The paint was red and black, and I only understood some of the obscenities written on the walls, but I knew what the enormous swastika smeared on the front of my synagogue meant.
I was 11 years old, and standing in a wealthy community in Fairfax County, Virginia. Two years short of my bat mitzvah, I was a ‘good Jewish girl’ but hardly religious, and mainly identified as a familial and cultural Jew. But that day at Temple Rodef Shalom, and the ones that followed, will always be with me. I can still see the face of my rabbi, Laszlo Berkowits, as he stood on the bima and told us in deep, serious tones that this hate crime was hardly the first, wouldn’t be the last, and was part of our history. I was scared because I knew he was right. And I knew that feeling scared like this was an integral part of what it would mean for me to be a Jew.
Two men, today both in their late 80s, have helped me understand Jewish identity in ways that make it impossible for me to feel anything but sadness when thinking about the Israel and Gaza situation. I can’t get angry with Israel, despite being heartbroken by the pictures of dead Palestinians and their children. I can’t get righteous either, and feel proud that this little country somehow related to my ancestors is so powerful and strong at fighting back. Heck, despite my longstanding commitment to “going deep” to understand a situation before judging it, I’ve never managed to visit the region, having essentially chickened out of trips at least three times in the last 20 years.
The truth is, I’m too scared to get that close to the hatred. For the same reason, I can’t go to Germany, and I’ve accepted few friendships offered by Germans over the years. Somehow I manage to feel safe in America, even though I live in a community without a single synagogue, in a town that’s never heard of Challah, where people look at my oddly when I say I can’t send my kids to “St. Ann’s.” No one’s ever called me “pig.” Often, people don’t even know I’m Jewish. But that will never be enough. For remembering– even somehow “knowing”– the Jewish experiences of exodus and persecution are as much a part of my Jewish tradition as my grandma’s chicken livers.
From the time I was five or six, my Poppa told me about “our” expulsion from Spain, by way of 1492. He still speaks Ladino, sang it to my children when they were born, and reminds me about the continuing hatred towards Jews he observes still– even in New York City, where as a young man he had to fight guys because of his religion. Honestly, we don’t talk about the Holocaust much, since we always talk about Spain.
But Rabbi Berkowits often talked about the Holocaust. He grew up in Hungary before moving to Budapest, where his family was taken by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz in 1944. He was 16 years old. I remember sitting in front of him when I was the same age, and listening as he told us about standing in the line to be burned, terrified. Unwilling to go down like that, he took a chance and when the guards weren’t looking, he ran to the one line- a line that would live a bit longer. They didn’t see him. I remember breathing in and breathing out and every time he opened his mouth to sing a song of joy, that deep voice I’m come to equate with Judaism itself, thinking “thank you.”
Sometimes I forget. Sometimes I’ve even argued with my grandfather that we should forget– that maybe it’s time to “get over it” and be healed. But not lately. It would be so terribly odd for a sociologist concerned with the lasting impacts of childhood poverty, slavery, and racism to think it possible to look past the legacy of deprivation, tragedy, and cruelty that’s characterized the lives of Jewish children for centuries. Yes, we are also rich– rich in education, rich in wonderful family and culinary traditions, rich in resilience. But we are collectively traumatized as well. And that’s not something anyone can dismiss or look past. I don’t ask it of others; why would they ask it of me?
So when I think about Israel and Gaza, and I watch the thoughts of my friends and colleagues stream by on Facebook and Twitter, all I can think of is the suffering. Centuries of psychological suffering are bearing down on the world today. To look for “reasons” or rationales or almost anything in the recent past, even the last several decades, is to overlook the past. Maybe that is what some want– to frame today’s wars in contemporary politics, today’s economics, today’s distribution of power. That itself feels like an assault to me. For there have been no reparations for the utter displacement of the Jewish people for centuries. There is no peace for those who are utterly outnumbered–forever– because our ancestors were systematically murdered to reduce our power. There are just moments for forgetting– and then remembering– and then attempts to move on.
But it’s all an illusion. Because the truth is that no matter where we are or how old we become, we will always remember–as they say, we shall never forget. The real question is, when will the world come to understand this, and what will happen then?
Postscript: I’m honored to have received a response to this post from my grandfather. With his permission, I’m sharing his comments here.
It will take another few generations for the world to realize that the Jews of Israel, the Israelis, are not the kind of Jews that Christian Europe became accustomed to over the last two thousand years. These modern day Israelites do not bow their heads and passively submit to those who feel it is their right, and even duty, to persecute and to even kill us. Most of the pogroms in Europe were state-sponsored. The peasants were given state permission and encouragement to assault the Jews of Eastern Europe. The Ottoman Empire never permitted that to happen. The Catholic Church as well as the Eastern one all supported the subjugation, persecution and the killing of the Jews, something the Turks never did. They were supposed to have been the savages. What a joke. Every Nazi law against us was first promulgated by the church. It was preached from the pulpits week after week, century after century.
This has become a disease that has infected the minds of so many European Christians and now the Muslim newcomers who have replaced us in Europe. The Nazi “final solution” had its roots well-established long before the Nazis came to power. It made the Holocaust an easy exercise. No one protested and I still meet people today who blame the Nazis for not succeeding in eliminating us from the face of the earth.
Europeans created Israel and they do not have any idea what they gave birth to. A new Sparta with nuclear weapons, which they are willing to use if they feel they face extinction: Golda Meir ordered a nuclear weapon to be placed on a fighter plane during the Yom Kippur War to be used against the Syrians at Golan. That is one of the reasons Kissinger and Nixon rushed so many munitions to Israel at that time. When Israel says “Never Again” they mean it. I do not think if that ever comes to pass, Europe will be spared.
Seymour Hirsch wrote a while ago that Jews will not do what they did with the Romans at Masada; they will do what Samson did and take everyone down with them. Israel may be going too far with it at this point, but look at what we Americans did in Iraq when we just “thought” that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. We have caused the deaths, unnecessary deaths, of hundreds of thousands. We did that in Cambodia and Vietnam as well. This is hypocritical nonsense. The Europeans have an even worse history, and we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the First World War. Untold millions of kids were killed then for no reason at all.
In the meantime, be proud of who you are. Take shit from no one and always be kind, wise and strong. Which you are.
Love you, Poppa