Some Experiences with Jews

Background

This post provides relatively general and personal information on my experiences with Jewish people in the U.S. I provide this information partly to tell a story and partly to provide background information that some readers may find useful, if I proceed to write more political materials about Jews and/or Israel.

Another post discusses my own religious background. The gist of it is that I was raised as a rural Protestant with virtually no knowledge or beliefs about present-day Jews. A few anecdotes will illustrate:

  • Partway through college, working behind the grill at a McDonald’s in L.A., I was telling a co-worker about my attempt to sell an old VW Beetle. I said, “I was asking six-fifty, but the guy jewed me down to six hundred.” My co-worker dropped his spatula and exclaimed, “That’s an insult to my religion!” I had to stop to think what on earth religion he would be talking about. It was like thinking that the term “scot-free” might refer to Scots — to cite another idea that would not occur to me for some years thereafter. It was just the lingo I grew up with.
  • Before that, in a plan to continue my pre-ministerial studies at Indiana University, I had signed up for an introductory Hebrew course. I only attended a few sessions before dropping out of IU. But I do remember looking at all those exotic, dark-haired, dark-eyed females in that class and thinking, Wow, Indianapolis has some really pretty women. It did not occur to me that these women might hail from a specific heritage.
  • When I did finally get to New York, my first real girlfriend asked me, “Do you really not believe I have horns?” I had no idea what she was talking about.

To me, growing up, the Jews were the people in the Bible. I was a country boy. I had not paid much attention to political news. There may have been an attempt, somewhere in my high school education, to acquaint me with facts related to the existence of Israel. If there was, it must have gone in one ear and out the other. I had heard derogatory terms about blacks. I don’t believe I had heard any about Jews or, again, if I had, they didn’t register. I knew where Israel was, but evidently I didn’t have much knowledge of its post-Biblical history or peoples.

The Observant Types

The girlfriend just mentioned was a child of the Holocaust: both of her parents had been in concentration camps during World War II. She said both had Nazi identifying numbers tattooed into their forearms. We dated for about 20 months. It was tumultuous. I guess we were similar where we should have been different, and different where we should have been similar.

For present purposes, I think the key point is just that we came from such divergent cultures. For one thing, I don’t know whether her parents had entertained racist attitudes before their experiences in the war, but they did seem to have carried such attitudes with them to their new life in the New World.

They were not alone in that, of course. For instance, I knew a New York Jew who, circa 1988, was going to attend a conference in Budapest. Under the circumstances at the time, evidently she had to fly to somewhere in western Europe and drive or take a train through the Iron Curtain to Hungary. She was so hostile to Germany that, rather than fly to someplace in Germany or Austria, close to Hungary, she chose to fly to France and drive all the way around. I don’t think she was afraid of any adverse encounters in those countries. At that point, as my own contemporaneous experiences suggested, she would have little reason to be. It wasn’t about fear. She made her feelings clear: she was bitter, and would gladly punish today’s Germans, if she could, for a previous generation’s sins.

It wasn’t just Germany, by the way. While Germany was by far the most hated European nation among Jews of my acquaintance, it was also somewhat bemusing to attend a wedding in Brooklyn where the young men were dancing what seemed to be Russian wedding dances and singing about chasing the British out of Palestine. Except regarding the American Revolution of 1776 and the War of 1812, I was not generally in the habit of thinking of the British as the enemy. By that point, I had a vague impression, supported now with brief inquiry, that the Brits had actually tried to help bring about a Jewish homeland.

I had never before been associated with people who would hate me for my racial or ethnic background. My girlfriend was certain, however, that her parents would never tolerate her being involved with a Gentile, and especially not one who was half-German. What our plans should be in that case, we never quite nailed down. I was very attached to her. It’s hard to imagine that she stayed with me for nearly two years on a mere lark. I honestly don’t know what she was thinking.

I say that her parents hated me for who I was. “Hate” is, I think, the right word, or at least that’s what it felt like, during the one phone conversation I had with her sister: it consisted of her screaming at me. It was not the kind of meet-my-sister introduction I would have preferred. But it did give me a heads-up as to what I might expect if her mom and dad ever found out about me. She requested that, if my parents and I encountered her and her folks at graduation, we were to pretend we didn’t know her. The closest I ever got to meeting them was when, one time, she and I took a trip to Brooklyn. Once there, she told me where her father’s knish shop was. She told me to go in and order something. So at least I got to see him, without him having any idea of who I might be.

After we broke up, the girlfriend moved more toward religious extremism. She became involved with the Lubavitch strain of Hasidic (i.e., mystical Orthodox) Jewish thought. In our very infrequent conversations about her beliefs, I had much the feeling that I had gotten from conversations with adherents to Christian cults. It was basically a sense that these people are living in their own little world. This impression seems consistent with what I now see in the Lubavitch website: that, for example, Lubavitch “conveys the responsibility and love engendered by Chabad toward every single Jew” and “No Jew should be characterized as distant, for, in essence, we are one.” The impression is, us against the world.

