On Jews and Whiteness

Image: Presentation of the film “BlacKkKlansman” at Cannes : Damaris Lewis, Jasper Pääkkönen, John David Washington, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Spike Lee, Adam Driver, Corey Hawkins. Photo: Georges Biard, with permission.

I have a new favorite movie: BlacKkKlansman. I am not writing a review here, so I’ll spare you the long list of reasons I like it. I want to focus on one moment in the film, one stark question.

Warning: Spoilers follow.

It is the moment when Ron Stallworth, the black cop played by John David Washington, tells Flip Zimmerman, a Jewish cop played by Adam Driver, that the two of them are going undercover to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. Here is the scene:

from BlacKKKlansman (2018)

The moment that I want to focus on comes at the 32 second mark:

Ron asks, “Why you acting like you ain’t got skin in the game, bro?”

Flip: “Lookit, that’s my f—–g business.”

Ron: “It’s our business. Now I’m going to get you your membership card.”

One of the subplots in the film is Flip’s gradual discovery that he does indeed have skin in the game. In an early scene he is asked by a co-worker if he’s Jewish, and he says, “I dunno – am I?” He is an assimilated secular Jew, and he is invested in that assimilation without being particularly conscious about it.

Because one of the Klansmen is suspicious that he might be a Jew, Flip spews a lot of anti-Semitic invective as cover, throwing around not only words like “kike” but a horrific speech on the “beauty” of the Holocaust and the need for “those leeches” to be exterminated. It is a heart-stopping moment, perfectly acted: we see the performance for the Klansman, and deep behind it, in Driver’s eyes, the terror of his own words. We see him recognize his skin in the game at the moment in which he is most desperate to save his skin from the Klan.

Spike Lee has a complicated history with American Jewish audiences, but he and the writers of the film (two of them Jewish, by the way) have articulated the question for American Jews at this moment. There has been a considerable squabble lately about Jews and whiteness, and considerable anxiety about the rise of white supremacy in our world. This movie slices through all the nonsense to the essential question:

“Why you acting like you ain’t got skin in the game, bro?”

The point is, my fellow liberal Jews of all complexions, we do have skin in this game. The question is, are we going to recognize it and drop the fantasy that if we act white enough – if we are cultured and educated and assimilated and meet standards of white beauty – that the white supremacist will somehow pass by our houses? Because that has been our strategy for the last century. It has been a successful strategy, up to a point: Jews are now seen by whites as such desirable mates that there’s talk of an “intermarriage problem,” to give but one example.

But here’s the thing: if we are so focused on those assimilated values of whiteness and homogeneity, we will never notice how that very assimilation causes us to behave to those in our midst with different complexions, the Jews of Color who cannot (and should not have to) pass. We will never notice because we are invested in whiteness.

I can imagine a reader saying now, “But rabbi, what you are saying is that Jews aren’t white!” That compels me to ask why do we keep acting so darn white? Why are we so fragile, waving frantically at photos of long-dead Jews marching with Martin Luther King, insisting that “not all” of us participate in racism? If we don’t want to be the bad guys (which is what I hear when I hear a light skinned person insisting that they aren’t really white) then why do we keep acting like the bad guys?

Why are people of color made unwelcome in our communities, treated like outsiders? Why do we quiz them, or assume they are the janitor or a convert? Why, upon seeing them, do we feel we have to comment on their difference?

We will be white as long as we continue to deal in white privilege.

We will be white until a Jew of Color can walk into our service and simply be accepted without comment.

On that day we will become One: one People of the one God.

Thus it has been said: Adonai will become Sovereign of all the earth. On that day, Adonai will become One and God’s Name will be One.

Zechariah 14:9, quoted in the daily service


A Message for My Non-Jewish Readers after Pittsburgh

Image: White votive candles arranged in the shape of a Star of David. (Photo: FreedomMaster/Shutterstock)

“My Gentile relatives do not understand why I am so upset,” a convert said to me, “They keep saying, ‘But you don’t live anywhere near Pittsburgh!’ and I can’t make them understand.”

You may be puzzled by the degree to which Jewish friends feel personally threatened by the shootings in Pittsburgh, or by the length of time they feel anxious about it. This is one of the things about minority status: things hit close to home, even when the event is far away.

