A Yiddish poem flashes on the screen at the front of the classroom. Professor Reggie Daniels chuckles and says, “I can’t read that one.”
No problem. His co-teacher, Professor Shaina Hammerman, reads “Whiteness,” a 1921 poem about Eastern European Jews assimilating into American society, to the class, first in its original Yiddish and then in English.
Next, Daniels reads “Hard Luck,” a 1926 work by black poet Langston Hughes, which includes the lines: “Jew takes yo’ fine clothes, Gives you a dollar an’ a half.”
Daniels and Hammerman are teaching a class called “Black-Jewish Relations,” the newest course in the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco.
The two teachers are as different as the two poems they just recited for the class of about 20 students, which includes an Israeli, several Asians and Latinas and a woman who identified herself as a black Jew.
Hammerman has a doctorate in Jewish history and culture from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and is the author of a book on Hasidic Jews in film. Daniels, who earned an undergraduate degree at USF in 2011 and now is working on his doctorate at the school, has seven convictions on drug and weapons charges and spent four years in the early 1990s in San Quentin State Prison.
“This is a class on black-Jewish relations, and I didn’t want to be a white Jewish woman speaking by myself about this topic,” Hammerman said. “My perspective is not the only one on this topic. When I met Reggie, I felt I finally had a partner who had a different perspective on this. His passion for activism and prison rights activism is what made me want to reach out to him.”
The class, taught each Friday afternoon during USF’s fall semester, includes readings by black and Jewish authors and film screenings such as “The Jazz Singer” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”
During a recent class, a trio of students led a discussion on readings ranging from James Baldwin’s “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White” to Rabbi Robert Gordis’ “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They Want a Scapegoat” — both published in the New York Times in April 1967, the latter two weeks after the former.
Other students enthusiastically joined in, often with personal recollections of prejudice and discrimination.
Though the class addresses partnerships between blacks and Jews, such as during the civil rights movement, it doesn’t shy away from examining the disparity between two groups that often share animosity from the dominant white Christian culture.
Most Jews have been accepted as part of that white culture, Daniels said, while blacks have remained outsiders. And that has severed some of the bonds between the black and Jewish communities forged in the 1960s, he said.
“The Jewish community has in a sense become insulated and comfortable in a way, and that has to do with actual wealth and perceived wealth,” he said. “I think the African American community has not yet reached that state in the United States, and the difference in the two conditions creates a class issue.”
While in prison, Daniels became involved in the Resolve to Stop the Violence Project run by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department. As part of his recovery from prison, he was one of four men who performed a play called “Manalive,” designed to show young men how to express their emotions with words instead of violent acts.
Daniels said the play was transformational, allowing him for the first time to change the story of his life.
“Something clicked for me and it became a new realization that I could now re-narrate my narrative. All my life that never occurred to me, that I could rewrite my story,” he said. “This was the first time anyone heard what it was like, this experience of me being me.”
After his release from prison, Daniels worked with inmates and at-risk youth, sharing his own experiences while leading sessions. That sparked an interest in education — and when “Manalive” was performed at USF, he made the connections that got him back into school.
One of the people who saw him perform was the Rev. Stephen Privett, who at the time was the university’s president. He met with Daniels and welcomed him to the school as a student.
“One of the things Reggie talked about was continuing his education. Father Privett had seen the performance, so he knew Reggie’s story through that play,” said Amie Dowling, a USF professor who was a co-director of “Manalive.” “He was the gatekeeper who provided both the encouragement and the way that Reggie was able to do what he’s done.”
Daniels was on the keynote panel for a social justice activism conference in 2013 at USF produced by Aaron Hahn Tapper, director of the Swig program.
“In terms of being an educator, he is one of the best I’ve seen,” Hahn Tapper said. “[And] as a disproportionate number of male African Americans have been incarcerated, Reggie’s first-hand knowledge — both when incarcerated and when working as an educator with students at jails and prisons — will only be an asset to his guiding students through this one piece of many pieces of the dominant 21st-century African American narratives.”
Hammerman said she first met Daniels under a sukkah last year at USF, as he and Dowling were discussing their projects about mass incarceration. Not long after, they went to Hahn Tapper with their idea of using their different backgrounds to forge a partnership in the classroom.
“It’s about ways in which we understand what it means to be Americans and how to understand identity,” Hammerman said.
“The hope is that we’re going to kind of complete each other. In our relationship as co-instructors, we’re going to model what black-Jewish relationships should look like.”