REPARATIONS: THE HOLY WORK OF REPAIR
by Rabbi Donna Berman
When I was 11 years old, our 6th grade class went on a field trip to Manhattan. I have lots of memories from that outing. It was a lovely spring day, one of those days when the trees are filled with iridescent green leaves so small that they look like a baby’s hands reaching up to heaven, so vibrant that, even on a cloudy grey day, it looks like the sun is shining on them. I remember going to Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village and seeing a little boy jumping, with total abandon, into a mud puddle and, when one of my classmates castigated him (to this day, I’m not sure why she did that), I remember the little boy’s mother castigating my friend right back and, in defiance, pushing her son back into the puddle. I remember blasting a transistor radio and our whole bus load of kids singing along, at the top of our lungs, to “I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tommy James and the Shondells.
The other memory I have from that day is far more somber. I remember standing in a dark room in what felt like the dank basement of an old building. With the advantage of time and experience, I realize, now, that we were in the bowels of The Jewish Museum. I remember standing before a glass case in which a pocketbook made by the Nazis was displayed. Placed in an open position, one could see that the inside was lined with the parchment of a Torah scroll.
I was already beginning to prepare for my Bat Mitzvah. I had asked my grandparents for a “Tikkun” for my last birthday. A “Tikkun,” its title taken from the word for “repair,” is a book, a helpmeet in the long process of learning to read a passage of Torah correctly. You see, reading the Torah is tricky. It has no vowels. So, in a Tikkun, one side of the page is the Torah text with vowels in regular print and on the other side is the text without vowels, in the stylized lettering unique to the Torah.
I was a Hebrew school nerd and spent much time bent over that book, reading sections with vowels and then practicing reading the same section on the other side of the page, without vowels. It was a bit of a game, catching my mistakes and starting all over again. It was a bit of a swimming lesson, too. I became immersed in the text, feeling it pull me and push me like the undulating waves of the ocean. I had to keep myself from going under, from losing consciousness, from losing myself in the black letters that beckoned me as they danced before my eyes. As its title suggests, the book was designed not just to correct one’s reading, but to repair it. It was not merely a pragmatic task, it was holy work.
It was an all-encompassing pastime. It was a solitary act and, yet, in its throes, I felt connected to my community, to my ancestors, to God. It was challenging and soothing and frustrating and fulfilling and, frankly, exhilarating. (As I think about it, I feel similarly as I sit at my computer, now, writing and re-writing, immersing myself in the words of this essay.) It provided a respite from the pain of early adolescence. In the process, I realize now, I too was repaired.
Attached as my heart was to the letters and sounds of the Torah, seeing a mundane object like a pocketbook made of a Torah scroll was excruciatingly painful to me. The desecration of what is most precious to Jews, the maliciousness of that act, made me sick to my stomach. It was obscene. It pointed to and was intimately connected to the desecration of Jewish bodies. It stunned me. I stood frozen before the glass case.
Soon after that trip with my class, my brother gave me a copy of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice. True to his name, Cleaver cut through the illusion of the so-called American dream, laying bare the truths about American racism. Admittedly, much of the book was above my head, but I felt it in my body. As I stood frozen before that glass case in the Jewish Museum, so a chill went through my body as I read Cleaver’s words, and I was frozen, once again. But the fire of justice began to burn in my belly, creating a thaw. Years later, I wrote a letter to Oprah Winfrey. Calling upon her vast resources, her wide audience and expansive power to make change, I told her that I thought that in every major city in the country, just as there is a Holocaust museum, there must be a museum that tells the story of slavery, experientially, so that visitors could have a visceral
encounter with the realities of the horrors of slavery the way that visitors to the Holocaust Museum in Washington walk away with a sense, in their bodies, of what happened in the camps and the conviction, hopefully, that it can never be allowed to happen again. These museums should be placed, I suggested, in the most impoverished parts of their host cities, creating jobs and an influx of tourist dollars and a sense of pride where they are needed most. In this way, not only would they tell the story, these museums would offer some of the concrete remedies for the wounding they depicted. Naively, I told her that with her leadership, this could easily be accomplished.
I told her that I saw the museums as a first step in a four-step healing path. The second step would be a memorial erected in Washington, DC. Like the Vietnam Memorial, it would be designed by an artist and would become a holy place, a pilgrimage site, a sacred space in which to honor the lives of the enslaved people who built this country at the expense of their own bodies and spirits, a country created with their sweat and blood and which, nonetheless, continued and continues to exclude them from the bounty their efforts enabled. Step three would be the establishment of a National Day of Mourning and Repentance for the sin of enslaving other human beings. Each year, it would be marked with religious and secular ceremony and, certainly, a ritual at the memorial in Washington.
