Light, and darkness, in an Italian piazza

Light, and darkness, in an Italian piazza

My wife and I were recently in Europe visiting our daughter who is studying abroad. While in Palermo, Italy, we ventured into a flea market in search of interesting items.

In a small piazza, we found a number of vendors, but were drawn to one display in particular. Two items grabbed me instantly — and the contrast has stayed with me.

First, I saw two yads, the pointers used for reading from the Torah; then I was drawn to ink stamps with stars of David. The yads were sterling silver and in good shape, if slightly tarnished. The stamps — wooden handles with brass stamping heads — were, however, ominous. They were stamps from two of the Jewish ghettos of Europe — one I could read was Warsaw — used by the Nazis for some sort of identification; I am still not sure what.

The woman selling the merchandise was originally Polish and these particular items, along with others she was selling, had moved with her over time (no idea how she actually came into possession. I may not want to know). Her English matched our Italian and thus we did not communicate well. It was clear, however, we were going to purchase these items; and we did so after the requisite negotiation.

The yads represent the core of Jewish tradition. The silver hands point the way of the Jewish people. They touch Torah and symbolize both where we come from and where we quest to go. The stamps are symbols of hate and the powerlessness of Jews during the Holocaust — symbols designed to dehumanize people and draw shadows over the dignity to which we are all entitled, as we walk in the image of God.

Now, as we celebrate Israel’s Independence Day and 65th birthday, I am able to put into context some of the unease I felt from this incongruity.

Israel represents, on the one hand, the core of the Jewish people’s aspirations for community — one that cares for its members and all of klal Yisrael, the people of Israel, and creates a living model reflecting our efforts to make the world a better place — tikun olam. On the other hand, Israel also represents a safe haven for Jews in a world that, unfortunately, still finds occasion to breed anti-Semitism.

We in the United States are fortunate to live in the world’s greatest democracy, where Jews have been welcomed with open arms, a country where the concepts of individual freedom and liberty are cornerstones, a country where the protection and celebration of diversity and minorities is the responsibility of all. It is thus fitting that our country has been a steadfast supporter of Israel, which embodies these same core values, the only country in the Middle East to do so. Being a supporter of Israel is being one with America.

Appropriately, yads are still in use, while the stamps are relics of the past. The yads we found in Italy will be put in a prominent place at home to remind us of the discovery and of who we are. The stamps will be given to the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights and Genocide Education at Brookdale Community College to serve as reminders of who we are not. The collective memory of Jewish peoplehood continues to be written and read; the horrors of the Nazi past must be relegated to history.

We were fortunate to have stumbled on to that piazza. We are grateful to live in the United States and proud to support the State of Israel as it celebrates its birthday — 65 years young.

L’shana haba’a B’Yerushalayim — may we all find time to be together this and next year in Jerusalem!

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