“Did you hear about the rabbi getting thrown out of a Jackson restaurant?”
Everyone at our office has been asked that by friends and family near and far, after the story made national news last week.
Of course we heard about it. Some may have even wondered if I was involved, since I am a rabbi in Jackson, Mississippi, and there are only so many of us. But I am not the rabbi in this story; it was my colleague Rabbi Ted Riter, the interim rabbi of Beth Israel Congregation here in Jackson.
Rabbi Riter went to a small Greek restaurant—one he’s been to before—and placed a to-go order. The owner made an anti-Semitic slur regarding the size of the side salad. The rabbi, puzzled, asked for clarification. Rather than change course, the owner just dug in deeper, asking if Rabbi Riter was Jewish. When he said yes, the owner responded by cursing him out and demanding he leave the establishment store. News of the incident travelled quickly, from social media to local media to national coverage.
The Jewish community sometimes gets criticized for being overly sensitive when it comes to anti-Semitism. History teaches us that, unfortunately, such heightened sensitivity is necessary – but it’s important to balance vigilance with reason. In a country as large as ours, there will always be individuals prone to words and actions that we find objectionable. As disturbing as these cases may appear, they should not be our real worry. One person’s ignorant comments do not represent an entire city.
Further, if we turn our attention toward every isolated attack, we give such people more power than they deserve while giving ourselves unwarranted and unending anxiety. Instead, as a Jewish community our attention must be focused at how these individuals are received, not just by us, as Jews—but by everyone else in our community. The reactions are even more important than the initial action.
In the case of this incident, there is an easy way to gauge the reaction of the average person. Most of the online press coverage allowed for reader comments. Anonymous internet comments are not always pleasant to read, and probably should be avoided in most cases. However, in this case reading the comments can help us understand how others viewed the actions of the store owner. Hundreds of comments appeared within a day of the incident. Here are some examples:
I am so sorry that this happened to you.
Are you serious???!!! How ignorant.
I’m so sorry that you were treated that way. Please know not all of the Jackson Metro area is like that!!!!!!
Let’s boycott this restaurant
Unbelievable…it makes me sad
Disgusting and an embarrassment to the rest of Mississippi!
Terrible. He does not deserve his business to be successful while treating another human being this way.
I will never step foot in that restaurant ever, and that is just awful. God is watching and I feel sad that someone would do that to that rabbi. I am never going to understand the ignorance of that owner. I want to wish that rabbi happy Rosh Hashanah, and blessings to him and his family.
Internet comments are rarely a source of inspiration. Yet, in this case these comments can serve as a gift. At first, Rabbi Riter’s lunch experience seemed like an unbelievable insult on the eve of the new year. But this unfortunate incident has turned into a blessing. We enter 5775 knowing that our neighbors are as appalled by this behavior as we are. People rushed to take the rabbi’s side and assure everyone, near and far, that this anti-Semitism is not a sentiment shared by other Mississippians. They have reached out to share their regret and show their support.
That’s the real story here.
May we be grateful to live in a country that both allows for people to say whatever they believe, and in which the overwhelming majority chooses to believe in righteousness, decency, and love. May 5775 be a year of increased love and respect among all peoples, here in Mississippi, across this nation, and around the world.
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This week, my Facebook news-feed is filled with outrage about the fact that Hobby Lobby won’t carry Hanukkah decorations. Many Jews are upset by this; some are even calling it “anti-Semitic.”
But is it anti-Semitic of a Christian company to not sell Hanukkah decorations?
Merriam-Webster defines anti-Semitism as “hatred of the Jewish people” or “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews”. Is an openly religious Christian store not selling Jewish holiday objects really hatred of the Jewish people?
Perhaps all of this would be less of an issue if the representative in New Jersey who answered the phone had been trained of a more neutral way to explain this. I think her using the term “you people” is indeed offensive, but that’s not the company. Incidentally, Hobby Lobby does say it is now investigating the actual comments made by the employee.
To me, this is merely an act of ignorance and poor training. Hobby Lobby has the right to order and sell whatever merchandise they want. Would we blame a Judaica store for not carrying Christmas ornaments? What if the staff of the Judaica store said “oh, we don’t carry objects for non Jews”?
