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Ta-Nehisi Coates and Yom Kippur

 

My Rabbi came up to me after services in September, a week before the high holidays, to ask if I would be willing to do one of the readings for Yom Kippur afternoon. I think they’d run out of volunteers to take part in the services, so he threw up his hands and asked me.

He brought me to the synagogue library, where he had lined up all of the poems on the table, in the order in which they would be read during the Yom Kippur afternoon services. He had a piece in mind for me, a poem by Marge Piercy that looked very long. He said I could read the Marge Piercy, or really, I could choose whichever one I wanted. I started to read through a couple of the other pieces and he laughed at me, because I’d read all of them a few times over when I helped with the proofreading a few weeks earlier, but, my memory’s not so good.

I glanced across the table and saw the Ta-Nehisi Coates piece and just grabbed it, because that was the one, of everything I’d read, that echoed for me. I felt the same way with that piece as I’d felt when I asked if I could adopt Butterfly, and the woman at the shelter said yes. You mean, you don’t have to save her for someone more worthy?!

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My Butterfly.

After I’d made my choice, the rabbi told me that it would be part of something called the “Martyrology.” I’d never heard of a Martyrology before, and he described it, or at least this iteration of it, as a focus on what it is like to be Black in America right now. A young (white) man from our synagogue came up with the idea, and he was bringing two friends to speak about their experiences, and congregants (including me) would read three poems, to echo their message, and fill out the ceremonial quality of the event.

The rabbi said it might be cheesy, but I stuck to my choice.

It took me about three seconds after leaving the library to realize what I’d just agreed to – reading in public, dressed up, in heels, at the podium, in front of a crowd (the whole sanctuary, plus the social hall behind it, was filled for that service by the way, and if I’d known that ahead of time there would have been vomiting).

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“Mommy, you look ill.”

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“Are you gonna puke?”

At the same time, we had a weekly assignment in my Human Rights and Social Justice class (for social work school), to write a journal entry about the assignments and readings and anything else going on with us each week related to social justice. It was an opportunity to complain to our teacher, or consider new ideas, or confide internal conflicts or limitations or prejudices where no one else could read it.

My teacher was an African American man, with two young daughters, so when I knew I would be reading a piece from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book, Between the World and Me, I wrote to him about my concerns, that I was usurping this story in some way, or misrepresenting it. I felt guilty in particular for taking this full-throated rant about race, and applying it to my own experiences, which are not about race at all. And I wanted permission to read it anyway, from a black man who could stand in for Ta-Nehisi Coates in a pinch. The teacher wrote back to me and told me to go for it, and be loud!

I read the two or three paragraphs to myself, and then to the dogs out loud, every day leading up to Yom Kippur, because I was terrified of reading in public, but also because reading it made me feel better. To write a book to your son, even if it is also a book to the world, is a way of saying – you matter. I would tell this story only to you. I have told this story only to you over and over again. I would spend years of my life talking to you and sharing with you even if no one else ever heard me, because this love between us deserves that level of effort and care and communication.

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Reading to the girls. Clearly they are fascinated.

The words, and the fact that I could hear them out loud in my own voice, were soothing. They reached into corners of my mind and body that are usually ignored. When I read the line “It is truly horrible to understand yourself as the essential below of your country,” I felt it deep in my bones. I don’t think this is necessarily how other people see me, but it is how I see myself: as subterranean. And I’ve taken the same comfort in the “struggle to understand” as Ta-Nehisi Coates has taken. I’m a writer because I need to be, because I have to struggle with how I see the world and myself every day.

The reality of the Martyrology was so much more powerful than I’d expected. First, the young man from the congregation spoke about how he’d grown up on Long Island, in a largely white town and largely white school and largely white synagogue, and it wasn’t until he went to the city for college that he met people whose experiences of the world were really different from his own. But it was the two speakers themselves, confronting us with the ways people like us have ignored them and mistreated them, which made the deepest impression on all of us. Everyone in the synagogue stood up and clapped when they were done, in the middle of the service, on Yom Kippur afternoon.

I was barely a blip in the program, but it meant a lot to me. Maybe people assumed I was just reading for Ta-Nehisi Coates, who for some reason could not make it to our Yom Kippur services on Long Island, but really, I was speaking or me, for the parts of me that have been ignored, mistreated, and pushed aside; the parts of me who rarely get to speak up in public, and be heard.

 

Ta-Nehisi Coates. (2015) Between the World and Me, New York: Spiegel and Grau.

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About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

86 responses »

  1. Your girls are always such a delight to see, Rachel…simply adorable!!

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  2. A milestone — breakghrough! Good for you Rachel, amazing story. Wish I’d been there!

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  3. excellent- good for you. I do love your little guys always there for support- cutest photos!

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  4. What a perfect piece to read, what a perfect circumstance in which to read it and for what perfect reasons to find it so satisfying. And you survived the public performance. What an experience.

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  5. That we all have subterranean chambers in which we struggle to undetsand is one of the greatest blessings of being embodied (human or canine or otherwise). To go there is a calling, and those who do have much to offer in calling others to their own depths. Thanks for this one too!

