This sense of dissonance isn’t new. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, I, too, was overcome by our national anguish. But when the language of “loss of innocence” began to suffuse the discourse, something seemed askew.
Studying creative writing at the time, I expressed myself through a fictional protagonist. “The year I began nursery school,” my character observed, “terrorists targeted Israeli athletes in Munich, and when I was in college, they murdered students in the sky above Scotland.” As an early-career academic, my character understood that she “had studied history, more than the average person, perhaps, more than the average Gen Xer, most likely,” so she “knew that people could be evil, could wreak havoc on entire communities, entire nations.” None of this was news to my character, or to me; for us, “there was not so much a loss of innocence as a tremendous sadness. A vast, vast sigh.”
Something similar has transpired since the murderous October 2018 attack at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Each time another alarming incident occurs, I share the fundamental grief. But I have not experienced the tectonic psychic shifts that other American Jews describe on social media and elsewhere, first-time fear and newfound anxieties, terrors that they declare heretofore absent from their lives in Die Goldene Medina, the Golden Land of the United States.
Perhaps I am in a state of denial, or delayed reaction. But maybe something else is going on.
I am a Reform Jew. My religious observance isn’t nearly as pronounced as that of my Orthodox co-religionists, but my spirit connects with some of Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt’s recent observations:
In a way, when things are going well in exile – that’s when [we Orthodox Jews are] surprised. So while some American Jews may be shocked by the recent spate of attacks, I am not sure it is as earth-shattering for the Jew who has spent her whole life attending prayer group meetings for brethren injured in terror attacks in Israel, who has spent every Tisha b’Av siting on the floor mourning murdered Jews, and who has long ago crossed off several European cities from travel destination options because of the dangers inherent there for a visible Jew.
Even without identical experience and ideology, what’s happening now isn’t earth-shattering for me, either. As I’ve sought to understand why, I’ve come up with some explanations.
Because my father’s parents fled the Nazis.
Because I learned to read and watch and listen and pay attention in the 1970s. I absorbed, then, not just my grandparents’ stories but also news accounts of hijacked airplanes; I understood why, when Grandma and Grandpa traveled to Israel in 1977, they had to arrive at the airport many hours before boarding their El Al flight, submit their suitcases to inspection, and answer a battery of questions. (Decades later, when a man named Richard Reid brought the phrase “Shoe Bomber” into the American lexicon, I remembered how my gentle grandfather’s orthopedic footwear had raised El Al’s suspicions.)
Because when they returned from Israel, my grandparents gave me a gold Star of David necklace that I wore proudly – until my first trip to Europe a couple of years later. I awoke one morning in our London hotel room. I’d missed my parents’ early-morning conversation about some menacing circumstance they’d observed, but I began listening in time to hear one worriedly ask the other, Is she wearing her Star? Since then – and in the United States as well as abroad – I’ve often substituted a less Jewishly recognizable gold dreidel on the chain around my neck and always thought twice – at least – before venturing outdoors wearing a t-shirt or tote bag emblazoned with any Jewish symbol or slogan.
Because visiting Jewish sites on that and later trips I became acquainted with metal detectors and bag searches and double-door systems nicknamed “mantrap” or “airlock” long before I encountered them at Jewish sites in New York. And long before the latest attacks, I encountered them in New York, too.
Because although the antisemitism I encountered growing up in my own safe, suburban neighborhood was of the “genteel” sort – restricted country clubs and so forth – for as long as I can remember my New Jersey synagogue has always had a security camera and at least one guard present at Shabbat services.
Because that synagogue is where I was introduced to klal Yisrael, a term for a sense of Jewish peoplehood, which connected me to the Soviet Jewry movement. To the rescue of Ethiopian Jews. Klal Yisrael strengthened my understanding that wherever we might live and however we might practice our faith, the welfare of all Jewish people is entwined.
Because when there was an intifada, I was afraid to visit Israel; when I did visit, I couldn’t stop thinking of the kibbutz we toured and its underground “safe room” –decorated to calm and cheer all of the community’s children.
Because, in sum, since the 1970s I have continued to read and watch and listen, and what I’ve absorbed transcends my own experience and stretches back in time and wraps around the globe in place. Because when I begin to summon up examples I can’t seem to stop. And because Leo Frank and Atlanta’s Temple Bombing and the 1977 siege at the B’nai B’rith offices in Washington made it evident that not even in die Goldene Medina are there any guarantees.
What we are facing here and now makes me sad, and it makes me anxious, and it makes me angry, but it does not demoralize me. In fact, I am heartened by official responses – and unofficial expressions of allyship. Like Chizhik-Goldschmidt, I am strengthened and inspired by our Jewish traditions and texts. I am, in short, experiencing a range of emotions.
But once again, I am not stunned.
Erika Dreifus is the author, most recently, of Birthright: Poems. She is also the author of Quiet Americans: Stories, which was named an American Library Association/Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title for Outstanding Achievement in Jewish Literature. Visit her online at ErikaDreifus.com and follow her on Twitter (@ErikaDreifus), where she tweets on “matters bookish and/or Jewish.”