Archives for category: Jewish

I have been writing about ways I learned who I am, trying to write moments in the moment, without framing. I was hoping this way to approach questions of race,  gender, and class. These moments are meaningless without context: the grid and grids of power within which I learned. An end question: how do we change the grid of power.

 

 

HOW DO WE KNOW WHO WE ARE?

 

I.

My Jewish mother, and I suppose my Episcopalian father, named me “Faith,” because giving birth to a Jewish child during World War II, or, as my mother called it The War Against Hitler, was an act of faith.

I disliked my name because it was hard for a small child, like my toddler sister, to pronounce. My sister called me “Thaif.” My mother would sit her down. “Say Faith,” my mother would pronounce, emphasizing the F and the TH  with a hiss and an exaggerated pursing of her lips. My sister, she of the dark, dark, eyes would solemnly eye my mother, shape her babyish mouth to mimic my mother and pronounce, “Thaif.” When I entered school in the late 1940s, there were no other children named Faith, not in my class, not in the entire school, not until eight years later when there was one other Faith in my high school.

When I moved into the larger world, people often pronounced the name Faye. The people who did this tended to be Jewish. My mother insisted I must correct people. Her public insistence (though it was my name — not hers ) that I be called by the name she had given me horrified me.

It was in high school that I began to hear: “Faith is not a Jewish name.”

People said “Faith, Hope, and Charity — that’s Christian.”

“It is not. It’s universal,” my mother would sputter.

There were many reasons that I grew up feeling not Jewish enough; my name was one of them.

 

II.

When I was GROWING UP, this was my maternal family constellation:

  • my household of two mothers, my sister, and me on Jane Street, on the western edge of Greenwich Village
  • my maternal grandmother a ten minute walk from our apartment, she in a somewhat grand apartment building on Seventh Avenue between 13th and 14th streets
  • my mother’s brother Bob and his wife, Elaine in what my mother called Jersey

 

The last time my grandmother, in her late 70s or early 80s, spent a weekend in Jersey with my uncle Bob and aunt Elaine, she and Elaine got into it. Grandma Spellman was talking about our family in Europe. Some had been button merchants, with branches in many countries; in some countries although Jews were disfranchised, they were required to serve in the military. When a boy was called for military service, he was moved to a branch of button merchants in another country. Grandma Spellman’s version of our family’s line was that in addition to the Dutch/Spanish/British connection on her husband’s side, her family was German. All German, nothing but German. My Aunt Elaine insisted she, Elaine, knew Grandma had Polish blood and Grandma flew into a rage. Both women did. I think my uncle had to immediately drive his mother and her ruffled feathers back to her apartment on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. I’m not sure my aunt and grandmother ever made up, before my grandmother’s death when she was 82.

Elaine had an irreverent and acerbic way about her. My sister and I considered ourselves Jewish, though we knew almost nothing and were taught almost nothing by our humanist mother to help us be Jews. I used to hold this against my mother, but now realize that she born in 1909, the baby of four children, born to prosperous and assimilated Jews who attended Temple Emmanuel — in effect a Jewish cathedral on upper Fifth Avenue —was of a generation of Jewish girls who knew little about their Judaism). When my sister and I were in elementary school, our Aunt Elaine called us The Heathens, or The Little Pagans. She herself had been born Jewish. She did this openly in front of us and our uncle and our mother. She did it with a smile and people took it with a smile. My sister and I stilled and remained silent.

 

 

III.

Not long after we returned from living in Haiti for a year, a year of being singular white children in a Black countryside, my mothers decided we would attend services. My mother by affection had a reproduction of a Marc Chagall rabbi in her bedroom. At eight or nine years old, this was Judaism to me. We went to an orthodox synagogue on one of those Greenwich Village streets that cross like creeks from the diagonal of West Fourth to the diagonal of Bleecker and beyond to the roaring trucks of cobbled Hudson Street. I will never forget the door sucking open and the murmur of male voices inside. The oddity of our foursome standing in the entry way: an African American woman, a semitic woman, and two girl children — all four with uncovered heads. Outsiders. I remember no visible women. Places were made for us and we sat, engulfed in chants more unfamiliar than the drums of Haiti, awash in a language we could not untangle, dying for the mortification to be over.

