ALIENS AND RESIDENTS
Illustration: Tom Hindes, adaptation of the Pittsburgh Steelers team logo. The words are from the address by Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, speaking after the Tree of Life attack.
Then Abraham rose from beside his dead [wife], and spoke to the Hittites, saying: “I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial” (Genesis 23:4)
Like Abraham, we are just arising from sitting with our dead:
Joyce Fienberg, 75
Richard Gottfried, 65
Rose Mallinger, 97
Jerry Rabinowitz, 66
Cecil Rosenthal, 59
David Rosenthal, 54
Bernice Simon, 84
Sylvan Simon, 87
Daniel Stein, 71
Melvin Wax, 88
Irving Younger, 69
These are the names of the eleven congregants at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue—congregants just like you and me, in a synagogue just like ours-- murdered by an anti-Semite. Their murderer represented a lethal mix of old and new. He was animated by an age-old hatred, with accelerant poured on the smoldering embers of his hate by modern social media. He responded to all-too-familiar politics, practiced anew in our day: the politics of stoking rage and resentment for partisan advantage. His ability to commit mass murder was abetted by modern technology and regressive legalistic interpretations.
Abraham’s precise phrase was “alien and resident”. Like Abraham, we, too, oscillate between feeling ourselves residents and feeling ourselves aliens in every country of our domicile (except for our age-old homeland, Israel). My Ashkenazic ancestors lived in Tsarist territories for centuries, and yet, in great waves of emigration triggered by the tsunami of anti-Jewish pogroms, we left Mother Russia for the United States. My great-grandfather, Jacob Allentuck, taught his children to appreciate Russian literature, hoping to achieve a synthesis of his Jewish culture with that of his host country. By the time he fled the wrath of the Tsarist machine, he knew that he was an alien in Russia, and hoped to become more of a resident in the country whose entry portal was guarded by the Mother of Exiles, the Statue of Liberty.
He and his people achieved their goal... or so it seemed.
We Jews have become so much at home in this country, that the “alien” part of the Abrahamic self-identification came to feel remote. We allowed ourselves to assimilate, because this home has been good to us. We went from “whitish” in the segregated South to just plain “White” in the post-war world of the suburb, and we fancied ourselves fully at home.
And then, tasting the waters of full citizenship, we have found that there is still a residue of poison lingering there. In the past two years, understandable in retrospect but still somehow beyond belief, we have seen the fringe, the nationalist xenophobes pushed to the margins of our country’s political discourse, come back with augmented audacity. The Charlottesville atrocity was a watershed moment for American anti-Semites. The number of anti-Semitic incidents in this country skyrocketed in 2017, and now, this year will go down in history as the year of the worst anti-Semitic attack (so far) in the history of our nation.
“Resident” is still there. This is not Nazi Germany of 1935. I remain hopeful that the “average American” rejects the tribalism and racism of the despoiler of the Tree of Life. Consider the following expressions of sympathy and support that have come to me in the 48 hours since the news broke. It is significant that (as best I can tell) the writers of these words span both sides of the conventional political aisle:
“Michael, I wanted to let you know I’d been thinking of you and your congregants after the horror in Pittsburgh… Drema ([Doraich, Wiccan Priestess]
“Dear Rabbi Panitz, It is terrible to hear what happened at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. We are deeply saddened by that heinous crime committed against Jewish community, and indeed, to all human kind. Our thoughts, prayers and deepest sympathies are with those victims and their family, loved ones, friends and entire Jewish community. On behalf of my family and Turkish community, Bayram Torayev.”
“My friends, please accept my support in the midst of this tragic time. I don’t know what words might be of comfort but I want you to know of my disdain at the act in Pittsburgh. Fred [Archer, Presbyterian chaplain, retired]
“Dear Michael, I wanted to reach out to you to express my deepest sorrow, shock and dismay at the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting…What violent times, what a terrible time we are living in. My soul is deeply saddened and my thoughts and prayers are with you and with my Jewish brothers and sisters in Pittsburgh, whose named I have read out aloud in a prayer service this morning to ask for God’s mercy and the healing balm of Gilead for the families who lost their loved ones… Shalom, my brother. [Uwe Scharf, Faculty Member, Regent University]
“Dear Rabbi, Today in Church, St. Paul’s [Methodist] lifted up the victims of the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue and condemn all violence and anti-Semitism. Ernestine [H”]
“Hello Rabbi Panitz—Just wanted to reach out to let you know that we are praying for your and your congregation this week, particularly as you gather for worship on Saturday. We are all devastated by this news and we stand together with you in love—[Pastor] Aaron Brittain [Talbot Park Baptist Church]”
“Resolution Regarding the Tree of Life Synagogue Tragedy”… WHEREAS, we as a congregation are blessed with many neighbors, friends and family members of the Jewish faith, and we are committed to loving, supporting, protecting and serving our neighbors… WHEREAS we cannot be silent in the face of this evil [anti-Semitism] which is infecting our land…BE IT RESOLVED… That the clergy, leadership and congregation of Christ and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church stand in solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters in their grief, outrage, and a yearning for shalom…
It is reassuring to know that by and large, our fellow Americans are responding to the better angels of their nature.
May the memory of our eleven brothers and sisters endure as a blessing. Amen.
Rabbi Michael Panitz