On the desk in front of me are two objects. The first is a gray and black key fob that I’ve taken off my keychain. Inside it somewhere is a transmitter that opens the lock on the door to the synagogue I joined two years ago.
Until recently my youngest daughter went to daycare at this synagogue, which is why we were given this key fob. Every morning when she was at school there, my daughter walked up to the door to the shul and opened it herself using the fob. She still does that when we come to shul on Saturday mornings. The plastic panel outside the door has a small lightbulb that turns green when you touch the key fob to it. The door clicks open when the light goes on. It brings her a little thrill to see it light up, to open this locked door herself.
My shul is in Philadelphia, directly across the state from Pittsburgh, where eleven Jews were murdered in October at the Tree of Life Synagogue by an anti-Semite with an AR-15. To have been young and Jewish in this country in the ’80s and ’90s was to have lived in a subconscious state of fear. That was my idiosyncratic experience, anyway—unconscious, inarticulable fear, the product of knowing enough of the “never again” canon, of a Jewish education that emphasized Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi and Deborah Lipstadt, Schindler’s List and Shoah and Night and Fog. In the ’60s and ’70s, the facts of the Shoah were being recovered. No one needed to be reminded not to forget while actively endeavoring to remember. In the following decades, never forgetting meant not forgetting that for centuries anti-Semitism has been the first recourse of western cultures under duress. The events of the 1940s were a culmination. Now, after Squirrel Hill, with violence against Jews underway, there are new facts to uncover. The fear is unambiguous—the fear that again no precaution can keep you safe from the kind of hatred that was unleashed in Pittsburgh.
Ashkenazi Jews don’t own the market on this fear. “How irrelevantly remote seem all our usual refined optimisms and intellectual and moral consolations in the presence of a need of help!” William James wrote in The Varieties of Religious Experience. “Help is the real core of the religious problem: Help! Help! No prophet can claim to bring a final message unless he says things that will have the sound of reality in the ears of victims such as these.” James was writing barely a century after George Washington himself considered the Jewish plight in America. If he needed hired help, according to Ron Chernow, Washington felt that “if they are good workmen, they could be Mohammedans, Jews or Christians of any sect . . . no man’s sentiments are more opposed to any kind of restraint upon religious principles than mine are.” In 1794 there weren’t a lot of Jewish carpenters around for Washington to hire.
What the Jewish American does know is that William James’s “Help! Help!” carries inside it a reciprocal. The instinct in another bent of mind, an irreligious mind, to think instead, “Harm! Harm!” It is the central instinct of anti-Semitism. As James watched his Varieties come to publication in the States in 1902, the first pogroms were underway in Russia. “My world was small and ugly,” the narrator of Isaac Babel’s “The Story of My Dovecote” repeats after he’s been attacked in a pogrom in 1905. “I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t see it . . . Somewhere far away disaster rode across [the earth] on a large horse, but the sound of its hooves grew weaker and vanished, and silence, the bitter silence that can descend on children in times of misfortune, dissolved the boundary between my body and the unmoving earth.” Fear turns into harm, and in turn becomes a newer fear. A fear that lasts generations. “A single coin in a box causes a noisy rattle,” Rabbi Moses Isserles of Krakow wrote in 1570. All he was talking about was a fear of the uninitiated practicing Jewish mysticism.
I don’t like the electric lock on the door to our shul. A sanctuary is not a sanctuary if it locks out people who do not have key fobs. The deity cannot be locked out of a sanctuary, and locks will not keep the deity in. Anyway, those same locks are turned off on Saturdays, as it is against halakhic law for many members to use electric locks on the sabbath. On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, the doors never close at all, as kids run in and out and play on the playground. On those days there is no reason to lock the doors. What about all the others?
The second object on my desk is a piece of cloth in a gold frame. The summer before last, my cousin Hajnal came from Budapest to the States for her first visit in years. She left me a yellow star sewn onto a blue cloth that was once part of a shirtsleeve. It is the star her grandmother, my great-grandmother, was forced to wear through the last years of World War II, at the end of which more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews, including essentially all of my father’s family, were taken to Auschwitz to their deaths.
Ever since my cousin passed it along to me I’ve wondered what to do with this yellow star. I’m not sure I could get anything done if every morning I had to stop to look at this framed cloth hanging on the wall, this cloth that according to family lore exists only because my great-grandmother’s non-Jewish maid managed to grab it while my great-grandmother was being deported. Yet all year I have been forced to look at this yellow star anyway, because after Hajnal gave it to me I left it on my desk and never moved it. If I were to hang it on my wall I would probably look at it less, but I’m not comfortable elevating it to that kind of prominence. The cloth is fear incarnate, and I can’t spend every day looking directly at fear.
