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Rich Cohen, perhaps best known for his book Tough Jews, just wrote the most crystal-clear explanation of the current state of American Jews on Tablet. He answered things I didn’t even know I was wondering about. Here are some of Cohen’s main points, via quotes taken directly from his essay:

Our seven-decade bubble
“The unimaginable evil of the Holocaust seemed to kill anti-Semitism, even the polite country-club variety that shows up in the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. After the war, Hemingway disavowed Jewish jokes, which, he seemed to realize, were connected, in some way, to what happened. It created a bubble, a zone of safety not only for Jews but for other minorities. It’s no coincidence that the civil right movements came in the wake of WWII. Anti-Semitism still existed of course, but, in America, it became socially unacceptable. It retreated to the bedrooms and parlors, where it was expressed in the way of certain mystery religions, in secret, behind closed doors, so quietly you might think it had vanished.

“This is my childhood, the world where I grew up. The horror of the Holocaust purchased us a 70-year vacation from history, though we didn’t know it. We believed the world had changed, as had human nature. Jews remained distinct in the new dispensation, but in a good way—a near-at-hand exotic, a symbol of exile, which we were told was the natural state of modern man. For perhaps the only time in history, you might actually want to be a Jew. Because of the close families and good husbands and yada yada. Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth, Mel Brooks. To those of us who came of age in these years, the future seemed like it would be more of the same, the present carried on forever.

Jews can no longer pass
“It’s as if Jews are bell-bottoms or fringed coats. Once upon a time, we’d been in fashion, but not anymore. What you have now is a return to the green-screen hatred, which, like malaria, spikes and remits but never goes away.”

What changed?
“Well, for starters, there are just fewer of us in proportion to the whole. Whereas Jews once constituted five percent of America, and as much as forty percent of New York, those numbers have shrunk. We’re perhaps thirteen percent of New York and around two percent of the nation. In this sense, American Jews are living with the results of their success. This is indeed the promised land. It’s where Jews fulfilled the dream which, for many, has been to stop being Jews and become part of the imagined whole.  Like the caboose of a train, we’re getting smaller as we go away.”

What else?
“Which brings up the second point—the Holocaust, which is one reason there are so few Jews. We lost almost half our population not long ago. “Never Forget” is one of the admonitions we heard in Sunday School. But people do forget. Everything, all the time. As the events exit living memory, as the people who survived it as well as those who liberated the camps, die, tragedy shifts from memory to history. As memory fades, the old thing returns, filling the subterranean cisterns.”

The all too common conflation of Israel with Judaism
“Some attribute the hatred to the policies of Israel. (“Bibi is to blame.”) But this confuses cause and effect. Israel is not the source of anti-Semitism, but a result. Before the Holocaust, it was said that the Jews in their statelessness were the cause of wars and disturbance, the burr under the saddle of mankind, the ghost in the machinery of statecraft. After the Holocaust, it’s said that Israel, the Jewish State, is the burr under that saddle. Though the condition has changed—no state v. state—the conclusion remains the same: It’s the Jews. To me, this is the world settling back into the Jew-loving and Jew-hating equilibrium that was unsettled, for a time, by the Shoah. After, all, the dream of the early Zionists was neither to be hated, nor loved—it was to be normal, treated as individuals, like everyone else.”

(This is Julie speaking now, up until here it was all quotes from Rich Cohen’s piece)
Although this is not wonderful news, it brings me some relief. I realize that I’ve been trying to make sense of what’s going on, why there’s been such a surge of anti-Semitic acts of late, and this helps me understand it better in a historical context. It’s not that the last seven decades have been idyllic, but they have certainly been a reprieve from what came before. If it indeed represents just a lull in the hatred and vitriol, we have our work cut out for us. We will not be silenced.

*This is Cohen’s phrase; I just used it for my headline because it was a perfect encapsulation.

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subway seat graffiti

I take my children to school each day via the subway. One morning a week or so ago my six-year-old daughter excitedly told me I had just sat upon a square and to stand up so she could show me. And this is what I saw: a swastika in black permanent marker. But at second glance, I saw something else. Some other subway rider had whipped out her ballpoint pen and filled in the corners of the swastika to make it look like a square. And then she added peace symbols and hearts in the quadrants.

