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How Do We Want to be Remembered? | February 9, 2020

Rabbi Allison Berry

When we’re gone, how do we want to be remembered? These words flew through my mind this week, as I read about the death of Kobe Bryant, his 13 year-old daughter, and seven others in a helicopter crash on Sunday. This is the worst kind of senseless tragedy. My heart goes out to the families of all the victims.

In the New York Times, Marc Stein wrote in Bryant’s obit, that he was "a mammoth figure almost from the moment he arrived in the NBA.” Stein goes on to say a great many deserved things about Bryant.
But when I finished reading it, I was stunned. There was no mention of the woman Bryant allegedly raped in 2003.[1] Not a word about the 19 year old, her accusations, the victim-shaming that took place, the settlement out of court or the NDA she signed.[2]

It wasn’t until there was an outcry from readers, that the Times amended Bryant’s obituary to include this incident as part of the summation of his life.

And yet, there it is - this challenge to Bryant’s story and legacy.

The day after Bryant’s death, attorney and writer, Jill Filopovic wrote: “It’s uncomfortable to raise the worst thing someone has ever done when that someone dies, and when they are beloved. And I suppose it matters that I write this as someone who thinks that very, very few of us are all good, or all bad…[It is clear] We still don’t know how to tell human stories when a human’s life ends, only hero’s journeys or villains’ defeats...Maybe the stories we tell...should strive to be true for better or worse.”[3]

How do we want to be remembered?

In the 1960's, Sol Tepper was a highly respected figure in Selma, Alabama. The child of Jewish immigrants, his family made their way to Selma and opened the successful Tepper’s Department Store. Sol played an important role in the city and supported many charities. In 1965, Sol wrote to another Jew, scolding him, “I am proud of my Jewish heritage. I am not proud that you call yourself a Jew. In fact, I say you are not.”[4]

His letter was written just weeks after the events of Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, when black residents and Civil Rights activists planned a march from Selma to Montgomery to demand the right to vote for all black citizens.

Instead of a peaceful march, there was a riot. Police set dogs on the marchers, shot tear gas into the crowd, and a mob of white residents including the police attacked, resulting in one death and dozens of injuries.
So, who was Sol Tepper and why did he send that letter? I learned about him this past weekend when our Temple Shalom Etgar36 group traveled to Selma.[5] It turns out Sol Tepper was not only a local business leader and a supporter of charitable causes. He was a bigot, he was an outspoken proponent of segregation and he was a proud and active member of what was called the “White Citizen’s Council.”

He wrote the letter I quoted to a rabbi who had come to Selma to support the cause of Civil Rights because in Sol’s eyes, this rabbi was no longer fit to be called a Jew.[6]

As Jews, we like to talk about how proud we are of our historic commitment to Civil Rights. We nod when we hear about the freedom riders - many of them Jews - who made their way South to support the integration of the transit system. We proudly tell people about our friend or our cousin who headed South to work on voter registration. We Google the picture of Abraham Joshua Heschel walking beside Martin Luther King on the successful march to Montgomery. As a Jewish community we have much to be proud of.

But this past weekend in Selma, we also opened ourselves up to an uncomfortable truth: there were Jews on both sides of the Edmund Pettus bridge.[7] And they remain there still.

How do we want to be remembered?

Our Torah portion this week, Parashat Bo, tells us about a night several thousand years ago, when darkness fell over the land of Egypt. As instructed by God, the Israelites placed the blood of a lamb on the doorposts of their homes. When the angel of death descended upon the land, all the firstborn children of Egypt died except the firstborn who lived in homes whose doorposts were stained with blood.

Our Torah portion describes what happens next, “And Pharaoh arose in the night, with all his courtiers and all the Egyptians - because there was a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where someone was not dead.”[8]

Imagine the wails of mothers and fathers who lost their children that night. Imagine the cries of children who lost their parents. Actually, I don’t want to imagine it.

But as we know, this horrific moment is the apex of the Exodus story. Pharaoh relented and the Israelites marched out of the land of Egypt. This trek was not without further complication - we all know the ending - the Sea of Reeds parts and the Israelites cross to the other side. The Egyptian army drowns in the sea.

When we read the Song of the Sea next week, we will literally hear in the chanting of the text, the sound of the Israelites rejoicing.[9] Each year, we relive this collective memory that for the Jewish people is a mixture of awe and relief and the unadulterated joy of achieving a longed-for freedom.

