I remember standing there, staring at the ash pits of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and telling myself to cry.
It was the spring of the year 2000. I was a senior in high school, a Jew who had accompanied several dozen other Jews on a trip to Poland to visit the concentration camps before heading to Israel, to witness the chapter that came after the diaspora. And I couldn’t get over the fact that as I stared at the spot where Nazis had placed the remains of thousands of Jews they’d thrown into furnaces, I wasn’t moved to tears.
I felt, in that moment, like a fraud; as if the plight of my ancestors—the darkest chapter in our history—had somehow eluded me. Only later did I realize that I was not flawed but blessed. I was the product of an upper-middle class community in America where I was surrounded by fellow Jews. Anti-Semitism was a concept to me, not a reality. I had been afforded the luxury of being moved by it without ever having to truly experience it, at least not in a way that could remotely compare with what had confronted the Jews of Poland before they were shipped off to the ghettos and, then, Auschwitz-Birkenau.
As reports streamed in on Saturday about a shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue morning, I couldn’t help but think back to that moment when my tears proved elusive. I no longer feel so fortunate. I feel naive—naive that I had ever assumed that what I had experienced that week was a relic of a bigoted past.
Yes, this current moment in American history is not comparable to 1930s Warsaw. But it also is plainly evident that we are living in increasingly troubled times. Well before a deranged anti-Semite opened fire in the Tree of Life Synagogue, instances of anti-Semitism and hate crimes were on the rise. White nationalists have felt emboldened to march in American cities. And days before the shooting, a gunman tried to shoot up a predominantly black church. When he failed, he went to a nearby Kroger outside Louisville, Kentucky, and killed two people there instead.
For those who have been subjected to bigotry—who have seen their communities targeted or secluded or portrayed as threats—this has not been a shock to the system. It’s been clarifying; a moment when America’s cultural warts have become painfully exposed for the more fortunate to see.
For others, myself included, it’s been difficult to process.
Watching a stream of young men carrying torches, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” makes you question just how comfortable you should be in certain communities. Watching news reports of a congregation of conservative Jews being shot to death on the Sabbath makes you revisit your decision to raise your child as a Jew.
I am a new father. Nearly two years ago, I brought my son home with me from the hospital. Days after that, we hosted a bris—a ceremonial circumcision. As it happened in our living room, I cried uncontrollably, overcome by the joys and fears of fatherhood and a profound sense of history. My bris had taken place on the same table where my son’s was now. We were bound together not just by genetics but by a ritual that dates back to the Book of Genesis. I am, at best, a secular Jew, whose commitment to the religion too often is only exhibited on the high holy days. But in that moment, my faith swept through me.
When the shooter entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, a family had reportedly scheduled the bris or the baby naming of their own child. Officials say that no children were among the 11 reportedly killed, though congregants did say the ceremony was taking place at the moment of the shooting. On the very day a Jewish child was being brought into the covenant of his faith, an unimaginable horror was directed at the people of his faith.
This is what the shooter was targeting: not individuals but the very elements that bind those individuals together—a sense of spirituality, a place of worship, and centuries of tradition. He was targeting the seamlessness with which the Jewish community has fit into America’s social fabric. He wanted that younger me to not be so flippant about anti-Semitism, to not feel so removed from the atrocities that had accompanied Jews elsewhere.
And, to a degree, I’m afraid he has succeeded. I will raise my son Jewish. And though I admit to feeling conflicted in the current moment, I know that I will do so proudly because to do otherwise is to allow this monster to determine our people’s collective identity.
I am not struggling to produce tears today. I’m struggling to hold them back.