Friday, April 27, 2007

Remembering Steve

Last night was "Dining Out for Life" in Philadelphia and many other metropolitan areas. Participating restaurants donate a portion of their proceeds for the nights to local charities that provide quality-of-life services to people with AIDS. (And yes, there are kosher restaurants that participate). I make an effort to "Dine Out" every year, and it always reminds me of Steve, a person I knew in Georgia who died of AIDS in the early days of the epidemic. Apologies in advance to anyone from the old minyan who remembers this story differently; this is how I remember it:

I met Steve in the Fall of 1986, shortly after I started law school in Athens, Georgia. Those first few weeks in Athens were quite a culture shock for me, both religiously and generally. I was having a hard time getting my Jewish life in order in such a remote place, and it was very painful. I knew that the college Hillel had an egalitarian Orthodox shabbat prayer group, but it took me a few weeks to figure out where it was and get myself over there.

I walked about a mile to the Hillel, and I arrived at what I thought was a normal time for services, but no one was there. I waited for what seemed like an eternity, then gave up and headed for home, heartbroken. I was almost halfway home when I passed a tall, thin man wearing a kippah (yarmulke, Jewish religious head covering). I said "gut shabbes" to him, and he replied in kind. We both kept walking in opposite directions. It took me a few minutes to realize that he was obviously headed to the Hillel for services, so I turned around and followed him back. When I got there, we were still the only two there. He explained that it was still a little early.

I suppose I noticed that Steve was very pale, thin, balding, that his teeth looked unhealthy, but I just sort of assumed that was normal for him and didn't give it much thought. We talked for a while. I don't remember what we talked about; only that I was crying at the time, in pain with the culture shock and in joy that I had finally found the Jewish community. He acknowledged that it was a small community, that they almost never got a minyan (the ten people needed for a complete service), so they started late and ended at a normal time. After a while, the two of us started davening (praying). Eventually, several others joined us.

The next week, Steve didn't show up for services. I heard that he was in the hospital, but it was a few weeks before I heard anybody say anything about what was wrong with him. Even then, the disease was never named. Somebody mentioned the "stigma" of his illness, and I knew they must be talking about AIDS. That was late 1986, when people were still afraid to share a toilet with someone who had AIDS.

The group was very supportive of Steve. They helped get kosher food to him in the hospital; the hospital wasn't really equipped for that sort of thing.

Eventually, Steve got out of the hospital and started coming to services again. He was very weak from the disease, and it was quite a strain for him to walk to Hillel for services, but he did it anyway. He usually got there early, so he could take a nap after arriving. And I am convinced that his presence helped keep that group together, by guilt if nothing else: if Steve can make it to services on time in his condition, how can I do less?

He was taking one of the early AIDS drugs at $400 a month for treatment. At the time, that seemed like an outrageous sum of money, though with the insane rate of pharmaceutical inflation, that seems like peanuts today. He signed up for a trial of a new AIDS drug, but the rejected him because he was "too sick."

He held on for two years, but became too tired of fighting for his rights, and moved to San Francisco, where he thought things would be easier for him. He died there within the next year, if I remember correctly.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Yom ha-Shoah

Today is Yom ha-Shoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, on the Jewish calendar, a day to remember the tragic loss of 6,000,000 Jewish lives, the brutal pruning of one-third of the branches on our collective family tree.

Over the years, I've seen many exhibits about the Holocaust, showing the camps, the packed trains, the luggage left behind, the walkways made from tombstones taken from Jewish cemeteries, the crematoria and so forth. It tends to provoke in me a bit of a cringe, but mostly a "yeah, yeah, seen it," reaction. When the atrocities are explicitly and repeatedly displayed, we become desensitized to the horrors of that era.

The exhibit that moved me the most showed none of these atrocities. It was a collection of hundreds of photographs of Jews in Poland before the war, titled "And I Still See Their Faces: The Vanished World of Polish Jews." I saw the exhibit several years ago, when it came to Lancaster PA, and it still brings me to tears to think about it. These pictures were all taken before the Nazis came to Poland. They were family group photos, school class photos, college-aged men and women frolicking in the park, families on vacation and so on. They were pictures much like those that your grandparents probably have sitting around in their closets. The power of this exhibit lies not in what it says or what it shows, but in what we know: that 90% of the Jews in Poland were murdered in the Holocaust, 90% of those children in those schoolrooms, 90% of those families sitting for their portraits, 90% of those young adults frolicking, 90% of those families on vacations, died a horrible death for the high crime of being Jews.

Learn more about "And I Still See Their Faces" at Yeshiva University, where the exhibit is currently displaying:

Yom Ha-Shoah and other modern Jewish holidays at Judaism 101: