I have been thinking a lot about the Jena Six lately. These are the six African American teens accused of beating up a white teen in Jena, La (pronounced JEEN-uh). Tensions reached the boiling point over a year ago when black students at Jena High (pronounced JEEN-uh Hi) asked to sit under a tree “claimed” by white kids. The day after the request three nooses were swung over the tree’s branches. Threatening blacks with lynching didn’t do much to build interracial harmony.
When talking with my own students about this incident I discovered there was a “black tree” on campus. Complete with a bench, this was the unofficial African American hangout. The irony of having a bench for “Blacks Only” was lost on my African American students. They simply wanted a place to feel at home.
I have no problem with this. People tend to congregate with other people they call “us,” and often feel awkward among those they call “them.” Certainly Jews (pronounced JOOS) should understand this. We are masters of “us” and “them” mentality, as well some of its greatest victims.
In my hometown, for example, the country club was Judenrine (German for “Free of Jews”), so the Jews built their own club. My little sister and her girl friends did the same thing when my friends and I built a Boys-Only Fort in the woods behind our house. So I wish African Americans and their tree all the best.
What does trouble me, however, is this: Where is the Jew tree? It turns out that there is no Jewish Tree on campus. This may not surprise you. Ever since the Garden of Eden the only tree that matters to Jews is Torah, which isn’t really a tree at all, but is called one by rabbis deliberately misreading Proverbs 3:18, “She is a Tree of Life to those who hold her close.” The Proverb is referring to Wisdom, God’s Daughter, but the rabbis imagine the reference is to Torah. True, Jews do love to plant trees on our New Year of the Tree (Tu b’Shevat) and there are whole forests of trees with little plaques bearing my name on them, but we prefer the metaphorical tree of Torah to the real thing probably because you can house it in an air-conditioned room rather than have to deal with actual weather.
Nature not withstanding, I took it upon myself to secure a Jewish Tree on campus. Our tree will be close to the library, and its Starbucks. After all what is the point of congregating under a tree if you can’t schmooze about books and share a little nosh?
The initial response to my proposal was positive, though I ran into trouble when I asked for a second tree across from the first. When asked why Jews needed two trees (if you know the joke, forgive me), I explained that given the fractious nature of Jewish culture we Jews needed one tree under which some of us would gather and another under which some of us would never gather. (If you don’t know the joke, ask a Jewish friend about the Jew stranded on a desert island. If you don’t have a Jewish friend, find a Jew Tree and make one.) My proposal is pending.