150th Anniversary of the First Watch Night, 40th Jahrzeit for Abraham Joshua Heschel

This New Year’s Eve is the 150th anniversary of the inaugural “Watch Night” in African American history.  The African American Registry explains:  “The Watch Night service can be traced back to gatherings also known as ‘Freedom’s Eve.’  On that night, black slaves and free blacks came together in churches and private homes all across the nation awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation actually had become law.   At the stroke of midnight, it was January 1, 1863; all slaves in the Confederate States were declared legally free.  When the news was received, there were prayers, shouts and songs of joy as many people fell to their knees and thanked God.  Blacks have gathered in churches annually on New Year’s Eve ever since, praising God for bringing us safely through another year.”  (See more here.)  Above: this painting, entitled “Watch Night: Waiting for the Hour (Dec 31st, 1862)” by New England artist William Tolman Carlton, hangs in the White House.  /more
New Year’s Eve is also the 40th yohrzeit (death-anniversary) of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who stood beside and marched with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in opposition to racism in the United States and the US War against Vietnam.  We have our friend Rabbi Arthur Waskow to thank for making this connection.  He writes:  “Heschel’s and Dr. King’s alliance made real the highest and deepest connection between Christianity and Judaism, and between Black America and Jewish America.  (Notice that they both came from the ‘outsider’ aspects of their traditions: a Black Southern Baptist and a Polish Hassid, from the mystical and ecstatic versions of their faiths…)  They made real that prayer and activism were not merely twin truths, but rather two sides of the same truth, as Rabbi Heschel taught.  Returning from marching for racial justice alongside Dr. King at Selma, he said, ‘I felt as if my legs were praying’.”
I give thanks for this great cloud of witnesses as we mark the turning of the years.