Category: Long Read

Show Me the Way of the Hebrews: The Making of an African American Rabbi

Originally published in Religion Dispatches.

Aronoff reading at torah dedication. Picture by J. Lester Feder

The services I attended at Philadelphia’s Congregation Temple Bethel were loud and joyous, but I felt totally out of place. That was a familiar feeling, of course. My two Jewish parents raised me without any religious education. (My father, a butcher, takes an almost perverse delight in flouting his non-belief with gestures like giving me lard as a Christmas present.) But I was more at ease this morning, because it was not expected that I understand the rituals because I look like a Jew. I was one of the only white people in shul that morning, and it was nice to look as out of place as I usually feel.

Bethel is an African American synagogue founded in the 1950s by a woman known as “Mother” Louise Elizabeth Dailey. Today it has an estimated membership of 500 families.

Their mode of worship looked more Pentecostal to me than Jewish. A praise band played throughout the five-hour service, which was punctuated by frenzied moments in which worshippers would run laps around the pews while some fell into ecstatic fits of weeping. They were dedicating a new Torah scroll, and some readers sounded almost like mullahs chanting the Koran, while others sang with an extravagant Ashkenazi style that I had only seen used by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer.

I was at Bethel on an assignment for The Washington Post, a cover story for the magazine about a new African American synagogue in DC started in 2008 by Mother Dailey’s grandson, Eli Aronoff. (Aronoff claims no Ashkenazi ancestry despite his surname—his father was from rural South Carolina.) Neither my story nor the new congregation succeeded—the Post axed the story during a shakeup of the magazine’s editorial staff in 2009, and Aronoff’s congregation recently decided to disband after two struggling years. But the experience allowed me to ask what it means to belong to a tradition that I had always been taught was my birthright. Does heritage alone make a Jew a Jew? Religious law? And why are these more important tokens of membership in the community that someone’s personal faith? Continue reading

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Fighting for Our Health

This story appeared in the April 27 edition of The Nation.

Two security guards in dark suits towered over Mary Carol Jennings, a spiky-haired medical student wearing a white doctor’s coat, as she and some fifty others tried to enter DC’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel one morning in early March. The contingent included representatives of the AFL-CIO, MoveOn and the Campaign for America’s Future. Jennings was flanked by two members of the National Nurses Organizing Committee who held a giant certificate for the head of America’s Health Insurance Plans, the trade group meeting inside the hotel.

“We hereby present Karen Ignagni, CEO [of] AHIP, with this award for Best Protector of Health Insurance Industry Profits at the Expense of Our Health,” read the mock certificate, which they decided to leave on her car after being denied entrance to the Ritz. “We are confident that Karen Ignagni will continue to protect profits while paying lip service to ‘health care reform.'”

This showdown was organized by a nine-month-old coalition known as Health Care for America Now, which claims more than 850 affiliate organizations. Having learned from the mistakes made by reformers in 1993 and ’94, HCAN is launching an early assault on the organization that led the crusade against President Clinton’s proposal. According to HCAN spokeswoman Jacki Schechner, “There was no organization on the left” during the Clinton fight, a time when insurers “talked nice about reform until it got down to the nitty-gritty” details of the plan.

Continue reading at The Nation.

The Floral Majority

How the split between creation care’s leaders and its grassroots activists is dictating the future of the green evangelical movement.

The New Republic, December 30, 2008

The Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins was gleeful after Richard Cizik, chief lobbyist of the 30-million member National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), was forced to resign on December 11. Perkins and other “family values” leaders had been trying to get rid of Cizik for two years, ever since he launched a campaign to add environmentalism to the evangelical “values” agenda. Though Cizik lost his job over comments endorsing civil unions, not because of his attention to what evangelicals call “creation care,” Perkins still claimed his ouster as a repudiation of the green agenda. “This was a long time coming,” Perkins said on his weekly radio show. “When you walk through that green door of environmentalism and global warming, you know, you risk being blinded by that green light and losing the sense of direction.”Cizik’s adversaries can easily find election data to argue he had diverged from the evangelical grassroots. While Barack Obama performed better among born-again Christians than John Kerry–Obama won 26 percent of white evangelicals, Kerry won 21 percent–Obama still won less than Al Gore’s 30 percent in 2000. The environment ranked twelfth on a list of 13 issues important to white evangelical voters in an October poll. And 2008’s most conspicuous evangelical, Sarah Palin, lead cries of “Drill, baby, drill.”

But it would be wrong to conclude that the evangelical grassroots have rejected environmentalism. Instead, evangelical environmentalists at the grassroots level simply conceive of the problem in different terms. Cizik envisions a politicized environmentalism to stop climate change, while the grassroots have been cultivating a consumer-focused green movement that intentionally steers clear of politics. Cizik’s resignation certainly doesn’t announce the death of creation care–but it does suggest it may evolve in a new direction. Continue reading

In Lomax’s Place

Money and Music in the Field

The Oxford American, November 2008

Even though Della Daniels had always dreamed of a singing career, she didn’t want to sing for the producer from New York. Michael Reilly had come down to Mississippi to record her nephew’s rap group, the Money Hungry Youngstas. Della first saw the skinny white producer when he pulled up to her sister’s double-wide trailer in October of 2004, and he looked like he was hardly out of college. But Michael had brought real equipment, and she thought maybe this could lead somewhere. Della’s nephew, Kevin, had never really believed that a producer would come from New York to a Mississippi town as small as Como, and his group was not ready to record. One of them was still at school, in the middle of football practice.

With help from her sister, Angela Taylor, Della stalled for time. They told Michael about how their grandfather had recorded for the legendary folklorist Alan Lomax in 1959. They got their cousin, Ester Mae Wilbour, to bring over photographs of their grandfather and the CD with his songs on it. Della and Ester, who were ten at the time of Lomax’s visit, remembered him playing guitar atop his red mare, who would keep time with her hooves. As they talked, Della realized that Michael was so fascinated with Lomax’s work that they were at risk of stealing the show. “It was as if he had read the man’s biography and seen himself in it,” she thought. “It’s like he put himself in Lomax’s place.” Continue reading