Like the key fob, the cloth began to take on a different meaning after the murder of eleven Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue. The murderer stated afterward that his intention was to “kill all Jews.” Fear is no longer on the wall, or on my desk. “Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear,” is how Philip Roth opens The Plot Against America, the 2004 novel in which he imagines Charles Lindbergh, an anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer, being elected President in 1940, and which has become a dark mirror and menacing premonition of our current moment. I come back to the line again and again for its clear-eyed retrospection. Alongside the details of an imagined America that supports Nazi Germany, Roth slips in earnest reflections on his own childhood, on the childhood of the main character, whose name is Philip. The family he imagines is his family, as it might have been if blighted by terror.
The yellow star my great-grandmother wore allowed Hungarian Nazis, the Arrow Cross, to target her, but also narrowed her own sense of what she could be, what she might do. Hungarian Jews had been among the most assimilated in Europe and held positions of political power. Hajnal’s father, György, was a commissar in the communist party before the war. Having survived—by the odd luck of being drafted into Hungary’s Nazi-collaborating army and shipped to the Eastern Front—he returned to that position. He raised Hajnal in Budapest.
Meanwhile, in 1948, my grandparents immigrated with my father to New York. They lived in this country as Catholics. A fear presided over their days. It passed through us like X-rays when we entered their Long Island home, a space wholly devoid of religious markers. There was nothing on their walls or shelves to suggest a family history of any kind. Instead their living room was filled with tchotchkes from the yearly trips they took to Eastern Europe. The attic where we stayed was covered in socialist-realist depictions of muscular men and humble women busy at physical labor. In place of books their shelves were piled high with cartons of hoarded Marlboro Reds.
As an adult, my father converted back to Judaism. My mother was Jewish, and so I was raised Jewish, less than a generation removed from my grandparents’ escape. Like them I wanted my identity to be a choice. I was expected to succeed professionally, so whether I became a rabbi, or an actuary, or a radiologist seemed as significant as any deeper religious identification. That I chose more or less secular novelist and professor meant I settled on an identity.
Now my Judaism has come to feel like less and less of a choice. I’ve always been drawn to people of faith, whether Jesuits or Sufis or all those American believers William James interviewed a century ago—I don’t know what I believe, but I love knowing others do believe. “I’m frightened by the devil,” Joni Mitchell sings, “and I’m drawn to those ones that ain’t afraid.” I’ve been reading Kabbalistic texts with a rabbi friend for a couple years, and feel interested in the joy central to the teachings of Rabbi Nachman. I like that Annie Dillard is interested in him, too. There’s an intellectual pleasure in honing my ability to read Hebrew again. Yet here I am still more apt to quote Joni Mitchell than a tzadik.
The yellow star my great-grandmother wore was on her arm until just before she was deported in 1944. At first it marked her as someone who could be shunned, then dispossessed, then abused, then slaughtered. Then, after the war, it carried the inchoate hidden terror that something like this could happen again. My cousin Hajnal has lived as a secular atheist in Hungary her whole life, and so that star meant something different when it hung on the wall in her agnostic house. I can’t say exactly what. She’s given her whole life over to not talking about such things. Her English has never been strong enough, and my Hungarian too insufficient. I’ve slept in her house in the Buda hills for days without being able to ask. The star’s meaning changed when it changed hands between us, and it can change again. It will.
A fear pervades these memories. One thing the past month bears out: we can feel vulnerable without being forced to wear anything on our sleeves. A swastika on a synagogue wall, a swastika on a bathroom stall, a swastika in a meme posted to Gab or Twitter: they’re all the same swastika. The meaning is fixed. “Assimilation,” Hannah Arendt writes, “never was a real menace to the survival of the Jews. Whether they were accepted or they were welcomed it was because they were Jews.” The star on my desk makes clear that my grandparents were always hiding. My grandmother was already hiding when she converted in the 1930s. My grandfather was hiding behind her when they moved to the States. Now it’s clear that I’ve been hiding, too.
As I turn the key fob over and over in my hand, I realize that maybe my ambivalence about the identifiability of my own Judaism is not the inheritance of American Freedom I’ve always thought it was. Maybe it’s the old fear, the Dohány Street Ghetto fear. Maybe the only way to maintain a sanctuary is to leave it unlocked, come what may. After Squirrel Hill, no more hiding. No locked doors. The choices to make going forward are the ones we’re willing to make on our own, never the ones imposed on us. The great danger in the response to “Help! Help!,” and “Harm! Harm!,” and fear of all varieties, is that it threatens to become anger. To forestall joy. William James knew better than to succumb: “the world is all the richer for having the devil in it,” he wrote. So we accept, act, move forward. And yet remember that James didn’t stop there. “The world is all the richer for having the devil in it,” the passage ends, “so long as we keep our foot upon his neck.”
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