It’s been more than two months since I honored my late son’s memory with the annual scholarship at Danvers High School. Brian died May 14, 1982, and a year later, the first scholarship was awarded to someone interested in communications, from newspapers to television. That was Brian’s major at Boston University. We’ve been giving this scholarship for almost four decades and we always seem to find an appropriate male or female candidate who deserves it.
So why was this year so different? What set it apart it from other years? For one thing, the awards evening was June 11, Brian’s birthday, and the first time the ceremony and his birthday coincided. The other was a change in venue thanks to COVID. The event was held outside the school on the football field and we were seated the requisite six feet apart.
OK, sometimes change is good, but I have to admit, this year was in many ways peculiar and I had yet to know why.
It all started as I was getting dressed for the event. I was just about to leave for the school when I realized I was missing something important; it was my favorite Star of David, my handmade three-dimensional Magen David.
I was almost obsessed with making sure I was wearing that piece of jewelry. I knew I couldn’t leave home without that important symbol of my Judaism.
And that’s a first. I’m Jewish and I’m proud of it. Sometimes I wear that star and other times I might wear a chai (life). I certainly would never hide my background, my religion; it’s a huge part of me and of my heritage. But I couldn’t understand why I felt so compelled to don that piece of jewelry that particular night.
Then, during my scholarship presentation, when I spoke about the young man who was to receive this educational gift, I mentioned his lofty ambitions, his intent to help others – even strangers, as he said. This 18-year-old had already learned what life is all about and that it is incumbent on us to make things better. He wrote how important it is to treat others the way they should be treated, a lesson he hopes his films will impart.
And for the first time in 40 years at the podium, I called this young man a “mensch,” a Jewish word indicating someone who is an especially good person. I shared this important word with the audience.
Did I know I was going to say that? Not at all. The words just flowed from my lips independently and I was just the conduit, like a ventriloquist and his puppet. Why did this happen? I didn’t know.
But the realization finally dawned on me: This was my reaction to all the negativity, to the hatred around us, to the antisemitism that has become as viral as the pandemic. I have been so disturbed with the animus toward Israel and the Jewish people that is so toxic and yes, dangerous. And yet, these same people who condemn Israel are the first to benefit – thanks to the many discoveries in medicine, science and space exploration. And the list goes on. When parts of the world are in trouble, which country sends help immediately? Israel, of course.
The most recent example was a cadre of helpers that immediately showed up in Florida for what they hoped was the rescue of vacationers and owners residing in that high-rise that collapsed. It’s not unusual to find Israelis first on the scene to volunteer; when people cry out, Jews try to answer that call. Once the crisis is past, people forget about Israel’s assistance. And, somehow, they hate us even more.
Almost 10 years ago, I visited Eretz Yisrael as part of the Women to Israel group under the Lappin Foundation. We were there during Israel’s Yom HaShoah commemoration and I still feel the power of that day. In my mind I can see the smoke rising from the chimneys of crematorium in Auschwitz, and places like the Warsaw ghetto eliminating a population that could have added so much more to our civilization. It was something I shared with the graduates of Danvers that year.
Now, once again, I feel the terror of that time, the antisemitism that has surfaced and permeated the world and led to the death of so many Jewish people. Sadly, however, it has also affected our bright young students and invaded their colleges.
When I was a freshman at BU, my American history teacher, a product of the South, introduced himself the first day and announced that anyone calling the “War for the Confederacy” the Civil War would not pass his course. Was he serious? Who knows? It was just easier to go along.
On the other hand, my math teacher announced that homework was to be passed in each day, and that included Yom Kippur. Since I was a commuter there was no way I could meet that requirement. After explaining it to the professor, who wouldn’t budge, I decided he was antisemitic and I wasn’t welcome there. I transferred out of that class.
Today, however, antisemitism is more pervasive and even more frightening than ever before. Our news media is biased and many newspapers now espouse the owners’ philosophy. College kids are fed the age-old trope that Jews have all the money and essentially rule the world. No matter what happens, Jews are to blame. Even when Hamas inundates Israel with its missiles, somehow the news gets twisted and the Jews supposedly started it all. We send our children to schools and colleges for their education, not to be fed erroneous information and bias.
And so as I did last year before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when I went to the cemetery to pray with and for my loved ones, to remember them at this time especially, I also prayed for the end to the pandemic and for peace in this world. That will be my mantra once again.
Myrna Fearer writes from Danvers.