You were the grandparent I couldn’t have, the one who told the Story.
You were tireless in your staggering work.
You relived the horrors, so others could know.
You looked beyond your own to make sure it didn’t happen to others.
You helped me know what my own had been through.
You were the grandparent I couldn’t have, the one who told the Story.
When I learned of Senator Dennis Johnson’s slur while debating a bill, I noticed something weird.
Most of my Orthodox friends were not as shocked or outraged as my non-Orthodox friends.
At first I wondered if Senator Johnson were perhaps unaware of the meaning of the slur. For example, I used the term “gypped” until recently, having been totally clueless that this term is a pejorative against Gypsies (Roma). I was likewise unaware, until recently, that “midget” is derogatory while “dwarf” is preferred, and that the Deaf community prefers Deaf with a capital “d.”
But when I watched the Senator’s weak apology, this explanation seemed unlikely.
So why am I not shocked or outraged? Mostly, because I am very “out” about my Judaism and am therefore totally aware, and even expect, to some extent, anti-semitism. I remember my grandparents telling me how some of their best Hungarian and Polish neighbors turned on them with a vengeance during the Holocaust. In taking a long view of Jewish history, this is the norm rather than the exception.
Do I think that Senator Johnson hates Jews? Nah. But neither do I fool myself into thinking that we’re well-liked out there in the world. Yes, even in America, and yes, even today. I would term it begrudging acceptance, for the most part. And I am aware that in the heterodox community, this is not a very popular view. Hence the shock and outrage anew each time a politician or celebrity slips in public with an anti-Jewish slur.
There’s a value to the shock and outrage, though. I think it draws us together as a people and reminds us that we are different. As you know, I think this a good thing.
In this world, there are some philo-semites and there are some anti-semites. The difference arises in your view of which category most of the world falls into.
What do you think?
I’ve learned that Fiddler on the Roof is one of those universal “Jewy” references that people love to, well, reference. In fact, I’ve definitely referenced it a few times right here. And truth be told, that movie has brought me to tears – tears of deep emotion around our beloved traditions, children coming of age, the inevitable assimilation of some of our children, the endless anti-semitism. And, too, it has made me laugh so hard I’ve had tears in my eyes (the dream scene!). The music is absolutely magnificent both thematically and musically.
So why is it my unfavorite movie?
Here’s what I think. See, my grandmothers, who are (thank God) still alive, remember the shtetl. But as I suspected all along, and unscientifically “confirmed” in my recent research project on the subject, most Jews in the world do not have a living relative who remembers living in the shtetl. So for most of them, impressions of the shtetl are largely formed by movies such as Fiddler.
What’s wrong with that, you may ask?
Well, a few things.
1. No one in that movie actually seems to know why anyone is keeping any of the Jewish observances.
The trademark song “Tradition” basically says, we have no idea why we do these things, but it’s our tradition so we’ll do them anyway. Now, I have no need to romanticize life in the shtetl (just as I have no need to romanticize life as a modern-day Orthodox woman) but I do want the truth as I have experienced it to be told.
In my grandparents’ families, there was a deep education and connection with the meaning of the observances, such that my grandparents still recall and repeat today. In fact, I feel that the movie disrespects their experience. Of course I am sure that there were some families who just observed out of habit or social pressure, but an entire village? Even the rabbi is a little clueless, which brings me to…
2. The rabbi is a fool.
Here are his most brilliant, sparkling lines, full of wisdom, depth and guidance (not). This is still a problem today. I see some “shtetl-era” books being issued for Jewish kids today. Most of the time the rabbi is totally unkempt and stupid. Again, some rabbis are unkempt and I’m sure that some rabbis don’t have particularly good advice, but for this to be the “shtetl-era” rabbi image emblazoned in the minds of your typical American Jew? What happened to respect for our scholars and leaders, for our role models, and those more learned? What kind of message is that for our kids?
My grandparents describe the utter reverence for their holy rabbis; the deep respect accorded them by the parents of the household; how the members of the shtetl would vie for the privilege of caring for their needs, hosting them in their homes, attending their lectures. Where is any of that? The question about waiting for the Messiah is a good one; why is no response given?
3. Yentl the matchmaker is a caricature but her impressions remains.
To this day when I tell people about how many in the Orthodox world meet and date they immediately think of Yentl. Yentl of the ugly wife and the blind husband: a match made in heaven. Granted, “dating” in the shtetl is not identical to Orthodox dating today, even when a “matchmaker” is employed, but I believe this image has damaged the reputation of the matchmaker, casting him/her in the role of “arranger of marriages” rather than how it really is today, which is “arranger of blind dates.”
