‘The Holocaust Did Not Begin with Killing; It Began With Words.’
“I would say to young people a number of things, and I have only one minute. I would say, let them remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity. Let them be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can do — every one — our share to redeem the world despite of all absurdities and all the frustration and all disappointments. And above all, remember that the meaning of life is to live life as it if were a work of art. You’re not a machine. When you are young, start working on this great work of art called your own existence.”
— Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in 1972, quoted from this 2012 On Being Interview
In the week since 11 were slain at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, I have thought a lot about Rabbi Heschel, about the power of words and art for healing, about what is the place of a writer or a storyteller; someone who is an outsider to a tradition but whose heartbreaks the same as if she were an insider.
As Heschel says here, “Every word has power.” This is a theme, as a number of signs held in vigil and made in mourning after the shooting have conveyed, “Words Matter.”
Only on this Shabbat morning, one week since this heinous act, was I able to remember nearly two years ago exactly when I heard something similar for the first time.
It was in November 2016, when white nationalists gathered in Washington D.C. to spew hateful rhetoric as an indication of so much more more to come. Nazi propaganda was spouted in the original German, and the audience was assured that America belongs to white people. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum released a statement expressing deep alarm. Its reminder lodged itself in my brain and would not leave that included this sentence:
“The Holocaust did not begin with killing, it began with words.”
I care about words more than most people, because I am a writer who has devoted my life to storytelling. This summer, I got to be camp storyteller for a surf camp that, at its core, upholds Jewish spiritual values. This was a thrill for a lot of reasons.
First, like all New Yorkers, there’s a bit of Jewish culture that was just part of my childhood because of its ubiquity throughout this diverse city. Aside from a palette for bagels and lox with capers (only from New York, please) it was with some sadness that I learned that an easier way for most people to say my name — Shonda — roughly translates to shame in Yiddish. In junior high school, at De La Salle Academy, led by Christian Brothers, I thankfully deepened my exposure to Jewish faith through our annual Passover Seder ritual meal as a community invested in recognizing the beauty of an aligned Abrahamic tradition.
But at the heart of being an outsider to a tradition, even one which you respect and think you know, is fear. Fear of what you don’t know, the limitations of your own ignorance. Maybe you will ask too many questions; maybe you will not ask enough. Who can you ask without sounding ridiculous? Will they want to tell you? Will they mistake your curiosity for a desire to belong? And what if it is? And what if it is not?
In my twenties, I learned that transgressing the boundaries of what I did not understand at the intersection of Jewish culture, identity, history and politics could be a threat to my physical safety. I thought I had the privilege, in New York, of blending in, no matter how radical or leftist my t-shirt might appear. Or maybe it was that I came to experimenting with wearing t-shirts that conveyed more radical ideas when I lived in the Bay Area and I wasn’t working. Nevertheless, I was waiting for the Muni bus wearing a red and black shirt I’d acquired with a Malcolm X quote related to Zionism that I can’t even remember now.
This was 15 years ago, just as the War on Terrorism had begun. There were rallies all the time, particularly in the Bay, though nothing, I was told, like it had been in the 60s of course. While waiting for the bus, I managed to attract the ire of an older white man who spit in my direction.
I never wore that shirt again. I noted, too, again, that I didn’t even understand what the damn shirt meant. I was just trying to be supportive of what I thought I knew.
On another occasion, as a religion and general assignment reporter, even after profiling an Orthodox rabbi on Christmas Day, I ventured to express my opinion about a New York Times writer writing about evangelicals and Pro-Israeli sentiments.
For the next 72 hours, I found myself immersed in a virtual beehive of comments on my blog that made me swear off writing about anything but Hanukkah (relatively inconsequential, my friend Eric assured me with his characteristic chuckle, but safe! I countered) for a good long while. In spite of myself, I wasn’t really able to keep this promise and ended up writing about women attempting to enter the rabbinate in Central Texas which also touched a nerve in at least one reader, who, in the history of my newspaper career, I’m proud to say was the only person I ever hung up on because of her condescension. It got me called into the Managing Editor’s office, but thankfully, he understood why she needed to be hung up on.
“The task (of perfecting the world) is not yours to complete, but neither are you free to desist from it.” — The Talmud
Jewish spirituality offers me a reminder of a kind of resilience that resonates. It is a mirror, in so many ways, for the ways of Black folks in this country. I was not particularly interested in immediate forgiveness in the wake of the murder of nine church leaders and members of Mother Emanuel church in 2015. They, too, were slain in their sanctuary by a white homegrown terrorist radicalized on the Internet. The ADL reports that 59 percent of domestic extremist murders last year were committed by people with far-right affiliations, up from 20 percent in 2016.
This idea, about perfecting the world, comes to mind, because this report also calls out “black nationalist killings” as an emerging problem. This is not unconnected to the present impasse between some Jews and Blacks related to the Black Lives Matter Movement and Pro-Israeli sentiments. The complexities here are not my work, but neither should they go unstated, not even here, not even now.
We are targets, now, as we have been in the past, in parallel ways. This is why it is problematic to equate Black Lives Matter activists (who have been murdered, targeted and hunted under a set of suspicious circumstances, I might add — including an ongoing investigation by the FBI) with right wing extremists, or to use the language of the government, refer to those who embody this era’s civil rights movement as Black Identity Extremists.
