A Passover diary.
April 3. At my Passover seder, I talked with an old friend about when our grandfathers came over to this country, at the turn of the last century. He said that pogroms were happening all over eastern Europe then, random acts of violence against Jews. “Like someone would come into this room and just grab alot of these Jews and take them out and kill them,” he said, looking around. I looked around too, and saw the pogroms with freshness: that it could happen to a bunch of people I knew, in a nice New York building with a pretty view out the window. It could happen here. I’d never thought of it that way.
April 5. I went to an Easter dinner at a close friend’s house. Everyone at the table dislikes religion, but I made it a point to lead a prayer at the start: speaking of our blessings. Later someone asked me about Netanyahu’s election, and a tall thin woodsy guy of about 70 I don’t know that well tilted forward in his seat and said after the Gaza outrage and Netanyahu’s maneuvers on Iran he was finished with Israel, it had lost his sympathy, and he did not feel inhibited about expressing his views any longer. “We need to jettison them.”
April 6. I was washing the dishes when Terry Gross interviewed Philip Glass about his memoir on public radio. Glass told a story about his father’s record store in Baltimore that he and she both found amusing.
GROSS: part of your job when you were young at your father’s store was breaking records because in order – he could return records to the label…
GLASS: It was called the – it was kind of the return privilege. And those were the old 78s, you know?
GROSS: Oh, the 78s, oh, OK. So the idea was if they were broken during the delivery process, they were returnable.
GLASS: Yeah. That was our first job at the store. And it was on the weekends, and we would much have preferred to be outdoors playing around. But we were down in the basement of the store, jumping – my brother and I. My brother, Barton, and I – jumping on records so that we would then put them in boxes by label – Decca, Columbia, whatever the label was – those names don’t even exist anymore. And we took out our – let’s say, we were angry, actually, that we couldn’t go outside and play. We had to break records, and we got over it by jumping on the records (laughter), demolishing them.
And one thing we had to do – we had to make sure the label stayed on it. And by the way, Ben Glass, besides that, he discovered that there were other stores all through West Virginia and Virginia that had this same return privilege, but they never returned them. So he bought up their old records. I think he paid a nickel for each record, and he got a dime back from the company. So he had another little side business going on where he had his two sons breaking the records, then he would sell them back to the company (laughter).
I had a strong reaction to the story: It angered me that Gross had laughed at it and that she had not asked Glass why he felt it was OK to steal from the company. I thought it had to do with a Jewish understanding of ourselves, as being outside mainstream society. We were excluded so we were justified in taking advantage of The Man.
I reflected that after I started dating my wife 25 years ago I was in Minnesota and I’d fedex my letters to her. This was before the internet. And she’d fedex them back, on the Newsweek account. I was living at my friend Tony’s place and he had remarked on it being wrong to rip off a company, and I’d been surprised. At least my wife knew what she was doing. It hadn’t occurred to me that I was stealing.
April 7. I compared Passover seder notes with a friend and he told me what his 5-year-old daughter said during the plagues: “Why did God punish all the Egyptians for what the Pharaoh was doing?”
That night I visited my mother and her boyfriend at his house across the river. By the way, my mother’s boyfriend would never break records. He is very honest, and 93. But we were talking about the Passover story and the real origins of it, when he said, “How do you explain it. Every country the Jews were in we got kicked out of?” I said, “It hasn’t happened here.” “Right,” he said. “I was about to say that. Except here. But everywhere else.”
I said, “Well it’s hard for me to look at history without consulting my own experience, and yours and mine has been free of discrimination. And isn’t it possible that that’s the way we tell the story of our history, that lots of people have been expelled from countries, that kind of thing happened a lot, and we just look at the low points, the persecution, and build our narrative around that? We lived for centuries in Spain and Muslim countries.”
He said, “With very few rights. We had to cater to others. It was humiliating.”
We had tea and I thought to tell my mother’s boyfriend about Herzl’s map of Vienna. When Herzl came up with the idea of the Jewish state, he sold it to a lot of anti-semites by saying that Jews were dominating the new urban professions and causing resentment. He called us an “intellectual proletariat,” and said we were hanging around the stock markets; and he had a map of Vienna real estate with Jewish ownership shown in red, and the map was dripping red.
