It happened less than three weeks ago. But, despite another gun rampage in California, apocalyptic wildfires, midterm results and recounts — the tsunami of “breaking news” that has pushed it off the front pages and the cable news shows — the murder of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh is still very much a current event. There is no expiration date on violent antisemitism.
Since the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue on Saturday, Oct. 27, I have been struggling with what, if anything, to think and write about the Pittsburgh pogrom. That is a word that isn’t much heard today. It is what the Cossacks did to Jews in the days of the czar, raping, ransacking and murdering Jews in their shtetls. These assaults led many Jews to immigrate to America – Die Goldene Medina – the Golden Land – where they could live free from fear, violence and hate.
This was decades before the Nazis murdered six million Jews, an unprecedented horror that added another term to the lexicon: Holocaust. The Pittsburgh attacker seemed to be channeling the Nazis when, entering the synagogue, he reportedly shouted, “All Jews must die.”
It was not a Cossack attack that led my maternal grandfather to immigrate here in 1904; it was opportunity. From the small town of Volozhin in what is now Belarus, he came intending to make his fortune and return to my grandmother and their young daughter, Basha, whom I would come to know as Aunt Bessie. But, the story goes, he breathed the fresh air of freedom and paid their passage to America in 1907. A year later, my mother was born on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a “birthright” American citizen. You know, the category the president wants to revoke, because, as we all know, they live here for 85 years (nearly 90 in my mother’s case) and reap all these benefits while contributing little to nothing to the United States. There would be three more siblings—a daughter and two sons, each of whom served in the military during World War II.
Had my grandfather not made that fateful decision, I would not exist. On May 10, 1942, two months before I was born, nearly my entire family in Volozhin was “destroyed,” the word my mother used, by the occupying Nazis and their local collaborators—for the crime of being Jewish. These were my grandmother’s brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews and countless other relatives. There was one survivor, who escaped to the forests, joined with the partisans and eventually emigrated to America. His first wife had perished in Volozhin that awful day in May.
In the 1950s, when I was a teenager on Long Island, the family never talked about what happened. And my generation wanted nothing more than to be unhyphenated Americans. There were, of course, subtle and sometimes not so subtle reminders that we were among the “others” who could never quite achieve the American dream of complete acceptance. In the largely Polish and Italian immigrant area where we lived, someone once called me a kike. There were more subtle forms of antisemitism. These were unspoken taboos. I could never date a girl from the Canterbury Woods subdivision, which was restricted; no Jews could live there.
In college, I rejected an invitation to join a Jewish fraternity and pledged a gentile fraternity instead; in my senior year, I was an officer. One of my fraternity brothers casually used the phrase to “Jew somebody down.” He was from Texas and a good guy. I had to explain to him why this was offensive. He honestly hadn’t known. As a young reporter a few years later, I would hear the same phrase spoken in Philadelphia by an African American woman, a welfare activist whom I liked and admired. It was upsetting but not overly threatening.
In my senior year, I dabbled in Unitarianism, even attending church a few times. One semester, I was privileged to take a religious ethics seminar with Ursula and Reinhold Niebuhr, the prominent Protestant theologian. The subject of my term paper was “Protestant Fundamentalism and the Radical Right.” As I re-read it (yes, I kept a copy) now, the poisonous hate—the antisemitism–is still spewing from some of the same sources. The difference is that what was once regarded as the radical lunatic fringe is now in the mainstream of American political life. This has made the unthinkable thinkable again.
My ex-wife was raised by Jewish parents who sent her to a Presbyterian youth group – their defense against antisemitism in their largely blue-collar world. In our marriage, we were nominally Jewish but also had a Christmas tree. The second time around, there is no ambiguity. I am proudly, defiantly a Jew. Still not strictly observant, but unequivocal in my faith.
Thus, did Pittsburgh hit close to home. I thought about the relatives who perished in the Holocaust and the sons I raised as Jews who attend synagogues in other cities. Could their houses of worship be next? Could ours? I cried, and then I got angry. Am I a Jewish American or an American Jew? Who am I? Where do I fit in this nation I love but now sometimes barely know? These are existential questions African Americans have long faced, and Jews have faced in many other countries over many millennia. But not like this. Never before. Never here.
Never again? Just words.