First Night of Chanukah

By Hedgebrook Guest

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Categories: General,

Though this was written during the holiday season, I wanted to share it with my Hedgebrook sisters now, in the spirit of the ongoing, tenacious demonstrations for Black Lives Matter:

 

I had a flashlight in my pocket. It was pouring, and I thought the tiny light could serve as a substitute for a menorah candle on the first night of Chanukah. It could still shine despite the wind and the rain.

As the vigil began, we gathered behind a huge black and white canvas banner reading, “Black Lives Matter,” under the eaves of the Yerba Buena Center. We were only yards away from the Martin Luther King Memorial Fountain, the centerpiece of Yerba Buena Gardens, where justice rolls down like the waters.

As the sky darkened, the space began to fill – with members of many local congregations and Jewish peace organizations, families with young children, seasoned activists, and young people furious that their black and brown brothers were being gunned down by the police. Against the steady hum of the downpour, we heard a moving opening prayer, and an exhortation for inclusion of people of color in the planning of events like this by a young woman who described herself as an African-American Ashkenazi Jew whose family came from Ferguson, ground zero of the protests.

Pierce’s poignant plea was echoed by a tall gray-haired rabbi. “We need to be quiet and listen to the voices and stories of people of color around us, to have the awkward conversations that need to happen, to listen to the call of the shema,” he said. “We’re here tonight because this is the most Jewish thing we could be doing.”

We set off in the rainy streets, raising our voices in the protest song being sung nationwide: “I can hear my neighbor cryin’ ‘I can’t breathe’ / now I’m in the struggle and I can’t leave…” With umbrellas, protest signs, and electric menorahs (and flashlights) held aloft, we stopped traffic on Mission Street, past the Jewish Contemporary Museum, the street car tracks, neon-lit department stores, and thousands of Christmas shoppers, many of whom gave us the thumbs up (while using their other thumb to take photos on their iPhones of this unusual gathering.) As we took to busy Market Street, chanting “No justice, no peace!” a phalanx of police kept the cars, taxis and buses at bay.

In front of the historic Cable Car turnaround, at the intersection of Market and Powell, we gathered, now 300-strong. A woman rabbi, draped in a drenched prayer shawl, asked us all to observe 4 minutes and 28 seconds of silence. Four minutes to mark the four hours that teenager Michael Brown was left lying alone on the hot Ferguson street after being killed by a police officer. Twenty-eight seconds to remind us that one black man is killed every 28 hours in this country by police or vigilante violence.

It was completely silent. As brightly flashing Christmas lights shone from lampposts and store facades, their colors reflected in Market Street puddles, and curious shoppers crowded around us, there was no blaring of horns, no jeering, no casual conversation. No one was arrested. It was truly a silent night.

After the silence, by the light of the first candle on the electric menorah, the rabbis read out the names of scores of men and women of color who had been killed by the police – Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Alex Nieto, Oscar Grant. The list was way too long. And then we sang the Mourners’ Kaddish, the haunting melody accompanied only by the rain.

 

 

 

 

ElaineElinsonElaine Elinson, a former reporter with Pacific News Service in Southeast Asia, is coauthor of Development Debacle: the World Bank in the Philippines, which was banned by the Marcos regime.

The former editor of the ACLU News, Elinson is now a San Francisco-based editor and communications consultant for a wide range of legal and social justice organizations, including the ACLU, the Equal Justice Society and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. She is a columnist on legal history and a book reviewer for the Los Angeles Daily Journal, and teaches classes in media advocacy at major Bay Area law schools.

Elinson has a degree in Asian Studies from Cornell University and an MFA in Writing from Goddard College (2005). She has lived in England, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Central America and speaks Spanish, Russian and Mandarin. She also enjoys conversations – albeit brief – in Tagalog, Cantonese, Portuguese and French.

 

 

 
Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the opinions of Hedgebrook, its staff or board members. 

 

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