March­ing on Wash­ing­ton from a Jerusalem movie house

With Martin Luther King Jr. Day com­ing up on Jan­uary 21, the writer looks back to a dif­fer­ent time

The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - REFLECTIONS - • DAVID GEFFEN

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. ■

(Wikimedia Com­mons)

DR. MARTIN Luther King, Jr. ad­dresses the crowd from the steps of the Lin­coln Memo­rial, dur­ing the March on Wash­ing­ton on Au­gust 28, 1963.

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