November 4, 11 p.m., Times Square – Taxis horns are honking, young people are jumping. Barack Obama has just been declared president-elect of the United States. Amid the collective euphoria, a young man on a bicycle sees me and my yarmulke, rides over and says, “Hey man, you didn’t vote for Obama, did you?”
“Because I’m from Israel,” he responded. “And I didn’t either.”
Interesting assumption, that Jews are not applauding the election of America’s first black president.
It’s an impression that we best quickly correct. Because an African-American’s victory as president of the United States is a triumph for every Jewish man, woman, and child.
Yes, I know that many in our community are concerned about Obama and Israel and especially his declared willingness to meet with the Ahmadinejad of Iran. And no doubt our community will do its utmost to tell him why that’s a bad idea. But that should not change our shared pride in the fact that a special man from a downtrodden minority has reached the highest office in the land.
When I was chosen to host “Shalom in the Home” on TLC, I was asked if I would trim my beard to fit in more with American sensibilities. And could we take my black yarmulke and jazz it up with some color? My name was already weird enough. Why alienate Americans in the heartland further by with those bizarre strings hanging from my pants while I talked to troubled couples about their marriages?
If only those same producers could have known that two years later a black man, with an African name as strange as my own, would be elected president, they might have thought differently about my ability to appeal to the American mainstream.
How many Jewish men and women changed their names to hide their ethnicity? How many were convinced that only by jettisoning Jewish peculiarity could they succeed? How ironic that Barack Obama would be the one to prove how misguided they were.
When I served as rabbi at Oxford, some of the brightest Jewish Rhodes and Marshall scholars arrived at the university with a yarmulke that was quickly taken off. They had no choice, they told me, if they were to get ahead. Likewise, many abandoned Jewish ritual observances, like putting on tefillin, which they saw as backward and primitive. Some were students who nursed aspirations of being president. Sophistication was essential is they were to play a role on the world stage.
Now a black man whose Kenyan relatives slaughtered sheep and goats to celebrate his victory is about to become the most powerful man on earth.
What Obama has done is remove from every Jewish person, and indeed every member of any ethnic minority, the excuse that he or she cannot succeed because of prejudice.
The guiding principle of my life has always been the first chapter of Genesis, where the Torah declares that every human being is created equally in God’s image. As a Jew, I have always loved America, the world’s first modern republic dedicated to the notion that all people are of infinite value and free and that no one is born more royal than anyone else. And Jews have prospered mightily in this country.
But against the backdrop of that love of country was the knowledge that just 130 years ago black women were put on a block, their teeth and gums examined, sold to the highest bidder like cattle, their babies ripped from their arms to serve as human chattel.
Even after Abraham Lincoln took a bullet to the head after he had become the Great Emancipator, the iniquity continued with Jim Crow laws and segregation. Well into the 1960s, a hundred years after Lincoln, black kids playing baseball in the shimmering summer heat, beads of sweat dripping from their temples, were still not allowed to quench their thirst at water fountains reserved for white folks.
And now the most powerful man in the world is a man with black skin. If we in the Jewish community cannot celebrate that achievement, whatever disagreements we may have with the president-elect on some important policies, then we have no sense of history.
We who know what it is like to be targeted for our very being salute a man who caused others to transcend their innate prejudice. And we who know what it is like to be hated when we have caused no offense pay homage to a man who has caused others to rise above their personal demons and embrace the better angels of their nature.
Three summers ago, I drove my children out to Memphis, Tennessee to experience the last days of Martin Luther King, Jr. We stopped at the Masonic Temple where he declared, just 22 hours before he died, “tonight I am fearing no man because the Lord has taken me over the mountain.”
And as we stood outside the patio of the Lorraine Motel, where an assassin’s bullet took the civil rights leader’s life, I read the haunting words on a marble slab that had been put there just one week after his death by his dear friend Ralph Abernathy. It quoted from the book of Genesis and the story of Joseph: “Behold, there cometh the dreamer. Come let us slay him and let us see what shall become of his dreams.”
We have all just seen what has become of Dr. King’s dream.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s daily national radio show on “Oprah and Friends” can now be heard on Sirius 195 as well as XM 156.