OP-ED: Giving thanks, Arlo Guthrie and my first yarmulke: a ritual of joyful, thankful resistance
By RABBI ARTHUR WASKOW
Just five minutes before noon on Thanksgiving, I will take part in a wonderful ritual – again and again, many times again. One of the members of a men’s group that began 30 years ago, Jeffrey Dekro, founder of the Isaiah Fund and now teacher of Zohar — will call 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 30 years.
And every year, for about a decade, I have been writin to retell this story. So welcome once again to our Thanksgiving ritual.
Every year at noon on Thanksgiving, WXPN Radio in Philadelphia (and many other radio stations around the country) play Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” about a Thanksgiving dinner in Stockbridge, MS., 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” inside me took on new power for me. The moment when I came to understand the power of a yarmulke.
By now it is a tradition for me to retell the yarmulke story every Thanksgiving. It carried deeper meaning last year, but this year we find our national government in deadly deadlock. Unable to deal effectively with the most dangerous crisis in American — and human — history. Time for a renewed Resistance, not against sheer evil but against “ungood.”
In 1970, I was asked by the Chicago Eight (heroes of the film called “The Trial of the Chicago Seven”) 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. Its 50th anniversary came in spring 2019. We held it in a mostly African-American mosque — probably a first in history –and among a dozen transformative speakers was the Reverend William Barber. Now we have put together a book of many essays by many remarkable authors entitled “Liberating your Passover Seder” (Ben Yehuda Press). And since Pesach next spring comes during Ramadan, we are planning an Iftar-Seder — honoring both Muslim and Jewish communities
AND — back to 1968 — 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.Across the street were the police and the National Guard, poised to attack. Scary to watch them.
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.
In Grant Park, among the antiwar demonstrators pictured above, 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 a few a few years old, but millions knew it.
Why did the defense want to call Arlo as a witness? To show the jury that there was no incitement to violence in it.
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 18 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!”
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, any President, 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.
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. Hate-mongers in the White House, sending the Army to fire on bedraggled refugee families.
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 nonviolent drug offenders, and active groups working for the full rehabilitation of “returned citizens.” The Dreamers.
Hundreds of Jews going to jail explicitly on a Jewish holy fast day, Tisha B’Av, to defend refugees and immigrants from White house cruelty. Sanctuary cities. Indigenous communities defending their sacred lands and teaching the rest of us about nurturing the sacred Earth — and at last, being listened to, after centuries of being ignored.
High-school kids defiantly sitting-in at the office of the Speaker, demanding an Earth that will not kill them. Cities and states that enforce a $15 minimum wage, with automatic cost-of-living increases.
#MeToo as women take on an ingrained rape culture that had its hero in the White House, and as hundreds of women run for public office for the first time — and win. “Fusion politics” and a national campaign for moral renewal by the Poor People’s Campaign. Boycotts of global corporations that escape US taxes by pretending to “move” overseas. Demands for Medicare for All. Massive civil disobedience in the very halls of Congress to demand public financing of election campaigns.
At the “top” of the pyramids of power, it is the worst of times. At the grass-roots “bottom,” it is the best of times.
So the Arlo Guthrie story speaks today in a stronger voice than it has for decades.
So I invite you to celebrate Thanksgiving (or if you are too busy today, tomorrow — on the “second day of the Festival”) 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 recording of “Alice’s Restaurant” for our own generation with an audience joining in, click here.
Editor’s note: This piece has been edited for space.