 

 

IV.

In seventh or eighth grade my sister and I cajoled our mother into attending The Brotherhood Synagogue, a congregation around the corner from my grandmother’s apartment. The synagogue shared a sanctuary with a Christian denomination. I remember little about this experience except that I didn’t fit in, that my mother was restive during the Friday evening services, and that Hebrew School was very difficult. I was a nerdy little whiz student in elementary school, but could not discern the difference between the various Hebrew letters. I couldn’t. I would struggle in front of the other, glib students, but could not recognize more than a letter or two. Years later, this humbling experience gave me some empathy for my students with learning disabilities. My mother declared she would never return to the synagogue after the rabbi gave a sermon on the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. It did not matter one whit to her that Isaac was not actually sacrificed. Her quarrel was with a god who would ask such a sacrifice and with a rabbi and his religion which would perpetuate the story as an exemplary piece of wisdom.

 

 

V.

I went to the hotel room, one of those old and elite hotels on Fifth Avenue near 59th street. I was 17 years old and wearing my heather college admission interview suit and the cheap silk blouse my mother and I had found on a sale table at Macy’s. I had rarely been in a hotel, never by myself. Oberlin was not my first choice, but it was my only out of town choice. I had chosen it because Oberlin was a good school and I liked that it had played a role in the Underground railroad and had, I thought, been the first U.S. college to admit Black students.

When I knocked, the recruiter opened the door. He wore a suit, let’s say a three piece suit. He had pulled the small table-like desk away from the wall and set it in the middle of the room. He motioned for me to sit on one side and he sat facing me. He was tall. I was aware of his starched shirt and, disconcertingly, of the tiled bathroom within arm’s reach.

There must have been chit chat. Maybe I even revealed my admiration for the college’s early integration. Actually, he informed me, Oberlin had not been the first. Polite, I swallowed.

He said, “Miss Holsaert,” and squared off the pages in the folder before him, my papers, my grades, my essay, my application, the references. “Miss Holsaert,” he said, “You are eminently qualified to attend Oberlin, but I must inform you that Oberlin has a Jewish quota and it is unlikely that we will admit you.”

 

 

VI.

1962. Mass meeting in Albany, Georgia. The congregation is passionate and participatory and, of course, Black. I had never heard such solemn, chanted and improvised singing, hundreds of voices flowing inexorably over and under and around one another in deep, harmonious currents. Though it was late September, when NYC would have been cool in the evening, in Albany we were sweaty as well as uplifted.

As we filed out into the warm night, a woman from the congregation asked me, “Where are you from, child?”

I said New York. She asked and so I answered, “Jewish.”

She said, “Oh, you are one of the Hebrew children.”

 

 

WHERE ARE WE IN THE MACHINERY OF THE WORLD?

 

But then:

 

WITH LOVE *

 

you can hear her heart

she and her classmates

hearts under

tank tops and camis

obey their parents

whose history should but

calls them Never Again

to cone nose bombs

 

the children know their job

select their crayons with pointed tips

each girl two pert pig tails brush

sometimes at noon they might whisper

their parents’ terrible stories

their cousin who and the uncle

1940s shadow

 

where do the dead go?

 

the strange one

she is too much or too little Jew

her parents speak to the Arab bookseller

she reads books which are too old

the strange one with resolve

takes up her crayon

those Arab children will have mamas and bubbes

cooking and rousing and berating

 

hear her heart beat

urging her to take her place

but urging her to put down the crayon and walk away

by the bomb, her bomb, that is shaped like a crayon

a piece of her has walked away

and a piece of her has stayed

she writes on the grit metal jacket of her bomb

with the wax of her crayon,

writes her namethe name of the Great Grandma who died at Auschwitz

she signs in manuscript, with love.

