Covering the signs

Covering the signs

I live in a Jewish neighborhood.

It’s not quite like Teaneck, where every Shabbat it looks like every Jew in the world has decided to go for a stroll, and there are so few cars that the internal combustion engine might as well not have been invented yet.

Up here, in the northwest corner of the Upper West Side, there are cars in the streets on Shabbat. This is a big city. But still, the streets are full of Jews; you can pick them out not only by their clothing but because they’re not glued to their phones.

There are all sorts of Jews. They range from the men in their patterned kapotes and huge circular fur hats to the parents who drop their generally inappropriately dressed, often shivering children off for a bar or bat mitzvah. On Rosh Hashanah, when many members of various shuls make their way to the river for tashlich, the result is a goulash of styles, shapes, and colors.

Since Hamas’s butchery three weeks ago, Shabbat also is the time when there is an even more visible police presence around shuls and other Jewish institutions than there is during the week. There usually are police cars parked close to local synagogues.

But the thing that gets me the most is the small shtieble down my street. It’s on the ground floor of a brownstone. It’s the opposite of fancy. I’ve never been inside, but over the many years I’ve walked by I’ve seen spartan chairs and fluorescent lights. The men — always men — who go there are an intergenerational group, all soberly dressed, mainly in dark suits, topped by a range of headgear, from kippot to fedoras.

There is a small plaque that marks the shtieble. It says something generic — I can’t remember what — in unobtrusive lettering. It would be overstating to say the place is low-key. It’s almost no-key.

That’s why it was surprising to find a police car parked outside it the first week after the attack.

But now the plaque is covered, like a mirror in a shiva house.

That is terrifying.

I don’t know if the impetus to cover the sign came from the men whose community it is or it was the result of an outside decision, but it is profoundly sad. People feel threatened by having a small, nondescript sign signaling (whispering, not blaring) that they’re Jews.

I would have taken a picture of it but I didn’t want to stand in the street with my camera aimed at it. I worried that anyone inside might feel threatened. I also didn’t want to position myself as a meddler with too much interest in a Jewish institution. That seemed unwise.

The antisemitism surfacing now on college campuses, oozing out of sewers, is terrible. It seems to be a combination of administrators’ need to put out anodyne statements about almost everything, students’ tendency to rush to do whatever seems to be fashionably radical, and Israel’s position as the symbol of colonialization, white privilege, and every other inaccurate but damming, politically incorrect label there is.

It’s lazy thinking, and it’s dangerous.

I remember Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, the irascible, brilliant public intellectual, telling me that both sides in Israel believed their own narratives, both were true, and they were entirely incompatible with each other.

He was a Jew, he said, so his loyalty was with his people and our narrative. But as long as each side believes something so radically different from the other that the two truths cannot coexist — even if they’re not both objectively true — then the conflict will not end.

And no, he didn’t have any solutions either.

I also think about Abe Foxman, who has said that there’s aways been a current of antisemitism in this country. After World War II and the Holocaust, the foul sludge was forced underground, into the sewer, and heavy iron manhole covers kept them down.

Those covers were breached during the riot in Charleston six years ago, with the tiki-torch fascists shouting “Jews will not replace us,” and former president Donald J. Trump saying that there were good people on both sides of the conflict.

Now those covers have been pushed away as the hate in the sewers below exploded. Hamas’s attacks not only killed 1,400 people in unthinkable ways, but it also let loose hideous ideologies and behaviors.

It’s a fine mess.

We have to hope that the wave of hatred will recede and go back underground, that good people will take brooms and sweep it away, but it’s pretty hard to feel sanguine right now.


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