For secular American Jews, anti-Semitism, until recently, was little more than a historical artifact. Informed primarily by black and white films on the History Channel, textbook images of Leo Frank’s lynching in Georgia and stories of bloody pogroms in the old country, it seemed long ago and far away.
In the past two years that has changed dramatically. Our nation has witnessed Jews slaughtered in a Pittsburgh synagogue and stabbed in a rabbi’s home in New York. From Jersey City to Poway, Jews have been deliberately targeted and attacked.
Many anti-Semitic incidents, though far more mundane, are no less disturbing — they typically involve religious Jews being assaulted and at times demeaned by their neighbors. One of the most Jewish cities in the world, New York, has been hit particularly hard in this way.
This recurrence of anti-Semitism has generated understandable anxiety and a necessary examination of preparedness within the community. It is also a powerful reminder that no matter how assimilated, Jews remain the other. Moreover, counterintuitively, and at odds with most of progressive Jewish efforts in America, embracing our otherness is a most fitting response.
Otherness can be challenging, particularly within a culture guided by e pluribus unum. Nonetheless, Jews are repeatedly reminded to remember our time of bondage in Egypt and that we were “strangers in a strange land.” Such existential apartness is a blessing and a curse.
Apartness affords Jews a unique position to perceive social structures and, in particular, inequalities. After all, how a society treats its most marginalized members reveals much about it. Consider the contributions of Lillian Wald, Samuel Gompers and Abraham Joshua Heschel. This position also unfortunately lends to Jewish targeting, scapegoating and, in its most heinous form, systematic extermination. Given this participant-observer status, Jewish existence has never been easy.
Jewish otherness is also embodied through public modes of identification. There are many forms this might take, including circumcising sons, putting mezuzahs on doors, donning tzitzes or wearing a yarmulke.
Such tangible reminders of our apartness function as more than mere tribal vestiges. They serve a powerful social justice agenda. Consider the lip-service around fighting privilege, particularly from liberal Jewish circles: Is there any better way to battle structural inequality and to show solidarity with marginalized allies (and Jews) who do not have the opportunity to take their “yarmulke off” than to wear one?
There are other ways to embrace Jewish identity. Learn Hebrew, eat kosher foods, study the Torah. Greet in the quintessential Jewish manner. Next time you encounter a landsman, give them a hearty shalom alecheim and reciprocate with alecheim shalom. Our elders instructed us to not remove ourselves from our community, so attend a Shabbat dinner, join a synagogue, give to Jewish charities, support Israel.
Perhaps most importantly, live the ethically mandated lives Jews are commanded to. Don’t only look different — act different. Fight for the oppressed. Give charity. Be righteous in business dealing. Honor your parents. Treat animals kindly. Love your neighbor as yourself. Pursue justice. The list goes on and on (there are 613 commandments, to be precise) and as the prophet Isiah reminds us, such righteous conduct offers an opportunity to be a light unto the nations and likely the greatest antidote to anti-Semitism.
As the Jewish sage Hillel once said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” pjc
Geoffrey Neimark is a psychiatrist who lives in Philadelphia.