It was understandable that she would gravitate toward an organization offering that kind of acceptance. A Diaspora (i.e., a dispersion of the members of a race or other group, commonly used to refer especially to the dispersion of Jews outside of their ancient homeland in Palestine) could foster thoughts of a virtual, emotional, or spiritual community among its scattered people. This recalled someone’s remark that Jews had traditionally tended toward investments in jewelry rather than real estate: you need to be able to grab it and flee, when the time of persecution arrives.

I had never before encountered the idea that a citizen of the United States would view this country as a mere waystation, a stepping-stone or tool to be used for the benefit of another country. If you’re born here, as she was, you ordinarily think of this as your home; and if you’re naturalized as a U.S. citizen after being born elsewhere, you normally wouldn’t go to the trouble unless you planned to make your life here. For her, however, Israel was the only true homeland. Again, I can see how that sort of thinking would emerge from a heritage that says you can never trust Gentiles not to turn against you in a pinch; but as I discuss in another post, I can also see how such an attitude could create its own reality. I doubt most Americans would appreciate people who convey an attitude that says the U.S. has value only to the extent that it serves Israel.

That was the only really religious Jewish girlfriend I had. There were others I was interested in, and I think a few may have been interested in me too, but the barriers were firm, and those others were not as exploratory as the first girlfriend had been. I also had little interaction with religious Jewish guys. I would see them, some just wearing yarmulkas and some with payots (long hair growing from sideburns), long hair generally, big beards, and weird hats. I rarely if ever interacted with the more exotic types. Brooklyn seemed to be the place for them, and I was rarely there.

1398577889898

There was a rabbi in my law school class. (Not the guy in the photo here; that’s just some random dude in his Jewish gear.) In three years, this rabbi never spoke a word to me. He was not a shy person. Having been in the City for a couple of years by that point, I expected that he would have no interest in talking to me. The religious Jews never did. If I were back there now, I might give it a try. But it generally felt like those guys had their own culture, and preferred it that way.

Here’s an example of how that worked in daily life. Columbia required law firms, visiting campus during interview season, to meet with any student who signed up for a preliminary interview. I signed up for some interviews with what my classmates called Jewish firms. The names of lawyers in those firms all looked Jewish. A classmate asked me why I bothered: he said those firms were only going to hire Jews. I guess he was right. None of them invited me to the firm for further interviews.

In one of those preliminary interviews, I remember, I told the interviewers that I’d had a class, in college, with a professor who announced his hope that he would convert us all to “practicing Marxists.” They thought that was funny. “Oh, at this firm, we’re all capitalists,” one of them said, laughing. I wasn’t sure, but it felt like he was laughing at me, like evidently I was not supposed to mention Marxism in the same room with a corporate attorney. Probably true, now that I think of it. In another interview, the woman and I had a great conversation. It was one of those interviews where you know you’ve hit a home run. She even said so. Still, no follow-up invitation. I’m not bitter about it. I don’t even remember which firm it might have been. It’s more like it was a learning experience, like they were all about as civil as New York lawyers can be, but it wasn’t going anywhere.

The Semi-Observant Types

I did, however, have extensive interactions with less religious Jews in Manhattan. I was in New York City and northeast New Jersey for a total of about twelve years. During my years in law school at Columbia, a large minority if not an actual majority of classmates were Jewish. Most seemed to be of the somewhat assimilated variety: they had been raised with some degree of religious training – some had lived at home with their parents during college – but now, like my ex-girlfriend, were experiencing pieces of the broader American culture. It was a mild shock, upon glancing over at a classmate (at one point in my two years as a transfer student at Columbia College), to see him writing these words: “Dear Daddy …” I just didn’t come from a place where young men in their early twenties would still call their dads Daddy. I also remember one first-year law school classmate asking another, “Have you discovered bacon?”

My ex-wife was an example of these semi- or vaguely observant types. She believed in celebrating the high holidays. But when it was just the two of us, without the guidance of more experienced hands, she was not too sure how to go about it. She would get partway through a Hebrew prayer and then start laughing because she didn’t remember the rest. She married me, so she couldn’t have been too observant. It was like what they say: at Columbia, the three major religions are equally represented: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. (By the way, like many of the observations presented here, that little joke comes from a Jewish acquaintance.)

Most Jews who have not become substantially assimilated into American culture would probably do a better job with the religious ceremonies. I think it’s much like being a loosely observant Christian: you have your beliefs, you raise your kids in them, you think they are important except when you choose to ignore them, but the idea of a religious war would sound medieval.

I seemed to get along pretty well with these nonreligious Jews. I mean, why not? Even without the bacon, we were not from such relatively incompatible cultures as the first girlfriend and I had been. They elected me to Columbia Law’s Student Senate three years in a row – twice defeating a female Jewish opponent.

