Steve Wenick

Jewish American angst

It is hard to be a Jew (Shver tsu zayn a yid) is a Yiddish maxim popularized by playwright Shalom Aleichem in his play of the same name. There are differing interpretations as to its meaning. The one expressed in Aleichem’s Jewish theater production dealt with a time when pogroms were a common occurrence against Jews living in the hostile milieus of Russia, Poland, and other European countries. Life for them as a Jew was indeed difficult.

Then there was the Holocaust, and more recently Oct 7, both calamities need no explanation as to why it was hard to be a Jew during those dark days.

Another explanation of the phrase is that while the Gentile world need only adhere to the seven tenets of the Noahide Laws, G-d ordained 613 mitzvot for Jews to follow and variously referred to as the acceptance of the “yoke of the Torah.” In animal husbandry terms, a yoke is restrictive; it keeps the working animal from straying from the task at hand, such as plowing fields. In human terms, the task is to focus one’s attention to the study of Torah and follow its commands.

There are other explanations as well and I offer one for your consideration. Although there is no doubt that we are fortunate to live in America, being a Jew still has its share of challenges. For example: the eruption of the recent spate of antisemitism on college campuses, in the social media, and in the halls of Congress is more than concerning.

But there are more benign examples of how practicing Torah Judaism in the United States has disadvantages. For example, observant Jews cannot fully partake in various activities such as sporting events, discount-sales at the mall, theater excursions, and fieldtrips when held on Saturdays and Jewish holidays. Why, they cannot even get a hot dog at a ball game.

Also, when there is an event that includes a public prayer or invocation, many Jews feel uncomfortable in the expectation of the speaker invoking of the name of Jesus Christ. Then there are the ultra-Orthodox who stand out as Jews and are frequently targeted by antisemitic hoodlums who brutalize them. And forget about wearing a kippah in public because it carries the risk of attracting verbal abuse and worse, while sporting a hijab or keffiyeh draws nary a stare or a glare.

Interestingly, I find that Jews who do not adhere to various religious practices in America may opt to do so when visiting or moving to Israel. Living in Israel promotes and encourages the free and unfettered practice of Judaism, without fear of abuse or attack from their fellow citizens.

Because Jews living in the United States comprise only 2% of the population, it makes living a full Jewish life in the diaspora challenging. There are several reasons for that. Gentiles and less-observant Jews may not understand the underlying reasons for the practices of strictly observant Jews, therefore they unceremoniously write-off Jewish traditions and rituals as being out of touch with modern times and mere relics of the past. When an observant Jew abstains from eating a non-kosher hot dog at a ball game, while less observant Jews indulge in having one, non-Jews question why. Or when an observant Jew will not work or attend school on a Jewish holiday or festival or Shabbat, but less observant Jews do so, non-Jews wonder why. The burden of explaining why there is a disparity of practice among Jews invariably falls upon the observant Jews, not on the less-observant ones.

Jews living in the diaspora face other challenges, many of which are the product of irrational inconsistencies. How do you explain to non-Jews the following: there are Jews who claim to be atheists, yet observe many of the rituals and practices, there are Jews who profess to not believe in G-d, yet believe in miracles, and lastly, there are non-observant Jews who would willingly sacrifice their life rather than deny their Jewishness? The reason may lie in the fact that Judaism’s age-old religious rituals, customs, and practices, have become ingrained in the psyche and culture of even those Jews who may not believe in them, yet faithfully defend them.

Today, the American Jewish community is under siege by those who draw moral equivalency between Hamas’ barbarism and Israel’s efforts to defend its people to safeguard against the reoccurrence of the atrocities committed by Hamas terrorists on Oct 7. Unconscionably, there are groups and movements Jews have supported in the past, who today attack us with menacing threats, mendacious lies, and violence.

Because of myriads of problems and the elevated hostile environment Jews are experiencing today, both inside and outside of Israel, it gives weight and credence to the Yiddish expression, Shver tsu zayn a yid, it is hard to be a Jew.

Despite all the angst we as Jews may suffer, I agree with Rabbi Joshua Davidson, senior rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York who said, “I wouldn’t trade places with anybody.”

About the Author
Since retiring from IBM Steve Wenick has served as a freelance book reviewer for HarperCollins Publishing and Simon & Schuster. His reviews and articles have appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The Algemeiner, Jerusalem Online, Philadelphia Inquirer, Attitudes Magazine, and The Jewish Voice of Southern New Jersey. Steve and his wife are residents of Voorhees, New Jersey.
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