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  6. Were you loud, as your teacher recommended? I’m looking up Te-Nehisi Coates!

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  7. Why did this not show up in my email–if it as Saturday, it must be Rachel?! I am so very, very proud and happy for you, Rachel. You did it–for you! Your girls must be beaming! 😀

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  8. Good for you for finding your voice! It is not an easy thing to do, but so worth it….

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  9. Splendid, Rachel. We are all proud of you! Pip

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  10. That was very touching. Thank you.

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  11. Happy holidays, past and on coming. The girls look delicious!

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  12. Wonderful post!! Your support buddies are adorable as always! 🙂

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  13. How fantastic, I empathized completely with everything you wrote about public speaking, I was cheering the entire time 😀

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  14. This is so well written and moving, thank you. Love your support buddies as always.

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  15. I’m glad you had a great experience and hopefully it helped you to overcome your anxiety about speaking in public. I have the other side of that dilemma – I always enjoyed speaking to large groups (within reason). I always jokingly said give me a microphone and a captive audience and I can talk about anything for 45 minutes… I guess I like hearing my own voice and I almost always agree with my points of view 🙂 What I learned over time that when someone asked me to speak at my church, at work, at my children’s school n’s that it wasn’t about me; It wasn’t a forum for participants to hear or learn about me. It was about the content they were asking me to cover and speak about.

    My point is that although you have this anxiety of speaking in public and I get ego-centric satisfaction when doing so that it’s not about either one of us. It’s about the words, their meaning, and how they may inspire or teach someone else. We are only the vehicles to deliver the thoughts and perspectives. In your case your Rabbi made a very good choice is asking you to be that vehicle. Even the smallest of blips can make a big difference.

    p.s. – I’m also glad you didn’t vomit 🙂

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  16. Loved the post! And your girls are beyond cute!

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  17. Can you post the poem Rach?
    I think the ‘girls’ were actually thinking, shut up mummy and get t the chicken……….x

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  18. Talk about being oppressed, your girls weren’t allowed to see you do this.

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  19. That was beautiful. Well done.xxoo

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  20. You remind me so much of a friend of mine who also always wants to save things “for someone more worthy”! How interesting it is that the people with the best hearts are often the ones who blame and criticise themselves. Congratulations on overcoming your fear!

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  21. I always find the way you surmount your fears and trepidations a wonderful form of courage. Also the way you share with us, Your posts have helped me with a new client who has been evolving out of a life of “I am not worthy”. . .

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  22. Public speaking is very scary. I did it once, and it’s quite unnerving to feel as though you are being scrutinized. Well done, Rachel!

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  23. This is powerful. I’m very glad it went well.

    I was interested about the rabbi’s introduction of “martyrology” because an interest in martyrs – in some quarters almost an obsession with them – is a very strong strand in traditional Christianity and I hadn’t realised it would be so present in Judaism too, though I knew it appeared in Islam and for that matter, in Sikhism.

    Your story reminds me about something in one of our newspapers over here about a young couple, a white Jewish man and a Black woman. They met when she was reading Anne Frank’s Diary on the Underground in London. He was curious and asked her why she, a Black non-Jewish woman, was interested in this. Her first reaction was that he was pretty ignorant if he didn’t understand why a Black person could relate to Anne Frank’s story. But from that grew further conversation and then love.

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  24. Lovely article, and precious pups!

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  25. I loved this. and of course I love your writing and your sweet babies. ANd never be terrified to read in public! I am sure you did fine!

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  26. I’m glad you were able to participate and I’m sure you did so superbly. I’d far rather READ something in public than have to speak. And I volunteer to do a prayer in our meeting on Sunday fairly often, and many say they could NEVER pray in public either. So I guess one finds one’s comfort zone and does the best they can if forced out of it, hmm? Butterfly and Cricket are so lovely and they are obviously in a great home where they have all the creature comforts — but far better — a lot of love!

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  27. Great post – and I am glad you got through without the vomiting (I can’t say the same thing for many of the days when I am nervous about something – see, e.g., getting married, when it happened multiple times. And sorry if that is far too much information!).

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  28. Great post Rachel and well done . I am afraid the prospect of that would make me feel quite wobbley.
    Have a great week.
    Regards
    Sheila

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  29. Beautifully stated. Wonder if you have read Carry On, Warrior?

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  30. Thank you for this great post, Rachel. I think I will order the book. (Ta-Nehisi Coates. (2015) Between the World and Me, New York: Spiegel and Grau.) And I wish I could have heard you speak! You suffer from some of the same insecurities and angst as I do, so always know you’re not alone.

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  31. Hi again. I would love to repost this on my blog site. But I would not without your permission. Would that be okay with you? I have a friend that works with inner city African Americans and points me to contemporary books on social justice or lack thereof for the black population. And I have a cousin that freelances for the Chicago Tribune which recommended Coates book. Your writing is a blessing!

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  32. hola soy ecuatoriana y me gusta mucho tu perrito

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  33. I just read this piece for the first time. It is moving and seems especially appropriate for our current time. Thanks.

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