MLK DAY ISN’T JEWISH

Decades ago, Jewish leaders, especially rabbis, were very much actively involved in the civil rights movement in this country. Aside from the social justice reason commanded by the Torah, Jewish spiritual leaders of yesteryear were quick to see parallels between the Jewish experience and the Black experience. However noble their effort to draw similarities between the two groups, Jewish leaders, religious or otherwise were blatantly wrong.

Addressing the annual meeting of the American Jewish Congress in 1958, Dr. King remarked: “My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe.” I couldn’t agree more. I have no idea how many Yiddishisms were adopted by American Blacks, but Goldeneh Medineh wasn’t one of them. “ Moving on up” (to the East Side) by J’anet Dubois served as the theme song for the television sit-com The Jeffersons that debuted four and a half decades ago. The real moving on up, however, began 140 years ago as our Eastern European ancestors moved on up to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It may have been a cold-water flat with a shared bathroom at the end of the hallway, but it was a far cry from fetching a pail of water from the well and making one’s way to the outhouse in the shtetl. The only discrimination encountered in the overcrowded, unsanitary, and even dissipated world of the self-imposed ghetto of Jewish immigrants were not being hired at a “sweat shop” by another Jew for refusing to work on Shabbat.

To be sure, Jews did suffer from discrimination in this country. There was a tacit understanding among Christians – a gentleman’s agreement – that Jews were not welcome to live in certain neighborhoods throughout the United States. There were restricted country clubs, quotas in medical schools, and doors closed to Jews in corporate America. Jewish power responded far differently than black power. Amongst Jews, there were seldom any protests, peaceful or violent. Instead, Jews circumvented quotas. Jews built their own neighborhoods or “gilded ghettos”, Jews built their own country clubs. Any Jew could not get into medical school, would often “settle” getting into dental school. And if Jews were unwelcome by the Big Three automakers in this country, they became most successful, owning dealerships selling automobiles manufactured by those very same corporations who refused to hire them. True, Jews were known to go out on strike demanding better wages or better working conditions, but seldom if ever was there ever any looting or rioting. It wasn’t until the ‘60’s that Jews became involved in protests, against the war in Viet Nam or for freedom for Jews in the Soviet Union. And those protests were not because they were being treated less than equal because they were Jews.

Martin Luther King Jr. saw himself as the Moses of his people. “But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop… I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land” said King Luther King Jr., a day before he was felled by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, Tennessee. Our Moses predated Reverend King by over three thousand years. Facing 600,000 newly liberated slaves, our Moses soon laid down the law by transmitting to them a Torah from HaShem. And in that Torah, there was a long list of do’s and don’ts otherwise known as the 613 commandments. The understanding was that a successful future was commensurate with the willingness of the newly freed slaves to incorporate those mitzvot into their daily lives.

MLK Day isn’t Jewish because no one individual campaigned for our people’s equal rights. In 1963, MLK led a march on Washington of 250,000 people. It was a tremendous achievement. The closest we Jews ever came to matching that, was twenty years prior when 400 rabbis traveled to this nation’s capital having been led to believe that they would be meeting with the president. It was an abject failure. MLK Day isn’t Jewish, because we have been known to handle discrimination on an individual basis. MLK Day isn’t Jewish because we too were gifted with a leader who had been to the mountaintop, and soon after made it clear what was expected of us. MLK Day isn’t Jewish, because it was never designed to be Jewish. It is a day for Black Americans. May his message live on as his legacy is honored.

JEWISH VETERANS AND VETERAN JEWS

With the observance of Veterans Day earlier this week, perhaps it’s time to ask three pertinent questions that in all likelihood should have been asked years ago:
What’s the difference between serving your country and serving your G-d? Serving your country is usually time-bound. For most, there is a tour of duty. Even those who make a career out of serving their country, there are options as well as retirement benefits. Unlike the aftermath of  Vietnam, those who serve our country, are generally looked up to and respected. Anyone in the boarding lounge of an airport is reminded that the courtesy of early boarding of the aircraft is extended to U.S. military personnel. Serving your G-d, on the other hand, is a life- long endeavor and undertaking – at least from the age of Bar and Bat Mitzvah. Rather than looking forward to a pension, Jews ought to be looking forward to the challenge. Just as a well-disciplined soldier always sets self-improvement as the goal, so too ought self-improvement be the case of a well-disciplined Jew.  As Jews, there are no tours of duty. Rather than signing up, Jews are inscribed. As a result, each of us breathes our last breath, while serving our maker.

What is the difference between a decorated soldier and a decorated Jew? Succinctly stated, the difference lies in medal and mettle. A decorated soldier is one who associated with medal. The uniform says it all. Whether it be the number of stars on the epaulet or the rows of awards over the chest, a quick glimpse quickly indicates to the casual observer whether the one serving our country is a person of rank. A decorated Jew, however, is one who is associated with mettle. While bereft of any visual reminders of achievements and accomplishments, the Jew has every reason to believe that the decorations that await him or her are out of this world, in the most literal sense. Typically, the decorated Jew is one who has succeeded in braving the enemy of indifference, the adversary of assimilation and the foe of capitulation. Like the decorated soldier, the decorated Jew is constantly aware of traps and pitfalls. Like the decorated soldier, the decorated Jew is not only alert to external enemies, but to threats that come from within as well.

