Thursday, May 26, 2016

Fifty Years On

Why is it I can believe how old I am and how old my children are, but am having such difficulty in believing—by which I specifically do not mean “coming to terms with” but actually believing—that tomorrow, May 28, 2016, is going to be the fiftieth anniversary of my bar-mitzvah, which took place (obviously) on May 28, 1966? That’s the question I’d like to address in this space this week!

I really can believe how old I am. (I might as well!) And I can also believe, more or less, how long I’ve been married. I can believe lots of things! But what I can’t quite grasp is how half a century can possibly have passed since that fateful day—and in terms of my future life it truly was fateful—how a full half-century can have passed since that day on which I, like every bar-mitzvah boy before me and since, stepped uncertainly forward as my name was sung out, grasped the wooden rollers of the Torah scroll that lay open before me, and, in my thirteen-year-old’s still-highish voice, pronounced the blessings that somehow constituted the liturgical equivalent of the threshold I was expected at that tender age to step over into manhood. Or at least into adulthood. Or rather into the specific combination of the two that everybody says matters incredibly in terms of who you are in the world even if you do have to go back to junior high school the following Monday. (Note to younger readers: in olden times before there were middle schools, “junior high school” was where you went to wait out the hellish interval between elementary school and high school and, occasionally, to learn something.) I was a young thirteen at my bar-mitzvah too, as I recall, even the advance heralds of impending pubescence still considerably further down the pike than I myself was at the moment.

But it wasn’t my boyish demeanor or my slightly-too-big suit from Barneys—much less my clip-on necktie—that I remember the most vividly from that day: it was my mother sitting in the front row between her own aunts Bea and Alice and crying as she focused not on me or my great accomplishment in becoming a man, much less on my haftarah, but rather on the death of her own mother only a few months earlier on, a loss which both overshadowed and lent unexpected meaning to my big day.

I was a precocious lad, I suppose, but I truly recall thinking that, with the death of my grandmother leaving me with no grandparents at all (and placing my parents in the front line facing the eventual void that we all fear less when there’s someone around we deem likely to fall into it first), I was in some way taking their collective, now fully vacated, place in the Camp of the Israelites. In that thought, I included them all—the grandfathers I never met, the grandmother I only vaguely recalled from my days as a toddler, and my maternal grandma (of whom I’ve written in this space many times with respect to her Bensonhurst-blue hair, her gentle demeanor, her considerably artistic talent, and her almost unbearable overheated apartment on 84th Street in Brooklyn)—and felt that, by stepping forward into at least theoretical adulthood, I was ensuring both the continued existence of my own family and, in some extended sense, of the Jewish people itself.

This latter notion I didn’t come up with on my own—no thirteen-year-old is that precocious—but was rather planted in my brain as a result of something the rent-a-rabbi provided by Riverside—whom I met the day of my grandmother’s funeral and never saw again and whose name I can’t recall if indeed I ever knew it—said to me in the limousine that took us from the I.J. Morris Funeral Chapel on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn to the Beth David Cemetery in Elmont. I was listening carefully, impressed that he was even talking to me at all as we drove eastward down the Belt. And, even if I was still unable to detect any nascent stubble where I was certain my sideburns were supposed to be, I got the message. When people ask, as they occasionally do, when I decided to become a rabbi and to spend my life in the service of the Jewish people, the formally correct answer is “years later, when I was already in college.” But that answer only records when the plant blossomed, not when the seed was planted.

But I digress. My bar-mitzvah took place on a beautiful May day. Strangely, the entire operation was conducted on foot. We walked from our apartment house to the Forest Hills Jewish Center for the service not because we were strictly—or even vaguely—Shabbat-observant, but merely because my father was certain that we would have ended up parking further away from the synagogue than we actually lived. (Anyone who lives or ever has lived in Forest Hills will attest to the reasonableness of that thought.) And then, when the service was over, my parents led a kind of Cohen Family Parade down Queens Blvd. to the Stratton Restaurant, in its day a well-known roast beef restaurant with an interior vaguely reminiscent of an English pub (or, rather, what its owners must have hoped their customers would imagine British pubs to look like) and today a branch of the TD Bank. We were entertained, as I recall, by a three-piece band, a trio consisting of a bass, a piano, and a drummer. We sat in pre-assigned seats, as indicated on an elaborate table created by my mother herself on a large piece of oak tag using blue and red magic markers. There were supercool cylindrically-shaped boxes of matches on each table, each covered in yellow velvety paper and emblazoned with my name and the date of my bar-mitzvah in fancy gold letting on the side. And then, when it was all over and all the other guests had left, my parents, myself, and my Aunt Ruth and Uncle Herb walked home to our apartment.

