Cool Bananas – Yom Kippur 5775

BananasClick here and here for video.

I thought it might be nice to start off this morning with a little congregation participation:  Knock, Knock.  [Who’s there?] Banana.  [Banana who?]…. Orange you glad I’m not going to do the whole long banana routine?  Speaking of bananas…..

Are you a Top Banana or a Second Banana?  Have you ever gone bananas or driven someone bananas?  Have you ever been asked to make like a banana and split? Did anyone ever respond to something you did by saying Cool Bananas?  Has anyone ever asked you, “What’s the deal, banana peel?”

Bananas have been a part of the human experience for a LONG time – there are ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs depicting people holding bananas.  The first literary reference to a banana is from before the Common Era – over 2,500 years ago.  Like anything that has been around that long, the banana has been used to symbolize many different things over years.  In other words, sometimes a banana is just a banana, BUT sometimes, it’s more than that.

Most of us view a banana as a nutritious food that is sometimes used as a gag.  In 1915, Charlie Chaplin slipped on a banana peel that he himself dropped on the ground in the film “By the Sea.”  In 1984, Eddie Murphy taught us the banana in the tailpipe trick in “Beverly Hills Cop.”  It would be impossible to count how many times the banana was used as a comedic device in the seventy years in between those two or the thirty years since.  Suffice it to say that a lot of people have enjoyed more than a few giggles thanks to the banana.

However, banana references and humor are not always polite or funny.  For somewhat obvious reasons, there is a whole catalog of sexual innuendo based on the banana.  In the Asian-American community, the term ‘banana’ is an insult to someone who has moved too far away from his or her Asian roots – the person is yellow on the outside but white on the inside – just like a banana.  However, the most offensive usages of the banana tend to be directed toward those of African descent.

It turns out that the origin of the phrase “going bananas” (meaning “acting crazy”) is the behavior that monkeys and apes display when given a bunch of bananas.  They apparently get very excited, jump around and make loud noises.  So, when a person gets very excited, jumps around and makes loud noises, it seems reasonable to say that they are going bananas – just like a monkey or an ape.

We have many idioms and expressions which compare people to animals – hungry as a horse, stubborn as a mule, slippery as an eel and many more.  So, why should this phrase – going bananas – comparing a person to a monkey or an ape be any different?

The answer is rather simple:  history.

There is a long history of dehumanizing people of African descent by suggesting that they are somehow more closely related to monkeys and apes than those of us with lighter skin.  These assertions were sometimes cloaked in pseudo-science suggesting that Africans were a separate, less intelligent species than other humans.  These assertions were certainly used as the justification for enslaving Africans and treating them as chattel.

As a result, our US Constitution – which we hold up as the paragon of rights and freedom – was ratified with a formula for representation which considered an African American of the South only 3/5 of a person. While the 14th amendment to the Constitution may have done away with the 3/5 Compromise, the underlying belief that African Americans were somehow comparable to monkeys remained a part of our culture.

Don’t believe me?  Just google these two words:  “Obama” and “Monkey.”  It’s humiliating to see what some of our fellow Americans think is funny.

But this is not just an American phenomenon.  In Spain (and other European countries), ignorant soccer fans have thrown bananas at players with darker skin for years while screaming out racist taunts.  Just this past April, Dani Alves – a Brazilian soccer player who plays for Barcelona – was getting ready to take a corner kick in a match against Villarreal, when an opposing fan threw a banana at him while spewing racist insults.  Alves responded by picking up the banana, peeling it and taking a bite.

After the match, his fellow Brazilian and Barcelona teammate Neymar – one of the most famous soccer players in the world – posted a picture of himself eating a banana on social media with the words “We are all monkeys.”  It went viral.  Other athletes and performers posted pictures of themselves with bananas as well.  Dani Alves and Neymar gave people the means to fight back against this harmful, racist attack.

After the match, Alves said the following:  “We have suffered this in Spain for some time,” he told reporters. “You have to take it with a dose of humor.  We aren’t going to change things easily. If you don’t give it importance, they don’t achieve their objective.”