What is the difference between a Jewish veteran and a veteran Jew? A Jewish veteran is one who has fulfilled his or her patriotic chore in serving this country. Particularly when it comes to World War II. In actual numbers, well over half a million Jews put their lives on the line for the war effort. Given the fact that there were a little over 4 million Jews in this country at the time, we have much of which to be proud. In fact participation of Jews in the American Forces was exemplary when one takes into account pockets of anti-Semitism existent in the army, the Army Air Corps (later to be known as the USAF) and the navy at that time, especially when there were more than a few in the country filled with resentment, that this country should have to stick its neck out for Jews in Europe. A Veteran Jew on the other hand simply does not exist. It can’t. As far as Judaism is concerned, “ a Jew, even though he has sinned, is still a Jew ” (Sanhedrin 44a).

By definition, a Jew cannot abandon Judaism. Unlike the army, in Judaism, there is no highest office or status to achieve. Unlike the army, one is not honorably (or dishonorably) discharged from Judaism. Unlike the army, one does not receive a pension for the remainder of one’s life. What one does ultimately receive, however, is a heavenly reward for living a life of commitment and study which typically leads to a life of mitzvot. Rather than attaining the rank of Corporal or Sergeant or Colonel, the highest rank one can attain in Judaism is Talmid Chacham (a wise student) or Ben Torah (son of Torah).

The closest (but in no way similar) that Judaism comes to Veteran’s Day is the commemoration of a yahrzeit. Whereas Veteran’s Day reminds us that they served, a Yahrzeit reminds us that they lived. Whereas commemorating a Yahrzeit brings with it the message “May their memory be a blessing”, commemorating Veteran’s Day brings with it the message “Veterans are a blessing to this country”.

ARRIVING ON COLUMBUS DAY

Columbus Day ought to take on far greater significance this year. Coinciding with the first day of the festival of Sukkot, Columbus Day ought to bring with it the poignant message, that our celebration Sukkot this second Monday of October, marks more than the arrival of Columbus in America. When all is said and done, Sukkot 5780 has every right to serve as a reminder that when it comes to this country, we Jews have arrived as well.

I think that it is fair to say, that for the last two decades or so, there has been an increase in the building of sukkahs by Jews of all branches of Judaism. How ironic, that those very same coreligionists who feel no compulsion to participate in other aspects of Jewish life, find the time, expend the energy and come up with the necessary funds to construct a Sukkah. I extend a heartfelt Yasher Koach and look forward to seeing more and more sukkahs being put up with the passage of each year. Many of us can well remember that sukkahs were an anomaly in the vast majority of Jewish neighborhoods in this country. Now sukkahs are quite commonplace in American  cities with sizeable Jewish populations.

Back in the day, it was not at all unusual for Jews living in New York as well as in other cities and towns in the northeast, to go to the “mountains” for Pesach. Either because of family dynamics or time constraints, many a Jew would travel up to a kosher hotel in the Catskills for the duration of the festival. My mother’s aunt was typical. Upon reaching her golden years, it was quite evident that there would be neither a  seder nor a kosher for Passover kitchen in the Bronx homes of her three sons and their wives. She, therefore  made alternate arrangements at a nondescript kosher hotel in Sullivan  County, New York.  Nowadays, it’s not only Passover, when Jews uproot themselves. Nor is their destination the Catskills. Nowadays, observant Jews travel to Resort Hotels, located  both in this country as well as abroad (including Israel) for a Sukkot experience. Please know, that the mitzvah is dwelling in a Sukkah, not constructing one, or using one of the outside walls of your home to serve as part of the Sukkah. The mitzvah of dwelling in a sukkah can be fulfilled anywhere, including Resort Hotels. And the mitzvah of dwelling in a sukkah at a Resort Hotel or similar is currently being fulfilled by many observant Jews who have “arrived.”

Be a Jew in your home and a man outside it”. So adjured Yehudah Leib Gordon, a poster child of the Jewish Enlightenment. While it is true that the vast majority of American Jews never knew or heard of Yehudah Leib Gordon, they lived their lives as though they were his illustrious students. For decades, Judaism in this country was practiced privately and quietly. For decades, it was unthinkable for any Jew to be seen on the streets wearing a yarmulke. Judaism was not to be advertised. Previous generations defined themselves as “Americans of the Jewish faith.”

All that has changed and the reasons for that change, can be debated and discussed. For the most part, it is fair to say that Jews are much more comfortable and much more open about their Judaism. As praiseworthy as it is to see the increase in number of sukkahs being put up throughout this country, it is at the same time noteworthy, that Jews have no qualms whatsoever of inviting non-Jewish friends and neighbors to join them in the sukkah for a festival meal. Half a century ago, such an invitation would have been unfathomable. Half a century ago, American Jews had not yet “arrived.”

As we dwell in our sukkah this coming Monday, let us be aware that is Columbus Day as well. Let us be sensitive to the fact that over five centuries since Columbus arrived and that over these last five decades, so too did a good many American Jews.