January 23, 2021 — 10 Shevat 5781
This past Tuesday night, erev Inauguration, in a cold classroom with the windows open, and the January wind coursing through, I decided to get a sense of how our seventh graders felt about America. So I gave each student a sheet of paper that had a prompt on it, and asked everyone to think about the prompt and write their response which they would then share.
The prompt was: “America is the greatest country in the history of the world.” Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Please explain your reasoning.
That prompt came from me, from my heart and soul. I grew up believing it. I went to college in the late 70s and early 80s, majoring in American history. After studying American history, I still somehow believed it. Shira and I brought three children into the world, and I believed it. And taught it to my children. I told Nat, Sam and Jordana many times, while they were under our roof, America is the greatest country in the history of the world–because it welcomes immigrants from all over the world.
Because it has been especially good for the Jewish people. Europe was the tantalizing, entrancing, enticing land where Jews were expelled, massacred, thrown into ghettos, smeared with the blood libel, killed during the passion plays of springtime. Europe was a killing field for our people, literally, culminating in the Shoah.
By contrast, America was the goldene medina where American Jews could and did thrive. Our grandparents immigrated here. Their grandchildren attended the best colleges and graduate schools our nation has to offer. Grandparents sold tchotchkes. Grandchildren were doctors and lawyers and businesspeople and entrepreneurs. Unlike Europe, which hated and murdered us, our biggest problem in America was that we were loved to death. Many American Jews chose to give up their Jewish identity altogether, and just pass as Americans, which we could do, if we wanted to.
I teach a Sisterhood class on Tuesday mornings with learners who are in their 60s to 80s, and a common refrain was that they too grew up believing that America was the greatest country in the history of the world, because of its high ideals, and because of how those ideals were realized for the Jewish people.
I was therefore in a for quite a shock when I asked our seventh graders what they thought. Every student but one was emphatic that America is not the greatest country in the world. Far, far from it. They said things like: it is great if you are a straight, white, Christian man. They said things like: how could it possibly be great given our nation’s shameful history of systemic racism. They said things like: the Civil War never ended, people of color are still discriminated against today. They said things like: Sri Lanka is better. Canada is better. Finland is better. It was a choir of negative energy. These are our children. Our grandchildren. The only counter voice was one student who credited these various critiques but allowed that America must be doing something right because so many people, especially from Latin America and Mexico, want to move here. She was the outlier. The dominant voice of our 12 and 13 year olds is that America has been so unfair to native Americans and people of color that our high ideals are eclipsed by our often oppressive practice.
I have been marinating on this eye-opening conversation with our seventh graders all week. It is so interesting because my perspective and their perspective are both right so far as they go, but neither tells the whole story.
America’s ideals—all people are created equal, all people stand equal under the law— are sublime and are sometimes realized. But somehow, until George Floyd’s murder, and until I read the book Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson, I did not get how deeply entrenched the problem of systemic racism is in our country. There are a thousand harrowing stories in Caste—required reading for our democracy, in my view—but one evocative story involves Forest Whitaker, a black man who is an Academy Award winning actor, who one day walked into a gourmet deli on the West Side of Manhattan. He saw it was crowded and did not want to wait, so he turned to leave without buying anything. An employee at the deli saw a black man come and go without buying anything, blocked him at the door, and frisked him in public. That is humiliating. That is wrong. And that happened to a famous black actor not in Alabama or Mississippi, but in New York City.
And also in Belmont, Massachusetts. Just this week a black Latino man was murdered by a white man who, in a road rage incident, drove his pick-up truck over him while yelling a racial epithet. The black Latino man is 34 years old, married, and the father of three children. I was listening to an NPR segment about it yesterday, and the reporter interviewed a black woman in Belmont who says she has a black husband, and a black son, and she worries for their safety every time they leave their house. That is Belmont. Massachusetts. Today.
So my seventh graders are not wrong when they point out that that there is this constant gap between our ideals and our reality.
Which brings us to our weekly Torah portion. In parshat Boh, after 430 years, the Israelites finally go free. What does Moses talk about, what kind of big speech does he give, on such a momentous occasion? In his last commentary on this portion, Rabbi Sacks observes that Moses does not talk about freedom. Does not talk about a land flowing with milk and honey. Rather, in this climactic moment, Moses talks about the importance of connecting our individual lives to a larger story. The Jewish people has a story, our Exodus story, and we tell that story every Passover seder. And here is what is so important about our Exodus story. It is fluid, dynamic, not static. The story itself is about movement, motion, change, growing, evolving, in the language of the Mishna, from slavery to freedom, from sorrow to joy, from darkness to light.
This emphasis in our Exodus story about movement, motion, change, mirrors the emphasis of our founders who desired to form not a perfect union, but a more perfect union, better than yesterday.
After the choir of negative energy from our seventh graders, I changed up the curriculum on the spot. I had had a number of other prompts, but I jettisoned them. Instead I asked them just one more question: what do you love about your country? Please think and write down your response.
After several minutes, I asked them to share. At which point God made a miracle. Literally every student in the class wrote the same thing. What they loved about America was that there had been some progress. We are better than we were.
The insight of our seventh graders, we are not where we want to be, but we are better than we were, was so powerfully expressed at the inauguration on Wednesday by the Youth Poet Laureate of America, Amanda Gorman, who read her inspiring poem, The Hill We Climb, with the world watching.
Standing where the insurrection took place two weeks and one day earlier, she offered:
we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished. We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.
Not broken. But unfinished. That means we all have work to do. That heals our generation gap. More importantly, that heals our country. Shabbat shalom.