Thursday, April 29, 2010

Emil and the Photography Project

Emil, my youngest son, has embarked on a project of digitizing our family’s photographs, of which we—like most families—have an uncountable number stored in photograph albums and shoe boxes (those would be the lucky ones), stuck into books or onto bulletin boards, hidden away in rarely opened cupboards and drawers, and attached to documents like our three children’s almost thirty years’ worth of nursery and elementary school report cards that themselves have been long since filed away in filing cabinets that are only opened when the unexpected need to find someone’s birth certificate or original Social Security card occasionally presents itself. It’s a big project. So far, though, so good. Emil is approaching this with his customary diligence, trying first to organize the archive by era and subject matter (itself an undertaking of gargantuan proportions given the number of photographs involved), and then methodically scanning the photographs and organizing the results in an on-line archive that we will eventually be able to download to a disk that we will then be able to put in a drawer and not be able to find other than when we’re not actually looking for it.

What the project has taught the most profoundly to me personally, at least so far, is how fluid memory is…and how subjective. Some of what I had forgotten are just trivial details, things anyone could forget two or three decades after the fact. I remember our trip to Istanbul—undertaken with our oldest son Max, now twenty-six years old but then still small enough for me to shlep him around in one of those backpacks made for the children of parents with strong backs—but I had forgotten that there was a store just down the street from our hotel that appeared only ever to feature beef hearts, and rows upon rows of them, in its window. I remember our honeymoon in Israel, of course, and I remember the hotel (now long since demolished) that we stayed in in Tzefat, but I had forgotten the specific dress Joan was wearing when that goat began to follow her through the cemetery she had gone to visit at my behest to put a stone on the grave of Rabbi Moshe Cordevero, one of the greatest kabbalists of all time and one with whose books, and specifically with whose masterwork, the Pardes Rimmonim, I was very involved at the time. (The goat is in the picture too but it looks quite as I remembered it, only perhaps a bit bigger.) I remember my bar-mitzvah, obviously. But I had forgotten how young my parents were and how healthy and well my mother looked midway through our life together. (She died when I was twenty-six.)

But others of the things I had forgotten were not trivial details but rather, especially now that I see them depicted clearly in the photographs Emil is attempting to organize, the kinds of things of which I can hardly believe I have retained no memories at all. When I look at the snapshots my parents took at my high school graduation, for example, I find it hard to believe that I was actually present. Clearly, I was there. But even now that I have seen the pictures, I still cannot awaken any real memories of the seventeen-year-old me, complete with mutton-chop sideburns, a full head of black hair, and a peace symbol pinned to the top of my mortarboard, standing in the sunlight in Forest Park and looking somewhere between irritated and embarrassed while my mother or father fussed with the camera. Nor have I retained any real memories of the luncheon, also depicted in the archive, that my parents appear to have made for me sometime during the summer before I departed for my junior year of college in France, a large assembly of friends and family of whom I believe myself, my friend Roz, and three cousins to be the sole surviving invitees. Or of the seventy-fifth birthday party my parents apparently made for my grandmother at the some unidentified Manhattan restaurant that I clearly attended—I’m in the picture—but from which I have retained no memories at all, not of the day and not of my grandmother on her birthday and not of the guests my parents must obviously have invited and not of myself among them.

In their own category are the pictures that are missing entirely. There are, for example, no pictures of my parents’ wedding, none taken at my bris, none or hardly any taken during my elementary school years or during my summers at camp. There is the above-referenced snapshot of my parents standing in front of our apartment house on the sunny morning of my bar-mitzvah, but none at all of me personally on my big day and none taken at the luncheon my parents hosted after the service. There are pictures in the archive of only some of my parents’ siblings, none at all of my father’s father, and only two or three of my mother’s father. All that has to do with my parents’ peculiar attitude towards photography in general, one of the very few of their peculiarities that I have somehow managed not to inherit. But it also has to do with their fear, also uninherited by myself, of leaving too much behind, of not being able to depart as completely and cleanly as they both wished would be the case when their time finally did come to leave life to the living and depart for the world of truth.

It’s a complicated concept. Even I myself don’t think I fully understand what motivated them to feel so ill at ease about the whole concept of preserving a tangible record of the past. My parents, for example, did not save their own high school or college diplomas, let alone their report cards or yearbooks. When I found my mother’s M.A. diploma from Columbia University in the back of one of my father’s closets after he died, in fact, I had the sense it had only survived because they had both forgotten it existed. I have it still, but can’t quite decide what to do with it. Perhaps in that thought, though, I do somehow come closer to the original concept that guided them in that it would have been anathema to them to think of me, or of anyone at all, holding this thing in their hands and not having any idea what to do with it yet feeling unable simply to pitch it out with the rest of the trash. In the end, who knows what motivates some people to hold onto every conceivable artifact connected with their lives as though it were reasonable to imagine that someone might eventually open a gallery devoted to their years on earth and others, like my parents, to hold onto almost nothing, to let it all slip away, to record nothing or almost nothing in photographs, to prepare in life to make a clean getaway in death (which concept obviously precludes leaving behind cartons of memorabilia for one’s children to have any sort of relationship, positive or negative, with)?

