On Sacred Spaces & Community: Jewish Poets Speak Out

Rosebud Ben-Oni
March 22, 2017
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If Not, Not (R. B. Kitaj, 1975-76)

When I wrote “Voyager I Am Singing the Fire” last week, it began as a response to the wake of rising Anti-Semitism in this country, particularly the desecration of our cemeteries. But in the end it became something altogether very different: a meditation on survival, language and diasporas— and finding communities within these labyrinthine, fluid spaces. It became as much as about the stoking the fire within the collective Jewish will to persist as much as it did that of poetry’s complexities beyond the languages she herself appears, to the miracles she renders the common and the forgotten. It became a call-to-arms sort of love letter to all poets, everywhere. And I’m glad for that.

And yet I am still very much haunted by this so-called “presidential” figure who—while under investigation by the New York Attorney General, the CIA and the FBI—claimed that Jewish communities themselves are fabricating the violence done to their JCCs and sacred grounds. While it seems like no surprise that this buffoon would accuse the Jewish people as being their own self-vandals and self-incendiaries, I’d also like to point out there is a wretched history that he himself is aiding and abetting. These are not new false allegations, and there is not enough room to list the centuries and centuries they span, the numerous national expulsions, the massacres, the pogroms, the shattering of our temples and our homes— and here I am, writing in first person, unable to escape this history I’ve inherited of what happens when one remains just silent enough. I’ve had my own experiences with Anti-Semitism, some of which I’ve shared here.

And yet— to turn to another side of that narrative-shifting word yet— I still have immense hope in people. I have faith in people themselves, doing the actual work that we elect our politicians to do, people like these Muslim activists who reached out to help the Jewish communities of Philadelphia. In all candor, when I read this particular story, I had no other language running through my head but: bless them, bless these good and true people.

That radiance, like the fire of poetry, still persists.

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I’d never thought I’d find a real Jewish community of my own, or a synagogue to call home. Even though I was raised observant, learning Biblical and Modern Hebrew, my identifying as wholly Jewish was complicated as a Jew of mixed background. So it’s all the more reason I’m extremely grateful for those Jewish poets who embody and/or embrace such complexities, and some of whom whose words follow below. This week, I asked if we could come together to resist, to persist, in this troubled era of “alternative facts.” And so we did. And so, even with the words here cemented on the page, an act of having been written, in seemingly past tense, we are still speaking to each other. We are still speaking.

—Rosebud Ben-Oni

 

 

 

During several childhood Yom Kippur services at Temple Beth El—one of nine synagogues in my Long Island hometown—our rabbi would announce news of another anonymous bomb threat from the bimah. He’d always say that anyone who felt the need to leave should feel free to do so, though I never saw anyone exit the crowded sanctuary.

I was raised by parents whose childhoods were shaped by the legacy of anti-Semitic violence. They taught my sister and I to be hyper-vigilant—to believe that everyone was out to screw us over, to take advantage of us, to hurt us in fundamental ways. This was their actual lived experience of the world. My mother was born in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany in 1947, after my grandparents were liberated from Auschwitz; they remained in Stuttgart until 1952, when they finally received visas for America. My father’s family fled the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in the late 1930’s for what was then Palestine; Israel would be enmeshed in two wars before his family left for America. My sister and I have chosen helping professions—she is a rabbi and social worker; I am a poet and professor. We refuse to move through the world assuming the worst of people or events, though we have been trained to be wily and prepared. We are both problem solvers. We are both good negotiators.

Since the election, my family and friends who are Muslim, brown-skinned, Asian, LGBTQ, foreign, gender non-conforming, and/or Jewish are all moving through spaces with more wariness. I am the mother of one white son and one black son. I am acutely aware of the differences in how people respond to their bodies and beings because of the color of their skin. Nearly a year ago, in the car when we were listening to NPR, an update about the Michael Brown case came on the radio, and my older white son told me we could never let Levi—his younger brother, who is black—go to Missouri. “As long as he doesn’t go to Missouri, he’ll be safe,” said Oz.

What I can’t bring myself to tell him is that there is nowhere any of us are entirely safe. There is nothing that I can do to protect my children from bomb threats, violence, bigotry, hatred, bullets. When no one got up from the pews after our rabbi announced another Yom Kippur bomb threat years ago, it wasn’t because we didn’t take those threats seriously. And it wasn’t because of complacency. It was, I think, because this was a story we knew—one that was as old as the oldest books we have:  they tried to kill us, and we (mostly) survived. Things always happen. They will keep on happening, and we who are in danger will try to be good to one another.

