An apology to my elementary school rebbis
Credit where it’s due.
The epiphany of Theodor Herzl’s Zionist awakening inspired a movement and gave it direction. Rav Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook referred to him in his Lamentation on Herzl’s death in 1904 as Messiah ben Joseph, a Messiah of the physical nation, a necessary precursor to the spiritual Messiah ben Judah, for which Herzl’s secularism disqualified him. But tying Herzl to the Messianic process in any role was not less—nor meant to be less—than a religious approbation, coming as it did from the newly appointed Chief Rabbi of Jaffa.
Herzl’s vision of The Jewish State was founded on a number of historical/philosophical assumptions: the need for a homeland, the right to a homeland. It was also his view that antisemitism was based on the homelessness of the Jew. The Jew belonged nowhere. Wherever he appeared in any country, he was an outsider, an alien. His intentions would always be suspect. Why is he here? What is he after? But give the Jew his own homeland, said Herzl, and he is a visiting tourist or, even as a resident, he is part of a known quantity: a Jew who is rooted in Israel. Like an Irish American in Boston or a Shah and his wives shopping at Selfridges in London: a person who has a home, not to be necessarily feared or mistrusted.
But in this Herzl was wrong. We have been in an authentic, established country for almost seventy-five years now, with a flag and a national anthem and four wins in the Eurovision Song Contest, and if the last few years has shown us anything, apparently antisemitism is doing very nicely, thank you. It doesn’t matter whether we have a country or not. People who have been polite enough to shut up about Jews since the Holocaust (“That was a little much, wasn’t it?”) seem to have been waiting under the rocks and in their holes until their time came around again.
And it has risen up once more with all its vile and venom intact, like the return of a child’s nightmare that we had hoped she had outgrown. “Jews will not replace us!” Swastikas. Fires. Vandalized synagogues. Shootings. Beatings. Is “pogroms” too European a word?
So if it ends up that not having a homeland is not the cause of antisemitism after all, then what is? I don’t know. In a recent published by the Washington Post , Elie Wiesel is quoted as referring to antisemitism as an “irrational disease” which is, I suppose, his way of saying that he doesn’t know either.
I have sometimes wondered if it might not be related to Jews being too much like the smart-ass kid in the class: the one whose homework is always done on time, who gets A’s on tests and papers, who invariably knows the answers when the teacher asks him and can’t even be bothered to raise his hand to volunteer. Everybody pretty much hates that kid.
And here are the Jews. We get “the law” on Sinai. It is a nitpicky, all-encompassing list of grand ethics and ridiculous minutiae, noble gestures and seemingly-arbitrary observances: don’t interweave wool and linen; wear a leather box on your head; don’t cook a goat in its mother’s milk.
And we do it all—without asking anyone’s permission or offering explanation, generation after generation—although it separates us from everyone else in the world, makes us different, ridiculous, self-righteous. And we won’t stop or moderate. Christianity offers us a God of Love and an escape from ritual trivialities, and we are not interested. Islam offers us military conquest and an erotic paradise, and we are not interested.
And apparently, this unrelenting loyalty does us no particular good. We are still despised, and we just keep going on, as if we think we know better, as if we are not even aware of what everyone else thinks. The smart-ass kid in the class who doesn’t even care that they all hate him.
And maybe that’s not it either. Maybe I’m overthinking it. What do I know?
When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn in the 50s, our teachers, our rebbis, were virtually all Eastern European immigrants, most of them with variations on thick Yiddish accents and very few of them with any training or aptitude for teaching. Training Jewish Studies teachers to teach wouldn’t become an idea for another thirty or forty years.
But they had all studied in the best yeshivot in Eastern Europe and they knew to learn, as we say. And because they had seen things we hadn’t seen, in the midst of teaching us the mishnayot on lost objects or the 39 activities forbidden on Shabbat, all of them would sooner or later slip in the midrash: “Rav Shimon ben Yochai says: It is well known that Esau hates Jacob.”
But we were ten or eleven years old and spoke English without an accent and had all been to Ebbets Field; so we all knew what was what.
“Oh c’mon, Reb,” we would say. There were like two million Jews in New York, and we could walk practically wherever we wanted with kippot on our heads. Anyone who wanted to run for office in New York would have to put on one of those silly black silk skullcaps and go meet with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The biggest comedians in America were all Jewish and would throw Yiddish phrases in all the time. Hell, half of Sid Caesar’s German babbling was the Yiddish I heard in shul every Shabbat morning after Kiddush. And was there anyone in the 48 states who didn’t know what chutzpah was?
