Thursday, June 13, 2019

Two Life Heroes

One thing I’ve noticed over all these many years in the rabbinate is how differently people respond to life’s tragedies. Some respond, well, tragically, allowing the sadness and worry that tragedy naturally engenders to overwhelm their natural optimism to the point that it suffuses them with a kind of rage-tinged sadness that eventually affects every aspect of their lives and effectively prevents them from truly enjoying any of life’s pleasures. But other people respond in precisely the opposite way to even the most calamitous disaster, allowing such events to inspire them to devote themselves to repairing the world, to doing what they can to prevent the horribleness that they personally have encountered from wrecking the lives of others as well. In other words, there are those who are ruined by misfortune and those who are ennobled by it. That, I suppose, is almost an ordinary observation. But what strikes me as I consider that thought from the vantage point of all these years in the pulpit is how difficult it would be in advance to predict who will fall into which category.

I was very moved about a month ago watching Marie Nahmias light the national Independence Day torch in Israel, one of the nation’s highest honors for an Israeli civilian, and decided on the spot to write about her in this space. Mme. Nahmias came originally from Tunisia, where she was just a girl of seventeen when the Nazis occupied her homeland. She understood herself and her family to be in mortal danger, but they somehow survived until the British pushed the Germans out in 1943 and things calmed down considerably. But that turned out only to be a temporary respite for Jewish Tunisia: once the country became an independent Arab republic in 1956, anti-Jewish sentiment became rampant and violent. And so, after surviving the Germans, the Sabah family (Nahmias is Marie’s married name) emigrated with almost the entire Jewish community to Israel, where they were housed, not in modern apartment houses or on welcoming, verdant kibbutzim, but rather in one of the vast tent cities called ma·abarot that were set up to accommodate the massive immigration to Israel from the Arab world in the 1950s. Conditions were, to say the least, primitive. There was a strong sense among many that the states assets were not allotted fairly or equitably to all immigrants regardless of country of origin. No one wished to stay any longer than necessary. And Mlle. Sabah, now Mme. Nahmias, didn’t stay either, eventually moving out and becoming the mother of eight children. Things became much, much better. But then Marie’s son Shaul was critically wounded in the Yom Kippur War.
So here was a woman wholly entitled to be irritated with the world: her teenaged years spent first hiding from the barbarians who occupied Tunisia during the dark years of the German occupation and then trying to evade the anti-Jewish thugs that terrorized Jewish people in her newly independent homeland, her twenties spent under the most primitive of conditions in a country that could barely accommodate the level of immigration it itself encouraged relentlessly among the Jews of the diaspora, and then her oldest son very seriously wounded in a terrible war that took the lives of thousands of the nation’s young people. Yet Mme. Nahmias did not respond angrily or bitterly, but instead resolved to respond to her own life by doing good. And so she opened up her house to foster children, but not just to any foster children at all. Instead, she made it known that she would accept in her home solely children with the kind of grievous physical and mental handicaps that basically made them unplaceable elsewhere. Eventually, she took in fifty-two such children, Jewish and Arab, Israeli and foreign, making of her home a warm, accepting place and a wholly safe space specifically for children whom no one else would take in regardless of their level of physical handicap or special needs. 

Mme. Nahmias is ninety-three years old now and has over 100 descendants, including great-great-grandchildren. The committee that chose her to light the Independence Day Torch heralded her as “a symbol of the immigrants who established Israeli society on a foundation of mutual solidarity and help to the needy, and of the thousands of foster families in Israel who opened their hearts to help children in crisis.” At first, she appeared overcome with emotion. But then she was asked to offer the nation her personal blessing, which she somehow managed to do with such unexpected eloquence and graciousness that it was beyond remarkable to watch. Click here and listen carefully—even without Hebrew, you won’t fail to be moved by this woman who had so many reasons to be bitter and angry at the world, yet who responded to her life’s calamities by choosing to do only good…and who even now in her nineties continues to do good.
I’d like to compare Mme. Nahmias’s story to someone a universe away from Israel, a man named Arun Sothea who lives in a town named Phum Thom in Cambodia.

