June 11, 1998
Parashat Behaalotecha (Numbers8:1-12:16)
Striking the S-Word
By Rabbi Steven Z. Leder
I never heard the N-word, growing up, because we were Jewish. For my parents, the S-word sufficed. Although they never would have denied someone an opportunity based on skin color, it was " schvartzes " who tried to rob my Uncle Max and Auntie Jean at their grocery store. When "schvartzes" moved into the neighborhood, it was time to sell the house. My dad had "a big schvartze" who worked in his scrap yard.
In second grade, I anxiously arrived one morning to tell my teacher, Mrs. Carlson, a joke I heard the night before at a family gathering. I didn't really understand the joke, but everyone sure laughed loud and long when my cousin told it. So I thought I'd give it a shot.
"Hey, Mrs. Carlson, why doesn't the United States annex Africa?" I asked.
"I don't know," she replied earnestly.
"Because then we couldn't say, 'Send them back where they came from,'" I answered with a proudly delivered punch line.
I really don't remember Mrs. Carlson's reaction. But I do remember her beginning class the next day with a long lecture about a word called racism and about a student who had told her a joke that she knew he probably didn't understand, but that was a wrong and hurtful joke nevertheless. Mrs. Carlson made it clear that I had learned something wrong. Maybe you have too.
Remember the scene in "Blazing Saddles" when Mel Brooks played an Indian chief who, along with his warriors, encountered a black family making its way across the plains in a covered wagon?
"Hmm, schvartzes," he said in a language that non-Jewish moviegoers assumed to be Apache or Sioux, but that cracked up practically every Jew in the theater. The S-word has become so much a part of our life, we don't think twice before laughing at it. But we're not quite so nonchalant about Jesse Jackson's use of the word "hymie," are we?
While in rabbinical school, I was teaching about the commandment "love your neighbor as yourself" to the adult-education class at my student pulpit in Texas.
"But what if it's a schvartze?" an older man half-jokingly asked from the back of the room. A lot of the others laughed along with him. Amazingly, the man who posed the question was a Holocaust survivor, a victim of this century's worst racism.
Last December, a Jewish parent at my kids' school approached me on the playground and suggested I do something about Chanukah for her son's class, since "they already had four schvartzes talk about Kwanza."
Sadly, none of this is really new. According to this week's Torah portion, some 3,000 years ago, Miriam and Aaron ridiculed their brother, Moses, for marrying a "Cushite" woman. A Cushite woman is another way of saying an Ethiopian or Sudanese woman, which is another way of saying a black woman, which is another way of saying schvartze, which, whether we want to admit it or not, is just another way of saying nigger.
For this obvious racial slur against blackness, God ironically afflicts Miriam with leprous, scaly skin "as white as snow."
I've come a long way since telling Mrs. Carlson why the United States couldn't annex Africa. It took years of honest conversation with my African-American college roommate, a senior thesis on James Baldwin, organizing conferences and dialogues with young African leaders in Los Angeles, my wife and I making a deliberate decision to send our kids to a multicultural school, refusing to tolerate the s-word from my parents or anyone else, and a willingness to admit the depth of Jewish bigotry while at the same time taking pride in those Jews who have worked to end it.
This week, the Torah makes it clear that Jewish bigotry existed at the highest levels 3,000 years ago. It infuriated God and almost killed Miriam. The truth is that things haven't changed enough in 3,000 years.
The logical conclusion is really pretty simple. If bigotry was wrong then, it's wrong now. If we don't wise up, we, too, shall surely suffer.
Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is a spiritual leader at Wilshire Boulevard Temple .