It is not common for me but I eagerly donned tefillin this morning, thrusting my arm out, allowing the leather straps to be wound around me, repeating the blessing, and letting the words enter my heart. It was an act of unity, of love, of defiance.
As I did this, the images of Jews slaughtered at a synagogue yesterday, who had been engaged in this same act of prayer filled my mind. I cannot unsee the blood soaked prayer shawls, the reddened floors, the joy of our enemies. My tefillin-wrapped arm and the tefillin-wrapped arm in the images became as one, bloodied and cold, still and purposeful.
This is not the tale I want to tell about my people.
I want to tell a tale filled with light and learning, laughter and levity. I want to tell a tale that is complex, inspiring, and beautiful. I want to tell a tale that contains multitudes.
But the tale of the Jewish people we tell, that the world seems to keep forcing on us, always seems to be one of death and survival. As the old joke about a common theme of Jewish holidays goes: they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.
From time immemorial, and in every generation, there has always been an excuse, a justification for our death: The Temple Mount, the war in Gaza, the Occupation, defending ourselves, the existence of Israel, dreaming of a return to our homeland, capitalism, communism, not assimilating, killing God, daring to exist at all. Our enemies are never sated.
And, it is only in death that the world (even those who do not wish us dead) honors us and recognizes our humanity. There is no sympathy when Jews try to live in peace. There is no sympathy when Jews are forced to kill in order not to die. Take the latest war in Gaza. The world called for more Jewish deaths in the name of proportionality. It takes unprecedented horrors for the world to express sympathy for the Jews. Only now in this moment is the world horrified at the murder of innocent Jews at prayer.The slow trickle of the silent intifada and of the hate crimes and murders of Jews around the world seemed to garner little response. And, should Jews defend themselves from future atrocities, the world’s support will fade away. The spilling of more Jewish blood will be seen as “natural.”
Yet, this is not new. The world honors dead Jews when they flock to Holocaust films and when those films are given awards. The world honors dead Jews when they read Anne Frank. And, most recently at Lincoln Center only Leon Klinghoffer’s body was honored as it sang an aria after his murder. It would be remiss of me to fail to include Jesus Christ in this list, who is perhaps at the root of this honoring of dead Jews. But, our dead bodies will not redeem the world.
World: I am tired of telling this tale. I am not your dead Jew. We are not your dead Jews. We are a people with a right to live, to defend ourselves, to govern ourselves, to a state in our ancestral homeland. I ask that you honor us as all people should be honored, in life, not death.
I am going to tell a new tale now about my people. It is filled with justice and love and good deeds. There is light and healing and connection. There is creativity and hope and wisdom. There is good and evil and clarity about the difference. And, there is survival and food because I like some tradition in my stories. There are no tears of mourning in this tale. There are only tears of joy.