Thursday, November 1, 2018


Like many of you, I’m sure, I took biology in tenth grade. It was a long time ago. I barely remember high school, and specific classes even less than the general experience, but I do remember one specific incident in biology class that made a huge impression on me then and remains with me still. I’m sure it’s no longer allowed, as well it shouldn’t be, but the experiment itself was simple enough. A frog was set into a petri dish filled with cool water. The frog looked happy enough, having no concept of what was soon to come…and also not able to extend its neck far enough out to see that the petri dish itself was being held aloft by a black metal frame that also housed a Bunsen burner positioned just beneath the dish in which the frog was seated. (Do frogs even have necks?) The frog could have hopped out at any moment. But why would he have? He was content, he was (he thought) among friends. It was the fall following the summer of love. I have the vague sense—although this can’t possibly be true—that “Strawberry Fields” was playing softly in the background.

And then our teacher, whose name I’ve long since forgotten, lit the Bunsen burner and the fun began. The flame was low enough so that the water would only heat very slowly, incrementally, almost unnoticed by us…but also not by the frog in the dish. The point of the experiment was simple enough: to demonstrate that, if the water were only heated up slowly enough, the frog would actually be paralyzed by the heat and thus unable to avoid the sorry end that appeared to await him and which in fact actually did await him even though he could easily have escaped his fate earlier on had he understood things more clearly. Or she could have. It really was a long time ago.
The world is full of frogs in petri dishes.

Facebook started out as a pleasant way for friends to stay in touch and then grew into something that would surely have been unrecognizable to the people dreaming it up in Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm room. And, somewhere along the way in that amazing growth from 1 million users in 2004 to 2.2 billion active users at present, a line was crossed that cannot be crossed back over, and which thus obliges Facebook to deal somehow with the unexpected and surely unwanted ability it somehow possesses to be manipulated by its own users to influence elections and to invade people’s privacy in a way that many savvy users still can’t entirely fathom in all of its complexity.
The whole concept of on-line DNA analysis started out as a clever way for people to learn more about their families’ histories and about their own genetic heritage. But as the data banks at,, and other analogous sites grow larger and larger on a daily basis, a line has been crossed there too that cannot be uncrossed and which will now oblige us all to deal with the ability of scientists, including (presumably) those who work for the government, to invade the privacy of people wholly unrelated to the enterprise and who themselves haven’t ever signed up or sent in a sample of their DNA for analysis. (To revisit what I wrote about this truly shocking phenomenon a few weeks ago, click here.)

Kristallnacht, the eightieth anniversary of which falls next week, was another such frog-in-a-petri-dish line. Things were dismal for the Jews of Germany and Austria long before 1938, but Kristallnacht—in the course of which single evening almost 2000 synagogues were destroyed, 2550 Jewish citizens died, 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps, and tens of thousands of Jewish businesses were plundered—made it kristall clear that whatever Jewish souls fell under Nazi rule were on their own and that that line into a dark, almost unimaginable future was one that simply could not be crossed back over. Indeed, the worst part of Kristallnacht was not the pogrom itself, as horrific as it was, but its implications for the future and the unavoidable conclusion to be drawn from the events of that gruesome night that there apparently was no level of anti-Semitic violence that the world could not somehow learn to tolerate. Kristallnacht, of course, did not come out of nowhere. Nazi anti-Semitism was hardly a secret. By 1938, the Jews of the Reich had been subjected to ever-increasing levels of degradation, humiliation, and discrimination for years. Obviously, they all noticed it, just as the frog in my classroom must surely have noticed the water warming as well. What the frog failed to grasp was that there was going to be a specific moment at which his ability to hop out of the dish was going to be gone and that he would have no choice but to meet his fate in that place. And that is what the Jews who had bravely decided to weather the storm in place also failed to seize until it finally was too late to do otherwise and their fates were sealed, their doom all but assured.
Is Pittsburgh that line in the sand that we will all eventually see clearly for what it was? Or was it just a terrible thing that an awful person with some powerful guns managed to accomplish before he was finally subdued by the police? The answer to those questions lies behind the answers to others, however. Was Pittsburgh more about the rise of the so-called alt-right than about anti-Semitism per se? (The Anti-Defamation League noted that there was almost a 60% rise in hate crimes directed against Jews or Jewish targets from 2016, the year of the presidential election, to 2017, the year of Charlottesville. No one doubts that the statistics for 2018 will be higher still.) Or is this more about guns than Jews?  We have become almost used to gun violence in our country—we actually name the incidents (Columbine, Orlando, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Fort Hood, San Bernardino, etc.) because it would otherwise be impossible to keep track of them all—so it feels possible to explain Pittsburgh (or rather, to explain it away) as just one more notch on that belt rather than as a decisive moment in American Jewish history. But is that reasonable? Or is Pittsburgh less about Jews or guns, and more about the way that houses of worship seem specifically to enrage a certain kind of American bigot, the kind who can spend an hour studying Bible with gentle, harmless church folk and then take out a gun and methodically attempt to kill all the others in the class?