I’ve written before about Aharon Appelfeld’s great novel, Blooms of Darkness, and specifically about its stunning conclusion. In those final pages of the book, a little boy—recognizable to all readers as the author himself, but of course maintaining his in-book identity as little Hugo as the story progresses—a little boy who finds himself entirely alone in the world after the woman who hid him from the Nazis was herself executed by her countrymen for collaborating with the enemy, this friendless, protectorless, completely defenseless waif makes his slow progress through the streets of his hometown in search of his parents and his own past. As he walks, the hearts of the those reading the story are broken: Hugo is still living in a child’s dream world, whereas we, the readers, know that it’s all gone, that his parents and his entire family have been murdered, that the life he is expecting to find intact in the setting in which he last saw it has irrevocably and permanently vanished, that the only way for him to survive is to start life anew…and that we are asking that kind of mature effort to self-define and self-invent of a boy of nine. (To revisit what I wrote back in 2012 about Appelfeld’s book, click here. If you haven’t read the book, I can’t recommend it too highly.)
I have read almost all of Appelfeld’s novels and have come to esteem the closing pages of Blooms of Darkness as one of the seminal passages in Appelfeld’s entire oeuvre. I’ve read it many times and never without tears coming to my eyes. (To read that passage and not be moved to tears would require having a heart made of brick.) And now I read that same story, almost exactly, about another little boy from a different universe.

In the late 1970s, the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia. To subdue the nation, its rulers used the usual tactics of totalitarian regimes to bring the populace to its knees: mass executions, forced deportation, interment in labor camps, intentionally inflicted mass starvation, and the threat of merciless torture for all who run afoul of the authorities. Arun Sothea was a child back then. For the crime of stealing a fish, the starving child was sent to a labor camp for “re-education.” And then, in 1979, when he was still only nine years old, he was released from the work camp in which he had been imprisoned. And now he steps into Appelfeld’s narrative. He had no family, no money, no friends, no concept of what he could or should do. And so he undertook to walk on his own back to his hometown, a distance of 150 miles. Like the boy in the book, he maintained the fantasy that he would find the setting of his earlier childhood intact, his family and friends waiting to welcome him home. But, of course, like young Hugo in Appelfeld’s novel, he found nothing at all. Indeed, it was upon arrival in his village that he learned that the Khmer Rouge had murdered all thirty-six members of his nuclear and extended families, including his parents. He was totally alone in the world. And there was no one to whom to turn or on whom to rely.
He somehow found his way to Phnom Penh, the capital, where he lived on the streets for years. So if there was every someone who could claim the right to be angry, bitter, and resentful it would be he. But he chose a path more akin to Mme. Nahmias’s than the one most people would feel entirely justified in taking: he grew up to found and run two different orphanages, one in Phnom Penh for children on the street like he himself was and one in his home village for children with neither parents nor extended family to take them in and watch over them. I first read about Arun Sothea in a Times of Israel article that detailed the way that various Jewish charities have reached out to help Sothea in his work. Click here for the article, which is very impressive and quite moving. I can promise that you’ll be moved.

It’s a low-rent operation, especially the branch in Phum Thom. The children sleep on mats on the floor; there are no beds. There are a handful of computers on site, but no internet connection. There is a single classroom. I hope that things improve as time passes and Sothea’s work becomes better known. But the point I make here is more about the man than his work: here is yet another person who responded to the most horrific tragedy—the murder not solely of his parents but of his entire extended family and his own childhood imprisonment in the kind of forced labor camp that many adults didn’t survive—and yet who came through the whole experience imbued not with the desire for revenge but with the desire to do good in the world and to reach out to children in need.
These stories—Arun Sothea’s and Marie Nahmias’s—are very encouraging to me. It’s impossible to read them without wondering how I myself would have responded as an adult to a childhood spent trying solely to survive the almost unimaginable brutality of my nation’s oppressors, poverty unlike anything I personally have ever known, and a sense of uncertainty about the future that makes it only marginally possible that I will even have one. Those same thoughts, of course, come to mind when I speak with the surviving survivors in our midst, people who lived through the camps and the death marches, through the brutality and daily degradation that was the lot of Jews caught in the Nazis’ net and somehow not murdered immediately. In the end, I suppose, the answer is that I don’t know—that none of us can truly know—how we would have responded to experiences like those. On the other hand, what I do know is that tragedy embitters some and ennobles others. But why some fall into one category and others into the other—that is a riddle I have yet to come even close to solving.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Virginia Beach

