It’s possible that living in this odd, terrible time makes us jumpily sensitive to the world around us in new ways.
It’s been gorgeous these last few days, the kind of glorious fall that makes you want to spend your whole life outside, basking in it.
You (okay, I, but probably some of you too) think about the butchery in Israel and try to make sense of how such evil can co-exist in the same world as this jaw-dropping beauty. There is some guilt mixed into the pleasure.
But then I started looking around. I was walking my dog in South Orange, with its majestic, eccentric old houses, listening to podcasts about the war, looking at Halloween decorations.
For the last few years skeletons have gotten bigger and bigger, both metaphorically and literally.
There are skeletons leering, skeletons beckoning, skeletons clawing their way above ground, and one particularly massive skeleton at rest in a red-velvet lined coffin.
And I just don’t get it. It’s not cute, it’s not funny, it’s not brave insouciance in the face of death. It’s just plain stupid.
It’s offensive every year — I assume that people who display these things never have been confronted with early death — but this year it’s far worse. It’s disgusting.
So there I am a few days later, walking down Riverside Drive. It’s another gorgeous day, and again I’m paying attention to my surroundings. I see that the trees and lampposts have been covered with posters of the people Hamas has kidnapped and now holds hostage. Their faces — happy, attractive, smiling, innocent, entirely unaware of what was coming for them — look out at me. I am shaken. This is real. These are — to be realistic, maybe were — real people. I am grateful to the good people who printed them out and posted them so visibly.
When I turn around and start walking back toward home, though, I notice that the posters seem to be missing. Soon I see why. A man possibly in or just past late middle age, with longish white hair, shorts, and a runner’s legs, is trotting from tree to lamppost to tree, pulling the posters off, crumpling them up, and tossing them in the garbage.
Then I did something I never do. I confronted him. “Why are you doing this?” I asked him. He looked at me, muttered something about how this is garbage, this is litter, there isn’t a permit for it, “and do you really think that someone from Hamas will read one of these posters and change his mind?”
That’s when I lost it.
I started screaming at him. He screamed back. He cursed at me. I cursed back. We kept walking, and a few times I stood between him and a tree of posters. He didn’t try to reach around me to rip them down; he just went on to the next tree.
Clearly this was deeply stupid of me. On the most basic level, I am very short and fairly slight. Even the dog I was walking is small and placid-looking. (An illusion.) Because I have always known that if I were in a physical fight, I would lose, I stay away from confrontations that could lead to danger.
I think that there’s something else going on.
First, even in heavily Jewish, generally upper-middle-class areas, there is a pervasive anti-Israel feeling that makes a normal-looking person want to tear down and toss away pictures of endangered Israeli children. To understate, that’s sick.
And I also suspect that the feelings of rage, despair, and dread that burst out of me aren’t confined to me. Many of us feel them, and we don’t know what to do with them. Screaming at random vile strangers isn’t a long-term solution.
I hope that, as a community, we can come up with something better.