I was born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio. It was an extraordinarily diverse community with large Italian and African American populations. The Italians, mostly from Sicily and Calabria, were pretty nonchalant about Jews unless a Jewish boy attempted to date an Italian girl. Then, all bets were off. Since this post war period was before we lost our racial virginity, issues which remain central today that rotate around racism, discrimination, poverty – the noxious host of bigoted and intolerant devices that defile and pervert our national character – were not a part of the conversation. I had African American friends, but we were really ships that passed in the night. Oh yes, I also experienced a fair amount of anti-Semitism. There was a large first generation ethnic contingent: Russians, Poles, Croats, Czechs, and Slavs – many of whom were hard wired to hate Jews. Most of these anti-Jewish episodes revolved around deicide; words were exchanged, sometimes fists were thrown, feelings were bruised. But unless my memory is failing, I don’t recall any bomb threats to the Jewish Community Center, the synagogues or any cemetery desecrations.
Mount Carmel Cemetery is located about fifteen minutes from my home. It sits today in what I must describe as a sketchy neighborhood, but back in the day – 125 years ago – this was in the far reaches of Philly and right on the edge of a very Jewish area. There are three other Jewish cemeteries within a mile of Mount Carmel, consecrated in the latter part of the 19th century. Sometime over Saturday night about 120 gravestones were upended or smashed. Then this morning bomb threats were phoned in to the Jewish Community Center here and the JCC and Federation in Cherry Hill, NJ, just across the river. Malicious mischief? Kids with idle hands and prankish minds? These were hate crimes. This is anti-Semitism. It was nice that Vice President Pence visited the Jewish cemetery in St. Louis less than a week ago. I have figured out his role: he’s the sugar that makes the poison go down.
Does the name Srinivas Kochibhotla ring a bell? He was the Indian software engineer shot and killed by a drunk who was screaming “get out of my country” in Olathe, KS. Because it was dark, the shooter was drunk and the victim didn’t look the part of an upstanding “Merican,” a poor soul is dead. This is only, I fear, the beginning. I worry about violence against “the other” because I am the other. I am more than just a little discomfited about the destruction of religious symbols, be they Jewish grave stones or mosques. Something terrible has been unleashed, something feral and uncivilized, coarse, vulgar and primitive. My late father used to say that the patina of restraint in this country is as thin as new ice. His wisdom grows with my advancing years. I officiated at an unveiling two weeks ago at Mount Carmel. The funeral director said, “Mind where you step.” It was good advice. The ground was uneven and the graves have settled over time. The place is not well maintained and has been taken over by the Jewish Federation. And on this sacred but rough and rutted ground, I intoned the liturgy. For a few minutes, God was in this place. Now it is in shambles.
What in the Name of the Holy One does this have to do with Jewish Sacred Aging (except to transport me back to the memory of coming home in the seventh grade with a bloody nose, the gift of a Polish kid who told me that I had killed his Lord)? I’ll tell you: America in 2017 is not Germany in 1936. Donald Trump is not Hitler. Steve Bannon isn’t Joseph Goebbels. But, still, in my old age, I worry – if not for me, then certainly for my children and grandchildren – and the transgender kid down the street, and my friends’ GLBT children. I worry about them growing up in a world of alternative facts, pathological lies and grifters masquerading as nobility, of befouled air and rising, polluted water. I worry that the new aesthetic is glitz and that the freedom of speech and the press is at risk. I worry about hungry children, veterans living in cars and unaffordable, inaccessible health care. I worry about these things because life for me isn’t about yesterday; it’s about tomorrow. I worry about these things because I’m a Jew and because none of us in this day and age should be quoting Job, “Watchman, what of the night?” Mind where you step!