Issuu on Google+

I .i'

shimon Peres Pushes Peace Process AnEDrroR


January 1996

Symposiumon JewishChoices


"The Watchmtker,"by YehudaPen, 1914

PaulRobesonand Black-Jewish Kinship By PAUL RORESON/t{.



The Power of Jewish Women

Rr.uESro ByMrMr

v I-or his20th yortz.eit.April9. 1E98-.1an.23.1976

Paul Robesonand Black-JewishKinship By PAUL ROBESON./n. f) nul Robeson's public recognition I of the cultural kinship betweenAfrican-Americans and Jews was longstanding and can be traced back to his youth. When my father was only 29 years old, he spoke warmly of the close link betweenNegro Spirituals and the ancient Hebrew scriptures.In an article luly 22, 1927 in The lewish Tribune, Sulamith Ish-Kishor referred to the Negro Spirituals sung so beautifully by Paul Robeson, and added that "Robeson. . . was very willing to say what he thought was the explanation of these songs, and how much and in what respectsthe colored race had drawn inspira ti on and c om f o rt fro m th e O l d Testament."Then shequotedmy father as follows: "The Hebrews were so war-like, so resentful of domination. The captive Negroes of America took that race as their model, in a way at least,by having such a complete and absorbinginterest in their history. . . . "The Bible was the only form of literature the captive Negroes could get at, even those who could read. It was natural for their quick imaginations to find a. . . similarity betweentheir condition and that of the enslaved Hebrews. . . . ". . .Onc of the most beautiful of the 'Go Down Moses,' is based spirituals, on that. It was rcally their own plight PAUL RogesoN JR. hcs appeared here with I I articlesand reviewssinceNov., 1981. Hisbook, PaulRobcsonJr. Speaks to America (Rutgers Univ. Press, New Brunswick, NJ, 1993), was reviewed here in Oct., 1993. IIe last appeared here inSept.,1995with " Eric Dyson on Malcolm X." 8

that they were describing in words and music. And by the way. . . thesesongs were largely written not in the Negro dialect, but in a language caught from the Bible itself. . . . "[Those] who composed thesesongs were naturally artistic, and they were able to translate the grand epics of one people into. terms for their own inspiration." Paul Robesonwas consciousof this cultural link between Jews and African-Americansthroughouthis life, and in later years he broadenedhis conception of this common ground. On Nov. 25,1945, in an addressto the Central Conferenceof American Rabbis (Reform) at the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, Robesonspokepassionatelyabout the necessityof united action by Negroesand Jews in defense of freedom for all Americans.He said, in part: "I would like toquote what the editor of the magazineof the B'nai B'rith oncewrote in replying to someonefrom the South who lamentedthat 'We Jews have enough problems of our own to solve without helping Negroesto solve theirs.' Answered the editor, plainly 'So long asNegroesfail and truthfully, to achievecomplete libcration, so long will Jews also suffcr discrimination, and so long as that is true, every other segmentof the American people faces a threat to its liberties. For liberty is as indivisible today as it was in Lincoln's time, and no nation can long endure half slaveand half free.'. . . "Throughout the entire history of the struggle of the American people for democraticrights. . . Jewsand Negroes havefought and died together.It is well worth remembering that there were JEWISHCURRENTS

menof theHebrewfaithin JohnBrown' s bravecompanyof men who fought to theslavesin Kansasin 1855; emancipate that manyJewscontributedmoneyto purchasethefreedomof escaped slaves; that many Jews distinguishedthemselvesin theNorthernArmy duringthe war to end slavery.It is nothing new, then,that we espouseheretoday.. . . "Some time ago, at the time of the disgracefulanti-Semiticoutbreakin Boston,I said, 'Americahasa choice, eitherto fulfill its historicdestinyand abolishinequalities,or follow the fascistideaof dogeatdog.Thestrugglefor freedomin which we zuepresentlyengagedmeansthe freedomof all individuals."'

