It was a Thursday night after 8, and just like every Thursday night after 8, we sat in the presence of poetry. That week, there was soap, hand-crafted by one of our members and passed from hand to hand to hand, grazed by fingertips, absorbed. This was our writing prompt.
The bar of soap fell into my palm. On it read the words “They washed their hands of us.”
I immediately thought of the repeating history of oppressors washing their hands of marginalized peoples. I thought of how my great, great, grandmothers — Black and Jewish — were the dirt under the nails of oppressors who tried, but could not rid themselves of our resilience.
I thought about how here, in America, the justice system has left the faucet running. About how we have reached a time as critical as any for each of us to join in yelling “Black Lives Matter.” To deem it unacceptable that America is trying to drown the importance of black voices, black lives. For each of us to proclaim, “you may not wash your hands of us.”
As Jews, we have said never again. We have an obligation to shut off the faucet, to not let the persecuted go unheard. A responsibility we value, however tedious. Our faith demands that we recognize Black Lives Matter as a Jewish issue, and our humanity should too. This is what it would mean to understand the words inscribed early in the book of Genesis: we are our brothers’ keepers.
The most important part of my life is family.
I believe that families are the people you choose to surround yourself with. I was born Jewish, but I have moreover chosen the Jewish people as a group I first and foremost see as family. Which is why, when I am treated as an outsider in predominantly white Jewish settings — at various temples I’ve attended, at my university Hillel, with my own blood relatives — I feel challenged, uncomfortable, sometimes even defeated that I must defend my identity to my own family. As a Jew of color, I often feel alienated within mainstream Jewish institutions in North America.
It is in these moments that I remind myself to not remain quiet. It is a reminder that these narratives of the existence, importance and struggles of my people are the key to understanding. That it is these connections, the makings of noise, the understanding of how this country’s anti-Black institutions have failed my people, that will lead to the creation of a more diverse, inclusive Jewish community, one that will actively support Black lives. I remind myself that when I enter these dialogues, I can inspire others to make noise too.
This past December, following the verdicts on Eric Garner and Michael Brown and the killings of Renisha McBride, Yvette Smith and countless other cis and trans Black individuals, I wrote an email to many members of my white, Jewish family.
For all my Black sisters and brothers who share in the struggle to make ourselves heard in communities we are expected to claim as our own. To the families and friends, academic and religious institutions that are supposed to be our people, our family, but too often turn a blind eye to the systematic killing of Black people. For those who cannot, then, help but ask “Do you value me?”
An Open Letter to my white, Jewish Family from a biracial, black Jew,
In the wake of the two recent verdicts not to indict, I have turned to writing and conversation in an aim to grieve, cope, understand and make use of my anger. One of the most important messages I am receiving, and am in complete support of, is that we must make noise. We must make noise and not stop until everyone is saddened and disgusted into action by the current state of our justice system, until America is in agreement that Black Lives Matter. I am here to make noise with all of you, to share my thoughts, to encourage you to make noise with me, so that I can feel I have the support of my family.
The deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner are not isolated cases. This is an issue of race.
I urge you to have these conversations at your dinner tables, with each other, with your colleagues and in communities that you feel connected to. I urge you to have these conversations with your children. I understand that these topics are scary and that there is more to grapple with than any of us are capable of. I am scared. My brother is scared. Other young black and brown people I know are scared. Not one of us has the privilege to choose to avoid these conversations. It is imperative that your children know what is going on. That you are able to voice and have discussions centered around the ingrained and systemic racism that has allowed for these recent murders to occur, and for the killers to go untried. It is important that you are able to bring experienced voices into the conversations that you choose to have, to not discount the voices of those for whom this hits closest to home, the voices of black people, when navigating these dialogues.
