My neighborhood was vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti this week. It would be wrong and upsetting for this to happen to a Jewish community anywhere, but these are my neighbors; the people I sit next to on the bus, share a library and grocery store with, whose cute kids I play peekaboo with on the train platform. I am so sorry that my neighbors—my friends—are subjected to this hateful dumbassery.
I am sorry, but not entirely surprised. As a traveler I am always unwillingly bumping up against the cruelties of history. My humanist leanings urge me to seek out the highest in human achievement; great architecture, fresco cycles, masterworks of music and literature, enlightened urban planning and civil engineering. You’ve followed along while HOB and I seek out these masterworks, eating picnics by them (and desperately hunt for clean public bathrooms nearby.) Unfortunately, in the course of discovering these cultural wonders, I’m also confronted by what seems to be near-constant war and oppression based on religion/race/ethnicity/economics. Based on trivial differences, people have been slaughtering and oppressing each other, wasting enormous resources and most importantly, destroying a heart-breaking amount of irreplaceable art and architecture. No race or religion is exempt—everyone has their hands dirty at one time or another.
Anti-Semitism is one of the most consistently ugly themes of European history. Jews were continually persecuted, forced into ghettos and blamed for virtually anything that went awry. Bad weather? Blame a Jew. Well runs dry? The Jews did it. Despite all the unrelenting ugliness there were high points for Jewish culture. One of my favorite periods was during the Muslim rule of Spain. From roughly the 8th through the 13th centuries, Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in the Iberian peninsula in a remarkable state of religious tolerance. Jewish art, music and scholarship particularly flourished during this time, known as “The Golden Age of Jewish Culture” (though I prefer not to use this term to avoid over-romanticizing.)
Santa María la Blanca, a synagogue in Toledo, Spain, was built in 1180 during these years of religious tolerance. HOB and I were charmed and astonished by the interior. “This was a synagogue?” It was indeed a synagogue—a most unique structure built for Jewish worship by Islamic builders in a Christian town. Moorish arches with and octagonal columns are topped with Byzantine-Corinthian capitals. This mix of Muslim, Christian and Jewish cultural influences showcases the delicious synergy of co-mingled cultures working in cooperation, not conflict.
Here’s what I know: culture is fluid. Human political, ethnic and religious identities are constantly evolving. Ask yourself this question in 2015: how do I evolve with culture? Whenever possible, travel; abroad or in your own neighborhood. Practice tolerance. Don’t blame Jews/Christians/Muslims/immigrants/racial or economic groups for your problems. Support institutions that incubate human achievement. Align yourself with a cultural mix that could potentially design and build Santa María la Blanca, not with those that destroy and deface with hateful slurs. This is what I wish for for in 2015. This, and a comfortable bra. If you manage to discover such miracles, please alert me immediately.