Tikkun Olam Starts at Home
by Paul Von Blum
In 1957, my parents and several other families helped the first African American family move into Levittown, Pennsylvania. That post-war suburb had been previously all white because the developer, William Levitt, a rabbi's grandson, refused to sell houses to blacks. The dramatic Levittown events of more than a half-century ago generated extensive national publicity. At fourteen, I witnessed the twisted face of bigotry: howling racist mobs, egregious racist violence, and even a KKK cross burning at my parents' home.
These traumatic events catalyzed my life of social activism, intellectual curiosity, interdisciplinary writing, and passionate university teaching, all inseparably linked to my lifetime objective of improving a badly damaged world -- fighting racism, sexism, homophobia, war, and the gross disparity of wealth and power, among many other causes, over the decades. The searing, life-altering events of 1957 also helped me rediscover and solidify the secular Jewish identity that has informed my entire range of personal and professional activities.
Before the Levittown integration crisis, I was a typical self-absorbed teenager, concerned with baseball and friends and marginally interested in reading and the world, although my parents' left-wing background had rubbed off on me even then. The savage racism propelled me into a new arena of intellectual discovery. I read avidly about race, connecting my efforts to the burgeoning American Civil Rights Movement in the late 1950s. When I finished high school in 1960, I had deepened my intellectual perspective, ranging far beyond race and embracing the tradition of Marxist humanism and a broader tradition of radical dissent.
That journey included a systematic discovery of the Jewish connections to both my growing identification as a '60s radical and an increasing consciousness as a second-generation Holocaust survivor. This fusion gave rise to the activism that has remained a constant throughout my life. From high school on, I understood my Jewish identity to require a commitment to the world -- in short, tikkun olam. And with the Holocaust hovering over my family's history, I felt an especially strong incentive to take to the streets in the battle against racism.
From my university days as a civil rights worker in the South and elsewhere to now, racial justice has been the touchstone of my political consciousness. Throughout my student days, I continued to read more comprehensively. Inspired by iconic figures like C. Wright Mills and others, I resolved to connect my intellectual work to my politics.
In 1967, I entered academic life as a university teacher, continuing to the present, mostly at the University of California. I have challenged the educational mediocrity and corporate complicity of that institution for more than forty years. More than any other battle, this has proved frustrating, even intractable. Despite the personal costs, my protracted struggle reflects a powerful extension of my Jewish political perspective since Levittown. Activism belongs in the workplace as much as in the streets. And despite the occasional disdain of academic colleagues, it also belongs in my published writings. At sixty-seven, I have no plans to slow down.
Paul Von Blum is a senior lecturer in African American studies and communication studies at UCLA and author of a new memoir, A Life At The Margins: Keeping The Political Vision.
Source Citation: Von Blum, Paul. 2011. Tikkun Olam Starts at Home. Tikkun 26(1): 33