October 6, 2010
How not to be a stranger in a strange land
We all need to be with our own kind.
Sometimes this is defined by race, sometimes by religion, sometimes by profession.
Cops socialize with cops, we showfolk with showfolk, as no one else understands our culture.
Blacks tend to socialize with blacks, whites with whites, because no one else gets the joke. Those epicureans with a wide enough worldview to choose no particular religion, or dedication, who embrace all things — they need to be amongst themselves most of all — as no one else can stand them. All our talk of diversity is fine, but, in real life, we need to be around those to whom we needn’t explain, or refrain, where shared culture takes the place of conscious decision.
We, who belong to close-knit groups, put on a game face when out in the wider world. The cops do, the African Americans do, show people and military do. We have to.
When the foreigners go home, we can relax, and not till then.
Who are we?
We are the Jews.
What does that mean? That means that we are the people who have, for 6,000 years, been arguing about what that means. And, for all our talk about multiculturalism and pluralism and all of that guff, we, like every other marginal group, spend our lives among ourselves. We aren’t the Jewish race, there is no Jewish race — we are the Jewish people. Some born Jews, some attracted to or interested in our particular covenant. Some are converted, some, flatteringly, give their support and interest independent of conversion — I will instance Pharaoh’s daughter, Bat-Ya, “Daughter of God; Baalam, who, hired to curse the Jews, blessed us; and Ruth, who did convert, grandmother of King David.
My favorite poet was a Jewish man from Krakow, Rudolph Klepsteen. He wrote under the name of Rudyard Kipling, and his most famous poem is called “If.”
It begins: “If you can keep your head while those around you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you.”
He was writing, as he always did, about the Jewish experience. And this is a good time to take heart from his advice, for the world, once again, has in panic and fear, turned against the Jews; the press and the West are losing their heads and blaming it, again, on us. The phrase “the Israel lobby” has replaced “the international Jewish conspiracy” quite handily; the libel that we delight in the murder of children in Gaza has taken the place of the ancient libel of well-poisoning and manipulation of the financial markets.
In the West, the press and the academies are teaching hatred of the Jews.
We need somewhere to be together and alone.
We can see ourselves at the schools and at the soccer games, and at work and in the restaurants, and we will see virtually no one but Jews; but we need to be together as Jews.
The African American community knows it. They are glad when the white people go home, as being with us is exhausting. Who wants to be around someone who is constantly unsure how to act? Where can we be ourselves, without first wondering what we are supposed to think, to say, and how to act?
Are any of you weary? I am. I was asked to come on the Charlie Rose show to talk about a new play. His first question was, “What about Israel?” Huh?
What next? I though he might ask me if I knew Theodore Bikel. I am weary of doing my Jew act in public. Of explaining the history of the Middle East to people who consider the facts beneath them.
Where can we be among ourselves as Jews? That’s right. Come to the shul. You don’t even have to go into the prayer service; sit in the courtyard and drink tea among the alter-Yidden. What could be better?
The shul needs us, and we need the shul. We work too hard, and we live in a hostile environment. As we always have. That’s all right, but we need a rest.
Indulge yourselves. Interfaith panels and outreach and so on are all well and good when the TV is broken, but the time for letters to the editor is long past. It’s time to do something for the Jews, for the Jewish people and for yourselves as Jews. Build a shul.
David Mamet is a Jewish cartoonist. His book of cartoons, “Tested on Orphans,” is available online at sfelectricworks.com, and “The Trials of Roderick Spode, the Human Ant” is in stores near you. Mamet is a member of Rabbi Mordecai Finley’s Ohr HaTorah in Mar Vista.