I make it a habit to choose meaning over happiness on certain auspicious occasions. For my first date with the woman I ended up marrying, I took her to see Yossi Klein Halevi’s film “Kaddish,” a story about his father, a survivor of the Holocaust. Powerful film, slightly strange evening. Still basking in our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, for my most recent birthday I chose to see “Twelve Years a Slave,” the remarkable true story of a nightmare, the account of a free black man kidnapped into slavery in antebellum America, torn from his family in Saratoga Springs, NY and sold into Deep South servitude in Louisiana. Solomon Northup’s account of his journey from freedom to slavery and back to freedom along with other more famous books like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” hardened Northern hearts in the 1850’s against the Peculiar Institution and convinced Southerners that the South might need to seek its freedom outside of the United States, a set of mentalities that brought us the Civil War.
For people who find history endlessly fascinating for its entertainment value replete with horrors and triumphs, stories like Northup’s remind us we’re sometimes even often telling moral stories when we talk about the past. Stories about politics and law and money and public matters boil down to stories about choices and who gets to make them and the effects upon self and others of those choices. One man goes home at night to dine with his wife and children in a house paid for by the labor of a man or a woman or a child he purchased earlier that day. A woman cries herself to sleep every night, remembering the children sold away from her.
I found it particularly weird to screen this movie in Newport, R.I. Once upon a time one of the five great seaports in American life, now mainly a quaint city ever in need of the tourist trade, Newport as a shipping center lived connected to an Atlantic economy and a transatlantic one at that, and slavery made up a big part of that set of interlocking relationships and interests. Slavery touched and tainted almost every aspect and precinct of American life, even as in the case of Newport it prided itself on religious toleration that characterized colonial Rhode Island as a whole.
As a Jew, and as an American Jew, I thought about that when we spent Shabbat at the Touro Synagogue, and viewed some of the history of the Jewish community at the synagogue’s lovely recently built historical center. I wondered how many of the men and women depicted there in state of the art virtual portrait exhibits owned slaves, how many of them opposed slavery, and how vigorously they fought over such issues at the same time that they embraced and enhanced colonial and early national notions of religious and ethnic diversity.
Jewish notions of chosenness may be properly understood as vocation, being chosen for some future purpose, rather than some base notion of ethnic historical specialness. But nonetheless chosenness cannot help breed some degree of shall we say excessive preoccupation with oneself. What does God want of me? An important question, and one that makes “me” pretty consequential. Jews may disagree on virtually everything else, but they all seem to agree on this: they all want to believe that being Jewish matters in some way “out there” in the world, that we’re difference makers. Jews matter.
So it’s a strange thing to live in a country where in some way we matter relatively little. In a somewhat understandable somewhat macabre way some Jews can’t seem to handle not being at the center of the story, even when that story contains much that tells of humanity’s penchant for prejudice, discrimination, cruelty and exploitation. Not white enough for some, but definitely not black, our Jewish story seems pretty small compared to the story we watched up on that screen, THE American story, of race and slavery and freedom. Whose people’s saga of oppression trumps? I’m not sure that’s a good question; historians tend to avoid comparisons that eliminate particular circumstances and contexts. So I’ll leave that for another time. For now it’s enough to note that there’s more than enough pain and suffering to go around. Too much.