Many of your Jewish friends have had other experiences of anti-Semitism that were personally upsetting and this event has re-stimulated feelings from those earlier experiences. My synagogue was vandalized on Rosh Hashanah last year. My rabbinical school was vandalized before that. My friend Pamela Waechter was murdered in the 2006 shooting at the Seattle Jewish Federation. Those are just a few of my personal experiences: your Jewish friends have had other experiences of things people have said to them or things done to people or institutions they loved. Pittsburgh came on top of whatever they were already carrying.

Some of your Jewish friends may be experiencing anxiety from intergenerational trauma. A number of studies suggest that some extreme trauma actually affects the DNA, passing effects to future generations. Intergenerational trauma has been documented in the decendants of Holocaust survivors and in the decendants of people imprisoned in POW camps during the American Civil War. Your Jewish friend may also be affected by family memories of trauma – we tend not to talk about those a lot, but you would be surprised how many of the Jews you know have family stories about fleeing death.

Judaism is like an enormous extended family. Anyone who receives a Jewish education learns Kol Yisrael aravim zeh b’zeh, “All Jews are responsible for each other.” Rabbi Melanie Aron explains this concept by citing a story from the tradition:

“The people of Israel are similar to a ship. If there is a hole in the lower hold, one does not say, ‘Only the lower hold has a hole in it.’ Rather they must immediately recognize that the ship is liable to sink and that they must repair the hole down below.” – Tanna De Bei Eliyahu Rabbah Chapter 11

As a result, when there is trouble for Jews anywhere in the world, all Jews feel it. The best analogy I can offer is the way Americans felt frightened and angry after 9/11, even if they had no personal connection to any of the victims, even if they lived far away from any of the cities involved.

What can our friends do to support us? If you are not Jewish, but you have Jewish friends or relatives, give them a call or an email or a shout-out via Facebook and tell them they are in your thoughts. Be aware that the Pittsburgh shooting felt like both a personal loss and an existential threat to many of us. Offers of prayers and support are welcome.

As you would with any other shocking loss, keep the advice, theological statements, and political commentary to a minimum. “Where were you when you heard about it?” is a good question. “I wanted you to know that I care” is great. Letting them know that you are willing to listen to their fears without judgment or one-upmanship is wonderful.

Fight anti-Semitism and other hatreds. Join the ADL, or the Southern Poverty Law Center or donate to them. For more ideas, read 9 Ways to Fight Anti-Semitism. Ten Things We Can Do to Fight Hate and Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Resource Guide by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Fighting back in constructive ways against all forms of hate is a very tangible way of letting your Jewish friend know that you understand.

After Pittsburgh: Dealing with Anxiety

Image: Photo of shiva candles at Temple Sinai, Oakland, for the victims of Pittsburgh. (Photo by Mark Snyder, all rights retained.)

A number of Jews have expressed their anxiety to me since the terrible murders at the Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh.

“I’ve always known that there were people who hated us, but this is different,” one said. “It’s as if an alarm has gone off deep in my bones.”

“I am afraid to go near the synagogue,” another said to me, via Twitter.

“My Gentile relatives do not understand why I am so upset,” a convert said to me, “They keep saying, ‘But you don’t live anywhere near Pittsburgh!’ and I can’t make them understand.”

There are many different factors at play here.

  1. The shooting in Pittsburgh was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American Jewish history. This feels like a big deal because it IS a big deal. Never before has an attack on Jews near this magnitude taken place on North American soil.
  2. There is a long history of mass attacks against Jews in Europe, and it is not surprising that American Jews perceive this attack to be a continuation of that history. The roots are the same (see Where did Anti-Semitism Come From?)
  3. This attack was not an isolated incident. The Anti-Defamation League reports that there were 3023 separate anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017-2018. The ADL reports that online anti-Semitic threats and hate speech have increased dramatically since 2016, especially targeting Jews who are public figures or journalists.
  4. Some born-Jews may be experiencing anxiety from intergenerational trauma. A number of studies suggest that some extreme trauma actually affects the DNA, passing effects to future generations.
  5. Jewish education about anti-Semitism often centers on the Holocaust. It is not surprising that a mass murder like the one in Pittsburgh sets off a fear that this is a harbinger of a new Holocaust. The idolization of Nazis and Hitler by many of the alt-right adds to that fear, and many anti-Semites deliberately push those buttons.
  6. The fact that some of our non-Jewish neighbors do not understand our feeling of personal connection to these events can heighten the feeling of fear and perhaps even abandonment.

