What a year this is! A global pandemic. Black Americans murdered by police. Peaceful protests that turn into riots and looting. And now a hurricane season that began with torrential rains.
The seemingly endless rain over the past few days here in Florida feels appropriate. It is as if the sky itself is weeping. Although it too is menacing, as the threat of flooding looms. But tonight it is the political threats that are choking me, reminding me of the two Black men who died at the hands of murderous police, saying “I can’t breathe,” George Floyd and Eric Garner.
As a white woman, I have no idea what it must be like to be Black in America. Yes, I’m also a Jew, but I can take off my kipa (yarmulke) and tuck my Jewish star necklace into my shirt, and the next thing you know, I can “pass” as a non-Jew. Not so our Black and Brown neighbors.
As I sat pondering this, the rain stopped and I jumped up to take my dog out before it started again. And the minute we stepped outside I saw my one Black neighbor, a woman named Peggy, whom I hadn’t seen in months.
She stopped to say hello and I told her what I had written just moments before, which led us into one of the most interesting and eye-opening conversations I’ve had in years. We talked about what it’s like to be Black, what it’s like to be a Jew, why it’s important for everyone to stand up for people who are oppressed. We talked about implicit bias, which Peggy wisely pointed out that we all are saddled with, regardless of color.
As we spoke, I realized that I suffer from more than implicit bias. I suffer from ignorance. Ignorance of what it’s like to grow up in America and not be permitted to try on clothes in a store. Of what it’s like to flourish in Black schools but when desegregation came, to never get better than a C in school. Of what it’s like to sit in the back seat of the car with your mom, because the two of you were light-skinned, and it was safer for your dark-skinned father to drive, as if he was your chauffeur. Of what it’s like to make sure you go to the bathroom before you leave home because you might not find one that you’re permitted to use.
And no, I’m not talking about some wizened old woman in her late 90s who grew up in the deep South. This is a 70-year-old who lived in the same parts of the country in which I’ve lived.
Peggy told me that when she came to Sarasota she was worried about moving to the South. But when her daughter came to visit, she told her mom, “Looks like you’ll be OK here. There’s a good Jewish community, and you know they will be here for you if you need them.”
This is true. Because we Jews have our own inter-generational trauma. We know what happened less than a century ago. We know that Jews lost their jobs, their businesses, their homes, their places of worship, their lives. We know that Jews died because our own country turned away ships of refugees who later died at the hands of the Nazis. Even those of us like myself, whose family has been in the US for generations, know the stories of the Holocaust, have met survivors, have seen the numbers tattooed on their arms.
At the end we just shook our heads, and both said that we don’t know what to do, how to help make change come, how to make our voices heard in the community. We want to help, and we don’t know how. We feel small and inadequate to the task, which is so huge, and we are so powerless.
And yet my tradition teaches that no matter how big the task, we are not free to desist from it. We’re not responsible to finish it, but that doesn’t give us the right to sit on the sidelines.
Yes, we’re just two middle-class women who live down the block from each other, both past middle age, both deeply disturbed by what’s happening to our country, both hoping for change, both frustrated by the violence and hatred.
But the truth is, we’re not powerless. We have our voices, and we have each other. And that’s a start.
PS. I didn’t think to take a photo of us together, and anyway, there’s a pandemic going on and we shouldn’t be cuddling up with each other. But it was frustrating trying to find a photo to accompany this blog post. The only photos of Black and White women together were stock photos, i.e. posed for publicity purposes. Yet another thing we’ll have to fix.