The Tree of Life and My Jewish American Experience
“I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart,” —Anne Frank, July 15, 1944.
I have been trying to gather my thoughts about the murders of 11 innocent Jewish men and women at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
I can’t stop thinking about the Proverb I’ve recited during so many services for as long as I can remember:
IT IS A TREE OF LIFE for those who hold fast to it, and all its supporters are happy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace. Proverbs 3:18
And all its paths are peace.
I’ve been thinking about those innocent lives. What their last moments must have been. The terror. The broken peace of a Shabbat service.
I’ve been holding it mostly together. That inside grief. That sick stomach. That lump in the throat. Having a hard time sleeping, but still moving about my day.
But I’ve always said grief is a tricky little thing.
Last night, I saw a picture of 11 Stars of David outside the Tree of Life Synagogue. One for each of the Jewish victims. And the dam broke... the tears from my eyes and now the words from my fingertips.
I didn’t grow up in a Jewish neighborhood. I was one of very few Jewish children in my schools. In fact, my own Mom is not Jewish.
She and my Dad have been married for 48 years, together since they were 15 and 16 years old. In 1970, an interfaith marriage was uncommon and my parents had to fly in a Rabbi from New York to marry them.
My Mom so loved my Dad, she agreed to raise their children Jewish. She chose not to convert, because, as a Christian, she was already on her chosen path to G-d. But she knew in her heart there were many ways to get to G-d and she knew the wonderful man my Dad was (and is) and she knew her children would be safe in the Jewish faith. My Mom is an incredible woman.
She was as involved in our religious upbringing as our Dad. But where my Dad may have allowed us to skip a day of religious school or Hebrew school, she was always there pushing us out the door. I don’t think we missed a day. She was determined her children would have a personal relationship with G-d, rooted in their Jewish faith. Her face was as proud as any on the pulpit during our Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.
We never missed a Mitzvah Day at our Temple. We lit our Shabbat candles every Friday night. We had a mezuzah on our door. We spent Passover with my Jewish grandparents. We lit the Hanukkah candles all eight nights. We never had a Christmas tree in our home and we didn’t decorate our house with lights for the Christmas holiday. We never went to school on the High Holy Days and we always attended services and break fast meals with family and family friends. We were not “half-Jewish” as so many people have told me over the years. And we were no less Jewish because it was the faith of our father.
I have always loved being Jewish. I love the peace I feel when I walk into my home Synagogue. I love the prayers and the songs and the traditions and the culture and the food. I love the action of Tikkun Olam, to “repair the world” through good works and social justice. All of it. And I love being around large groups of other Jewish people.
Because when you grow up in a predominantly Christian world (the Southern United States), there are always those moments. The ones that remind you, your faith is not the same as most people.
Like the High Holy Days in 2001 that took place shortly after 9-11. I was terrified to go to my own House of Worship. There is always armed security at our Synagogue. Even the day of my Bat Mitzvah, an officer guarded the door. This is our religious life.
In the 7th grade, I wanted to join the rest of my volleyball team at their Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting. I just wanted to be with my team. I begged my parents. I think it was hard for them, but they let me go. I was used to praying silently to myself, which, in my naïveté, is what I thought I would do on this night.
But the meeting turned in to a mission to “save my soul.” To get me to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. But that wasn’t my faith. I went home crying. My parents tried to comfort me, but I learned that night that not everyone would agree with how I worshipped— or even tolerate it. I don’t think those girls were trying to be mean, they were just doing what they had been taught to do. We were only 13 years old.
Living as a Jewish person in a Christian world can be hard. The prayers “in Jesus name.” School and work activities scheduled on High Holy Days.
I’ve been told-- to my face— that I have a “Jewish nose.”
Non-Jewish members of my family refused to attend our Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Whew. I’ve never written that down before. It hurts. Because we just don’t talk about it. Because we Jews are just expected not to rock the boat.
In a group of people who should have known better, one person wanted to talk to me about the “Jew-run media.” I’ve heard people use the phrase “Jew them down” more times than I can count. In high school, a new friend who didn’t know I was Jewish found some free parking for a sporting event and proudly proclaimed he’d found the “Jewish parking lot.”
People who say they love me post on social media that you better know Jesus or you’ll burn in Hell. Is that where they think my Granny is? Or where my Dad is going? What about me?
They advocate for prayer in schools. I mean, whose prayer? I don’t even think they realize what they’re saying. But I’m always expected to smile and be gracious. And I am. Because the world is full of enough meanness.
When I first started to see cards and decorations for Jewish holidays at Target, I literally cried and took a picture and texted it to my husband. See, we Jews had to go to the Judaica Shop at our Temples and Synagogues for those things not long ago. For my family, that was a 40 minute drive, one way.
If you are a Christian, your religious holidays are federal holidays. All of them. Your Christmas trees and crosses and Santas are on display everywhere. Your cards and Christmas gift wrapping paper. Easter bunnies and Easter eggs. Christian music playing in restaurants. This is a Christian nation. That’s just reality.
I didn’t talk publicly about my Jewish faith for most of my adult life. My first job as a television news reporter was deep in the heart of the Bible Belt. Across the street from my apartment complex there was a cross that stood three stories high. I just didn’t want to make myself a target.
And for the next 15 years, that’s the way I lived. I didn’t want to be the stereotypical “Jew in the media.” I didn’t want anyone not to watch my newscast because they didn’t like my faith. I have so many mezuzah packed in boxes that have never hung on my door frame. Because I’ve never lived in a predominately Jewish place. My husband asked me why we’ve never put them up and my response was simply that I was afraid. I didn’t want to make our home a target.
I am deeply ashamed of that. Especially today, as I mourn these 11 lives who died because of our shared faith.
I have been moved more than my words can describe by the unsolicited messages from my Christian and Muslim friends, reaching out to make sure I’m OK this last week. And I’ve been moved by the people of all faiths who are standing with Jewish people all over the world. There is light in the darkness.
My Jewish experience in America is unique, but not singular. Growing up Jewish, with parents of different faiths shaped my view of the world and allowed me to see good people in every faith. It also makes it harder to understand prejudice and hate, because I know there are wonderful, kind people in every religious group. And I know wonderful, kind people who choose not to identify with any religion at all.
Shortly before my Granny passed away, I read an article in which a Rabbi said the most powerful one line prayer he had ever heard was this:
Let me not die while I am still alive.
Let me not die while I am still alive.
We Jews understand this well. We have faced persecution throughout history. An oft repeated joke my Dad likes to tell:
Every Jewish holiday is pretty much the same: they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.
And so it is now. We will not be moved. We will not be silenced by terror or paralyzed by grief. We are bowed but not broken. The Tree of Life is our faith... its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.
Let us love one another. Let peace flow like a mighty stream. Let us eradicate hate. Let us not tolerate it in a whisper or from the loudest megaphone in the world. Let us educate ourselves and others. You cannot hate what has been kind to you. Let us be kind. Let us be good humans. Let us celebrate our differences and our common humanity.
Today I say, I am proud to be Jewish. I am putting a mezuzah on my door frame— in honor of my grandparents and great grandparents— and in memory of the 6 million— and of the 11. May their memories be a blessing to us all and may they live on in every one of us. And may we say Never Again— for anyone.
Daniel Stein, Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Melvin Wax, Irving Younger.