October 12, 2007


This piece is composed of two separate but somehow linked powerful experiences of being Jewish. The first occurred on a recent trip to Budapest. The second occurred many years ago on a trip that began in Poland and continued in Israel.

1) Budapest: Summer 2007

It was my first day of sightseeing in Budapest. I had decided to leave the Jewish quarter until after the four day conference I was attending---the official purpose for my visit. I had been warned that the story of Hungarian Jewry just before, as well as during, the Holocaust was particularly dark. Hungary was an ally of Germany during the war, had passed its own exclusionary laws in the 20s, and until the very end took care of its "Jewish problem" on its own.

Much of the afternoon I walked around the inner city assiduously following a walking tour in my Frommer's guidebook to Budapest. Determined to pack as much into the day as I could, I crossed over the Danube to Buda and took the funicular up the hill to the castle district. In addition to its monumental buildings, the castle district consists of a number of streets with attractive small houses. The guidebook listed a number that were of note. One, at Tancsics Mihaly u. 26, had been a medieval Jewish prayer house. This is what Frommer's had to say.

This building dates from the 14th century. In the 15th and 16th century, the Jews of Buda thrived under Turkish rule. The 1686 Christian reconquest of Buda was soon followed by a massacre of Jews. Many survivors fled Buda; this tiny Sephardic Synagogue was turned into an apartment.

The house was distinguished by its color and a tiny bronze plaque saying it had once been a synagogue. I can visualize it now close to the corner of the street, painted a tasteful yet alive orange--- what I think is called burnt orange. I love that shade of orange; one of my first thoughts was that its inhabitants were lucky to live there.

Then I saw unbidden in my mind's eye men in long dark frocks and yarmulkes, wearing intelligent, worldly expressions, coming out of the building, perhaps after prayers. They did not seem exotic or even strange to me. Instead I experienced a striking kinship in consciousness with them, perhaps more so than with any other figures I have read about and/or conjured in my mind from the past. I felt I knew them---could feel their inner current, sense their joys and concerns and how they held them together. I continued on my tour, without even thinking of taking a picture.

While I was recounting my adventures to myself at the end of the trip, I left this one out. In the back of my mind I knew there was one more, of a slightly different kind. Indeed the image was among the most vivid I've ever had ---at least of things I have not actually seen or experienced.

2) Poland, Museum at Auschwitz: Summer 1979.

Close to the end of the exhibition, the photos gave way to canvases showing Jewish life. A tableau of a bar mitzvah boy reading from the torah, flanked on one side by his father and on the other by the rabbi, conveyed both in the treatment of the figures and the light, a strong sense of the sustained upward impulse of Judaism towards spirit. In it I discovered the basic religious urge that is at the core of the Jewish experience. From childhood on, even as a reformed Jew, I had experienced it again and again, but mythically in the sense that I could not abstract its meaning from the experience. I realized that even as an agnostic, I had been strongly influenced by this very gentle reach of my community upward toward the sacred. Before it had been somewhat comforting to unknowingly partake of it from time to time; here at Auschwitz I understood what it was, saw how much it had shaped me, and realized its sustaining power.

Israel---Summer 1979

After visiting Auschwitz, I longed to be in Israel. However, once there I felt dispirited and disoriented. I blamed the heat in August and being alone after having been so well cared for in Poland. From my current vantage point I recognize that my distress resulted from my recent encounter with the destruction of European Jewry and the impossibility of satisfactory integrating these events.

As I was going through the motions of being a tourist, I met an English actor, about ten years older than me, on a camping tour of the Sinai Peninsula. An orphan, he had been brought up by the Jesuits. When I told him of my visit to Auschwitz, he shared the Jesuit perspective on anti-Semitism. Christianity was viewed by his teachers as an advance over Judaism because it offered the hope of resurrection. The resurrection of Christ held the promise of the induction of individual souls into a heavenly life at death. The rejection by Jews of Christ was then a rejection of the concept of individual afterlife. The basic impulse of Western anti-Semitism, my friend felt, arose from an unconscious mechanism by which Christians who lack faith in the possibility of life after death combat their inner doubts about life after death by attacking those who do not believe in the resurrection of Christ.

