More than one hundred years ago, my grandfather left the Ukraine to come to America. Like your relatives, he came here fleeing from anti-Semitism. He was a young boy who knew that America was a place of opportunity and freedom, and with a sense that this was a place where his Jewish identity would not be a badge of disgrace. And while he surely did experience anti-Semitic sentiments in this country, he succeeded in realizing his hopes for himself and for other family members for whom he sent after making enough money to bring them here.
I think of his story as we are days from the holiday of Purim, which we will celebrate this Wednesday evening. As we read from the Megillah, we will retell the story of the first anti-Semite in our history whose name was Haman. We will recall that he directed his resentment at the Jews of Persia, claiming that “there is a people in our land whose ways are different…”
While there is much debate regarding the historical accuracy of the story, we know only too well that there have been many “Hamans” throughout history, each of whom questioned our loyalty to the lands in which we have lived, and each of whom have looked upon us as “different” and as “stranger.” And yes, these “Hamans” brought great suffering and anguish to the Jewish people, with the ultimate “Haman” being Hitler who also identified us as “different.”
Sadly, anti-Semitism is on the rise throughout the world, and perhaps even in our own community. And when we learn of children being involved in these episodes, we question: “Where did they learn that it is “cool” to throw pennies at Jews?” “Where did they learn the anti-Semitic slurs and condemnations that come out of their mouths?” And we know the answer: children learn most from the homes in which they are raised.
How shall we respond to anti-Semitism, as we know that we dare not ignore it, in whatever form or expression? I believe that we need to respond in two ways. First, we need to continue to work for an accepting and tolerant society where people, and especially children, are taught to respect our common humanity. And second, we need to instill a greater sense of pride in our children about being Jewish, and a greater awareness of the role that we have played in working for the kind of society where nobody is identified as “different” (or inferior). As we Jews do on Purim, we as a society need to drown out the name of Haman, and give honor and respect to all “whose ways are different” than our own.
Still we long for the time when ignorance will give way to enlightenment, and when bigotry, ignorance and intolerance will be erased from the human condition. Yes, it’s a dream. But we are a people of dreams!
Our Wednesday evening (adult) celebration of Purim will include reading from the Megillah, a musical performance of Broadway songs, and some wine and cheese and other refreshments. What a great opportunity to share a joyous experience with each other. I hope that you will join us.
Rabbi David Greenberg