(Delivered at First Existential Congregation, Atlanta, Georgia.)
This past week was a bad one for at least one anti-Semite and not a good one to be Jewish either. Actor Mel Gibson got pulled over for drunk driving and spoke his deeply-held and thinly-disguised truth about what he really feels about who causes all the trouble in the world — and those of us who identify in any way as being a Jew once again found ourselves thrust into the ongoing muck of the state of things in Israel.
My husband and I were out of the states for most of this, learning a bit about the Gibson incident from fragments in the international Herald Tribunes that we read in hotels in the Czech Republic and in Poland, and about the Israel-Lebanon violence on satellite BBC.
It was not until we arrived back home and began to read our way through our stack of American papers that we saw how much ink had been spent on the arrest of an Australian movie star who took the opportunity to inform the arresting officer in Malibu, California, that the F’ing Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world, his subsequent defense that his insane alcoholism was talking instead of him, but that he did apologize to anyone he MIGHT have offended, and the ongoing public discussion now about how he might atone and heal himself, including an offer to fly him free for a day at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.
At one point, Mel Gibson asked for help in healing from the Jewish community — already another indicator of his ignorance if he believes we are one unified body after thousands of years of intertribal verbal warfare. While most of the responses have been somber and measured, one columnist at least, Lenore Skenazy, a self-identified Jew from the auspicious New York Daily News, offered up a Mel-anon recovery plan for anyone who, as she wrote, ever even secretly suspected it’s all Barbra Streisand’s fault.
She proposed that Gibson check himself into the Bubbe Ford clinic, a residential anti-Semitic detox program with three meals a day — just not before swimming — with Medicare accepted, as is the fact that the Holocaust really happened. Days spent feeling guilty, and evenings reserved for group discussion. Tonight’s discussion topic: “They gave us the kosher pickle, so they can’t be all bad, right?”
I admit, I laughed and then felt badly for having laughed, which is apparently quite normal for those of us who identify as being Jewish. Humor, according to Czech writer Vladimer Karbuskicky, is the defense of those who are defenseless but intellectually stronger. In his collection of what he calls anecdotes from the almost unrelentingly troubled history of Czech Jews, he points to the argumentative and admittedly humorous relationship between Yahweh, God of the Jews, and his much beleaguered people. A God whom Job rebukes for injustice, with whom he debates, with whom he schmoozes.
Two classic examples from Prague Jewish lore:
Mr. Moser is praying so fervently that the archangel Gabriel suddenly appears to him. Mr. Moser shows no surprise and uses the opportunity to inquire: “My dear Gabriel, what is a hundred thousand years to Yahweh?”
“A hundred thousand years? To Yahweh that’s one minute.”
“And what is one hundred thousand crowns to Yahweh?”
“To Yahweh, a hundred thousand crowns is one heller (a hundredth of a crown).”
“Most Revered Sir Archangel, please put in a good word for me that He may give me one heller.”
The archangel Gabriel vanishes and reappears after some time. “He says you should wait a minute.”
And this one:
Mr. Moscheles is on his journey to the next world. He comes to the gates of heaven and knocks.
“Stop! Back! No Way. We know everything about you. You sinned by playing cards and cheated to boot.”
Mr. Moscheles began to argue using all the art of a representative of Roubitcheck & Co to get them to let him in. Yahweh takes a personal interest in what’s going on at the gate and confirms — “No, out of the question. I don’t want any cheaters here.”
“If that’s the way it is, let chance decide,” Mr. Moscheles proposes. “Let’s play a little hand. If I win, I stay in heaven. If I lose, I go to hell.”
Yahweh smiles and agrees. The archangel Gabriel shuffles the cards and God begins dealing them. But Mr. Moscheles interrupts him: “But one thing I ask: No miracles.”
This tradition of self parody and an earthy relationship with a bargaining and not-so-lofty God emerged, as in other Jewish communities in the Diaspora — the exodus from Israel — despite what has been described as the constant cycle, metaphorically, of forty good (meaning relatively stable and nonviolent years) and forty miserable years, centuries in and centuries out.
In Prague, the Jews lived freely in their earliest years there, somewhere around the 9th century, until the Crusades and their edicts of religious intolerance, when they were forced into a gated ghetto which offered them loose protection from the King from everyday murder and mayhem, but confined thousands of them into an area of a few hundred homes. Restricted in what kind of work they could do and where, forced to wear pointed yellow hats or conspicuous white ruffled collars in order to identify them as Jews if they left their settlement. Trapped inside, they were unprotected when the local crowds got stirred up, usually at Eastertime when Passion Plays retold the story of Jews killing Jesus and drinking the blood of Christian babies. During Holy Week in 1389, for example, a Prague mob attacked the ghetto in what is called a pogrom, massacring more than 3,000 of its inhabitants — men, women, and hundreds of children.
