The violence that took place this Shabbat morning at the Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh is the fear of every synagogue, Hillel, day school, and Jewish community center in this country. It is the ancient Jewish expectation of persecution—when, where, has it not been with us?—married to American reality: a country saturated with guns and habituated to quotidian massacre, plagued by age-old racism and bigotry, which have lately been expertly inflamed by the holder of the highest office in the land.
For the past few years, American Jews have glanced warily at Western Europe, where anti-Semitism, never dormant, is once again on the rise. The British Labour Party has been riven by accusations of anti-Semitism among its leadership. French Jews have emigrated to Israel in unprecedented numbers. In Sweden, synagogues and Jewish centers have been firebombed. After 9/11, American synagogues and community centers became barricaded spaces, outfitted with concrete sidewalk barriers and metal detectors, so that going to services felt like going to the airport. The concern then was an external threat.
There has long been a casual assumption that homegrown anti-Semitism could not happen here, that “The Plot Against America” would remain the fantastical counter-factual that Philip Roth intended it to be.
And yet, the warning signs have become increasingly clear. Since the 2016 Presidential campaign, anti-Semitic vitriol has exploded on the Internet. Neo-Nazis tweet swastikas and Hitler-era propaganda of leering, hook-nosed rabbis. Holocaust deniers discuss “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in plain view. Jewish journalists and other public figures have had their profile pictures Photoshopped onto images of lampshades and bars of soap. The name “George Soros” is no longer invoked as a dog whistle, but as an ambulance siren. “The Jewish question” is debated on alt-right blogs and news sites. In the run-up to the election, anti-Semites began to put Jewish names in sets of triple parentheses—a yellow star for the digital age, by which to un-assimilate the assimilated. Jews rushed to claim and defang the symbol, turning it into a voluntary declaration of pride, but the scar of its origins remains. For a time after Donald Trump’s election, I collected screenshots of racist and anti-Semitic hate speech I came across. Then I stopped. The proof was everywhere, plain as day.
It seems clear that anti-Semitism has burrowed into the American mainstream in a way not seen since the late nineteen-thirties and early nineteen-forties, when it also fused easily with conservative isolationist fervor and racism. In “These Truths,” her masterful new history of this country, my colleague Jill Lepore writes about the anti-Semites of that period, who saw “mass democracy and mass culture as harbingers of the decline of Western civilization.” In 1939, the German-American Bund held a pro-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden, attended by twenty-thousand people; you can watch footage of it here, and, as vile as it is, I suggest that you do. Amid the sieg-heils, you will see Fritz Kuhn, the Bund’s leader, railing against the “Jewish-controlled press” as he lays out his vision for a “socially just, white, Gentile-ruled United States.” “We, with our American ideals, demand that the American government shall be returned to the American people who founded it,” he says, to cheers.
Not long ago, I came across a description—published in the March, 1939, bulletin of the men’s club at New York’s Ansche Chesed synagogue—of a counter-rally held a couple of weeks later, at Carnegie Hall. “Stressing that racial intolerance was un-American, speaker after speaker denounced the activities of the German-American Bund,” the bulletin reports. “The need for protecting our democratic processes was on the lips of everyone and strong sentiment of solidarity to protect democracy and racial and religious freedom that goes with it was prevalent throughout.” That sense of solidarity, which, for me, as for many, is at the moral center of the American-Jewish experience, was explicitly attacked in Pittsburgh on Saturday. It has been reported that, a few weeks ago, the alleged gunman furiously railed on social media against HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which was founded, at the turn of the last century, to help the waves of Jewish immigrants who left imperial Russia for America. The organization later worked to resettle Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, and currently serves immigrants and refugees of all backgrounds. It is a bitter irony that that sense of common cause has now been further strengthened, as the Tree of Life joins Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church, in Charleston, South Carolina, Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center, in Bloomington, Minnesota, and so many other houses of worship as points on a dark map of ongoing American tragedy.
Julius Ybañez Towers was taking a walk around the Harlem Meer in Central Park with his twin 10-month-old sons and two dogs. A woman stopped to compliment him for giving his wife a break.
“There’s no wife,” he told the woman. “I’m a single gay dad from surrogacy.” He smiled at the confused look on her face.
Mr. Towers, 40, is still rare, but he is part of a growing movement. Surrogacy agencies across the country report a surge of interest from single gay men in the last few years.
Shelly Marsh, a spokeswoman for Men Having Babies, a nonprofit that helps gay men navigate the surrogacy process, said that the increase in interest from single men is part of a broader surge in gay families.
“Our volume has increased substantially over the last few years,” Ms. Marsh said. “But more so, single men are learning that they do not need to wait to find someone to fulfill the dream of having a biological child.”
