Groggers for Pittsburgh

December 2018
Ben Shragge

After the October 27 attack that left 11 dead, a top story in the New York Times was headlined “Who Is (sound of grogger), the Suspect in the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting?”

The killer’s name, of course, was included in the original headline. But the sound of a grogger is more appropriate.

On the Jewish festival of Purim, groggers (noisemakers) are sounded every time the name Haman is mentioned. Haman, the genocidal villain of the Purim story, is the archetypical recipient of the Hebrew curse yimakh shemo: “May his name be obliterated.”

The ancient Greeks and Romans had a similar tradition. After Herostratus burned down the Temple of Artemis solely to achieve infamy, the authorities responded by forbidding mention of his name under penalty of death.

The names Herostratus and Haman live on, but the impulse behind the ban, and the grogger, should be felt today. Namely, we should deny the weekly mass shooters (and bombers) the recognition they seek. If we need to name evil names, they should be accompanied by noise. Better yet, they should be accompanied by — or replaced by — the names of their victims.

I did read the “Who Is (sound of grogger)” story, because while the killer’s name should be forgotten, the forces giving rise to murder must be remembered. The force, in this case, is anti-Semitism.

The term “anti-Semitism” was popularized by a 19th-century German whose name isn’t worth remembering. While anti-Jewish rhetoric and violence has an ancient pedigree, “anti-Semite” was a self-description intended to paint over old-fashioned religious hatred with a veneer of pseudo-scientific racism. 

Anti-Semitism is an anachronistic term, falsely implying that there’s a “semitism” (a racial essence, as opposed to a love of “ch” sounds, shared by speakers of Semitic languages: Jews, Arabs, Assyrians, and Ethiopians) to be against. But while the term is problematic (though the Pittsburgh shooter did posit a pan-Semitic conspiracy in which “evil Jews are bringing evil Muslims into the country”), the phenomenon is real enough.

Jean-Paul Sartre vividly painted a psychological portrait of the anti-Semite. Writing in the 1940s, he could be describing the shooter of today: The anti-Semite “localizes all the evil of the universe in the Jew. . . . But since Evil, to the anti-Semite, is incarnated in unarmed and harmless men, the latter never finds himself under the painful necessity of being heroic.” Thus the delusional “heroism” of the anti-Semite: storming a fortress (a synagogue with open doors) to strike down the forces of evil (a family physician, two developmentally disabled brothers, a little league coach . . .).

Sartre recounts a classmate who blames his failure to pass an exam on a Jew who passed in his place: “Far from experience producing his idea of the Jew, it was the latter which explained his experience. If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him.” As long as humans fail, and then fail to take responsibility for failure, anti-Semitism will have its allure.

But the persistence of anti-Semitism is no excuse for fatalism. Polio still exists too: but it’s gone from more than 350,000 cases in 1988 to 22 reported cases in 2017, according to the World Health Organization. Diseased mindsets are harder to track: yet I was struck while reading Sartre that though his psychological insights still ring true, his picture of a society (France in the '40s) riven by popular anti-Semitism is a world apart from today’s North America.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” said Martin Luther King Jr., invoking the progressive thrust of the Bible. Taking the long view, perhaps the arc is bending in the direction of a messianic era in which mass shooters beat their AR-15s into ploughshares; Russian bots spread messages of love; and anti-Semites consummate their obsession by converting to Judaism. Perhaps the current moment is just a false start on the winding way to a higher end.

But if there’s an arc of the moral universe, it’s very long; much longer than a single life. And whoever destroys a single life, Jewish tradition teaches, destroys the whole universe. So a grogger is in order, a chorus of groggers, to drown out incitement to murder: noise, but also action.

Ben Shragge is the digital editor of the Hamilton Jewish News. He currently resides in Boston.