What can we Jews do about our anxiety levels? And how can our non-Jewish friends and neighbors help us?

Here are the things that reassure me, as I struggle with my own anxieties:

The ADL studies reveal some very good news: the vast majority of our neighbors do not hate us. A 2017 poll revealed that the majority of Americans are concerned about violence against Jews and Muslims:

The surveys reveal that while anti-Semitic attitudes in the United States have increased slightly to 14 percent, the vast majority of Americans hold respectful opinions of their Jewish neighbors. However, for the first time ADL found a majority of Americans (52 percent) saying that they are concerned about violence in the U.S. directed at Jews, and an even a higher percentage (76 percent) concerned about violence directed at Muslims. More than eight in 10 Americans (84 percent) believe it is important for the government to play a role in combating anti-Semitism, up from 70 percent in 2014. –ADL report, 4/6/17

This is very good news. Yes, there are slightly more people reporting anti-Semitic opinions (16%.) In contrast to that, 84% of those surveyed believe it is important for the government to play a role in combating anti-Semitism, up from 70 percent in 2014.

While there have been in the past periods of anti-Semitic incidents and feelings in United States history, all of those times were followed by an improvement in relations. The General Order #11 incident in 1862 was followed by an increased understanding between General Ulysses Grant and the American Jewish community, who ultimately backed him for the presidency. The lynching of Leo Frank in 1915 led to the rise of the ADL, which from the beginning had as its mission “to put an end to the defamation of the Jewish people, and to secure justice and fair treatment for all.” Jewish participation in fighting WWII, and especially the sacrifice of the Four Chaplains gradually changed attitudes, leading to the general good feeling we enjoy today.

Every congregational rabbi and every synagogue board in the United States is concentrating hard on security at Jewish institutions. We already had a level of security that might surprise our Christian neighbors, but every synagogue and Jewish institution is now reviewing their security and looking for the best way to make their people safe. It is not possible to make any place in a free society perfectly safe, but I can assure you that this is a top concern for our leadership today. If you want to help with this, it’s a good time for a donation to your local synagogue – cameras and personnel do not come cheap.

Intergenerational trauma is real. PTSD from other traumas in our lives is real. If you are suffering from anxiety or other symptoms, I encourage you to seek a sympathetic therapist. There are new treatments for these sorts of anxieties all the time and not all of them are drug therapies. However, as the saying goes, “Doesn’t ask, doesn’t get.” or as Hillel put it, “A person prone to being ashamed cannot learn.” (Avot 2:5) To get help with anxiety, you have to seek it out.

One of the most effective ways to deal with the feelings after an anti-Semitic attack is to come together with other Jews. There have been memorials and “Show Up for Shabbat” events ever since the shooting, but it is never too late to gather with Jews for comfort. Your presence at those events helps comfort others, too! You do not have to believe in God. You don’t have to belong to the synagogue. You can just show up for services, although as a colleague of mine pointed out, these days it might be good to call ahead and ask about security procedures.

Look for ways to increase your Jewish engagement. This may seem counterintuitive, and certainly there have always been people who quietly assimilated because the pressure was so horrible, but most of us find that doing things that affirm our Judaism gives us more solace than hiding could ever give. Join that synagogue, or join a Jewish book club. Find a Torah study group, or begin having Shabbat dinners with friends. Take a class and learn more about the Jewish people. These are classic Jewish approaches to healing.

Fight anti-Semitism and other hatreds. Join ADL, or the Southern Poverty Law Center. For more ideas, read 9 Ways to Fight Anti-Semitism. Ten Things We Can Do to Fight Hate and Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Resource Guide by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Fighting back in constructive ways will make the world safer for all minorities. We are not alone in this fight, but we need to build our alliances by supporting the struggles of other minority groups in respectful ways.

