“Preliminaries” in Rereading Exodus

excerpt from Rereading Exodus along the Anacostia, “Preliminaries.”

A key element in the journey to liberation for all is seeking to understand the workings of oppression and our part in them. We cannot work effectively to end what we do not comprehend. And we cannot act effectively if we feel hopeless, ill-equipped, over-whelmed, and isolated. This book attempts to address these issues with a shared journey.

The Exodus story is a narrative central to religious and popular culture in the U.S. Rereading Exodus along the Anacostia links that story to my own struggles around liberation in my adopted hometown of DC and invites readers to join me in a journey along and across “the River” — sometimes the Anacostia, sometimes the river of Pharaoh and Moses; sometimes both at once. Many things that DC has taught me about Exodus, and that Exodus teaches about life in this city, apply to other places as well. It is that learning journey I hope to share. To clarify: what I can share is mostly a propensity for questions, a commitment to seeking new ways forward, and a sense of urgency taught by Exodus and by some experiences of intergroup dialogue.

We must work to understand
what it means to be
in this “Narrow Place”
and how we’re going to
get ourselves — all of us – out.

Exodus is a valuable tool
in this urgent work,
which white folks, in particular,
must undertake. And soon.

DC is a peculiar place for several reasons. One is its history as “Chocolate City” which has become “Chocolate Chip City,” due to extreme demographic change: Eighty thousand Black people were displaced over the last 20 years, while a majority of newcomers are white, and DC’s Jewish population has roughly doubled. Of course, diversity of DC (and Washington) is not entirely captured in “black and white.” But these racializations and their intersection with Jewishness are central to Rereading Exodus.

The change from “Chocolate” to “Chips” requires careful reflection on shifting power dynamics. The big increase in DC’s Jewish population means Jews in particular, especially white Jews, need to explore our roles in this city. But all who care about DC must work to understand what it means to be in this “Narrow Place” (more on this ahead) and how we’re going to get ourselves — all of us — out.

Origins of the project — This book was originally conceived, in the Before Times, as a project of the Cross River Dialogue, a small group of white Jews living west of the Anacostia River and Black non-Jews living or working east of the River. (The Potomac River might play a bigger role in some aspects of geography and history, and in some art forms, but it is not “the River” here.) This project has since shifted. Rereading Exodus in its current form is informed by my experience with CRD and gratefully shares some lessons learned. But this is not a group project.

Although not a group project, this book was formed in conversation with two Cross River Dialoguers who help me explore the needs of our city, intergroup politics and power. This book owes a great deal to Maurice Cook, executive director of Serve Your City DC/Ward 6 Mutual Aid, and to Kymone Freeman, co-owner of We Act Radio, colleague in the Charnice Milton Community Bookstore effort, and organizer of the Black LUV (Love.Unity.Vision) Festival. Nevertheless, I am responsible for all the content here, unless otherwise noted, and any errors are mine.

Another origin of this project is years of my own struggles around understanding “Exile” and its relationship to the Exodus narrative, to Diaspora Judaism — Jewish thought and practice that lives in and celebrates wherever we are without relying on nationalism — and to the application of the Exodus themes in community- and coalition-building.

We will be exploring an ancient story of oppression and liberation, rereading as we go for new ways forward. The main text is designed to require no particular exposure to any Jewish text or tradition and no particular background in DC history. Some material — DC background and notes on Hebrew, plus related rants, however informative — are offered in a variety of text boxes. This boxed material is meant to include readers of all backgrounds, without interfering with the main text. And it helps satisfy my own footnote-ish tendencies.

On the subject of footnotes and a warning — This is as good a time as any to note that I have been reading and rereading Exodus for decades in all kinds of study and worship settings and on my own. I have read countless books and articles and joined Jewish education classes, but I am not formally trained as a scholar of Bible or Judaism. In addition, I have lived in DC a long time, participated in many ways and learned many things, but I am not a trained historian or expert on economics or legislation.

I am a journalist, with on-the-job training, and I am very careful in citing sources. I do not aim here, however, for exhaustive, authoritative, or “balanced” discussion on any topic. I hope that readers will accompany me on this journey and explore further on their own, perhaps using the citations provided. I do not pretend that I know “the way,” but I do promise never to knowingly mislead….and I am grateful to everyone who joins me on this road. I look forward to hearing from others as we travel this challenging path together.

