By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
Friday, February 24, was a particularly difficult day. A friend texted me that her grandson had had another seizure. Fortunately, he was fine after a short visit to the hospital, but his parents and grandparents are still shaken and upset. Shortly after, I learned that a friend from rabbinical school had passed away. We were scheduled to receive our honorary doctor of divinity degrees in May. He will receive another award, but some of the pleasure of the occasion will be gone. Normally I would have been craving Shabbat, a much needed time to regroup, and looking forward to services and Torah study. Instead, I felt fear: a Neo-Nazi group had called for that Shabbat to be a national Day of Hate.
Although there were no major protests or incidents, it was not unrealistic to worry. According to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency article published on February 22, Neo-Nazis held a rally outside the Broadway preview of “Parade,” the irony being that the musical tells the story of an antisemitic murder, the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank that took place in Georgia. (The article can be found here.) Although New York City’s mayor and others condemned the rally, it’s scary to think how acceptable it’s become to publicly demonize all Jews.
Am I overreacting? Maybe, but I keep thinking about the interview of the writer Walter Mosley that appeared on the Forward website that same week. While most people identify Mosley as Black, he is also Jewish on his mother’s side. Mosley noted the difficulties of being Black in the U.S. and how his mother never identified as white, but rather as a Jew. (In the past, Jews and those from countries surrounding the Mediterranean were often not considered white.) He said that, in the past, “there were certain kinds of exclusions of Jews, but most people just weren’t worried about that. They weren’t thinking about that. What they were thinking about was the danger of people of color.” He then added, “There’s a lot of anger about Jews” now, before noting the same is true for Chinese Americans. A Black man, who knows how dangerous the U.S. is for Blacks, acknowledges the same is now true for Jews and Asians. (To read the interview, click here.)
I do realize that my view of the Neo-Nazi call for a Day of Hate was colored by pressures from other parts of my life. This year has been filled with far too many people I know dying. I am also still dealing with the aftermath of my mother’s death last fall, including preparations for her gravestone. A short bout of the flu and the fatigue I’ve been experiencing since have not helped. You might say that I was prepared for the worst.
Fortunately, my worst fears were not confirmed. In fact, some good things did occur that weekend. First, there were more people in the synagogue building than normal. It was wonderful to see faces I don’t get to see often, at least not in person. (Some of these folks still prefer Zoom, especially on winter evenings.) I was reminded of the times before the pandemic when the building was always filled with people: either attending Torah study or gathering to talk and bond while their children attended religious school.
I’d posted on Facebook about my week just before getting off the computer for Shabbat and found many messages of consolation and love when I turned on the computer Saturday night. I’m not always happy with Facebook (it can be a real time waster), but that outpouring warmed my heart.
This doesn’t mean that life now goes back to normal now that the Day of Hate fizzled. There is no return to the old normal: I can’t help but look with suspicion when I see someone I don’t know arrive at the synagogue. But I try not to act on that because I don’t want someone else’s hate to turn me into a person who mistrusts others. That doesn’t stop me, though, from periodically reminding myself of the building’s exits and potential places to hide.
I wish I could end on a message of hope, saying that everything will be alright, but there are no guarantees. We talk about fighting hate with love, but so far that message has not changed those who hate Jews. There have always been (and probably always will be) people who hate us. What has changed is that it’s now OK to publicly proclaim that message. It’s now OK to call for Days of Hate. If this continues, someday someone will take the next step and people – innocent people – will die. And we will have to add yet another day of mourning to our calendar.