Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.
I am currently publishing a children’s book about the underground railroad. In it, a family of slaves seeks refuge with an immigrant Jewish family from Germany who had never intended to serve in the dangerous role of harboring escapees. Noticing the Jewish family’s Menorah lamp burning brightly in their window one night in celebration of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, the African American family mistakes the lights for the lights of a safe house beckoning kindly to people running from plantation owners and slave hunters. Caught in a web of accidental circumstance, fear and suspicion, the story’s four parents are prodded by their four quick thinking children into devising a plan for hiding the fugitive family that night. The plan works, the two families celebrate Hanukkah together, and the Jewish family helps its new friends escape to freedom the next morning. Though based upon historical fact, the story is fiction. The Jews of America before the Civil War were a tiny, politically passive minority that played almost no role in helping or owning slaves. Inspired by a conversation with one of my students, I wrote the book to help young readers imagine the extraordinary potential of ordinary human beings, children especially, to act with courage and compassion in times of great fear, danger and oppression.
True stories abound concerning courageous rescues of oppressed people by others who risked their lives to do so. Many schools in our area have children read Lois Lowry’s award winning Number the Stars, a historical novel which tells about the rescue of Danish Jewry from the Nazis by the Danish resistance. Fourth and fifth graders are introduced to the Underground Railroad, and its narratives of bravery in the face of brutality become commonplace to them. Many of our children watch all or part of Schindler’s List in middle school or high school. It is only a matter of time before similar accounts of courageous compassion emerge from Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, and Darfur, to be woven into our children’s educations and our everyday language. Inspiring as these stories are, they stand out precisely because they are exceptions to the human apathy, cowardice, and –at times-willing complicity with the evildoing of those in power that we too often witness. Consider the ancient biblical story of how the Pharaoh coopted the Egyptians into allowing him to enslave and murder the Israelites, and how a few courageous women resisted his decrees before Moses came on the scene. This ugly, lopsided aspect of human character and behavior has been with us for a long time. Raised in a toxic atmosphere of tribal hatreds, terror, misinformation and the naked lust for power, too many people, it appears, will at the very least avert their eyes with guilty rationalization as their neighbors are dragged from their homes, never to be seen again.
I find it troubling to contemplate all of this and I wonder: if a knock came on our door in the middle of the night and our neighbors begged us to hide them from state sponsored terror, would we and our children find the courage to let them in? To be fair, even asking this kind of a question openly is much easier for Americans than for people in repressive, less socially diverse societies. All the more reason for Americans to keep asking them, to learn those stories of courageous compassion, and to model for future generations steadfast respect for all human life and a firm commitment to protecting it. Further, we would do well to remember that for all our advancement as a society, America was a state sponsor of slavery only 160 years ago, and segregation was the law in a number of states up until the 1960s. Remembering the past so that we and our children are not doomed to repeat it is not just a curriculum requirement, it is a sacred national obligation. Even more important, telling those stories about the men and women who risked their lives to save the oppressed is a vital discipline of collective conscience: a way of teaching ourselves and the world that human beings have the capacity and the obligation to give one another refuge.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.