A Rabbi’s Tales
BY RICHARD C. GROSS
“If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”
— William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice (Act III, Scene I)
Rabbi Marvin Schwab, a gentle, kind, soft-spoken man at 75, fears the violence and anti-Semitism during a bitter American political season and has considered leaving the country because of it.
And it’s all amplified by the yelling of fire in the omnipresent American theater of social media, worsening by far its destructive ramifications spread by the flames.
For Rabbi Schwab, it’s the growing enmity against Jews. He didn’t have to label it in addressing another Jew in a long, tormented, sorrowful email. He was my rabbi for several years in Santa Fe, N.M., not long ago.
Obviously upset, he shared several different stories from his experiences (rabbis like to tell yesterday’s stories that apply to life today, and there are centuries of them). I’d like to pass some of them on to you and his reactions.
Though they’re set in the recent past, they couldn’t be more pertinent in today’s hostile atmosphere wrought by a true madman beginning seven years ago. He wants to lead us again as president. Like a cancer, he should be expelled from society. There are those working long hours to do just that.
He excited the demented, the ignorant, the forlorn, the fools, the angry, the jealous and the resentful to the point at which Ye Old Kayne West could tweet without concern, “. . . I’m going death con 3 on the JEWISH PEOPLE” — a loose reference to defcon, the Pentagon’s condition of force readiness in response to a threat of violence.
How can you undo this when efforts to repair the world — tikkun olam, in Hebrew — are violently disregarded by an antagonistic, narcissistic, vindictive, hate-filled outlier who created a fantasy world with him dictating at the center of it.
He is the underbelly of nationwide concerns about whether there will be violence during or after the contentious midterm elections; there may be Republican losses that may, incredibly, be declared victories.
Rabbi Schwab, a Los Angeles native, tells of his service in Sacramento, the California capital, when a member of his congregation, a respected golf-playing surgeon, asked some friends if he could join their country club because he liked to play on their course. A current member would need to invite him to join.
“Their response stunned him,” the rabbi wrote. “They asked him to ‘please not put us in that position.’ . . . They could not be known as people who would sponsor a Jew for membership. No matter that if they needed surgery, they would have undoubtedly sought out his services.
“His Judaism made him unfit to be a member of their country club. Jews were not going to be allowed to be true members of polite (Christian) society.
“Again, a Jew was being told, ‘Yes, you are an American, but you are different. You are other. You do not really belong.’”
Of course, much the same occurs among other races and ethnicities in American society, as there is discrimination, some of it rampant, in many societies, if not all. It’s assuredly human nature, even in what passes for civilization. But America, with its unpardonable sin of slavery, achingly has been trying to get beyond that, “to form a more perfect union.”
Two white supremacist brothers firebombed three Sacramento synagogues in one horrific night June 18, 1999, but no one was killed or injured. The rabbi’s temple escaped an attack. But “images of Kristallnacht in Germany (the Night of Broken Glass, Nov. 9, 1938, when Hitler was chancellor) raced through my head.
“Broken glass,” he wrote, “burning synagogues, destroyed lives and the opening violent shot of the Holocaust all swirled around. Had we come to that point in America where such a heinous act would be tolerated by the government (if not sponsored by it, as it was in Germany)?”
After that, Rabbi Schwab wrote, “I started to wear a kippah (skull cap) all the time, to make a public statement about my Jewishness.” He still does. And he’s Reform, not Orthodox.
Of another instance, he wrote that he felt “horror” when Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., said at a religious service June 27 that “the church is supposed to direct the government. The government is not supposed to direct the church. I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk. It was not in the Constitution.”
Shamelessly wrong — for a member of Congress, no less.
The First Amendment to the Constitution says explicitly that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” So, Boebert doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
Rabbi Schwab wondered what branch of Christianity she would pick to run the country. Would there be two Catholic popes again, as there were between 1378 and 1417?
“Am I a usurper of the bounty of this country, not truly entitled to partake of the opportunities she provides, while being denigrated at the same time as a beneficiary of ‘white privilege?’ My privilege seems to be that I get to worship under the watchful eye of an armed guard.”
Many synagogues nationwide have hired guards during prayer services since the increase of attacks against Jewish temples amid the rise of anti-Semitism.
“I have considered leaving the land of my birth,” wrote the twice-married step-father of two grown children. “Yes, I have pondered whether I will have a real place within its society. Yes, my heart is breaking as I consider the idea that I may need to do what my grandparents did for my parents and, ultimately, for me.”
The rabbi’s grandparents emigrated from Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania and what is now Belarus, what’s known as the Pale of Settlement. The Nazis overran the first three. Belarus, then Belorussia, or White Russia, was part of the Soviet Union, which the Nazis invaded full force.
Rabbi Schwab wrote that it was “odd” that he was considering leaving America at a time when First Lady Jill Biden’s grandchildren are Jewish because her two children married Jews; Vice President Kamala Harris “cherishes” when her step-grandchildren refer to her with the Yiddish word mameleh, for “little mama,” because her husband is Jewish; and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s grandchildren are Jewish .
He is recovering from a skull fracture caused by a vicious attack with a hammer.
“The Talmud (Jewish Oral Tradition) teaches us that we must make every person our teacher,” Rabbi Schwab concluded. “As a nation, that is a dictum, without regard to its origin, that contains such wisdom that we best heed it, before it is too late.”
Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East, the Pentagon and was foreign editor of United Press International, served as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.