Where my mother and her sister went off to once we got home, I don’t remember. But my father, my uncle, and I repaired to my bedroom to tally up my checks and to inspect the rest of my gifts. And then eventually my aunt and uncle also left—in their white Cadillac convertible with red leather seats, which the thirteen-year-old me deemed even cooler than the yellow match box cylinders—and I was home alone with my parents, a boy no longer (or at least not in the sense I had been only a day earlier) and more or less ready to begin the rest of my life.

After all these years, when I think back on that day in May of 1966, I’m stunned by how much has changed in my life and in the world since then. It was a tumultuous month, that May. The siege of Da Nang in South Vietnam was underway in full force. The Cultural Revolution in China was just beginning. Bob Dylan had just released Blonde on Blonde. The number one song on the radio was the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.” (The thirteen-year-old me was about to become a huge Stones fan.) Cuba was under martial law as the Cubans awaited an American invasion that never came. LBJ was in the White House. John V. Lindsay, whom my father particularly reviled, was mayor of New York City. It all seems like such a very long time ago!

And yet it also doesn’t. From the vantage point of half a century’s worth of days, something like 18,250 of them, I can see the trajectory of my life more clearly than ever before. I can understand that, although it was weightless, imperceptible, and invisible, the mantle that was settled on my shoulders as I stood before the incredibly byzantine, slightly scary Ark of the Law on the bimah at the Forest Hills Jewish Center and tentatively read out the haftarah that morning that recounted the birth of Samson was totally real. I didn’t perceive it at the time. I was more focused on being annoyed—this I do remember clearly—that the other boy having his bar-mitzvah that morning and with whom I thus had to share my big day, was also named Martin…which led to people amusingly confusing us throughout the morning. (My parents thought I was overreacting, particularly since even I myself couldn’t say why I was making such a big deal out of what was obviously a mere coincidence.)  But although I could barely perceive what was happening to me at all, I now see myself on that day crossing a line back over which I haven’t ever crossed or even, speaking honestly, thought to cross. Somehow, I actually did become a man, or at least a pre-man, on that specific day and in that specific place.

The haftarah was also a coincidence, merely the lesson from the Prophets that went with the Torah portion assigned to me because it went along with the Shabbat that itself had been assigned to me. But sometimes even the most fully coincidental happenstance can lead somewhere profound and real.

In the story as told, a man appears out of nowhere and tells the wife of one Manoah that, although she has never in the past been able to conceive a child, she will yet be a mother and that the child she conceives will devote his life to the service of God. Later, the man (an angel, it turns out) repeats the same message to Manoah himself. But when Manoah demands that the man reveal his name, he responds that the request cannot be honored, that his name is not merely unknown but actually unknowable. And, with that, he steps into a flame rising from Manoah’s makeshift altar and, riding it aloft, ascends to heaven. The best part is that the man’s promise actually comes true. Manoah’s wife conceives and eventually gives birth to a son, whom his parents name Samson. And then we get to the bottom line: va-yigdal ha-na·ar va-y’varkheihu ha-shem. The boy grows up and God blesses him in every way.

I lack Samson’s physical strength. (Who doesn’t?) But we only children tend to stick together and for that reason alone I’ve always felt connected to Samson’s story. I don’t suppose my future existence was announced to my parents by an angel. But I do know that my parents, both of them, were not at all sure they would ever produce a child until they finally produced me and that, in this just like Samson, I too was born to my older parents in the context of expectation and mild amazement. And I too grew up to be blessed by God in every imaginable way: with marriage and children, career and vocation, creativity and productivity, purposefulness and a deep, abiding sense of wonder that I ended up charged with doing so much and serving so many…and that now, after all these many, many years, I still feel myself in the middle of the journey, nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, proud of the past but far more filled with curiosity and hope, still, about what the future might yet bring.

These are the thoughts I bring to this fiftieth anniversary of the day on which I stepped into manhood and took my place in the House of Israel not as my parents’ child but as a man in my own right. I didn’t look like a man. I probably didn’t act much like one either. But as the mantle settled onto my shoulders, I was altered by the moment…and thus became myself long before even I had any idea what that would or could possibly come to mean.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Obama at Hiroshima

President Obama is planning to visit Hiroshima on his forthcoming trip to Japan next week to attend the Group of Seven meeting at Ise-Shima, and thus to become the first sitting American president to pay a visit to one of the only two cities in the world ever totally to be devastated by a nuclear bomb. (Nagasaki, of course, was the other city. The other presidents to visit Hiroshima were Richard Nixon in 1964 and Jimmy Carter in 1984, the former before he became President in 1968 and the latter after he left office.)  The G-7 has its own agenda, obviously. But the decision to visit Hiroshima calls for consideration in its own right.

