BY SUSAN ESTRICH
It is a very strange time to be Jewish in America.
The first president with a Jewish daughter and Jewish grandchildren, the first Jewish “zayde” [grandpa] in the White House, has taught a new generation the lasting power of anti-Semitism. As the violent thugs in Charlottesville denounced and defamed Jews, our president could not find the words to denounce the thugs. David Duke, the white-supremacist politician, thanked him, as well he should.
Equating virulent racists and anti-Semites with those who opposed hate is wrong. It was wrong when Trump did it the first and second time, and it was wrong when he did it last week.
If the White House zayde will not denounce those who hate us, hate his own daughter and grandchildren, then what? Since the horror of the Holocaust, American Jews, while small in number, have taken the lesson to heart, deeply involved in politics, supporting candidates on both sides with enormous generosity in the hopes that they will never allow another such genocide to occur.
I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. Anti-Semitism was a fact of life. My mother was afraid to make trouble when they told me that I couldn’t be Mary in the school play [even though I had the longest hair, the usual test] because I was Jewish. My town had a map for real estate agents showing the only area where Jews were allowed to live. The fancy clubs all had a policy of excluding Jews. My Hebrew-school teacher, Mr. Sherf, had a number on his arm, and we all understood what that meant. He introduced us to the poetry of the children of the Terezin concentration camp. [The poems have been collected in the classic beautiful book I Never Saw Another Butterfly.]
This is a poem I have quoted here before. The words are my mantra when I feel lost and depressed. They were written by an anonymous child in 1941.
He doesn’t know the world at all
Who stays in his nest and doesn’t go out.
He doesn’t know what birds know best
Nor what I want to sing about,
That the world is full of loveliness.
When dewdrops sparkle in the grass
And earth’s aflood with morning light,
A blackbird sings upon a bush
To greet the dawning after night.
Then I know how fine it is to live.
Hey, try to open up your heart
To beauty; go to the woods someday
And weave a wreath of memory there.
Then if the tears obscure your way
You’ll know how wonderful it is
To be alive.
The words have been burnt into my conscience since childhood.
But that is my generation. There is a new generation who thought that anti-Semitism was a thing of the past, that the Holocaust was ancient history, that their futures were secure from the kind of hatred my mother raised me to fear.
After Charlottesville, after President Trump’s terrible comments, after watching Jewish senior officials in the administration remain silent in the face of such hate and such a default by our president, young people are learning otherwise. I read pieces they write online. “How can this be?” they ask.
How can it not be?
This will be a painful Rosh Hashana for them, and for their parents. We had become complacent. We raised our children to feel safe. We got involved in politics just to make sure.
We must fight this hate wherever we find it – whether it is directed against Jews or Hispanics or African-Americans, at home or abroad. I wish there had been a better way to teach that lesson. I wish our president had not been the one to force us to sound the alarm.
But he was, and he did, and now we must stand tall and never forget.
And shame on those who remain silent.
Happy New Year.
– Susan Estrich’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer