April 18, 2013
‘I’m a Jew’
“My father’s Jewish, my mother’s Jewish, I’m Jewish.” Those are the words uttered by American journalist Daniel Pearl in the moment before he was murdered by jihadis in 2002. Those same words were recalled last week by Judea Pearl as he lit a flame in his son’s honor in Jerusalem.
As I read Daniel Pearl’s words, I thought back to a story I’d heard a few days earlier from 95-year-old Edna Weiss.
In the living room of her high-rise apartment in Westwood, Weiss told me something that happened 85 years ago in the multiethnic Angeleno Heights neighborhood where she grew up in the 1930s.
She remembered every detail of the story, from the sugar sack that held the baseball bats to the faces of two Dutch children who tricked her into going up a hill.
“We never went to a synagogue or did anything religious,” Weiss told me when I asked about her Jewish connection. “But we spoke a lot of Yiddish. My mother was from the Warsaw Ghetto, and she always told me that if anyone ever called me a dirty Jew, I should stand up straight and say, ‘I’m a Jew and I’m proud of it.’ ”
That advice would come into play one summer when she was about 10. It was an ordinary hot day, and Weiss was on the street looking for her friends to play their regular game of baseball. Before she could find any of them, she was invited by two other kids to “come play baseball with us.”
Weiss, who was carrying baseball bats and balls in a sugar sack her grocer dad had given her, said “Sure, why not?”
When they got over the hill, out of view from her street, the two children took the baseball bats out of the bag and began hitting Weiss.
They hit her all over her body, yelling, “You dirty Jew.”
Weiss tried to protect her head as she rolled on the ground. The blows kept coming, and the cries of “dirty Jew” pierced her ears.
Sobbing and in terrible pain, she managed to escape and started running back toward her house to see her mother. Then, as if a force overtook her, she stopped, turned around, and, still sobbing, looked at the two kids and said: “I’m a Jew and I’m proud of it.”
The story froze for me with that one image: A 10-year-old Jewish girl sobbing and in pain saying: “I’m a Jew and I’m proud of it.”
At that point, the mood in the living room got uncomfortable. The memory was still so fresh to Weiss that she was about to start sobbing again, and she didn’t want to do that in front of me.
She quickly recovered her composure and said: “The truth is, I was very lucky. They hit me everywhere except for my head. Had they hit me in the head, I probably wouldn’t be here now.”
As my friend Rabbi Benjamin Blech wrote recently on Aish.com, “What has always marked anti-Semitism throughout the ages was its fundamental resistance to reason.”
What good reason was there to hate sweet souls like Daniel Pearl and Edna Weiss?
“We are hated not because we are bad,” Blech writes, “but because we persist in reminding the world of what it means to be good.
“The Talmud perceived this idea in the very name of the mountain on which the Torah was given. Sinai in Hebrew is similar to the word sinah — hatred. It was the Jews’ acceptance of a higher law of morality and ethics that was responsible for the world’s enmity.
“Anti-Semitism stands in opposition to the very idea of civilization. It detests Jews because it acknowledges that Jews are the conscience of humanity and the lawgivers of ethical and moral behavior.”
The truth is, no matter how we try to understand it, anti-Semitism is a complicated, irrational evil. Its defining characteristic seems to be that it will always find a reason to exist.
Perhaps the best response, then, to this irrational evil, is to follow the leads of Daniel Pearl and Edna Weiss and simply continue being good Jews.
Daniel Pearl embodied this simplicity when he said, “I am Jewish,” just before being murdered.
Edna Weiss embodied it when she remembered to express her Jewish pride, even though she was sobbing and in deep physical pain.
We often talk about great Jewish values like tikkun olam, observing the commandments and living an ethical life.
Pearl and Weiss showed us another value that’s essential to being a good Jew: not being afraid to say who you are.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at email@example.com.