“I always joke that my intellectual formation was through Jewish scholars and writers, even though I didn’t know it at the time. Whether it was theologians or Philip Roth who helped shape my sensibility, or some of the more popular writers like Leon Uris.” –Barack Obama
I’m trying not to picture Senator Obama in the throes of passion with a piece of raw liver moaning “Yes we can”. But I did not come here today to wax Roth, but rather to discuss the major cause precedent to the Senator’s literary midrash excerpted above, Obama’s association with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ, an association he has just terminated.
Of course, it is not only Jews who find that association troubling, but we do tend to be canaries in the coal mine on matters involving Gentile preachers who spew statements which might arguably be interpreted as being filled with hate. Of course, there are those who take a different view:
"As easy as it is for those of us who are white to look back and say 'That's a terrible statement!' ... I grew up in a very segregated South. And I think that you have to cut some slack — and I'm gonna be probably the only conservative in America who's gonna say something like this, but I'm just tellin' you — we've gotta cut some slack to people who grew up being called names..." –Mike Huckabee
A Gay friend agreed:
“Huckabee's right. Meanwhile, I find myself amused, in very general terms, how straight white men are trying to say that the victims of oppression need to respond to said oppression only in ways they approve of. I find myself thinking of the ‘I hate straights’ Larry Kramer/ACT UP controversy, in fact.”
It looks like us white guys just can't win—except, possibly, by eliminating discrimination.
But, as right as Huckabee may be, and, I bet, as sincere (in his work he’s had the opportunity to befriend a lot black people of faith, and he’s also probably not unsympathetic to loose tongued ministers, regardless of their race), for most of us such an attitude comes not without its patronizing element; the soft bigotry of low expectations is also a slippery slope.
More importantly, one precious commodity that comes by virtue of being oppressed is the moral high ground, and it seems such a waste to forfeit it for empty and useless outrage, however understandable. Frankly, as a member of the tribe Felix Frankfurter referred to as “the most vilified and persecuted minority in history”, it offends my Jewish sensibilities for a commodity with a value higher than rubies to go to waste.
But let us, arguendo, give absolution to the Wright Reverend (if Mike Huckabee can understand where Wright’s coming from, I’m certainly going to try); for many voters, the question still remains—what was Obama doing in that church?
I think I may undertand, which bring us back to the matter of Obama’s sensibilities being shaped by Jewish texts. In this instance, Roth does not seem particularly germane. Perhaps more pertinent are the portrayals of the clashes between the spritual and the temporal in the lives of persons of faith documented by Obama’s Hawiian schoolmate, Allegra Goodman, but it is the guilty pleasure of Uris which seems most relevant.
The most famous text by Uris is a novel about the founding of the modern Jewish state called “Exodus”. Clearly, a book about the return of a people from Diaspora to a homeland they’d never seen had great reasonance for Obama, whose very name was a daily reminder during his childhood of a father he barely knew, who resided on a continent he’d never visited. Obama would certainly not be the first black man to have drawn sustanence from the Zionist dream; the works of Theodore Herzl were of great inspiration to black nationalist Marcus Garvey, who strongly supported the Zionist cause (at least until he was indicted by a Jewish prosecutor and sentenced by Jewish judge).
But it is not the text of the novel which most resonates, but the ancient scripture its title subliminally suggests.
To simplify, the biblical book of “Exodus” tells the story of a young member of the Hebrew tribes who lived in the time of their enslavement by the Egyptians. Although he bore at least one physical attribute which identified him as a member of a despised people, he had been raised as an Egyptian, and accepted as such. Later he would travel and live among other non-Hebrews. He could easily have lived a life of contentment and comfort as an Egyptian, without ever directly confronting the dichtomy between his life and those of other members of his race. Yet there burned within him an affinity with the ancestral people whose lives and culture he barely understood.
One day, it is said he bore witness to the toil and oppression suffered by his race. However, an early effort by him to incremantally improve the lives of some of his fellows was met with scorn, “who made you chief and ruler over us?” It was only after his personal connection with G-d that he was able to dedicate his life to organizing among his community. Today, that young man’s influence is pervasive far beyond the world of his co-religionists, and he is even recognized as a prophet among today’s Egyptians.
(Incidentally, the young man’s co-religionsists begin most of their prayers, with the word “blessed”. Today’s Hebrews translate that word as “Baruch”; in the language of today’s Egyptians, it is “Barack”.)
