Every year at our Seder table when I was growing up, Margo Wolf, an elderly, half-blind Holocaust survivor, was assigned a portion of the Haggadah to read aloud. “Pour your wrath upon the nations that did not know You and upon the kingdoms that did not call upon Your Name. Since they have consumed Ya’akov and laid waste his habitation. Pour out Your fury upon them and the fierceness of Your anger shall reach them. You shall pursue them with anger and eradicate them from under the skies of the Lord.” She read it slowly, in Hebrew, with the kind of cellular-level passion only a woman who had survived the Nazis and joined the French partisans could deliver. She meant every word. Many American Haggadot today have memory-holed this section, favoring a kinder, gentler ending to the holiday dinner.
I thought of Margo Wolf when I was reading the statements about the Colleyville synagogue attack that began flooding the media this past Saturday. There was little “fury” or “fierceness” in them. Most were milquetoast, formulaic responses expressing sadness, ending with promises that this “will not be tolerated,” even though it always is. They reminded me of something else from my childhood: the Mad Libs booklets my brother and I occupied ourselves with on long car rides. The booklets presented you with a thematic narrative absent key words you were then prompted to fill in with instructions to use a verb, an adjective, or an adverb. I imagine the template for our very American, anti-anti-Semitism statement has the same format and looks something like this:
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the (PROPER NOUN/SOCIAL CATEGORY ex. Jewish community/Rabbi/Worshippers) who were attacked today in (CITY NAME). We stand (APPROPRIATE CLICHÉ: ex. shoulder to shoulder or in solidarity with) our (EXPRESSION OF FRATERNITY ex. brothers and sisters or fellow citizens of the Jewish faith) in condemning (ADJECTIVE: ex. in the strongest possible terms) (PROPER NOUN: insert all “isms” referring to categories of hate). Together we will (AGGRESSIVE VERB ex. fight, stand against, decry) hate in all its forms. This rising tide of extremism (MEME that conveys determination but suggests no specific action: ex: will not be tolerated).”
Mad Libs always produced absurd stories when read back because the person filling in the blanks didn’t see the narrative to which he or she was contributing until after it was completed. The inserted words made the sentences silly and everyone laughed at the nonsense of the final product. The public anti-anti-Semitism statement today is no less silly when read back. But these blanks are filled in with full disclosure, which make them a lot less funny.
I tend to be forgiving of public officials who plug these out. They don’t know how to fight anti-Semitism or how to be helpful. But I am acutely aware of the gift that it is to live in a country where government officials feel the need to publicly acknowledge the interests of its Jews, just 2 percent of its population. It isn’t so everywhere on the planet. So, they get a pass.
I can even forgive the FBI, which clearly was in possession of last year’s edition of Mad Libs, edited by Ilhan Omar and a DEI commission out of D.C. Once that error was corrected, they were back on script.
But Jewish institutions who spew the same word salad in moments like these should be ashamed. It is not enough to say we will “continue to call out anti-Semitism,” whatever that means. It isn’t even enough to call for increased Congressional funding for hard security assets at Jewish organizations, though I think it is worth having. Infrastructure improvements aren’t a survival plan. In order to craft one, we must unleash our inner Margo. We have to be bold in both word and deed.
But do we even remember how to be bold? American Jews have felt so safe in this country for so long, we may have lost the instinct. Not so our Sephardi and Russian-Jewish friends who have first-generation memories of what it is like to pack up in the middle of the night and flee Aleppo or the KGB. But neither their stories nor those of our Israeli family living under perpetual threat seem to have heightened our awareness that the last several decades in the United States have been the Jewish exception and not the rule. I wonder if we even have it in our communal DNA anymore to get angry and to get busy acting on our own behalf.
The Union for Reform Judaism issued a statement after the Colleyville crisis ended. It was filled with relief and gratitude, but no rage. It served up stale tropes like the claim: “Our diversity makes us strong and can keep us safe.” It can? How exactly? From my reading of the news, what kept the Colleyville hostages safe was a combination of training, guns, and law enforcement. The URJ ended its statement with what nowadays passes for a call to action: “to protect our communities and simultaneously heed God’s call to build a world of safety, equity, and love.”
