Kol Nidre: A Sermon I Never Thought I’d Have to Give

Kol Nidre: A Sermon I Never Thought I’d Have to Give

I never thought I would have to give this sermon.

In my fifteen years in the rabbinate, and the twenty years since I entered seminary, I naively thought that Anti-Semitism was a done deal. A thing of the past. Something to discuss historically but never in the present tense. Yes, we knew that there were still minor incidents here and there, and that polite anti-Semitism remained in certain circles, but it was assumed that the world, and especially the United States of America, would never allow Anti-Semitism to surface anywhere near the mainstream. And we never expected to have to face so much violence perpetrated against Jews just for being Jews.

I am so sad that I was so wrong.

As Rabbi Rachel Timoner writes, “If we just sat here, all of us, and cried together today, that might be the most eloquent response to the year we’ve just lived through.”[1]

I grew up in Skokie, Illinois. It was one of those places where you were Jewish just by living there, even if you weren’t actually. My public high school was probably 75% Jewish. You could study French or Spanish, and you could also study four full years of Hebrew (which, naturally, I did). It was so very easy to be Jewish. We had all the Jewish holidays off of school. Most of my teachers were Jewish. Most of the restaurants served matzah baskets on your table during Passover. Judaism was just in the air. I often refer to it as having grown up in a “Jewish bubble.”

 

Now, the strange paradox of Skokie was its history, particularly an event which took place right around the time I was born. The Village of Skokie most likely conjures up images of Neo-Nazis wanting to march in full view of as many Jews as possible. You may even recall seeing a movie, entitled, Skokie, which starred Danny Kaye and Carl Reiner.

By the mid-1970s, out of a total population of 70,000, Skokie had a rapidly growing Jewish community, which Marvin Bailey, the village’s director of housing development estimated at approximately 40,000 people. A significant amount Skokie’s Jews—between 5,000 and 6,000 people— were refugees and survivors of the Holocaust and their families.[2]

So in 1977, a planned march by a small neo-Nazi group called the National Socialists began what the Chicago Tribune dubbed the “Skokie swastika war.”[3] Skokie was deliberately chosen in order to be as hurtful and traumatizing as possible, while also garnering as much publicity and news coverage as possible. Shortly thereafter[4], the swastika and the march itself became the centerpiece of a constitutional question posed by this otherwise minor and unknown group. They encountered immense pushback[5] from Skokie’s mayor, Al Smith, the Village’s Board of Trustees, and the Village  Prosecutors, Harvey Schwartz and Richard Salzman, over their plans to march through Skokie while carrying flags bearing the swastika.

As a result, their leader, Frank Collin, invoked the First Amendment as his defense. Even today, law school courses on constitutional law highlight the Skokie story as a prime example of a complex 1st amendment case study.

The court battles over whether or not the National Socialists could march in Skokie dragged on for two years. In the meantime, the community had the time to organize and plan their responses. Soon after the march was planned, a large group of local clergy – protestant ministers, catholic priests, and many rabbis – gathered on a local high school[6] football field. The clergy publicly announced that all of the faith communities in town would stand in solidarity with the Jewish community.

I recently reached out to a group of folks on Facebook[7] who lived in Skokie during that time, and I asked for their recollections. Individual responses, of course, varied. “How could this be happening in America?” many survivors wondered. “These aren’t real Nazis,” others claimed. Some cautioned that there was sure to be a riot, so you should lock your doors, pull your shades, and hide. Others, especially amongst those who survived the Holocaust, promised to counter-protest with guns, baseball bats, and fists.

In[8] a January 1978 letter to the Tribune, months into a court battle over the group’s right to march, Collin explained: “By forcing the ‘free speech for National Socialism’ issue in Skokie we are fighting for our basic rights everywhere.” The ACLU agreed and defended them. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled that Collin’s right of free speech extended to Skokie.

The fight had gone on so long, and it was clear how many people would show up in counter-protest. “…but Collin called it off [just a few days before the planned march],” the Tribune noted July 8, 1978. Marches eventually happened elsewhere with little fanfare, including in Marquette Park, which sadly had a history of violent, racist demonstrations.

