This year Jewish Americans will participate in an extraordinary Hanukkah celebration—they will light the first menorah candle on the evening before Thanksgiving. This has never happened before, but we came very close to it in 1888. Then, the first Hanukkah light and Thanksgiving occurred on the same day. That year, the national Jewish newspaper, the American Hebrew, dedicated its November 30 issue to the “twofold feasts.” The issue was as much “a tribute to the historic significance of Chanuka” as to “the traditions entwined about Thanksgiving Day.” The editors hoped readers would find the newspaper to be “a stimulus to the joyousness and gladness upon the observance of both.” In previous years they had described Hanukkah as a festival to thank God for the Maccabean victory, and, seeing both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah as occasions for giving thanks to God, they easily encouraged American Jews to enthusiastically celebrate both events.
But most of the time, as we know, Hanukkah occurs at a time closer to Christmas. Most years, the American Hebrew’s Hanukkah message urged its readers not to join their fellow Americans in the national festivities because it was the celebration of Jesus’ birth that enchanted their gentile neighbors. Instead, that newspaper echoed the December messages of most other Jewish publications. Jewish newspapers, synagogue bulletins, women’s and men’s club letters, rabbinical sermons, and the urgings of educators and self-styled community leaders alike urged America’s Jews to make their Hanukkah celebrations as festive as possible.
Again and again, in the years since that early American Hebrew message, American Jews wove Hanukkah’s story into their own contemporary lives in ways that reflected their changing circumstances. Those retellings kept Hanukkah’s meaning alive and relevant. They turned the simple holiday rite into an event which, like other well-loved Jewish festivals, drew families together in their own homes where they could tailor the celebration to fit their own tastes in food and décor, and to reflect their own ideas about the holiday’s significance. They could indulge their children, and be joyous.
Will we ever celebrate Hanukkah and Thanksgiving together this way again? Almost. In 2070 Thanksgiving will fall on November 27th and Hanukkah will begin the following day. In 2165, we will light the first Hanukkah candle on November 28—Thanksgiving Day. But for Hanukkah’s first light to occur the evening before Thanksgiving, as it does this year, is truly an anomaly we won’t see again.
The reissuing of my novel about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Red Love, as an e-book this month is a joyful moment for me. When the book came out, the Holocaust historian Lucy Dawidowicz, a month before she died, wrote that “This is a novel that represents life and is true to history, combining imagination with the documentary record, written with bite and black humor, tempered by compassion for the betrayed sacrifices, the lives lost.” Elie Wiesel wrote that my book has “fascinating events and amazing perception.”
I remember as a small boy in Queens how the sky seemed to darken for me when I heard of the Rosenbergs’ execution. It was an event I could not get out of my memory. Soon I would be drawn to the American Communist Party. I felt a kinship for these well-read, cultured and passionate souls who yearned for a kinder, more compassionate world. As I learned more about Stalin’s crimes and anti-Semitism, it was inconceivable to me that these people who I so admired, who had so much humanity and love for their fellow man, revered a system that even Nikita Khrushchev admitted in 1956 was bathed in the blood of tens of millions of people. The USSR allied itself with Hitler during the Hitler-Stalin pact, murdered millions in the Gulag, destroyed Jewish life in the Soviet Union and murdered the major writers and artists who comprised the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Yet I came to understand that for these American true believers, the Soviet Union had once symbolized paradise, where there were no such things as anti-Semitism, economic exploitation, poverty and racism. The contradiction between the sincere goodness of the people I met in the Communist Party and the justifications they presented for a totalitarian regime became for me a personal and professional puzzle to resolve. Continue reading
Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (or “JDS” as it was fondly known), the school my three brothers and I all attended from grades 6-12, had no football team and no swim team. Neither my brothers nor I cared about football; the absence of a swim team, however, we found frustrating. We couldn’t understand why JDS couldn’t rent pool-time from the JCC across the street. Fortunately, all of us were deep into our summer-league swim team, probably our collective favorite athletic venture of the year. We grew up in Northern Virginia, home of the illustrious Northern Virginia Swim League (NVSL), one of the largest public swimming leagues in the country. With over 100 neighborhood recreation centers fielding teams in 18 divisions, the NVSL presides over a 6-week competitive swimming season every summer, from mid-June through the end of July. The B-meets, which did not count for league standing and thus were markedly less competitive and more fun, were all on Monday nights. The A-meets, which did count, were on Saturday mornings.
