What follows is Bethlehem Shoals’ contribution to the Chitlins and Gefilte Fish Project, the Black-Jewish dialogue we're featuring this week.
Maybe I'm horribly naive, but I've never seen Black/Jewish relations as optional, largely symbolic, or defined solely by Crown Heights. Don't get me wrong, I'm not about "Jews were the Blacks of Eastern Europe," or "Blacks identify with the ancient Israelites, so THERE!" About the most shared identity I'll cop to is the following, written in response to Chauncey's opening salvo: "Blacks and Jews have stayed Black and Jewish in ways that the Irish and Italians haven't, and the story of Asian isn't (however unfairly) front and center in the story of this country."
Then again, the African-American experience and Jewish-American experience are so radically different, I don't even know if that similarity is anything more than a curiosity. As far as cultural narratives go, they're almost polar opposites: Jews came to America as a solution to their problems and now run the country (on the low); Blacks didn't get a say in their relocation, and have had every institution in the land conspiring against them ever since. One of their own is now the very conspicuous leader of the free world, and yet this one exceptional man is, well, the exception that proves the rule of day-to-day inequality. Not to mention that, as long as they're never asked to state their last name or reveal their privates, most every Jew can move through life like he was any other white person.
If Jews and Blacks aren't the same, then why talk? Because in addition to the indifference and acrimony, there's an affinity, a sense of having worked together well at times that have helped each define its contribution to American culture. History's no accident if it yields something worthwhile.
Most people—well, most Boomer Jews—who hold this view would point to Civil Rights, specifically the hopeful, integrated, idealistic movement that took to the South in the mid-1960's. When I tried my hand at writing pro-Obama letters to Jewish papers in Florida, I'd immediately point to the important bond formed between us at this crucial moment in history. But really, I know better than that. I'm not so sure Civil Rights really created a bridge between peoples, since only a few years later, a more radical, identity-conscious movement rejected this alliance. The bitterness some older Jews feel about the schism that emerged in the late 1960's are read by Blacks of the same generation as arrogance or condescension; the fact that the state of Black/Jewish relations has for the past 20 years been hung up on Farrakhan and Hasids is particularly sad, since it turns fringe elements into spokesmen for the two groups.
All of which brings me to the email from Gordon that started it all. I don't think it's by accident that it included the following line: "a series of collaborative blog posts exploring Black-Jewish relations from the perspective of left-leaning 30(ish)somethings whose formative years were informed by rap and sports." I'm sure everyone reading this knows that (pre-Obama), too many whites, including Jews, were most familiar with, or at least interested in, Blacks as athletes and entertainers. At the same time, too many young Blacks saw the NBA or a record deal as their only path to success. I can speak with anecdotal certainty in asserting that young Jews are more likely than other white people to develop a strong interest in Black music or or a more nuanced appreciation of sports. Like, in an all-consuming way.
Presumably, this just makes us the worst of all the appropriators and exploiters. The problem with Lou Reed's "I Wanna Be Black" isn't that it's inherently offensive, but that we can't ever fully believe that Lou Reed doesn't mean it. Less pointedly, it backs up Dr. LIC's theory that Jews are forever aspiring to a stereotypical Black form of "cool". On the other hand, if you comb through the annals of (Black) entertainment and sports, you'll also find a disproportionate number of Jews actually involved in some way. Were they driven to this role by some fetishitic urge? Or does their presence throughout history testify to a real collaboration, one that, if not readily explicable or always apparent, has left a lasting stamp on America without subsequently falling apart at the seams.
The ugliest form of this partnership is the money-grubbing agents, or "kosher lawyers." But in music, there are key figures—if almost always behind the scenes—like Jerry Wexler, Rick Rubin, Benny Goodman, Lou Adler, Lyor Cohen, David Axelrod, Lieber and Stoller, and yes, Phil Spector. Sam Cooke wrote "A Change Is Gonna Come" after hearing Dylan's "The Times They Are 'A Changin'", albeit because he felt it should be African-Americans writing this kind of anthem. The Beastie Boys, whatever their flaws, brought hip-hop to the pop mainstream. In sports, Jews once owned the sport of basketball, and then legendary coaches like Red Auerbach, Red Holzman, and Larry Brown cast a long shadow over the game as it became identified with African-Americans. Granted, this was often an unequal partnership. Even if the Jews weren't outright shady, they still occupied the position of power. Then again, as Gordon pointed out, how many people did James Brown swindle? And what, if anything, do we make of the strange saga of Bob Johnson?
If you outright reject placing too much, or any, significance on pop culture, then this relationship is all but meaningless. However, if you feel that these forms of production are never just about making a buck, or doing what comes naturally in front of an audience, then there's a connection there that was around before Civil Rights and outlasted its fragmentation. Sports and music should never be the extent of America. Nor do they have the gravity of a voter registration drive. But they're an important part of former, and were never completely unrelated to the latter. Besides, the impetus for this project was our shared interest in sports and hip-hop, which is at least a vestiginal trace of this relationship. And while this isn't a reason for instant familiarity between the two groups, it's at least a start. Not a common heritage, but two sides of one history.