I was looking forward to seeing the new movie, Selma.
Emblazoned in my heart is the iconic photo of Dr. Martin Luther King marching with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in the front row. A photo that for my generation has come to symbolize the unity between Jews and African Americans during the 1960s. For years I have told friends, family, and students to "watch for the man with the bushy white hair and beard" in the original Selma footage. Unfortunately, in the new movie Rabbi Heschel does not appear in this scene or anywhere else!
The omission has me -- along with a lot of the Jewish community -- wondering why not.
|Marching from Selma to Montgomery: |
John Lewis of SNCC, an unidentified nun,
Rev. Ralph Abernathy; Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
Ralph Bunche (former U.S. Ambassador to the UN),
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rev. Fred Shuttleswort
I can understand film director Ava DuVernay's desire to make a film that focuses strongly on Black leadership. There have been too many civil rights films already with white sympathizers as the main characters. (I have the same complaint about Holocaust films that focus on non-Jewish supporters -- of which there are also too many.)
And this is not the only revisionism in the film. The King estate did not allow the filmmakers to use King's real speeches, so his words are paraphrases. That's not so bad, viewers say. But to omit showing Rabbi Heschel -- or any
rabbis for that matter -- is puzzling. I find it hard to believe that DuVernay could not have known who Heschel was, given how close he was to Dr. King in those years. Surely she did her research? Or did she think the guy with the bushy beard was just some sort of hippie? (Read more on that theory...)
The appearance of Heschel (second from the right) in that famous photo was not tokenism. Rabbis and lay Jews alike were involved in the lunch-counter sit-ins, the Freedom Rides. the early protests. Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner -- both martyred on the same night as James Cheyney -- were both Jewish. And while it is true that Southern rabbis tended to lay low publicly, for fear of antisemitism and violence against their congregations (some synagogues were actually fire bombed) many helped behind the scenes.
Rabbis from other parts of the country were more vocal. Peter Dryer, in his January 17, 2015 article in the Huffington Post,
" Selma's Missing Rabbi,
lists the following rabbis who came to Selma (Plus Rabbi Leon Jick, who is not on Dryer's list but was at Selma, according to this article):
|Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (grey beard on the left), |
Dr. King (center) and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath
(holding the Torah) in front of the State Capitol in
(Temple Sha'arei Shalom, Springfield, NJ)
(president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations)
(rabbi for Jewish students at Columbia University)
(who led a congregation in Redwood City, California)
(Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame, California)
(director of UC-Berkeley's Hillel)
(Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco)
(Berkeley's Congregation Beth Israel)
(spiritual leader of a Los Angeles congregation)
(New York City's Lincoln Square Synagogue)
(Temple Beth-El, Providence, R.I.)
(Cranston Jewish Center in Rhode Island)
(director of Brown University's Hillel center)
(Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation)
(Cleveland's Fairmount Temple)
(Beth Hillel Congregation, Wilmette, Illinois)
(Temple Beth-El, Cranford, N.J.)
( Temple Emanuel of Rochester, N.Y.)
(Temple Emanuel of Pascack Valley, N.J.)
(whose synagogue, Temple Beth Israel in Jackson, MS, was bombed in 1967)
Professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University
And that doesn't count unknown Jewish laypersons. But most visible of all was Rabbi Heschel, right up there in the front row, only one person away from Dr. King. Messing with this image is, to me, a sort of historical sacrilege, like changing the profile of the flag raising on Iwo Jima or the 13 stars on Betsy Ross's flag. Some things are not meant to be changed. I'm not asking that Jews be given equal time. All it would have taken was to have an actor made up like Heschel for this scene. Would that have been so hard?
King and Heschel had met at a conference on "Religion and Race" at the National Conference of Christians and Jews in 1963, where Heschel gave the opening speech and King gave the keynote address. After the first Selma March, known as "Bloody Sunday" (March 7, 1965), Heschel led a delegation of 800 people to FBI headquarters in New York City, protesting the lack of protection for the marchers. King invited him to come to Selma for the next march and he did.
Afterward, Heschel made that moving statement that has become a watchword among Jews and gentiles alike:
"For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying."
Heschel and King remained close friends and continued to work together. When King won the Jewish Peace Award, it was Heschel who presented it. In fact, King was looking forward to attending a Passover Seder at Heschel's home, but was assassinated before that could happen. Rabbi Heschel was the only rabbi to speak at King's funeral.
A still from the movie. That guy on the far right sure doesn't
look like Heschel, even though he is in the same place.
So, with all these iconic images and events, why don't we see Rabbi Heschel -- or any other rabbi -- in the movie, when we do see King embrace a Greek Orthodox priest, and can recognize a Roman Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, and other clergy in the front row? One reviewer does make mention of "an elderly Jew in a yarmulke" -- and there is such a gentleman standing in the place occupied by Heschel in the original photo. But Heschel usually wore a beret -- not a yarmulke. And this stand-in, if indeed he is supposed to be Heschel, lacks the bushy hair and beard of the real Heschel. So much so, that Jewish reviewers do not see him as such. Neither do I.
Which brings us to another production detail that was pointed out by Ulrich Rosenhagen in The People's Legs Are Not Praying: Why "Selma" was not the Interfaith Movie I was Hoping For
. In the original film footage, King and others are wearing flower leis. given to them by a Hawaiian delegate. In Hawaiian culture, the leis are a symbol of peace between rival or warring clans. By extension, a symbol of racial and religious unity. But as Rosenhagen writes:
"In the movie the protesters aren't wearing flower leis. I don't point this out to quibble with the director's costume choice but rather to draw attention to the curious absence of the spiritual sentiment that held these marchers together. They firmly believed that only a religious faith capable of transcending clannish religious divisions could challenge the deep injustices of American society. This confidence in a divine love that made the overcoming of such religious parochialism possible swelled in the hearts of the marchers and anchored the close friendship between King and Heschel. The activists truly felt that the many faces of God had their eyes on Selma."
Maybe the leis are gone for costuming reasons, out of concern that modern viewers might find them strange or puzzling. Then again, that could have been solved by showing the Hawaiian representative giving them and explaining the significance. Or maybe -- sadly -- the spiritual-political unity my generation felt back in the 1960s is gone. Maybe the film unconsciously (?) ended up reflecting that. In recent years there has been a lot of tension between the Black and Jewish communities, something that makes me very sad.
I had hoped this movie might bring back the story of how Jews and African Americans had once worked together for freedom. But with Jews omitted from the script, that message is lost. And that, too, makes me very sad.
(This article was updated by the author on May 6, 2019)
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