Episode 10: Rededication (Transcript)
Nahanni: Just beyond the White House security fence, a construction crew cuts sheets of plywood and hammers them onto wooden planks. They’re building a three story scaffold. It’s a viewing platform for the presidential inauguration on January 21, when Donald Trump will become America’s 45th president. If his win still hasn’t sunken in for you, the scaffold taking shape outside the White House should hammer the point home.
Nahanni: This is Can We Talk, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. I’m Nahanni Rous. Here’s how the vote for president broke down for Jews: About a quarter voted for Trump. Most of the rest were Clinton supporters. For a lot of Jews, Trump’s win signals a time of uncertainty. In this episode of Can We Talk, we’re turning for guidance to three Jewish women who have spent their lives working for social change. Ruth Messinger, April Baskin, and Idit Klein will share their responses to the election and how they’re finding focus in this new political climate.
[Construction noise, walking sound]
Nahanni: On Pennsylvania Avenue, tourists photograph themselves in front of the White House’s iconic columns. Around the corner, a line of people stretches down the block. They’re waiting to get into the annual White House Hanukkah party, the last one hosted by the Obamas. Ruth Messinger flew in from New York to attend the party.
Nahanni: Hi Ruth!
Nahanni: I meet her in line.
Ruth Messinger: This is going to be my last time to be in the White House. There will be democratic presidents again, but by that time I’ll be sufficiently out of the workforce so I’m unlikely to be invited.
Nahanni: I ask Ruth if she thinks Trump will invite her. She doubts it, and if he governs the way he seems poised to, she says she wouldn’t attend anyway. Ruth is the outgoing President of the American Jewish World Service, an international organization that fights poverty and works for human rights. She’s now their Global Ambassador.
Ruth: I’ve been doing social justice work informed by my Judaism all my life. I’ve been very happy in the last 18 years to have been able to say basically: “I am a social justice Jew.”
Nahanni: Ruth spent 20 years in New York City politics, including a bid for mayor in 1997, which she lost to Rudy Giuliani.
Ruth: So my strategy for a long time is like, you lose more fights than you win, but you have an obligation to keep working towards an ultimate vision. You won’t necessarily see the end, but you can’t refuse to participate. This just feels like a sort of whop in the face reminder that that’s the strategy that I will continue to pursue.
Nahanni: That whop in the face was felt by many women who hoped to see Hillary Clinton become the first woman president. Now, instead, Ruth worries Trump’s victory might mean the dismantling of much of what she’s fought for. But she’s urging people not to despair.
Ruth: Strengthen your determination for the long haul. But don’t imagine that we know today which are the fights. There are like 10 appointees that are appalling. There are a whole bunch of legislative and budgetary things that they’re saying they’re going to do.
Nahanni: Things like repealing Obamacare, defunding Planned Parenthood, or scrapping the Paris Climate Agreement.
Ruth: We’re going to be opposed to all of those. We’re going to need to pick our battles. And all of us are going to need to make some compromises so that we can work together.
Nahanni: Ruth is strategic and practical, but she says sometimes she’s also frustrated and overwhelmed.
Ruth: But I have learned that I don’t have that luxury. I’m a very lucky person with a phenomenal family. I’m in a community that’s extraordinarily privileged and I want to honor that privilege by doing what I can.
Nahanni: Ruth says everyone can have an impact. For example, by marching in protests, and donating to righteous organizations, and by paying attention to the rise is hate speech and hate crimes.
Ruth: And that’s a place where every person can be her or his best self. Look out for those incidents, speak up if you see something. Don’t be a bystander, and where possible, simply spend a piece of your day reaching across lines of nationality and religion and race and class and be there for other people. Because for the Jewish community, particularly for the white Jewish community, which is not the whole Jewish community, we have to understand that by and large the victims or the earliest victims of this increase in hate and division in this country are not going to be us. And we need to be there for the woman in a hijab, for the people of color, for the Jews of color, who have been feeling this split in communities for forever, and we have not always listened to them.
Nahanni: It’s crucial that we listen now, Ruth says. Our next guest agrees.
April Baskin: Since I was young I’ve been deeply passionate about including those who are excluded. About questioning why someone is excluded.
Nahanni: April Baskin works at the Union for Reform Judaism, where she’s the Vice President for Audacious Hospitality, which means it’s her job to make sure all kinds of Jews feel at home in the Jewish community. April focuses on the inclusion of interfaith couples and families, Jews of Color, LGBTQ Jews, and Jews with disabilities. Her personal story has deeply informed her work. April is a Jew of color. Her mother is Ashkenazi, and her father is African American.
April: I learned about race through witnessing the experiences of my father first hand, and seeing that his education and professional advancement... that none of that protected him from racism.
Nahanni: When April was little, her father was beaten by police, and wrongfully incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit. The perpetrator was later found guilty and served jail time. April also experienced racism growing up.
April: I was called the n-word on literally a weekly basis, and had a variety of my Afro-centric features either associated with things that were dirty or with animals…
Nahanni: Even as a child, she says she had a sense that as unjust as these things were, they made her family stronger. Navigating adversity is wired into her people... on both sides of her family.
April: Both as Jews and specifically for me viscerally being a woman of color in America, and coming from descendants of slaves—like, my people know how to navigate this... whatever’s coming.
Nahanni: And she says she doesn’t know what’s coming, but she’s concerned about the safety of vulnerable communities, including Muslims, trans men and women, and African Americans. She’s concerned about the rise in hate crimes, and the possibility of being targeted herself as she travels around the country for work.
