MLK Day … What’s to Celebrate?
Growing up in Cincinnati in the early 1960s, we had exactly one television in our home. It was in my parents’ bedroom and it was black-and-white, not color. While Disney’s 1961 offering, The Wonderful World of Color, helped the sale of color TV sets, color did not actually overtake black-and-white until 1970.
Yep, that’s me in the picture. What do you think, five years old? So that’d be about 1962.
When Star Trek first aired in 1966, I was nine years old. We watched it on the TV set you can see there in my parents’ room (which was okay because that was also the only room with an air conditioner). The television picture was black-and-white.
Star Trek, as you know, follows the crew of the U.S. Starship Enterprise whose five-year mission was to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no man (later, “no one”) had gone before. As it turned out, Star Trek took us to some pretty exotic places and it became pretty clear to most viewers that none of those places were in outer space but actually were right here on earth. Captain James T. Kirk and crew explored issues of racism, religious fanaticism, human rights, sexism, feminism, and nuclear warfare.
For me, who at nine years old understood little of the contemporary parallels that Star Trek had been throwing my way, when Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura shared a romantic kiss, it was the first time in my young life that a black person and a white person had smooched.
The world was changing. A ton of that change would be for the better, and I was growing up right in the middle of it!
By the way, Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura (on the left there), was thinking of leaving Star Trek after its first season. None other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, however, convinced her to stay. Dr. King, it turned out, was a devoted fan of Star Trek and told Nichols that she was breaking new ground in her role, showing African-Americans what was possible for them.
Not just as Capt. Kirk’s romantic interest, but as a person of color who served as a commissioned officer on the bridge of the Enterprise. Okay, so she had to wear a mini-skirt. You can’t win all your battles at one time, can you?
In this week’s parasha, we begin the book of Shemot, Exodus, which of course retells the epic saga of the Israelites’ own bold forty-year mission to also boldly go where they’d not been in a long, long time. Namely, to the Promised Land, the land of freedom.
How poetic it is tonight to begin on Martin Luther King Shabbat the tale of our people’s ancient rise from oppression, which will culminate three months from now with our annual Passover celebration of our people’s freedom and, because of that even in our ancestors’ lives, our ever-renewing commitment to all people’s freedom.
America isn’t perfect. While most of us share a common vision of the United States as a land that should provide opportunity and self-determination, some employ ideas of intolerance and bigotry en route to fulfilling their personal dreams. Thank God for the United States Constitution whose Bill of Rights strives, even as it bumps into a variety of challenging interpretations, strives to offer every American essential protections – like free speech and religious freedom – that while not every American yet enjoys the full complement of our nation’s protections, we’re inching our way there and the promise of such freedom for all remains a possibility and a realistic goal.
As we celebrate the advancements toward full participation in American society regardless of superficial differences between us, we can certainly note how many times we’ve fallen short, but we mustn’t forget the victories either. They remain the key evidence that we might yet reach the goal of truly offering the American dream to every American citizen.
Growing up in Cincinnati, every elementary school student had to study the history of Ohio.
Now while that might not sound very interesting to you, do note that Cincinnati sat right on the northern bank of the Ohio River. On the other side was Kentucky.
So in the late-1700s until Emancipation in 1863, an escaped slave could set their sights on getting into my hometown, a transportation hub (so to speak) for the Underground Railroad, America’s secret network of travel routes which, if you “follow the drinkin’ gourd,” the star formation of the Big Dipper, you could head steadily northward to safety and freedom. It’s been estimated that more than 100,000 slaves escaped via the Underground Railroad, an undertaking that took the brave participation of hundreds, if not thousands, of “conductors,” “station managers” and more – whites and free blacks – who acted selflessly to free as many as they could until America came to its senses and abolished slavery altogether.
For a Cincinnati kid, other than Skyline Chili and Graeter’s Ice Cream, nothing makes me prouder of my midwest upbringing. And at this dangerous moment for America’s immigrant population, that Woodlands is considering becoming a temporary refuge, a stop on a new Underground Railroad if you will, for immigrant families who fear arrest and deportation, not much could make me feel prouder were this congregation to choose to do such a brave thing.
Also a favorite moment of mine in the leveling of human indifference in America is the New Deal. While this wasn’t a Cincinnati deal, and it was well in place long before I was even born, the New Deal – a series of programs, public work projects, financial reforms, and regulations enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt between the years 1933 and 1939 – changed this country as it struggled to emerge from the Great Depression, providing support for farmers, the unemployed, young people and old people through the Works Progress Administration, fair housing standards, the creation of a minimum wage, and Social Security, which allowed for the possibility that old age wouldn’t have to be a time of poverty and despair.
For me, the New Deal represents some of America’s greatest possibilities, that every American can be assisted and lifted up by our united efforts, that our government can be a source of progressive, color-blind policies that help everyone, not just the advantaged and not even just the disadvantaged. The New Deal represented an America that cared for everyone, and that benefited from everyone’s contribution toward truly making this country a home for all.
In 1969, I was twelve years old, far too old and sophisticated to be caught watching Sesame Street, which began airing that year. We still only had a few TV channels and PBS was on the UHF channel so there was no guarantee it would even come in clearly. But something special was happening on that hazy frequency, and I wouldn’t really get to know about it until 1975 while participating in an video production internship and we analyzed episodes of Sesame Street in order to learn how to create educational television.