I was intrigued by the ability of this theory in one deft stroke to account for so much. It seemed to explain Hitler's obsession with a "final solution" and his sense of it as righteous work in a particularly powerful way. At one level I was convinced, but at others harbored some doubts. Even though I knew Reform Judaism does not mention life after death, I was poorly informed about other Jewish views. Moreover, the Messianic tradition clearly implies a resurrection of a sort.

Later I found out that the focus of the Jewish tradition is indeed generally on present life: on reaching to God through ritual observance, prayer and even complaint, on acts of loving kindness, and on social justice. However various Rabbis over the centuries have spoken of individual resurrection and afterlife. The mystical arm of Judaism emphasizes the fate of the soul after death. But they teach that originally a spark of divine light, the soul at death merges with its divine source.

I returned to Jerusalem and said good-by to my actor friend. A day or two later, my eyes happened to meet those of a pleasant, simply dressed young man. In part from the extraordinary depth of repose I experienced when our eyes met, I realized in an intuitive flash that this man was a Christian---and a true one. I understood the tranquility and penetrability of this apparently simple young man to reflect his close grounding here in the Holy Land---possibly even unsullied by scientific thought---to a religion that holds at its core the view that individual life can continue in some manner after death.

Whether this man in fact was a Christian is not important. He embodied for me in its purest form a different organizing filter than my own and my tradition to the question of living. I am still engaged, and suspect I will be for a long time, in the process of reclaiming from that unconscious place where intuitions come from and are again stored all the insight inherent in that moment when my eyes met those of this young man.

In the years since I returned from this trip, I have become more involved in Judaism and spiritual life. I yearn, I question and I wrestle, in the manner of many Jews, to know first hand that organizing filter or psychic signature of my religion at its best. I first saw it fully amid all the death at Auschwitz.

These passages were part of an early version of a chapter for an anthology on growing up Jewish in America, called Daughters of Kings. In the end I decided not to include the story about my actor friend and his theory about anti-Semitism in my chapter, called "The Other Side." In it I write about growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust, attending a Trinitarian boarding school, and the trip I took to Poland, Auschwitz, and Israel after handing in my dissertation.


Anonymous said...

I like your question: what is the Jewish religious/spiritual impulse?

I don't have an answer.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Thanks for sharing it. Have you ever seen the movie Everything is Illuminated. It made me think of that.

Anonymous said...

I am confused by some seeming inacuracies in your post. I cannot figure out how to reference what was written while composing this so I'll have to rely on my notoriously non-userfriendly memory.
Messianic traditions are not inherantly resurrection related. Historically, jewish would-be messiahs tended to focus on solving the problems of the here and now. Many of Jesus' own close followers expected Him to assend the throne of David and expell the Romans from their homeland. Jesus' attention to the after-life is actually one of the things that set Him apart from His messianic peers.
Hitler wasn't christian, he was pagan. The state "theology" of Nazi Germany was derived primarily from a combination of the native "Norse" mythology and the writings of Nietche and Darwin. Hitler's attempted genocide of Jews was hailed by many eugenicists of the time who believed that he was doing nothing more than speeding the processes of natural selection by specifically targeting "inferior" races.
Please note that the above statements do not in any way reflect my personal beliefs. I firmly believe that all human life is inherantly priceless; there is no such thing as an inferior person, only inferior value systems.
In short, I find your friend's expaination of Jewish persecution throughout western history to be wanting. As an alternative I would like to offer the following.
All groupings of people who develop an identity of their own are, at one time or another, targeted for hostility by people of differing identity. The thing that really sets the Jewish people apart is their survivability. Think about how many times the Jews have been conquered, captured and dispersed through the ages and yet they've never lost their national identity (even when they no longer had a nation). The last time Isreal even existed was, when? If memory serves it was back in the first century until Rome finally sacked and razed the temple. Then, nearly 1900 years later the nation of Isreal is re-established in 1947. The Jews are the only people to ever re-establish themselves as a country after having been disolved for so great a span of time. Not too shabby a feat if you ask me. Perhaps the Jews seem to us to be so persecuted because usually the attempts to destroy a society eventually succeed and only they have managed to hold out so long against so many antagonists.
If you are really looking for something to tweek your mind consider this in light of the above: this exactly matches the promise God made to Abraham way back in Genesis. He said that he would "bless those who bless(Abraham) and curse those who curse (him)". While the Jews have survived countless attempts at extermination how many of their proposed exterminators are still around?