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Tomorrow Belongs to We: Rabbi Amichai’s Response to Charlottesville

I spent this past weekend in the Catskills, off the grid, unaware of the violence in Charlottesville. On Friday we watched the 1972 movie version of “Cabaret” – not sure why exactly, but I hadn’t seen it in at least 20 years. I walked around the woods the next day humming a tune, suddenly realizing that it was “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”

For those like me who are not Broadway show-tune savvy, suffice it to say that the song depicts the rise of Nazism, so it was a surprising tune to find myself humming. Never mind that the song was written for the original 1966 production by John Kander and Fred Ebb (both of whom were Jewish and gay). In the last day I’ve learned that is has since been embraced by Neo-Nazis as a supposed original German folk song, with several cover versions by white supremacist bands. Recent alt-right voices have reclaimed it as well, unaware it seems of its actual origins.

The music is undeniably catchy and the scene is riveting, casting an ominously dark shadow over the simple hopes of humanity and the deepest joys of life.

By Saturday afternoon the news had caught up with me. It wasn’t history anymore. Tomorrow became today. Again.

Even today as I read and watch, talk and question, march in the streets and sign petitions, that song is playing in the back of my head – a dark, loud, terrifying shadow.

Many have written powerfully, with rage, prayers and praise for the brave protesters who stood up in the face of racists who deny the very existence of the likes of you and me. Many voices are speaking up with noble truth and highest hopes for the future of this country.

Heather Heyer, of blessed memory, died standing up to hate. Many injured and wounded, inside and out, add up to the long list of honored freedom fighters, role models of non-violent protest for the highest values of humanity and of this land. As they heal and as the mourning continues, every word and every kind gesture will aid us all in rising high. Again.

I want to respond and offer wisdom, but in all honesty I feel mute, unsure of what can or should be added. The truth is that this moment echoes my deepest, dormant fears.

From the moment I arrived in NYC in 1998, the son of Holocaust survivors with a very active imagination, I’ve imagined what it would look like if I was rounded up right in the middle of Manhattan. I charted the borders of the ghetto. I scanned fellow passengers in the subway and wondered who might save me and who might help me hide. I’d laugh it off with friends later but the shadow was, is, never too far off. Humor helps heal traumatic wounds but sometimes even laughter falters.

I have learned in recent years that my privilege as a white male affords me undeniable safety and advantages that so many of those fighting alongside me lack – with grave and often fatal consequences. At the same time, my identities as Jewish, gay, and immigrant are triggering deep and justifiable fears. Especially now, with an antagonistic untrustworthy governmental leadership.

Fears that once were mostly tucked aside are now rising louder. Is this country’s built-in racism stronger than our liberal ideals? Can all the progress be lost to a hoard of anxious thugs who cling on with greed to patriarchal binary mindsets? Born in Israel and choosing for now to live in the USA, I ask the same questions of my country of birth and beloved homeland. I know challenging questions require complex answers, beyond simple black or white, this or that. It will take our entire lifetimes to try healing all our broken parts. But what other choices do we have?

And while the questions are asked and resistance continue, I want to share today just one small idea:

Can we rewrite that song, recast the singers, and sing it out loud? A new version: Tomorrow Belongs to WE. Can this be a reclaimed anthem (even with some grammatical challenges) that celebrates radical diversity instead of white supremacy, wild spectrum instead of of rigid binary, mutual respect and coexistence instead of domination and separation? Can we own a fluid future of joy in the face of yesterday’s fear-based existence? Can we own together our future, not as enemies based on shallow labels but as partners in the future for everyone’s peace?

No, “many sides” are not equally to blame for yesterday’s violence. But many sides will ultimately need to, somehow, figure this out.

Their tomorrow murdered my grandparents, crippled my father, and silenced generations in grief.

Nazis, you had your tomorrow and you blew it, badly. And you will blow it again. Because tomorrow does not just belong to you at the expense of others whom you fear for lack of love. The future belongs to us all.

Tomorrow belongs not only to narcissist, nationalist, hate-based bigots like the leader we’ve got, focused only on the selfish “me.” It truly belongs to all of us. We, the people, if and only if we rise up with courage and compassion to claim the many sides of truth, to honor human dignity, to come from love, not fear, and fight for freedom with everything we got.

Next week begins the annual process of atonement, as the new moon of the last month of the year rises to guide us into 5778. This season of repentance demands of us the truth of self reflection, remorse and resolve to live a life of better balance in the service of the greater good. These coming forty high and holy days are for asking big questions about our role in this reality, taking stock of our yesterday and taking responsibility for our better tomorrow.

Let us go high as some go low. Let us find in our hearts the oldest prayers for peace, justice and a better future here and everywhere. Let us raise up our voice in song: Tomorrow Belongs to We.

– Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie