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Jewish Journal

My gypsy soul—and ours

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

October 29, 2013 | 2:11 pm

My parents thought that it was funny. But it wasn't.

They used to threaten to “sell me to the gypsies.”

The gypsies (or, more properly, the Roma) are back in the news again. In Farsala, Greece, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed four year-old girl was discovered in a Roma camp. How did her swarthy parents wind up with a child who looked like that? It did not compute, and this led to a worldwide hunt for her real parents. A DNA test proved that she was not, in fact, the child of her alleged Roma parents, and they have been offering conflicting explanations as to how the little girl came into their care. 

And then, there was the case of the girl in Dublin. The same kind of story – blond-haired, blue-eyed girl with dark complexioned parents. Irish authorities removed her from her family, but this time, a DNA test proved that she was, in fact, the child of her parents.

That’s the mythology about the gypsies/Roma – that they steal children. And, of course, the gypsies have long had a reputation for fortune telling and various other scams. Watch “Borat” again and you will see what I mean.

The renewed Roma-phobia in Europe has prompted various responses. Some of them appeared in the New York Times Letters page, in which sincere correspondents decried the new persecution of the Roma. Prompted by an article titled “Are The Roma Primitive, Or Just Poor?” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/20/sunday-review/are-the-roma-primitive-or-just-poor.html?_r=0, letter writers defended the Roma. One of them decried: “The Roma are the last group in Europe toward whom it is still widely socially acceptable to express overt racism.”

“The last group in Europe?” Ahem. A recent survey reveals that one quarter of European Jews are afraid to appear in public with kippot on their heads.

Because of/despite my parents' "humorous" "threats," I developed a fascination with the gypsies -- especially with the utterly murky question of their geographical origins. I have always been quick to see the historical parallels between the Jews and the gypsies/Roma. We have both been pariah peoples and diaspora peoples. A legend says that a gypsy tinker provided the nails for the crucifixion of Jesus, so we were both "implicated" in that historic crime. Europeans believed that Jews and gypsies collaborated to spread the Black Plague. Like the Jews, gypsies were expelled from the medieval guilds of Europe, forced into their own crafts and handiwork. Gypsy religious observances mirror ours. They circumcise their sons; they forbid hunting and wanton bloodshed; their ritual system is reminiscent of Leviticus.

In Germany, there were anti-gypsy laws as early as the 1890s. The 1937 Law Against Crime specifically links gypsies with beggars, tramps, prostitutes, and those who show "anti-social behaviors." 

Thousands of Roma died in Nazi medical experiments. Mengele had a particular fascination with gypsy twins. There were Roma in every concentration camp in Europe. There were Roma in the Lodz and Warsaw ghettos. Roma died at Babi Yar. They died next to our family members. We call our catastrophe the Shoah. They call their catastrophe Porraimos ⎯ the devouring. More than a million died.

Even in vulgar conversation, bigots speak of “jewing” someone down. We rarely think of the origins of being “gypped.”

As we prepare to mark the seventy fifty anniversary of Kristallnacht, we are afraid that our memory will be distorted or lost. We are afraid of forgetting that:

• Never before had a state set out, as a matter of principle and policy, to annihilate every man, woman, and child belonging to a specific people.
• Never before had an entire civilization conspired to kill.
• Never before had mass killing become a matter of bureaucracy, technology, and industry.
• Never before had a civilization killed with the wholesale involvement of its lawyers, doctors, business executives, industrial leaders, professors, policemen, engineers, chemists, railway designers, civil servants.

Moreover, no other people has ever occupied the imagination as have the Jews. The Jew exists as a paradigmatic figure, a symbol, a metaphor.

We are afraid that the reality of the Shoah will be historicized, relativized, marginalized, and trivialized. We are afraid that the Shoah is too large for us, and perhaps not large enough to share with others.

As Elie Wiesel wrote: We fear a mathematical journey that will go like this. First, it was six million. Then it will be eleven million, of whom six million were Jews. And then it will be eleven million (including six million Jews; our losses will become parenthetical). And soon, perhaps they will not even speak of the six million. They will speak only of eleven million. 

But I also believe the words of Julius Lester: “Our suffering is a long-stemmed rose that we hand to humanity.”

That is why we read about what is happening to the gypsies/Roma, and it is as if we are looking into the mirror.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is one of America’s most prolific and most-quoted rabbis, whose colleagues have called him an “activist for Jewish ideas.” An award-winning writer...

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