Sign In Forgot Password

Rabbi Josh's D'var Torah: rosh Hashanah 5779

Last year around this time I began to wonder, were people less patient and more agitated or was it me. I had just lost my father and thought, perhaps I was feeling more sensitive. As the year continued, my perceptions out in the world and within our synagogue persisted. People seemed on edge. Alongside the great kindness I experienced grieving, I noticed that goodwill, benefit of the doubt and compassion were in shorter supply, and criticism and judgment abounded. So I began to ask others if I was alone in my observation or was I just being touchy. And the answer, again and again, was unanimous: yes. Yes: those I asked noticed that people were more reactive and yes, I was likely more sensitive, because they too felt that way.

It turns out scientists have been studying this phenomenon. It was a “thing.” The American Psychology Association released its findings that two-thirds of Americans of both parties confessed to feeling stressed about the future of the country.  Time Magazine reported that studies say this presidency is creating “a constant 'hum' of anxiety...” People of all political affiliations are  experiencing “sleeplessness, overeating due to anxiety or depression, [and] short-tempered irritation.” People’s unease is making them “...afraid of what's coming next.” Another study found people are making detrimental choices, harmful to themselves and others.  Therapists have dubbed this “Trump Anxiety Disorder,” describing that people are feeling lost, uncentered and worried who or what to believe or trust.

We here today are not immune. Many of us fear for our future, the future of others and of our country , and for this, I have compassion, yet it is impacting the quality of our connection to one other and our ourselves. Anxious and disconnected, we can lose sight of what anchors us; and this makes it hard to be effective changemakers, not to mention just to live centered lives. Take a moment to think, when have you felt unmoored this past year?  Has there been a time when you lost a sense of your center by feeling provoked or agitated rather than calm assuredness? What would change if you had greater access to your moral center?

The more we develop a fidelity to self, the better we can withstand the chaos around us. Rosh Hashanah creates the opportunity to return to our foundation and our sovereign truths. Unfortunately, we are living in a time where we must contend with a political administration that purposefully stirs things up and a 24-hour news cycle that keeps it stirring. This is on top of the challenges and dramas of our own personal lives. We can lose our sense of selves.
The Hasidic Masters taught, “Rake the muck this way. Rake the muck that way. It will still be muck. In the time you are brooding, you could be stringing pearls for the delight of heaven.” In other words, we live in muddy waters. We can either focus on the muck and brood, or tap into our own greater purpose. The muck distracts and provokes reactivity. If we are rooted in our core values, we can settle down and return to what we hold sacred. Gandhi taught there are three simple principles of truthful living: Be congruent. Be authentic. Be your true self.  When we embrace living this way, we can be loyal to ourselves in any circumstance or context.

This lesson was reinforced to me by our wedding caterer. At the end of our reception, he asked: “Can we talk politics?” Talk about a moment of Trump Anxiety Disorder! Dan Self, of Dan’s Catering, is a burly, handsome man in his 50’s with a Clark Kent haircut and a trimmed broom handle mustache. He looks like a white All American--in a wheelchair. After learning we were gay our first caterer dumped us, so I braced myself for what was next. “We’ve been catering for nearly 30 years and I must admit this is the first same-sex wedding we have ever catered. When you came to us, I almost turned you down; I’m Southern Baptist.” (To which I thought, “Great!? I came all the way to Washington to deal with Georgia.”)

“Even after I said yes, my friends pestered me. I struggled; had I made a mistake? I was an athlete; a baseball player. A car accident ended all of that in my 20s. Now as you can see, I’m in this wheelchair. I went from playing on the field to being rejected in the stands. Attending a game, the attendant told me there was no more seating for people like me. When I complained, he humiliated me further for holding up the line. People behind me began to yell. I’ve endured discrimination my entire life, I realized. So how could I discriminate against you?”

