In my eyes, the rabbi had declared I was irredeemable. I was eleven years old.
In the late 1970s, Frank Collin was Midwest coordinator for the National Socialist White People’s Party, formerly known as the American Nazi Party. The NSWPP was based on the ideology of Adolf Hitler. It sponsored public marches with full displays of Nazi symbols such as swastikas. Sporting a Hitler hairdo, Collin dressed in dark slacks tucked into high black boots in the Nazi style.1
Collin came to national attention when he planned to bring a Nazi march to Skokie, Illinois, a predominantly Jewish suburb of Chicago and home to many Jewish concentration camp survivors. The plan led to extensive national publicity and a Supreme Court case. (The court affirmed the right of Collin’s Nazis to march.)
Collin’s career in the NSWPP was cut short when his party rivals revealed that Collin’s father was Jewish and a concentration camp survivor. The father, Max Collin, had changed his name from Cohen (or Cohn) to Collin.
Frank Collin was an extreme case of a Jewish person who turned against his own kind. But the phenomenon of anti-Semitic Jews is by no means rare.
My early Jewish identity
Why would a Jew turn against his own people?
Although I never approached the extremes of Frank Collin, nevertheless my life experience has some bearing here.
I was raised by two Holocaust survivors who were traumatized by their life experiences. They never shed their Jewish identity, but they unwittingly created an upbringing for me that did anything but encourage me to think of myself as Jewish.
My parents had been religious before the Second World War. But afterwards, as my mother explained to me, they lost faith in a God they believed had abandoned them.
“The Jewish men in their black coats sit in synagogue praying all day, and it won’t do them a bit of good when the Germans come for them.”
Along with their faith in God, my parents abandoned most of their Jewish cultural practices. In my childhood I don’t remember inspiring lessons from the Torah, a relationship with a wise rabbi, or happy celebrations of Purim or Chanukah. I don’t remember anything uplifting, beneficial or fun about Judaism.
What my parents did provide were grim reminders of the burdens—-and especially the dangers—- of being Jewish. Again, my mother: “Don’t even think about marrying a non-Jewish girl. She’ll turn on you and call you a ‘dirty Jew.’”
But the most powerful parental messages came without words. My parents never lost their fear that the authorities and their enablers among the population were coming after the Jews. If, while driving, my father spotted a police car in his rear view mirror, he panicked. Mom was fearful of her supervisors at work, strangers and neighbors. Dangers lurked in every corner.
I would awaken at night to find Mom sobbing, alone, at the kitchen table. She felt guilty about abandoning her father to the Germans during the war. (The Germans killed him as part of a mass shooting.) I remember my aunt launching into hysterics when I returned from an afternoon outing without my uncle who had taken me on a walk. I understood: Once your loved one was out of sight there was no telling if you would ever see him again.
One day my father dragged me to the rabbi to see what could be done to prepare me for reciting the haftorah at my upcoming Bar Mitzvah. The rabbi handed me a prayer book written in Hebrew. “Read this,” he demanded.
Having detached from Judaism, my parents hadn’t taught me Hebrew. So my performance for the rabbi was poor. When I was done reading, the rabbi decided that my Hebrew skills were not up to par.
“He can’t be a student here.”
In my eyes, the rabbi had declared I was irredeemable. I was eleven years old.
Given all this, why would I want to be a Jew? I didn’t.
After college, I moved to the Midwest because I hoped I would become like the people I thought of as “Americans”— not Jewish (like so many in New York City where I grew up) and certainly not clueless refugees with foreign accents and strange manners, like my parents. I deliberately shed my New York accent and never thought about Jews, God or the history of my people. That would come much later.
So in a way, I understand Frank Collin’s desire to be the very opposite of what he really was — a Jew.
But abandoning Judaism is one thing. Standing against one’s own people is something else entirely. Why do it?
The utility of abandoning a Jewish identity
For some Jews, abandoning one’s ties to Judaism is a conscious decision motivated by the desire for social or financial gain. I think here of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jewish publisher of the influential New York Times newspaper during the Holocaust years. The story of how the Times buried news of the mass killings of European Jews during the Holocaust is well documented.2 (Given the stature of the Times, other major American papers followed suit. If the Times didn’t report it, it wasn’t news.)
Sulzberger sought to avoid the charge that the Times was a “Jewish newspaper.” What better way to accomplish this than to report unsympathetically on Jews, or better yet, not report about them at all?
I imagine that many successful American Jews followed the same strategy… although with less tragic results. Their path to social and economic success was easier if they posed as gentiles. So they thought and so it was for a long time. This was behind the common practice of Americanizing Jewish last names. Thus, Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan; Issur Danielovitch became Kirk Douglas; and so on. And this practice was not limited to famous Jews.
Some Jews abandon their Jewish identity because they have absorbed negative societal attitudes about Jews. They themselves have become anti-Semites. So, if I think of Jews as crafty and stingy, I am certainly not going to think I am like that. It is better to believe I am not really “Jewish” with all that it implies.
The phenomenon of the anti-Jewish Jew is so much in evidence today that it has by now been much discussed. Playwright and novelist David Mamet has written a book about it: The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews. According to Mamet, “The world hates the Jews. The world has always and will continue to do so.”3 Some Jews have turned this hatred inward.
When I moved to Wisconsin for graduate school I met a fellow who was eager to have me meet his roommate. “Steve is Jewish too. You guys should meet.” But when I met Steve he told me, “Oh, so you are Jewish. Well, I hope you’re not too Jewish.” I didn’t have to think long to understand what he meant. I still understand it.
Sociologists have studied the experience of minorities in various cultures. Minorities are often devalued by those in the majority culture and take on negative beliefs about their group and themselves. This is not unique to Jews; it happens to many minority groups.
I think of an episode of “Kids Say the Darnest Things.” This was a segment in the popular 1960s Art Linkletter television show in which Linkletter conducted impromptu interviews with young children on a variety of everyday topics.
Linkletter addressed a question to a small Black boy.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“White.” The boy shot back.
Stunned and bemused, Linkletter asked why.
“Because my Mama says Black men are no good.”
Without knowing it, the boy had just spoken volumes about the way Black people’s self-esteem had been damaged by a racist culture.
Israel and Jewish identity avoidance
In more recent times, another motive has emerged for “Jewish Identity Avoidance.” Israel has become a popular target for anti-Semites and progressives who believe that it is an illegitimate country that does horrible things to its minorities. Many Jewish students at college campuses in the West have been indoctrinated in this negative narrative about Israel. For some Jews, speaking out against Israel (“Even though I am a Jew”) is the easiest route to acceptance by their progressive fellow students and teachers.
Jewish anti-Semitism should not shock us. In its mild form it appears as the Jewish man who doesn’t want to be “too Jewish.” At its extreme, a Frank Collin emerges. None of this is good.
- Frank Collin, Wikipedia. Retrieved March 27, 2017 from:
- Buried By The Times, Wikipedia. Retrieved March 27, 2017 from:
- Mamet, D. The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews. Schocken (New York), 2006, p. 4.