A version of this appears at JewSchool.com
I’ve been reading an array of obituaries and reflections on Mandela and his legacy since late Thursday night when I heard that he had died. When I had a chance to reflect on the news as I traveled from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv last night my thoughts turned to my parents and a shoe museum in Toronto, where I grew up. I also thought about why I came here in the first place.
When I was 13 years old, freshly Bar Mitzvah’d with an older teenaged brother spending weekends looking for fights with neo-Nazis, I first became aware that my mom was (and on some fronts still is) a politically active human being. She was a New York Jew of the baby boom generation, a Woodstock attendee, and she had, in those turbulent years of which I have no first hand knowledge, gotten involved in struggles for civil rights, against the war in Vietnam, and toward a feminist future.
Having recently gotten into the Dead, Snoop, and other musical accompaniments for my newly found enchantment with weed (which became the central destination for much of the bounty of my Bar Mitzvah gifts), I would proudly proclaim that my mom had been a “hippy” to my friends. When she was around to defend herself though, she would explain, slightly annoyed, “I was a radical, not a hippy”.
Though the difference was lost on me at the time, looking back, I can see the mightiness and importance of that act of clarification. She was dedicated to political change and tear-gas-protecting bandanas more than the soundtrack and the tie-dye.
I am quite certain that she was deeply traumatized by the fact that her high school sweetheart had been murdered along with James Chaney and Michael Shwerner by the Mississippi Klan during the Freedom Summer of 1964. And she grew into a political radical, dedicated to analysis and action rooted in the core meanings of democracy, equality and peoplehood.
My dad – still some years before they would meet – tried to slip away from his job waiting tables nearby the Woodstock festival at a Catskills resort. Traffic ensured that he never made it, but he was close. He was a student activist in his hometown of Montreal where he had once occupied the McGill University Students’ Centre with fellow students in the late 60’s.
He was active in the Progressive Zionist Caucus, pushing for an Israel that reflected the best of Jewish and democratic values, where (according to legend) he first introduced himself as “Tziyon Ben Tziyon” and explained that his aim in life was to move to Israel and work to become a Shaliach (a sort of Israeli educator who works in Jewish communities abroad) so that he could leave Israel as soon as possible.
My parents met on Kibbutz Gezer where they, along with many others of their generation, experimented with socialist life in Israel. The move was, for my dad, going with the flow of his social and political circles. My mom, who had been a member of the Movement for a Democratic society the adult branch of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), once told me that she had decided to make her way to Israel, in part because there was a growing sentiment in SDS in the late sixties, after the Six Day War, that Israel had overstepped its bounds and that perhaps Jewish self-determination wasn’t such a good idea after all.
One cannot choose between the personal and the political, all one can do is work to ensure that identity and ideals compliment, rather than oppose, one another.
It turns out my parents raised my brother and me as radicals. Only in recent years did I realize that the alternative, participatory public education that I received growing up was a direct result of my parents and others fighting for that school to open. It was only recently that I understood that the home that I grew up in was profoundly feminist, not because mine was a stay-at-home-dad (he wasn’t) or because my mom made the money decisions instead (that only sometimes happened); it was a feminist space because my parents shared power in our home, they worked together and celebrated Shabbat, Pesach and all as partners. The youth movement I grew up in emphasized the importance of solidarity with all peoples liberation, while never forgetting that our own people’s liberation is included in that and is our responsibility.
When the Bata Shoe Museum opened in Toronto, about a year after Nelson Mandela took office as President of South Africa, I was deeply opposed to visiting. One reason for my opposition was that I wasn’t sure that there was much to learn from shoe history (when I finally did visit I found out just how wrong I was). The more important reason was that the museum was sponsored by Bata.
Some time in the late 1980s, maybe I was seven or eight years old, I was shopping for new shoes with my mom on Yonge Street on a cold and slushy winter’s day. We passed a Bata Shoes and I suggested that we go in. My mom explained to me that we weren’t going to shop there.
I was shocked: This was a shoe store and I needed new shoes!
My mom explained to me that Bata was operating and benefiting from apartheid in South Africa and that we were not going to spend money there because we didn’t want our money helping racism. I didn’t grasp that there was an international campaign and I wasn’t sure I understood all of the words that she used, but my mom made it clear that this shoe store was hurting people somewhere else and that was not good.
Thomas Bata, a Czechoslovakian who left Europe just before World War 2 and just after selling army boots to Mussolini in the 1930s, sold his business in South Africa after the Canadian government pressured him to do so as the international boycotts and sanctions movement gained steam. He was later quoted as saying that he didn't support apartheid per se; rather he wanted to provide jobs in South Africa despite the international boycott movement. Whether it’s true or not, I can’t say. What I can say is that if everyone who says that they didn't support the apartheid then really didn't then there wouldn't have been anyone to run or profit from that white supremacist regime.
When Mandela died I thought to myself that the world had lost a towering inspiration, a champion of equality who worked to close the expanse between the real and the ideal. He was someone who I felt that I knew personally despite never ever even seeing him in person. I also thought to myself that I am proud to have parents that involved me (even just a little bit) in that struggle then, and taught me to involve myself in liberation movements later on as well.
That Mandela was a radical makes me proud to say that I am too.
UPDATE: After reading this a friend mentioned to me that she went to catch a glimpse of Mandela as he was exiting a hotel in downtown Toronto when we were teenagers. She is fairly certain that my brother and I were there with her. The memory feels familiar.
This is the photo that my friend, Elaine McCloud, took of Nelson Mandela in Toronto in 1998.