And then shockingly tears welled up in his eyes. Dan continued, “What I didn’t expect, is that you would change my whole outlook. No one has treated us with as much kindness, respect and dignity as you and your guests. In our 30 years, we have never experienced anything like this, so many different kinds of people celebrating together. The staff says this is their most favorite wedding. You have changed my life.” We then hugged it out; honoring our authenticity.
I was in awe; Dan had anchored himself in a truth that was in conflict with the messages of his religion, his political party and his friends. He made an unpopular choice, but one he professed that he had to make nonetheless, to honor himself. He was not anxious honoring this choice; rather he was steadfast and present. This example shows how we can allow our inner truths to guide us in uncertain times. Honoring our values in the face of contrary messages is courageous. A healthy way to respond to these uncertain times is to cultivate that fidelity to self. Richard Rohr, a contemplative priest, teaches that we are created with our own Divine DNA, an absolute core containing our deepest truths and sacred destiny. A way to see the work of Rosh Hashanah is to approach Teshuvah not just as repentance, but as a return to that core.  

How do we discern whether we are being guided by provocation, distractions, and reactions or by our core beliefs?  Our work is to uplift our guiding values despite all the contradictions around us, and to act in ways that feel aligned within us. Building fidelity to self can be challenging at first. Parker Palmer, founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, warns us that “the powers and principalities would hold less sway over our lives if we refused to collaborate with them. But refusal is risky, so we deny our own truth, take up lives of ‘self-impersonation,’ and betray our identities. In the process, we become separated from our own souls. We end up far removed from the truth we hold within that we cannot know the ‘integrity that comes from being what you are.’” When we are being gaslighted or provoked by those in power, or the media, by religion or by people around us, we must cultivate a loyalty to our center. And when we choose to respond, it must also emerge from our values.

We see this clearly with Abraham, whose stories are woven through the tapestry of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. He is often (though not always) portrayed in the Torah as someone with a great awareness of his values and center. We see this when he engages God about the decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. The text emphasizes this by noting why Abraham is worthy of knowing God’s plan: he leads others to perform acts of justice and righteousness. His clear sense of purpose inspires others. Abraham stands before God, metaphorically; the commentaries see him as being upright and aligned. Rashi indicates that Abraham’s approach is resolute. He engages with gravity, appeal, and prayer. When he debates God, he speaks in values, highlighting justice, humility, patience, and a desire for what is right. Leading by example, taking stands, being thoughtful in engagement with others, speaking truth to power are pathways we can emulate and which emerge when we are loyal to our own core.

Yet, when we read the binding of Isaac, Abraham’s values are absent. He loses himself. Ethicist Rabbi Visotsky calls his actions zombielike. It is as if something had happened; as if he were disconnected from his center. Indeed, if we read the Torah closely something has. This section of text begins with, “And it was after these things that God tested Abraham.”  What are “these things” the Torah is referencing? Consider the stories prior to this. Was it witnessing the destruction of the cities despite his valiant attempts? Advocating for a worthy cause in vain could throw us off our center. Was it banishing Hagar and Ishmael? Acting cruelly (even when we can justify it), can throw us off our center. Pretending Sarah was his sister for their survival? Anyone who has spent time in the closet understands that there is no center in hiding. Or was it negotiating with Avimelekh a business-oriented tyrant in a land with people of contrary values? Anyone awake in America can relate how this might throw us off our center.

Any one of these would be enough to dislocate someone from their core, let alone all of them. It is only when the better angels of Abraham’s nature call out his name twice can he see what he has truly become. With knife in hand and son bound, he was engaging in an action so deeply contrary to his belief, he could no longer recognize himself. He started by challenging God to be just and not kill the righteous, but there he was about to enact the behavior he had condemned. He betrayed not only, God, his wife, his son, but also, himself. Instead of judging Abraham, I challenge each and every one of us to consider if we are in danger of being like him?

Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, was a rabbi whose mission was to lift himself and others out of the muck and into what he would call sacred service. He looked to Abraham as someone with great fidelity to self. True self is not a place of ego, but a recognition of what is most holy within us. Abraham was someone who went forth from his home to follow a sacred purpose without being affected by those who mocked him. He understood his true self to be a vessel of godliness. And when Abraham returns to his self, he helps create a world of hospitality, love and justice and when he allows his anxiety to distract him or doubts his truth, he bungles it up making poor choices and causing harm to himself and others.

