Heschel hates idea of 'Nazi’ highway named for her father

The Jewish Chronicle, Kansas City/June 26, 2009

Susannah Heschel may not like it, but Missouri has apparently designated a half-mile stretch of state highway near Springfield in honor of her late father, the theologian and civil rights activist Rabbi A.J. Heschel, as a way of tweaking a neo-Nazi group.

Gov. Jay Nixon this week signed into law a transportation bill into which Rep. Sara Lampe (D-Springfield) helped insert the Heschel-highway designation. It came about as a response to the National Socialist Movement’s local chapter having adopted the stretch of Missouri Highway 160 by pledging to clean it up four times a year. In return, as usual, the state erected a roadside sign, noting their contribution.

Because other fringe groups have tested the roadway-adoption-signage rules in court, Missouri couldn’t deny the NSM its sign.

Constituents complained, so Lampe consulted with officials of the Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee, and they came up with the idea of renaming the bit of highway the neo-Nazis had "adopted" for Rabbi Heschel. A similar bit of legislative jiu-jitsu had been done to the Ku Klux Klan in the St. Louis area some years ago, renaming "their" road for civil-rights icon Rosa Parks.

Honor, vulgarity

But after the affair got nationwide press coverage, Rabbi Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, an author and professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth University, complained that the designation dishonored her father’s memory. There were stories in the New York Times, among other places, last week.

Susannah Heschel told The Chronicle this week she understands the "good intentions" behind the affair.

"It would have been nice if the rabbis who proposed using my father’s name in this way had contacted me at the outset, but they didn’t. And I spoke at Rabbi Cohen’s synagogue a couple of years ago," Heschel said, citing JCRB/AJC’s recent staff addition as director of interfaith affairs, Rabbi Alan Cohen. "I don’t think he (my father) would have approved. I’ve also gotten e-mails and phone calls from friends and relatives who agree with me."

Heschel said the naming is less honorific than it would otherwise be because it comes in reaction to a neo-Nazi group’s action. And she dismissed the notion that seeing such a sign might cause a neo-Nazi to repent of his beliefs as "magical thinking."

"In Jewish law, you can pray anywhere except the bathroom. To me, putting my father’s name in a place where neo-Nazis present themselves, it’s not the same thing, but it has the kind of vulgarity ... that reminds me of that.

"My understanding is that the sign has to be paid for with private donations, and so I hope people will spend their money elsewhere."

Staying positive

Michael Abrams, a local attorney who chairs the JCRB/AJC board, said he regretted Heschel’s hurt feelings, but that he is trying to "stay very positive," declining several invitations to go on network television news to talk about it.

"Anyone who has studied Rabbi Heschel knows that he was an extraordinary individual," said Abrams. "His life was, in many ways, a miracle; surviving Nazi Germany and becoming the intellectual force that he was and the shining example of civil rights to the Jewish community and the community at large. "No sign can sully that reputation or that legacy."

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