How Does My Identity Inform My Actions?
Jewish Women's Archive - Living the Legacyhttp://jwa.org/LivingtheLegacy
How Does My Identity Inform My Actions?
Who's In, Who's Out?
- Read the first document out loud.
- As a group, look back at the document again to see how the characters perceive the situation differently through the lens of belonging and exclusion. Whom do they consider part of their “in” group? (It might be useful to make diagrams or sketches to visually represent the different perspectives in the story.)
- Discuss the questions listed after the document.
- Read the second document out loud, and repeat steps 2 and 3.
The notion of "the other" has cast long shadows over my life. One morning, when I was about nine or ten, I was sitting at the kitchen table with my mother and my father's mother. Grandma Alice spoke only Yiddish and could not read or write English. Mama was reading aloud from a newspaper account of a plane crash the night before, shaking her head with sadness at the loss of life. "Any Jews killed?" Grandma Alice asked. This was the familiar refrain: "Any Jews?" If there were no Jews, it was a non-event, something of no concern. I was confused. It made no sense to me that a segment of humanity would be excluded from concern because they were not part of our membership group. It was my first awareness of culture as a system of belonging, of insiders and outsiders.
- What criteria does Grandma Alice use to decide who is "in" and who is "out" of her membership groups?
- How is the phrase "any Jews?" used by Grandma Alice similar to or different from the contemporary refrain, "is it good for the Jews?"
- What might be some positive aspects of seeing the world the way Grandma Alice does? What might be some negative aspects of seeing the world this way?
During her stay in the Hinds County Jail in June 1965, Roberta Galler first encountered the Jackson Jewish community in the form of Rabbi Perry Nussbaum. Nussbaum, who had been quietly supporting civil rights against the wishes of his congregation, came into the cell where Galler and several other Jewish women were jailed. Holding up toothbrushes, soap, and other small necessities, Galler recalls that he said, "Okay, who in here are my people?" Galler stepped forward and said, "Either all of us are your people or none of us are your people."
Galler's defiant declaration highlights both the self-righteousness and the universalist spirit in which young Jewish activists saw their civil rights activism. She did not know that Nussbaum was going out on a limb to visit civil rights workers in jail, nor could she have known that his decade of efforts addressing civil rights questions would lead to the bombing of his home and synagogue two years later. With little patience for the situation of southern Jewish communities and little desire to be identified as Jews themselves, young Jewish activists in SNCC recoiled from any sign of what they saw as Jewish ethnic particularism. Nevertheless, they had walked into a landscape where Jewishness mattered.
- What criteria does Roberta Galler sense that Rabbi Nussbaum is using to decide who are "his people" while he's in Hind County Jail?
- How is Rabbi Nussbaum using his idea of membership and belonging to guide his actions in this situation?
- Why do you think Rabbi Nussbaum might have been more inclined to help his own group than helping everyone in the cell?
- What criteria do you think Roberta Galler uses to define her group in this situation? Why might this be true? What do you think this might say about the way she identifies? How might her identity be shaping her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement?
- We know some things about Rabbi Nussbaum that Roberta Galler did not, namely that he was also a supporter of civil rights whose actions had very real and violent consequences for him, his family, and his synagogue. How do you think Rabbi Nussbaum's idea about who are "his people" might have been different in other situations relating to civil rights?
- How do Rabbi Nussbaum and Roberta Galler’s understandings of their own identities shape their actions? (Think not only about this incident in the jail, but also more broadly.)
What I Learned in Alabama About Yarmulkes
This is an excerpt from the Rosh Hashanah 1965/5726 sermon by Rabbi William G. Braude of Temple Beth-El, in Providence, Rhode Island. In this sermon, Rabbi Braude explores whether or not to wear a head covering. The practice at Temple Beth-El – like the majority of Reform congregations at the time – was that men did NOT wear a head covering such as a kippah (yarmulke) or hat. Rabbi Braude ended his sermon by putting a yarmulke on his head.
What I learned in Alabama about Yarmulkes
…But it was on the highway – on U.S. Route 80 – between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama that the deep significance of the Jew’s wearing his Yarmulke came to me. Some of you may remember that on Wednesday, March 24, 1965, Rabbi Saul Leeman of Cranston and I were among the marchers from Selma to Montgomery. On that day, the two of us, he quite readily and I somewhat reluctantly wore our Yarmulkes. The reason: to protect our heads from sunburn and to identify ourselves as Rabbis. We succeeded on both counts. From all sides, white and black alike, men and women greeted us with, “Shalom, Shalom.” Young Jews, their eyes aglow, came up: “We are glad to see Rabbis with us.” A professor of philosophy from Berkeley who did not look Jewish came up: “It means so much for one of my background to see Rabbis participating in the March!” One white man, a rugged blonde, a Gentile said: “Before you Rabbis are through, you will convert the entire Christian nation.”
And so, in the midst of this atmosphere of camaraderie Saul Leeman and I marched on. Then Sandy Rosen, a fellow Rabbi from San Mateo, California coming up from behind me, greeted me with the words “Shalom Chaver.” I looked at him. He, too, was wearing a Yarmulke. Know that he was a Reform Rabbi, I asked him: “Do your people wear Yarmulkes?” He replied: “No. But our colleagues who came to Selma throughout their stay there wore Yarmulkes.” And the Negroes – Sandy Rosen went on to tell me – took to the Yarmulkes, began wearing them and calling them freedom caps. Then the Rabbis proceeded to bring in large supplies of Yarmulkes which they distributed to many of those on the freedom march. Thus the one-legged man, a white man, who walked the entire distance from Selma to Montgomery got himself a Yarmulke which he wore from time to time. At the service in Selma on Saturday, March 27, 1965 which followed the killing of Viola Gregg Luizzo, the mother of five children, the Associated Press report stated, that many of those present, white and black alike, wore Yarmulkes. On the other hand the segregationists began calling these head coverings “Yankee Yarmulkes.”
Here is how my colleague and pupil Maurice Davis put it in a sermon: “We returned to the church, and I noticed that all the Reform Rabbis were wearing yarmulkes. When I questioned this, I was told, ‘It is our answer to the clerical collar.’ Clergymen of every denomination, from Roman Catholicism to Unitarianism were wearing clerical collars to show that they were clergymen. Rabbis of all branches of Judaism were wearing yarmulkes.”
“I tried to get one, but I could not. I learned later that they set back for a thousand yarmulkes but all the Civil Rights workers wanted to wear them. Negro children, and white marchers were all sporting yarmulkes.”
“People keep asking me why I decided to go to Alabama. I’m not sure that even now I know the answer. I think I went to Alabama to worship God!”
To me, one striking aspect of Rabbi Davis’ statement is that when we went to worship God, he found that will’e nill’e he had to wear a Yarmulke…