I thought I knew everything about Skokie’s history with the Nazis. But my research turned up a part of the story which I don’t believe we were ever taught, and which seems especially important here in 2019. A fascinating record of the debate over the strategies to confront the Nazis comes from a forgotten source, the “Chutzpah Jewish Liberation Collective” (isn’t that a great name??), and their underground newspaper, Chutzpah. Founded in 1971, this small, charismatic group of demonstrated together and published a newspaper articulating a holistic vision of Jewish liberation.[9]

The Chutzpah Collective had used the weeks of uncertainty leading up to the would-be Nazi demonstration in Skokie to form a coalition. Chutzpah wanted people who were threatened by Nazis to unite in opposition, namely blacks, gays, socialists, and Jews. They were joined by the Tim Berry Irish Republican Clubs, the International Socialists, and the North Side chapter of the New American Movement, among others. Once the full group was formed, they chose to name their alliance the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Coalition.[10]

Your typical Skokie resident remembers not merely the 1st Amendment battle, but also how much it meant to see the entire community come together.[11] There is much for us to learn from the “Skokie Swastika Wars” of the late 70’s[12]. Then, as now, we believed that anti-Semitism, otherwise known as the “oldest hatred,” was, for all intents and purposes, over.

In the introduction to her newest book, Antisemitism: Here and Now, historian Deborah Lipstadt points out that she was surprised by the difficulty in writing the book. She is a prolific writer and is considered one of the Holocaust’s leading experts and historians. But something was different about writing THIS book. She wrote:

As horrific as the Holocaust was, it is firmly in the past. When I write about it, I am writing about what was. Though I remain horrified by what happened, it is history. Contemporary antisemitism is not. It is about the present. It is what many people are doing, saying, and facing now.[13]

Lipstadt insightfully examines the state of anti-Semitism right now. While she says that noting an uptick in the amount of antisemitic attacks is important for empirical purposes, the numbers alone should not be what drives our concern.

She explains:

What should alarm us is that human beings continue to believe in a conspiracy that demonizes Jews and sees them as evil. …[it is ]a worldview, a conspiracy theory….[14]

Plus, she reminds us:

“It is axiomatic that if Jews are being targeted with hateful rhetoric and prejudice, other minorities should not feel immune; this is not likely to end with these groups, either. Antisemitism flourishes in a society that is intolerant of others, be they immigrants or racial or religious minorities… the existence of Jew-hatred within a society is an indication that something about the entire society is amiss. No healthy society harbors extensive antisemitism – or any other form of hatred.”[15]

To help us understand how society is amiss under these circumstances, we need to be able to be able to define and identify the different kinds of anti-Semites in our midst.

Lipstadt suggests the following Taxonomy of the Antisemite.

1)    The Extremist: They hold ideologies that include a fundamental belief that America is meant exclusively for white Christians. A number of crimes have showcased this belief, including one in 2017 which took place on a streetcar in Portland, Oregon. A White Supremacist began verbally assaulting two female passengers, one who was black and one who was wearing a hijab. When two men came to the young women’s defense, the assailant slashed their throats. At his arraignment, he declared: “You call it terrorism. I call it patriotism.”[16]

Note, of course, a major difference between today’s extremists and those of World War II or even the Skokie marches: they have changed their packaging. They have decided to project a “normal” image – clean-cut, well-dressed, no swastikas or Nazi regalia. They hope to go mainstream and to normalize their beliefs in a way never before achieved.[17]

 

2)    Antisemitic Enablers: These people fall into two categories: those who hate Jews for utilitarian purposes, especially for political reasons, and those whose general ideology has nothing to do with Jews specifically but Jews get caught up in it. Both categories enable antisemitism to make its way into the mainstream, and both are prevalent on both the left and right sides of the aisle here in America. From the right, we have frequent suggestions, comments, and retweets of active white nationalist and white supremacists, including many “dog-whistles” which contain old stereotypes about Jews and money, world-domination, or a secret cabal of those running the world. There is an inability on the right to condemn blatant antisemitic acts and comments, including the events in Charlottesville. Jewish members of the government are often singled out as evil or corrupt, and, of course, George Soros is secretly funding it all.

On the left, there are at least two manifestations of Antisemitic enablers. First, you have those like England’s Jeremy Corbyn, member of the labor and trade-union movements since the earliest chapters of his career. He has an automatic sympathy for whomever appears to be the underdog or the oppressed. To him, anyone assumed to be white, wealthy, or associated with a group that seems to be privileged cannot by definition be a victim. Most problematically are those with whom he has associated. Corbyn has publicly supported and defended figures who accuse Jews and/or Israelis of orchestrating 9/11, and those who perpetuate the ancient blood libel accusation of Jews of using Christian children’s blood to make matzah.

