Rockwell’s Four Freedoms

This is an article I wrote for the Rabbi’s Corner column in the JQ Baltimore November newsletter. We must continue to speak out for LGBTQ rights, especially during these turbulent times!

Freedom From Want is the title of the iconic Norman Rockwell painting that depicts an extended family sitting around the Thanksgiving dinner table. Gathered family members smile and lean forward as the matriarch, appropriately dressed in white apron and blue patterned dress, gently lowers the meal’s centerpiece, a giant turkey, to the table. Rockwell captures in the painting the sense of family intimacy and connection that Thanksgiving is all about. His chosen title for the picture conveys another theme of the holiday, namely the gratitude we feel for living in America, a land of freedom and plenty.

The painting is actually one in a series of four ‘freedom’ paintings that Rockwell worked on and completed in 1943. Freedom of Worship, Freedom From Fear, and Freedom of Speech are the titles of the other three pictures. The themes were classic American motifs, all of them driving forces in a common American identity that kept the country united during the turbulent years of the Second World War. Rockwell’s great talent was in capturing the intimate moment that was simultaneously universal. We see ourselves sitting around that table, or worshipping in those pews, or listening respectfully to the man speaking, or tucking those children in to bed.

Nevertheless, Rockwell’s paintings come at their topics through a traditional lens. The characters he paints are all white, the families all traditional, grandparents and parents with their children and grandchildren. If the values Rockwell highlights in the paintings are traditional American values, the scenes are also traditional in nature, lacking a sense of the diversity of modern American life. How would Rockwell have painted those scenes today, in the United States of 2018? To ask that question in another way, who will be seated around our Thanksgiving table this year?

On the surface this is a simple question, but to members of the LGBTQ community it is filled with meaning. Can I sit at my family’s Thanksgiving table and be completely comfortable in my own skin? Am I accepted and respected for who I truly am? Can I give thanks this year during Thanksgiving, our holiday of gratitude, for the advancement and expansion of LGBTQ rights in our country? I’ve always felt that Thanksgiving is the most Jewish of all American holidays, with its focus on food and gratitude, two major Jewish concerns. May we be mindful of the identities of all those with whom we will celebrate this Thanksgiving. May we be grateful for the freedoms we are blessed to have. And may we be determined to do the work so those freedoms may be extended to every person

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