A long time ago, only a decade after Israel’s birth, my grandfather spent a good many hours raising money for the nascent country by selling bonds. So successful was he that he soon was able to procure tickets for him and his family to attend the posh Hollywood opening of the film Exodus — which, of course, told the story of the Jewish state. This was celebrity heaven, and Grandpa Sol was no stranger to the rich and famous, but one particular performer offered a reaction to his fundraising efforts that couldn’t be forgotten. This actor of Jewish heritage — who won’t be named but was famous for his comedic partnership with a singer-thespian of some note — seemed to take offense when my grandfather approached him about buying bonds for Israel and uttered a line that has since lived in infamy among members of the Butler household:
“What have the Jews ever done for me?”
Now, bear in mind that this celebrity was a stranger to Grandpa Sol, and we’ve all, presumably, been curt to cold-callers at some solicited point in our lives. Yet this response was particularly nasty, and the subtext was all the more disturbing given the personality’s Hebrew roots. What have the Jews ever done for me? It sounds like an inquiry raised by the Wicked Child during the Four Questions portion of Passover. Who asks that kind of thing? What would you expect your own people to do for you?
The answer is nothing. A population that shares your culture isn’t obligated to do anything — but it often does, whether you accept its gifts or not. Reciprocation isn’t necessary, though many feel the need to give back to their communities, and this can always be lauded. In the case of this celebrity, one can infer that he would’ve paid up if he felt, somehow, that he owed a debt to the faith that bore him. He didn’t, however, and that brings me to a loaded question.
What, exactly, have the Jews done for you and me? What have they done for all of us?
I won’t produce a list of all the inventions developed by Jews over the centuries; it doesn’t make sense in this context, because the words here are personal; their aim, in the sentences they form, is to negate the possibility that any adherent of Judaism contributed something worthwhile to the individual speaking them. To use the word Jews is to generalize about a religion, a group. We can’t collectively do a good deed for one person — it would require all of us at once to contribute, and that’s just plain inconceivable.
Perhaps. Maybe we can’t hop on the bus from whatever locations worldwide we call home to help a single individual, but our beliefs can be transported anywhere through the mind. A man or a woman can take comfort in the Jewish faith, can discover meaning in the Hebrew language. He or she can recall memories of our culture, our theater, our paintings, songs, dances. Recipes ranging from gefilte fish to latkes can be recalled, the taste can be savored — even in our thoughts. And the recognition of our trials throughout the centuries, leading up to the establishment of a long-awaited state, can sober us, make us realize that we still have a tough, unclear path to walk before we should ask anything of our heritage.
What have the Jews ever done for us? Well, they’ve given us an identity. And we should be thankful rather than unappreciative.
The aforementioned actor my Grandpa Sol met didn’t seem to understand that.
John F. Kennedy once noted: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” He said this as part of his inaugural address in 1961…shortly after Exodus debuted in the theaters. Israel has since reached adulthood but is still learning about its inhabitants, the people who love it. We Jews are still learning, too, after all these years, learning and growing and wanting to excel. We have, and always will retain, a desire to improve. Let’s continue to act in that vein, without requesting much while giving more than receiving. It’s the best way to make a life. It’s the best way to be ourselves.
I’d like to think my Grandpa Sol — may his memory be a blessing — wouldn’t disagree with that.