Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy in 1929 came up with the “six degrees of separation” theory – that anyone can be connected to any other person on the planet through a chain of acquaintances that has no more than five intermediaries. In the midst of the terrorist attacks in France, my wife Judy and I reached out to several friends who, although they are not acquainted with each other, all have a connection to the horrific events that took place in Paris.
We were driving from Sacramento to Orange County on Jan. 9 for a family reunion that would culminate with my co-officiating at a wedding overlooking the Pacific Ocean. As we listened to satellite radio on Interstate 5, we were riveted to the reports of the two hostage situations, one at a Parisian kosher supermarket and the other outside the city at a printing business in an industrial area.
We turned off the radio and decided to call the parents of a member of my congregation. They must be distraught. Their daughter is married to a French Jew, and they live in Paris. He tells us nervously that his daughter and son-in-law are fine, but they are very concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism in France. He shares that his son-in-law’s sister lives in a building a block from the kosher supermarket under siege and that she is hunkered down at her office unable to go home. We ended the conversation asking him to let his family know that they are in our prayers.
Judy says, “We have to call Katia.” When she answered, her usually jovial voice was different. Her voice was trembling with fear for her family and friends. Katia Davies-Kemmler of Carmichael came to the United States 40 years ago from France. She visits her large Jewish family in Paris every year. She tells us that she is ashamed of what is happening to her native country she loves.
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We remembered our non-Jewish friends who arrived from Paris a few years ago. I couldn’t reach them on the phone so I emailed them Friday after we arrived, saying our thoughts and prayers are with them and their family and friends.
An hour later I received a reply. As I read their email, my eyes started welling up with tears.
“Life is not easy. Freedom and especially freedom of speech is something our two countries have won through a journey. This journey is hard but worth defending. Charlie Hebdo is one of the most satirical magazines we have. It is important to say that the cartoonists and writers have been satirical with all topics: our politics, your politics, religion, sports, economy – everything. My favorites were Cabu and Wolinski. So yes, I am sad to see that happening in my country.”
Thinking about our friends’ responses to our outreach, it became clearer that the connection we all have to events in the world and to our fellow human beings is one that is inextricably linked together with those six degrees of separation.
The terror in France ought to be a wake-up call that in addition to the moral responsibility world leaders have to eradicate terrorism from our midst, our own individual actions as citizens of the world also matter. The fact that 1 million people marched in Paris, and another 2 million people in communities all over France gathered in solidarity, is testimony that if we focus our lives into habits of positive action, maybe we can indeed have an impact to repair the brokenness of the world.
One other glimmer of hope is reflected in the exemplary conduct of Lassana Bathily, a Muslim employee at the kosher supermarket in Paris. He was hailed as a hero by the surviving Jewish hostages who said that his courageous actions in helping to hide and protect them during the standoff saved their lives. The Talmud states: “He who saves one life, saves the entire world.”
Let’s embrace that thought and remember Bathily’s act of courage and heroism as we endeavor as a world community to expunge the hatred, terror and violence that pervades our sacred planet.
Reuven Taff is rabbi and spiritual leader of Mosaic Law Congregation. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.