I Can Identify

Paul Greenberg

3/29/2008 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

It's been a couple of weeks now and people are still talking about The Speech, meaning Barack Obama's about race. How often does a political speech stay in our thoughts this long? Usually it's forgotten as soon as it's delivered, if not while it's being delivered. This one was different. How many other speeches in this campaign year do you still think about? How many others do you even remember? What speech of John McCain's or Hillary Clinton's can you recall?

How account for the staying power of The Speech? Maybe because it dealt with race not from without but from within, and invited not so much applause as thought - and response. Maybe because it was so personal. Barack Obama wasn't speaking about race as a politician or sociologist or some vague do-gooder might do, but as a person - a person who had made some deliberate choices about his own racial identity.

The impetus for The Speech was to explain one of his choices: Why had he stuck with a pastor who'd said such appalling things? Many of us have faced similar choices: Do we walk out of church when the preacher says something we disagree with, and keeps saying it? Do we disown him, make a scene, separate ourselves from the community? Or do we just sit there, maybe talk it over with the minister later, write him a letter, or what?

I can identify. I go to a Reform Jewish temple, and someone once described Reform Judaism, all too accurately, as "the Democratic Party with holidays." There are times when the ideological agenda can get mighty thick.

I remember going to a Chanukah service at which some of the temple's religious school students were reading papers in defense of abortion. And not just defending abortion but almost lauding it. You'd think it had become a sacrament.

I sat there thinking: This is choosing life? This is what we're teaching the young? Hitler didn't kill enough of us, now we're going to kill our unborn? At least Pharaoh spared the girl babies.

And this, mind you, was a Chanukah service - a holiday celebrating a revolt in ancient Judaea against the pagan practices that were being widely adopted by the Jews of that time, or at least those of an advanced, fashionably Hellenistic bent.

Unlike old Mattathias in First Maccabees, who began the revolt by choosing to make a stand when the latest, oh-so-progressive ways came to his village, I just sat there. It's not conscience but respectability that doth make cowards of us all. I can identify with Barack Obama's not making a scene every time his pastor said something appalling.

Then came September 11, 2001. The panic and pride, fear and determination of that time, the flags flying everywhere, coincided with the High Holidays. The rabbi took the occasion to warn against striking back too forcefully, or maybe just striking back. As if we Jews had learned nothing from our long years of passivity in Europe, with its all too predictable result.

This time I did not just sit there. As it happened, hurrying to services from the newspaper, I'd stopped in the composing room to check the page proof one more time. On the way, I'd passed through the advertising department, where every cubicle had been decorated with a small American flag. One must have fallen, for I spied it on the floor. I quickly picked it up and, without thinking, stuck it in my breast pocket. I remembered it when the rabbi began to warn us against, yes, "flag-waving."

That did it. I remembered the little flag I had with me. There are no coincidences. I'd been entrusted with this flag for a purpose. I drew it out, held it high, and slowly began waving it back and forth. The rabbi continued his prepared sermon as long as he could, but even he finally took notice. My hesitation about making a scene had completely disappeared. I could have waved Old Glory forever that night.

Should I have walked out, turned my back on my congregation, my rabbi and, despite Hillel's injunction in the Talmud, separated myself from the community?

I don't think so. For one thing, my rabbi doesn't just give political sermons. He presides over a spiritual cafeteria, meeting the needs of all his congregants, conducting everything from little study groups to High Holiday services, tending to the poor and sick, the hungry physically as well as spiritually. The man is indefatigable. He's not only a good rabbi but a good man. He'd do anything for you. Am I supposed to disown him because we disagree, even deeply? Aren't we supposed to practice tolerance, mutual respect and even remember that we are all one?

If my rabbi can tolerate me, which can't be easy, surely I can tolerate him. Yes, I can identify with Barack Obama - and the choice he made.