It's Tough to Be a Marginal Jew in Today’s World
Many years ago, a family with a Jewish surname moved to our street in Port Washington, New York, during Purim. We left a plate full of homemade hamantaschen and other holiday pastries on their doorstep, along with a note introducing ourselves. There was no response until Christmas time, when the newcomers invited us to their tree-decorating party. Somewhat apologetically, the husband confided that he was Jewish, but in name only.
Some months later, I heard a banging on my door. It was my neighbor looking grim. “What happened? “Someone spray-painted a swastika on our front door. I can understand this happening to you, but why me?”
This incident came to mind recently, when I read Jonathan Weisman’s (((Semitism))) Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump. Like my neighbor, Weisman, a New York Times editor, was dumfounded when he became a target (designated by the triple parentheses code) by alt-right trolls. In fact, he ranks number five on the top 10 list of 800 journalists subjected to anti-Semitic attacks on Twitter.
“For an assimilated Jew,” he wrote, “that moment – the ‘Who, me? Why me?’ shock – is indelible… in this odd moment, we are singled out for the one trait we have stopped thinking much about: being Jewish. How did anyone even notice me? I thought, perplexed as much as anguished.”
I came across a similar complaint in a 2015 Ha’aretz article, “Confessions of an Incidental Jew,” in which Mike Stern resents being called out:
on the basis of the religion into which I happened to be born…For me, the fact of my Judaism is arbitrary and incidental.
Incidental, that is, until I am defined or challenged, or in any way set apart by someone on the basis of my Judaism. I find this ironic, and something of an affront to my freedom, to the inalienable right of self-creation.
Stern then asks, “Am I a Jew because I say I am, or because others say it: Either way, the decision seems out of my hands.”
The notion that Jews are defined by others was championed by the Jean-Paul Sartre in his book, Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate. The French philosopher assets that Jews would have assimilated long ago into surrounding cultures were it not for anti-Semitism. He insisted that Jews do not have an independent existence; they are an invention of their enemies.
Not so, argues the historian Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg in his book, Jews: The Essence and Character of a People:
It is a serious mistake to dismiss Jewish religion and culture as irrelevant. Jews have deep within them the determination to remain other and to live, often precariously, as a minority…. The Jews are self-created and continue to exist by choice.
When my neighbor said he could understand a swastika on my door, but not his, I thought, had this happened to my family, it would not have been as traumatic. Why? Because we were more resilient, fortified by the determination that derives from a keen sense of Jewish identity. And we were not alone. We belonged to a vital synagogue community that we knew would stand with us in solidarity.
At the end of (((Semite))), Weisman reports how his elder daughter said she didn’t want to look Jewish, afraid she’d be targeted by anti-Semites, as her father was. He exhorted her to be proud of her heritage and to be unafraid, but admits, “it was probably of little use.” He then mused what he should have said, quoting Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg in Jews:
There is no quiet life for Jews anywhere, at least not for long. The only question is whether one lives among the tempests with purpose and dignity. We Jews know why we suffer. Society resents anyone who challenges its fundamental beliefs, behavior, and prejudices. The ruling class does not like to be told that morality overrules power. I say it is far better to be the chosen people, the goad and the irritant to much of humanity than to live timidly and fearfully. Jews exist to be bold.
As Jews, do we choose to define ourselves on our own terms; or do we surrender that power to others? That is the question.