Sunday, September 19, 2021

A shanda fur die goyim

By Damien Hirst

     I knew, when I wrote about not going to synagogue on Yom Kippur, "God doesn't want you to read this," that I would hear from one particular group that would be especially irked to find certain Jewish practices described in a family newspaper. Not anti-Semites or fundamentalists, not nationalists or dyed-in-the-wool haters.
     No, I knew, with certainty, that the most hostile, offended, cringingly awful responses would be from my coreligionists, my fellow Jews, dwarfing whatever the iron-ribbed haters had to say. And I was right. They sounded several common themes that were both shocking and, once grasped, completely expected.
     Several claimed that my not going to temple on Yom Kippur complicates their own observation of the holiday.
     "You make it harder for others to take time off, which people expect Jews to do, which many people think should happen," wrote MG. As if it were my job to stand behind him, nodding, adding moral support to his vacation requests.
     Even when readers do exactly what I do, they bristled at the idea of admitting it in public. A shanda fur die goyim, as they say in Yiddish. Embarrassment before gentiles. "Though I'm Jewish, I'm not overly observant," wrote AC, which you'd think would put him in my camp. "But, I do not believe that this is something that should be shared with the gentile world."
     Why? He shared a confounding misapprehension, one that I hear repeated again and again from fearful Jews, despite being completely untrue: that anything not showing Judaism in the most sparkling light is ammunition for haters who, in a weird and pathetic inversion of what is actually going on, they imagine are judging Jews based on our current actions, as opposed to condemning us out of the gate based on ancient, inviolable hatred. Anti-semitism as a contest, a game we are losing due to our own poor play, but might yet somehow win, if we try hard enough. The sad habit of victims blaming themselves for drawing the hatred they get no matter what. My fellow Jews seem to think that if only we stand up straight and do our level best, why, then maybe those haters might grow to love us.

     "You and I both know that antisemitism is on the rise," AC continued. "Jewish people should not give what my grandparents called 'Jew Haters' additional grist for their foul mills."
     The Nazis are suddenly our moral pole star, and we should do our best to impress them favorably.
     I could share more. But I want to get to the prize of this week's haul, and since it is long — I initially didn't read it all — it will be my final example of the form. You do know who sent the most tone-deaf, prolix, sententious reply of them all? Think hard. What sort of person? Hint: it's a learned profession. You know when the word "response" is in the subject line, it's time to strap in, lean forward and get into the crash position, with hands laced around the back of your head. Ready?

     "A Rabbi's response to your column of September 17."

Dear Mr Steinberg
     I am a long time reader, so I send this e-mail knowing that I might possibly be held up for ridicule and with little hope that you might take me seriously, for while you are so often spot on with your observations, when it comes to Judaism, well, I wish you wouldn't say anything, because your hostility towards your tradition, my beloved tradition blasts as loud as the Shofar and I so do not understand where you are coming from.
     I just finished a marathon of services and dvrei Torah, words of Torah, that have been gestating in my heart and mind since last yontiv, in one of the most difficult years of our lives and to have this time of profound introspection, this time of personal work, this time of reaching inside to do more, to do better, dismissed as "a smokescreen-everybody else does and grabbed a day off" truly is a mortal wound. And this is why:
     I was born to Jewish parents, with a Jewish identity that mostly consisted of knowing what Jews don't do (much like your pork analogy) and very little about what Jews do, and not receiving any Jewish education, I shared much of your dismissiveness. I am an RN, worked Chicago metro area emergency rooms for 25 years, and could have been quoted as saying, "I work Yom Kippur because my work is more important than services." And for sure, it was. However at some point my Jewish husband and I decided we should do better for our kids than we had and we joined a congregation. And with that relationship came an opportunity to learn Judaism as an adult, not some pediatric version.
     I will spare you my biography other than to say, once I began to learn, suspending my preconceived notions of Judaism, our tradition seduced me. And the more I learned, the more I began to understand my life and my purpose based on a single idea: Existence is not a happy accident, and that there is a creative force/energy, whatever... call it God or the Big Bang, it doesn't matter to me and I don't have the brain to understand. But what I do understand is that  I am connected to a people, who have for 4000 years undertaken a promise and relationship with that creative energy for the purpose of the ongoing act of creation.
     And the only way I could begin to understand Judaism was to learn and I am not talking about the miserable Hebrew School experience that is probably the foundation for your disdain of your tradition, but real adult learning.
     And that is what I want to say to you: Could you please actually learn something about Judaism, and while I have attached my Kol Nidre Sermon to better illustrate what I am saying, learn beyond a random sermon from a live stream video? I would be happy to recommend some books, but even better, take a Melton Class or some of the many learning opportunities that abound in the Chicago area, if you need help finding something, count on me.Then, if you continue to have such contempt for a tradition that I consider a treasure, have at it and I will avoid those columns. But enough of our world hates the Jews and we are far from perfect, we need a lot of work but when we hate on ourselves, well it breaks my heart, not just for the Jews, but for you Neil. Do not let your prejudice blind you and be an obstacle for growth but at the very least, could you stop sharing that prejudice with the rest of the world? It does not further the ongoing act of creation.
     G'mar Chatima Tovah, may you be sealed for a good year, a year of health, good deeds and better understanding.
     Rabbi Marcey Rosenbaum
     I wanted to just shrug and move on without a word. But I felt silence implied surrender, and some response was in order. I ended up with what I thought was a moderate, perhaps even gentle reply:
Dear Rabbi Rosenbaum:
     Allow me to summarize: You used to work Yom Kippur, then had a change of heart, and now view those who do what you yourself did as somehow showing "contempt" for our religion, which you would like to educate me about, though you doubt I will take anything you say seriously, adding as a persuasive flourish in closing that I need to "learn something about Judaism" through the source of Jewish knowledge that is embodied in yourself and your work.
     Have I summarized your message accurately? Having done so, I will cough into my fist once—ahem—and bid you a good day. Thank you for writing.
     No response of course. Which I suppose, under the circumstances, can be viewed as a kindness. 