By contrast, “Dreams from my Father” tells a different story. To simplify, it concerns a young African (literally)-American who was born at a time when people of his color were first legally acquiring the rights of full citizenship. Although he bore at least some physical attributes which identified him as a member of a despised people, he had been raised as an white person, and largelly accepted as such. Later he would travel and live among other people of non-African ancestry. He could easily have lived a life of contentment and comfort as a de facto white person, without ever directly confronting the dichtomy between his life and those of other members of his race. Yet there burned within him an affinity with the ancestral people whose lives and culture he barely understood.
Over time, he sometimes got the opportunity to bear witness to the toil and oppression suffered by his race. However, early efforts by him to improve the lives of some of his fellows were sometimes met by scorn, "Listen ... what's your name again? Obamba?...Listen, Obamba, you may mean well. I'm sure you do. But the last thing we need is to join up with a bunch of white money and Catholic churches and Jewish organizers to solve our problems". It was only after he made his personal connection with the Church that he was able to achieve success organizing among his community. Today, that young man’s influence is pervasive far beyond the world of his fellow African-Americans, and he is especially recognized as a prophet among today’s young brie-eating white liberals.
Early in this campaign, the question arose if Barack Obama was black enough for the black community. My co-credentialed blogger, Rock Hackshaw, wrote several articles on the matter and attributed the controversy in great part to Obama not being descended from American slaves. As a Caribbean, he was not pleased. He asked my opinion, which hardly seemed relevant. I noted that it hardly seemed fair to compare the experience of Carribeans, whose ancestors’ slave ships merely docked at a different ports of call from those of American slaves, to later arriving Africans immigrants. But, having said that, I noted that the difference in pedigree did not seem to convey any advantage to Amadou Diallo.
Rock enjoyed my observation, but I was clearly stacking the deck. Barack Hussein Obama, Sr. never worked as a street peddler or lived in an American ghetto, except an academic one. Barack, Jr., like Moses, could have lived his life among the Egyptians, instead he became a Hebrew by choice, "I saw the African-American community becoming more than just the place where you'd been born or the house where you'd been raised. Through organizing, through shared sacrifice, membership had been earned."
But the price could not be paid in currency, or even blood and sweat. As Ryan Lizza noted in “New Republic”, “Obama learned that part of his problem as an organizer was that he was trying to build a confederation of churches but wasn't showing up in the pews on Sunday.” One minister told him "It might help your mission if you had a church home."
So here’s Barack Obama, raised among white people, never having worn the badge of slavery, because his ancestors were never slaves, carrying the burden of an Ivy League education, and yearning for connection with a people whose resemblance to him was largely cosmetic. Who could blame him for opting to join the church which was "unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian," the church with the "Black Value System", the church whose doctrines included a "Disavowal of the Pursuit of Middleclassness."
Barack Obama never needed to pursue “middleclassness”, he’d lived it; now he was pursuing something else. Maybe it was credibility, and maybe it was home. He called Trinity "a powerful program, this cultural community, one more pliant than simple nationalism, more sustaining than my own brand of organizing". Or, as Neil Young said, “a long and hurried flight from the white man, to the fields of green, and the homeland we’ve never seen”.
Barack Obama found connection to a caring community, even if that community turned out to consist largely of middleclass buppies suffering the black equivalent of white liberal guilt. For six days a week most of the Trinity congregation pursued "middleclassness" (and the members who did not were mostly those who had achieved "upperclassness"), on the seventh day they rested; as Big Joe Turner said “ain’t it a shame to shimmy on Sunday, when you got all day Monday”, but surely no one can deny their good works or begrudge a spiritual orphan for heeding the invitation to come in and take some shelter from the storm.
Did Obama buy the rap? I am reminded of the words Eugene McDaniels wrote for Les McCann in the song "Compared to What":
"Church on Sunday, sleep and nod
It would be hard to be more cynical than the singer, but one notices that he still came to church; obviously he had his reasons. Obama's recent remarks about bitter, working class whites indicate that perhaps he too doesn’t take the doctrinal parts of organized religion all that seriously. But, clearly that didn’t matter all that much. The rap really wasn’t what he was buying.
I have some experience in such matters. In the early 90’s, I joined a local Reform congregation to make connection; in my case, not so much spiritual as physical; I was more interested in exchanging fluids than ideas (it should be noted that the number one hook-up spot in NYC for Jewish singles is BJ's, AKA B’nai Jeshurin, a Conservative synagogue whose name is Hebrew for "House of SJF seeks handsome professional 30-45 for possible marriage and children"), but like Barack Obama, who also came looking for something different (street cred), I found home.
