Sign In Forgot Password

The Redemptive Power of Music:Siblings, Rivalries, & Reconciliations, Goodman and Armstrong, Jacob and Esau

11/21/2021 10:00:34 AM


Rabbi Jamie Arnold

Good morning.  On this glorious morning I say, thank you!  Pastor Martin and Kim, sister Val, Patrick, Eric and Mamie, Pamela, Sheila, and Elaine, Brenda, Catherine – thank you for inviting Laura and Francesca, and our friends from Congregation Beth Evergreen to sing with you, to worship with you.  Thank you for hosting us with such grace, and for inspiring us with your music, your word, and your faith.

It is no small act of grace - sharing your sacred songs with us, entrusting me with your pulpit, embracing this odd group of gospel wannabes, of milky white mountain Jews.  

We Jews have been praying for a return to Zion for millennia.  Who knew Zion was so close!  Here truly is a place where honey flows from the rock – a place to come taste a land of promise, where milk and honey can flow bountifully together.

This kind of collaboration feels new, and it is.  It is a new blossom, a new fruit, a new branch, reaching towards the light, but I assure you, it is not a new tree.  We are NOT the first to mix things up a bit.  The biblical name for our people, the Hebrews, Ivrim, in the sacred tongue of our scriptures, in Hebrew, ivrim means those who mix it up! Today, here in this room, we are all Hebrews!  We may be the latest fruits of this cross fertilization, but we are rooted in one ancient, ancestral tree.

In scripture, we find the roots of such cross-cultural partnerships in the bonds between woman like Sarah and Hagar, Naomi and Ruth, in men like Jethro and Moses.  We’ve been mixing it up four, nearly five, thousand years.  

And here on this American soil, the natural if at times shaky alliance, specifically between African Americans and Jewish Americans, goes back centuries.  The is old and new.  Before returning to our shared scriptures, would you indulge me in a detour through a bit of American popular music.  Are you with me?  Because the black -Jewish alliance in music goes much deeper than the fame of black Jews like Sammy David, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz, and Jewish rappers like Drake.  And the collaboration between Paul Simon and Lady Smith Black Mombasa did not spring out of nowhere.  Those diamonds on the soles of her shoes have a history worthy of our attention.  

This history reminds us that what we’re doing here today, making music together, it has ripple effects.  It has power.  Let’s take an historical tour of three cities.  Are you with me?

Harlem, NY: An Integrated Music Scene

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Jews and blacks lived side-by-side in New York and they made music together.  Jews sang music written by black composers.  Black musicians, like Paul Robeson and Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald honored Jewish culture and performed Jewish music as only they could.  And the combination of Jewish American and African American musical tropes formed what might be called the heart and soul of the great American songbook – particularly in jazz and musical theater.  It’s no accident that the great Jewish-American composers: Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Hammerstein, and others, came out of the integrated scene of New York and Harlem.   

New Orleans: Louis and the Karnofskys 

The Karnofskys were a poor American-Jewish family from Russia that survived by peddling junk in New Orleans.  In 1908, on their rounds, they picked up and fed an impoverished, 7-year-old black kid, who would attract customers by blowing on a tin horn.  Eventually, Morris Karnofsky bought the little trumpeter a cornet and helped give jazz one of its first great soloists.  That young man was Louis Armstrong, who wore a Jewish star, a magen David, around his neck all his life.

Chicago: Benny Goodman and his integrated band

As Louis Armstrong was singing Russian lullabies with the Karnofskys, a guy named Benny Goodman was hearing the music of New Orleans on the radio in the slums of Chicago and learning to play the clarinet.  While later dubbed a ‘king of swing’, the new sound that took America and the world by storm and was banned by the Nazis as “Jewish Music,” was a product of Jewish-black musical collaboration, of guys like Benny Goodman mixing it up with guys like Fletcher Henderson.  

As a band leader, Goodman formed the first integrated musical groups to perform on a national stage.  In 1938, Goodman and his band performed the first jazz concert in Carnegie Hall. He took a strong stand for racial integration, breaking the so-called color barrier in concert hall nearly a decade before Jackie Robinson did so on the baseball field.

Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman.  Each in his own way exemplifies the power and potential of what we can do together.  And yet, when they tried to tour together in the 1950’s there was a famous falling out.

In the 1960’s, Jewish Freedom Riders were arrested and killed alongside their black brethren, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma.  

And yet, in the 80’s, something shifted -- growing economic disparity, the impacts of ongoing systemic racism.  Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney sang about ebony and ivory living in perfect harmony, but a kind of resegregation was happening, at least in the communities where I was living – in Rochester, NY, in Philadelphia, in Buffalo, and continues here in Denver.    

