Caretakers of Each Other by Michael E. DeSanctis

It is difficult to offer any semblance of reflection on the tragedy of the war in Gaza. The scores of Israeli and Palestinian lives that have been lost, many of them defenseless children, have left us feeling anguished and bereft. Here in the US, a consequence of the war has been the rise of a wide (and unanticipated) antisemitism as well as a resurgence of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment. It shows war’s power to tear us apart, even thousands of miles away from its source.

In the days prior to the outbreak of the war, I learned of the death of an elderly Jewish gentleman named Stanley. Stanley was a neighbor of our family in the neighborhood where I grew up in Utica, New York. Known as the “Ridgewood” section of the city, it was a place marked by modest but well-kept homes on generous lots, a large percentage of which were owned by Jews of Stanley’s generation whose parents and grandparents had fled persecution in Europe during the 1930s. Directly across the street from my family’s home, for example, lived the Schwartzes, and cattycorner from us the Fellers. The Goldens, with whom my parents maintained a particularly close friendship, lived three doors away. Stanley and his wife and children lived a block over, as did Rabbi Weinsberg, whose book collection was enormous and whom everyone in the neighborhood, no matter their religious affiliation, respected for his wisdom. 

The most intriguing of our Jewish neighbors to my young mind, however, was Mrs. Usher, who was said to have spent her teens in a Nazi concentration camp. From time to time, usually at night, she could be heard wailing or crying from within her home or speaking loudly in a thick German accent. She disliked the sound of car horns and sirens of any kind and refused to let her property be surrounded by even the flimsiest stretch of fencing. Like other congregants of nearby Temple Beth-El or Temple Emmanu-El, Mrs. Usher drove a car with a bumper sticker that read “Never Again!” The phrase—shorthand for Jews’ response internationally to the atrocities of the Holocaust, largely eluded me until I was of the age when my Jewish schoolmates were celebrating their bar or bat mitzvas. Its meaning was explained to me most poignantly one evening while babysitting for the Goldens and stumbling upon a TV broadcast of the 1941 British-Canadian war drama film, 49th Parallel. The movie, which starred Sir Laurence Oliver, Leslie Howard, and Raymon Massey, recounts the efforts of a German U-boat crew stranded in Canada to sneak into the United States by way of its parallel-hugging border at Niagara Falls, New York.

Finding me engrossed in the movie when she and her husband returned home for the night, Mrs. Golden joined me in watching a scene or two. It was then that she spoke of the recent trials of European Jews and about the solemn obligation she believed herself to bear never to forget what had befallen them. “Human beings sometimes do the most horrible things to each other,” she said in a voice filled with both sadness and resolve, “and we have to remember those horrors so that we won’t ever repeat them.”

As a boy of 12 or 13 steeped in the rituals of my own Roman Catholic upbringing, the impulse to memorialize the past was hardly something with which I was unfamiliar. By the time of my confirmation at roughly the same age my Jewish friends were mounting the bemas of their synagogues to intone the sacred contents of Torah, I understood every celebration of the Mass, for example, to be one prolonged “sacrament of remembrance.” Its basic shape had been patterned after the table ceremony of the Jewish Passover, after all, and compelled even modern-day Catholics to recall Christ’s actions to liberate humanity from the bondage to sin and death against the backdrop of ancient Israel’s liberation from a bondage of its own.

It wasn’t only my intimacy with the Mass that led me as an adolescent to feel a certain kinship with my Jewish friends and neighbors but the entire treasury of ritual words, postures, and gestures that seemed to link our respective faith traditions. On this score, at least, I later came to claim a certain affinity with the late governor of New York State, Mario Cuomo (1932–2015), a fellow Catholic of Italian American descent with a visceral attachment to Judaism dating back to his boyhood in the South Jamaica section of Queens, New York. During his own adolescence, in fact, Cuomo had served as a so-called “Shabbos Goy” at the neighborhood’s Orthodox synagogue—that is, a non-Jew responsible for snuffing the candles and turning out the lights after Friday evening services, which ritual law prohibited Jews themselves from doing.

The experience filled the young Cuomo’s mind with “a sweet confusion,” as he recalled in speeches throughout his political career, so similar were the sights and sounds he beheld on Sunday mornings as an altar boy at the Catholic parish church where his own family worshiped. Services there were in a foreign language, too—Latin as opposed to Hebrew—and enjoyed an aura of mystery magnified by the fragrance of incense, the most beautiful of vessels and vesture, and the otherworldly sound of Gregorian chant. “There were differences between the Catholic and Jewish ceremonies, of course,” Cuomo routinely observed, “but certainly they weren’t differences that created hostility.” Instead, he insisted—especially when pressing New Yorkers to imagine themselves as belonging to a single statewide “family”—there was “a commonality of need and concern and striving” that bonded the people of his neighborhood together as one people.

Sadly, neither the cultural “mosaic” of the 1930s into which Cuomo described himself as being born, nor the “melting pot” neighborhoods that lingered in this country well into the time of my own boyhood 30 years later, survive today. “Salad bowls” is a better metaphor for the communities we’ve come to form, sociologists tell us, owing to the fact that American subgroups of one kind or another are less inclined to assume a common identity for the sake of civic unity than to remain as separate from each other as carrots and croutons. The cohesion of our national and local cultures suffers nowadays even at the individual level, as increasing numbers of Americans have come to put their own needs, habits, and predispositions above the well-being of their communities. The so-called “Golden Rule” that once motivated Americans of all stripes to “love [their] neighbors as [themselves],” has been widely replaced by the impulse to ignore or even mistreat one’s neighbors when it serves our purposes.

Both sad and ironic, then, in a nation partly founded on the principal of religious tolerance, is the frequency with which we are now witnessing the most intolerant of behaviors. A 2022 US Department of Justice report, for example, records over 2,000 religiously based hate crimes as having occurred in that year alone. Though more than half of these were directed at Jewish individuals and congregations, the report also cites alarming numbers of attacks on Muslims, Sikhs, Roman Catholics, and Russian and Greek Orthodox Christians.

Not uncommon are coincidences of the kind that came to light several years ago, while I was providing church design services for a Catholic parish community in eastern Montana. Parishioners there were still suffering the feelings of sadness and anger they’d experienced since vandals had broken into their place of worship and desecrated the contents of its tabernacle. Consistent with Catholic practice, their pastor gathered up the communion wafers strewn throughout the church during the incident and promptly buried them within the consecrated soil of the parish cemetery.

What shocked these Montanans was to learn that just weeks earlier a group of teens had broken into an Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn, New York, pried open its ark, and desecrated the Torah scrolls housed there. Before sundown on the day the crime came to light, the rabbi fulfilled the laws of his own tradition by burying the urine-stained scrolls at the congregation’s private cemetery.  

The root cause of such stunningly similar attacks on sacred properties is ignorance masked by blind aggression. Its natural antidote, of course, is knowledge. Knowledge of other people’s cultures and beliefs begets in us a deeper, more patient view of them and recognition that in every way that counts we human beings are fundamentally alike. We stumble through life, often engulfed in darkness, and never entirely certain of whether the creeds and convictions to which we cling will save us. It’s precisely in our shared vulnerabilities, doubts, and stumblings, however, that we find cause to become better caretakers of each other, fellow pilgrims on pathways that may cross or diverge, and sharers in a Light that calls us forward. ♦

Michael E. DeSanctis, Ph.D. is retired professor of fine arts and theology at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania. He writes widely on Catholic church architecture and serves as a liturgical designer and consultant.

Image: Mario Cuomo and Herb Caen, time of Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, California, July 1984. Gary Stevens / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

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