Monday, April 6, 2009

ain't never seen any white jews before


“Ain’t never seen any white Jews before,”
said the Israelite Hebrew, a rabbi, when buying
his meat from an ultra-frum butcher, a store,
which with laws of the OU was kosher-complying.
Israelites Afros who’re Jewish and black
with ones who white with a Yiddisher mamma
unite and the Torah’s old meanings unpack
with the help of Michelle, the brakhah of Obama,
mishopchoh, a cousin who’s just once removed,
of a rabbi who when he’s in shul never greets her
till services end, since she must, as behooved,
remain while she’s praying behind a mehitsah.
Segregation of blacks from the whites is absurd
but of women from men is a viable way
to prove that boundaries shouldn’t be blurred
when Moses and Martin together both pray.
“Ain’t never seen any women before
the Ark of Lord,” many rabbis declare.
You shouldn’t complain, for they follow the law
Of separate but equal, which surely is fair.

Inspired by an article in the NYT, April 5, 2009, by Zev Chafets on Rabbi Capers Funnye, Michelle Obama’s cousin who is the rabbi of the United State’s largest Black Jewish synagogue:

Rabbi Capers Funnye celebrated Martin Luther King Day this year in New York City at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, a mainstream Reform congregation, in the company of about 700 fellow Jews — many of them black. The organizers of the event had reached out to four of New York’s Black Jewish synagogues in the hope of promoting Jewish diversity, and they weren’t disappointed. African-American Jews, largely from Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens, many of whom had never been in a predominantly white synagogue, made up about a quarter of the audience. Most of the visiting women wore traditional African garb; the men stood out because, though it was a secular occasion, most kept their heads covered. But even with your eyes closed you could tell who was who: the black Jews and the white Jews clapped to the music on different beats. Funnye, the chief rabbi of the Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago, one of the largest black synagogues in America, was a featured speaker that night. The overflowing audience came out in a snowstorm to hear his thoughts about two men: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama. King is Funnye’s hero. Obama, whose inauguration was to take place the following day in Washington, is family — the man who married Funnye’s cousin Michelle. A compact, serious-looking man in his late 50s, Funnye (pronounced fu-NAY) wore a dark business suit and a large gray knit skullcap. He sat expressionless, collecting his thoughts, as Joshua Nelson and his Kosher Gospel Band steamed through their sanctified rendition of the Hebrew hymn “Adon Olam.” Nelson, a black Jew, was raised in two Jewish worlds — a white Reform temple in New Jersey and a Black Jewish synagogue in Brooklyn — and he borrows from both. The first time the Rev. Al Sharpton heard a recording of Nelson’s “Adon Olam,” he said, “I can hear that’s Mahalia Jackson, but what language is she singing in?”….
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the head of the Reform Movement, is, like Potasnik, ready to consider new possibilities. “The fact that men and women sit separately in the Israelite congregations might be a problem for us on gender-equality grounds,” he told me. “But race would certainly be no problem for us.” A few years ago, Funnye considered applying for membership to the Union of Reform Jews. He shelved the idea when his congregants objected on the grounds that the white congregation was not observant enough. “Some of their rabbis perform intermarriages,” Funnye explains, “so some of our people were uncomfortable. But sometimes I think it would be good to be part of a larger movement. Maybe we’ll revisit the subject.” Funnye hasn’t built all his bridges yet, let alone crossed them, but the progress he has seen — both as a black Jew and as a black American — has mellowed him. “You know, as a young man I was angry about the way we were laughed at and ignored,” he said. “I sometimes went down to the kosher meat market here in Chicago, put my face right up in the face of one of the Orthodox rabbis and yelled, ‘I ain’t never seen no white Jews before!’ I was so hurt I became obtuse and bitter. But I don’t feel that way anymore.” He paused. “There’s no need to shout. People are ready for a dialogue, to talk and to listen.”

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 4/5/09

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