When I do look at the photographs Emil is organizing, though, I find myself mostly wondering how much of memory is real and how much fantasy. If I remember, for example, my own wedding, which I surely do, why then can I not recall even a single part of the reception that is not depicted in our wedding album? And who knows how much of what we do remember corresponds to historical reality unaffected by our own fantasies about the past and, more to the point, about our own role in the stories of our own lives? Our criminal justice system is based on the supposition, after all, that people can reliably and accurately remember events to which they were witness, but how many of the 253 convicted individuals subsequently exonerated of all wrongdoing through the efforts of the Innocence Project operated at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University were convicted in the first place because testimony honestly and forthrightly given about what someone said he or she could remember turned out simply not to be correct? (I have recommended in the past that readers drop by the Innocence Project website at and I am pleased to do so again. I expect you will find yourself as entranced by what you’ll find, and as challenged by it, as I am whenever I visit the site.) Can any of us remember ourselves clearly? Or even, speaking honestly, at all? No flashlight, after all, can shed light on itself no matter how fresh the batteries and how strong the bulb. Is that the model we should bring to bear in considering the course of our lives not as evidenced by tangible artifacts but merely as filtered through our own recollective consciousnesses? Or would the right model be to understand memory as a kind of echo that grows weaker with each subsequent reverberation but which does not necessarily grow less accurate as it becomes less easy to discern with the passage of time?

It’s hard to say, but I think that my parents’ horror of leaving behind hard evidence in the form of photographs and movies was somehow related to the wish that they live on as memories rather than as exhibits. (My parents never owned a movie camera or, I think, even a tape recorder. If they did, they certainly never recorded their own voices.) Perhaps that is even as it should be. Shelter Rockers have heard me say countless times from the bimah that all perception is midrash. So perhaps we need to apply that thought to our memories as well…which are, after all, one step even further away from reality in that memory is merely the recollection of perception and thus one step even more removed from empirical, verifiable reality as we all wish we could know it. Watching Emil assiduously scanning our nine trillion photographs—Joan and I have nothing even remotely like my parents’ aversion to documenting our lives or our children's in photographs—and trying to impose order where there to date has been only chaos has been a sobering experience for me, something like surreptitiously watching a defense attorney gathering the kind of hard evidence that will effectively counter whatever testimony I might be considering offering my readers (or myself) about the way I remember my life as actually having unfolded. But sobering experiences are not necessarily negative ones. Just to the contrary, actually: sometimes sobering experiences lead to insights into how things are in our world and with our lives that can actually make us into finer people possessed of clearer, not murkier, senses of who we are. And it is hard to imagine how that can be a negative development, even if it has come to me from photographs that themselves are only developed negatives! (Younger readers may feel free to ask their parents or grandparents what negatives are.)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Freedom of Religion and the Niqab

It is hard to think of anything more basic to our sense of what it means to be the free citizens of a democratic republic than freedom of religion. It’s an old idea, first enshrined in law on these shores by the Maryland Toleration Act of 1649 (which was long enough ago for the law to have been drafted by Lord Baltimore himself!), but known to most of us in its current legal guise from the U.S. Constitution. In Article VI of the Constitution itself, for example, the establishment of religious requirements for holding office is specifically banned. And, of course, freedom of religion is one of the essential freedoms specifically guaranteed to American citizens by the First Amendment. (The others are freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and the freedom to petition the government for a redress of grievances.) Furthermore, that same amendment specifically prohibits the establishment of a state religion in these United States. And the Fourteenth Amendment formally outlaws religious discrimination and bars individual states from abridging any rights, including the right not to suffer discrimination based on religion, guaranteed by the Constitution to the citizenry.

More or less every western democracy guarantees its citizens the freedom to worship as they choose. And yet the parallel notion that “church” should be totally separate from “state” appears to be a peculiarly American concept, or at least one that many other nations do not find necessary to embrace as part of their general effort to guarantee their citizens’ basic human rights. Many countries, for example, formally recognize state religions, which practice leads to policies that Americans would find intolerable. In Norway, for example, the king is required to be a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, recognized in the Norwegian Constitution as the state church, and more than half the members of the Norwegian Council of State are required by law to belong to that church. The British monarch too is required by law to be a member of the Church of England and is, in fact, recognized as the Supreme Governor of that church. Israel, founded specifically as a Jewish state, grants equal civil rights to citizens of every faith but also expects those citizens to sing a national anthem that is unabashedly about the fact that Israel exists in the first place as the fulfillment of specifically Jewish aspirations for the security that can only come with political freedom. Even in Canada the French version of the national anthem makes reference to Canada proudly carrying the cross forward across North America, presumably as part of its self-appointed mission to bring Christianity to the otherwise benighted aboriginal population, and no one seems to consider it problematic that a certain segment of the citizenry cannot sing those words without willing themselves first totally to ignore their meaning. (The English version of the anthem is not a translation of the French and has nothing at all about crosses in it.)

