This week we hear from Martin Doblmeier, the director of Spiritual Audacity: The Abraham Joshua Heschel Story on the history of one of the most inspiring and preeminent scholars of the 20th Century. Doblmeier discusses Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s profound impact on the civil rights movement, the relationship between Jews and the Roman Catholic Church, and the “evil of indifference.”

Then, Natalia Mahmud, AJC’s Associate Director of U.S. Muslim-Jewish Relations, speaks about the Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act, ahead of its reintroduction in Congress, and in honor of baseball’s Opening Day, we dip into AJC’s Oral History Library to hear directly from one of the greatest Jewish baseball players ever, Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, also known as “The Hebrew Hammer.” Greenberg recounts what it was like to be a Jewish baseball player in the 1930s and 1940s and the level of antisemitism he had to endure.

Listen to this episode on Apple PodcastsSpotify, and Google Podcasts.

Episode Lineup: 

  • (00:40) Martin Doblmeier
  • (16:55) Natalia Mahmud
  • (19:36) Manya Brachear Pashman
  • (23:00) Seffi Kogen

Show Notes:

 


 

Episode Transcript
 

Manya Brachear Pashman  (0:28)  
Last month, filmmaker Martin Doblmeier released a new documentary about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. The film, titled Spiritual Audacity: The Abraham Joshua Heschel Story, is one of a series on American greats, including Dorothy Day, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Howard Thurman. Spiritual Audacity will air on public television stations starting May 5 to commemorate Jewish American Heritage Month. Martin is with us now to talk about the film and its relevance today. Martin, welcome to People of the Pod.

Martin Doblmeier  (1:09)  
It's great to be here.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (1:10)  
So before we started recording, you were saying that people wonder why a documentary about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is relevant today. My jaw dropped because the answer seems so obvious to me but can you tell listeners who might be wondering how Heschel's example and scholarship, how they matter in the 21st century? Can you explain that?

Martin Doblmeier  (1:32)  
Well first of all, thanks for having me and it's a pleasure to be with an AJC project. So I think that Heschel's one of the great historic religious figures of the 20th century. That's why we wanted to include him as part of a series that we were doing on great figures of the 20th century. And part of the reason is that, you know, here we are 50, 60 years after he passes away and we're still looking into Heschel, as a source of wisdom and inspiration to how we should continue to think in terms of: first of all our own relationship to God, as human beings, as a community, but also how do we find inspiration to confront what are our current social and political dilemmas that we're facing. 

Curiously enough they're not that much different than what Abraham Heschel was facing back in those years, back in the 50s and 60s and 70s, but in particular, what I think, here's one of the differences, there's a lot of social unrest and a lot of social movement happening in our country today and it absolutely is necessary, but I think what is different for Heschel is that Heschel brought that additional component of a sense of God of religion, of spirituality, into the midst of all of it. 

He was moved not because of social concerns and issues but he was moved because he felt as though the God of his tradition, the God of the prophets called him to do that. And I think that gave him a different sense of foundational support when he was standing out there on the front lines. He wasn't just doing it because he felt as though things had to change socially and politically, but he felt as though God, through the prophets, have called him to be there. And I think that if he was out there today, he'd be saying that. You know, you need that one other fundamental underpinning to what it is you're doing. It's not just talking about injustices, it's understanding that God is calling you to stand and confront these injustices. I think that would be the big difference for Heschel.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (3:17)  
Do you think Heschel would have been marching in the protests after George Floyd's death and how would it have been different if he had?