Presumably to head off criticism in advance, the White House has announced in no uncertain terms that the President will not apologize for the American decision to use atomic weaponry to end the Second World War when he visits Hiroshima. Nor, indeed, has any other of our other post-war presidents done so, although President Eisenhower’s publicly-expressed regret for our nation’s use of “that awful thing” to bring the war to a close probably came the closest. But his off-hand expression of regret was hardly an apology, nor did anyone (including most definitely the Japanese) take it that way.

My own feelings about Hiroshima are complicated. On the one hand, the loss of civilian life was truly horrific. About 140,000 civilians are thought to have died as a result of the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, about half of whom died on the day of the attack itself. (In addition, about 20,000 Japanese soldiers also died on that day in that place.) An additional 80,000 died as a result of the bombing of Nagasaki two days later, also half of whom died instantly.  Whether or not the decision to use atomic weapons against Japan was justified depends on the vantage point of the person asking the question, but no one can dispute the fact that the attacks were fully successful: Japan surrendered unconditionally not even a full week after Nagasaki and with that ended a war that took the lives of somewhere between seventy and eighty-five million people, constituting more than three percent of the entire population of the planet.

Comparing the number of dead at Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the number of dead at Pearl Harbor—by comparison a mere 2,471—is, to say the very least, ridiculous: the men and women who died at Pearl Harbor were murdered—executed in cold blood by a nation that was specifically not at war with the United States—whereas the dead at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were citizens of a country that not only was at war with the nation that attacked them, but which had itself initiated the war with its horrific surprise attack on our naval forces in Hawaii in the first place. The number of people murdered by the Japanese regime between the invasion of China in 1937 and the end of the war—5,400,000 by most estimates, to which must be added the more than half a million POWs who died in Japanese custody and the tens of millions who died in China, the Philippines, and other countries occupied by the Japanese of various combinations of disease, deprivation, and occupation-induced misery during the war years—seems a more reasonable figure to discuss in this context, but even that gargantuan figure doesn’t really work: the more than 300,000 civilians that the Japanese executed at Nanking alone during the winter of 1937-1938, for example, were killed for no military reason at all, whereas the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki can reasonably be said to have saved all those civilians and soldiers, including most definitely American and other allied soldiers, whose lives would have been forfeit in the land invasion of Japan that would surely have ensued had the war not ended when it did. Whether more or fewer Japanese civilians would have died in the course of a massive land invasion than died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki is, of course, unknowable. What is certain, on the other hand, is that they would surely not have been the same people who died on those days in August 1945…which means that uncountable numbers of Japanese civilians who survived the war also owe their lives to the American decision to do whatever it was going to take to bring the war to an end.

What I keep reading, including in comments by Benjamin Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security advisor, is that the President’s decision to visit Hiroshima is related more to his vision for a nuclear-free future than to his feelings one way or the other about the ultimate rightness or wrongness about President Truman’s decision to authorize the attacks of August, 1945. I suppose that make sense—nuclear weapons have only been deployed twice in the history of our planet, and so the most dramatic place for the President to make what will probably be his last major appeal for nuclear disarmament would have to be one of the sole sites, other than test sites, ever to experience the actual force of a nuclear explosion.  And yet, even though that thought has a certain cogency to it, any number of factors—including not least of all our current relationship with Japan—will prevent the President from speaking openly and fully honestly about the events of August 1945 and require that he focus himself instead on the horrors of war generally without indicting—and certainly not forcefully—the Japanese as the authors of their own debacle. Nor will he feel free to opine, even obliquely, that the barbarism that characterized the behavior of Japanese forces in the lands they occupied during the war—and the millions of dead in those countries, and particularly China, at their hands—simply required that the war be ended by whatever means were available to whomever could deploy them and that, in the end, nothing else mattered more. Even less likely is the possibility that he will choose to quote President Eisenhower’s famous remark that the sole immoral act possible when fighting against demonic enemies like Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan would have been to lose the war.