On Rosh Hashanah, we are given the emotional texts of Abraham, the piercing of the shofar and the wakeful liturgy of these days so that we may stop and ask ourselves, do we recognize who we are so that we might hear our better angels calling to us?  We are human; we make poor choices and cause harm; we bungle. But we have great capacity to return to our true selves more consistently. One of the names for Rosh Hashanah is Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance. Rabbi Jonathan Shulman teaches that “[m]emory is not simply recalling something that happened; rather, memory is the mental ability to recall the essence of something… One might say that “[today] is the Day of [remembering our] Essence. The act of remembering ourselves is...the most profound act of self-consciousness.” On this day, we are called to remember and return to our essence.

The invitation, even the expectation, of these days is to be honest with ourselves; to understand our essence. Note our strengths and our flaws, our passions and our aversions, our places for growth and our limitations. The more clearly we see this, the more whole we can be.. The good news is that the work to have greater fidelity to ourselves is accessible. When we bring awareness and presence,  we will encounter our sacred center. To live life from our core is a choice. We set our own standards and how we want to live. The more we honor that with integrity, the greater alignment we have, and the better we will be able to withstand the hard stuff, the muck. Imagine the ease we will have to pursue our purpose. And when we are thrown off center, the swifter the return. This is an ongoing process. We dislocate from ourselves and we return. This return to our core and a return to integrity is Teshuvah.

I may be slow on the uptake, but it didn't occur to me until well into my writing, that my caterer’s last name is Self. The mystic in me sees more than a coincidence.  Just this week he wrote me and I was reminded again how powerful it is when we return to our truths and live with fidelity to self. Unlikely connections are forged. New possibilities that challenge the tone of our times emerge. We see pearls in the muck, and Heaven delights.

Thank you for allowing us to cater for you.  My staff is still talking about how warm and friendly all of your guests were. Your wedding was the highpoint of our summer!  I am using a couple of your recipes, I am pleased to tell you every time I use them they are a hit. I know that somewhere we will meet again.... I'll cater.  LOL Thank you for the work, friendship, kindness and love.

Can we talk politics? If we return to our center and have fidelity to self, Yes. Yes, we can! And we will be able to do so much more.

Intergenerational Kol Nidre D'var - Jack Walsh

Almighty Gosh

I don’t know what prompted the comment, but a couple years ago, just seemingly apropos of nothing, my oldest daughter Stella came out with, “Goliath. That’s just a myth. Wait. Who was Goliath? Was he a myth?”
I said, “Um…” and took a breath while I considered the best way to reply. My wife, Michele, answered before I could. “Well, kinda.” Then, we immediately had the same thought, but again, Michele beat me to it. “But, maybe don’t bring up the myth thing at the restaurant.”

Because, what made this question tricky at the moment was the fact that we were on the way to meet an old friend of mine and his family for pancakes: a friend who, sometime after college, rediscovered Jesus in a big, big way and set aside his pharmacy career to become a fundamentalist evangelical minister. Ethan and his wife Elaina are amazing, loving, and giving people and I still consider Ethan one of my best friends, but I think it’s safe to say that we have different perspectives on the literal veracity of the story of David and Goliath as well as differing interpretations of many of the pages on either side of it, not to mention how these pages relate to, let’s say, politics, science, social issues, beer, or any number of other things. We still have a great time when we get together, but I’m always a little scared that someone is going to make it weird. Someone like my eight year old.

“Why shouldn’t I bring it up?” Stella was immediately suspicious. 

I said, “Well, it’s probably best that we don’t.”

“Why not?” I could see her narrow her eyes in the rearview mirror. “What’s going on?”

“Well, it’s generally smart not to discuss religion at social occasions.”

“Why not?”

