This column is directed to a real-life young woman I'll call Heather, who's enrolled in the conversion program at the University of Judaism.
Rosh Hashanah begins this evening at sundown, and I am thinking about you. For the first time, you will be joining the greater Jewish community, participating in our prayers, studying our text, finding solace in our grand ritual in-gathering that takes place each fall. Throughout the pageant, the standing and sitting, singing and chanting, not to mention the moments of private reflection and teshuvah -- the call to return -- I'll be thinking of you.
But this, your first High Holiday cycle, is giving you more than you bargained for, more than the chance for personal expiation and a clean slate. The two of us spoke only a few days after Buford Furrow, an off-balanced white supremacist armed with an Uzi and neo-Nazi rhetoric, opened fire on the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills and shot young Jewish children in summer camp before killing a Filipino-American postal worker.
There was no hiding it. You were freaked.
You said: "I can't really understand that someone would kill me for being Jewish. It's unreal to me, like a dream."
Your words haunt me. You have signed on to be part of the "chosen people." Now you are wondering, perhaps for the first time, what you are electing to be "chosen" for.
It is an amazing fact that the American Jewish community is filled with young seekers such as you, tender novices who come to Judaism without any of the historic baggage. This is a dream come true. For a people bent low by the Holocaust and the loss of the Six Million, Jews by Choice, like the children of intermarriage or post-feminism, are a new offshoot, a fresh sprig of green. For now and the foreseeable future, the "new Jews" -- both born and made -- will be those without direct experience of ghetto or shtetl, who lack the paranoid tick of self-protection and self-hatred that guided us through most of Western experience. For these new Jews, Judaism is Torah and mitzvot, intellectual challenge and pleasant holidays spent sitting around a groaning table filled with bagels and coffeecake. They carry no cynicism and bitterness and do not know the meaning of the expression "It's tough to be a Jew." They associate Judaism with love.
But this summer, the summer of Buford Furrow, poses the first bitter challenge to these newly minted Jews of peace. Are there Buford Furrows out there, lying in wait? Are they really out to "kill me" -- me, the unnamed, unknown Jew with the wrong nose or surname? Furrow's unacknowledged ammo, his true psychic destructive firepower, comes from the way he moves the new Jew from a universal vision of Judaism back into the cave of particularity. The new Jew is moved by a larger vision, the Jewish message to the world. The particular Jew is interested only in the threat to his own people. Furrow thrusts us back into the dark ages of self-reference, when the Jew was safe only in one's own world, behind the gates. The terror he strikes in you, Heather, is so huge, vestigial and potentially paralyzing -- truly "unreal, like a dream." That terror is Furrow's triumph.
I cannot bear to let him win. But how to answer his attack?
For such new Jews like you, it is a disservice to talk statistics. It is no good telling you, as so many of our leaders have said in the last month, that anti-Semitic incidents are on the decline (down 30 percent in California).
Nor is it of service to talk economics, to tell you that American Jews have reached unprecedented heights, have scaled all the known racial and social bars, have seats on the high courts, in Congress and among the Fortune 500.
It is worse yet to talk history, to say that this is not Nazi Germany, since this time the government is on the Jews' side.
Statistics, economics and history are tools of particularity, a way of flattery, a balm for Jews who have had the pariah status all to themselves. Reminding Jews that it was worse once before -- in Egypt, Spain, Germany -- only continues the narrow hold of a sinking ship. It's no good for you.
For new Jews, it is crucial that we not revert to the cave of the particular. We must not respond by how relatively safe Jews are here, but how destructive race hatred is regardless of how small the numbers. We must not suggest that things are relatively good for Jews and how dangerous they are for all of America's minorities, so long as there is such a disparity between haves and have-nots. We must not insist that America is not in Weimar economic status, but to know that the ethnocentrism -- include white supremacy -- breeds a world where no one is safe.
The neo-Nazi is not out to get you, but he is out to get us.
As Jews, moreover, we are not paralyzed by fear but motivated to respond. White supremacy is just as dangerous to American stability as the black-Jewish meltdown was two decades ago. Today's problem is more difficult because every group is a minority, including whites. In our terror of Furrow, we are all stakeholders. There is work to be done.
Rosh Hashanah, say the sages, is the most universal of Jewish holidays. Every Torah portion and prophetic reading contains the message that Jews are not alone in this world. We have relationships, we have friends.
Read your texts this holiday. And come away renewed.
-- Marlene *
Marlene AdlerMarks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, is author of "A Woman's Voice: Reflections on Love, Death, Faith, Food & Family Life" (On The Way Press.)
Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.