“What’s wrong Mommy? You don’t like the picture?”

Here’s what my first-grade daughter knows and understands so far:

  • She is Jewish
  • Her father is Israeli
  • Her mother (me) is writing a book about her Savta’s extraordinary life (savta is Hebrew for grandmother)

“This is a swastika,” I said. “It’s a symbol of the nazi party.”

(I just now decided that I will not capitalize the “n” in nazi because it somehow legitimizes them; it’ll be capped in my book though, I’ll make sure my editor makes sure of it…).

“The nazi’s wanted to kill all the Jews and they succeeded in killing a lot of us, including some of your relatives. That’s why I’m writing a book about your Savta.”

“How come you never work on the book anymore?” she asked.

How could she have known? (Kids always know). I had spent the last few days contemplating whether or not to leave my job as an editor at BBC to work fulltime on my book. I had taken the position in December 2013 and have barely touched the book since. I miss it. I crave it. I really, really, really need to get back to my book.

“Well, I work fulltime and my life is really busy. I’d like to get back to writing my book,” I said. “What do you think? Should I leave BBC to work fulltime on my book?”

She looked away and then down at the ground.  I could see that she was really thinking about how to respond. And then, “I think it’s a decision you have to make, Mommy.”

Well knock me over with a feather! Holy sh*t! I laughed and hugged her and said, “Thank you my oh-so-wise daughter.”

A week or so later I resigned from the BBC. I’m exhilarated about this decision and as of May 8 I will have a new fulltime job: to complete the manuscript for “What Happened to That Baby.”

For those of you who have been on this intermittent journey with me, please continue to check back. I will try to post somewhat regularly. For those of you who are just joining, welcome! I hope you’ll come visit once in a while too. I encourage discussion on these pages, but I do moderate all comments before posting. Please be respectful and no ad hominem attacks. These are very charged topics but there are ways to engage without resorting to intolerance and hatred.

heart symbolpeace_symbol_u262E_icon_256x256

peace and love

Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, Rwanda. Credit: DKC Public Relations/AP

Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, Rwanda.
Credit: DKC Public Relations/AP

I just read about an amazing woman, but only after her death. Her name was Anne Heyman and she had a vision to save Rwandan orphans by creating youth villages akin to the ones in Israel that took in all the Jewish children orphaned by the Holocaust.

When the village for orphans opened in 2008, a long line of teenagers, alone and shattered, stood in the blazing sun holding paper bags containing all their possessions. Entire families of some had been wiped out, and they had no photographs. Some did not know their birthdays, or even what their real names were.

She built the village of 32 houses high up on a hill “because children need to see far to go far,” said Heyman.

What impresses me about her work is that she embraced more than just the children, and spread the love and philanthropy in a pay-it-forward way. The youth that first arrived were those orphaned by the genocide  in 1994, but later children of parents who had died of AIDS began to  arrive. Soon, other vulnerable children were also taken in.

Ethiopian Jews who had grown up at a youth camp in Israel were the first counselors. Housemothers were hired locally to make the houses into homes, often the first the youths had known. Many of the women had lost their husbands and children to genocide.

In a nod to her inspiration, she named the camp, Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village. “Agahozo” is a Kinyarwanda word meaning “a place where tears are dried” and Shalom is Hebrew for peace.

Although she died a premature death (age 52), her work will outlive her. And that’s a beautiful thing.

Sugihara-Train-9_4_1940-KaunasLithuania, USHMM, courtesy of Hiroki Sugihara

The Sugihara family headed for Berlin, Sept. 4, 1940. Courtesy of USHMM & Hiroki Sugihara.

I can’t get this image out of my head: Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara leaning out the window of his departing train, illegally signing off on visas to help thousands of Jews escape Hitler’s deathly grasp.

The Huffington Post captures the scene well: “The Japanese government closed the consulate, located in Kovno [aka Kaunas]. But even as Sugihara’s train was about to leave the city, he kept writing visas from his open window. When the train began moving, he gave the visa stamp to a refugee to continue the job.”