In those last two years in the College, aside from the girlfriend, I had a few acquaintances – one Jewish, one half-black, half-Japanese, one a gay black ballet dancer – but I was studying most of the time. Later, my law and business school friends would be a less purely New Yorky group: I socialized sometimes with a group of mostly Anglo and Hispanic law students, sometimes with a mixed Jewish and Gentile group in the B-school.

I never seriously considered converting to Judaism, but not out of any antipathy to it; I just didn’t have much use for religion, and didn’t feel like going to all that trouble or feeling like a hypocrite. That said, over the years I did become somewhat oriented toward New York Jewish values. I developed a fairly well-informed sense of how my wife, girlfriends, and acquaintances would react to a given remark or event – what they would consider intelligent, funny, and otherwise acceptable.

After that volatile first relationship and a comparably ill-advised choice of wife and the ensuing divorce (in which I found myself the only Gentile in the courtroom), I did date several very fine Jewish women, spanning most of the 1980s. I deliberately sought them out: for the most part I found their thinking, their preferences, and their communication style agreeable. Two, in particular, would have married me. That might have been for the best. But I was not yet ready for another marriage.

The guy I hung out with most, during and after law school, was Jewish as well, a lawyer who surely should have been an engineer or physicist. Like all of my male Jewish acquaintances, he was not religious; he did not wear a yarmulka or other outward signs of belief. As people would often say about such individuals, he was Jewish by culture rather than religion. I rarely if ever talked about religious belief with these guys. This particular individual, I think, was probably an atheist.

Like many, he married a Gentile – a shiksa, in the Yiddish term. I, a non-Jew (that is, a goy, plural goyim), married to a female Jew, was a shaygetz. If I had been black, married or not, I would have been a shvartze. When we Gentiles behaved in ways that Jews would find unintelligible, we were demonstrating a goyishe kop – that is, a Gentile head (i.e., the stupidity of Gentiles). In these and other regards, the Jews of my acquaintance, mostly well-to-do, did have their disparaging terms for people unlike themselves. So, for example, the sister of one of my acquaintances, and her husband, started calling their son Pete because, they joked, there was no way that a boy so poorly behaved could be Jewish.

Those sorts of terms were not used often in my presence, and I rarely if ever felt that the people using them intended any insult toward me personally. There was a hint of potential antipathy in the question that my date’s friends asked her after we attended a party: “He seems nice. Is he German [i.e., German-American]?” But none of this was on a par with the racism exhibited by others outside my circle, such as the rabbi who said, “One million Arabs are not worth a Jewish fingernail.” I do not think any of my acquaintances felt that way. To be sure, I rarely if ever saw any of them socializing with Arabs; then again, there did not seem to be many Arabs in the places in New York where I studied and worked. The lawyer-cum-physicist did seem rather rudely unable or unwilling to bother to learn how to pronounce the name of a business school classmate who, I think, hailed from the Middle East, but I am not sure whether that was racism or just general callousness. I had a Sri Lankan Muslim roommate for a couple of years, and everybody seemed friendly toward him.

Really, about the only time I interacted with religious Jews was when I went into various stores that sold computer and electronics equipment. These guys, often but not always having Israeli or Russian accents, were a mixed bag. I remember, for instance, a time when I took a camera to a store for repairs. I forget the details, but I remember thinking that they were going to try to cheat me. My girlfriend, the child of the Holocaust mentioned above, was confident they would never cheat a Jew, and I think we presented it as her camera. They did indeed try to cheat her. Forewarned is forearmed: we came out OK, and she got a lesson in how Jews can treat one another.

That, however, was an unusual experience. I felt that you had to watch yourself when doing business in any event, and that the New York area certainly had its share of con artists; but there were countless uneventful transactions as well. My sense of Jewish merchants in such settings was that they could be harsh and sometimes obnoxious, but not uniquely crooked.

Interactions with New York Jews

I said, above, that I appreciated the thinking, preferences, and communication style of New York Jewish women. I want to elaborate on that – to explain, in effect, why it made sense to me, some years ago, that a philanthropist (whose name I cannot now locate) would announce a goal of fostering secular Jewish values in the American population.

I say the concept made sense, but I have to qualify that. I cannot be sure that all of the values important to me would appear on his list. I had been shaped, not only by New York Jewish culture, but also by the larger culture of New York as a whole, by my childhood in Indiana, and by my immersion in the environment of Columbia University and in the legal profession. In some of those spheres, I had been getting exposure to the values of the upper classes. So what I construed as Jewish values may have been, in fact, my own idiosyncratic construction, drawn from a larger and very conflicted stew of Manhattan values.

