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What does it mean for an oppressed people to play music before their oppressors? How can the artist avoid being co-opted? When is the performance liberatory? When does it just entrench oppression?

This is the problem of Psalm 137, which begins, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. It is one of the greatest, most difficult poems of the Hebrew Bible and has a remarkable afterlife in Black culture. We will spend half our time reading the biblical text very closely, and the other half reading a beautiful essay by the Black writer and critic Sterling Brown describing a memorable performance of the psalm.

As we emerge from Tisha B’av—the Jewish observance dedicated to grappling emotionally with exile and oppression—this learning will help us connect our ancient past to the contemporary American moment.

Raphael Magarik is an assistant professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He holds a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley and a B.A. from Yale. He has taught Jewish texts for Kevah, Hadar, and BINA, and he has written for The New Republic, The Atlantic, and Haaretz. He is an alumnus of the Dorot fellowship and the Bronfman Youth fellowship, and studied at Yeshivat Maale Gilboa. He is currently at work on the history of the idea of the biblical narrator, as well as on a respectable sourdough loaf.