Dear Cousin Mel,
As you know, we only write or call each other right before the High Holidays and again before Passover. To your credit, you always initiate the dialogue. We cousins, who grew up blocks apart but have lived thousands of miles apart for decades, ask the usual: How’s your wife? Your children? Your health? And we bemoan the fate of our hometown team, the perennially mediocre Houston Astros.
But this past September when you wrote, I responded with a political question. Something I had never done before.
In 1968, when you enrolled at Yeshiva University to evade military service in Vietnam, we did not discuss politics.
In 1994, when Baruch Goldstein entered a mosque in Hebron and opened fire, killing 29 worshippers, we did not discuss it. Even when we learned that Goldstein’s good friend was Avram, our second cousin.
On those rare occasions when we do see each other, sadly, it’s to bury a relative. We discuss family, childhood memories, sports, the weather. We seem afraid to veer off topic for fear that it might lead to political or religious discussions and well, you live in strict observance to Old Testament commandments and I’m agnostic.
We have silently agreed that these are the boundaries of our relationship.
But this past September, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, I wrote:
Are you as terrified of Trump and his white supremacist advisor, Bannon as I am?
Throughout our youth, we sat at the Shabbas table listening to our parents who were raised as Orthodox Jews in Texas in the early 1900’s. They talked about what neighborhoods we Jews could not live in; what schools we Jews could not attend; what clubs we Jews were forbidden to join; what universities and professions imposed quotas to keep us Jews from advancing.
I remember Uncle Nat, who grew up in Ft. Worth, telling me that every day in second grade when there was a bathroom break, the same kid would stand at the urinal next to his, turn, to him and say, “Jew bastard.”
I sensed that our parents carried with them the terror of World War II in which our fathers fought and from whose concentration camps our Aunt Renee survived. I sensed they still carried with them the fear of the Russian pogroms that our grandparents experienced and from which they fled.
And at the Passover Seder, when our elders read from the Haggadah, “In each and every generation they (our enemies) rise up against us to destroy us,” I would stare out the window at our dull suburban neighborhood and think that these people were paranoid, and maybe a little bit crazy.
Who would bother us here? In America?
Even in Texas in the 50’s and 60’s, anti-Semitism never touched us. Now, in the 21st Century America, I know our elders were right to forever be on guard. They knew history repeats itself. Still, I never imagined I would see the day when Steve Bannon, a white supremacist, would have an office in the White House.
I never imagined I would see the day that a President-Elect of the United States would so ruthlessly degrade people because of their DNA, their religion or their place of birth. I never dreamed our President-elect could be a hero to the KKK and neo-Nazis.
I never imagined I would read about young men spray painting swastikas on Philadelphia storefronts or NYU coeds finding swastikas drawn on their residence hall walls. I couldn’t have dreamed that a kid would draw a swastika on the head of a kindergarten student in Florida on his bus ride home from school. I never imagined the Anti-Defamation League would report that during the election, more than 800 journalists suffered anti-Semitic attacks on Twitter.
And I truly never could have imagined that the enemies who would rise up against us would be fellow Americans and fellow Jews, 25 percent of whom voted for Mr. Trump.
Cousin Mel, when you did not reply to my letter, and since I still have not heard from you, I’ve come to believe you voted for Trump. And I keep asking myself, “How does a Jew vote for Trump?:
You, and I’m guessing here because you have not responded, you are more concerned with the Iran Nuclear Deal and the rights of Israelis to expand their settlements than you are about the rights of 330 million Americans and the future of American democracy.
Your silence leads me to believe that in your world of Orthodox Judaism, only pious Jews like yourself, your family, like-minded communities and the expansion of Israel, matter.
And now I wonder where you stand on President-Elect Trump’s nominee for U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who compared J Street, an advocacy group that is pro-Israel and pro-peace and pro a two-state solution, as am I, are worse that the kapos, Jews who worked for the Nazis and beat their fellow Jews in the death camps.
Referring to J Street advocates, Mr. Friedman wrote “It’s hard to imagine anyone worse,” and added, “they’re not Jews.”
So, Cousin Mel, I guess my question is this, in your mind, am I worse than a kapo?
In your mind, am I still a Jew?
I fervently hope you won’t wait until the eve of Passover to respond. I’d hate for our family ties to wither and die because of politics, and I still believe it is important to talk to each other, although, I have to ask you, if you, like your President-elect, consider me “the enemy.”
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