Parshat Re’eh—Shabbat Rosh Chodesh Elul
September 3, 2016—30 Av 5776
He set out to write a story about his family, his community, and his people. But because his people—uneducated whites from Appalachia who feel left behind—are a crucial cohort in this election season, his book had an urgent contemporary resonance, and is currently second on the New York Times Bestsellers List.
His name is J.D.Vance, and his book is called Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. His kin are what he calls Hillbillies—descendants of Scots-Irish, who settled in Appalachia: Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia. As he put it, “Poverty is the family tradition.” His people were coal miners, sharecroppers, millworkers, and they migrated to the industrial heartland, states like Ohio, where they worked in steel towns. Even the good times were not so good. Working in the coal mines is hazardous to one’s health, and you don’t make a lot of money doing it. But now, to add insult to injury, these jobs are drying up. The steel mill where he grew up, in Middletown, Ohio, is now closed. As the economic engines that drove these communities die, the communities languish. That is the reason the word elegy is in his title, a poem or a song that is a lament for the dead. He laments the dying that happens every day in his own family and community.
His Appalachian kin are unemployed or underemployed and struggle financially.
They are undereducated, not ready to thrive in a new, global economy.
Then there are social ills that sprout like weeds from this dismal picture. Drug addiction, alcoholism, teen pregnancy, divorce, violence, including violence within the family unit, and a pervasive sense of what he calls “learned helplessness.” Many feel that the system is “rigged” against them, which means that no matter what they do, they cannot get out of their travails,
which gives them an excuse to do nothing, which only deepens the dysfunction.
J.D. Vance is not an anthropologist talking about a community he is studying. He is a son and grandson talking about his own family. His grandfather, whom he calls Papaw, was an alcoholic, always coming home drunk. His grandmother, whom he calls Mamaw, was not an alcoholic, but she tended to be very violent. They fought a lot, and they fought quite bitterly, about Papaw’s drinking. That violence scarred and shaped the next generation, especially J.D. Vance’s mother who would go on to become a heroin addict. She got pregnant as a teen, giving birth to her son, J.D. Vance. She was married to five different husbands, and she was so unstable, with her drug problem, and the different men in her life, that she was unable to raise her son. J.D. Vance’s father was out of the picture entirely. He was raised by Mamaw and Papaw.
Now here’s where things get really interesting. Addiction and violence were in the grandparent generation, Mamaw and Papaw. Addiction and violence were in the next generation, J.D. Vance’s mother. Once she was arrested for trying to kill her own son. Abuse cycles. But somehow, J.D. Vance transcended all this trauma. He is not violent. He is not an addict. And he is not unemployed. To the contrary, he graduated from Ohio State University, he went on to graduate from Yale Law School, he is happily married, and he is thriving professionally. He is a principal in a venture capital and private equity firm in Silicon Valley.
How did this son of Appalachia make it out of Appalachia and into San Francisco?
How did this son of uneducated white people become part of the elite?
How did he escape the cycle of abuse and poverty that so often claims the next generation?
Engaging these questions is why I bring you his story now. His story speaks not only to the political moment our nation is in. His story speaks to the spiritual and existential moment that each of us is in right now.
Today is Rosh Chodesh Elul. We are one month away from the High Holidays. While J.D. Vance is not Jewish, as I read his story, I thought about how deeply it connects to the key line in our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy, the conclusion of u’netaneh tokef, the central prayer of the days of awe, which speaks to three things we can do to live our best possible life.
The first is teshuvah, repentance. All too often, J.D. Vance says, his Appalachian kin do not look inward, but they look outward and blame others. He tells the story of teens in Middletown who worked in a mill with him one year, a man and a woman, both late teens. She was pregnant, and he was the father. They were not married. They really needed this job to support their future child. But he repeatedly came to work late. She came late. They both took 45
minute breaks. They were both fired. They blamed the Obama economy instead of taking responsibility for their own failures. He concludes:
I believe we hillbillies are the toughest …people on this earth. But are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children? Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us…I don’t know what the answer is precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.
Most of us here in Newton do not have the particular struggles that his community struggles with, but we have our own. J.D. Vance’s first lesson is the lesson of teshuvah: don’t
say who did this to me? Ask what can I do to take responsibility for my own life?
The second is tefilah, prayer. In teshuvah we look inward. In tefilah we look upward and outward. Be open to the leavening influence of another. Perhaps it is God. That is a classic interpretation, and if your relationship with God is real and can motivate you to be the best you you can be, great. But if you are not a God person, open yourself up to an angel of God, a human being who can touch your life for the better.
Vance shares that when he was a teen-ager, he started doing drugs. He started going down the wrong path. But of all people his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, said to him, don’t do what we did, you can be more, you can live better, don’t become a druggie or an alcoholic or a teen father. Make something of yourself. He was open to those angels. As a result of his grandparents’ nurturing, he enrolled in the Marines, where he served for four years, including duty in Iraq. The Marines were also angels of a sort. They taught him was that the basic message of his Appalachian culture—we are helpless before a rigged system—is wrong. To the contrary, our life is the sum of our choices. Don’t look to nameless forces. Look to your own choices.
Which leads to tzedakah, acts of justice. Do something positive. The Marines taught him to take a risk and change his life. He went to Ohio State University. He went to Yale Law School. He notes that when he was at Yale, he was literally the only person from Appalachia in the entire school. He felt like he was in a foreign country where he did not know the moves. On one memorable night, during recruiting season, he went out with a number of other Yale Law students to a fancy restaurant with an elite law firm. When he got to the table, he panicked, because he saw something, he did not know what it was, and he did not know what to do with it. He had never seen it before. He excused himself from the table, went to the bathroom, and called his girlfriend on his cell phone. Honey, there is this thing on the table, near a small plate, it looks like a knife, but it is much smaller than any knife I have ever seen. What is it? What do I do with it? She said: It’s a butter knife. The waiter will pass around some bread, you use that small knife to spread butter. It will be okay. He did use that butter knife, he did get that job, and he went on to chart his own course, out of Appalachia, into Silicon Valley.
Rosh Hashanah is in a month. Hillbilly Elegy gives us three pieces of spiritual homework for this month of Elul before our days of awe:
Teshuvah: Look inward and ask: how can I take responsibility for my own life?
Tefilah: Look outward and upward and be open to the wisdom of God or an angel of God, a teacher or mentor of family member or friend, who can help you help yourself.
Tzedakah: Life is not rigged against his Appalachian kin. His own life proves that. Life is not rigged against us. Every life is shaped by the choices we make.
May Hillbilly Elegy inspire the renaissance of his people’s Appalachian culture. May Elul inspire us to transcend what we need to transcend, and to live the life that we want to live, because we have the power to make that life happen. Shabbat shalom.