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The Memory of Abraham Joshua Heschel at Selma: The Whiteness and/or Non-Whiteness of Ashkenazi Jews in America

Sun, December 16, 12:30 to 2:00pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Harborview 1 Ballroom

Abstract

This paper will look at the memorialization and the pervasive Jewish memory of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s involvement with the civil rights movement of the 1960s – particularly his involvement in the historic 1965 march in Selma organized by Martin Luther King Jr. Specifically, this paper will use the children’s book AS GOOD AS ANYBODY as an entry-point into this discussion. In AS GOOD AS ANYBODY, Heschel and King Jr. are both presented as having similar experiences of prejudice when they were children which caused them to fight for justice as adults. By placing the experiences of Holocaust-refugee Heschel and Black American King Jr. together, AS GOOD AS ANYBODY suggests that both Jews and Black Americans experience similar experiences of racism. The racialization of Jews in the postwar period was undergoing a time of transition and change. While Ashkenazi Jews today are commonly (if not without some resistance) described as White, it was during the postwar years of the 1950s-1960s when the economically-upwardly-mobile Ashkenazi Jews started to become “coded” as White, or White-passing. Jodi Eichler-Levine, in her discussion of the work, states that “the perfectly parallel constructions of Heschel’s and King’s lives is, ironically enough, separate but equal: the two men’s stories are told in succession, on separate pages in separate color pallets, until the last two pages, which portray the march.” This parallel structure serves to twin the life experiences of Heschel and King as not identical, but similar – ultimately suggesting that the lived experience of Jews and Blacks of the past were similar. The continual remembrance of Heschel’s involvement in the civil rights movement and, in particular, his participation on the march in Selma, serve to strengthen this process of memorialization. Significantly, this paper will argue, that this process memorializes not only Heschel’s involvement at the march, but also a time when Jews were definitively not White. AS GOOD AS ANYBODY, a picture book aimed at young children, both memorializes this memory of a time when Jews were Others, and seeks to pass it on to new generations of Jewish Americans.

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