Americans have their own inconsistencies in this regard to consider, however. Christmas has been recognized as a federal holiday here since being so designated by President Grant in 1870. Every president since Dwight Eisenhower has attended the National Prayer Breakfast, formerly actually called the Presidential Prayer Breakfast, held each February in Washington despite the fact that it is an overtly Christian event. We have all long since made peace with Christmas trees and other overtly Christian symbols being displayed in theoretically secular settings such as public libraries and post offices. But despite these slight inconsistencies, a large majority of Americans appear to be united in the belief that laws must never be passed that curtain any citizens’ right to worship freely. And the few exceptions to this general principle—the restriction placed on the Mormon faith by laws prohibiting polygamy, for example, or on the Rastafarian religion by laws restricting the use of marijuana even for sacramental purposes—only really prove the rule that almost every religion in almost every context is permitted to follow its own path and to participate freely in its own rituals. (During Prohibition, the Volstead Act formally exempted “the manufacture, sale, transportation, importation, possession, or distribution of wine for sacramental purposes or like religious rites” from the general law, but this liberal inclination to make exceptions for religious observance does not for some reason appear to extend to cannabis. I wonder if the law would be different if pot smoking was a feature of Episcopalian worship rather than Rastafarian.)

And all this background material brings to me to the topic I wish to discuss with you today, which is a piece of legislation that became law in Quebec a few weeks ago and which requires citizens interacting with the government in public must do so with their faces uncovered. Clearly aimed at Muslim women who have chosen to wear a full face veil, popularly called a niqab, this law supposes that the greater good of society rests with individuals not being able to appear unidentifiably in public settings somewhat in the same way American courts have rules that the greater good of society outweighs the right of an individual Mormon man to have several wives at once. At first, this will sound to most of my readers as an obscure piece of unimportant legislation destined to affect almost no one. And, indeed, that is not that far from the case in that the Muslim Council of Montreal noted last week that there are probably no more than twenty-five women in all of Quebec who actually veil their faces in public. But it is just the latest manifestation of an issue that is not inconsequential and which will definitely not go away as time passes.

Americans have their own version of this issue to consider, for example, in the case of Sultaana Freeman, the Florida woman formerly known as Sandra Keller who converted to Islam when she married a Muslim man and who then sued the State of Florida for the right to be photographed for her driver’s license wearing a niqab. She did not win the case because a Florida appellate court ruled that the state was not in violation of her civil rights in that she had previously been granted the right to be photographed without her veil solely in the presence of female employees of the Florida DMV.

Behind all these cases rests the same issue of how a state can or should balance the rights of its citizens to pursue their spiritual paths in life unimpeded by intrusive legislation with the obligation any government has to pass laws designed to serve the public weal by creating a just and hospitable society for the members of the public to inhabit. Since 2004, France has had a law on the books that formally prohibits “the wearing of symbols or garb which show religious affiliation in public primary schools.” Because the law was widely understood to be specifically targeting the headscarves some Muslim girls wear as part of their general obligation to dress modestly in public, it was considered highly controversial at the time. As the years have passed, however, the law has been interpreted more liberally to forbid Muslim girls from wearing headscarves, Sikh boys from wearing turbans, and Jewish boys from wearing kippot in public school, but not to constitute a ban against less prominent symbols of religious affiliation such as small crosses, stars of David, or hamsas worn as pendants around the neck. And so the French public, traditionally far more fiercely in favor of keeping religion out of public life than Americans, has accepted the law as reasonable. In a poll dating back to the year the law was enacted, for example, almost 70% of the public was in favor. That the way the law was received also has to do with the much larger issues surrounding the place of the Muslim population in French society and the ill ease with which the general (i.e., non-Muslim) population views the growing number of Muslims living in France who show only limited interest in assimilating into French culture goes without saying. Yet, six years later, the law remains in effect and clearly will remain on the books indefinitely. And now French president Nicolas Sarkozy had announced his intention to submit a bill to the French parliament next month that will call for a ban “in all public places” on the niqab and the full body cloaks some Muslim women wear known as the burka or the chador. The bill is deemed at least likely to be made into law.

Clearly, there has to be a point at which the right of an individual to practice his or her religion has to be weighed against the good of society in general.

Photographing people for driver’s licenses in a way that precludes a police officer from identifying them is clearly a bad idea. Permitting the use of illegal drugs in the context of religious observance, but not by the same people when they gather the next evening in some less spiritually charged context, does not sound like a reasonable or even workable plan. (In this regard, readers will want to recall that Prohibition didn’t work either. It is estimated that there were between 30,000 and 100,000 speakeasies in New York City alone by 1925.)

