I’m going to share with y’all, Gentle Readers, an experience I had the other day, not because it’s a particularly significant experience but because it is, on my reflection, a tiny part of How We Live Now. Or perhaps it isn’t. I’m not really sure, honestly.
One of the tasks Your Humble Blogger does for the good old library paycheck is to set up the classroom for such events as are scheduled—putting in or taking out tables and chairs, doing some minor tidying and so forth. I occasionally joke, heavily, that often when people discover I work in a library they say Oh, I love books! but nobody ever says Oh, I love moving furniture! I spend more time during my shifts doing the furniture thing than reading, of course. But hardly anyone knows what other people’s jobs are really like, do they?
Anyway, there I was, the other day, after a lecture had ended, moving the tables into a rectangle to accommodate a meeting, as I do several times a week. This particular lecture, part of the continuing education program, treated of a well-known local philanthropist of the 20th Century, a prominent donor to this educational institution, among others. She was also a significant philanthropist within Reform Judaism, both locally and nationally, and was on the board of the Hebrew Union College. In short, a very well-respected, very rich, Jewish woman. The lecture appeared to go quite well, and was reasonably well-attended, mostly (as such lectures are) by the sorts of elderly women I call Phyllises.
As I was pushing tables around, following the lecture, I found on the floor in the back of the room a scattering of pennies.
The experience I am talking about, Gentle Readers, that I fear may be part of How We Live Now, is the experience I had of looking down and seeing those half-dozen pennies on the carpet.
The fact is, I feel fairly certain of what happened there—Phyllis dropped her purse, and when she picked it up again she failed to notice some pennies had fallen out. Or perhaps she got a few pennies as change over at the café and slipped them into the pocket of the sweater she was wearing for the first time this autumn, and so she didn’t notice the pennies falling out of the hole that hadn’t been there before. Whatever—the pennies fell unremarked and remained there until I moved the table. No message was intended.
It’s quite unlikely that a message was intended, of course it is. Believing that someone would respond to hearing the story of this extraordinarily generous person by scattering a handful of pennies would require a fearfully sensitive mind. Who would come to such a lecture in the first place, only to respond with an anti-Semitic message of any kind? Who, being moved to make an anti-Semitic gesture, would do so in such an indirect, almost baroque manner? It beggars belief.
And yet, there I was, looking at those pennies on the carpet, thinking I really don’t want to stoop down and pick those up.
And, in point of fact, I find it easy to believe that Phyllis did discover that she dropped a few pennies out of her pocketbook, and also did not want to stoop down and pick them up. I mean, yes, stooping down is awkward at Phyllis’ age, but also, many of us are reluctant to be seen picking up small change. The odds that she had pennies thrown at her at some point—quite possibly during the years called to mind by the lecture—are high. Is it worth a few cents to have to pretend not to hear an anti-Semitic remark?
The thing about How We Live Now is this: I think about anti-Semites. I don’t—can’t—ignore the possibility that someone is jeering at Jews. I can’t ignore the possibility that someone nearby hates Jews and blames them for his problems, and is also very well-armed. I don’t know that there are more anti-Semites in the US than there were in the 70s or 90s or 00s. But I can’t ignore them the way I used to.
I really think that seven or eight years ago, or fifteen years ago, or twenty-five years ago, I would not have looked at pennies left on a carpet after a Jewish-themed event and thought about even the possibility. I don’t know that I would have imagined Phyllis thinking about it, either.
It’s a year since the Pittsburgh synagogue murders. I still don’t have a take. But I think perhaps more than I realized, it has affected my sense of How We Live Now.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,