November 30, 2006
Michael Richards: Still not a Jew
(Page 2 - Previous Page)"So he converted?"
"No, he didn't convert. He just identifies strongly with Judaism and the Jewish people."
So Rubenstein, well, fibbed. A Jew is someone who is born of a Jewish mother (or father, according to some denominations or the Nazis) or who converts. By this definition, Richards is Jewish like I'm James Bond -- I love the philosophy and way of life, I just don't want to do what it takes to be an international secret agent in service to the Crown.
Or, to be blunt, Richards is Jewish like many American Jews are Israeli. They know all about Israel and identify fiercely with it, they just wouldn't dream of actually becoming Israeli.
And this is where the whole "Is Michael Richards a Jew?" thing gets interesting to me.
Because it doesn't matter.
It doesn't matter.
Whatever his transgressions, and whatever his faith or heritage, he's one guy who screwed up big time, and he needs to make amends and the world needs to move on. End of story. Hasal seder Pesach.
What matters to me is not Richards' religion, adopted, purported or real, but our dogged interest in it.
On the plus side, we're justifiably embarrassed any time a member of "the family" misbehaves. Our limitless personal guilt extends -- healthily, I believe -- even beyond our own personal limits. I am my brother's guilt complex. By discovering how Jewish Richards is, we know just how badly to feel.
But there is something negative and puerile in our interest as well. For too many of us, tribal identity is all we have. We have reduced Judaism to little more than an inchoate mixture of pride and vulnerability, so we only spring into action when we can Google a newsmaker's name and the word "Jewish."
"The identity is so gutted away that all that is left of the identity is the pride of being Jewish," said Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL: The Center for Leadership and Learning.
I spoke by phone to Kula, the author of "Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life" (Hyperion), because I knew he'd be as dismayed as I was by the number of hits our Richards story received: "My completely anecdotal idea about those hits is it's a pathology of a victim. Jews are completely and fully integrated into society. You are powerful, you are integrated. But the fact that some crazy Jew has an N-word obsession causes you more agony than anything else that day. You think, they're going to think all Jews are like that."
I mentioned to Kula that if Richards had done something wonderful, like walked on the moon or invented TiVo, we'd have rushed to claim him despite his tenuous claim to Rubensteinian Judaism. In other words, we'll take Madeleine Albright, but you can keep George Allen.
"Absolutely," Kula said. "The pride is as sick as the fear. To take pride over blood is ridiculous. These are the shadow sides of each other: the unsubstantiated pride and the unexamined fear."
The fact that The Journal's small story on Richards prompted thousands of reactions and our huge cover story the same week on impoverished Holocaust survivors living in Los Angeles without adequate assistance netted exactly one outraged letter only buttressed Kula's point. We can use the Holocaust to raise money and score political points, but we reserve our real excitement for what? The shallow game show of who's-a-Jew.
As Jews the world over were frantically trying to establish that Richards wasn't one of us, Richards himself was claiming membership. Kula relished the idea.
"It's perfect," he said. "They're hand in hand. At the same time that thousands of Jews are concerned out of their insecurity whether a racist or Anger Management Problem person identifies with the Jewish people, the racist or Anger Management Problem person identifies with the Jewish people because it makes him feel secure against the charge of racism or anti-Semitism."
And, my bet is that Richards' allegiance to Judaism only disturbed Jews more. If what his publicist told me is true -- and why would anyone doubt a publicist who one week ago took it upon himself to redefine 4,000 years of Jewish law without telling anyone? -- Richards has actually studied Judaism inspired and instructed by "two significant Jewish mentors in his life."
"Why not?" Kula said. "Judaism is actually quite interesting."
Non-Jews who study it often come to the faith without the same baggage of fear and pride.
"There's no doubt Madonna has a deeper sense of Jewish wisdom than most born Jews," Kula said, "and that's why they resent her."
So Michael Richards is not Jewish, but his saga became a Jewish story -- a story that tells us something unpleasant about our priorities. And to paraphrase Seinfeld -- and you knew I would -- maybe there is something wrong about that.
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