As humiliating and dangerous as that was, being locked into a small area, only let out to serve one royal master or another and then sent back home, the worst was yet to come, of course, after the Nazi occupation of Prague in 1939. While the Jews there had experienced a recurrent history of discrimination, nothing prepared them for the scale of this persecution. They were excluded from most professional associations and organizations, their children were not allowed to attend schools, banned from traveling, going to cafés and restaurants, staying out after 8 p.m. in the evening, listening to the radio, reading newspapers, unable to get most of their food rations, and from September 1941, were forced to wear the yellow star of David.
In total, more than 45,000 Jews were taken from Prague to Terizinstadt and other concentration mass murder camps, where the vast majority of them perished. Those who returned, in the wake of the Communist take-over in 1948, found themselves once again excluded from political, economic, and cultural life, many of them sent to prison.
There are now perhaps 1,500 Jews left in Prague, few of them in the former ghetto or Old Jewish Town, where mostly non-Jewish tourists stream in with their non-Jewish guides to visit the abandoned synagogues, the former shops now converted to souvenir stands, and to file through the Jewish cemetery, which was partially razed to build a new Hotel Intercontinental.
In fact, that’s what the Prague Jewish quarter felt like to me, a graveyard, a place to see where a people used to live, to examine their artifacts under glass: their wedding crowns and Hanukkah menorahs, and the dishes used for the ritual foods at Passover. To hear about their history and culture, always in the past tense, and sometimes with false and disturbing commentary, like being told that the reason that there are so few Jewish people living there now is not because of the extermination and the post war imprisonments and disappearances, but because there was no longer any money to be made.
The Nazis apparently had a plan to install the confiscated Jewish religious and personal items they had stored in the so-called Spanish Synagogue in a museum of an extinct race they would open after they won the war, artifacts of a completely dead people. They did not manage to completely destroy what they were set on calling the Jewish race, but they reduced it down to what is commonly called a Jewish trace in Europe, barely discernible and described nearly always in the past tense.
In so many ways, both in Prague and in Krakow, Poland, where we also went to directly experience some of our Jewish cultural roots, it was my everyday revelation that it indeed has come to pass, that Central Europe, in any case, has become the largest Jewish graveyard in the world, a stop on tourist sightseeing itineraries, where pictures are taken and documentary books and DVDs are sold, along with cokes, bottled water, and candy bars.
I had been somewhat prepared to see firsthand the increase in anti-Semitism there, partly the result of tensions around the state of Israel, which always extends to a wholesale indictment of Judaism and Jewish people in general. What I was not really not primed for, it turned out, was fully acknowledging the stark fact that there aren’t but a symbolic handful of Jews left to be the victims of these attacks, a few hundred here or there, mostly old, or longtime Catholic converts, or no longer identified at all.
We thought we had been prepared to witness this, to take in its anthropology. Indeed our reason for choosing this summer vacation, if vacation is the appropriate word for it, was an article we saw in the New York Times earlier this year about an 84-year-old Holocaust survivor who is teaching traditional Jewish Klezmer music to non-Jewish students in Krakow, once home to 65,000 Jews, now with fewer than two hundred. Since the ending of the Communist era in 1989, and especially since the release of the blockbuster movie Schindler’s List, which was filmed by Stephen Spielberg in the Kazmirez district there, you can once again eat potato pancakes or eat gefilte fish or listen to this lilting kind of Jazz in the evening. But chances are that the café will not be owned or run by Jews and that none of the Klezmer musicians will be Jewish. The beautiful, lilting Klezmer tunes were heard being played under an arch near the Market Square may or may not have been played by the grandson of a Jew, who may or may not have told us this in order to either assure the sale of his CD or to make us feel better.
There is a renaissance of Jewish life here, Kolwaski told the reporter, but it’s a renaissance without Jews.
To read this is one thing, to comprehend this is another.
My mother’s father came from Krakow or somewhere near there apparently. She told me this when we talked about our trip. She was excited we were going to Poland especially, because if you ask her how she identifies ethnically, beyond her insistence that she is simply an American, she will tell you she is a Pole. But when she talks about her people from Polish town, she is referring to the Roman Catholic Polish cotton mill workers who lived in the small New England town she grew up in, not the Polish Jews like her family who ran the stores and other businesses, including the local Ford dealership, because that had been for centuries what was left for them to do.
