A Remarkable Evening

“The Night Watch”
Rembrandt, 1642

A Remarkable Evening

Jerry and I belong to a Christian/Jewish dialogue group that celebrated its 25th year last week, though we haven’t been in it that long.  The discussion topic was not so celebratory: anti-semitism and how to destroy it.  (Privately I thought, yeah, I should live so long, but didn’t say that, not wanting to dampen hopes.)

Dinner is served cafeteria-style before the discussion.  Jerry and I took a small table with a river view.  We were soon joined by an attractive blond lady named Krista Bard who was, it turned out, Honorary Counsel General from Lithuania to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Had my family retained memories of Lithuania, they would not have been good ones.  Trying for a sociable note, I remarked to Krista:

“I have an ancestor from Vilna: the Vilna Gaon.”

Though that 18th-century rabbi is reputed one of the foremost Talmudists, few nonJews would have heard of him.  So I did not expect Krista’s response, which was that commemoration of the Vilna Gaon was now an official event in Lithuania.

“How is that possible?” I asked.

After the Second World War was over, she said, there was wide awareness that Lithuanians had not conducted themselves well during the Holocaust.  A general realization ensued, that the country had better wake up, so that its people would not do this anymore.  What followed was a public acknowledgment of moral failure plus regret and admiration for the Jewish/Lithuanian heritage that had been allowed to perish on its soil or been driven beyond the borders to its doom.

I was nearly as astonished as

 the Vilna Gaon would have been!

At the discussion, each Jewish or Christian participant was invited to share personal encounters with anti-semitism.  The Reader might not know how exceptional a happening this was.

Jews do not get together to share war stories.

The topic might get touched upon in a wider context, say of other crises: humanitarian, ecological, literary, scientific, theological or political – including inflation, the national debt, ice at the antipodes and the Mueller Report.  I have never heard any gathering of Jews discuss “anti-semitism and me.”  Never.

My goodness, I thought.  First, the Gaon of Vilna raised to the status of Lithuanian national treasure.  And now this.  I am going to get the vapors!

Here is one of the war stories.  When one participant was a 23-year-old student, enrolled (for reasons I did not catch) in the graduate department of a Christian university, before the first class began, students stood to repeat the Lord’s Prayer.  Our Jewish student stood with his head politely bowed, but silent.

After the Amens, the professor, who was also a priest, came and stood in front of our youth asking why he had remained silent.

“I’m Jewish,” came the reply.  “I don’t say the Lord’s Prayer.”

“Ah,” said the priest.  “Don’t Jews pray?”

“All your prayers are derived from Jewish prayers!  And I think you knew the answer to both your questions before you asked them.   Your purpose was to embarrass me in front of my classmates.  I am leaving your course.”

Some days later, our young man was stopped in the hallway by a senior cleric who asked whether there was anything he could do to repair the situation.

“No,” replied our young man.  “It’s too bad the professor never learned the love that his religion is supposed to teach.”

Wow, I thought, what a story!  Usually, the targeted person spends his or her next two or three decades trying to figure out what he or she should have said.  Instead here it was in a single package:

the right answer

to the right man (or men)

at the right time.

Among the Christian speakers was a woman who was first shown photos of Holocaust survivors as a young girl, perhaps in a high school textbook.  For some reason, though the world holds many horrors, those photos left a burning imprint.  As she entered young womanhood, she began to track the reappearances, infrequent at first, but becoming more familiar, and coming finally from higher up and a wider demographic.  The fashionable new pretexts did not befog her awareness of the spiritual abyss that they overlay, like brush that the hunter will put over a pit to conceal it.  As she saw it, no human fighter could defeat this thing unaided.  It needs fighters but also needs prayer.

My story came at the end.  I told of successive efforts to alert fellow congregants to the new anti-semitism, inviting speakers and also responding to local instances.  We won some and made a dent in others.  There was however one problem that seemed to resist every effort to cure it.

Once a week, for years on end, a certain group conducted a “vigil” (as they called it) right in the center of town, holding up placards that denounced the Jewish state for evils unspecified but (the implication was) worse than anything else on the planet.  Else why would the vigilers be there?

My sense was that this was not just one-sided and unfair, but an actual danger.  Public insults that go unanswered invite further attacks, first social but finally physical.

One morning, I was having brunch with two Christian friends and going over the failure of my every counter-move, episode by tedious episode.  Nothing had worked.  The final effort had only led to everyone blaming me.

My friends offered a suggestion.   Why not meet at the café adjoining the square where the placard people held their “vigils”?   Not to interact with them, just to talk among ourselves about matters of the spirit and to pray together.

We did just that, the two Christian friends plus Jerry and me.  I don’t know if the placard people recognized me or not.  In any case, we didn’t look their way, only chatted with each other and sometimes read a psalm very quietly.

I didn’t have any hope of making a difference, but at the end of that hour I suggested we join hands while I said my own prayer aloud.

Father, I’ve tried everything I know

 [here I listed each failed effort]

 and nothing has worked.

 They are there each week punctually,

defaming Your people

and putting us at risk.

I have been totally unable to change this situation.

Please touch and soften their hearts.”

When we broke hands and looked up, to our amazement, they had disappeared!  In less time than it takes to pack up one’s placards and remove oneself from the town square.  Poof!  They were gone – as if vaporized!

And we never saw them again.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father, the "Genius" Among the Giants. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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