It is difficult for me to write about antisemitism, the Holocaust, and threats against the State of Israel, but not because they are unimportant to me—just the opposite. As the child of a mother and grandparents who had to run for their lives from France in 1940, and as the grandnephew of other relatives who were not so lucky, I take threats to the Jewish people extremely personally.
I acknowledge that there is much in Judaism, much in Jewish history, and much in the situation of Jews today, that is painful. Yet, my choice has been not to allow those realities to determine the way I experience Judaism. I choose to be joyful as a Jew because, through joy, I find that I defeat hate.
There is much at this time of year, though, that makes that choice difficult. Historically, Passover has been the season that excited anti-semites into blood libels—bizarre claims that Jews use the blood of Christian children to make their Passover matzah. Easter has been the holiday that provokes charges of deicide—the ancient accusation that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus.
Two days ago, I had a rude reminder. An elderly woman—who did not leave her name or other identification—left a message on my office voicemail telling me that she is “angry at the rabbis,” and, I assume, she meant to include me. She said that she is angry because of the way the rabbis provoked the Romans into executing Jesus. She railed that, while I celebrate my freedom during Passover, I should also teach my people about the historical crime of the Jewish people.
This is the point at which I take a deep breath and try not to scream.
I know what all of my Christian friends and colleagues will say to me at this point. Yes, of course, I know that one mentally ill person with a telephone does not speak for all of Christianity. I know that this woman probably deserves more pity than condemnation. I know that only a small minority of American Christians harbor this kind of hatred. I know all that and, I assure you, I don’t want anyone to apologize for the words of one crazy lady.
Yet, I also want you to know that this kind of antisemitism is real. This is not the first time I’ve experienced it, even if I don’t talk about it much. It hurts.
And, yes, I do want to bring this experience back to the theme of this blog. How do we, as Jews, celebrate our Judaism with joy when we know that our history is punctuated with hatred, persecution and genocide? How do we keep ourselves from slipping into a sorrowful view of our very identities as Jews? How do we keep Judaism from becoming a religion that is primarily about self-pity and our own suffering?
This is a serious question for me. I was deeply turned off of Judaism as a youngster because of the emphasis on suffering I experience in my religious school education. Admittedly, I was a teenager in the 1970s, a time when the Jewish community was over-compensating for decades of silence about the Holocaust. I remember a textbook in religious school that had a page with ten thousand tiny dots on it. The text explained that it would take six hundred such pages to show the number of Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. I remember looking at that page and thinking, “Is this really what Judaism is all about?”
Obviously, I discovered that Judaism is about a great deal more. It is about living life with a purpose beyond mourning our past. It is about discovering that our lives have deepest meaning and greatest fulfillment when we reach toward our highest aspirations. It is about celebrating the divine presence we feel in our most profound moments. It is about living with wonder at the miracle of existence. Now, when I teach teenagers, I want them to learn that lesson first, long before they hear me say a word about Jewish suffering.
The darkness is there, but it cannot define us. The joy I experience as a Jew would not be as deep or as bright as it is if I did not acknowledge the darkness that the light illuminates. Judaism is the tradition that admits the darkness, yet defies it. We do not deny that we live in a world that is far from what God intended when, in the act of creation, God called it “good.” There’s a lot in the world that’s not so good. But, we still hope for a better world and act to create it.
That voicemail message really got the better of me for a few days. I asked my colleagues what they thought I should do about it. Most of them told me to ignore it, which was probably good advice. For me, though, reflecting on the anger, fear and hurt it provoked in me is just another reminder of how important it is for me to step out of the darkness and reaffirm the light of Jewish joy.