This weekend, it was announced that Stephen Bannon would become President-elect Donald Trump's chief strategist.
The internet-world exploded.
Understandably so. The accusations surrounding Bannon's history of sexism and antisemitism are inflammatory at their very best, and are indicative of a pattern of white supremacy surrounding the Trump administration.
"But it doesn't matter, not really, as long as they do a good job managing our economy, right?"
I know some people - white, Christian people, probably - are thinking that right now. And I understand it, to a point. If you've spent your life in this country as a white Christian, you've lived a very safe life. You've probably never been challenged. A Swastika wouldn't send a lightning bolt of fear through your heart.
But though I am white, but I am also a woman, and I'm a Jew. And I'm here to tell you: the Swastikas being casually scrawled on walls around the country in the name of our upcoming President? They matter. They matter so much.
* * * *
I've written before about being a ten-year-old kid in New Jersey when some bullies vandalized our local synagogue. My mom didn't want me to see the broken windows, the antisemitic threats scrawled on the walls, but through a trick of fate, I wound up at the synagogue anyway.
I'm the only child in my family who didn't have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. I quit Hebrew School that day. I could never set foot in that synagogue comfortably again, not after seeing it covered in ugly, bleeding Swastikas.
I lost my religion at the hands of some mean-spirited vandals.
But even more...it stuck with me. It was this generalized feeling of being unsafe. In danger. Of being marked in some way, less visible, perhaps, than the yellow Stars of David worn by Jews in Nazi-occupied countries in the 1940s, but no less terrifying.
It...stuck with me. I never forgot.
* * * *
Twenty-five years later, the incident appeared in a book I was writing. A book that became about survival at any and all costs. A book in which I had to prove: a person can rise above the stem of hate and murder. But they cannot do it unscathed.
I promise you: every racial threat, every Swastika, every act of terror committed in the name of Donald Trump or Stephen Bannon...it matters.
I promise you: every racial threat, every Swastika, every act of terror committed in the name of Donald Trump or Stephen Bannon...it matters.
It may take 25 years for people to deal with exactly how much it matters, but I promise you it does.
Here's what I wrote. The book's not published. Maybe someday it will be. But this is how much that incident affected me. And this is how much what's going on in our world TODAY is affecting our children RIGHT NOW.
* * * *
Chapter 2: September 1983
As Ruthie began the long walk home from school that day – the long walk that would begin her longest night – she felt a little off. A little tired. A little spinny in the head. She wasn’t thinking about boys or difficult teachers or pre-algebras test like she and her friends had discussed until she’d left them at their bus. As they squealed goodbyes out the windows and she took the first steps home, Ruthie began thinking, instead, about music.
But even that was off, in a way she couldn’t quite put her finger on. At least, not at first. The music that normally filled Ruthie’s world was from The Police or Michael Jackson or Madonna. Those voices shouted from boom boxes all around town, and Ruthie often walked home humming the songs of her generation.
But no, that wasn’t the music in Ruthie’s ears as she stepped onto Washington Road. Instead of Sting or Madonna she heard…violins. Yes, that was it. Violins, humming a mournful tune. And was that an…accordion? And a clarinet? Yes. Yes, it was.
She’d never heard this song, this music, but in that moment it felt familiar, and also terrifying.
It made her head spin, that’s what it did.
Ruthie paused, six cars whizzing past not seven feet from where she stood, and she glanced around. She thought someone nearby must have had a stereo system playing this bizarre-o music. But there was nothing, no one. Ruthie was alone beside a copse of trees in the park beside her school. They threw long shadows across the empty road.
The music was melancholy – that was a vocabulary word Ruthie loved, and she used it often – wordlessly singing of love long expired, perhaps a mother’s lament for a missing child. Ruthie’s eyes filled with inexplicable tears.
“What’s wrong with me?”
She spoke aloud to the trees, to the lone car that passed, honking, with a lackluster old horn. Ruthie waved a hand, a half-hearted gesture at best, but somehow it quieted the music in her ears. Slowly it receded from whence it came, bit-by-bit, note-by-mournful note, until Ruthie heard only the breeze blowing through the trees’ golden leaves, and the whish of tires on ancient asphalt.
