Response to the Pittsburg Attack
Eleven people were killed for being Jewish last week, a devastating culmination of years of rising anti-semitism. Eleven people with names that sound like mine are dead, because they were praying and existing. Those people are survivors of generations of killing like this, and now they are dead. My despair and indignation are reasonable, but I’m afraid of the way my body is reacting.
I found out from 4 different notifications on my phone while waiting in my therapist’s lobby, just before my appointment. My heart sped up, but I didn’t let myself read. In therapy, we spoke about how panicking wouldn’t help me prepare for future pain, and how I don’t have to fall apart because of this; how I can address it and feel it without physically reacting to it. But my heart kept quickening. I started to shake. Later that night, after reading wailing posts of fear, pain, unity, disbelief, I began to rock and chatter. I began to cry. It was hard to breathe. I was afraid to sink into the sadness and wrap my mind around the tragedy, the way an email from HIAS, an originally Jewish refugee aid organization, advised me to. The email tactfully reminded me that Jewish mourning asks us “to sit low to the ground and to really sink into our grief. Only after we have engaged in the mourning process do we rise up and return to our lives. And rise up we will,” it encouraged.
Why have I planted my flag with the Jewish people, I thought. I could have given into secular America’s nationalist agenda so easily, growing up in the reform Jewish movement. Is this tribalism? Why do I love this so dearly? I considered what professor Perry said in class last week. Much of what we do is a reaction to perceived scarcity in our lives. In the glow of my panic attack, I think: I am clinging to Judaism because I perceive a scarcity of connectivity and maybe of a legacy. Is it worth it?
Many mornings I wake up grieving for the world, terrified to look at my phone. With all this fear, it is so easy to make the mistake of falling into a mode of self-preservation and prioritize my own people. I want to scream until I am hoarse at the American friends who told me to shut up when I claimed anti-semitism was real. I want to scream at my younger self who believed them when they said anti-semitism is not as bad as other forms of oppression, at my younger self who believed religious people are crazy and that I didn’t have the right to take up space as a Jew.
I have the right to take up space as a Jew.
For my senior thesis, I have been reading book after book about my legacy. I’ve been desperately trying to contextualize myself because I grew up feeling cultureless. I am filled with tears, and my sadness turns to rage every time I think of this. Cultureless? My legacy is of women in the public sphere, running the world, working in market places and traveling for business, in charge of family finances even in the middle ages, when Christian women were at home! My legacy is revolutionary socialist music, cheering on working women! My legacy is Yiddish! My legacy is queer! My legacy is a just and glorious legal culture! WHY DIDN’T ANYONE TELL ME? I want to gulp in the research and engage with it and live it until it becomes me.
I always wanted to be neutral, but I can’t be. American Jews have lost so much culture, and most of us don’t know or don’t care that our divisive, reactionary sectarian movements are only 300 years old, that our status as a religion is only 300 years old. Why did I only learn about reactionary Judaism, responding to the nation or to Holocaust, and not my six thousand year old legacy? Why didn’t anyone teach me about the richness that came before? Why did I learn about a Christianized Judaism? So much of the way I’ve been taught to engage in Judaism is one big defense mechanism. I’ve been taught to pray indoors with a congregation, like the Christians, to be a feminist, but only according to the terms of Christian Hegemony. So much of our current practice is a brilliantly curated plan to stop taking up so much space; to make room instead for capitalism and Western European nations; to be equal to others as individuals, but not as a people; to sacrifice so many parts of our status as a people.
I want to scream at the Jewish friend who doesn’t believe in uniting with other minorities, who hides in the right. She told me that I might as well convert to Islam if I’m so disloyal to Jews that I believe all people are equal, that I don’t see that we Jews have a special and different bond. “You have to care more about Jews,” she said. “It’s not your fault, you were raised wrong.” I am scared because she exists, and because this is the third time another Jew has said this to me. I am scared because she is a loving person, who is a result of thousands of years of brutal survival. I am scared of the pain it has brought me that Jewish women have been so successfully erased. When I search through archives, we are nowhere to be found. Our traditions have been changed, and there are few records of the past. I want to take up space. I am angry at everyone who doesn’t see that the Jewish community and the rest of the world all need each other. If we take refuge in increased security and in the right wing, what are we even protecting? I am thinking of German theologian, Martin Niemöller’s poem from the 1950s:
First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Speak for me, I am begging you! I have spoken for other minorities, and I will continue to speak for them, but right now we need to speak together. This famous poem is happening again. Murad Awawdeh, VP of Advocacy at the New York Immigration Coalition spoke at the New York vigil for the Tree of Life Synagogue:
We've seen that all of our communities' lives are at stake.
They came for the Muslims,
they came for the immigrants,
they came for our African American brothers and sisters,
this week they will be coming for migrant refugees,
and their theory is conquer by division,
and we will not let that happen.
Audrey Sasson, executive director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice spoke at the same vigil. She ensured our preparedness for this fight and my body felt warm. For a moment, lying in my bed at the end of this awful day, I stopped shaking:
“I was afraid, but more than anything, I was afraid of the fear that I felt creeping into me. And I knew in that moment, that we are actually ready for this. Because we already know that solidarity is our only safety. We already know that they’re coming for all of us. We already know that the only way through this is arm and arm with love not fear and that together we will build the world of our dreams.”
These voices are familiar of Brooklyn Judaism, calling for advocacy, for showing up, and for singing. I’ve been playing this song on repeat for weeks, devastated with frustration with the world. I was so proud this morning, as I sang Olam Chessed Yibaneh- “build the world from love,” with the people in the video of the vigil on Facebook, and sobbed into my laptop far away in Paris.