My wife Rita and I could not participate in the March on Washington a half century ago because we were students in Jerusalem in July 1963. For the summer, Rita had a job as a secretary for Dr. Maurice Jaffe z’l, who was very busy seeking to raise funds for what became the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem.
She had the ability to write and type in Hebrew, which was rare in Jerusalem in those days. Few if any English-speaking immigrants, about a thousand in 1963, knew sufficient Hebrew to be able to learn the Hebrew keyboard for actual work.
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 then that no bus would even reach that building. Some Jerusalemites are still waiting.
Rita grew up in Queens, New York. 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 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 a week and on Sunday to study at the seminary college, where, then, 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, who is 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 a seething pot relating to the African Americans, but Rita’s close associates were interested in helping make American society much more equal for all members of the country.
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 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his efforts from her friends.
Being from Atlanta, Georgia, where Big Daddy King, MLK’s father, was a noted minister, I was as uneducated in regard to the African Americans as if I lived on another planet. I attended segregated schools, I went to segregated movies, I drank water at “Whites Only” fountains, I rode everyday on a streetcar where African Americans sat in the back. Even though my late father, Louis Geffen, had a number of African American clients who trusted him implicitly, I was “big” on Judaism, learning with my grandfather every day except Friday. No, we did not have a mishmar on Thursday nights. Truth to tell,he transmitted to me the meaning of his years in the Slobodka yeshiva, but I never rose to that level. Moreover, when I tell people this, they cannot believe it.
My Zaidie, HaRav Tuvia Geffen, never said a word to me about his now quite famous Coca Cola teshuva. He was sworn to secrecy by Coca Cola officials, and he was not about to let his grandson in on the formula.
Here in Jerusalem in August 1963, Prof. 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 no legal TV in Israel, and most people who had sets, were interested in the “old soaps” shown by Arab countries’ stations. We could only see world events visually 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 live through what became a moment in history. I cannot remember the movie house; it might have been the Paladin on Agrippas, but I cannot swear to 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.
Some were carrying babies, but that was not yet “de rigueur.” 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 Washington police officers, known for their uneasiness 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 speech “I Have a Dream” rolled off of MLK’s tongue like one of the prophets of old. He had vision in it and he had the great mastery of preaching that the African Americans had acquired.
Rita and I watched in a silent movie house. The attendees were all Israelis, and we 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 – we saw a new America emerging – trepidation because people like Bull Connors of Birmingham still made the African Americans pay with their lives – bombing of churches, ambushes – the Confederacy rose 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 MLK’s speech, answered “You are right. He is a leader.” Some of his dreams certainly have come to be in a less polarized US, but clearly there is more to be done.
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