Emails from my father
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Guest columnistThrough email, my father warned me 'this is how it starts'

Emails from my father

My father has this daily routine: Every morning at work, he searches for the word “anti-Semitism” in Google’s News section. On any given day, there can be millions of results.

Matthew Litman
A man wears a kippah at a gathering in Berlin to protest anti-Semitism. (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)
A man wears a kippah at a gathering in Berlin to protest anti-Semitism. (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

My father has this daily routine: Every morning at work, he searches for the word “anti-Semitism” in Google’s News section. On any given day, he says, emphatically banging on the kitchen table, there can be millions of results.

This morning, as I write this, the top results are an article about Poland’s rising anti-Semitism, a piece about what recently-passed writer Philip Roth had to say about anti-Semitism, and an article about Muslims and Jews coming together for an Iftar meal in the United Kingdom. The headlines could be worse. But for my father, the fact that there are any results at all, let alone millions, is a tragedy in and of itself.

I went to a K-12 private Jewish day school and graduated in 2015 — 13 years in which I was sheltered from any instance of anti-Semitism. It was only when I went to college, when distance between my home life and college life grew, that I began to receive these emails from my father: Links to articles about hate crimes against Jews, opinion pieces with anti-Semitic overtones or undertones, a member of Congress or Parliament saying something vaguely or overtly anti-Semitic. There was no subject line, no text except for the links themselves. Sometimes I would get multiple emails in a day.

It was easy to imagine my father quite comically, eyes darting from left to right, sweat dripping onto his keyboard, sending me these emails in some fugue state. I thought he was being paranoid, nitpicky, and it was easy to laugh because I had never experienced anti-Semitism and wasn’t aware of any major groups or persons who condoned that kind of behavior. For some time, I treated my father’s emails like spam, rarely opening them at all. And as I seldom responded, the emails stopped coming by winter of my sophomore year.

But a year later, after I’ve watched Louis Farrakahn at a February rally claim the Jews are “the mother and father of apartheid” and that “when you want something in this world, the Jew holds the door,” after German rappers Kollegah and Farid Bang received an Echo award (Germany’s equivalent of a Grammy) for lyrics like “My body is more defined than those of Auschwitz inmates,” after self-proclaimed “white racialist” and Holocaust-denier Arthur Jones garnered 20,000 votes in his Illinois primary, and after a Washington, D.C., councilman claimed on video that the weather was controlled by the Rothschilds, I see my father’s emails for what they really were. They were warnings.

These were things my father had seen before, things he had read as a kid in the white nationalist newspaper that circulated in his neighborhood, things he had heard walking on the sidewalk, things his parents, who both survived the Holocaust hiding in forests and barns, had told him about. Every email he sent was a nudge. He was trying to get my attention, trying to warn me: This is how it starts.

Lately, I see myself acting similarly to my father, flagging things I find problematic, like a stranger at a club coming up to a friend wearing a Jewish star and saying, “Shabbat shalom,” or various comments on Instagram and Facebook under coverage of the protests and military action in Gaza. More and more, I feel less safe for being a Jew and a Zionist. I can recognize when Jewish figures generalize or say something hate-filled and offensive, I can criticize Israel’s policies and its use of force, but how do I reason with someone who thinks I control everything, who thinks I’m inherently wealthy, that my grandparents were better off as corpses than survivors?

When we take stock in our country and its current policies, we see families separated at the border, children detained inside a renovated Walmart miles from their parents, a travel ban imposed on people from certain countries. It’s not hard for me to imagine Jewish boys and girls in their stead.

I used to be ambivalent about anti-Semitism, but in a larger and much scarier sense, I was ambivalent about hate. And I recognize there’s a privilege in that; I wish all people were so lucky. But today, you simply can’t be ambivalent. There’s just too much hate around.

I took this year off from school and subsequently found myself home for the High Holidays after more than two years away. My dad led services in our synagogue for Yom Kippur; he chanted from the Torah and gave little speeches here and there. There was a certain fervor about him, a kind of glow that rubbed off on you.

How safe he must have felt there, on the bimah, surrounded by friends and family, able to practice his religion freely without fear of judgment or punishment. The weekly occurrences of anti-Semitism he so devoutly read about were far from his mind. Only prayer, and something like gratefulness.

Since then, I often find myself imagining my father living in 12th century Poland, in the midst of a period known as paradisus judaeorum (Latin for “paradise of the Jews”). He’d still have the same hunched-back walk, the same wide smile, but his stubble would have grown into a long, peppered beard and on his head would rest a tall black cap. He would be the rabbi of a small village, and on his morning walk to synagogue, people would ask him all sorts of questions, beg him for advice, and he would patiently answer everyone, scripture and Talmudic verse running like water from his mouth.

I think he would have been happier there, steeped in tradition, and witness to one of the purest realizations of the Jewish faith, to an era where safety for Jews was something promised and given out and ensured. Part of me wishes he could’ve experienced that. Because everyone deserves to witness their own paradise, to know what it’s like to be truly and irrevocably free. PJC

After spending two years at New York University, Matthew Litman will be attending Brown University in the spring. His work has also appeared in Allegory Ridge. Follow the Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter for the latest stories and columns.

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