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Juneteenth and James Patterson

This week’s d’var Torah on B’haalotecha and lifting up marginalized voices.

I know that social media gets a bad rap, but every once in a while, something amazing happens on Twitter. This might be because my feed is a carefully curated Venn diagram of activists, progressive clergy, writers and librarians. This week, writers, book lovers, and librarians on Twitter banded together to eviscerate the famously wealthy and prolific author James Patterson. Patterson recently complained in an interview with London’s The Sunday Times that it was difficult these days to get a writing job as a white male, and that this was “just another form of racism.”

Patterson later apologized, acknowledging the importance of a “diversity of voices being heard.” I look forward to seeing if he takes action that supports that statement. But his words clearly struck a nerve and provoked a strong response.

Many pointed out that Patterson himself is not only one of America’s highest paid authors, with a net worth of $80 million, but also one of Forbes’ top 100 earning celebrities in 2020.

Some people simply showed him the numbers. A self-audit by the major publisher Penguin Random House revealed that, from 2019-2021, 74.9% of its authors were white. A study by The New York Times showed that 89% of books published in 2018 were by white authors.

Writer and culture critic Gina Denny pointed out that of the 150 books on the USA Today bestseller list the day that Patterson made his comments, 33% were written by white males, which aligns with the US population, of which 31% are white males. More unsettling, though, was that only nine authors on the list were people of color. Denny concludes, “Dead white men are statistically as likely to be on the USA Today bestseller list as a person of color.”

Alyssa Cole, a bestselling romance writer and a woman of color, believes that Patterson’s gaffe was more than just ignorance: “His idea that cis white male authors are discriminated against/losing out, despite his continued success, is directly related to the replacement theory driving white supremacy.”

My favorite response came from someone known to me only as @RantyLibrarian: “Our library cancelled James Patterson and with the extra space we now have a new 1000 square foot community room.”

I am not saying that we need to cancel James Patterson or any other mainstream white male authors. But as this Shabbat stands at the intersection of Pride Month and Juneteenth, we might want to think about what voices we are listening to and lifting up, and how we might lift up more marginalized voices in the future.

This is a good time to do our own “self-audit”: who are we reading, watching, and listening to? Who are we following on social media? Whose voices are we lifting up and sharing with others?

I’ve spoken before about Danielle Kranjec, a Jewish educator who “posits that a source-sheet with more than two sources must include at least one non-male-identified voice.” What if we applied this rubric to our own lives? What if we looked at the content we consume (and the content we share) and tried to include more marginalized voices? And how do we make spaces for these voices to be heard over the noise of the dominant culture?

While there are many marginalized voices to consider—LGBTQIA, BIPOC, women, people with disabilities—in honor of Juneteenth, I thought I’d lift up a few Jews of Color you might want to check out.

Marra Gad, independent film producer and author of The Color of Love: Story of a Mixed-Race Girl.

Michael Twitty, a food writer and culinary historian and author of The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African-American Culinary History in the Old South. He is known on Twitter as @KosherSoul.

Rabbi Sandra Lawson, Inaugural Director of Racial Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Reconstructing Judaism, who recently wrote this post about making space for black joy in our communities.

You can also engage with more voices of Jews of Color through Jews in All Hues and Bechol Lashon/Global Jews. I encourage people to share their own suggestions for voices we should be lifting up and listening to, either during our oneg tonight or on our social media platforms after Shabbat.

In this week’s Torah portion, Be’haalotecha, Moses and Aaron are commanded regarding the seven lamps that are to be mounted in the mishkan (Numbers 8:1-4). After reading these verses, Imani Romney-Rosa Chapman and Rabbi Ellen Lippman ask, “How do we shed light on an old system so that we can see anew the devastation it caused? How do we raise that light high enough to allow a wide view, the ‘aha’ moment that can lead to change? B’haalot’cha. [By] raising up the lamps. Our parasha shows us a way to shine a light on the challenges and opportunities of being in community and cocreating a new way of life” (The Social Justice Commentary, p. 215).

As we strive to raise up often-silenced voices, may we help shed light into dark places, and help those we encounter to shine their lights more brightly.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz