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Arlo Guthrie, Thanksgiving and a Yarmulke

Thanksgiving may not be a “Jewish” festival, but each year one of its rituals stirs in me the memory of a moment when my puzzled, uncertain exploration of the “Jewish thing” took on new power for me. And when I came to understand the power of a yarmulke.

A few years ago, as always on Thanksgiving in Philadelphia, WXPN Radio played Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant.” The song is about a Thanksgiving dinner in Stockbridge Mass., in 1967, obtuse cops and nonviolent resistance to a brutal war.

As the time for the radio ritual drew near, in a flurry of phone calls around our neighborhood three other men and I fulfilled our own ancient Thanksgiving ritual, calling to make sure we were all tuned in. The four of us–three rabbis and a Jewish-renewal foundation executive–had been members of a men’s group that met twice a month from 1983 to 1993.

The “Jewish moment,” however, came long, long ago. In 1970, I was asked by the Chicago Eight to testify in their defense. They had been charged by the U.S. government (i.e. the Nixon administration and Attorney General John Mitchell) with conspiracy to organize riot and destruction during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968.

I had been an alternate delegate from the District of Columbia to the Convention–elected originally as part of an anti-war, anti-racist slate to support Robert Kennedy.

After he was murdered, we decided to nominate and support the Rev. Channing Phillips (peace be upon him), a black minister in the Martin Luther King mold, the chair of our delegation. We made him the first black person ever nominated for president at a major-party convention.

The following spring, on the first anniversary of Dr. King’s murder, on the third night of Pesach
in 1969, his church hosted the first-ever Freedom Seder.

AND–I had also spoken the first two nights of the convention to the anti-war demonstrators at Grant Park, at their invitation, while the crowd was being menaced by Chicago police and the National Guard. Tom Hayden asked several delegates both to share with the demonstrators their sense of what was happening inside the convention, and in the process to put their bodies between the police and the demonstrators. The police finally did explode in violence on the third night of the convention, when the crowd tried to march peacefully toward the convention as it began voting on presidential candidates.

Although the main official investigation of Chicago described a “police riot,” the Nixon administration decided to indict the anti-war leaders. So during the Conspiracy Trial in 1970, Tom Hayden, David Dellinger, Abby Hoffman, et al, figured I would be reasonably respectable (as a former delegate) and therefore relatively convincing to the jury and the national public, in testifying that the anti-war folks were not trying to organize violence but instead were the victims of police violence.

As the trial went forward, it became clear that the judge was utterly subservient to the prosecution and wildly hostile to the defense.

Dozens of his rulings against them were later cited by the Court of Appeals as major legal errors, requiring reversal of all the convictions the prosecution had achieved in his court. He browbeat witnesses and ultimately literally gagged and bound Bobby Seale, the only Black defendant, for challenging his rulings.

So when I arrived at the federal courthouse in Chicago, I was very nervous.

A witness who was scheduled to testify shortly before me was Arlo Guthrie. He had sung “Alice’s Restaurant” to/with the crowd at Grant Park, and the defense wanted to show the jury that there was no incitement to violence in it.

So William Kunstler, may his memory be a blessing, the lawyer for the defense, asked Guthrie to sing “Alice’s Restaurant” so that the jury could get a direct sense of the event.

But Judge Hoffman stopped him: “You can’t sing in my courtroom!!”

“But, said Kunstler, “it’s evidence of the intent of the organizers and the crowd.”

Finally, Judge Hoffman: “He can SAY what he told them, but NO SINGING.”

And then–Guthrie couldn’t do it. The song, which lasts 25 minutes, he knew by utter heart, having sung it probably more than a thousand times–but to say it without singing, he couldn’t. His memory was keyed to the melody. And maybe Judge Hoffman’s glare helped disassemble him.

So he came back to the witness room, crushed.

And I’m up very soon. I start trembling, trying to figure out how I can avoid falling apart.

I decide that if I wear a yarmulke, that will strengthen me to connect with a power higher/other than the United States and Judge Hoffman. (Up to that moment, I had never worn a yarmulke in a non-officially “religious” situation. I had written the Freedom Seder in 1969, but was in 1970 still wrestling with the question of what this weird and powerful “Jewish thing” meant in my life.)

So I tell Kunstler I want to wear a yarmulke, and he says, “No problem.” I find a simple black unobtrusive skull-cap, and when I go to be sworn in, I put it on.

For the oath (which I did as an affirmation, as indicated by much of Jewish tradition), no problem.

Then Kunstler asks me the first question for the defense, and the Judge interrupts. “Take off your hat, sir,” he says.

Kunstler erupts: “This man is an Orthodox Jew, and you want–etc., etc., etc.”

I am moaning to myself, “Please, Bill, one thing I know I’m not is an Orthodox Jew.” But how can I undermine the defense attorney? So I keep my mouth shut.

Judge Hoffman also erupts: “That hat shows disrespect for the United States and this Honorable Court!” he shouts. (It’s important to know that Judge Hoffman was himself a Jew, but barely connected to anything Jewish. Indeed, his one Jewish affiliation seems to have been a fancy social club started by Jews because they were barred from all the other fancy social clubs in Chicago.)

“Yeah,” I think to myself, “that’s sort-of true. Disrespect for him, absolutely. For the United States, not disrespect exactly, but much more respect for Something Else. That’s the whole point!”

They keep yelling at each other, and I start watching the prosecutor–and I realize that he is watching the jury. There is one Jewish juror. What is this juror thinking?

Finally, the prosecutor addresses the judge: “Your Honor, the United States certainly understands and agrees with your concern, but we also feel that in the interests of justice, it might be best simply for the trial to go forward.”

And the judge took orders!! He shut up, and the rest of my testimony was quiet and orderly.

It took me another year or so to start wearing some sort of hat all the time. For years, it was a Tevye cap. For years, and some of the time now, a beret. Sometimes a rainbow kippah. Sometimes in a rough winter, an amazing tall Tibetan hat with earflaps and wool trimming that I found in a Tibetan Buddhist harvest festival that came right during Sukkot (when else??!!).

And what the hat continues to mean to me is that there is a Higher, Deeper Truth in the world than any Judge or Pharaoh.

It’s my–our–“Alice’s Restaurant.” Or maybe “Alice’s Restaurant” is Arlo’s yarmulke.

Arthur Waskow is founder and director of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, Pa.