March 27, 2008

Sherry's baby pictures, a portrait of Jim Crow segregation laws

Recently, Sherry and I chatted on Skype (she in Atlanta; I, in Tel Aviv). Our signature unstructured exchanges moving from personal stories to more public ones, took a sudden and dramatic shift back to the personal. “Did I tell you about Corey’s conversation with my mother?” she blurted out.

And out poured another scary true tale of the upshot of Jim Crow, underscoring the perfect pitch of Senator Barack Obama’s
recent 37-minute speech heard around the world. "But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now," he intoned, calling all the people of the U.S. to face it head on.

Tell your truth, Sherry,” I coaxed, write about Corey’s conversation with your mother, and use my blog as your virtual StoryCorps project booth.
” And she did just that.

° ° °

Baby Pictures
by Sherry as told to me
Hattie Pearl and daughters Sherry (L) and Marsha (R)
I was born 56 years ago, and grew up in suburban Atlanta, Georgia. I am all too familiar with racism and the humiliation of segregation. However, I was amazed by a call I got from my sister Marsha.

told me about her son Corey's conversation with our mother. It was about the baby pictures (long a sensitive subject for my siblings and one that our mother, Hattie Pearl, kept silent about for years). Last month my twenty-something nephew asked her why there were no baby pictures of his mother.

Though we have baby pictures of me, the eldest, we have none of my four siblings. And until
Corey's direct questioning, they remained puzzled and asked about it, but my mother didn’t really answer.

My mother’s answer was simple yet amazing. She calmly explained that when I was born, in 1952, photography studios where we lived would not photograph black people. So, my parents drove to Auburn Avenue in downtown Atlanta and had my pictures taken in this black business and residential area. When the family grew rapidly, my parents were simply too busy to make the trek for my siblings’ pictures. “Why didn’t you ever tell us?” I asked her. She just shrugged.

No eating here; no sitting there
My mother hated taking us for ice cream, she later told us, because while black people could buy at an ice cream shop, they were forbidden from eating there. We kids would pepper her with questions all the way home about why we couldn’t eat at the shop. Much later I realized that she could not bring herself to tell her babies that America considered us second-class citizens.

While my mother continued to try to protect us, the horrible truth was encroaching steadily. One day it hit me with a force that still shocks me today.

Many Saturdays, she would drop us off at the Strand Movie Theatre, where we entered through the back door. When I asked why we went this way, she said it was cheaper, and I accepted her explanation.

I don’t remember
my mother telling us to sit upstairs in the balcony; probably, we intuitively joined the other black people. One day, all the balcony seats were filled. So I, age seven or eight, blithely went down the stairs, found an empty seat, and sat down.

Suddenly, a white man, shining a flashlight in my face, screamed “Nigger, get back in that balcony!” Terrified and sobbing, I ran upstairs, sat on the steps, and continued to cry. The other black kids laughed hysterically, incredulous that I didn’t know my place. While I still
hear the violent screams and the laughter, I remember nothing about the movie.

Vacation Bible School fiasco
For some reason, a few white women came to teach Bible School at our church. All week, we had done arts and crafts, which I loved, and Friday, we would take our projects home. One night that week, the Klan burned a cross at our church. The teachers couldn’t return, and I never got my project. I felt devastated, confused, and afraid.

Traumas of integration
These sample ordeals should have prepared me for the coming trauma. But they didn’t. In 1965, I was among the first small group of black children to integrate the high school under the Freedom of Choice plan. One night, a few days before starting school, a cross was burned in front of our house.  So the night before our first day, my dad
sat up all night long with a shotgun.

Everyone — students, teachers, administrators, and even bus drivers threatened, harassed, and humiliated us nonstop. After a year of this treatment, I finally got it. At the tender age of 13, I had an epiphany: They really do hate us and want to kill us! Until that moment, I had been clinging to the belief that this couldn’t possibly be true.

When I became the first black person to be admitted to the Beta honors club, I was ready. I stood stoically in the line of inductees and heard students in the audience scream at the adults, “You must have made a mistake, there’s no such thing as a smart nigger!”

During the horrible integration days, my normally shy mother’s behavior was astonishing. She protected us vigorously and even threatened the principal that she would take him to the U.S. Supreme Court if he forced black children to sit together on the bus (this way, accommodating white kids’ demands to sit apart from us).

