Gefen Bar-On Santor

Jim, Boaz and the burden of virtue

Source for image:,_Hausdlmen,_Gerstefeld_am_Sythener_Hellweg_--_2022_--_1431.jpg

Since October 7, Jewish people who love Israel have been gaslighted in myriad ways by haters of Israel who claim to not be antisemitic. One of these ways has been the implied “tribalism” accusation. Isn’t it tragic, some suggest, that Jewish people who should know better and have universal concern for human rights nevertheless choose to side with their own (demonized) “tribe” of Israel? (never mind that so many of us were raised in family and school environments in which universal human rights were greatly emphasized).

Some human-rights champions who implicitly accuse Jewish people of “tribalism” and disloyalty to humanity rarely explain their own apparent relative lack of concern for human rights when the victims are Jewish—and do not seem to reflect deeply on their own tendency to do what the Hamas, a systemic violator of human rights, would like people in the West do do—attack Israel with misleading and distorting rhetoric (which does not help the Palestinian people).

Nor do haters of Israel acknowledge the “tribalism” of Jew hate.  I have been using the term “pleasures of Jew hate” intuitively to describe what has been observed since October 7—a Dionysian attack on Jewish people who love Israel precisely at the time when compassion and understanding of the immensity of the tragedy that Israel is facing are sorely needed.  Recently, I came across a brilliant 2013 analysis by Eve Gerrard that also uses the term “pleasures of antisemitism” and analyses three sources for it: “first, the pleasure of hatred; second, the pleasure of tradition, and third, the pleasure of displaying moral purity.”

Tradition! Those who look down at Jews for “tribalism” and regard themselves in contrast as defending universal moral principles might indeed benefit from reflecting on their own participation in the living tradition of antisemitism.

This week in particular, in the days leading up to the celebration of Shavuot, beginning on the evening of June 11, tribalism is interesting to contemplate.

Shavuot celebrates two things:

  1. The covenant with God (it is believed that God gave the ten commandments on Shavuot.)
  2. The barley harvest in ancient Israel

The Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot because it takes place during the time of the barley harvest in ancient Bethlehem and because the kindness of Ruth and Boaz help to fulfill the covenant with God.  God is not present in the book of Ruth in the form of miracles but rather expects human beings to do what is right.  Both the 10 commandments and the book of Ruth are examples of how Jewish “tribalism,” and the attraction of Jewish culture to moral thinking, might have done a fair bit of good to humanity as a whole.

In the book of Ruth, an Israelite family, Naomi, Elimelech and their two sons, leave their home in Bethlehem due to a famine to make a life for themselves in the land of Moab, across the Jordan river. Elimelech dies, and the two sons marry Moabite women—Orpah and Ruth—but then the sons also die.  The family thus remains entirely female: Naomi and her two daughters in law on their own in Moab.

Naomi pleads with Orpah and Ruth to do what is rational and return to their families so that they may remarry and enjoy the protection of a husband.  Orpah, after some convincing, does just that.  But Ruth movingly insists on remaining with her mother-in-law and returning with her to an uncertain future in Bethlehem:

“They broke into weeping again, and Orpah [whose name in Hebrew means the back of the neck] kissed her mother-in-law farewell.  But Ruth clung to her, “Do not urge me to leave you.  For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.  Thus and more may the Lord do to me if anything but death parts me from you.  When Noami saw how determined she was to go with her, she ceased to argue with her; and the two went on until they reached Bethlehem.” (1.14-19)

In Bethlehem, Ruth works hard to glean in the fields of barley and make ends meet to support herself and her mother-in-law. Boaz, a wealthy Israelite farmer in whose field Ruth gleans, is deeply moved by Ruth’s devotion and favors her even though the Moabites and Israelites were enemy tribes.

Naomi and Ruth then make a plan to get closer to Boaz.  Naomi tells Ruth:

“[Boaz] will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor tonight.  So bathe, anoint yourself, dress up, and go down to the threshing floor. But do not disclose yourself to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, note the place where he lies down, and go over and uncover his feet and lie down.” (3.2-4)

“She went down to the threshing floor and did just as her mother-in-law had instructed her. Boaz ate and drank, and in a cheerful mood went to lie down beside the grainpile. Then she went over stealthily and uncovered his feet and lay down.  In the middle of the night, the man gave a start and pulled back—there was a woman lying at his feet!” (3.6-8)

In the Bible, uncovering a men’s feet was a sexual euphemism. Responding to this initiative, Boaz could have exploited Ruth sexually and then discarded her—but instead he marries her, and together they become the ancestors of King David, and in the Christian tradition also of Jesus.