Probably the thing that I found most striking about New York Jews, within the caveats just stated, was their expectation that I should try to make sense. This sounds obvious, but in practice it often is not. For instance, Americans are not generally in the habit of thinking that they should articulate why they have done something. People don’t ask; they don’t want to hear an analysis; and if you do launch forth into a detailed explication, they’ll likely be stuck in a belief that it’s weird to say such things (because nobody actually thinks about stuff), and thus they won’t be willing (or, perhaps, able) to keep up with what you are actually trying to tell them. When I think of goyishe kop, I think of this more than anything else, this seemingly idiotic (and yet accepted as normal) tendency, among ordinary Americans across the country, to just charge forth and do stuff — in their businesses, their relationships, whatever — and then wonder why it didn’t work, but rarely to talk about and analyze it before, during, or after their grand experiment.

A related discovery was that I was allowed to be smart. Although it took years, eventually, in New York, I came to understand that it might be OK to use big words. In my rural upbringing, a good vocabulary was a liability. When I used a word that the local farmers didn’t know, they acted like there was something wrong with me. School and learning were OK for kids, but not a serious part of adult life. It often seemed that the ideas I wanted to express would be dismissed as schoolboy nonsense. But in the big city, at least in some settings, I could just express myself. This, I saw, was how the Jews raised their own kids. They treated them like real people. When the little boy walked into the room and made a statement, adults listened. They expected that he, too, would try to make sense.

There seemed to be a shared view that life was complicated enough, without playing games with reality. Having spent several years in L.A., it was something of a shock to encounter people who would not necessarily tolerate vague or potentially nonsensical statements. There did not seem to be a lot of patience for bullshit. They could accept, to some extent, that you might not be serious about the things you thought and said; they would just not necessarily understand why you would want to be like that.

That said, people did vary in their tendency to drive toward hard facts. I experienced a relatively extreme case in a lawyer named Harry, with whom I shared an office for a while. In my understanding, Harry felt that it was not his job to get between me and reality. If he had a problem with something I was doing, he would just say so. It could be pretty blunt and abrupt. It wasn’t spooned out with honey, with any sense that this might be something we could both make adjustments for. It was just, bam, Ray, here’s what you’re doing that I don’t like, and that’s the simple reality, and now it was up to me to fix the problem.

Although I found Harry’s style rather unwelcoming, I did appreciate that something similar to it worked pretty well for New York’s Jewish mayor Ed Koch. I observed that “Hizzoner” had an interesting way of presenting the opposing interests that were coming to him, without making them his responsibility. Like, here’s what the teachers want, here’s what the parents want. Like he was just reporting on these conflicting interests. It was really up to these parties to negotiate their differences with each other. He didn’t want their stuff sticking to him.

I am not sure whether New York Jews are necessarily more truthful, or otherwise have better character, than other people. Maybe, maybe not. Among my clients as a corporate attorney, I met a variety. The least appealing of the lot was a Jew, but he had competition there at the bottom of the barrel.

For every Harry, there is probably a Jay. Jay was another Jewish lawyer with whom I shared an office for a while. Unlike Harry, Jay was a bald-faced liar. He would just stand right there and tell me things that were completely false. With Harry, you knew where you stood; with this weasel, you never did. The Jews in the law firms where I worked were not generally like that. It did not seem that Jay would go far in the established kinds of Wall Street legal practice, but I don’t know: maybe someone like him would succeed elsewhere — in, say, suburban real estate.

These examples may provide some sense of how Jewish lawyers, and the women I dated, would tend to talk about the various mensches and chazzers of their acquaintance.

A striking contrast emerged when our little firm was acquired as the New York office of a larger Boston firm, and we had to make space for several Boston lawyers. These people – thinking, in particular, of several Gentiles – were slime. It wasn’t just Harvard arrogance; it was equally bad with, for instance, a junior associate from an obscure Massachusetts law school. I didn’t fully realize it at the time, but their arrival and behavior colored my view of the whole enterprise. Later, I would have comparable experiences with senior Gentile attorneys at other firms. I do wonder what my career would have been like if I had been able to continue working with the New York Jewish lawyers who had hired me for that first law job. Instead, I was disgusted; I left within the year. Some years later that whole firm self-destructed, starting with the Boston office.

Once I became acclimated to the sometimes abrasive style of New York Jews, I discovered a possibility of sensitivity and acceptance. Maybe these words from Jewish psychiatrist Irvin Yalom (1995, p. 25) will convey a flavor of it. In this quote, Yalom is discussing outbursts in his group counseling sessions:

The most common type of incident my patients report . . . involves a sudden expression of strong dislike or anger toward another member. In each instance, communication was maintained, the storm was weathered, and the patient experienced a sense of liberation from inner restraints as well as an enhanced ability to explore more deeply his or her interpersonal relationships.

The important characteristics of such critical incidents were:

1. The patient expressed strong negative affect.

2. This expression was a unique or novel experience for the patient.

3. The patient had always dreaded the expression of anger. Yet no catastrophe ensued: no one left or died; the roof did not collapse . . . .

