Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving 5775

This year, in honor of Thanksgiving, I would like to write to you about a treasure I found buried in a box of old books someone rather unceremoniously dropped off after hours in the synagogue lobby a few months ago. The box was unlabeled, nor was there inside any indication whose books they were or why they had been left in our lobby.  Nevertheless, it wasn’t hard to guess at their story. For one thing, this happens all the time. And for another, the books in these abandoned boxes are almost always exactly the same ones, or versions of the same ones: volumes that no one can imagine “just” discarding but which no one in the family actually wants once they downsize to a smaller place or find themselves dealing with the possessions of a late relative who owned a lot of books. It doesn’t take long, apparently, for the obvious solution—to donate them to the synagogue library—quickly to come to mind. Nor does the possibility that the library might not actually have any need for a thousandth copy of the 1939 High Holiday Prayerbook edited by the late Morris Silverman stand in the way of progress. The books must go! And it doesn’t really seem possible that the library wouldn’t want another Hertz Chumash, despite the fact that we actually already have several hundred in storage that we ourselves aren’t sure what to do with. There must be some sense the books possibly won’t be wanted, of course…but that is solved by dropping them off after hours, secure in the knowledge that the synagogue will know what to do with them in that unlikely event.

Among the many ways I serve Shelter Rock is as the official sorter of such dropped-off boxes of books. And, indeed, these boxes almost invariably end up on my desk so that I can select the odd book we really might actually want for our library and decide what to do with the rest. Mostly, I end up with two piles: non-sacred books that should go to some thrift shop, and prayerbooks and other sacred texts that I ask one of our maintenance staff to box up and store until the arrival, not of the mashiach, but just of the genizah guy who comes periodically to Shelter Rock to retrieve our stash of unwanted or damaged holy books and things and respectfully to bury them in the earth. There are the occasional exceptions to the rule. Sometimes, for example, I find a set of books that I put in the chapel for my own or other people’s use. Occasionally, I even find something that might actually be a reasonable addition to our library. But it is extremely unusual for me to find a book in such a box that I don’t know of or that I haven’t ever seen before. (It does happen…but only very rarely.) If any reader would like one of those Israeli prayerbooks with faux silver covers tastefully adorned with greenish-blue Eilat stones, just let me know: I have a stack in my office just waiting for anyone who likes his or her prayerbook to have some serious heft and/or to be bound in shiny metal.

And now I get to the meat of my story: a few months ago, someone left off one of those boxes…and it actually had a book in it I didn’t know. At first, I didn’t understand what a treasure it actually was. In fact, it was, as books go, quite ordinary-looking. Bound in blue cloth, its title, The Jewish Home Beautiful (emblazoned in golden letters across the top of the front cover), suggested, or at least suggesting to me, that it was a cookbook or some sort of Emily-Post-ish guide to Jewish dinner parties. I set the book aside, dealt with the rest of the box’s contents, then forgot about it. But then I found it under a pile of papers just a few weeks ago and this time I did open it and read it…and decided on the spot that it would be the subject of my Thanksgiving letter to you all this year.

The book, written by Betty D. Greenberg and Althea O. Silverman, was published by the Women’s League of the United Synagogue of America (as it was then called) in 1941, then reprinted in 1942, 1945, 1947, 1948, and 1950. Its authors were, in their day, well known: Betty Greenberg was the wife of Rabbi Simon Greenberg, one of the vice chancellors of the Jewish Theological Seminary for all the years of my residence there and a major figure in American Jewish life for scores of years. Althea Silverman was the wife of the aforementioned Rabbi Morris Silverman, the very long-time rabbi of The Emanuel Synagogue of West Hartford, Connecticut, and in his day the foremost translator and editor of prayer books in use in Conservative synagogues. The book itself is out of print, and has been for decades. But, this being the twenty-first century, that is no real issue: you can see the whole book for yourself just by clicking here. (What a world!)  Also, you can read about both women in detail in Shuly Schwartz’s extremely interesting book, The Rabbi’s Wife: the Rebbetzin in American Jewish Life, published by NYU Press in 2006, which work I also recommend warmly to you as insightful and intelligent.

