This past week, Miriam and I saw Clybourn Park at Center Stage. The Pulitzer Prize winning play offers a midrash of sorts, a rif on A Raisin in the Sun which tells the story of the same house on Chicago’s Near Northwest Side. Raisin, you may recall, is the tale of an African American family in the late 1950’s who are purchasing a home in an exclusively white neighborhood. The neighborhood association balks and offers the family (unsuccessfully) an exorbitant sum to not move in. Clybourn Park portrays the other side of the narrative, a story (in Act 1) of the white family that sells to the black one and (in Act 2) of a white (pregnant) couple fifty years later who are moving into Clybourn Park and wishing to tear down the now deteriorated home in favor of something bigger and more modern. This time the neighborhood association champions a different kind of historic preservation as they push the family to renovate and not raze the property. It’s a complex tale and there is much to consider.
The piece that sticks with me, though, is the conceit that lurks in the play’s shadows both in 1959 and 2009: the suicide of a young veteran who had returned from a nervous breakdown in Korea and hanged himself. What is a haunted house after all if not a place literally saturated with fear and distrust? The play asks a fascinating question: what are the ghosts that linger when houses, blocks and neighborhoods are tainted with the basest human behavior? Can we possess something without being ourselves possessed?
Recently, I taught at Limmud Baltimore on the “New Jewish Neighborhood.” A participant suggested that Reservoir Hill has been a “black” neighborhood for decades (implying that I ought to approach our community building and neighborhood revitalization work with humility and care). I fully agree on the second point; human migration is complex; deep humility and patience are called for. But I fundamentally reject the idea that there are black neighborhoods or white neighborhoods or Jewish neighborhoods for that matter. If there is one take-away from my explorations in this blog and elsewhere it is that we all come to our relationships (and neighborhoods, at their best, employ a web of relationships) from our own perspectives. These perspectives are formed over the course of our lives and influenced by our families, our friends, our studies, our faith, our experiences and more. The work in which we at Beth Am are engaged involves a particular congregation of a particular faith tradition and culture in a particular time and place. To be successful we must take note of geography, history and memory, and if we, Jews and human beings, are to move forward, we must talk about these issues openly, honestly and constructively.
The New Jewish Neighborhood is not a “neighborhood of Jews” though of course we are a part of it. No, it is a lens through which I hope my people will begin to look at our diverse, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-class communities and apply our Jewish values. If we can confront common interests but also differences and challenges in this way, perhaps we can arrest the transmission of fear and distrust and exorcise the ghosts of neighborhoods past.