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Alone Again, Naturally

Alone Again, Naturally

My brush with anti-Semitism.


The request hardly seemed unreasonable.

"Pardon me, I seem to have run out of tissues. Can I please get some more?"

Larry was just one of 160 of us who journeyed to Eastern Europe for nine days this past August. It was Day Two and the group was gathered in the Conti Hotel in the city of Vilnius in Lithuania -- home of the sainted Vilna Gaon and other prominent Rabbis of yesteryear.

Larry stood politely at the front desk awaiting the box. It never came.

"There are no more tissues."

"You mean, there are no more tissues left in the whole hotel?" Larry asked, taken aback.

"There are no more tissues," was the robotic reply.

"Let me speak to the manager," said Larry.

A tall, blond stoic woman, in her 40's, appeared seconds later.

"Is it possible for me to get some more tissues? We seem to have run out of them in my room.

"Which floor are you on?" she asked.

"Why…er…the 5th."

"There are no more tissues for the 5th floor," she answered and walked away.

Larry stood there, puzzled. Was there something about the 5th floor that warranted punitive action? Is it possible that the hotel had actually run out of tissues? Was there some magic word that Larry was missing in his request?

The painful answer to all of these questions is an obvious no. Corroboration came early the next morning when Devora was hovering around a basket of apples at the far end of the lobby.

"Those apples are not for you," bellowed the uniformed staff person.

"Pardon me," said Devora, "I'm a guest here in the hotel. I believe we are entitled to a continental breakfast."

I don't think I've ever met a 'Jewish' apple, but I know a rotten one when I see one.

"No. If you want apples you can go into that room over there (pointing to our dining area). There you will find the Jewish apples."

The 'Jewish' apples, you know, were not wearing yarmulkes; nor did we find any that happened to be in the shape of a Menorah or a Shofar. I don't think I've ever met a 'Jewish' apple, but I know a rotten one when I see one.

The disdain and the contempt in the eyes of these Lithuanians were palpable, but they also served to punctuate the authenticity of the full Eastern European experience that we had come to discover and to lament. It was a reality that I had read about, heard about, and fought hard to deny and dismiss. But now it was staring us in the face.

Many similarly ugly confrontations took place in the days following. Some were subtle -- shopkeepers who suddenly "ran out" of Diet Coke, and some were blatant -- swastikas graffitied on garbage cans, 'Judenrein' etched into old cardboard placards.

I watched as my fellow travelers and I attempted to assimilate these experiences into our ever so complacent Western psyches. Like a small innocent child who witnesses violence, injustice, or bias for the first time, we saw our comfy American liberal bubbles burst before our eyes. There was no officer to complain to, no form to fill out, and no affidavit to file. They hated us for reasons they wouldn't be able to explain and we fell victim to the time-honored tradition our ancestors eternally encountered and suffered from.

Probably the most frightening moments of our trip took place just a couple of days after we left Vilnius. After enduring a five hour plus passport check at the Belarus border (just "routine," of course), we arrived, haggard and worn out, at our destination -- the holy city of Volozhin. The time was 11:30 p.m. It was here that the Mother of all Yeshivas -- the citadel of Torah that blossomed from the vision of the great Reb Chaim Volozhiner -- had been realized.

The holy edifice, now standing over 200 years, perched before us, as we descended from the buses and strode in the darkness en route to the building. This house of God had lain abandoned since 1892, but in its 86 years of operation it had borne Torah giants of unprecedented scholarship and a legacy of impeccable repute.

A spirit of rejuvenation spread through the group, until we took notice that we were not alone. Outside the still proud structure, a gathering of local hooligans had assembled. Over 100 neighborhood toughs, many of them inebriated, stood and stared as 'the Jews' made their way to the ancient schoolhouse. The Jews were back!

The rejuvenation quickly transformed into dread and fright.

The rejuvenation quickly transformed into dread and fright. One of the thugs shouted something largely unintelligible that scared the wits out of many in the group. Someone else threw a bottle at no one in particular, but the crash of shattered glass in the dark was enough to pummel terror into the bravest among us. We shuffled hurriedly into the building, trying hard to pretend that we were unafraid by the looming threat before us.

Many admitted later that they had conjured up the most horrific scenarios possible, borrowed from terrifying Holocaust testimonies and movies. One woman was certain that a full scale riot would ensue and we'd have to run for our lives.

In fact, we left the scene, thank God, without further incident. Besides being subjected to a vulgar "mooning" exercise by a dozen or so of the more intelligent rowdies among them, we felt fortunate to have survived the truncated visit.

The anti-Semitism we confronted, stinging and startling as it was, somehow did not dominate our nine-day excursion into the past. Our journeys to the holy cities of Mir, Telshe, Vilna, Kelm, Ponovezh, Slabodka, Kovno, Radin, and Volozhin, as well as the horrors of Auschwitz and Majdanek, left us with incredible inspiration and resolve to learn more, teach more, and do more with our unique talents and our uncommon identity.