But I want to focus on the book itself today, not its authors. Like the M’sillat Y’sharim in its day, The Jewish Home Beautiful comes in two iterations: a narrative version, written by Betty Greenberg, intended to be read as an extended essay on the Jewish home and a dramatic version, written by Althea Silverman, that not only could be produced as a pageant but that actually was produced at the Joint Sisterhood Assembly in the Temple of Religion at the New York World’s Fair in September 1940. But the year of publication is key here too: knowing what was happening to European Jewry as this book was printed and reprinted lends the experience of encountering it a certain eeriness. Yet the introduction to the third edition, published just two months before V-E Day and thus after the liberation of Treblinka and Auschwitz, too makes no reference to the Shoah and only nods in passing to the World War itself by expressing satisfaction that the book by then had been read and enjoyed by “hundreds of men and women” in the Armed Forces of our nation.

It would be easy to write off the Women’s League’s willingness to publish and republish a book about the Jewish home while unimaginable catastrophe was striking the Jews of Europe as, to speak kindly, naïve. Nor would it be difficult to imagine the whole undertaking function as a kind of defense against reality, a way of staving off a reality too horrible actually to contemplate and thus best dealt with by looking as far away as possible. Or, it strikes me, perhaps there is a different way to put the pieces of this puzzle together.

The world was still burning in March 1945 as The Jewish Home Beautiful went into its third printing. The war was raging on. The fiend was still alive, still at the helm of his sinking ship, still bringing death and misery to countless millions caught in the crossfire…and that is specifically not to mention the war against the Jews that continued to be fought by the foe’s minions until the final capitulation. But our authors were possessed of a different vision, I think, one that seems almost impossible to fathom given how far down the pike we have come from the spot they occupied as they wrote. For these women, the great bulwark against barbarism and savagery was the intact home and, for them personally, the intact Jewish home. The stronger the home, the more safe the world. The more beautiful the Shabbat table, the more secure the universe. The more satisfying the Purim feast, the more strong the community. And so indeed are the women instructed to sing aloud in the dramatic version: “The Jewish Home Beautiful may be mansion of hovel, / On Boulevard, Avenue, or slum-crowded street. / With woman as priestess to tend to its altars, / Each home is a Temple, each hearth is a shrine. / While men build our houses and men fill our houses, / Women make these houses—homes.”

There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since those words were sung aloud in the Temple of Religion in Flushing Meadows. The notion that the greatest thing any of us could ever to combat the forces of darkness in the world is to marry, to become parents…and to create Jewish homes that themselves serve collectively as the sea wall that holds back the swirling, devastating waters of intolerance, indecency, injustice, and inequality—that is an idea that will strike most today as, at best, quaint. But what if Betty Greenberg and Althea Silverman were right? What if the dike that holds back the darkness best is not an army or an inventory of nuclear warheads but the family itself…and the home that family inhabits? For outsiders looking in, I suppose that the notion that the way to combat evil is to make shabbos will seem, to say the least, peculiar. It will seem that way to many members of the House of Israel as well. But for those of us who know the Jewish home from the inside—not the bastardized, mostly unfunny parody-version featured on late-night television shows or promulgated by comedians, including particularly Jewish comedians, who themselves have no interest in living in such families or such homes—for those of us who know Jewish home life at its very finest and whose courage to face the world derives directly from the strength that inheres in the such homes, that notion will seem almost obvious.

When I was growing up, Thanksgiving was my favorite non-Jewish holiday, the one infused by my parents—who took it as a celebration of the immigrant experience—with the most patriotic emotion.  I took our family life, our home, for granted back then. But now, after all these years—and I just had my mother’s thirty-fifth yahrtzeit last week, so this goes back a long, long time—after all these many years I think I can identify as the source of my courage to grow up and go out on my own the home life my parents provided for me. I’ve done the same, I hope, for my own children. As, I’m sure, have all of you also done to the best of your ability.

