The religious education wing of the Unitarian congregation’s building is a spare thing, a square room with creamy partitioned walls that can be moved to accommodate the varying class sizes of the children. On the walls, large rectangles of paper list the birthdays of the children by months, for what is a community without celebration? Children’s art fills the other walls, which watch over a carpet ringed by black bed rest pillows, where the children sit in communion with one another every Sunday.
We joined the congregation when Baba was 10 months old and she is nearly 4 now, so this room is a familiar haven. She runs to it every week, jumping down the hallway in uncoordinated hops and skips that makes the aging congregation smile as they dodge out of the way of her slippery energy.
It is October and this is a Unitarian sanctuary, which means that Halloween is in full swing, with a costume parade and a party planned with food masquerading as various creepy and crawly things. And in my delight, I asked one of the teachers there, “Don’t you just love Halloween?”
And she said, “No…no, I actually hate this time of year.”
And then she explained to me how she, as the child of Holocaust survivors, was never allowed out on Halloween, because if you were Jewish and in Eastern Europe, this was one of the most dangerous times of the year for pogroms. And I thought to myself, for I have grown to really admire and love this woman, who has created such a sanctuary for a generation of children, that that was such a sad thing that she has missed out on a tradition that I love so much. Understandable, of course, that her parents would not have been able to let her go out to celebrate like so many American children do, but a sad thing. After all, this is America. We don’t have the same history of anti-Semitic riots that they do in Europe. Surely, surely, she would have been safe here.
We have done a lot of terrible things here, but at least we have not done that. Have we? (It turns out, yes, yes we have. In 1991. In a neighborhood that I travel through five days a week.)
I thanked her for explaining to me why so many people in New York ask you if you’re celebrating Halloween before they talk about it with your children, because I had not known.
And then, a few days later, a gunman walked into a synagogue and murdered 11 people, five days before Halloween. And I shivered, thinking about what she had told me, knowing that her parents were right. They were right to hide their children away from their neighbors, in the same way that I always kept my black cat indoors this entire week. Some risks are simply not worth taking.
On Sunday, I went to sanctuary, where many of the congregants are Jewish, in heritage, if not in practiced religion. And I looked at their faces and I thought about all the worries that I do not have, about how once again, evil is here, but, as it always does in this country, my appearance gives me a choice whether or not to care.
Unitarian services have a moment where you can speak the names of people that you wish to “lift up,” which is as close as Unitarians come to public prayer. Most weeks, the sanctuary is filled with the names of individuals, names spoken aloud, colliding and enmeshing with each other as multiple people speak the names of those they love at once. This week, the prayers were for groups; transgender people, Jewish people, the migrant caravan so desperate for safety that they are walking hundreds of miles towards a border where our government is right now placing armed troops to stop them.
Who are we, as a country? Are we truly this lost?
There are days where I look around and I barely recognize the country that I was raised in. And then there are the days where I wonder if I ever really knew it at all.