Thanksgiving, Arlo Guthrie, & My Yarmulke

A Ritual of Joyful Resistance

— by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Just five minutes before noon today, I took part in a wonderful ritual. One of the members of a men’s group that began 30 years ago – Jeffrey Dekro, founder of the Isaiah Fund [see below for an explanation] —  called me and its other members to remind us to turn on our radios. He has been doing this, year after year on Thanksgiving Day, for almost all those thirty years.

Why?

Every year at noon on Thanksgiving, WXPN Radio in Philadelphia plays Arlo Guthrie’s  “Alice’s Restaurant,”  about a Thanksgiving dinner in Stockbridge Mass. in 1967; about obtuse cops; and about nonviolent resistance to a brutal war.

More after the jump.
And every year, this seemingly non-Jewish set of rituals stirs in me the memory of a moment long ago when my first puzzled, uncertain explorations of the “Jewish thing” took on new power for me.  And when I came to understand the power of a yarmulke.

In 1970, I was asked by the Chicago Eight to testify in their defense. They were leaders of the movement to oppose the Vietnam War, and they had been charged by  the Nixon Administration and Attorney-General John Mitchell (who turned out to be a  criminal himself – see under “Watergate”) with conspiracy to organize riot and destruction during the Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968 .

I had been an alternate delegate from the District of Columbia to the Convention – elected originally as part of an anti-war, anti-racist slate to support Robert Kennedy. After he was murdered, we decided to nominate and  support as our “favorite son” the chairperson of our delegation –  Rev. Channing Phillips (may the memory of this just and decent leader be a blessing), a Black minister in the Martin Luther King mold.  

Our delegation made him the first Black person ever nominated for President at a major-party convention.  The following spring, on the first anniversary of Dr. King’s murder, on the third night of Passover in 1969, his church hosted the first-ever Freedom Seder.

AND – besides being aan elected delegate, I had also spoken the first two nights of the Convention to the anti-war demonstrators at Grant Park, at their invitation, while the crowd was being menaced by Chicago police and the National Guard. The police – not the demonstrators – finally did explode in vicious violence on the third night of the Convention.

Although the main official investigation of Chicago described it as a “police riot,” the Nixon Administration decided to indict the anti-war leaders. So during the Conspiracy Trial in 1970,  Tom Hayden, David Dellinger, Abby Hoffman, and the other defendants figured I would be reasonably respectable (as a former  delegate) and therefore relatively convincing to the jury and the national public, in testifying that  the anti-war folks were not trying to organize violence but instead were the victims of police violence.

 As the trial went forward, it became clear that the judge – Julius Hoffman, a Jew  – was utterly subservient to the prosecution and wildly hostile to the defense.  (Some of us thought he had become possessed by the dybbuk of Torquemada, head of the Inquisition.  – How else could a Jew behave that way?  We tried to exorcise his dybbuk. It didn’t work.)

Judge Hoffman browbeat witnesses, ultimately literally gagging and binding Bobby Seale, the only Black defendant, for challenging his rulings – etc.  Dozens of his rulings against the Eight were later cited by the Court of Appeals as major legal errors, requiring reversal of all the convictions the prosecution had achieved in his court.

So when I arrived at the Federal court-house in Chicago, I was very nervous.  About the judge, much more than the prosecution or my own testimony.

The witness who was scheduled to testify right before me was Arlo Guthrie. He had sung “Alice’s Restaurant” to/ with the demonstrators at Grant Park,  and the defense wanted to show the jury that there was no incitement to violence in it.

So William Kunstler, z’l,  the lawyer for the defense, asked  Guthrie to sing “Alice’s Restaurant” so that the jury could get a direct sense of the event.

But Judge Hoffman stopped him: “You can’t sing in my courtroom!!”

“But,” said Kunstler, “it’s evidence of the intent of the organizers and the crowd!”

For minutes they snarled at each other. Finally, Judge Hoffman: “He can SAY what he told them, but NO SINGING.”

And then – Guthrie couldn’t do it. The song, which lasts 25 minutes, he knew by utter heart, having sung it probably more than a thousand times – but to say it without singing, he couldn’t. His memory was keyed to the melody. And maybe  Judge  Hoffman’s rage helped dis-assemble him.

So he came back to the witness room, crushed.

And I’m up next. I start trembling, trying to figure out how I can avoid falling apart.


It took me another year or so to start wearing some sort of hat all the time — a Tevye cap or a beret or a rainbow kippah or an amazing tall Tibetan hat with earflaps and wool trimming.

I decide that if I wear a yarmulke, that will  strengthen me to connect with a power Higher/Other than the United States and Judge Hoffman. (Up to that moment, I had never worn a yarmulke in a non-officially “religious” situation. I had written the Freedom Seder in 1969, but in 1970 I was still wrestling with the question of what this weird and powerful “Jewish thing” meant in my life.)

So I tell Kunstler I want to wear a yarmulke, and he says – “No problem.”  Somewhere I find a simple black unobtrusive skull-cap, and when I go to be sworn in, I put it on.

For the oath (which I did as an affirmation, as indicated by much of Jewish tradition), no problem.

Then Kunstler asks me the first question for the defense, and the Judge interrupts. “Take off your hat, sir,” he says.

Kunstler erupts. – “This man is an Orthodox Jew, and you want – etc etc  etc.” I am moaning to myself, “Please, Bill, one thing I know I’m not is an Orthodox Jew.”  But how can I undermine the defense attorney?  So I keep my mouth shut.

Judge Hoffman also erupts: “That hat shows disrespect for the United States and this Honorable Court!” he shouts.

“Yeah,” I think to myself, “that’s sort-of true. Disrespect for him, absolutely. For the United States, not disrespect exactly, but much more respect for Something Else. That’s the point!”

They keep yelling, and I start watching the prosecutor – and I realize that he is watching the jury.   There is one Jewish juror.  What is this juror thinking?

Finally, the prosecutor addresses the judge: “Your Honor, the United States certainly understands and agrees with your concern, but we also feel that in the interests of justice, it might be best simply for the trial to go forward.”

And the judge took orders!!  He shut up, and the rest of my testimony was quiet and orderly.

A Kippah Question

There’s something sad about seeing many of our American youth wearing a kippah while visiting Israel.

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not against them wearing a kippah; I am gratified by it. The reason I think it is so sad is because the vast majority of those same kids will not wear one at home in America other than when sheltered from the outside world. For example, they have no problem wearing their Jewish identity openly when going to synagogue, attending religious school or participating in a Jewish event but wearing one in the general public, well that’s a different story.
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