Contemplating the virtue of Ruth and Boaz, there is another literary pair that in my mind walks beside them in the fertile fields. That other pair are Jim Burden and the Bohemian immigrant Antonia Shimerda in Willa Cather’s My Antonia, which takes place in the late nineteenth century in rural Nebraska in the fictional town of Blackhawk.

In 2018, Trump got into trouble for saying that he desired more immigrants from Norway and fewer from what he misguidedly called “*hithole countries.”  But in Jim’s nineteenth-century Nebraska, Scandinavians and Bohemians were considered second-class citizens. Jim, the grandson of well-established farmers, is critical of the racism around him, just as Boaz might be critical of Israelite bigotry toward the Moabites. Jim reflects, “I thought the attitude of the town people toward these [immigrant] girls very stupid. If I told my schoolmates that Lena Lingard’s grandfather was a clergyman, and much respected in Norway, they looked at me blankly. What did it matter? All foreigners were ignorant people who could not speak English.”

Reflecting on his childhood and adolescence twenty years later, Jim remembers with disdain how the non-immigrant young women in the fictional town of Black Hawk “had a confident, unenquiring belief that they were ‘refined,’ and that the [immigrant] country girls who ‘worked out’ were not.” Many recent European immigrant girls became hired help out of economic necessity: “The Bohemian and Scandinavian girls could not get positions as teachers, because they had no opportunity to learn the language. Determined to help in the struggle to clear the homestead from debt, they had no alternative but to go into service.”

Confronting hardship with a solid work ethic often generated prosperity in the long run, as it does in the case of the Biblical Ruth, albeit in Ruth’s case through marriage: “One result of this family solidarity was that the foreign farmers in our country were the first to become prosperous. After the fathers were out of debt, the daughters married the sons of neighbours—usually of like nationality—and the girls who once worked in Black Hawk kitchens are to-day managing big farms and fine families of their own; their children are better off than the children of the town women they used to serve. . . . To-day the best that a harassed Black Hawk merchant can hope for is to sell provisions and farm machinery and automobiles to the rich farms where that first crop of stalwart Bohemian and Scandinavian girls are now the mistresses.”

Scandinavian and other immigrant girls were regarded as “a menace to the social order” by parents worried that their sons would fall in love with an immigrant.  The local boys, Jim observes, “looked forward to marrying [non-immigrant] Black Hawk girls, and living in a brand-new little house with best chairs that must not be sat upon, and hand-painted china that must not be used.  But sometimes a young fellow would look up from his ledger or out through the grating of his father’s bank, and let his eyes follow Lena Lingard [from a Norwegian immigrant family], as she passed the window with her slow, undulating walk.”

Jim wryly reassures the readers, however, that “anxious mothers need have no alarm.  They mistook the mettle of their sons.  The respect for respectability was stronger than any desire in Black Hawk youth.”  When a local man seems to show serious interest in the Norwegian Lena, Jim is hopeful that the discriminatory status quo might be challenged: “In my ingeniousness I hoped that Sylvester would marry Lena, and thus give all the country girls a better position in the town.”  The groom-to-be, however, is overwhelmed with the prospect of a marriage to a Norwegian immigrant: “To escape from his predicament he ran away with a widow six years older than himself, who owned a half-section.  This remedy worked, apparently.  He never looked at Lena again, nor lifted his eyes as he ceremoniously tipped his hat when he happened to meet her on the sidewalk.”

For Jim, the romantic rejection underscores deeper injustice: “So that was what they were like, I thought, these white-handed, high-collared clerks and bookkeepers!  I used to glare at young [Sylvester] Lovett from a distance and only wished I had some way of showing my contempt for him.”

The sensitive, intelligent and observant Jim—attractive to the readers because he is “of the land” and yet inclusive of people of different backgrounds who are willing to work hard on it—seems at times to stand for what is hopeful, humane and just about the American dream.