In other words, in psychotherapeutic groups, Yalom found that sometimes people would explode; there would be a risk of blaming them for doing so; but instead, the group could be tough-minded, and keep its eye on the ball.  With the influence of someone like Yalom, group members might treat the outburst as just one more thing to talk about. Many New York Jews seemed to be accustomed to a world in which people said and did things that did not make sense. In response, these Jews’ attitude could feature a certain durability, a sense of coping. They had things they wanted to achieve, and if you could help them with that – with being a good boyfriend or lawyer or whatever the situation called for – then they would find a way through or around the weirdness and the other obstacles.

The reference to Yalom also provides a reminder that Jewish culture has produced people like Sigmund Freud and many other mental health workers – people, that is, who have tended to combine mental toughness or durability with a belief that, if you dig deep enough, you find that maybe things do make sense. If you have the patience and motivation to understand people, it turns out that even the strange ones are commonly trying to find solutions to problems as they see them. Same thing, in a very different sphere, with a Jew like Karl Marx: our day-to-day world is filled with chaos and pain, but there is a system, a mechanism underlying it, and we can grasp and alter that underlying mechanism to change the world for the better.

In my experience, Jews differ among themselves greatly, just like other kinds of people. They do not necessarily incorporate all variations of human thought, feeling, and behavior, but they do run a pretty wide spectrum, from Marx to the bankers he despised, and from the psychiatrist to his/her neurotic clients. There are those who would have neither the interest nor the ability to conduct an appropriately sensitive and thoughtful therapy session, but who do just fine arguing a case in court or running a corporation or a city; and then there are the Freuds and the Einsteins who have all the time it takes to get into the most arcane details of the smallest systems of natural or mental worlds.

No matter who you are, it seemed to me that, in New York, you can find people – often, and possibly at the core of it, Jewish people – who are accepting and supportive. New York was a place where very talented, bright, and/or strange individuals could achieve a degree of success – in their own lives, and sometimes on a larger stage – that might not have been available to them in most other places. It was odd to think of that city as a haven, with all its coldness and danger; and yet it could sometimes give off a certain protective warmth. No doubt Jewish people can be as spiteful and cruel as any others, but I experienced little of that among the Jews of my acquaintance in New York. The vastly more common experience was one of finding a way to work things out and move forward, at whatever level of analysis.

The Assimilated Types

New York seemed to be a shelter for Jews especially. One time, the first girlfriend and her husband tried to keep kosher during a drive across the country. She said there were some hungry times during that trip. There just weren’t many kosher places to eat: make the dash to Cleveland and stuff yourself; next stop Chicago, and after that you’re on your own.

I encountered something like that myself, one time in the late 1980s. I was in Portland, Oregon. I called directory assistance to get the number for the bagel shop down the street. I said, “Could I have the number for The Bagel Shop?” The operator said, “Bagel. How are you spelling that?”

SteinbergThere is a classic New Yorker cover, by Steinberg, that indicates how it can feel to contemplate leaving Manhattan for some other destination in the U.S. I experienced that feeling too. For some years in the later 1980s, I was making trips and conducting investigations, trying to find a place to call home. I missed the countryside that I had grown up in, and I was attempting to figure out how I could build a rewarding life in some place other than New York City. But the Big Apple is a hard act to follow. These investigations failed. Ultimately, in 1989, I just loaded my stuff on a trailer and headed west, to wind up wherever I wound up.

That departure brought mixed feelings about Jewish women. On one hand, as I say, I’d known some great ones in NYC, and in fact I continued a long-distance relationship with one for a year after I left. But on the other hand, I’d had some struggles during my two years with that first girlfriend; the divorce had been an ordeal, over a period of years, in which the ex-wife had tried and ultimately failed at multiple angles to get money from me; and in other instances the often driven and contentious Jewish culture had been too much. It seemed that the time might be ripe to meet someone with whom I would have more in common – someone more oriented toward the outdoors, a mellow blond from Kansas or something. So when I landed in Denver, I responded to some singles ads and was pleased to meet up with a divorced woman whose name was something like Eileen Smith. That definitely sounded like a Gentile. Met her, had a nice talk, discovered that Smith was her married name. Sometimes she went by the longer version: Eileen Cohen Smith. It was like magic. Evidently I had a kind of magnetism: I had found Denver’s Jew!

Eventually, she would leave me for a guy with more money. She was pretty frank about it. Those were her priorities. There had been others with a similar attitude, back in New York, probably including my ex-wife; it had seemed interesting that she left me just a few weeks before I finished putting her through business school. Be that as it may, of course, Judaism has no monopoly on golddiggers. There are guys of any description who are preoccupied with the size of a woman’s breasts, and there are women of any description who find fascination in the size of a man’s wallet. This pairing of values gives us prostitution, in a variety of forms and settings. Indeed, in the view of one well-known Jewish judge in Chicago, that’s what marriage is all about.