In Conspiracy of Kindness, a PBS film documenting Mr. Sugihara’s remarkable story, his wife, Yukiko Sugihara described their last days in Lithuania:

He was so exhausted, like a sick person. Even though he was ordered to go to Berlin, he said he couldn’t make it to Berlin and suggested we go to a hotel and rest before leaving. When we got to the hotel, the Jewish people came looking for us there. So he wrote some more visas in the hotel.

The next day when we got to the train station, they were there too. So he wrote more visas on the platform until the train left. Once we were on board, they were hanging on the windows and he wrote some more. When the train started moving, he couldn’t write any more. Everyone was waving their hands. One of them called out, ‘Thank you Mr. Sugihara, we will come to see you again,’ and he came running after the train. I couldn’t stop crying. When I think about it even now I can’t help crying.

From July 31 through August 28, 1940, Mr. Sugihara issued at least 2,139 visas; in many cases entire families were able to escape on a single visa.

Chiune Sugihara, Kaunas, Lithuania, 1940Credit: USHMM, courtesy of Hiroki Sugihara

Chiune Sugihara, Kaunas, Lithuania, 1940
Credit: USHMM, courtesy of Hiroki Sugihara

There is so much more to his story, much of it heartbreaking, but certainly worth knowing. PBS produced a timeline of his life with just the right amount of details to give us a sense of who this courageous man was. When he was sent to Prague in 1941 after Berlin, he boldly issued another 69 visas.

None of this was without consequence. Upon his return to Japan in 1947 (he and his family were interned in Russia for 18 months after the war ended), he was forced to resign and lived the next 25 years in obscurity, taking on  menial odd jobs including selling light bulbs door to door.

All this time Mr. Sugihara wondered if his visas actually worked. Although many survivors attempted to locate him, no one succeeded until 1968, when visa recipient Joshua Nishri, by then an Israeli diplomat, got in touch with him.

It wasn’t until 1985 though, after amassing hundreds of survivor testimonies attesting to Mr. Sugihara’s brave acts of kindness, that Israel’s Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, declared him “Righteous Among Nations,” and planted a tree in his name. A park in Jerusalem was also named for him.

The timeline concludes with his death in 1986 at the age of 86, “…having proved beyond doubt that one person can make a difference. By some estimates, more than 40,000 people alive today have him to thank for their very existence. Sugihara once said, recalling his decision in Lithuania in 1940, ‘I may have disobeyed my government, but if I didn’t I would be disobeying God.’ ‘In life,” he said, ‘do what’s right because it’s right, and leave it alone.'”

In 2000, on the 100th anniversary of his death, Japan formally acknowledged his courageous deeds. According to the Los Angeles Times, “Foreign Minister Yohei Kono apologized to Sugihara’s widow, Yukiko, for any ‘troubles’ that Sugihara had suffered and unveiled a plaque at the ministry’s diplomatic record office, where Sugihara’s picture, his story and the list of people to whom he issued visas are now prominently displayed.”

The New York Times referred to him as the “Japanese Schindler.” No disrespect to Mr. Schindler, but Mr. Sugihara saved more lives. (I know that sounds petty and somewhat callous, but hey, it’s true.) Perhaps Mr. Schindler should be called the German Sugihara?

If you’re interested in learning more, have at it:

AshesHolocaustSweden

The mausoleum at the Majdanek concentration camp outside Lublin, Poland. Photo: CC BY-ND Kasia/Flickr

You know the definition of chutzpah wherein a man kills his parents and then begs for leniency on account of being an orphan? Well, here’s something that closely adheres to that definition: a Swedish artist used the remains of people murdered at Majdanek concentration camp in Poland for his painting, currently on display at a gallery in Lund, Sweden.

The artist, Carl Michael von Hausswolff, defends his use of the ashes, per his artist statement at the gallery: ‘The ash has followed me, always been there …  as if the ash contains energies or memories or souls of people … people tortured, tormented and murdered by other people in one of the 19th century’s most ruthless wars.’”