“Um, okay. Well. Y’see, you know how Nana and Papa are Christian and they believe different stuff? Well, our friends also believe different things...a lot...and so, y’know...maybe just don’t bring it up.”

In regards to “different things,” I probably don’t need to elaborate here by mentioning that we’re Jewish. Or, most of our household is, I ought to say. Myself, I was raised Southern Baptist and up through most of high school, I was fairly devout. But, by the time I got married, my faith had become a considerably less important part of my life, and I was mostly okay with raising Jewish kids. It was a big deal to Michele, and we both felt that Judaism was inextricably tied to a cultural tradition worth passing on. And, I mean, did the world really need more WASPs? 

There have been some frustrating moments in adapting to new religious practices (for instance, the time I caught on fire at Chanukah) but I’m trying to engage in Stella’s and her little sister Adaline’s Jewish educations where I can. I still know my Old Testament stories pretty well (better than my wife, really, because Southern Baptists do not mess around when it comes to Bible study) and it seemed like a good idea to answer whatever questions Stella had so it maybe wouldn’t come up again at the IHOP. As we drove along, I yelled the story of David and Goliath to the back of the minivan as best I could, telling Stella how a boy managed to slay a giant. 

“He was a giant?” she asked. This surprised me, because I’d assumed that’s what had struck her as mythic to begin with.* “How tall was he?”

“Oh, nine feet or something.”

“That’s not a big giant.”

“Well, he wasn’t, like, a fairy tale giant. He was a giant compared to all the other people. And definitely David, for sure. Also, people used to be shorter.”

I told Stella that it was a pretty cool story to hear when I was a boy, since a little kid who was standing up for good defeated an adult, and maybe we could look it up and read it at home. I assume all this satisfied her curiosity for the moment, and thankfully, it didn’t come up later. But,  as it turned out, Stella wasn’t the one I needed to worry about.
At some point, while we were waiting on the food, I became aware of a disagreement at the other end of the table. Adaline, our youngest, who had been happily coloring with Ethan’s little girl reacted to something with “Oh my gosh.” This earned her a polite but firm admonishment from her new friend. “You’re not supposed to say that.” 

For a while, we had worked on getting Adaline to say that very thing. In fact, this was very likely the first time ever that she had gone with “oh my gosh,” at least on the first pass. We’d explained to her that it’s not respectful to take the Lord’s name in vain, some people find it offensive, it’s in the Ten Commandments and so forth. I’m happy she seemed to have finally absorbed this and even happier she didn’t come out with any of the other blasphemies I mutter not entirely under my breath from time to time.

But, for some kid she’d never met to tell her that a phrase we’d been actively encouraging her to say was bad was just not going to fly with Adaline. So, she adamantly insisted “oh my gosh” was fine and said it a few more times by point of illustration. But my friend’s daughter stuck to her position and they went back and forth until reaching an is/is-not/is-too standoff 

In order to negotiate some sort of peace agreement in the International House of Pancakes, the United Nations of the breakfast food world, Elaina told her daughter that while they didn’t say it, some people did and that’s okay. Elaina explained to me that there were people in their church who objected to words like “darn” or “heck” that they considered to be “Christian cursewords.” She and Ethan had decided that the best way to not raise heck was to teach their kids to avoid such ecclesiastical epithets, including “oh my gosh.” I nodded and thought that would maybe be the end of it, but Elaina kept going. 

Unfortunately, the preschool theological dispute was still going on, and then right next to me, her other two kids were watching some Disney thing blaring out of the tinny speaker of an iPhone. Elaina has a tendency to drop her voice to a soft, conspiratorial tone when discussing anything remotely controversial, like placeholders for cuss-words, for instance, and I couldn’t really hear anything she was saying. I just nodded and smiled and said, “right, right,” every time it seemed like I should. I really have no idea what, from Elaina’s perspective, I must have appeared to agree to wholeheartedly. It possibly seemed very dramatic, because “When You Wish Upon A Star” swelled to a crescendo on my left simultaneously. 

