Anniversaries, cataclysms, nightmares, acts of idiocy, reactions to them — everything has been happening so quickly that it seems almost comically sped up, like a jerky silent movie, except that there is nothing at all funny about it.
Two weeks ago, my shul — Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where I live — reacted to those stimuli in ways that I keep thinking about.
It was the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night when the evil the Nazis planned was made clear, as night was turned into day by the fires they lit, the sacred scrolls they burned, the synagogues they incinerated. The night was shattered by the sounds of breaking glass. (I never have been able to forget the words of a woman, now long dead, who told me that she was a small child during Kristallnacht. Her parents got her out of Germany soon afterward, and she never was able to remember anything about it — until she was downtown on September 11, 2001. The sounds of the glass shattering on that day reminded her of the half-century-ago sounds of glass shattering at night. It gave her nightmares for the rest of her life.)
We had a speaker; a man whose mother remembered Kristallnacht and its aftermath. She wrote the script that her son read. None of the Jews in her wealthy neighborhood, he said — I think it was in Stuttgart — knew about what had happened until the next morning, when the telephones started ringing. She went off to school as usual, but the principal, a Nazi dressed in full uniform, summoned her, and told her to pick up her books and get out. She no longer was welcome there. Her younger brother had the same experience, without the brown shirt, at his school.
Early the next morning, her son told us, two men in plainclothes came for her father. He was in bed, recuperating from surgery, and could not walk. They took him anyway, one holding him up on either side. He was gone for some time, but eventually he was released. The family had had the foresight to apply for a U.S. visa, which came through a few months later, so their story had a relatively happy ending. (Relatively because many of their relatives, including a grandparent, stayed and were murdered.)
The story was well written and gripping. The man who read it was self-effacing and deadpan, which made it even more powerful. I think all of us sat there trying to imagine what it would have felt like to be that little girl, chased out of school, watching her father being dragged away, having to unlearn every certainty she’d ever learned. It was horrifying.
And then there were three more speakers. B’nai Jeshurun had initiated a relationship between a group of shul members and members of the Michigan Correctional Officers Union. The goal was to meet with people entirely unlike us in religion, politics, history, and world view, and to listen to each other and learn from each other. We wanted to go beyond lip service to genuine connection. The two delegations had exchanged many visits, and had come to know each other well. So when the murders in Pittsburgh happened, three of the union officials decided that they had to come to New York to be with us.
So these three men — all with very short hair, trim, muscular bodies, ramrod posture, and direct stares, all wearing kippot — stood on the bimah and read a letter their leadership committee had written. w“We are writing today as conservative, patriotic Americans,” it began. “We believe America is indeed an exceptional place that has served as a unique symbol and model to the world,” it continued.
“We are literally sick over what happened,” the men read aloud. “Although this was the madness of one twisted individual, we can no longer turn a blind eye to the people and places where this kind of hatred is fueled. As Americans, we all understand what terrorism looks and sounds like and should fear this example the most because the perpetrator is American.”
It went on — it’s a fairly long letter — calling on us to “please join us in rejecting hate, violence, and language that demonizes any group because they are different than we are.”
It’s hard not to quote all of this letter, because it is so strong and straightforward in rejecting hate and valuing both differences and similarities.
It was incredibly heartening to see these three men on the bimah, and to know that their message of rigorous love could follow the terrifying description of what foul hate can do.
It gave us hope.