Susannah Heschel on the Legacy of Her Father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Civil Rights Movement
By Nadine Epstein
Moment: Tell me about this photo. It’s so famous, and we see it all the time—but what’s really happening there?
Susannah Heschel: This is an iconic photograph and the moment it captures in Selma has become one of tremendous inspiration for a lot of Jews. When my father first went to Selma, it was a very frightening time. We had a television at home—a little black and white television—my father watched the news every night. There were images of peaceful black demonstrators who were being treated horribly, with some vicious dogs and water hoses—and those images were terrifying. So the Civil Rights Movement set a context, in a way, for my family and my growing-up years. Behind all of this, of course, was a lot more of Jewish history, of how Jews had been treated, of the Holocaust.
My father’s involvement with the movement to free Soviet Jews also had that as a background, that American Jews had not spoken up during World War II to save European Jews and now Soviet Jews were being deprived the chance to practice their Judaism and essentially being robbed of their identity. So all of this was very intense in those days. For my father and my home, political issues were moral issues; they were religious issues. It wasn’t about politics—in fact, that word “politics” really wasn’t used. It was about religious meaning and the Bible. What was so extraordinary about Dr. King was his use of the Hebrew prophets in his speeches to the point where he made me fall in love with the Bible in a way that my day school and my Hebrew school didn’t. And you sometimes couldn’t tell—were these Dr. King’s words or the prophets’ words? That was extraordinary. I felt as if we were living in prophetic time.
My father’s relationship with Dr. King felt a little miraculous. My father went to Chicago to give a speech at a conference on religion and race that had been organized by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. And that’s where he met Dr. King for the first time. And something happened in that moment. They suddenly, instantly became very close, in a very deep way. And they worked together, lectured together and talked together for years after that. Within a few months, Dr. King came to a convention of members of the United Synagogue representing Conservative synagogues around the country and spoke with my father about race, Soviet Jews and Israel. And they continued in that way. Clarence Jones, Dr. King’s personal attorney, told me they would have meetings to plan things and Dr. King would always say, “Well, somebody call Rabbi Heschel and see if he’s free that day.”
They were on each other’s minds and they were present even if they weren’t physically in the room; they were present to each other. It was a Friday afternoon, shortly before Shabbat, that I was at home with my mother and we received a telegram asking my father to come to the march in Selma. We called my father, who was still at his office, and he came home, made flight reservations and packed his suitcase before Shabbat. It was a nervous Shabbat for us. When Shabbat was over, my father made Havdalah and we went downstairs. And I remember that moment vividly because I was worried that he may never come back, that he was going to a very dangerous place. And so I remember vividly when he kissed me goodbye and he got into a taxi to go to the airport. And it was frightening also because my father was not in great health. The picture that everybody looks at today with great pride was a moment of tension and fear, but you don’t see it on their faces.
My father felt that it was a holy moment—that’s how he wrote about it in his diaries. He felt holiness in the march; it reminded him of walking with Hasidic rebbes in Europe, which is a religious act. He said that Dr. King told him that this was the greatest day of his life. It wasn’t like Bloody Sunday, which was a few weeks earlier. It wasn’t a moment of terror. It became a religious moment when all Americans, in a sense, came together and said that we are a moral nation. He revitalized us, and my father was part of it. For my father, it was also extraordinary because Dr. King always quoted from the Hebrew Bible, and particularly Exodus, which was a central motif of the Civil Rights Movement. Think about that: My father came from Nazi Germany, he was a student at the University of Berlin when Protestant theologians were saying that the Hebrew Bible was a Jewish book and had no place in the Christian Bible and they should get rid of it.
My father came to this country and it’s quite remarkable that he didn’t turn his back on Christians. He didn’t say, “Look what you did with your anti-Jewish teachings.” No, he sought to make reconciliation. It is extraordinary to imagine what it meant for my father that Dr. King made the Exodus a central motif of the Civil Rights Movement. It meant so much to him. If you notice, Dr. King’s greatest speeches don’t mention Jesus. He doesn’t speak about the gospels. There may be some allusions, but they’re not direct. He’s not about Jesus and Christ. He’s about the Hebrew Bible, Moses, Amos and Isaiah. That was amazing for my father.
My father came back and he wrote in his diary that he felt his legs were praying. It was a religious moment. And it was religious because of the holiness, because of the history, because of the way my father was able to experience it and how he wanted other people to feel about it. My father was very lonely in those days. His colleagues at the seminary didn’t go with him to Selma. They didn’t say to him, “This is a good thing that you’re doing.” On the contrary, they didn’t appreciate it. It took years before anybody said to me, “This was a good thing your father did.” And it was years after my father had died. But I would say that yes, it’s an iconic photograph and Jews are very proud of it. But I know that my father would say, “Don’t just be proud, take it as a challenge. It’s a challenge to us as Jews also, what have we done lately to combat racism? And that’s not just racism out there in America, it’s racism inside our own hearts and our own communities.”
