Inorder to understand my decision in context, you need to know that inmy new novel, Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate, Zach Levy, an ACLU lawyer and the son of Holocaust survivors, is on a mission to fulfill his promise to his dying mother that he would marry a Jew and raise Jewish children. However things get complicated whenone day, at the founding conference of the Black-Jewish Coalition of New York, Zach meets and falls in love with Cleo Scott, an African-American talk show host. As the old saying goes, “Man plans, God laughs.”
The relationship between Zach and Cleo unspools in the foreground of the larger relationship between the black and Jewish communities in New York. Rising tensions reached a boiling point during the 1984 Presidential campaign after Jesse Jackson famously called the city “Hymietown,” and a Jewish businessman retaliated with a full-page ad in The Times that excoriated the black Democratic candidate and insisted “a Jew would have to be crazy to vote for Jackson.”
Having lived through that volatile period and participated in two different black-Jewish dialogue groups (one of which met monthly for ten years), I have strong opinions on the subject of black-Jewish relations, not all of which surfaced in my final manuscript. For instance, this passage:
Zach could well understand why “Hymietown” might offend Jewish ears; surely blacks would be similarly affronted if a white candidate called the city “Coontown.” But unlike many of his fellow Jews, he did not believe Jackson’s use of the term proved the candidate an irredeemable anti-Semite. By the same token, unlike many black people, Zach did not think Jews were purposely magnifying the incident in order to turn off liberal voters and bring down America’s first politically viable black presidential hopeful.
As he waited for the meeting of the Black-Jewish Coalition to begin, he thought about the disparate impact of variousstereotypes. Clearly, neither “Hymie” nor “Coon” flatters the group it purports to describe. But stereotypes like, “Jews are smart” or “Jewish men make the best husbands,” never spawned a Jewish protest. Nor did assertions such as, “Blacks are better athletes” or “Blacks are great dancers” upset most African-Americans. So when people said they hate stereotypes, Zach knew that what they really meant was they hate negative stereotypes. Generalizations that cast their own group in a positive light were perfectly acceptable.
“Jews are clannish” could go either way. Negative: Jews stick to their own kind and care only about themselves. Positive: Jews support and defend each other, especially when they’re under attack.
That explained why so many Jewish VIPs had given up a beautiful spring afternoon to come to today’s meeting. Rather than Jackson’s jibe registering simply as a negative stereotype, it seemed to mark a profound and disturbing shift in the two groups’ relationship. Some Jews felt the “Hymietown” incident was a measure of black-Jewish alienation, a symbol of the irreparable tear in the two groups’ historic bonds, and a sign that the once-dependable solidarity of the Civil Rights era was a thing of the past. A new poll that showed increasing anti-Semitism among younger African-Americans, and virulent hostility from the black minister Louis Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam added to manyJews’discomfort. They felt under attack and vulnerable; they wanted reassurance from their African-American counterparts that the old alliance was intact.
Why did I jettison that passage? Because it was polemical, more op-ed thanliterary prose. I also thought Zach’s assumptions about his fellow Jews’ motivations for attending the meeting were presumptuous. So out it went.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a founding editor of Ms. magazine and the author of eleven books. Read more about her here. And if you’re in NYC, you can meet the author and hear her speak about her book tonight, May 20th at 7 PM at Book Culture, 450 Columbus Avenue (81−82 St) in Manhattan.
- Reading List: Justice, Civil Rights, and Race Relations
- Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America by Eric J. Sundquist
- There’s Something About Moses by Mary Glickman