Sacred Cemetery Earth

President Trump deserves credit for beginning his recent address to Congress by affirming that America is “united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms,” specifically condemning bomb threats against Jewish school and JCCs, vandalism in Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia, and the murder of an Indian immigrant in a bar in Olathe, Kansas. He did well to remind us of “our nation’s path toward civil rights and the work that still remains.”

I hope the President takes stock of how his own rhetoric and that of his political allies fan the intolerant flames, and foster the cruel sense that different-looking sorts of people – immigrants, Muslims in general – don’t belong here. And I hope he finds additional ways, not only to say the right things, but to do the right things to fight bigotry, as the ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt suggests.

Steve Bannon was right to affirm that “we’re a nation with an economy — not an economy just in some global marketplace with open border — that we’re a nation with a culture and a reason for being.” Sure, but what culture and what reason for being? All too often, the darkest impulses of American culture have turned against immigrants and other racial and ethnic minorities.

(Want to know more about it? Listen to “an immigrant song, for New York City,” by America’s rock-and-roll bard. No, not Bob Dylan. The other one. As Springsteen says: “The hands that built the country, we’re always trying to keep down.”)

In all our Diasporas, we Jews have always heard that we don’t belong. In medieval Christendom and Islam there was a certain logic to marginalizing Jews. Right smack in the middle of a religious society, here was a people that rejected Christ and denied Muhammed’s prophecy. You can see how Jews and Judaism represented an irritating defiance. That otherness persisted into modern secular times and the irrational hatred endured, seeing Jews – for all our worldly success, cultural assimilation and marital integration, or maybe because of all that – like suspicious foreigners.

This week, we are all especially heartsick at seeing the Jewish cemeteries desecrated relatively close to home, in the very Jewish city of Philadelphia. I found this act of vandalism both uniquely cowardly and uniquely, viciously powerful.

On the one hand, what kind of coward strikes out at gravestones? These rats slinked into a filled cemetery, no longer functioning, to unleash rage only when they knew they would have to confront no living person, and not lay eyes on any victim they might wound.

Yet, on the other hand, this act carried such a powerful punch because of how deeply we Jews feel about our beloved dead. We lovingly lay our family and friends into the earth, making sure that their bodies are in direct contact with the soil, so that they can once again become part of God’s earth. כי עפר אתה ואל עפר תשוב, says Genesis 3.19. “You are from the dust and will return to dust.” Or as Ecclesiastes 12.7 says, וישוב העפר אל הארץ כשהיה, “the dust returns to the earth as it was originally.” Andthere we erect pillars of stones, etching our loved ones’ names upon them. With that, we affirm that the very earth beneath our feet is made out of these people’s lives, and their names cannot be effaced, neither from the places where they lived, nor from our hearts. 

That’s why toppling gravestones is a particularly devastating gesture. These brutes and thugs came to tell Jews, you never belonged here. We don’t just hate you and want you gone. We hate your grandparents, who were born here, lived here, died here. We hate your old neighborhoods. We hate your business and homes. We hate Rose and Harry Singer, Esther Fishman, Harry Berkowitz, Tzvi Meir ben Shmuel, Florence and William Carrol, among the others whose names I saw on the photos of destroyed stones.

To destroy someone’s final resting place is to assert, viciously, that this spot of earth where we live is ours, not yours. Your ancestor’s bones are not part of Philadelphia. This earth is not made from their bodies. But it is.

The vandals claim: you don’t exist here.

How should we respond? By existing here. It’s un-American and un-Jewish to flee or hide. The mitzvah of the hour is to restore the graves, through which we honor our loved ones’ lives. And then go on living, wary but not afraid, in our homes.