The Anti-Semitism Vaccine

The North African coast, seen from an airplane window for the first time, is startling. Reddish, clayish brown glistens in the sun, unchanged, unwelcoming. On that morning in October 1984, I and my friends began a two year journey as exchange students: learning in yeshiva and teaching in the community.

Chickens scattered off the highway as our rides sped us past whitewashed wells and farmhouses until Casablanca, all white and sitting on a row of hills, came into view.

Noisy streets: scooters without mufflers are popular there. Men sit at sidewalk cafés sipping tea; women and children don't move quietly.

We went touring and came to the harbor. A group of elderly European tourists passed through a gate and we headed after them. A policeman stood in our path.

"What country are you from?" he asked in French.

"America." I answered, proud that I could communicate after reading just a few pages in a you-can-learn-French! workbook.

"No, but what religion are you?" he pressed.

"Juif." I answered.

"Then you will go that way." he said, pointing in the other direction.

It was a first for me. Whether in suburban Nashville or Midtown Manhattan, I almost expected curses hurled from passing cars, dour glares from respectable matrons, even police could change expression when they saw you. But never, ever had a uniformed representative of law and order been so blatant. That evening I lay on my dormitory bed, hurt and sad.

Seeking a pleasant walk we went out again, a day later. The Jews were welcoming. Two young affluently-dressed Arabs were walking towards us, deeply engaged in conversation. As they passed us, one of them turned ever so slightly towards us with a barely perceptible nod and said, "Salle Juif." Dirty Jew. In a tone of voice usually reserved for good evening.

Juif! the more moderns hurled. Yahud! maintained the Arab purists. It sounded the same to me. In just a few days I found myself leaving the yeshiva compound when I needed to go somewhere, but not just to walk. Their anti-Semitism was now mine: internalized. I did not yet know it.

Then I met Rabbi Yehuda Leib Raskin, a Chabad Lubavitch emissary to Morocco for more than two decades at that point. Known locally as Reb Leib, he had been in America when we arrived, visiting the Rebbe. It was some two weeks after we got there that I sat in on a Shabbat afternoon get-together he led. This father of married children regularly gathered a group of teenagers.

Again, I was proud that I was able to follow the French. My pride deflated when I learned that his French had more Yiddish and English in it and was the joke around town. "Comprenez toi mon francais, Claude?" he would ask a newcomer. Reb Leib could laugh at himself.

Reb Leib went light on piercing intellect; all the teenagers sat in rapt attention. "Chaque Juif! Chacun et chacune!" he roared enthusiastically: every Jew, man and woman. His fist pumped the air enthusiastically, for emphasis. I don't remember what he was talking about.

But I do remember a feeling hitting me somewhere between the heart and the guts, and it wasn't a bad feeling either. It was the first time I had heard the word Juif not hurled as an insult. Spoken with unmitigated pride. Enthusiasm. Energy. And those young eyes looking at Reb Leib reflected that.

I knew that Reb Leib's youth club offered all kinds of incentives to come, not least among them food and American candy. But I now knew why they left their soccer games to come to Reb Leib - even if they didn't.

There were other 'Rebs' in Morocco. Reb Shlomo, who (my students told me their grandmothers had told them) as a young man (this Ashkenazi rabbi) arrived at their mountain villages on donkey, set up a Hebrew school and got back on his donkey to the next village, and did this hundreds of times (yes, literally) --- and this just months after being released from seven years in Stalin's camps for (as written in his crime report) being a yeshiva bochur. And Reb Sholom, who single-handedly ensured that kosher food, Jewish marriage and all the infrastructure of Jewish life thrives in Morocco and is recognized by the King. But those are other memories.

Reb Leib contested debilitating hatred with unmitigated pride. I saw Reb Leib this winter in Crown Heights. He is in a wheelchair. A stroke left his left side paralyzed — and he has serious health issues as well. He looks, well like a lot of Chassidim looked just after the Rebbe passed away.

On that same trip to Crown Heights I spoke with the young rabbis from France. They tell of Jews being beaten in the most exclusive arrondisements of Paris and in the suburbs. That the wealthier Jews are liquidating their holdings and how this creates resentment among the middle class. How kids in college are taking courses that are helpful abroad. That the Chief Rabbi's office issued encouragement that yarmulkes be covered, unnoticed, especially for the children.

The rabbis told me all this in the matter-of-factly way their American counterparts talk about budgets and banks. Nothing to stop you: something to deal with. Clearly, it has not crossed their minds to leave their communities. But just as clearly they have no idea what to do about this anti-Semitism. Or so they think.

On the way back to California that memory of Reb Leib's "chaque Juif" juxtaposed itself on his now battered and bruised body. Reb Leib didn't realize that he was addressing an unspoken question then and the young rabbis of France don't realize the answer they are providing now. These young men and women left comfortable (if not lucrative) positions in their family businesses in New York to go to chaque Juif. Chacun et chacune. Every Jew.

That enthusiasm is apparent in everything they do and bleeds into everyone around them. They are different than Reb Leib; they have an American style with increasingly Gallic influence. But underneath that style is a pulsing vibrancy that at any moment can, and probably does, burst into song and spirited dancing like the Baal Shem Tov himself.

And this enthusiasm ensures, as no other promise or memorial can, that another generation will be saved from the most devastating and profound effects of anti-Semitism — internalization. As I was, thankfully. Chaque Juif, chacun et chacune.

On Sunday, May 2, 2004, Rabbi Leib Raskin, Chabad Lubavitch emissary to Morocco for more than 44 years, returned his soul to his Maker. He was 71 years old.