Lament for a long-lost friend

I did not share her faith, Jackie said, and so did not belong in her world, where I could be a liability.

By CHERYL SABAN
September 25, 2006 20:05
4 minute read.
holocaust 88

holocaust 88. (photo credit: )

In the 1970s I had a best friend named Jackie who was one of the most personally contented women I have ever known. One of the most remarkable things about Jackie was her Jewishness. It was her heritage, both cultural and physical - a fact she often pointed out in reference to her genetically inherited thighs, or "clutchkies." Born in the United States, Jackie wasn't raised to be particularly religious. She celebrated the High Holy Days, of course, and adhered to the basic tenets of her faith, but mostly she enjoyed the ethnic foods and other social mores of an ancient civilization. Religion notwithstanding, Jackie cherished her culture as if it was a membership in a special club. For her, life was a well-worn shawl that constantly surrounded her. In many ways I envied Jackie - she had a culture that belonged to her...and one that, by definition, she belonged to. THE FACT that I was raised a Christian was never an issue. However, during a post-dinner discussion one night, Jackie asked, "Are your parents anti-Semitic?" Casually, I replied, "No, they're Lutheran." Jackie laughed till she cried. Imagine my distress when I learned there was a word to describe the hatred of the Jewish people. Even more upsetting was the fact that I'd somehow lived for 27 years without ever having learned it. I credited this vocabulary lapse to my own upbringing - the word wasn't in my parents' lexicon either. But it wasn't my lapse in learning that caused a tectonic shift in our relationship; it was a trip to Dachau. JACKIE'S husband had been born in a concentration camp in Hungary, but had lived in the US since he was a small child. We decided to make the journey to Europe to visit his relatives, and it was during this time that Jackie had her epiphany. Budapest was a dreary, dismal place during the winter of 1978 - even more drab because it was still under the thumb of communism. The cold of winter amplified the harsh realities of people living in a communist country during those days, particularly for the Jews. The stories we were told were unthinkable to us. For these folks, it wasn't acceptable to be Jewish - it was something one had either to forget or hide. Jackie took this information as a personal affront and, consequently, her attitude began to change. By the time we landed in Germany she was withdrawn and untrusting - not only of the Germans we encountered, but of me as well. The trip to Dachau pushed Jackie over the edge. Every step we took through the concentration camp altered her perspective, changed the lens through which she viewed her life. None of our group was immune to the visceral emotions dredged up by the horrific photos of the carnage, but Jackie took on the memories as if she owned them. SADLY, THAT trip to Hungary and Germany was the genesis of the end of our friendship. When we returned home, Jackie was suddenly unavailable. Something stood between us - something powerful and illogical, yet it forced us apart like opposing magnets; and much as I tried, I couldn't reverse the polarization. After years as friends, we were no longer able to share the same space easily. Jackie's explanation was simple: Her people had nearly been annihilated, and coming face to face with this reality had exposed deep core beliefs about who she was. Her life had been irrevocably altered, and to make peace with her feelings she had resolved to practice her faith as an Orthodox Jew. I did not share her faith and, in her mind, did not belong in her world - in fact, she said, I could be a liability. To say I was devastated would be a gross understatement, but I couldn't dissuade her. Jackie was convinced by her own newly uncovered conviction that all non-Jews were potential, if not inherent enemies and, therefore, could not be associated with. She pointed out that if they ever "came again" for the Jews, I would be on their side. I could be a traitor, a betrayer, the other. Jackie's membership in her culture's special club gave her a connection to her beliefs that I could never challenge. My own homogenized ancestry had not been threatened with extinction. Though I am horrified by the atrocities of the Holocaust, I am not Jewish, and cannot claim that I would have been one of its victims. THIS INCIDENT occurred more than 25 years ago, and I have since made friends with observant Jews - so I know such multiethnic, multi-religious friendships are possible. My husband of 19 years is an Israeli, and despite our different backgrounds and upbringing, we are raising our children in a Jewish home. However, the loss of my friendship with Jackie continues to plague me. I will always feel remorse that I couldn't breach the chasm between us, that there was no wiggle room in her core-belief script for the possibility of a friendship across those beliefs. The unnecessary disconnect two former best friends suffered because of a difference of religion is a haunting miniature of the larger picture of our society and the challenges we face: the danger of stereotypes, the convictions of blind faith and the sheer power of core beliefs. The writer is an author, producer, philanthropist and child advocate.


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