For me personally, Thanksgiving is the American version of the ideas set forward in The Jewish Home Beautiful, a book published when the world couldn’t have been darker that simply recommends that Jewish people respond to the horror by making stronger, richer, and more beautiful their homes, by transforming those homes into their personal bulwarks against whatever the world can serve up. In the end, the walls of Jericho didn’t protect the people of Jericho any more than the walls of Rome protected the Romans. But I believe, as did Betty and Althea in their day, that the walls of the Jewish home can indeed protect us and make us safe. And that is the gift from the past that I offer up as my Thanksgiving gift to you all. I wish you all a satisfying, happy Thanksgiving. And I hope that the strength of the home that we all feel at peak moments like Thanksgiving inspires us to create that kind of experience not annually on other people’s holidays, or not solely on other people’s holidays, but on our own as well…and particularly on Shabbat.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Har Nof

We use the word “dumbstruck” in English colloquially to qualify the state of being amazed or astounded, but rarely literally to describe the state actually of feeling unable to speak, of having thoughts that simply resist being put adequately into words.  Yet that is exactly how I feel today as I try to find the language in which to express myself about the murders in Jerusalem on Tuesday morning. To qualify the attack against the B’nai Torah synagogue in the Har Nof neighborhood of West Jerusalem as bestial seems almost insulting to the animal kingdom. But merely to qualify the murder of innocent men at dawn’s first light, men wrapped in tallis and t’fillin as they stood in silent prayer before the Almighty and, reciting the silent Amidah, attempting to commune with the divine through the medium of contemplative prayer—merely to qualify an act like that as depraved or degenerate seems almost to say nothing at all. And so I, who pride myself on my vocabulary, for once find myself actually unable to find the right words to translate the emotions filling my heart into words that belong to “regular” language. And yet…since you are all my faithful readers and particularly because I am, by longstanding prior agreement, ceding the pulpit at Shelter Rock to our rabbinic intern Mitchell Berkowitz this Saturday morning, I feel that I somehow must find a way—some way—to put into words the feelings that have been steadily growing within my heart since I first heard the horrific news.

I probably shouldn’t have clicked on that link on my screen. But I felt ignoble, perhaps even cowardly, looking away—if this is what it means to be a member of the House of Israel in the twenty-first century, then how could someone such as myself choose not to look? And so I did look…as I’m sure did almost all of you also…and, suddenly, magically, there we all were: in the sanctuary of the Har Nof synagogue, looking with horror at the prayerbooks drenched in blood, at the floor of the sanctuary awash in the blood of men who had devoted their lives to the study of God’s word, to obedience to God’s commandments, and to the service of God’s people. And there too, in other photographs, were the bodies of the k’doshim themselves, the blood still oozing from their wounds easily visible through the flimsy fabric of the prayer shawls that had been pressed into service as temporary shrouds.

Echoing the ancient midrash, I heard myself as though from a great distance asking the plaintive, unanswerable question: zo torah v’zo s’kharah? Is it possible that this is the reward for a lifetime of good deeds and piety, that this is what you get for having spent a lifetime wholly devoted to God’s law? But from deep within came the answer to my own question, an answer I hadn’t ever heard before even though I must have asked that question aloud a thousand thousand times in the course of all these many years of trying to set pictures from the history of Israel into the frame of a theology rooted in God’s eternal watchfulness over Israel and innate goodness, and despite the fact that the answer was coming to me not from without but from deep within my own consciousness. And that answer was simply that the reward of piety is the gift of sharing the fate of the Jewish people with all that entails, the gift of being privileged to bear the brunt of what it means to be a Jew in the modern world, the gift—yes, the gift—of sharing the fate of millions upon millions of Jewish men, women, and children who died as martyrs for the sanctification of God’s name. May God save us and those we love from such rewards! And yet that voice from deep within said those things, and then fell silent as though daring me to repeat them to you.

In 2001, I was in my second year as editor of the quarterly journal, Conservative Judaism.  After 9/11, it felt strange to publish our fall issue without saying something about what had happened and it fell to me to decide what form that message should take. I remember feeling that I was in an impossible situation: saying nothing was out of the question, but saying something required having something to say. And dumbstruck was exactly how I felt: not merely inarticulate or ineloquent but actually unable to find the words to express what it meant to me personally to see carnage on that level visited on our nation by an enemy to whom the murder of innocents was a great accomplishment and not an act of total surrender to moral depravity. I had a month or so to think the matter through.  Different suggestions were made, but in the end I decided to follow no one’s advice but my own and to offer our readers a fresh translation of Psalm 11, an ancient ode to steadfastness in the face of violent aggression, and to accompany that translation with an explanation of how that poem struck me as possibly able to offer solace to a wounded nation just barely beginning to take in the breadth and depth of the tragedy that had struck our nation literally out of the blue.  And so I began my translation and ended up feeling that I had at least responded thoughtfully and possibly even helpfully. It was the most difficult page and a half I can recall ever writing. If you are reading this electronically and you’d like to see how it read, you can click here to see it.)  Only years later did it dawn on me that I may subconsciously have been struck by the way the number 11 looks a bit like the Twin Towers and thus been prompted to seek solace in that specific psalm. Or maybe not…even to me that sounds odd to say out loud after all this time has passed.