But even if the President could speak totally openly, does it really behoove us to enter into the kind of ghoulish calculus that would likely follow his assertion, unproven and unprovable, that more lives were saved than lost by President Truman’s decision to deploy nuclear weapons against Japan. My guess is that it probably is true, but do we really want to go there? The civilians who died at Hiroshima were not personally responsible for Pearl Harbor or the rape of Nanking. They were, as is inevitably the case for so many in wartime, simply in the wrong place at the wrong time—innocents, including babies and young children, who were incinerated to end a war they personally didn’t start and in which they, speaking specifically of the children, didn’t play any role at all.

Not to regret their deaths, let alone actually to blame the dead for their own fiery demise, would be an example of moral depravity. And I say that as someone who thinks President Truman did make the right decision to bring to the war to an end with the means he had available to him and who considers himself a moral, decent person who would never step over dead babies on the way to perform even the most moral or praiseworthy act. The moral conundrum is acute, then: to approve of the bombing means to look past the victims and in essence to blame their fates on their own nation’s leadership, but to wave away their deaths as mere collateral damage in an otherwise fully justified military action requires that the waver-away be made of sterner stuff than I personally am. In my own opinion, since the President will be constrained both by the strictures of good taste and the realpolitik of the day from speaking totally openly at Hiroshima—and since the moral puzzle is insoluble, yet to speak on the subject at all is by definition to present at least obliquely one side of the argument as one’s own—it would probably have been a better idea not to go at all.

When I was a senior in high school, I read John Hersey’s Hiroshima. Originally a full-issue-length essay that appeared in The New Yorker in 1946 but subsequently published and republished many times as a stand-alone book, Hiroshima focuses solely on the individual fates of a handful of people present in Hiroshima when the bomb exploded and makes it more or less impossible to think of the people incinerated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a faceless mass of indistinguishable dead people. Being a child of my time, I read Hersey’s book in the light of our nation’s ongoing experience in Vietnam. But being as well the teenaged version of my future self, I also read it in light of Auschwitz and resolved never again to speak of “the dead” without recalling that the gas chambers were not filled with “people” or with “victims,” but with an endless number of individuals, each an entire universe, each a world of passion and culture, of intelligence and potential. Nor was it again possible for me to think of the dead at Hiroshima as a faceless mass of unfortunates.

As I contemplate President Obama’s coming visit to Hiroshima, I find my mind turning—slightly unexpected and probably not entirely fairly—to the events of December 7, 1970, when Willy Brandt spontaneously fell to his knees before the monument marking the spot that was once the entrance to the Warsaw Ghetto as an act of personal remorse and national contrition. “Under the weight of recent history,” he later explained, “I did what people do when words fail them. In this way, I commemorated millions of murdered people.”

In a sense, Chancellor Brandt had it easy. He represented the nation that perpetrated evil in the world on a previously unimaginable level and brought unprecedented levels of human suffering to countless innocents. It must have been wrenching for him to go to that place and do that thing…but he did it and his reputation as a man of honor was established permanently, at least in my mind, on that day and at that specific hour.  But President Obama is facing an altogether more vexing challenge. Like Willy Brandt, he represents a nation that brought about the deaths of countless innocents. But he does not represent a nation that acted indecently or immorally at all, but, just to the contrary, he represents the nation that defeated the forces of demonic evil and helped establish democratic governments not only in the countries occupied by the fiends and their allies, but in the perpetrator nations as well. He has, therefore, nothing to apologize for…and yet to use that truth as an excuse for looking away from the horrific loss of life our best efforts to win the war brought to people who were neither the leaders of their nation nor the perpetrators of their horrific policies in the countries they occupied—that would not behoove the leader of the Free World even slightly.

And it is that precise conundrum I wish the President had chosen simply to avoid by flying directly home after the G-7. To walk the tightrope before him and to speak honestly and candidly about the legitimacy of America’s efforts to win the war at all costs, and at the same time neither to demean the civilians who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki nor to blame them for their own deaths—that is a challenge that I’m not sure can be successfully met at all. Willy Brandt was correct that there are some things that really cannot be said in words. But the gesture he chose to give voice to thoughts that could only be expressed outside of language is certainly not one available to the President, and neither does he have the option of appearing in that place but saying nothing at all.  The world will be listening next week to what he does choose to say…and so will the ghosts. 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Israel at 68

