YOU STUPID JEW

There is an old anecdote in the poorest of taste, telling about an American Jew walking into a Chinese restaurant and asking the waiter if the specialty dish “Sum Dum Goy” was on the menu.

The anecdote came to mind a few days ago, when I learned of a (visibly Jewish) driver making an illegal right turn in mid-town Manhattan, during rush hour, right in front of a traffic policeman. “Can’t you see that there is no right turn? You stupid Jew!” exclaimed  the policeman, who then immediately apologized for his uncalled for and rude remark. The driver was stunned. He immediately pulled over, got out of the car, turned on his camcorder, went up to the police officer who called him a “stupid Jew” and demanded to see his badge number. The officer refused and explained that he had already offered his apology (which he had.)

Unlike others who weighed in on the incident, (I scrolled down to the various comments) I have an entirely different take on what took place. Clearly, I come from another era, where Jews were afraid of causing any ruckus. The very fact that the driver  – albeit guilty of making an illegal right turn –  did not hesitate to confront the police officer, made me realize we Jews are no longer in the shtetl. As such, our mentality must no longer be shtetl mentality, a mentality that restrained us from speaking up and speaking out. A Jew demanding to see the badge number of a police officer? Unheard of! And the officer immediately apologizing for his unacceptable remark? Officers never apologized in the world in which I was raised. In the world in which I was raised, the officer would have yelled at the driver to get back in his car,otherwise he would risk receiving not one, but two citations: one for failing to follow posted traffic signs; one for leaving his car illegally parked. I was also amazed at how the policeman reacted to being recorded. “Takkeh a neieh velt” (truly a new world) as they say in Yiddish. I would have expected the officer to have demanded that the camcorder be shut off; I would have expected the officer to have confiscated the camcorder, when the driver refused to follow that order. Instead, after protesting that he had already apologized, the officer turned his back and walked off.

I shudder to think how I would have reacted, had I been the driver who made an illegal turn only to have a police officer call out to me: “Can’t you see that there is no right turn? You stupid Jew!” In all likelihood, I would have written a letter to either the mid-town precinct or the New York Times, or both, excoriating such an unacceptable as well as uncalled for comment. In my fantasy however, I would have borrowed from the following anecdote:  Those with knowledge of post-World War II American history are in all likelihood aware of the acrimony that existed between Jimmy Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Union and Senator Bobby Kennedy. Story has it, that Senator Kennedy received word that Jimmy Hoffa had just referred to him, as a “ruthless little bas*ard.”

Upon hearing Hoffa’s remark, Senator Kennedy smiled and immediately retorted: “I’m not that little.” In my fantasy, I would have gone up to the offensive police officer, looked him in the eye and told him: “I’m not that stupid!”

 

THE MOST SERIOUS ISSUE

Thirty-seven years ago, practically to the day, President Carter, seeking re-election to this nation’s highest office,  made the following comment during Presidential Debate #2 with Ronald Reagan: “I asked my daughter Amy (then 13 years old) what the most important issue (confronting the United States) was?”

I hadn’t thought about the “Amy question” for the longest time. Last week, the “Amy question” resurfaced when a leading Jewish newspaper in this country queried 18 rabbis what they thought was the most serious issue confronting American Jews. As might be expected, 18 different answers were proffered… And then some.
At the risk of adopting a “sour grapes attitude” in that I wasn’t among the 18 (come to think of it, I would have declined comment, had I been asked), I should like to share my answer with you, my faithful readers: The most serious issue confronting American Jews is American Jews.

I offer three reasons:

A good many American Jews spend a good many hours reading a good many reports on the state of American Jewry. As a result, there are those who work themselves into a tizzy and run around spouting jeremiads that the (Jewish) sky is falling. Pish-Tosh! The sky is not falling and the earth is not shaking under our feet. Times are a changing, and a new American Jew is emerging. Yet American Jewry is no worse off than it was, say, half a century ago. As a matter of fact, in some respects, American Jewry is far healthier than it has ever been. I do not recall major American cities having as many kosher restaurants as is currently the case. Nor do I recall so many Sukkahs being constructed for the festival. The variety of food bearing kashrut symbols is simply staggering. The number of Jewish Day Schools is “naches to the nth degree.”  Sure, assimilation is spinning out of control and yes, endogamy is not what many of us would like it to be, but there are many aspects about American Judaism that even our grandparents would never have believed.

I used to think that “I’m proud to be a Jew” was a meaningless statement. I now believe that “I’m proud to be a Jew” is a dangerous statement. Unless one is a Jew by choice, being a Jew is purely an accident of birth. It requires absolutely nothing of the Jewish individual, not even a declaration of faith. What I have yet to hear is for someone to exclaim, “I’m proud of my Jewish accomplishments” or “I’m proud of the time and energy I’ve put into becoming a better versed, as well as better educated, Jew.” We live in the age of workouts and personal trainers. Shouldn’t there be Jewish workouts and trainers as well? Recently, I served as a personal “trainer” to someone who wanted to learn to lead prayer services.  In less time than one could imagine, that person achieved his goal. In doing so, he has every right to exclaim, “I’m proud of my learning how to lead synagogue services.”

It began with the slogan “a shul with a pool.” The thinking was to let the Jewish community be all things to all Jews. As praiseworthy as it was intended to be, while such thinking has strengthened the Jewish community, it has, by the same token, taken its toll on individual Jews. By spending considerable time, as well as a great deal of effort, in taking advantage of so much that the Jewish community has to offer, little if any time and even less energy is left for prayer services, education classes, and instructional programs. I’m not aware of Jewish handball or Jewish basketball, but I am very much aware of serving HaShem. Communal prayer has always been and continues to be at the top of that list. Jewish education has always been a sine qua non for our people. Individual participation has always been the most important thing.

Anti-Semitism, terrorism and all other “isms” are real and genuine concerns. None of them – individually or collectively – will destroy the Jewish people or the Jewish religion.
What I want…what’s most important to me, is a guarantee that Judaism, synagogue Judaism, prayer Judaism, home Judaism, and street Judaism will remain strong and vibrant. Such a guarantee is not as farfetched as you might think, despite all other serious issues confronting American Jews today.