Last Sunday was first night of Hanukkah, and I have been celebrating it with my family. We've been lighting candles, eating latkes and donuts, and celebrating the both end of this year and the beginning of the next.
I'd love to be able to only focus on this. I'd love to forget all the stress of school and the world around me, and just enjoy the holiday. And I know that I will enjoy the holiday, but things will remain on my mind; they always do.
What's on my mind right now? Right now, one thing I'm thinking about is the story my Great Uncle Joel told the family at Thanksgiving dinner this year. It was the story of how my great-great-grandparents came to America.
My great-great-grandfather lived in a village in Ukraine with my great-great-grandmother and their three children. During the Russo-Japanese war, the Russian Empire was drafting men into the army, and he was looking to avoid this. At first, he tried to pay another person to go into the army for him, under his name. When that person took the money and absconded, he was left with no other choice except fleeing the country. Having only enough money for his own passage, he emigrated to the United States alone. He spent the next seven years working as a house painter, saving money until he finally had enough to pay for his family to join him overseas. After being reunited, my great-great-grandparents had two more children, born in the United States, one of whom was my great-grandfather.
This story is probably pretty similar to a lot of other people's family stories. But the detail that sticks out to me is how my uncle ended the story. He told us the name of the village where my great-great-grandparents had lived: Zhytomyr. About thirty years after my great-great-grandparents left, in July 1941, the Nazis occupied the village. Over the next two months, half of the 10,000 Jews living there were murdered. In September, the remaining 5,000 were led to pits, shot, and buried. According to my uncle, none of Zhytomyr's Jewish population survived.
Going back four generations, all of my direct ancestors were born in the United States. By the time that the Holocaust began, they were all lucky enough left Europe. The cousins who were at dinner with me have it different. Their grandfather, who passed away a few years ago, survived the Holocaust by hiding in a barn for the duration of the war. He was the only person in his immediate family to survive. But the worst danger that my direct ancestors faced here in the United States was having to skip town after accidentally selling stolen shoes.
Right now, I'm thinking about danger.
I constantly worry because I'm an anxious person by nature. Most of the time, I worry about ridiculous things that will clearly never happen. Because of that, I've learned to cope with my anxiety by telling myself that the danger is never real. This is easy in a way; it turns the false premonitions in my head into things that I can swat away like flies. But it also makes me want to treat every potential risk in the same way. It's an attitude that becomes a kind of overconfidence, where part of me always wants to believe that no danger will ever be truly pressing, so long as I'm carefull. Risk, danger, it's all just an abstract thing that I will never have to face.
Of course, I know that this is false. Things can and will go wrong, and sometimes I will get hurt. I could look at two years ago, when I lost my therapist. Or I could look at six weeks ago, when eleven people were murdered at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh.
There were so many things that struck me that day, when I heard about that horrific act of violence. The magnitude of the loss, the theft of innocent life and innocence. The fact that this synagogue is so much like my own, and such an event could have happened there. But the heaviest thing was the realization that I was surprised, not that this had happened, but that it hadn't happened before.
I so badly wanted to hold on to some sense of security. Despite hateful rhetoric, despite the scores of synagogues, some in my area, that had been vandalized, despite hundreds of mass shootings in every conceivable setting, there was still that part of me that wanted to believe everything would be fine. The danger could only ever be abstract. I would always be physically safe in my house of worship. We learned from the Holocaust. This couldn't happen in the United States.
But there was a smarter part of me which knew it was only a matter of time. It only a question of where, when and who.
Right now, I'm thinking about those people, people who only wanted to pray, whose lives were brutally stolen.
The victims of the shooting were the sort of people who I would have wanted to be like when I get older. The news reports told me of people who loved their communities and their neighbors, who were happy to help out their congregations, who did not lack love in their lives. They were good people. They didn't deserve the horror that was thrown at them. But on Thanksgiving, they were not eating dinner with their families. This past week, they were not lighting candles or eating latkes and donuts. Instead of celebrating the holidays, they are gone from this world, and their families mourn them.