I’m sure there’s more, but these are the top three that come to mind. And lest you all think I’m just a Jewish humor grinch be it known that I love to laugh and think lots of things are funny. But sometimes, I’ve learned, I think different things are funny or enjoyable than other Jews, because of my Orthodox orientation. The “Jewish” things I find funny are more like inside Orthodox jokes, whereas I find “typical” Jew jokes corny.
And as far as Fiddler, I will end where I started: it’s a masterpiece and a classic. And a bit sad, because for many viewers, this, and only this, remains the vision of our rich shtetl era.
It seems, often, that others deem us the Chosen People far more readily than we do, ourselves. And not necessarily in a positive way.
This is a crime.
In Jewish liturgy and text, chosenness and love are inextricably intertwined. The Jewish people is called God’s “firstborn.” We are chosen with love. Chosen for what, though? The shame, I believe, comes from a deep misunderstanding of the answer to that question, and I believe the answer people harbor in their hearts comes in various varieties.
1. We’re not chosen. Jews are like everyone else. We shouldn’t be different from everyone else. It’s what makes us hated. The more similar we will be, the more “normal” – the better. Who are we to think we’re better than anyone?
2. We’re chosen, yeah, but we shouldn’t really advertise it. I mean, just between us, Jews are smart, ambitious, driven, bent on education and family values. We’ve won all these Nobel Prizes and we’re barely a blip demographically. These ideas feel like a superiority complex, so better not to discuss it too much, but just read Start-up Nation and Mark Twain and what-have-you. It’s undeniable.
3. Jews are chosen for greater responsibility – to be a light unto the nations (see Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s concise and brilliant If You Were God – a book that changed my life). That means we have more obligations in Judaism (613 instead of the 7 that non-Jews have) and a request from God to be a good example wherever we go. This is how I see things.
One time, my husband and I were at the Geauga County Fair. For those of you that don’t live in Ohio, firstly you’ll never ever know if I misspelled Geauga, and secondly let’s just say that we were the only members of an ethnic or religious minority there. There was a wagon that was transporting the visitors from the parking area to the fair, and we were (surprise) toting a stroller. As we attempted to maneuver the stroller onto the wagon, a man jumped off the wagon to help us and after we all settled in, said conspiratorially, to our utter shock, “You guys are the Chosen People. It’s an honor to help you. And Israel? I don’t know why everyone doesn’t understand that it’s your promised land.”
And with that we rolled along on our merry way as I tried to find my tongue.
Whatever you might say about evangelical Christians and Israel, one thing is clear: I’ve been reminded often by non-Jews, sometimes in a positive way and sometimes in a negative way, that the Jews are unique and different and will never really blend in.
What startles me is how uncomfortable many Jews are with this concept. Sort of like not wanting to be teacher’s pet. Maybe this is one reason Jews rarely invoke God’s name socially or publicly (as a good friend of mine put it, “we were raised to never say God’s name, except in vain”), whereas non-Jews seem wildly cool with it.
Truthfully, although Jewish literature is replete with references to the Chosen People notion, it’s hardly exclusionary. Judaism both tells us not to push our religion on others and to accept them if they truly want to convert. Judaism also teaches that any good person, Jew or non-Jew, has a share in the Jewish version of the afterlife. In other words, while Jews are chosen by God, anyone can choose to be chosen just like we did. We chose to be chosen nationally (Abraham our forefather discovered God on his own and any of his children who followed his monotheistic path became Jewish) and anyone can choose to be chosen too.
Having done a completely non-scientific study, my research seems to indicate that Jews who have grown up in remote communities, where they were among a very small number of Jews (and they always know exactly what that number was), are convinced that Jews are different and special – indeed a member of the “Chosen People” – and don’t have a problem with the concept, whereas perhaps ironically (since many Jewish parents choose this next option purposefully to aid in their kids’ Jewish “identity”) Jews who grow up in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods, go to public school with Jewish kids and attend summer camp with Jews, tend to struggle mightily with it and fight it.
To respond to William Norman Ewer’s famous witticism:
I like this anonymously penned rejoinder:
It’s not so odd
the Jews chose God
Of course, I always knew what a JAP was. She was tall, beautiful. She lived in New York. Maybe New Jersey. She had a closet full of designer clothing and accessories that had always been casually purchased just this year. Her parents redid her room, oh, every so breezy now and then with custom built-ins. She knew what was in before anyone else did; in fact, it seemed that she created trend by virtue of oh-so-nonchalantly wearing it.