Martin Doblmeier  (3:23)  
Oh I think he would have been there. I think he clearly would have been there and I think one of the nice things about the protests that happened last summer in honor of George Floyd was how many people remarked that it was not just African Americans on the street, that this had really galvanized Americans who were just fundamentally tired of all of this and felt as though they had to risk their own health to be on the streets all across this country and so it didn't just happen in Minneapolis. It happened all over America, people all over the world, people were deciding you know it's time that we can't allow this to happen anymore. I think Heschel would absolutely be there and to be honest I think a figure like Heschel, you would want a figure like Heschel out on the front lines because of the same reason. He spoke as a prophet but he embodied the sense of the prophets so that this sort of broaden the movement. I think that in Heschel's time, the civil rights movement was a broader, a more complete movement because Abraham Heschel was part of that.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (4:16)  
I have to say I learned  so much about Heschel in this documentary and I did not realize that his background, his foundation, was in Hasidic Judaism, and that was where the mysticism came from and how he incorporated that into his scholarship. Was he a part of, or integrated, welcomed by the Hasidim here in America?

Martin Doblmeier  (4:39)  
Yes, he was. He had relatives here and he had a community in New York that he was part of, regularly part of, he was part of that community, and yet he spoke in a wider sense. He was one time quoted as saying when he was asked by a reporter, "do you consider yourself as a Jew, do you consider yourself conservative, reform, Orthodox, how do you consider yourself?" And he famously one time responded by saying "I don't consider myself a Jew looking for an adjective. Instead I'm actually just delivering the faith that I believe I'm writing about, what I feel as though the prophets are calling me to write about," and again and again and again he was welcomed into all strands of Judaism. I heard recently an audio recording of Heschel, 1967, he went back to Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati where he had been in 1940 to 1945, and it didn't go all that well. It was a reformed school he was having a hard time adjusting to America, the western values of America, and yet 20 years later, a generation later, he goes back to a Hebrew Union and he gives these talks and presentations. You could hear in the audio recordings how the young students just loved him. You could hear them waiting for everything that he was going to say and he loved being there, so for him, he was always able to sort of communicate beyond the boundaries and the barriers that sometimes divide the different sects. He did that masterfully.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (5:59)  
He was one of the very fortunate rabbinical students. I mean, he arrived in America as part of a program that plucked rabbis from Europe, brought them to America to study. It reminded me of the late Rabbi Herman Schaalman in Chicago, a blessed memory, he was also one of those fortunate rabbinical students, he was brought here in that same way, but yes, you talk about the the shallowness, the indifference that Heschel encountered in America when he came here in this juxtaposition of America as a refuge, as Heschel's savior, but then the indifference that he encounters here and the frustration with that?

Martin Doblmeier  (6:33)  
Abraham Heschel's whole life really, especially the part of his life here in the United States when he became a public figure, was to speak about the evil of indifference. He confronted that right from the very beginning. I mean he arrives here in 1940, the war's already begun in Europe and he's already seen the horrors of it. And he knows that Jews are trying to escape Europe and many of them are trying to come to the United States and they're not being let in in the numbers that really would represent a nation that was understanding of what was happening over in Europe at the time. And he was even part of a delegation that went to Washington, D.C. of rabbis to petition the White House, to petition Roosevelt and say we have to do something more, we have to get together and do something more, and Roosevelt at the time, this is 1942, didn't even do the courtesy of meeting with them. He sent the vice president at the time and so there was already a sense that we're going to do whatever we can but it's probably not going to be enough and we understand that, so that was an absolute marker for Heschel that he was going to have to stand up and speak about the indifference, not only around the world but particularly in the country that was now his new adopted country. So he saw indifference again and again and again. He saw a difference in the frontlines of Selma, people who are.. white people who were not getting involved in the issue. He's a white man, a white Jew who decides to stand next to African American Christians after having come to the United States because Christians in Germany and Christians in Europe we're actually committing the worst unspeakable crimes against Jews, and yet he comes here and he stands besides Christians in this country, beside African Americans in this country. So he is very different from them and yet at the same time he finds a common denominator and he's willing to sort of get beyond that sense because he feels as though he can't be indifferent, he cannot be indifferent. That's what he feels as though his life's mission is.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (8:23) 
Forgive me if I'm not recalling this correctly but I believe his daughter was the one who made the point that Heschel believed the future of Jews in America was very much tied to the black church.

