Posted by: MC | March 30, 2010

Dayenu: You gave us freedom, and that would have been enough.

“Maybe the most empowered change is to work to be less ignorant. 
We’re all ignorant and it’s a life long struggle.  If we commit
ourselves to do our best to be wrong less frequently, well,
that’s about the best we can do.”
Peter Frishauf

Last night I sat at a table with eight dear friends from two families.  Four of them are teenagers.  The rest of us are parents – you know, the grown ups.  I met these families last summer on a trip to Israel. 

Yes.  After the amazing EX:Change journey took me around the United States, I got to go to Israel.  How lucky is that?  And then last night, I sat together with my friends again, this time at a dining room table brimming with food and laughter for celebrating a Passover Seder.

I was not raised Jewish.  In fact, I’m the oldest of four daughters born into Presbyterianism; my father, a minister.  In Sunday School, we heard about Passover – about the blood on the doorways that kept the angel of death from killing the firstborn of the Jewish people enslaved in Egypt.  These were our ancestors, too.  But we didn’t learn much about Jews.  In rural Texas I wasn’t aware of anyone who was Jewish. 

That’s the way worldview forms when you’re born into a group of people who, because of numbers and/or power, set the standard for what living looks like.  For the past 250 years + in the U.S., that standard has defaulted to White people, mostly Christians of European ancestry.

In the rural towns where I grew up there were Black and Chicano families.  We were friendly in schools, but I never met their parents. And it never occurred to me that there might be other ways of seeing and being in the world different from the ways of our family, school, neighborhood, church.  It never occurred to me that there were still Jews on the earth, except when news filtered through to my little girl world from the new Israel.  It also never occurred to me that there were still Indians, Native Americans.  Our schools and churches only spoke of these people in past tense. 

Small wonder we find ourselves, even on this side of the Civil Rights Movement, even with a biracial President, continuing to suffer with the crushing antagonism of rigid belief systems.  Small wonder we still hold one another hostage with our unintended but privileged ignorance or with our fear that difference means we might lose something. 

The EX:Change trip revealed some evidence of this antagonism, but its bass note and its melody built from the remarkably many points of shared understanding.  Interview after interview held emphasis on not letting our differences derail us.  There was also repeated gratitude for the freedom we have to thrive in our difference – to unite and cooperate.   

Passover is about recovering from fragmentation and fear.  Passover is the story of struggling mightily to escape slavery.  It is about hostility between groups of people.  It is about ruthless leadership and plagues that came to innocents as a result of a leader’s hard heartedness.  It is also about opening the door to anyone who needs food and shelter.  It is about sorrow for the suffering and gratitude for the courage, endurance and faith of those who have come before.  Passover is about resilience, about celebration, and about having enough.

In Chicago, last year, I spoke with Glenna Reyes on St Patrick’s Day.  At 21, Glenna lives in a life that holds diversity at its existential core. “I always know that I’m still Glenna, I’m just Puerto Rican and Jewish.”  Her comments on the change in her own life reflect her ancestors’ courage to engage with the uninvited challenge of being “other.”

“During the election people approached me saying, ‘Oh, you’re biracial. You must have a certain opinion because of that.’ Before I was like, I’m not White and I’m not Black. Now I’m thinking I am a mix.  I think it’s been strange for me because I’ve never really considered myself to be biracial. Like I hang out with everybody. I talk with everybody. I studied Chinese and I’m not Chinese. I’ve never been in an environment where I am characterized as a biracial person. So this is really weird for me. I want to know how that difference matters. I want to know what that difference is and I want to know why I am different.

“I just had a random thought that one of my problems growing up was people assuming I was something. You know, like in high school, people thought I was African American, ‘Why weren’t you in African American Club? Where were you?’ I’m like, ‘I’m not African American!’ And then people thinking that I’m Cuban or something. My problem is telling them, ‘Oh no! I’m Jewish and Puerto Rican.’ And they’re like, ‘Jewish?’ You know like, ‘You’re Jewish?’

“These days people are like, ‘Oh, cool!’ That’s a change.  They’re less likely to say, ‘So, you are this, right?’ Instead they ask, ‘What are you?’

Susan Stout is a forester.  She holds significant responsibility for research in the Allegheny Forest.  Earlier in her life, Susan was a social justice activist – years before social justice took on its current and dual fame as a call to action and a target for resistance.  In her home in rural PA, she spoke about the way we as a country have held ourselves hostage to silence about race.

“I was a freshman in college in 1967-68.  The college I attended had successfully recruited its highest, to that date, proportion of African American students.  From when we got there in September until Spring Break, there were the beginnings of a conversation about race.  There’s that quote in the Bible about not talking to your friend about the speck in his eye until you can address the log in your own.  I think people appreciated that and everybody was really present to the discussion. 

“Then, over Spring Break of my freshman year, Martin Luther King was assassinated.  We came back to campus and Black people were eating at Black tables and White people were eating at White tables.  When I went to my 25th college reunion.  The Black alums were talking about their memory of the conversation being stopped cold by the assassination. 

“What change means to me is the resumption of that conversation.   We came so far through the Civil Rights Movement.  Now if we could actually talk with each other about our perceptions of race that would be my idea of a change.  Especially if each of us was willing to look at the beam in our own eye.  Black or White, to look at the way each of us, our families and our country have lost and benefited from and contorted the racial history of America.  We need that conversation.”

