Shanda fur di Goyim!
As if Bernie Madoff wasn’t enough. And as if Jack Abramowitz wasn’t enough. And as if riots in Jerusalem weren’t enough. Now we have a group of very religious looking Jews being handcuffed by the FBI in a massive fraud case that has brought down three mayors and scores of lawmakers and politicos in New Jersey.
The Yiddish phrase “Shanda fur di goyim” refers to (Jewish) embarrassment at a fellow Jew doing something Really Bad in front of non-Jews. In other words, don’t wash your dirty linen in public. Do we have problems? Of course. There have always been problems. But, the phrase suggests, be careful: the world tends to look at “the Jews” as one people and what one Jew does reflects well – or badly – on the rest of us. According to this idea, doing something bad is bad enough, but it becomes much worse when it reflects badly on the entire Jewish people.
How do you feel about this phrase? Does it still apply? Does the world still “clump us together”? I’ll leave it to you to decide.
In a sense, though, today the discussion may be academic. With modern technology, word gets out. Even if we wanted to wash our dirty linen in private – ie within the Jewish community – it isn’t really possible anymore anyway. The events mentioned above were on the news again, and again, and again. Specifically, the visuals of religious-looking Jews being violent or in custody are hard to avoid or forget.
And their impact is terrible. Those of us who care about Jewish identity and continuity are constantly trying to show how Judaism is a beautiful, wise and Divine tradition and how it helps transform common people into un-common people. And it is. Our religion, religious civilization, culture, and, yes, even our people, are unbelievable examples of greatness in morality and spirituality. One of the main things that attracts so many Jews to re-focus on their Jewish identity is being thoroughly impressed by the honesty, integrity, and spirituality of committed Jews. This experience isn’t rare – it is happening everywhere. As it should.
Yesterday afternoon, at the Shabbat afternoon service, I was called up to the Torah for the third aliyah. Jewish mysticism teaches that there is a connection between the verses the person is called up for and the challenges they are dealing with at that time in their lives. Note the verses of my aliyah yesterday:
See, I have taught you statutes and ordinances, as the Lord, my God, has commanded me, to do so in the midst of the Land to which you come, to possess it. Observe therefore and preserve them; for this is your wisdom and your discernment in the eyes of the peoples, who shall hear all theses decrees and say, 'Surely a wise and understanding people is this great nation! For which is a great nation that has God Who is close to it, as is the Lord, our God, whenever we call to Him? 9Deuteronomy 4:5-7)
How many people – Jews or non-Jews – are saying that today? Does the Jewish people look like a wise and discerning people today? Does Judaism look like a Divine system that transforms its adherents into Godly creatures? Sadly, while we are a unique wise people and while our religion does indeed work, it doesn’t look that way on television.
So what do we do about it? What do we tell our children about these embarrassments? How do we ‘push Judaism’ when some very Jewish-looking Jews are acting in ways that are simply shameful?
Here are a few thoughts. Please send me yours.
- We must not be discouraged or lose our motivation to stay strongly Jewish. Our religion, tradition and people ARE amazing and inspirational. The vast majority of people are not crooks, or violent. They are exemplary. Just like the media often portrays Israel in a negative light and doesn’t tell the whole story, so too here. The crooks and hoodlums among us are not representative of anyone but themselves.
- That being said, there is certainly a disconnect between ideals and reality. The lesson for us and our children: you can do all the Jewish things you want but if deep-down you don’t want to let Judaism transform you into an exemplary, refined and spiritual human being, it won’t work. The system only really works if a person wants it to. So we need to remember the forest as well as the trees. Yes we want our kids to do xyz Jewishly but we also need to remember what the overall goal of all these Jewish acts is – to become more refined and spiritual people, a light unto the world. Without the big picture all the ‘little things’ don’t really make sense – and probably won’t work much, anyway.
David Ben-Gurion, first prime minister of Israel, once said that the Jews would be a ‘normal people’ when a Jewish cop arrests a Jewish criminal. I understand what he was aiming at – an end to the ghettoized existence of the European Jew.
After the last year of Jewish scandals, I wonder if we really want to be just another people.
Isn’t the point to be an exemplary community?
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