The comedian Ester Steinberg tells a joke about going to the Museum of the Jewish Heritage- a Living Memorial to the Holocaust with her mother and being told the cost of admission was twenty dollars for the two of them. Her mother replied, “Haven’t we paid enough?” They got in free.
It is clear that we have paid enough at this moment in America; no less a news outlet than the New York Times informs us, on its front page today, that “U.S Faces Outbreak of Antisemitic threats and violence.” There are new attacks on Jews every day, in places that Jews have not been attacked before like a kosher pizza shop on the Upper Eastside, a sushi restaurant in Los Angeles, in London where antisemitic attacks have increased by 500%, we are all suffering. The AntiDefamation League Tracker of antisemitic incidents catalogs those from San Francisco, Virginia, Missouri, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York, among others, in the past week. Even those whose own communities have not yet been victimized feel that it could have been us, it could have been me.
It has been me. My family and community have been grappling with how to deal with antisemitic violence since October 27, 2018, when my husband fled and hid from the gunman who attacked him at New Light Congregation which rented space at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh. Three of our congregants, along with eight other Jews worshipping that Shabbat morning, lost their lives. The attack changed me, my family members, and my congregants in ways large and small; I feel our experience enables me to offer advice to those troubled by the resurgence of this ugly hatred.
There is so much that none of us can control in this world, something living through a global pandemic has surely brought home. But where we can control our lives is how we spend our time and what we choose to do.
Though I am normally an extremely sound sleeper, that first night after the attack, I went downstairs in the middle of the night and wanted something to read… something that would focus my mind rather than merely distracts me. I opened a Chumash and read the Torah portion for the upcoming week, Hayei Sarah, the life of Sarah. As soon as I read the first verse and the commentary on it, I felt the text was giving me guidance and counsel. Genesis 23:1 speaks of the life of Sarah in order to eulogize her, the first time in the Torah that a death is recorded with a laudation of the life of a person, as part of the mourning practices.
In order to understand a person’s life, we need to know what gave it meaning and what gives it meaning. Reading about how Abraham eulogized Sarah in Genesis 23:2, his concern for understanding what gave her life meaning, allowed me to go forward to emphasize how my congregants lived and what they were devoted to – the synagogue, communal worship, Jewish ritual, and learning, their respective families – to share that with others, and encourage them to emulate the way they lived, rather than focusing on the violent deaths they suffered.
I am immensely proud of the number of congregants in our small community who have stepped up to learn new skills such as reading Hebrew, chanting the Haftarah with trope, leading a part of the prayers, to honor and emulate our martyred friends.
After I wrote up something about the Torah portion that day, I continued to write weekly on the Torah portion for the following year. Having texts to focus my trauma-scrambled brain around was immensely helpful. For many weeks after the attack, I was unable to write any kind of narrative pieces, but being able to have a text and a word limit, and a deadline, I did process my thoughts through the text. I suggest that others, feeling the trauma all American Jews are feeling from the threats against us, similarly make efforts to deepen their understanding of Jewish tradition, whether it is learning a few Yiddish words through the League for Yiddish’s words of the week email, or the Forward’s Yiddish word of the day videos or learning Hebrew words for kids with PJ Library or the many other resources available. I have been studying a page of Talmud a day since January 5, 2020, when this cycle of the seven and a half year program began for the 14th time since it was instituted.
Whatever you do to deepen your Jewish knowledge, you will be strengthening yourself as a Jew, both to understand what our faith is, as well as to know how to answer those who commit atrocious acts in opposition to it. Most of this knowledge, like admission to the Museum of Jewish Heritage, can be gotten for free. Though Steinberg did not likely intend it that way, I see her joke as a lovely metaphor for how to comport ourselves now. Though we have paid, our heritage is free.
As well as the necessity of strengthening ourselves in the face of hate, we need to also ask a difficult question – how do we know when it is time to leave for safer shores? Are there any places where it is better to live as a Jew? Why do we need to keep fleeing?
Exactly two weeks before the attack at my husband’s synagogue we invited our new neighbors, recently relocated from Paris, for a Shabbat meal. They told us of how they decided to move after the January 9, 2015, Hyper Cache kosher supermarket shooting which they had missed only with the decision to pick the kids up from school first and then buy the challot for Shabbat, rather than the opposite. At the time, the idea of moving because of an attack on a kosher supermarket seemed unreal, a horrible thing that couldn’t happen in Squirrel Hill. Except of course it did, at a synagogue rather than a market (though that occurred in the United States too in Jersey City, New Jersey in December 2019) and the death toll was higher.
This past Shabbat, among the ten people at my table, three were children of those who fled here from elsewhere, Hungary, Baghdad, and Poland. Should they all go elsewhere again, not even one generation of dwelling safely in a country that had once been thought to be haven and home as a book on the 350 year history of Jews in America by Abraham J. Karp is titled?
The confidence that America was those things seems sadly misplaced at the moment. But then, my study of Talmud has taught me that there are some things that are better off not known. In Pesachim 54b, the Sages taught: “Seven matters are concealed from people, and they are: The day of death; and the day of consolation from one’s concerns; the profundity of justice, ascertaining the truth in certain disputes; and a person also does not know what is in the heart of another; and a person does not know in what way he will earn a profit, and one does not know when the monarchy of the house of David will be restored to Israel; and when the wicked Roman monarchy will cease to exist.”
We are probably better off not knowing some things about the future – I personally would rather not know when I will be faced with mortality and only hope it is a long time in the future. I am still in mourning for the lives lost here, and knowing that comfort exists, though we don’t know when it may arrive, gives me solace. As well, the sense expressed here that there will come a time when the house of David will be restored or other kingdoms destroyed enables me to feel that whatever happens in this country, there is a larger historical scale at work and even if Jewish life is uncomfortable or becomes impossible here, there will come a time of restoration; though none know or can understand the depths of justice, we can understand it to exist. I hope that, along with the exhortation to increase and intensify your understanding of what it means to be a Jew, will be enough to bring some small measure of comfort, though we can’t know when in this time of uncertainty.
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.