I was a new freshman at Brandeis and had already scrubbed one pot too many.
For my work-study job that the school had provided me with as part of my financial aid package, they’d put me in the kitchen – a place where I’d always been comfortable and still am to this day.
But they’d also put me under the jurisdiction of an uptight supervisor who’d decided for whatever reason that this (then!) muscle-bound 18-year-old had no more culinary aptitude than to hand-scrub giant grease-encrusted cauldrons – punctuated by breaks of carting detritus to the dumpster.
I was ready to bite the bullet – I needed the money – but when I found out that my buddy who was in the same program, for the same pay, under the same supervisor, was making sandwiches and serving salads to chatty coeds in the school’s health food café, I made up my mind.
By the next day, I’d landed an off-campus evening job selling electronics for better pay, plus commission, and had smugly told my erstwhile taskmaster she should find herself another slave.
My new boss was a lanky late middle-aged New Englander named Dick. He seemed to take a liking to my initiative, and after a week or two, called me into his office for a chat.
After some small talk and offer of a cup of coffee, which I accepted, and a cigarette, which I didn’t, he looked me in the eye, and said:
“You’re Jewish, aren’t you?”
I nodded. It was a pretty safe guess, as Brandeis was about 70% Jewish at the time.
“I have a lot of respect for the Jewish people,” he went on. “They’re smart and resourceful. But there’s just one thing I don’t understand. Why are they so liberal, when the conservatives are better for business?”
My mind churned as he waited for an answer. My first thought was that he’d asked the wrong guy. Back then I was as apolitical as I was irreligious, and while I’d heard the ‘L’ and ‘C’ words before, I don’t think I could have defined them, and certainly couldn’t pinpoint why Jews specifically might or might not have a predilection for either of the two.
So I just sort of left it with a clumsy “Gee, I don’t know, Dick,” or something like that, vaguely feeling that even if there might have been some insult embedded in the question, it certainly wasn’t insulting enough to go back to the grease cauldrons.
Only years later, as my knowledge of the political spectrum and the religious rainbow expanded, did I start to get it.
I’ve often heard an argument for the absurdity of anti-Semitism that draws on the fact that Jews have been simultaneously persecuted for contradictory reasons – for being both arch-capitalists and communists, etc.
It’s easy to roll one’s eyes and nod along, but I’m sorry to say the argument is specious.
Jews are broadminded people. We don’t confine ourselves to one ideological extreme or the other. However, we do tend to wiggle ourselves to the extreme or vanguard of whatever ideology tickles our fancy – so yes, Jews could well have been both the leading capitalists and Communists, etc., in one society at the same time.
So, Dick, on that account I could tell you now (if you’re still around) that Jews being both liberal and business-minded is only a mystery until you realize something else about us.
We are wildly idealistic and we realize that paradoxes only exist to be bridged.
The roots of these traits lie in the Jew’s spiritual essence. The Jewish mystical mission – why we are here – is to ‘bring heaven down to earth’.
This has two connotations. One is to transform earthly society and its shortcomings into something higher, more enlightened, harmonious, and just.
It’s a wildly idealistic goal, which only wild and powerful idealists could ever hope to achieve.
The second connotation is bridging the paradox of the two ultimate opposites, the pure spirituality of “heaven” with the unadulterated physicality of “earth.”
Now both of these endeavors need clearly defined, objective, parameters to avoid careening widely off course. The Kabbalah tells us that this is exactly the purpose of the Torah, when properly understood and applied – the blueprint for our mission to bring heaven down to earth.
It tells us when and where to lean left, when and where to list right, and when to stay the middle course. When the powerful, extreme “engine” of the Jew becomes disconnected from the navigating “rudder” of the Torah, the steward-“ship” of our mission can even stray far enough off course as to eventually enter shark-infested waters. But, after all, I’m not here to postulate on the roots of anti-Semitism.
I don’t know if Dick would understand any of this, as to him the battle lines were clearly drawn. But he gave me four years of college spending money, and for that I am grateful, and anyway what’s a little paradox, puzzlement, and (perhaps) profundity, compared to dishpan hands?