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Alan Chartock: On being Jewish

In truth, some Jews run counter to the mythology. Nevertheless, there are some cultural norms that exist among Jews.

By now, most people know that not counting Israel, there are more Jewish people in New York City than anywhere else in the world. Wikipedia tells us that somewhere between 12 percent and 13 percent of New York’s population is Jewish. As an American Jew, I was raised with pride in my religion although my parents hardly ever stepped into a synagogue, unlike the parents of my wife, who resided for most of their lives in upstate Hudson, New York. My twin brother and I were both bar mitzvahed in New York’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. The fact that my parents fiercely identified as Jews and were quick to despise anti-Semitic individuals and rhetoric put them squarely in the middle of the Jewish population in this country where, far and away, most people of Jewish descent do not see themselves as religious Jews.

There are many myths about American Jews including that they don’t drink or beat their wives and they all have money. In truth, some Jews run counter to the mythology. Nevertheless, there are some cultural norms that exist among Jews. Like many of the Asian populations in this country, education is part of the familial expectation among people of Jewish descent. While not all go to college, many do. All of this goes to help explain the current spate of anti-Semitism that we see on the news every day. To his credit, Gov. Cuomo has astutely added more cops to guard and patrol Jewish religious institutions and Jewish neighborhoods.

Part of the problem involves the charge of anti-Semitism against those who criticize the state of Israel. I’m a pretty good example of this. I have some very negative feelings about Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, his close relationship with Donald Trump, and his unwise moves when it comes to expanding Israeli territory. While I am hardly in sympathy with those who talk about pushing Israel into the sea, I just think that the man has unnecessarily alienated major parts of the world and its leaders. That said, when I hear people putting down Israel or the Jews who support Israel, my hackles go up. I do not think that Jewish people are unique in this. Many Catholics that I know are appalled at the abuses that have come to light in the Catholic church, yet they don’t like people taking shots at their church.

Now we have this spate of anti-Semitic horrors. We are talking about madmen who think it is their duty to kill Jews. We certainly had seen this before, and it has always been so as this virus-like sickness infects people. Painting swastikas on buildings or pushing over gravestones are just a few of the manifestations of this sickness. While we describe all of this as terrifying, it really does amount to a few mentally ill people who are motivated by Donald Trump-type hate. So while we station police outside of synagogues and Jewish institutions, we are not dealing with the systemic disease that infects the minds of the vulnerable. Of course, when Trump suggested that there were “very good people on both sides” in the Charlottesville riots, he was giving the green light to anti-Semites to go ahead with their heinous activities.

My wife and her colleagues in Great Barrington started the first regular curriculum for high school students on the Holocaust. It has certainly been highly imitated and copied, but such exposure won’t stop a mentally ill person from doing what comes naturally. So often these bad actors are imitating what they heard at home. In fact, as part of her dissertation research, my wife asked her students whether they had ever heard an anti-Semitic remark in their homes. The results were terrifying. As the musical “South Pacific” suggested, “You’ve got to be carefully taught.”


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