Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Words at the Cambridge Holocaust Commemoration

On May 2, I was invited to introduce the poem "Bashert" at the Cambridge Holocaust Commemoration ceremony. Here are the introductory words I gave ...


Every year we gather here to commemorate the Holocaust. We do so not just to remember the many victims of that horrific crime. But also to reassert a faith: a faith in humanity, a faith in other people, a faith in ourselves.

One need not look very far today to remember just how important our evening is tonight. Remembering and grieving the past is only part of what we do. Joining and committing to fight against many claws of bigotry, demonization and indifference that allow hatred to flourish and inhumanity to gain the upper hand, we do that too.

As part of our commemoration, we read the poem Bashert, through the many voices that make up our one community. 

Bashert  is written by Irena Klepfisz and it means something like “destiny” in Yiddish. The poem expresses the randomness of death and survival within the context of systematic, deliberate genocide of the Nazi regime. 

Klepfisz tells us about nameless people, and their fate, people whom she undoubtedly knew. We know these people too. They exist in our memories and they exist in our lives and they exist in ourselves. We are inextricably connected to one another.

This poem — and this evening — spurs us to remember all communities that faced or face repression, persecution, and genocide, wherever they may find themselves and whoever they may be. 

It spurs us to renew our commitment to confronting intolerance and inhumanity wherever it exists. It spurs to act against violence and to speak out against the willingness to do violence whenever it emerges.

And it spurs us to honor the grandest part of the human spirit … its resistance and resilience … and its unfathomable capacity for kindness.

This is a responsive reading, and we ask the audience you join us in saying “These words are dedicated to all those who died,” which can be found starting on Page 8 of your program.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

George Washington, liberal

By any yardstick in today's American politics, George Washington, our most preeminent Founding Father and our first president, would be a measured a liberal. I enter two pieces of evidence into the record.

First, his letter to the Touro synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, written in 1790. Washington found himself in Newport doing what we might now call a "victory lap." Having won independence from England and won the presidency of this new country, Washington set out to thank the citizens who fought in the Revolution and also to tout the Bill of Rights, which had not yet been ratified. Upon his arrival, the president received a letter of welcome from the synagogue, the oldest Jewish congregation in the colonies, and he responded to them thus:

To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport Rhode Island. 
Gentlemen,While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens. 
The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and happy people. 
The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. 
It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig-tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy. 
G. Washington

Next in evidence is his Farewell Letter, written in 1796 as he departed the presidency. In the much longer document, he wrote in part:

The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts. 
For this you have every inducement of sympathy and interest. Citizens, by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings, and successes. 
But these considerations, however powerfully they address themselves to your sensibility, are greatly outweighed by those which apply more immediately to your interest. Here every portion of our country finds the most commanding motives for carefully guarding and preserving the union of the whole.
It could be torn from today's newspapers.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Theater Review: black odyssey boston ... a must see!

Earlier this week, I saw one of the most amazing pieces of theater I think I've ever seen in my life. black odyssey boston, playing now at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge through May 19, stands alone as one of the most mystical, mythical and magical productions I have ever encountered.

Reworking the story of Homer's Odyssey to tell the story of Ulysses Lincoln, an Afghan war vet trying to make his home and all the perils he faces as a black man in the 21st century all by itself is a genius premise. Then when you see what director Benny Ambush does with it, you'll be left speechless, as I was after the three hour performance.