Martin Doblmeier  (8:36)  
I think what Heschel experienced in the 1940s and 50s especially was a sense of piety, a deep blue religious piety of reverence, of gathering collectively as people to worship their God, he saw that as a reflection of what he understood to be the way that God should be worshipped in his time in Europe, and he felt as though that was going to be a saving grace for him. And so in addition to what Susannah talks about that being the way that he was able to mirror his own sense of piety and love of God being reflected as collective gathering. She also says clearly that now as she looks back on her father's experience, that she says you know going back now I find that there is an absolute continuation of love and admiration and respect within the African American civil rights community for my father, she says, that is just unparalleled anyplace else. So when she gets together with Jesse Jackson and speaks, and she had up until he recently passed away, will get together with John Lewis, Andrew Young, these were the leading iconic figures of the civil rights movement and they continue to show their deep, deep appreciation for what Heschel brought to their movement at the time, and made it a better, more encompassing movement, and she feels that sense of gratitude towards them.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (9:55)  
There's a moment in the film when you describe how a group of Alabama rabbis meet him when he arrives, and tell him to turn back, because his participation will only make things worse for them. Did Rabbi Heschel understand that Jews were just as much a target as African Americans, especially in the South?

Martin Doblmeier  (10:13)  
I think he did. I mean, he had already, by 1965, when he's on the frontlines, he'd already been in this country for 25 years. The reality, the horror of what was happening in Europe was already clear. Everybody had known that. That generation was still dealing with that, trying to ask questions, why did God abandon us? I mean, those were the deeper most existential kinds of questions that people were having to confront. Heschel understood the consequences to all this. But I just feel as though that fundamentally he understood that there was just no other choice. This was a moral decision that had to be made. And once you make that decision, I think, you know the way that you have to behave.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (10:46)  
Here is a man who lost his mother and his sisters in the Holocaust, and other friends and family. And, his loss of loved ones in the Holocaust, did you get a sense of how that shaped his approach to social justice and these moral questions and the need to stand up?

Martin Doblmeier  (11:03)  
Well, I think in a very personal way, he understood the consequences of not confronting evil. He spoke off in about how difficult it was for him to see what was happening back in the 1930s. And how little resistance there really was and how much excitement there was about the rise of Nazism. It's just tragic to think about it.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (11:21)  
He describes himself as an optimist in some of the audio that you include in the documentary and how he believed in mercy. And I was struck by that. So, a lot of talk about how Pope Francis emphasizes mercy. And I had to wonder, is that a Jewish concept necessarily, is it a popular Jewish concept that you hear come out of a rabbi's mouth very often?

Martin Doblmeier  (11:44)  
Well, I think he would argue that it's a central concept of Judaism. I think that's part of what he was sort of able to highlight. He certainly did everything in his own living experience in his writing to show exactly that.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (11:56)  
Rabbi James Rudin, the former National Director of Interreligious Affairs for American Jewish Committee, he lends an important voice to this documentary because when Second Vatican Council invited AJC to advise on the Roman Catholic Church's teaching about its relationship with Jews, Rudin's predecessor, Mark Tannenbaum, tapped Heschel to shepherd that process. In fact, let's listen to a clip in the documentary of Heschel talking about that.

Abraham Joshua Heschel  (12:20)  
Christianity is a religion for which I have a very great respect. I have gained reverence for many Christians. But I also have to remind them that my being Jewish, so sacred to me, that I'm ready to die for it. And when the statement came out, from the Ecumenical Council, expressing the hope that the Jews would eventually join the church, I came out with a very strong rebuke, I'd say, "I'd rather go to Auschwitz than give up my religion."

Manya Brachear Pashman  (12:49)  
And his appeals to the bishops worked, because, because of Heschel, we have Nostra Aetate, right, in which the church condemns antisemitism and does not call for conversion.

