This past week, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo not only exhibited his hubris, but he showed the world yet again his narcissistic lack of awareness when he told Don Lemon that he “is black on the inside” because he knows the words to the theme song of “Good Times.” This appropriation has been entirely ignored by all the BLM activists, who would undoubtedly have had a very different reaction if he were a conservative. But maybe we can use his comment to create a real bridge between the black community and the rest of America by looking at the relationship between two “activist” leaders of the late twentieth century: Nina Simone and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.
Many people know about each of these individuals, but far fewer are aware of their influence and relationship with each other. Nina Simone was a great jazz musician whose renditions of “Stormy Weather,” Sinnerman,” and “I Feel Good” among others have all become part of pop culture. She was one of the early civil rights activists who fought around the world for equality for all people.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach came from a very different background as an Orthodox rabbi born in Germany. He is known in the Jewish world not only as a great scholar but as a folk musician who performed around the world, from Carnegie Hall to The St. Petersburg Opera Palace to the Berkeley Folk Festival with Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. Considered the foremost Jewish religious songwriter of the 20th century, his music is still played today in synagogues and concerts around the world.
But most people are unaware of the relationship between these two great individuals, explored in the 2013 musical “Soul Doctor.” When they were both young artists in New York, they met and developed a friendship that not only lasted their entire lives, but radically influenced their spiritual and political attitudes. So much so that Ms. Simone recorded songs in Hebrew and Reb Shlomo recorded spirituals.
Unlike Mr. Cuomo, who thinks he understands a culture because he watched a television show, Simone and Carlebach recognized the deep and true similarities in their personal and cultural journeys. Both were the children of spiritual leaders who saw their houses of worship burned down by bigots: Carlebach in Austria when the temple was destroyed by Nazis and Simone when her North Carolina church was burned by racists, which along with her rejection from Juilliard because of her color led her down the road to becoming a civil rights activist. But even recognizing the similarities, neither of them ever had the insensitive arrogance to claim the other’s culture as their own. Chris Cuomo might want to take a lesson in humility from these two great leaders.
Nowhere did Carlebach and Simone express their core beliefs and values more deeply than in their friendship and mutual respect. They recorded each other’s music with authenticity and treasured each other’s cultures with the greatest of respect. In her 1992 biography “I Put a Spell in You,” Simone famously said that she “and her family regarded all races as equal,” and both she and Carlebach made it a point throughout their lives of treating all people based on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.
There is much to learn from this special relationship, not only by Cuomo but by all those who support the hatred of BLM because they want to see injustices corrected. Rather than perpetuating hate, stereotypes (no, Chris Cuomo, you are not black on the inside because of your familiarity with Jimmie Walker’s “Dynomite!”), and intolerance, we all have the opportunity to truly respect each other as holy creations of God. We do not need to misappropriate any other culture as Cuomo has but can act peacefully and with respect toward each other without the genuine evil that has been found all too often in recent riots.
The relationship between Jews and blacks in this country has been close at times and challenging at others, most recently with the anti-Semitic BLM riots this past summer. It might be good to remember that the anti-bigotry song “Strange Fruit,” made popular by Simone, and Billie Holiday before her, was actually written by a Jew, Abel Meeropol; and the early peaceful black civil rights movement was championed by Jews. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said when asked why he peacefully marched with Dr. King in Selma, “I felt like my legs were praying.” It is profoundly sad that there is now such hatred for the Jewish (and all non-black) community on the part of BLM, and how distant the current movement has come from their original goals of peace in this nation.
May we all take the lesson of Rabbi Carlebach and Nina Simone and treasure each other as individuals and cultures, never try to misappropriate another culture (Chris Cuomo, are you listening?), and bring peace together in this country through music, spirituality, and respect.
Rabbi Michael Barclay is the Spiritual Leader of Temple Ner Simcha, and the author of “Sacred Relationships: Biblical Wisdom for Deepening Our Lives Together.” He can be reached directly at [email protected]