Jews, Religion, and the Movement — A Discussion
February, 2005


Chude Pam Parker Allen  
Cathy Cade
Miriam Glickman
Bruce Hartford
Sheila Michaels
Pat Yorck

Chude: One of the questions I thought would be interesting to talk about, since there are three of you today, was about being Jewish and being in the Movement. How was it being Jewish in the Movement?

You know, basically, I was raised with an anti-Semitic father. Why wouldn't I be, I'm a "WASP" [White Anglo-Saxon Protestant]. And my mother's attitude was that the old testament was fine, but then Jesus came and what was wrong with these people not to understand that the Messiah had come? And my father's was more personal because he lost a scholarship to go to graduate school, and he lost it to a Jewish guy who then didn't take the scholarship. So for some reason that meant that all Jews take the scholarships away and don't use them. I mean, I never quite understood the logic.

I [grew up in] in a primarily segregated community. There was one Black family. There was one Jewish family. So I'm curious, like in terms of going south and working — From my perspective, coming from a small suburban area outside Philadelphia, PA, where even cities were foreign to me, going to Mississippi wasn't just about being in the Black community. It was also living and working with this variety of people. Some of them were like me — a very few — but a whole lot weren't like me. I came from Republican parents, and when Frank Cieciorka, and a couple of others were talking about the DuBois Club, I said, "What about a girls club?" (laughter) [The W.E.B. DuBois Club was a leftist youth group in the mid-60s.]

So I mean, there was the leftist stuff, and there were people who were Jewish, there was the urban — you know there were all these different — so I'm just curious in terms of being Jewish, did you have a sense of yourselves as such and did you feel at times anti-Semitism from the other whites and from the Black activists?

Sheila: In '62 we were sitting around the table in the Freedom House [Jackson, MS] and I was the only woman there, as well as the only white. I remember — I guess it was Hollis Watkins or Curtis Hayes — asking me if I was Jewish. And I said, "Yeah." I had brought books with me about human behavior in concentration camps, for heaven sakes!

And they said, "You are?" And I said, "Yes." They said, "You really are?" And I said, "Yes." And they said, "We've never met anybody who admitted to being Jewish. It was always, 'well my parents' parents were, yeah but...'" If they admitted even that, but they always considered themselves to be completely secular, even though their name was Bernstein or Goldfarb. Okay?

So, it surprised me, but it didn't surprise me like astonish me. I came from a Reform Jewish background, but I also had lived with my grandparents in the Bronx where everybody was Jewish, and had gone to a school where everybody was either Jewish or Black. And then in St. Louis, I guess at least half the kids in the school were Jewish. And then I went to a school, a high school with something like 10%, but now it's probably — that of most of the kids who are non-Asian are maybe half of them are Jewish. Anyway, I just always considered the world to be Jews and others. (laughing) Even if religion was not a big part of our lives.

Bruce: Within the Black communities, I had the same experience [as Sheila], "You're a Jew? You're really a Jew? I've never met a Jew before." But that was — you couldn't take separate that from, "I never sat down across the dinner table and had a human conversation with a white person."

I remember I lived with the famous West family in Selma. They were devout Catholics, and sometimes we would have these discussions in the kitchen, "Well what does it mean you're a Jew? You don't believe in Jesus? How can you not believe in Jesus?" And for some folk, they just could not wrap their minds around the concept when I told them that Jesus was himself a Jew. I tried to explain it. But, of course, having no formal religious background at all — and guessing that maybe I better not talk about Marx, Mao, Goldman, and so on — that was a bit difficult.

Pretty much everywhere I worked, Blacks were curious about two — about me as a white person and me as a Jew. Blacks interacted with whites all the time in the South, but never on a basis of social equality or friendship that would allow for free exchange of views. It was always a rigidly structured master-servant hierarchy. So a white person Blacks could freely talk to was a novelty and I was put in the uncomfortable position of being set up as spokesman for the white race and Jewish religion — Why do white folk...? What do whites think about...? And out in the deep rural, a couple of times after I won the trust of little kids they come up to me and ran their hands through my hair to see if I really had horns.