We also have similar figures on the left in the US, like Ilhan Omar or Rashida Tlaib, whose accusations against Israel’s treatment of Palestinians seem to end up encompassing all Jews. And meaningful arguments for intersectionality often seem to leave the Jews excluded as a valid category. You and I might understand or argue that antisemitism and anti-Zionism are not exactly the same thing, but to much of the world, I think there is little distinction between the two. Israelis are Jews and Jews therefore are all responsible for any perceived crime committed against the Palestinians. For many, no matter how we might try to rationally explain the difference, the words Jew and Zionist are interchangeable. These enablers, on the right and on the left, are problematic for all of us, no matter where we fall on the political spectrum.

We must call out anti-Semitism wherever it originates, not just on “the other side.” By only focusing on the anti-Semites in one party or the other, we only further divide the Jewish community at a time when we should be uniting and working together. What makes this increasingly complicated is that these political figures are not violent extremists, and they probably don’t consider themselves to be anti-Semites. But engaging with and enabling extremist anti-Semites is, itself, an antisemitic act that causes just as much damage by giving those dangerous voices legitimacy.[18]

And though we may support other parts of their platforms or other aspects of their ideologies, they all should be called out for their enabling rhetoric by the entire Jewish community. As antisemitism becomes more and more acceptable in the public discourse, remaining silent is NOT an option.

 

3)    The Dinner Party Antisemite: Lipstadt describes the Dinner Party Antisemite as a polite anti-Semite. “He’s got Jewish business associates, was horrified by Charlottesville, and has donated to the local Holocaust museum. But when the town council is considering a zoning variance to allow for the construction of another synagogue in the neighborhood, this fellow is the head of the opposition. ‘Let’s think for a minute about what this will do to the character of the neighborhood,’ he’ll say… He’ll mention that he has hired a new associate, casually mention that she’s a Jew, but assure those listening to him that she’s not a ‘typical Jew.’”[19]

Our area of New England is notorious for this polite antisemitism, as highlighted in the Gregory Peck film, Gentleman’s Agreement. Personally, just last week, I overheard a conversation between two women, one of whom was explaining that her niece had just converted to Judaism. “Well,” the woman said to her friend, “she worked for a Jewish lawyer and she saw how much <mimes money in hand> there was, so she wanted to be Jewish, too.”

4)    The Clueless Antisemite: We wish that the actions of the clueless anti-Semite were harmless. They really don’t seem to know that their words are hurtful or discriminatory. You might recall reading in mid-September that a New Jersey councilwoman came under fire for saying[20], “her city’s assistant attorney was able to get less out of a personal injury claim against the city because they were ‘able to wait her out and Jew her down.’” Trenton City Council President Kathy McBride reportedly used this term during a closed-door session, but when confronted with it, she claimed that it was not at all a hateful term, rather it was just a term for negotiating. Hence, a clueless anti-Semite.

What to do about all of this? What to do about the rise in violence, vandalism, and even mass shootings and murders of Jews? What to do about the mainstream acceptability of more and more antisemitic statements and beliefs? What to do about these different kinds of anti-Semites we might encounter in our daily lives? We can’t line the streets with baseball bats, weapons, or signs, Not when when the antisemitism is so insidious and pernicious. There isn’t one specific group we can fight or protest. It can feel like its coming at us from all sides.

Both Deborah Lipstadt and Bari Weiss, whose book How to Fight Anti-Semitism also has much to teach us in this moment, highlight that we cannot address anti-Semitism with logic or rationality, as much as we may try. Weiss suggests that protests and marches against antisemitism have a fundamental flaw – they are reactive and defensive.

She quotes from an essay written by a man named Ze’ev Maghen, who said,

“A man calls you a pig. Do you walk around with a sign explaining that, in fact, you are not a pig? Do you hand out leaflets expostulating in detail the manifold differences between you and a pig?”[21]

Instead, Weiss suggests that we reclaim our Jewish pride and empowerment. First, she encourages us to think about why you want to fight back and what you are fighting for.[22] As we all know,

“there has not been a single moment in Jewish history in which there weren’t anti-Semites determined to eradicate Judaism and the Jews. But Judaism did not sustain their magnificent civilization because they were anti-anti-semites.They sustained it because they knew who they were and why they were. They were lit up not by fires from without but from fires within.”

