American author and cultural commentator, David Brooks recently wrote an article on drivers and how their attitudes behind the steering wheel reflect to a large degree the society in which they live. As one who (legally) has been driving for close to half a century, I read his column with more than a modicum of interest. Rather than offer my own insights on driving (I do not necessarily agree with Mr. Brooks), it occurred to me that when it comes to Jews, it is not our driving that is of interest, but rather how we American Jews have been driven as a people.
Anti-Semitism has and continues to have a most powerful effect on us. Up until recently, anti-Semitism (sadly to say) was known to have brought out the best in us. Very much aware of quotas in colleges and certain professions, we as a people were driven to achieve the highest grades and performance levels imaginable – not to prove that we were as good as, but to prove that we were better than, those who saw few, if any, redeeming factors in us as a people. Today, when we are very much accepted into pretty much all aspects of American society, even looked up to and admired, anti-Semitism continues to hold its sway. On New Year’s Eve, Jaqueline Kent Cooke, daughter of Jack Kent Cooke former owner of the Washington Redskins, made a terrible mistake when she scolded Matthew Haberkorn, who together with his elderly mother, wife, and two daughters, was not putting their coats on fast enough for her in an upscale Manhattan restaurant. “Hurry up, Jew,” the irritated Ms. Cooke exclaimed. When an incredulous Mrs. Haberkorn asked for a repeat what she just said, Ms. Cooke once again said, “Hurry up, Jew! I got places to be!” (After a brief altercation outside the restaurant, Ms. Cooke turned herself in at a Police Station, where she was arrested for disorderly conduct and assault.)
Among the more interesting Yiddish (actually, it’s Hebrew) terms known to a good many American Jews is “naches,” which has been defined as pride and joy. Up until recently, American Jews, particularly those of eastern European descent, were raised knowing that their chief responsibility in life was to give their parents naches. And that’s why when Mrs. Goldstein came across Mrs. Rabinowitz walking with her two toddlers in the park and asked the ages of the little ones, Mrs. Rabinowitz responded with full confidence, “The lawyer is three and the doctor is five.” Once upon a time in America, Jews were raised with the expectation that they would be “naches givers.” Today, if “naches” is any measuring rod, family dynamics appear to have changed. Rather than give our parents “naches,” there are those of us today who are driven to give themselves naches. There are Jews throughout this country whose goal is to provide themselves with pride and joy. Sometimes it is the role they attain in the community, such as the leadership in Jewish Federation; sometimes it is the accomplishments and acquisitions with which they surround themselves. To be sure, they are looked up to by a good many. Not that this is in any way a contest, but how does being looked upon by others in the community compare to being the way one is looked upon by parents?
The first week in June of 1967 was a turning point for Jews. The stunning victory of the Six Day War imbedded Israel in our conscience. Never before had Israel defined the Jewishness of so many. Jews worldwide suddenly were viscerally driven by pride in Israel, as well as defense of Israel. Such defense of, and pride in, the Jewish homeland was not to last interminably. Within a few generations, Israel now occupies a vastly different place in the hearts of Jews throughout the world. With the vast majority of today’s world Jewry has been born in this world with Jerusalem and the Kotel (Western Wall) as givens; and with a new generation of Palestinians being brainwashed by a defiant and hateful leadership, Jews are no longer driven by a Jewish State that can do no harm. Instead, today’s Jews are driven by an Israel that they not only take for granted, but at times view as a source of consternation and embarrassment.
Far be it for me to predict the future. I feel, however, that is safe to predict that Jews throughout the world will be driven by events, factors, and attitudes that we are not yet aware of. I can only hope that as we are driven, let it be along the highways and byways of our traditions and practices, as well as roads of peace.