Here’s what I didn’t know: she had a nose job. And maybe some other, er, “work.” She was bratty. Hard to live with. Uncaring of first-world problems, let alone any other kind. She threw tantrums well past the age of two.
Here’s what else I didn’t know. Her father was short and balding. Nebbish. Neurotic. Attached to his mother. Had a bizarre, schmalty sense of humor. Couldn’t say no to her if he tried. Her mother? More complicated than years of therapy could fix. Overpowering. Guilt-inducing. Helicoptering to the most severe degree. Had apron strings that made Alcatraz look chilled. Embarrassingly loud and flamboyant.
See, I hadn’t ever met these people. No one ever told me they existed. Until Hallmark.
My friends and I used to frequent the mall that was practically in my backyard pretty much each Sunday afternoon. With our hard-earned babysitting money, we’d shop or just browse. At Hallmark, my young teen self came across an intriguing book: “The Big Book of Jewish Humor.” Or something like that. I figured it would be full of plays-on-words with Hebrew or jokes about latkes. Alas, I was about to meet My Big Fat Neurotic Jewish Family.
Jokes upon jokes that I didn’t get about Jewish mothers, guilt, nebbish men, and JAPs. I had no idea who these people were. Were they my people? Where did they live? Where were they hiding? How come everyone seemed to know about them besides me?
Was it about growing up Orthodox and pretty much shielded from much of the media? Is there some kind of inversely proportional relationship between growing up amid rich spiritual Judaism and extensive education, and knowledge or identification with classic modern Jewish stereotypes?
My friend Dr. Samantha Baskind authored a fascinating piece on “The Fockerized Jew” – an analysis of the “coolness” of Jews in the media as a fairly recent occurrence, based on the offerings of Woody Allen, Barbara Streisand, Seinfeld, and most recently, the Fockers. I read the extensive essay with fascination, not just because she is a brilliant writer, but because, well, I never knew Jews were uncool in the first place.
Woody Allen? Classic Jew? Are you kidding??
Did you identify with these Jewish stereotypes? Did they align with real-world Jews you knew?
On my primary news outlet, Facebook, I came across a startling piece of news: not only do Mormons apparently convert dead Jews posthumously, but Anne Frank has been a recent candidate.
The reactions were quick and angry. Offended. Wounded. Outraged.
Me? I thought it was funny that anyone was wasting their time with this nonsense.
Here’s what I posted:
Re the Mormons, I don’t find it
offensive at all, because such rites don’t change anything.
To which the OP responded:
while the rite may be
meaningless I find the sentiment behind it offensive. Much the same way
I find it offensive when somebody tries to “save” me.
I’m going to start thinking about it that way!
Ruchi, you sound very enlightened!
I like that girl.
My two teenaged daughters were shopping at a grocery store before Chanukah. One of the (non-Jewish) shelf stockers dropped something made of glass, and it broke. Instinctively, the dropper said, “Well, Mazel Tov!” and they started singing a Chanukah song.
This was not a Jewish store.
Why Jews say “Mazel Tov” when they break glass is a whole ‘nother post, but what interests me here was their quickly sobered behavior when they noticed my obviously Jewish daughters.
The laughing stopped, the singing stopped, and they quickly apologized. “Did we offend you?” came the question.
My daughters looked at each other oddly. Offended? They thought it was cute.
Do you think Jeremy Lin was offended by the Ben and Jerry’s fortune cookie ice cream flavor in his honor? The ice cream flavor was changed after “initial backlash.” As a Jew I wondered which segments of the Asian American community felt threatened by this.
If it would have been a Jewish sports star (ha) with a bagel-and-a-shmear in his honor, well, as a strongly identified
Jew, I think I would find that clever and amusing – though perhaps
acknowledging privately that it’s a rather shallow nod to my faith. But
hey – it’s food, not the high holidays.
Does the offended reaction serve us well? Is it justified? Wise? Due to… insecurity?
What do you think?
A couple of nights ago I had another Nazi dream.
I’m in the Warsaw ghetto with my family, and need money to buy food. I try to get to the ATM machine (??) but it’s barricaded by guards. I manage to get my card in, but as soon as the $60 comes out, they grab it and run away.
But the scary part of the dream is part 2. I’m in the barracks with my children, and I know that They are coming to get me for defying them at the ATM. I wonder if I will die by bullet, or if there will be pain first. I pray for a quick death. I wonder if my children will persevere without me. And then I wake up.
I’ve been having Nazi dreams in various forms since fourth grade, but they intensified after watching “The Wave.”
Do all Jews have Nazi dreams? Do you?