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Repairing the Black-Jewish Rift

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No more than three people on campus knew that 12 months earlier, I had been only five feet, five inches tall weighing a pudgy 150 pounds. One year later I was six feet and three quarter inches tall and weighed 175 pounds -- with speed. My growth spurt came later than most. I'd begun elementary school at 3 years of age. And my growth occurred at the end of high school where it would normally have occurred in my high school freshman year.

So a mere rotation of the calendar later, I had become the fastest frosh player at San Diego State. I was faster than most of the varsity players as well! If I could quickly develop the skills that are normally honed in high school, I had a shot at San Diego State history and maybe down the line, even a shot at the pros. Everyone has a nickname on the gridiron and mine was "The Flash." It was given to me by another freshman wide receiver with extraordinary artistic skills. He would draw in pencil beautiful depictions of we players in uniform and in action. Back in the day, I was one of the few to appreciate the value of a "triple bar helmet" and I looked "sweet" in my signature, taped white wrists, white shoes and taped high white socks and all of my teeth.

Entering my sophomore year, I'd now played football, had run track and was becoming "the man" of sorts on campus. Girls were taking stock of this just-turned 17-year-old and the only thing holding me back was that both my mother and sister were now seniors on the same campus. It is difficult to "spit game" when your mama may be watching you from across the plaza. It is even more difficult to "talk stuff" when everyone else is 20 to 25 years old. Add to that Don Coryell's watchful eye as my tennis instructor as well as my football coach and I was pretty much a "goner" when it came to any form of "misbehaving." Coryell had been a boxer and though his voice was hilarious when he was excited, no one ever challenged him. So I had more adult guidance than most college "wanna be" stars.

And this is where a new good friend would come in. Fred Lewis, let's call him, was a new freshman on campus as I entered my sophomore year. We met in the "commons" primarily because I was also seeking the eclectic lifestyle and there was a table area where all the intellectuals hung out. I would wear jeans and a cardigan one day, a three-piece and wing tips the next and bermuda shorts and huaraches later in the week. I didn't want to be stereotyped as a football player or anything else, and consented to join only Alpha Phi Omega, a national service fraternity. I was struggling with "fitting in" but also knew that the sheepish quality of most students at the time made me not want to "fit in" anyplace. I was black and bright, which left me two standard deviations outside most people's impressions of whom I might actually be. But Fred didn't fit in either, which held an attraction for me -- now, for the first time, in the role of "Big Brother."

Fred was bright and insecure but not un-athletic. But he was not an athlete in strictest of terms, though the potential was there. We would play bridge, share knowledge of a class and then go to have pizza some weekends. And because of (and in spite of) his isolation, I became one of his best friends. He had few and this was by choice. Fred was also Jewish. He was an odd cross between Norman Finkelstein and Alan Dershowitz intellectually with some George Clooney thrown in to round out his inner iconoclast. We would discuss everything and I truly enjoyed this admixture of the qualities that I found positive contrasted against all those Sigma Chi's walking around the place with 12 packs under their arms and kegs between their weekends.

Having not seen him in some time, I cannot speak for Fred now. But when I knew him and when he first met Nancy, he would never have described himself as a Zionist. Nothing about him was ill-considered or knee-jerk, which both endeared him to Nancy and placed a barrier between them. Nancy wanted what many young women sought in those times and now. The idyllic wild-guy who could be tamed! Nancy came from a wealthy East Coast family and, like us all, she was in her youthful rebellious period.

Standing to the left of Fred on his wedding day, my emotions were nearly as high and mixed as those of the lucky couple. I was honored to be the best man at their wedding. I was also honored to be the best man at a Jewish wedding. It was a time when young people were attempting to break many molds. And I couldn't help musing, "Will anyone be really angry if I stomp on the glass before Fred gets to." Nancy was deliriously happy, more in love with love than with Fred I thought. She had become my good friend also and I had counseled her as to her pell mell, willy-nilly race toward being in love versus being in love with Fred. Fred had been a little aloof during their relationship and I'd counseled her that after the smoke had cleared, she might not find that "closest thing to a bad boy" attraction the same over time. I was smarter then than I knew!

But Fred was a good friend and long after their separation and divorce we were still close. We didn't share everything everyday. But I knew his parents, had spent much time in his home (and he mine) and had grown to know this part of my own "Jewish-ness." I had grown up in the political activist LA/Hollywood community. I'd traveled and learned from other Jewish political and media activists who supported Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and advocated for black full entry into socio/political American participation. And now I was missing that relationship emblematic of my proximity to Fred, a person I knew and respected merely because of who he was, not what he was.

Where assistant coaches would implore, "Get to the ball, Andy -- go through him Andy -- put a helmet on him Andy," Fred would say unashamedly and in erudite fashion, "Though Zionism is racism, it does not mean that the Jewish cause for a homeland isn't just." And this towering intellectual "to-be" would often mispronounce a certain word -- and he knew he was miss-pronouncing it. I liked Fred and Nancy and miss the continuance of that relationship yet today.

Which brings me to my point. A chasm exists between the Jewish and African-American communities that were at one time more easily broached. Jews and African-Americans in Hollywood and Chicago where I spent my childhood related and spent time together, worked together toward collective goals and it is only now in retrospect that this fusion seems broken. And it is not merely that my recent having reached out to B'nai B'rith on this issue has fallen short. Institutions are always the shills of narrow policy. But young African-Americans today know nothing of a culture that the subtle forces of mainstream America teach them to decry. Black kids do know that their names will not appear on NPR reports for the most part and they articulate that disappointment increasingly as do white members the majority culture.

At a time when we should all be coming together to construct the tools necessary to undue prejudice and exclusion, we are not! The advance of one group without the advance of that other historical compatriot, where they walked stride by stride for decades, devastates the ability of both groups to know and share their similarities and differences and know their shared history.

Fred and I worked out together on the track my sophomore and junior years. Fred received the watchful care of my mother and sister his freshman year at "State" before they graduated. Fred is still my friend and has been for some time. And I still have the extra wine glass and napkin to wrap it in that I want to stomp and break -- but only with Fred Lewis there to see it and laugh with me.

Around the Web

PBS - From Swastika to Jim Crow - Black-Jewish Relations

African-American–Jewish relations - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Black-Jewish Relations Today - My Jewish Learning

Why No One Talks About Black-Jewish Relations – Forward.com