I’ve only been hospitalized once in my life, in 1979. It was my first year as a photojournalist in Chicago and The Reader sent me to Pilsen on the near South Side to photograph a woman artist, from Macedonia, who wanted to turn one of Al Capone’s old breweries into an arts complex.
Her project had a certain European flair, and I took an interest. She invited me to attend an esoteric spiritualism lecture one evening at a downtown hotel. The night before, I had a foreboding dream that the lecture was in ancient Egypt and that I would be shot there. As the meeting began, the speaker, an older German man, began talking in a hypnotic fashion. The audience was transfixed. As my eyes followed him pacing back and forth, he talked about secrets of success in business, and then I heard, “The Jews are really smart. We admire them.”
At first I thought ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ It took me a few moments to wake up to what he was really saying, as I had been lulled into a stupor from his smooth patter. He went on with one of the typical chestnuts of anti-Semitism, “They are so smart, they observe the Sabbath on Saturday, and they’re the only ones working on Sunday, so they get all the business on Sunday.” Standing behind the podium, his voice, which had been low and soothing, became more insistent.
He kept returning to his thesis about how ‘smart’ the Jews were. His arms began to jerk as if they were on strings. It seemed as though two giant monsters stood behind him fueling the power of his speech. I got up suddenly, knocking over my chair, and announced that these were lies. A white-haired woman gripped my arm and earnestly said, “He has a lot to offer if you ignore that part.”
I woke up the next day with an agonizing pain that I thought must be appendicitis. I had grown up sheltered from anti-Semitism, hatred against Jews, and while I had seen the documentary “Night and Fog” about what the Nazis had done to the Jewish people, I had never encountered evil in person.
I was hospitalized overnight. Finally I told my mother about the lecture, and they determined it was a physical reaction to my first exposure to hate.
Many years passed before I finally learned what had happened in 1939 in the village in Poland that my mother’s great-grandparents, simple farmers and scholars, had escaped from sixty years earlier. When the Germans arrived, the Poles helped them round up the Jews in the town square. I found relatives’ names among those who perished at Auschwitz. There they died, whether from the most hideous ‘medical experiments,’ tortures carried out with chilling scientific precision and perfect record keeping, or from starvation, tuberculosis, or in gas chambers, I will never know.
And, in 1943 the Germans deported the entire Jewish population of Macedonia, 7,148, to death camps.
Many in the Southwest who have had to live with historically overt hate and discrimination against them their whole lives may not understand the feelings that may also overwhelm Jewish people when hate speech is targeted against any one of them. But more than two thousand years of being a target of hatred is only one reason why Jewish organizations have been in the forefront in this country in the fight for civil rights, laws to protect all minorities, and the first and now enhanced hate crime laws.
The more important reason is because the most fundamental tenets of Judaism, that survived even the loss of faith experienced by many after WWII, are about living an ethical life. The Five Books of Moses, the Torah, what Christians call the Old Testament, are at heart a code of ethics just as the Golden Rule has been part of all the world’s cultures and religions, from Native America to China to India to the Middle East. In the Torah, Leviticus 19.18 says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Judaism has an oral tradition as well that is more than two thousand years old; these are interpretations, commentaries on the Torah. In one book, the Babylonian Talmud, is this story: A non-Jew demanded that Rabbi Hillel and another rabbi explain Judaism while standing on one leg. The other rabbi chased the man away with a ruler for his impertinence. Rabbi Hillel, the greater scholar, replied with a brief answer, perhaps in part directed at his colleague, “What is hateful to you, do it not unto others—this is the entire Law of Moses, and the rest is commentary.”
This column also appeared on the Gallup Independent Spiritual Perspectives 2/16/2013 page 21 as "Interpreting Judaism" and on page 13 of the March 2013 New Mexico Jewish Link