Martin Doblmeier  (12:59)  
Heschel is right there with that. And yet, he's clear as he can be that Catholics need to turn away from this notion of christianizing, evangelizing Jews. Respect me for who I am, and honor my faith tradition, I'm not going to give up my faith tradition, but I want to engage with you and be present to you. And so that's kind of an example of how he understood how to navigate clearly, that notion of being strong and determined and stand firmly on your pedestal, and yet not be angry, not using language that's angry language. 

And here's the byproduct of it. Fifty years later, when the tragedy happened at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, people had been just killed in terrible acts of violence. The next day, Pope Francis, who you just mentioned, Pope Francis publicly comes out and says, when they are hurting, we are hurting. We as a world community, we as a Catholic church are hurting, is the language he used. That never would have happened, can you . . . that would not have been on the radar at all, before 1965. So part of what Heschel was able to do was open up this connectedness between the faith traditions.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (14:05)  
Boy, do we live in angry times with a lot to be angry about. Again, going back to Herschel's teachings and his example. What can we draw from him to navigate these times? And that anger?

Martin Doblmeier  (14:20)  
I think with a determined heart and not an angry heart, I think you want to break the dam that well, as the Amos would say, let the waters of justice flow the way that they should be flowing. We're good at building dams and stopping that flow of justice. But the truth of the matter is, there are others among us who really feel as though it's time to break the dam and open up and as Amos would say, let justice roll down like waters. And that's I think exactly what he would be saying. I think he's really a wonderful character in terms of how to try to move and make change, how to confront people who hate you, with a sense of firmness, and yet with love and not with anger. I think that's, you know, to read Heschel, that's always the constant mantra in his work. He's just able to do that and hold firmly to that ground. I think we're all the beneficiaries of that.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (15:04)  
The documentary is called Spiritual Audacity, a term Heschel used in a telegram to President John F. Kennedy, which you learn about in the film. The documentary begins airing on May 5. Check your local PBS affiliate for dates and times. Thank you so much for joining us.

Martin Doblmeier  (15:18)  
A pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Seffi Kogen  (15:26)  
The Jewish lives podcast is a monthly show about influential Jews from antiquity to the present, through the lens of Yale's prize winning Jewish Lives biography series. Wander through the desert with Moses, overcome stage fright with Barbra Streisand, roam the tough streets of Brooklyn with Bugsy Siegel, and stage a protest with Emma Goldman. Jewish Lives was kind enough to send me their Rav Kook biography, Mystic in a Time of Revolution by Yehuda Mirsky. It was great to learn some of the history behind the ideological father of religious Zionism, and pretty amazing to read that the one time Rav Kook visited New York, he actually stayed on the street I live on now. Explore a chapter of the Jewish experience in each episode. You can find the Jewish lives podcast at JewishLives.org/Podcast or wherever you get your podcasts. And there's more. Friends of People of the Pod save 25% and get free shipping on all books at Jewish Lives.org. Just use code podcast25 at checkout, only at JewishLives.org

Now it's time for our closing segment, Shabbat Table Talk. And joining us at our Shabbat table this week is the program director of AJC's Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, Natalia Mahmud. Natalia, when you are when you are talking with your family this weekend, what are you going to be talking about?

Natalia Mahmud  (16:55)  
Hi Seffi, hi Manya. In addition to preparing for the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar when fasting takes place, my family and I will be celebrating the reintroduction of the Jabara-Heyer NO Hate Act in Congress. The bill is expected to be reintroduced on a bipartisan basis in the House and Senate next week. The Muslim Jewish Advisory Council, a civil society coalition that is co-convened by AJC and the Islamic Society of North America, has been advocating for the passage of this bill since it was introduced almost two years ago, in order to help close the gap in hate crimes reporting. The bill passed the House twice in the previous session of Congress, but I am optimistic that it will be signed into law before the end of the session. 