If I had told her we went a third of the way around the world to search for Jewish remnants, she would have scolded me, told me that in this day and time, especially with what has come to pass in Israel, that being Jewish was an option we didn’t have to choose.
In fact, we ought not to identify ourselves this way.
I used to argue with her, tell her that, at the very least, we owed it to those who had died for being Jewish: good, bad, or indifferent people; religious or atheists; people who identified and people who didn’t; tribalists or Universalists. It hadn’t mattered to the Czar and his armies when he took away all the young Jewish men and conscribed them in the most dangerous and vulnerable ranks until they were dead or middle-aged, or when the schtetls and ghettoes were attacked, the women were raped, the shabby houses burned. It hadn’t mattered to Hitler whether your family had practiced Catholicism for a hundred years or whether you knew you were a Jew or not.
We should live openly as Jews, I used to tell her, because of this history, because of the deaths and destruction. I have given up arguing with her or trying to understand the roots and depth of her own anti-Semitism, her own internalized oppression. I know she is not alone in this, with her cosmetic surgeries and her name change, and her anger at the menorahs we set up in our window (along with the Christmas tree) and the Seder meals we have held (along with Easter egg hunts). The challenge now, the quest now, is my own, for how and why I am willing, in fact increasingly eager, to wear my Jewishness alongside my other identities as a woman, a wife, a mother, a world citizen, a humanist, an existentialist.
This just-past trip to Central Europe with its obligatory pilgrimage to Auschwitz/Birkenhau, on a bus with dozens of other tourists, none of them Jewish, was terribly disturbing, not just because of the horrors of what happened there more than 50 years ago — and really over hundreds of years in so many ways — but because it left me less sorrowful than I expected and far more angry.
The same kind of anger I saw when I visited an American Indian (Native American) reservation somewhere in the Southwest when I was a young girl of maybe eight or nine. It was definitely a sightseeing stop for us, along with the rim of the Grand Canyon and the pueblo ruins of Mesa Verde. We went there to see some sort of ceremonial dance, appreciating the elaborate masks and costumes, along with the other white people who were allowed, for a price, to see this religious ritual. I remember wandering off and finding an arrowhead in the dirt, a discovery I was quite excited and vocal about, and being told that it was rare for even the tribal children to make such a valuable find. I did give it to some adult member of the tribe, at the insistence of my parents, and recall the look on the faces of the native children who had seen the incident: a palpable air of resentment and hostility. I didn’t understand it then, but something in my experiences last week made me fully comprehend their sense of invasion and a kind of shame, that who they were and how they lived had become like models in a museum. That they were in so many ways living their own deaths.
That’s a big piece of what I experienced in the Jewish ghettos of Prague and Krakow, and in the middle of the death camps: a sense of invisibility, as if I was, or at least a part of me, had been declared extinct. That I too was a nameless remnant in a trace community, preserved now for curiosity seekers. And how much rage that brought up in me, with nowhere to go with it. Every spring, the guide told me, many groups of Israeli teenagers are flown in and taken here. What that does to them, how that is feeding the situation there, I can barely imagine.
This same scenario is happening in places in the American South, like Selma, Alabama, where the downturned, economically depressed, white flight town has become reliant on the buses of folks who come to relive the Civil Rights Era, to cross the James Pettus Bridge and replay Bloody Sunday, to touch and photograph the monuments for the fallen martyrs: Jimmy Lee Jackson, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo. It has become in its own way, a graveyard. I saw the same grief and shame and anger in the eyes of the teenagers who I accompanied on a bus tour there just this past month, and now wonder what good we are doing them by putting them through this same exercise. With no way to heal, to reconcile, just the urge for retribution.
A contemporary Polish Jew has written a book called Who Will Say Kaddish? Who will say the Hebrew prayer for the dead when there are none left to make the journey to the cemeteries and the mass murder camps, and indeed all the towns and the cities where Jews used to live their very human lives and are no longer? Is this the destiny of those who remain, to live for those who are no longer with us, who were taken before their time?
A poem by Czech writer Karl Victor Hansgrig published in 1849 describes his vision of the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague:
The gravestones are trembling and the trees are nodding
Gray shadows, white hair and serious faces wander here restlessly
The mourning weeping of children of their brothers presses to them
The eternal song of Jeremiah painfully wails the singing of old Psalms.
“Cemetery” in Hebrew is Beth Chaim, literally “House of Life.”
It is my hope that someday soon, not a hundred years hence, that all who have known oppression, whether individually or as a people, will be able once more to live, not for those who have died for us, but for ourselves and those who have lived for us.
And finally be freed.