Wrestling for a Better Nation

Thanksgivings in my Wisconsin childhood were brisk affairs: cool weather, bare trees, an occasional flurry. But inside our house it was warm. We had a fire going in the living room, the bridge table was set up for my parents and grandparents, cousins rolled around the spare rooms, wrestling, laughing, monkeying around as cousins do. My grandfather, a retired physician, was the kindest and gentlest of men, the son of an immigrant who served America in the First World War, and the only Jew in his medical school class. He married my grandmother, who fled Russian pogroms in 1903, following her father who had put down roots in Milwaukee in 1899. That makes my father first generation and after graduating high school in 1941, he went off to college, then served in the U.S. Army in the Second World War to defeat Nazism and Fascism. My mother was third generation American and when she crossed from Milwaukee’s mostly-gentile West Side to date and marry a Jew from the East Side, she fulfilled her own need for rebellion, albeit one of the heart, to start an American family.


Naomi Levine meeting David Ben Gurion on an American Jewish Congress trip to Tel Aviv

Last week I had lunch with my ninety-five year old mentor Naomi Levine before she headed down to West Palm Beach for the winter. Naomi grew up in the Bronx, was the first in her family to receive a university education (Hunter College), and one of the only women in her law school class at Columbia University. She built the early part of her career working on civil rights for the American Jewish Congress. Now a mere shell of its once illustrious past, “the Congress” was at the forefront of the struggle for Black Civil Rights in the United States, regularly filing petitions and amicus briefs in alliance with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Naomi worked very closely on two noteworthy cases, crafting some of the decisive language in both the Sweatt v Painter and Brown v Topeka cases, which successfully challenged and overturned Plessy v Ferguson, the odious 1896 Supreme Court case that encoded into the U.S. law the segregationist structures of “separate but equal.” Naomi and her team at the Congress commissioned the critical sociological research by noted scholars Kenneth and Mamie Clark who were able to demonstrate, in the famous “doll case” that Black children in segregated classrooms suffered serious psychological damage as a result of being separated legally from white students.

Less than a decade later, Naomi would co-write Rabbi Joachim Prinz’s “Sin of Silence” speech which he delivered after Mahalia Jackson’s song and before Rev Dr Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” Linking Black Civil Rights to his own fate as a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany (Prinz was Berlin’s most charismatic and daring Reform rabbi who fled the Gestapo to a safe haven in Newark—and makes an heroic appearance in Philip Roth’s recently revived The Plot Against America), he said Naomi’s words that August day in 1963: “the most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

So last week at lunch I see a picture of Naomi’s late husband Leonard on the mantle. And though I have known her for more than twenty years (when I met her in early 1998 she was in the midst of a second career raising billions of dollars for New York University as the school’s Senior Vice President for External Affairs), she told me a story I had never heard before. Leonard, I learned, was in the third wave to land at Normandy; fought in the Battle of the Bulge; and then was among the soldiers assigned to accompany General Dwight D. Eisenhower on his tour of concentration camps which were the center of the Nazi genocide death machine. Leonard was among a number of soldiers who were sickened and overwhelmed by what they saw and experienced and when they addressed questions to their general about the assignment, Eisenhower said what he would eventually put in writing: “The things I saw beggar description. The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering, I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first hand evidence of these things, if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations to propaganda.” More than seventy years later, Eisenhower’s words are particularly memorable and especially important.

Naomi was hard at work on her memoir when I visited and she shared aloud with me a passage about her grandfather on a breadline in the Bronx during the Depression, stopping to emphasize how important it is for us as Jews to both bear witness but also to be deeply engaged in the ongoing project of what it means to be an American.

And so it is worth remembering that while there were no Jews at Plymouth Plantation for that first mythic Thanksgiving, we do know that William Bradford cited Psalm 107, “Let them exalt God in the assembly of the people and praise God in the assembly of the elders.” Some scholars also suggest that surely the Pilgrims would have been familiar with the Biblical festival of Sukkot, a Fall harvest celebration of thanksgiving. Alas, even in our absence from Massachusetts on that first Thanksgiving, we were present. Our words matter; our moral aspirations contribute to the striving vision of justice and equality in America. As the divisions and rancor and violence in America have recently demonstrated, the American Project is far from complete.

The eleventh century scholar Rashi has a brilliant reading of this week’s Torah portion Va’yishlach, in which Jacob has a desert encounter with an angel of God, wrestling him to a draw and earning a new name, Israel, meaning “he who struggles with God.” The last time Jacob had encountered the angel, Rashi says, is when he was using guile and falsehood to wrest the birthright from his brother Esau. But here, in the desert, as an older, wiser man, Jacob faces the angel as the person he truly is and is meant to be. “Now that you are prepared to testify truthfully as to who you are,” the angel says to Jacob, “you have shed that previous identity and are prepared to take on a new one, Israel.”

While this interpretation has much to offer us on our personal journeys in life, I would like to suggest that we read it in the context of the American Project on this Thanksgiving, in an America that is in the midst of dueling narratives, division and strife—a struggle, a wrestling, if you will, over who we are to be as a nation. Will our true selves as citizens ultimately aim toward a nation of negations or will we transcend our limitations and be a nation of justice, equality, love and mercy for all?

As we sit around our Thanksgiving tables with so much to be thankful for—family, friendship, the bounty of a meal in a warm home—our Jewish community also has much to demonstrate to the greater world about what it means to live in a community of meaning, connection, and rootedness in life. This sacred narrative is the architectural plan for the best world we can imagine for all. So wrestle we must and wrestle we will: for our better selves, a better nation, and a world one day at peace.