Do you remember that scene in the movie Mary Poppins when Jane and Michael jump into Burt-the-chimney-sweep’s chalk paintings on the pavement and actually become part of the scene depicted?
I have had one experience in my life where I felt like I stepped into a story. I was in my junior year of college, which I spent studying at the University of Bristol in England. I met my father in Amsterdam for a weekend while he was there for business. As you may know or remember, my mother is Dutch and her entire family is from Amsterdam. When I took this trip, it was my first time in The Netherlands. I took a flight from London, arrived at the Schipol airport outside Amsterdam and boarded a train to the center of the city. I sat on the train…and was devastated to look at the faces around me. I recognized these strangers. They looked like my relatives, the ones I knew, and the ones I only knew through pictures. I felt I could be one of them. I was devastated to feel in that moment that I might be experiencing in some small measure how it looked, the scene, to be on a very different train in the 1940s as the Jews, some of my family members, were transported away from Amsterdam. At the same instant, I knew I could be looking at faces that were not Jewish, and I wondered how those faces would have looked upon that scene of the Jews being rounded up and forced to board that train.
In that moment on that train I was synthesizing all the stories I had heard from my grandparents, my parents, and other survivors that I didn’t even know but whose accounts I had read. I had been exposed to the experience of being in Europe during World War II in so many different ways that I was able to jump into that scene and feel it, experience it, from the inside. That moment allowed me a depth of understanding of someone else’s story I couldn’t possible have had before that train ride.
I’ve imagined myself sitting with my grandmother, who is no longer alive, or my mother and recounting this story for StoryCorps, the organization that is compiling recordings and broadcasting snippets on NPR of people like you and me describing moments of impact in our lives. This program is powerful. I know I have on many occasions sat in my car when my drive is over to listen to someone’s story in its entirety. We gain insight into so much of life by listening to these stories. Did you hear that StoryCorps’s founder Dave Isay has been awarded the 2015 TED award, granting him $1 million to conceive and bring to life a “wish?” His work and his vision are so simple and yet so compelling that the TED foundation wonders what impact even more work of this kind could have in the world. This is the same impulse that motivated Steven Spielberg and others to create the SHOAH Foundation, the Institute for Visual History and Education. The SHOAH Foundation films interviews with Holocaust survivors recounting their personal experiences during the War.
Both story-telling initiatives emphasize the same point: In order to understand our history, we must hear the experiences of those who lived it. In order to understand our present, we must hear the experiences of those living now. Our future relies on deciding that no individual is lying when she or he tells her or his story. We can’t refute another‘s story. It is her or his truth.
I’ve been deeply affected by the crying out of the African-American community in response to the deaths of black men in our country. I see the pain like the tearing of the Kriah ribbon we Jews wear to mourn the death of a loved one, a rip in the fabric of our community that is making space between the shreds, allowing voices to be heard. Those voices, of my neighbors in my community, are trying to tell the story of their experience as African-Americans in this city and in this country. I feel it is my responsibility as a Jew to witness, to listen, to ask to hear those stories.
In Parashat Vayeishev we begin to read the story of Joseph. At the beginning of the portion Joseph is all bravado, strutting before his brothers in his coat of many colors, telling them his dreams which make him leader over the rest of them. Joseph does nothing but talk, he puts himself at the center, and he fails to see how his behavior is affecting his brothers. Joseph then goes through quite a lot, his brothers throw him into a pit, he is sold to traders, he ends up in the house of one of Pharaoh’s advisors and has to fight off advances from Potiphar’s wife, and at the end of the parsha, he finds himself at the lowest of the low. No bravado, no coat of many colors. He is in a jail cell with other servants of Pharaoh, who also have dreams. And for the first time in his life, Joseph notices that another is troubled. He asks the cupbearer and the baker, “Why do you appear downcast today?” When they tell him they have had troubling dreams and have no one to interpret them, Joseph asks them, “Saproo na li…Tell them to me.” At the beginning of the Torah portion Joseph would never have put himself aside, he never would have stopped talking. But now, with the wisdom of life experience, Joseph is the witness, the one who listens to another’s distress.
I attended the die-in on Sunday evening called by POWER, Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild, led by clergy from around the city whom I trusted to create a sense of the sacred in the event. I attended to witness, to show that I am ready to hear the experience of my African-American neighbors and friends. I stood next to strangers and was able to ask, “How has your week been?” And I heard the stories of inequality and of fear and of the wish to be heard. The next night, I sat in the kitchen of one of our congregation’s families and I was able to ask, “How has this affected you?” And I listened to their stories, how they talk about this issue as a couple and with their child, how their experience as a black person and as a white person has affected their outlook on the world. I felt more deeply connected to each individual I listened to and to the events of the past few weeks themselves because I am hearing the stories that make people who they are and that expose the rifts in our society.
Before we can move forward from this time and place in the experience of African-Americans in this country, we must collect more first-hand accounts. The only way to change attitudes and biases is to increase the number of people who feel like they can jump into that chalk drawing and be inside the story. The only way to hear enough stories to synthesize them and jump in, is to ask to hear them. We are planning opportunities leading up to our congregation’s celebration in January of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to listen to the voices within our own community. In this diverse Jewish community, which reflects the city beyond our walls, we must both connect with those in our congregation and with those in the wider community.
Have we as a country matured to the point where we can listen and learn? We can answer that question by asking others, as Joseph did, “Saproo Li, Tell me.”