“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the Passover story, Moses, despite his initial protests to G-D that he was “slow in tongue,” confronted the Pharaoh with the admonition “Let my people go!” After years of slavery, the Jewish people finally had found someone who spoke out. I myself am finding my own voice.
I had an inauspicious beginning. When I was two years old, my mother had gall bladder surgery, necessitating a week’s hospital stay and no lifting—including her toddler—for several weeks. I stopped talking. My mother told me again and again that that she could still feel me holding on to her apron strings as if my life depended upon it.
By the end of kindergarten, I not only got my voice back but also some courage. When a classmate backed out of reciting a poem at the graduation ceremony that was to be held in only three days, I volunteered to take her place. Like Moses, I was “slow of tongue.” I can’t find the poem—something about being big and small and growing up—but I remember clearly stumbling over the last few lines and having to sit down in embarrassment.
I grew up a noisy household, with talkative parents and three chatty siblings. To this day, my sister-in-law tells us, “You get the four Cohens in a room and you can count on at least six conversations.” (Larry says it’s closer to ten) So by high school, I was not afraid of raising my hand and talking up in my classes.
In my second attempt at public speaking, Mrs. Clute’s speech class in eleventh grade, I gave an impassioned speech against the new leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who was promoting a more violent path for the Civil Rights organization. “It is people like Storky Carmichael who give….” My speech was cut off by the hysterical laughter of my classmates. They didn’t let me ever forget my mispronunciation of Stokely’s name until I graduated. My tendency towards malapropisms—inherited from my mother who will be remembered for calling “organisms” “orgasms”—have kept me leery of unscripted public speaking my whole life.
Despite my early tainted history, I did find my voice as a teacher, gaining confidence in my ability to share knowledge with my English students.I gave presentations at several state and national teacher’s conferences, and spoke at a state-wide Hadassah luncheon in Albany, New York.
When I began writing for publication in the 1990s and, more regularly for The Jewish World in 2013, I felt that found my true voice. Writing about growing up in a small Upstate New York town, getting married, raising a family, balancing a career and private life in the Capital Region of New York, and easing into a wonderful retirement became topics of gentle pieces—ones that people have compared my writing to “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” And more recently, I have been the grateful voice of others through sharing the stories of Holocaust and cancer survivors, Jewish POW’s, a Renaissance man, and other menschen.
The recent political climate, however, has brought me back to the Passover story and Moses’ reluctant ascent into leadership of the Hebrews as they obtained their freedom and began their forty-year sojourn in the desert. Moses spoke out against social injustice. Can I do the same? And can I do it in a way as to not offend those whose political views are different from my own?
In “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, “ an article I wrote in 2016, I shared my decision that I would not lose friends and relatives over politics. I am proud to say that it is a promise I have–for the most part–maintained. But there are times that I cannot remain silent in the face of bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism, and any form of hatred.
I could not remain silent after the Tree of Life massacre when I received one of those blanket emails sent to numerous recipients warning us that Jews must support Trump. With my husband Larry’s help, I wrote a response to the email that I subsequently sent for publication in the October 31, 2018, Orlando Sentinel. “Any American president who refuses to denounce Neo-Nazis, spouts rhetoric that incites hatred and violence, and defends attending a rally while Jews lie dead on a synagogue floor—‘we cannot let our schedule or our lives change.” — is a disgrace to (alas) the six million and eleven Jews s a disgrace to the over six million and eleven Jews who died due to anti-Semitism.”
I could not remain silent when I was told by an idiot that he felt little sympathy for the federal workers impacted by the government shutdown as most of them “just sit of their duffs and do nothing all day.” I gave him a dressing down that included references to my own family members who were suffering from the impact of not getting a paycheck for a unneeded work stoppage that stretched out for thirty-five days.
I could not remain silent when, after Representative Iihan Omar’s controversial comments regarding Israel, Democrats in the end released a spineless resolution. Phone calls and emails requesting money to support the Democratic Party are answered with my statement, “Not until the Democrats have the backbone to truly call out anti-Semitism. “
I could not remain silent when the president tweeted out disparaging remarks about John McCain and Barbara Bush (May their memories be a blessing). Even more disconcerting to me was that Congressional leaders , including McCain’s supposedly best friend Lindsay Graham, refused to call the president out for his inexcusable poor behavior. “It is just plain wrong,” I wrote in an email to Senator Graham.
And finally, I cannot remain silent when well-meaning friends forward to me offensive emails. One was headed by the note, “Interesting video.” Attached was YouTube video originally published in 2009. As summarized by Snopes.com, regarded as a highly reliable fact-checking source, the video warned in frightening terms that Islam will overwhelm Christendom unless Christians recognize the demographic realities and begin reproducing again.” Snopes regarded the information as “mostly false;” I regarded it as pure Islamophobia.
Another forwarded email, a musical video took us on a nostalgic trip down memory lane. “If only I could go back again/ to Mom and Dad and all my friends/I would feel safe with the people I know/From once upon a long time ago.” The stream of pictures that accompanied the Jesse Goldberg song showed slide after slide filled with only white faces. Another friend shared a list of the Shortest Books 2018, including Things I Did to Deserve the Nobel Peace Prize by Barack Obama; My Complete Knowledge of Military Strategy by Nancy Pelosi, and To All the men We Have Loved Before by Ellen de Generes and Rosie O’Donnell. In all three cases, Larry and I have decided that face-to-face discussions with the senders would be the most effective way to fight the implicit—and explicit—hate that is peddled in such material.
Recently, I attended a presentation by given by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization whose mission is to fight bigotry and seek justice for the most vulnerable members of our society. On the way out, I picked up their brochure, “Ten Ways to Fight Hate” (https://www.splcenter.org/20170814/ten-ways-fight-hate-community-response-guide). I thought of our own ten commandments, our Aseret ha-Dibrot, which give guidance on how we each can lead an ethical life. This Passover, let us all resolve to model our behavior after Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses Our Teacher): To speak up, to act, to pressure leaders, to educate ourselves and others, and to do all we can to combat hate in all its forms.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York in the April 18, 2018 issue.