An Egg Dipped In Ash

Last week, I saw a film about the life of Julius Rosenwald, an early twentieth-century businessman and philanthropist who financed a series of rural black schools, built and run with the oversight of the Tuskegee Institute. Rosenwald otherwise had a life such as that from which the myth of the American dream is made. He started as a merchant on the streets of Chicago, worked his way up in the “rag trade” and eventually became chief of Sears and Roebuck. In the meantime, he made large matching donations to black YMCAs and attracted the attention of Booker T. Washington. Washington took him on a tour of Tuskegee, and soon the two formed a partnership, building what would be called the Rosenwald Schools, funded by Rosenwald and each school’s immediate community, staffed by Tuskegee-trained teachers, and erected by the black communities they served.

Rosenwald’s story, on screen, should be a rich, flawed, complex one: the story of a white Jewish business mogul’s collaboration with the most influential black man in America, all within the stranglehold of the Jim Crow South. Poor black communities scrounged money to match Rosenwald’s gifts; Maya Angelou went to one of the schools he helped build; the fund he established in his name later supported the work of African-American artists such as Jacob Lawrence and Langston Hughes (and, in an odd departure, Woody Guthrie). Rosenwald was reputedly spurred on by a 1908 race riot in his Illinois hometown–he spoke of the hypocrisy of America condemning the Russians for their treatment of Jews, but allowing similar treatment of African-Americans within its borders. Meanwhile, southern Jews looked the other way when Rosenwald came around, fearing the wrath of the Klan.

julius rosenwaldFor the American Jews today, such a film should be a deeply personal critical study. What philosophy of altruism does a legacy of persecution produce in a minority group that reaches a country, a city, an era, in which it finds itself suspiciously persecution-free? Granted, early twentieth-century America might have been two countries for the Jews: Rosenwald in Chicago and New York found he could follow the American dream more or less by the book. His southern Jewish counterparts, meanwhile, in the shadow of the Leo Frank lynching and perhaps with an eye toward Russia, lived in fear of having their provisional whiteness erased by association with the African-American neighbors Rosenwald made it his mission to help. A film about Rosenwald’s life in the twenty-first century should ask American Jews to consider this disconnect–that one man’s idea of his Jewishness could lead him to help black communities access an essential good their government had denied them, while another man’s idea of his drove him to hide from those communities. It should ask us to consider that it is possible to exist on a fine hair between being persecuted and facilitating persecution, between powerlessness and the wrong kind of power. (If we look hard enough, we can find this fault-line in our own families: my grandfather, a child of Polish-Jewish immigrants, occasionally said ignorant things about black people, I always thought, for the same reason he religiously read The New York Times–so that no one would mistake him for an outsider.)


But this film, the one I actually saw, omitted all these complications. Made by a Jewish filmmaker and screened for an older, mostly Jewish audience, it rarely strayed from hagiography and gratitude, making of Rosenwald a flawless statue. In one of the film’s many long tangents, Marian Anderson sings in front of another flawless statue of a white man to whom blacks are supposed to owe their lives, Abraham Lincoln. (Anderson’s famed performance of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at the Lincoln Memorial, after the open racism she’d endured in D.C. and elsewhere, is not without irony–the film glosses over this, too.)

Why am I telling you all this? It is a small film; you probably won’t see it. But it’s the latest in a genre that worries me: films and books about white Americans–because of my background and interests, I happen to have my eye most closely trained on those about American Jews–whose stories are pulled piecemeal, like Aschenputtel’s seeds from the ashes, out of the mess and discomfort of their times in order to be appreciated by an audience who wants to believe that it has always been good.

It’s not that Julius Rosenwald was not good–indeed, he seems to have had an awareness about the social and moral limits of his wealth that our present-day one-percenters would do well to adopt. But in a world of artists making boundary-pushing, hard-questioning art, a film like this one finds an audience because a sliver of a community wishes to be reassured, not challenged. We haven’t come far, it seems, from Nathan Zuckerman’s father at the Newark bus station, insisting to his son, who’s written unsavory truths about some Jews he knows: “You are not the kind of person who tells this kind of story!” The tiny, sometimes fractious room that is being Jewish in America, rather than being a safe space to share painful history and acknowledge present comfort and discomfort, is instead often a place to absolve ourselves. To bathe in a film that asks no historical questions and recycles Louis Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World” no fewer than three times, is to recite a kind of cultural Kol Nidre, the legal document we chant on the fast day of Yom Kippur to annul the past year’s false promises. May we be absolved, we’re saying from that darkened theater. Whatever happened, it wasn’t us, not us, not us.


Tisha B’Av is coming, the other major fast day of the Jewish year. I’ve always found the general feeling of the holiday a bit baffling: on one hand, we fast and pray all day because we are remembering our persecution, being attacked without warrant; on the other hand, we seem to be apologizing to God. In Lamentations, which we read on the holiday, we beg God not to ignore us, and then say things like this (which might be owed more recognition as the first recorded Jewish joke): “Of what shall a living man complain? / Each one of his own sins!”

But this observance seems to be asking us something important: can we simultaneously remember our suffering and reflect on our mistakes? Can we hold those two things within us, or is it too much? If it is too much for our bodies and minds, the calendar does it for us: the two major fast days are counterweights. Yom Kippur the time to clear the slate, to annul and forgive, and Tisha B’Av the time to face one’s ignorance, not give oneself the easy way out. We start the latter fast after a meal of a boiled egg dipped in ash, as if to say death touches everything, even the food that keeps us alive. I wish for an art that lets us embody that, wrestle with that for a while. Lamentations again: “Far from me is any comforter / Who might revive my spirit.”

Lead image courtesy of Inset image: Julius Rosenwald in 1929, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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