We learned all about what it was to be American in Social Studies classes: all men are created equal, the land of the free, the home of the brave. Of course, it was Brooklyn in the 50s, and there wasn’t one of us who had a black friend. But the principle was the thing. And we knew—from our parents no less than our teachers—that we were “the tired, the poor, the hungry, yearning to breathe free,” and there weren’t any us who didn’t pledge allegiance to the flag every morning and mean it. The second major festival after the Pesach seder was Thanksgiving. Really. And every year, we celebrated our pilgrim ancestors eating turkey and corn with the Indians.
We were living in a Golden Era. And it really was. It was the best place in the diaspora that Jews had ever known. We were ten years old and knew with the certainty that only a ten-year-old could have that this was the reality of the world and always would be.
Well, what can I say?
The rebbis of my elementary school days are no doubt long gone by now, but I owe them an apology, and I wish I could tell them that. They knew, I am sure, that we would figure it out sooner or later. They always come back, those guys waiting under the rocks. The economy, the politics, the weather: something. Sooner or later they figure out that it is time to crawl on out and give it another try.
It is tempting—I will admit it—to draw parallels to other times and places: the German election of 1933, the Nuremberg Laws in ’35, Kristallnacht in ’38. Tempting, but oversimple and unfair. Washington in 2021 is not Berlin in 1938. Neither, for that matter, is Berlin in 2021. Or London, or Paris, or Vienna.
History does not repeat itself. There are too many variables. No two situations are really comparable and certainly not on the level of a one-to-one analogy. Or as someone once put it, “Go out today and shoot Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and see who goes to war.” So it is not, in the end, particularly useful to look at this incident or that and say, “Here comes Kristallnacht again,” or “Who do you think set the fire in the Reichstag this time?” Too many variables. We have to stretch too far to try to make the equivalencies fit.
I took a course a long time ago with a professor of Demographic History who admitted to me that the actions of one demographic group in a given time and place couldn’t really predict the actions of another group in another time and place. “But,” he said, “there are things we can learn about trends.”
And that struck me as a decidedly reasonable and rational way to view all of these swirling, chaotic moments in history. History doesn’t repeat itself, but there are things we can learn about trends.
So. Trends. For reasons that neither Elie Wiesel nor I quite understand, many people don’t like Jews very much. This anti-Jew feeling may be dormant among the population for significant periods of time, but during times of stress—strong nationalist movements in the host countries seem to be a common stressor—this view of the Jew as the disloyal outsider, the fifth columnist, often surfaces, leading to anti-Jewish rhetoric and then to violent activities, sometimes even to formal government anti-Jewish legislation.
How widespread? How violent? For how long? I don’t know. Trends, not analogies. It could burn itself out. It might carry on a little longer in this country or that. On the other hand, it could grow and expand, deepen and explode.
So what are we supposed to do?
You could have asked German Jews in 1935 and gotten a bucketload of different answers. You can ask the same question now and get no fewer.
The important thing, I think, is to acknowledge that it is a difficult time and to consider your options. Some options are obvious.
You could leave. Mr. Herzl might have gotten the antisemitism pathology wrong, but he got a lot of other things right, and there is at last a country of Israel. It is yours. If you are a Jew, you are entitled by the Law of Return of 1950 to claim citizenship as a right. As no Jew before 1948 could have done, you can fly in, go to the desk at the airport and say: I am a Jew. I want to stay here.
You could become active in some way, especially because you are not alone. If there is an attempt in our time to reclaim America for “The Pure Americans,” this time Jews are not the only ones who are not pure enough. There is active hate speech and incidents of violence against American citizens of colour, Asian-Americans, Latino-Americans, the LGBT community. This amalgam of the not pure enough already forms close to a majority of those who live in this country. It is a political conglomerate that has been defined for us by those Americans who desperately wish all of us not to be here. It is a political movement already forming which needs supporters: organizers, voices, contributors, patriots to stand together and claim what is due to all Americans by constitutional law and moral principle. There are no doubt many ways, large and small, to become involved.
What I don’t think you should do is nothing: sit in the corner and wait for it all to quietly go away. It might, of course; it often does sooner or later. We clean up the glass and collect money to help those who need some assistance, listen to some speeches of comfort and resolve, and move on. But even if it does all calm down in a month or a year or two—how long has it been so far?—you might feel a little sheepish explaining to children or grandchildren why it was that you decided to stay on the side and wait for it to pass. Or to your friends who didn’t stand on the side and perhaps had to pay a price for trying to make a difficult time better.
No simple answers, I know. Complex questions don’t generally have simple answers, no matter how it works out in Hallmark movies…and all in under two hours with time for commercials. You live in a complicated world, and I know you didn’t ask for it to be this way. But you don’t always get the choice, do you?
And of course, if it doesn’t die down quickly, it becomes all that much more alarming.