“I should get home.”
Her voice echoed in the empty park. She shuddered, and then giggled, a weak, watery sound. “God, I hope no one sees me talking to myself like a crazy person. They’ll send me to the loony bin for sure. I should get home.”
With the repeated words, Ruthie found she was able to force a step, further breaking the spell created her by the unidentified music. Soon she was on her way in earnest, heading for home, which in the after-school hours was really her neighbor’s house. Her stomach rumbled with hunger for an after-school snack. An apple sliced and dipped in peanut butter sounded good. Mrs. Tilly usually had apples and peanut butter.
Or maybe her mother would have come home early from work, and maybe she could go home instead of to Mrs. Tilly’s house. Maybe Ruthie’s mother would be waiting with cookies and lemonade, and they could go to dinner later after Ruthie had finished her homework.
More likely, Ruthie knew with a sinking stomach, she would have to go next door like normal, to Mrs. Tilly, who was paid to keep track of Ruthie in the afternoons. Theirs was a quiet relationship, of long afternoons with tea and toast and homework and silence. Always silence. Miss Rachael, Mrs. Tilly’s daughter, was the loud one. Nights when Miss Rachael came home early were tempestuous ones on Orchard Street as old-woman-mother fought too-old-to-be-belligerent-daughter. Sometimes Ruthie listened to them from her own bedroom at night, wishing they’d stop, and often wishing she knew why they battled so. It was as though Mrs. Tilly wanted Miss Rachael to be something different. Something other.
In Ruthie’s stomach, she felt the day would be tempestuous whether Miss Rachael came home or not. Something, somewhere, told her that.
Ruthie’s feet carried her homeward anyway, without thought to the direction they were taking. There were two routes home. The left-hand road would take her along the highway; the right would take her past her town’s lone synagogue where, if she’d given it any thought at all, Ruthie would have realized her feet were taking her anyway. Something, somewhere, was pulling her. Calling her. Had she only listened, she could have heard it, and she could have run. For the tempest was at the synagogue, and there, on the street, Ruthie still had time to escape. To run. To hide.
If only she had listened.
But she didn’t. She only walked, and her feet following the right-hand route, edging her closer and closer to the coming storm.
A cold breeze washed over her. The music that had given her goosebumps back at the park was long gone, but now, on a main road down which dozens of cars sped, she was overcome by the feeling that someone – or something – was watching her. Waiting for her. The hairs on the back of her neck, shorter, wispy baby-hairs that never stayed where they were supposed to, stood up like soldiers at inspection. She cast a glance over her right shoulder, then her left.
No one there but the cars on the road, the homes lining the street shut tight.
Maybe she should thumb down a ride, hurry up and finish this weirdo walk home. That would have saved her.
Instead, Ruthie sped up to a jog.
She flew down the street, backpack bouncing against butt, and tattered tennis shoes slapping the rugged pavement of the decades-old sidewalk. She turned right from Washington onto Bordertown Avenue, and she drew to a sudden halt.
Light blinded her, the sun’s clear autumn rays reflecting off the most beautiful building in the town.
The synagogue. Temple Beth Israel. The building that looked like it was made of gold.
Though her town was mostly Roman Catholic, with a few Irish Catholics thrown in, and though the town’s two churches held stately vigil on either end of Bordentown Avenue, dwarfing the synagogue with their spires and bells and their old, gothic architecture, to Ruthie the churches could never hold a candle to Temple Beth Israel. Her golden bricks sparkled in the sunshine, especially on a day like this, with the sun a bright fireball in an azure sky. The synagogue looked as though it had been doused with glue and glitter, a child’s art project, but in the most beautiful of ways. Not gaudy, like the gargoyles on the churches, but shiny and glistening.
It blinded her, the synagogue, and she pulled to a sudden halt. The light was dazzling.
Which was weird too, all things considered, because although she’d seen it on many a sunny afternoon, she’d never quite been blinded like this. For everything glittered. Everything sparkled. The parking lot was coated with diamonds, or at least it looked like it was. Light reflected and refracted until it burned, burning, searing, tearing apart Ruthie’s eyes.
