This is the title of one of my husband’s favorite songs. When Elvis Costello sings those words, it seems so obvious. After all, what IS so funny about peace, love and understanding? Why shouldn’t they be the animating features of our lives, goals to which to aspire?
These days, notions of peace, love and understanding can seem downright quaint. After all, we live in a world of heightened tensions, from the United States, to the Middle East, to everywhere in between. But at the end of the day, we have choices. We can define ourselves by the worst of humanity, by our capacity for avarice, for cruelty, for prejudice, for scapegoating. Or we can aspire to something better. To BE better. That choice, no matter our circumstances, remains with us. How do I know that? Well, my father, z’l, was a Holocaust survivor. He could have taken all those years of suffering, all those losses, all that terror, and turned to a life of vengeance, of seeking retribution, of settling scores, somehow. But none of that would have brought back his brothers, his mother, his sister-in-law, his nephews. My father carried those losses with him as if they had been branded into his heart, which they surely had been. But he had a capacity for being and doing good which was the ultimate rebuke to those who brutalized, degraded and sought to excise my father from this very earth.
We learn most powerfully, I think, by example. It is why we are so deeply influenced by our parents, for good or for ill. What I imprinted on, in my formative years, was the example of a man who never forgot, who never failed to honor the memories of the loved ones taken from him, but who lived a life of deep dignity, generosity, and kindness. Why? Because I think he knew, instinctively, that you cannot honor those whom you love and what you stand for as a human being and as a faithful Jew, through hatred. I am trying to hold fast to these lessons at a time when I feel adrift in my home country, the United States, and deeply alienated from Israel, whose political embrace of right-wing orthodoxy is a none-too-subtle rebuke of people like me.
In two nations I hold dear, I am increasingly being told I don’t matter. I am less. I am not fully American, somehow, nor am I fully Jewish. I suppose I should feel angry — and at times I am more than furious — but I fall back on knowing that the only person who gets to define who and what I am is me. In the end, what’s so funny about peace, love and understanding? Absolutely nothing, as my father, z’l, taught me every day of his life. It’s the most serious, sustaining work any human being can engage in.