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When I hear about antisemitic violence, I just feel numb. What’s wrong with me?

From its start in 1906, A Bintel Brief was a pillar of the Forward, helping generations of Jewish immigrants learn how to be American. Now our columnists are helping people navigate the complexities of being Jewish in 2020. Send questions to bintel@forward.com.


Dear Bintel,

When I first heard about the most recent attack in Vienna, which was reported initially as targeted against the Jewish synagogue, my first reaction was one of numbness. I thought to myself, “Oh, another shooting against Jews, what a surprise.” It seems like that’s not exactly what happened, but the more I think about it, the more I feel guilty for having such a response.

Why did I react this way? Am I a bad person for becoming so used to the news of these shootings? Over the years, I’ve seen most people have large emotional reactions to news of attacks. Why can’t I just be a normal human who cries with everyone else?

Sincerely,
Struggling

Dear Struggling,

There is no normal in a situation like this. While it might seem like everyone around you reacts to horrific national news with immediate tears and sympathy, the truth is that many of us are left bewildered and numb.

But it’s good to pay attention to an emotion that unsettles you, and I understand why a reaction of numbness is not the reaction you want to nurture in yourself.

We might not have control over our immediate feelings, but we do have control over our immediate actions. Sometimes, it can actually help to seek out the personal in the tragic, especially when we worry we are losing our instinctive human responses of empathy and horror. When we hear news of a shooting, or any awful attack against people (though hopefully we won’t hear more such news), one immediate action one could do is take the time to look up and read stories about the individual people who were killed. If you are the praying type, actually stop and address a prayer on behalf of their families.

Focus on who they were as people. It’s hard to cry abstractly over such news; our pain in these moments should be roused for the individual hopes, dreams and losses suffered by these communities and the people killed.

Some might question the value of such tears by relative strangers. How can it help? Of course, staying alive to the tragic consequences of these acts should prompt us to continue advocating for gun control policies and other actions that can help. But help also doesn’t need to be the only measure of action. There is an idea in Judaism that our cries of suffering are similar to a person who is suffering from a painful illness. When one’s body is in pain, a person cries out, whether or not such crying will help. And so, when faced with wrongdoing and human tragedy, we cry out, not because the crying out will help but because we are in pain. They can be cries of protest.

In this new and strange and too frequently horrifying world, we are all struggling not to feel numb. There is no guilt in that human response. But in response to that numbness, we should not always take refuge in silence, but seek out the suffering of these moments, and the individual tragedies in the national story, so as to never lose sight of what their loss truly means. You are a normal human being in an abnormal world. I can only hope this advice is seldom needed.

Shira Telushkin lives in Brooklyn, where she writes on religion, fashion, and culture for a variety of publications. She is currently finishing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America. Got a question? Send it to bintel@forward.com.

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