Regular mass meetings were an essential part of the Southern Freedom Movement. They were usually — though not always — held in a church, and they resembled Sunday church services with singing, sermons, testifying, and collections. When I was working in a county with other SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) staff, I never spoke at mass-meetings. But there were times when I was the only SCLC staff member present — in Crenshaw County and for some of the time I was in Hale & Marengo Counties in Alabama — and then I did speak at the mass meetings — in essence I had to give voter-registration, or join-the-march sermons. And when I attended the regular church services — which I did every Sunday in those places were I was the only SCLC representative — as the local Civil Rights worker I was often asked to address the congregation.

Whenever I spoke in a church or to a mass-meeting, I always self-identified as a Jew, and I then drew parables from Exodus — you have to cross the red sea by yourself, no one can do it for you, Pharaoh will be drowned, justice lies beyond the Jordan river, etc. No one ever gave me any flack about being a Jew, but there was some occasional curiosity. As it turned out I was a pretty good amateur preacher, and the truth is that I enjoyed that kind of speaking — in fact, I still do.

Miriam: I've always thought that it was because of the values I got from Judaism that I went South. Judaism is — at least the way I was raised — very clear that your purpose in life is to [make the world better]. I'd been at Brandeis [University] for four years and it turns out that there were huge numbers of Brandeis students [active in the Movement] — mostly women. So for me that was a big part of why I was there.

My memory is that the rabbi in Albany, GA, kind of discouraged me from being a regular. In Meridian, MS, I met with a Jewish family and the guy told me that the Klan had threatened him, that they were going to come over, and he told them come on over, "I've got a gun." And that was so un-Jewish. (laughing)

Bruce: Un-Jewish in that era. (Laughing)

Miriam: But what I wasn't very aware of when I was down there was what a high percentage of other white civil rights workers were Jewish. I found it out later when we got together for our our 30-year reunion in 1994. If I was standing around in a group of 5 or 6 people there usually was another Brandeis-connected person. I was just astounded, because of course I didn't know most of the summer volunteers. I knew only the ones who were on my project or nearby projects.

I have one special Jewish story to tell. Bill Light had come from Stanford and Mendy Samstein had been at Brandeis. These two used to talk to each other in Hebrew over the WATS line. (laughter)

[BACKGROUND: In the early '60s, long-distance phone calls were expensive. And many rural communities in the deep South did not yet have direct-dial long-distance. So for a long-distance call you had to use the local operator who was, of course, white (because the phone company would not hire Blacks in anything by the most menial positions.)

Because reliable long-distance communication was essential to the safety of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee) workers organizing in isolated rural communities, SNCC paid for a WATS line (Wide-Area Telephone Service) covering the states of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. This allowed SNCC field secretaries to bypass local operators and communicate with SNCC offices in Jackson and Atlanta even if their local project had no money to pay for long-distance calls. There is no doubt that there are SNCC folk alive today who would have been killed had word not gotten out quickly of their being arrested or "detained" by southern sheriffs, or of Freedom Houses under attack by Klan night-riders.

But everyone understood that the SNCC WATS line was tapped and bugged by every law enforcement agency from the FBI down to the local beat constable. And anything said over the WATS line was passed on by the cops to the Klan and White Citizens Council.]

Bruce: As I said when Sheila interviewed me, being Jewish was an important motivation for me getting involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Of course, nobody does the big important things in their life for single, simple reasons. I mean it's just nonsense to think I became a Movement activist for 4 years just because of that one reason. Being Jewish was a big factor, but just one of many factors. Should I tell that story?

Sheila: Tell it.

Bruce: I was going to L.A. City College and totally lost, had no idea who I was, what I was going to do with my life, nothing, aimless, whatever. I'd been deeply into studying the holocaust, I'd been deeply affected by that and read a lot about it and so forth, and so on. And one day I was in a beatnik coffee house called Pogo's Swamp — this was before hippies. It was a beatnik coffee house on Melrose Avenue, which I hear is now apparently a chic shopping district, but back then it was a seedy student district. So this guy says, "A guy from CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) is going to show some movies of the Sun Ray Estates demonstrations in Torrance." I had no idea what a CORE was, but I knew that Torrance was a suburb of LA.

