I watched a presentation by the Museum of Jewish Heritage today. The anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and current events provided a golden opportunity for We Are Here: A Celebration of Resilience, Resistance, and Hope. I hope you can take some time to watch it and learn more.
The history of the Jewish people includes how we have been the focus of hatred by many. Historic reasons, tribal reasons, hatred, and bigotry against anyone who has a different belief system all have been part of our 5000+ year history. And yes, I was carefully taught to KNOW my history while being careful not to let HATE enter my life in my feelings with people. I have caught myself thinking comments of generalization as this teaching rose up and I could say THIS person is a problem, not the whole group of however that person identified.
When I was in 6th grade I had my first in-my-face experience with bigotry. It was a “dirty Jew” comment over something pretty inconsequential but disappointing to that person. I immediately went to sarcasm and told her I took a daily shower, but it stung and I carried that all the way from the mid-1960s to my 40th high school reunion planning when I was asked to pick out names I remembered to make contacts and urge attendance. One name I very much recognized and told my friend, the organizer, why I would not call. He challenged me to TRY to clear the air, if ONLY for myself.
I had to think about it but realized I had taken more difficult steps in my life. What happened next was a case of redemption. She did not remember it. Of course not, it was not impactful to her as it was to me. We tend to remember things that make huge impressions. It was just a regular school day for her, which indicates the way she had been raised. However, here it was, essentially 45+ years AFTER the incident and her immediate words were the key: “I am SO sorry. Believe me, please, I am no longer that way.” Wow…..what a wonderful feeling something horrible dissolving inside me.
I have had other issues being a Jew in a nonJewish world. I’ve been asked “Where are your horns?” which many people do not even know is based on the Michelangelo statue of Moses. Turns out it is a Bible translation error once again…and so, based on a choice by someone in the Middle Ages, we have a concept that is ridiculously believed by some.
I was the only white person who sat and ate lunch with two African-American women in one workplace. We were the same age and it was good to hear their stories and learn more about life there. It was fun; they even corn-rowed my hair once. When I told them I am Jewish, they got very still, frowned, and said “But you’re so nice.” I told them they were also and they immediately recognized their bigotry had just been cracked a bit. They also had been “carefully taught”.
There’s more but all my stories have not included an element of being afraid for my life. That’s a key component that our society has been imposing on all people of color here. Yes. They FEAR for their lives. And rightly so. We EARNED their anger.
There are bigotry and even hatred of people who are different. WHY? Most of the perceived issues are very superficial: skin color is obvious. And yet, even many people who say they are not bigoted have no close friends that look “different”. I started asking people who argued with me that I was exaggerating the issues “Do you ever invite them to your home to break bread?” Here’s the answer most of the time.
I irritated my mother when I made friends with the parents of a kid in my oldest son’s kindergarten class. His dad called himself a Persian. He was here in the US attending university when the Shah was disposed and his family told him not to come home. He applied for refugee status and later achieved citizenship. He cooked for us, we cooked for him, and the world felt better, less scary. I had broken one of my “carefully taught” issues of being very watchful around “Arabs”.
My mom also had concerns when I seized the opportunity to spend six months in Germany on business. I arrived, flying from JFK, an hour or so before my coworkers arrived on their flight from Atlanta, so I sat in the Frankfort airport people-watching and became very aware that they “look just like me.” Then, we boarded a train at the airport to travel south about an hour…and I couldn’t help but think “here I am, a Jew on a train in Germany.” The next morning we reported to the American army post located on a kasern built for WWII. There were swastikas carved into the architecture. I had to spend the first few days overcoming my “carefully taught lesson” by repeating “I am here. He is not.” I think the most horrible part of my trip is that I had to work and delving into travel exploration was restricted to weekends. It was overall a good experience with a lot of teaching and a lot of learning.
I had heard that after the war, the new government in Germany wanted to make sure they would never again fall into such horrible sheep again, disconnected from moral decision making. First, the American army made locals who swore, despite the odor in the air, that they did not know what was happening, to clean up the camps. Then the German government outlawed the symbols of Nazism. This was a “heritage” that was not to be honored ever again by people. We visited Dachau and watched the students act like typical unruly teenagers as the information film started, turn into open-mouth silent beings. They could understand what I call the Hitler rants. And they did not admire it at all.
Why am I sharing this? My personal story is minor compared to so many of the people of color who live as our neighbors but, too often, not as our friends. I wanted to remind you that the world is full of hate, even here. We can not fix the world. All we can each do is fix ourselves and help heal this nation.
A song was shared in the We Are Here: A Celebration of Resilience, Resistance, and Hope twice……that’s how good an anthem it is. The ‘Partisans’ Song’ – Zog Nit Kein Mol was written by Hirsch Glik, 22, in the Vilna Ghetto in 1943. It is one of the most powerful songs of resistance and defiance ever written when you consider that Hitler boasted that his Reich would endure for a thousand years, and it is the Jewish people who resisted the forces of hatred and have endured, not the Third Reich, which lasted twelve years.
Let’s get to work and realize that indeed to prove all lives matter we must pay attention NOW to fixing things so BLACK LIVES MATTER also and don’t stop there….we have a lot to do to raise all people. And please remember that YOUR status is not diminished in any way as we raise all who need to be.