from his cell in Moscow's dreaded Lubyankaprison, transportedto his in homeunderguard, andthenreleased the lobby of Paul's hotel that afternoon. As Paul greetedhim warmlyat the doorof his suite,Fefferindicatedwith gesturesthat the roomswerebugged, and the two proceededto speaknormallyaboutuncontroversial mattersin Russian.But on anotherlevel, using sign languageand abbreviatednotes on scrappaper,they sharedan unforgettablecommunion- the pain and terror of Stalin's secret 1948-1949 "purge,"notonlyof theSovietUnion's leadingJewishintellectuals butalsoof the bestand brightestCommunistsin Leningradand Moscow. Paul played Four years later, in 1949, my father hisroleat leastasmasterfullyasFeffer, in a vastly whoknewthathewasplayinghisfor a encountered anti-Semitism different contextand challengedit in lastchanceat physicalsurvival. As Fefferspokeof mundanematters, his own uniqueway. On a visit to the SovietUnion,Paulwasgivena hero's he wrote the words:"Mikhoelsmurwelcomein Moscow and throughout deredon Stalin'sorder."And whilehe his tour of severalother major cities, told a hilariousjoke abouthimselfand Yet from themo- a closefriend,he drew a finger slowly includingStalingrad. mentof his arrivalhewastroubledby a acrosshis throat.WhenFeffer roseto A go, thetwo menembracedasbrothers, sinisterrefrain in the newspapers. and and Paul was left to ponder what he crusadeagainst"Cosmopolitanism in a con- coulddo to savehis friend. Zionism"wasbeingconducted next text that manifestedan unmistakable My father'sfarewellconcertthe Paulresponded e v e n i n g i n M o s c o w ' s h a l l o w e d anti-Jewish undertone. for by immediatelyaskingto seesomeof ChaikovskiiHall wasremembered hewas his personalSovietJewishfriends,be- a longtime,not merelybecause ginningwith SolomonMikhoels,agreat in magnificentvoicebut primarilybenamein the Soviettheater,and Itzik causeof the extraordinarypassionhe Today, communicated to hisaudience. Feffer,an outstandingpoet. Paul was told that, unfortunately, theold-timersswearthatnothingthey Mikhoelshad died recentlyof a heart everheardfrom a concertstagematched attack,while Fefferwasawayon vaca- theemotionalpowerof Paul'slastsong tion. Finally, when Paul returnedto on thatoccasion. After he had finishedsinging"Ol' Stalingradwith only a few days left beforetheendof hisvisit,hedemanded ManRiver," thelastsonglistedon the hand to seeFeffer with suchdetermination program,he raisedhis enormous Thenheannounced that his hostspromisedFeffer would to still theapplause. visit him on Junel3th, the day before that he would end his concertwith a Paul's nationally broadcastfarewell singleencore- a specialsonghe had concertin Moscow.In theearlymorn- learnedrecentlyand wishedto dcdiing of thatday,Iuik Fefferwasroused cate to his dear friend SolomonMiJRm;anv,1996


T A T I I . R0 R I,:SON A N I) T'I I I,:'TRAN SM I G RATION 0h. A MEI,ODY NowtN(;. of a dear friend's I{' I\ nr t c r c s t in P a u l R o b e s o n , I tillx:-rocordcdfor her all the records ol' all of Robeson'srenditions of Yiddish songs.Shewasparticularly struck by the traditional (and proto-Marxist) vig fid (lullaby) "Shlof Mayn Kind, Shlof Keseyder," here adapted from the translation Ruth Rubin made in her A Treasury of Iewish Folksong: Sleep,my child, sleeppeacefully, I'll sing you a lullaby. When my little baby's grown, You'll know the difference and why. When my little baby's grown, You'll soon seewhich is which: Like the rest of us, you'll know The difference between poor and rich. The largestmansions,the finest homes, The poor man builds them on the hill. But do you know who'll live in them? Why, of course,the rich man will! Thc poor man lives in a cellar: Thc walls are wet with damp That brings pain to his arms and legs And a r hc um at icc ra m p . Thus it was throughthe artistry of an African-American singer that Cat holic - r ais c dC e l e s te L e d e re r, Music Dircctor of the Unitarian Churchof StatcnIsland,NY,played her arrangementof this Yiddish m elody dur ing Su n d a y s e rv i c e s thereon Sept.24,1995 - in recognition of Rosh Hashana. HE R S III-H N R T U N N


