I once heard Sarah Silverman tell a joke about the pride Jews inevitably take in the accomplishments of other Jews. To paraphrase, she said there are even Jews out there who will state, with nodding satisfaction, “You know the Son of Sam killer? A Jew!”
It does seem that for us Jews, every accomplishment casts a glow of achievement on the community as a whole. Albert Einstein didn’t revolutionize our understanding of the mechanics of the universe—we did! Maybe it’s because there simply aren’t many Jews out there—just under 14 million globally, as compared to, say, 1.2 billion Catholics—and every triumph strikes us as a feat of chutzpah over demographic gravity. Or maybe it’s because Jewish history is pocked with so many attempts to terminate Jewish history, every Nobel Prize or even Golden Globe stands as an affirmation that not only are we still here, but, hey look!, we’re thriving. I can’t fully explain the phenomenon, but I certainly share in it. And I believe it’s one of those particularly Jewish traits that cuts across all flavors of Jewish identity. When a Jewish child wins a spelling bee, it’s like every Jew from Boca to Crown Heights to Beijing wants to both give the kid a hug and brag about what great spellers the Jews are.
I touched on this collective pride in individual achievement in my novel, The Book of Jonah, in describing the protagonist’s outlook on his own Judaism. The Jonah of my book, an ambitious young lawyer who is suddenly beset by inexplicable visions, never goes to synagogue and has only the vaguest ideas about God. Not atypically, though, he still thinks of himself as fully Jewish: “He liked the community of Judaism: the instant bond he felt toward any -berg, -man, or -stein he encountered—the connection he could claim to the familiar litany of distinguished Jews*.”
The familiar litany of distinguished Jews is what I want to try to catalogue in this post: the go-to list of folks that Jews most often name when they’re blowing the shofar of Jewish accomplishment. These names get tossed around so often in synagogue and at BBYO regional events, there really ought to be a Passover song for them—maybe to the tune of Chad Gadya. I can’t offer that, but I can at least compile their names. Think of this as one’s man’s effort to chisel out the Jewish Mount Rushmore.
(One caveat: I chose to limit myself to Jews who made their mark in the 20th century or later. I did this, first, because the names I most often hear fall into this category, but more so that so that I wouldn’t get angry Tweets from rabbis for including the Rambam but not the Ran or something.)
Albert Einstein: The undisputed champion of the world of Jewish pride. I mean, he’s popularly regarded as the smartest man who ever lived: That’s going to win you some acclaim in the tribe.
Sigmund Freud: The father of psychoanalysis. You really can’t overstate the impact Freud has had on the way we think—and if you disagree, I think you have daddy issues, and ought to be in therapy.
Golda Meir: Before there was Hillary, before there was Margaret, there was Golda, one of the first democratically elected female heads of state, and further proof that yes, your grandmother could if given the opportunity win a war.
Sandy Koufax: In the galaxy of Jewish athletes, Sandy Koufax is the sun and seven of the planets. Bonus points for that time he didn’t pitch on Yom Kippur.
Bob Dylan: Probably the most accomplished musician of the twentieth century, Robert Zimmerman also owned his Jewfro like no one before or since.
Philip Roth: On the short list of greatest American writers of the last century and the source of innumerable awkward book club conversations.
Stephen Sondheim: Okay, okay, I know this is an idiosyncratic choice, but if you care about Broadway, you—right, moving on.
The Coen Brothers: Even the movies you forget when you’re listing all their movies (Barton Fink, Raising Arizona, A Serious Man) are classics. Walter Sobchak gives them the edge on this list over Woody Allen. Shomer Shabbos!
So, that’s my list. Who did I leave off?
*I made a slight edit to this sentence to avoid redundancy, but hey, it’s my sentence, right?
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I have always been fascinated by epigraphs — those borrowed words that authors choose to introduce and encapsulate the message of their books. And so, almost as soon as I started writing my own book, Crossing the Borders of Time, I found my thoughts exploring several possibilities, words whose power had won them space in my catalogue of memory.
The book involves a search to find my mother’s long-lost love, the young and handsome Frenchman she’d left behind in 1942, when — fleeing the Nazis — she was forced to board the last refugee ship to escape France before the Germans sealed its ports. She was Jewish and 18; he was Catholic and 21. “Whatever the length of our separation, our love will survive it, because it depends on us alone,” Roland had written to Janine in a farewell note before she sailed. “I give you my vow that whatever the time we must wait, you will be my wife.” But war and disapproving family had intervened, and even as she tried to build a different life than the one she had imagined, Mom shared with me her longing for the love that had been stolen from her.
The story of their star-crossed romance, culminating in my efforts to reunite the pair, first called to mind Bob Dylan’s paean to a young love that endures:
The future for me is already a thing of the past.
You were my first love and you will be my last.
Yet even in my silent reading, the gnarly twang of Dylan’s unique delivery resounded as unreservedly American. It set the wrong mood as the opener for a love story that unfolded in Europe of the war years, and its tone seemed too lighthearted for the period and the harrowing experiences I was depicting. Besides, Dylan belonged to my youth. His rebellious ballads could be interpreted as a rejection of my parents’ generation. Indeed, the disdain that he expressed was not lost on my father, who actually forbade me to play Dylan’s albums on his phonograph, as if their scathing lyrics might damage the machinery.
Next in top contention for my epigraph were favorite verses from T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,” the first of his Four Quartets:
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
The Nobel Prize-winning poet had completely captured the spirit of my story, as he spoke to how a past, imagined yet never lived, nonetheless persists in memory. The words that echoed in my mind, entrancing and enthralling me since childhood, were all my mother’s words—her stories from a rose-garden, a lovers’ garden, an Eden from which she had been exiled. Perfect. Except for one disturbing thing. Eliot, whose philosophical poetry I adored, was a reputed anti-Semite, as exemplified most clearly in his early work.
Could I comfortably enshrine the verses of an anti-Semite on the opening pages of a volume that I had devoted in large measure to describing the plight of European Jewry in the Holocaust? I struggled with the question. To make Eliot’s voice my book’s first voice felt like treason. A betrayal of the millions who had suffered and died for no other reason than their Jewishness. And yet it grated, in banishing the artist, to have to sacrifice the art – a dilemma far from new to us. We are used to squirming as we read literary classics from times and places in which loathing for the Jewish people was a cultural prejudice quite shamelessly expressed. Surely, I argued with myself, we cannot be expected to reject all the works where Jews appear unfavorably or whose authors are anti-Semites. And what about music? Must we always close our ears to Richard Wagner?
Even now, after months of debate with myself and with others whose opinions I respect, my answers to these questions feel muddled. Before my book went to print, however, and not without regret, I relinquished T. S. Eliot and wondered whether, had I written something different—a physics text on the nature of time, for example—I might have felt more free to honor his creative voice by quoting him in my epigraph.
As it was, in place of Eliot’s verses, I finally chose a cherished line from Thomas Wolfe:
O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.
It had the virtue of calling to mind for me the loss not only of Roland, but also of my father, who had died before the lovers reunited, and of Hitler’s countless victims. Beyond that, when my son asked me whether Wolfe, as well, might have been a secret anti-Semite, I was happy to assure him that while the great novelist had visited Germany repeatedly in the 1930s, he had publicly denounced the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews. Retaliating, the Nazis had banned his books in Germany. Wolfe’s longtime lover, I suddenly remembered then, had been a Jewess named Aline Bernstein. To her, “A.B.,” he dedicated his masterpiece, Look Homeward, Angel, from which I drew my epigraph with the sense I had arrived at the right place.