And, once all of these steps became an indelible and organic part of the landscape of American culture, the final step could be realized: reparations. Nothing can make up for 400 years of death and suffering, of state-sanctioned violence, of torture in various forms, of the breaking apart families, of intimidation and exclusion and humiliation, of the attempted destruction of dreams and aspirations, of the attempted desecration of the divine spirit with which all life is endowed. But what was stolen, must be returned. What was broken, must be fixed. Words alone are not enough. This is the culminating act, the concrete manifestation of a true repentance, the repentance to which we, as a nation, are called.
Sure, many of us do not hail from slave-owning families. Many of us have not had it easy, have had our own struggles. Nonetheless, if we are white, we have benefited, in ways subtle and obvious, from the system that those who participated in the slave trade put in place. We have enjoyed privilege, opportunities, access to money and education and safety and an upward mobility that have been made possible because others have been shunted aside, because others’ hands have been tied, because others have been made to serve us, making our path to success easier to travel.
Until we understand that, there is no chance for true racial justice. These four steps would help us look long and hard in the mirror, would help us not only see the horrors of the past, but the way they live on today. White supremacy is not a fringe movement. If we didn’t know that before, it was certainly made clear in the attack on the Capitol on January 6th. The toxicity of white supremacy is in the air we breathe, the water we drink. It underpins how cities grow and develop, how our children grow and develop, how injustice in the name of “justice” is meted out, how opportunities are meted out. It determines who is most impacted by crises like a pandemic, who disproportionately makes up the “essential workers” who risk their lives for the common good, to whom we have begun to express gratitude, but whose compensation still does not reflect the skill and care and courage they demonstrate every day. I wrote that letter to Oprah before I had a computer which means I do not have a copy of it. I wish I did. I want to send it again, to Oprah and to everyone who might listen.
I’m hoping you who are reading this might listen. It’s time.
We must protest. We must stand at the sides of roads in cities, in the suburbs, in rural areas, at state capitols, at the seats of power, holding up signs, lifting up our voices, demanding racial justice. We must declare, loud and clear, that Black Lives Matter. But it is not enough. We have to uproot a systemic racism that continues to plague us. It’s going to take a lot of strength. Those roots are deep. The four steps I propose might not be the ultimate solution, but they are steps, they are a walking forward, they are the beginning of a march into a new future. Other paths, better or complementary paths, may emerge, but in order to find them, in order for them come into sight, we must start on our way, putting one foot in front of the other.
I think often of that trip to the City with my class. I think often of the idea of “tikkun,” of repairing. The concept of “Tikkun Olam,” “repairing the world,” is essential to my theology. It is the facet of a many faceted Judaism that speaks most deeply to my soul. I think of the book, the Tikkun, with its marbleized thick cardboard cover and gilded pages that my grandparents gave me to perfect my Torah reading. I think of the tenderness in the way that psychotherapists speak about the necessity of “making a repair,” when there is a rift, a tear in the fabric of a relationship. I think of the work of “tikkun,” repair that the Jewish museum, itself, represents. It proclaims, “We are going to tell the story of what happened because, without that, without living in the truth, we cannot heal. We cannot undo what was done, but we can repair the psychic wound that was inflicted, by acknowledging and honoring the reality of the pain and suffering that occurred, that keeps occurring.” As James Baldwin writes in The Fire Next Time, “…in order to change a situation one has first to see it for what it is…To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought…”So, let us live in the reality of our nation’s history and legacy of racism and use it as a tool to repair what has long been broken. Let us stop expending energy ignoring it, denying it, avoiding it and use that energy to acknowledge, mourn, repent and repair, to the extent that we can, the damage that was done, that is still being done. Let us do this, not out of guilt, but out of love. After all, isn’t “I’m sorry,” just another way of saying “I love you”? As poet Elizabeth Alexander proclaimed at President Obama’s inauguration in 2008:
What if the mightiest word is love?
Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.
In today’s sharp sparkle,
this winter air,
any thing can be made,
any sentence begun.
On the brink,
on the brim,
on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light.
With these four steps as a starting point, as a first attempt at a map, however inadequate it may prove to be, let us walk forward, together, in that light.