We thought it was different, here. The broken windows and burnt synagogues of Europe, the hate without end and the lives lived in between the pulled trigger and the impact of the bullet. All of that, we thought, belonged to Minks and Moscow, Berlin and Baghdad. Our chapter was when and where the story turned good. To be an American Jew was to, in Leonard Cohen’s words, hold the card “that is so high and wild” that you never needed to pick another from the dangerous deck of the Diaspora, where the joke was always cruel, and always at our expense.
The thrill of America was that we had a seat at the table, and we were all in. America was the grand and glorious exception to every rule. To be lachrymose in America was to be blind to the shine of the goldene medina. Even as we returned home to the Land of Israel and became reacquainted to the places we’d never forgotten but deeply missed, America embodied a different, equally as powerful idea of home. We were like dreamers, here, too. And our dream wildly, improbably, absurdly, merged with America’s dream of itself, and from Wall Street to Broadway to Hollywood to Las Vegas, the Jews helped a country that saw them as equal see itself as grand and beautiful, sexy and on the make.
The atrocity at the Tree of Life Congregation does not make any of the above untrue. Evil can maim and ruin, but it can never erase. But the blood spilled in Pittsburgh nevertheless finds a tragic consanguinity with all of the loss of Jewish history. The bad old ghosts that we still feel in our pulse and roaming in our blood were muffled by the joyful din of doing good and doing well, but they haunt anew. The most immutable features of hatred of the Jews feel all of a sudden new here. The brutal words and images taste bitterly local, for the first time; ‘pogrom,’ “kill Jews,” prayer books soaked in blood, and grieving faces washed with tears.
The horror in Pittsburgh brought the bitter lessons of Paris, Buenos Aires, and Jerusalem to this country. There are those for whom the killing of Jews surpasses all other aspirations, and the world’s oldest hate is forever outrageously young, quickening with distortion and conspiracy. This unspeakable tragedy does not mean that it is 1938 again. But it does mean that the battle is joined, and Jewish history has now firmly landed on these shores. We should be terrified, and resolute. We’ve been here before, and our memory of the human capacity for evil reaches back to when the world was a newborn. Fortunately, so too does our bone-deep knowledge that a commitment to goodness and decency and life is what chose us long, long ago. This commitment is still a revelation in a troubled world. Whether in the Middle East or the Mid-Atlantic, violence against the Jews never ends with the Jews. Let us grieve with this urgent knowledge.