Our first years in swimming, my brothers and I only did B-meets; my parents insisted that we attend synagogue on Saturday mornings. We were the only Jews on the team—my parents’ home is in the heart of the St. James Parish, featuring a large community church within a well-connected and active Northern Virginia Diocese—and our absence to the A-meets caused some raised eyebrows. I’m not sure I’d have had the impetus to question my parents’ edict alone, but Haskell, my middle brother, got feisty. He was by far the best swimmer of the four of us, and the coaches wanted him especially for Saturday meets; they knew he’d bring in points. One of them pulled us both aside. “Maybe you guys could have a talk with your parents?” they asked pointedly.
Haskell and I begged our Mom, who was the main stickler on the subject. Eventually we struck a compromise; as long as Mom didn’t have to serve as a timer or work the concession stand at Saturday meets (no problem, because they needed timers and concession workers on Mondays as well), and as long as we attended Saturday services with minimal complaining in the weekends before and after swim season, then we could attend meets during those six Saturdays. I’m sure, looking back, that it was a difficult compromise for Mom to make; I believe she understood that not only did we love swimming, but we yearned to be a part of our neighborhood community in Falls Church, VA, as well as our school community in Rockville, MD.
The memories of those summer swim meets are some of my happiest: I remember heading off to the pool just after sunrise with my brothers, having been too nervous to eat more than a granola bar for breakfast. The team would warm up together, each of us jittery in anticipation of our races. Then, when it was time to race, I remember the initial shock of diving into the cold pool again, sprinting as fast as I possibly could (NVSL races are never more than 100 meters), then anxiously slapping the edge of the pool and looking up to see how well I’d finished. Sometimes, that would result in tears; other times, in elation.
But there was a longer-lasting lesson in our summer swim team experience, which I don’t think even my mother foresaw. Many of our school friends, I realized, did not have friendships outside of the Jewish community. My brothers and I did, though—from swim team. Despite the initial hurdle of the Saturday meets, our mostly Catholic swim team friends, who all lived nearby, never made us feel any outsider status. I remember one Saturday night in particular, when I was set to drive a bunch of kids from swim team around in our family van—I believe we were going to make a series of “hits” in team’s yearly game of Super Soaker “assassination.” Mom had told us we couldn’t leave until after Havdalah. And so, when three stars were out, my brothers and I emerged from our house to find several team-members on our lawn, patiently waiting for us to fulfill our religious obligations so that we could all drive off into the Virginia twilight together.
My brothers and I together attended various Jewish day schools in France, then in Northern Virginia, and in Southern Maryland throughout our respective primary and secondary school years. The middle/high school we all attended, Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (known as “JDS”), boasted a reasonably well-developed athletic program: They offered three seasons of sports, including soccer, basketball, track and cross-country, volleyball, softball, baseball, and briefly a lacrosse team. We competed against various other small schools, mostly parochial, in the Potomac Valley Athletic Conference.
Our most heated rivalries (i.e., the ones wherein we’d actually have some spectators at the games) were against two other Jewish schools: Beth T’Filoh, in Baltimore, and Hebrew Academy, also in the Rockville/Silver Spring area. Whenever we played either of these teams, our gym would be plastered with signs saying, “Let the Jews win!” or “Jews are the best athletes!” The rivalries were traditional, but good humored, and lacking in ferocity. Losing a basketball game, even to one of our “rival” teams, was no biggie—everyone would be over it in a day. Getting a low grade in Talmud—then you had a problem!
Looking back, I recognize and very much appreciate our school’s healthy attitude towards athletics: It was implicitly understood that sports were fun, but not the be-all-end-all of existence. If you wanted to be on a really competitive team, you played outside of school. (A lot of kids were on teams outside of school, either to have access to a more challenging program and possible “scouting,” or because our school didn’t offer a particular sport, as was the case with my brothers and me, who all participated in a neighborhood swim team.)