Our tradition is strong and it has survived troubled times before. Judaism is thousands of years old: we have outlived the Babylonians, the Romans, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Third Reich. We will survive this, too.

Where Did Anti-Semitism Come From?

Image: The Hall of Names at Yad Vashem – photographs of Jews murdered in the Shoah. (Wikipedia)

Anti-Semitism has deep roots in Western culture, roots running back to ancient times.

Anti-Semitism is a fancy word for the hatred of Jews. It was coined by Germans in the 19th century as a more scholarly-sounding substitute for Judenhass, “hatred of Jews.” It refers only to Jews; anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bias are separate issues. It’s a mark of the bigotry of the coiners that they didn’t bother to notice Muslims and Arabs. “Semitic” is a language group which includes Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic. There is no such thing as a Semite (again, it may be used by someone who wants to sound fancy, but that’s it.)

The concept of Jew-hatred is as old as Western civilization. It has evolved over the centuries, and not in a good way. It began as complaints about character flaws. The Greeks looked down on the Jews for laziness because we insisted on keeping Shabbat.

“In remembrance of the exile of his people, Moses instituted for them a misanthropic and inhospitable way of life.” – Hecataetus of Abdera, 3rd c. BCE

The Romans had an addition beef with us: we were unmanageable and kept revolting against their Empire. They also regarded the Sabbath and the sabbatical year as laziness. They thought our religion was downright perverse.

“Jews hold sacred what everyone else calls profane, and permit what everyone else thinks immoral. They sacrifice rams and bulls as an insult to the gods of the Egyptians. They are lazy and rest one day of the week, and one year out of seven.” – Tacitus, 1st c.

Early Christianity began as a sect within Judaism. They split off over disputes about the necessity of brit milah (circumcision.) After the Great Revolt against Rome, Christians had a strong incentive to convince the Romans that they were a completely separate religion from Judaism. In the gospels, which most scholars date after the Great Revolt, there are verses that become the seeds of religious anti-Semitism, for example:

So when Pilate saw he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and upon our children.” – Matthew 27:24-25

Later Christian scholars interpreted verse 25 as the Jews taking responsibility for the death of Jesus. As the Christian doctrine of the divinity of Jesus (Jesus = God) developed, Christians saw Jews as committing the crime of deicide, the murder of God.

What, then, to do about the Jews? This became a pressing question as Christianity gained followers and respectability in the Roman world. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) formulated a plan for the Jews that held until about the year 1000. He said that Jews were “a special people” who serve as a warning that lack of faith in Jesus would be punished. Therefore, according to Christianity, the murder of Jews was not permitted, but the humiliation of Jews was a good and necessary thing.

(Note: This was the prevailing doctrine until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s. The publication of the document Nostra Aetate (“Our Age”) put an end to this doctrine. Some other Christian denominations have followed suit, others haven’t.)

The Emperor Theodosius II (402-450) of the Byzantine (Eastern) Empire made Christianity the established faith of the Empire in 483. He published the Theodosian Code of laws, which placed restrictions on Jewish life. Jews were forbidden to convert anyone to Judaism. They were barred from the military and from the civil service, except for tax collectors. No new synagogues could be built.

This code was soon after adopted by the Western Empire as well. Thus religious anti-Semitism became a matter of state as well as religion throughout the region that had been the old Roman Empire. Under this situation, the Jews as a people continued to observe their traditions, although sometimes individual Jews did assimilate into Christian society.

This was the situation up until the First Crusade (1096-99). Crusaders marched across Europe towards the Middle East, charged with recapturing the Holy Land from “infidels.” As they traveled, they encountered Jewish communities which they sacked for being “unbelievers.” By some counts, one-third of the Jews of Europe were murdered by Crusaders. The communities of the Rhineland were particularly affected. Soon after, the Jews of Constantinopel (Istanbul,) Syria, and Jerusalem suffered as well.

I “will go on this journey only after avenging the blood of the Crucified by shedding Jewish blood and completely eradicating any trace of those bearing the name “Jew.'” – Godfrey of Bullion (1060-1100)

Things got progressively worse for the Jews of Europe following the Crusades. While Augustine’s teaching was still the official teaching of the Church, it was no longer observed by the laity of Europe. Jews were not citizens of the nations of Europe. They were prohibited from most ways of making a living. Wherever they lived, it was at the sufferance of the local ruler, subject to sudden expulsion. We had become a people with no citizenship, no home.