Earlier this week, I delivered the eulogy at the funeral of a woman I knew my entire life, Helen Levy, and whose children—one slightly older and one slightly younger than myself—I’ve also known forever. I mention that because I want to retell here a detail about Helen’s parents, Jacob and Bertha Bloch, who had the unimaginable experience as newlyweds of living through the greatest of life’s joys and the most horrific of life’s disasters on adjacent days in 1926. On the first of those days, both in mid-March, Bertha gave birth to twin daughters. Helen and Rebecca were their first children, and I’m sure Jacob and Bertha experienced the same indescribable happiness we all feel as our children—and particularly our first children—are born. But the babies were preemies and they met with entirely different fates: Rebecca lived for one day and then died, whereas Helen lived into her tenth decade and died in her nineties last week. As a rabbi, I’ve made the observation countless times to people I was trying to help through analogous situations that the heart is a wide thing that can accommodate all sorts of emotions concurrently…and specifically including emotions that feel as though they shouldn’t be able to co-exist in the same space. And that, although a cup of coffee can only be hot or cold but not both, the human heart therefore somehow can be happy and sad at the same time. And, most of all that there’s no percentage in feeling obligated to choose between discordant emotions that both feel equally real to the person experiencing them: you can just be both those things—happy and sad, joyful and miserable, accepting and angry—and leave it at that. So it’s a contradiction, I often finish up by pointing out…so what? Not everything has to be so logical!

I mention that story today in this space because I find myself bringing the same set of emotions to the twin “yom ha’s” that Israelis and Jewish people everywhere observed this last week: Yom Ha-zikkaron, Israel’s memorial day for the fallen of the IDF (as well as those who died in the struggle leading up to statehood in 1948), on Wednesday, and Yom Ha-atzma·ut, Israel Independence Day, on Thursday. Like twin panels in a medieval diptych, these two days function as separate entities commemorating different and distinct things…but are only fully intelligible in each other’s light. They are two, therefore, because they are two: two adjacent days with two names that do two different things. But they are also the same thing, and in just the same way that silence and sound are the same thing, and light and shadow. They exist, obviously, on their own. But what they truly mean, or should mean, to all who see in the creation of an independent Jewish state in the Land of Israel a tangible harbinger of redemption only comes to the fore fully when they are viewed in each other’s light. And, of course, also each other’s shadow.

In a world in which Israel’s very right to exist as a Jewish state is still routinely brought into question by all sorts of people who should know better—and who would never dream of wondering if Iran has the right to self-define as an Islamic republic or if Pakistan or Afghanistan do—the juxtaposition of Yom Ha-zikkaron and Yom Ha-atzma·ut feels particularly ominous.

In all, 23,477 individuals—men and women, young and old, draftees and volunteers, native-born and immigrants—are recognized as have given their lives in the struggle leading up to independence and in the wars Israel has had to fight, including the War of Independence itself, since independence was declared on May 5, 1948. This figure includes regular soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, but also members of the Shin Bet and the Mossad, the Israel Police Force, the Israel Prison Service, and the Jewish Brigade that fought with the British during the Second World War. Each was a universe, a world of potential extinguished by an enemy bullet or by a terrorist’s bomb. Each died al kiddush ha-shem, as an act of martyrdom suffered for the sake of the Jewish people and the Jewish state. And each, by definition, did not live to see how the world would or would not react to his or her death, and thus to know with certainty that he or she did not die in vain. To tell each of their stories would take a lifetime, obviously. And yet, taking them together as an aggregate also seems slightly wrong…not insulting, to be sure, but also not entirely accurate because, in the end, they weren’t members of some club or players on the same team, but disparate individuals brought together in our collective Jewish consciousness only posthumously. The figure mentioned above, by the way, specifically does not include Israeli victims of terror attacks against civilians, who are also memorialized in Israel on Yom Ha-zikkaron in a different set of ceremonies, and who are now said to number over 3,700 individuals. (That figure includes those who died at the hands of terrorists since 1920.)

It's easy to wax lachrymose in contemplating these numbers. Indeed, it would be hard not to feel that way…and particularly for those of us who have family and friends in Israel whose children serve in the IDF and who bravely put their lives on the line daily to keep their nation safe and secure. And yet regret alone cannot be the antidote to the kind of melancholy inspired by the contemplation of loss on this scale. Particularly for those of us on the sidelines—whose children do not serve, whose nation is too well established in the forum of nations for anyone to doubt its right to exist, and who never wonder as we get onto a bus or a train if there just might possibly be among our fellow travelers someone planning to kill us—it feels wrong to allow regret to constitute our sole response to Yom Ha-zikkaron. Israelis, of course, do move on: they transition from Yom Ha-zikkaron to Yom Ha-atzma·ut with a national torch-lighting ceremony that formally marks the end of national mourning and the onset of national rejoicing. But how exactly should those of us ensconced in the diaspora respond?