And yet the issues are more complicated than they seem at first blush. To the French, it seems reasonable to forbid a boy from attending school wearing a yarmulke. To Americans, it seems rational not to allow parents to mutilate their daughters’ genitalia even if they identify with religions that endorse the practice correctly called “female genital cutting” but sometimes also called “female circumcision.” Yet we bristle mightily at the suggestion, regularly made by some very vocal groups, that brit milah itself should be forbidden until a boy comes of age formally to consent to having his foreskin removed. And Jews are almost universally, and entirely correctly, filled with contempt for the laws in Sweden, Iceland, and Norway that prohibit Jews from slaughtering animals according to the shechitah laws that govern kosher slaughter, supposing that these laws are at least as prompted by anti-Semitism as they are by concern for the welfare of the animals in the abattoir. Nor do I think it would be fair to say that we Jews are in favor of the government leaving us alone but controlling everybody else’s practices. Or maybe it would be a little bit fair…but the bottom line really has to be whether the best interests of the public are or are not going to be served by any proposed legislation that would inhibit any particular aspect of religious observance.

As an American, I can’t imagine how it could possibly be argued that banning something as hardly visible as the kippah on a child’s head could be justifiable with reference to the greater good of society. I suppose that I don’t really understand why consenting adults should not enter into whatever kinds of marriage relationships they wish without the government interfering in what is, in the end, among the most personal of life’s decisions. Nor do I find it at all difficult to explain why I find it totally reasonable for the government to safeguard the rights of workers employed in kosher slaughterhouses, but totally unreasonable for the same government to become involved in the specific laws that govern kosher slaughter itself. In the end, laws exist to make society just and safe, and that should constitute the basis for evaluating their reasonableness. If there is no discernable negative or detrimental effect that some specific form of religious observance might conceivably have on society as a whole or on individual members of that society, then there can be no justification for government interfering with the freedom of religion that is one of the most basic foundation stones of our American society.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Strangers in Our Midst

Probably like many of you, I’ve found myself very caught up in the story of the seven-year-old adopted boy whose mother decided she had had enough of him and his difficult behavior and simply put him on a plane for Moscow—he was originally born in Russia and was adopted there—and returned him to his original homeland rather in the manner of someone returning a no-longer-wanted purchase to the mail-order house from which it was originally purchased. At first blush, the story sounds horrible but not morally complex. There are parents who abandon their children all the time, after all, and we have no difficulty treating such people as criminals. (Child abandonment is criminal offense in every state, even though most states now have laws permitting parents to abandon their children at designated “safe” places, like hospitals, without the fear of subsequent prosecution.) And yet something about this story, about a woman traveling halfway around the world to adopt an abandoned child and then herself abandoning him when it turned out that parenting a troubled child was far more stressful and overwhelming a task than she had imagined it was going to be, seems beyond the pale of “normal” bad parenting. And the specific way he was returned—by being put on a one-way flight to Moscow all by himself to be met by a total stranger his grandmother had hired over the Internet to deliver him to the Russian Education and Science Ministry where he was instructed to hand over a note from his adoptive mother saying that he was damaged goods and was being returned as such—seems so callous as almost to defy description in words alone.

What happens to this little boy, called Justin in Tennessee but originally and now again called by his Russian name Artyom, who knows? At the moment, he is in some sort of hospital in Moscow being evaluated, but he obviously can’t stay there forever and will almost inevitably end up in some Russian orphanage where the hope will surely be that he slowly forgets this whole traumatic experience. But even if he does somehow manage to forget it, I doubt it will forget him. How many times can a child be abandoned before the experience takes a permanent toll on his psyche? By how many mothers can a child be rejected before his or her sense of self-worth is damaged beyond any reasonable hope of repair? What can it possibly mean to a little boy to bond with a new mother and then be told that he came up wanting, that the love everybody told him was unconditional turns out to be entirely conditional…and that he himself failed to meet his end of the bargain by being the kind of normal, well-adjusted child a mother could easily love? How can he not blame himself for failing to meet his mother’s standards? Do emotionally challenged eight-year-olds know that they are emotionally challenged? Or do they just assume that they failed yet another test and so must not face the consequences of their own failure to be good or, somehow even worse, to be good enough?

I find myself comparing this story for some reason with the horrific story of Phoebe Prince, the young Irish girl who finally took her life last month to escape the endless barrage of bullying to which she was subjected by her peers at South Hadley High School in South Hadley, Massachusetts. That high school kids get bullied is not exactly a newsworthy discovery. Nor is it especially shocking to learn that most school officials prefer to ignore the phenomenon for as long as they reasonably can. But what makes this case special and very interesting is that the District Attorney in South Hadley responded not with a speech about the need for stricter guidelines controlling bullying in schools but by bringing actual criminal charges against nine students enrolled in the school, two boys and seven girls. (Both boys were charged with statutory rape as well.) Of the nine, one is eighteen years old, two are seventeen, three are sixteen, and the other three, left unidentified because of their age, are younger than sixteen. And it is possible, so the D.A., that more charges will be brought. In the meantime, it turns out that poor Phoebe’s story was not her private burden to bear. Or at least that it probably wasn’t—the District Attorney claims that at least some school officials were well aware of the problem, while the Superintendent of Schools claims the opposite to be the case. Whatever the truth is, it will all inevitably come out in court. As of yet, no adults in the school system have been arrested. But whether or not any is, the bottom line has to be that for a young person to come to our country and find not welcoming friends and supportive neighbors but abuse so unbearable that she concludes the only way to escape is into to abandon life itself—that has to give us all pause to think carefully about the kind of society in which we live.

