On Mascots, Ice Skating and Standing with Standing Rock

We gathered for Thanksgiving last week with friends up in Seattle. I look forward to Thanksgiving, it is one holiday which I do not need to work for one, and can spend with my wife and kids. Since our extended families are distant, we have more often than not spent it with friends, and I enjoy the opportunity to meet new people and renew past relationships. I love the food, and the civic focus on gratitude is an important injection of spiritual values into our “secular society.” This year our host handed out copies of the Constitution, further opportunity for reflection on where we have been and were we are going as a country, especially after this last election.

Where we have been is an important question on Thanksgiving, because we know from the history of this country the holiday is not celebrated by all. While we tend to tell a story of friendship and cooperation, we know the real history of the colonists and the Native population was devastating, including conquest and genocide.

I wrote a few years ago (On Thankgivukkah!) how our modern Thanksgiving is rooted in the Civil War as well, as it only became a fixed national holiday in Lincoln’s time. The idea was unity at a time of disunity, and Lincoln’s proclamation is a noble document. And while we can strive for its aims, we can not do so outside the historical context in which the “original” Thanksgiving and the “modern” Thanksgiving are based. (Lincoln also was responsible for one of the largest mass executions in US history, of Native Americans.)

This history was writ large this year in an unfortunate irony through another American Thanksgiving tradition: football. The National Football League plays games on Thanksgiving, and as I sat down to watch I was shocked to see the Dallas Cowboys—who traditionally play on Thanksgiving day—playing the Washington Redskins, which is a team name I prefer not to use but do so here for the point of illustration. On Thanksgiving Day, millions sat down to watch the Cowboys versus the “Indians.”

And Thanksgiving comes just a few weeks after that other traditional pastime, the Major League Baseball World Series, which pitted the Chicago Cubs versus the Cleveland Indians, which is another term I prefer not to use but use it here for the point of illustration. Another major league sports team, another problematic name. Plus the Cleveland baseball team has a racist mascot, a caricature of a Native American elder.

In America, we compound the painful history by reducing Native Americans to stereotypes, mascots and caricatures.

This is made all the more tragic, or ludicrous, our sad because currently there are Native populations staging an active and major protest in North Dakota. The Standing Rock Sioux are are protesting the construction of an oil pipeline that would be built on their historic land near their reservation and under the Missouri River, which serves as the source of their drinking water. A leak could be devastating to the Sioux and the environment.

The protests are augmented by the knowledge that the original path of the pipeline was to be closer to the city of Bismark, which would still need to go under the Missouri River, but complaints by the population about potential leaks there prompted the moving of the pipeline. This just the latest in a long history of the US Government and business interests slowly eroding or outright disregarding the agreements with and the rights and lands of Native Americans, and the reaction by authorities has resonant historical echoes.

While this was happening, this week out of Russia was the obscene news that the wife of a Russian official participated in a ice skating routine to a Holocaust theme. Dressed in concentration camp uniforms complete with yellow star, the skaters danced on a reality television show to the theme to the Holocaust movie, “Life is Beautiful.”

I felt a strong sense of parallelism.  A culture once thriving, then driven almost completely out of existence through genocide, now pantomimed in a way that mimics and distorts reality. The connection between the approach to Jews in Europe and Native Americans in the United States was noticeable in this instance: Jews in Europe have, like the Native Americans here, been reduced to mascots.

Which is why the protests at Standing Rock deserve our attention and support.

Our Jewish history is a history of displacement and being driven from our homes. We may have grown comfortable in our position in this country, but our  history is in our DNA. And with the rise of this new government, we Jews are being reminded more and more how we should not be as comfortable as we are. Threatened and oppressed populations require our support.

But not only that. The Standing Rock Sioux deserve our attention and support because they are bringing to the forefront issues which we should all care about: protection of our earth, protection of our water, our dependence on fossil fuels and the need to respect all peoples. That and the reckoning of the sins that built this country and their perpetuation in how the Native population is treated today. We all need to sit up and take notice.

