This week the old Jewish cemetery in my hometown was vandalized. Almost 200 gravestones were crushed or knocked flat off their bases, many in the historic section dating back to the 1800’s. My eldest brother Danny is buried there outside of St. Louis, as is my little cousin Menachem who died at seven. I have long imagined both their souls to be my spirit guides. It hurt my heart to think that their physical resting places had been trashed by blind hatred.
Since the First of 2017, 54 Jewish communities in the United States and Canada have received threats. This one was real. And it was also an unprecedented act in our country, which (let us remember) was founded upon religious freedom and tolerance. The photos of overturned graves sent shivers through me, reminders of Russian pogroms and Nazi horrors.
Let me tell you how my world shifted on its axis last month when I traveled to Standing Rock. The first time I set eyes on the encampment was early dawn, just as the dark was lifting. The silhouette of teepees against the pink horizon and the smell of wood fire smoke in the frigid air touched something so deep inside of me that tears started welling up before I knew what I was feeling.
As we drove into the camp, we heard the drum of the prayer circle, followed by piercing chant in an unfamiliar language. That was the moment I knew we had stepped beyond time, beyond the veil of our consensual Western, white worldview, into an alternate reality.
But what exactly was it about Standing Rock that created this alternate reality? Three things.
Back in our camper, by the light of the Shabbat candles, I ‘m musing on this astounding week. We arrived at Standing Rock still flummoxed by election returns, and fixated on daily newscasts out of Washington and New York. To our delight we found no mention of the T-word, no fretful forecasts. That’s because the story here is far more compelling, and the historical context of the Dakota Access Pipeline battle much broader–four hundred years in the making.
This week I witnessed a new culture alive in our country, one that’s vast and growing.
I had pictured Standing Rock as a few tents and a tepee or two. In actuality there are hundreds of tepees, yurts, and easily a thousand tents spreading out as far as the eye can see. Building is going on in every direction; vehicles continue to pour in.
These are folks of all colors, ages, and states, who refuse to buy into the capitalist values that cater to a white majority. Unlike mainstream America, this emerging culture holds to wise leadership at its center, indigenous elders steeped in a long tradition of prayer and ceremony, rather than the cult of self, wealth, and materialism.
I am not an activist. I avoid crowds and cold weather if I can. So why was I was drawn to this relentlessly frigid, straw-colored landscape filled with people this Thanksgiving? Truth is I’ve been traveling too much and would have relished some time off to stay put and catch my breath.
But today at dawn I understood more. As David and I huddled in a prayer circle of 400 (500?) people from all over the continent and beyond I felt shutters of awe dissolve my cynical affect, my wariness of New Age unreality. Looking around I was astonished to see thousands (yes, thousands) who have camped here and two camps nearby. At the center of the camp we were surrounded by a sea of tepees and yurts, tents and RVs. Wood smoke rose into the cold new day.
There is a certain pageantry about Jewish holidays in New York City. It is Monday morning, the first day of the Jewish New Year, and teems of well-attired families make their way down the streets of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The city looks on as its Jews stride unabashedly in yarmelkas and hats, holding hands with their children or pushing strollers. On the way, friends shake hands or embrace; the air is filled with purposeful celebration as the Jews spread out to their various places of worship.
By ten o’clock I am inside the cavernous synagogue, looking down on the dais from a 100-foot balcony, feeling practically giddy. This year I am not leading Rosh Hashana services, but have the incredible luxury of sitting in the pews, weightlessly carried by the expertise of others. Thrilled, I wrap myself in my holiday prayer shawl, and observe. (This may be the closest I ever come to being an observant Jew.)
With a kind of dual consciousness, I pray intently while also noticing waves of emotion surging and falling away within myself. Elation, boredom, moments of gratitude, and then, suddenly, like tripping into a fierce and unpredicted weather pattern, gales of tears. They sneak up on me as our voices join to sing the oldest, most classical prayers.
It was the smallest thing really. A little bump on the road. I was driving north on I-36 yesterday when I saw a little clod hit and spun around by the car in front of me. As I passed I saw more clearly: the tiniest bunny stunned by the blow, upright in the center of the opposite lane, its eyes wide with shock, looking into mine. For that one split second as I passed him, our eyes locked.
I made the quickest U-turn possible and raced back. But this is a heavily populated highway. By the time I arrived a minute later, the bunny was nothing more than a soft pink mass.
