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From Bohemia to Omaha

01/05/2011

Consider this gem from Jewdayo:

President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was sent out from the White House telegraph office on this date (January 1) in 1863 by Edward Rosewater, a Jewish telegrapher. The Proclamation freed 3.1 million of the country’s four million slaves, leaving in chains hundreds of thousands of African-Americans in several border states that had not seceded. The freedom Lincoln promulgated was made real by the advancing Union Army, but slavery was not officially abolished throughout the U.S. until December 18, 1865, when the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was enacted. Rosewater was an abolitionist (born in Bohemia) who went on to serve in the Nebraska Territorial Legislature, to publish the Omaha Bee, and to establish the Omaha public school system. He was also a founder of the American Jewish Committee, immediately before his death in 1906.

I love the what-goes-around-comes-around of this story — a Jewish telegrapher sends out the edict that frees the majority of American slaves, slaves who themselves invoked the imagery of the Biblical exodus:

Go down Moses
Way down in Egypt land
Tell ole Pharaoh
To let my people go

I love that Rosewater was an abolitionist from Bohemia, a region now part of the Czech Republic and centered in Prague, city of the Golem (see picture, right), a mythical being charged with protecting Prague’s Jews from those who would do them harm. Also, someone from Bohemia is technically a Bohemian, a word that also describes the life of certain (ahem!) marginalized and far-out artistic types.

When impoverished writers, painters, actors, etc. moved into low-rent gypsy neighborhoods in 19th century Paris, the term was adopted, bohémien being a common term for the Romani people who migrated to Western Europe from India via Bohemia beginning in the 11th century. In other words: wandering peoples. According to Wikipedia, in mediaeval France the Romani were known as Egyptiens.

I also love that Rosewater went from being a telegraph operator to a newspaper magnate, public school system innovator, and founder of the American Jewish Committee. Seems kind of Joseph-like, doesn’t he? Stranger in a strange land does good. Really good.

Okay, now I’m wandering. All this is my way of saying that we are now in Parashat Bo, the Torah portion of the last of the 10 plagues – locusts, darkness, and the murder of the first-born – and the early morning get-the-hell-out-of-here edict from Phraraoh.  Liberation is at hand — though, as things turn out, we don’t really get where we’re headed for several more decades (and one could argue that we’re still not quite there). We are commanded to observe this day (the Feast of Unleavened Bread) throughout the ages as an institution for all time.

And that’s what we – and everyone else looking for imagery of being freed from harsh circumstances – do. We come back to this story again and again, the thrill of being released, matzah or no. We observe the day of freedom in song and literature, in our personal yearnings and our communal hopes. We dream of being delivered by something greater than us, this mysterious alchemy we don’t quite understand.

This Biblical account has influenced me – as organizer, writer, and general human being – more than any other single thing in my life. I can’t watch something as hokey as Disney’s Prince of Egypt without crying. I refuse to imagine a world where the potential for such escape from captivity is impossible. I depend on the sense of being a stranger to keep me honest: am I hardening my heart? Will I stand on the side of freedom? How can I best tell ole Pharaoh to let my people go?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Victoria H. Bedford permalink
    01/06/2011 7:25 pm

    What you said about benefiting from being a stranger in a strange land is something I’ve been thinking about. I too kind of like it. It is part of our identity, of who we are. In Israel and New York we are less strange, but I can’t imagine what it would be to be a member of the dominant culture. Does this have something to do with why Edward Rosewater made such a big difference? and Joseph? Perhaps it gives us a valuable perspective that we wouldn’t have otherwise. At the same time, I do not like Pharaoh’s repeatedly hardened heart. Is that really necessary to benefit from the tension of being the stranger? Many questions. No answers?

  2. 01/06/2011 9:48 pm

    Perhaps one of the most interesting things about being a stranger in a strange land is the perspective it affords you. When you’re an “outsider”, you look at things with much different eyes than someone who has been standing right there in the middle of things the whole time. The old adage of “can’t see the forest for the trees” comes to my mind. But the stranger from the strange land brings fresh eyes, and they can see the forest because they come up to it from beyond it.

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