At intervals, there would be accusations that a Jew or a Jewish community had stolen a Christian child, to use the blood to make Passover matzah. This is known as the Blood Libel. Matza, of course, is made of flour and water, and Jews are forbidden by Jewish law from the consumption of any blood whatsoever; even rare meat is forbidden by kashrut (kosher laws.) However, logic was less exciting a story than the idea of child-murdering, blood-sucking Jews, so the Blood Libel became the default explanation for child murders in Europe. (Click the link for more information about the Blood Libel.)

In most of Christian Europe, where the law of the land and the laws of the Church were one and the same, Jews had very few ways of making a living open to them. One way was actually prescribed by the Church. Christians were not allowed to lend money at interest (see Exodus 22:25-27, Leviticus 25:35-37, Deuteronomy 23:19-20) but Jews were allowed to fill the economic gap. They were allowed to lend money at interest to Christians, providing a service without which economies cannot grow.

No one loves the person to whom they owe money. This heightened the hatred of Christian Europeans for their Jewish neighbors. It also put the Jewish communities at greater risk for expulsion, since if the ruler wished to erase his debts, all he needed to do was banish the Jewish community.

The fact that Jews had been scattered again and again around Europe meant that an individual moneylending Jew might have cousins in cities across the continent. This made it easy to move funds from one city to another, and one country to another. These family networks were the first international banks. At the same time, this situation gave rise to the anti-Semitic trope of the evil Jewish banker. It was the seeds of the accusation that Jews were a conspiracy to control the world.

The expulsions from one country to another reached a crescendo in 1492, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella decided to “purify” Spain of all unbelievers. They issued the Alhambra decree which gave non-Christians, including Jews, a choice: convert to Christianity, leave the country, or be killed. Sephardic (Spanish) Jews scattered all over the world, from the Islamic lands to the East to the Spanish colonies in the Americas.

Some Jews chose to convert to Christianity. It is at this point that we begin to see a racial element to Jew hatred, because those families that converted were known as New Christians and were under suspicion for centuries to come. They were regarded as unreliable converts, liable to revert to Jewish practice, and the Inquistion became the system and court within which they were examined, sometimes under torture, and executed. “Jewish blood” was a liability in Spanish life into the 20th century.

It is worth noting that this colonial period in European history is the same point at which other notions of race began to pick up devotees, as white Europeans encountered dark-skinned people who had resources they wished to colonize. That process is much easier with the concept of race to justify it.

So by 1500, three of the tropes of modern anti-Semitism were in place: the blood libel, the moneylending “international” Jew, and the idea of Jews as a race whose undesirable characteristics are inherited.

More history of course would follow, but for those looking for the roots of modern anti-Semitism, the picture is set. For instance, the blood libel still circulates in the Palestinian and Arab press, both in its original form (murdered children provide blood for Jewish pastry) but in new forms (murdered children provide organs that can be sold on the black market.) The trope of the “globalist” Jew who seeks world domination through an international conspiracy to destroy Western white society has its seeds in the European hatred of its designated moneylenders. The notion of Jews as a race would bear evil fruit in the eugenics of the Nazis, and it is still a trope among American anti-Semites today. (When I converted to Judaism, an old acquaintence tried to assure me that we could stay friends because I wasn’t “racially Jewish.” Ugh.)

So don’t let anyone tell you that anti-Semitism is only about Nazis, or that it is dead. It survives in a thousand clichés, such as “Jewing them down” or alleged compliments “Jewish accountants are the best.” It survives in the belief that George Soros is the spider at the center of a vast international web of conspiracy, when in fact he is a Holocaust survivor and philanthropist. It survives in any talk about Jews as a race when actually we come in all colors and backgrounds. It survives in the notion that Jews care only about other Jews, and in the belief that every recession is actually engineered by Jews.  It survives in conspiracy theories that Israelis were behind 9/11.

Speaking of Israel, since the establishment of the State of Israel, we have had to deal with a phenomenon known as the “New” anti-Semitism, or anti-Semitism of the Left. To learn more about that, I recommend An Open Letter to a UCLA Alumna who Confused anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism by Rabbi John Rosove or the book The New Anti-Semitism by Phyllis Chesler.

