It’s funny how often the “real world” comes to define even a family vacation. In an old snapshot I’m standing in front of a newsstand in Rome; the papers all have headlines screaming about the earthquake that struck San Francisco the day before.
In 1991, I took a week off from my job at another Jewish newspaper, during one of those sleepy August weeks grateful newsies call the “silly season.” By the time I came back, the Soviet Union had changed hands twice, and a car accident in Crown Heights had touched off days of rioting.
Recently, we drove north for Thanksgiving, stopping in the Adirondacks on our way to Montreal, and the Mumbai massacres were with us nearly every mile. On Thursday morning we heard the first reports of a shooting at the rail station. Each hourly update on the car radio brought news of fresh battles: at a popular restaurant, at two landmark hotels, and, of course, at what reporters were first calling a “Jewish cultural center” and what I guessed could only be a Chabad House.
On Friday we were having lunch at the Hillel House near McGill University in Montreal, where the large-screen TV carried CNN’s confirmation that the victims at Chabad House included its rabbi, Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivkah. As we ordered falafel, the screen showed a photo of the couple’s orphaned son, two-year-old Moshe.
That night we attended services at the Ghetto Shul, the rollicking synagogue so named because it sits in the heart of McGill’s student ghetto. Rabbi Leibish Hundert led services in the style of Shlomo Carlebach, alternately sweetly soulful and wall-poundingly raucous. Before the communal dinner that followed, he seemed at pains to balance the happy mood of Shabbat with the grim news from India. In the end, he passed around copies of a widely circulated e-mail from Benjamin Holtzman, a volunteer for the American Jewish World Service. Holtzman lived in Mumbai for a spell and remembered the Holtzbergs as “wonderful people: warm, inviting, and engaging.”
I dwell on these juxtapositions because that’s how most of us experience what’s come to be known as the
“new normal.” A shelling in Israel, a stabbing in a Paris suburb, now an Islamist attack on India’s financial capital. “Nothing will ever be the same again” was the mantra after 9/11, but that was only partly true. Except for the long lines at the airports, I’m not sure what changed at all. We hear of these overseas tragedies, shake our heads in sadness, and get back to whatever it is we were doing before we heard the news. Our attention might be focused a moment longer if a victim is Jewish, out of tribal loyalty and because it’s hardly rare to know somebody who knows somebody who knows
But the Mumbai attacks were somehow different, as the terrorists must have known. By targeting multiple sites popular with tourists and businesspeople, the 10 gunmen (only 10!) intended not only to kill people but to murder the very notion of normalcy. Whatever their grievances — and experts and speculators have been rolling out a laundry list — they want to drag us all into their misery.
And it works. Jeffrey Goldberg, who covers the Middle East for The Atlantic, wrote a blog post after the attacks about “How To Stay Alive in a Terrorized Hotel.” On his list of tips: Make escape plans when you arrive, steer clear of lobby restaurants, barricade yourself in your room at night using a desk or dresser. Before Mumbai, I might have joked, “If you are staying in a place where you might need an escape plan, it’s time to go home.”
As if we have the choice anymore. The terrorist’s technique is to shatter our illusions of normalcy and to make us see threats and dangers in the everyday. It’s worked on airlines, in trains, in buses. It has infected our politics and lowered our tolerance for folks not quite like us. Our fears have made us less compassionate, less forgiving, and certainly less trusting.
This is how terror works in the age of CNN. You’re sitting at Shabbat dinner with dozens of college students, singing and laughing and passing plates heaped with chicken and kugel. This is us, you think, this is the future. What could be sweeter than a warm Shabbat on a cold November night, a familiar piece of home in a strange city, in a different country.
And then you think of dinners just like this, thousands of miles away, hosted by “wonderful people: warm, inviting, and engaging.” Folks who opened their doors to fellow Jews because they knew what it means to come across the familiar in a far-flung place, and that in a land of wanderers and seekers it’s sometimes important to touch base with the people you know best.
And then you imagine the same door flung open not out of love, but in anger, or maybe worse, with indifference. And the intruder is holding a gun, or a grenade, or — and you have to stop there, because you know that even to have these thoughts is a gift to the terrorists.
(Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor-in-chief of the New Jersey Jewish News, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)