Thanksgiving, Arlo Guthrie, "Alice," & my first Yarmulke

On the right, Arlo Guthrie

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A Ritual of Joyful Resistance,
Growing a New America in Song and Story

[Note on Photos: On the right here, Arlo Guthrie; if you click on the title and then on
"Attachments," two scenes (see below) from the Grant Park demonstarators & National Guard, 1968; then a photo of me in yarmulke.]

Just five minutes before noon today, I took part in a wonderful ritual. One of the members of a men’s group that began 30 years ago – Jeffrey Dekro, founder of the Isaiah Fund (which supports grass-roots renewal of low-income neighborhoods shattered by disasters like Hurricane Katrina & Superstorm Sandy) – called me and the other men's group members to remind us to turn on our radios. He has been doing this, year after year on Thanksgiving Day, for almost all those thirty years.

Why?

Every year at noon on Thanksgiving, WXPN Radio in Philadelphia plays Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” about a Thanksgiving dinner in Stockbridge Mass. in 1967; about obtuse cops; and about nonviolent resistance to a brutal war.

And every year, this seemingly non-Jewish set of rituals stirs in me the memory of a moment long ago when my first puzzled, uncertain explorations of the “Jewish thing” took on new power for me. And when I came to understand the power of a yarmulke.

Before I tell the story once again (a ritual retelling!) let me add that this year, resistance to Domination is bubbling up in powerful ways in many sectors of American society -- President Obama finally responding to seven years of protests by shutting down the Tar Sands Pipeline; "Black Lives Matter" spurring protests all across the country against racism in our police forces, and spreading to confront built-in racism in our colleges and universities; a serious challenge from some of the presidential candidates to worsening inequality of income, wealth, and power.

And on the other hand, let us face the truth -- among other presidential candidates, vile attacks on Latin American migrants to the US and on Muslim refugees and Muslim citizens of the US. Vile words already leading to violent behavior: In one candidate's rally, a person who shouted "Black Lives Matter" not only being expelled but being hit and kicked by the candidate's supporters. And then the final touch -- the candidate himself, Donald Trump, leading the polls among Republican candidates, saying afterward:

“Maybe he should have been roughed up."

No, not the final touch: armed "protesters" appearing outside a peaceful American mosque. Armed.

That combination -- racist hate in major speeches, incitements to street violence -- has a well-known pedigree. When a society has lost its way, when its accustomed imperial army is failing and yet is eating up the country's own substance like a cancer, when a rising proportion of its people feel left out economically and culturally, and when demogogues define "the foreigners," "the wetbacks," "the slant-eyes," "the kikes," "the niggers," "the ragheads" as the problem, the enemy -- we are in the presence of a proto-fascist, even proto-Nazi movement.

It will take concerted resistance and the sprouting of a new America of joyful solidarity to meet this challenge.

Resistance to what? Carbon Pharaohs. Billionaire election-buyers. Racist politicians. Hatred-peddlers.

And what is a New America? From the bottom up: ---

Neighborhood solar-energy coops. Public gatherings of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists -- Black, Hispanic, Native, Asian, Euro -- to pray, sing, meditate, and vigil together. Sanctuaries for refugees. Schools, colleges, and universities that celebrate Black songs, Black poetry, Black wisdom, Black visionaries. Release from prison of all nonviolent drug offenders, and active groups working for the full rehabilitation of "returned citizens." Cities and states that enforce a $15 minimum wage, with automatic cost-of-living increases. Boycotts of global corporations that escape US taxes by pretending to "move" overseas. Massive civil disobedience in the very halls of Congress to demand public financing of election campaigns.

So the meaning of the Arlo Guthrie story speaks today in a stronger voice than it has for decades.

In 1970, I was asked by the Chicago Eight to testify in their defense. They were leaders of the movement to oppose the Vietnam War, and they had been charged by the Nixon Administration and Attorney-General John Mitchell (who turned out to be a criminal himself – see under “Watergate”) with conspiracy to organize riot and destruction during the Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968 .

I had been an alternate delegate from the District of Columbia to the Convention – elected originally as part of an anti-war, anti-racist slate to support Robert Kennedy. After he was murdered, we decided to nominate and support as our “favorite son” the chairperson of our delegation – Rev. Channing Phillips (may the memory of this just and decent leader be a blessing), a Black minister in the Martin Luther King mold.

Our delegation made him the first Black person ever nominated for President at a major-party convention. The following spring, on the first anniversary of Dr. King’s murder, on the third night of Passover in 1969, his church hosted the first-ever Freedom Seder.

AND – besides being an elected delegate, I had also spoken the first two nights of the Convention to the anti-war demonstrators at Grant Park, at their invitation, while the crowd was being menaced by Chicago police and the National Guard. Below you can see first the demonstrators and then the National Guiard standing at the edge of Grant Park. On "Bloody Wednesday," the third night of the Convention, the police – not the demonstrators – finally did explode in vicious violence.

Although the main official investigation of Chicago described it as a “police riot,” the Nixon Administration decided to indict the anti-war leaders. So during the Conspiracy Trial in 1970, Tom Hayden, David Dellinger, Abby Hoffman, and the other defendants figured I would be reasonably respectable (as a former delegate) and therefore relatively convincing to the jury and the national public, in testifying that the anti-war folks were not trying to organize violence but instead were the victims of police violence.