Even though a few days have passed since the events in Har Nof, I am still reeling. I, who for so long championed the concept of a two-state solution in the Middle East, suddenly see only ash and dust where that image once stood before me so appealingly: if there really is no bottom line, no level of barbarism or grotesquerie to which the foe will not stoop, then how could it ever be possible to live peacefully and securely with such people as neighbors and friends?  I hope I’m wrong. I pray that I am, actually. But I am, as you all know, what I read. And what I’ve been reading in the course of these last few days has not been encouraging. I read reports of officials handing out candy to children in the streets of Gaza to encourage them to celebrate the murder of the Jerusalem rabbis. I read the report of how John Kerry had to exert maximal pressure on Mahmoud Abbas before he agreed to issue a statement opposing the murder of innocents, as though this were a daring position for a statesman who wants to lead his people to statehood to take. And I read President Obama’s tasteless, tone-deaf remark equating the Israeli and Palestinian people in terms of their yearning for peace, a comment made on a day when the New York Times, which I’m guessing is delivered to the White House as well as to my house, featured a photograph of Arab men dancing in the street to celebrate their people’s great achievement in murdering innocents at prayer in a house of God.

In the spirit of my effort of 2001, I would like to offer you all a psalm, the 120th. It is a short poem, complete in just seven verses. And it is one of the so-called “songs of the steps,” one of the fifteen songs that the Levites are said to have sung as they stood on the fifteen rounded steps in the Temple that led down from the central courtyard to the easternmost one. So it is, to say the very least, a very old poem…and one that was once sung in ancient Jerusalem in the epicenter of Jewish spirituality that was our holy Temple.

The poet stands for peace. He is peace, he says…but he lives in a bad place and all his neighbors do is tell lies about him, threaten him, and attack him violently. But the poet’s response is neither violent nor political, but spiritual: assailed by relentless foes, he turns to God and prays for deliverance. He tries to reason with his enemies, observing that all his violent foes can hope to get for their efforts are stockpiles of weapons…but that violence only breeds more violence and almost never leads warring individuals to a peaceful resolution of their conflicts. And then, fortified by his refusal to abandon the ways of peace no matter how severely provoked, he makes a firm, personal commitment never to be unready for peace even if his enemies choose to go to war with him instead. He will defend himself. He will possibly even win. But he will never take pleasure in war, and will always consider war a tragedy ideally avoided, never a path joyfully taken. His most famous line is complete in just two words: ani shalom. I am peace. I am peace itself. My life is oriented around prayers for peace, around deeds of kindness and justice that lead to peace. I will respond to aggression if I must. But that will never alter who I am, or what I personally stand for. Ani shalom, he writes. Not I am for peace or I am in favor of peace. But I am peace itself…and no one will be able ever to force me to abandon that single one of my core values, the spiritual foundation upon which I stand and make my stand.

May the events of this last week strengthen, not weaken, our resolve to be forces for good—and particularly for peace—in the world. The State of Israel, as we all know, faces barbarism and enmity that knows no bottom line. The great hope of the foes of Israel is that they might eventually force us to become like them. That is one thing that I feel certain will never happen. And I will not stop saying that even if doing so provokes our foes to go to war against us.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Green Prince

Like many of you, I like spy novels. Over the years I’ve read, I think, most of John le Carré, Tom Clancy, and Robert Ludlum, and I know I’ve read all of Ian Fleming’s books. I’ve read lots of others too, and, although I haven’t gotten yet to Daniel Silva (which is particularly strange given that Joan has read every one of his Gabriel Alon books and is a huge fan), I certainly hope to one of these days. But saying wherein exactly lies the appeal of the genre itself—that is a more complicated thing to attempt. Partially, of course, spy novels—particularly when they’re well written—are engaging because they’re so exciting: just (I’m supposing) as in the real world of espionage, the characters in these novels are always changing identities. Loyalties are always shifting, never fixed, always at least slightly flexible. Even bravery itself is a negotiable commodity in that it can characterize people who themselves are admirable but who are in the service of pernicious, even evil, governments…and so can thus be both a negative and a positive trait depending on circumstance: to be good, it is hardly ever enough “just” to be brave!