Like Phoebe, little Artyom was also an immigrant to our country, also a child, also someone seeking a better life in a strange new place. It seems ridiculous to compare their fates by asking which one suffered the more unbearable form of rejection, the girl turned on by a school so entirely that she felt herself utterly friendless and totally alone or the little boy told by his mother that he had failed to meet her standards of behavior and was being returned to his long-since-forgotten homeland as though he were a puppy whom the people at the pound had promised was already house-trained but who turned out to be anything but. But even if we decline to compare their stories to determine who had it worse, we are still left knowing something about our country that most of us would prefer not to know. That for all we vaunt ourselves as a nation of immigrants, we also tolerate people in our midst who are so rejecting of immigrants that they behave like Artyom’s mother or Phoebe’s attackers. (In this regard, I should also mention that I am writing this as the jury in Riverhead is attempting to decide whether to find a young man from Suffolk County guilty of the murder of Marcelo Lucero, an immigrant to our country from Ecuador who was killed by a gang of six teenagers in the fall of 2008 apparently against the background of their extreme hatred specifically of Hispanic immigrants to our country.)

Obviously, there are good people in our country, people eager and anxious to welcome immigrants to our shores, people who cannot bring themselves to forget that all citizens other than Native Americans are either immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. (And I continually read that even the Native American tribes were not true indigenes here either, but were the descendants of people who crossed the ancient land bridge between Siberia and Alaska about 12,000 years ago. So we really are all immigrants here.) Are we in danger of losing that specific part of our American ethos? Are these stories I’ve been writing about isolated incidents relating to three unrelated people from three unrelated countries or do they suggest a pattern of contempt for newcomers gaining traction in our generally tolerant land? Surely there are many successful, happy immigrants in our midst from Ecuador, Russia, and Ireland! But that is not really the point. Of course, there are people who came here successfully. There are people in our own Shelter Rock community who themselves were and are successful immigrants to this country from other places! But there are also these three, a grown man, a teenage girl, and a little boy, to consider. Perhaps we would do well to respond to their stories by asking what we ourselves are doing to welcome strangers in to our midst. Could we begin by wondering if there are perhaps Jewish people in our own neighborhood who haven’t come forward to join the synagogue because they don’t speak English well or even because they simply don’t know how to find us? Might we not respond to these stories of rejection and violence by asking how we as a community are helping newcomers in this place to settle in, to become Americans like we or our parents or grandparents once did? Might it not be a noble way to respond to these sad stories by asking what we can do to create an atmosphere that will make newcomers eventually feel as comfortable referring to themselves as Americans as we ourselves do, many of us only a generation or two removed from Europe or wherever our families originated and others of us who came here personally as immigrants?

I chose to write about these terrible stories not just to depress, but to inspire. We cannot save Phoebe’s or Marcelo Lucero’s lives. We probably cannot do anything meaningful for poor little Artyom either. But could there be other children out there we could help? It does not behoove us as caring, thoughtful, generous people not to know the answer to that question. So maybe the real question we need to ask is how can we go about finding out. I’m not sure how exactly we might go about doing that. But it doesn’t seem reasonable that such a simple question should prove impossible to answer accurately. But what the way to go about finding an answer might turn out to be…that’s what I’d like to invite you all to think on with me and to see if we can’t come up with a meaningful approach to finding that answer, and then a plan for translating that answer into an equally meaningful plan forward, one that befits a community that self-defines as the descendants of people who were once foreigners in a land not their own and whose Bible forbids them ever to lose track of that specific part of their history.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Facing the Perpetrators

Along with the presumption of innocence and the right to be tried by a jury of one’s peers in a timely manner, the right to confront one’s accusers is one of the foundational ideas of our justice system. It’s an old idea, one that actually goes back through English common law all the way to Roman times. But even if most of us only know the concept as a feature of the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, the right to cross-examine one’s accusers, thus publicly to attempt to debunk their testimony, is at the heart of the American conception of what it means for a defendant to be tried fairly and justly. And the concept certainly also has the side benefit of discouraging people who might be inclined to give false testimony from doing so by requiring that they face the people about whom they are testifying while speaking about them in court. (It is one thing, after all, to calumniate another person in private and quite another to do so while actually facing the individual about whom one is shamefacedly lying.)

All of this, of course, has to do with the accused individual whose right to a fair trial must be sacrosanct in any just society, but there is no parallel right of witnesses to face the people about whom they are giving testimony. Indeed, the whole point is to go as far as humanly possible to guarantee that no one is ever falsely convicted based on testimony they were not permitted to attempt compellingly to refute, not merely to give witnesses the closure that may well come from confronting the person responsible for their suffering. It’s about the defendant. It should be about the defendant. It is, after all, the defendant who is the one who will suffer if falsely convicted. But, legally enshrined or not, there is also something psychologically meaningful about providing aggressed-against parties with the opportunity to speak openly and forcefully about the wrongs done to them and to do so while looking directly at the parties responsible for their misery. And perhaps there is even a moral dimension to the concept to consider as well in that, for all the criminal justice system is about the defendant, society surely has an equally real responsibility to assist the victims of violence and crime back to their natural places in society, a happy ending that almost never occurs when the crime involved is hidden away from public view and not discussed in detail and in public, or when the victim of a violent crime never actually lays eyes on its perpetrator.

