I've been listening to this Fresh Air interview with Nathan Englander; so far, I've listened to it 3 times, that's how much it fascinates me. Even though he was raised in Jewish communities, I've been seeing some interesting connections to my life.
He was raised in a community that truly expected the Holocaust to happen again at any moment, and he describes The Righteous Gentile Game, a game (except they were deadly serious about it) that his family played: "Anyway, we really were raised with this idea of a looming second Holocaust and we would play this game. You know, that threat is always in the air. You know what I'm saying? People were comfortable in Berlin. It could happen at any time. And we would play this game, you know, wondering who would hide us. And this is - this story I've been carrying in my head from 20 years ago. It must have been 20 years ago, but I remember what my sister said about a couple we knew. She said, he would hide us and she would turn us in."
Last week, I was talking to some friends about this nugget, and I said, "In my family, it was Communists we were afraid of."
My friends looked at me as if I'd lost my mind. I reminded them that it was the 1970's and 80's, and my dad was in the Air Force so my family had a different perspective to begin with. But I think many of us have quickly forgotten about life during the Cold War, when many people did expect a looming conflict with the Communists.
One of my friends said, "What did they think would happen?"
Good question. My parents weren't particularly afraid of nuclear war; that would be my apocalypse scenario. My parents didn't anticipate Sandinistas invading Texas--that would be a discussion for later years, when I was in college.
To hear my parents talk, you’d have thought that at any moment, we might all be taken away and not allowed access to our Bibles or our churches. To hear them, you’d think that they survived some horrible event involving camps, like the Holocaust or Stalin’s Russia. But they were American citizens, born just before World War II. Still, as a child, any time I protested any aspect of my religious upbringing, their response was always, “Some day, you might not have access to your Bible or the church, and then you’ll appreciate this.”
I have a memory of dinner conversation which revolved around what we would say if we were asked to deny our faith. I remember saying, "Couldn't I just lie and say I wasn't a believer, but stay a believer to stay alive?" Interesting conversation ensued.
I'm sure my parents would say, "We only talked about that once or twice, and you make it sound like we drilled you every night." That is most probably true.
Still, I often sat in church services and amused myself with apocalyptic visions during boring sermons. What would I say if asked to deny my faith? What would I choose if forced to make the choice between my life and Jesus? Which would I renounce? My parents made it sound like this could happen at any moment.
Of course, anyone who paid attention to world events of the twentieth century couldn’t be unaware of the possibility of cataclysm. My father, with his Air Force and CIA background was haunted by the threat of Communism. In later years, my teenage rebellion was to read, and to read publicly, Marx’s The Communist Manifesto. While my peers partook of ill-advised drugs and sex, my father and I butted heads over Central American policy.
I'm looking forward to reading Englander's recent book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Ann Frank. And my book club will be reading it and discussing it next--it seemed like the perfect thing to read after slogging through Michener's The Source. I imagine we'll discover a very different approach to Judaism. I'm guessing it won't be so dissimilar from my own experiences, even though I'm a Southern, Lutheran girl, whose relatives have been in this country for so many generations that I've lost count.
Go here to read the review of What We Talk About When We Talk About Ann Frank in The New York Times.
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