This is not a far-fetched; sure, Hobby Lobby isn’t a “Christianica” (new word) store, but it is a Christian store. Just read the Hobby Lobby Statement of Purpose:
In order to effectively serve our owners, employees, and customers the Board of Directors is committed to:
Honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles.
Offering our customers an exceptional selection and value.
Serving our employees and their families by establishing a work environment and company policies that build character, strengthen individuals, and nurture families.
Providing a return on the owners’ investment, sharing the Lord’s blessings with our employees, and investing in our community.
We believe that it is by God’s grace and provision that Hobby Lobby has endured. He has been faithful in the past, and we trust Him for our future.
This is a crystal clear worldview, spelled out institutionally for the company. Perhaps we are the naive ones to expect to find Hanukkah decorations at a place that defines its mission so clearly. We may not like that we will have to go elsewhere for our holiday decorations, and maybe because of that we will decide to not go there for anything at all – which is completely within our rights. But this is not an act of anti-Semitism. If they wouldn’t sell their products to Jews, or were discriminatory in their hiring processes, and that sort of thing – that would be another issue. But that’s not what we’re discussing here: The issue is simply that they are not selling products for a religious holiday outside of their corporate religious adherence.
In the South, we are very familiar with dilemmas like this. We live in the buckle of the Bible Belt. This incident was in New Jersey, but feels familiar. But I’m hesitant to call something “anti-Semitic” when it’s really just “a different demographic.” We can always shop at Michael’s, or Target — or, of course, our synagogue’s Judaica shop, where there will be plenty of Hanukkah decorations, but probably no candy canes.
It’s something that makes most Jewish people cringe: that moment when, in the midst of some celebrity or political or financial scandal, it’s revealed that there’s a bad guy who happens to be Jewish. And now, quite publicly, this Jewish person has done wrong.
Let’s call them the “Bad News Jews.”
I was pretty young when I first realized that if you’re Jewish, and especially if you’re the only Jewish person someone knows, you will become a go-to-source on All Things Jewish. Not just around holiday times, but also when there’s someone Jewish in the news. Especially when the news is not good, and a fellow known-to-be-Jewish person is getting some bad press.
It was Monica Lewinsky who first taught me this.
I was in high school back when she was in the news. Despite the fact and context of that story, and the whole topic being, y’know, not exactly appropriate conversational material to dive into with a teenager, people would ask me what I thought about that situation. They would ask what I thought about her: Monica Lewinsky, who “sort of looked like me,” as I was told a couple of times. Like maybe, since we were both Jewish, I had some insider info on this hot mess (um, nope!); or I’d be more sympathetic to her plight (um, nope!); or at least I’d be more personally impacted by the story (um… nope… ish?).
That last parenthetical “nope-ish” is where it gets complicated. Because while it doesn’t have anything to do with us, and seems misguided when non-Jewish friends and family ask us specifically about these “Naughty Jews,” well, there is some truth to the fact that we cringe a bit harder when someone Jewish is revealed to be the bad guy in a news story. Even when we have no actual connection to the person, we feel embarrassed. Like it’s making “us” look bad. The same way we take pride in “our” Albert Einsteins, we cringe at “our” Anthony Weiners.
How do we respond to Bad News Jews? When people ask for our opinion, what do we say?
After years of being in this position, my response has become pretty standard. When someone asks me what I think “as a Jewish person,” I try (and sometimes fail) to not roll my eyes, and then lead off by saying that I don’t speak for “the Jews,” I can only speak for myself. A person, who happens to be Jewish, but whose opinions only represent me, and are not representative of all Jewish people. Just like, yes, that schmoe in the news is a person, who happens to be Jewish – but whose actions speak only for him/her, and are not representative of all Jewish people. In a small town, where the Jews are few – like the rural town where I grew up, and the small Southern city where I live now – it somehow seems both more remote and removed, and yet also all the more personal.
It’s a sound basic strategy, but it doesn’t always stop the questions. Or the cringing.
What’s your response when people ask for your “Jewish opinion” on bad news on fellow Jews?