AJC ACCESS DC’s upcoming 2nd Annual Black Jewish Unity Seder, which will take place on April 11 at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, is an event that brings together two communities for a meal steeped in unique traditions and cultures. Our purpose is to mark common themes in our history, sharing in our freedom, our struggles of the past and our tireless work in the present.
This type of bridge building over food and culture is something I never would have become involved in had I not participated in another event with AJC and the Greater Washington Urban League several years ago, at which I heard the following: “My grandfather was lighter skinned than my grandmother. They once had a situation where a cop asked them to pull their car off the road and told my grandfather that instead of him driving her, she should be driving him.”
When I first heard of the “brown paper bag test” (a discriminatory act in which African-American individuals’ skin color was compared to a brown paper bag in order to determine privileges), I was at an AJC and Greater Washington Urban League Shabbat dinner, talking about what each group might be surprised to learn from the other side. This exchange of ideas both develops and enhances the relationships between people and communities. Interestingly, I had had a similar exchange in Berlin while traveling with AJC only a few weeks earlier.
The Berlin trip facilitated cultural exchange on every level. As we toured the city on foot, I felt strangely at home because of the architecture, which was reminiscent of Bauhaus Tel Aviv. The restaurants at which we dined with our German friends along the water reminded me of the café culture of seaside Tel Aviv. There was even a sense of familiarity in the food: schnitzel, a reminder of my grandparents’ favorite dish.
I’ve often shown photos from the trip when telling friends and family about my experience. One of the most lasting images is of a street in East Berlin paved with what Germans call stolpersteine or “stumbling stones.” Over 85,000 of these stones commemorate the places where Jews who perished in the Holocaust had once lived. The stolpersteine force unsuspecting pedestrians to “stumble” on difficult memories of Germany’s troubled past.
To me, the stolpersteine were an example of Germany’s efforts to confront its past. My experience in Germany forced me to evaluate my own country’s actions. It wasn’t until after this trip, while reading a biography of President Lincoln, that I noticed how minimal DC’s efforts are to remind us of our difficult past. I hadn’t even realized that the names of many Civil War generals adorn the streets I drive each day.
Our history of slavery in the US from 150 years ago is slipping away unnoticed to the uninitiated—people like me who had never heard of the “brown paper bag test” or other forms of racial discrimination. Germany taught me that we need our own “stumbling stones” to remind us to confront our past and live with more awareness in the present—and maybe stumble a little less in the future. Ultimately, it is this lesson and its implications for today that I look forward to discussing at the upcoming Black Jewish Unity Seder.