 

* having seen a photo of Israeli school children signing missiles to be fired into Lebanon

 

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MATTHIAS, sometimes in pink hair and hoodie

On the rooftop, who am I

I am the white-hair woman on the rooftop whose face can light up like a firecracker, but who can stay awake past midnight, one, and two in the morning shredding herself down to worrying, worrying about money, about her daughter, about things undone. I work to stay fit, but I am a “girl” of the 50s, who would not be able to do anything except she walked her dog her entire childhood and youth, up and down and across lower Manhattan including the trucking cobbled routes and walked to school or the subway. I have ringing in my ears: is it my past shaking like aluminum foil? Will the tinnitis rise up and block all sound? I love olives. I used to think that loving olives was a mark of my Jewishness despite that Jewishness always seeming ill-informed and fumbling. I have a loved partner of my age. I love our shining youth, our future.

Below, on the ground, in the real place, he is he

If I were on the ground with him, he would be tall, willowy, standing a head above me, but from the roof, he is most prominently head top, hair cut close to the scalp and dyed pink on the crown, no way except literally  covering his awesome brain. His arms hang ungainly long from my perch above, long and sinewy enough to grasp the world, expressive boy hands which can push away. From here, his feet are big, for a world which wants to tumble him. His heart is falling out of his chest, his words of disaster and disgust spew, but he looks toward the sky and the roof. And he smiles.

hair not pink this week

Working on a piece about my friend, Matthias Pressley, but can’t as I stumble over the name Trayvon Martin. Matthias is two years older than Trayvon Martin. In his eyes and in his FaceBook posts, Trayvon Martin looms, huge like Matthias’s eyes.

I listen on YouTube to several mothers and one father of black teenage men murdered by the police: Oscar Grant, Ramarley Graham, Malcolm Ferguson. Ramarley Graham’s mother was summonded to the police station and even there never told, but left to guess when she heard the word “homicide” casually exchanged between two officers, that her son had been killed. Neither she nor her son’s father were accorded any deference though they were grief-stricken and shocked. The testimonies were posted by my friend, and Matthias’s mentor, Nia Wilson of SpiritHouse NC. Her son is a Black High School Senior.

I can say nothing original about this and I guess the point is not originality, but how many of us there are who feel this way. We have always been here, outraged and indignant, but in this age we have an electronic voice outside the commercial venues. That is where many of us have been:  dogging every piece of information related to the case, mired in it, giving the death of a seventeen year old its due in something our culture measures in terms of work not grief: time. For a while I didn’t realize how heavily Treyvon Martin’s murder weighed on me. The heaviness was compounded by the negligent/intentional mishandling in the case on the part of authorities.

I am a child of the Emmett Till generation. I am 69; today Emmett Till would have been in his 70s. So many women in HANDS ON THE FREEDOM PLOW cited the murder of Emmett Till as a critical factor in their development as activists.

Matthias, self portrait

On FaceBook: Matthias Pressley says: Secondly, I very damn well like my MF hoodie. It has a nice spinal cord piece that I might duly note that I added myself. If I want to wear my pimped out black hoodie to the freakin’ corner store or to BEST BUY or to church or to stand at the bus stop or to a gotdamn GALA, guess what? I purchased that shit and I will wear it, it’s mine. Who says hoodies are out? Who says it’s dangerous for people of color to wear hoodie’s just because of racial profiling looney-tunes? Huh!!!????!!!! I would like to kindly state/suggest: “Geraldo Rivera and ALL those alike, SHUT THE FUCK UP.”

Matthias, self portrait

I haven’t written here for several weeks. I plan to continue to write every two weeks, on Wednesdays, from now on. I have to embrace my voice, as in photo below with AfroLez film-maker, activist, Aishah Shahida Simmons (a daughter of SNCC).

Faith n Aisha Shahidah Simmons, Duke University Women's Center

Amina Rachman and I worked as organizers in the early 1960s with the Harlem Brotherhood Group (National Conference of Christians and Jews) and SNCC. In her rich and complex life, Amina was known at birth as Sherron Jackson, Sherron 10X within the Nation of Islam, Amina Abdur Rahman within Islam, and Amina Rachman within the community of Kolot Chaiyenu where she celebrated her Bat Mitzva in her 50s. Amina made the transition in September 2011. With her children Josh and Sabra and others I was fortunate to be by her side when she passed. I was also fortunate to speak at her funeral.

Good Morning.