Accurately or not, it did seem that I encountered greater flakiness among Jews outside of New York. Some of that impression may have been due to a change in my own status. In New York, I dressed and acted like a person of education and sophistication. Out in the hinterlands, I was inclined to be my more relaxed, clueless self. As someone in Philly would later remark, people take the cues you give off. You can’t be surprised if they treat you poorly, if you portray yourself as a sorry ass. As for why I might conduct myself thus, my book about New York legal study and practice conveys some hints (regarding e.g., impostor syndrome); I won’t go into that here.

For whatever reason, it did seem that the relatively few Jews I met in Denver, L.A., and elsewhere were cultural counterparts of what I had heard about America’s Asian immigrants. First generation: small, skinny, no health problems. Second generation: a little bigger, a little sicker. Third generation: just as fat and sick as their white American neighbors. It seemed, in other words, that adoption of the assimilated, relatively rootless, non-communitarian model of American life had yielded a reduction in character, in these Jewish middle Americans who were several generations away from the old worlds of Europe and Brooklyn. It was sort of like what a Californian friend had told me. The difference between New York and L.A., according to him, was that in New York, they say, “I’m going to screw you!” and then they screw you. In L.A., they say, “I would never screw you! I love you like a brother!” and then they screw you.

Conclusion

There were things about New York, and about Jewish culture and values, that were and perhaps always will be alien to me. Ultimately, I did decide to leave: New York did not become my real home, and that is partly because of those alien elements. Nonetheless, my life is very much richer for the opportunities to have met and come to know Jewish people in the New York area. That remark includes my friends especially, but it is also true for the larger Jewish culture that has so extensively pervaded and shaped what New York City is.

There is much more I could say about Jewish people, and about my experiences with and reactions to them. Some of that will have to remain unsaid; some may see daylight in other posts. I may revise this one as other material comes to mind. But for now, that wraps it up.

* * * * *

Postscript

My blog on the American system now contains posts on antisemitism, the standard Holocaust story, and Holocaust denial. Others may follow. Probably the most recent ones, appearing at the top of the list on the Archives page, will tend to offer more refined perspectives.

Advertisements

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

3 responses to “Some Experiences with Jews

  1. C.G.H.

    Ray,

    Reading your blog, I felt sad and angry. I understand where your points of view come from, because I grew up in a culture very similar to yours. However, to continue to judge another group or culture as alien, and at our age, is ignorance and shows an absence of maturity and compassion for the variety of human conditions and experiences that exist here.

    Every culture and religion has a “light” side and a “dark” side, and your dark perspectives are strong. Dark and flawed is how you view others who you do not understand — others who seem alien to you. But for a man of your maturity, education, and life experience to consciously hold on to “the way you were brought up to think,” instead of embracing your own unique points of view not based on your past, is sad.

    It takes no special insight or experience to point out the faults in others. Your perspective on Jews is certainly not unique. It’s been going on for centuries, and it has nothing to do with reality. It is a stereotype, a common prejudice. And our variety in particular comes from the social consciousness of the protestant mid-west. I call it the duhhh-I-didn’t-know-there-was-anything-wrong-with-sayin’-Jew’m-down” consciousness. It’s just another version of the duh-I-didn’t-know-Hitler-was-killing-Jews consciousness that so many German people embraced during the war, despite the fact their Jewish neighbors were being moved into ghettos or taken away in cattle cars, while others were shot dead in the streets. People looked the other way then, and we are still doing it today, instead of taking a stand.

    In our own parents’ lifetimes, it was a widespread occurrence for non-Jewish citizens to sacrifice the lives of Jewish friends and neighbors to the Nazis either out of hidden hatred, or to gain favor with or in fear of the Nazi regime. Consequently, the Jewish people who were fortunate enough (or not maybe) to survive the Holocaust were understandably mistrustful of people who were not Jewish.

    On the one hand, neither our families nor protestant people as a group have ever been killed en-mass, or threatened by the Jewish people. Consequently we cannot justify mistrust toward Jewish people that we may harbor. Any mistrust we have toward Jewish people is not based on reality. It is based on an idea — on an interpretation of our experiences. Their fear of us, on the other hand is real. It is based on a very real and recent experience of torture, murder, and the threat of extinction.

    Hopefully with the passage of time, and by working to be trustworthy, the Jewish people as a whole will learn to trust our people once again. (However, I doubt it because they have been persecuted for so many centuries and that fear may never heal and we have to love them as they are, fear and all.)

    To heal the rift, I believe we must do our part by changing our conditioning. Firstly we have to see our conditioning for what it is — a strongly held belief based on our families and the past. We don’t have to believe our prejudices even if we think we can prove they are true. We don’t have to believe anything we don’t want to. We can choose something new. For example, we can choose curiosity about other religions and cultures that seem foreign to us. We can choose to engage in real dialogue with people who have a completely different point of view and context in life.

    You and I will never know what it was like to grow up Jewish, to be hated the way their people have been hated. And we have no right to judge.

    • Dear C.G.H.:

      Thank you for your reply. I am sorry that you chose to attack my post. Here, I offer several points in my defense — not for you, in particular, since I don’t know whether you will even receive notice of this response, but as a clarification and refinement of the text of this post.

