October 31, 2018

Pittsburgh's uneasy spotlight

You don’t have to be Jewish to have deep feelings about last week’s terror attack in Pittsburgh. And there is no shortage of emotions and deeper meanings to take away from this horror. Here are a few of my own early thoughts.

Of course for many of us, the Pittsburgh attack is close to home. I’ve been in the Tree of Life for a wedding long ago, and Jews are all connected. And as a security volunteer in another synagogue hundreds of miles away, I was actively dealing with safeguarding and with liaison to our local police. But somehow it’s more, and I’m choosing here to leave out the very compelling political and security ramifications because I think there’s something innate that also merits exploration. 

Perhaps we (somewhat like Israelis) have tried to put the shame of victimhood behind us. We watch the massacres and violence around the United States and we sympathize, empathize, pledge solidarity, and step up to help. But now we Jews are in the spotlight, we are the ones receiving sympathy and assistance. Cable news is focused on US. Not Israel, not a multi-ethnic public school, not a military base. 

We have the spotlight right now, and we may not all agree on how to use it. But it feels very strange to be noticed for what was done to us, and not for what we have done -- whether good deeds or bad. Almost unavoidably, we are objectified. Our rabbis are elevated to the national stage, “Shabbat” is a term mentioned by CNN, and the Jewish experience and current trauma have been universalized to a national and international audience.
Maybe this just takes some getting used to. And maybe the pain and sorrow are still too overwhelming.

February 19, 2018

About parades and insecure rulers

President Trump seems intent on staging some glorious and costly parade, to showcase our military might and — presumably — to celebrate his own power as America’s Commander in Chief. Why does this sound familiar to me?

Nicolae CeauČ™escu was still ruling Romania with an iron fist in the summer of 1976, when my parents brought us back for a week-long visit with friends in the lush countryside. In one town near the border with Serbia (then called Yugoslavia), we happened upon a strange spectacle. A few days before Liberation Day, citizens were lining the main street and cheering as soldiers and workers and schoolchildren marched down the middle. It seemed the whole town had turned out for what amounted to a dress rehearsal for the big event — marchers and spectators included. Such was the hero worship of this hollow autocracy, that the farce of national strength and solidarity had to be practiced. 

The spectators even waited as the marchers ran back down a side street in order to repeat the exercise from the top. On TV, I had seen the fancy parades in Beijing, Moscow and even Bucharest, but it had never occurred to me just how absurd was the farce and how insecure the ruler — or to what degree everyone knew it. 

I have been to Paris for the July 14 parade, which is impressive and genuinely popular. It is embedded in the national consciousness, and never about the politicians who happen to oversee France's military professionals.

Romania got rid of Ceausescu's parades in 1989,
but North Korea's Kim is still going "strong"...
I doubt we civilians will be required to practice cheering in advance of Trump's big day, though the President has already branded as traitors any Members of Congress who didn’t stand and applaud for his State of the Union address. Personally, I need no practice. I’ve seen this movie before, about the cult of personality, and I don’t need to watch it again. #SpoilerAlert