To not put these conversations on the table, to not make them your primary concern, is to perpetuate the problem. If you do not voice what is happening, and the historical roots that have enabled the continued occurrence of these acts, how will others know to ask? How will your children, friends, colleagues — who are not asking these questions — know that there are questions they need to be asking and conversations they need to be engaging in. It is each of our responsibilities to make sure these conversations are not tabled until there is justice.
I am not accusing anyone of staying silent, of not doing their part, of perpetuating the institutionalized racism of our justice system and our country. My goal here is simply to share my belief that this noise is vital. That until we all raise our voices, until we all care equally about black lives, black people will continue to be murdered in this country with no regard to their humanity.
If you have not been having these conversations, I hope that this makes you consider things in a new light, and that you take this as an opportunity to start. If you have been, continue, and not just in the spaces where you feel comfortable doing so. None of these realities are simple, and as such, none of these conversations are simple. Lean into the discomfort. Educate yourselves. Make noise by asking what you can do and asking others what they can do.
I have stepped well outside my comfort zone with this email. We are all nervous, we are all scared, we all have the ability to lean into, embrace and work through that discomfort.
I pressed send and I listened to the silence that followed, unafraid. It was this feeling, settled in my own discomfort, that enforced what I already knew: The words I had written needed to be said. And still need to be said, even now, words outdated by the terrorist attack in Charleston that violently claimed nine black lives, the murders of nine trans women thus far in 2015 (many of them women of color), and other racially motivated assaults. It is clear our collective voice is needed more than ever, that I must demand my family see the recent killings of black and brown bodies for what they were: the product of a carefully designed, centuries-old call for the mass murder of my people — one that was to be carried out by a system whose institutions reflected a structure of violence, oppression and anti-Blackness.
In the coming hours and days, even weeks, I would receive responses Re: Make Noise from a few family members on the chain, but for these I was not waiting. The call for justice must be made loudly, publicly and continuously. The faucet, I knew, would not be dismantled by those who helped to turn it on, who washed themselves deliberately of people like me and attempted to purify themselves in the presence of water. Nonetheless, I would not stop making noise.
I would not stop singing until others joined me in song.
On Shabbat Shira, I stood in front of my university Hillel, giving a talk that was a version of this letter. On this Shabbat we tell the story of the Israelites escaping from slavery in Egypt. As they cross the sea, in the Parasha of B’Shalach, the Israelites sing a song of redemption. They sing and they make noise with timbrels and with drums and with voice. They do all of this despite yet being far from the Promised Land.
We, in America, are yet far from the Promised Land. We cannot stay silent and allow continued injustice. There is a wide gap between what “freedom” looks like today and ultimate redemption.
While black people in America might no longer be slaves; as illuminated by countless recent instances of fatal and nonfatal police brutality, black and brown folks continue to be policed by a system implemented as an extension of slavery and white supremacy. We have a long trek ahead of us before we view even the horizon of redemption.
This is why I will grasp the faucet with my own two hands, turning until there is no water left to purify the hands of racist systems. This is why I will make noise until our white families understand that to not challenge the social and political practices of institutionalized systems — such as policing, whose routine display of lethal force against black bodies is state-sanctioned, or flying the Confederate flag, a symbol of white supremacy and power that continues to be normalized and celebrated — is to deny my right to exist.
This is why I ask that you remind yourself that there is work to be done if we are not to let America wash their hands of Black lives. If we as Jews choose to be responsible, to not wash our hands of people. Black Lives Matter is a Jewish issue because of our Jewish values (that demand we always recall what it was like to be oppressed and not allow the oppression of others), and because there are Jews who are black. Regardless of our racial identities, as Jews, black Jews and black people are our brothers and sisters too.
These conversations are vital. Black people in America are facing a system built to silence, imprison, brutalize and kill us every single day. Now is the time to vocalize. To raise our voices, together. To demand the faucet be shut off, while there is time to spare lives.
We have MUCH noise to make. We must rise up together in songs of redemption (in hopes of a time where prayer can be safe and sacred), singing: “Black Lives Matter. “They will not wash their hands of us.”
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