If you want to fight anti-Semitism, I suggest reading Nine Ways to Fight Anti-Semitism. I do not understand why this hatred is so persistent, only that it is vital that we fight it. Many other bigotries are fed by anti-Semitism: white supremacy and racism to name just a couple.  Two organizations that fight anti-Semitism and other hatreds are  ADL: The Anti-Defamation League and The Southern Poverty Law Center.

May the world be protected from such evils.

May we see the humanity in every human being.

May the day come when all human beings treat one another with the dignity and mercy  they wish for themselves. Amen.

Terror in Pittsburgh

Image: Pittsburgh cityscape (mgehring/pixabay)

I am sick at heart.

I do not usually post on Shabbat morning, but I see that many people are looking on this blog. Perhaps you are looking for comfort, or strength, or for some way to understand the events in Pittsburgh this morning.

CNN reports as I write this that a man walked into services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA, carrying a gun. He shouted that he wanted Jews to die. He shot at least 12 people and four people are dead.  When the local police arrived, he shot at them, hitting some of them, and then was taken into custody alive.

Baruch Dayan Ha’emet – Blessed is the true Judge. I grieve for the dead, for the families of the dead. I pray that those who are injured are able to heal quickly and completely.

Police are beginning their investigation, which will likely go on for some time. They want to find out if this person is associated with others, and look for how we can make events like these less likely in future. They need to put together the evidence to convict this man of his crimes. Good.

In 1999 I was a member of Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA. I was out of town, and when I heard on the news that three “Northern California synagogues had been firebombed,” I was terrified. It was the first time I, as a Jew, had heard of an attack on my community, not on Jews in other times and places, but here and now. It was my first experience of violent anti-Semitism.

TodayI would be able to get a lot of information instantly, but in 1999 the Internet and CNN were not what they are now. Eventually I found out that it wasn’t my shul, it was three Sacramento synagogues. Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento had had the worst of it, a firebombing. The other two synagogues were vandalized but damage was much less.

I will never forget what my rabbi, Rabbi Steve Chester, said to me. “The things you want to watch at a time like this, ” he said, “Are ‘how long did it take the police to come? How long before the fire department? What did the public officials say?’ Because unfortunately there have always been and will always be people who hate Jews, but as long as the community is with us, as long as our neighbors see us as their neighbors, we are going to be all right.” He continued, “If the police are slow to come, or don’t care, then we have a larger problem and we should worry.”

There have always been and there will always be people who hate Jews. I am going to write more posts on anti-Semitism in the coming days, but what I want to say today is that I am reassured that the police came immediately and the news coverage of this terrible event has been sympathetic to the Jews, not the murderer. We can pay attention and take comfort in that.

This horror was intended to frighten us, whether the gunman was a lone anti-Semite or part of an organization. If we react with fear, staying away from synagogues, hiding signs of our Jewishness, we will give him a victory he does not deserve. It is natural that it is our first reaction, but it must not be our final reaction.

As a community we need to embrace our cousins at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh with love and sorrow as they grieve their dead and deal with their own wounds. As a community we must strengthen the security at our own synagogues and institutions. As a community we need to tell the anti-Semites, “No. We will not allow you to terrify us. We will go on doing mitzvot, living our lives, because we will not make a false god of you or the terror you bring our way.”

This is a terrible day. We ache for the families of those who were killed. We ache for the wounded and their families. But I pray that we will not let one evil man sway us from our task as Jews: to live lives of Torah despite it all.

Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History – Book Review

Image: Political Cartoon: “USA to Russian Tsar: Stop Your Cruel Oppression of the Jews, 1904.” Chromolithograph. Public Domain in the U.S. 

In April, 1903, 49 Jews were murdered in the small city of Kishinev, the capital of Moldova, in the Pale of Settlement section of the Russian Empire. 600 Jews were raped or wounded, and over 1000 homes and businesses were ransacked.

Unlike previous such incidents (which have precedents going all the way back to the First Crusade and before) this time the Western press mobilized public opinion against the Russian Empire for allowing the carnage. Hearst Newspapers carried one lurid photo after another. Reporters and Jewish relief workers mobilized to document what had happened and to help the survivors. The political cartoon above is a rather mild example of the coverage.

