The Class I Hate to Teach

April 24, 2013

English: Antisemitic graffiti in Venezuela

English: Antisemitic graffiti in Venezuela (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I enjoy teaching basic Judaism: it’s my true love, my mission, my passion. “Intro,” done well, can make it much easier for outsiders to become fellow travelers in Jewish community, whether they are Gentile relatives of a Jew, or Jews who got no Jewish education, or someone looking to become a Jew.  It has to be more than facts and how-to’s, because Judaism isn’t just a religion, it’s a vast array of ethnicities, customs, history, and culture – as Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan famously titled his book, Judaism is a civilization. As an “Intro” teacher, I’m a tour guide, den mother, demystifier, and spiritual director.

But there’s one class in every series that I hate to teach. Not coincidentally, it is the only class specified by the tradition as a requirement. Rabbinic tradition is rather vague about what converts to Judaism must be taught before they go to the mikveh, but it is adamant that they understand that Jews have been a despised and persecuted people. In other words, they need to be acquainted with anti-Semitism.

It’s the one class to which I bring a printed-out lesson plan, because I know I will go off-topic like a giddy puppy at the first opportunity. I march through the list: the misgivings about Jews in classical civilization, Christian attitudes about Jews that took shape in both church doctrine and in civil law, and the obsession with Jewish ancestry that surfaced in Spain in the 16th century that presaged full-blown ethnic hatred of Jews in the Western world.  I talk about Herzl’s realization, as he covered the Dreyfus affair, that the Jews of Europe faced something terrible. I talk about all of that as a prelude to the Shoah. And then we talk about the “New” anti-Semitism.

We talk about the memes that have dogged Jews through history: blood libel, moneylending, court Jews, conspiracy, communism, socialism, anarchism, pinko-Commie-whatever-ism. I tell them about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  I tell them about the origins of the term “Anti-Semitism,” that it was invented by a German journalist as a sophisticated-sounding substitute for Judenhass, Jew-hatred.

Some students who have been engaged Christians at some point in their lives practically writhe with discomfort. I name those feelings, and acknowledge that when you’ve got one foot in each community, this can be very hard listening. I share the fact that it was hard for me, when I took the class long ago. Some Jewish students look distant, and I suspect they are running through unpleasant memories and feelings. Maybe, like me, they just hate the topic.

My impulse is to comfort. I bring cookies. I reassure. But I march relentlessly through that lesson plan, because it is important that they know this stuff. I have a duty to see to it that they understand that when you sign up to be a Jew, you sign up for this, too. For Gentiles in the class, it is important to know why Jews seem “sensitive” about some things, why some topics are funny only if you are a genius like Mel Brooks and can take them all the way off the deep end.

Usually the evening ends off topic: I get to the end of the list, and we trail off from “Jews run the media” into jokes and trivia about Hollywood and Jews. If I’m artful, we’ll leave on an upbeat note.  But I’m always relieved when the evening is over, because I hate this topic.  I hate, hate, hate it.


Can We Talk?

November 18, 2012
Children in Town Under Fire by Rockets from Gaza

Children in Town Under Fire by Rockets from Gaza (Photo credit: Israel Defense Forces)

I walked out of a movie this afternoon (Lincoln, it’s good), flipped my phone back on, and was greeted with a personal message on Twitter:

“All nations regret that they cannot exterminate 15m jews 40 times for killing 600m their nationals in all wars and revolts”

I had to read it a couple of times before I could understand what it said. I run across anti-Semitism all the time on the web, but it is not often addressed personally to me. When I investigated further, I realized it wasn’t personal, not really: the person sending it had sent the same message to dozens of Jews or Jewish-sounding people on Twitter. I reported him and blocked the account. Yuck.

It’s been a rough week. I lived in Israel for a year, ten years ago, and I formed an attachment to the country and its people that will never leave me. I was there at a hard time – the 2nd Intifada – and that cemented my respect for Israelis. They live through times that most of us cannot imagine, and the vast majority of them carry on their lives with grace. I listen to Israeli radio, and was aware of the rockets raining down on Sderot and other communities in the south, and noticed that no one in the media outside of Israel seemed to give a hoot. The BBC never mentioned it, CNN never mentioned it, and it was not mentioned on Al Jazeera, either. Were I not “tuned in” to Israeli sources, I wouldn’t have known about it, because no one else cared to report it.

Then, ten days ago, the Israelis finally retaliated. Had France been shelling Britain for months, we’d have seen some fireworks from the Brits before now. Had Mexico been shelling Texas — well, it’s Texas. Of course they’d shoot back. But when the Israelis finally shoot back they’re the bad guys?

For more about Pillar of Defense, better thought out and with great links, take a look at Rebecca Einstein Schorr’s A Few Thoughts About Operation Pillar of Defense.

For ten days now, I’ve been watching Jews argue over this and my heart is breaking. I listen to Jews call one another names, fail to give each other the benefit of the doubt, and read things into each others words. If one says he’s praying for peace, there are half a dozen folks ready to have his head because he wasn’t enthusiastic enough about war. If she speaks up for Israel’s right to defend herself, a different half dozen are ready and waiting to descend with words of flame.  And all I want to do is scream, “STOP IT!”

My fellow Jews: we do not need to be enemies against one another. There are plenty of people in the world that hate us, like the creep who sent me that tweet. He has read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other lies, and he’s ready to exterminate us all. He doesn’t care whether we belong to AIPAC or J Street. He doesn’t care if we love Israel or deplore its existence. He just hates Jews.

If you want to talk about your position, I will listen. I may not agree, but that is not a condition of my listening. If you want to talk about your position, will you listen to me as well? Can we talk about our fears? Can we talk about our hopes?

I love the Jewish People. I really, really, really like Jews. And this is breaking my heart.


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