Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Civil Rights Journey Reflection 2023

When it comes to crying, I’m ok with letting it out. If there’s a poignant ending to a movie, or if someone has shared something that moves me, I’ll well up a little bit and wipe a tear or two from the corners of my eyes.

Other than that, I don’t do a lot of crying otherwise. Don’t get me wrong: I believe it is ok to cry, healthy to cry, and I think you should cry if you need to, as often as you need to.

Evidently, there was a moment on our trip where I needed to take this advice. I’m going to share with you a vulnerable moment, a moment that surprised me, really. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.

The scene: Montgomery Alabama. It was drizzling outside. We scarfed down a continental breakfast and drove to the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice. It was my first time on the site, having been built between my last Civil Rights Journey and this one. The memorial is built into a hilltop overlooking Montgomery. More than 4,400 Black people killed between 1877 and 1950 are remembered there. Their names are engraved on more than 800 steel monuments—one for each county where a crime took place. It was beautiful and eery and heartbreaking all at the same time. I had a tear in my eye the whole time.

Wet with the morning’s mist, we went over to its sister site, the Legacy Museum. The museum is built on the site of a cotton warehouse where enslaved Black people were forced to labor in bondage. When visiting the museum, you travel through immersive exhibits that tell a comprehensive history of the destructive violence that shaped our nation, from the slave trade, to the era of Jim Crow, to our current mass incarceration crisis.

Our group entered the exhibit hall without me. I had to stay back and work on some logistical details with our tour guide. When we finished our conversation, he went off for some coffee, having visited the museum many times before. I hadn’t, so I decided to enter. Our teens had plowed forward and no other patrons were there at the time. I went in alone.

The first room evokes the terrifying and deadly Middle Passage. You’re surrounded by 4 walls of thundering water. You’re sinking into the depths of history. You’re drowning in the experience. I was flooded.

I slowly moved into the next room, still alone, except for a quiet docent stationed in a corner. The walls of waves continued, now joined by clay renderings of chained bodies, sinking in anguish. Bodies of men, women and children. Babies clinging to their parents. A voice began describing the forceful separation of families and the brutality of being taken captive. Standing in the center of this room, my body ceased to exist. I was enveloped by the waves, I became the rushing ocean and I began to sob.

At first I tried to stop myself. But realizing I was alone, realizing how filled to the brim I was, I allowed myself to put my head in my hands, bend my knees and sob, deeply, from my belly. The docent walked over quietly and gently handed me a small package of tissues, turned, and returned to her spot. I sobbed for a good five minutes.

I didn’t expect to react this way. I’ve been to heart-wrenching exhibits before. But once it started I did understand why I was crying. The sheer brutality of the subject matter was enough to take you under but I also knew I was releasing the salty tears that had been building in my body since October 7. They joined the ocean of whoa that I was now consumed in. My eyes could no longer act as a barrier between the two.

“It is all pain…tormented, violent, hateful pain,” I thought to myself. All I could think about was how our world is utterly corrupted by abduction, sexual assault, beheadings and bombings. All I could feel was the agony of the violence we do to one another.

I return to this moment all these weeks later, because the destruction - emotionally and physically - has only continued. I am still flooded by the loss of human life, the callousness to one another’s pain, the way we use human beings as pawns in a shameful game of domination.

That day in the museum, I could feel the tears of my ancestors seeping out of my own eyes. We know that every group, all persecuted people, carry the scarred DNA of their ancestors.

Then and now, I feel as if my ancestors are crying, “have we learned nothing at all?”

This week’s haftarah tells the famous story of King Solomon adjudicating a fight between two women. Each woman claims that a certain baby is theirs. In order to suss out the true mother, Solomon calls for a sword. “Cut the live child in two, and give half to one and half to the other…” “Give the baby to her!” one woman cries desperately. “Just don’t kill it!” “This one, the one who rather give up the baby to save its life, is the true mother,” Solomon decries.

We point to this story as evidence of Solomon’s cleverness and wisdom. But as I look at the story again this week, all I can see is how the children are the ones who suffer from our callousness toward one another and the political games we play. The sword is held above their heads everyday. When will all humanity have the decency to say, “This must end! Just don’t kill any more babies!”?

Tonight, these teens give me such hope. They have been handed a world full of racism, bigotry, and war. And yet they dare to dive in, learn the lessons and resolve to build something better. They even pick up a few Buc-ees pajama sets along the way.

Because it turns out they inherited more than trauma from their ancestors.

Xavier Dagba, a life coach, had a tweet go viral recently; it said: “As you clear your generational trauma, don’t forget to claim your generational strengths. Your ancestors gave you more than wounds.”

Our ancestors did give us more than just wounds. They gave us grit, resilience, and imagination. We do not need to accept the suffering we see. We can resolve to be better. We can be the generation that unites families, builds homes, and begets laughter.

I’ll leave you with the words of the poet Alberto Rios. I’ve read them before. I cling to this poem for hope, like a life-raft in an ocean of anguish. It speaks to our teens, it speaks to all of us:

A House Called Tomorrow

You are not fifteen, or twelve, or seventeen — You are a hundred wild centuries And fifteen,
bringing with you in every breath and in every step
Everyone who has come before you, all the yous that you have been,
The mothers of your mother, the fathers of your father.
If someone in your family tree was trouble, a hundred were not:
The bad do not win—not finally, no matter how loud they are.
We simply would not be here if that were so. You are made, fundamentally, from the good. With this knowledge, you never march alone.
You are the breaking news of the century. You are the good who has come forward
Through it all, even if so many days
Feel otherwise. But think: when you as a child learned to speak,
It’s not that you didn’t know words — It’s that, from the centuries, you knew so many,
And it’s hard to choose the words that will be your own.
From those centuries we human beings bring with us the simple solutions and songs, The river bridges and star charts and song harmonies all in service to a simple idea: That we can make a house called tomorrow. What we bring, finally, into the new day, every day, is ourselves. And that’s all we need to start. That’s everything we require to keep going.
Look back only for as long as you must, then go forward into the history you will make.
Be good, then better. Write books. Cure disease. Make us proud. Make yourself proud.
And those who came before you?
When you hear thunder, hear it as their applause.


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