Sunday, May 01, 2011

Erev Yom Ha-Shoah 5771 (Rome Airport)

Doing the research for my book opened my eyes to unimagined dimensions of human existence, both past and present. Above all, I became highly sensitized to the difference between ‘space’ and ‘place.’ Space is a void. It possesses no unique character. It is a blank canvas. It may be compared to an empty loft or apartment, or a blank canvas. It is full of potential but devoid of evident character or personality. When an individual enters empty space; when he furnishes and decorates it, he imprints his personality and character thereupon. Immediately, empty ‘space’ is transformed into unique ‘place.’ Ironically, ‘space’ is not limited to virgin areas; to pristine expanses. British Sociologist, Philip Sheldrake, has observed that places such as malls and airports possess no unique identity, and are frequently indistinguishable. Hence, in a very real sense, they are literally ‘nowhere.’

It’s the eve of Yom Ha-Shoah (נדחה), and I am literally nowhere. I am sitting in Fiumicino Airport outside of Rome, waiting for a connecting flight to New York. I’m not in Israel, not in Rome, and not in New York. Yet voids, as with all vacuums, naturally fill up. For me, the café in which I’m sitting is a vortex of Time. The television is broadcasting the beatification of John Paul II. The Church is at its best, its most regal, its most powerfully resplendent. My fellow travellers are transfixed by the awesome power of the chants, the Latin introit, the sacred choreography. It is, I readily admit, seductive. The Jew in me, however, can’t take it all in so easily. The previous pope, whom they are beatifying, while he condemned anti-Semitism and was more sympathetic to Jewish suffering than his effective predecessor, could not acknowledge the role that his church played in aiding and abetting the horrors that we will recall tonight. The pope who is presiding has dedicated himself to canonizing a predecessor who signed the infamous Concordat with Nazi Germany and did nothing while the crematoria burned.

The vortex brings ripples of time from other eras. The present ceremony is taking place a few meters from where Urban II penned his call to crusade, which he proclaimed in November, 1095. Five months later, in those days at this time of year, forces of Christendom bore down upon the Jews of Speyer, Worms and Mainz; Köln, Trier and Regensburg. Crying ‘Deus Lo Vult’ (‘God Wills It!) they forced the Jews to choose between physical death and spiritual death through apostasy. They, thus, brought about the deaths of thousands and (perhaps) tens of thousands of Jews; the cradle of Ashkenazic Jewry. The crusaders, in this regard, were only acting out the implicit contradiction that lies at the core of Christianity, one side of which would have it that the Jews have no real justification to continue and should convert and disappear. That belief, too, is rooted in this incredible city that I find so personally attractive and bewitching. For the Pauline doctrine of Christian supercession is most fully stated in Paul’s epistle to….the Romans (ironically, as a Jew writing to other Jews).

Of course, not far from the Vatican, at the edge of the Roman Forum stands the Arch of Titus commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem by Pagan Rome. Close by, in its mute majesty, stands the Coliseum where so much death and pain was meted out to the delight of the crowds. That horrific symbol of Roman bestiality, we now know, was built with the spoils of Jerusalem. And, a stone’s throw from there is the gate to the ghetto. It was to that spot that the captives of Jerusalem were brought, and redeemed by their fellow Jews. The ghetto, as Reuven Bonfil has noted, embodies the ultimate contradiction in Europe’s attitude to the Jew. Christendom tried to quarantine the Jews, lest they infect the body politic. At the same time, by setting them apart Europe was conceding that it could not rid itself of the Jew. That was true until Hitler. Then all the hounds of Hell: German, French, Dutch, Italian, Slovak, Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, Ukrainian, Bosnian, Greek, Moroccan, Tunisian, Libyan and Palestinian joined forces to finally rid the world of the Jew. Sitting on the outskirts of Rome, at whose gates the Messiah is said to dwell; sitting nowhere on the soil of this blood soaked continent, all of these ripples converge. All roads do, indeed, lead to Rome.

They did not succeed. They came close. They murdered more of us than anyone could have ever imagined. Now, less than a century later, they are trying again. Some try to murder us physically through acts of terror, and soon, of war. They will call it the liberation of Palestine, but we know better. It is not for nothing that Palestine (another Roman invention) rhymes with Judenrein. Others, like the Europeans who aided the Nazis, will try by hiding behind hypocritical sophistication and moral relativism. Still others try to murder s spiritually. Some (among whom are not a few pathologically self-hating Jews) deny our patrimony, and deny the very existence of the Jewish People. Others would murder Judaism by turning it into some sort of self-indulgent narcotic; a feel good drug that makes no demands upon the individual and requires of him no act of sacrifice for his fellow Jew. These too echo in the satires of Juvenal, the epigrams of Martial, the fulminations of Apion, the invectives of the Church Fathers and the disciples of Dominic and Francis Xavier.

All roads, it seems, still lead to Rome.

And the Rabbis teach that the Messiah will appear at the end of that road to Rome, undo its worst and lead all of us home; Eretz Yisrael, our Place.


Anonymous said...

"stands the Coliseum where so much death and pain was meted out to the delight of the crowds. That horrific symbol of Roman bestiality, we now know, was built with the spoils of Jerusalem. "

can you give details, or point us to them?

Nachum said...

Anonymous, Louis Feldman recently discovered this by reading the "shadows" cast by the long-gone letters bolted into the walls describing this fact.