She squinted, throwing a hand up to block the sun, and through its meager shade, she was able to register that, among the glittering building and the sparkling parking lot, there were flashing blue lights. Red ones, too.
The police were there, a fire truck, too. Something bad was happening. The weird, creepy feeling that pulled her forward had a source. Like a magnet she’d been pulled to this time, this place, and something was very wrong indeed.
If only she had run.
And suddenly, as though there were a siren in her brain, one thought blazed forth in a painful scream.
Mrs. Tilly was in the synagogue.
Mrs. Tilly was in the middle of this.
Mrs. Tilly, a Holocaust survivor who never spoke of her experiences but who everyone knew had lived through the unlivable, was there, in a shattered, broken synagogue.
Somehow, Ruthie knew it was true.
And for some reason, this thought filled her with dread, but also with a feeling that she had to stop it. She had to fix things. That only she could make things right.
Now her run was fueled by fear. By the insatiable need to save her old, quiet friend.
As Ruthie ran, images as inexplicable as violin music crowded into her brain.
There was an old village in the middle of the woods. A red-headed woman in a white dress.
There was a pit, a burning pit, with naked hands and smoldering feet sticking up from the coals.
There was a man, a beautiful man, and he loved her.
But who was she?
Ruthie ran faster. Lactic acid built up, burning in her shoulders, her side, as she ran, her sneakered feet pounding the uneven pavement. She knew the path well, knew where the sidewalk stuck up from a persnickety tree root, knew where gaps necessitated ballerina leaps and bounds, and so she ran. She leaped. She bounded.
She only stopped when she reached the synagogue’s parking lot and saw the news vans. Then she staggered backward until she crashed into a man holding a video camera.
The news is here! This is bad!
Run, Ruthie! Run away!
But Ruthie couldn’t run away. She could only stare at her synagogue, broken and battered in the late autumn sunshine. The synagogue, her synagogue, whose tall glass windows now crunched beneath her sneakers, stood bleeding. There, slashed along the sparkling yellow bricks, were Swastikas. Dozens of them. They were red – dark red, the deep, black-red of drying blood. And between those Swastikas were written words, words Ruthie wished she didn’t know how to read, but she did. When you’re a child growing up Jewish in a Catholic town, and your neighbor and babysitter is a Holocaust survivor, you know how to read certain German phrases.
Arbeit Macht Frei
The sun above still shined. The sky’s cheery blue was unchanged. But Ruthie’s world went grey. It turned sideways. She wobbled on her feet, now planted atop broken glass, and her mouth fell open, then closed, then open again, a dying fish’s mouth, gasping for air.
A hand fell on her shoulder, clamping down. Ruthie screamed. She jerked. In that moment, she’d have fought for her life.
She didn’t need to, though. Not yet. Instead, the hand released, and as she turned she found herself facing the cameraman. He’d been watching her – filming her – since she crashed into him. But now his camera was off, hanging lifeless at his side.
“Are you alright, little girl?” His eyes, rimmed with thick glasses, were kind. Had the moment been a different one, Ruthie would have liked him. Or, at least, she’d have liked to explore the khaki canvas vest he wore, with all its pockets and secret compartments.
But this moment was different. Ruthie’s world was imploding, an avalanche of fear threatening to bury her. The cameraman was thus not her friend. His blue eyes were too Aryan, his pale hair to Christian.
He was an other.
She stared at him.
The Holocaust is happening right here in New Jersey.
A spasm of nausea gripped her stomach. She bent slightly, clutching her abdomen, and was overwhelmed with the crazy idea that the cameraman would shoot her, right there and then, if she threw up on his shoes. Of course she also knew the thought was ridiculous – cameramen don’t carry guns – but there it was. Life was different now that her temple bled, and maybe cameramen did carry guns.
Ruthie backed away. He reached out again, perhaps to steady her, but perhaps he wanted to pick her up and throw her in his windowless news van. Perhaps he wanted to kill her.