Across the years, Sesame Street would teach us about the natural and un-offensive beauty of breastfeeding as popular singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie introduced her son, who carried the exotic and impressive name Dakota Starblanket Wolfchild, lovingly and tenderly became the first baby to ever be nursed on national television. President Bill Clinton and Kami, an HIV-positive muppet, delivered a stereotype-busting message about having friends with AIDS. There have been episodes that introduced the young audience to a boy with Down syndrome, a child explaining the parts of her wheelchair, a muppet whose dad was incarcerated in jail, an Afghani Muppet who promoted girls’ rights and the importance of providing them with an education. In the 1980s, characters Susan and Gordon Robinson announced that they’d adopted a son named Miles, and in 2006, “Gina” announced she was adopting a little boy from Guatemala. And perhaps our favorite muppet, Julia, who has autism and was created by Woodlands member Leslie Kimmelman, joined the Sesame Street cast. With these episodes, characters and so much more, Sesame Street has championed diversity and inclusion, introducing the youngest members of American society to these vital understandings about the beauty of difference, and the essential commonalities that persist between us all.
Let me share with you one more shining moment in the history of America’s march toward becoming a gleaming beacon of acceptance and hope. It actually started in Europe during the 19th century but gradually found its way to America, actually, you guessed it, to Cincinnati! That’s the temple where I grew up. While it wasn’t the first Reform congregation in America (that was in Charleston, South Carolina), it was Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise who came to Cincinnati, wrote the first Reform prayerbook, founded the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism), built Plum Street Temple, established Hebrew Union College to educate and ordain American rabbis, and founded the Central Conference of American Rabbis which gave these HUC graduates an avenue for mentorship and support throughout their careers.
But while Cincinnati was the place where a lot of this was happening, it was the ideas of Reform Judaism that made its greatest contribution to American society. With its emphasis on democratic values that included full participation of all (with no preferential treatment for kohanim and levi’im), equal participation of women alongside men, and a powerful passion for tikkun olam, for working toward the betterment of life for every member of the human family, Reform Judaism has become an expression of the very best of American values, and what can come to pass when religion is encouraged to express its individual ideas through the prism and crucible of a nation that expects its citizenry to rise to its greatest potential for building a world that supports and respects all of its inhabitants.
Every year, when Martin Luther King Day arrives, I thank my lucky stars to be living in a country that sets its sights for the loftiest of dreams, that learns from its mistakes, and that continually strives to build a nation that stands firmly on a foundation of acceptance, understanding and, barring the wholesale acceptance of those first two, on hope … that the day will come when we complete the building of a United States that offers these promises to everyone.
Dr. King, with his life and with his death, taught me to value dreams and to take steps each and every day toward bring the dreams to fruition. On this Martin Luther King Shabbat, I hope you will reaffirm and recommit to these ideals.
While spending the first year of my rabbinic education in Israel, I stumbled across a book entitled Touching Heaven, Touching Earth, inside of which I first encountered one of the most powerful and continually challenging stories our Jewish tradition has ever offered me. Rabbi Moshe Leib, the Zaddik of Sassov, was known for his love of all people. One night, when heavy snow was falling outside, he heard someone tap at the window of his small room. Moshe Leib looked up and saw a strange man dressed in tatters, lacerations on his hands and face, and a gleam of madness in his eyes. The rebbe hesitated for a moment, considering whether to allow such a man into his house. But then he thought, “If there is room for someone like that in God’s universe, surely there is room for him in my home.” And with that, he opened his door and welcomed the man in.
It has been taught, kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar m’od … all the world is but a bridge. We must all walk it together. That can be scary and dangerous. Our fellow travelers are not always very nice to us, or to others whom we meet along the way. We may be frightened but we mustn’t let that stop us. Not only must we travel the bridge, but we must conduct ourselves appropriately along the way. If we will do that, not only will we quite likely feel better about ourselves, but we’ll probably also enjoy the honor of sharing that feeling with others who are also witnessing the betterment of their lives. If any of us are looking for a team to be on, that’d be the team I’d want to choose.
Happy birthday, Dr. King. You may be gone, but you’ll never be forgotten. Thank you for your gifts to the entire human family, the possibility of making this nation, and perhaps one day the entire world, a home to be shared in trust, in kindness, and in love.
Watching a bunch of small sticks and leaves being pushed along in a the waters of a local river, tumbling around one bend only to be caught as it navigated another, an observer was overheard saying, “Clearly we are not in control of where our lives are going.” But another responded, saying, “Yes, but we are nevertheless responsible for how we conduct ourselves along the way.”
May we ever be inspired by the courageous actions of individuals and communities who have staked their very lives on our responsibilities to care for one another. And whether the journey is easy or tough, we are to take it together, helping one another along the way and, should we be so fortunate as to form bonds of friendship with our fellow travelers, to enjoy moments of respite and maybe even a celebration when that old bridge finally meets the other side and we can rejoice that we’ve done our best to help one another along the way.
Kol HaKavod, Billy! Your message is quite impactful. I’m glad to say I continually act for social justice; something which was crystallized in my mind in Georgia, summer of 1964, when I saw the ugly signs of segregation for the first time in my life. Todah rabbah.