On respecting divided opinions

Gail and I recently had an interesting experience I want to share. After navigating hundred twists and turns on the road between Weaverville where we live and Lake Lure we arrived after an hours’ drive at the Lake Lure library where I was scheduled to speak earlier this month.

We did not know what to expect in terms of audience size. Our guess was a maximum of 40 people, perhaps less. Entering the program hall I was stunned to see every chair taken and a number of people standing on the periphery of the venue. Even the entrance hall was filled to capacity. It was time for me to start speaking.

The program’s title was “Witness to the Holocaust.” When I related how prior to our deportation to concentration camps our family was ripped apart I had to stop for a moment, as is usually the case notwithstanding the decades that have gone by since then, because it is that moment that emotionally is probably the hardest one for me to speak about. I was 15 years old. Men and women were separated from each other and each group was then further divided into old folk, middle aged people and youngsters. When this happened to our family, my mother ran after me, pleading, “Walti, do not leave us!” as if I had any choice in this matter. Before reaching me a SS man hit her over the shoulder and brutally pushed her back into a group of women. There was no time for either a hug or a last kiss.

“Now isn’t this is precisely what has been going on at our southern border, minus the lashes of the SS – of course! I.C.E., Mr. Trump’s lackeys, have also been tearing families apart, right? What a sham!”

The explosive applause by the audience stopped me in my tracks. It prevented me from continuing. “There are still decent people around,” I said to myself and then went on with my talk.

My lecture having come to an end, I asked for questions and comments.

The first person responding was a woman in the third row right in front of me wearing under her open jacket a T-shirt with the inscription “Yeshua” written in Hebrew script, meaning Jesus. She began trying to explain about how I.C.E. is doing only what they are ordered to do but did not get very far with her comment. A veritable explosions of shouts and boos cut her off. She did not have a chance. When the hubbub quieted down, the library person in charge of the program, ignoring her, asked for the next question and the program went on to its end without further incidents.

In retrospect, alas too late, it occurred to me that I should have calmed the group, reminding them that in a democracy all voices need to be heard unimpeded. I am so very sorry to have failed in this respect. I was stunned by the audience’s loud reaction but probably also carried away by satisfaction that there are still folks who stand up for compassion and decency and express it publicly. I’ll know better next time, I hope.

This incident also reminds me of the importance of having relations with others regardless of what their political orientation might be. “The Other” is not an object but a subject, just as I. It is “the other” for whom I must be grateful because it is only this vis a vis that makes it possible for me to be who I truly am.

The Jewish term mitzvah derives from the verb “to order” or “to command.” Interestingly, the word also means doing “a good deed.” During my several stays in Jerusalem I was struck with people approaching me and soliciting money. They do this in unabashed manner and I must admit that it turned me off. In Jewish tradition, doing a mitzvah is regarded very important. This raises a question. How would it be possible to perform a mitzvah were it not precisely for these men and their solicitations? Should one not be grateful for them for giving us an opportunity to be generous and to perform a good deed? On the other hand, does not doing the mitzvah also alleviate the poor person’s and his family’s suffering? All this suggests that, according to the Jewish tradition, both the giver and the recipient of mitzvah are blessed.

Needless to say, most of those beggars in Jerusalem probably have not considered the theological aspect of giving and receiving. Some undoubtedly are sincere with their requests for help. Others might not. But who are we to judge?

In any case, even at age 92 it is not too late to learn a lesson.

2 thoughts on “On respecting divided opinions

  1. Hi Walter, “I was only following orders…”, this sounds like what the young woman was expressing. I don’t think all of the ICE agents are sadists. Many are Latinx people, needing a paycheck to support themselves and families. I agree, trying to understand the young woman’s point of view, would have been interesting, bit also very challenging. Lake Lure most likely has sophisticated retired city people, many not from the area. This might account for a less xenophobic attitude among the audience. I find just going around Asheville, many friendly, helpful people of ALL ethnicities. I think social media and news does such a disservice by implying that nobody can coexist with anybody, anywhere! Nonsense! Best wishes for the Holidays to you and Gail. Cindy G

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  2. Dear Walter and Gail,

    First of all I hope both of you are doing well. We are looking forward to seeing you at our house on Monday the 30th after services. Second, thank you for continuing to speak at public events even though it must be exhausting. (I know the road down to Lake Lure. It is, indeed, very curvy.) We noticed you are speaking at AB Tech again too.

    The primary reason I decided to shoot off an email to you is that your blog from today reminded me of something that I need to do. It is my understanding that Barb Hall and Lee Berkwits left the synagogue because of their discomfort during kiddush luncheon table discussions. ( I am not sure if this is known by too many people or if it is meant to be. Lee shared it with me.) I have known for some time that their politics are very different from mine, but I also know that Barb Hall is a very giving and caring person. She has done enormous amounts of work for CBI members who are experiencing difficulties. I also remember that she was one of Nancy Forrester’s regular visitors as Nancy was dying. Plus her work in the rummage sales has been invaluable. All this to say, that I need to reach out to her, but I have not done it yet. So your blog was another reminder. Thank you.

    Incidentally, as part of my role with Carolina Jews for Justice, I have been attending meetings of a group called the Health Equity Coalition which came together when the sale of Mission was still under consideration by the Attorney General. They are a group of volunteers who were very concerned, and continue to be, about how moving from a nonprofit to a for-profit healthcare system would affect communities in Western North Carolina, particularly people of color and low income people. It is a fascinating and very ambitious group of people. Debra Miles is one of the leaders of the group. I’m not sure how much I will be able to contribute, but I hope to keep learning. All this to say, I am wondering if either of you have noticed any significant changes in your experiences with doctors, labs, hospitals, etc. since the sale. Hopefully, the answer is “no” because you have been able to stay away from health care providers.

    Lots of love to both of you, Marlene

    PS: Gail, I finally read Where the Crawdads Sing and was pleasantly surprised that I liked it so much.

    Sent from my iPad

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