On Being a Bad Jew

One of the great things about blogging is that all the stuff I fulminated about in private over the last few years (not getting assigned to write about it for Mainstream magazines) I now have to put down in cyberspace, and take responsibility for. Sometimes people get angry at me, sometimes I go over the line. But I learn a lot about my ideas, and myself. I make mistakes, and I don’t get fired or disciplined. I am truly grateful for this experience. It’s made me more intellectually and emotionally mature.

A lot of this process, of course, involves my hot-button relationship with my Jewish roots, and my self-description as an “assimilator.” I get active comment on this score, a lot of it judgmental. Frankly, I am even grateful to these people.

They are taking time to engage with me, and to comment to me. Some of them want to excommunicate me, but I believe there’s also a generosity in their actions. Heck: I doubt they’ll convert me, and meantime I will learn to make better argument for myself.

This is apropos of an anonymous commenter providing the following on my reflections about sitting next to my liberal Protestant, West-Bank-Arab-hospital-visiting mother-in-law at Andover commencement:

Israeli Arabs receive better, free health care than US citizens and low-cost, high-quality childcare, are represented in the Knesset, have a higher standard of living than citizens of any other Arab country, don’t serve in the Israeli military, and pay 275 Million dollars in taxes and receive 1.6 billion dollars in benefits.

Rabbis give brachot not benedictions…tribe members don’t inter-marry, however, your still more-or-less in the tribe until you have your non-Jewish children.

I admire his dispassionate tone. For my side, I just want to say that the program for the Andover commencement (what they call, fustily, Order of Exercises at Exhibition) states that the “Benediction” was done by Rabbi Neil Kominsky, D.D. So: talk to the rabbi about that. I think the difference may reflect real differences in Jewish custom between Reformed and more conservative Jews (I grew up Conservative, by the way, or so my father fashioned it; we didn’t like the Reformed suburban megatemples).

As to my being out of the tribe—I can’t fight that; I really am assimilating, though I will always be Jewish and Jewy in character—this gets to the heart of my Jewish problem. Can you achieve great success in America, indeed a place in the Establishment that “runs” America, and maintain a tribal identity that is so separate as to, for instance, require in-marriage? For myself, the answer was No. That’s for myself: I don’t offer a program for others to assimilate as well. But I would repeat something I’ve said before: Joe Lieberman had the same answer. When he was running for vice president, he lied on Imus, saying that his Jewish religious organizations (conservative ones) did not place a bar on intermarriage. Lieberman surely felt this misrepresentation was politically necessary. Maybe to counter antisemitism, which I believe was a real and unspoken factor in the 2000 race (resulting, for instance, in Gore-Lieberman losing Tennessee). Maybe another reason was that he wanted to present Jewish culture to the nonJewish public as a democratic one&#151or, in the parlance of modern America, accessible. My commenter and I agree: the tribe is not accessible.

This tension between the values of tribe and polity, experienced by both Lieberman and myself, is important. For him, politically, it could mean that antisemitism will still be a fact of high political existence: that Jews will not be trusted with the presidency (especially after the wreckage of the neocons!). Myself I feel a need to resolve it intellectually in ways that go beyond the judgment, shared by myself and many of my commenters, though maybe not by my mother-in-law, that I’m a bad Jew. I love my Americanness. When I got married, a good Jewish friend said, “You know the only question: Will they hide you?” He meant, Would my goyische relations hide me from enemies (and of course he meant the holocaust). The answer is Yes.