01 May 2011

On Swastikas

So a Twerpy Little Coward keyed a swastika into the side of my car on Thursday night, making Friday a mighty interesting day.  The Vandal also etched an "FU" into the hood of the car and made some odd, Cy Twombly-like lines along various parts of the body.  Finally, Diminutive Demon bent the rear wiper, a minor nuisance but particularly disturbing since, in most cases, it's generally good to watch your back.

The incident came in the midst of the day in which I was meeting with congregants, planning a funeral, running to the mikveh and performing an early afternoon wedding.  The NYPD Community Affairs officer assigned to us was extraordinary, as usual; the 78th Precinct leadership paid a visit, friendly and helpful as ever; and by early afternoon the Hate Crime Unit was here as well, taking a report.  We couldn't have asked for a better response.

In the midst of it all, as a kind of meditation on technology and how information works, I posted the above picture onto Facebook, just a few hours after posting some meditations on the horrific tragedy of the tornado's devastation throughout the South, particularly in Alabama.  Why it is that the poorest often seem to be the most severely hit by natural disasters is one of those grotesque injustices that I can never fully understand.  In either case, I inaugurated my first-ever Swastika Incident with a profound sense of humility and clarity about what true suffering is in this world, annoyed more than anything that some perp put a crimp in my day when I wanted to lead and focus on more urgent matters.  Nonetheless, we play with the cards we're dealt, right?

Within minutes the responses were pouring in.  And by late Friday evening, there were more than a hundred comments, expressions of horror and sympathy, that such a thing would and could occur.  I appreciated every single one.  And meditated throughout the day on the ways in which a swastika on a rabbi's car, parked in front of synagogue, can evoke and unearth deep traumas about anti-Semitism that still penetrate people's psyche in our day.

To my mind, a Nazi didn't do this.  An idiot did--one who wanted to get a rise out of me; get back at me for something I must have done (shushed them at a service?  parked my Honda in front of shul? given a bad sermon?)  But a systematic attempt to eliminate me and my people?  A jack-boot walk up Garfield Place?  A boycott of Jewish business?  A death camp?  No.  Just a shmuck who knows that a passing, cowardly scrawl of a swastika is sure to upset a Jew.  And the local rabbi, at that.

So we file the report; we call Geico; we shield the kids; and we go on with our day.  And the Facebook comments keep rolling in, evoking danger, prayers for strength and protection, expressing shock and disbelief.

In the meantime, there's an internal email list that I'm on--a few academics and a journalist or two who keep me honest, and so there, too, the emails fly.  But here the dialogue is lofty, humorous, jaded and informative.

First the discussion focuses in on the symbol of the swastika itself--how it predates the Nazis use; that it was a symbol of life, you know, the usual business.

Here for instance, is an example of its use on, of all things, a box of "matzos":
image courtesy of eddy portnoy
And here it is as part of the design of a car, straight from early Detroit:

image courtesy of allan nadler
Additionally, there was an internal running commentary on the commentary--a kind of off-line comments section about the comments as they were appearing on Facebook throughout the day.  Truth be told, both were uplifting--the sincere expressions of support and the cynical musings of the observers, rallying me to use this incident to raise money to fix our roof.  "CBE just got a gift," one friend wrote privately.  "A swastika to build your capital campaign around."

Ah, yes:  the luxuries of an American Jewish community that can laugh at such jokes.  I chuckled along all day, while moving from meeting to meeting, thinking how incredibly fortunate our generation is that it can even conjure the humor in such an outrageously stupid gesture.

Tonight at sundown, Jewish communities around the world will commemorate Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  (Originally the date was supposed to be on the 14th of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar, which is a day before Passover, linking the commemoration to the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  This always struck me as a powerful idea, joining memory to heroism, futile as that effort against the Nazis was.  But ultimately, the date was changed to 27 Nisan, tonight, and in Haredi communities the Holocaust is linked to Tisha B'Av, which marks the Temple's destruction.)  Each year as our community plans this, we face the harsh and bitter truth that survivors of the Holocaust are dying; that soon we will live to see a day in which only the 2nd and 3rd and 4th generations will have the responsibility and the obligation to remember the horrifying and unspeakable attempts to exterminate the Jewish people.  That we remain, in part due to great acts of heroism, victorious battles in war, and unlimited acts of bravery, generosity, and resilience, carried out by Jews and non-Jews who believed, ultimately, in the sanctity and goodness of life, is a lesson we will forever teach on this date, throughout the rest of our history as a people.

We will always know the difference between a swastika, a swastika and a swastika, the last here depicted in a Nazi decree against the Jews of Krakow:
image courtesy of yad vashem
As for my car?  I'll get it fixed and keep doing what I do.  In the hope that the cops catch the bum who did it--my price will be to do some community work at the synagogue and to insist perhaps on the greatest punishment of all for such willful ignorance:  spend a day learning with me.  Revenge, as they say, is best served cold.

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