Being at the march on Washington in a Jerusalem movie house

In Jerusalem in August 1963 Professor Howard Morley Sachar, head of the Brandeis program in Jerusalem, gave a few talks about MLK – the March and what it meant.

By DAVID GEFFEN
August 26, 2013 22:36
Commemoration a Atlanta

Martin. (photo credit: Reuters)

Rita had a job as a secretary for Dr. Maurice Jaffe, who was very busy raising funds for what became the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem. She could write and type in Hebrew, which was a rare skill in Jerusalem in those days.

Few if any English speaking olim, about a 1000 in 1963, knew sufficient Hebrew for such work.

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I was a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America whose campus, which had opened in 1962, was located on Avraham Granot street in Neve Granot. Rita and I were living there since there was dorm space for married students. From there we had to walk everywhere because there was no bus. Egged must have resolved that no bus would even reach that building. Some Jerusalemites are still waiting.

Rita grew up in Queens, one of the boroughs of New York city. She was a Phi Beta Kappa student, and so she had a chance to skip a year by studying in the famous SP program two years in one. In Forest Hills High School, an elite high school, two members of her class sang as “Tom and Jerry,” later becoming better known as Simon and Garfunkel.

While a student at Queens College studying psychology, she also traveled to the Seminary at 122nd St. and Broadway on the subway two days during the week and on Sunday to study at the Seminary college, where at the time all instruction was in Hebrew. Her three most noted professors were Abraham Joshua Heschel, David Weiss Halivni and Yochanan Muffs in Bible. Her close friend, who was on the subway with her for four years, is now Dr. Peggy Pearlstein, the head of the Hebraic Collection at the Library of Congress.

In addition to her Psychology and Hebraic courses, Rita was developing a strong social consciousness. Queens was not yet at the boiling point with regard to the African Americans, but Rita’s close associates were interested in helping to make American society much more equal for all citizens.

Even though New York was always integrated, there were areas in the city where African Americans lived, where they had inferior schools and housing.

Rita knew of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his efforts from her friends.

Though I was from Atlanta, Georgia, where Big Daddy King, MLK’s father, was a noted minister, I was as uneducated with regard to African Americans as someone that lived on another planet. I attended segregated schools, I went to segregated movies, I drank water at a whites-only fountain, I rode every day on a streetcar where African Americans sat in the back.

Here in Jerusalem in August 1963 Professor Howard Morley Sachar, head of the Brandeis program in Jerusalem, gave a few talks about MLK – the March and what it meant.

We were not able to attend, of course, but we saw the notices in The Jerusalem Post and also in Haaretz announcing the August 28 date.

There was not much TV in Israel, and most people who had sets were interested in the old soaps shown by Arab stations. We could only see world events on the newsreels shown at the many movie houses in Jerusalem. We followed the march on the radio and in the newspaper but we were waiting for the newsreel a week after the March to personally experience what became a pivotal moment in history.

I cannot remember the name of the movie house – it might have been the Paladin on Agrippas St., but I wouldn’t swear on it. That was the era when people came to the movies to talk, because the subtitles were inadequate and the darkness provided a place to “make out.”

In addition younger people came to roll empty drink bottles down the aisles, and almost every attendee ate sunflower seeds.

We enjoyed the movie, but we were waiting for the newsreel, the piece de resistance.

At first, when the March went on the screen everybody was talking and cracking seeds. Then there was silence as they watched these thousands of African Americans and very few whites piling into the area where the podium had been set in DC near the reflection pool.

The look on their faces was at first sullen but as the crowd got larger and larger there were smiles on their faces. Why? They knew that the DC police, known for their free hand with their clubs, had allowed all who arrived from outside the city to pass through the barriers.

There were some songs, maybe Joan Baez with “We Shall Overcome,” maybe Harry Belafonte – maybe some other African-American singers.

There were a few speeches by other leaders, and the crowd roared. They were all awaiting their man, MLK, who through non-violence had the process underway to obtain rights for African Americans. JFK was not yet dead – that happened in November.

Bobby Kennedy was attorney-general, and he was on their side.

The “I Have a Dream” speech rolled off of MLKs tongue like he was one of the prophets of old. He had vision in it and he had the great mastery of preaching the African Americans had acquired. Rita and I watched in a silent movie house.

The attendees, all Israelis, were mesmerized, even though they had no idea what he was saying since the newsreels had no subtitles. “I have a dream,” “I have a dream,” over and over, with MLK raising the crescendo each time he emphasized that phrase. We were far away – we did not get calls then (too expensive) – and our parents had not written about the March. So at the movie house it was a personal event for us, and we absorbed it with joy and trepidation.

Joy because we saw a new America emerging, and trepidation because people like Bull Connors of Birmingham, Alabama, still made African Americans pay with their lives, bombing churches, setting ambushes; the Confederacy risen again.

At the end of that segment of the newsreel, it was amazing – everyone watching the March, on a very hot Jerusalem night, cheered loudly.

Behind us a guy said to his date, “zeh manhig” (that’s a leader), and we, still pleasantly stunned by the March and King’s speech, answered “ you’re right – he is a leader.”

Some of his dreams certainly have come to be in a less-polarized America.

However, clearly much more must to be done to ensure African Americans receive the equal opportunities for grow and development, together with their families, and thus insured a brighter future for America.


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