02/27/2012 12:07 pm ET Updated Apr 28, 2012

My Jewish Grandfather

When I embraced the tests and turmoil of civil rights in the '60s, often I went to jail with Jews who were fellow activists. Sometimes we faced the threat of death together on moonlit stretches of lonely country roads in the Deep South. Our mutual cause was justice for African Americans. We defined this as obedience to the will of God for human justice.

A rabbi friend of mine said his participation was directly related to Jewish teaching that human suffering anywhere in humankind became his own suffering and concern. In Scripture, the prophet Amos cried out "Let justice roll down like waters." This sharply reminded me of Jesus' own words on the subject.

I grew up in the America of the '30s and '40s that often was as anti-Semitic as it was racist. Inevitably, the cultural and political climate of my youth was a shadowy and often sinister terrain that loomed uncomfortably into prejudice and absence of true equality. To further complicate the situation, no one was supposed to publicly recognize or even publicly admit its existence. A "gentleman's agreement" at the heart of cultural power more or less guaranteed public silence around a deplorable situation.

In fact, a groundbreaking film "Gentleman's Agreement" won the Oscar in 1948 for Best Picture. Elia Kazan also won for Best Director and Celeste Holm for Best Supporting Actress. "Gentleman's Agreement" more or less shattered an immoral facade of anti-Semitism that had held American culture in a thrall of moral captivity. Now, suddenly, one could talk openly about it and hopefully relegate it to past history.

I remember all this vividly from my years as a high school student in Denver in the late '30s. I had a classmate with whom I felt a natural affinity. I liked her. We tried to relate as informal friends. However, she was effectively imprisoned and restricted within a harshly empowered "Jewish" role that was designed to make her a victim of an impenetrable barrier. Naturally, we were all made victims.

Yes, I was acutely aware of this reality and powerless to change it. Undoubtedly this is why I wrote a couple of letters to the editor of the city's leading newspaper. The editor published both. Wasn't it highly unusual for a high school journalist to write such letters for publication in the mainstream urban newspaper? Yes, definitely. Did I know what I was doiing? Yes, I'm quite sure. Did I think what I was doing mattered? I hoped so.

One reason I cared strongly about anti-Semitism and wanted to affect change was an aspect of my birth and family situation. My maternal grandfather, Harry Joseph, was a Jew. This fact held no particular relevance in my life as a child when I grew up a churchgoing Episcopalian kid.

Growing up, however, meant that my world-view now included Hitler and his mobs, goose-stepping Nazi soldiers in shiny black boots, and a rich civilization bent on creating both horror at home and its own ruin. The staccato quality of Hitler's voice stuck in my awareness. An incensed serpent-god seemed to demand body, mind and soul.

Now, looking back and trying to assimilate many aspects of assorted information, I realize that one cannot realistically speak about "Christian" without "Jew." Historically and spiritually, the existing link comprises both intimate creativity and painful elements of closeness. In my view common aspirations include the holiness of God and human justice. As an example, let me recount the memory of an event at the Arlington Cemetery in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 6, 1968. The event was a nonviolent protest against the Vietnam war. Several hundred of us were Jews and Christians, women and men, blacks and whites. Two highly visible persons led us. One carried a crucifix, a Christian symbol. The other, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, carried a Torah. The image of close relationship was both unmistakable, quite simple and unforgettable.

What lay ahead of me, though, was yet another event in Jerusalem in 1972 that I found personally fulfilling and unforgettable. It was also when I felt closest to my Jewish grandfather. One night I stood alone before the city's historic Western Wall, randomlly surrounded by a few other individuals. It was a cold night. Colder was the stone wall with my forehead pressed against it. I prayed. Suddenly, without warning, a realization crept into my consciousness. It was the awareness that Harry Joseph had never shared an oppotunity to stand here in this place. Yet, in a mysterious way, his grandson did. His grandson was an Episcopal priest from Los Angeles.

I stood here for both of us.