Eyes glued to his, she kept moving. She would not turn her back on him. The cameraman was not to be trusted. Walking backward over the broken windows to the battle-scarred, bleeding building, she swallowed down a flood of fear. She choked back vomit. She had to get inside, safe within the building’s four walls. There she’d be among her own kind. There would be more Jews, like her. Together, maybe, they’d be safe.
The cameraman shrugged and went back to filming, keeping his camera on Ruthie as she continued her backward trek. She stopped only when her back hit the hard, cold brick wall.
She turned. There, before her, surely having left its mark on her denim jacket, was a Ruthie-sized Swastika, as tall as she and twice as wide. It glared at her, red and gory, oozing its hatred all over the gold brick walls. Ruthie’s chest tightened. Her hands trembled. She squeezed her eyes shut, sure that if only she waited, if only she counted to ten, she’d awaken from this terrible nightmare. She’d find herself safe in bed, her mother coming into her darkened room to kiss her.
But when she opened her eyes, the Swastika remained, burned into the brick like so many bodies up a crematorium’s chimney.
She reached out a hand to touch it. She had to touch it. Had to feel it. Had to let it wash over her with its anger and its accusations. Yes. She was a Jew. She would wear this scarlet paint – this blood – with honor. With pride. She would own her fate, now that the Holocaust had come to find her in New Jersey.
The paint was dry, though. Cold. Not wet, not warm like real blood, but when Ruthie pulled her hand away she felt slick with it anyway. Dyed red, forever, marking her Jewness, making it known.
“Ruthie!” The booming voice over her shoulder froze Ruthie where she stood. “Ruthie, what are you doing here?”
Thankfully, this was a voice she knew. This was a voice she loved. The synagogue’s patriarch, tall and ample-bellied, Rabbi Portman appeared at her side, his hand taking hold of hers and pressing it down, away from the bloody wall.
“Rabbi, I just…I was walking home…and I saw the lights…so I stopped…and now I…oh, Rabbi Portman, it’s terrible.”
Keeping hold of the hand of the man who’d sat patiently through countless hours of practice for her upcoming Bat Mitzvah, she raised her eyes from the Swastika to his face. She was surprised to find his eyes wet and ringed with crimson, a shade not unlike that which somehow, impossibly, coated her fingers.
The Rabbi let go of Ruthie’s hand, opting instead to stretch an arm – a heavy arm, heavier than Ruthie would have guessed – across her shoulders, pulling the girl to him in an awkward embrace. Though the Rabbi had never, ever hugged one of his students, she felt no urge to pull away. Instead, she leaned in, breathing in the scent of him – smoked cigarettes and Wintergreen Lifesavers.
“I’m so sorry you had to see this,” said the Rabbi. Ruthie was vaguely aware that she was walking, letting herself be pulled by the Rabbi, as he continued. “The police think it was kids. Vandals. It’s nothing to worry about, not really, and I wish you hadn’t seen it, but I’m glad you’re here. I need your help.”
Ruthie raised her head from its resting place against the Rabbi’s belly, held in its place by a button-up dress shirt and an old corduroy coat, both of which stretched like sausage casing. He led her inside.
Now Ruthie’s eyes found more Swastikas, this time on the interior walls. More threats. More words. Die Dirty Jew. Kike. Rat. Pig.
At least they’d switched to English; English insults felt more familiar. She’d heard them all before. Surrounded by broken glass and vitriol, Ruthie pulled away from the Rabbi and tried hard to meet his watery hazel eyes. “Why do you need my help?”
He sighed, his graying mustache rising and falling with his breath. When he spoke, it was with the thick Williamsburg accent Ruthie knew he worked hard to keep under wraps during services. “Mrs. Tilly is here. She’s...she’s not taking this well.”
Ruthie could only nod. How could she explain that, somehow, she already knew this?
“I was hoping you could help her home? She’s been here all day, and she won’t let me move her. I know your families are close, so maybe she’ll listen to you? I haven’t been able to get in touch with her daughter.”
“She works a lot, and she has a new boyfriend I think. Based on what I heard the other night. Mrs. Tilly doesn’t like him.”
“Right. And you know that Mrs. Tilly was in the…”
“The camps. I know, Rabbi. I know. She doesn’t talk about it.”
