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Thanksgiving and my yarmulke
By Rabbi Arthur Waskow / The Rag Blog / November 28, 2010
Thursday, a little before noon, my phone rang. I knew at once who it was: my old friend Jeffrey Dekro (founder of The Shefa Fund, which gathered millions of dollars of Jewish money to invest in American inner cities and to reconstruct New Orleans), calling me and several other members of a long-ago, long-scattered men’s group, reminding us to turn on the radio.
For every year at noon on Thanksgiving, WXPN Radio in Philadelphia plays Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant," about a Thanksgiving dinner in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in 1967; about obtuse cops; and about nonviolent resistance to a brutal war.
And every year, this seemingly non-Jewish set of rituals stirs in me the memory of a moment long ago when my first puzzled, uncertain explorations of the "Jewish thing" took on new power for me. And when I came to understand the power of a yarmulke.
Sharing this story has become a ritual for me. Welcome to the campfire!
In 1970, I was asked by the Chicago Eight to testify in their defense. They were leaders of the movement to oppose the Vietnam War, and they had been charged by the U.S. government (i.e. the Nixon Administration and Attorney General John Mitchell, who turned out to be a criminal himself) with conspiracy to organize riot and destruction during the Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968.
I had been an alternate delegate from the District of Columbia to the Convention -- elected originally as part of an anti-war, anti-racist slate to support Robert Kennedy. After he was murdered, we decided to nominate and support the chairperson of our delegation -- Rev. Channing Phillips (alav hashalom), a Black minister in the Martin Luther King mold.
Our delegation made him the first Black person ever nominated for President at a major-party convention. The following spring, on the first anniversary of Dr. King's murder, on the third night of Pesach in 1969, his church hosted the first-ever Freedom Seder.
AND -- I had also spoken the first two nights of the Convention to the anti-war demonstrators at Grant Park, at their invitation, while the crowd was being menaced by Chicago police and the National Guard. The police finally did explode in violence on the third night of the Convention, when the crowd tried to march peacefully toward the Convention as it began voting on presidential candidates.
Although the main official investigation of Chicago described it as a "police riot," the Nixon Administration decided to indict the anti-war leaders. So during the Conspiracy Trial in 1970, Tom Hayden, David Dellinger, Abbie Hoffman, et al., figured I would be reasonably respectable (as a former delegate) and therefore relatively convincing to the jury and the national public, in testifying that the anti-war folks were not trying to organize violence but instead were the victims of police violence.
As the trial went forward, it became clear that the judge -- Julius Hoffman, a Jew -- was utterly subservient to the prosecution and wildly hostile to the defense. (Some of us thought he had become possessed by the dybbuk of Torquemada, head of the Inquisition. How else could a Jew behave that way? We tried to exorcise his dybbuk. It didn't work.)
Judge Hoffman browbeat witnesses, ultimately literally gagging and binding Bobby Seale, the only Black defendant, for challenging his rulings. Dozens of his rulings against the Eight were later cited by the Court of Appeals as major legal errors, requiring reversal of all the convictions the prosecution had achieved in his court.
So when I arrived at the Federal courthouse in Chicago, I was very nervous. About the judge, much more than the prosecution or my own testimony.
The witness who was scheduled to testify right before me was Arlo Guthrie. He had sung "Alice's Restaurant" to/with the crowd at Grant Park, and the defense wanted to show the jury that there was no incitement to violence in it.
So William Kunstler, z'l, the lawyer for the defense, asked Guthrie to sing "Alice's Restaurant" so that the jury could get a direct sense of the event.
But Judge Hoffman stopped him: "You can't sing in my courtroom!!"
"But," said Kunstler, "it's evidence of the intent of the organizers and the crowd!"
For minutes they snarled at each other. Finally, Judge Hoffman: "He can SAY what he told them, but NO SINGING."
And then -- Guthrie couldn't do it. The song, which lasts 25 minutes, he knew by utter heart, having sung it probably more than a thousand times -- but to say it without singing, he couldn't. His memory was keyed to the melody. And maybe Judge Hoffman's rage helped disassemble him.
So he came back to the witness room, crushed.
And I'm up next. I start trembling, trying to figure out how I can avoid falling apart.
I decide that if I wear a yarmulke, that will strengthen me to connect with a power Higher/Other than the United States and Judge Hoffman. (Up to that moment, I had never worn a yarmulke in a non-officially "religious" situation. I had written the Freedom Seder in 1969, but was in 1970 still wrestling with the question of what this weird and powerful "Jewish thing" meant in my life.)
So I tell Kunstler I want to wear a yarmulke, and he says -- "No problem." Somewhere I find a simple black unobtrusive skullcap, and when I go to be sworn in, I put it on.
For the oath (which I did as an affirmation, as indicated by much of Jewish tradition), no problem.
Then Kunstler asks me the first question for the defense, and the Judge interrupts. "Take off your hat, sir," he says.
Kunstler erupts. "This man is an Orthodox Jew, and you want... etc etc etc." I am moaning to myself, "Please, Bill, one thing I know I'm not is an Orthodox Jew." But how can I undermine the defense attorney? So I keep my mouth shut.
Judge Hoffman also erupts: "That hat shows disrespect for the United States and this Honorable Court!" he shouts.
"Yeah," I think to myself, "that's sort-of true. Disrespect for him, absolutely. For the United States, not disrespect exactly, but much more respect for Something Else. That's the point!"
They keep yelling, and I start watching the prosecutor -- and I realize that he is watching the jury. There is one Jewish juror. What is this juror thinking?
Finally, the prosecutor addresses the judge: "Your Honor, the United States certainly understands and agrees with your concern, but we also feel that in the interests of justice, it might be best simply for the trial to go forward."
And the judge took orders!! He shut up, and the rest of my testimony was quiet and orderly.
It took me another year or so to start wearing some sort of hat all the time.
For years, it was a Tevye cap. For years, and some of the time now, a beret. Sometimes a rainbow kippah. Sometimes in a rough winter, an amazing tall Tibetan hat with earflaps and wool trimming that I found in a Tibetan Buddhist harvest festival that came right during Sukkot (when else??!!).
And whatever its shape, the hat continues to mean to me that there is a Higher, Deeper Truth in the world than any judge, any Attorney General, any President, or any Pharaoh.
It's my -- our -- "Alice's Restaurant." Or maybe "Alice's Restaurant" is Arlo's yarmulke. If you want to watch and hear Arlo singing the song, click here. [Or play embedded video, below.]
Why listen to it? Not just nostalgia or historical curiosity about the long-gone ‘60s. Here we are, so many years later, in the midst of another brutal, unwinnable war, in the midst of many other restrictions on our civil liberties, in the midst of other judges who bow down to super-wealth and super-power, in the midst of damage to our earth we couldn’t even imagine in 1967. It’s not just judges we need to go Beyond. It’s Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Banking, the bullies of Talk Radio, all the Big Guns.
Beyond them. We all need a hat, a song, a “men’s group” -- something that renews our inner sense of the Unity Beyond. And laughter.
Blessings of shalom, salaam, peace.
[Rabbi Arthur Waskow is the director of The Shalom Center. He is co-author of The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims; author of Godwrestling, Round 2 and Down-to-Earth Judaism; and editor of Torah of the Earth (two volumes, eco-Jewish thought from earliest Torah to our own generation). These pioneering books on eco-Judiasm are available at discount from “Shouk Shalom,” The Shalom center's online bookstore.]
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