I’ve been thinking about all these issues as we approach Yom Hashoah, the day set aside by the Knesset in 1951 as a national day of mourning for those who died during the Holocaust and subsequently adopted almost universally throughout the Jewish world as a day of remembrance. The emphasis for all these years has been on memorializing the victims. That, I suppose, is as it should be and for many reasons. First and foremost, so many of the martyrs died without leaving any relatives behind at all that it became, and remains, the collective obligation of the Jewish people itself to recite Kaddish on behalf of the martyrs and to remember them as best we can. Secondly, there is something mind-numbing about the numbers involved that can be sidestepped by requiring that remembering take place on the level of the individual. (It is almost impossible, for example, for any normal human being to conceptualize the fate of the 33,371 Jews who died at Babi Yar in 1941 or the 70,000 machine-gunned to death in the Ponary Woods outside Vilna, much less the 800,000 and 1.1 million Jewish individuals murdered at Treblinka and Auschwitz respectively. But it is not at all difficult to comprehend the stories of single individuals dragged from their homes and shipped to their deaths. That is why it is so important that we continue to publish the stories of individual victims and survivors alongside the kind of academic tomes that tell the story of the Holocaust in the kind of scholarly prose only an academic can appreciate. The thick books are crucial for ongoing research, but the stories of individuals are the ones to which regular people can relate far more easily and emotionally.) And finally it is crucial that we focus on the victims because so many of them have no graves at all, thus also no specific place in which they are acknowledged as people who lived and died. If not within the realm of recollective memory, then, where will such people rest at all?

In the context of all this effort to remember the kedoshim, however, we have rarely wished to look directly at the perpetrators. Telling ourselves that the most important of them either died at their own hands or were executed after the war—and not knowing quite what to do about the countless numbers of murderers (including not only Germans but also their henchmen in every country of occupied Europe) who simply washed the blood off their hands and went back to their “real” lives after the war ended—we have found it simpler and more satisfying to memorialize the victims than to seek vengefully to publicize the names and faces of their murderers. I myself have been part of this effort too, speaking at countless Yom Hashoah events over the years and focusing always and solely on the martyrs and their doleful legacy. So it was with special interest that I began the other week to read about a new exhibit at Ravensbrück, the concentration camp north of Berlin that was unique in that it was primarily a camp at which women were imprisoned and killed. (Ravensbrück was also unusual in that Jewish prisoners were a minority there, something like 15% of the total inmate population. Of the 140,000 women brought to that place, about 90,000 were murdered there. Of these, about a quarter were ethnic Poles.) But what interested me about this exhibit is that it is primarily about the SS-men and women who worked at the camp, about their living conditions and their personal experiences as mass murderers. (If you can read German, you can get a good sense of the exhibit at the camp’s website at

The exhibit focuses on Max Koegel, the camp’s commandant, and his staff. His living quarters have been restored so that visitors can begin to understand what it meant to live with one’s family in relative luxury in a lovely villa to which one is permitted retire after spending a long work day torturing and murdering innocent women. Those who worked for Koegel are also named and their pictures are displayed prominently. This kind of formal identification of the murderers, priorly considered a kind of taboo in Germany, has gotten a lot of attention over these last weeks, especially since Chancellor Angela Merkel announced her intention personally to visit the exhibit in a few weeks’ time. I admire Mrs. Merkel for being willing to visit such an exhibition, one that has at its core the notion that the actual killers were not high-ranking Nazi party officials or ideologues consumed by some toxic blend of racial hatred and philosophical anti-Semitism, but regular Germany men and women—over 4000 female camp guards, each a murderer in her own right, were trained at Ravensbrück—who found it in themselves to participate in crimes against humanity on a scale that would earlier have been considered not only undoable but unimaginable. To confront that part of the national heritage of Germany cannot be a simple task for a woman hoping to remain in favor with the electorate nor can it be a pleasant one. And yet…the traditional disinclination to look directly at the perpetrators themselves is not one we can claim not to understand given how many decades we ourselves have also preferred to look away.

