Twenty years after the bat mitzvah of my niece, and less than a week before Halloween, her Pittsburgh synagogue was the site of the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in the history of the United States. Cumulative trauma weighs upon mind and bone as eleven Jewish souls, the pillars of a religious community, are mourned. A sense of historical inevitability about this tragedy has frozen my insides. My grief lies beyond consciousness. When will I weep? Perhaps during an upcoming visit to Israel, when I visit Yad Vashem and recite the Mourner’s Kaddish for my murdered aunts, uncles, and cousins? Or, will the suffering that I share with my fellow citizens, particularly the non-Jews who offer comfort and compassion, simply crack open my heart?
As Halloween and Election Day approach, my parents are haunting me.
MY MOTHER: “Didn’t I tell you that reading Sinclair Lewis was important? Of course it can happen here!”
MY FATHER: “Don’t you remember when I told you how the other soldiers wanted to see my horns?”
MY MOTHER: “Do you remember how I spoke about being able to ‘pass’ with my blue eyes?”
MY FATHER: “Don’t you remember how I played those recordings of ‘The Investigator’ for you?”
Yes. You both told me about Roy Cohn, Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, and H.U.A.C. It’s all burned into my memory and D.N.A. Like you, I have never felt safe in America. Like you, I never closed my eyes to the trail of tears and blood that, improbably, also provided hope and refuge. Like you, I have wondered if our stay here might be temporary. You never promised me that we would always be Americans. Our passports were always up to date. The current president who hails from my childhood neighborhood condemns “globalists” and I hear my immigrant mother loudly proclaim:
MY MOTHER: I am a Citizen of the World!”
Jews have survived because we are universal and particularistic. Our ties are everywhere, across water, sky, national boundary, and time…
MY MOTHER: “We all stood at Sinai!”
Earning the favor of ruling elites has never kept us safe. We build institutions, contribute to the culture of countries which have tolerated us, but remain, in spirit, a nomadic people who wonder when it might be time to go. How long was the “Golden Age of the Jews” in Spain? Surely Jews must help one another when laws are changed to obliterate us and pyres prepared for the public burning of our bodies.
MY FATHER: “Vietnam was a very different kind of war.”
If my brother had been drafted during Vietnam, he would have been smuggled to Canada and we would have followed. The day he was summoned before the Draft Board, my family waited for their verdict in a state of terror. Fortunately, high school back injury precluded him from serving. My mother felt that a sympathetic Jewish doctor may have helped as well. My father, a U.S. Army Captain (fought behind enemy lines during the Battle of the Bulge, served in military intelligence, abandoned his Army career at the request of my mother who did not want to be an officer’s wife) strongly opposed the Vietnam War. He never marched in a Veterans Day parade (at least not during my lifetime), kept his autographed photos from General Eisenhower and General Bradley in the basement. Other men would have hung those photographs. As we were packing up to move, I asked my father why he’d kept these historical artifacts hidden.
MY FATHER: “I didn’t want to glorify war.”
My parents understood just how crazy and dangerous this country was and did not conceal this knowledge from their children. While they were not members of the Socialist or Community parties, (legend has it that my left o center, highly individualistic mother denounced the pact between Stalin and Hitler) they knew what happened to those who dissented. They did not want their well intentioned, liberal-minded children to be martyred in the pursuit of social and economic justice.
MY FATHER: “You don’t put your head out on the chopping block for anybody.”
My parents voted for Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972, tried to persuade their friends to ignore the fear-mongering whisper campaign launched by Republican minions, tracked every detail of Watergate, and were disgusted when President Ford pardoned Nixon. In their view, “our long, national nightmare” was not over – just swept under the rug. The American right wing would rise again…and again…So we would have to keep voting against them.
For many years, my family subscribed to “Commentary ” magazine. As a teenager, I read it regularly and informed my parents about a shift towards conservatism. My parents concurred and the magazine disappeared from our household. There were other ideological campaigns (to oppose affirmative action) aimed at persuading families like ours to change our politics and party affiliations, but my parents were not deceived. They knew, in their bones, that the Republican Party provided a safe haven for right-wing extremists. They understood themselves as recipients of a horrific legacy – that of exile and genocide – and voted accordingly.
MY FATHER: “You must not register to vote as an Independent. You need to have a say in the New York State Democratic Primary. In the general election, make sure to cast your ballot for the Democrats on the Liberal Party line. We need to keep them on the ballot as an alternative.”
Consequently, I became and have remained, a registered Democrat. When I vote for Democrats on the “Working Families” line (as the Liberal Party became dysfunctional), I’m honoring my parents and remembering how they supported Bella Abzug for Mayor. I’m grateful they imagined a very different kind of future for my cherished city (“a tiny island of Swedish-style socialism” as described in “The Cost of Good Intentions”) and our country. My parents deeply loved the unfulfilled promise of America. Their passion for closing the gap between what is, and what might be, still inspires me. My mother, the psychologist, reminds me that the resonance of “MAGA” comes from “identification with the aggressor.” My father, soldier and public school teacher, tells me to act bravely and embrace the shared journey of “MARA” – making America revolutionary again. They also want me to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. I may never quite measure up to ideals but will keep trying.
Baruch Dayan He Emeth. Blessed is the true judge. There’s a box of tissues in the downstairs bathroom. Perhaps I will use them after all…