Hearing Voices

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So many tears shed, so many words spoken, so many hearts twisted tight over the weeks, now, since the horrific, confounding, harrowing murder of Leiby Kletzky, a”h. With that distance of days, though— while we all still ache, and always will, over the loss—something somewhat peripheral to the tragedy deserves to be considered, something that’s easily overlooked but shouldn’t be.

How the non-Jewish world reacted.

The Atlantic’s senior editor, Ta-Nehisi Coates, an African-American who writes about popular culture and social issues, lamented on his blog how he imagines Leiby’s parents “will spend much of their lives questioning themselves. I am so sorry about that, mostly because I don’t think they did a single thing wrong.

“My heart goes out to the Kletzky family. Truly, I am so very sorry for their loss.”

And, in a flash of raw emotion, he added a “P.S.” ultimatum: “Please don’t be stupid in comments. An immediate ban will come down on you, if you can’t be civilized about this.”

Agron Belica, a Muslim author, singer, and songwriter, wrote a song, “Brooklyn Boy,” in memory of Leiby. “Whatever our faith—Jew, Muslim, Christian, etc.,” he explained, “we share their mourning. May their faith strengthen [the family] in their sorrow and anguish.”

Reports are that, at the time of Leiby’s disappearance and the discovery of his murder, Twitter chirped incessantly and sadly with tweets about the tragedy from people from all ethnicities and walks of life. One under-140-character message, cited by The New York Times as speaking for many others, came from Erica Hill, a network news co-anchor; it was stark and to the point: “Heartbroken,” she wrote, “for family of Leiby Kletzky.”

From kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart’s father Ed (“Our hearts are just broken for this family”) to Irish writer Mike Farragher (“You cry along with the live coverage of the rabbi’s bullhorn speech outside the temple that night, his voice breaking as he struggles to come to grips with savagery so deep…”) to news broadcaster Bill Ritter (“I was honored to pay my respects” at the Kletzky shiva house and “honored that [the Kletzkys] welcomed me in”), citizens of all sorts felt compelled to join in the collective Jewish mourning.

(It’s wrenching to write, but the reaction of some Jews in the polluted realm of Blogistan, was, to put it mildly, less impressive. They sought to exploit the death of an innocent child, amazingly, to promote their rabid anti-rabbi agenda. And a writer for the New York Jewish Week, whose beat seems to be negative portrayals of religious Jews, resorted to anonymous sources to insinuate that Brooklyn’s Shomrim patrol group works at cross purposes with the police. The words of Isaiah 49:17 come sadly to mind.)

A cynic might dismiss the non-Jews’ sentiments as less than really meaningful; after all, it would take quite a callous soul to not feel badly about the murder of an innocent child. But we too soon forget how things once were elsewhere not terribly long ago, when the deaths of innocent Jewish children were not mourned but sought (as they still are in some parts of the Middle East).

No, the feelings of our neighbors are real, and mean much, especially when seen through the eyes of history. Then-mayor of New York City Ed Koch, leading the Ukrainian Day parade one year, told its grand marshal: “You know, if this were the old country this wouldn’t be a parade, it would be a pogrom. I wouldn’t be walking down Fifth Avenue; I would be running… and you would be running after me.” It was a darkly humorous comment from a famously outspoken politician. But it harbored more than the usual joke’s element of truth.

How would the average European non-Jew a century ago have reacted to the murder of a Jewish child? Would he have reacted at all?

And if the murderer turned out to be a Jew? That reaction isn’t hard to imagine.

There are no guarantees that the present augurs the future. But the broad and heartfelt societal reaction to our community’s recent tragedy should remind us that if we Jews have to remain in a state of galus (exile), those of us in America are fortunate to be awaiting the messiah in a malchus shel chessed, a “dominion of kindness,” many of whose citizens well reflect that fact.

© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE

[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

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