The Rabbi nodded. “She’s in the sanctuary, by the Ark. It’s…well, it’s a mess in there. I wish you didn’t have to see it like this. I wish she hadn’t seen it. Can you help her home?”
“Yes. Yes, I can.” She tugged the Rabbi’s arm, pulling him to the thick swinging doors that led into the synagogue’s main sanctuary. The magnetic pull, which had seen her through her walk to the synagogue, the one she didn’t understand at all, was stronger here. A rope tethered Ruthie to what lay beyond the doors, and someone (Mrs. Tilly? Yes, that felt right.) waited at its far end, pulling and coiling the cord as Ruthie drew closer and closer to an end she could not yet see.
She pushed her way through the doors, doors that now were branded with the same swastikas as the bricks outside. These were different, though. These burns were real. No paint remover could ever get rid of those scars. Ruthie could see that much, anyway, as she burst into the sanctuary. Swallowing a huge gulp of air, willing her stomach to settle down, she almost stopped. She almost let fear overtake her.
But the invisible rope pulled her forward, regardless of her terror.
Every chair in the sanctuary – every single wooden chair, not a single one spared – was broken up like kindling. Some were piled in the center of the room, awaiting a bonfire that, for some reason, was never lit. It’s like it’s waiting for the Jews to come. Will it burn now that I’m here?
The room was filled, too, with the pungent odor of gasoline. Gasoline and something else. As Ruthie continued her journey, with the Rabbi’s hand pressing gently on her back and the invisible rope pulling her onward, she noted the smears of red paint splattered carelessly on the walls, lending an eerie blood-glow to the entire space.
Up front stood the Ark, open. A knife pierced the left-hand door as though it had been used for a handle. But that knife had been used for dirtier work as well. The Torah, the sacred text of the Jews, the heartbeat of the synagogue, lay un-scrolled across the floor. Parts of the ancient, acidic paper were ripped to shreds, the Hebrew words transformed to confetti. The Torah’s cover, once a lux, glorious piece of velvet and beads, with sparkling gemstones and embroidery, lay in a heap beside the scrolls, and it was then that Ruthie recognized that second odor. That foul, human odor.
She slapped a hand across her mouth. Her nose.
“Yes. They used the Torah for a toilet.”
Ruthie shook her head, a long, silent no. She felt older now, somehow, as though the march into the sanctuary had aged her well beyond her twelve years. She would never again need to go to sixth grade, she knew. Not after seeing this, the culmination of ignorance and hate and desecration and defecation. What more was there to learn?
Ruthie was ready to leave. To leave and never return. She turned to the Rabbi.
“Where is she?”
The Rabbi sighed, and with two hands pressed to Ruthie’s cheeks, he shifted her focus to the corner of the room.
Finally, Ruthie saw her. Her neighbor. Her caretaker. Dare she think it, even her friend. They’d been through a lot, she and Mrs. Tilly. Long afternoons spent watching stories on the old black and white television. Hundreds of cups of tea. Thousands of sugar-free hard candies. They were close. Were friends. Despite knowing little of Mrs. Tilly’s past, she knew enough to know this would be devastating.
And there was Mrs. Tilly now, kneeling on the floor behind an overturned podium, praying before the shattered room. She was broken. Pitiful. She leaned forward, pressing her forehead to the ground, bending in a way no 70-something year old ever should have bent. Mrs. Tilly rocked, swaying side to side, and as she rocked she sang quietly to herself. Ruthie strained her ears, willing them to hear, and soon they zeroed in on the old woman’s rough voice, hardened by decades of chain smoking.
“Yisgadal v'yiskadash sh'mei rabbaw.”
She sang the Kaddish. The prayer sung at funerals. The prayer that praised a God who allowed terrible things to happen. The prayer that was devoted in the face of devastation, defying those who would roll over and die at the first sign of adversity.
Amidst the devastation, Mrs. Tilly bowed and praised her God.
Ruthie couldn’t stand it.
“Come on, Mrs. T,” she called, her voice echoing through the broken, cavernous room. “Let’s get out of here.”