Nevertheless, despite the lack an obsessive sports culture, students—even ones without natural athleticism—were very much encouraged to try new sports and join teams. “Try out for basketball! We need people, and you might like it,” one of our gym teachers once told me, after seeing me shoot baskets (poorly) in the gym during a free period. I was predictably awful; I have no eye-hand coordination, and spent most of my time during games warming the bench. But I learned a lot from basketball—not only about the sport, but about being part of a team, and the value of keeping in shape year-round. When spring track season came along, I was glad I’d been running laps of the gym all winter long.
Judaism has traditionally held an ambivalent view of sports, dating from Hellenic times, and the “heathen” worship of the body implied by building enormous gymnasiums and participating in nude Olympics. Up to the rise of Zionism and the Maccabiah games, which have gone far to legitimize athleticism within our ranks, Jews have been more comfortable identifying as brainy than brawny. I remain grateful to JDS for embracing a modern and enlightened approach to sports, both for girls and guys (which might have been an issue in some religious schools), and fostering—if not Olympic-level skills—an appreciation for exercising the body as well as the mind.
I was born in Baltimore in 1954, nine years after the Shoah, one of signature events of the 20th—or any—century. That I recall, throughout my early childhood no one in my community spoke much about it.
During the Israeli Bond drives of those years, the rabbi would sometimes invoke a gruesome image or two—but nothing approaching a coherent account of continent-wide anti-Semitism or the camps. We had no discussions at the dinner table or in Hebrew School and certainly none in the public school classroom. At the Jewish Community Center where I played basketball, I saw men with numbers tattooed on their forearms. I couldn’t approach these men: there was no context for that and certainly no invitation.
I was only six years old when the English translations of Primo Levi’s If This is a Man (1959) and Elie Wiesel’s Night (1960) became available in America. Later, having read them, I didn’t understand why they hadn’t moved my parents and teachers to a frank conversation of the war. Perhaps the memories were too near and raw; perhaps adults through their silence believed they were protecting us. Not even the survivors I knew, the parents of my friends, would speak. “Why remember bad times?” they’d say when the children asked.
Popular culture filled the void, and not particularly well. The Guns of Navarone (1961) pitted allied commandos against generic bad guys who happened to wear German uniforms. The Great Escape (1963) offered a mostly benign account of a POW camp. True, German soldiers gunned down the majority of those who attempted escape, but the story was about soldiers killing other soldiers who wouldn’t sit still and listen—wouldn’t play by the rules of war. In a sense, the never-say-quit attitude of the British and Yank prisoners invited the killing. There was a grim logic to that and a certain decorum and courtesy in the camp, call it a baseline respect for the human that was never shown to the prisoners of labor camps or death factories. Why didn’t the movies portray that? In 1965, Hogan’s Heroes gave us a comedy (!) set in a POW camp, its storylines variations on the mischievous play that duped the ever-clumsy German command. No one, it seemed, neither the entertainment industry nor educators, dared to take on the horror of industrial-scale murder.
All I had to work with in my struggle for understanding was the silence of adults and quasi-entertaining military action/adventure accounts of the war. What I sorely missed were innovative curricula like Facing History and Ourselves (founded in 1976) that addressed the calamity head on in public school settings. At last, by my mid-twenties, more histories and more survivor accounts were being published and televised series like Holocaust (1978) brought realism to the subject. By that point my war-related anxieties were already established. I had filled in blanks not with information but with nightmares of snarling dogs and men in jackboots hauling people off into the night.
Little wonder that these anxieties surfaced decades later in my writing. Many Jewish artists find themselves reckoning with the events in Europe seventy years ago, whether or not they lived through them. My reckoning came in The Tenth Witness, a novel set in 1978 about the legacy of national socialism. I follow a character who falls in love with the daughter of a man who made steel for the Reich. Why? I suppose I wanted to get as close to the beast as I could to study it—in a context I understood, the 70s, when there were still plenty of former Nazis walking the streets of Munich and Buenos Aires. The woman fascinated me. She was innocent, though her father wasn’t. Still, did she need forgiving for merely having been born German, or born to parents implicated in war crimes? What does forgiveness look like in the context of the Shoah? How do the sins of parents weigh on children? What does a child learn from a father who used slave labor? Is that child somehow tainted? These questions confused my teenage years, and only decades later did I gain perspective enough to wrestle with them.
Doubtless, my parents and teachers thought they were doing right by sparing children details of the Shoah. We take another view these days, and that’s a good thing because their silence proved a burden.