It was brilliant.  It was like ignoring the tantrum of a two-year old.  But that doesn’t make the fan’s action of throwing the banana okay.  Appropriately, the fan was banned for life and can no longer attend Villarreal soccer matches.

Some of you have probably already figured out why bananas are on my mind this morning.  And NO! – It’s not simply because I like to talk about food on Yom Kippur!  A few weeks ago, there was an incident with bananas here in Summit.

The very successful Summit High School football team eats bananas before every game. As you can surely tell by looking, I am no expert in nutrition, but some people think that the potassium in bananas can help prevent leg cramps.  So, the football team eats bananas.

About a year or so ago, the team noticed a hole in the door between the home locker room and the visitors’ locker room at the football field.  It was the hole where a doorknob used to be – just the right size to fit a banana.  In order to prevent the other team from looking into the home locker room, the Summit team started putting a banana in that hole before each home game.  And thus, another silly sports superstition was born.  As the team continued winning, they didn’t want to change anything lest their luck run out and a banana was placed in the hole each home game.

It wasn’t an issue until a team from North Plainfield – a largely African-American community -comprised of mostly African-American players came to play here in Summit.  Where Summit’s players saw a good luck charm, the African-American players on the other side of the door saw something completely different.  They saw racism.

Although I was not there, from what I understand, when the North Plainfield players removed one banana, another was put in its place, again, in order to preserve the good luck.

I completely understand how and why the Summit players did what they did.  I also completely understand how and why the North Plainfield players interpreted it the way they did.

But just because the Summit players did not know or understand the history of bananas and African-Americans does not make the act any less painful for the North Plainfield players who saw the bananas.  As a result of this incident, there is an ongoing New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association investigation.

Last night and earlier this morning, we had the opportunity to recite the “Al Chet – על חטא” prayer.  We will recite it several more times before Yom Kippur comes to an end.  After we read the list of sins for which we are asking God – and others – to forgive us, we read a paragraph which lends a little more detail to the kinds of sins we might have committed.  In that paragraph, we acknowledge “the sins known to us (גלויים)”and “those unknown to us (אינם גלויים).” This word (גלויים) is translated by our Prayer Book as “known” but it really means “uncovered” or “revealed.”

In other words, we are asking forgiveness for something we’re born not completely understanding.  We are acknowledging that some things need to be uncovered or revealed to us.  But even if they haven’t yet been revealed to us, and we did something to harm another person, we are still responsible.

For example, if I scraped another person’s car with my car without realizing it, but a surveillance recording showed that it was my car that did the damage to someone else’s, I would still be responsible, right?  I can’t simply say: I didn’t know and therefore I’m not obligated to pay for the repair.  It would be a ridiculous argument.

I don’t think we need to make a federal case out of this banana incident, but we would be remiss if we did not take this opportunity to educate ourselves and the kids in our community.  It’s an opportunity to better ourselves and our community.

When I was a kid, I used to use the expression “gypped” to mean “robbed” or “cheated.”  Maybe I “gypped” someone out of a valuable baseball card in a trade or my team got “gypped” by the umpire’s bad call.  I never realized that the word “gyp” was short for “Gypsie” and that the expression implied that Gypsies – who actually prefer to be called Roma – were somehow less trustworthy or honorable than others.

I never understood how truly insulting that term must be until I got to college and I heard someone on my hall freshman year say that he got “Jewed” – and HE meant the same thing that I had meant when I said “Gypped.”

Today, as a Jewish adult who usually wears a kippah on my head in public – clearly identifying myself as a Jew, when I drop a coin on the ground, I think long and hard about whether or not I am going to bend down and pick it up.  And if the coin is rolling, I stand as still as I can because I don’t want anyone to see an obviously-Jewish person chasing after a coin.  That’s my shtick.

It may sound ridiculous – it even made a few people chuckle here this morning – but clearly, other people’s hateful stereotypes affect the way I behave, affect the way that I think about myself.  So, if anyone should understand how those North Plainfield players felt, seeing that banana sticking out of the door to their locker room, it should the people gathered here today in prayer asking God to forgive us those sins that are known to us and those that have not yet been revealed.

