On a rising tide (After Pittsburgh)

Posted on November 18, 2018

by Rabbi Jordi Schuster Battis

I am in a generation that was taught so much about
anti-Semitism and Holocaust,
and pogroms and the Inquisition, and the Crusades.

Always with the message:  Never Forget. 
And always with the message:  Never Again.

What I took away from those conversations as a child was that
            If you learn enough about history—
                        not only about the destruction of the Second Temple
                        and Kristallnacht and medieval blood libels,
                        but also about poverty and racism and homelessness
                        and the Japanese internment camps—
            then they won’t have to happen again.

If you are a good enough student of history, then—
            even though history does repeat itself—
this time it won’t repeat itself.

If you keep the laws of memory and don’t forget,
then those things won’t have to happen again in physical reality,
because they’re already happening in our memories over and over,
so we can mean it when we say, “Never Again.”

I was trained in Sunday school and at summer camp to be a little warrior against anti-Semitism and against other injustices
by being armed with the knowledge of what happened in the past so that we could tell others too—
so they would know, and so together we could all turn the tide of history.

I don’t think I ever learned that sometimes the tide of history
rises up and swells again
even when you haven’t forgotten it:

that the past isn’t even past[1] not only because things happen again and again,
but because, when they do,
they come layered for us with everything that has happened before.

What to an outsider looks like another instance of gun violence
            —as bad as that may be—
feels to Jews not only like that but like every pogrom, Crusade, blood libel,
Pharaoh, Haman, Hitler there ever was,
because we’re all still living all those histories as well. 
And that when there are vicious words and bullets flying
and bodies and bimahs and spirits pierced,
they feel like our own,
and it raises all of our ancestral fears.

Or, maybe I did learn all of that,
because I was surprised to find how terribly unsurprised I was last Saturday, even as I grieved and continue to grieve.

I wish I had been more surprised.

It turns out that the tide of history rises,
and that sometimes we find ourselves on an ocean swelling around us,
even when we have been good students of history before.

It turns out that this swelling ocean isn’t the work of one shooter alone
            or one politician alone—
even if a single shooter can take so many lives,
and a single politician can give tremendous leniency in
allowing hate to flourish.

A swelling ocean is something that has been brewing for years and is swelling worldwide:
glaciers melting,
and waves that feel too familiar and too reminiscent of other tides,
bringing things to the surface that we hoped were long drowned.

That is the ocean we are on, in our boats in which we may feel so unmoored.

History is rising up right now like a great wave. 
A person in a kayak can say, “I was told about the tide.” 
That doesn’t mean she can stop the ocean.

In the New York Times on Wednesday,
there was an article about the science of how hate speech affects our brains.
It said that when a particular group is characterized as a threat,
then images of those people don’t light up the empathy centers in our brains anymore but trigger the centers for disgust.[2]

If someone else is seeing us as a hateful threat, he or she loses the capacity to see us as fully human.

If we allow ourselves to see political rivals as a hateful threat, we lose our own capacity to see them as human.

One of the most radical and useful things we can do right now is to practice empathy and teach empathy.  To tell others our stories and hear their stories.  Not to be right, not to debate, but to listen and never give in to disgust.

That would not have stopped what happened on Saturday in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh. 
But, it can stop us from losing our humanity in the process.

All that history we’ve learned and all of that memory we’ve passed along—
it is all stories.
And stories are the best way to teach empathy:
            Personal stories.
            Fictional stories.
            Truth stories.

Studies have shown that learning stories is the training we need to understand how other people feel and think.[3]

We may not be able to promise Never Again and mean that history will never repeat itself and that memory will never again cause us pain.

But, we can promise that Never Again will we ourselves lose sight of others’ humanity, and that we will do everything we can to help others understand ours.

That is how we keep each other and others above the water during this tide.

We have been readying ourselves this for a long time, even if we don’t feel we are ready.

We have gathered community and made friends across our different identities and different cohorts.
We have married each other so that they are us and we are them.
We have voted in elections and will continue to vote.  ((Be sure to vote next Tuesday!))
We have taken care of strangers.
We have upheld others’ humanity. 
We have taken stands about gun violence and about transgender rights.

Now it is time to do more.

It is time to gather our boats together and protect each other from the storm.
It is time to pull swimmers to safety out of the water.

This takes courage and practice.

It takes showing up even if it causes us anxiety. 
            I know that some of you were scared to walk in
            the door tonight,
            and you did it.
            You are here. You are amazing.  You are practicing courage. 
            Next time will be easier.

It means telling our children the truth when they ask if we can promise that they’ll always be safe.
            Honestly, we could never fully promise that,
            even before this time.
            No one can ever promise safety.
            But, we can say with full integrity:
            we are here to do our best to keep you safe.
            And, letting them know that,
            gently and with love, is important truth-telling
            that leads to more trust, not less.
            And, we can support our children in becoming
            the amazing, resilient individuals
            we know they can be and need them to be.

For those for whom it feels right to do so, it means writing postcards, calling senators, canvassing for candidates, and even running for office.
            And for those who do not do those things,
            know that it is okay to find other ways.

It means telling our neighbors the story of what last Saturday meant to us, personally,
            even when that feels like it’s a little too exposing,
            or a little too personal—
            because how else can they know?[4]

How else can they understand why our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents came to this country and what it truly meant to be a refugee?

How else can we help them remember why their families came too?

How else can we help them experience the power of memory that is one of the Jewish people’s greatest gifts—our ability to learn from history even when we are awash in its tide?

We may be in grief, and we may at times feel scared, but we are here.

That is what we’ve been practicing for.

To keep breathing.  To keep on swimming.  To keep on practicing.

To pull others out of the water and steer on strong
all the while loving our neighbors,
and teaching to our children,
and going from strength to strength to strength.

[1] William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun.

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/31/opinion/caravan-hate-speech-bowers-sayoc.html

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2015/may/13/reading-teach-children-empathy

[4] This point inspired by a personal Facebook post by Rabbi Michele Brand Medwin.

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