Michael: It’s just that you locked me into it. I mean my son, he’s gonna be a Jew but what does that mean? … Do I really feel like a Jew? What is a Jew supposed to feel like?
Ben: You’re asking me? How the hell do I know? You’re a Jew just like me. Maybe we lived it different, maybe I had rocks thrown at me when I was a kid, maybe you didn’t. Does that make me more of a Jew than you? Don’t look up to me, kid, I’m not looking down at you, I’m next to you.
This is an excerpt from an episode of “Thirtysomething” called “The Bris.” The series chronicled a group of friends in Philadelphia as they grappled with both their personal and their professional lives. The Stedmans were at the center of the series. Michael, the Jew, was married to Hope, the non-Jew. And though they had a girl named Janie, it was not until they had a boy that an irrevocable decision had to be made as the clock ticked down to the eighth day after he was born. Would there be a bris? What becomes all too clear is that it is Michael, the Jewish partner, who has the most trouble coming to terms with what decision to make.
In comes Alan King, as Ben, his mother’s new boyfriend, who tries to help by securing a mohel. That’s when this conversation happens. In the end, Michael comes to terms with the fact that he wants his son to be a Jew, that there is important meaning in it for him. As many of us have experienced with friends and/or family, however, many times there isn’t even a discussion, even if the non-Jewish partner is willing, as was the case in this episode, to raise the children in the Jewish faith.
In the early 1900s, when they were young, my grandmother and a friend were walking in their East Harlem neighborhood when they were stopped by two bullies. The bullies asked them if they were Jews. My grandmother was scared but said yes, while her friend denied it. The bullies beat up the friend because he didn’t have the guts to stand up for who he was. (To answer the question of whether the bullies did not beat up my grandmother because they did not want to attack girls, that is not the case. When they hit her friend, he was so stunned that he blurted out “Why did you hit me?” And one of them responded that he was a coward not to admit that he was a Jew, and at least the girl had the guts to admit it.) This incident always stood as a lesson that even during times of overt Jew hatred, be strong and don’t deny who you are. After all, if we don’t respect ourselves, how can we be respected?
And so, in this time of increased anti-Semitism fueling anti-Israel hatred, it seems especially important for every one of us to have the discussion in our synagogues, with our families and within ourselves, of what makes a Jew say to God, Hineni. I am here.
It sounds simple, but it isn’t.
Abraham said Hineni to God and started a revolution in the world, one in which each life became holy. A world where each individual person counted and human sacrifice was forbidden. A world in which there are laws that even a king must abide by and so much more. It is fair to ask whether there would have been an American revolution, a Constitution, or a Bill of Rights without Abraham’s first Hineni.
But we also saw, starting with Abraham, that being a Jew was not always going to be easy. That having a Jewish identity, no matter what the level of commitment, can be hard. That the world has a long history of not being kind to the Jewish people, and that’s true even of those friends we believe in who become silent when we need them most.
Thus, each one of us must figure out why we are Jews. Not why our parents or our schools or community want us to be. But to make a lifelong commitment, we must learn what being a Jew means according to our sacred texts and with vibrant discussion beginning at a young age. To be clear, this does not mean that every person has to be religious to be a proud Jew. Not at all. But this knowledge and continuous debate will strengthen each of our children and their families to have happiness but also courage to meet whatever lies in the road ahead.
And this was in my thoughts as I attended a rally against the proliferation of anti-Semitic incidents that took place near City Hall in Manhattan a few weeks ago. According to the NYPD, more than half of all reported hate crimes in all five boroughs of New York City were committed against Jews, and that data did not include recently reported subway complaints more than doubling over last year. Although many organizations are fundraising off the increase in anti-Semitism, all but a very few of them alerted their supporters to the rally, and there were only about 100 there. Why was the organizational Jewish community missing in action?
There were a few non-Jews who spoke, including an attorney from the Brooklyn District Attorney’s dedicated hate crimes unit who referenced other attorneys in the crowd who were there, but why weren’t there a thousand people there on a Sunday?
What kind of statement does it make when there is such a lackluster showing of Jewish unity in New York City, where millions of Jews live, work, and contribute? Do we have to wait for another pogrom like there was in Crown Heights in 1991, when rabbinic student Yankel Rosenbaum heard “Kill the Jew” as he was stabbed to death? Do we need to wait for such tragedy for us to turn out for each other? Do we unite only in tragedy?
In fact, a number of the recent incidents have happened in Crown Heights, where Jews are easy targets due to their chasidic dress. Where are the politicians? What about the activists behind the Crown Heights annual festival celebrating advancements made since the 1991 riots? Why aren’t they center stage, rallying the community to say that the targeting of Jews is unacceptable, and that hatred will not be tolerated? And, just as importantly, why isn’t the larger Jewish community making crystal clear that we may not worship or live in the same way but we are tied together in American Jewish unity? Outside appearance aside, we will not tolerate this as we wouldn’t for any other group that is targeted with hate. As Ben said to Michael, “I’m next to you.” Hineni.
The same is true on the BDS front. Right here — at NYU, Columbia, Rutgers and other local colleges — virulently anti-Semitic professors become tenured and Jewish students are branded as racists. And though we have small victories, our leadership seems powerless in stopping the unfounded hatred.
It is time for us to state clearly that we will stand together in educating our non-Jewish community and say that we won’t stand silent when lies are spread to harm innocents. We will demand the respect and support we give to others. Hineni.
In another episode of “Thirtysomething,” Ellen says to Gary, “Don’t tell me what you can’t do, tell me what you can do. Tell me what you’re willing to do.” It’s time to ask our religious and organizational leaders this question and evaluate their actions. Most importantly, it is time to ask ourselves.