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Dear Family and Friends

I was asked to write some reminiscences  of Michael for Temple Israel of No. Westchester in Croton on Hudson, N.Y. especially for young people who did not know him.  We were there from 1960 to 1989 when so much that I write about occurred.  —–   Blessings to you all,   Ruth

 

: Memories of Rabbi Michael Robinson
What a time this is!  and how joyous Michael Robinson would have been to witness the amazing events that we have seen this week.        

It started so much earlier, when he was young and refused to sit inthe back of the bus, when he sat in at lunch counters where they refused to serve blacks,  while he was a student at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

 He did civil disobedience through the years, protesting the unfairness of white society.  When in 1964  Martin Luther King sent out a call for rabbis to protest in St. Augustine, he went with 15 other rabbis and  was jailed under the watchful eyes ofKu Klux Klan members.  
He was in Selma, Alabama after Bloody Sunday, where African Americans were marching in the struggle for voting rights.   He went on a White Community Listening project in Jackson, Miss. where heheard many leaders of the city express their beliefs that segregation was right, until some of them talked themselves out of it and said, ”I guess we have to change now.”.
He was in Washington, D. C.  when King made his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Michael, ever steeped in  Jewish beliefs and commandments, was a man with the  courage of his convictions, who never stopped being a part of the struggle for social justice and peace,  with compassion for all, and the willingness to do the right thing as he saw it wherever that might lead.  How delighted he would be to see thinauguration of Barack Obama as president of these United States.

A very sad day in my life, during Michael’s last illness,  was when someone  called on the phone needing him to intercede, and he said to me, “I can’t help anyone anymore”.  We were blessed to have him for 81
years. May he rest in peace.

May we be blessed and able to do our part to help change the world,

Ruth Robinson

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A Jew in the Blue Ridge

An Essay by Michael A. Robinson

I don’t know when I first was conscious of myself as a Jew. Judaism was a given in our family life. Table prayers with special prayers on the eve of the Sabbath were a normal part of our life. Every Friday morning we would come downstairs to the smell of challah baking in the oven.

Friday evening the table was beautifully set with the brass candlesticks at the center of the table and my father’s silver kiddush cup (chalice) at his place and the fresh baked challah, beautifully braided, on the table.On the Sabbath we had a first course to make dinner special, usually fruit cup in a compote at each place. The ceremony began with my mother lighting the candles and saying the blessing, then my father holding up the kiddush cup and and reciting his prayer which began “Let us praise God with this symbol of joy, and thank God for the blessings of the past week…” and ending with the Hebrew blessing.

The bread was blessed next, then we began a special dinner, frequently deep fat Southern fried chicken and fried kreplach, an eastern European Jewish meat filled dumpling.Until I was in school I don’t think I could have been aware that this wasn’t taking place in everyone’s home. Although at some point I began to be aware that others were celebrating Christmas when we were celebrating Chanukah.

I gradually became aware that we were different, that our neighbors all went to church on Sunday while we went to synagogue on Friday night. In our little town, in the 1920’s and 30’s, most of the Jews were in professions or retail business. Most of the country people came to town on Saturday to do their business, see the doctor, etc. It was impossible for most Jews to observe the Sabbath.Saturday was the busiest day of the week in my father’s office. Every seat in his waiting room might be filled. Many of the mountain people did not make appointments. They would sit and wait until the doctor could see them, reading magazines, nursing babies or just sitting quietly.

The Friday evening worship was the congregational service at our Temple, which before the late 1890’s had been a Baptist Church.The rhythm of our life was different. Our religious life intensified in the fall with the holydays of Rosh Hashanah (New Years) and Yom Kippur ( the day of Atonement). If these fell on weekdays, we missed school. Of course the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter were school vacations, while school did not acknowledge Chanukah or Passover.At Newton Academy School, the oldest school for white children west of the Blue Ridge (did the Indians have schools?), our assemblies began with the singing of hymns from the Golden Book of Famous Songs. “Onward Christian Soldiers marching as to war..” did not make me feel good long before I understood that this hymn referred to the Crusades which were a time of terror and death for the Jews of western Europe as well as for those in the land of Israel.Years later when I was in the Navy, the chaplains couldn’t understand how I knew all the Protestant hymns. I lived in a Protestant culture. I went to a Protestant school. I was an outsider. The upside was that, with Southern peity, I learned to recite many of the Psalms, all that I know by heart now, in Miss Cunningham’s third grade class.Although we had 100 members in our Temple, all of the children in our congregation had the experience of being the only Jew in their class, as was true for all the children in my family.