Stephen J. Zipperstein has written a gripping and fascinating account of the events leading up to the pogrom and its aftermath. It had a cacophony of effects that would echo through the 20th century and beyond.

What do the founding of the NAACP, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the rise of Zionism, the “New Jew,” and the Hebrew poem “In the City of Slaughter” have in common?  It’s Kishinev.

If you think you already know all about Kishinev, you probably don’t. If you think you know who write the Protocols, you might be surprised. If you are dreading an account of violence and gore, know that Zipperstien is more interested in causes and effects than in a salacious or bloody-minded account of the matter.

This book gave me a great deal to think about, especially about the power of publicity and its unintended outcomes. I heartily recommend it.

A Different Kind of Purim

Image: Demonstration organized by Teens For Gun Reform, an organization created by students in the Washington DC area, in the wake of the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Photo by Lorie Shaull, some rights reserved.

In the past, the Book of Esther and its holiday of Purim have mostly been celebrated as a party in the United States. We’ve been in an extraordinarily peaceful time for the Jews of North America.

So much has changed since last Purim. Some of us may not feel in our usual Purim mood, wondering what festivity is really suitable. Every community has to decide that for itself.

It is quite certain, though, that the themes of the Scroll of Esther, themes of threat and dramatic reversal are very much with us right now. The sages speak of both the book of Esther and the holiday of Purim as hafuch – upside down, topsy-turvy – and we seem to be in the midst of reversals.

Anti-Semitism and White Supremacy: In August, Jews in the United States were faced with the spectre of a president who said, and repeated, that he thought “there is blame on both sides” in Charlottesville, where white supremacists threatened a synagogue while the local police declined a call for help.  Like the Jews of Shushan, the Jews of Charlottesville were left unprotected. The fact that a non-Jewish woman who was attempting to counter the messages of hate was murdered by white supremacist violence underlined the fact that this was not paranoia, not drama, but genuine danger.

All manner of bigotries are on the rise. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports 957 hate groups currently active in the U.S.  Wholesale hatred of African-Americans, Latinx persons, immigrants, Jews, Muslims and LGBTQ people has not been this open and shameless in decades.

#MeToo: In October, a different set of Esther themes resonated as a series of high-profile, powerful men lost their jobs when men and women began to speak up about their experiences of sexual harassment at the hands of those men. It seemed that the rules changed overnight: the accounts of victim/survivors were taken seriously. We are still in the midst of comings-out and revelations, and we are also beginning to see some backlash, but the situation is filled with echoes of the reversals in Esther, and the story of Vashti, the shamed queen from Chapter 1.


The Youth of Parkland: Then on February 14, 2018, we have witnessed yet another mass murder in a school, carried out by a white man armed with an assault rifle. At first it seemed much like the mass shootings that preceded it: white male uses legally acquired AR-15 to mow down an unthinkable number of students going about their business in what should have been a safe place. Then the story changed, with an Esther-like reversal: the victims have refused to behave like victims. They have already traveled to the state government in Tallahassee and to the federal government in Washington. They are organizing school walkouts and marches in the coming weeks and months. They are absolutely serious about fighting back against the horror of mass murder by AR-15, and they have rallied the hearts of many Americans.

It remains to be seen what comes of all of this. On the one hand, dark forces have been set loose in our society, given permission and encouragement by people at high levels of the government. On the other, the new willingness to listen to and believe victim/survivors of sexual violence is astonishing to many of us who had despaired of change in that quarter. The voices of the young men and women of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School seem downright miraculous. I am reminded of the line from the prophet Joel 3:1:

And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out My spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, [while] your old men dream dreams, your youth shall see visions.

However you choose to observe Purim this year, whether with the usual Purim spiel or a more solemn observance, pay attention to all that is hafuch – upside down – in our world at the moment.

We can allow the spirit of Mordechai’s words to Esther to percolate through our being:

Who knows whether you are not come to royal estate for such a time as this? – Esther 4:14

Like Esther, we must use the tools at our disposal to right the wrongs in our world.

Purim sameach!