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, Director of Programs for T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, said it so well in a letter to supporters this week when she tied the situation to the weekly Torah portion. She wrote,

In this week’s parshah, Toldot, we read about how the Phillistines blocked up the wells Abraham had dug, forcing Isaac to redig them in search of Rechovot–wide open spaces where he could live in peace. The Native American water protectors are standing up not just for their own protection but for all of us who want clean water, sacred sites, and human rights protected from corporate greed.

Our spiritual history and actual history and values compel us to take a stand. We all deserve the protection of those things that are most precious to us, things like water, and respect, and peace.

What Lincoln Can Teach Us About Hanukkah

As a child I was raised on a steady dose of Pilgrims and Native Americans when it came to Thanksgiving. The story was told and retold come fall, and craft projects at school reflected that theme.

As I get older, however, that story seems to have faded from my thoughts as I draw to Thanksgiving. Perhaps it is because that history is more closely tied to that of colonial America, a history germane to my upbringing in New York, but less relevant to the history of Washington and the Pacific Northwest. But also that history is a difficult one, and aspects of American colonialism are not worthy of celebrating. We are reminded of the power of historic narratives, and that those narratives sometimes come into conflict with one another.

While the story of the Plymouth is meant to reflect the “First Thanksgiving”—Thanksgiving holidays were common and were days set aside for prayer in spontaneous response to timely events, like a good harvest. U.S. Presidents would declare days of Thanksgiving as well, though not consistently. States also fixed Thanksgiving holidays and again not consistently and not every state. It was only until President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 declared the federal holiday did we have a uniform nationwide date and observance.

LincolnOur national holiday therefore has as much if not more of its roots in Lincoln’s time then colonial times. Lincoln’s declaration of a national Thanksgiving holiday, coming in the midst of the Civil War and in the same year as the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address, speaks of the need to heal and unify during a destructive internal war.

The declaration reads:

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

In a rare event, Thanksgiving this year overlaps with Hanukkah, and much has been made about this cultural convergence. From turkey menorahs to latkes with cranberry sauce, there is much to find delight in as we celebrate both as American Jews.

But there are deeper connections to be made as well, and reading Lincoln’s declaration can not only impact how we understand Thanksgiving, but how we understand Hanukkah. Reading the Lincoln declaration is a reminder that the holiday of Hanukkah was similarly instituted—by a declaration of the Jewish authorities of the times, after a prolonged military conflict and with an eye towards permanent remembrance of those events.

The story of Hanukkah speaks of the revolt of the Jewish community in Judea against the oppression of King Antiochus and the ruling Seleucid Empire. After the conflict, led by the Hasmoneans (also known as Maccabees), which resulted in Jewish independence and the rededication of the ancient Temple, “Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of the dedication of the altar should be observed with gladness and joy for eight days, beginning with the 25th day of the month of Kislev.” [1 Maccabees 4:59]

What we need to remember is that although we commonly tell the story of Hanukkah as a battle between the Jewish loyalists who wished to reestablish their religious practices and political independence in opposition to Greek hegemony, the conflict did also contain elements of a civil war among the Jewish community at the time, with traditionalists and Hellenizers internally battling each other.

Just as the Lincoln declaration was to create a day of healing during war, with an eye toward bringing together different factions, we can understand the creation of Hanukkah to be an observance dedicated to healing after war. One could imagine, that after the war of the Hasmoneans, the Jewish community was also in need of “peace, harmony, tranquility and Union,” and a communal celebration could do just that.

When we light the Hanukkah candles, we bring to mind many things. The thirst for religious liberty of our ancestors reminds us of the blessings of religious liberty we share and celebrate in this country. And when we light the menorahs at the darkest time of the year, we seek to brighten up the spiritual darkness that oftentimes pervades our lives, and use it as an opportunity to identify our own darknesses that need illumination.

And we also remember the story itself. Not just the miracle of one day’s worth of oil that burned for eight during the rededication of the Temple, a story made popular by the rabbis in the Talmud. But the historical story of strife, conflict, war and division. And that after times of conflict, we must pray for peace. After times of division, we must pray for unity.