Honestly, I was surprised that Ethan and Elaina let their kids watch movies in restaurants, and my mind wandered to how Michele and I had consciously left behind the tablet because we didn’t want to look like those kinds of screen-dependent parents in front of our friends, although we are, indeed, normally those kinds of parents. Instead, I had resorted to entertaining the kids with a Bible story. What was going on?

Eventually, the two kids reached the kind of peace that can only be achieved by putting a lot of carbohydrates covered in flavored corn syrup in front of them. But I thought about this for a while afterwards. I read back over the story of David and Goliath a few days later and was happy to find that I’d pretty much hit all the high points, although I’d forgotten the bit where David decapitates Goliath and takes his bloody head home as a trophy, which kind of undercut the point I had hoped to make about the importance of moral courage. Truth be told, David and Goliath is not the best scriptural reference for teaching conflict resolution and reconciliation. But, I tried to impart, at least to Stella that, like with David, self confidence is the first step in overcoming adversity. 

Or something. I mean, yes, God was guiding his hand and all that. But, I don’t want the answer to every big question that comes up be “Because God, that’s why.” Obviously, I’m still figuring out how to handle all this. Because parenthood, that’s why. 

Helping to raise kids in a faith that is not my own feels a little disingenuous sometimes, but that’s mostly because belief itself has become something of an awkward and inconsistent fit for me. But I still value what I gained growing up in a community of faith: a decent moral foundation, compassion for others, a loving, extended-family, and a sense of something larger than myself. At the time of the Oh my Gosh incident, Adaline had just started Parent-and-Me classes at Hebrew school. The first thing they focused on was the importance of being a mensch - a good person who helps others - and she became very enthusiastic about charting progress with stickers on her “Mensch Board.” While we were doing this one night, I asked her, “So, why is it important to be a mensch?”

“Because of other people,” she said.

“Because other people are important?”

“Everyone is important, Daddy.”

“So, do you think it's important to be a mensch because of other people or only because of God?”  Sort of a leading question, I know.)

“Other people.”

“Yeah. Because everyone is important. We're all in this together, right Adaline?” 

“God is the most important of all,” she continued, with as much reverence as one could expect from a 4 year old.
“Yeah, God is pretty important,” I agreed. “What do you think about God?”

“We can't see him,” she said.

“Can he see us?”

“No,” she said, but immediately reconsidered. “Wait. Yes. The stars are his eyes.”

So, I thought that was sweet, if maybe a little H.P. Lovecraftian there at the end. But I mostly like where she was headed with it. The girls are extraordinarily lucky (blessed, I might say, depending on the day you ask me) to have my wife as a role model in their spiritual development, although I suspect that one day they’ll all use Hebrew to make fun of me without my knowing (and I’ll expect suitable apologies on future Yom Kippurs). But, I’m reasonably sure whatever dissonance that comes as a result of our intermingled religious traditions will mostly work itself out. 

Kids learn long division not because they’re ever going to use long division, but because it forces their brains to work in new ways. We teach them history not so they can accumulate the trivia of the past, but so they can make sense of the present and shape the future. And, they learn myths so they’ll know that giants can be conquered. But, figuring out how to be a mensch? Oh my gosh. I hope we’re teaching each other.

*Stella would like you all, and especially her Hebrew school teachers, to know that she is fully knowledgeable about Goliath now. She only agreed to let me tell this story if I added this footnote.

Yom Kippur D'var - Adam Serwer

Just want to say I’m happy to be here. My brother was bar mitzvah’d in a reconstructionist synagogue. The other ones wouldn’t take us because our mother is black and she hadn’t converted. It was a welcoming community like this one that saw us as part of the community and not apart from it.

Never Again.

That's right, I'm starting light. 

Every Jew who hears that, and a lot of people who aren't jewish, know what that means. It's a reference to the holocaust. The genocide of World War II, in which a third of the Jewish people were extinguished at the hands of the Nazi war machine. 

But it's something else. It's an example of public memory. What's public memory?

So we all know what individual memory is. It's your personal recollections, your experiences, the things that help shape you and make you who you are. Public memory is different. It's collective. It's not how I remember something, or how you remember something, but how we remember something. 