Collateral damage, I thought. Nobody’s fault. The product of a racing world. But my thoughts kept returning to that last glint of life, the wide eyes peering into mine. They kept talking to me about the vulnerable underbelly of our world.
How do we relate to the suffering all around us, if indeed we even see it? In my safe rural world it’s the rabbits and frogs that I find on the road, a deer or owl maimed by a speeding car. These creatures remind me that not far off lies a world of children living untenable lives, families on the run, homeless people with grave illnesses. Not whizzing by, but taking them into my heart, their eyes open me to the wider circle of helplessness that is part of life.
We have veils over our eyes, perhaps for good reason.
We are nearing the end of our ancestral pilgrimage now. Here I am in front of the Volksopera in Vienna between the feet of the Wicked Witch of Oz, proclaimed dead and powerless amidst bells and revelry.
But the Witch is not dead. Evil is still afoot.
We saw many commemorations to the dead on our short journey through Central Europe. At each stop on our way—Prague, Terezin, Uhersky-Brod, Slovakia, Budapest, Vienna—we learned how lives much like our own were disrupted, how unfathomable atrocities occurred. Decades later, museums and commemorations arose. Iron shoes nailed on the shores of the Danube, walls filled with carefully calligraphed names, gold-squares set at the doors of houses—all beautiful attempts to ring the bell of awareness, to awaken us to cognizance, to give a semblance of honor to those who could not be saved.
Is this human cycle inevitable, I wonder? Deport, Kill, Remember, Repeat.
Will we be doing the same in twenty years time for the Muslim families who are currently crossing continents looking for sanctuary?
My sister and I have seen a lot. But as I walk the streets of Central Europe looking at historical markers, I have found myself asking: What are we not seeing here? What is not in this picture?
This morning my head is swimming at the remarkable events that unfolded yesterday in Uhersky-Brod—a verdant, sweet-smelling town in the Carpathian Mountains of the Czech Republic. This is where our great-great grandparents Moses and Tzilka lived and bore their children, so we rented a car to come see what we could find.
My sister and I were happily taking photos of ourselves in front of town hall (notice the splendid countryside in the background) when a man named Michael approached us. A native of the place, Michael not only knew English but was familiar with the history of his town. On our map Michael showed us where the old Jewish neighborhood and cemetery once stood. “Of course there is not one Jew left,” he said, “but across from the big Janacek brewery is where they once lived.”
Sure enough, in the woody hills across from an enormous beer factory we found a country synagogue, with a big padlock on the door. Through the window we could see an empty floor, on the wall a photographic exhibit behind glass.
I write this from a train, rumbling through the Czech countryside on our way to the tiny towns where our grandparents and families lived and died.
Yesterday, a day spent at Terezin, the Ghetto/Concentration Camp Terezin that held over 55,000 Jews. Terezin was not a death camp, per se. And there is no way to compare Terezin to say, Auschwitz or Matthausen, where hundreds of thousands were brutally tortured and gassed. Terezin was its own special animal—a transport center from which “unusable” Jews would be shipped east to their death. But it also provided the Nazis with a propaganda front to show the world (like the Red Cross) reasonable Jewish habitation. (It actually looks like a little village, and indeed it is a fortress originally built in the 1780’s to house political prisoners.)
But the place still reeks of suffering. Behind the pretty façade, the living conditions were horrendously cramped, full of lice and bedbugs, typhus and dysentery. 58,000 people were stuffed into the space of 7,000. Hygiene, food, and medical care was so paltry, that 33,000 died there. And 8,700 of these were children.
My sister and I had an exuberant day in Prague today, on our feet for nearly seven hours as we drank in the sumptuous sites of the Prague Jewish Quarter. Jews lived here in the thousands from the Ninth Century, with an abundance of synagogues—six beauties still stand—and a rich culture that seems to still vibrate with life along the cobblestone paths. Seems to. So much life abounds: thousands of tourists from around the world—kids in baseball caps and elegant Asians, Spanish speakers, Italians, and Brits pour in to see the gorgeous tile work of the Spanish synagogue, the Chevreh Kaddisha (sacred burial society) and most famously, a courtyard where 12,000 gravestones stand and lie at all angles demarcating Jewish culture that thrived here from the 1400’s.