So, I suggested to my black classmates that we spread out and take a seat in all parts of the bus. In response, the driver told us to sit together (to create a separate block of seats for the white kids). When my mother confronted the principal with our reports, we were permitted to sit anywhere. Yet the white kids defied the order and stood rather than sit next to us.

My mother had such strength. During the early days of integration, we commuted many miles to the black elementary school as we rode past the white school, packed like pigs in a raggedy school bus. Until the day my mother went to the
black school and counted us as we got off the bus. There were 101 of us.

She enlisted the principal to join her in forcing the local board of education to give us another bus. When the board claimed it had no extra driver, an excuse for not getting the other bus, my mother found a driver.

Understanding and gratitude
For a long time, I was so angry with my mother for not telling me the truth before the theatre incident and about the other horrors sooner. Eventually, thank God, I came to understand her dilemmas and I imagined how she must have struggled during those years (and, of course, throughout her whole life).

I mean, really, how do you explain something like racism to a child? Now, I am grateful for those few sheltered years under the protection and sometimes cover-ups of my beleaguered parents.

Related post
Listening to StoryCorps’ Dave Isay and Atlantans tell their stories

Update | A month after publishing 
Sherry’s Baby Pictures, The Elder Storytelling Place weblog of Time Goes By cross-posted it with our permission, triggering a range of comments there, too.

March 19, 2008

Purim: celebrating solidarity and mutual responsibility

With Purim-masked barista at Cafe Metuka
(close to the Tel Aviv Cinemateque Library)

It is Purim eve here in Tel Aviv (and everywhere outside Jerusalem and all ancient walled cities). Celebrants have already begun planning, creating, and posing in holiday costumes!

A key focus is on bringing joy to needy people as we observe these four mitzvot, commandments:
Yesterday, at the Beit Avot on Yavne Street — where you'll find me Wednesdays (listening, yakking, and hugging) among the elderly infirm, Gisela beamed, "Tomorrow, the rabbi and his wife are coming. We will hear the Megillah read and there will be gifts for everyone."

A feast for the have-nots, too
Purim’s gifts to the needy are to provide more than mere sustenance.
The commandment of giving gifts to the poor on Purim teaches us that happiness is not the exclusive province of the rich. If it is, the celebrations should be canceled....

... Not surprisingly, Maimonides succinctly expresses this fact in his statement that 'gifts for the poor deserve more attention than the festive meal and gifts for friends because there is no greater, richer happiness than bringing joy to the hearts of needy people, orphans, widows and proselytes' (Mishneh Torah, laws governing Purim, Chapter 3, section 17). [Haaretz newspaper, March 4, 2007 | Adar 14, 5767]

How much to give to the needy on Purim?

I always respond that 'one should reduce what one spends on Mishloach Manot and give more to needy Jews.' — Rabbi Michael Broyde

The Megillah tells that when Queen Vashti refused to dance naked and entertain her husband and his friends, he had her beheaded. Today, many women still suffer physically and emotionally in abusive relationships. Jewish Women International has a comprehensive site devoted to this issue and resources.

"Megillat Esther…reminds us that history is capricious and life is fragile; that willing or not, we must confront our powerlessness and vulnerability, our inability to control everything. Or anything." — Rabbi Sharon Brous

Have a happy Purim!

March 09, 2008

Smiling at random, from Atlanta to Jerusalem with the Smile Project

Resting on a large boulder on Atlanta's Clifton Road, between the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the fire station, and across from Children's Healthcare of Atlanta and the Rollins School of Public Health of Emory University, I spied it.

An illogical generosity of spirit. The bright painting of a colorful, happy, whimsical creature. And, taped to its lower edge, a note bearing the message:

The proposition intrigued me. I loved the painting, the message, and the random way in which I had come upon it. (I could have taken the bus instead of walking that Sunday morning to Emory’s Cannon Chapel ecumenical, open worship to hear Bishop Bevel Jones preach the sermon on The Ministers' Manifesto. Or, my passing the boulder could have been too late. Or too early.)

Yet I was suspicious. Who gives away such loveliness? And merely for the price of a promise to smile at random people more often?

More self-tormenting questions: Who would check my faithfulness to hold up my side of the bargain? Shouldn't the find go to someone else... more deserving... a child? Yet I wanted it. How could I reconcile my doubts and take up the offer?

