I have become a sort of answer man for my grandson, Caleb — something I dearly love (which will come as no surprise to anyone who even vaguely knows me). “Hey Bebop [my grandfather name]”, Caleb will say, and I know a question is coming. “Hey Bebop, why do people pray in Hebrew even if no one understands it?” “Hey Bebop, are monkey brains the same as human brains?” You know, easy questions… not.
This past week as we walked along the Brewster Flats, Caleb looked out at the incoming tide and asked, “Hey Bebop, does the same water come back every day?”The question was so simple — and so profound. What about it, Bebop? How does one even define the terms of the flow of the ocean, the water molecules, the salt content, the effect of storms and erosion? How to even begin to truly understand that it is never the same ocean two days in a row, that the circulation of water from the sea and under the sand make it all brand new every day, every moment? How lucky I am to share my wonder with the Universe with my grandchildren, who are wonders of my Universe…
Jonah and Maggie sent me a few pictures of my grandkids last week. Caleb and Sylvie were holding signs at a demonstration against racism and police brutality. I was at once proud and crushed. Proud, because as a child of the 60s and a believer in living a life of social justice, seeing 2 generations of my progeny making a statement was a thrilling affirmation of their values and beliefs. Crushing, because my grandchildren in particular, at their young age, are facing one of the most horrible truths of American life: long-standing, sanctioned systemic racism. And the more they learn about it, the more they will feel betrayed by a false narrative that has been stoked by bigots and haters and ignorant politicians — and me, too. Through benign neglect and looking the other way and just not wanting to think about it, I play a part in the betrayal.
I’m not convinced a lot of white people like me beating our breasts and acknowledging our ignorance and neglect and complicity in the systemic racism of American justice in all its variations is what’s currently called for. There will be time to share our sense of shame and disappointment and failure. And I know that acknowledging the depth of those sins is key to building a whole soul, not to mention a whole nation.
But what’s called for now is not a confessional movement. Instead what’s called for is a dedication to action, to truly engaging in our tradition’s declaration of Tikkun Olam. Let’s learn how to be anti-racists. Let’s engage with projects and people that will begin to shift the narrative. Let’s push hard in the upcoming elections to choose leaders who will acknowledge the systemic racism of America and then dare to build a new narrative of equity.Status quo is so easy, so simple. But we are living in a period of transformation. It’s time to pull down the statues that praise a fake past. The American narrative has to be actively engaged and widened to include the stories of those men and women of color and the indigenous peoples who were forcibly silenced over hundreds of years.
It’s going to be painful and uncomfortable. It’s going to make us squirm sometimes. But it will ultimately give us a nation of honest interchange, a new opening to a dynamic that will make us all stronger and wiser as a collection of races and creeds and genders. It will unite us.
I want this for of all those who have suffered. I want this for George Floyd and the scandalously long list of those who have been murdered and beaten for the crime of being Black. I want this as a Jew with a long history of oppression and murder who now has power and the will to make a difference for those who suffer as my ancestors once suffered.
And I want this for my grandkids. I want to have a conversation with them someday about what changed in 2020, in the midst of a crazy pandemic. I want them to teach me about the America that is finally being taught in their classrooms, the home of the free and the brave — and the enslaved and the oppressed. One day I hope Caleb or Sylvie will ask, “Hey Bebop, so what changed in 2020?” I hope I can answer, “We did.”