It was our job, as a country and a society, to protect them, not to martyr them. To not mainstream the hate which motivated their killer. To keep our streets, homes, businesses, schools, and places of worship safe from violence. But it seems that too many of us are content to make excuses for these things, to keep marching on as if everything is alright. It isn't alright.
Right now, I'm thinking about excuses.
Three days after the shooting, a friend of mine from high school posted to Facebook a picture of some economic statistics comparing Donald Trump favorably to Barack Obama, most of which were either false or misleading. My heart was still crying, but I engaged with him. I told him exactly what I thought. I told him that I didn't give a damn about his economic whataboutism when the people of my community lay dead and wounded. I told him that I did blame Trump for creating the atmosphere where this sort of atrocity could occur, and that his well documented encouragement of violence and thinly veiled antisemitic dog whistles about "globalists" were not something I could ever excuse. My friend, who now scarcely even deserves to be called that, told me that I, the one who was grieving, was the one who needed to do soul searching. As if I hadn't for the past three days.
I will be nakedly political here. I've known this person for years, and when he became a Trump supporter, I tried to tolerate it. I tried to be patient with him. Even as he made excuses for every last bit of hate and prejudice, I remembered how he would cheer me on at school performances and laugh at my jokes. But I've had enough. I cannot forgive him for his foolishness in ignoring what is dangerously obvious. I cannot forgive him for giving in to this vile, barely disguised hatred. And I cannot forgive him for ignoring my pain.
There was a time where I was uncomfortable about being outspoken politically. But I don't think I can afford not to use every avenue available to me to say that this isn't right, that I will not accept the excuses any longer.
If we don't want to be shot in our places of worship, we should hire security. Never mind that the true freedom of religion should mean that we don't need armed protection to practice our basic rights. Never mind that if a security guard were present, they would be the first one targeted in an attack. My own synagogue has security guards and I don't feel any safer, because I worry for them if the worst were to happen, because I fear that they would just be another person added to the death toll. I wish they could spend every Saturday with their families. But I guess they can't, because we have to have a president who caters to Neo-Nazis.
There is nothing I hate more then letting harm come to innocent, vulnerable people. The people who support Donald Trump and his regime take glee in this pain, the pain of immigrants, the pain of LGBT people, the pain of people of color, the pain of the poor, the pain of the disabled. They call this hatred nationalism and say that they do it out of love for their country. Others are willfully complicit in the prejudice, the fear, and the stupidity, because they think it's worth their warped political goals.
To hell those schemes, and to hell with nationalism. If they truly loved their country, they would want it to be a better place for all of its people. If they truly loved their country, they wouldn't want to make life harder for some people just because they don't look like them, speak like them, or love like them. If they truly loved their country, they wouldn't shrug and sneer at the suffering and cries of those around them.
I love my country. That's why I'm saying all this. That's why I stand up and say, yes, I'm Jewish. That's why I helped run polls in this past election. That's why I'm so hurt and disgusted that the same hate that caused the Holocaust is now given a mainstream platform here. That's why it's so hard for me to forgive these people.
Right now, I'm thinking about forgiveness, and of light.
Tonight, I stood with my parents and my sibling as we all lit eight candles. It was so bright, and it reminded me of the light I want to be in the world. Their light reminded me to keep going, because there's work to be done. Even when it's hard, even it feels like I'm yelling into a hurricane, I know that I have to keep yelling, because maybe someone will hear me. Maybe I can shelter them. Maybe they can shelter me.
I don't know if I can ever forgive the people who have supported or been complicit in everything that has been happening to this country. It will take a lot more than just admitting that they were wrong, because it should have taken this long. It shouldn't have taken so much suffering and pain for people to wake up. We warned them, and they did not listen.
Enough of the darkness of nationalism, of prejudice, of fear, and of malice. To everyone, I ask that you start putting light into the world again.