Take the Holocaust. There are some people alive who still remember it. My Bar Mitzvah tutor, Nina Merrick, escaped into the Polish forest while the Nazis were murdering her family, and managed to survive the war. But there are fewer and fewer people who remember. And someday soon, there won't be anyone who can recall the Holocaust in living memory. We'll have photographs, we'll have video, we'll have records. The shoes. Everyone who goes to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC remembers the pile of shoes. 

When those people are gone, we won't having first-hand living memory. We'll have our memory of those people, but someday that'll be gone too. Eventually all that will be left is public memory. Public memory is how groups of people, small or large—your family, high school soccer team, your town, your state, your country, remember something. 

That's important. Because public memory, how people feel and think and conceive of their past, shapes their future. That's why Jews say never again. We remember the Holocaust, our past, collectively, so that we can ensure that our children, and our children's children, will never face such a catastrophe.

But what happens when public memory is warped? What happens when what the public remembers, or what much of the public remembers, isn't what actually happened?

I live in Texas. Texas is a Southern state, just like Georgia. Just like Georgia, in 1861, it seceded from the Union. February 2nd, 1861. The Texas Declaration of Causes, which announces the state's secession, is a lot like the other states’, in that it mentions slavery. 

"Texas abandoned her separate national existence and consented to become one of the Confederated States to promote her welfare, insure domestic tranquility [sic] and secure more substantially the blessings of peace and liberty to her people. She was received into the confederacy with her own constitution, under the guarantee of the federal constitution and the compact of annexation, that she should enjoy these blessings. She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery--the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits--a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time." 

All future time. Sound familiar? It should. It's similar to what it says in the Torah about Yom Kippur. "This shall be a law to you for all time."

Seems pretty clear to me. 

See what's interesting though, is that if you go to Austin, the Capital of Texas, there Confederate memorials on the capitol grounds. Three of them actually. And the big one is not just for Texas,  but for all the Confederate States. Jefferson Davis, the Mississippi slaveowner, trafficker in human flesh, betrayer, stands atop it like a king, like a colossus. 

What does it say on the memorial?

It says "died for state rights guaranteed under the constitution."

The people of the south, animated by the spirit of 1776, to preserve their rights, withdrew from the federal compact in 1861. The North resorted to coercion, the South, against overwhelming numbers and resources, fought until exhausted.

Pretty different from the declaration of causes huh? Nothing about the white race, nothing about all future time. Just "rights." And coercion. Are you against rights? Do you support coercion?

No of course not. 

Now, maybe a hundred or so feet away, there's a different memorial. It's called the African-American history memorial, but it's largely a memorial to the enslaved, and a memorial to the emancipated. It's like black history month, it makes a lot of people uncomfortable so you gotta try and fit the whole thing in one place so people can forget about it if they need to. 

And in it's own way, it's a memorial to a brief moment in American history, shortly after the Civil War, when the U.S. government attempted to build an interracial democracy in the South.  "Although blacks did serve on juries, vote and hold office for a few years from the late 1870s until the turn of the twentieth century, their rights were constantly threatened at the local level and taken away after 1900."

Now let's go back to the Confederate memorial. There's some fine print on it. The fine print says, "Erected in 1901 by surviving comrades." now that's not a coincidence, that black america's rights are taken away after 1900, and in 1901, a confederate memorial appears.

So it's not really a memorial to the war dead. It's not really a memorial to a fight against "coercion." After all, the state of Texas, by it's own words, seceded to preserve the right of one group of people to enslave another for "all future time." It's a memorial to treason in defense of slavery. But it's also a victory memorial. It symbolizes the rights taken away from black people in Texas. That's why it's erected in 1901. Because, like the vast majority of the Confederate memorials in America, it was built to symbolize the white South winning the war, by restoring its traditional racial hierarchy. 

Frederick Douglass said the “abolition war” would never be “completed until the black men of the South, and the black men of the North, shall have been admitted, fully and completely, into the body politic of America.” What do you think? I think we're still fighting. 

