When I was in high school, I was active in the B’nai Brith Youth Organization. One year, the annual convention was in Augusta, Georgia. There are two things that make Augusta famous. It’s home to The Masters golf tournament, and to the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.
Our convention coincided with James Brown’s annual holiday party which was held at the same hotel. A group of us Jewish teens bumped into Brown while he was doing some pre-party prep.
“How y’all doin’, how y’all doin?” Mr. Brown asked us in his famous raspy voice. “What brings y’all to Augusta?”
“We’re here for our annual Jewish Youth Group Convention,” I replied.
“Really! I was an honorary member of ZBT down in Tampa!” ZBT is the world’s first and largest Jewish fraternity.
“Wow, that’s awesome!” we all said.
I mustered up my courage and asked Mr. Brown, “Maybe you can drop by and do a little number for us later?”
“Aw, I don’t know about that.”
“I’ve got my harmonica,” my friend chimed in, “and I can play backup.”
James Brown pointing his finger at my friend and said, “Ooo, do Hava Nagilah!”
We all laughed and bid the Godfather of Soul farewell.
“Alright, shalom y’all,” he said. “I feel good!”
I’ve often thought about this serendipitous encounter. Here was James Brown, the Godfather of Soul himself, so excited to meet a group of Jewish teenagers, boasting about being an honorary member of a Jewish fraternity and flexing what little knowledge he had of the Jewish people. I’ll never forget his genuine warmth for Jews and how friendly he was to a group of nerdy Jewish teens. There wasn’t an ounce of animosity.
Somewhere along the way, I assume, James Brown had positive encounters with Jews that impacted his views of Jews. Maybe the Jews of ZBT down in Tampa treated James Brown with honor and respect, realizing they were representing the Jewish people.
It reminds of an incredible lesson I learned from my teacher, Rabbi Binyomin Friedman.
I was helping him put up his sukkah and we needed to run to Home Depot to get some more supplies. Before getting into the car, Rabbi Friedman rolled down his shirt sleeves and put on his tie and suit jacket. I was mystified.
“Rabbi Friedman, we’re just going to Home Depot.”
“I have the Michael Jordan philosophy on life,” he replied. “Michael Jordan used to put on a suit and a tie just to walk from the hotel to the team bus. When someone asked him why he went to such efforts, Jordan responded, ‘This might be someone’s only opportunity ever to see Michael Jordan, and I want them to see me at my best.’ Well, our visit to Home Depot may be someone’s only opportunity to see a Jew and a rabbi. I want them to see us at our best.”
The response to antisemitism isn’t to hide one’s Jewishness, misguidedly thinking that if the Jews wouldn’t make so much noise the Kanyes and Kyries of the world wouldn’t hate us. Our response to Jew-hatred needs to be to lean in, not out. To stand up for who we are –and do so with your best suit on.
Don’t get me wrong – I am not blaming the victim. Antisemites have a real problem – not Jews, and they’re responsible to solve it. At the same time, so many non-Jews have never even met a Jew in their life. Their encounter with you could be their first encounter with a Jew. Like it or not, you’re representing the Jewish nation. So think about what message your actions are conveying.
It will unlikely change Kanye West, but if we all make a conscious effort to “put on our best suit,” it sure would make the world a better place.