Those poor people in Virginia Beach! They weren’t children. They weren’t soldiers. They weren’t young people dancing the night away in a cool nightspot. They weren’t worshipers in synagogue or people gathered in church for Bible study. Nor were they high school kids rushing from home room to their first classes of the day. In other words, they were just people—regular, grown-up, working people busily attending to their non-flashy jobs in a non-flashy office compound in a city known mostly for having a pretty beach. And now they appear actually to have met posthumous the fate that I feared—but also half-expected—would end up being theirs: front page news for a day or two, then the subject of a follow-up story buried somewhere in the back of the first section a few days later, then, depending on the newspaper and the politics of its editorial board, either forgotten entirely or followed up a couple of days after that with a human interest piece describing of some of the victim’s funerals and then allowed to sink into gun-violence oblivion.

Mass shootings are resembling more and more hurricanes in this violent land of ours: named in the first place to make it possible to keep them all straight in your mind, but mostly forgotten anyway as soon as the skies clear…other than by the people whose homes they ruined or whose livelihoods. Yes, everybody remembers Sandy…but mostly because it inflicted something like 70 billion dollars’ worth of damage. But what about Beryl, Chris, Florence, Helene, Isaac, Leslie, Michael, and Oscar—to name only Atlantic hurricanes that hit the United States in the last year? My guess is not so much. Unless you had to deal with the destruction these storms left in their wake personally, probably not so much at all!
People think about things in the abstract entirely differently than when they are asked their opinion about the very same issues not as pristine philosophical concepts but rather as nuts-and-bolts issues set into the real-life world of actual people. The most famous example, known to most from Philosophy 101 in college, is the famous “trolley-car problem.” It has a thousand different versions, but the basic concept is always that the same people who speak loftily and movingly about the inestimable value of human life—and who claim wholeheartedly to accept the corollary of that idea, namely that it is impossible (i.e., not only morally reprehensible but actually not doable) to place a specific dollar value on a specific human life—those same people when presented with the dilemma of a trolley-car driver having to choose between plowing his run-away vehicle into a crowd of thirty healthy kindergarten children or veering off to the side even though it will mean hitting a terminally ill centenarian who has just a few days left to live invariably say they would aim at the old man rather than take the lives of thirty little children. So much for the inestimable, thus uncalculatable, value of human life!

There are lots of variations. You may have heard the version featuring an individual standing next to a hugely fat man on a bridge and watching a train (not a trolley in this version for some reason) hurtling towards the thirty children. The only way to stop the train is to shove the fat man off the bridge onto the tracks below, which act will almost certainly save the children’s lives at the expense of the fat man’s. It’s basically the same situation as the one with the trolley-car conductor, yet whereas a clear majority almost always say that they would be okay about flipping the switch to save the children at the expense of the elderly sick guy, a majority almost always also say that they would not go so far as actually to shove the fat man off the bridge to accomplish exactly the same goal. (For a fascinating examination of these issues from a Jewish point of view by Tsuriel Rashi, a professor at Bar Ilan University in Israel, click here. You won’t be disappointed!)
To translate this into modern American terms is simple: we all say that we think that the loss of even a single life is tragic, but we have become so inured to gun violence in our country that we only respond viscerally when there is something particularly horrific about the incident: merely being shot to death by a maniac with a gun is nowhere near enough in today’s America to sustain the interest of the nation over more than a day or two. (Oh yeah? I heard that! Columbine is near Denver and Parkland is near Miami…but where exactly is Highlands Ranch again?)

