Etta King currently works as the Education Program Manager at the Jewish Women's Archive. A graduate of Brandeis University and Habonim Dror North America, she combines her passions for storytelling, learning, and community building by helping educators bring Jewish values, culture, and history alive through primary sources. Etta also teaches cooking, nature, improvisational theater, and Israeli dance to students of all ages. Contact Etta with questions and ideas.
Over Boston’s long winter, I shared Shabbat dinner with a friend-of-a-friend who, unbeknownst to me, is a talented poet and playwright. In addition to winning a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Fellowship this spring, Cecelia Raker’s play dry bones rising made its first full-length, professional debut in May at the Venus Theatre in Laurel, MD.
I haven’t attended synagogue regularly as an adult, and so I have rarely said the Mishebeirach prayer—a prayer for the healing of the body and spirit. However, when I started to get more involved in Jewish ritual about a year and a half ago, I started to say the prayer for a friend and colleague of mine, Suzin Glickman. I said it because Suzin was sick, but also because I knew she would totally dig that I found a Jewish ritual that felt meaningful to me, and found a way to make it my own. At the end of January, Suzin lost a long battle with cancer.
Exclamations of pride and wonder filled the room when we filed into the kitchen and found that the dough we had carefully mixed and kneaded had successfully grown into two pillowy, pungent loaves. Pulling off an olive-sized piece of dough, I recited the blessing “Blessed are you, God, who has sanctified us with your commandments and commanded us to separate challah.” Laughing and singing, we split the dough and began forming it into loaves.
In 1964, three civil rights activists disappeared at the start of Mississippi’s Freedom Summer. Assuming that James Chaney (who was black), Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner (who were both white) had almost certainly been killed for investigating a racist church bombing, the rivers in Mississippi were dredged to look for their bodies. What they found instead is described in the song “In the Mississippi River” written by Matthew Jones and sung here by the Freedom Singers: Dozens of black Americans who had been murdered, their hands and feet tied, and sunk in the river. It was understood that no one outside of their friends and family members would ever notice they were gone.
Rather than debate “having it all,” our true struggle is about having “it” at all. Equality, parity, opportunity—do we have it? Do all women have it? The answer, you and I both know, is no.
Ron Ashkenas’ recent post for Forbes about Labor Day has me feeling unsettled, and I finally know why. In his article, Ashkenas explains that the “real purpose [of Labor Day] was to serve as a tribute to the working class — the men and women whose physical, and largely manual, labor had built the country.” He goes on to bemoan (as we have in the past) how the meaning of Labor Day has been lost in end-of-summer soirees and all-American barbeques. So far, I’m totally onboard with his argument. We should find more meaningful ways to commemorate the people who built this country, brick by brick.
In Judaism, we take the seventh day of the week to slow down. To separate between the holy and the everyday. As legendary civil rights activist and Jewish thinker Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his book The Sabbath, “on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul.” Shabbat in Jackson was indeed a time to germinate and cultivate the ideas that have been spinning around in my head.
You might be sorry to hear it, but I do not miss home yet. Southern hospitality is REAL and amazing. Just came back from an incredible evening of Southern food, music, visiting, and art at the Mississippi Museum of Art, which has an incredible installation of Civil Rights Photographs. I got to meet Doris Derby who you should definitely know about if you don't already.
I think today might best be a day told in quotes from a few key experiences. There is so much more happening than I can fit in these few words.
When I exited the airport in Jackson I couldn't help but feel as if I was walking on hallowed ground. The air was thick and the dense grass crunched under my feet—it really feels different here. The song "Strange Fruit" played softly through my mind as we drove through the flat, open land past trees that look different enough from home to make me feel a little out of place. As you well know, I have always been fascinated by the Civil Rights Movement. I feel like this part of our history sheds light on our proudest and darkest moments as a nation. Mississippi was (and continues to be) a battle ground for testing the ideals and laws that supposedly govern the United States, and I sort of feel like I am on a pilgrimage to witness this crucial part of our history.
What does it mean to remember together?
Silence. That’s what I remember. Silence coated in hazy sunshine and a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
I spent most of the week of the Boston Marathon Bombing feeling alone—at my desk at work, on the couch or laying in bed at home. I woke the day of the lockdown to the news on WBUR coming from my alarm clock and I sat quietly, anxiously, in my apartment all day. I heard nothing outside, no sirens or cars or people shouting in the alley outside my window. It was totally surreal. I didn’t sleep well for weeks after that happened. I felt scared and alone.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Etta King ." (Viewed on October 4, 2015) <http://jwa.org/blog/author/etta-king>.