I have no plans to visit Germany in the near future, but if I were to go I think that I would want to see the exhibition at Ravensbrück. (You can read more about it on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency website here: It is, after all, the perpetrators who pose the greatest moral dilemma to moderns contemplating the Shoah, not the victims. They victims were mostly powerless, mostly doing their best to survive under unbearable circumstances. More to the point, they did not choose to become victims and would all have preferred escape martyrdom. They do not, therefore, pose any sort of moral riddle to those of us who endlessly contemplate their fate. But the same cannot be said for the perpetrators, men and (at Ravensbrück, especially) women, who chose to earn their living by participating in the greatest crime against humanity the world has ever seen. To wave them away as sadists and sociopaths is to miss the point. They were both of those things, certainly, but they challenge us to reconsider what it means to be human in the first place in a way that is as unnerving as it is unpleasant. By their very existence, they challenge us to wonder about the human condition, about what it means ultimately to be a human being created in God’s image. No wonder we prefer to look away! But if Mrs. Merkel can look, then I suppose we also can. And I believe that we should. This is not, after all, an either/or proposition. We do not have to decide whether to memorialize our dead or to confront the perpetrators. We can do both.

Indeed, I have come to think that we should do both. To remember the dead—to chant the memorial prayer in their memory, to light a candle, to visit Yad Vashem or the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington—these are all praiseworthy undertakings, things we can do and should do. But we also have reached the point at which I think we need also to look directly at the perpetrators. We need to remember that even the most sadistic among them were once innocent babies suckling at their mothers’ breasts, that they were once children untainted by virulent prejudice. Something turned them into monsters capable of crimes almost unspeakable in terms of their inherent atrocity. We do the victims honor, not disservice, by asking ourselves what that something could possibly have been. And by continuing on to ponder how we can make certain that that thing, whatever it turns out to have been, is totally and utterly eradicated from the world of decent men and women that we hope to bequeath to our children.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The White House Seder

I have been trying to warm to the idea of the Obamas’ hosting their very own seder in the White House ever since I read that essay in the Times last week offering all those interesting details about the guest list and the menu. And on some level it is very gratifying to know that our supreme leader and his family are interested enough in the humble traditions of our people to see what it feels like not merely to read about our festivals but actually to experience something as richly meaningful and satisfying as a Pesach seder. Or that, at any rate, is how part of thinks I’m supposed to feel. Part of me even does feel that way, I suppose, even despite my inability to develop a clear mental image of the president meaningfully washing his hands without saying a brocho before Karpas or, even more peculiarly, praising God for commanding us (us!) to eat maror.

But there’s also another part of me that finds the whole thing beyond irritating, coming as it does on the heels of a week of behavior on the part of the White House towards Israel that seems—to say the very least—insensitive to the very lessons that rest at the center of all genuine Pesach observance. Indeed, that slightly curmudgeonly part of myself wonders exactly what the president’s court Jews actually did identify for him as the central lesson of Pesach, the core concept that anyone at all—or at least any decent person—may embrace without having actually to be Jewish, the one of which all those ancient, slightly obscure rituals are merely poetic or midrashic elaborations. Or rather I think I can imagine all too well how they sold the concept to their boss…and how, eager to be perceived as a friend of a segment of the American people that voted for him so overwhelmingly—most estimates gave the president a full 77% of the Jewish vote in the 2008 election—and that until recently had remained strongly among his most vocal supporters, the president saw a bandwagon well worth an evening of his family’s time publicly to jump onto.

To our president—if not precisely the descendant of American slaves than at least married into such a family and almost totally identified in the eyes of the electorate with the African-American experience—Pesach must feel like the most totally rational and easily digestible part of Judaism. What American, after all, could possibly take issue with a festival that celebrates freedom? The Israelites were slaves, then they became free. And the American experience too revolves around the concept of freedom to such an overwhelming degree that Benjamin Franklin actually proposed that the Great Seal of the United States bear an image of Israel crossing the Sea of Reeds to freedom. (Thomas Jefferson proposed an alternate scene from the same story, one depicting Israel wandering in the desert led forward by the pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night.) And indeed the quest for freedom—freedom from tyranny, freedom from taxation without representation, freedom for the real slaves held in bondage before the thirteenth amendment to our Constitution permanently outlawed slavery in our country, freedom from want, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the freedom to assemble, etc.—eventually did become the single thread running through all American history that binds what would otherwise be disparate events involving unrelated segments of the population of a vast nation into a single pageant of unified historical purpose. It all sounds so perfect for a night at the White House! Why none of this offends our basic American obligation to keep separate matters of church and state, I can’t quite understand (although I suppose the legal answer must be that the Obamas’ seder was a private dinner not formally governed by the president’s moral obligation not to favor one religion over another in matters of public policy), but the far more important issue for me personally has to do with the real meaning of Passover itself…and whether the president is really prepared to embrace the lesson of the festival not as I’m guessing his handlers hopefully described it to him but as it actually flows for the story itself, the one the Haggadah exists in the first place to put forward.