The question, as always, is how we should respond to yet another of these incidents. I have to admit that I have trouble keeping them all straight in my head—and I’m guessing that that’s how we all feel. To militate for stricter controls on gun purchases, to insist that the government find a way to make guns useless other than in the hands of their legitimate owners (which wouldn’t have worked in Virginia Beach, since the shooter owned his guns legally), to push for more intensive background checks before people are permitted to acquire firearms—all these seem like reasonable steps forward, none of which would infringe on any non-criminal, mentally-stable citizen’s right to bear arms. But there’s also an attitudinal change we need to work towards and, at that, not one specifically related to the NRA or to the Second Amendment but rather to the way we think of the victims of these shootings.
They appear briefly on the front page of the nation’s newspapers for a day or two. If there is something particularly gruesome about the incident that took their lives, then their hold on our national imagination is stronger—and, indeed, the victims at Columbine, Orlando, Parkland, Pittsburgh, and Charleston actually have become part of our national narrative. But what of the rest?

I took note the other day of the two-hundredth birthday of the most original of all American poets and Long Island’s greatest son, Walt Whitman. I’ve been a fan for a long time—the boy in my story “Under the Wheel” who walks around high school with a copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in his knapsack was my adolescent self—and my admiration for the man has only grown over the years. I mention the anniversary of his birth on May 31, 1819, in Huntington, New York, however, not merely to take note of his bicentenary, but because he, of all people, suggests to me how to respond to the endless spate of gun murders in our nation.
If there was one thing Whitman stood for, and in every conceivable way, it was the sacrosanct autonomy of the individual.  Over and over in Leaves of Grass the poet returns to that specific idea, but also to the one he presents as its corollary: the paradoxical notion that the justification for democracy itself rests in the core concept that the individual possesses an inviolate right to live free of the constraints of others and the restraints of society…and that the perfect nation (in his unabashed conception, our own) is one in which citizens band together to promote a society that promotes the inalienable autonomy of the individual.

In other words, the core concept that permeates all of Whitman’s work is that, unlike in the world of insects where the swarm is the thing and the individual bugs that make it up are basically indistinguishable from each other even in their own eyes, in the world of human beings the individual is not merely the building block of society but an entire universe unto him or herself, one that has no more need of the permission of others to rotate on its own axis and at its own speed than the Milky Way needs the permission of other galaxies to travel endlessly through the cosmos on its own and in its own way.
My proposal is that we honor Whitman’s memory by rededicating ourselves to the notion that each man, woman, or child killed in an act of senseless gun violence is best to be taken not a mere individual, but as the nation itself, and that the incident that took that person’s life is thus correctly to be understood as an act of aggression not against that one man or woman but against the American people itself. That core concept—that the individual is the nation and the nation is each of its citizens—is Whitman’s personal gift to the question of how to respond to gun violence in America.

A young man of eighteen, Kendrick Ray Castillo, gave his life on May 7 in the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting in Douglas County, Colorado, while trying to disarm one of the two shooters who had entered the school building. (Two others joined him in the effort, both of who survived.) Kendrick was lionized in the national press briefly, particularly since the Highlands Ranch shooting occurred just a week after the shooting at the University of North Carolina Charlotte campus in which a different young man, Riley Howell, also lost his life while selflessly and bravely trying to tackle the gunman and thus to give his classmates time to escape. Both men were heroes and deserve to be remembered as such, but as the days pass and the stories of these two particularly school shootings—just two among eight shootings in American schools this year so far and surely not the last—join non-school incidents (148 this year so far and counting) in becoming impossible for any of us to keep straight in our heads, we need to resolve to consider each loss separately and to feel personally aggressed against whenever an innocent life is taken by some angry person with a gun. E pluribus unum does not mean that when we come together as a people we abandon our identities as individuals, but just the opposite: that, as Whitman wrote over and over, the republic exists as a monument to the supreme value of the individual and so, from membership among the many comes the strength of the one to endure….and to flourish unimpeded by the violent machinations of others. The attacks that took the lives of 6,027 Americans (not a typo: click here) in acts of gun-related violence so far this year alone are attacks against the republic itself because each American individual is the nation. That was Whitman’s greatest lesson and it the one I suggest we all take to heart as we attempt not to file Virginia Beach away as just one more tragedy to take stock of and then to move on from.