No one thought to call them survivors—–or to call them anything at all.
There are happy Jews and unhappy Jews. I am an unhappy Jew.
Happy Jews believe they walk securely atop a firm plateau. Unhappy Jews believe they balance dangerously atop a razor’s edge, with terrifying drop-offs on both sides.
I live in the happiest city in America. That’s what a national news outlet called my small city. So it is not surprising that most Jews here are happy.
That was in evidence at a recent annual meeting of our local Jewish Community Center.
I listened to cheery reports about this year’s JCC events. As in years past, this meeting was self-congratulatory.
We were proud that on all eight nights of Chanukah over a dozen Jews showed up downtown to light our menorah. This year’s Jewish Festival was happy despite the prevailing pandemic gloom. A caterer taught us how to make a fine loaf of Challah. The organizers of our Jewish day camp were brilliant. In place of regular camp they delivered boxes of Jewish-themed activities to local homes and the kids celebrated with their peers on-line.
Every year the JCC organizes an order of pastrami sandwiches, potato knishes, and coleslaw, accompanied by a pickle. Last year families complained that our local deli—-not Jewish—did not serve authentic Jewish food. So this year two happy JCC ladies will schlep the three hours to the big city for our order of pastrami sandwiches from a “real” Jewish deli—-along with a “real” Jewish pickle fished out of a barrel.
I felt good about it all….mostly. But the pastrami sandwich—-which was the happiest of the happy—-got to me.
Maybe I had just had enough of the self-congratulatory tone or the triviality of the celebration. Or did I begrudge the happiness of others? Something broke in me.
Then I remembered.
Some years earlier I had petitioned the JCC Board of Directors. I asked them to serve as an official sponsor of our downtown Stand With Us (SWU) information booth. SWU is an international organization dedicated to pro-Israel education. SWU counters lies and tells the truth about Israel.
Occasionally the JCC newsletter includes a notice about the SWU information booth. So I was optimistic they might agree to serve as a sponsor of the booth. But to my disappointment the JCC Board refused.
“The local JCC is all about bringing the community together.” That is what they told me.
The implication was clear: Israel is too controversial to be discussed, much less to be promoted. Many Jews in my happy town have complaints about Israel and the JCC did not want to stir those up. They wanted happy Jews. They didn’t want the kind of Jews who argued about things.
In contrast to the Board’s rejection of Israel advocacy, several Jewish groups in town—including most of the synagogues— unhesitatingly celebrate Black Lives Matter, which has skirted, if not danced, with anti-Semites. And just last year, in the big city where our happy Jewish ladies will pick up their pastrami sandwiches, a Black Lives Matter group was involved in a mini-pogrom targeting Jewish businesses. Not a word about that from the happiest Jews in America.
There was nothing bad about the pastrami sandwiches. It was just that by the time our JCC meeting agenda reached that point—-I was feeling uneasy.
It felt like an “And the Band Played On” moment on the Titanic.
A third of the world’s Jews live in Israel. They live with a daily threat of annihilation from a looming Iranian bomb—-not to mention the millions of dollars that pour in from Iran, Turkey and Qatar to support a terrorist infrastructure that has a giant crab-claw around Israel. Israel’s neighbors bristle with missiles and other powerful weapons, waiting to pounce.
All this, while we congratulate ourselves on our pastrami, oblivious to the danger to world Jewry. Ominously, we won’t talk about it. Too controversial.
Maybe I’m arrogant. But as an unhappy Jew I feel I know something that the happy Jews don’t.
I know that bad things happen to Jews. I know that those things don’t just happen in books.
I grew up parented by two Holocaust survivors.
No one thought to call them survivors—–or to call them anything at all. But then, beginning in the 1970s, the world began to pay attention to them. Before that, the happy Jews in all the towns also felt that talking about that was too controversial. Certainly too unhappy for happy Jews.
But now I think that when we called people like my parents survivors, we were mistaken.
Only part of them survived. Chunks of them were missing.
Their sense of security was missing. As were their self-esteem and their optimism about the future, their belief in the goodness of people, and their faith in God. Feeling at home in the world was missing too. And their smiles were gone, to add a sad touch to the teeth they lost “in the war.” They no longer had the ability to calm themselves in the mildest of life crises so they were never at ease. They slept poorly and mistrusted police, government officials, neighbors and sometimes even each other.
The holes in them were in me too. That’s why the craziness comes out in the oddest of places—-like the pastrami sandwiches.
Even though I am an unhappy Jew, I don’t begrudge my happy Jewish neighbors in this happy town. I hope they enjoy their pastrami sandwiches.
It’s just this: As they enjoy their pastrami, I wish, just once, they would think about the other stuff.