The Reading Room
How To Live Amid Falling Walls
During the past few weeks, as Jews in America, Europe, and Israel have been experiencing an upsurge an antisemitism unlike anything the world has seen since the Holocaust—an increase in Jew-hatred so alarming that it prompted Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to address the U.S. Congress on the matter on November 29th—Jews around the world who study the weekly Torah portion have been reading the chapters in the Book of Genesis that recount the conflict between Jacob and Esau.
On its surface, the story is nothing more than a classic tale of sibling rivalry crossed with a modern jocks-vs.-nerds plotline: the older brother Esau is a strong, wild, but very successful hunter—the Bronze Age-equivalent of the dangerous-rebel-captain-of-the-high-school-football-team archetype. His father loves him—what dad wouldn’t? Esau’s younger brother Jacob is a timid, physically unimposing mama’s boy who uses his book-smarts to outwit his buffer big bro and win (well, at least by default) his father’s love. Yes, yes—brains over brawn; revenge of the nerds; Odysseus beats the Cyclops; Marty McFly trumps Biff Tannen; we’ve heard the story a thousand times before. The Talmud, however, gives this tried-and-true tale an entirely different spin: it argues that the story is not the ancient mythological analogue of Lisa Simpson besting Nelson Muntz; it is instead the first sustained historical narrative of antisemitism.
According to the rabbis of the Talmud, Esau didn’t pick on his younger brother simply because Esau was an incorrigible bully and Jacob was the incarnation of a wedgie-waiting-to-happen. The real reason that Esau had it in for his brother, say the rabbis, is because Jacob was Jewish (or, at least because Esau knew that Jacob’s descendants would become the Jewish people). And Esau hated his brother for no other reason than for this. By interpreting this biblical story in this somewhat unexpected fashion, the sages are trying to tell us something that we might not like to hear, but something which we are reminded of at various points in history: that antisemitism—the world’s oldest hatred—is a baseless, irrational hatred that Jews cannot do anything about. As the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks used to say, “the hated cannot cure the hate.” Jews cannot stop their haters from hating; they will always find some reason loathe us—whether it is for our religion (as was the case during most of the middle ages), for our race (as was the case during the nineteenth century up until the Holocaust) or for our nation-state (as has been the case in our era), “Esau hates (and will always hate) Jacob,” says the Talmud, no matter what. All we can do is to try to live the best, most joyous, fulfilled lives we can amidst this state of unceasing hate.
A new but long-in-the-making artistic work makes this point in a poignant, haunting yet simultaneously vitalizing manner. The Off-Broadway play “Amid Falling Walls,” which is being staged now by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene in New York at the Museum of Heritage through December 10th, uses music as a way to articulate unspeakable pain—and to also express the ineffable hope that things need not always be this way; that tomorrow (we pray) might be better than today. The libretto, written by Rabbi Avram Mlotek, is based on a compilation of original Yiddish songs and poems written by Holocaust survivors and later collected and preserved by the Lithuanian-born Yiddish writer Shmerke Kaczerginski, himself a survivor of the Vilna ghetto. Many of these songs were also collected by Mlotek’s grandmother, the Yiddish musicologist Chana Mlotek. The musical, curated and arranged by Yiddish theater impresario Zalmen Mlotek and directed by Matthew Didner, is a heartrending but ultimately rousing testament of what it means to live—and to try to somehow live well—in a time of unimaginable suffering. As Rabbi Mlotek wrote two weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal, “Yiddish song expresses that suffering is an inescapable feature of life but that we may dwell in its surprising treasures and contradictions.”
The title “Amid Falling Walls” (Tsvishn Falndike Vent in Yiddish) is taken from a partisan anthem written by another Lithuanian-born poet, Hirsh Glick. During the Holocaust the song came to symbolize the burgeoning Jewish resistance. Today, however, it may also be assuming a different meaning—one captured by Mlotek’s encapsulation of the eternal dialectic between joy and sorrow that lies at the heart of Yiddish song. While watching the play, a Talmudic story came to my mind about the rabbi who was so convinced that he was correct in an argument about ritual law that he was having with his colleagues that he caused a series of miracles to occur in an attempt to convince his debate partners that he was right. After Rabbi Eliezer caused his sequence of miraculous events to occur, his colleagues simply and pithily replied “the Torah is not in heaven,” indicating that Jewish law is meant to be a prosaic matter that must be decided by expert legal scholars, not a supernatural duel among Hogwarts-educated wizards. At one stage during Rabbi Eliezer’s run of miracles, he called out, “if I am right, let the walls of the Beit Midrash (study hall) prove it”, at which point the walls began to cave in. His colleague Rabbi Yehoshua thereupon shouted out in anger at the walls, “what business of it is yours to meddle in our dispute?!”, at which point the walls stopped caving in. The unnamed narrator of the story relates that in deference to Rabbi Yehoshua the walls did not fall down; but in deference to Rabbi Eliezer neither did they return to their upright position. They maintained themselves in a perpetual mid-falling state, and—as the narrator adds at the end—“they still remain falling, yet standing, to this very day.”
After coming out of the theater, Mlotek’s musical finally allowed me to realize what the Talmud as well as the Book of Genesis have been trying to tell us all along—that to live as a Jew is to live amid falling walls. Ever since our inception as a people we have been faced with a stream of unending irrational hate. In every generation there arises a horde that tries to destroy us—the Roman Empire; the Crusaders; the Spanish Inquisitors; the Cossacks; the Nazis; and now, Hamas. In every generation our annihilation is always on the brink of occurring. And yet, somehow, perhaps only due to the grace of God, we are still standing—well, mostly, but not entirely. In every generation the House of Jacob’s walls are always falling, but never fallen. How, then, do we live in a house whose walls are always on the verge of collapsing? We sing, we dance, and we do everything we can to counteract darkness with light, silence with music, fear with joy, and hatred with love.