But this is not my work. At least I don’t think it is. I don’t want it to be.
But nor, as the Talmud suggests, can I give up. Giving up, desisting, for a writer, even a creative one, is silence. Turning away. Meeting even the most vicious words with quiet. Heschel also said the opposite of good is not evil but indifference.
To the extent that I can articulate what I believe in the way of faith, a connection to God or spirituality anymore, this is my religion. Since the shooting last weekend, it is all I have thought about.
It’s why I wasn’t sure what to say to my closest Jewish friends, who I affectionately now refer to as my tribe. Silence felt respectful until it didn’t. Prayer felt inadequate.
Reading for me is sacred, is like prayer. I have an unnatural obsession with the library — though I suppose there are worse things to be obsessed with — and my overidentification with knowledge in the form of books has always saved me, comforted me, given me something to hitch my anxiety to aside from actual emotion. Instead of the overwhelming flood of feelings that comes with being an intuitive person, which at times feels like opening a damn vein and letting shattered glass into your bloodstream by way of the heart valves just by taking a shallow breath many thousands of times a day, I can flood my brain with information! Context! Facts! Data! This is actually why I love and loathe social media in all of its performative glory; I get to distract myself with my drug of choice, which is more things to know instead of feel.
It’s fantastic until I’ve drained myself of my will to live or I have a vulnerability hangover (20 years of publishing about your life story on the internet and otherwise will do that) and then I put myself on time out and unplug for approximately 45 minutes until it feels like I’ve fallen into the pit of the earth and I need to plug back into the Matrix In Case of Emergency.
Anyway, this fall, my obsession was rewarded and punished in equal measure. The New York Public Library offered a Culture Pass for card holders for free! Make a reservation at a New York institution with your library card and you and a guest could go whenever reservations were available. I don’t remember when the announcement was, but I was already having separation anxiety about missing my tribe.
I was already thinking about how much I still had to learn about Judaism, how rich and beautiful the culture of my friends was. I made a reservation to visit the Jewish Museum on November 1st. I felt really proud of myself for being so organized. I moved on.
Another cool thing happened, too, because I’m on the newsletter/listserv or whatever for the…you guessed it — public library. I’m too grown to dress up for Halloween and I work for myself most of the time so I didn’t have a way to commemorate the season. But the main Manhattan library was going to have a costume parade at a Library After Hours event featuring Tim Gunn. I felt really ready.
For the first time in my adult life, I decided to go all out and dress up as a sexy librarian. It was fun. I got to the costume parade late but it was totally worth it. Tim Gunn always makes a lot of faces. I got a key chain and some other things that are completely unnecessary because supporting the library when you have a master’s in information studies is just good for the soul, if not the student loans.
Anyway, I was headed home when a nice enough looking older white gentleman approached me and told me I was pretty. He asked me what I did in the city. He looked relatively normal, except he did seem…anxious.
“I teach.” I mentioned the school, my class. I don’t know why. I shouldn’t have. His eyes widened.
“Are you one of those feminists who teaches about how men are weak and women and children are strong? The women who have, like, the slave mentality? Like the little Jews?”
This is a truncated version of the way he started to escalate and go off. About powerful Romans. The brave. Weak men. And weak slaves. And women. And children. And Jews.
I immediately started looking around because his voice was getting louder and louder. Spittle formed on his lip. I thought again about that time in the Bay when I got spit at.
Thankfully, we were surrounded by people but I was still alarmed and backing up. “I’m going to go,” I said, walking away quickly.
“That’s right, run! Because you’re a cocksucking faggot!” He yelled.
I was shaken. I posted about it on Twitter, then I deleted the thread. I made my Instagram account private, even knowing its owned by Facebook and the security issues that pop up there are not so much about what the companies own related to your profile so much as what your friends do.
I know these things, and yet, I wanted to find some way back to my own safety. Sanctuary. These small steps felt like the best temporary solution, but also, not really enough. Then, I got a reminder that it was time for my visit to the Jewish Museum.
I went to the Jewish Museum on November 1st. That was where I found what I found language for at Sababa this summer as my sukkat shlomecha — a temporary shelter of peace — my own kind of living sanctuary.
The Isle of Tears, a reminder of the Jewish immigrants accepted and rejected at Ellis Island and their many languages, hanging from the ceiling in the general exhibit, astounded and soothed me. Brought me back to my work again.
Kehinde Wiley, of course, and his global perspective, his signature style, are always a revelation. A gift. The colors and the craft, the decisions, the royalty. This assertion and confidence is of course life-giving.
Below, the focal point of a performance piece staged first in Venice in 1971: a young woman stood naked before a mirror slowly cutting her hair. She attached the strands to this mirror. The description of this work reads:
“The prominent star, the action of cutting her hair, and, hung on the wall, a humble shirt reminiscent of a concentration camp uniform remind the viewer of the indignities Jews suffered during the Holocaust. The specter of the Holocaust, which loomed over post-World War II Italy of Mauri’s youth, determined his core artistic vision. The non-Jewish artist made this work at a time when he felt his compatriots were forgetting their fascist past. His body of work, however, goes beyond reenacting the horrors of the yesterday, alluding to the continued presence of ethnic intolerance and its normalization throughout the world.”