Embracing the fires within us is in line with the Anti-Semitism conversations that we offered here at CBSRZ earlier this year, inspired by the need to process our response to the Pittsburgh murders. Our two sessions focused on, first, why must we act in these situations to eradicate injustice against us and others. In the second, we highlighted what we, ourselves, love about Judaism, and what action steps we can take right now. There were so many reasons that our attendees felt proud to be Jewish: Judaism’s inherent empathy, the encouragement by our tradition to ask why, the joy of a Passover Seder, our history and our heritage, and our wide variety of traditions and customs. I hope you will take time to think about your own reasons for being a proud part of the Jewish community.

Somewhat surprisingly, Lipstadt’s book has been widely celebrated, while Weiss’ book has had more mixed reviews[23]. Their books are quite similar, both in content and conclusions. They also both call out antisemitism across the political spectrum. They differ most in tone and length, which seems to be why Weiss’ book wasn’t taken as seriously in many reviews. But one reviewer hoped that How to Fight Anti-Semitism would “jolt mainstream Jews out of a soggy complacency.”[24]

What I happen to most appreciate in her book are some of her own action suggestions on how to fight anti-Semitism in this very moment:

1)    Trust your discomfort. Your eyes and ears are not lying, so trust yourself when you feel something is antisemitic.

2)    Call it out, especially when it is hard. As Weiss explains, two things can be true at once: Ilhan Omar can espouse bigoted ideas about Jews. And she herself can also be the target of bigots and hatred. Instead, Weiss reminds us to criticize ideas and not people, and to express our outrage even when it is inconvenient. “Since when is being a fun guest at a dinner party more important than standing up for what matters?”[25]

3)    Apply the Kippah (or Magen David) Test: Weiss asks us if we feel comfortable walking around our own neighborhoods or communities in a Kippah or with a visible Jewish Star necklace. Can we safely assert our Jewishness where we live?

4)    Don’t trust people who seek to divide Jews. Even if they are Jews. This seems critical. We cannot allow ourselves to be separated into “good Jews” and “bad Jews,” no matter what criteria is being used, nor by whom. Reform vs. Orthodox. Republican vs. Democrat. Assimilated vs. Chasid. Resist the temptation of demonizing other Jews and remember that we are all, ultimately part of Klal Yisrael, the community of Israel.

5)    Allow for the possibility of change. At a time of year when we are focused on repentance and personal growth, we must acknowledge that others are capable of this as well. People who used to be anti-Semites may change into our supporters. People who used to actively antagonize the Jewish community can repent and now be our allies. The lessons of Skokie remind us that alliances, coalitions, and fellowship are what ultimately defeat hatred and fear.

6)    Notice your enemies. But even more importantly, notice your friends. Celebrate the folks who reach out to support the Jewish community, and look for opportunities to be that voice for other communities experiencing oppression. Who is our Chutzpah Collective today, here in the Connecticut River Valley? We were all beautifully moved by the outpouring of love that CBSRZ experienced in the days and weeks following the Pittsburgh attack. We are blessed to have wonderful neighbors of many different faith traditions who are here for us, and who want to be here for us. We should do all we can to continue to fortify these relationships and support them as much as they support us.

7)    Nurture your Jewish identity: As I mentioned earlier, think about why Judaism matters to you, what makes CBSRZ important to you and your family, and how you can continue to strengthen your own connection with the Jewish people. The more grounded we are in our Jewishness, and even the prouder[26] we are, I truly believe that the less we will feel afraid.

Antisemitism isn’t going to go away – it’s been around too long and Jews are too easy to use as a scapegoat for whatever ails the world at a given time. But Judaism isn’t going away either. Let’s enjoy every moment of being Jewish and celebrate all the teachings and traditions which are loving, life-affirming, based on the wisdom of ancient, sacred texts as well as wise sages of today. One God. The inherent dignity and holiness of every human being. Justice and righteousness for all. The focus on making the world a better place right here, and right now. Nothing can take these powerful messages away from us, and nothing can stop us from spreading these messages like rays of light around the world.

