June 22, 2024
Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.
June 22, 2024
Search
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Things in Shushan appeared to be humming along. Seventy years earlier, Yerushalayim fell to the invading Babylonian armies, and we scattered across the Middle East. Most Jews landed in Bavel and, gradually, we reconstructed our lives and our communities. For the first time, Judaism proved to be a portable religion, capable of traveling beyond the boundaries of Israel. We embedded ourselves into the local culture and began to enjoy a semblance of normalcy.

We also inserted ourselves into local government. The navi Daniel rose to prominence as the most celebrated advisor of several Babylonian tyrants. His supernatural ability to decipher dreams won him the respect of a temperamental and brutal tyrant named Nebuchadnezzar. Even after the Persian empire overthrew Babylon, Daniel continued to be an admired advisor. His influence, and that of his successor Zerubavel, were partially responsible for our return to Israel as Koresh, a Persian king, was lobbied to authorize and fund this project. Jews had every right feeling confident and optimistic about their future in the Persian empire.

After Daniel retired, a new Jewish political figure emerged. Mordechai, an elderly survivor from the generation of Yerushalayim refugees, was appointed as one of Achashverosh’s advisors and he frequented the palace courtyards. With the queening of Esther, our political influence surged, as we now had “one of our own” sitting on the throne. The Jews of Shushan could sleep comfortably, knowing that they had an insider who had the ear of the king. Additionally, Mordechai and Esther uncovered a conspiracy to assassinate the King, and their heroic efforts were entered into the public record. Mordechai was now a public celebrity, having prevented Shushan from falling into political anarchy.

 

A Melting Pot

Not only did we enjoy political influence in Persia, but we lived in a society perfectly suited to our cultural needs. Persia was a tolerant and inclusive society in which every race and ethnicity was welcomed. At the festive palace meals, every traditional cuisine was accommodated. Official palace documents and decrees were translated into every language. No one, including the Jews, were meant to feel an outsider in the multicultural society of Persia.

Though we settled across the expansive Persian kingdom, our population was concentrated in the capital of Shushan, which gradually became a predominantly Jewish city. Unsurprisingly, we were also invited to the gala eight-day celebration, and we dined alongside fellow Persians. Being that Shushan was so pluralistic, Jewish dietary laws were strictly maintained at this party. Imagine the scene: only 70 years after being marched out of Jerusalem in chains we had “made it,” dining alongside fellow Persians in the royal palace, while eating mehadrin kosher food.

We had dramatically transformed from a rag-tag bunch of refugees into a prominent community, living peacefully in Shushan, eagerly participating in national celebrations, and positioning ourselves within the inner chambers of power.

 

Into Thin Air

Abruptly everything shifted. Achashverosh promoted a relative unknown named Haman to the second highest office in the land, effectively catapulting him above Mordechai and other government officials. Haman, a megalomaniac, had a tense altercation with Mordechai who refused to bow in his honor. This personal encounter incensed Haman who escalated their personal rivalry into all all-out assault against our people. Haman convinced Achashverosh to launch a genocide against his own citizens and not only did the king concede, but he mustered the entire Persian government to implement this heinous pogrom. From soldiers to scribes to letter writers, the entire government apparatus was mobilized. At the local level, our former neighbors and friends suddenly turned against us, eagerly preparing for the bloody massacre of the 13th of Adar. All the political influence and social goodwill we had amassed over the previous 70 years proved worthless in preventing this calamity.

 

Return to Shushan

The collapse in Shushan foreshadowed Jewish history, as the exact same scenario repeated itself throughout our tortured exile. During exile, we faced intermittent violence and religious persecution, but we also enjoyed extended periods of relative calm and stability, during which we recovered from tragedy and rebuilt our lives. Often, within a few generations of expulsions or violence, we entrenched ourselves in both local culture and local politics, bringing an exceptional blend of talents and benefits to our host societies. However, as we amassed political clout and social goodwill, we became too confident and too comfortable. We didn’t realize how quickly the situation could turn and how deep latent antisemitism runs. Sadly, we often didn’t realize our fragility in exile until it was too late.

 

The Collapse of the “Golden Era”

It happened in Spain. For approximately five centuries Jewish communities thrived, while delivering unprecedented prosperity to the Iberian peninsula. Jewish merchants and financiers built profitable international financial networks which helped fund discovery expeditions such as the Columbus mission. Jewish intellectuals were major contributors in almost every sector of Spanish culture while Jewish doctors served in prominent positions, both in academia and in royal courts. In 1391, violence erupted, as political instability combined with seething hostility toward Jewish success triggered horrific pogroms which obliterated dozens of Spanish Jewish communities. One hundred years later,the Expulsion of 1492 brought our golden era to a crashing halt. The political influence and social positioning which we developed over five centuries proved meaningless in the face of hatred and religious intolerance. Many didn’t realize this until it was too late.

 

The New Europe

It happened again in modern Europe. Toward the end of the 18th century the Enlightenment invited us into mainstream gentile society, offering full rights and citizenship. Eagerly accepting this warm invitation, we spearheaded meteoric growth across the continent, driving progress in art, culture, science, industrialization and finance. Democracy replaced outdated monarchies and offered political freedom and freedom of worship. A new day was dawning in Europe and, for the first time in 300 years, we felt at home there.

One madman changed everything. Hitler’s rise to power also awakened dormant antisemitism in neighboring European countries. In just a few years, everything we built had vanished. Once again, we learned this lesson too late. Despite the goodwill and despite the progress we authored, life in modern day Shushan was brittle and could be washed away in an instant.

 

Déjà Vu

October 7 reminded us of this painful lesson yet again. The Jewish experience in the U.S. has been spectacularly successful. We have built prosperous and thriving Jewish communities while attaining previously unimaginable liberties and security. We have embedded ourselves within American culture while eagerly participating in the democratic process. We spearheaded the crusade for social justice and racial equality, rallying to protect vulnerable members of society against bigotry and hate. We have ignited phenomenal intellectual growth, powering American academia to worldwide prominence.

On October 7, everything came crashing down, as we realized, once again, how fragile Jewish life is outside of our homeland. We have watched, in horror, as previous allies and colleagues have turned their backs on us, distorting truth and spewing hate. The academic strongholds we so diligently and lovingly constructed have turned into cesspools of racism and bigotry. The monster of antisemitism has awakened and proven again how quickly it can devour political clout and social goodwill.

Hopefully, in the post October 7 world, Jews will be a bit more circumspect and less naïve. Hopefully Jewish communities will continue to remain stable and prosperous but see through the façade of Shushan.


The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a masters degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles