The Alliance of Black and Jewish Activists: Outdated Fantasy or Model for the Future?
Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate
by Letty Cottin Pogrebin
The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2015
In the Downton Abbey finale, Lord Grantham’s beautiful niece, Lady Rose, teaches Christmas carols to her new Jewish husband Atticus. “It’s finally beginning to sink in,” Atticus says. “I now belong to two families. I am part of both.” “Me, too,” says Rose. “It’s called being married, and I think it’s just lovely.” Atticus beams.
It’s not that easy for Zachariah Isaac Levy, the eponymous protagonist in Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s new novel Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate. He, like Atticus, falls in love with royalty, in Zach’s case, a late twentieth-century version: a rising talk-show sensation, a smart, beautiful black activist. As a child, Cleo Scott had been taken by her famous black preacher father to Martin Luther King’s “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, after which MLK gave her a hug. She is fabulous but Zach can’t marry her because… because why? Because she’s not Jewish? Because she is Christian? Because she is black in an era of mounting tensions between black and Jewish activists? Zach doesn’t know exactly why he can’t marry Cleo (or be a father to the child he has sired) but, Odysseus-like, he sets about on a journey to figure it out. Pogrebin tells a tale of lovers with colliding narratives, lovers in the throes of equal and opposite inherited traumas and existential anxieties. The whole world depends on their finding their way through it.
When we meet Zach, he is a pepperoni pizza-eating ACLU lawyer who doesn’t “live as a Jew,” according to his best (non-Jewish) friend. He asks his best (Jewish) friend, patrician and more lapsed than Zach, “What makes you Jewish?” “I don’t dissect it, Zach,” he replies. “I am just Jewish.”
By Zach’s own admission, the essence of his Jewish identity is his obsession with Jewish identity. Zach is: “a pretzeled Jew, who agonized over what he owed to his ancestors, a guilt-ridden Jew who went to shul on the High Holidays because he was afraid not to, a lefty, a wannabe-a-better-Jew, though to what end, he wasn’t sure. There were so many stripes along the spectrum. …. [He] was a neurotic, guilty, utterly confused Jew,” stuck with a long-ago promise whose meaning he has to figure out.
Did I mention Zack’s parents were survivors, and he had promised them he would marry a Jew and raise Jewish children?
Kinship between blacks and Jews in the civil rights movement, right up to the 1980s, was an article of faith, especially in the Jewish community. Jews were everywhere in the movement, fighting, strategizing and dying alongside African Americans in the fight for freedom. The narrative of solidarity remained strong until it cracked wide open with Jessie Jackson’s referring to Jews as “Hymies” and to New York as “Hymie town.”
That rupture in black-Jewish relations forms the essential backdrop for Zach and Cleo’s love affair. It is ground that Pogrebin knows well. In her 1991 memoir Deborah, Golda and Me, she describes having been a convener of a Black-Jewish Coalition that formed in 1984 in an effort to diffuse the anger brought to a head by Jessie Jackson’s slur.
If you have forgotten how long the enmity had been brewing, look again at James Baldwin’s 1967 essay “Negroes are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White.” There, he writes:
One does not wish to be told by an American Jew that his suffering is as great as the American Negro’s suffering. It isn’t, and one knows that it isn’t from the tone in which he assures you that it is…. Nor can it help the relationship between most Negroes and most Jews when part of his money is donated to civil rights. In light of what is now known as the white backlash, this money can be looked on as conscience money merely, as money to be given to keep the Negro happy in his place, and out of white neighborhoods.
Ocean-Hill Brownsville—the clash between black parents and white teachers over community control of schools—occurred only a year later in 1968. And in 1979, the first African-American ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, was forced to resign and many black activists blamed Jewish pressure. Then came Hymietown. (Some say black-Jewish solidarity was always a bit of a Jewish fantasy. “Jews were always more interested in blacks than blacks were interested in Jews.”)
Although Pogrebin helped found a black-Jewish coalition in New York, she found there was too much power-posturing, too much speech making. She yearned for personal conversations and real human connections. She joined with Bernice Powell, then president of the New York Coalition of 100 Black Women, forming a black-Jewish women’s dialogue group, which met every few months for more than a decade.