When I force myself to consider the issue thoughtfully, however, I think that what I like the most about the genre is precisely the flimsiness of the foundation on which the whole storyline almost inevitably rests, the way that “nothing is as it seems” becomes not a strange variation on reality, but how reality itself functions…so that even towards the end of the book, you are still not entirely sure which team some of the characters in the novel, even occasionally including the most important ones, are playing on or for. In that, these books feel as though they mirror an aspect of life we mostly like to ignore in favor of a much more secure sense that we can say easily who’s who in the world, and where all the people around us stand. I understand that preference. I feel that way myself—that security comes specifically from knowing how everybody feels about every conceivable issue—but I also know that in the real world, just like in the world of literary fiction, people are often not quite (or not at all) as they seem.

Outside the literary framework, however, it’s hard to know how to feel about espionage….and particularly when it involves an individual choosing to aid his own nation’s enemy. How we think about such cases usually depends entirely on which nation we ourselves belong to. We think of Germans who chose to assist the Allies during the Second World War to be moral heroes, for example, by conceptualizing them as men and women who were able to overcome their own natural inclination to support the state of which they were citizens to serve the cause of justice and liberty precisely by working to destroy Nazism. Americans, on the other hand, who betrayed our nation during the Cold War by passing secret information to the Soviet Union, we think of as criminals and worse than criminals…and we do not much care if they themselves felt that they were behaving nobly or serving the finer, more just cause.  But it really is more complicated than that makes it sound: Benedict Arnold, after all, is recalled as a traitor not because he betrayed the king to whom he had sworn his allegiance, but because he found himself ultimately unable, or at least unwilling, to abandon his sworn allegiance to that king.

The reasonability of betraying one’s country will therefore depend fully on who is doing the evaluating—a citizen of the country harmed or helped by the treachery.  But what if right and wrong were not relative concepts at all but absolute ones…and there were therefore causes that were just and good, and others that were wrong absolutely? How could it not be morally right to serve the cause of good…and how could that moral obligation possibly be contingent on the circumstances of one’s birth or the color of one’s passport? But if that is the case, then who exactly gets to serve as the ultimate moral arbiter, thus as the final decision-maker regarding right and wrong (let alone good and evil) in the world of international politics? And so we come full-circle back to the obligation of individuals to identify the path of decency and take it…regardless of the opinions of others who see things entirely differently.

All this by way of telling you about a remarkable experience I had in Washington two months ago when I attended a pre-chag AIPAC summit for rabbis from all over the U.S. and had the opportunity to hear Mosab Hassan Yousef speak about his life and his book, Son of Hamas, which was published in 2011 by Tyndale Momentum. Yousef is the son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, one of the founders of Hamas and one of its West Bank leaders. Raised to consider his father a hero, Mosab slowly grew away from his father’s politics. And, as he did, he concomitantly became aware of something else as well: that his position in the Palestinian world as his father’s son gave him an opportunity not only to know about all sorts of secret things, but—far more to the point—to prevent innocents from being killed in terrorist attacks, and lots of them. That awareness grew slowly, however. His first arrest by Israel came at age ten, when he was found throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers during the First Intifada. That incident in 1988, however, was only the first time he was arrested and imprisoned, and he was in and out of Israeli prisons for almost a full decade. What happened during those years is the least clear part of the story. He was arrested, then released, then re-arrested. In the course of his various incarcerations, it became clear to the Israelis who exactly he was…and, more to the point, that he was considered by many to be, as the oldest child in his family, his father’s most likely successor.