The period right before all those confederate statutes come up is known as "redemption." Black people were barred from voting, serving on juries, holding office. Black workers were forced into a neo-slavery known as convict leasing—Slavery by Another Name, in the words of Douglas Blackmon, the former Wall Street Journal Bureau Chief in Atlanta. 

One of these monuments tells the truth. The other is a liar. 

See that's how public memory works in America. When it comes to the ugly parts of our past, some of us say "never again." Others say, "that never happened."

Now maybe some of you are thinking, why should we care? Who cares about a memorial?

Well, it's not really about the memorial exactly. It's about memory.

This is a really divided time in America right now. But underneath almost any ideological conflict, there's a conflict over what the past was, and what it means.

See, if you don't know that in most of the south, black people couldn't really vote until the voting rights act of 1965, or for most of America's existence really, you might not think it's such a big deal that the Supreme Court struck down the part of the voting rights act that made sure the South wouldn't keep black people from voting. And I'm not saying this only happens in the South--new york has some of the worst voting laws in the country. That's what happens when one party gets control of a state, and wants to keep it that way. They rig the game.

But if you thought slavery ended with the 13th Amendment, you might be confused about why so few black families have generational wealth. If you didn't know that white soldiers could use their GI bills to buy homes anywhere they wanted, but black soldiers were only allowed to buy in ghettos where the GI loans would not apply, you might not understand why there are so few black homeowners. If you don't understand the phrase "all deliberate speed" in the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v Board of Education, you might wonder why public schools are still segregated. 

“There was a right side and a wrong side in the late war,” insisted Douglass, “that no sentiment ought to cause us to forget.”

But America did forget. That was deliberate. You see, after the war, groups like the Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate veterans sought to shape people's memory of the Confederacy and its purpose. This propaganda effort was called the Lost Cause. It rewrote treason in defense of slavery, as a glorious struggle for liberty. Douglass said that the war would not be finished until black people had equality. But the white North didn't want to fight for that. Fighting for Union, even if it meant freeing black people, was one thing. If the North could have union, then the South could have Jim Crow. And that agreement shaped public memory of the war. It's no longer a war over slavery. It's a gentlemen's disagreement. Heroism on both sides. 

Again, why does that matter? Why should we care what public memory of the civil war is?

How you remember your past, and if you remember your past, shapes your future. As the historian Eric Foner writes, the Lost Cause interpretation of history, and its depiction of Reconstruction as a tragic era of corrupt Negro rule, "helped to legitimize, the racial order of a society in which blacks were disenfranchised and subjected to discrimination in every aspect of their lives."

Well it's not the only thing we've forgotten. Take immigration for example. 

A lot of people say, "well my family came here the right way." But what does that mean, really?

See at the turn of the century, the United States was taking in a great deal of immigrants. Between 1880 and World War I, twenty-five million people came here. If you're Italian, if you're Jewish, Greek, German, even maybe Irish, your families most likely came in this group. A lot of people say, "you can't have a country if you don't have borders." But for most of America's existence, if you were white, there were no borders. In 1917 you had to pass a literacy test. In your own language. 

To come here legally now, you almost always have to fill a stringent set of requirements. You have to know english, you have to take a civics test, you have to have a clean record, you have to show that you're not going to become what's called a "public charge," basically that you won't need public assistance. 

But only 1 percent of the 25 million immigrants from Europe who arrived in the United States from 1880 to World War I were actually excluded. When people say their families came here the "right way," that's true. But only because if you were white, there was almost no wrong way to do it. 

Nevertheless, a lot of people were deeply concerned about the new immigrants. A guy named Madison Grant wrote a book called the "Passing of the Great Race," in which he said that "native" Americans, and he doesn't mean American Indians, he means white people of what he calls "Nordic" descent, meaning Northern Europeans, were going to destroy themselves by bringing in all these greeks and jews and Italians. They weren’t sending their best. 