So, having nothing else to do, I hung around and this guy from CORE, a Latino guy, Jim something or other, I can't remember his name. He showed these movies. And these were of open-housing pickets at an all-white housing tract in Torrance which was one of these new subdivisions. And it 10 or 12 CORE pickets walking back and forth in front of the sales office carrying signs. And there were 30 uniformed American Nazis in full swastika throwing eggs at them, and Sieg Heiling and I was blown away. "Fucking Nazis?! I'm down, when's your next....," And within two weeks I was a full-time CORE activist.

So that's how I got involved in the Movement. Obviously, I considered myself Jewish, I still consider myself Jewish, but I grew up as a "Commie" Jew. I had never been to temple. I have never been to temple to this day except for the occasional wedding (of someone else). So my sense of Judaism was very different. But I really agree with what Miriam said that Jewish values infused my activism.

Cathy: When you say values, are there other values that you could articulate?

Bruce: Humanistic values. Justice, particularly justice. Sympathy and support of the bottom strata — the under-dog. The value of not surrendering to the state those who are being persecuted. My last name is "Hartford," not a Jewish name — how that came about is another story — but people — other Jews particularly — could tell I was Jewish. Sometimes — even before I became active in the Movement — they would ask me what kind of Jew I was, expecting me to say "Reform" or "Conservative," — obviously I wasn't Orthodox. And I always said, "I'm a Four-Nevers Jew." And they said, "What is that?" And I said, "I'm a Four-Nevers Jew: Never forget, Never forgive, Never again, and Never stand by idly while other people are persecuted." So from that mindset, how could I not become part of the Civil Rights Movement?

When I went south I was quite conscious that a lot of the white civil rights workers were Jews. A high percentage were — remember Jews are only 2 or 3 percent of the total population.

Sheila: I think the number is more like 1.2%, roughly.

Bruce: Yet most of the Jews that I talked to seemed to feel that they were in the South in opposition to their Judaism. In rebellion against the kind of banal, bland, middle-class, don't make any kind of waves, fit in, assimilationist Jewish life that they had grown up with in the suburbs of the urban northern cities.

Cathy: Their parents.

Bruce: Their parents. Suburbia. See, I grew up in the inner-city, not suburbia. I hated the suburbs. I still hate the suburbs. Anyway, they were down there as a rebellion against their parents, as a rebellion against the sterility — and they didn't want to think of themselves as Jews. "We're not here because we're Jews, that has nothing to do with it. My parents hate me being here. The temple is against it. They never did anything for justice, they only wanted to become rich and fit in." That's what they told me. So I was sort of like an oddball, even among the other Jews.

Cathy: That explains a lot. That really pulls a lot of different things together. [To Sheila] Did you experience other Jewish volunteers kind of separating themselves from their Jewish background like Bruce was saying?

Sheila: Well I don't think they could. I mean I really don't think they could.

Cathy: That they came down here you know in rebellion against their upbringing?

Sheila: No, I guess because I was comfortable being Jewish and I just expected they were ...

Cathy: What about you [to Miriam]?

Miriam: I wrote something for the Brandeis paper even though I had graduated, after I was in Albany, and I wrote about the — I'm looking for the word — the feeling that people had in the church services. And how foreign it was to me. I was used to these very boring Jewish Temple services which I didn't like to go to, and here I was in the church service with people saying, "Come to me Jesus, Save me Jesus, I need you Jesus, Come here Jesus," and it was so clear that they were getting such support from the church service, that it had such meaning to them. And I was moved by that.

Another thing, it seemed to me that the Blacks that we worked with knew Jews as store owners. That was their contact. What I was told was that if the Jewish store owners treated them fairly, kindly, that they thought of the store owners as Jewish — not white. But if the Jewish store owners were not well-liked, they saw them as white. So it varied from community to community.

And I want to do a little aside. When I'd go in the store, there were always little kids around saying, "Give me a nickel." [You could by a candy bar for a nickel in the '60s.] I don't know if any of you [had similar experiences]. These little Black kids were always there, asking for money.

Cathy: Did you give them nickels?

Miriam: Sure. If we had nickels, if I had money. Yeah.