One thing led to another. By 1997, Yousef had become a full-fledged informant for the Shin Bet, the Israeli Security Agency that is Israel’s CIA. And he remained in place, feeding the Israelis information that saved uncountable numbers of innocent lives, for a full decade. Called the Green Prince by his Israeli handlers, he claims personally to have provided Israel with enough advance notice to save Shimon Peres himself from an assassination attempt in 2001. And then, in 2007, he no longer felt he could maintain his cover and he left the Middle East to settle in San Diego, breaking permanently with his family and his people. Making the story even more complex, he also converted to Christianity in 2005, which faith remains even now as the framework for his decision-making in life and his sense of his place in the world. And even the end of the story to date is fraught with exciting, yet wholly unlikely, details. The United States, recognizing that he had been arrested multiple times as a Hamas operative, attempted to deport him. And he would surely have been sent back to Ramallah, where he would almost certainly have been killed, had not his Israeli handler, one Gonen Ben-Itzhak, come forward to defy protocol and risk his own arrest by publicly revealing his own identity and testifying on Yousef’s behalf.

The book is remarkable. The movie based on the book, called The Green Prince and directed by Nadav Schirman, is scheduled for release in a few weeks and promises to be incredibly exciting. (To see the preview, click here.) But reading the book was nothing like meeting the author. I could hardly believe he “just” walks around like a regular person with a bodyguard and without any obvious way to defend himself against a universe of people who must think of him as the ultimate traitor. But there he was…wearing torn blue jeans and a t-shirt like any American twenty-something—he’s actually thirty-six years old—and sitting on a folding chair right in front of me with Gonen Ben-Itzhak by his side.
He looked, to say the least, unassuming. He spoke quietly in accented, but fully understandable English. He chose his words carefully, but it was also obvious that he must have given the speech we heard a thousand times. Nor did he appear to be even slightly surprised by any of the questions that were put to him after his talk ended. And yet he couldn’t have seemed more genuine or less interested in saying what he could easily have guessed his audience wished to hear. The fact that he came dressed in torn blue jeans, which struck me at first as an odd, possibly even disrespectful, way to come dressed to address 300+ rabbis, later on affected me less negatively: here was someone who has lived through so many iterations of himself, I think I thought, that he simply has no more energy to present himself other than as he actually is. And who he is, is what we saw: a man who turned his back on his family and his people for the sake of doing good in the world. We talk glibly, all of us, about being opposed to terrorism, about being appalled by the concept of murdering innocents to make political hay. But here, it struck me, is a man who did far more than talk about being opposed to terror, but who risked (and surely continues to risk) his life for the sake of fighting terror and saving the lives of countless innocents.  Ben-Itzhak said that in so many words, actually, that the world is filled with people who owe Yousef their lives and don’t even know it.

So who is this Yousef? Is he a traitor to his people or a hero who saw an opportunity to do good in the world and took it? Is allegiance to one’s people by definition moral? We surely don’t think that...except when it is our own country that the person turning his back on his country is turning his back on. But I see things differently. I admire Yousef neither because he chose to aid Israel in its war against terror nor because he found the courage to break with his father. I admire him because he saw himself at a crossroads and chose what appeared to him to be the path of justice and decency despite the price he obviously knew perfectly well he would end up paying…if he survived long enough to pay any price at all. That kind of moral excellence is sorely wanting in our world. It manifests itself here and there, often surfacing in the least likely contexts. But it surfaced in Mosab Hassan Yousef. I felt honored to meet him and to hear him speak. And inspired by what I heard to recommend his book to you all. It is difficult reading in parts—he does not hold back at all when he describes his experiences in Israeli prisons—but also exhilarating and encouraging. There are, it turns out, people prepared to pay whatever price is exacted from them for doing good in the world. And we live in a better world because of them.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Kristallnacht 2014

This Sunday is the seventy-sixth anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Reich-wide pogrom that in the minds of many signaled the beginning of the Shoah…or, at the very least, the beginning of the last chapter in the story of European Jewry on the eve of its annihilation. Used to marking the day since most of us were children, it might be interesting to pause for a moment to ask why exactly it is that this specific day has retained its draw on the consciousness of world Jewry. There is, after all, a Holocaust Memorial Day that is observed each spring on the 27th of Nisan, a week or so after Passover. That day, chosen originally to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 but then moved to a date later in the month to avoid conflicting with the observance of Passover, is our annual opportunity to remember the martyrs and pay honor to those who found the courage and had the opportunity to resist.  (The actual uprising in Warsaw began on Erev Pesach in 1943, as the Jewish world outside of Europe was preparing to sit down for its traditional seder meals.)  So why have we doubled up our observance and added a second Yom Hashoah, as it were, in the fall?

