David Trakhtman
David Trakhtman

The wrath of the lambs

“… and the wolves were sharpening their teeth, while the sheep tore each other apart.”

I would like to share with you a traumatic experience from my life as a teenager back in the former Soviet Union, and it takes some degree of strength to bring back its memories 30 years later. Being a somewhat unsettled kid at the age of 15, I could not sit straight at a particular biology class, while the cold and boring teacher was telling the class about “our direct ancestors” – the apes of evolution.

My boredom became quite evident, and my twisting and turning alerted the teacher, who couldn’t bear my lack of attention to what she perceived as a “very important lesson in the evolution of the human race”. She threw me out of the class, accompanied by the following words: “you are a despicable creature, displaying typical character traits of your nationality.” To be clear, in Russia, “nationality” means your ethnicity and religion. This anti-semitic sentiment sparked an incident that, in the current western world would make it into the news, followed by outrage and public condemnation of the teacher and the school. In Australia, this would keep Dvir (whose work I commend) quite busy.

During recess, incited by the teacher’s comments, a mob of Ukrainian students attacked me with no fear of repercussions. I, however, lived in fear for a long time after that.

This my friends, was not just the Soviet Ukraine of the early nineties. Their infamous national hero, a Jew-slaughterer, still adorns one of Kiev’s central squares in a statute. (Where is the Black Hat lives matter canceling this form of racist culture I wonder?)

The most brutal part of this story was not the physical pain I experienced, but the Brutus who gave it. During the beating, I recognize one of the assailants as a Jewish kid. There weren’t many of us in the school, so when his fist hit my face, the pain was multiplied by the betrayal. This moment of irony ultimately propelled me on the journey of self-discovery. What was it about my Jewish “nationality” that provoked such a disproportionate and violent response to my presence?

A few weeks after the incident, I confronted the boy about his involvement in my beatings. He mumbled something about his desire to demonstrate devout allegiance to his peers. This was his perverted way of following the instruction of our sages, who maintained that one should not separate from the congregation. It is with a heavy heart that I find myself confronted with those unpleasant recollections 30 years later. The current climate in Victoria triggers these memories.

The land I now live and love for allowing me the fearless freedom to be a proud Jew is threatened by a global pandemic and its shadow. The federal and state government is desperately trying to stop its spread. The police find themselves in the compromising position of patrolling otherwise good and law-abiding citizens. As I watched the Rosh Hashana filmed video of a Chassidic Jew fleeing from police on the rooftop of the synagogue below, I could not help but think of my grandfather. He too had to escape the Ukrainian militia when they tried to arrest him from illegally praying during the Communist Era.

But nothing is more distressing than the blows of judgment that now split my Jewish community in Melbourne. Nothing is more alarming than the division of opinion on cooperation with v.s. insubordination to the Government’s rulings. It echos the destruction of our Holy Temple in Jerusalem and the beginning of our Exile, where Jews were divided precisely in the similar context of handling expectations and demands of the mighty Roman Empire. My careful observation of people’s reactions has led me to believe that it isn’t necessarily about feeling responsible for the entire community (as some tried to ascertain).

Borrowing from the famous spin on the Agadic text, “wise man, what is he? – he utters it” i. e, you are what you say.

I see the comments of those who rush to condemn and disassociate themselves from the recalcitrant ones. I ask myself the same questions again and again. Why are Jews so eager to call out others? Have they ever expressed in the past any positive feelings towards the people they are condemning? Do they even know these people individually and their positive attributes?

Something is telling me their preconceived outlooks have blinded them from finding any merit while their objectivity is clouded by sheer bias against religious people and their values.

I know someone who loudly criticizes the religious community for secret minyans, yet sneaks past 5 km to go to the country.

Aside from saying that the current Government’s inconsistent and selective rulings make it difficult to take seriously and obey, I would not urge people to vax or not to vax, the question is should we judge?

You see, pondering about my life in Soviet Ukraine, I can’t recall that anti-semitism was consistent with the ethos of the Communist Party. In fact, in the face of a general anti-religious attitude, one could even credit the Soviet Regime for promoting certain equality, at least on an overt political level. Christian priests were often equally harassed along with the rabbis. Anti-semitic manifestations occurred more as a result of deeply rooted historical attitudes of the Russian Orthodox Church.

On those occasions when the Party failed to deliver (as they often did), the names of its Jewish forefathers like Trotsky, Zinoviev, and others were quickly evoked and, the Jews were blamed for all the tsuros. Many Jews would eagerly try to demonstrate their loyalty to the party by their mistreatment of fellow Jews. Given an opportunity, some would not miss the chance to solidify their wicked allegiance to the Communists by overtly harassing another Jew. If there was any slight reason to accuse or ostracize, they were the first to exploit those flaws. Sadly enough, this behavior quite often accomplished the opposite, provoking disgust and aversion in fellow gentiles.

To observe a Jew, mistreating another Jew was morally intolerable by the most fervent anti-semites. It only added fuel to their fire, proving their abhorrent conviction that we are a self-hating race. A sheep would never tear apart one from its own flock, such is the law of nature.

Never have I thought that history would repeat itself in such a sinister manner in Australia in 2021. I feel sick in my stomach, thinking of irrefutable similarities. Remember, while the motives of this government are very different, the modus operandi is not unlike the one we lived through in the FSU. Sanction, patrol, and fine the recalcitrant ones, encourage denunciation and indictment among the obedient crowd, magnify the effect and bring the fireworks of public shame with the help of the media. All in the name of public health.
One of the immediate challenges and threats that the government is now facing is how to diffuse or divert the nation’s rage and frustration, directed at it. Active protesters are more brazen and require a significant police force. But it’s more difficult to point the finger and distill spirits of blame, directed towards an unidentifiable mob.
For the scapegoat to be able to take the blame, it needs to be recognizable and traceable.
And if the goat kicks and doesn’t budge (an equivalent of disobedience), so is easier for the government to transfer the blame onto it.
One could not ask for a better candidate for a scapegoat than Jews. We are relatively small and traceable in numbers, got enough religious rules of our own, that are currently not aligned with the Government’s rulings (like communal prayer), not exactly a hostile breed to create serious altercation with the police, and incredibly diverse and divided among ourselves. Perfect.
We need to be mindful of this. The government is.

In the recent proceedings, Sydney pastor Furlong pleaded guilty to the charge of illegal gathering for the prayer.

At the same time, he ascertained, that he chose to obey his religious convictions that, in his opinion override human rulings. He dared to maintain that communal prayer is more essential than watching Thai boxing. Just saying.

So, here we are. “Like destitute and empty stand before Thee”, about to enter into Heavenly Court Room. Guilty as charged before litigation proceedings. Certainty of Guilt – not Presumption of Innocence.

While a person is judged according to one’s actions, it is one’s character that requires self-scrutiny on the holy day of Yom Kippur.

Only you know what drives you when the light is red and what immobilizes you when the light is green.

It is a time to investigate what you did or failed to do. But it is more essential to analyze why.

As for me, my hypocritical anger towards my zealous Jewish brothers and sisters contradicts my core belief of loving your fellow Jew. But let Gd judge me for this, not you. Hence, I have a lot to work on. This is going to be my service of the heart. May G-d help me in my own internal struggles.
Wishing everyone an easy fast and sending abundance of love…Gemar Hatima Tova!

About the Author
Far from the Arctic Circle where he was born as a secular Soviet, Rabbi chef David Trakhtman caters to both the stomach and souls of the Jews down under in Australia. While his catering company Passionate offers food from around the world, his words offer ideas on to incorporate the diversity of kosher cuisine into your own kitchen.