As Lincoln in his declaration reminds us, Thanksgiving unity and peace means not only the ability to recognize and express gratitude for the blessings in our lives, but the necessity to reach out to those in need who may not yet share those blessings.

And the ability to overcome differences, heal, offer thanks and support those who continue to suffer is a Hanukkah miracle as well.

Lincoln, Spielberg, Kushner and Strouse

While much of the post-Oscars buzz is about host Seth MacFarlane and charges of racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism in his shtick—about what is subverting stereotypes and what is upholding them—there was another moment during the awards show that also got me thinking.

When Daniel Day-Lewis won Best Actor for his monumental portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln, he noted three great men who were instrumental in the creation of the film: director Steven Spielberg, screenwriter Tony Kushner and Lincoln himself. I was struck that aside from Lincoln, the two people instrumental in the artistic vision and narrative of the film are Jews.

And they are Jews moreso than in the strict halakhic sense, or in the heritage-only sense. (Day-Lewis apparently was born of a Jewish mother, but it doesn’t seem that this fact impacts his identity). Spielberg and Kushner are both artists whose Jewish identity impacts their lives and is reflected in their respective bodies of work.

So, then how does this fact impact their work on Lincoln? Or does it? I wasn’t surprised to see that I’m not the only one to think about this question since when I Googled “Lincoln movie Jewish” I found several articles approaching the movie from a Jewish angle.

This one from Haaretz raises some interesting points. Spielberg makes numerous films of “outsiders and rescue.” Kushner and a Lincoln scholar discussed Lincoln as a Moses figure. The story of struggle for emancipation from slavery and civil rights in the movie (focusing as it does on the passage of the 13th Amendment) reflects the Jewish concern for civil rights in modern American history. [This other in Tablet speaks of Lincoln as a “Judaic” figure, also with a tie in to Moses.]

I would add too that as we move now from Purim to Passover, we are reminded that Jewish tradition is enamored of narrative. The heart of both of these holidays are stories, tellings of history that are not meant to recap facts and figures but rather to tell us, the current retellers of the stories, the values which are meant to be important to us, to guide us in our own day and age. Lincoln serves a similar function: it is a retelling of a particular moment in American history which is meant to underscore the values which should be guiding us today: debate and compromise, fairness and equality, decency and humanity, and the ability of the human heart and mind to change, and thus change society. The fact of Lincoln is in and of itself Jewish.

Which touches on another aspect of the movie—the intersection of fact and fiction. Articles have been written about the license taken by the filmmakers in telling this story, what is “true” and what is “invented.” But perhaps the historicity is not what is important, but the telling itself. The actual historicity of the book of Esther and the Exodus are beside the point, and so too with Lincoln. It isn’t a documentary, it is a work of fiction based on fact. Did my knowledge of history increase by seeing Lincoln? Maybe. Was I inspired? Most definitely.

Some ado about the film was made regarding the climactic roll call vote in the House of Representatives on the Amendment. (Spoiler alert: it passes). Having come so far from those days of slavery, it would be shameful to a contemporary audience to be associated with voting “no.” Some contemporary state leaders–in Connecticut, for example–have raised issues with the fact that their state representatives are portrayed as voting “no” when they voted “yes.” This was done for dramatic effect, say the filmmakers, and the actual names have been changed.

But there is one name that wasn’t changed. Another article about Jews and Lincoln complains that Jewish characters weren’t portrayed in the film, even though some had prominent roles to play in the time period. But there was one Jewish character. During the roll call vote, Representative Myer Strouse, a German Jew from Pennsylvania, was heard voting “no.” In this instance, neither the name nor the vote were changed from the historical record.

I’m curious, then, what this means. How does this impact the Jewish sensibility of the movie? And what challenge are these Jewish artists raising for us from our own history in this country?

Steven, Tony—please leave a comment below.

Myer Strouse
Myer Strouse