Pogrebin believes in the healing power of sisterhood. In Deborah, Golda and Me, she relates a fantasy: she delivers a messianic oration at a feminist conference that heals black-Jewish feminist division.
“My words have a magical effect. They inspire the founding of a pluralist coalition that foments a feminist revolution comparable to the democracy revolution that swept Eastern Europe in 1989.”
As her prolific publications attest, this is how Pogrebin learns—from close encounters with the “other,” in dialogue with them on the subjects that divide, leading to friendships that unite. It is the process by which Pogrebin has shaped her own Jewish identity. As an impeccably-credentialed liberal, she has a unique perspective on the anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism that sometimes rear their heads among liberals, both black and white, male and female. With this and her considerable story-telling chops, she has created in Single Jewish Male a page-turning provocative tale of Jewish preservation, family rupture and love.
Zach and Cleo meet in 1984 at a founding conference of the Black-Jewish Coalition of New York. The narrative quickly establishes Cleo’s take-no-prisoners black-activist bona fides. Cleo is having none of it when a rabbi at this foundational meeting says: “With commitment comes healing. We’re stronger acting together than apart. We have the same pressing needs.” Echoing Baldwin, she says:
Blacks have issues with whites. Most Jews are white. Therefore, blacks have issue with Jews. It’s not your religion we challenge. It’s your white-skin privilege… Let’s not kid ourselves. Our horses aren’t starting from the same gate. …You came here to escape oppression; we came shackled…. The Holocaust didn’t happen here. Slavery happened here.
We learn that Cleo knows who Cleo is. And this is for sure: Cleo will never become a Jew.
Until he meets Cleo in 1984, Zach is skimming along a successful and minimally challenging life—Harvard Law School, member of the Supreme Court bar, ACLU lawyer, many famous high profile cases and clients. He had kept his promise to his mother on her deathbed that he would marry a Jew and raise Jewish children—but then his first wife left him for a woman and moved to Australia with their only child and Zach decides the promise is not fulfilled if he has only one child; he has to do more than merely replace himself. He has to find a nice Jewish girl and establish a Jewish home. Which can only be done right by marrying a born Jew, he says, not a convert (“I need someone who was raised with the same ghosts as I was”). The timing is ironic: the 1980s are the last decade in which a majority of Jews (59 percent) married Jews. By the middle of the 1990s, the percentages had flipped—55 percent of Jews married non-Jews.
Two and a half years into their blazing love affair, with Zach never wavering from his certainty that it will never be permanent, Cleo gets pregnant and will not have an abortion, despite Zach’s explaining he must have Jewish children lest he allow Hitler a posthumous victory. “Can we please leave the Third Reich out of this?” she says. “Speaking of murdered children,” she says, “I hope you notice which one of us wants to kill this child.”
Zach walks out, certain that this is his only course. He allows for no provisional answers, no maybes.
But of course, this is actually the beginning of his authentic odyssey of Jewish identity. What does he mean when he says he is committed to Jewish survival? What does “Judaism” have to do with that? Don’t most Jews practice a gradation of Judaism? Where does he locate himself on that very complex spectrum? Is he a better Jew if he refuses to acknowledge (and raise) his non—Jewish child? Or a better Jew if he does? Zach consults Jewish teachers of all sorts—from mendacious to mystic to mensch. Some of the “us vs. them” advice, even where well-meaning—is horrifying. A decent old blind rabbi says, “Today your son belongs to them. Tomorrow he could be ours.” And so to Zach’s questions I add my own: What kind of parent would he be if he is obsessed at every minute with whether someday he will persuade the child to convert? I have a friend—a good Jew and a good person—who pestered his wife until the day she died to convert.
As Cleo bides her time, she meditates on black-Jewish strife, recalling a Native American legend that had often been invoked by her father: “A grandmother tells her grandson that a terrible fight is going on inside her—a fight between two wolves, one full of hatred and anger, the other full of joy and forgiveness. ‘Which wolf will win,’ the child asks. ‘The one I feed,’ she replies.”
Zach means to feed the good wolf. It would be easier if there were not so many choices on the menu of American Jewish identity. Pogrebin serves up a rich meal and no easy answers.
(Thumbnail image on front page by Pamela Chatterton-Purdy.)