No one counted on that.
Last weekend I ran the ING New York City Marathon, which was an amazing experience—essentially, a 26.2-mile long party celebrating running, community, and Gatorade. Running the marathon was a real “bucket-list” check-off for me, and the culmination (though certainly not the conclusion) of a love affair with running that began for me when I was 10 or 11, in the Jewish day school I attended in Northern Virginia.
Gesher Jewish Day School, where I was a student through 6th grade, was formerly housed in Agudas Achim Congregation (before it got a building of its own, the year after I graduated—I found it terribly unfair that the moment I was no longer a student there, Gesher suddenly had a swank new facility, including access to the local JCC’s swimming pool). Having to teach gym classes in what was, on Saturdays, the synagogue’s social hall, forced our P.E. teacher Mr. Slover to be creative. In an effort to get us motivated and excited about running as a sport in its own right (as opposed to a part of some other sport, like soccer or dodge-ball), he set up a competition called “The Big Cheese,” and put flyers for it all over the school. For my age group, the 6th graders, it involved running 18 laps around the social hall-cum-“gym”, on a “track” demarcated by carefully placed orange cones, in four minutes or less. The total distance was probably a third of a mile. If you achieved The Big Cheese, you got a prize—the nature of which Mr. Slover left intentionally mysterious, but promised would be “awesome.”
Each student had three tries to make it before a certain deadline. I remember that I failed the first two times, collapsing dramatically at lap 16 or 17 when Mr. Slover blew his whistle to signal “time’s up,” and in one case, crying in disappointment. I was all set to try again for my 3rd and final attempt (I had even been running laps around our courtyard on weekends, trying to improve my time) when the unthinkable happened—a blizzard struck the DC-area, and school was closed for an entire week.
After the initial elation at receiving another (unplanned) winter break, I realized with horror that my 3rdattempt at The Big Cheese would be cancelled along with school. There was no way I could make it by the deadline, now. I tried consoling myself with bitter thoughts that Mr. Slover’s prize was probably not that awesome, that The Big Cheese was a stupid competition anyway, and that getting a week off from school was the best thing that could ever happen.
When the snow melted and we returned to school, Mr. Slover showed yet again his gift for outside-the-box thinking, by unexpectedly pushing back the deadline for The Big Cheese. Third time was the charm, and come Wednesday (my next P.E. day after the return to school) I made my 18 laps in under four minutes, fair and square. I was overwhelmed by how incredible I felt—the satisfaction at having completed a race against the clock, beating my own time (and those of everyone who hadn’t taken The Big Cheese seriously) to achieve a goal. And, when Mr. Slover presented the prizes after morning minyan several days later—shiny copper medals on red, white, and blue ribbon (indeed, an “awesome” prize)—I knew I was hooked.
What followed was a middling career in middle and high school Track & Field, followed by the belated discovery (in senior year, three months before graduation) that long-distance running was “my thing,” and I should’ve been running Cross Country instead. Better late than never, I suppose. I took a break from running in college, then focused on swimming in my early 20s. I occasionally ran casually, for exercise or with friends. But nearly two decades after Mr. Slover and The Big Cheese, in 2011, I participated New York Road Runners’ “Israel Day 4-Miler” and was once again ensnared by that unbeatable thrill of competition against the clock.
That time, it stuck. I kept running, and I haven’t looked back since.
In radio and newspaper interviews I’ve done recently, a singular question has been asked more than any other: if your wife was the one injured in a terrorist attack, why are you the one telling your story?
It’s a similar question I asked myself when, in the wake of the 2002 Hebrew University bombing, I began suffering from PTSD-like symptoms. Hyperventilating in public and unable to sleep at night, I’d ask myself, Why are you not okay? You weren’t injured, your body wasn’t pierced by shrapnel, you’re not a victim. Why must you behave as one?
And it was this thought – you’re not a victim – that prevented me from seeking help, even after my wife had gained a remarkable measure of psychological healing after the attack. It wasn’t until years later, researching secondary victimhood as I prepared to reconcile with the family of the Palestinian bomber who tried to kill my wife, that I came to understand just how wrong I was.
For in trying to understand myself and my motivations for such a reconciliation quest, I came to understand that secondary trauma is not just real. It can be just as powerful and debilitating as the primary trauma itself. I came to learn that secondary victimhood exists not just in the victim’s imagination, but in clinical research as well.