April: It’s not our money that’s going to keep us safe or protected, and I know that as a person of color in this country, I already knew that, I didn’t have a false sense of security.
Nahanni: What are you worried about for the Jewish community right now?
April: Like the black community, in similar and also in vastly different ways, our community has a lot of collective trauma that we’ve accumulated over millennia and just within the last 100 years with the Holocaust. And similar to the Black community, our community as a whole has never had a chance to really heal from that experience. Has never had a chance to have the world turn and say, We’re deeply sorry. To have a consistent message of validation that actually your life is valuable.
Nahanni: April references certain patterns and coping mechanisms the Jewish community has developed over time.
April: You know, our community is really good about taking action and moving quickly, and I think that’s a muscle and skill set that we’ve learned over the millenia, because our community has repeatedly seen that in a moment’s notice a broader culture or nation can turn against us and we need to move quickly.
Nahanni: That can be helpful in organizing, but she says it can also be counterproductive when building relationships with other groups.
April: In that urgency there’s not a lot of room for pausing and taking time.
Nahanni: Pausing, taking time, and prioritizing relationships is important, April says. People from different races, classes and religions often have different cultural styles. What some experience as acting with urgency, others may experience as steamrolling. Learning, listening, and building in time to reflect can be critical in forming coalitions, April says, and these coalitions are going to be essential.
Nahanni: No one likes when their candidate loses, but Idit Klein says the election of Donald Trump felt deeply personal.
Idit Klein: I just felt this absolute, overwhelming, despairing fog unlike anything I had ever felt before related to contemporary politics.
Nahanni: Idit is the Executive Director of Keshet, a non-profit organization that works for LGBTQ rights and equality within the Jewish community. She’s a queer, Jewish woman, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, and a mom. Idit says she feels threatened by Trump many times over.
Idit: That’s part of the terrifying brilliance of Trump, that our whole experience of his politics has been this horrifying game of wackamole in which something comes up and everyone organizes around that and then somehow something more odious pops up.
Nahanni: Idit thinks back to some of the odious moments of the campaign: Trump’s denigrating statements about women and his boasting about sexual assault.
Idit: After a campaign in which there was so much attention to gender in positive and negative ways. And now at least in the immediate aftermath of the election that has faded from prominence and discourse. It certainly leaves one with this eery sense of how could we go from that place of centrality and profound relevance, to not being a part of the conversation.
Nahanni: Idit works with Jewish LGBTQ teenagers from all over the country who are feeling a renewed sense of vulnerability. She says all of these teenagers came out during the Obama administration.
Idit: These kids came out in a time that even if they faced some personal challenges they had a deeply felt conviction that they were living in a time in which things were getting better. And that this country was led by someone who was on their side. And so now all of that of course feels very different.
Nahanni: Suddenly, overnight, she says, people were talking about not feeling safe.
Idit: You now, we’re moving as a society to a state where we not only get to exist, but we get to thrive. And suddenly feeling like, actually, once again, we need to worry about our basic existence. I think that’s what the loss of power ultimately means. You know, but there’s a silver lining. Do you want to hear a silver lining?
Idit: So, the silver lining is that it is a time in which people are being activated and people are being mobilized. And in my work, it’s a time in which we are seeing Jewish communal leaders that have never spoken out about LGBTQ issues, for example, suddenly saying I know that my congregants need support. What can we do to send the clear message that this community will stand in solidarity with them.
Nahanni: Idit sees this as a time of tremendous potential to strengthen connections... both within the Jewish community and more broadly.
[Sound of crowds in the White House]
Nahanni: Back in Washington, DC, Ruth Messinger has made it into the White House Hanukkah party. The elegant residence is decked out with glittering Christmas trees. Somewhat incongruously, the US Marine Chamber Orchestra plays a Klezmer tune. Several hundred people gather for the candle-lighting ceremony. Standing between President Obama and the First Lady is Rabbi Rachel Isaacs. She’s there to lead the ceremony. Rabbi Isaacs was the first openly Lesbian rabbi to graduate from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
[Sound of crowds in the White House]
Rabbi Rachel Isaacs: Hanukkah is a festival that teaches us it is always darkest before the dawn, and it is not foolish or naive to hold on to hope. Hanukkah also teaches us about the necessity of rebellion.
Rabbi Isaacs: Let us engage in the work of chanukat ha-medina and chanukat he-ezrachut: redeciating ourselves to our nation and to the privileges and challenges of citizenship. The battle for the soul of our nation will not be won with swords or muskets or even verbal daggers. Because as Jews we know the spiritual is political, and the political is spiritual. We will illuminate our country by widening our hearts…
[Singing of blessings]
Nahanni: Thank you for listening to Can We Talk, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive.
President Barack Obama: Your singing was outstanding. [Laughing] I think this was an exceptional group of voices here.
Nahanni: Thank you, Mr. President. We like your voice too.
Nahanni: Our team includes Jewish Women’s Archive Executive Director Judith Rosenbaum. Ibby Caputo edited the script. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. In this episode, you heard the thoughts of Ruth Messinger, April Baskin, and Idit Klein.
Nahanni: For more podcast episodes, visit us online at jwa.org/canwetalk. You can also listen and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. As you make your year-end charitable contributions, we hope you will consider making a gift to the Jewish Women’s Archive at jwa.org/donate. We need your support to continue producing this podcast.
Nahanni: I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. I’ll see you again next year!
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 10: Rededication (Transcript)." (Viewed on May 31, 2020) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-10-rededication/transcript>.