      (1) “To judge another group or culture as alien . . . is ignorance and shows an absence of maturity and compassion for the variety of human conditions and experiences.” This sentence is self-contradicting. The great variety among human conditions and experiences is precisely why we cannot help considering some alien: they are different from us. Ignorance of other cultures — indeed, of subcultures within one’s own culture — is inevitable. That hardly means we should not present our perspectives. To the contrary, free discussion of such matters is our best hope of achieving mutual understanding and/or acceptance despite the fact that others will remain alien to us.

      (2) I am surprised to hear you suggest that I “do not understand” Jewish people. Of course, there are many threads within Jewish culture; many Jews do not even understand each other. But this post does seem to indicate, in brief terms, that I probably acquired more of an understanding than most Americans have. You appear to be suggesting that I should not present my personal impressions of Jewish people, based on twelve years’ worth of interactions in New York, and quite a few interactions subsequently. No doubt some of your experiences are different from mine. I don’t know why that would be relevant to my decision to summarize my experiences.

      (3) I’m not sure how you reached the conclusion that I “consciously hold on to ‘the way [I was] brought up to think.'” The way I was brought up to think of the Jews was as the people of the Old Testament, with little to no contemporary relevance. This comes out repeatedly in the post: at Indiana U., for example, it is not occurring to me that the dark-haired women in my Hebrew class might be Jewish; and as a burger-flipper, I use the phrase “jewed me down” without a clue that it might have something to do with Jews. The entire text of this post demonstrates that I am no longer thinking of Jews in the way I thought of them during my upbringing.

      (4) Regarding your reference to “the duhhh-I-didn’t-know-there-was-anything-wrong-with-sayin’-Jew’m-down consciousness.” I think I probably did go through a phase, somewhere early in my New York years, when I felt it was appropriate to sneer, as you do, at the seeming backwardness of the folks back home in the Midwest. From the viewpoint of some Jews, it could seem regrettable that mainstream America might be ignorant of what Jews have endured, in the Holocaust and otherwise. That, however, is a parochial perspective. Mainstream America is apt to be ignorant of a great deal of history. Jewish history deserves no special privilege. And while I think mainstream America should know more about history, I also accept that, for better and for worse, many people are more inclined to dwell upon the possibilities of the future than upon the horrors of the past. I think it is OK that some people might grow up without acute awareness of the etymological roots of every possibly objectionable thing they might say (e.g., “Jew’m-down”). Contrary to common wisdom, to me good intentions and a kind heart are much more important than the inevitably imperfect phrasings with which people express themselves. It may be gratifying to jump on someone who is so unsophisticated as to use a phrase like “Jewed me down.” But I am not sure that such self-congratulatory behavior is productive.

      (5) Regarding the Holocaust. Yes, it is possible to greet almost any discussion of Jewish people with some farfetched reference to the Holocaust. In this case, you choose to compare the rural Midwest of my upbringing, where Jews were virtually nonexistent (to my knowledge, there was not one in my rural and small-town high school class of nearly 300 students), with the Jewish Holocaust in Germany, where Jews were relatively visible, especially in urban areas. We did not have Jews being hauled away in cattle cars. Actually, neither did Germany, for the most part. The cattle cars departed from ghettoes where Jews had been concentrated, mostly outside of Germany. And the cattle cars were apparently not like the ones we see here: they are reported to have been sealed and windowless, such that bystanders might have no idea of their contents.

      (6) I think you may have gotten a bit carried away in your remarks about the Holocaust. The preceding paragraph offers one example. Another appears in your claim that “it was a widespread occurrence for non-Jewish citizens to sacrifice the lives of Jewish friends and neighbors to the Nazis, either out of hidden hatred, or to gain favor with or in fear of the Nazi regime.” That sounds like a view informed by Hollywood. First, “widespread” is not the right word. Jews constituted only about 1% of the German population, and as just noted, even those few were concentrated in urban areas. For the most part, no personal betrayal was required: various laws (requiring e.g., registration of Jewish property and carrying of Jewish identity cards) tended to establish the locations of Germany’s Jews. From the research I have seen so far, it also does not appear that hatred was a major factor. Fear of the Nazi regime is more on target, but it is disingenuous to attack Gentiles for that: because of such fear, the Jewish Councils themselves cooperated with the Nazi extermination program. It is hardly fair to dwell upon German Gentiles’ hesitation to risk their lives on behalf of Jews, when historians have noted that the Jews themselves generally did not engage in active resistance.

      I should have updated this post to provide links to other posts in which I discuss certain matters related to the Holocaust. If I had done so, perhaps you would have offered your thoughts about the Holocaust in response to those other posts, instead of here. This post is not about the Holocaust. I appreciate that you and I have been taught to consider it appropriate to inject that topic into any discussion of Jews but, in fact, it was not appropriate here. If you would like to discuss the Holocaust further, let’s do that in comments following those other posts.

