We woke on the morning of Yom Kippur to the news from Halle. I felt queasy, but not surprised. My first thought was “of course: another holy day, another attack.” This has happened before; it has happened too many times before. In the last year alone, fourteen people have been murdered and eleven injured in terrorist attacks on synagogues. And even this horrific toll is far from the whole story; we have endured almost three years of escalating insult, injury and attack, from the crude vandalism of our synagogues and community centers, to the desecration of our cemeteries, to the torch-lit chants of “the Jews will not replace us.”
The howling cant of antisemitism has only become shriller with every passing day. The Republican candidate for Illinois’ Third Congressional District – the constituency neighboring my own – in last year’s midterm elections was an open, explicit, unreconstructed neo-Nazi who ran unopposed in his party’s primary. Art Jones has been proudly photographed in his brown shirt and kepi, and has never made a secret of his belief that the Holocaust “is a racket,” or of his affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan, the National Socialist Movement, and the Aryan Nations. The usual people made the usual indignant denunciations during the election and, deprived of his party’s support, Jones was crushed by his democratic rival. Yet, he still received 56,000 votes, more than a quarter of all the votes cast.
Think about that.
It seems that we have been here before. The intensifying rhetoric and escalating antisemitic violence are only the latest manifestations of what the German-Jewish novelist and essayist Jakob Wasserman called a history “of accumulated criminal fury, ruthless massacre, spiritual and bodily ravishment, malicious slander, systematic blood-baiting mitigated by no scruples whatsoever, fanatical persecution to the point of utter exhaustion of the victims…” This is all so depressingly familiar; we know the script.
The writing was on the wall in the wake of the vandalism at the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, Mo., one month after President Trump’s inauguration in 2017. I wrote at the time that I expected things to get bad, “and very soon. Just as the archetypal serial killer escalates from torturing pets, to butchering neighborhood animals, to hunting humans, seeking greater gratification with every boundary crossed, so will the antisemite progress from a nuisance, to a problem, to a danger, to a vandal– to a murderer… This is the reality: Kristallnacht is coming.”
And here we are, a little more than two and a half years later, when expecting a neo-Nazi attack seems so normal that police departments across the United States and Canada – though not, apparently, in Germany – dispatched units to stand guard outside synagogues for the High Holy Days. The black-and-white police cruiser, and the conspicuous security guards at the temple doors have become almost as symbolic of the season as honey cake and the shofar.
As I prepared to leave for Shul yesterday, I fired off a brief text message to my spouse, who has started a new job in Boston while I pack up our apartment in the Chicago suburbs. I felt a frisson of possible, impending peril. If it came to it, I wanted her to know that the last thing that I was thinking was how much I loved her.
Not to be dramatic, but just in case, I want you to know that I love you more than anything. These ten years, for all of our struggles, have been the best years of my life because of you. You are everything.
I will be okay. I know, logically, that I’m safe. But the fear. That constant, nagging feeling… Today, of all days, it’s a bit much.
My thoughts spun with questions: In what kind of world does a person joining their community in worship to seek atonement for their failings on the holiest day of the year have to consider the possibility of their impending death? Why do houses of worship need to have police protection? Do Christian churches routinely hire armed guards to keep their congregants safe? But the biggest question was this:
Why am I going to Shul today, if I might be putting myself in mortal danger.
I went to Shul yesterday for reasons that are both very simple and extremely complex. The simplest reason is that I went because I am a Jew, and to be a Jew is to be part of a line of descent from generations of Jews who faced greater obstacles, perils, and violence than we face even today. They were survivors, and some were martyrs like the ones that we remember in the Eleh Ezkerah on Yom Kippur. It is embedded in my Jewish name: I am Matitiyahu ben Yosef, the son on Yosef ben Moshe, who was the son of Moshe ben Avraham, going back generation upon generation.
This is something essential to the Jewish experience, and I consciously observe the Day of Atonement not only for myself, but to honor my parents and grandparents as we are enjoined to by the fifth of the Ten Commandments. But it is more than that; when I stand with a minyan, I am always conscious of the martyrs, and not only the ten in our martyrology, but the Six Million, and the victims of Pittsbugh, Poway, Kishinev, Mainz, York, and all of the other pogroms and massacres of our people. I fast on Yom Kippur for all of the Jews throughout our history who were denied that possibility of atonement by antisemites and antisemitic violence.
In a small way, it is an act of defiance and resistance. The historian Yehuda Bauer uses the term Amidah to describe Jewish acts of resistance, both great and small, during the Holocaust. The Amidah, a sequence of nineteen blessings, is a fundamental component of Jewish worship. Observant Jews recite it three times a day, and there are special Amidot for Shabbes and other holidays. The word literally means “to stand,” and we say it – sometimes silently and sometimes aloud – while standing. At the center of Jewish life then, as Bauer noted, is the act of standing up. So standing up, to resist oppression, hate and tyranny is an Amidah, a profoundly sanctified act.
My observance of the holiest day in our calendar was my Amidah; a holy act of resistance against Robert Bowers, John Earnest, Art Jones, the Halle shooter, Hitler, and everyone who has tried to destroy us.
Yet, I realized that our Amidot are even more than that as I stood for prayer yesterday with the members of Tzedek Chicago. Led by Rabbi Brant Rosen, Tzedek Chicago is a young congregation that takes the injunction “tzedek tzedek tirdof” (“justice, justice, you will pursue,” from Deuteronomy 16:20) to heart. Tzedek means justice and, to be a Jew implicitly means to always work for for justice. Indeed, Rabbi Rosen has placed social justice at the very center of his Shul’s liturgy and observance. The Al Cheyt, a recitation of the sins for which we atone, is the central ritual of Yom Kippur. Each line starts with the phrase “For the sin we committed before You…” and covers a long catalogue of offenses. Tzedek Chicago’s service adds an Al Cheyt of collective sins that placed the focus directly on our moral and ethical responsibility to each other and to justice.
What are we if not for justice? The same Torah that calls us a “chosen people” commands us to work for justice. This, more than anything, is who, and what we are, and has become an indispensable component of Tzedek Chicago’s liturgy, and of the practice of innumerable Jews like myself.
The Halle shooting – and all the acts of antisemitic savagery that preceded it, and all that will certainly follow – put this into sharp relief for me. We are hated; we have been hated by dictators, tyrants, oppressors, and bigots for millennia. We have suffered and, like so many people, communities, and nations, we continue to suffer intolerance and violence. Like Ernie Levy, the titular just man of André Schwarz-Bart’s great novel The Last of the Just, we bear the weight of suffering merely by standing up. But in standing up, as Rabbi Rosen demonstrates, in making our collective Amidah, we can can stand for something and fulfill our obligation to pursue justice.
My Yom Kippur ended on that thought. On the very day that yet another gunman tried to destroy people like me, I walked away from the service feeling elated and restored, knowing that I can face another year rededicated to justice, whatever sorrow, suffering, and peril the year might contain. After the weeks, years, and millennia of antisemitic violence, slander and persecution, we are still here.
Photo by Robert Frank