Timing's of the essence, as fear and uncertainty around the pandemic is giving way to hatred, xenophobia, and conspiracy theories. This has led to an increase in attacks on the Asian American community. And we've seen some horrific incidents take place just this week. As religious minorities in the US, you and I know the kind of impact these types of attacks can have on a community and on our society. Our government needs reliable data so it can properly understand, investigate, and prosecute hate crimes, and provide necessary resources to survivors. At present, the FBI is required by law to gather data on hate crimes every year, but the information is undeniably inaccurate. 

Victims inconsistently report hate crimes and the law enforcement community is not always equipped to identify them. Because reporting is voluntary, dozens of cities fail to contribute to the FBI report, or simply report zero hate crimes. Sizable cities like Baltimore, Savannah, Allentown, and Little Rock did not report any data for the most recent FBI report. The Jabara-Heyer NO Hate Act provides a first step in addressing these challenges by incentivizing state and local law enforcement authorities to improve hate crime reporting, by making grants available for resources like: law enforcement trainings, the creation of reporting hotlines, increased resources for the affected communities, and public education forums on hate crimes. 

So, as we enter the weekend, I am grateful to those members of Congress who showed true leadership in overcoming partisan divides to reintroduce this bill together. We will have more information for your listeners so they can urge their elected officials to support the bill. So keep an eye out on the Take Action page on AJC's website at AJC.org/TakeAction. What are you thinking about this week, Manya?

Manya Brachear Pashman  (19:37)  
This week at our Shabbat table, we'll be talking about passports. I got my first ticket to freedom and international adventure when I was 23. And while I haven't traveled as widely as many of my colleagues, my little blue booklet did not gather dust. It got me to Canada, England, Italy, Russia and Burkina Faso. Sadly, Israel is not on the list. At least not yet. But when I traveled to Burkina Faso, an absolutely beautiful country in West Africa, I couldn't go anywhere without a canary yellow card tucked into my passport, proving I had been inoculated against yellow fever. It was a small price to pay for a hell of a trip. That's why I'm eager for another passport, a vaccine passport. Israel was the first country to implement this concept, a certificate that admits people to public spaces and venues, and to travel among others who also have been vaccinated. 

Thankfully, there are several vaccines now against the Coronavirus, and a chance for all of us to eat out, go to concerts, and travel someday soon. My husband and I continue to wait our turn for the shot and we grow less patient every day we can't get an appointment. But once we do, we know we aren't completely out of the woods. We live in New Jersey, which right now has the highest rate of infection in the country. Scientists are studying whether those who are vaccinated can still pick up the virus and transmit it to others, which is the last thing we want to do. A vaccine passport would reduce the chances of that spread. Of course, not everyone can get the vaccine as soon as others. My husband and I are prime examples. I won't lie, we are very jealous of you Seffi. We want that shot. And there are other ethical considerations as well. 

Sadly, though, now that the Biden administration is looking into a similar passport system and weighing those ethical implications, the idea has turned political, and condemnations have turned into a gross manipulation of Holocaust history. The Libertarian Party of Kentucky compared the passports to Nazi Germany's practice of mandating Jews to wear yellow stars of David. North Carolina congressman Madison Cawthorn said proposals like the vaccine passport smack of 1940s Nazi Germany. 

But perhaps the most surprising, and hence the most troubling tweet, was from former US envoy to Germany, Richard Grenell, a friend of AJC who, in the past has demonstrated a keen awareness when it comes to the security of Jews and Israel. Never compare the Holocaust to anything, ever. That's what he tweeted in 2019 when Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, described migrant detention centers at the border as concentration camps. Whether you agree or disagree with that is not my point here. This week, Ambassador Grenell tweeted, "You're hiding unvaccinated people under your floorboards, aren't you?" and urged his followers to speak up now. So I'm speaking up, please stop. Stop with the Holocaust analogies. Stop politicizing this virus. Stop politicizing antisemitism. Full stop. 

