“Some of my best friends are Jewish,” but only under certain conditions, a lesson I learned while stationed at army base Ft. Gordon Georgia, in 1963.
One Shabbat a Jewish chaplain happened to be staying at the army base for a couple of days. That was the first time I heard base’s public address system announce, “Jewish Services will be held today. Jewish personnel wishing to attend, meet at the chapel at 10:30 hours.”
I decided to attend. So I put on a fresh set of fatigues, pulled on a pair of spit-shined boots, and off I went. Fortunately, the rabbi managed to muster ten recruits, so we had a minyan. Although the services were mostly in English, the modest kiddush of wine, herring, and honey-cake, added an air of nostalgic, gastronomic Yiddishkeit.
Upon returning to the barracks one of my friends approached me with a stupefied look on his face and said, “I didn’t know y’all was a Jew. Damn! You ain’t like those other Jews.” I let his misguided observation slide because I assumed he thought it was a compliment. Regretfully, I let a teachable moment slip by.
The point is, for me to be me, in other words a Jew, was unfathomable to him, because my name is not particularly Jewish sounding and I did not conform to all the stereotypes of what a Jew looks and acts like. Therefore, he assumed that I was just one of the regular guys.
So I learned that in certain circles, it was all right for me to be a Jew, as long as I didn’t particularly look or act like the typical characterization of a Jew in Der Stürmer. Not too long ago, the advice given to Jews, if they wanted to be hired or get ahead in their careers, was to change their surname because, “it sounds too Jewish.”
In light of the alarming current rising tide of anti-Semitism in society at large and on college campuses in particular, Shakespeare’s soliloquy takes on special significance, “To be or not to be, that is the question”. It is a question every Jew must answer today.