One Piece at a Time
March 27, 2021
Author(s): Rav Hazzan Aliza Berger,
March 27, 2021 — 14 Nisan 5781
One Piece at a Time
with Rav Hazzan Aliza Berger
Temple Emanuel, Newton, MA
Tom Ammiano struggled in high school. A teenager in the late 50s, he was gangly and effeminate, with a high-pitched voice. Even though he wasn’t out of the closet, everyone knew that he was different, and they bullied him mercilessly for it. Back then, homophobia legally enforced. Same-sex partnerships were criminalized. Being gay was seen as a mental health issue, and one deserving of ridicule and scorn. Tom knew there was no universe in which he could be his full self.
Nevertheless, he tried to fit in. When his school started a track team, he discovered that he loved running and became one of their star players. He helped his team to win several events and in 1958, after winning an individual race during his junior year, he was told that he had earned a varsity letter.
As Tom recalled recently on the KQED radio station, “I went to seventh heaven.” After years of being bullied by students and faculty alike, he was so happy to have earned this symbol of achievement, to be recognized amongst his peers. That letter meant that he belonged, that he was accepted by his school, that they were proud of him. Proud of his achievements. Knowing his parents couldn’t afford to buy him a sweater, he picked up extra hours at work and happily dreamed about the perfect sweater upon which to place his varsity letter.
But somehow, before the awards ceremony, Tom was contacted by local school officials who told him that his last meet did not count. He was told that he had not earned a letter and would not be receiving one. No one explained why. But Tom knew. In his words, he didn’t get a letter because he was “weird and different.” It was humiliating. Embarrassing. A devastating blow. As Tom shared on the radio, “it’s something that still hurts, even a hundred years later.”
Tom decided that he would use his life to make the world a better place for future generations. That’s why he was on the radio. He was being interviewed about his recent memoir, Kiss my Gay (you can fill in the blank). As soon as Tom could, he left New Jersey and moved to San Francisco where he worked as a special education teacher, making sure that every student was cared for and regarded in a time when school systems were only beginning to consider how to best support special needs students. He mobilized and organized other gay teachers and fought against homophobic barriers in the workplace. He became president of the school board and then president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He ran for mayor twice, lost both times, but was finally elected to the State Assembly. There, he designed San Francisco’s innovative universal health care plan, making sure that every resident of San Francisco, regardless of immigration status, had access to necessary medical care, and spoke out against police brutality before it was cool. Tom became a world-class politician, and LGBTQ activist and a comedian. After being skipped over in high school, Tom made sure no one would be skipped over on his watch. He made his life about building justice and equality, about creating the world he had dreamed about as a child.
According to KQED’s community report, it’s possible that more than a million people listened to that interview on air, online, or on podcasts. Hundreds of thousands of people listened to Tom speaking about his life, about his pain, and about his glory. I bet hundreds of thousands of people turned off the radio and said, “I heard the wildest story today. This guy, Tom Ammiano, he grew up and they took his varsity letter away because he was gay. Anyway, he went on to become a social justice warrior.” I bet hundreds of thousands of people talked about how grateful they are that we live in a different world, where little boys can be celebrated for who they are, a world in which no one has to hide and no one is permitted to be a bully.
I would bet that most people listened to that story and turned off the radio, feeling like they had accomplished what they set out to do. They listened. Heard a story. That’s what you do on the radio. Tom’s pain was clear, the pathos of his childhood incontrovertible, but that happened then. This is now. There’s nothing any of us can do to make a difference.
Or is there?
Stephen Saxon was home. He lost his job as a computer engineer at the beginning of the pandemic and had to convert his usual cantorial high holiday gig to a virtual recording. When he heard Tom’s story, the pain of that moment stuck with him. He couldn’t stop thinking about it. He couldn’t stop imagining what it had been like for Tom to be passed over and ignored for these many years.
He searched Google, found that Tom had attended the Immaculate conception High School in Montclair, New Jersey, and emailed school administrators:
“I have no direct connection with him, with you, or even with his primary political constituency, but I was wondering if you might consider reaching out to Tom and awarding him his varsity letter in the interest of healing old wounds and paying respect to one of your alumni who has lived a good and positive life and had an impressive career of accomplishment and good works.”
The story was recently profiled in the New York Times, where Stephen explained his motivation. “I’m not gay. I’m not Catholic. I’m a cantor….sticking up for people who are not like me is part of my responsibility.”
That’s what Jews do. We work to heal the world, לתקן עולם. In Lurianic Kabbalah, a story is told. When God set about to create the universe, God pulled God’s self into vessels, trying to create space for a world to unfold. But those vessels couldn’t hold God’s light, God couldn’t hide out in a closet, and so they shattered. All the Divine light scattered throughout creation in broken shards. According to this story, it is our responsibility to be awake to the places of brokenness in this world. That’s why we’re here. We can’t fix that original rupture, we can’t put all the pieces back together, but we can lift the broken pieces that surround us. We can work towards repairing the world one piece at a time.
We can’t fix systemic injustice, structural racism, the legacy of slavery, but we can heal one broken piece at a time. We can read Caste. We can join GBIO. We can join the Black Purchasing Alliance.
We can’t fix global warming. We can’t bring back extinct species or clean the oceans, but we can avoid one plastic bag, we can buy recycled goods, we can make eco-friendly choices.
We can’t heal generational rifts in our families, we can’t end the pain of historic traumas, but we can choose love today, we can work to do the repairs we need for the future.
The world is broken. We can’t fix everything. But we can begin to heal, one piece at a time.
Which brings me back to Stephen Saxon and Tom Ammiano.
When the Immaculate Conception High School received Stephen’s email, the school immediately reached out to his high school coach and to the captain of Tom’s track team. Both men affirmed that Tom had earned his letter rightfully. They never understood why he was deprived.
This year, Tom received a note in the mail out of the blue.
Dear Mr. Ammiano, “we are in the process of having a letter custom made for you and greatly look forward to awarding this varsity honor to you, although well past due.” In April of this year, the president of the Immaculate Conception High School plans to fly to California to personally deliver a beautiful sweater with a varsity letter, custom-designed for Tom along with and apology for what happened 63 years ago.
Stephen Saxon didn’t erase the pain of the past, but he did lift up the pain of what was to enable the healing of what could be.
Our world is fundamentally broken. We didn’t break it. We can’t fix it. But we can lift it up, one piece at a time.