Race, Harm and Healing

The content of Rereading Exodus along the Anacostia is disturbing and will affect some readers more deeply than others, and it’s important to begin this journey with acknowledging this. For anyone taught to aim for “color-blind” or “we’re all equals” discussion, this book may seem overly direct and unnecessarily focused on race. For readers who live with the affects of structural and interpersonal racism every day, Rereading Exodus may seem to be stating the obvious or not direct enough.

Some of the lessons from our Cross River Dialogue are shared here, and authors more qualified than I to address harms of racism are cited throughout. As we begin, I rely on the work of Rhonda V. Magee for her insight on how race operates in our individual thinking and emotional lives, and for help in approaching these topics in a mindful way.

Rhonda Magee is a professor of law and trained in teaching mindfulness-based stress-reduction; she is also a Black woman with decades of experience operating in white-dominated spaces. Magee describes her life work as “dissolving the lies that racism whispers about who we really are, and doing whatever I can to reduce the terrible harm it causes us all” (p. 16, Magee, The Inner Work of Racial Justice).

She begins her book with what she calls a “Race Story,” a personal “reflection on race in American life.” She urges a practice of mindfulness as a tool “for understanding our experiences around race and identity” and shares the following at the outset:

Mindfulness is essential to developing the capacity to respond, rather than simply react as if on autopilot, to what we experience.

To practice The Pause, you simply stop what you are doing and intentionally bring your awareness to the experience of the present moment… [see her book, “A Gentle Practice for Opening Up to Painful Emotions” on mindful.org, or just pause and notice]….

Take a few minutes to write about what has come up for you during your Pause. This is especially important if you experienced strong emotions, or if some of your own memories or Race Stories emerged from their buried places. In my own experience, and as research has shown, even short periods of writing about emotionally difficult events in our past can assist us in deep healing.

As you continue reading, engage in the loving awareness practice of The Pause whenever you need additional support.

— Magee, p.17-18

“As you continue reading” above is addressed to readers of The Inner Work of Racial Justice. But the same advice applies here.

Magee’s work has been enormous help to me, and she will be quoted a number of times later in this book. I highly recommend checking out her book and/or other resources available on-line.

The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities through Mindfulness. Rhonda V. Magee. TarcherPerigee (Penguin Random House), 2019. The book is now available in paperback, ebook, and audio. The author’s website includes her 2015 article, “The Way of ColorInsight,” and additional free resources.

Bible, Harm and Healing

Rereading Exodus makes use of biblical text as well as commentaries from Jewish, and occasionally Christian or other religious, traditions. The purpose of this work is learning and repair. But it must be acknowledged that we are participating in a system that was not designed for most of us and has, over centuries and in the lifetimes of readers, caused a great deal of harm, to some of us more than others. In particular, Bible and racial injustice are inextricably linked.

Many Bible readers, of many traditions, work to transform what we have inherited into something that supports our whole community and globe. We do not stop wrestling our sacred texts for a blessing, demanding from them a way toward Liberation for all. But the author wishes to recognize that approaching the Bible at all can be more of an effort for some of us.

If working on this book in a group, please keep in mind differences in participant background, in terms of Bible and the general topics raised here.

General Format

At its heart, this book is about the journey away from enslavement in Mitzrayim, the biblical Egypt, and toward Revelation. It does not assume any particular orientation to the calendar or to Judaism, and it is designed to be accessible to readers from any background who are interested in liberation and the Exodus framing.

An appendix offers material for those who follow the Sefira, the period of “counting,” between Passover and Shavuot (in the same calendar and thematic space as the Christian Pentecost) or who wish to take a 49-step journey at any time. This can also be used to prepare for Passover or for upcoming elections, for example. But it need not be read in any particular timeframe.

The pace and path of the journey are flexible:

Skim. Binge. Delve.
Pursue one stage per day or one chapter per week.
Follow up on every citation to learn more.
Select just a few to digest and discuss, maybe meditate.
Work alone or in a group.

However you explore this Exodus journey, find ways to act.

The “Preliminaries” Chapter goes on. More to come.