Susan’s comments echoed thoughts I’d heard in New York.  On the EX:Change trail, Pennsylvania preceded Chicago, and New York preceded Pennsylvania.  One morning on Long Island, I shared breakfast with Emilia Lopez.  Emily was raised in Cuba.  Her family came to the US when she was a teen.  She is now a professor of school psychology.  Her focus is on preparing bilingual psychologists for work in the schools.  On change, Emily’s outlook is cautious because of the tenacity of hostility across ethnic and socioeconomic groups.

 “The first thing that comes to my mind is changing the way we think about each other, the way that we get along with each other.  But, I’m not very optimistic; my voice is not an optimistic voice.

“There are huge differences between people that make it very hard to talk to each other about what we all want.  In that conversation not everyone believes they can get what they want.  Often wants are defined in terms of owning things and that’s how I see it going in a circle.  It can be very materialistic.  But there is also a huge difference in how people feel about their ability to achieve things.  Things like education or a level of well being, things like having a good job and living in a community where you feel safe. 

“There are many people who feel they can’t get those things.  There are others who feel they can easily get them.  Those are very different paths and it is difficult to talk honestly across those differences.  This is where we are now.  People don’t have the same access to good education and opportunities.  They don’t have the same belief they can do the things that they feel they should to support their children.  It’s not an impossible gap to bridge, but I think it’s pretty darn hard.”

The day before, on Manhattan, I had spoken with Peter Frishauf.  He and his wife KC had opened their home to me on the trust of a mutual friend.  We all liked each other immediately and talked almost nonstop during my stay.  Peter is a lifelong advocate of cycling rights on Manhattan.  He took me on a brisk bike ride through the middle of the city.  Quite an adventure for a rural Texas girl!     

One among our wide ranging conversations focused on the themes of Passover – on gratitude, the courage of ancestors, and the imperative of learning to live together in peace.  Peter is secular – a cultural Jew as compared with religious Jews.  Still these themes came through.

“My parents did me a huge favor.  I’m very grateful to them for this.  They came from families who were murdered by the Nazis or who were forced into suicide rather than be murdered.  But there was something they didn’t do.  Unlike what happened with many friends in other families who survived World War II, my parents refused to pass on the fear and horror to my sister and me. 

“We were really quite unaware of the enormity of the tragedy that had happened to our parents’ families. They didn’t talk about it.  Many of my friends whose parents had either been in concentration camps or escaped by the skin of their teeth like my parents did, grew up in an atmosphere of fear that the brown shirts were going to break down the door and come into their apartments any second.  They were really paralyzed by this fear as children.  My parents permitted us to grow up without that fear.  That definitely helped us enormously in terms of being able to have reasonably happy lives that many of my peers didn’t have because of all that fear.  

“Many of these same people, considered my parents’ choice to be a tremendous cop out; especially those who felt that it was a betrayal of a Jewish heritage.  There perspective was that we were part of the problem – the assimilated Jews who thought they could get along in this larger society and escape their Jewish identity.  They warned that when the racists and the haters came in again even the assimilated would be told, ‘No you’re basically Jewish and we’re going to kill you anyway.’ 

“I think that’s a very superficial interpretation of history.  People are going to hate one another for all kinds of reasons.  Maybe they’ll hate me because I’m freckled and used to have red hair.  It’s hard to say that being Jewish is the only reason you’ll be persecuted.  In fact it’s just plain stupid because the Nazis did a great job exterminating many more people than Jews.  Jews were singled out as the largest population for extermination, but first came the political opponents, then came the mentally ill, 20 million Russians, lots of economic and military exterminations.  The scope of the tragedy was immense.  All hatred works like that.  Gays and lesbians, niggers and Jews, lazy Indians if you’re from the Americas, smelly Indians if you’re from Southeast Asia and on and on and on and on.  It’s an endless and stupid list, borne out of ignorance.

“Maybe, positive change is trying to be a little bit more enlightened in terms of opening minds to the possibility that those things are wrong.  Maybe there’s a better way to raise children that empowers them to think rather than trying to intimidate them with fear.  ‘You will do this, because we don’t want you to burn in hell.’  ‘You will do this because you are one of the chosen people.’  Maybe the most empowered change is to work to be less ignorant.  We’re all ignorant and it’s a life long struggle.  If we commit ourselves to do our best to be wrong less frequently, well, that’s about the best we can do.”

Freedom comes in many guises.  Freedom from exclusion as other, freedom from silence about race, freedom from fear, freedom from ignorance.

There is a word sung in a joyous song at the Passover Seder.  The word is Dayenu and means “it would have been enough.”  It is a word of gratitude and awe. 

For our country, it would have been enough to have our freedom, but we also received the chance to live on this bountiful land among varied peoples.  We have much to do in learning and living the kindness, respect and peace emphasized in the voices of EX:Change.  And in our freedom to change, we have enough.

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Responses

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post. The holiday of Passover has a message relevant to every generation. I remember doing Apprentice Teaching in a predominately black elementary school in Bedford Stuyvesant when Dr. King was killed. Even the third graders were clearly very sad and seemed to comprehend the huge loss. The riots that followed were frightening and very unfortunate especially since Dr. King advocated non-violence.

  2. How refreshing to learn that many of the interviews revealed a common thread in the fabric of our thoughts, the fact that most of us think that we just need to start treating each other better. There is no time to spend hating and fighting each other, and I’m so happy to know that there are lots of like-minded folks out there!


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