We could, of course, just mimic the Israelis and move on too from being weighed down by loss to being buoyed by a sense of gratitude to God that we live in the right age to experience the reality of an independent Jewish state. And, of course, to a certain extent that is what we do. But the transition is never fully real, at least not to me. Just as the Blochs cannot possibly have separated their emotions as they prepared to bring their one daughter home and to bury the other, and thus must simply have had to learn to live with both sets of emotions, so do I feel it impossible to separate my emotions entirely and simply to live through the one and then move on to the next. That sounds like it would be the rational way to proceed. It probably would be the rational path forward. But, at least for me personally, it just doesn’t work.

Looking on things from this specific vantage point of the nexus point between these two days of remembrance and celebration, I feel more than ever how true the ancient oracle was that characterized Israel as an am badad yishkon, as a people set apart. I feel this in a thousand different ways, each distinct yet part of a larger picture.

Israel is subjected to criticism of many kinds never leveled at other nations, its representatives so regularly treated with contempt in the press and on college campuses that most incidents go unreported in the mainstream press.

Israel’s effort to defend itself against a bloodthirsty enemy eager to cause as many civilian casualties as possible with ceaseless rocket attacks specifically targeting civilian centers is derided as excessive by citizens of countries who would never, not in a million years, tolerate that kind of violent aggression against its citizens.

Despite the fact that it was the Palestinians who walked away from the Oslo Accords at Camp David, and thus from the very autonomy they now insist Israel is somehow withholding from them, the onus for the ongoing stalemate in the Middle East is somehow always placed on Israel and only rarely, other than by Israelis, on the Palestinian leadership. In this thought, I include many of our own political leaders and those in countries we reasonably consider to be our allies.

Despite the fact that Iran has openly and shamelessly proclaimed its interest in wiping Israel off the map and murdering its citizenry—and despite the fact that any other country in the world that openly expressed its interest in annihilating some other country among the family of nations would be pilloried as an enemy of world peace and then fully or at last partially ostracized, Israel’s vehement objection to last year’s agreement that will lead directly, and long before children born this week will graduate high school, to an Iran unfettered in the fulfillment of its obvious wish to acquire a nuclear arsenal, was mocked by many, including many of our co-citizens in this country, as were those who spoke out against it.

Despite the fact that the world is rife with countries shamelessly pursuing aggressive, hostile policies against neighboring countries or against their own civilian populations, the United Nations seems incapable of focusing its attention anywhere at all other than on Israel and its alleged misdeeds. To say that the United Nations has long since squandered whatever moral capital it once possessed is surely true…but contemplating its hypocrisy does not undo the effects of its policies or make its double standards any more palatable.

Despite the fact that Israel has integrated immigrants from more or less every country on earth and made them into proud Israelis, Israel is characterized not as the world’s most successful melting pot society, but rather as the heirs of South African apartheid…and specifically because they do not wish to allow people pledged to their own annihilation enter the country at will and mix freely with the civilian population, a policy that is specifically not applied to Israel’s Arab citizenry who face no special restrictions at all in terms of where they go, with whom they assemble, and what they say. There is even an Israeli Arab on the Supreme Court of Israel, Salim Joubran. I do not recall there being any black judges on the Supreme Court for as long as it existed under real apartheid in South Africa.

For all these reasons, I feel a certain mix of pride and ill ease as I join together with all right-minded Americans, and with friends of Israel in every country, to celebrate the sixty-eighth anniversary of Israeli independence. As my readers must all know by now, the only home Joan and I own is in Israel. To the extent that the purchase of an apartment can be considered a kind of political statement, it was one we were and are both proud and pleased to make. It isn’t much, our two-bedroom on Gad Tedeschi Street, but it’s ours and we feel happy and secure when we’re there. Similarly, our tiny State of Israel, the 149th largest nation in the world (right after El Salvador in terms of square mileage), isn’t much either in terms of size, but it is nonetheless the single greatest accomplishment of the Jewish people in the last two thousand years…and that is surely something for all Jews, and all who would call themselves their friends, to celebrate. There is every reason to feel uneasy as we pass from Yom Ha-zikkaron to Yom Ha-atzma·ut this year. But, in the end, I suggest we allow ourselves to get over that…and to join all people of good will everywhere in celebrating the independence of the Jewish State. If the State of Israel were an Israeli citizen, it would be gearing up to retire and access its pension at age sixty-eight. But that’s only how it works for people: the State itself at sixty-eight is just attaining the fullest flower of its potential—and that, surely, is something to celebrate with unconflicted emotion. May the Rock of Israel bless the State of Israel and ever keep it strong, safe, secure!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Yom Hashoah 2016