American democracy could not sustain all these "beaten men from beaten races" inflitrating American culture. These lower races, they'd eventually outnumber the pure, teutonics, and that would be that. America's over. "The mixing ing of two races "gives us a race reverting to the more ancient, generalized eralized and lower type," Grant wrote. "Thus "the cross between any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew."

That is just so offensive.

Judaism is matrilineal, it's only if the mother is Jewish. Come on.

Grant believed there were three "white races." Nordics, that's northern europeans. Alpines, that's central europe. And the Mediterraneans that’s Southern Europe. Jews weren't even included. 

Grant was from Manhattan. He was old money, and one of his preoccupations was all these dirty, yiddish speaking jews all around him who holed up in their own neighborhoods and didn't learn to speak english. They're dirty, they're criminals, they won't assimilate. They're taking our country from us. 

Now of course, the descendants of some of those European immigrants go to rallies and chant "build the wall." But that's how public memory works. When you forget your own story, you tell yourself a new one that lets you feel how you want to feel. 

That book, the Passing of the Great Race, is pretty important. You don't hear about it much anymore, because the book, and the things it inspired, are not part of the America that Americans like to remember. But it helped inspire the racist immigration laws, designed to keep out Italians and Jews and greeks and asians and all the other undesireables, that passed in the 1920s. In 1924, Republican Sen. David Reed of Pennsylvania, the author of one of those bills, was clear about his intentions in the New York Times: “The racial composition of America at the time is thus made permanent.”

(One of the things they didn't do though, was restrict immigration from Latin America. That's another long story). 

So the Passing of the Great Race helps lead to those immigration restrictions. But that's not all. 

See the Passing of the Great Race wasn't just popular in America. It was also translated into German. Adolf Hitler wrote to Madison Grant, and told him the book was "his bible." Sure enough, in the words of immigration historian Roger Daniels, these sorts of racial theories would become “in slightly different form” become “the official ideology of Nazi Germany.” Hitler never really understood why Americans weren't his allies. After all, he looked to America for inspiration. In Mein Kampf, he points to America as creating a racial conception of citizenship, in particular its immimgration laws, noting that they “exclude certain races from naturalization.”

Americans don't like to remember that stuff. We watch movies about Pearl Harbor, and read books about how the Greatest Generation stopped the evil of the third reich from marching all over the earth. But Americans don't really talk about contribution the land of the free made to that evil. It's not a part of the story we like. It's not one we want to remember. 

But the amazing thing about public memory is that, in the same way that after the first time you burn yourself you never put your unprotected hand on the stove again, societies that remember what brought them to the brink can choose not to go back to it. When we say "never again," we are remembering. 

Sounds easy right?

Well yes and no. Just like I mentioned before, as time passes, and living memory passes with it, people try to shape the past into something else. They try to overwriite the truth with a story that makes themselves feel good. During the days of Awe, we're supposed to contemplate the ways we've hurt others during the year. And that's difficult. We look back, and we ask forgiveness. We say I'm not that bad thing that I did. That's not all I am. But to atone, you have to remember. 

So memory is hard. Anyone can do it. But just like people repress bad memories, societies can too. And at a time when it seems like people no longer feel an obligation to tell the truth, when they think they can reshape reality through the repetition of dishonesty, telling the truth becomes even more important. We've got fake news, alternative facts, pick your poison. 

Particularly today, it can feel like the country is going through things it's never been through before. But that's not quite true. No two experiences are the same. But the kinds of division we're seeing today, the didn't come out of nowhere. They came out of our past. When you say it never happened, you can't say never again. 

Some things require great physical strength, or mental genius. But public memory is not nuclear physics, and it's not running the 100 yard dash in ten seconds. It takes commitment, but anyone can do it. You just have to want to remember, even when it's so painful you want to turn away. 

So i want to go back to the statues there on the state capitol in Austin. One is a liar. The other one tells the truth. One is propaganda, the other is history. One says never happened, and the other says never again.

Those are the choices before us this year. Choose.

Mon, March 25 2019 18 Adar II 5779