As the daughter of Holocaust survivors, the world I lived in was “different.” from the moment I was born. Besides my parents’ thick accents and rococo signatures, I had nothing in common with the lighthearted “fun” Dick and Jane seemed to be having in my first-grade readers. There was no grandfather in overalls to visit or Spot the dog.
Instead, mine was a childhood filled with a sense of danger; a feeling that the world you believed was safe and secure could be ripped out from under you. That the people you adored and counted on could suddenly disappear for incomprehensible reasons. I was a little girl with a lot of questions I was told not to ask. Consequently, my imagination took over, especially in the middle of the night, when I awoke to the haunted whispers of my parents behind closed doors.
I’d wonder who in our Brooklyn neighborhood would hide me and my family if, G-d forbid, another Hitler rose to power.
And often, before drifting to sleep, I’d challenge myself to lie still while holding my breath for as long as I could. I knew that some of my parent’s friends had survived by playing dead.
Still, anti-semitism wasn’t something I experienced firsthand. I orbited in a universe of Jewish day schools, Sabbath youth groups, and Zionist Hebrew-speaking sleepaway camps. Unlike many of their survivor friends, who’d abandoned their Judaism, my parents remained observant. For them, to discard their Judaism was to finish the job Hitler began.
And part of that was a deep love and connection to Israel. If America was where they lived, the Holy Land was their heart. They believed and taught me that Israel’s existence ensured that Jews, like those who sought refuge from the death camps, would never again have doors slammed in their faces. This tiny, fledgling nation had our Jewish backs.
My parents’ love for Israel was infectious and soon after the six-day war, I traveled to Israel for the first time. The country was primitive, war-torn, with dusty unpaved roads, and buildings pocked with bullet holes. The roadsides were littered with shrapnel, barbed wire, and abandoned military vehicles, some mangled, others left purposefully, as memorials.
We visited holy places and remote regions in the north and south, where the landscape was filled with signs warning of land mines. I was young, but not too young to appreciate all that had been sacrificed. Despite the sights and dramatic landscape, what stood out most was the sight of a man with tattooed numbers on his arm. After stepping onto Lod’s tarmac, he fell to his knees and kissed the ground. I was moved by the man’s emotional gratitude, living to see a Jewish homeland after all he’d been through.
In 1970, I returned to Jerusalem for six months to study in an Israeli seminary. I’d walk the ancient streets with a feeling of connection, freedom, and family. I grew accustomed to the lack of modern conveniences and the temperament of the Sabras, Israel natives, named for a prickly fruit that was sweet inside. I thought maybe I might stay, and build my life there.
But everywhere I turned, there were uniformed gun-toting men, and intercity buses that went silent at the top of each hour with news of the latest guerrilla attacks. Lives lost in defense of the Jewish nation. Over and over again. Could I do this? I’d asked. The more I heard of young men sacrificing their lives, the more I realized I wouldn’t be able to handle a life bookended by war.
So, like my parents, I spent my life in the United States, believing our country to be strong and safe. The goldene land my parents used to call it. A place where Jewish children took pride in their Star of David necklaces and kippot worn atop their heads.
Until October 7.
Everything changed. Old fears have been reignited.
I turn on the television and see the anti-Israel mega-rallies all over the globe spewing Jew-hatred. Placards rejecting Israel’s right to exist. Protesters, hot with rage, are chilling for me to hear. Something terrible has been unleashed, and make no mistake, to be anti-Israel in this way is the same as being anti-Semitic.
For many years I have listened to the lectures of esteemed religious leader and historian Rabbi Berel Wein. In many of his talks, he says, “History is our rearview mirror.” Sadly, Jewish history has repeated itself many times with baseless hatred, expulsions, blood libels, and genocidal massacres like the one on October 7.
In his talks and many books, Rabbi Wein brings up issues of Jewish assimilation, complacency, and the illusion of world acceptance. The point, he astutely notes, is to learn from the past, to understand that throughout history, no matter where Jews lived or fled to, they ultimately became targets.
Now I shudder to think that the great Rabbi has never been more right.
And yet, the current global outpouring of anti-Jewish declarations and actions, most shockingly in the United States, has only underscored the need for an Israel — a Jewish sanctuary that will never permit the actualization of murderous Judenrein fantasies, of which “River-to-Sea” is merely the latest incarnation.