We are bracing for a fourth wave of this virus. A fourth wave. I want a vaccine. I want one of those passports so we can start enjoying life again. And once this pandemic is over, my children will get their international passports. They won't have to wait until they're 23. The world beckons. Iceland, Italy, Israel, here we come. And that's what we'll be talking about at our Shabbat table. Seffi?

Seffi Kogen  (23:00)  
Well, happy holiday, everyone. Chag Sameach. No, I'm not talking about Pesach though, that's a good and important holiday too. I'm talking about one of the happiest days of the year, baseball opening day. And it's an important Jewish holiday too. The great Solomon Schechter, founder of conservative Judaism told one of his students, Louis Finkelstein, who would himself go on to serve as chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary for more than 30 years, that American rabbis had an obligation to follow baseball because they had to connect to their congregants and understand their passions. Solomon Schechter died in 1915 and Finkelstein became chancellor in 1940. 

In between, America got its first Jewish sports superstar: first baseman Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers. Greenberg went on to a Hall of Fame career, being selected as an all star five times and winning two World Series. He also sat out a crucial game on Yom Kippur decades before pitcher Sandy Koufax would do the same. And, mindful of the abuse he faced as a Jewish ballplayer, famously welcome Jackie Robinson when the Dodgers star broke Major League Baseball's color barrier. In 1980, Hammer and Hank sat down with AJC to record an interview for our William E. Wiener Oral History Library. This project is one of the largest ethnic collections of oral histories in the United States, comprising 6000 hours of taped interviews, and more than 150,000 pages of transcripts. To celebrate opening day, we'll close today's episode with two minutes from Hank Greenberg, about what it was like to be America's first Jewish sports superstar. Here's Hank.

Hank Greenberg (24:56)
I was in a fight in Dallas, Texas. We had a riot on the field, you know, fist fight with both teams, you know, on the field. They had a big article in the Dallas newspapers. They had a whole . . . ballpark was jammed the next, you know, next day with people and everything was focused on that dirty Jew on the field, you know? So when you ask me, how was that conscious of it? I mean, you're never unconscious of this thing happening all the time, you know fans yelling at you. Every every ballpark I went there'd be somebody in the stands, spent the whole afternoon just calling me names. And it's hard not to do something. 

Elli Wohlgelernter  (25:37)  
Did you feel very alienated being the only Jew? 

Hank Greenberg  (25:40)  
I didn't really think of it. I mean, I was conscious of it, I mean, no one would ever let you forget it. You'd hear it from the stands all the time and from --

Elli Wohlgelernter  (25:50)  
What kind of things?

Hank Greenberg  (25:50)  
Well, you know, name calling, which is typical of all, most sports today and then. 

Elli Wohlgelernter  (25:56)  
Usual?

Hank Greenberg  (25:57)  
But, you know, they'd call you a sheeny, or a Jew, or a Kike, whatever. That was the part of the psychological warfare. 

Elli Wohlgelernter  (26:04)  
Did you hear it from the other team's bench? 

Hank Greenberg  (26:06)  
Oh, sure. All the time. That was part of the game. I didn't feel . . . I'm sure there was some antisemitic ballplayers. I think in those days, a lot of them didn't know what a Jew was. A lot of them came from the rural South. I know my roommate, Jo-Jo White, who came from Atlanta. I remember him telling me "Hell," he says, "I thought all those Jews had horns." So he didn't know what a Jew was. He just had heard the word, but, knew there were people like that. But as far as he was concerned, I could have been Frankenstein. I mean, that's what a Jew was supposed to look like. 

I was in baseball for 35 years, so, I'm sure there's a lot of prejudice that existed on the field, off the field, and exists today too. You're gonna have a lot of bigoted people in this world and it's not going to change. But, I like to feel that being Jewish, and being the object of a lot of derogatory remarks, it kept me on my toes all the time and made me, I had to be, I could never relax and, you know, be one of the boys, so to speak. So I think it helped me in my career because it always made me aware of the fact that I had a little extra burden to bear and it made me a better ballplayer.