Rethinking The Stories

The death of George Floyd cracked something open in our perception of America and Americans. Derek Chauvin, a police Officer sworn to uphold the law in Minneapolis, MN, calmly and deliberately choked Floyd to death. I’ll never get over the image of officer Chauvin calmly pressing his knee down on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes, with his hands in his pockets. Floyd begged to be released, over and over again crying, “I can’t breathe.”  As Floyd pleaded, Officer Chauvin continued to kill him.

The image awakened many Americans. A white man in a blue uniform believed he could get away with killing a Black man in public. Bystanders screamed while Chauvin’s fellow officers did nothing other than keeping the crowd at bay.

This is a time of reckoning. We are beginning to acknowledge the deeper scars of American history and the dimensions of racism. We are daring to pull back the thick curtain of denial to truly look at how we got here. It’s time to learn about so many things we don’t want to know about slavery and racism and implicit bias and redlining and white supremacy.

This is tough stuff. It has so many implications for American society. We are trying to pull down the lies and the injustice and the self-serving hypocrisy that created a false front, an image of America that sought to exclude people of color and alternative religious faiths and gender identification. We are pulling down the false idols.

We are duty-bound to serve up the truth. We are compelled to explore our new American center of gravity, to find meanings in the new dimensions of American life that are being uncovered and shared. This is the only way to move forward in a progressive, multi-ethnic, multi-racial country. If we don’t acknowledge the fuller truth of the past, as painful as it may be, we are doomed to implode. Without telling the full truth, we run the risk of becoming a neo-fascist nation. The stakes are that high.

There are people who fear disturbing the status quo. I understand that. I’ve seen that response to Jews who sought to matriculate at American universities that had quotas to keep us out. I saw the first Jewish hospitals in America constructed because so many hospitals would not hire Jewish doctors, and they had to practice somewhere. They feared us, scared of our perceived foreignness. They hated us with the two-thousand-year-old canard that we were “Christ-killers.” White Anglo-Saxons were not interested in sharing the pie.

I listen to White people railing against enlightenment at school boards all over the country. I wonder how it’s possible to claim that advancing a more nuanced understanding of race in America is a Marxist idea… And I can assure you that 99% of people who use the term Marxist as a xenophobic sledgehammer have no idea what Marxism is. Opposition to historical facts, like opposition to science, is all about a desperate need to uphold an ideology of the past even as the arrow of time points in the opposite direction.

We can – we must – be able to accept the cruel nuances of our history, that the Founders of America were noble – and that some of them were slaveowners and deeply flawed humans. Knowing the fuller truth chastens us; it lights the way to a deeper wisdom. The story of our nation includes unspeakable violence and racism and slavery and atrocities against Native Americans and people of color and Jews. But those are not the only stories.

We are weaving a complex tapestry that is still coming together. I hope that this Thanksgiving we can braid various narratives together rather than rip them apart. It saddens me to learn the extent to which the quintessential Thanksgiving mythos does not bear much resemblance to the facts. The myth is that friendly Indians, unidentified by tribe, welcome the Pilgrims to America, teach them how to live in this new place, sit down to dinner with them and then disappear. They hand off America to white people so they can create a great nation dedicated to liberty, opportunity, and Christianity for the rest of the world to profit. That’s the story—it’s about Native people conceding to colonialism. It’s bloodless and in many ways an extension of the ideology of Manifest Destiny.

Do we have to get rid of the Pilgrim hats and the head feathers? Is it racist? Or is it aspirational? Is it an image that we have clung to all these years to propose the possibilities inherent in sharing our bounties together? Or is it a cynical dodge for colonialism? I don’t know, but it’s worth talking about.

Hard conversations are necessary for us to move forward. Stonewalling the truth in favor of preserving an idyllic – and imaginary – past will not work. Thanksgiving can take on new meaning. It can underscore the best of our nation: a sincere desire to give all our citizens the opportunity to succeed with grace and dignity and equality. We will create new images. We will tell new stories.

Reform Jews know this so well. We have this ancient history and ancient rituals that we continue to reframe and alter. We abandon that which no longer works, and we adopt a new way of understanding our destiny. It’s hard. And it’s why we are here in 2021, daring to raise up new meanings.

Whatever you do on Thanksgiving, while you feast, give some time to exploring the old stories as you consider what the new chapters will tell us. This must be a time that we recognize just how important it is to braid together the stories that work to unite us, the stories that dare to be truthful.

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