In advance of Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend, I bought my eight-year-old son As Good as Anybody, by Richard Michaelson, a beautiful picture book tracing the fight for justice fought by two incredible men: The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
The story opened with an angry young Martin growing up in the 1930’s segregated South who was not allowed to swim in a pool or drink from a water fountain or even use a public bathroom because he was black.
This was paralleled with a scared young Jewish rabbi in 1930’s Nazi-occupied Poland who could not find a job, use regular transportation, or attend university because he was a Jew.
As we cuddled on the couch and read, my son found it most troubling that a person would be asked to give up a seat on a bus because of the color of their skin.
I told him about Rosa Parks, the courageous woman who would not give up her seat to white man, and how her refusal started the year-long African-American bus boycott that eventually ended bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama.
All my life, I have held this lesson that Rosa Parks gave America in the highest regard. But on a plane ride home from Israel, I forgot her lesson. I did not stand my ground.
A new kind of segregation is taking hold in certain Israeli towns where small but fanatical groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews are looking to bend and warp Halacha (Jewish law) to their benefit in order to separate Jewish women from public life. All in the name of modesty.
I’m ashamed to say that three years ago on that Continental flight bound to the U.S., I gave into the demands of one such fanatical Jew.
The plane was full and it took some time for all the passengers to go through the final security check before we finally boarded. It was a midnight flight and, after 10 days of participating in a rigorous Jewish educator program in Israel, I was tired. All I wanted was to settle into my seat (an aisle seat next to a secular man), and sleep for the better part of the 12 hour flight. My husband and kids were waiting for me on the other side.
Then, a steward came by. Standing next to him was a man dressed in 18th Century garb: white shirt, black coat, black knickers. The man sternly looked at me and let the steward do his asking. Outside of asking me for this favor, or money for tzedakah (charity), he would not regard me as a fellow Jew.
“Ma’am, I’m asking if you could give up your seat for this man for religious reasons.”
The religious reason is that this man was following this perversion of modesty codes that are stretching beyond houses of worship and are impacting every aspect of public life in parts of Israel. Women are beginning to be segregated on sidewalks. At funerals. On busses. And yes, they even want to extend their restrictions onto airplanes. Heaven forbid a man should sit next to a fully dressed woman and accidentally rub elbows.
I was told in advance by our group leader not to give in to these demands. But, in the heat of the moment, I caved.
I said, “I’m sorry, why is this my problem? It is he who has put so many restrictions upon himself.”
And the steward’s reply: “This is your problem, ma’am. If you don’t give up your seat, the plane will not take off.”
So I moved. I wound up sitting in a middle seat. In the row right in front of the bathroom so my seat wouldn’t recline all the way. Because a man wanted my seat so he could sit next to another man.
At the end of the flight, sheepishly, the man thanked me for giving up my seat.
At that point, I took a lesson from Dr. King, and Rabbi Heschel.
I told him, if he wants to practice what he learns in the Torah, he had to live in the world.
This summer, play tourist in your own city.
And if you are one of those native New Yorkers that scoff at tourist traps like the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty, there is a relatively new attraction just north of City Hall that after one visit will change the way you will think about the American history you learned back in your school days. As we approach Juneteenth, a little known holiday that celebrates the emancipation of the last slaves of our nation, it’s worth a visit.
This spring on a visit back to New York City, my family went to the African Burial Ground National Monument and we all got a brush-up course on American history.
From what I remember about my public grade school education, slavery was taught like this:
- Africans were captured from their native lands.
- There was a very harsh, inhumane passage over the Atlantic where slaves chained together in the hulls of ships.
- Southerners owned slaves to work in the cotton fields and in their master’s homes.
- Northerners didn’t own slaves.
- Blacks were treated as slaves in the South so they tried to escape to the North, to places like New York City where they could be free
My kids were disappointed that the indoor museum was closed that day. However, the outdoor African Burial Ground National Monument Memorial was open, as it is daily from 9a.m. until 5p.m. except for all Federal holidays.
The burial site, used by African slaves from 1626 through the late 1700’s, was discovered only 21 years ago, when the federal government broke ground for a new building on 290 Broadway. Because archeologists uncovered the remains of 419 individual bodies of all age groups, it is regarded as one of the most important archeological findings of the 20th Century. In all, it was the final resting place for 15,000 Africans and their descendants It was the only place where Africans could be buried in the city.
The plans for the building were modified to accommodate a museum and a 6.1 acre monument that was opened to the public in 2007.
On the first approach to the memorial from Broadway, a grassy patch of ground with partially raised holds the remains of those 419 slaves. The grassy area gives way to a path marked by bricks and marble that spirals downward to what used to be the street level of the New York – or New Amsterdam – centuries ago.
The walls were marked by strange symbols and dates.
In the middle of this spiral is a map of the world that marks each native land where slaves were taken.
My kids, aged 14, 12 and seven, wandered around the site exploring. Finally, my youngest mustered up the courage to ask the Ranger what this place was all about.
All it took was that one simple question. Ranger Doug – Doug Maslenberg — brought the history of this place to life. In a narrative presentation that was no less fervent than sermon delivered like gospel at a Baptist church, Ranger Doug went into great detail to tell us about the lives of the slaves who were found buried at this very site. Through his booming voice, he brought the suffering of those people back. He spoke of the horrors of the middle passage on those ships, represented at the memorial by the 24-foot Ancestral Libation chamber:
He spoke of the bones of children that had been bent under the weight of carrying bricks and buckets of water too heavy for their bodies to withstand. Bones of men that contained evidence of whippings.
Ranger Doug looked directly into our eyes, almost a bit too long. Any preconceived notion that I had about a slave-free New York City was obliterated under Ranger Doug’s stare.
Back at home in Rochester – a city with its own past link to Abolition and Emancipation – my kids and I wanted to learn more. So we picked up a historical novel called Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson. This young adult novel, a 2008 National Book Award finalist, follows the life of an African slave girl in New York City during the Revolutionary war.
Thank you, Ranger Doug, I’m glad we asked.