SNCC the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee is in the house. I bring condolences from:

Mary Britting, New York Office

Gloria Richardson Dandridge, the Eastern Shore of Maryland

Ivanhoe Donaldson, Harlem Brotherhood Group and SNCC at large

Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, Southwest Georgia, Alabama, and Detroit

Penny Patch, Southwest Georgia and Mississippi

Peggy Dammond Preacely, Harlem Brotherhood Group and Southwest Georgia

Carol Rogoff, NY office and Mississippi

Fannie Rushing, Chicago

Kathie Amatniek Sarachild, Mississippi (and NY Redstockings)

Muriel Tillinghast, Mississippi (and NYC labor politics)

Dorothy M. Zellner, Atlanta Office

We offer our condolences to Sabra and Josh, Amina’s sisters, her uncle and her enormous family by affection. Our sister Amina never turned her back on the struggle.

It is significant that Amina had such a beautiful voice, whether she was a teenager singing 50s hits like “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads,” or the adult chanting at her Baat Mitzvah decades later. She was a person to be heard.

There were ugly, haunting truths and entrenched cruelties in our 1950s. These truths flickered across our televisions and filled the newspapers: segregation and racial violence including the murder of Emmet Till, a boy our own age. Inspired by the southern sit-ins, Amina who was then known as Sherron Jackson and I worked with the Harlem Brotherhood Group which was affiliated, tellingly, with the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Amina would become a one-woman conference of Christians and Jews, with two Muslim journeys sandwiched in between.

At that time, Amina and I fell into the habit of calling one another, “Sis.”

The year I went south Amina was a freshman at New York City’s Music and Art Public High School from which I had graduated. She was the first M & A student to wear her hair in an afro. Any time she met a teacher who had also taught me she would say much to that teacher’s consternation, that she – Amina – was Faith Holsaert’s younger sister. She was also moving toward the Nation of Islam and as a teenager presided over the Nation’s meetings at the Audobon Ballroom. In her pragmatic politics and understanding of racist power she was affected when Minister Malcolm X said it was foolish for demonstrators to lay their bodies down nonviolently before earth moving equipment. Amina was one of the people who formed a bridge from SNCC to Minister Malcolm X. She went to Africa with him on his final trip to that continent. On her return she spent a night at my family’s apartment, filled with the hope and danger of those last months of Malcolm X’s life. At dawn she rose and said her prayers on my mother’s rug.

We were out of touch for a while, but in 1974 my mother died. One night in West Virginia I answered my phone. “Sis,” a voice said, “I just heard about your mother,” and we picked up where we had left off, moving into our years of motherhood, our lesbian lives, our adult work. Our love endured five decades, an attachment honored by Amina’s daughter Sabra who was the one to tell me “Ma has had some bad news.” When I walked into Amina’s hospital room a week ago, she broke into that Amina smile. “Sis,” she said, “you came.”

Amina told this story about Chicago SNCC. SNCC workers had underestimated the power of gang turf. There was a confrontation between raw SNCC recruits and a local group. The gang leader opened his razor-sharp switch blade. Softly as an expelled breath he passed the open vertical blade in front of the face of a recruit, cutting the recruit’s eyelashes.

Amina knew danger. Amina knew hardship and she loved people whose lives were hard. She never stopped believing a better world

is possible. She never stopped believing that within the powerful entanglements of race, gender, religion, and class, she would let no one else define her. She was her own woman, lost too soon to the world.

My sister Shai and I were raised by two remarkable women, Eunice Spellman Holsaert, my Jewish mother by birth, and Charity Abigail Bailey, my mother by affection who was African American. At age four, I fell in love with Charity who was my nursery school music teacher. I spoke of nothing else. When my parents went to their first PTA meeting, they said, “Faith wants you to come live with us,” and that is what happened.

The picture of Eunice was taken by my sister’s friend Mehli Gobhai in my mother’s apartment where she was living alone after my sister had moved to India and I to New Mexico. The picture of Charity was taken in Haiti, where we all lived when I was seven.

We four lived together in Greenwich Village in the 1940s and 1950s. At the end of their lives my mother Eunice lived around the corner from Charity who had married. Eunice died in 1974 and Charity in 1979.