And yet, in a footnote, we find this short Midrash: After the Israelites cross the Sea, the ministering angels want to sing along with their song of celebration. “But the Holy One, Blessed be God, says to them, ‘The work of My hands, the Egyptians, are drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing?’ We do not rejoice over the downfall of the wicked.”[10]

The Israelites have cause to rejoice, and yet, thousands of Egyptians, also beloved by their families, lie dead. And so, our tradition teaches, during our greatest moments of joy, it is incumbent upon us to tell the whole story, the story that is often larger and more complex: the world is imperfect and not yet complete because somewhere, another human being experiences pain.

We are taught that when we give a Hesped - a eulogy for the dead, we should mention and even enhance a person’s generosity and kindness, their prowess on the sports field, or their success in business...and we must not ignore or white-wash the stories of those who did terrible or hurtful things.

Our eulogies must be respectful, but it is only when we paint a picture of someone in all of their fullness, that we can truly mourn what we have lost.[11]

How do we want to be remembered?

In a Midrash I’m pretty sure none of you have ever heard, there is yet one more surprising footnote. You may be astonished to hear: Pharaoh didn’t drown at the Sea of Reeds. That moment at the Sea, well, it was not his last. Pharaoh, as Pirkei D’Rabbi Eleazar teaches, is exiled from Egypt and becomes the King of Nineveh.

As Nineveh’s ruler, he meets the Prophet Jonah. Jonah comes before him to deliver God’s prophecy: the people of Nineveh must repent or die. And what happens? Pharaoh, the King of Nineveh - well, his hardened heart begins to thaw. He rises from his throne, and puts on sackcloth and ashes. He examines his actions, finds them wanting, and repents, calling upon his people to do the same.[12]

Each of us are more than the worst thing we have ever done.[13] And that holds true for Kobe Bryant. Maybe Sol Tepper. And even Pharaoh. Especially Pharaoh.

How do we want to be remembered?

Jill Filopovic writes, “If we want our heroes to be better men, and if we want more of our heroes to be women, and if perhaps we want a world in which our stories are more honest than the framework of heroes and villians allows, well - we have to start by telling the whole truth. All of our lives leave ripples. Some lives are tsunamis.” [Justice, and mercy and] “compassion [are] not about summarizing the beauty of the wave; [they’re about] picking through the wreckage [and] reckoning with who was hurt.”[14]

Each of us are more than the worst thing we have ever done.[15] But that does not mean we can leave out the parts of our story that make us uncomfortable. There can be no honest reckoning and there can be no growth, when we ignore bitter and hard realities.

This past weekend in Selma, we, a group of white, upper middle class Jews, allowed ourselves to learn about the past in new ways, and acknowledge some of the worst deeds we have ever done.

We learned that ignoring an ugly reality doesn’t erase that it happened and continues to happen.

We learned that our inability to face the fullness of our past, doesn’t mean that those who were harmed have forgotten. They will never forget.

Last weekend in Alabama, we learned to wrestle with our own complacency, our conscious and unconscious bias, shame, and the idea that no matter how opposed we are to racism, for those of us who are white, we are part of a system from which we benefit, while others, because of the color of their skin, are left behind.

And, we learned that when we tell a story that excludes the hard stuff, the stuff that paints us in not so flattering ways, it precludes the hope that there can ever be justice for the people who have been wronged. And, we close the door to the possibility of even a small measure of growth and grace for ourselves.

There are some truths that must be told, no matter how painful. For then and only then, can we open the door to the possibility of redemption.

How do I want to be remembered? I want to be remembered for who I truly am.

[1] This was the initial write-up about Kobe Bryant in the NY TImes, published January 26, 2020, shortly after the announcement of his death. The article was amended after an outcry on January 27th to include information about the alleged rape and Bryant’s complicated legacy. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/26/sports/basketball/kobe-bryant-dead.html

[2] https://slate.com/culture/2020/01/kobe-bryant-rape-allegation-coverage.html

[3] https://jill.substack.com/p/kobe-bryant-and-complicated-legacies

[4] Webb, Clive. Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights, University of Georgia Press (2003), p. 141.

[6] More information about Sol can be found in NPR’s podcase, “White Lies.” https://apps.npr.org/white-lies/. While we were in Selma, our guide and survivor of the events of Bloody Sunday, Joanne Bland shared parts of his story with us.

[7] Language used by our guide in Selma, Joanne Bland (a survivor of Bloody Sunday) to describe Jewish involvement in the fight for Civil Rights.

[8] Exodus 12:30

[9] Exodus 15: 1-18

[10] Talmud Megillah 10b

[12] Pirkei D’Rabbi Eleazer 43:8 and Yalkut Shimoni 176

[13] Inspired by Bryan Stevenson’s words in his book, Just Mercy.

[14] https://jill.substack.com/p/kobe-bryant-and-complicated-legacies

[15] Inspired by Bryan Stevenson’s words in his book, Just Mercy.

Mon, October 26 2020 8 Cheshvan 5781