Erika Meitner

 

In New York City, Anti-Semitic hate crimes have nearly doubled in the first few months of 2017 when compared to 2016. This is not surprising. Trump didn’t even acknowledge Jews in his Holocaust remembrance speech. Trump speaks in hyperbole, bluster, and bigotry. He has not only normalized hate but has become its spokesperson. It’s important for us to remember he has consistently targeted people of color, Muslims, Mexicans and African Americans. In order to ensure the safety and respect of our spaces, our schools, places of worship, cemeteries, we must challenge the way we talk about people and cultures that aren’t our own. It’s become an accepted practice to teach tolerance. I have always felt uncomfortable with the idea of tolerance. The message it sends is subtly destructive. Tolerance is allowing others we don’t agree with to merely exist, we might not like them, their beliefs, their ideas, but we put up with them. When we speak of tolerance what we really mean is we begrudge a co-existence. But co-existence is just isolation with hedges instead of walls, a passive acceptance that fails to meet the demands of our emergent times. Trump has emboldened hate, we must embolden each other.  We must embrace and value differences, but first we must have the courage to see that tolerance isn’t a virtue. It’s a prop. We will need to work hard for a more nuanced way to discuss culture and beliefs. It will serve us, as we fight against anti-Semitism, to remember hate against any group is hate against us all.

—Shamar Hill

 

My grandfather was born in Brooklyn and spoke German, not Yiddish, at home. He liked borscht and Freud and other godless Jews. Regarding his own identity, he would say: “I am a Jew as soon as I smell the slightest whiff of anti-Semitism.” In his lifetime there was more than a whiff on the winds of the world, and he served against the Nazis in the Office of Strategic Services. But for the most part he got comfortable in his role as a secular American professor whose political priorities redirected when fascism ran for cover. There was no reason for Jewishness to be more than a footnote in my New Age, interethnic upbringing. But his injunction to remember—he was a historian, after all—still sounds, to me, like a Jewish injunction, and I’ve taken the multimillennia view that Jewish history allows. We tend to highlight Jewish survival. What I recognize is the instability of that survival: the segregations and assimilations, being colonized and colonizing. It’s a Reform cliché to talk about the choosing people rather than the chosen people, but that’s what a well-documented record of instability can permit. Ultimately it’s not necessary to remember to perceive: for example, that mosques are the havens under threat alongside us. That an ideology that loves Israel and hates Jews is a white kiss of death.

Carina del Valle Schorske

 

Every day, after I drop her off at school, I imagine seeing the rising burst of an explosion in the rearview mirror. Our Jewish Community Center hasn’t received a bomb threat. No bombs have shown up after the hundred+ threats, but I imagine when threats turn to action, there will be no warning.

My mother always warned me of the inevitable secret-Nazi uprising that would come for us. “There’s going to be a time when they come for us. You have to be ready.” She didn’t mean  fight. We had to run to survive. We’d just moved from Colombia. A man had been shot dead on her doorstep as she took cover inside. Along with cousins, uncles, aunts, distant relatives, and friends, tens of thousands were dead. We fled that violence for Colorado. And as bad as our nation is, as awful as these threats are, we’re not in the Colombia I fled in 1982. And 80s Colombia was no Nazi Germany.

But as Jews, we need to be vigilant. When we signal to the world that we are seeing signs of what happened to us resurfacing, we have experience backing us. When groups are dehumanized, we know what comes next. Each of these attacks and threats chips away at the existence of a just society. If we allow an attack on others, we fail ourselves. Solidarity is survival. We are a mere 1.4% of the population, but united with other vulnerable groups, we are the majority.

A work colleague work asked how I felt in response to the JCC threats. “I’m scared,” I told him, “but what do we do? Not go?”

“No,” he said without a beat. “We go.” We don’t flee.

Eduardo Gabrieloff

 

On the morning of September 11, 2001, my mother was teaching at a Jewish pre-school in San Antonio, Texas. As was happening around the country, parents were showing up at school to take their children home. My mother had a very clear message for these parents:  Do not undermine your child’s sense of safety. You can panic, but they must feel safe. You will do irreparable harm if you undermine their sense of safety.

I have always felt safe as a Jew in the U.S. The Anti-Semitism I have experienced is so limited that I can count the events on one hand, and they were so minor as to be of anthropological interest to me, rather than a source of trauma. But one doesn’t have to go far up the family tree for incidents of brutality, both here and in the “old country.” In many ways, that safety has allowed me to feel that my life is my own; I’ve been able to pursue what I want without fears of limitation or attack.

Violence, and threats of violence, are always an attack on your humanity. They are ways to limit your sense of possibility by insisting that you occupy a particular place. They are attacks on your very right to exist. The slurs that we work hard to keep out of public discourse are dehumanizing. The recent bomb threats, the cemetery desecrations, and the White House decision not to name Jews on Holocaust remembrance days have made it clear that the post-Holocaust moratorium on Anti-Semitism in the West is breaking down.

I worry about those kids being evacuated from JCCs, the ones learning that they are hated, and that because they are Jews, they are subject to violence. I worry about the adults trying to keep open their sense of possibility and safety, as they try to not to retreat in fear and isolation themselves.

Alliances between the Jewish Community and other communities—particularly Muslim communities—are key right now because we are both under attack. What we have to protect is what we value. One cannot feel safe if one is not. But we can maintain our sense of possibility. We can speak out against threats of violence. Our voices have not been silenced.

Jason Schneiderman

 

 

 

 

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