    It’s a new testament echoing a story about our shared ancestor, recorded in Hebrew Scriptures.  A man whose family was forced by famine to migrate to Africa, and was enslaved there, a Hebrew slave in Africa.   We do not know if he was a musician like David, or Louis or Benny, but he was an ambitious dreamer and his name was Jacob, Yaakov, son of Isaac and Abraham, child of Rebecca and Sarah, and brother of Esau.  

The part of his story I want to highlight today, is his relationship with his brother Esau – it’s a story about a rivalry and an incomplete reconciliation.  It’s a story about two brothers, Jacob and Esau.  It’s also a story about two great world religions, Judaism and Christianity, Israel and Edom.  And it’s a story about two modest but mighty congregations here in Colorado.

Esau and Jacob, a good.  And, they inhabited different worlds.  Esau a man of the field, arms strong.  Jacob, a man of the tent, a good mind.  Jacob takes advantage of his brother’s hunger and his father’s blindness for economic gain, a birthright and a blessing.  He incurs Esau’s wrath, so moves in with a rich uncle in the suburbs for a spell.  And then, after a few decades, and a few wives, he wants to come home.  A reunion?  A reconciliation? But how?

The Torah tells us that as Jacob prepares to meet his brother, to reconcile, he does three things:  1) he divides his household into two camps.  2) he sends emissaries with gifts to his estranged brother.  And 3) he spends the night before the encounter wrestling with himself, with God and in so doing receives a new name.  Jacob becomes Israel.
Three responses to the prospect of reconciliation:

1)    Dividing our household.  This precaution is driven by fear.  If Esau attacks, then perhaps one of the two camps will escape and survive.  Jacob’s first impulse is defensive, and divisive.  It is natural, instinctual.  And dangerous, pitting sibling against sibling.  Sending Leah and her camp first to face Esau first reveals a favoritism, his bias -- he prefers Rachel to Leah.  

This is very human response.  

And then there is the divine response…

2)    Jacob sends messengers, angels – with gifts.  Messengers of peace, malachei hashalom.  In doing so, he responds to uncertainty with…vulnerability?  With generosity?!   Who does that?  Oh wait.  You did that!   We are doing that, lest we repeat the sins of Cain and Abel, and God hears more blood crying out from the earth.  And you, we, are in good company.  

a.    God sends Malchitzedek to Abraham
b.    And Jethro to Moses
c.    And Ruth to Naomi
d.    And Mordecai and Esther to the King of Persia

And these angels, our better angels, formed a ladder, a bridge, between:

a.    The Rev. Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel
b.    A Val Robinson and a Cheri Rubin
c.    A Pastor Martin and a Rabbi Arnold

And so today, I ask you, and you and you: “Which kind of angel are you?  Are you here today, a messenger of peace?  What kind of messenger are you?  What his you message?  Are you a messenger of peace?”  And not a quiet peace, a passive peace.  But an angel that is willing to mix it up for the sake of a lasting reconciliation, a lasting peace!  Are you willing to shake things up?  Are you a Hebrew too?  

3)    And, like Jacob, are you willing to wrestle, to wrestle with your own inner angels and demons?  To wrest a blessing out of the shadows of the night?  Are we willing to wrestle with our presumptions, our biases, our prejudices enshrined in names, names no longer serving us or God -- Jew and heathen, black and white, believers and non-believers, rich and poor, us and them, testaments Old and New.  

Am I willing to wrestle with my anti-black racism.  To wrestle with my antisemitic prejudices.  To wrestle with our humanity and a God of truth – and be called by, to be blessed by, a new name!

To be called by God.  And to name that calling.  
This is the calling and now is the time:  to complete the unfinished business of reconciliation – 

  • of brothers, of Jacob and Esau.  
  • Of sisters.  Of Rachel and Leah.  
  • of the organ and the guitar 
  • of Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman

It’s time Louis and Benny found a way to play together again.
It’s time that the embrace between Jacob and Esau endures beyond temporary truce to enduring collaboration.  
It’s time we sang a new song unto the Lord, 
And sang the old songs with new voices!
Its time to sing together and stand together, as we once did, to confront and defeat once and for all the real and toxic contagion of white nationalism.

God of love and justice.  Give us strength!
Strengthen is to share our song beyond these walls
Enable us to do our part, to vaccinate the world against hatred 
A contagion that targets both our communities
Make us your messengers of justice, 
your angels of reconciliation, 
your angels of peace, your malachei shalom.  
Help us be worthy of this calling, of your name, and your new name for us.  Halleluyah.

Wed, December 1 2021 27 Kislev 5782