Bruce: For generations there had been a Jewish community in Selma. And most of the stores that catered to Blacks were owned by Jews and had names like "Levys." But it never occurred to me to try to contact the local Jews at all. They were on the other side of the racial divide, and even if I had thought of contacting them I would have been afraid to do so. Afraid for both my safety and theirs. None of their stores employed any Blacks (except maybe as a janitor) — which is why they were being boycotted by the Selma Movement — and from what I could tell on their part they were assuring the white community that they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them in defense of segregation and white supremacy.

Sheila: I felt maybe half of the volunteers were Jewish. It was what I expected so I guess that's what I saw, or thought I saw. But as I said, I felt that Black people were Jews, Jews were Black people. I guess Lenny Bruce said that. "Blacks were Jews, so and so isn't a Jew, this one is a Jew, that one isn't a Jew." But it was pretty much the same situation. As things got better, people seemed to dislike each other more. It seems like you can't say now that people feel that it's the same prejudice. Yet, prejudice is prejudice. I'm always surprised at how Jewish Chinese are.

Miriam: Actually, why don't we give you guys a chance. How was it for you to be in a Movement where a lot whites were Jewish?

Pat: I didn't really even notice. I mean, I knew you [Sheila] were Jewish and Dick [Landerman], and for the rest of the people there I don't think [I knew], Jew? Non-Jew? That really wasn't what I was thinking about so much at all.

Cathy: I remember being in jail with Miriam and Joanie Rabinowitz and Sue Wender — there were 7 of us.

Miriam: Faith Holsaert, Faith was Jewish.

Cathy: She wasn't in with us. Penny Patch was there — she's not Jewish. Any way, to me it was — I saw the three of you as Jewish leftists, who knew all this history and whose parents had been involved in the '30s movement. You all talked about it, and it was like for the first time all that had happened in the '30s, the progressive movement, came alive for me. I just felt ignorant and uneducated. It was this huge education for me, It seemed like being in jail was no big deal to you. You grew up with it, it was your mother's milk. (laughter) Your grandparents had been sitting-in and doing all this stuff.

And there'd be huge communities of people who did this. I was wide-eyed hearing your stories, and then you would just toss it off. I think I still feel a little bit — just in terms of being a part of a certain generation of the left — I feel like I'm one of these unschooled, fairly rare, Mid-Western leftists. But it was wonderful. It was wonderful to feel that '30s history be alive, and that people had done this and it really happened — it really happened.

Miriam: My parents weren't part of that, and I'm appreciating your memory of all this because what I remember is that we spent the whole time talking about food.

Cathy: Yeah, we did talk about food, that's true. We weren't eating, we were fasting. (laughter) One person would talk about food, and the other people would go, "STOP!"

Miriam: I think it's true [though]. Joanie Rabinowitz, her dad [Victor Rabinowitz], everyone knows about him. But that was kind of a Mid-Western versus the East thing too.

Sheila: I remember in St. Louis that I was going with Bob Kaufman from the debating team at Washington University, and when the City College [New York] debaters came to town, it was like, "Oh, my God , we're gonna lose, oh my God, City College is coming to debate us. Oh my God. We can't even show up. Oh My God, they're going to rip out our guts."

Bruce: Why?

Sheila: Because City College — they were New York. They were not just New York, they were smart-guy New York, lefty, you know. They were competitive too, and aggressive, not like us Mid-Westerners.

Cathy: What about you Chude?

Chude: I certainly don't remember anyone who was religious Jewish. But I mean I'm pretty sure that the man I brought into my religion class to talk about atheism was Jewish.

Bruce: That fits.

Chude: Shocked those poor young students. I mean, it was one of mistakes I made.

Sheila: Freedom School students?

Chude: Yeah. I was a religion major in college and I had started a religion class, and half of the students went to a Roman Catholic School and they were all very devout Christian. And I bring in this — for the first session — thinking we'd start with the whole question of, "Is there a God?" (lots of laughter)

Cathy: Oh my God!

