Since airing the day after Yom Kippur last year, Season 3 of the podcast “Serial” has been downloaded by millions of people. In this season, the host of the podcast, Sarah Koenig, presents listeners with the backstory of the criminal justice system in Cleveland, a city which is listed as the ninth “most dangerous” city in America.
Over the season, Koenig provides a jarring, methodical window into the inner workings of the criminal justice system in one American city. She includes, of course, the perspectives of prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges. But Koenig also follows the stories of the families that are caught up in cycles of arrests, court dates, incarceration, and probation. As the season progresses, we as listeners discover how even the most clear-cut of cases have layers of complication: prior-offenses, biases, and mandatory-minimums.
Koenig does not seek to excuse or absolve criminal acts in broad strokes. Instead, she provides a larger context to reframe the issue of fairness and justice in the judicial system itself. Koenig invites listeners to think about the city of Cleveland overall: the structures in place and other factors that contribute to the city’s core struggles.
Listening to the podcast, I could not help but think about the city of Nineveh that we read about each Yom Kippur in the book of Jonah. The book of Jonah essentially starts mid-broadcast: Nineveh has already been written off as an evil city when God states, “ki altah ra’atam,” “that their wickedness has risen” (Jonah 1:2).
Jonah not only flees from God to avoid Nineveh, but when he gets there, he gives its inhabitants the bare minimum of chances for success. Upon arriving, Jonah gives the city a “40 days or else” warning. Jonah does not, however, specifically ask the people to repent and change their ways. The Malbim, a 19th century rabbinic commentator, suggests that this omission was intentional. He postulates that Jonah did not offer the people of Nineveh a chance to repent because Jonah was eager for them “to go astray and not repent.” The Malbim’s explanation is rooted in what Jonah, an outsider, thought of the people who lived in this city. Nineveh might have had serious challenges, but Jonah had no faith in the possibility of rehabilitation on the part of the people.
Even once Jonah arrives in Nineveh, it’s still not clear why the city is on God’s list of most dangerous cities. After the people declare a fast and put on sackcloth, the king of Nineveh states, “Let each person turn from their evil ways, and from the violence that is in their hands” (Jonah 3:8). The word used here for violence (“chamas”) is reminiscent of the generation of the Flood (Genesis 6:11). But other than that, we do not know what “violence” has been in the hands of the people of Nineveh.
The only textual clue provided about the people of Nineveh themselves comes in the very last line of the Book of Jonah, when God states that the people of Nineveh “can’t tell the difference between their right hand and their left hand.” (Jonah 4:11). For the Malbim, this means that the people of Nineveh did not have the knowledge to distinguish between worshipping God, represented by the right hand, and worshipping idols, represented by the left hand. The Malbim understands God’s final statement as telling Jonah that the people should not be punished for their lack of knowledge. The narrative of Jonah concludes with God communicating that despite the city’s label and horrible reputation, Jonah must take note of all the facts on the ground and not be swayed by preconceived ideas.
We may never know the backstory of Nineveh, but what we do know is that it’s unhelpful to simply write off cities as dangerous or evil. The layers that podcast host Sarah Koenig reveal about the broken system of justice in Cleveland opens a new window into our understanding of Nineveh and cities like it. Koenig’s framework can help us to understand how the lives of many individuals caught up in the justice system are often deeply ingrained in the fact that they were born and raised in their respective cities.
This Yom Kippur, let’s think about turning our heads toward the Ninevehs around us. Statistics may say one thing but hearing the stories behind the individuals that make up cities like Cleveland help to shed light on a world that continues to need much fixing.
Rabbi Yael Buechler is the Lower School Rabbi at The Leffell School (formerly Schechter Westchester) and founder of MidrashManicures.com, which produces fashion accessories for Jewish holidays, including High Holiday Nail Decals.