I have bookshelves overflowing with Heschel, Wiesel, and countless named and unnamed rabbis who wrote before, during, and after the Holocaust. I have books on trauma theory and on bearing witness to history as well as on scapegoats, missed experiences, and wounds that connect us to one another. I have siddurim and Torah commentaries and even woo-woo books on Jewish mysticism that describe how to find joy in traditions that have long been thought past their usefulness. My Tanakh is in Hebrew and English, because once upon a time, I could read both. There is wisdom in these books, and although I did not write them or in any way inscribe them with my own experiences, they are marked somehow. Or are they are a marker. Maybe it’s this: they bore witness, and I find that difficult to bear.
When I was 36, I wore a white kippah on my head when I was called to Torah to read (for the very first time) on Yom Kippur. I was terrified and self-conscious, and I thought I would never be as good or as confident as the rabbi who stood to my right, checking my pronunciation. Until that moment, I’m fairly certain she thought the same thing. But I was good.
I was converted to Judaism by a panel of three Renewal rabbis in Denver, Colorado a few months later. Mainly, I flew out there to see the rabbi ordained; my own conversion was secondary to that, except in the eyes of my beit din. Despite a year of extensive reading and introspection, despite learning (and then teaching) Hebrew and co-leading weekly services, these people were not at all convinced that I was prepared to convert. I possessed virtually zero knowledge about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and I had no opinion on the subject. This was not okay with them and in retrospect, it shouldn’t have been okay with me, either. I also didn’t have a solid opinion about God. The latter, it turns out, was much less of a problem than the former; Jews often don’t know what to think about God. The beit din was reluctant to approve my conversion. In fact, I’m almost certain they only did so because of the insistence of my rabbi (who was not yet officially ordained). I think their refusal of her wishes (given her knowledge of me and their lack thereof) would have been unacceptable.
So yes, once I was a practicing Jew. And I didn’t understand at all why the majority of born Jews weren’t. I made my Jewishness as official as it could be. I went joyfully and mindfully into the mikveh the next morning, I said the magic words, and when I came out, I knew I’d never be anything but Jewish ever again. You should know this: when I practiced, I was good. I knew all the songs. I read all the books. I gave of my time and talent and money. I was both teacher and perpetual student. I wore the Shoah on my sleeve and I railed against present-day injustices that bore too striking a resemblance. This you should also know: nowadays, I’m still Jewish because I can’t ever again officially be anything else. Once a Jew, always a Jew; my name has been writ. But the closest I’ll ever come to practicing again is lighting the Sabbath candles, drinking wine, and sleeping with my husband. (Rumor has it, that last thing is a double mitzvah if done on the Sabbath.)
The rabbi had previously been my teacher. I was an undergrad in a Judaic studies class when I first met her. I don’t know how she tells the story now, but it used to go “I knew you were one of us the first time I saw you.” In actuality, I don’t know what she saw, but certainly, she found a sucker in me. I take some comfort from the fact that I am in good company. She targets the emotionally vulnerable, the smart, and the talented, and at least at the beginning, we all mistake her for one of us. But she is predator, not prey, and she just keeps feeding.
I have bookshelves full of Heschel and Wiesel, and the accounts of the Holocaust that I have both read and heard steal my breath to this day. I am a Jew, and I became one even though to do so meant enduring the worst time of my life. I don’t think it’s good for anyone to take history too personally, but during the years I spent studying the Shoah, I could find no other way to take it. The horror of the event is unfathomable. The descriptions of even the smallest atrocities become the stuff of nightmares. It hurts to look and yet you can’t stop looking. No matter what — for years — I couldn’t exile it from my thoughts. It became nearly impossible to do my schoolwork, which had long since passed onto new topics. I had been a writer, but writing with any semblance of my previous joy or humor became inconceivable. How could there be joy in a world that could allow something like this?
If my rabbi had been anything but a self-interested narcissist, she would have seen where I was and tried to turn me away from it. (According to her, she had been similarly consumed by her own studies of the subject years before.) Instead, her only notice of how I was faring came when she realized that I was finding friends in our congregation, both personally and in my capacity as Hebrew school teacher, board member, and lay cantor. People began to ask when I was singing again, and they sat with me at oneg after services. We all enjoyed one another, and sitting with me did not mean that everything had to revolve around me. The same could not be said about sitting with the rabbi, and I have no doubt that my teacher, rabbi, and supposed friend began to experience some jealousy.
I was thrown under the bus for no longer needing her and for making a path to friendship and happiness within a group of people she had considered hers beyond a shadow of a doubt. A friend of mine (and former best friend of hers) who remained in the congregation after I left called me a year or so ago, days after her own departure: “I had to go, Angie. It finally hit me that I just couldn’t take another year. I couldn’t stand there while she made yet another annual sacrifice.” My breath caught in my throat, and when I went to tell her that I understood her decision (and so identified with her choice of words), I had to clear my throat to speak.
