Stephen Daniel Arnoff
Author, Teacher, and Community Leader

Be Cool or Be Cast Out

I’m writing from Cleveland, OH, my hometown, visiting family and donors and partners and very eager to get back home.

Cleveland is the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, a meat and potatoes music town in a lot of ways, and the radio dial of my mother’s car gets flipped from NPR to the classic rock station when I’m here.

That’s how I came across the song “Subdivisions” by Rush. If you’re wondering how I’ll guide Rush into the realm of Jewish history, it’s easy. This band, maybe Canada’s best, featured Neil Peart z”l, who served as the cantor in his synagogue, Geddy Lee (Geddy because his Holocaust-survivor mother pronounced his given name “Gary” as “Geddy” with a Yiddishe twist), and Alex Lifeson, a Friend of the Tribe in addition to being one of the best guitarists of the rock era.

So Rush has Jewish peoplehood going for it. But what’s Jewish about “Subdivisions”? Nothing on face value, but those lyrics can be reframed to explain a core truth about the painful, restless days of the Jewish people.

As I drove to visit my father this week, listening to “Subdvisions,” thinking about the war, the massacre, the silence about Hamas’ evil in so many halls and bars and cars, and the spinelessness and ignorance driving broken windows in Philly and broken hearts in colleges and universities that can’t tell the difference between genocide and justice, “be cool or be cast out” explained the stupidity of it all.

In the high school halls
In the shopping malls
Conform or be cast out
In the basement bars
In the backs of cars
Be cool or be cast out

For the teenager, the college student, the so-called warrior for social justice chanting “from the river to the sea” and thinking they are cool – how transparently and awfully uncool and conformist can you be?

We all know what it is like to be on the wrong side of a clique in high school. We all know what it is like to be pushed to the wrong side of the high school hall. As I watch the cool kids on high school and college campuses chanting slogans in support of rapists and murderers, conflating their values with evildoers, confusing honest concern for innocent victims of war with the human dregs of our age, I see conformists trying to be cool. But they are not only the wrong side of the hall; they are the wrong side of history too. If I didn’t feel such rage at their ineptitude and meanness, I would pity them for their foolishness.

Any escape might help to smooth
The unattractive truth
But the suburbs have no charms to soothe
The restless dreams of youth

Substitute Harvard, Columbia, Penn, or MIT for “suburbs.” Today’s cool kids aren’t just bands of entitled wannabes throwing tantrums powered by some combination of antisemitic poison, woke wackadoodle, and personal weakness. They are also enablers of evil. And this is not a high school drama, but a witnessing of the failure of entire systems of purpose and pedagogy to teach the difference between wrong and right.

There’s a Jewish story being told in “Subdivisions,” a rush of unattractive truth, a clarion call to kick out the jams and show those kids just how wrong they really are.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Daniel Arnoff is the CEO of the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center and author of the book About Man and God and Law: The Spiritual Wisdom of Bob Dylan.
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