khoels, whose tragic and premature death had saddenedhim deeply. An anxioushushgreetedPaul's mention of Mikhoels. One could heargasps asPaul went on to speakof his meeting with Feffer, whom he describedaswell and hard at work on his memoirs.One could hearapin drop during my father's remarks about the deep and enduring cultural ties between the Jewish communities of the Soviet Union and the United States, about the shared tradition of the great Jewish writer, Sholem Aleichem, and about the continued vitality of the Yiddish language.Finally he announcedthat he would sing "Zog nit kaynmol az du gehst dem letzten vegi' the song of the Jewish partisans who fought to the death against their fascistoppressorsin the WarsawGhetto. Since the song had to be sung in Yiddish, he introducedit by paraphrasing the lyrics in Russian. Never say that you have reached the very end When leaden skiesa bitter future may portend; For sure the hour for which we yearn will yet arrive, And our marching stepswill thunder: we survive. When hefinished the song, there was a moment of silence from the transfixed audience.Then, almost as one, all who were present released their accumulatedtensionlike an explosive charge.Although Paul's listenersincluded many of Moscow's Jewish intellectual elite who were waiting for Stalin's axe to fall on them, the great majority were Russianmembersof the Party elite which was being decimated by a purge.Jewsand Russiansalike,in someplaces seatedside-by-side,were either walking in the shadow of death or had lost someoneclose. After that first release,the ovation continued to swell and recedein a series of waveswhich ebbedand flowed. JEwISH CURRSNTS

TIvo Poems THE ORPHANED CHILD SINGS TO THE ORPHANED MOTHER f he last day of shivah J i tate an early morning walk among the plants we have on the roof stop by the violas mamagave us slx years ago saying they come back every year which they have done stop and want to kiss them becausethey're from mama i don' t but stay by them and standing

cry ay liu liu mayn shepsele.. . a lullaby who is cradling whom? my tearsmix with the dew on the violas violas: flowers similar to violets shepselc: little sheep

By PETER SCHLOSSER END OF SHIVAH +er the towelsfrom the mirrors J let our facesseethemselves with grief streakson the cheeks with swolleneyes andreddenedlips now let us go to life to life we toastourselves on our return so difficult to pushopenthe door to life withoutthe bolsteringwe're usedto awarethereis no phonecall to sayhello justcheckup on things andhearthe haltingvoice theaudibleshysmile stiil it is the way andso we go awayfrom shroudedmirrors into lifb

PETERScIrlossER o/ New York last appeared here in Feb., 1992 with two poems.He has sung at JnwlsH CURRBNTSconcertsand luncheons. Peoplestood, applaudedand cried out; they called my fatherby his patronymic - Pavel Vasil'evich; some who were total strangers fell into each other's uumsand wept; still others sat silently with tears streamingdown their faces. The sound of this cry of hope was unforgettable, and there is little doubt that it was heard by the "Master" himself. Itzik Feffer and his colleagueswere not executeduntil threeyearslater, in1952. Thus it was that Paul Robeson,one of the greatestvoices of the century,gave expressionto the suffering not only of Soviet Jews but also of the countless victims of Stalin'spurges.In Moscow, JANUARY,1996

as elsewhere,his pricelessgift was, in the words of the late Black writer JamesBaldwin,"thepowerto perceive, andthe courageto resist." In today'scontextof rancorousdisputesbetweenJewsandAfrican-Americans,PaulRobeson'sexampleserves asa sternrebuketo thoseon both sides of this divide who are more intenton venting their anger than on seeking reconciliation.Especiallydoes my father'slegacychallengethoseAfrican-Americanswho stridently spew anti-Semiticvenom.The Robesontraditionrefutestheirpremisesandrejects their attitude. ll

Paul Robeson Jr on his father's legacy