As the trial went forward, it became clear that the judge – Julius Hoffman, a Jew – was utterly subservient to the prosecution and wildly hostile to the defense. (Some of us thought he had become possessed by the dybbuk of Torquemada, head of the Inquisition. --- How else could a Jew behave that way? We tried to exorcise his dybbuk. It didn’t work.)

Judge Hoffman browbeat witnesses, ultimately literally gagging and binding Bobby Seale, the only Black defendant, for challenging his rulings – etc. Dozens of his rulings against the Eight were later cited by the Court of Appeals as major legal errors, requiring reversal of all the convictions the prosecution had achieved in his court.

So when I arrived at the Federal court-house in Chicago, I was very nervous. About the judge, much more than the prosecution or my own testimony.

The witness who was scheduled to testify right before me was Arlo Guthrie. (That's him, on the right.)

In Grant Park, among the antiwar demonstrators, Arlo had sung “Alice’s Restaurant,” a joy-filled, funny song about resistance to the Vietnam War and to the draft, and about the perverted priorities of "justice" in America. In 1968 the song was only three years old, but millions knew it. (This year, 2015, is the 50th anniversary of its creation. Arlo will celebrate with a special TV concert at 8-9:30 pm ET tonight, Thanksgiving night, on PBS.)

Why did the defense want to call Arlo as a witnss? To show the jury that there was no incitement to violence in it.

So William Kunstler, z’l, the lawyer for the defense, asked Guthrie to sing “Alice’s Restaurant” so that the jury could get a direct sense of the event.

But Judge Hoffman stopped him: “You can’t sing in my courtroom!!”

“But,” said Kunstler, “it’s evidence of the intent of the organizers and the crowd!”

For minutes they snarled at each other. Finally, Judge Hoffman: “He can SAY what he told them, but NO SINGING.”

And then – Guthrie couldn’t do it. The song, which lasts 25 minutes, he knew by utter heart, having sung it probably more than a thousand times – but to say it without singing, he couldn’t. His memory was keyed to the melody. And maybe Judge Hoffman’s rage helped dis-assemble him.

So he came back to the witness room, crushed.

And I’m up next. I start trembling, trying to figure out how I can avoid falling apart.

I decide that if I wear a yarmulke, that will strengthen me to connect with a power Higher/ Other than the United States and Judge Hoffman. (Up to that moment, I had never worn a yarmulke in a non-officially “religious” situation. I had written the Freedom Seder in 1969, but in 1970 I was still wrestling with the question of what this weird and powerful “Jewish thing” meant in my life.)

So I tell Kunstler I want to wear a yarmulke, and he says – “No problem.” Somewhere I find a simple black unobtrusive skull-cap, and when I go to be sworn in, I put it on.

For the oath (which I did as an affirmation, as indicated by much of Jewish tradition), no problem.

Then Kunstler asks me the first question for the defense, and the Judge interrupts. “Take off your hat, sir,” he says.

Kunstler erupts. – “This man is an Orthodox Jew, and you want – etc etc etc.” I am moaning to myself, “Please, Bill, one thing I know I’m not is an Orthodox Jew.” But how can I undermine the defense attorney? So I keep my mouth shut.

Judge Hoffman also erupts: “That hat shows disrespect for the United States and this Honorable Court!” he shouts.

“Yeah,” I think to myself, “that’s sort-of true. Disrespect for him, absolutely. For the United States, not disrespect exactly, but much more respect for Something Else. That’s the point!”

They keep yelling, and I start watching the prosecutor – and I realize that he is watching the jury. There is one Jewish juror. What is this juror thinking?

Finally, the prosecutor addresses the judge: “Your Honor, the United States certainly understands and agrees with your concern, but we also feel that in the interests of justice, it might be best simply for the trial to go forward.”

And the judge took orders!! He shut up, and the rest of my testimony was quiet and orderly.

It took me another year or so to start wearing some sort of hat all the time –- a Tevye cap or a beret or an amazing tall Tibetan hat with earflaps and wool trimming, or a multicolored Jamaican cap with a zippered pocket (probably originally for dope; I used it to play Yankee Doodle with my grandchildren: "Stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni!"). Or a rainbowy yarmulke, like this:

And whatever its shape or color, the hat continues to mean to me that there is a Higher, Deeper Truth in the world than any judge, any boss, any Attorney-General, or any Pharaoh.

It’s my – our – “Alice’s Restaurant.” Or maybe “Alice’s Restaurant” is Arlo’s yarmulke. And not only Arlo’s, but the yarmulke for all of us.

So I invite you to celebrate Thanksgiving (or if you are too busy today, on the “second day of the Festival” – tomorrow) by thanking the Spirit that calls us to resist those who wound our world and to celebrate those who work to heal it; by lifting your own spirit and encouraging your own commitment to freedom, peace, laughter, and nonviolence. – For Arlo’s own first recording (1967) of “Alice’s Restaurant,” with an audience joining in, click to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m57gzA2JCcM

And if you take joy and sustenance in the work The Shalom Center does –- including this way of celebrating ritual as joyful social action and turning social action into joyful ritual –- then please make a (tax-deductible) donation by clicking on the Donate banner in the left margin.

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