Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Directors Cut

Here's a link to an essay I wrote for Unpious.com, and in case anyone's interested, below is the unedited version. Let me know which one you like more.



Far be it from me to blame the victim, but…


Vehi She’amdah La’avosenu Ve’lanu, blah blah blah… I’m waiting for Shulchan Orech, I’m here for the Shmurah Matzah, and Gefiltah fish, I really couldn’t care less about rest of this. I got up at five in the morning, ran eight miles, worked all day, and I have to do it all over again tomorrow. Afikoman better not be past Chatzos...
Pesach never was one of my favorites, too many rules, never enough food, constipation, not to mention all the cleaning, taping, covering, etc… In fact, one of my first kosher transgressions was to eat Gebrokts.
Across me sits a four-star General, to my left sits a Colonel, and at the head of the table sits the Frum Chaplain, a Major. I’ve been in the Army long enough to learn to keep my mouth shut about my background - ironically around my fellow Jews! When I was in Korea, I made the mistake of telling the Jewish Chaplain my life’s story, and from then on whenever we’d see each-other it would turn into a Kiruv session, so when I got back to the states, I was careful not to advertise my history. Until I got drunk. I had come back from Haiti just days before, was in the mood of celebrating, and decided to go to the on-base Purim party. Before Megillah had even begun, I polished off an entire bottle of Patron Silver, and by the time the festivities began, I was hammered. I don’t remember much of that day, but I must have spilled the beans, because suddenly I was called “the Satmar guy” (I never was Satmar per se, but to outsiders we’re all “Satmar”) . I stayed away for a while after that, I didn’t want a repeat of Korea, but people are constantly coming and going in the Army, so I felt safe showing my face again this year for the Seder.
“So any ideas on why we have been persecuted in every generation?” The Chaplain/Rabbi asks the crowd, “because y’all are God’s chosen people” says the General, a fifty-something African-American Christian. Of course he’s gonna say that, what else would he say… And so the conversation goes on for a couple of minutes, when out of nowhere someone asks, “maybe we’re doing something to deserve it”.
I’ve been to some strange (by Chassidishe standards) Sedarim, but I’ve never heard anyone drop this sort of doozey, I carry a healthy amount of Jewish guilt, but even I found the implication a bit harsh. I have wondered if maybe we overstate the amount of hatred there is out there for us Heebs, one of the most common questions I get when I go home for a visit is whether I encounter a lot of anti-Semitism in the outside world, and specifically in the army, (the answer is no). Of course the question gained everyones attention, a universal condemnation, and a hasty change of subject, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
First a disclaimer: I am in no way diminishing, or apologizing for the terrible suffering Jews have suffered for thousands of years, but...
On the one hand, isn’t it a good thing that we talk about persecution, in order to preventing it from happening again? “Those who don't learn from history are condemned to repeat it” - right?
On the other hand, we Jews are a bit obsessed with our own victimhood. As the old Jewish holiday cliché goes: “they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!” Every time we turn around, there’s another reminder of some misery from the past, whether it’s Purim, Pesach, Channukah, Tisha B’av, or countless other times throughout the year. To be sure, every culture in the world has an explanation as to why they are the most persecuted in history, whether it’s the Christians by the Romans, or the Tibetans by the Chinese. But we Jews have definitely perfected the art of victimhood. At what point though, does it go from “lest we forget”, to being a fetish?
One of the (few) things I’ve learned from serving in the army, is the effect “collective suffering” has on team building. It could be actual suffrage like you and your buddies getting shot at together, or even going through the joys of boot camp together. Or it could be emotional suffrage, just knowing that the guy to your right or left is willing to take a bullet for you, makes you closer. Similarly, when you’re taught from day one, that everyone’s out to get us, and everyone hates us, it fosters an “us vs. them” mentality, and pulls the “us” closer together.
It may just be a self-fulfilling prophecy, the more we talk about it, the more it’ll happen, I’m convinced that is what makes the JDL, the ADL, and other groups like them tick, “when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail…” Plus - maybe what goes around, comes around, let us not forget all the wonderful things we’re taught to believe about non-Jews, remember im hachamor/am hadomeh lechamor..? (Ask your Frum buddy…) Not to mention all the mindless slaughter that happens throughout Tanach, and is excused to this day.
I’m usually the last person to defend Ultra-Orthodoxy, but when it comes to playing the victim card, no one does it quite like the non-Frum. If your whole Jewish identity consists of the Holocausts and the state of Israel, it doesn’t leave much else to get excited about, and when somebody dares not to join in on your particular orgy of self pity - people get offended. Not that everything the Frummies claim about the Holocaust or Israel is true, but in their defense, at least they’re consistent. Their entire lives revolve around Judaism, so they’re understandably not impressed by people -whom they hardly consider Jewish - demanding they join them on their arbitrarily chosen date to mourn. I don’t agree with them, but if you look at it through their point of view, it’s understandable.
I’m not suggesting “forgive and forget”, but instead of accepting anti-semitism as an inevitability, we should take steps to stop it from happening. There will always be ignoramuses, but there are steps we can take to minimize, and marginalize them. Whenever I meet new people I wait till they get to know me a bit, before letting slip that I’m Jewish. More often than not, I get “you’re Jewish?!” Yeah, what did you expect - horns?
It’s easy to hate someone you don’t know, it’s a whole different story once you get to know them. It’s a lot like when people who’re anti gay suddenly have a close family or friend come out of the closet, they’re forced to rethink their assumptions, “I know that guy, he’s not crazy… Maybe they’re not all nuts…” I’ve found that most of what many people would take as anti-Semitic, is actually just ignorance. I’ve gotten some shockingly stupid questions, but I’m always careful to answer them seriously and never take them personally, and I hope I’m slowly chipping away at ignorance.
Or maybe I’m full of crap, maybe it’s not even worthy of discussion, maybe we just need to shut up and take it, what the hell do I know...
…Back to the Seder though, where the Rebetzin is explaining that the tsunami in Japan was caused by god because they’re imprisoning two Israeli kids on drug charges, plus Moshiach’s definitely coming this year, and she knows this because when everyones electricity went out during a recent storm, the moon shone on her house…
I’m cringing, this getting downright embarrassing, this just sounds like those 2012 fairy tales… Oh screw it, why do I even bother? These people are lost, maybe we can save their kids…