Shifting the Focus.

Till now, when discussing the horrors of our history - persecutions, pogroms and of course, the Holocaust – with our children it has generally been a conversation about the past; the way things once were, far away times, the way people used to think. Now, after the events in Paris it is harder figuring out how to explore the hatred manifesting itself in present day events. How can we discuss anti-Semitism in way that will not have our children resenting their Judaism, being afraid or thinking that the world is a horrible place? We want our children to love their Judaism and to have a strong Jewish identity.

No matter the age, it is never a simple task to explain hatred. Just last year after a Holocaust program, a Middle School student asked me with teary eyes, “why do they hate us so much?” Though not a new question it is still not easily navigated. That this hatred is an ancient one, is cold comfort. That we Jews have experienced this animosity since before Christianity and Islam is similarly, not a consolation. It is old, yet, it is as raw as ever.

That said, would it help our children to know that untangling the hatred is complicated and that theories abound? Does it matter? What difference does it make whether the enmity is an issue of being “the other,” or a product of contorted theological dogma, or perhaps a perceived financial prowess that has bred a potent jealously over the years? Identifying with certainty the cause for the loathing of the Jew is doubtful and the conversation raises even more issues for students.

What is done to us cannot become our identity. How we are acted upon by others cannot become our central script. I recall receiving a request to speak at a public school in Pennsylvania. The teacher issuing the invitation specified that he would like me to explain Judaism so that his students would understand in advance of their Holocaust Unit, “why everyone hates the Jews so much.” My kishkas did not feel wonderful upon hearing that request. As if, I needed to defend or explain Judaism so that anti-Semitism could be understood.

This hatred is not ours to deconstruct. And if we allow our singular point of Jewish engagement to be the fight against anti-Semitism we have surrendered the right of self-definition to those that seek our obliteration. We cannot become those who are attacked, those who are victimized and those who are at risk. We need to shift the focus.

I cannot help but prickly when I sit at some community events where the entire focus is ridding the world of Jewish hatred. I look around the room and wonder how many people in this room have been to a Shabbat table? Know the twenty four books of the Tanach? Know what Midrash is? Have had the delight of authentic Jewish study? Can they articulate why Jews and Judaism should exist?

If only, Judaism as vibrant, joyous and potent with meaning was the epicenter of our dialogue. There will always be bullies. They feel small. Their only way to feel big is by bringing others down. The Talmud teaches, halacha Easav soneh et Yaacov – it is the law – Esau hates Jacob. Fatalistic perhaps – the message hatred is inevitable – not is our control. We must build secure facilities and guard vigilantly against violence and certainly not be naïve about what is out there. Heaven forfend, we must not fall prey to the pitfalls of an optimism that leads to the gas chamber. That said; the battle against anti-Semitism will not be the one that wins the war against the vanishing Jew.

It is only an everyday living, breathing, authentic and relevant tradition that will continue to defy the foibles of the ages. The need to alter the trope became clear to me after a Netflex winter-break-viewing fluke. One evening, I watched the exceptional 2013 film, “Ida” and the next night I saw for the first time the well-known 1947, “A Gentleman’s Agreement.” A new film followed by a classic. In Pawel Pawlikowski ‘s “Ida,” set in 1962, a young novitiate nun has lived her whole life in the convent. On the precipice of accepting her vows, she is told that she must first visit her only living relative. The secret of her true identity is revealed. She is Jewish. Her parents had been murdered in the years of the Holocaust and she had been hidden in the convent. Throughout her grappling with her discovery – she never and the film never, ever explores or broaches the simple elephant in the room - what does it mean to be a Jew? What is Judaism? Why be Jewish? What was the Judaism of her parents and of the three million Polish Jews who were murdered? How did they live? What is their legacy?

It was hard to watch. I kept screaming from the depths of my soul – “find out, search, ask – do something to find out who you are!” She does not.

Similarly, I found myself fascinated by the 1947 film. If you have never seen it – watch it. Gregory Peck, as a reporter, sets out to explore and uncover the ubiquitous anti-Semitism current in New York City by posing as a Jew. Even his little boy is pressed into the ploy. He gets picked on at school and roughed up – called Jew-boy. It’s remarkable. Anti-Semitism is front and center called out as wholly unacceptable. But, nowhere, not in a single scene in an almost two hour-long movie is there a moment to explore just what Judaism is and what Jewish life looks like. Jews are victims, people that are treated unfairly and who are different. Why not a single Jewish symbol; not one scene in a synagogue, at a Shabbat table, in a school?!

This absence is emblematic of an overwhelming emphasis on the negative – the anti-Semitism, the persecution and the suffering. The minimal dare I say, negligible amount of airtime devoted to the joy, the meaningfulness and the richness of Jewish life is an indictment not just of these films but of our very own trope.

This is not new. This is a conversation that has been heard in the years when Holocaust education appeared to eclipse Jewish education and stories told to children were more of persecution than perseverance and suffering over celebration.

The enemy will not define us. They exist. They have done us harm. But they will not determine our future – that is for us. We must put our collective strength on building a positive Jewish identity for our children. We must be proud of our Torah. We must be in love with our Shabbat. We must embrace mitzvot with zeal. We must be committed to our People and our destiny. Sociology of religion unpacks the basic dialectic; the more you do, the more you are engaged. The more you are engaged the more you do.

We must never, ever shirk our heritage or our history. This takes time and effort – and yes, sacrifices. Shul, over soccer. School tuition, over vacation. Friday night dinner, over Friday night movies.

Any why? Identity is essential to self-fulfillment. Making meaning is what we humans crave. Ours is our Jewishness. Judaism matters. We have contributed ideas of ethics and morals to the world; love for the stranger and care for the downtrodden. Our perspicacity has given the world people of determination and talent. Our ideas of building a ladder to the sky, of drawing Heaven down to earth have inspired and ennobled generations past and will continue to do so into eternity.

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