What are they saying, Tati?” my daughter asks me.
Ravi is 2 and we are at her first rally.
There are hundreds of marchers and almost as many different slogans being chanted at this gathering in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Black lives matter!”
“All lives matter!”
“What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!”
“If we don’t get it, shut it down!”
“What are they shouting?” Ravi asks again.
I answer honestly. “A lot of different things. Tati is listening.”
It’s last Monday afternoon and we are walking downtown on Lexington Avenue with hundreds of other New Yorkers. The Granny Peace Brigade is here along with Students Against Violence. Seminaries, churches and youth groups fill the streets, with some notably absent synagogues.
“No justice — no peace!”
“Whose streets? Our streets!”
The march was called “Dream4Justice” and was organized by the Justice League and dozens of other clergy leaders, civil rights groups, grassroots organizations and local activists. I heard about it through a colleague’s Facebook page inviting friends to honor Dr. King’s legacy and acknowledge King’s unfulfilled dream of racial equality.
My friends from rabbinical school arrive wearing tallitot, and together we sing Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlov’s words: “The whole entire world is a very narrow bridge. But the main goal to recall: have no fear at all.”
“What synagogue are you from?” one young woman asks me. “I’m always looking for synagogues that are engaged with social justice work.”
Another person comes up a few blocks later asking to learn that Hebrew song she heard about fear.
The sky is blue after a thunderous Sunday and the air is crisp. I’m carrying Ravi, who is hugging my neck, her head buried in my shoulders, protecting her from the chill. My arms begin to feel weak.
“Do you want to go in the stroller?” I ask.
“No,” she says, “I’m marching.”
Helicopters float overhead, passersby stop to take pictures and wave. The neighborhood shifts drastically as we march down 110th Street from lower Harlem into the Upper East Side. Police officers accompany the protest the entire way down, guiding traffic, their presence poignant. At the beginning of the march, my friends and I approach some police officers thanking them for their service. Ravi waves.
Nearby, a group starts chanting: “NYPD, KKK, how many kids you kill today?”
I think about the dissonance the rally evokes and the competing messages the marchers project. To me, conflating the NYPD and KKK feels fanatical and offensive. And yet I am standing here alongside these marchers. I say to myself, there is a larger whole here.
“Tati, what are they saying?” Ravi’s question still lingers.
I notice a new sign.
“Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that,” says Dr. King.
I post the picture of the King quote to my Facebook page. I feel more at home behind this banner even though it’s not the catchiest refrain.
What are they saying?
Why am I here today? I ask my wife, Yael, this question and we offer each other our answers. We believe in the prophetic vision of Dr. King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. We spiritually empathize with the ongoing struggle for civil rights and fighting the poison of racism. We don’t agree with everyone here, nor with everyone’s banner or rallying cry. We do believe it’s important for us to hold the dissonance and model some type of integration for our daughter.
“Do you know where we’re marching until?” I ask a neighbor.
“To the United Nations,” comes an answer.
“It’s not only about King’s dream not being realized,” says one person, “it’s that police brutality is a global human rights issue.”
Seventy blocks south. I feel the pull to stay. Yael takes Ravi home. Slowly my friends start to head out as well, but there remains a large mass of marchers.
I feel like a bit of a follower, carried by a wave. I imagine the journey of the ancient Israelites, wondering if there was a freed Hebrew slave among the masses then who innocently and ignorantly didn’t know they were headed to the Promised Land and instead, was simply caught up in the sheer movement of people.
Hunter College. Bloomingdales. The Marriot Hotel.
We continue our trek down Lexington. I work as a rabbinic intern at Hunter College Hillel and have walked past these entrances on 68th many times but never before in the middle of the bustling street.
And so hundreds of us lie down in the middle of the avenue. Why is this a powerful experience? Silence falls over us. What are you lying down for?
Every couple of blocks the marching pauses and we stand still, reassembling. In these moments, I close my eyes. I feel alone and I feel part of something. I am a follower and I am a leader. I listen and I preach. I am a father and an activist, a husband and a rabbi in training.
I think of Walt Whitman’s words: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” Jewish legend teaches that the Torah has 70 faces, 70 modes of interpretation and understanding. The Torah describes God existing “betokh ha’arafel,” amid the fog, and that’s where it feels like I am today.
When Ravi grows up, I hope she will be able to discern through the dissonances she encounters for herself. In the meanwhile, I pray to keep and protect an open heart so that I can defy indifference, face confusion directly, not shy from questioning; that I may continue to march when motivated, speak up and act against injustice and stay attuned to the suffering of others, always listening and striving to understand, “What are they saying?”
Avram Mlotek is a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and a regular contributor to The Jewish Week.