I hate being called an inspiration. I am an ordinary person doing my best to muddle through a difficult situation which is that I am married to a rabbi who was in the Tree of Life building in Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018. He was fortunate to leave; he did the funerals for three of our congregants, who were among the eleven murdered, seven from Tree of Life and one from Dor Hadash, in the ensuing week.
That experience has changed my perspective on other situations as well.
It was odd for me when someone who really disliked me in high school – telling me I took his “spot” at a college we both applied to when I got in and he did not – wrote on Facebook what an inspiration I was and a boy I had a crush on in college but who was not as interested in me wrote on Facebook that I am one of the most inspiring people he has ever met. Was I too inspiring to kiss that time I came to his dorm room? I don’t know, but I don’t think that elevating someone by making them inspiring or above others is helpful.
I am an ordinary person thrust into a role, trying to support my spouse and community and heal from the trauma of having our worship space invaded by an antisemitic gunman in the worst act of antisemitic violence in the history of the United States, as well as continuing to write my own work.
When I think about other situations, I don’t want to hear about heroes, but about ordinary people who rose to the occasion, acting heroically.
The difference is if an ordinary person did something, that means others can and should act that way too. If the person who does something is inspirational or heroic, it lets the rest of us off the hook. And that is not as it should be. Each person has the capacity to act with valor and bravery and importance, no matter who they are or what situation they are in. They have to make the choice to act.
Chiune Sugihara was the Japanese consul in Kovno Lithuania and issued visas in July – September 1940 to Jews so they could flee through Japan and escape the conflagration in Europe. He issued over 2,000 visas; as many as 100,000 people today are the descendants of the recipients of those visas, according to the estimate of the Times of Israel.
According to his son, Nobuki Sugihara, “The truth is, he just took pity on these people and decided to do something,” Sugihara said. “This wasn’t about ideology.”
Nobuki Sugihara recently came to the States to meet with the descendants of those who got the visas and to make sure that people understood that his father’s motives came from a sense of humanity and kinship. There have been a number of quotes wrongly attributed to Chiune Sugihara such as this fake quote, “I may have to disobey my government, but if I do not, I will be disobeying God.”
The son wants the record to reflect reality, according to the Times of Israel. “But my father would not have liked it,” Nobuki Sugihara said. “He would have not approved, he was always in favor of telling things like they were, no melodrama.”
This too, while not heroic, is meaningful. Sugihara did something not because he was heroic, but because he was human. Think how many other lives could have been saved had more Raoul Wallenbergs and Chiune Sugiharas, and others with the capacity to act to save Jews, stepped up. If we believe that we are not all endowed with the capacity to do brave things, then we won’t act.
My own spouse says he never heard live gunfire before, but the moment he heard the sound, he knew what it was and that he had to hide and get others into hiding. He had no training to do this, he just knew instinctively that when you hear a gun you run away, flee danger. He was able to hustle the other three people with him at the front of the room into a safe area, an electrical storage room behind the wall where our aron kodesh, holy ark is.
Others have said he is a hero for doing this, acting quickly and decisively, getting himself and others to safety. He doesn’t see himself as a hero, just someone doing what he needed to in the moment.
None of us knows how we will react when called on to make a split second decision that could cost us our lives or save them and the lives of others.
But it is important to be aware that ordinary people, any one of us, has the capacity to act heroically when necessary. Perhaps that will enable all of us to feel that heroes are not mythological superheroes on a plane hovering above the rest of us, but ordinary humans just like us, put in extraordinary situations, doing what we need to do at the moment. The best way to enable more Sugiharas to arise, is to believe that each human has the capacity to act heroically when called on.
I don’t want to be married to a hero, just to a man who was smart enough and savvy enough to remain alive and to save others. If we don’t put people on pedestals, more of us could realize that we all have a capacity to act heroically in some fashion, whatever it is, whether it is saving a life or doing an ordinary act of kindness.
Beth Kissileff is the co-editor of the anthology Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy, author of the novel Questioning Return and the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Michigan Quarterly Review, New York Times, Tablet, the Forward, 929English and Haaretz, among others. Visit her online at www.bethkissileff.com.