In the end, the man came back to the crosswalk at Seventh and H Street five times. The crosswalk there, outside of the Chinatown Metro station, is painted with all the animals of the Chinese calendrical cycle. In the three rats, he carved the word “Jew” over and over again. He also drew swastikas — on lamp-poles and a window of the local Starbucks. Each time, Washington, D.C.’s police responded quickly and professionally. The carvings were painted over within hours. Each time, he came back, in some hour of the morning, to state his message again. The police arrested a man named Generoso “Jerry” Capodilupo. We know little about him beyond the fact that he has made anti-Semitic statements on his Facebook page. He denies the charge.
Our synagogue sits less than a thousand feet from the corner of Seventh and H. Most of our staff cross the intersection on the way to work every morning. It’s hard, now, not to check under our feet to see what might be written there.
To be Jewish in America is to know privilege and safety beyond our ancestors’ dreams. And yet, in 2014, 57 percent of all religious hate crimes were targeted toward Jews (we are only 1.9 percent of the population). Anti-Semitism comes from the alt-right, from the progressive left, and in surprising places in between. It is often couched in anti-Zionist rhetoric, in conspiracy theories based in “fact,” in Holocaust denial, in stereotype and generalizations based on the actions of a few. Should you have some doubt as to its persistence, please simply check the comments we are sure will be posted below this essay.
For Jews, life can sometimes seem like a progression of numbers: the years since the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the exile from our home; the year 1492 that signifies expulsion from Spain and does not only rhyme with “Columbus sailed the ocean blue”; the way that “six” is always followed by “million.” But for those of us who walk across the Chinatown intersection, the number that baffles us is five.
We keep turning the question over and over: What do we do about those swastikas and those rats and about the man who allegedly made them, whose hate allegedly led him to come back five times? What do we do about other minds that led him to believe that Jews are akin to rats? How do you change another person’s heart? Is it kindness? Is it strength? Is it patience with human foibles? Is it impatience for intolerance? What are the steps that open a mind?
The worst part is that we may not possess the tool to lever that mind open. Every member of a class that has been hated understands this: We stand next to other human beings, just like us in blood and organs and DNA and soul. But there is a chasm between us because those people hate us. The reasons for that hate are inaccessible to us; they precede meeting us, precede even the “facts” that they use against us.
As a result, almost any action has the potential to reinforce prejudice. We would seem vindictive if this homeless man is prosecuted to the full extent of the law. We would seem weak if he is let go without punishment. The press release we would send out is whiny, especially in the light of violent, deadly oppression in America that dwarfs some hateful graffiti. But if we do nothing, we are cowards — meek shtetl Jews. Somehow the hated have to walk a tightrope, while those who hate do not.
Our Talmud teaches, “the prisoner cannot free himself from jail,” and that is why we are writing this piece. You who are reading, who are not Jewish, who would be tempted to see this moment, and give it a pass because, for you, “Jewish” is normal, and accepted: Remember that there are people who still see us as rats. They cannot hear us, but perhaps they will listen to you. We need to stand on each other’s behalf to free each other from the old hatreds that have been renewed during this awful, bigoted election cycle. Be our advocates, as we will be yours. We need the power of your voice. We promise you our voice, to fight in whatever way we can when justice is owed you.
To be a Jew is not a misfortune but an honor. Even — especially — after a hateful act like the one near our synagogue, we are stronger than a few swastikas, than some impotent graffiti etched into a crosswalk. We respond to this hateful act with pride. A few weeks from now, during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the holiest days of our year, thousands of feet will walk through the very same crosswalk at Seventh and H to get to services. Two weeks later, we will dance in the street, in joy, Torahs held high, on Simchat Torah (the day of joy for the Torah), on Oct. 24. We will be singing, and you are invited.