Life Notes: A Reckoning
Shining a light during the Jewish New Year

The bulletins/advisories cascade down on my computer screen, as they have now for months. 

“A surge in Anti-Semitism” reads the headline of one of many. I always pause to read them. “Countless incidents in Europe” reads the headline of another story, which informs me that such incidents have doubled over the past two years. And then there was Charlottesville, the day of spewed hatred when Neo-Nazis and the KKK menaced that city last summer. 

I am so proud to be Jewish, and so sad that as we approach our High Holy Days this month that the Jewish world is deeply troubled.  

As a Jew who grew up in a post-Holocaust world, I am forever sensitized to what I was spared and so aware of the resurgence of Anti-Semitism that may be defying the universal post-Holocaust sacred credo “Never Again.” 

Like many others who are Jewish, I was late to come to a realization of what I was spared by an accident of geography and destiny. I was born here. All I knew about “over there,” as my parents and grandparents whispered, was that something awful and scary was happening in places far from our presumably safe Philadelphia suburb. 

“Nobody will harm us,” my father would tell my sister and me after kids at school whispered things about people like us being killed when they went into showers. For one long stretch, I was terrified to take a shower, because a nasty boy in my class said I would be poisoned by gas if I stepped into one. Baths were my preference for a few years after that. 

To add to my confusion, my parents had decided not to worry “the kinder” – the children – about the nightmare in Europe. As it turned out, that “gift” was no such thing. We learned from the wrong sources and felt overwhelmed, confused and ultimately suspicious. What else were our parents keeping from us? 

So every year as the High Holy Days approach, I remind myself – and my now-adult children and their children – of what it means to be Jewish. In synagogues around the world, starting at sundown on September 9, I will be thinking of so many threads in the tapestry of my own Judaism. 

I will remember my parents and our walks to the synagogue in our Philadelphia suburb when the air somehow always felt fresh and the streets were filled with our neighbors. 

I will also remember the elderly neighbor who bore a strange tattoo with a number on her arm and how I would learn later what that number was – her lifelong symbol of having been branded as a Jew. 

And I will absolutely pause to remember the men and women whose testimonies I took when I decided, along with our middle daughter, to work with the Spielberg Holocaust Foundation to help to preserve the testimonies of every Holocaust survivor Steven Spielberg could locate on Earth. Amy and I went through the training, braced ourselves and went on our mission. We thought we were prepared. 

But no training, no matter how diligent, could come close to preparing us for the horrific stories  – testimonies, often told through tears, by men and women who had somehow survived the un-survivable. 

Some of those survivors had gone on to establish families as their personal triumph over hatred, with each child a reminder that life does go on. Each witness to the madness had a lesson to teach. Each one’s story reminded us that sometimes life hangs by a thread and sheer fate. That despite all the inhumanity of that terrible time, there were still brave and noble men and women willing to risk their own lives to save others. 

I look around at the world today, and sometimes I shudder. It seems to be in a hopeless mess. And then I remember that my people – the ones I met and the others I never did – survived because they never ever let go of the one commodity that is impossible to buy yet essential to own. 

They held on to hope. And in this Jewish New Year, maybe we should do that too. 

September 2018
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