The Rabbi was a pleasant enough plodder (I once got into an argument with her during a discussion over the death penalty, even though we both opposed it----she had just cited a bunch of studies which stated capital punishment was not a deterrent---I said this was not an argument against the death penalty, only negations of an argument for it—she disagreed—I told her I could prove to her this argument had no meaning—she asked how—I said “if the studies proved conclusively that capital punishment was a deterrent, would it change your position?”, and she just barely audibly muttered “no” and hung her head), but it was not the Rabbi which provided the attraction—it rarely is. It was the congregation.
The prior Rabbi had been a charismatic figure who evolved his own brand of “Hasidic Reform Judaism”; services were about joy, exultation and achieving spiritual connection, and people achieved it.
In my religious life, I've never been able to make the leap of faith to a spiritual connection. I always considered the spiritual stuff something you used to entice the suckers to take their medicine. But, even though I identified more with the Misnagdim than the Hasids, I soon came to respect those who could make the leap of faith, and more importantly, I respected and became part of what they built: a caring community. People who say they believe in G-d, but not organized religion, have it exactly backwards.
They sucked me in like a Linda Lovelace (sometimes literally): work at the congregations’ shelter, community-organizing training with an inter-church coalition not unlike the one where Obama worked after college, after service dinners at local Chinese or Arab restaurants (on those Fridays where there was no vegetarian community dinner) sometimes followed by karaoke, the Israel bond drive and a stormy affair with a ranked amateur ice skater with a fondness for the erotic potential of carrots and taramosalata.
They stretched me in sixteen different ways (not counting the variations favored by the carrot-lady), till I was suffering from both physical and spiritual exhaustion. The Rabbi rarely, if ever entered the picture, and her sermons were memorable only for being so forgettable.
These days, our current Rabbi is a brilliant speaker, but time has taken its toll on the spiritual and communal aspects of the congregation, and people are no longer levitating during services. The Rabbi has gotten far better, but the appeal of the congregation has seen better days. And now, my life has changed in oh some many ways, my independence seems to have vanished in the haze and, in the words of the late great Charlie Rich, I do my swinging at home.
Barack Obama's changed too, and any romance he once may have had with afrocentric ideas seems to be a distant memory. But he and I have one thing in common, or we did until yesterday ---our reasons for joining our religious congregations are ancient and anachronistic, but our connections have endured, because family is family and home is home. Add in a dozen or so life-cycle events, not to mention the bowling league (perhaps not the best example in Obama's case) and the connections are really hard to sever. As Pete Townshend once said, "the memory smoulders, but the soul always yearns, after the fire, the fire still burns".
If I belonged to a congregation which had a Rabbi who said things similar to Reverend Wright, perhaps I'd consider quitting; the changes in my congregation’s character would surely make it easier; but, on the other hand, the building fund is $5000, and I'm paid up. Even if I didn’t need the money, I’m sure there would be a more appropriate Jewish charity which surely could put it to better use than another congregation could.
At his best, Reverend Wright lays down a challenge to all Americans. Specifically, to black Americans he says, as Jews say every Passover, “Do not forget you were once slaves in the land of Egypt; don’t forget where you came from” (or in Obama’s case, “Forget where you came from”). To white Americans, who he addresses only by implication, Wright lays down a different challenge, and one which has elements it wouldn’t kill us to consider. Many commentators have stated this far more emphatically.
The problem is, I'm not interested in having a Democratic nominee challenge white America on the race question, at least not a black nominee. Mike Huckabee's words about Wright sounded great coming from Huckabee because they came from Huckabee (call it "The Audacity of Hope, Arkansas"), but I’m not sure voters would appreciate hearing them from Barack Obama. The real problem is that I don't want my nominee to challenge white America, because that's where the votes are, and it ain't a winning strategy.
To all those Democratic voters for whom this raises questions about voting for Barack Obama, I have to respond that you are missing the most important question: (to repeat myself) "Compared to what?"
Compared to Hillary, Obama may not seem palatable (although, I don’t find the comparison all that stark), but we are no longer comparing Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton. We are comparing Barack Obama to a guy who’s publicly expressed his willingness to spend 100 more years in the desert; even Moses knew enough to stop at 40.
Now Vee May Perhaps to Begin.
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