A few weeks ago, I wrote to you all about the sorites principle in philosophy that illustrates how things can be possible and impossible at the same time. The word sorites, the Greek word for “heap,” lends its name to the principle because Eubulides of Miletus, a fourth century BCE Greek philosopher, used the image of a heap of sand to illustrate the principle: no one would call one grain of sand a heap, nor is it possible that something as tiny and inconsequential as a grain of sand could possibly change a handful of such tiny grains into something as large and consequential as a heap…yet, if you slowly add one grain of sand after another, there logically must be a moment at which you actually do have a heap of sand in front of you. Logically, somewhere in the process there must have been one grain that made the difference, one gain of sand that somehow—and all by itself—turned a tiny mound into a heap. And that is how something can be possible and impossible at the same time.

But Eubilides’ principle works in reverse as well: if you start with a huge heap of sand and start slowly and methodically to remove grains of sand from it, there must be a specific moment in the process at which you suddenly don’t have a heap of sand in front of you…but that leaves you puzzling over the obvious question of how something as minuscule as a grain of sand can possible make that much difference? How could anyone even notice if a single grain were missing from a huge mountain of sand? And yet…it both has to be noticeable and also can’t possibly be noticeable, which leads to the same conclusion: that things can indeed be possible and not possible at the same time.

My mind wandered back to Eubilides on Yom Hashoah this year, the day the Jewish people sets aside to honor the martyrs of the Nazi Holocaust.  We, in our world, think of survivors as older people. And, indeed, they surely are: the camps were liberated seventy-one and seventy-two years ago, so thirteen-year-olds then would be eighty-five now. But, other than children in hiding, there were no thirteen-year-old survivors (or almost none). And that leaves us today with a survivor community mostly in its upper eighties and nineties.  We’ve gotten used to thinking of them that way…but it wasn’t always like that. They didn’t used to be this old. And they surely didn’t used to be this few. As many of you know, I grew up in Forest Hills, not fifteen miles from the home in which Joan and I live now. When I was a boy, Forest Hills was filled with survivors…but they weren’t octo- and nonagenarians: they were young men and women in their twenties and thirties trying to figure out how to construct new lives for themselves in a new place. All had suffered grievous losses. Some had lived through the murder of their entire first families. But there they were—and in huge, impressive numbers—trying their best to re-invent themselves, to learn to speak English well, to find jobs, to establish homes, to create families. This all made a huge impression on the young me. My own parents were Yankees, born and bred in these United States. But all around me I saw different kinds of Jewish people from many different places…and that sense that there was far more to this whole Jewish thing than the Hebrew-School-version of myself could imagine was, I think in retrospect, part of the set of influences that led me into my career and into my studies, and also into my life.

Not all refugees throve in their new homeland, of course. Nor did those survivors who settled elsewhere, even in Israel, all do uniformly well. If any of my readers haven’t read Amir Gutfreund’s remarkable novel, Our Holocaust, describing his life as a young man growing up in a town outside Haifa almost entirely settled by survivors, I can’t recommend it too highly. If you want to get what it means to have survived, that’s the place to start. (Gutfreund, one of Israel’s most talented authors, died tragically of cancer earlier this year at age fifty-three, but he left behind a body of work that would be impressive even for an author with decades longer to work.) Some of the people in his book do remarkably well, but others of his characters are lost to the world, stuck in an endless loop of misery and recrimination, unable to loose the shackles that others imposed on them and that they themselves seem unable to shake off entirely or, for some, even at all.  Some few in his book really are mad. But most are just regular people trying to find some comfort and pleasure in life even if it means facing down almost unimaginable trauma and simply refusing to surrender to it. I recommend the book to all very highly as a true tour de force, but the bottom line—both within Gutfreund’s book and outside its covers—is that even in Israel the number of survivors in our midst is dwindling.  And that thought—somehow both banal and chilling at the same time—is what I bought to Yom Hashoah this year along with a sense of marvel that these people exist at all, a sense of wonder at their achievements (and the unsettling questions regarding my own mettle that the contemplation of their lives inevitably stirs up in me), and a sense of abiding regret that future generations will know these people only from a distance—through their books and their Spielberg interviews, and through the stories they tell and to which we, even now, we avidly listen.
Earlier this year, on what would have been my own father’s 100th birthday, the world lost Samuel Willenberg, the sole remaining survivor of Treblinka.

The camps had certain underlying principles of brutality, barbarism, and depravity in common, but they differed dramatically one from the other in terms of their final chapters.  By the time the Germans had done their best to empty out Auschwitz as the Red Army advanced, for example, there were only 7,000 prisoners left in that place to liberate. By the time American forces reached Buchenwald, on the other hand, there were four times that many prisoners present. (The wrinkle in that detail is that about ten thousand of those who were liberated at Buchenwald had survived death marches to that place from Auschwitz and a handful of other camps.) The numbers in other places, however, were dramatically and tragically smaller. In Sobibor, for example, where over 170,000 people were mercilessly murdered, there were precisely fifty-eight survivors. The numbers in Treblinka were even more shocking: of the three-quarters of a million people murdered in that place, only sixty-seven are known to have survived and Samuel Willenberg was among of them. He was not, however, present gratefully to be liberated when the Red Army arrived because even more amazing than the fact that he survived at all is the fact that he survived by escaping the camp after the famous prisoner revolt in that place in the summer of 1943. His odds of survival were not good: of the 200 or so escapees, all but 67 were recaptured and summarily murdered. Making his story even more incredible, Willenberg survived even though he didn’t manage to escape Treblinka unharmed—he was shot in the leg as he leapt over the top of a barbed wire fence after climbing up a pile of unburied bodies temporarily stacked up against it and from there somehow catapulting himself over the top—but he did manage to get away.

Born in 1923 in Czestochowa, Poland, Willenberg was still a teenager when he was deported to Treblinka and became the sole survivor of the three transports that arrived at the camp that day, each of which included twenty packed cars of prisoners. (Even that part of the story is amazing—the Germans needed a bricklayer to help build something and, since that was the fictitious occupation he reported upon arrival, they took him onto the work force instead of killing him with all the other sixty boxcars full of innocents.) After his escape, he made his way through the forest and eventually came to Warsaw, where he joined the Polish Home Army and spent the rest of the war fighting his personal war with the Germans with the Polish resistance. He participated personally in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, then, after the war, emigrated to Israel and settled in Tel Aviv. He married and raised a family. And he wrote a book, Revolt in Treblinka, which, although not the sole book by someone who escaped Treblinka, is riveting and very worth reading. (For readers interested in the same story from a different vantage point, I recommend The Last Jew of Treblinka by Chil Rajchman, originally written and published in Yiddish, but since 2012 available from Pegasus Books in English.)  And then, just this past February, Sam Willenberg died at age 93. He was the last living survivor of Treblinka.

I watched the survivors in our midst with some combination of awe and nervousness. They were many, it was true, but I knew what had happened—or I thought I did—to those who were not rebuilding their lives in Forest Hills because they and their families had ended their lives in execution pits and gas chambers. I took comfort in their numbers, however, telling myself that, had my family fallen into German hands during the war, we too surely would have been among the survivors. Weren’t we also living in Forest Hills, just like so many of them? I know better now—times six million—but back then, thinking the survivors to be rules rather than exceptions, I imagined us as some sort of honorary members of the survivor community nonetheless…and particularly once I learned the fate of the Jews of my great-grandparents’ shtetlach in Poland and Belarus. The indomitable spirit of the survivor community is what buoyed me as a boy…and what gave me the sense of self that, in some profound ways, I carry with me even today. And that is why the death of Sam Willenberg made such an impression on me. My children, of course, know many survivors. But their own children will know them only at a distance, and my children’s children…at even more distance than that.

Eubilides’ principle is at work here: the loss of one single survivor can’t logically make that much difference to the larger picture. How could it? And yet…somehow, as the years have passed, the picture has changed dramatically: where there was once a mountain, there was at first just a heap. But now that heap has itself diminished and will soon enough just be a collection of disparate grains of sand. And that makes it that much more important for those of us who knew and know these people, and who heard their stories firsthand—it is that much more crucial for us to make sure that their stories do not vanish with them…and that their personal testimony is not merely recorded, but cherished and made available to future generations.

We did our part at Shelter Rock this week, coming together to hear the testimony of a woman who survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belson, and who participated in one of the so-called “death marches” when the war was almost over and the Germans were eager to empty the camps of those they hadn’t managed to kill. We listened, recording the details we had mostly all heard before…but the point wasn’t that we learn this or that detail, but that the testimony itself be given, and that it be spoken and recorded. All that, we managed to accomplish. But how will future generations recreate the experience of actually knowing people who lost everything and yet who managed somehow to survive? That is the unsettling question that is left to churn and roil around within me as we move past Yom Hashoah this year, sixty-three years after it was inaugurated in Israel as a national and international day of remembrance and more than seventy years after the end of the war.