I have books on my shelf that I walk by every day. They are written by wise men and women — great teachers and thinkers and rabbis. Some of them talk about traumatic events (Freud and Feldman), about missed experiences (Freud, Lacan, Barthes), and about the holes in our very being that connect us to one another (Bataille). And then…there are also those that stare back quite pointedly from my shelves, and whisper-scream about scapegoats, and about how someone must be made to pay the price if the community is to go on (Rene Girard, and even Shirley Jackson).
Of course, the Jewish population of 20th century Europe was itself scapegoated by the communities in which they made their homes and raised their families. Other Europeans (particularly Germans) became convinced that they could not survive or be successful while Jews (German Jews) were in their midst; their success and integration could not be permitted to go any further than it already had. In the end, of course, the Jews were sacrificed by the very communities of which they were a part, by people whose daily lives were almost identical to their own. The resemblance had become too great.
I studied the Holocaust as well as the events that led up to it. I read the books that should have taught me all I needed to know about what was happening in my own personal life, and about what had happened to many, many people before me. And we’re not even going to talk about how my mom was yelling at me from 650 miles away, trying desperately to warn me that A TRAIN WAS COMING.
The train hit, and when it did, my long-awaited adult bat mitzvah was only two days in the rear-view mirror. (It was a rousing success.) I was in the middle of a semester of grad school, and I considered my relationship with the rabbi one of the closest in my life. So I was utterly flabbergasted and totally devastated by the betrayal and abandonment that came. One minute we’re talking, the next minute we’re not. One minute I’m a teacher at the Hebrew school, a board member, a student in her department, and a friend, and in the next I’m not even worth a conversation, and the remaining members of the board are convening by phone to remove me from the temple so the rabbi never has to see or talk to me again. (For the next six months, a repeating chain of questions cycled through my head, totally cutting off all other avenues of thought: Can she really do this to people? Of course she can — I’ve helped her do it two or three times before myself. Why didn’t I realize that this wasn’t okay, that other churches and clergy don’t do this? Why didn’t I recognize that I’d been manipulated into helping her? Why didn’t the board full of people who knew me realize it?) In the five years that I had known the rabbi, the pieces of my world that didn’t include her had become very small indeed. I had changed my area of study, my religion, my friends, even the music that I listened to. Without realizing it, I had made the differences between us negligible at best, and — as Girard could have told me — one of us had to go.
Less than two years later, I moved back to Illinois. A year and a half after that, I was married to my husband and thanking my lucky stars that I wasn’t still stuck 650 miles from home, living a life that only looked good from the outside but really was never supposed to be mine. In retrospect, I’m so glad she showed me who she was. I got away late, but at least I got away.
When I left, all that remained for me to finish grad school and get my master’s was sitting for my comprehensive exams, and frankly, I was never worried about whether I’d be successful. I was a writer and a thinker, and I have no doubt that I could’ve done it with one eye closed and one hand behind my back. But my questions — the ideas I would’ve chosen to be “tested” on — reside entirely between the covers of those books that I once loved and now can hardly bear to look at. I couldn’t have reread them if my life depended on it. In the end, my life depended on me leaving them alone, and I haven’t opened them since.
But I do look at them often in the course of standing and admiring my bookshelves (as we book freaks are wont to do). I don’t suppose I’ll ever stop loving them, and they’ll always be an integral part of who I was and even who I am now. Occasionally, I manage to forget for a while the pain they caused in me or witnessed from me, and I catch myself quoting their ideas before I even know what I’m doing. I also frequently recommend them to others, though I am careful to keep certain volumes out of the hands of the younger ones. I know better than most what these books can do, how sometimes the tales of other people’s destruction can so closely mirror our own as to become indistinguishable. Our feet follow our thoughts more often than one might think. And I also believe there’s something of the truth in this eerie description of traumatic resonance from Toni Morrison’s Beloved:
Where I was before I came here, that place is real. It’s never going away. Even if the whole farm–every tree and grass blade of it dies. The picture is still there and what’s more, if you go there–you who never was there–if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you.
I read this and I think simultaneously of my former rabbi and my over-exposure to Holocaust history, testimony, and literature. And yet…I am Jewish and I always will be. Though I am usually deceptively silent on the subject(s)– though there are books I will not open for the sake of my own joy and sanity — I am not broken or crazy or even as forgetful as some might like. I remember who I was, what I did, what I felt, and why. And nowadays there’s nothing I can do but honor that memory and keep my distance.
[Note: This blog reflects only my thoughts, feelings and opinions. None of the statements herein should be construed as objective fact. Feelings are not facts.]