I’ve been reading The Jews of Russia and Poland: A Bird’s-eye View of their History and Culture by Dr. Israel Friedlander, which was published in 1920, for the past few days. I took it out of my temple library because I’m interested in tormenting myself by reading about how the Jews have been maligned throughout history. The why of that: well, it puzzles me and depresses me--and captivates me. It’s the need to keep probing a wound or debility or sickness that the world has, and which it has continually imposed upon the Jews, and which, even though I am an American Jew and all is seemingly well, I cannot ignore. The other books I took out were about the Spanish Inquisition; the Holocaust; and, for a change, some uplifting Jewish-reading about the Jewish Khazars, a people in the Caucasus region who converted to Judaism in the mid-eighth century. I also took that slim, light blue-cloth-covered book because we are Friedlanders on the maternal side of my family.
I didn’t realize that yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day, but it does seem fitting to read this book that traces and explains the anti-Semitism of the region—from the pre-Holocaust perspective—at this time. My reading, up to page 110 (another 100 pages of sadness to go before the even more devastating sadness that follows the writing of this book; oh, what would Mr. Friedlander have said, if he hadn’t had been murdered in 1920 when he went to distribute funds to starving Jews in Poland and the Ukraine as a result of World War I) showcases that there is absolutely no SURPRISE! that the Holocaust happened—not the immense devastation, not the vast number of participants and “innocent” bystanders, not the inhumanity of the supposed humane, and certainly not the belief bred from century upon century of church teachings and noble decrees and violent pogroms and debilitating laws, and the “this, too, will pass” survival stance of the Jews. It’s been a reading that traces a terrible trail of hatred, denigration and oppression. And why I take it to bed at night with me is a wonder.
The key to far too much that really is incomprehensible, because what is religion or even culture, after all, except a way or a system that is supposed to help people and not result in the deformity of their personalities in a cult of adherence, is found in this decree “the reason for the existence of the Jews is that they might remind us of the tortures of the Saviour, and by their abject and miserable condition might serve as an example of the just chastisement of God inflicted upon the infidels” (Friedlander 57). I know, not much new, but still, startling to read the bluntness of then—at least a spade was called a spade. But why am I here, in Virginia, thinking and writing about this? Why not say, “Thank goodness that that’s the past”? Because, it seems, “history repeats itself” is truer than “we need to learn about the past in order to prevent it from repeating itself” because the cycle seems to be on auto-pilot.
What is the purpose of a life? Is it to embody an ideal or embrace an idea? Why are we so weak that we can’t find our hearts within our minds? Is there really something that separates people? Are the pains that those closest to us impose upon us so hard to bear and acknowledge that we seek the “other” for a safe distance to express our own pain? Is there such a thing as a peaceful society? Have weapons ever only been used to search for food?
There is so much that is incomprehensible. Unfortunately, those things that cannot be comprehended can be felt.
I have sat here for hours trying to come up with some point that raises my thoughts to a place above or beyond where my thinking began. But I am still here; still listening to the same music (Ofra Haza) and still sitting at my dining room table because moving to the more comfortable couch seems wrong. I have reached no point. I am where Dr. Friedlander left me when I closed his book last night after reading that Catherine the Great “laid the foundations of Jewish rightlessness. Succeeding emperors have built upon these foundations” (Friedlander 112).
The sky is gray. I am on my third snow day because of Wednesday’s snowstorm. A few hours ago my younger daughter went to her father’s house. And Kenny went to work this morning. I am home alone for the first time in a while. It would have been wise to go out and get my haircut or get a sexy nightgown (I’m still on my old flannel pajamas).
Maybe I should still go out; there is time before he comes home for me to move my mood and mind from boundless and inscrutable sorrow. Nothing will be solved this afternoon. I will not uncover how to transform the cruelty in people’s hearts. I will not uncover the formula for “never again.” I will simply continue being the person I am: a person whose heart aches within its own walls, wishing it could find a way for us to live in peace and comprehension.