There’s an obvious hole in my argument – and I am quite certain that some of you have already asked the question in your mind:  How do we avoid committing a sin that is not yet revealed or known to us?  If we don’t know it’s a sin, how can we possibly stay away from the act?

The answer is that we have to seek out that knowledge and revelation.  We have to establish relationships with people who are different than we are.  And the truth is that is a lot harder to do than it sounds.

Consider New York City – probably the most diverse city in the country.  While the city’s public-school population looks diverse — 40.3 percent Hispanic, 32 percent black, 14.9 percent white and 13.7 percent Asian — many of its schools are nothing of the sort.  About 650 of the nearly 1,700 schools in the system have populations that are 70 percent a single race.  More than half the city’s schools are at least 90 percent black and Hispanic combined (“Why Don’t We Have Any White Kids,” NYT 5/11/12).

When you come out to the suburbs – as we all have – we are even more segregated.  Summit – not widely regarded as a bastion of diversity – is actually the most diverse city in Union County.  It is the only city in our county to have a population with more than 5% White, 5% African American, 5% Latino and 5% Asian.  But, still, it’s always easier and maybe even a little more comfortable to interact with people who are more like us, who believe in the same things we do, who think more like we do, who do the same things we do.

When we spend time with people who are a little different than we are, though, things that were once covered and hidden become revealed and known.  We gain new insights and new perspectives.

In the wake of this banana incident, we had an interesting email exchange among some of the priests, ministers and rabbis in town.  Pastor Denison Harrield, Jr. of Wallace Chapel AME Zion Church here in Summit – who happens to be African American – wrote that if he invited a Jewish friend to dinner in his home, he wouldn’t serve pork out of respect for his guest.  But if he HAD to serve pork for some reason – it was part of some tradition – he would make sure there was something that his Jewish guest COULD eat and he would be in communication with his Jewish friend.

Having eaten lunch in his church at least once a year for the last nine years, I can vouch for the fact that this is truly the way that Pastor Harrield operates.  I have always felt welcome.  He went on to say that there is nothing wrong with the banana superstition at face value, but a good host would have called his or her guests ahead of time to make sure they understood.

Imagine how differently this would have played out, if one of the adults associated with the Summit High School athletic department had contacted North Plainfield High School and explained the superstition BEFORE the game.  But the only way that could happen, is if we know a little something about people who are different than we are, and we sensitize ourselves to their sensibilities.  We have to uncover that which is covered to us.

That’s no small task.

Our Summit Intefaith Council has done a great job of opening up lines of communication among religious leaders, but it hasn’t necessarily transferred to the rest of the community.  Historically, we have tried to bring the community together twice a year – on Thanksgiving and MLK Day – with limited success.  I hope that you will all consider attending one or both of those great services this coming year.

This year, we are adding a third way in which we hope to bring people together from different religious traditions – the GreenFaith Circle.  We have joined together with four other congregations to be better stewards of God’s earth because it is a value that goes across religious lines.   Yes, we are doing it for the planet, but we are also doing it for ourselves.

When we see that people who are a little bit different than us care about an issue that is important to us also, it breaks down a barrier.  Just like celebrating Thanksgiving together – a holiday that we ALL observe –breaks down a barrier.  Just like observing MLK Day together – a day dedicated to breaking down barriers – breaks down a barrier.

In doing these things together, we can get to know each other a little better.  And then, maybe we’ll discover what a banana means to African Americans and others will come to discover what a rolling coin or pork means to us as Jews.

And THAT would really be “Cool Bananas.”

Shanah Tovah,

Rabbi Avi Friedman.

Delivered Yom Kippur Day 5775.

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About Rabbi Avi Friedman

I am the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Shalom - SJCC, a progressive Conservative and traditional congregation. I am also husband to Jodi as well as father to Gabi, Jonah, Jessica and Ilana. I have been a part of the Summit community since 2005.
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4 Responses to Cool Bananas – Yom Kippur 5775

  1. finger5@verizon.net says:

     Thank you for this wise essay. Laurel and Shlomo Hessing  

  2. Excellent, as usual, rabbi!

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