This evening I saw news that a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis had been vandalized overnight. Reports say that more than 100 headstones were damaged, with some substantial number toppled. This comes, as you may know, amidst an ongoing wave of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers across the country. To date, thankfully, all have been hoaxes. Police have yet to make a formal determination about whether this vandalism was a hate crime. Whatever the final determination, though, this incident hits very close to home. Because this is the cemetery where my mother was buried after she died in Southern California in 1981.
What we owe to the remains of our loved ones, the meaning and importance of where their physical remains rest, if anywhere, is a mystery wrapped in grief, loss, our need to hold on to them past the threshold of death, our need to steady ourselves among the living with acts of commemoration and tribute.
I remember driving down Schuetz Road in St Louis with my dad on one of the few days between her death and her funeral – cold, emotionless, already walling myself off, thinking over what had happened. I said that if we end with the death of our bodies then the body means very little. If there’s a world to come, it’s the same. The body counts for little. But that is all we have, he told me.
My mother was born in 1943 to one immigrant parent (from Lithuania) and another whose father immigrated to Southern Illinois at the end of the 19th century (from Russia). Like many Jewish men and women of her generation, she lived with a mix of guilt, identification and displaced, packed away fear over the millions of Jews who died in the Nazi Holocaust. Toward the end of her life she once confided to me that she sometimes imagined herself being there.
Stones can be replaced and the dead are dead. But it strikes hard against something deep inside of me, something even over the decades still umbilically connected to her, to think that this barbarity which she was free from in her life, at least physically, would lap up against her in death, even in this very, very muted way.
We live in troubled times. Hate and barbarity are always with us. But today they are being granted permission to act. Like the wink and a nod one gives to dissolute youth to help them along to do evil. It’s part of what I’ve called the ‘great disinhibition’. All of this can only be fought – mercilessly. It must also be understood, yes. But only in a pragmatic and instrumental fashion to fight it more effectively, more totally. I think of the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Jewish partisans rising out of their displaced persons camps who took vengeance on Nazis in the months and years after the War. No one of age is an infant and none deserve coddling. Of course the tide of barbarism is not only upon us. It has taken critical high ground. It is coming for Jews, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Muslims, every group that is marginalized. We must fight it everywhere and not simply with words and ideas. It’s a fight, not a metaphor. Treat it that way.