The Temple Faculty Herald now has a section in which faculty are invited to send in reflections on colleagues who have passed on in recent years. It is our hope that these thoughts will offer an important testament of contributions by those who can no longer speak for themselves. The following memorial appears by permission of Jewish Studies Newsletter at Temple University.
In Memory of Murray Friedman
—Lewis R. Gordon (CLA), Faculty Herald Editor, Temple University
I met Murray Friedman in the fall of 2004, when I began teaching at Temple. We were at a dinner celebration at the end of a symposium organized by Judaic Studies. I was seated next to him.
He baited me into a conversation on racism and his list of favorite and despised scholars in African American Studies, and a heated discussion followed.
Readers of this newsletter are no doubt already familiar with what happens when two Jewish men argue with each other for a couple of hours.
Murray invited me for breakfast at his place, and our conversation continued. We thought we would meet for about an hour, but the range of ideas we explored and the joy of each other’s company meant breakfast heading into lunch as three hours passed by.
Murray spoke of his doctoral thesis at Columbia University and his subsequent Civil Rights activist work in Virginia. He spoke of the death threats he suffered during those times and of the hopes that brought him to Philadelphia. He spoke of strategies of getting rid of the glass ceiling on Jews in various institutions, and he brought up various intellectual influences that led to his transition from liberalism to conservatism and eventually neoconservatism.
There was always a subtle smile on Murray’s face whenever I spent time with him, which suggested a genuine struggle with representation and misrepresentation. A mutual friend once described Murray to me this way: “He is really a moderate conservative, but there is no room for such people these days. In the end, he’s one of the good guys.”
Murray was very curious about the plight of Afro-Jews. He exercised wonderful humility as a historian by the genuine excitement he expressed at an opportunity to go beyond the reductive (Christian) blacks versus (white) Jews model that dominates interracial discussions of antiblack racism and anti-Semitism. How do Afro-Jews relate to these questions?
I spoke of my own background, which is the fruit of the meeting in Jamaica of Irish Sephardic Jews and Mizrahi Jews from Jerusalem. Given Murray’s olive-skinned complexion and dark curly hair, I remarked at how silly it was that we live in a world that pressures me to see him as more white than as a descendant of people from North Africa and the Middle East. I know black people who look whiter than many “white” Jews. And the difference in appearance between many Afro-Jews and European Jews is at times absent.
Murray and I also spoke of the importance of order, peace, and security in any society. My response, which included the importance of older generations taking responsibility for the guidance of younger populations into maturity, brought on one of those moments in which Murray sat back and offered a delicious smile of triumph: He called me a conservative.
My response was that I do not see how any intelligent person could have a monopolitical view of the world, that people are more complicated than the unfortunate efforts to close off free thinking and dissent in our society demand. There were many issues on which Murray and I disagreed, but we found much more on which we had common ground beneath those issues. For Murray and me, it was not only our concerns about the lives and future of Jewish and African descended peoples but also our understanding of the importance of developing a livable social world. Are we building a world in which our children and their children and subsequent generations can live with dignity and respect?
Murray and I were making plans of how to work together over the next several years. He was concerned about his retirement, but he was clearly planning not to be out of the story of struggles for things that mattered most to him. We spoke of linking the Feinstein Center for American Jewish Life with the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies.
The Center for Afro-Jewish Studies (CAJS) is a research center that I co-founded with my colleagues in Judaic Studies at Temple University. It is a research unit devoted to developing research on the study of Afro-Jews. This work involves the history of such Jews in the United States and across the globe. It also involves exploring the theoretical issues involved in studying such communities.
The CAJS is not involved in the project of defining Jews and Judaism. We have found that to be a very unproductive direction in which to take our research. (I have yet to find a Jewish community—even in Israel—with complete agreement on this question.) Our empirical work focuses, instead, on Jewish-identified communities. A major problem in Afro-Jewish studies is how little is actually known about Afro-Jews and many other communities that could be characterized as “Jews of color,” an expression I do not like because of the white normativity of Jews it presumes. In my own research and travels, I have encountered varieties of Jewish communities on every continent save Antarctica.
By enabling Jewish identified communities to tell their stories and making them available to the scholarly community, we aim to offer the necessary empirical data from which experts and lay-persons could learn much. As well, a better understanding of how various Jewish communities have come to be understood as they are today could provide a better understanding of the expression the Jewish people.
What would we learn about Jewish history if we were to study the many Jewish communities that settled along trade routes across the African continent? What might we learn when the ancient and Medieval textual commentaries on Judaism in Somalia and Ethiopia are translated? How might we understand New World Judaism when we look more closely at the many lines of Jews who migrated to the Caribbean and Latin America? How unique are the various African-American Jewish communities? And how should we understand the many descendants of mixed marriages between European Jews and various African-American (including Afro-Jewish) communities? What does all this mean in the U.S., where there continues to be a debate on the religiosity of Judaism and the challenges posed by born Jews? Could we be living in a society in which the goal is to cultivate, as odd as this might sound, a Judaism without Semites?
An empirical question that is always asked immediately after the realization that there are black Jews is—How many are there? The truth is that nobody knows. One of our goals at the CAJS is to bring rigor to efforts to answer this question. We have begun small. Beginning with the Philadelphia Afro-Jewish communities, one could learn much as demographic work expands to Afro-Jewish communities in the Americas and world-wide.
We will be exploring some of these issues in the conference Jews and Race, organized by my colleagues Laura Levitt (Director of Judaic Studies) and Michael Alexander (Director of the Feinstein Center and Murray Friedman Professor of American Jewish History), which will take place on November 5, 2007, on the 10th Floor of Gladfelter Hall at Temple University’s main campus.
In my research on Afro-Jews, I have also noticed a phenomenon with which I should like to close. Afro-Jews are often expected to be “authentic,” which in the context of racial discourse means being without white influence. What this does, however, is to create a situation in which Afro-Jews who do not live in segregated environments, and who do not attend homogenous synagogues or related institutions, become invisible. A mixed synagogue is simply called a synagogue. The appearance of Afro-Jews, Latino Jews, East Asian Jews, and the many variety of Jews in synagogues and other Jewish institutions would be a step forward in the effort to articulate a more accurate portrait of Jewish people. I think the joy Murray expressed in our meeting reflected this kind of hope. He was not only concerned with the travails that plague Jewish peoples but also with bringing Jewish people together. I think that is what the mutual friend was trying to tell me.
Murray died too soon. I say this not only because of the important work he planned to do. I say this, in a selfish way, because he was also my friend, and when someone has become such, even a long stretch of time would be too short.
Click here to learn more about Dr. Murray Friedman’s contributions to Temple University, Philadelphia, and the nation.