By Avery Weinman

In a beginning there were endless golden days in a land flowing with milk and honey

We basked in the presence of prophets and kings

Worshiped at great Temples built by the majesty of God

Walked hand in hand with myth

But our glory was cut down, cast out to Babylon

With Ezra we returned, a hopeful pursuit towards the end of the Exodus

What was meant to be the closing chapter of our book was crushed by the Empire of Rome

The walls of Jerusalem were torn from us, reduced to rubble

Land of fruit and wonder now shriveled with salt

The dust of our nation blown across the world

We were made like Cain, doomed to wander in eternal exile

We traveled everywhere with only our books to remind us of who we were

Century after century drifting in and out of consciousness

As castle walls rose we sat outcast in the forests

We the God killers, unable to scrub Christ’s blood out from under our fingernails

How conveniently they forgot that Peter called him Rabbi

We the wearers of blood libel

Tell me – does matzah taste better when made with the blood of Christian children?

Or did it just make our blood easier to bear

Culmination of ancient vendetta

Justification for our alienation

Our victimhood in their Crusade

For a time we sought solace in Spain

In the presence of the Moors we tasted long lost dignity

Cordoba was a new home, not the home, but perhaps one that could last

In Al-Andalus we were human

We made art, we wrote poems, painted, sang

We remembered what it was like to live, not just to survive

Though we may have dreamed we were, we were never Spanish

They did not hesitate to remind us of that

A Spanish Jew is a Jew first, still worthy of dying in the streets, still a victim of the Inquisition

Love for Spain cannot undo what has been made by Jewish blood

In 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella legitimized the full extent of our unwelcome, exiles again

We were tolerated in other places throughout Europe

So long as we gripped the bars of the ghettos that walled us in

In Venice, in Amsterdam, Prague or Rome we could eke out lives for ourselves

We could worship in our synagogues if we would just smile when they spit on us

They let us lend money, not as a favor but as a slight

Traders and financiers – money changers in the Temple

Sardonic jobs reserved for those not deserving of stability

Our fortunes were the result of luck

Steeped in the blood of others like us who were not so lucky

How were we to know our survival would become a libelous accusation against us

Remember Shylock is not the hero of The Merchant of Venice

Some of us made a humble life in the shtetls across Eastern Europe

We were poor, but we were together

Memorizing one hundred pages of Talmud

Waiting to hear from Yente the Matchmaker

Listening to papa kvetch about selling the horse for five rubles instead of seven

To know the life of the shtetl is to know a grandparent’s consoling hug

We may have barely been making it, but there was still so much to be joyful for

But life here was dissolving both inside and out

As we lost our own culture, others made sure they reminded us we were not welcome to theirs

Pogroms across the countryside, killings without mercy and without need for explanation

Even isolated our presence was intolerable to them

At first we entered Berlin through the Rosenthaler Gate – reserved only for Jews and livestock

But it was the Enlightenment, a time of unparalleled intellectual exploration

For the first time we were seen first as individuals, recipients of unalienable rights

As thinkers we could be could be unmatched, second to none

Revered for our minds not criticized for our culture

We made Germany what is was, we gave it the very best of us, every ounce of our essence

Mendelssohn, Heine, Marx, Arendt, Schoenberg, Auerbach, Börne, Einstein

We proclaimed Ich bin ein Berliner

We were met with the reassurance Arbeit Macht Frei

Trains waiting at the gates

The acrid stench of six million in the air

Our legacy in this country is still ink drying on the page

Some of us came here as refugees

Beaten down after millennia of degradation, murder, exile, and genocide

This was America – a new place, a new hope

We looked up at the woman whose flame is the imprisoned lightning

And her name Mother of Exiles

Cradling all the promise of a country who has sworn to love all who wander

It is in this country that my family has made its life, one that has provided me every opportunity

And now the shining promise is dying – the gates are closing, the clock is winding backwards

Fear and intolerance, our most insidious enemies, creep out of the shadows where they lurk

Emboldened, impassioned, risen again

 

My intention with this piece is not to say contemporary America is comparable to any of the societies I mentioned here.  Beneath the cynicism that tends to crust over my heart, I believe in the resilience of this nation.  I believe in the future of the American Jewry.  I mean only to say that we should not assume that it can’t happen here.  Reading the narrative of Jewish history is an arduous and transcendentally painful task.  For thousands of years our very existence and survival has remained precarious.  Our trust in the mercy of those around us has so often resulted in catastrophe.

In the last few weeks I found myself thinking not of those who perished in the Babylonian or Roman conquests, Spanish Inquisition, Eastern European pogroms or the Holocaust, but of the Jews who lived in these areas generations before these events and thought themselves safe.  Thought themselves accepted.  Thought themselves Spanish, Russian, or German.  How could they have known what would happen to their children? To their grandchildren? Did they feel it? Did they know what was coming, or did they really believe that these places, which had so seemingly welcomed them, would be their homes forever? Did they feel the overwhelming, all encapsulating sense of dread that I found myself feeling these last few weeks?  Is my optimism making a wrong choice?  Will I be dooming by children? My grandchildren?

Unfortunately, my history tells me my optimism is misplaced.  But I will cling to it.  I will cling to it as is my sacred duty bound by blood.  As it is commanded in Exodus 22:21, “And you shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

I mean not to frighten anyone, nor to accuse or blame.  I mean only to say that we must remember. The American Jewry must remember the lives and deaths of those who came before us.  Those people whose sacrifices, both of their dignity and their lives, have brought us here to this moment.  To this chance to be brave with our eyes open. We owe the dead that much.  And to those who forget:

May your children turn their faces from you.

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