Or is this something else entirely? That’s the question I found churning and roiling within as I contemplate the events of last Saturday in Pittsburgh and try to make some sense out of it all.
It’s interesting how the most accessible studies of anti-Semitism—Léon Poliakov’s The History of Anti-Semitism, Edward Flannery’s The Anguish of the Jews, David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, Bernard Lazare’s Antisemitism, Its History and Causes, Rosemary Ruether’s Faith and Fratricide, and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s The Devil that Never Dies, just to name the books I personally have found the most rewarding and informative over the years—it’s interesting how little read or discussed these books are, including specifically by the very Jewish people who should constitute their most enthusiastic audience. Is that just because they are incredibly upsetting? Or is there a deeper kind of denial at work here, one rooted in a need to feel secure so intense that it simply overwhelms anything that might disturb people who live in its almost irresistible thrall?

I was a senior in college when I first read André Schwarz-Bart’s, The Last of the Just. It is one of the few works of fiction I’ve read many times, both in French and English, and is surely among the most important works of fiction I’ve read in terms of the effect it had on me personally in terms of shaping my worldview. (It also led, albeit circuitously, to my choice of a career in the rabbinate.) The book, in which are depicted episodes from the life of one single Jewish family from 1190 (the year of a horrific pogrom in York, England) to 1943 (when the family’s last living scion is murdered at Auschwitz), is upsetting. But it is also ennobling and, in a dark way that even I can’t explain entirely clearly (including not to myself), as inspiring as it is disconcerting. It was once a famous book—the first Shoah-based book to be an international bestseller and the winner of the very prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1959—but has fallen off the reading list of most today: how many young people have even heard of it, let alone have actually read it? I suppose people still read Anne Frank’s diary and Elie Wiesel’s Night, the two most prominent books about the Shoah of all…but both books are tied to their author’s specific stories and neither is “about” anti-Semitism itself in the way Schwarz-Bart’s book is. In my opinion, that’s why they have remained popular—because they’re basically about terrible things that happened to other people—and The Last of the Just hasn’t.
What should we do in the wake of the Pittsburgh massacre? Clearly, we need to find the courage to speak out and to say vocally and very strongly to our elected officials that we cannot and will never accept that this kind of thing simply cannot be prevented in a society that guarantees its citizens the right to bear arms. And, just as clearly, we need to make it clear to the world that this kind of aggression, far from weakening us, actually strengthens us and helps us find the courage to assume our rightful place in the American mosaic. But we also need to lose our inhibitions about learning about our own history. Pittsburgh was about the recrudescence of the kind of anti-Semitic violence many of us thought to be well in the past. To understand the deeper implications of Jews at prayer being murdered in their own synagogue, we don’t need to read any of the million statements issued by public officials, Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, and countless individuals over the last few days. What we do need to read is Schwarz-Bart and Ruether, Nirenberg and Flannery, and to internalize the lessons presented there. And we need take the temperature of the water in our petri dish and only then to negotiate the future from a position of informed strength characterized by a clear-eyed understanding of what it means to be a Jew in the actual world in which we live.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.