This is something I explore in my memoir, What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife? For in the book, I examine psychological studies which show that journalists who cover traumatic events often exhibit the exact same psychological distresses as the primary victims they cover. And sometimes, remarkably, spouses of war veterans will not only exhibit identical PTSD symptoms as their partners, but will sometimes respond to the exact same stimuli – the blades of a helicopter overhead, fireworks erupting – despite never having set foot on a battlefield.
For many years after the Hebrew University attack, I refused to view myself as a victim – refused to give myself such license – even as I struggled to breathe and sleep.
Today, when asked by journalists why I’ve written a memoir, and not my wife, I breathe deeply and say: because we were both victims, and this is my story.
My recently-published memoir, What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, chronicles the story of my reconciliation with the family of the bomber who perpetrated the 2002 Hebrew University terror attack – an attack which injured my wife and killed the two friends with whom she was sitting.
It is the story of how, suffering from PTSD-like symptoms in the attack’s wake, I sought a meeting with the Hamas bomber upon learning that he had unprecedentedly expressed remorse to Israeli authorities upon his capture.
It was a meeting I sought not out of revenge, but out of desperation.
To some, my story is a dangerous one – that is, if you view stories of peace and reconciliation, stories that humanize both Palestinians and Jews, as existential threats to Israel’s survival. Apparently, some do. Which is why, when the New York Post recently named my memoir as a “must-read,” a blogger for The Times of Israel penned an article entitled, “Is the New York Post Supporting the End of Israel?”
Within the article, I am characterized as an anti-Semite whose writing could come from “Hamas’ Editorial Team” because, apparently, any writing that critiques Israel and humanizes Palestinians is championing Israel’s destruction.
For those who view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a zero-sum game, in which only one side can emerge victorious, my book is indeed dangerous. It’s threatening. Even terrifying. Which is why it has inspired writers like the one at TOI to levy the ‘anti-Semitism’ charge against me – a charge meant to shut down political dialogue and debate on a most important issue.
Unfortunately, when the ‘anti-Semitism’ charge is employed in this way, it means little more than this: I disagree with your politics. And this usage, which is nothing more than a scare tactic, actually dilutes what is a very real and dangerous prejudice which continues to persist globally.
In truth, it’s not so different from what the Tea Party did recently during the government shutdown. In that case, you had politicians willing to leverage damaging the United States in order to promote their extremist, unsustainable demands. It was nothing but a destructive tantrum which, in the end, cost the U.S. economy $24 billion and .5 percent GDP in projected growth.
So too are misplaced charges of anti-Semitism by American Jews who stand outside the mainstream. They are nothing more than political tantrums intended to destroy reputations and silence debate on an issue that needs to be discussed: how to peacefully resolve a conflict which must end so that each side emerges ‘victorious.’
How to bring resolution so that each people, both deserving self-determination, can live in a country of their own?
An anti-Semitic notion, no?
Once upon a time, a person could easily make reference to a rabbi, maybe a rav, and maybe even a rebbe, but a kabbalist?
In Jerusalem, a kabbalist is as common as a plumber. Everyone knows what you’re talking about. In the holy city, the lexicon of magic, amulets and incantations are as real as the corner drugstore. You have a cold? Go to a kabbalist. You have a problem in religion? Go to a kabbalist. You want to marry a man? Go to a kabbalist, he’ll help you.
For the past seven plus years I’ve been swimming in kabbalists, collecting true tales from whoever visited with these mystic figures and rebbes. It was research for my novel In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist. Of course, I had my own set of kabbalists I’d met during the ten years I’d lived in Jerusalem, but oddly my experiences created a writerly static in my mind. To construct a fictional kabbalist, I needed to start from scratch.
Someone told me about a kabbalist who predicted he’d win a good chunk of money and he did, only to spend it all on expensive dental surgery the following week. Then there was the kabbalist, quasi-prophetess who directed someone to the exact place where she would meet her bashert, at a silver factory in Givat Shaul. (I don’t recall if she went or not.) A Hasidic man told me about a kabbalist he’d consulted with who said a special prayer whenever his non-religious brother was on the verge of getting married to a non-Jewess. Break-ups always followed shortly after. Continue reading