March 22, 2007
How to love a Jew you hate
What do you do when you can't stand another Jew? When their political views make you sick, or when you feel completely alienated from their lifestyle -- whether
because they are too religious, or too secular, or simply too unfamiliar?
For that matter, what do you do if another Jew shoots at you?
Before Valerie Salkin got shot, she was a Jew like the rest of us. Some of us react to offense by saying "I hate you," others by ignoring you. It's animosity or indifference -- pick your poison.
"I hate you" comes from a deep place. The animosity one feels, for example, for a Jew who might inadvertently help our enemies comes from a sense of betrayal: I expect more from a member of the family.
Indifference is usually the result of smugness or an absence of curiosity: I don't know who you are, and the little I do know doesn't interest me.
Between the "I hate you" Jews and the "I ignore you" Jews are the "I tolerate you" Jews. This kind of Jew believes in good manners: Sometimes you drive me nuts, but I promise to respect our differences while I hold my nose.
I'm painting a grim picture, but don't despair, because there's usually someone like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to come and unite us. When a sworn enemy says he wants to erase Israel from the map, somehow, the fact that another Jew drives on Shabbat doesn't drive me that crazy. Of course, unity that comes from fear is not as strong as unity that comes from love.
Valerie Salkin believes in unity that comes from love.
Follow her during the day, and you'll see her fighting to put rapists and murderers behind bars. Follow her at night, and you'll see her running around helping put on a major Jewish unity event for our community.
After years of being involved with various Jewish causes, Valerie Salkin, criminal prosecutor in some unsavory parts of Los Angeles, has decided this year to devote herself to the Jewish unity movement.
As she schmoozes with me at Coffee Bean with a staccato dialogue right out of a "Law and Order" episode, she can't seem to decide what to talk about. She's working on this big murder case, and from the sound of her cell phone conversations, it's obviously distracting her.
But her face lights up when she tells me about her many plans and challenges as program co-chair for a Jewish unity organization called Limmud LA.
At first, Limmud sounds like another stroke of idealism that can't go very far. But apparently, these people mean business. Limmud started 25 years ago in the U.K., as a movement to bring Jews of all backgrounds and denominations together to learn more about each other and their Judaism. After having success in New York, this year they decided to launch in Los Angeles, and they have recruited unity junkies like Valerie.
Like Valerie herself, Limmud is devoid of schmaltz. They've taken a lofty and theoretical ideal -- Jewish -- unity and they've handled it with a practical, no-nonsense approach.
The movement revolves around a specific event. In Los Angeles it will be a three-day event next President's Day weekend, which Limmud calls a "multiday celebration of the kaleidoscope of Jewish life."
They also put a focus on programming, not preaching. Because they embrace "all expressions of Jewish life, culture and religious practice," Valerie's mission is to attract speakers and entertainers of all backgrounds and denominations -- not an easy task, but so far she says she's getting a decent response.
Finally, and most surprisingly, they don't have an Orthodox agenda. Valerie, who considers herself in between Conservative and Orthodox, says that this is not one of those "we love every Jew" events where the definition of love is to get you to become more religious. Limmud is aiming for genuine pluralism.
All this is very nice, but I have a problem. As Valerie is rattling off bullet points about Limmud, I can't stop thinking about another bullet -- the one that shot Valerie.
You see, 28 years ago, six months before John Lennon was shot by one of his fans outside his Manhattan apartment, Valerie was a happy teenager, roller skating on Warner Avenue in Westwood on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
That's when she got shot.
The bullet almost destroyed her leg, which still has a big scar from the operation that saved it. They found the culprit several months later; he was a Jewish boy in his late teens, who was just "practicing" shooting his rifle from a window in his house. She never saw or met him and doesn't even know if he was "deranged" or whether he spent any jail time. When we spoke, it was clear that she didn't want to dwell on the event, but she admits it has never left her.
I asked about her emotions after the shooting, and she replied in two words: shock and fear. No animosity? She paused for a moment and said, "no, none." When I asked what she would say to her assailant if she met him today, she paused again and said simply: "I would ask him why."
A Jewish woman is shot by a Jew 28 years ago, and her response is not to hate, ignore or tolerate. What is on her mind is simply the desire to know more -- starting with, why?
Maybe being a criminal prosecutor has helped Valerie get her need for justice out of her system, so that when it comes to her fellow Jews, she has learned not to take verbal bullets or other offenses too personally.
You can call Valerie an "I want to know more" Jew.
In fact, when I cut through the fog of why Jews don't get along, I see that this crime fighter might have stumbled on a nice little idea for Jewish love and unity: Next time a Jew does something that drives you nuts, instead of hating, ignoring or tolerating, just think that you might want to know more.
If Valerie Salkin can do it after a real bullet, we could surely try to do it after verbal ones.
For more information, visit LimmudLA.org.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.