      (7) Inadvertently, it seems, your remarks perpetuate a form of antisemitism. You characterize “the Jewish people” as “mistrustful of people who were not Jewish” and as having a “fear of us” that “may never heal, along with a need “to trust our people once again,” and as being permanently scarred in such a way that we may “have to love them as they are, fear and all.” These remarks seem flawed in several regards. First, they lump all Jewish people together, when this post echoes current coverage (in e.g., the New York Times) indicating wide and growing divergences among Jewish people. Second, there is a patronizing quality about your remarks — a sense that we are taking the Jews on as mascots, or that they are somehow in need of delicate treatment. While you disparage my post, it really sounds like you may not have much experience at all with Jews in the U.S. today. Third, it is jarring to read your reference to “our people” adjacent to your words about the Holocaust. Americans of 2015 are not the Nazis of World War II. It is almost as though you are striving to give American Jews a reason not to participate on even terms as normal members of society and economy. Neither the fact nor the perception of such special treatment (nor your advocacy for it) would seem likely to promote positive views of Jewish people.

      (8) Some of your remarks seem to have more to do with your upbringing or attitudes than with mine. For example, you refer to “our conditioning” and to “mistrust we have toward Jewish people.” If I had been conditioned to mistrust Jewish people, I would not have married one. There are kinds of behaviors and attitudes that I see manifested in some Jews, having certain (to me, extreme) religious and political tendencies. These seem primarily connected with radical right-wing elements in Israel — elements that not only I, but also many American Jews, do distrust. But that is not a result of “conditioning.” It is a result of what I have experienced and observed in adult life, and of what I have read over the years in various sources. It is specific to certain subgroups; it is not remotely a comment on Jews in general.

      (9) You rationalize some of what you believe to be Jewish “fear of us” as the understandable result of “a very real and recent experience of torture, murder, and the threat of extinction.” The Holocaust is not recent, not for purposes of the personal feelings and reactions you are describing. Nor is it highly real to the Jews living today: very few have any personal memory or experience of it. Even those who did experience it have not always described it in terms consistent with the canned Hollywood version. Here, again, for more detail, you will have to refer to the other posts mentioned above.

      We all have ancestors who were oppressed and sometimes murdered for various social, economic, cultural, or political reasons. The Holocaust was horrific. In many ways, it was one of a kind. But it is certainly not the only genocide. In some dimensions — in, for example, America’s indifference to gross and preventable bloodshed — other genocides (e.g., Rwanda) have been even more reprehensible. Overall, contemporary American Jews are doing OK. They do not have an unquestionable right to display distrust or the other antisocial attitudes you ascribe to them, and in my experience they mostly are not doing so.

      (9) You are right in your belief that “you and I will never know what it was like to grow up Jewish.” But there are many ways to grow up Jewish. Some are far more privileged than the way I did grow up. You are wrong to say that I will never know what it is like to be hated the way “their people” have been hated. Whatever the situation may have been in Nazi-Jew interactions in prewar Germany, Jews have not been hated here with any noticeable intensity. In America today, you are far more likely to be hated by a substantial chunk of the population for being fat, or homeless, or conservative, or liberal.

      Overall, I do appreciate your remarks. You have dared to express some personal information, though that would be much more impressive if you had provided your name. I think you and I may share a number of thoughts and views, though perhaps not the ones you have identified. If you do return to this post and read this response, I hope you will look at those other posts and offer your Holocaust-related thoughts there.

  2. I have received the following via email, from a person who wishes to remain anonymous:

    * * * * *

    I like your article on your experiences with Jews and Jewish culture and it is my experience 100%.

    The article is: Some Experiences with Jews

    As you state, there’s massive discrimination problems within the Jewish community. I have experience with Jews in Israel and from the start I liked them, but you know … the discrimination wears you down. I am also not religious.

    And there’s certain things you can accept and understand in a culture and religion. But if you see Jews for example treating American Jews that are highly skilled, highly experienced unfairly, then you lose hope in such a society, I dare say sect and country. You know … nobody is perfect, but as you have mentioned, you notice certain behavior which can be common. It’s not everyone that has those feelings and actions and behaviors and beliefs, but some do. Some cannot get over WW2, some cannot accept that they are not persecuted 24 hours a day and that there’s nothing wrong with assimilation. You understand, there’s a world of wealth in life which remains undiscovered if you want to treat people the way some Jewish people want to approach life. I think as you mentioned, your time is valuable and you don’t want to waste time on small-minded class and religious battles in life, and yet in your experiences you feel that you have had to spend a lot of energy on the Jewish culture and people. And life should be such a struggle from city to city, town to town, country to country.

    In any case, your experiences are very accurate to my experiences, I’ve noticed everything you have mentioned some time or another time in my contact with probably 15,000+ Jewish people over many years.

    You can add this comment to that article if you want to. If they are sensitive, well sorry, is it our common experiences, whether they want to accept it or not.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s