Originally Posted on January 11, 2012
Traveling the world, I can expect to have eye opening cross–cultural experiences. But to have such an experience in my own backyard – in downtown Detroit – that’s a different story.
On December 17, 2011, my 14 year old son, Kwesi, and I attended service at the Downtown Synagogue, along with three or four other African Americans. Every once in a while we could hear a word or two: Kiddush, adonai, and some names. We didn’t know the meaning. We just followed the directives, “now we are going to page 97.” We did that for over an hour. I recognize Hebrew when I see it. I just can’t read a single letter.
When the Big Scroll was taken from behind some curtains and, later, walked through the congregation, Kwesi encouraged me to kiss it and touch it like the congregants who wore yarmulkes and prayer shawls. I touched it, after kissing my hand first. I probably would have kissed the Big Scroll, if I didn’t have a couple of people to reach over.
Before the service ended, the smell of food, good food, wafted into the sanctuary. I wanted Marti to get through his explanations to us special guests, so that I could join the food.
I got to the food. To my surprise no candles were lit. Everyone had braided bread and wine or juice. I should have had juice or braided bread before the wine. I managed. I don’t know what we were talking about. One of the African–American ladies in my group asked if I was Jewish, because I was wearing the black silken skull cap. I responded, “No. But I didn’t know there were so many black Jews in Detroit.” There were two or three black men and women there who were fully engaged in the Hebrew Service and the meal prayer. She responded, “Neither did I.” We went back to our delicious meatless dishes.
As I exited the Red Door, a small half cylinder, tacked to the door frame, caught my eye. I thought, “I’ve seen these painted over in doorways around Detroit.” Our group, along with Rabbi Dorit, who invited us to the synagogue, proceeded to our cars and headed to the Detroit Institute of Arts. We viewed the exhibit Rembrandt: The Faces of Jesus.
My overall experience was one of being in the inner circle, witnessing a great mystery. As an African American, I’ve started to say that if I were a Jew I would be insulted to hear: a dollar changes hands in the Jewish community two to three times before it leaves; the Jews were oppressed: why can’t you Blacks and Indians get it together; and, they worked me like a Hebrew slave. I’d be insulted for people to act as if they knew me and didn’t understand my highest values. I didn’t hear any preaching; didn’t see any waiting for G-d’s salvation; and, didn’t see any passing of money. The congregants’ relation to the Big Scroll, and the collective reading of it, was at the heart of the community I participated with behind the Red Door.
None of the cultural cliques address what I took away with my experience of crossing a cultural line and my participating the best I could in the service and the meal. Literacy, a common focus and fellowship, are the best foods ever.
Share a cross- cultural experience that you have had in the Detroit Area. Use the Reply Area below
Robert Cooper is a world traveler and cultural experience enthusiast who initiated a Japanese language program in Detroit Public Schools after living abroad and participating in a study abroad program with Huston Smith. He is the president of the Association for Youth Empowerment and serves on the Leadership Team for the Bridging 8 Mile initiative. He is also a coach and leader at Landmark Education.