By Ron Kokish
From almost the moment it began, I’ve been fascinated by the fear I experienced at Two Rivers Unitarian-Universalist (TRUU) Services last Sunday.
I was born Jewish and am an active member of the Aspen Jewish Congregation, but I’m a TRUU member as well. My DNA is literally, 100% Jewish. There’s so much I love about Judaism and, honestly, I wouldn’t know how to not be Jewish. But as a lifelong atheist, there are parts of Judaism that don’t ring true, even parts I reject. Unitarian-Universalism (UU) is essentially a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Like Judaism, UU has a strong ethical component but unlike Judaism, there’s no dogma, god is optional, and war, while sometimes unavoidable, is never considered glorious. I’m not the only “Jewnitarian” at TRUU.
Here’s what happened on Sunday. The service was about playfulness. Someone was teaching a simple, playful dance that, she explained, came from The Scottish Church of England. Instantly, my survival alarm started buzzing. Christian churches have been historic bastions of anti-Semitism. As late as 1962, the official Roman-Catholic position held all Jews, living and dead, responsible for Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion by the Romans. The Church of England is a direct descendant of the Roman Catholic Church.
Next, the dance instructor taught us words to sing while we danced and changed partners, something like, “Take me as I am, come onto me, live in me.” I may not be remembering these lyrics precisely, because my survival alarm kicked into lights and sirens mode and I panicked. “Jesus is all over this,” I thought.
Mental videos of European Christians forcing my ancestors into synagogues they locked and then burned to the ground started running through my now irrational mind. Hitler, I remembered, used Christian symbolism to whip up his largely Christian followers. Two-thirds of Europe’s Jews, some 6 million people, most of my family among them, were either executed or worked to death. Sadly, The Six Million are not unique. They are simply the high point of 1.5 millennia of European Christian antisemitism.
I quietly told my dance partner, “Too much Jesus. I can’t do it,” and left the circle. She left with me, saying that if I was upset, she’d rather be with me. “Are you alright? Is there anything I can do?” Yes, there was something she could do, and she had already done it. She had, as the Christian lyrics advised, taken me as I was. “Everyone should feel safe here,” She said. “We shouldn’t do anything that makes anyone feel unsafe here.” With her support, I calmed down and started thinking about my experience.
It made sense I thought, as a manifestation of intergenerational trauma. And almost as quickly I also thought, “That’s one facile explanation.” I was, after all, among friends. UUs risked their lives to save Holocaust victims. UUs seek to learn from anyone willing to share. TRUU hosts Jewish, Atheist, and Buddhist speakers as well as Christians. We borrow all sorts of rituals, including pagan. My thinking wasn’t even historically correct. The Church of England never persecuted Jews in anything like the manner that occurred in Catholic Europe.
While I appreciate my dance partner saying, “We shouldn’t do anything that makes anyone feel unsafe here,” I don’t agree. I was in reality, as safe at that service as anyone ever has a right to expect. My prejudices are my responsibility and really, what was I experiencing, if not my prejudice against Christians? Understanding how I developed that prejudice is one thing; excusing it on that basis is quite another.
I’ve always abhorred student demands for schools to avoid exposing them to upsetting experiences. Needing to feel safe to be able to learn is narcissistic nonsense. One needn’t even BE safe to learn. People learned as bombs fell around them in WWII England and they are learning now, in Ukraine. Some Jews studied Torah in the death camps and walked into the gas chambers grateful for becoming somewhat wiser while they waited.
European Christians have persecuted Jews for 1,500 years. Six million of us, including most of my family, were slaughtered in my lifetime. My parents were refugees from Nazi Germany where my father was a successful dentist. I grew up poor, listening to his worries about paying rent. I saw my father cringe during a parking-space dispute when an “American” told him to go back to where he came from. I met death camp survivors and knew without being told not to ask about the numbers tattooed on their forearms. I saw my parents looking at pictures of dead Jews piled in open pits, wondering whether Cousin Esther was in there.
I’m as intergenerationally traumatized as anyone and last Sunday I experienced the result. I thank my fellow UUs for the opportunity to learn about myself and for supporting me while I learned. I wouldn’t change any of it. Spiritual growth, the point of any religious practice, comes from facing our fears, not from avoiding them.
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