I returned to the friendly confines of Brooklyn and hugged my kids extra hard. I uttered a silent prayer that they be spared the anguish and torment of anti-Semitism.

But how realistic is that petition? Does our tortured past not demonstrate clearly that the hatred that we always endured is all but inevitable? Can we seriously pretend that history does not necessarily have to repeat itself? Have our Sages not stated and taught us that the incessant enmity toward the Jewish People, inaugurated by Esau's malevolence for Jacob, will always be a part of our existence on this world?

We prefer to deny our invariable destiny. We make believe that the exception might actually become the rule -- that hatred's temporary lull in benevolent lands might somehow alter the natural order of history's most storied venom. But the fact is that anti-Semitism does, and always will, haunt and oppress our daily lives -- wherever we are and no matter what we do.

Painful as it may be, we all need to reflect on the wrenching reality of this fearful fate. Pogroms, persecutions, and threats of extermination seem always to be present or looming ahead. When we are pushed against the wall, even our best friends seem nowhere to be found -- or arrive too late with too little. Dictators and madmen proclaim, without shame, their full intention to "wipe us off the face of the Earth," or "drive us into the Mediterranean Sea." And no one bats an eyelash or dares to care. The laughable U.N. seems to exist for the sole purpose of serving as a permanent, unimpeachable record of the hatred of the nations for the Jews. Israel, as always, stands alone.

And being alone is never easy -- not as individual, not as a group, and certainly not as a People. But we might as well get used to it because it is not likely to change. Complaining about our destiny, waiting for unquestionable support, or expecting anything different only increases our frustration and intensifies our anguish.

But the day will certainly come when the Jewish People will reach their full potential, the entire world will recognize and appreciate the reality of God, and peace will reign.

Until then, we will endure. Maybe with a few less tissues…and apples…and even Diet Coke. But we will endure.

That is God's unshakeable promise.

Never forget it.

December 22, 2007

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Visitor Comments: 107

(107) Anonymous, January 22, 2008 2:35 AM

You are not alone. I support you and so do many other Gentiles. A lot of us Gentiles have dear Jewish friends. A lot of us admire and respect and support Israel's right to exist and to defend itself against attack.


(106) jacqueline yaffe, January 4, 2008 10:11 AM

israel the only answer to antisemitism

i have considered going to seek ancestral roots. in lithuania and the ukraine. i have sworn never to visit germany and austria. i would not forgive myself if i spent a grush,nickel or penny in any of these places. the eastern europeans will do business with israel when it suits them, take money from jews, but no way do they want to see us flourish. live in israel, bring jewish grandchildren, that is the sole reply to antisemitsm

(105) Anonymous, December 31, 2007 1:42 AM

I share some of your professional history in that I am a retired Clinical Psychologist.
I would like to compliment and thank you for your article. The article "says it like it is" and sadly this will probably remain so for the foreseeable future. I am now pushing 82, I am a WWII veteran, and I am what one might call a "secular Jew" since I am non observant and although I have great respect for our tradition which I know came from ancient times and survived just about every disaster conceivable. Our history and our Torah remains the finest ethical and fundamental belief system this world has known. I do not attend services except as required by Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, weddings, Bris attendance and where needed, participation as a parent but above all, I am a JEW and my heritage is Jewish. Your article strikes to the core of the epidemic antisemitism that continues to face Jewry everywhere both subtly and blatently I want you to know that I agree with your feeling that our continued learning, belief in one another, and in our ethical foundations and our One God will sustain us into the future as it has for over five millenia. Although a Peaceful person I strongly feel that Jews like us must never retreat from the hate that some face so often but instead, stand up to it without themselves becoming hateful. I will forward your article to my friends and relatives and hopefully, some who cannot understand or accept the degree of hate that is still in the world and increasingly directed at us will understand. I faced imminent loss of my life at the hands of another soldier when overseas more than once entirely because I was a "Jew bastard, nigger lover" and even then this was not new to me, just more direct and immediate. In recent years my son has encountered this same thing in our small town in the USA so that we remain fully aware of this ancient hatred for our People and have learned to face it down wherever it shows its head. Hopefully, American Jewry will learn to do the same and I believe articles such as yours will go a long way toward that end.

Be Peaceful, and "Carry a big stick,"

(104) Anonymous, December 31, 2007 1:23 AM

How witty and bright....those awful events in Lithuania are so true and realistic, they should be read by the Lithuanian press and not only by jewish people..

I really appreciate all the testimonies that we are told in Aish...

Thank you to make the jews of the world gathered around ideas, concepts, explanations...thank you! Esther from France!

(103) gary katz, December 31, 2007 12:39 AM

The anti-semites better hope Jews never disappear

The Jew-haters better hope the day never comes when every Jew is gone from the Earth. Who would they blame for their troubles? I guess they could find a substitue, but it just wouldn't be the same. Some people wear hate like a comfortable old pair of socks.

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