I pray that we all find friends, allies, relationships, and experiences with Jew and non-Jew alike which remind us what a good world this is. I pray that the great tide of righteousness will soon sweep away the coarse sands of hatred, dehumanization, and division.

The words of Sara Stock Mayo, resident of Pittsburgh, conclude my thoughts this evening:

Rosh Hashana 5780:
(Dedicated to the victims and survivors at Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha, Dor Hadash and New Light Congregations with love. May you all only know sweetness in the coming year)

It felt good to stand in synagogue today
to stand in synagogue in Pittsburgh today
to loudly declare our Jewishness today
to blow the shofar today
a reminder to everyone
Wake up!

What are you waking up to this year?
How are you showing up this year?
In whose name do you speak up?
Upon whose shoulders do you stand?

It was hard to stand in synagogue today
(and not just because of my aching back)
it was hard to stand in synagogue in Pittsburgh today
knowing that 11 souls who should be praying in their sacred spaces
were missing from their usual seats
were not there to blow the shofar
or to chant haftarah
or hold the door for other worshippers
or pass out prayerbooks
or even to eat their brisket,
dip apples in honey for a sweet new year

It was hard to stand in synagogue in Pittsburgh today
knowing all of the goodness that was lost
the voices silenced for no other reason
except that they were Jewish

When we tell of our history in years to come
what will be the story we weave into the familiar, annually repeated tales of our ancestors?
What will the next generations say about where we stood in 5780
almost one year after communal carnage?
Will they know the whispered promises we made to God?
Or will they know of the ways in which we worked to change what has already begun
and write a different chapter of an ancient, yet relevant book?

It felt good to stand in synagogue today
to stand in synagogue in Pittsburgh today
to loudly declare our Jewishness today
to re-claim what is ours
to take hold of the heavenly pen of the
Book of Life
and write the word
Yes

-Sara Stock Mayo

 

 

Ken Yhi Ratzon. May this be God’s will.

Amen.

[1] https://cbebk.org/hhds/sermons/rosh-hashanah-day-1-sermon-2019-rabbi-rachel-timoner/
[2] https://jewishcurrents.org/the-skokie-march-that-wasnt/
[3] https://www.chicagotribune.com/opinion/commentary/ct-neo-nazi-skokie-march-flashback-perspec-0312-20170310-story.html
[4] https://www.chicagotribune.com/opinion/commentary/ct-neo-nazi-skokie-march-flashback-perspec-0312-20170310-story.html
[5] Gratitude to Anita Salzman Silvert for sharing her family’s personal history with this event. Based on phone conversation 10/7/2019.
[6] Anita Silvert explained that it was at Niles West High School.
[7] Conversation available: https://www.facebook.com/groups/335432754536/10156675447964537
[8] https://www.chicagotribune.com/opinion/commentary/ct-neo-nazi-skokie-march-flashback-perspec-0312-20170310-story.html
[9] https://jewishcurrents.org/the-skokie-march-that-wasnt/

[10] Ibid
[11] Ibid
[12] See also the film Surviving Skokie, available streaming on Amazon Prime.
[13]Lipstadt, Deborah E. Antisemitism: Here and Now. New York: Schocken Books, 2019. p. ix.
[14] Ibid, p. x.
[15] Ibid, p. xi.
[16] Lipstadt, p. 34.
[17] Lipstadt, p. 40.
[18] Lipstadt, p. 54.
[19] Lipstadt, p. 70.
[20] https://www.newsweek.com/nj-councilwoman-says-jew-down-not-hateful-term-verb-negotiating-1459537
[21] Weiss, Bari. How to Fight Anti-Semitism. New York: Crown Publishing, 2019. p. 165.
[22] Weiss, p. 167.
[23] See https://jewishcurrents.org/bari-weisss-unasked-questions/; https://www.thenation.com/article/bari-weiss-how-to-fight-antisemitism-book-review/
[24] https://www.jpost.com/Diaspora/Book-review-Antisemitism-and-the-return-of-history-603483?fbclid=IwAR14q0uVNHltYDJTbPvbyrPcqWnukNecZs8Sw472zoCp4dBkqRi0EvsU6Ic
[25] Weiss, p. 172.
[26] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/06/opinion/sunday/anti-semitism.html

 

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