Most single gay men pursue what is known as gestational surrogacy: the surrogate is implanted with a fertilized embryo taken from a separate egg donor. The surrogate is not genetically related to the child. She also has no maternal rights, so intended parents are legally protected from her keeping the baby.
For that legal protection however, the birth must happen in a state where it’s legal to pay a surrogate and that recognizes the contract. New Jersey recently approved compensation for surrogates; Washington State’s announced it would do so in January. New York, along with Michigan and Louisiana, are the only states where it remains illegal to pay a woman to be a surrogate mother.
Where it is legal, the total cost of the procedure — from paying the agencies, the donor, the doctors, the surrogate and the birth — can be anywhere from $80,000 to $200,000. None of this is covered by insurance.
But for Mr. Towers, having biological children was a long-held dream that he was willing to work toward.
He grew up in what he called a humble home in Palm Bay, Fla., where he said he was bullied at school. “Growing up gay in a homophobic town, and in tough financial times, it was hard to see how I’d have my own kids,” he said.
His parents strung together several low-wage jobs, and he’s the first in his family to earn a bachelor’s degree. He put himself through law school at University of Pennsylvania. He was a corporate attorney in Manhattan for 15 years and is now pursuing a master’s in public health at Columbia University.
Gradually, after the death of his mother, a failed relationship and two dog adoptions, he realized that he was ready to take on fatherhood, even by himself.
“I wanted to have children more than I wanted a partner,” Mr. Towers said. He viewed being single as a positive because he alone would control the decisions about surrogacy and parenting. Yet control was still an illusion.
Because it is illegal to pay a surrogate in New York, Mr. Towers’s quest to become a father began all the way across the country. Through an agency in Portland, Ore., Northwest Surrogacy Center, he found a woman there who was willing to carry a fertilized embryo. The embryo itself was made with the eggs of an anonymous donor from an agency based in California. These eggs (which, according to the agency, came from an astrophysicist) were fertilized at Oregon Reproductive Medicine, a clinic in Portland.
After a failed transfer of a single embryo, Mr. Towers and his surrogate decided to transfer two embryos in hopes that at least one would take. They knew it could mean twins.
“I realized I couldn’t control everything,” Towers said. “I left it to fate at that point.”
Nine months later, he traveled to Portland for the surrogate’s scheduled C-section and held his sons, Asher and Galen, for the first time. Asher had a short stay in the intensive care unit, so Mr. Towers stayed in Oregon for three more weeks, until the twins were ready for the long flight home to New York.
As unpredictable as the medical prospect of surrogacy may be, some gay men prefer that to the possibility of facing discrimination in adoption.
Dennis Williams had his son, Elan, via surrogacy four years ago. Mr. Williams, who is 46 and black, said he chose surrogacy because the prospect of persuading a woman to allow him to adopt was daunting. “As a single, gay black man,” he said, “I figured I’d be at the bottom of the list for most women.”
Mr. Williams and his former partner had a failed egg donation from a woman they met through a friend. After he and his partner broke up, Mr. Williams still wanted to be a father. The donor, a black lesbian who didn’t plan on having children, agreed to try again for Mr. Williams.
Once he became a father, Mr. Williams said, he felt as if he finally fit in with his big family in Kansas, where he grew up. “I was no longer an anomaly to them,” he said. “Once I had a son, it drew me closer to the tribe.”
For Mr. Towers, the race of his twin sons was more difficult to control. Both his parents are mixed race: his mother half-Filipina, and his father part Native American. He hoped to find a multiracial egg donor, but most of the donors, he found, were white.
“Some accused me of whitewashing my kids’ skin,” Mr. Towers said. “In the end, I don’t care about skin color. I’ll just have to work harder to make them understand their multiracial roots.”
One son, Asher, has the blond hair and blue eyes of the donor, while the other, Galen, has the dark brown hair and complexion of his father.
During the surrogate’s pregnancy, Mr. Towers enrolled in a twins class, did a daddy boot camp and took a baby-dog home-integration class. Even though he has a nanny seven days a week, he is on his own nights and mornings. Like any new parent of twins, he’s overwhelmed at times.
“I don’t like the feeling that I can’t do it all on my own, but sometimes I need help, even with a nanny,” he said. “Because I signed up to be a single father of twins, some people tell me I can’t complain. It contributes to the feeling I’m alone in the wilderness.”
The little moments keep him going.
After the walk around the Harlem Meer, Mr. Towers, with the help of the nanny, returned home and put the boys in their cribs.
He leaned in to kiss each of his sons on the forehead. “Daddy loves you,” he whispered.
As the boys drifted to sleep, he exhaled and stood watching them. He mentioned that he just renewed another year of storage for his remaining frozen embryos. Through a genetic screening test, he knows one embryo is female.
“Who knows?” he said. “One day, when the boys are out of diapers, maybe I’ll have a little girl.”