As I’m sure was stressed repeatedly at the president’s seder, the Pesach story begins with the Israelite slaves moaning under the weight of relentless Egyptian oppression. But the key to understanding their story does not rest solely in empathizing with their misery, but in appreciating the way they themselves framed the issue of freedom not by developing the fantasy that with the right combination of forceful leadership and divine help they might break the bonds of slavery and become proud, free citizens of Egypt, thus transforming themselves from Pharaoh’s slaves into his subjects, but by leaving Egypt entirely and establishing themselves in the Land of Israel as a free people in pursuit of its own destiny in its own place. The Passover story, after all, is not about political freedom in the American key. Indeed, unlike the slaves in ante-bellum America who specifically did want to become free citizens of the United States, the ancient Israelites understood freedom as inexorably tied to the land promised to their ancestors as their inalienable patrimony. In other words, they do not appear to have wanted to be free merely so that they could wake up in the morning and have nothing to do, but because they wanted to be free to cross the desert, to take hold of their national inheritance, to establish themselves as the People of Israel in the Land of Israel, and there to pursue their national destiny not as slaves but as free men and women. In other words, the definition of freedom at the core of the Passover story has to do with the realization of a national dream in the context of a people’s political aspirations to return to the land God promised its ancestors would eventually be their descendants’ in its entirety.

This part of the story has no parallel, or no particularly profound parallel, in the history of black slavery in the United States. Building on the earlier work of one Paul Cuffee, an American of combined Indian and African descent, who managed actually to underwrite the resettlement of a few dozen freed American slaves in Africa (specifically in Freetown, Sierra Leone) in 1815, the American Colonization Society (founded by Charles Fenton Mercer in 1816) actually managed to found a national state, Liberia, in Africa and between 1822 and 1867 to resettle 13,000 freed American slaves there. And there were some other so-called “colonization” societies devoted to the idea of resettling freed slaves in Africa as well—interested readers can very profitably consult Eric Burin’s book, Slavery and the Peculiar Solution, published in 2008 by the University of Florida Press—but the key element here is that none of them captured the imagination of the masses of freed slaves after the Civil War ended precisely because the large majority of former slaves wished to become free citizens of the only country most of them knew or could remember. That this process turned out to be as painful as it did only makes the point more forcefully: even despite the incredible obstacles freed slaves faced during the decades of Reconstruction, the ideal for the large majority of former slaves was to take their rightful place in the American mosaic as full citizens endowed with a full, unrestricted set of civil rights and responsibilities.

To Americans today, this sounds entirely reasonable. Indeed, it’s challenging even to attempt to imagine what America would be like today had not thousands but millions of freed slaves chosen to return to their ancestral lands in Africa. (Did this not happen because so many of the slaves had been consciously deprived of any knowledge of their native languages or even of the specific region in Africa from which their personal ancestors had been seized and sold into slavery? Would things have been otherwise had black Americans somehow managed to retain the kind of deep tribal identity that would have made possible their re-integration into the national lives of those tribes as they had flourished in the interim in Africa? We’re veering into the province of novelists and poets with that line of speculation, but the point is that none of this happened. And the large majority of freed slaves had no interest in becoming free Africans but wanted only to become free Americans.)

This is where the narratives diverge. The story of Israel in Egypt is of a people unbearably oppressed and finally, through a combination of able leadership, concerted national will, and divine assistance, able to move forward to the establishment of itself as a free nation in its national homeland. Did the president seize the fact that by holding a seder at the White House he was personally endorsing the right of the Jewish people to settle anywhere in the Land of Israel as a matter both of biblical precedent and divine right? Did his Jewish advisors make clear to him that the very cities that are the least hospitable to Jewish settlement today—Nablus-Shechem, Jericho, and Hebron—are the ones celebrated over and over within the biblical narrative as constituting the very heartland of ancient Israel in which the freed slaves could hardly wait to establish themselves? Did they note that when the Bible refers over and over in Deuteronomy to Jerusalem as the place “in which God shall choose to settle the divine name,” it is making the Jewish right to govern the city and to flourish in that place the foundation stone upon which rests the larger narrative linking a people to its land and its God?

To summarize, did the president’s advisors pause long enough on their way into talking their boss into hosting yet another White House seder to point out that Passover is only about political freedom in the American key in some sort of extended, metaphoric sense, but is far more accurately about the inalienable right of Jewish people to settle in the Land of Israel wherever and whenever they wish? Why do I think that probably wasn’t the part of the Passover message the president was encouraged to believe he would be embracing by hosting a White House seder? Why do I think it likely no one stressed how absurd it would be to utter the words "Next year in Jerusalem," but only to include in that thought certain pre-approved neighborhoods that had the good fortune not to be occupied by Jordan for less than two decades in the middle of the last century?

There is still part of me that admires the president for hosting his seder. It’s weird, it’s inappropriate (the whole concept of non-Jews reciting liturgical blessings as though they were somehow also commanded by God to eat matzah and maror both devalues the meaning of the text and insults its integrity), it’s peculiar—all that is true. But it’s also hard to imagine another country in which a head of state with no formal connection to Judaism or Jewishness would do such a thing and that part of the story is not without meaning either. In the end, I suppose I’m proud to be a citizen of the kind of country in which things like this take place. I can only hope that the experience will leave the president chastened by the moral implication of the seder he himself chose to host, thus less likely in the future to relate to Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel, let alone in Jerusalem itself, as an irritant somehow to be gotten past instead of the natural expression of a nation’s inalienable right to live in peace in its own place.