Monday, March 31, 2008

My Dance with Amalek

Originally Appeared in The New York Jewish Week, 9/3/99

Last Tuesday morning, my synagogue’s executive director pulled me from the hall into her office, her face drooping and troubled. "There is something in our parking lot," she said. "a package with swastikas." Together we walked out to the corner of the lot, where our custodians had already cordoned off the area with traffic cones, as if to contain the contamination -- not of the bloody medical waste that was dumped, but of the swastikas. They were crudely drawn in marker, small, almost dainty spiders, like the stick-figure drawings my first grader brings home. I counted two or three -- I couldn't get close enough to know for sure. I didn't want to.

Only later did I feel the anger and sense of violation. My first sensation was one of inevitability and fulfilled expectation. Finally, it had happened.

"At last we meet," I thought. "I've been waiting for you."

All my life I'd read the stories and seen the pictures of anti-Semitism, but never experienced it so close at hand. I'd heard the ravings of the haters and even invited their Web sites into my home. Jewish suffering long ago had become a part of me, even though I had never suffered myself. I walk with the slightly hunched look of an ex-slave. I'd learned the shrug, the Jewish shrug that has helped us to shoulder the pain, and at times even laugh a little in spite of it. I'd spoken to other rabbis who have had the evil insignia spray-painted on their synagogues, or worse. If it wasn't to be my Jewish right-of-passage to experience hate first-hand at some point, at least I figured it to be a rabbinic one. At last, there it was, the Angel of Death in the corner of my shul's parking lot, in the form of a pathetic scribbled swastika.

Others wait for lady luck to come their way. Jews wait for the black spider.

Two days later the whole world knew. Non-Jewish clergy friends called and offered condolences, sincere, heart-rending expressions of real sadness and regret. I accepted them numbly, uncomfortably. I didn't feel as if I had suffered a loss. On the contrary, I felt at last complete, utterly at one with the Jewish experience. The pain I felt was no so much for myself as for those in my congregation who had seen this spider before, at mid-century, during its terrifying initial run as a symbol of doom. I'm sure most of my Christian friends could not imagine a scenario where they would see such a blatant message of hate on their front doors. What they didn't understand is that long ago in Hebrew School I had learned how to imagine the unimaginable -- and to expect it.

And I finally understood the true meaning of "Zachor."

Four days after the incident, by which point the news caravan had followed the Angel on to another synagogue in Norwalk, I sat at services trying to make sense of the last section of the Torah read that day, describing the great evil done to Israel in the wilderness by the rogue nation Amalek. There we read that we are to remember what Amalek did to us, never to forget to blot out their name. Up until now I had considered this a summons to arms, imploring Jews to wage an eternal war against evil. Now I know better.

"Zachor," which means "remember," is not a commandment at all. It is a condemnation.
It is a shrugging acceptance of our dreaded destiny to remember, not out of obligation but out of necessity. For we know that, no matter what we do, Amalek won't let us forget Amalek.

Lest I might have forgotten about that dreaded embodiment of evil, the spider was there to remind me. Lest my most assimilated congregant might have forgotten, the spider was there to call him back to the fold.

The swastika has become our national tattoo, burned into our souls like the number on a survivor’s arm. It is spray-painted on the door posts of our homes and upon our gates. It is our hovering Angel of Death. We are a people born of blood on a door in ancient Egypt. We now subsist hand in hand with bloody syringes and Amalek’s blood-stained hands. Wherever we look, the evil is there. The passage is not "You shall remember what Amalek did," but rather, "You will remember, because you'll have no choice," for Amalek has never ceased its murderous activity and we have never ceased resisting it. The swastika isn't just among us -- it is part of what makes us us.

Does this give a victory to the haters, to allow their swastikas to torture us so?

No, the victory is not theirs; they are not the ones who ordained that this tortured dance continue through the ages, from the days of Moses until today. It's not Amalek's fault that Amalek is still among us and that we suffer from this particularly Jewish form of arachnophobia.

Nor is it our fault – it is our fate. As King Saul discovered in his day and Mordechai in his, there is something in the very nature of the universe that won't allow us to destroy Amalek completely, even if we could. For we know, deep inside, that the day Amalek truly departs from the scene, the dance will be over, that Paschal blood on the door will become dry, brittle and meaningless, and the Jewish people will be no more.

The blood in my parking lot has been washed away, and the container with the swastikas lies in some FBI lab. The place has been sterilized. But the stain just won't disappear. Yet there is something about it all that is comforting for me, at last to have joined in the dance.

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