Hard to be a Jew? Reflections from the Brooklyn Bridge
David Bernat, PhD Executive Director, Synagogue Council of MA
January 10, 2020 Parshat Vayechi
My grandmother would say, “It’s hard to be a Jew, shver tsu zayn a Yid,” The refrain, popularized by Sholom Aleichem, was redolent of the shtetl, pogroms, steerage, sweatshops, and the crowded tenements of Dorchester and Delancy Street. I understood. I studied the histories and heard the stories. But I didn’t feel it. I was raised in suburban edens, in the Goldene Medinah that my immigrant forbearers sought but never found. Yes, I was conscious of our difference—the foods I ate and couldn’t eat, the Christmases and Easters that permeated the atmosphere but were not mine. Still, I could be the Jew I wanted to be, in public and private. Hard—no. Anti-Semitism—No. My parents did prepare me for it, sending me to JDLniks to learn punches and resilience that I, thankfully, never needed to employ. Ironically, the worst violence to which I’d been subjected was teargas at the hands of Jewish extremists as I watched a Soviet ballet troupe at Lincoln Center.
Today, it is getting harder. The onslaught of Jew-hatred is coming from all sides. They shoot us at prayer as a perverse tactic to Make American Great Again. They stigmatize us on campuses based on a twisted calculus of intersectionality where Jews are, by definition, oppressors. A new member of congress reminds us that we are “all about the Benjamins,” and is embraced by some of her party’s leaders and presidential candidates. We are witnessing “Zionism is Racism,” on steroids. Yet, we should not resurrect Bontshe, the diminutive and diminished Jew of Peretz’s fiction who reacted with silent resignation in the face of humiliation and harm. We who are, as Bialik put it, “descendants of Maccabees,” must not “scurry away like mice or hide like bugs” (B`ir Haharegah 1905).
So what to do? How to respond? First, with appropriate vigilance. Isaiah 62:5 remains relevant—“On your walls, Jerusalem, I posted sentries…” On the other hand, let us not wall ourselves in—seek alliances, and be good allies. Stay informed, about our past, and present. And most important—ensure that we are not defined by those who threaten us, that Anti-Semitism does not drive the level and tenor of our Jewish engagement. #JewishandProud Day is every day…Pack into our JCCs, Batei Midrash, and synagogues regularly the way we thronged across the Brooklyn Bridge last Sunday.
This week’s Haftarah imagines David’s last words to Solomon who will succeed him on the throne. He says (1 Kings 2:2) “vchazakta, be strong,” and offers two complementary tacks. One is pragmatic – hold your friends and family close, deal unflinchingly with your foes. The second is the path of tradition and ethics – adhere scrupulously to the Torah of Moses. And there is my takeaway—let us always be guided by our core strengths and values rather than our sense of victimization.