Hundreds of people showed up for the event. Ministers from congregations in the Central District and southeast Seattle streamed in with their dressed-to-the-nines entourages, dwarfing the smaller Jewish population, which was mostly clad in the droopy Putumayo dresses and Guatemalan vests favored by NPR liberals. There was a bit of amicable awkwardness as attendees arranged themselves around tables lined with both marror, a bitter herb Jews eat at the Seder to represent the sorrows of slavery, and bottles of Tabasco sauce. African Americans stumbled over transliterated Hebrew, and the Jews, not used to holding hands, bowing their heads, or shouting "amen," peeked up sheepishly at each other during a long, freestyle grace before the meal.
Tensions between Jews and blacks in Seattle, though nowhere near the level found in other parts of the country--like the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn--do exist. Thad Spratlen, one of the Coalition's leaders, points to the group's first Martin Luther King breakfast five years ago as evidence: He says the entryway to the breakfast was blocked by black protesters objecting to the fact that Jews were celebrating the holiday. "Seattle is more spread out than Crown Heights," he explains. "The groups aren't on top of each other as much, so there's less chance for the big inflammations that make the news, but there certainly are tensions there. They're just a little bit below the surface."
City Attorney Mark Sidran recalls that African American opponents have drawn attention to his Judaism when criticizing his policies. He recalls a public meeting in which "people basically suggested that they were surprised that as a Jew I would be such a Nazi pig," and he's seen posters depicting him as a skull, with swastikas for eyes.
Sidran says some tensions between the two groups can be attributed to the Central District's transition from being the center of Jewish life to the center of black life. "When one group moves out of a ghetto and another moves in," he says, "tensions arise whether they are Jews or Blacks or Koreans or any other group."
The Coalition recently received a $5,000 dollar grant to generate a dialogue between the local Orthodox Jewish and black communities. Charles Davis, another Coalition leader, says Jews in Seward Park, a mostly Orthodox neighborhood, recently experienced a spate of burglaries and vandalism during the Sabbath. The crimes were generally attributed to nearby Rainier Beach residents, who are primarily black. He says, "That generated some... tension because of when it happened and because of the idea it was being done by people in nearby Rainier Beach."
But all that was left behind when participants at the Seder rose and sang together "Lift Every Voice," an African American liberation anthem. Jews in the house beamed in silence and African Americans belted out a loud, proud, churched-up rendition of the song. The retelling of the Passover story--the Jews' long, degrading enslavement as "strangers in a strange land," followed by a faith-based redemption--clearly crossed cultural lines as well. When Rabbi Sperling of Temple De Hirsch Sinai read the biblical passage "the sword is introduced into the world because of justice delayed and justice denied," the crowd murmured in approval, a sign that a bond had been made.