A conversation I once had

Today, a thing that I’ve thought and written about many times before is foremost in my mind. It is about the specifics of my situation, and my reaction, to the events of this week.*

It is a memory that is so worn now, I cannot be sure of the details. 

It was during high-school—a chasidic girls high-school located in a converted church—and one afternoon, my sister and I were in the one-room library on the second floor, with a high sloped ceiling, a single conference table and walls of white bookshelves.

Earlier that day, for some reason, our classes had joined together to watch a movie under the supervision of our petite English principal, Mrs. Bass, who also taught history. This was a wildly uncommon event, because we did not watch movies ever. It may have been the first feature film I’d seen in my life. 

The movie, called The Wave, was about an American history teacher who tries to reenact Nazi Germany in an effort to teach his high-school students about its dangers. He starts an elite club, with a salute and slogans, and the school begins to reorganize around it. The matter quickly gets out of hand, violence ensues, and the teacher puts an end to it, having made his point. 

In light of the movie, my sister and I were discussing, in what is a popular Jewish pastime, if it could happen here. She said yes. I was flabbergasted.  

Though we had been raised to view the world as hostile, and our position in it precarious, it wasn’t a message I’d internalized. I could cite a litany of Jewish oppression, had read novels about the inquisition and crusades and pogroms, consumed memoirs of the holocaust, preformed in a play about the cantonists, heard the tales of sacrifice and resistance—but I lived in a flat American suburb, my world a tight circle of family and faith, with not a single threat to my life, safety or practice of religion. 

So I was surprised to hear my sister, only two years older than me, quickly lay out how it—Germany that is—could happen here. I no longer remember her argument, or if it was the logic, or the mere possibility, that threw me. I know that I argued back, weakly. And that I was ashamed, for committing the cardinal Jewish sin: I had been caught unawares. 

Despite that shame, my resistance to the messaging that led to it, would be a recurring theme for the next decade. My father, it turned out, truly believed that our neighbors would turn against us the moment they had license. I simply could not imagine that the the track-suited grandpa next door or the bachelor on the corner who mowed his lawn incessantly, had even once given a thought to the Jewish problem. They had enough problems of their own.

It’s not that I disagreed with the notion of Jewish precariousness, or disregarded the degree to which the world I knew was shaped by the holocaust, but I could not accept the myopia that came along with it. I wanted to open all the doors to the world, not close them. It baffled me too that we could live as free and safe as we did, and still cower, still shape our understanding of the world as one in which we were victims. 

But this is in fact, a neverending internal and external battle, one that is aggravated every time evidence of anti-Jewishness surfaces. I’ve been alive long enough to know that the threat is not zero, but most of the time I’m convinced that the greater danger is living in fear of that threat, both to the Jewish community itself, and to the way it treats others.

*I no longer remember what the events of that week (in mid-January 2021) were, but as this is a recurring theme, I figured I’d leave it there.

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