Friday, December 3, 2004

The Proud Jewish Stain (Jewish Week)

The Jewish Week, December 3, 2004

When my family was touring Europe last summer, we found ourselves a bit uncomfortable proclaiming our Jewishness in public. In this crazy world, well, you never know. Amazingly, even in Israel, our first stop, the official at immigration control seemed to understand the perpetual paranoia of the wandering Jew, offering to stamp a separate piece of paper rather than my passport.

I would have none of it; I'm proud of the many Israeli stamps in my passport. It did occur to me, however, that the Israeli seal could become some sort of a scarlet letter in Europe.

Our next stop was Rome, where every time we said "Israel" in public, we had this irrational sensation that the entire place was looking at us, much like the old E.F. Hutton ads. So we developed a strategy (our Jewish survival instincts at work): Whenever we wanted to say "Israel," we replaced it with "Ireland."

As in, "You know, the falafel we had in Ireland tasted much better than this."

"Yes, and I really miss Ireland right now. Especially the sunset over the golden walls of ... ah ... Dublin."

It became our own little secret code.

We were sitting next to a lovely couple one day at lunch while touring Pompeii. We asked where they were from and they replied, "We're from Ireland."

This threw us off completely and made me a little ashamed of our ruse. It's as if we were having an illicit affair with Israel. Just because the entire world seems to hate us, why should we hide?

I thought of modern Jewish victims like Daniel Pearl and Nicholas Berg, who like the Maccabean martyrs of old proudly proclaimed their Jewishness despite the dangers.

Not only did Berg have an Israeli stamp in his passport when he went to Iraq in March, but according to family sources, he also brought his tallit and tefillin with him. Friends spoke of his having developed a deeper interest in his Jewish faith, one that could possibly have fed his idealistic yearning to participate in Iraq's reconstruction.

My squeamishness in Europe did not keep us from visiting Jewish sites. One was the old ghetto in Venice dating back to 1516. Very few Jews live there anymore, but many once did. You can tell because the doorposts are made of stone and you can still see which houses once had mezuzahs. There is a long, angular gouge in the stone where the mezuzah was affixed.

So I went on a continent-wide mezuzah hunt, first in the ghetto, then across Venice and then everywhere else. I found scores of gouged-out mezuzah holes in plaster and stone, and telltale indentations in wood. I began to notice different styles -- some longer, some thicker, some painted, some plain.

All these houses shared two things: Jews once lived there, and Jews don't live there anymore.

It was depressing until somewhere in Venice, when a smile crept upon my face as I realized that even when the Jew is gone, the residue of the Jew and the memory of the Jewish life remain. I imagined some Venetian homebuyer moving into his new home and trying somehow to carve it away, to wipe off the spot like Lady Macbeth; but it won't go away. Call it the Jewish stain. It's a history that outlives its own people. While Jewish
numbers continue to dwindle from the Parthenon to Paris, the Jewish presence still deepens and expands.

My smile broadened as I realized that I can't screw up this continuity thing. Somehow the Jews survive even where there are no Jews around. We have the astounding capacity to outlive even ourselves. We just won't go away. We aren't merely indestructible, we are ineffaceable.

Plus to achieve this triumph, we do not have to defeat anyone in battle. We don't need to vilify or demean. All we need to do is openly announce that we are Jews -- and that mezuzah we implant on the plaster, like that "Debbie loves Johnny" graffiti carved into the rafters of Bunk 7 at camp, will ensure that our message will live on forever.

I carried that thought around Europe and it emboldened me. In London toward the end of the trip, catching a show on the West End, I went out to stretch during intermission. I was thinking about the courage it takes to affix a mezuzah on unfriendly soil and how such acts are paralleled by other indelible signs of Jewishness -- like circumcision, the ritual that most threatened those first Europeans to interact with Jews in Maccabean times. I jotted the idea into my pocket diary.

As I was walking back into the theater I suddenly heard a voice:

"Rabbi Hammerman?"

Oy. Here? Even here?

Turned out it was a young family that had moved from Stamford to London. I recognized them and glanced over at their two kids, who looked to be about 7 and 10.

"Do you remember him?" the mother said to her older child, gesturing my way. "He was at your bris."

Indeed I was.

There is something about Judaism that goes far beyond our lifetimes. We are part of it, and it is part of us. All we have to do to tap into that unimaginable power is gather the strength to declare proudly, in our minds and hearts, upon the doorpost of our homes, on our private parts and on our passports, "I am, for all eternity, a Jew."

That is the message we proclaim when the menorah shimmers through our windows -- the same menorah that is emblazoned on the Israeli passport, glowing unabashedly for all to see.

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