Uh, yeah, and that’s why you should not have used their ashes in your art. Those ashes are sacred. And they don’t belong to you. According to The Blaze: “[von Hausswolff] apparently collected the ashes 20 years ago, however there is not much information regarding how he acquired them. The Telegraph claims that he ‘took the ashes during a 1989 visit to Majdanek.’ A translation from a description on the gallery’s web site seems to indicate that the artist nabbed the ashes directly from cremation ovens during his visit.”

What an ash-hole.

Waiting to hear their names called… photo: courtesy of The Sun

First they were fighting for their lives. Now they’re fighting for the crown?

Yesterday in Haifa, Israel, 14 female Holocaust survivors aged 74 to 97 competed in a beauty pageant for the title of Miss Holocaust Survivor (at the very least they could have extended the courtesy of Ms. Holocaust Survivor.) Shimon Sabag, director of Yad Ezer L’Haver (Helping Hand), the organization that produced this event, said that the pageant was a celebration of life and that “the fact that so many women entered prove that it’s a good idea.”

I beg to differ.

That so many women — the 14 contestants came from a pool of 300 — does not mean it was a good idea. I’m no scientist but if you’re going to use the words “fact” and (a variation of the word) “proof,” it should at least pass the smell test. And this pageant reeks of wrong on so many levels.

Critics have alternately described the pageant as macabre, inappropriate, misguided, offensive, and gimmicky. I believe it is all those things. And it’s surely in bad taste.

Ms. Sabag says  the winners were chosen based on their personal stories of survival and rebuilding their lives after the war.  She’s quick to note that “physical beauty was only a tiny part of the competition.” Grrr.

I wonder if she and the other organizers of this pageant were responding to the fact that survivors  —and their children and grandchildren — are desperate to keep the stories of the Holocaust alive. There are so many books and memoirs out there and many people complain that there’s nothing left to be said, or at least nothing new. This was a nice deflection perhaps, to offer up something new to talk about something that’s becoming increasingly old. But even so, it still feels crass and misguided.

I like what Gal Mor of Israeli site, Holes in the Net, wrote:

“Why should a decayed, competitive institution that emphasizes women’s appearance be used as inspiration, instead of allowing them to tell their story without gimmicks? This is one step short of ‘Survivor-Holocaust’ or ‘Big Brother Auschwitz.’ It leaves a bad taste.”

Indeed it does. What do you think?

My husband, Thomas Dov Berger, was born in Israel and lived there until he was nine years old. I spoke with him earlier today (he’s away on a business trip) and asked him to put down his thoughts about Yom Hashoah. It’s a much different memorial in Israel than it is here in the States. Here, let him tell you…

Israeli traffic stops for 2 minutes for Yom Hashoah

At 10am today, did you hear sirens?

At 10am did cars stop on the freeways? Did trains stop in their tracks? Did planes stop on taxiways?

At 10am, did everyone stop what they were doing, stand at attention, and for two minutes, while the sirens wailed, remember the six million dead?

Imagine, if you can, growing up in a country, as I did, where you set aside a day to remember your ancestors who were murdered in a systematic and industrial manner. There are no barbeques on this day, there are no white sales on this day. This is a day for reflection and quiet. This day forces you to come to terms with everything about your beliefs and your heritage and that you, as a people, were almost wiped completely from the face of the earth.

This day, Yom HaShoah, marks the beginning of a week of remembrance that culminates with Yom Hazikaron, Israeli memorial day, our day for remembering our war dead, and ends with Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day.

Yom HaShoah is the day to remember the grandfather I never knew, my mom’s father, the father she never knew [killed by Nazis a couple months before she was born in a concentration camp]. I also remember the countless relatives whose names I will never know, who are simply gone, without a trace, without a marker.

Most of all, however, this day reminds me that I should never forget, and I should never forgive. And I hold that feeling to this day, in this country, where I am sitting in my hotel room, 2500 miles away from my family, preparing for my work day, where as I proceed through my business meetings and presentations to clients, everyone around me will have no idea what this day means to me. I hold it inside. I keep it to myself. And I remember: לא נשכח ולא נסלח

Tom