When we were kids back in Camp Torah Vodaas, every summer there was a play in which new Nazis arose to power and came to take away the 1960s-era kinderlach who were learning Torah with enthusiasm, albeit on stage. The parents of all of the teenage actors were either survivors of the Holocaust or American bochurim who lived through their teenage years hearing of the atrocities that were taking place and had occurred. I am not sure what prompted the teen actors to re-imagine pogroms and persecutions in America. Maybe, like the Cropsey Maniac stories that they told us at night, they wanted to scare the wits out of us, or maybe there was an underlying message that they wanted to instill in us – a message that writers in the Yated would remember 60 years later.
That message would negate all the bluster that we were hearing on the streets back then, encapsulating a theme that reverberated with swagger and self-confidence: “Never Again.”
Their message, albeit on stage, was reiterated quite often in many of the powerful and memorable shmuessen that my rosh yeshiva, Rav Elya Svei, delivered. They embodied the question of anti-Semitism, the reasons and the antidote. In it, he decried two words that were the mantra of kochi v’otzem yodi, as if to say that we control the destiny and fate of Klal Yisroel: “Never Again.” At the time, it was the anthem of the JDL, the State of Israel, and anyone else who thought that the forces of physical power and the brilliant strategies of the defense and intelligence could and would thwart any types of atrocities that we had seen back in the 1940s.
The rosh yeshiva offered the only antidote, the affirmation and realization that the halls of Klal Yisroel’s yeshivos and botei midrashos are the only refuge, and that trying to ingratiate ourselves by intermingling with our adversaries and the outside world will only be counterproductive. We will be called out and expelled.
Children of survivors may have interpreted “Never Again” as a plea, not as a pledge. The plays that my counselors performed were certainly a testimony to the embedded fear that they had of “Heaven forbid, again.” I don’t know if they were meant to scare us out of the apathy of the stupor of the “groovy generation” of the 1960s, when the Holocaust was just an echo to many of the American “Yankee Doodle” citizens of peace, love and harmony. When we were growing up in the ‘60s, the underdog and the oppressed figure was the African-American. He was being beaten and degraded down south and emerging as a powerful violent force in the north. Jewish neighborhoods – Brownsville, East New York, East Flatbush, Laurelton, Rosedale and Arverne – were falling. Their residents were fleeing to the suburbs or to Boro Park and Crown Heights, which were fortresses of fortitude. Far Rockaway was beginning to crack, and if not for Rav Shlomo Freifeld and his stalwart positioning of Yeshivas Sh’or Yoshuv smack in the middle of the burgeoning black community, Far Rockaway may have fallen long before its resurgence through yeshivos and the growth of shteiblach and shuls that had just moved near the Lawrence border.
Anti-Semitism in those years was relatively toned down. Of course, down in the deep south or Midwest, where a Jew was still an anomaly, prejudice was prevalent, but it was an underlying bias that may have included some snide remarks or whispers.
A scenario that sticks in my mind happened more than ten years ago, when I visited my children, who had recently joined the St. Louis Kollel. I was standing on line at a St. Louis museum with my son. Behind us was a little girl, no more than twelve, standing in line with who I assume was her brother.
The drawl of their accented banter was slowly spilling from their excited mouths like southern molasses. It made the twang of the Missourah dialect sound New Yawk in comparison. I was not looking at them and was not interested in their conversation, but the anomaly of their dialect, talking about the “trehsteen thaings” that “they wantin’ ti see” and the like caught my ear and then my eye as I turned around. They spotted us and stared as if they had been to Mars and saw the creatures that they were once warned about.
They turned to each other in a mixture of amusement, curiosity and excitement. “You ask him,” whispered the little boy to his sister. “Nah, ahm not gonna ask him. You ask him.” It went back and forth for about twenty seconds, when finally the little guy prevailed. She asked the question: “What y’all wirrrin’ on yer heids?” (What are you wearing on your heads?)
My son, in an effort to blend in, drawled as if everybody in Alabama wore a yarmulke. “Oh, eeets a yarm’lka.” Then he added, “It’s what Jewish people wear.”
“Jewish people?” The girl seemed to be conjuring up some images. “Well, I’m from Laverne, Alabama. Where y’all from?”
My son didn’t miss a beat. “In his newfound location’s accent, he drawled as if he was Harry Truman himself speaking to a crowd outside the Independence Courthouse. He declared, “Wahr frim Mizzourah.”
The girl turned away, but we could not miss seeing her little brother grit his teeth and snarl. “Ya’ see. I told ya’ things are different in Mizoorah.”
Things are becoming a lot more different all over the world and even in New York.
The European continent was never courteous to Jews. Maybe it was not such a shock when I heard about planes being forced to fly to different locations for the fear of mobs about to attack deplaning Jews. England had once expelled its Jewish population, and in recent years had more and more incidents of hatred of Jews, so I was not totally shocked at the rise of anti-Semitism that has plagued that country. It comes as no surprise that Conservative aristocrat Lord Wolfson told the House of Lords that he is more concerned about the safety of his daughter wearing a Star of David in London than that of his son, who is in the IDF.
But I was not prepared for what is feeling like the beginning of an American “Again” chas veshalom, when New York is now host to thousands of anti-Semitic marchers openly calling for heinous acts to be perpetrated upon Yidden. It is not slowing down, and the fuel of rhetoric from the so-called halls of academia is fanning the flames of what was once thought impossible in America.
No marches, no propaganda, no reasoning seems to be helping.
The originator of the hopeful prediction that promised that we would never see a reoccurrence of the atrocities of eighty years prior is no longer with us. He was gunned down by a bullet that had our enemy’s desire of “Once Again” scratched into it.
We are in the Hands of the One who orchestrates all. Certainly, political machinations, security apparatuses and public opinion have not been an impediment to assure that such atrocities will never resurface.
We must rely upon the only guidance that has sustained us, despite years of persecution and exile. We are a nation apart and must live the life that embodies our distinctiveness – it is the life of Torah.