Fear is a constant in our lives: We’re born with it. We grow up with it, and we die with fear.
Last Saturday afternoon, as Shabbat was winding down, I picked up my phone and the first piece of news I read in my feed was about the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre.
Just a few hours earlier, an armed man had stormed into a place of worship where preparation for a bris — the circumcision of a newborn baby, a sacred Jewish celebration — was underway.
The man was not Muslim or Hispanic. He wasn’t an immigrant, African-American, nor did he belong to any religious order. The killer was a white man born in the United States of America, the son of a white mother and father also born in this, the land of liberty and democracy.
I wasn’t just anywhere when I read the news. I was in Israel, the so-called Holy Land. I had just come out of the waters of the Dead Sea, after floating in the lowest point on Earth with the hills of Jordan on the horizon, a place where an infinite sense of peace clings to the salty air.
The night before, we had celebrated Shabbat in the home of an Orthodox Jewish family. They had opened their home to us, strangers all, without a care as to what our religious affiliations were, or even if we were atheist or agnostic.
We were living in an illusive bubble. Because that’s what Israel is, an illusion, an oasis in the heart of the Middle East. A small dot, almost invisible on a map, that has survived 70 years of wars and hostilities. Israel is the only true democracy in the region, one that seeks out peace, a place where Christians, Jews and Muslims can survive and pray.
Just the day before, I had presented my novel The German Girl in the prestigious Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Of all the book presentations I’ve done all over the word, this was the most special. First, because it was in Israel and I did it after visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. Mostly it was special because in the audience were the daughter and son of one of the survivors of the St. Louis tragedy. That ocean liner set sail from Nazi Germany in 1939 with 937 fleeing Jewish refugees who were turned away by the governments of Cuba, the U.S. and Canada. The vast majority of the ship’s passengers ended up in Auschwitz. The German Girl was based on that dark chapter many prefer to forget.
Writing The German Girl, which took more than 10 years, served as a sort of outlet for me. It was my way of trying to overcome fear: the fear of being an immigrant, the fear of being rejected, the fear of creating a non-traditional family with two fathers at its head. My daughter Emma, now 12, served as inspiration for Hannah and Anna. She gave a voice to the protagonists in my novel — one in 1939, the other in 2014. Sharing the story of these rejected families in the heart of Jerusalem was truly a cathartic experience. After all, these families that were rejected by the world will forever have a country that accepts them.
I was joined in the presentation by Hispanic actors Carmen Villalobos, Mane de la Parra, Carmen Aub and Sebastian Caicedo, all of whom were invited by the recently created Mexican organization ILAN (Israel-Latin American Network) and by American Voices in Israel.
But after experiencing some days of illusive peace, 10 missiles were fired from Gaza into Israel. The country’s warning sirens went off and its effective system of aerial defense, the Iron Dome, did its job. That night, in our hotel by the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, we slept in peace once more.
Only a few hours later, the Pittsburgh killer called for the death of all Jews around the world. It wasn’t the first time. It will not be the last. But Israel exists and will exist, and calls for the extermination of the People of the Book will never come to be.
The last night of that intense trip, I returned to the Wailing Wall to pray for the 11 killed in Pittsburgh, for my children, my family, my friends. More importantly, I prayed to temper the fear that gnaws at us, can grow in any one of us and lead us to extinguish another’s life.
Fear is real, and it separates us: the fear of another, of one whose skin color is different, who worships a different God, who has an accent, a different sexual preference. Fear can turn us into monsters and against one another. The day we understand we are all human beings, vastly different human beings, the day we learn to respect our differences, the world will be a better place.