It was Friday morning March 27, 1964. It was the morning of the first Seder, exactly 50 years ago, that the news broke. The New York Times ran a story with the headline, “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call Police.” The story, of course, was about the brutal attack and murder of Kitty Genovese in Kew Gardens, New York, a criminal act that was reported to have been either seen or heard by dozens of neighbors, some of whom were quoted as saying they just “didn’t want to get involved.”
The story, written by reporter Martin Gansberg at the urging of his Metropolitan Editor, A.M. Rosenthal, opened a floodgate of soul-searching and recriminations as we suddenly viewed ourselves and our society as apathetic, disconnected and uncaring. An entire branch of social psychological research developed around the various issues that could explain and change the “bystander effect.”
Though in the years that followed, further investigative reporting countered the initial story of complete lack of responsiveness (some neighbors had indeed called an unresponsive emergency number, and one or two had yelled at the attacker from their windows), the main bones of the story still stood as a symbol of a dark side of human relatedness. And the case of Kitty Genovese is still taught today in most colleges and universities as a cautionary tale of the existence of individual callousness and indifference.
Ms. Genovese’s story also had the positive effect of forcing New York City to examine and revamp the police emergency response system, perhaps even affecting the development of the 911 emergency system. In addition, many individuals began to view their own life choices by asking themselves the question, “What would I have done if I were there? Should I get involved? Should I stand up to the face of evil?”
Just about seven months after the Genovese murder, there was another article in the Times, about a middle-aged couple who came upon a crime scene in Manhattan and followed a suspect on foot for 10 city blocks until they found a police officer. The man they had followed was later convicted of murder. The article states that the couple was aware of recent crimes committed while people watched and did nothing, clearly a reference to the Genovese murder. But lack of involvement never occurred to either one of them. They weren’t trying to be heroes. The wife is quoted as saying, “We merely did what we thought people ought to do.”
Although it was mere coincidence that the news breaking story regarding Kitty Genovese was published the morning of the Seder, a full two weeks after her actual murder on the morning of Mach 13, I believe that there is some spiritual meaning which can be garnered from her story and the story of Passover.
Passover is a story replete with heroes and villains. Interestingly, many of the protagonists of the story are women. Two of the most important, yet also unsung heroes of the Passover narrative are two midwives, Shifrah and Puah, (Some legends have identified them as the team of Yocheved and Miriam, mother and sister of Moses). These two women courageously stood up against the all-powerful King Pharoah, who had ordered the midwives to murder all Jewish male babies as they were being born. Instead, these women would secretly attend to the Jewish women who were giving birth, and later falsely report to the Pharoah that the babies had already been born by the time they arrived. One assumes that these midwives took this stance at the peril of their own lives.
The saga of Kitty Genovese leaves us with the imperative to be like the midwives. We are enjoined to stand up to the evil we encounter in the world. Our Passover story of national liberation is meant to encourage us at this time of year to be especially concerned about others who are enslaved in some way, and to make efforts to help them to be free. Our participation in the Passover rituals must go further than cleaning our ovens and chopping apples for the charoset. Our concerns must exceed preparing the tempting holiday foods and Seder menu planning.
Like the midwives, our questions at the Seder should include questioning the status quo. Like them, we should become involved in our global society, look around our world and contribute to the freedom of others. As one example, there are currently 27 million slaves worldwide, many of them young women and children sold into sexual slavery. (see www.freetheslaves.net) Can we just stand by and blithely sing “Dayenu?”
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the word “midwife” in our language is also used for someone who helps in the “birth” of a new idea, concept or communication platform. We can all aspire to be midwives in our lives.
We should step up to be midwives for change, not because we are heroes, but because, as the couple who followed the murder suspect pointed out, it is the right thing to do. By the way, that couple in The New York Times were my parents, Gertrude and Morris Joseph Liss. They are both gone for many years now. My father died very close to Passover, and we got up from sitting shiva on a Friday, the morning of the first Seder. Every year, on the morning of Passover, I must ask myself, “How can I strive to be one of the midwives?”
Nechama Liss-Levinson, Ph.D., is a psychologist and author of numerous books, including Cookie the Seder Cat.