You could say that the question itself is flawed, that Kristallnacht is not really anything like Yom Hashoah. It’s not a real holiday, for one thing, not even in Israel. Everybody goes to work. Schools are open. There are no specific observances, rituals, or prayers that have been developed to assist the Jewish world in its effort to commemorate the day. Nor has there been any effort, as far as I know, even to take note of the day in the context of our daily prayers…and this from a people that reacts liturgically to the weather in Israel. And yet, despite the fact that we have done nothing at all to make Kristallnacht into anything more than a day on the calendar to be noted in passing, the day itself somehow refuses to vanish from our consciousness…and, despite our best efforts to ignore it, remains as a kind of thorn in our side, or perhaps more exactly as a kind of pebble in our collective shoe: something we find irritating and upsetting to have to deal with, yet which we seem unable just to forget about and move past instead of endlessly dwelling on.

The numbers more than justify our obsession. A thousand synagogues destroyed in a single night. More than seven thousand businesses either totally or partially destroyed. Ninety-one Jews murdered. Thirty-one thousand arrested and sent to concentration camps. An uncountable number of Jewish homes, schools, hospitals, cemeteries, and communal offices ransacked. Buildings can only stand if they are set on foundations that can support their weight.  In my mind, Kristallnacht—the date marking the open, unabashed descent of Germany into the realm of the truly demonic—Kristallnacht itself is the foundation on which the death camps were built.  As we pause to ponder Kristallnacht on this strange year with the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Treblinka behind us and the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz still to come in January, the seventy-sixth anniversary of the “night of broken glass” takes on its own dismal poignancy.

Among my more guilty reading pleasures are the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The author of almost eighty novels and one of America’s bestselling authors of all time with an estimated 100 million books in print, Burroughs is best known today for his series of twenty-five books about Tarzan, the prince of the jungle originally known as John Clayton, the Viscount Greystoke. Somewhere along the way, I think I read them all. (In the 1984 movie, Greystoke, Tarzan was upgraded to earl, presumably on the assumption that most Americans wouldn’t know what a viscount was.) 

The basic story, I’m sure we all know at least more or less. Tarzan’s British parents are marooned on the west coast of Africa after surviving a mutiny on board their ship. Soon thereafter, his mother dies of some mysterious illness and his father is killed by Kerchak, the leader of a tribe of super-intelligent, highly socialized apes into which the baby viscount is adopted.  And there, among the Mangani (Kerchak’s tribe of apes, one wholly unknown to Western zoologists), the infant, now called Tarzan, is raised by Kerchak himself and his ape-wife, Kala. (Just for the record, it’s taken me this long to realize how funny it is that Kerchak’s bride is named Kala.) Several of the books focus on Tarzan’s unusual adolescence (and to call it unusual is really to say the very least). But then he eventually does grow up, and it is as a young feral man that Tarzan makes the acquaintance of an American woman, Jane Porter, who coincidentally has been marooned on the exact same beach on which Tarzan’s own parents washed up twenty years earlier. Eventually, Jane finds a way to return to the United States and Tarzan, smitten, follows her. One thing leads to another and after some time they marry and, at least in some of the books, move to England, where they have a son, Jack, to whom they also give the ape-name Korak. Things, however, do not work as planned and, unable to stand the hypocrisy of civilization, Tarzan, Jane, and Jack eventually return to Africa to settle there and have even more adventures.