Chude: So Peter came in and explained to them all that he didn't believe in God. And he just blew them away. They had no, there was no place in their world-view for someone who didn't believe in God. And so some of the girls ran back to the nuns, because it was [being held at] a Catholic school, and told them. So the nuns insisted that I come meet them. The question was, who did I think I was that I could teach a religion class? And I said I was a religion major in college which didn't impress them, of course.

I still remember all this, you know, I remember the whole thing so clearly and I was just completely unprepared for them being so shocked. Whereas the whole thing about Freedom Schools was to open everybody's minds, right? And to question everything. But it had never dawned on me that maybe we should start with, "There are many views of God, and let's look at some of the ones other than Roman Catholic and.."

Sheila: Or, well, let's look at the Roman Catholic one first.

Chude: You know, it hadn't dawned on me. I mean who looks at atheists? And he wasn't an agnostic, he was an atheist, "There is no God." It was just like BOING! But looking back at myself, I wore a silver cross around my neck all the time. I was very, very devout at that time in my life. And it would never have dawned on me that I might be offending anyone else. Coming out of the WASP world context, from the dominant group, it would never have dawned on me that there could be people who might be offended by having that in their face all the time.

Bruce: We're talking about the Civil Rights Movement as though we have this great overview, but in fact each of us was just in a couple of different places and knew a couple people, so we need to acknowledge that.

That said, in the last few years I've become more and more conscious that the Civil Rights Movement was — to use a phrase that is currently popular these days — a "faith based" movement, in a way that we have not seen since. And in a way that was a completely different modality — a completely different world view — of what religion is and could be. And in a sense it resonated with my sense of what it meant to me to be Jewish, which as Miriam said, your purpose, the religious purpose of Jews, is to make the world a better place. In Hebrew the term for that is Tikkun Olam And the Southern Civil Rights Movement was a religious movement that actually did that.

So as a Jew — at least my kind of Jew — I felt very comfortable in that. In some ways the Movement really reinforced my sense of the kind of Jew I am.

As we've all been having political discussions on various email lists and so forth about: "Oh my God, what happened in this election [2004], and the religious right, and so on..", that I think as civil rights veterans, we need to say to other progressive people that it's not that having religion involved in politics is inherently wrong, it's what way, and on what side, religion is being involved. And that we've got to remember that there was a faith-based progressive movement. And that and if it happened once, it can happen again.

See this is the other thing. When somebody asks — like you asked — about being Jewish in the Movement, the problem with that question is that it assumes there is a definition for being Jewish. And as Jews know, as any Jew who has ever sat in a family seder knows, the biggest full-contact sport that Jews participate in is arguing with each other over who is "really" a Jew, what is a Jew, and what does it mean to be a Jew? It seems like Christians and non-Jews can probably answer those questions much better than Jews, because we get all tangled up in the complexities and ferocious disagreements. So, I'm a particular kind of Jew. I'm sure that Sheila and Miriam are their kinds of Jews, so when we answer your question about Jews in the Movement, we're answering on the basis of our individual thinking of what being a Jew is — but there isn't any unanimity on that.

An email addendum from Paul Shane (a traveller overseeing the social workers union's projects in '64):

It is interesting. How very Jewish that all three of you had different perceptions of the Jewish role in the movement. Somehow I wonder if it would be appropriate for me to add my two cents worth. I also had the feeling that many — if not most — of the young "white" people, and many of the older ones like, me were Jews.

It seemed so natural to me for that to be so that I never questioned it. I just always wondered how the White Southerners felt about that since they also were politely anti-semitic. So, I didn't make any statements about it. I sat in church and wondered how these people could get so ecstatic about the God thing, but respected them for it. Although for me it meant nothing.

Actually, I was surprised when there were White gentiles [in the Movement], since I had the idea that most of them were racist, anti-semites and crypto fascists. That's what our father taught us.

I agree with your idea that we identified Blacks and Jews, the others were goyim and potentially dangerous. But, one thing that stuck in my craw was that in Chicago, I lived there then, they always tried to sell me the most expensive tickets and I smelled stereotypes about Jews (they're all rich).

In MS I visited a Rabbi who had been supportive of the movement. Had a very pleasant afternoon, somewhere down in the southern part of the state. Interesting how I think back in fondness on my experiences in MS, but hate the place.

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