April 29, 1999
The Columbine Connection
Before I get to the Jewish connection in the Littleton, Colo., murders, a statement of empathy.
In the early hours after the killings at Columbine High School, a terrifying vulnerability swept over me and virtually all the parents of adolescents in my group. As soon as the kids went off to school, we called the administration to check on security, just in case. Then we called each other and shivered. In the days that have passed, I've been hearing the fears of parents, the tortured vulnerability we all share, as our children take up lives of their own. Adolescence takes a toll on the family. In some cases, our children stop talking to us for months or years; in others, it's a daily hormonal roller coaster. Most of our children come back to normal life; a few do not. But last weekend, the parent's role seemed like that of passenger on a pilotless plane that never quite lands.
There, but for the grace of God, it could have been my kid. But could it really?
The talk shows are blaming the Klebold and Harris parents for the massacre. Our secular priests of the air point the finger: Where were those affluent, suburban adults when the bombs were being built, the shrapnel and guns being collected? The answer is irrelevant: You can be in the next room and still not be close enough to your teen-ager. I was a guest on such a talk show myself when a psychologist called in to say that the murders were caused by parents who didn't give their kids "unconditional love." I told the shrink to bug off: I wanted to call the Klebolds and Harrises, the bereft, astounded parents of the two killers, in sympathy. You did everything you could, I wanted to say.
How well do I know my own child? When I ask her what's wrong, I sometimes accept the answer, "Leave me alone." Who am I to judge another's "unconditional love"?
By Sunday, empathy had been balanced by other emotions: namely, shame and disgust. News reports said that one of the mass murderers, Dylan Klebold, was in fact a son of a Jewish mother and a Lutheran father. Susan Klebold trained the handicapped for employment. Dylan's great-grandfather was a prominent Jewish philanthropist in Columbus, Ohio. According to The New York Times, Klebold, 17, attended his family's seder this month and asked the traditional four questions.
So now I have to look at this mass murder through a different lens. Only 20 days after the seder, on Adolf Hitler's birthday, Klebold and Eric Harris opened fire on their classmates and teachers at Columbine High. Neo-Nazi rhetoric had been part of their secret patois; Klebold and Harris spoke to each other in German and congratulated each other at the bowling alley with "Heil Hitler." Why Hitler? Why Nazis? And how did this perversion of logic happen to one of us?
This is not an easy line of inquiry, this acceptance of Klebold as one of "us" when others want to push him away. I suggest: There's something in that family situation that we have to face. A family celebrated the seder; they had a heritage. What will we make of it?
My point is this: Whatever Nazi rhetoric means to non-Jews, it means something intensely more complex to troubled Jewish kids. Klebold's resort to violence may have been an anomaly, but his fascination with Nazis, and his easy use of hate speech to transform himself from victim to aggressor, is not rare at all. One lesson of Columbine is to take seriously the dark side of the Jewish community's preoccupation with the Holocaust, the inevitable counter-response of our community's obsession with its tragic past.
More than 50 years after the fact, the assimilated Jew may not be prepared to deal with the truth of Jewish history. Especially when it's downplayed at the dinner table and taught dispassionately by schools as part of state-mandated Holocaust curricula. This dynamic is highly combustible. The family passes down Judaism Lite, a watered-down, benign view of a free people, while the classroom shows storm troopers and concentration camps. What's a young, naive mind to make of this horror? I argue that our adolescents are deeply troubled when the erotic allure of Hitler and evil (a staple of American media) hits them at the very moment they see themselves as outcast/victim/avenger.
Assessing the impact of Hitler and Nazism on our youth is long overdue. Some years ago, I put together an anthology of stories by young Jewish women; Anne Frank and the fantasy of hiding in the attic, dominated the submissions.
The Holocaust is potent stuff, as explosive and addictive in its way as lethal drugs and alcohol. It has invaded the mythology of our times, in ways our community never intended. At the very least, as teaching the Holocaust increasingly falls to the schools, we must give our teachers some insight into the Jewish students who may be a special part of the lesson plan.
Marlene Adler Marks, 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). Excerpts of her book will be featured in "Momma, Mommy, Mom," this Sunday, at 7 p.m., at UJ's Gindi Auditorium. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.