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The Heretic: Going Colorblind in a Jewish Nursing Home

I caught early chunks of Obama’s acceptance speech at the gym of my local JCC. Not surprisingly, the crowd that night was heavily Republican, and there were mutterings of concern: Is Obama truly committed to Israel? Is Obama too soft on terror? Is he simply another pie-in-the-sky liberal, full of fancy talk, elaborate plans and much hot air? No one was concerned about Obama’s skin color.

We’re less than 145 years removed from slavery and only 40 removed from legal segregation, and we may very well elect a black man as president. No matter your political affiliation, chances are you understand it was an historic moment for America.

I left part way through Obama’s speech and drove to a Jewish community nursing home to make a late visit. While the nursing home is affiliated with the Jewish community, most of its residents are not Jewish. In order to accept federal, state and local funds, nursing homes cannot discriminate based on religious affiliation, color, country of origin, sexual preference, or gender. Years ago, the Jewish community opted to take government funds, a decision that eventually turned the facility’s resident base into a pretty fair representation of the local population, rather than a spot on representation of the Jewish community. With this change came good and bad. The good is diversity. The bad is Christmas trees, Christian prayer services, nuns in the hallways, and an atmosphere that at one point, before some modicum of balance was struck, had Jewish residents feeling like an oppressed minority in their own home. During the peak of this, even the facility’s rabbis felt beleaguered.

I asked one if she had anyone who could help a resident light electric Shabbat candles. With tears in her eyes told me, “There isn’t anyone. There’s nothing Jewish here.” Another had his facility-wide Purim decorations ripped down by staff and replaced with St. Patrick’s Day ornamentation when the two holidays coincided on the calendar. Not too long ago, a new resident – an elderly black woman whom I’ll call Jennie – was admitted. Suffering from a form of dementia, she’s often overcome with fear. She hears noises in the hall and thinks neighborhood thugs are breaking in to try to kill her. She thinks everyone is conspiring against her and that her food is poisoned. She can be loud and disruptive, breaking into tears and sobbing or putting on her best street bravado to ward off enemies that are not there. As much as I try not to let myself judge an elderly, demented person by her actions – and especially by their skin color or religion – there are times when I catch myself thinking about how disruptive, non-Jewish residents should go to non-Jewish facilities. A few months ago, I had a moment like that with Jennie. She sat in a lounge area, alternately threatening to “pop” imaginary intruders and breaking into tears. I told myself what I always do in encounters like these: Reverse the situation. How would I judge it if the disruptive demented person were Jewish and the nursing facility was not? Would I think it’s okay for that facility to remove the sick, elderly, disruptive Jew because he’s Jewish? Of course not. So why should the reverse be any different? I sat beside Jennie and calmed her down by asking about her youth.  She told me that as a child, she had known freed slaves. She’d been born dirt poor and had faced intense discrimination. But she raised children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. And she had built a successful business. After a while she asked, “Where are we now? What’s the name of this place?”

I told her. She looked at me, startled, and then looked around her. “I used to work here,” she said, “in the kitchen, along time ago. But it looks different.”

I told her this was a different building in a different neighborhood than before. Then she told me about her friend the kosher butcher, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, whose shop once stood nearby the old building. “I used to buy all my meat from him when I first got married,” she explained.

I said that I had owned that store years later, and the same butcher had been my landlord and friend. A few nights later, I found Jennie wandering in a hallway without her wheelchair or her wandering alarm. I had her hold onto a railing so she wouldn’t fall and I called for help. Then I asked Jennie why she was up so late, wandering around alone. “I’m a poor black woman,” she said. “If I don’t get up and get out of this house and find me some money, I’ll never go to college.” I asked her what she wanted to major in. “I want to be an engineer,” she replied.

When I arrived at the nursing home on the night of Obama’s speech, all the residents were asleep except Jennie. It was the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s "I Have A Dream" speech, providentially coinciding with Obama’s. Obama’s speech had ended and a T.V. station was showing a documentary on the two. Jennie sat silent in her wheelchair in front of the TV, watching King and Obama. Gone were the disruptive behaviors, the paranoia, and the pain. I stopped to say hello. King was on the screen.

“They shot him, didn’t they?” she said.

“They did,” I told her.

She turned and looked at me. “And now a black man could be president?”

I said he very well could.

She turned back to the screen. “And now a black man could be president,” she said watching King. This time it wasn’t a question. Barack Obama is not the Democratic nominee because of his skin color or despite it. He isn’t a token or a novelty. Barack Obama is the nominee because his was the strongest message and the best run campaign. This is the first time America has been truly colorblind. I don’t know if Barack Obama will win. He wasn’t my first choice among Democratic candidates – I’m not even sure who I’ll vote for come November. But there is one thing I am sure of: America is a better place because Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee.

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