  1. As a former Jew & now atheist, I can't think of a worse way than spending time in a shul, wasting time praying to a non-existent fantasy being in the sky.
    You'd think that Auschwitz would prove to them there is no god & never was!

  2. This woman really needs to get over herself.

  3. "there is a creative force/energy, whatever... call it God or the Big Bang, it doesn't matter to me.."

    I'm guessing, given the rest of the missive, that it probably does matter to her a bit!

    I was wondering about the reference to 4,000 years, though. I always thought it was supposed to be about 6,000. Today I learned, though, that if the world indeed just began year 5782, Abraham was born in 1948. Thus, about 4,000 years for the "promise and relationship" referred to. Good to know! Though I hadn't imagined that the Big Bang was all that into relationships...

    Clearly, however, unlike you, Neil, I'm willing to learn! ; )

  4. An interesting disquisition, and one I find, as a backslid Presbyterian (my dear departed Mum would be distressed to learn that I no longer attend services) I find somewhat relevant. About the concept of "embarrassment before Gentiles," I would think that's a lost cause, as most Jewish humor depends on unflattering memes that from the mouths of we Goyim would be deemed anti-Semitic.


  5. Lots of atheist philosophy. So if Norman Greenbaum "Spirit in the Sky" is on the radio you change stations? Don't worry for me anything is better than listening to Lennon's "Imagine." Then there is the matter of prayer. If you're in the ICU waiting room do you solve sudokus while humming a few bars of "Que Sera Sera"? Then again hardcore praying has its upside or downside, depending on your point of view. If the prognosis turns good you must not allow yourself to ever sin again.

  6. A few years ago, I wrote this essay for anther blog, Mr. S...the length approaches that of your daily column, for which I hope you'll excuse its word count. I thought of truncating it, but posting it in its entirity seemed to be appropriate for the season. Hope you will understand.


    Jews are the home team....and it's hard not to root for the home team. White yarmulkes for the home games, black ones on the road. It doesn't matter if the owner is a jerk and the manager stinks, or if the current roster is pathetic. They're the colors and the team you grew up with. I like to say I was born a Democrat, a Jew, and a Cub fan. I'm still a Democrat by choice and and a Cub fan by choice. That third one? It's like choosing brown eyes or the color of your skin. You are what you are.

    My ethnic origins are as Jewish as lox or gefilte fish. My father's mother was a Bolshevik who fled Russia because she ran with the terrorists and there was a price on her teen-aged head...the Bernadine Dohrn of 1905. But my old man had no use for Judaism because his parents were too poor to send him to Hebrew school. (The youngest of his six brothers did get to go, but he later became a beatnik, so maybe it was a big waste.) My mom was religious, and only spoke Yiddish until she started school. Her mother left her family behind and emigrated at 17, from the town where "Fiddler on the Roof" was set. Twenty-five years later, they all went up the chimney. The letters stopped coming to East Garfield Park.

    But I guess somebody forgot to install some vital part before I left the factory. The engine sputters and misses. I grew up in a town that was majority Jewish, with a few naturally I wanted to be an Italian greaser. Too many Jewish kids were only concerned with looks and money and status. After two years of Hebrew school, I quit, and wouldn't go back. Oh, I loved the language, and learning the history of my people, but hated the way it was such a circus, with fights and kids screwing around all the time. Finally had a tutor, and got bar mitzvahed anyway.

    That was the last of the megillah for me. I rarely dated among my own faith. My college girlfriend was Scandinavian, and I've had two non-Jewish wives. To read that 71 percent of non-Orthodox Jews marry non-Jews ("the goyim") is to realize how much that figure has was a fraction of that figure when I was growing up.

  7. Nu? I guess all of the above means is that I'm a Jew, still and always, but not really Jewish. One of the tribe, but non-observant. A non-roster player. I come for the food and stay for the music...chopped liver sandwiches make me drool, and I love klezmer bands. It's all about the ethnicity with me, and not much else, including praying to some Higher Power. Although I still say the Hanukkah blessings over the same menorah I've been lighting for sixty-plus years, and eat the latkes and the jelly doughnuts. Go figure.

    Jews don't really agonize over an afterlife. I don't. We're just light bulbs. There's no light bulb heaven or light bulb hell. The light within goes out when the brain ceases to function, and the bulb begins to decompose and has to be disposed of. Read that one at thirteen. Still believe it.

    Most faiths seem to be merely mental constructs that people use to stave off the fears of dying and the ensuing nothingness, which get more real as one ages. And the realization that life will continue to proceed, just as it always has, only without you. No snow. No summer. No baseball. No beaches. In heaven, there is no beer.

    To walk through a cemetery on a beautiful summer's day, and to realize that all these people once had loves and hates and thoughts like your own, or that a summer will come and that you will not be here to see it....that's the saddest and hardest and scariest part of all. If religion...any religion...helps someone to deal with all that, fine. If fasting and chanting all day while praying to some sky-daddy...or worshipping a tree...helps to get you through the night, good for you. But it's definitely not everyone's "glez ov tee..."

  8. It's a good thing that we have the separation of church and state so that others can't use the laws to punish you for not being religious observant.


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