‘Always Someone Jewish’: for Monsey, for us all
Arkansas Hanukkah, 2019: Visiting the goyish side of our family in Fort Smith for the holidays, we take advantage of the rare “Chrismukkah” convergence, making latkes to eat along with the leftovers from our traditional, hillbilly Christmas breakfast. There are sausage balls and bacon from that event, supplemented by a ham that mysteriously appears on the table. We joke that every Arkansas meal is legally required to feature at least three forms of trafe.
After dinner, my daughters remember a song we learned together at the reformed synagogue, back when they were in religious school: Rabbi Larry Milder’s “Wherever You Go”. We sing it for the family, to their enthusiastic acclaim. We google additional verses, Arkansas family members joining in on the chorus:
Wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish
You’re never alone when you say you’re a Jew.
So when you’re not home and you’re feeling kind of new-ish,
The odds are, don’t look far, ‘cause they’re Jewish too.
At the same time that I am wiping my eyes from tears of laughter, it occurs to me that the song’s philo-Semitic optimism just might be some remarkably bad advice. We have raised our daughters to be proud of their Jewish identity; we have been active as a family in progressive Jewish politics. But the Jewish mother in me wonders whether a more discrete approach to announcing their identity might be safer for our daughters, given the rising occurrence of violent episodes of white nationalism and anti-semitism that have accompanied the ascendance of the Trump regime.
My mother-outlaw has spent most of her life in Arkansas towns smaller than Ft. Smith (population 90,000). Consequently, she has not known many Jewish people. A small-town rebel with a sharp awareness of the potential costs of being perceived as different, she confided to me after the murders at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018 that she worried for me, my mother, and her granddaughters. I had no idea how to reassure her.
During the week we are travelling, I read no newspapers and avoid looking at social media. Since 2011, when then-Wisconsin governor Scott Walker began the Koch-inspired process of gutting the public university where my husband and I teach, I have practiced periodic retreat from the intense level of political engagement required to survive daily life as a public employee here. The madness and therefore the necessity of occasionally shutting it out has only escalated since the election of 2016.
It isn’t until after we return home that I see the news about the stabbing of Jews gathered in the Monsey home of a rabbi to light the candles for the seventh night of Hanukkah. The attack is the ninth anti-Semitic assault in a week in the New York metropolitan area. It took place in Rockland County, the most Jewish county in the United States, in a community of people visibly identifiable as Jews.
A denizen of Rockland County could be forgiven for thinking they were safe attending a Hanukkah celebration at the home of their rabbi. But they were not. Visibly Jewish spaces, like synagogues, kosher markets, and neighborhoods, have become dangerous places. The words of contemporary Polish Jewish writer Mikolaj Grynberg about Poland resonate across the Atlantic: “The current ruling party in Poland has unleashed the worst antisemitic resentments into society, and we are experiencing the consequences of that in the public sphere.”
When I was nine or ten, my religious school class took a field trip to visit a Hasidic congregation in Rockland County. Our teachers cautioned us to dress conservatively for the occasion: girls were to wear long sleeves and tights. The visible distinctiveness of these Jews living so close by intrigued me. They dressed differently from everyone around them, leaning inward into what I imagined was an intense and vital community. It contrasted with the mostly assimilated way we lived, in which Judaism was something we practiced on the high holidays and on the dreaded weekly ride to Sunday school.
A lonely and bookish child with precious little information about the Hasidic movement, I imagined making a friend on the field trip: a girl who would turn out to be just like me, under her somber clothing. She would invite me into her world.
Of course, the actual field trip featured absolutely no space for any kind of casual interaction between reform and Hasidic kids. Instead, we wound up eyeing one another across a crowded cafeteria while being excoriated by our elders to stand together as fellow Jews, despite our differences.
News of the murders in Monsey brought back memories of that field trip: the way those Jews seemed further away from us than a bus trip across a couple of suburban counties. And that exhortation, to see them as kin, as co-religionists. In this grim historic moment, they seem much closer than to me than they did on that fieldtrip. With their distinctive attire and communal living, Orthodox Jews have become prey for those bent on harming all Jews.
Responding to the violence in Monsey, Reverend William Barber points out that the days between Christmas and New Year have historically seen horrific episodes of racial violence. From Reconstruction and the massacre at Wounded Knee to the assassination of civil rights leaders Harry and Harriet Moore on Christmas, 1951, Barber traces a lineage of white supremacist terror during this “still center” of the Christian year.
Sure enough, the anti-Semitic events of the 2019 holiday season have taken place along with the intentional hit-and-run assault on a 14 year old Latina, specifically because she appeared to the driver to be Mexican, and the murder of three at the West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, Texas. Less spectacular but more widespread and steady, the administrative violence of “law enforcement” continues, resulting in the death of a Congolese asylum seeker in Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) custody on Christmas eve.
Perhaps the gravity and stillness of Christmas creates a screen for the projection of intense feelings, such the racist resentment Grynberg describes. And that screen becomes a locus for nightmare enactments: a mostly white congregation is assaulted by a gun-toting white man in Texas; an avowed racist uses her car to hunt down a young woman in Iowa; the CBP finds itself “not responsible” for a death clearly caused by U.S. policy; a mentally ill African American man uses a machete with deadly purpose on Orthodox Jews in Monsey.
The glaring light generated by these deadly projections makes all of us targets. Our only response can be to stand together and dismantle the regime of hatred, white supremacy and anti-semitism.
 Mikolaj Grynberg, Rejwach: An Excerpt, translated by Sean Gasper Bye (New York: Jewish Currents, 2019), p. 70.