I loved those books as a teenager, even preferring them to the series of twelve movies featuring Johnny Weismuller made between 1932 and 1948 but shown endlessly on television when I was growing up. But their recurring theme—just how paper-thin the veneer of civilization, and particularly Western civilization, really is—now feels ominous to me, and particularly as we prepare to take note yet again of the anniversary of Kristallnacht. It was Burroughs himself who made up the phrase “the thin veneer of civilization,” in fact, and he used it repeatedly in his books, beginning with The Return of Tarzan in 1912.  But it could not apply more aptly here, as we contemplate not just any country, but one of the most supremely civilized, cultured nations of the world—a nation that gave birth to the finest composers and philosophers, to linguists and poets, to scientists and to artists—turning almost overnight not just to anti-Semitism, but to a barbaric version of racial hatred so intensely brutal as to be almost unimaginable even in retrospect. 

There is no better place to begin reading about Kristallnacht than Martin Gilbert’s Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction, published by HarperCollins in 2006. It is, to say the least, grim reading as the author chronicles the destruction, the murder of elderly Jews, the degradation of Jewish women in particular, and the rest of the horrors that occurred on that one evil night.  But somehow the contemporary accounts, written by reporters and others present on the ground in Germany who even then could not possibly have imagined Treblinka, are chilling in an especially unsettling way. Hugh C. Greene, for example, published an account of his own experiences in Berlin on Kristallnacht in the Daily Telegraph just two days after the fact: “Mob law ruled in Berlin throughout the afternoon and evening and hordes of hooligans indulged in an orgy of destruction. I have seen several anti-Jewish outbreaks in Germany during the last five years, but never anything as nauseating as this. Racial hatred and hysteria seemed to have taken complete hold of otherwise decent people. I saw fashionably dressed women clapping their hands and screaming with glee, while respectable middle-class mothers held up their babies to see the ‘fun.’”  It’s hard to know how to respond to a paragraph like that. Or rather, it’s not that hard at all.

At least for me personally, watching over all of this is Tarzan himself, dressed up like a member of the landed gentry but never forgetting that he personally has come to symbolize what he learned in the jungle before he met Jane: that it’s all a façade, all the thinnest of patinas…that civilization itself is the flimsiest of cloth covers masking the demonic potential that lies buried in the darkest recesses of the human soul….and that that thinnest of cloths can fall to the ground and reveal the beast within as soon as society lets down its guard even slightly.

You can see signs of this truth almost everywhere if you find the courage to look straight on without turning away. You could easily have seen it in the streets of Paris last summer, when what was billed as a pro-Palestinian march degenerated almost without warning into a frenzied mob of anti-Semitic thugs chasing Jews off the street, attacking a local synagogue, and calling—not for a revision of this or that Israeli policy vis-à-vis Gaza—but for blood, the blood of the Jews of France. You can see it when patrons line up to buy tickets for an opera featuring Nazi-style invective against Jews so they can “decide for themselves” whether the production has merit instead of being, as civilized people would and should be, repulsed by the idea even of contributing to the success of such a production. And you can certainly see it for yourself on the campuses of American universities, where the demonization of Israel and the portrayal of the Palestinians as the victims of Israeli imperialism regularly spills over into rank, undiluted anti-Semitism directed at Jewish students regardless of their personal politics. (I was shocked—truly shocked—just recently to read a recent piece by Melanie Phillips, a columnist for the Times of London called “As I See It: The Academic Intifada,” which sketches out the extent to which America’s campuses have become infected with overt anti-Semitism in a way that even a decade ago would have seemed somewhere between implausible and impossible. If you are reading this electronically, click here to read her essay.) So, in the end, Tarzan really did have it right: it’s all the thinnest of patinas behind which we pretend to be safe…and, slightly paradoxically, the degree to which we own up to that unpalatable truth is the degree to which we will be able to withstand the onslaught when the patina dissolves, as it occasionally must and does, and we are left staring at what lies exposed behind its no-longer-existent opacity.

And that, I think, is why the Tarzan stories are so appealing, because in a sense they are just book-length midrashic elaborations of this one specific idea: that the thin veneer of civilization can crack at any moment, that the demonic is never that far from the surface, that there is no point of diminishing returns when it comes to being on guard for signs that the veil is slipping, the patina dissolving, or the veneer cracking. Kristallnacht is that midrash set to history…and I believe that it is precisely for that reason that we find it so impossible to look away…or not to pause on the awful night to remember what happened seventy-odd years earlier to people who, just like ourselves, thought of themselves as citizens not of Tarzan’s jungle, but of the most sophisticated, civilized, cultured country ever to exist.