This article was written in response to Enrique Krauze’s working paper, It’s Still Hard to Be a Jew, which was presented at the Bronfman Vision Forum’s Judaism as Civilizations: Belonging in Age of Multiple Identities, a project of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.
Es iz schwer tzu sein a yid. It is hard to be a Jew. I hate Sholom Aleichem‘s weary expression; to me it reeks of herring and Holocaust, of Jewish weaklings and wimps, of Diaspora and despair. It does not speak to me as an American (and an American historian), privileged to be part of one of the greatest success stories in world history. Nor does it speak to me as a Jew born over a decade into Israel’s existence, viewing Israel and Zionism as one of the last century’s great redemptive stories.
Woman at a pro-Israel rally
The expression reminds me of my debate with my late Polish-born grandfather. Having fled the Polish army during the First World War, arriving in the Golden Medina, America, just before the immigration restrictions of the 1920s began, he saw anti-Semites behind every tree. He embraced what the great historian Salo Baron dismissed as the lachrymose view of Jewish history, seeing the Jewish experience as a vale of tears. In contrast, I, a post-Auschwitz New York Jew and Zionist, appreciated the triumphs shaping Jewish history as well as the tragedies.
My stance is both ideological and tactical. Ideologically, I consider the phenomenon of Jewish continuity and the story of rebuilding Israel as among the great miracles of human history. I delight in seeing Jews in New York living the most modern, technologically-sophisticated, culturally-enlightened, intellectually-rich life any human being has ever dreamed of, while being able to pray three times a day, study Talmud in sleek corporate board rooms, and eat kosher food in trendy restaurants. And I marvel at most Israelis’ quality of life, building equally sophisticated lives in the Jewish people’s ancient homeland.
At the same time, strategically, given our modern culture’s lures and happy talk, I do not believe we will inspire a next generation if we make Judaism all about oppression and dilemmas. I have seen from working with Birthright Israel participants that members of this generation want to pursue their own particular Jewish journeys rather than be burdened by the ancestral guilt trip.