22 October 2012

Old Story, New Book

walker evans circa 1936
I was walking to a party on Saturday night.  Along 103rd Street on the Upper East Side.  Hanging out on the stoops were mostly poor African-American and Latino men and women--talking, laughing, drinking, smoking.  The door of a bodega on one corner, saturated in yellow and red light, swung open and closed.  Brown paper bags, covering large bottles of beer, in the hands of customers.  Walking through the projects in the shadow of Mount Sinai Hospital, wind brushed empty plastic bags past my feet.  Turned the corner, up the hill, and into the hall where the party I attended was being held.  At the corner of Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street, Central Park was dark and muscular.  Its landscape confident. It had a plan.

While I was happy to see a number of former students and friends at the party, was thrilled at the sound of their voices giving updates on their collegiate studies, their career ambitions, their intellectual and spiritual quandaries and the fortunate wealth of their opportunity to make a path for themselves in the world, my heart remained outdoors, in the cool night air, on the corner, with the smokers and the drinkers.

I sat in a dark auditorium wondering about that.  Why wasn't I present?  And what does it mean when the mind wanders at all, not to mention a place of dislocation, suffering, or misfortune.  I thought back to the Presidential debates and how little mention was made of those who stand on street corners, the rejected, the unemployed, the results of what happens when families don't work, when social services don't penetrate the walls of resistance, when schools fail for lack of funding and teacher training, and when manufacturing jobs diminish while wealth streams past, its own abundant flow, absorbing, silencing the story of those street corner smokers and drinkers.

All America can talk about every four years is taxes.  And cutting government spending which, especially without jobs, is the only source of hope for those without.  Without jobs.  Without a stable home.  Without a great school, and a great education, and an expanded mind, and an inspired heart, and a chance to get away from the corner where, for fun, you can drink and smoke.

Cliche.  I know.  I think so, too.

But true.  Earth-shatteringly, shamefully true.

The Tradition anticipated our lazy minds.

Psalm 9:19, for instance: כי לא לנצח ישכח אביון תקות עניים תאבד לעד--The needy shall not always be forgotten, nor the expectation of the poor perish forever.  Leo Baeck once wrote that "the word poor is a word which the Bible pronounces with devoutness and with reverence, as if in holy awe."  In politics today, the word is mostly mumbled, if not entirely inaudible.

Deuteronomy 15:11 is equally direct:  כי לא יחדל אביון מקרב הארץ על כן אנכי מצוך לאמר פתח תפתח את ידך לאחיך לעניך ולאביונך בארצך--For poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command thee saying, 'Thou shalt surely open thy hand unto thy poor and needy brother, in thy land.'

Which I imagine includes men and women standing on street corners with 40 oz bottles and smokes; and which no doubt includes prisons where men and women languish, hoping to learn employable skills to make it out one day; and I imagine this includes shelters and food banks and public hospitals which are threatened with closures for lack of funding; and I know, as a public school parent, that this includes schools with shrinking pre-K programs, fewer meals offered to poor families, and crowded, under-staffed classrooms, where good material is in short supply.

I mean, seriously:  Are we this bad at taking care of the basic human obligations our Tradition says we are obligated to fulfill?  Are we really spending our time talking about tax breaks for the most fortunate?

Who wrote this book?

Because I don't like, I'm putting it down, and writing another one.

Last week I spoke to Yair Rosenberg at Tablet about whether or not politics belongs in pulpit.  Of course it does, I argued.  I'd like to see a history of American Jewry without the pulpit's involvement in immigration issues, early civil rights and anti-quota activism, the birth of the labor movement and women's rights, the minimum wage and child labor laws, Zionism, the creation of the State of Israel, and the black-Jewish alliance for Civil Rights Acts in the Kennedy and Johnson years.  Reproductive rights, gay marriage, and Israel continue to emanate from many pulpits but the reality is that public education and poverty are not as readily addressed as they ought to be.

While it may be that we have fully assimilated into the middle and upper middle class of American society and no longer need to historically advocate for the less fortunate (which used to be *us*) we are nevertheless *still obligated* as the Psalmist and Deuteronomist make clear.

Not only must we never forget but we are *obligated* to open our hand to the poor, in Baeck's terms, with motivations undergirded by reverence and awe.




1 comment:

Old First said...

If politics doesn't belong on the pulpit, then half the Bible doesn't belong in the pulpit.