In this season of cheshbon nefesh, self-examination, I want to examine with you some of the messages and attitudes we Jews carry around as a result of our history. We live in a country and a time where anti-Semitism is not a major hindrance in our lives, thank God. Our lives and livelihoods are not threatened. We have access to almost every corridor of power. We, in general, no longer have to hide our Jewishness. But there is a legacy of pain and terror — emotional scar tissue — that consciously or unconsciously continues to affect us. Hence the famous Jewish telegram: “Start worrying. Details to follow.”
These are the internalized effects of anti-Semitism.
The internalization of prejudice, brutality, or stereotyping is one of the characteristics of oppression that makes it so insidious and difficult to combat. While Blacks, or women, or gays, or Jews are fighting the hateful stereotypes coming at them, they also have to fight their own self-hatred. What is “Jewish self-hatred” if not the product of centuries of being hated and reviled? We were told we were ugly, and we sought nose jobs. We were blamed for the world’s troubles, and we took on great reservoirs of guilt and responsibility. Our lives were constantly threatened, and we decided that life was difficult, a struggle, a crisis, punctuated at best by moments of bittersweet joy. We were told that we were the problem, and we tried to disappear, or we became isolated and defensive — or both! Finally, unthinkably, an attempt was made to exterminate us, and we still carry a deep strain of terror that colors our ability to enjoy our lives and to fully celebrate ourselves and our Judaism.
Did you ever wonder why you walk around not wanting to appear “too Jewish”? Have you felt judgmental or ashamed of other Jews who seem “too Jewish”? What is this, “too Jewish”? What does it even mean? It means we were persecuted, and we learned how to hide our Jewishness and make ourselves acceptable to the Gentile world.
It’s great to be a Jew! We’re not perfect, of course, we’ve got our mishegos like everybody else, but we are a wonderful and unique thread in the human tapestry. Yes, there is a time to hide, there is a time to be defensive, there is even a time to be paranoid — but we must not let these painful tape recordings from the past dictate to us in the present and keep us from being the Jews and the people we want to be. This is what I mean by emotional scar tissue.
What we need to understand is that even when the external oppression has ceased or is in a lull, the internalized oppression gets passed on from one generation to the next, embedded in the lore and attitudes of that community. Just as African-Americans still struggle with the “slave mentality” a century after emancipation, we Jews still struggle with defensiveness, invisibility, lack of trust, constant worry, even when we are not in immediate danger. I do not for a moment mean to deny the dangers that exist for Jews in the world today; I am painfully conscious of them. However, because we have been raised to expect struggle, hardship, and disaster, it becomes difficult for us Jews to notice the times when our external situation has improved.
A thrilling political development in Israel came last year when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin announced in his inaugural speech that the world had changed, and that Israel would have to change with it. I began to hope. It had appeared that his predecessor in office, Yitzhak Shamir, was dangerously stuck in the pain of the past, continuously invoking the Holocaust, and comparing the Palestinians with Nazis. It was not clear if he could take advantage of any opportunities for reconciliation in the present because of his preoccupation with the past. (I do not mean to imply here the nonsensical charge that Israel is the only impediment to peace in the region. That’s just an updated version of the “Jewish Problem” in Europe: If only the Jews would . . . ) When Rabin’s colleague Shimon Peres stated that the new agreement with the Palestinians was the victory of clear thinking over frozen memory, I knew that these old politicians had succeeded in separating old Jewish pain from a changing Jewish present. The Holocaust was a mind-boggling, awesome horror, and the Jewish people are still in great pain over our devastation — but Peres and Rabin have shown that we must understand the terrors from the past but must not be ruled by them. To paraphrase Mordecai Kaplan, let the past be a guide, not a mandate.
I want each of us to look at ourselves tonight and ask: Am I choosing my relationship to Judaism, or am I still reacting to emotional scar tissue from the past? I am not saying that there is a “right” way to be Jewish. We are an evolving people, a far-flung tribe, and there are many paths to Jewish identity, many ways to live our Jewishness. But they should be paths of possibility, lives of passion and heart.
Sometimes I put the reactive responses to our inherited pain into two categories: the desire to flee, to want to have nothing to do with Judaism, to assimilate as much as possible; and the desire to remain Jewish but with a vehement attitude of defensiveness, superiority, or isolation from the non-Jewish world. Neither response leads to wholeness.
The invisible Jew has given up Jewish culture in the quest to escape persecution or pain. The baby got thrown out with the bathwater. I’ve met Jews from assimilated backgrounds who feel bereft that they know nothing of their culture or community, and that they face a long road of learning and participation to reclaim their Judaism. The defensive, isolated Jew, meanwhile, faces the world with a siege mentality, preoccupied with survival rather than growth.
There is another, juicier choice for us Jews to make: to be openly, proudly, visibly Jewish. Not hunkered down, not hiding, not agreeing with the internalized feelings of shame, paranoia, or rage that we carry. This is the choice I have made: to be a proud, open, visible Jewish man. It is not easy, and it’s not neat — in fact it’s often terrifying — but it’s very alive!
About ten years ago, as I began to understand the degree to which I had internalized the messages of anti-Semitism, I decided to take charge of my Jewish identity. One way I did so was to wear my kippah in public a lot more often. At first, the fear and self-consciousness was acute: It seemed crazy, to be identifiably Jewish — voluntarily! — in a society that at least on its surface was willing to grant me the privileges of white skin and maleness. But that kippah served its purpose: As I started to appreciate the Jewish pain that I was carrying, I began to have more compassion for other Jews in their struggles. I began to see the beauty in Judaism, in addition to the tsores. I noticed that my sensitivity, my love of learning, my pathos, my passion for treating others justly, were all intimately connected to being Jewish. I cried a lot. My heart opened, slowly, to other Jews. In a profound way, I came home.
I offer this choice to you. Not to become a rabbi, as I did (though you can certainly do that), not to make the Jewish choices I have made (each of us is different), but to become a chooser of your own Jewish destiny. For some of us that might mean reaching out to family, for others studying Torah; for some it might mean a trip to Israel, for others a trip to the Lower East Side. For some, these ideas might galvanize you to action; for others, they will not. You choose. My friend and colleague Rabbi Mordechai Liebling has observed how many highly educated, sophisticated Jews are somehow stuck in adolescence, full of storminess and uncertainty in their relationship to Judaism. It is my hope that we can become choosing, autonomous adults.
What sweeter, stronger antidote could we Jews concoct for this bloody century than to joyfully affirm that we are here?
—Kol Nidre 5754