And yet, in the beginning of the novel, the narrator who frames the narrative, a childhood friend of both Jim and Antonia, tells us this about Jim in his later adult life:

“Although Jim Burden and I both live in New York, and are old friends, I do not see much of him there. He is legal counsel for one of the great Western railways, and is sometimes away from his New York office for weeks together. That is one reason why we do not often meet. Another is that I do not like his wife. When Jim was still an obscure young lawyer, struggling to make his way in New York, his career was suddenly advanced by a brilliant marriage. Jim’s wife Genevieve Whitney . . . . is handsome, energetic, executive, but to me she seems unimpressionable and temperamentally incapable of enthusiasm.”

In other words, Jim did not marry Antonia, his would-be Ruth.  Rather, he moved away from the agricultural town and up the American socio-economic ladder.  He did not have the courage—or perhaps a sufficient attraction to “the other”—to break the exclusionary pattern that he sharply observes and criticizes.  In the fields of Nebraska, Antonia may be a potential Ruth, but Jim is no Boaz.  Antonia and Jim do not belong to precisely the same tribes.

Matters of the heart are not basic human rights.  They cannot be legislated or advocated for on the grounds of social justice.  In the novel, however, love and marriage are to a large extent determined by social positioning.  Jim’s choice to move away from Antonia to New York and enter a socially advantageous but apparently loveless marriage is not irrelevant to the invisible fences that encircle Antonia and the other immigrants.

The reasons for Jim’s relative passivity in relation to Antonia are multiple, but one of them is that, under the influence of his family and environment, something about Antonia and her family remains foreign and “distasteful” to Jim.

Is Jim a failed would-be Boaz?

For Boaz, Ruth’s hard work to support her mother-in-law Naomi is a source of attraction. But when Antonia starts to labour harder in the fields after her father commits suicide out of despair due to the harsh conditions, Antonia becomes less attractive to Jim:

“Everything was disagreeable to me. Antonia ate so noisily now, like a man, and she yawned often at the table and kept stretching her arms over her head, as if they ached. Grandmother had said, ‘Heavy field work’ll spoil that girl. She’ll lose all her nice ways and get rough ones.’ She had lost them already.”

When Jim leaves Blackhawk, he also leaves Antonia behind: “I told Antonia I would come back, but life intervened, and it was twenty years before I kept my promise. Unlike Ruth and Boaz who start a dynasty together, Antonia jokes about Jim’s childless marriage, which might be symbolic of the lovelessness of that union: “When I told her I had no children, she seemed embarrassed. ‘Oh, ain’t that too bad! Maybe you could take one of my bad ones, now? That Leo; he’s the worst of all.’ She leaned toward me with a smile. ‘And I love him the best,’ she whispered.”

Two decades later, Jim’s feelings are ones of regret and yearning for glorious times spent together with Antonia—a sentiment captured by the novel’s Virgilian epigraph “the best days are first to flee.”

Reflecting on fall afternoons with Antonia, Jim remembers:

“All those fall afternoons were the same, but I never got used to them. As far as we could see, the miles of copper-red grass were drenched in sunlight that was stronger and fiercer than at any other time of the day. The blond cornfields were red gold, the haystacks turned rosy and threw long shadows. The whole prairie was like the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed. That hour always had the exultation of victory, of triumphant ending, like a hero’s death—heroes who died young and gloriously. It was a sudden transfiguration, a lifting-up of day. How many an afternoon Antonia and I have trailed along the prairie under that magnificence! And always two long black shadows flitted before us or followed after, dark spots on the ruddy grass.”

The burning bush was the beginning of Moses’s divinely appointed journey to liberate the Israelites from slavery in Egypt—culminating in the giving of the ten commandments in the desert.  Today, we are implicitly told that a new religion of virtue requires the destruction of Israel—the destination of the ancient Israelites wandering in the desert and home to almost half of today’s Jewish people.

And yet, enduring literary texts such as Ruth and My Antonia remind us that virtue can be hard work—and work that often fails, with the disappointment trailing us like a shadow.  What is the sense and what is the virtue in trying to make Israel a fleeting reality? This is a question that people who conceptualize the defense of Israel as “tribalism” might benefit from asking themselves more deeply.


Text of My Antonia:

About the Author
Gefen Bar-On Santor teaches English at the University of Ottawa, as well as adult-education literature courses at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre in Ottawa, Canada. She is an enthusiastic believer in life-long learning and in the relevance of fiction to our lives. She also writes at
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