(An anecdote apropos of Martin Luther King Day, by Ms. Yehudis Fishman,
from: https://www.facebook.com/accidentaltalmudist for 1/16/15)
“The Rebbe of Kotsk said we need to study the stories and details of the Exodus as if they would be the most intricate Talmudic text.
The histories of Jews and African Americans have been intertwined [for a long time] and, as I was to realize way back in my adolescence, were intertwined in my life also.
The year was 1960 and at 17 I had my first after school job working on the outskirts of Boston in a coat factory among a varied crew of mainly African Americans. In school, I was a well-behaved, studious girl from the projects in Roxbury, living in a sometimes overwhelming world where I never quite felt like I fitted in anywhere, and often wondered about my role in life.
I came to work from the long trolley ride a few minutes late. I heard fuming shouts and banging, desperate cries, and counter yells. I snuck in between the waving fists and went to my designated pile of coats. From the corner of my eye, I caught the gist of the argument.
Two burly and muscular men were fighting over the affections of a beautiful, slender young woman. One of the men, whose explosive character, I had noticed on earlier days, went into a huddle with a few of his friends. I heard him murmur something like, ‘Okay guys this is gonna be the end for him and all his pals. No one messes with my girl and gets away with it. Bring your weapons in tomorrow.’
I took a deep breath and almost swooned from the drama. Why did I have to hear about it! Why couldn’t it have taken place on their home or school turf? I had always had sensitivity to ideas and stories of confrontations and injustice, both in my religious and secular subjects.
I was deeply moved by plays like ‘Antigone’ and ‘A Man for All Seasons,’ where people stood up for what they believed in. My Torah heroes were Moses who defended Jews and non-Jews alike, and David who battled with wild beasts to save his flock and with a giant to save his people. But I didn’t remember actually doing something — or even contemplating any action — until that moment.
Meanwhile, I was up half the night wrestling with myself. Could I, orphan daughter of David, welfare daughter of Chaya Feige, do anything at all to stave off the potential gang war that could erupt tomorrow? Till that point, I had basically kept to myself and didn’t really know much about any of my fellow employees — their lives, their culture, their way of resolving issues…but it could not have been an accident that I was there and overheard. One thing I believed more and more from my recent exposure at that age to Hassidic teachings, and the constant message of the Baal Shem Tov, [was] that we can see the hand of Divine Providence everywhere, if we take the time to look.
When Moses was at the burning bush, the Torah says, ‘He turned to see,’ and Rashi comments that he said, ‘I will turn from here to get close to there.’ Imagine what would have happened if he just went on his way and ignored the whole scene — maybe we Jews would not be here to talk about it!
This was the kind of self-talk I gave myself most of the night. When I awoke after briefly dozing I could barely wait for school to be over. With a pounding heart, I skulked into the coat factory. Sure enough, as if the night had not intervened, the yelling and the brandishing were escalating. I think I said the 23rd psalm to myself before I got up the nerve to walk over to the gang leader who had planned the battle.
I knew he was powerful and hot tempered, but what did I have to lose? Yehudis, daughter of David, strained my neck and looked straight into his eyes. I had a plan.
I began, ‘Is this the only way you can think of to handle this?’
He looked down at me as if I were one of the grasshoppers in Canaan: ‘And how would you ‘handle’ this?’ he said sarcastically.
‘Well’ — here I paused, more from fear than dramatic effect — ‘I would write a letter.’
‘A letter? What the xxxx would that do? What would I say and who should it go to?’
‘I think you should write it to your girlfriend and maybe even one to the other guy.’
‘What the xxxx would I say?’
‘Just tell her how you feel about her hanging out with the other guy, and how much you care about her! And you can tell the other guy that you don’t appreciate him taking your girl away from you!’
I could see he was actually thinking about it, but he was shaking his head at the same time. ‘Oh, oh, what’s wrong now?’ I thought to myself. He bent his head ominously toward mine, getting ready for a whisper. I cringed. He looked here and there to make sure no one else could hear him. ‘I…I..can’t write…I never learned…’
Oy, this was not part of my plan..then I recalled Rashi quoting Moshe. He murmured to me, ‘I must turn from here to go there.’ And it was as if Moshe’s siblings were encouraging me too: Aaron who was the great peacemaker between couples and friends who had become estranged, and above all little five-year-old Miriam who defied not only Pharaoh, but even her own parents when they separated. Miriam had walked right up to the most prominent couple in the Israelite camp and told them straight to their faces: ‘Your decree of not wanting children is worse than Pharaoh’s. He wants to eliminate the boys, but you’re preventing both boys and girls from being born!’ ‘Ok, Miriam,’ I mumbled back, ‘I can do it.’
‘Fine, no problem,’ I responded to the young man. ‘I’ll help you write it.’ I motioned to him to follow me to a hidden corner of the factory where there was a stool big enough to lean on. I pulled out a notebook from my school bag, took out a few pens and pencils, and began…’Ok, shoot, I mean, speak your mind…’
The rest is history. I don’t know any more details, but everything calmed down in the factory after that — at least as far as I could see. It was hard not to walk away from that de-escalated scene feeling taller than anyone there. Then I remembered, ‘I was a daughter of David, and a disciple of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam…’
My job was to stay ready for the next situation, and feel that with G-d’s help, I could handle whatever was coming.”
Yehudis Fishman teaches several classes each week throughout the Boulder-Denver area. She is available locally and worldwide for bnei mitzvah preparation, spiritual counseling, and tutoring. Morah Yehudis welcomes feedback on her writing: firstname.lastname@example.org