Eloi eloi lama sabachthani
These were the recorded penultimate words of Jesus dying on the cross. It’s a quote from a Davidic psalm, but clearly, for him, not an experience at second hand.
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.
Léo Bronstein, my father’s best friend and a kind of mentor and godfather to me, said, after reading an earlier draft of my memoir – “Abigail has always felt abandoned.”
I don’t know whether my half-glimpsed “memory” of having, in a previous life, perished in the run-up to the Holocaust, is a memory, or a childhood impression of what the grownups knew, imprinted with especial force on a child with a thin skin and few natural defenses.
On the evidential side, there is the datum that the killing method “remembered” was one of those used, but not a well-known one. But we don’t need to go into that.
More to the point, what was it like, being one of the to-be-murdered masses of Jews? It was like abandonment, but on a very wide scale. All the way to the horizon, the world seemed grey, cold, devoid of sympathy, of recognition, of refuge.
The recent coarsening of national discourse has unleashed, from right and from left, the clear evidences of a publicly avowed, quite shameless and remorseless anti-semitism such as I never recall in American life. It is quite impervious to counter-argument. It brings to mind a remark from a Brit about the phenomenon in his own country, where it has gone farther. He said, once anti-semitism begins, it’s like one drink for an alcoholic. Once he starts, he can’t stop.
Demonic hatred. The world’s “longest hatred.” The outsized, draped-in-moral-clothing condemnations of Israel set the mood to accommodate a future holocaust. Politicide. “Tch. It’s a terrible shame, but they had it coming.”
I suppose, though bodily pain is bad, the sense of abandonment is worse.
What is the antidote? I don’t know about the antidote. But I will tell you what happened to me.
This morning, Jerry was to give a talk about his book, God: An Autobiography, as told to a philosopher, at the nearby Pebble Hill Church. This is an interfaith church without a settled creed, a community of seekers that used to be known hereabouts as “the hippie church.” They were hippies back then. But by now most of them are working steady (often in something creative) and evolving together as seekers. For whatever reason, before the talk I was experiencing a particularly vivid attack of vicarious stage fright on Jerry’s behalf. Although he’s spoken successfully in several local venues, this was his first talk in a church, and we did not know what sort of response to expect.
For my part, there was an additional preoccupation. I was watching all the preliminary hugging and talk of peace and love, and thinking, how far from the hard-bought experience of the Jews is all this belief that peaceful thoughts will bring peace on earth!
Jerry talk was listened to with a communal silence so deep I thought brains would short out — and at the end drew a standing ovation. He signed and sold every book he had in the carton he’d brought along. (They leave a place and time for that when they invite speakers.)
Afterward, while Jerry was signing books, I was talking to a few people, all serious and thoughtful. One mentioned that her husband was Jewish. I referred to “2000 years of …” and she smilingly finished my sentence, “guilt.”
“Of fear,” I said, correcting her.
To my relief, she added, “of realistic fear.”
A little later, we were talking again and I mentioned that Jesus, with whom Jerry has several conversations in the book, is asked by Jerry where he hangs out now. In churches?
“No,” Jesus replies. “In synagogues.”
“Of course,” said my new acquaintance. “That’s where he hung out when he was here!” She got that right, from the reports in the gospels.
These two touches of tenderness were, I take it, God’s reminders:
I am here.
You are not abandoned.
It is not possible, I think, to hold on to oneself in the teeth of untrammeled hatred. One begins to abandon oneself, to move over to make room inside oneself for one’s assailant. That of course is what many prominent and not-so-prominent Jews are doing when they join the politicides, supplying hyperbolic condemnations of Israel and offensive comparisons – as if to get ahead of the stronger enemy and disarm him by agreeing with him first.
There is a verse in Second Kings 6:15, where Elisha – surrounded by a hostile “army with horses and chariots” — tells his servant, “Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.” Elisha prays that the servant’s eyes be opened. They are, and he sees:
The mountain was full of horses
And chariots of fire all around Elisha.
It is hard to believe that ever happened, even harder to believe God still cares. But these small evidences, of tenderness mixed with realism, of fellowship in the travail of life, are not to be scorned.
They too are
The chariots of Israel
And the horsemen thereof.