There’s a moment in “The Black-Jew Dialogues,” a two-man show about the long and winding relationship between the black and Jewish communities, when the past gives way to the present.
The performers have just blown through the history — of Jewish slave traders, refugee professors fleeing Nazi Germany and finding new homes at historically black colleges, and Jewish civil rights activists — and the current day comes into focus.
“Here’s the problem with blacks and Jews today,” Kaedon Gray, a youthful African American, says to Larry Jay Tish, an older Jew. “Blacks are still getting thrown in jail, still getting pulled over in record numbers, still getting killed. Where are you guys?”
“Boca,” Tish shoots back, referring to the Florida city Boca Raton.
Gray’s addressing Tish, but Sunday night he was also speaking to Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, which hosted the touring comedy show to culminate a Martin Luther King Jr. weekend and what it called a “social action Shabbat.”
About 150 attendees, including members of the Alfred Street Baptist Church — a black church in Alexandria that dates back to the early 19th century — filled the pews for the performance and subsequent discussion, in which police brutality, Donald Trump’s presidency and the ability to empathize figured prominently.
The energetic show, written by Tish and Ron Jones in the mid-2000s (Jones has since moved on to play in other productions put on by their joint company) includes skits, songs, scripted conversation and improvisation. In one scene, the performers play two grandmothers — one black, one Jewish — who are standoffish at first but ultimately end up in a song and dance about the importance of their food.
But it’s also serious. Toward the end, Gray implores Tish to honestly open up about the suffering of the Jews, rather than deflecting with humor.
“Maybe that’s why we laugh and tell jokes, because we don’t know when it’s going to happen again,” Tish says. “… When things get bad and somebody decides, it’s the Jews’ fault.”
And Gray plumbs what it’s like to be a young black man in America, saying that so much of black identity isn’t self-determined, it’s projected from others.
“You want to know what it’s like to be black in America?” Gray says. “It’s an image that gets superimposed on to you. … I just wish people understood that there’s nothing to be afraid of, there’s nothing to fear.”
In a telephone interview, Jones said the reaction to the show is often one of surprise: people, especially the college students they perform for, often don’t know about the long history of collaboration the groups have.
“It’s an encapsulated history. Here’s 130 years of black-Jewish relations in America,” he said. “And only in the 1970s, with the erosion of the civil rights movement, it’s not just that it broke apart, it evaporated. Its visible face was no longer visible.”
The weekend of events was organized by Agudas Achim’s Social Action Committee, which started working on education and outreach around issues of racial justice about a year ago, according to the committee chair, Samara Weinstein.
The group arranged educational programming, including a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture and a panel discussion about prisoner rehabilitation, as well as activism and lobbying at the local and state level around car stops by police and the monetary threshold for felony theft in Virginia.
Weinstein says that it’s aggressive for a Conservative synagogue, but that there was clearly an unmet demand, as the committee’s work has been popular.
“With everything that was going on in Ferguson and Baltimore and around the country, everybody’s like ‘Let’s pray,’ and I feel like that just doesn’t cut it,” Weinstein said. “The social action and political advocacy piece is something that’s been missing and lacking [in the Conservative movement]. And clearly we’re hitting something. Folks want to do it.”
The committee reached out to Alfred Street Baptist and the two congregations began meeting regularly, planning joint programs and attending each other’s services.
At the end of the performance, Gray and Tish exchange heartfelt messages of support, bonding over their groups’ historical traumas. They remind each other that if the black and Jewish communities work together, they can amplify their respective interests.
“If I don’t want it to happen to my people again, I’ve got to make damn sure it doesn’t happen to your people again,” Gray tells Tish. “I got your back.”