Within seconds, I had formulated my plan. I glanced around hoping no one was watching. And then I took it.

The painting and the note would travel with me the following week to Israel, in what has become my semiannual rite of passage, from Atlanta to Tel Aviv (and then back).

Once in Israel, I would deliver the package to my Jerusalem cousins (shown in this and the next photo). And I would task the Zohar family, including Daniel, Ohad, and Aviah (among the stars of this blog) with the proposition.

Checking the web address on the note provided clues to the art and ways of Bren Bataclan. Born in the Philippines and educated at top U.S. institutions, in 2003 Bren began The Smile Boston Project, his street art project to brighten spirits.

Eventually, the project grew and evolved several additional goals, including bringing art to people who typically don't go to art museums and galleries, giving paintings to people who may not be able to afford original artwork, creating murals in schools and hospitals, and everywhere spreading smiles.

Worldwide, Bataclan has left bright and vibrant paintings of his colorful characters on park benches, in subway stations, schoolyards, and other public places — such as the large boulder on Atlanta's Clifton Road. To each painting Bataclan attaches the same note.

Don't you want the project to smile on you, too?

Update | To find out who won the "Smile Project" 2009 feedback prize, meet me here!

March 03, 2008

Sleepless in Jerusalem: Qassam rockets hit Ashkelon

Late last Saturday night, I finally quit trying to reach Shimon on his cell phone. My havruta (Aramaic: study partner) of more than eight years had not answered my myriad calls after the Sabbath Havdala ceremony (denoting separation between sacred time and ordinary time). And, then I turned on the radio to hear the news.

Hours earlier, the reporter intoned, Hamas militants had fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel quassam rockets, including some longer-range katyushas that hit the large coastal city of Ashkelon, damaging houses and apartments. This is the first time that a quassam has ever reached Ashkelon in the western Negev, in the South District of Israel.

Here, in this ancient maritime area (site of one of the five cities of the Philistines) Shimon lives with his parents while writing his doctoral dissertation in psychology. The bible records that Samson, King Saul and his son Jonathan, and King David, among others, spent time here, too.

Fifteen seconds to find safety
As with all cities and towns that are designated Color Red — the code for an attack on civilian populations, warning sirens pierced the Sabbath quiet as Shimon, his family and entire community understood the dreaded message. Within fifteen seconds, a rocket would land close by. Fifteen seconds to absorb the information, to manage the terror, and to seek and then find and enter a safe place.

Only days earlier, I had introduced Shimon and Josh Gomes (both shown in the photo). (Josh, a grandson of my beloved Stella, of blessed memory, is a professional American basketball-player now helping to bring the local Binyamina team to victory.)

On learning of the katyusha rocket attack about fifty miles from my radio, inside my head images of Shimon danced to rippling sounds of his voice, his laugh — broadcasting his signature wit and wisdom. Shimon: a human anchor in sea of chaos, seeding humor and intelligence, goodness and compassion — in danger? Unthinkable. Untenable. Possible.

In her blog diary entry, March 1, 2008, Karen Alkalay-Gut muses
Thank goodness we only paper-trained our dog. Even though she goes out four times a day she still pees on the paper at home. And there is much to piss on today. What terrible developments. Katyushas on Ashkelon. Kassams on Sderot. Attacks on Gaza. Human lives targeted. And of course both sides become more and more determined. We of course would stop as soon as the rockets cease.

Life may go on amid this madness, but sometimes I can't get my head around it. So I almost didn't go to my good friend's birthday party, but I did, and I forgot everything in the celebration - until the final song of the sing along - Shalom-Salaam. Then suddenly the absence of the very thing we were singing about returned to me with such pain. How many people were killed since we began the party? How many people irretrievably traumatized? How do we get around this?

Early the next morning, my phone rang. As I grabbed it, spotting Shimon’s name and number in the caller ID window, relief engulfed me.

Cut-to-the-chase Q&A
Me: Are you OK? How are your parents? You must have a long list of calls to return so I won’t keep you.

He: Yes, I’m OK. My parents are in denial. I accidentally left my phone in the car last night, and it was too late to return messages when I discovered it. Yes, I have lots of calls to return.

Our staccato exchange ended, I burst into smiles as I temporarily blocked out thoughts of lingering terror and the immediate tragedy for others in Ashkelon (and elsewhere), unlucky this time.