We do have work to do. And sometimes I wonder if that photograph should be displayed with pride, or if we deserve it—if we’re using it to challenge ourselves because my father always wanted us to challenge ourselves. He said that prayer has to be subversive. You don’t go to the synagogue and pat yourself on the back and say, “What a good Jew I am.” You go to the synagogue and say, “I’m not living up to the ideals of this prayer book, of this Siddur.” That’s what it means.
You answered most of my questions. But maybe you can just tell us very briefly what was happening at the moment of that photo and exactly where it was?
This photograph was taken outside Brown Chapel, which is a church in Selma where everybody gathered for a service on Sunday morning. It’s also the place where the Civil Rights leaders would go to church on a regular basis and hold meetings. When Dr. King came to Selma, he stayed in the home of Dr. and Mrs. Jackson and their daughter. Dr. Jackson was an African American dentist in Selma. His home became the headquarters, and Dr. King stayed there in the guestroom and other leaders. When my father came to Selma for the march, he and others slept at the Jackson home. And that home, by the way, is today an extraordinary museum. Nothing’s been changed and it’s amazing. But what I want to say is this. Mrs. Jackson told me that she came into the living room the morning of the march and there she saw Dr. King praying in one corner of the room. My father was praying in another corner. There was a priest somewhere else. Someone else was still sleeping in the dining room.
And she was very moved by that. And I think that that image too, is very special, just like this photograph. Just think about it. People from different religious states came together, prayed together, linked arms and marched as a form of prayer.
Who took that photo?
I don’t know the name of the person who took the photo. I have several photos from Selma from different moments there. But I think that if you take my father’s words, “I felt my legs were praying.” He felt holiness in that moment. I think you can have a sense of what was in his mind and his heart right then. He felt he was praying, that he had just come from reciting psalms.
To just step back a second, you had mentioned that you thought that photo had been taken by the police?
No, there were photographs, thousands, taken by the Alabama State Troopers. And they’ve been collected and deposited in the Voting Rights museum in Selma. Not all of them can be displayed at once, of course. But let me just mention one other thing about it. If you look at the New York Times the morning after the Selma march, you see that the photo has been cropped. And what’s interesting is that the New York Times printed the photograph without my father. They cut him out. They do have a nun, and that’s important. But I wonder if that might also tell us something about a certain discomfort or even embarrassment that some Jews felt over public displays of Jewishness. When my father was alive, he was very Jewish.
At any rate, my father was so clearly Jewish and yet in the ‘60s that was uncomfortable for many people. In other words, they didn’t like it that somebody who looked so Jewish would be out there in the march.
How did you feel that he was completely left out of the movie Selma? I was kind of horrified when I walked out of the film.
I was very disappointed because again, I thought about what Mrs. Jackson said, that they’re in her living room, Dr. King, a priest and a rabbi, all praying, each in their own way in their own part of the room. To have a room where three people are praying, I thought that was wonderful and that’s what the Civil Rights movement accomplished for us. They each prayed. They each said psalms just before the march began. That’s wonderful and doesn’t happen very often in this world of ours. Imagine when my father was growing up in Warsaw, do you think something like that would have happened? No. And I know that in the ‘60s my father was sometimes viewed as “too Jewish,” embarrassingly, too orthodox, too religious.
Your dad really was ostracized on some level. Now he’s a heroic figure. When did that change?
That’s a good question, but I can tell you that well through the 1970s he was not well respected or taken very seriously. There were quite a few articles published that mocked him or said terrible things about him. There is somebody who dug up some material, but there were a lot of Jews who said, for example, that Jews should only be concerned about other Jews, don’t get involved in the Civil Rights Movement, this is not our problem. So some of it was ignorance, some of it was mean spiritedness. Some of it was a kind of chauvinism that is not helpful, to say the least.
What would your dad think today of what’s going on with the Voting Rights Act?
He would be horrified—absolutely horrified—that all of this took place. He marched at Selma for voting rights. And now they want to take it away? And for what? It’s appalling, it’s disgusting. The whole thing, the idea that people wouldn’t want the possibility that you can buy health insurance. It’s outrageous. The way everything has turned into a commodity, including medical care and education. Everything is a business now. I think it’s the exact opposite of what he stood for. My father spoke about all human beings, he talked about Auschwitz and Hiroshima. He spoke out against the Korean War. He wasn’t a pacifist, but war was the last possible resort. And he also spoke in language that was trying to be effective. In other words he didn’t just lash out. He tried to talk to people in terms they could understand. It’s difficult because people often don’t understand, but he tried. He was very gentle and at the same time forceful. And he was very critical. He was critical of the rabbis for synagogues where the cantor prays for everybody else and people don’t pray.