Only when I was in an advanced Math class in high school was I finally in a class with other Jews. Ma Bryson (we only called her Mrs. Bryson if we were angry with her) called the class “little Jerusalem.” Ma Bryson was in her 60’s and had never had a class with four Jews before.”We might as well call off class tomorrow”, she would say, “it is a Jewish holiday and no one will be here.”We were very much a part of that southern mountain culture although we also stood apart from it. This was especially clear in our attitude towards colored people, as African Americans were called then. My parents paid household help twice what our neighbors did. It still was far from a living wage.

My father’s office was the only professional office in our town that did not have a separate waiting room or a separate day to see colored people. It was also one of the few places in our town where a colored person was addressed as “mister”  or “ma’am” instead of being called by first name or “uncle” or “auntie”. Some white people, usually upper class, walked out when a colored patient was called to come into the examining room before they were.

For some it was just too much to sit next to a colored person in gthe waiting room. This was during the depression and my father had a large household to feed, but he could do it no other way. I do not remember my parents ever telling any of us that we were not to refer to colored people in derogatory terms. We just knew that we couldn’t. That’s the edge we had from being different. No wonder then that some people spoke of colored people, white people, and Jews.

When I grew up there, Jews were one tenth of one percent of the populaton of North Carolina, most were in the piedmont, not the mountains. When my mother grew up in Asheville there were not so many Jews.On Galveston Island in Texas where my father grew up there may have been a few more Jews, but not a whole lot more. We all were used to being ourselves, faithful to our own traditions, even when we were a tiny minority. In our town, with its Southern Protestant Biblical religion, there was a respect for us as the people of the Bible, even though it was hard for them to believe that we did not accept Christ as the unique son of God and our saviour.My mother had her high school education at a Catholic boarding school in town. Her mother took her out on Wednesday nights to go to Christain Science meeting (my grandmother was a corresponding member of the Jewish Science Society in New York) and on Friday night to go to services at the Temple.

Living in a world of Christians was our way of life.It isn’t hard for me to realize why I liked going to Sunday School. It was a rare opportunity to be with other Jewish young people. Our congregation rented an old shingled home in a neighborhood close to town. We always began Sunday School with an assembly. The double doors between the front and back parlors were open and forty of us sat on folding chairs and sang “We meet again in gladness, and thankful voices raise; to God our heavely father, we tune our grateful praise.”

I had the same five children in my class from kindergarten to eighth grade, when I quit Sunday school to hike with my Dad and the Carolina Mountain Club on Sundays.My Dad had been Sunday School Superintendent, but he knew that I had gotten all I could out of our little Sunday School whose teachers were upper division high school students and young single women from our community.

Now the mountains could teach me spirituality. It was really in our home I had learned Judaism. In addition, our family never missed a Sabbath evening service at the Temple. If we were invited to a party on Friday night, my Dad dropped us off after Temple services. The other members of my Sunday school class never became friends. We lived on the other side of town and I never saw them outside of Sunday school.The two other large Jewish families on our side of town who were members of our congregation sent their children to private schools. I never dated a Jewish girl until I was in the navy.

My father’s integrity, community service and faithfulness won him respect in the wider community. When Kenilworth, our neighborhood, was given a building for a community club, he was acknowledged. For years there never was an event on Friday night because the Robinsons, the only Jewish members, could not or would not come.

I have my parents to thank for transmitting to us in our home the richness of Jewish tradition . From my father I learned the lessons of the biblical prophets lived out in everyday life in his office and in his integrity in the wider world. It was he, who many years later, pushed for the integration of the Boy Scout camp. From my gracious mother and her open hospitality, which extended from widows in the congregation to the widow of my father’s colored janitor, I learned what made a house a Jewish home.When refugees from Nazi Germany began to arrive in town, Sunday night became an open house, when all who wished could come to dinner.

When mother entertained the guest list nearly always extended beyond her social circle to include someone who needed to be included.My protective Dad was upset when my older brother, Emanuel, came into his office with the New York Times with a picture of me being arrested and jailed in the Civil Rights movement in St. Augustine, Fla.

I knew that I was only taking what they had taught me and modeled for me a little bit further. I reminded my parents on more than one occasion that “you made me what I am today and I hope you are satisfied”.

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