the knock in the night begin to fade, as long as those of us with light-skinned sons are not afraid for them to look at, let alone speak with, neighborhood law enforcement… maybe we can sleep a little easier at night?
But Michael Brown’s mother most likely does not sleep so well. Nor Trayvon Martin’s. Nor Oscar Grant’s. A climate of fear has left mothers bereft of their sons, then as now. The haftarah for this morning was from the prophet Jeremiah. "A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children," reported Jeremiah, 2500 years ago, the Babylonians sweeping through Jerusalem, filling the streets with blood and misery. "She refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more." We may have the luxury of reading this as history, or metaphor, or parable. But for the Rachels of today, mothers of young men of color, this story is all too real.
Rashi looks at this haftarah and sees greatest significance in the final verse. Zachor ezkerenu od. “I will still remember him.” According to Rashi, it is a promise that God will remember us in a good light, essential for us on this Yom HaDin, this Day of Judgement. But what have we done to earn it? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said “in a free society” — in which we are free to speak, to criticize, to protest — “some are guilty. All are responsible.” And who among us feels responsible to the soul of Trayvon Martin? On this Day of Remembrance, who says of Oscar Grant, zachor ezkerenu od? Who says of Michael Brown, “I will still remember him.”
And even if we do, what then?
As some of you know, I’m working with Molly Shapiro and Kate Burch and the Jewish social justice organization Bend the Arc on California Proposition 47. It a small start, but one that we think will have immediate and tangible results. It reclassifies drug possession and minor property crimes as misdemeanors, and puts the money that has been earmarked for incarceration for those crimes into mental health, victim services, and schools. So yes, we want you to vote for Prop 47, and make phone calls in support of it, not least of all because arrests, prosecutions, and sentencing for all those crimes disproportionately affect young men of color.
But this isn’t just about one vote. It’s about how we see ourselves as Jews, and how the way we see ourselves as Jews affects the way we move in the world and vote in the world and interact with the world.
When we hear of a young black kid who dies in police custody, do we think he must’ve done something to bring it on? Or do we think of Rachel in Ramah, weeping for her children? When we see black folks marching in rage and anguish, do we see an unruly mob? Or do we remember the Jews marching through the Lower East Side, clubbed by police nightsticks, in 1902. And when we see Michael Brown’s ruptured corpse neglected in the street for four hours, do we see a thug, a shoplifter, a dead-ender? Or do we see Mount Moriah? Do we see our son Isaac, bound on the altar, terror in his eyes?
Heschel tells the story of how, as a seven-year-old, he first read the text of the akeidah. He recalls that, as he read the tale of Isaac’s near death at the hand of Abraham, he began to weep in empathy and fright.
His rabbi knelt down next to him. “’Why are you crying? You know that Isaac was not killed.’
And Heschel remembers, “I said to him, still weeping, ‘But Rabbi, supposing that the angel had come a second too late?’
“The Rabbi comforted me and calmed me by telling me that an angel cannot come late.
“An angel cannot be late,” concludes Heschel. “But man, made of flesh and blood, may be.”
The angel was right on time for Isaac. And the angel came too late for Michael Brown.
For so many years, we have been the ones bound by hate and bloodlust, helpless on that altar. For generations, the akeidah represented Jewish suffering, Jewish trauma, Jewish death. We were Isaac.
That insecurity hasn’t left the Jewish soul. How could it? But after millennia of being Isaac, on this day, as the sun peaks over Berkeley, as another train pulls into Fruitvale Station, as evening looms in Ferguson, the Jewish people, you and I, can be the angels.
Not the ram, silent, defenseless, a martyr. Not the ram.
The angel who comes on time.
The angel who is not afraid.
The angel who speaks for God.
The angel whose voice is clear, cutting through fear, and cynicism, and suffering:
(Some times it takes more than once to get the message.)
Hineini. I am here. I am accountable. In this nation. At this moment.
Al tishlach yad-cha el ha-na’ar! “Don’t put a hand on the boy!”
“Hands up! Don’t shoot!”
Do you remember?
Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone.
______ Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.
Irving Howe, World of Our Fathers.
Marilynn S. Johnson, Street Justice: A History of Police Violence in New York City.
Sean Maher, “Reinstated Oakland Police Officer to Return Within Two Weeks.” Oakland Tribune, March 7, 2011.