The ADL predictably claimed, “This crisis can serve as an opportunity for dialogue and engagement.” Those words should be printed in bold, all-cap letters on the walls of every Jewish institution in America. When the next Malik with a machete gets by a uniformed security guard at the door and enters one of our buildings (and unfortunately, he will), the congressionally funded security camera on the ceiling will hopefully capture the image of the terrorist with the ADL’s cheery outlook behind him, and remind us that some people don’t want to be “engaged.”
If Margo Wolf were alive today and were employed as the Communications Director of a major American Jewish organization, I think we would be hearing quite a different message. I think she would call on every rabbi in America to make self-defense courses as mandatory as mastery of the Torah portion for any child seeking a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in their synagogues. She would ask those same rabbis to make eight-week firearms training courses as compulsory as pre-marital counseling for any Jewish couple seeking to be married under a chuppah. Memberships in synagogues would come not only with dues, but with obligatory participation in volunteer security and crisis training for everyone over the age of 16. There would be a literal and figurative “call to arms,” and every Jew in America would be responsible for contributing what he or she could to the message we want every would-be anti-Semite to hear: we aren’t a desirable target because we plan to fight back.
If this all sounds too militant to you, you need to hear it the most. If you hate the thought of holding a gun in your hand or teaching your 13-year-old how to physically defend herself, do what I tell my kids to do when they have colds and have to take liquid Robitussin: hold your nose and do it anyway. If you remain unprepared, you are vulnerable. And you are even more vulnerable if you think another bubble-gum flavored “hate speech” curriculum at your son’s high school is the answer. It may be more to your taste, but it isn’t very effective. The guy coming to shoot up the next Jewish house of worship may have just entered the country from some place where they don’t teach 10th graders the part about the Jews not killing Jesus, or Israel not being an “apartheid state.”
Margo would insist on an American Jewish campaign to build an iron wall of support for law enforcement in this country. It would become as Jewish as the matzah ball to reject the Defund the Police movement, BLM and Deadly Exchange, and to help unseat any senator, congressman, governor, or district attorney who doesn’t do the same. Jews cowering in kosher supermarkets know what people of color in the inner-city dodging bullets on the way home from church know: these movements are a direct threat to our safety, determined to leave us even more exposed to violence than we already are. No American Jewish leader should be tolerated who is confused about where the line between nuance and nonsense is on this subject.
Margo would ask American Jews to arm themselves not just physically, but with a new mindset. She would tell congregants who heard more about Islamophobia than Islamism from the pulpit this Shabbat to vote with their feet, leaving their misguided rabbis to preach their feckless rhetoric to empty pews. She would insist that Jewish organizations stop using scarce Jewish philanthropic dollars to “fight hate” and to fund more empty anti-Semitism programs that are indistinguishable from “anti-bullying” campaigns. And she would lambast activist rabbis who sign public letters in support of Linda Sarsour’s freedom of speech even as many of the same also sign public letters suggesting Charles Jacobs is an “Islamophobe.” The only kind of Jewish partisan Margo Wolf had any use for was the kind with a home-made rifle in her hands on the French border in 1941.
Our collective Jewish communal head is not on straight. We still think, after all we have been through, that our best options are security guards, awareness campaigns, interfaith dialogue, and sending out our “thoughts and prayers.” A change in mindset is needed to meet our change in circumstance. Only that will trigger serious action by the only people who can save us—ourselves. The “Pour Out Your Wrath” paragraph needs to be reinserted into every Haggadah in the country, and every Jew should be responsible for reading it aloud every year. In it, we call on God to wipe out our enemies but there is no reason He has to go at it alone. We have to find our fury too, and activate it productively in defense of our own. We don’t live in the world we want. We live in the one we have. There are people in it who don’t believe in tolerance and mutual respect. When they walk into our shuls to harm us they shouldn’t count on having twelve minutes or twelve hours to do as they please before the authorities burst through the doors. Let their anti-Semite friends send around fill-in-the-blank statements of solidarity and issue empty words of inspiration after one of theirs has fallen because he walked through the wrong Jewish door and found angry, empowered, prepared Jews who were ready for him. As for us, we need to tear up our Mad Libs templates and create new ones.