April 8. I listened to Norman Finkelstein’s speech in Madison on the new anti-semitism. In it he dismisses a survey of British attitudes that are thought to be anti-Semitic by pointing out that, when it comes to one attitude– “Jews are disproportionately represented in media” — the facts bear out such a belief, and ours is not a neutral presence; it helps explain all the Holocaust movies. Finkelstein studied the production. Three times as many Holocaust movies in the last 30 years as movies about slavery and the nuclear bombings in Japan.
I remembered a conversation I’d had recently about anti-semitism with a non Jewish friend in Jerusalem. An American Protestant of the I-hate-religion variety, he asked me to explain the Israel lobby. I said that it reflected a contract the American establishment had made with Jews to drive the economy in the 1970s. We were really good at the four horses of the global economy (finance, software, education, and media), and people thought we were smarter, and maybe we were smarter; Yuri Slezkine says we are the magicians and the priests of modernity; and in exchange for that leading role, the government would support Israel. Brian Roberts runs the world’s largest media company, Chris Matthews works for him and supports Israel.
My friend bridled at the explanation. He had worked on Wall Street; he spoke of all the insider traders who were Jewish. They weren’t any smarter, they cheated, he said. I said, OK maybe we’re not smarter, but that is how I think it worked. Well you are funny, he said; I understand Hollywood.
April 9. I emailed the son of the guy at Easter who said we need to jettison Israel to get his dad’s number. The son sent me a photograph of a cold toad and gave me his dad’s number and I called him on the phone to ask him about his attitudes.
He said he’d grown up with Exodus and later Holocaust documentaries. “For years everybody that had half a heart was in favor of Jews having a place they wouldn’t be killed. Nailing Eichmann—I totally got that. Displacing the people who lived there—that was bad, but I thought it was just on an interim basis.
“And what should have been a sense of shared husbandry of the land—it never happened. They’ve done a magnificently bad job of living with their neighbors. I think human beings are wired to think, if you kill 50 people and that ends a problem, OK. But here that has never ended the problem. And of course they’ve got us on their side.”
He said it went back to the Holocaust.
“The Israelis have never felt a sense of forgiveness about what was done to them by the Nazis. Till they get there they will recreate that experience endlessly. They are in their own prison. They are the wardens of their own freedom. The only way out is to change their feelings about themselves. It’s an old idea, and I don’t know that anybody can ask that act of someone else. Whether it means forgiving your sister, your mother, your brother, or the guy who made you cry, no one else can tell you to do that… Israel has to make that decision.
“But they can’t kill their way out of this. It’s not a fair fight, they have overwhelming military advantage against kids who are throwing rocks. And just watch. There’s always a new generation of young angry men who are willing to pick up the guns.
“The Israelis are acting out this anger from more than half a century ago. And the only way out is to forgive your transgressors.”
I don’t think you can forgive Hitler. But forgive Europe? Maybe that is necessary. It should not be so fresh in our minds, here in the U.S. Maybe that means telling the story differently, understanding our own role. It was never a fair fight. But we always had a kind of power.
April 19. I have lunch with a distant relative who tells me about spending Passover at a Ritz Carlton in Florida. $7000 per head for the week, and so much food– a breakfast of matzoh and smoked fish in the room before the hot breakfast downstairs, a lunch that never ends, a whole candy room with boxes of candy in drawers free for the taking– it was straight out of the Patimkin basement in Goodbye, Columbus, and a shonde far di goyim– nothing she would ever want the anti-Semites to see.
April 25. I watch a Holocaust panel in Annapolis on C-Span. Four authors, and only about forty people in the room. Most of them are older. The authors themselves struggle with the degree to which the Holocaust story is still relevant today. Glenn Kurtz, author of a book on the destruction of one Polish town’s Jews, said he is always asked if the Polish people he met in the town apologized for the killings. He said:
“The intensity of that need for apology may diminish in some sense… We have enough distance to speak to these people and not allow the anger at what happened to overwhelm our capacity to to listen and try and understand their perspective. So I think there’s a differentiation that needs to be made, from our side, about how we understand what it means to remember, and if that remember is accusatory, then we in some ways close off that opportunity to engage in some kind of meaningful change in other people’s opinions.”