There’s a woman sitting on a bus directly across from a man with a long white beard, black hat, long black coat, and black pants, and after a few minutes of fidgeting in her seat she faces him directly and says: “You chasidim are an embarrassment to the rest of us.
“You dress as if you live in the Middle Ages, you never bathe, you smell, you breed like rabbits, and you let your children run amok.
“Why don’t you get over that nonsense and come join the rest of the world in the 21st century?”
The man looks at her, smiles and says: “I’m sorry, madam, but I’m not a chasid. I’m Amish!”
She stops in mid-sentence and says: “Oh, you know, it is so beautiful the way your people stay true to your customs.”
Do we just laugh, or do we laugh and then think: “Whoa, that really isn’t funny”?
Jews have been vilified throughout the ages. We were held responsible for deicide, the death of Jesus Christ, which the Roman Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council renounced in 1965. In 1517, when Martin Luther failed to convert many Jews, he turned against them. “Their synagogues… should be set on fire, and what does not burn must be covered over with earth so that no man will ever see stone or cinder of them again,” he said. “Their houses also should be razed and destroyed…. All their prayer books … should be taken from them.”
There was plenty of artwork that portrayed Jews with horns, or cloven hoofs like a pig’s, or even worse, pictures of Jews using the blood of Christian children in ritual sacrifices — the blood libel.
Many countries put Jews into segregated ghettos, and in many countries we were denied citizenship, we certainly couldn’t hold government office, and because we weren’t allowed to pursue many professions, we were “forced” into becoming businessmen, money lenders, and the like.
I think about Shylock in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.”
Is Shylock disgraced because he is a Jew, or is he a disgrace as a human being who just happens to be Jewish? There are many ways to look at it, a plethora of books and articles written about it, and I’m sure that every actor who ever played Shylock has his own take on the subject.
For me, there is no doubt it’s the former.
Shylock expounds on all the evil things done to him “…and what’s his reason? I am a Jew.”
These words send shivers up my spine, and I recall all the crap I put up with just for being a Jew. Even now it sends a tear down my cheek, as I have asked these exact questions over and over through my wanderings and sufferings, benign though they are in the scheme of things, albeit not in my scheme of things.
After centuries of Jew-hatred from the non-Jewish world, we’re still dealing with antisemitism, and a lot of it is coming from our own.
Rabbi Mark Kiel, with whom I shared the pulpit at Congregation B’Nai Israel for more than a dozen years, used to quip: “we’re Orthodox clergy in a Conservative synagogue with Reform congregants.”
Whether it’s humorous or ironic, it’s the way much of my generation who identify as Conservative Jews live their lives today.
Many Reform synagogues didn’t allow talleisim, and many men sat bare-headed during services. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, Conservative Jews believed that Reform Judaism was closer to Christianity than to Judaism, so now, even though they live their lives with a limited connection to the laws of the Torah, God forbid they identify as Reform Jews!
That’s no longer true today as many Reform synagogues have moved to the right, and many Conservative synagogues have moved to the left.
How dare we judge the way other Jews practice Judaism? How dare we judge their mode of dress, their adherence to the laws or lack thereof?
America is a country where we are free to live our lives and form our own belief systems, and most immigrants, no matter their religious beliefs, came to America to escape injustices and religious intolerance.
It’s time to celebrate our similarities rather than our differences. It’s time to unite as we never have before. It’s time to stand up against gangs like the Proud Boys whose t-shirts read 6MWE (six million wasn’t enough).
Do we actually expect all Jews to adhere to the same laws, observe rituals the same way, or dress according to societal norms?
We look at other cultures and, just like the piece I started with, laud them for maintaining cultural mores that are centuries old. Why don’t we laud Jews who do the same?
I use the answer that was given to Molly Brown (from the movie “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”) when she was hobnobbing with royalty all over Europe.
She didn’t understand why earls and dukes and lords and ladies loved spending time with her, laughed at her jokes, and couldn’t wait to be with Molly, when Denver society shunned her as if she had the plague.
A titled Brit (a baron, a duke or…), sitting at the table with her, says: They shun you because you are only one generation away from where they came from.
Think about your ancestors. Where they came from, how they practiced Judaism, and what they had to endure before you denigrate any member of our tribe.
Remember, one or two generations back, that could have been you!
“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?
“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we resemble you in that…”
I know all of this. I know that we are all created the same, right? We are, aren’t we? Some bigger, some smaller, hairier, prettier… What’s the difference? We all have something to give.
Cantor/Rabbi Lenny Mandel, who left the wilds of Manhattan almost 50 years ago and lives in West Orange, has been the hazan at Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson for the past quarter century.