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As I write these pre-Purim words, I’ve been thinking a lot about the powerful play several of us (shul and Temple member, and a few other friends) took in at the Alliance Theater. I’m referring to The Temple Bombing, based on the novel (2006, same title) by Melissa Faye Greene. I confess to not having read the book, so my words are not about comparing the techniques of each art form, interesting as that could be.
I’m especially interested in the multiple messages that unfold for the viewer. The event itself goes back over 50 years. What can we learn from it? As a rabbi, I was struck by the the Atlanta congregants – closely attached to their beloved rabbi – wondering aloud (sometimes in anger and consternation) about his sermons always circling back to the hot-button issue of civil rights. “Can’t he stick with messages about how to live en-gaged Jewish lives? Why all the politics? No, he’s not the first, nor the last rabbi to feel raked over the coals because of the prophetic role of so- cial critic into which he stepped. I heard many such stories from my dad and from plenty of colleagues (across denominations), and I’ve earned a few of my own tales to tell. The rabbi insisted that his messages were rooted in Jewish tradition. He didn’t apologize for preaching those ideas, and he was right to do so. Easy enough to say this over 50 years later…
The ominous political environment was another powerfully resonant element. Many Southern lawmakers displayed their contempt for integra- tion, and they unashamedly peppered their speeches with the N-word. (Note: the Temple congregants used the much-less-toxic/but not-much- nicer Yiddish term ‘shvartze.’ Some food for thought about racism we harbor as well…) Our own fraught present moment has its own sound- track. There are multiple messages about hostile and criminal aliens “pouring across” our unprotected borders. As I write these words the American Jewish community has experienced a fifth wave of bomb threats to synagogues and JCC’s – the total nears 100 institutions thus far.
Two large Jewish cemeteries (in St. Louis and in Philadelphia) have been desecrated. I mention all these things to drive home the point that the over-50 years-ago events referenced by the play felt highly relevant to anyone watching the play. I admire the rabbi’s fierce courage along with the steadfast support of his congregation. Their words and actions embodied the utopian/messianic phrase ‘and none shall make them afraid.’ The play (highly recommended) should be considered required viewing for any of us to takes our own (layered) identity and citizenship seri- ously. I’ll yield the closing phrase to Simon and Garfunkel, another pair of incredibly relevant storytellers: ‘Fools,’ said I, ‘you do not know. Si- lence, like a cancer, grows.’