Happy Year 5782! What we Jews have learned over all that time.
Updated: Sep 13
“What I value most is the passionate fight against any kind of dogma based on authority.”
It is Rosh Hashanah, and as someone who has written several recent books on the Jewish condition, and has one upcoming, I thought I’d pontificate on what it means for me to be a Jew. First of all, wow, given all the crap that’s been tossed on us for all those years, some of it self-inflicted, most of it not, you have to admit, we’re doing pretty well! We’ve been killed and maimed and marginalized so often that sometimes we don’t even realize how good we have it now. Antisemitism is hardly gone, and hate in general, as well as dogmatic stupidity, still spreads across the earth faster than weeds. And to me, the very nature of Judaism is to forever fight that tendency and be true to our roots and our history, as Einstein tell us in the quote above.
I acknowledged my Rabbi Levy in Yadel the Dreidel. Rabbi Levy understood where we came from and what responsibilities we owe to the world. He marched for Civil Rights and always preached a humanistic interpretation of the Torah. When it was time for my Bar Mitzvah, I was lucky enough to be reading from Leviticus Chapter 19, the beast of all Torah chapters.
“Rabbi, I have a confession,” I told the jolly fellow. “I don’t believe in God, and I don’t want my Bar Mitzvah speech to talk about God.”
He laughed. “Who cares?” he said. “Many Jews don’t. The Torah is rich is beauty and goodness that transcends rituals and beliefs. Look at your section; it holds one of the wisest commandments of all. Do onto others as you would want them to do unto you. Craft your speech around those words!”
Which I did, as well as building my entire Yadel trilogy around that very sentiment. As Hillel said, all the Torah can be distilled into those very words. The rest, he says, is commentary.
Yadel is a journey through Jewish history, through the bravery and horror of what we as a people have endured, about our own zealotry and our own wisdom, about how we survived and thrived. But at its core is a story that few people know. Our faith, after much fighting and meddling, was centered around the great Temple in Jerusalem. There the Priests ruled the roost, and all law and dictates emanated from a few leaders, with taxes and pilgrimages being part of what it meant to be a Jew. In other words, our faith had a central authority orchestrating it, much like the Pope is to Catholics.
And then a few zealots decided to take on the Roman Empire. These zealots slaughtered a million fellow Jews and instigated the end of Judea as the hub of our religion. When the first revolt was over, something I chronical in Yadel Book One, the Temple and Priests were no more, and the Jews had to find new roots and new meanings. That’s when a battle began between the humanistic ideas of Hillel—Do onto others, that philosophy—and the persistence of zealots who adhered more to the letter of the law than to its spirit. The Second and Third Jewish revolts are chronicled in Yadel Book Two, after which the Jews were tossed out of Judea (Israel) and left to wander and be subjected to incessant persecution. I tell the story of that journey throughout all three books of Yadel, as in my other books too.
In Three Brothers from Virginia, Izzy carries the spirit of Judaism to the slavery debate. His is a humanistic interpretation of Judaism, and he is a hero in the book. To me, Izzy is the prototypical ideal Jew, one who is willing to cheat on the rules and rituals in order to stay true to Hillel’s values of goodness and fairness. He has no problem sticking up his middle finger to society, even at the risk of his own life and livelihood, for the people he loves and against all injustice that confronts them.
In my upcoming book, The Great Stupidity, we have another Jewish hero, Isaac, who travels with the main character, Smith, and teaches him how awful and misleading the prevailing anti-Semitic stereotypes are. This is not enough to prevent Smith from making sure that Isaac isn’t secretly poisoning his water; so powerful are the prejudices against Jews that it’s hard to shed them, even for a good guy like Smith. Jews were slaughtered all over Europe, not for the first time, and not for the last; it was always easy to blame Jews when no other answer to their woes was forthcoming, which is what they did when they were struck by the Black Death (Great Mortality, as it was called), concocting a plot whereby the Jews—led by a Spanish rabbi named Jacob—created poison balls that they dropped in Christian wells. I will be releasing my 12 songs from the book at the end of the month, but here’s one of them, and it tells the story of how the Jews were targeted and killed based on the accusation of well poisoning.
Antisemitism is hardly dead. We’re blamed for everything from being communists to vicious capitalists, from owning the country to being foreigners in the country. In 2019, hate crimes against Jews were far more prevalent in this country than crimes against any other religious group, and hell, we’re doing pretty well in this country; it’s far worse elsewhere. We’ll always be “the others” who people point to and blame for stuff, but we’ve thrived just the same, and we have always been on the front lines fighting hate and dogma and bigotry everywhere despite the hate thrust at us. That’s Hillel’s legacy, that’s who we are, who we must always be.
When politicians use crises to strip us of our rights and use dogma to deprive us of the ability to discuss issues, we must fight that. That is why I left the Democratic Party, which to me has lost its claim to represent the liberalism I espouse. Many Jews have left the party, some for purely selfish reasons, some because they despise antisemitic diatribes from some of its most prominent members. For me, I left because the party is antithetical to every value to which I adhere, the values Rabbi Levy espoused, the values that I extoll in my books and through my characters. Once a government takes away our rights, once it becomes what Einstein warned us about in the above quote and throughout his life—it uses its authority to strangle people with dogma—then it’s time to say goodbye. In the end, we are Jews, and we have a legacy and set of values to protect. We can’t let political tribalism get in the way of that.
The picture I chose for this blog is the prison of Socrates in Greece. Socrates, although not a Jew, refused to back down when confronted with dogma, zealotry, and intimidation. As my medical license is being threatened because I dared exercise my right to free speech, as I am regularly belittled by people who adhere so obsequiously to Faucian dogma that they close their ears to all else and label detractors as anti-science scoundrels, I must be like Socrates, be like Yadel, like Izzy, like Isaac, like so many Jewish heroes who stood strong against dogma and hate. Like Einstein, who is indeed my hero, and to me the greatest Jew of them all.
Einstein never stopped fighting. He was assailed in Germany for daring to question the prevailing science of the day, and he had to flee to Switzerland to even publish his theory of relativity. The Germans held true to dogmatic scientific beliefs that Relativity challenged, and they refused to allow any discourse in the matter, labeling Einstein’s views as “Jew science.” Many German scientists, including several who won the Nobel Prize, became enthusiastic Nazi’s. It’s very easy to leap from dogmatic science to the suppression of human freedoms and thought, as COVID is teaching us.
Einstein came to this nation and continued to fight. Another Jew, one who is the central figure of my upcoming book Two Men from Hopkins, Abraham Flexner, prevented Einstein from speaking out against war, against capitalist oppression of the poor, against McCarthyism, against anything that riled the prevailing views of the day. Einstein, being a true Jew, didn’t listen. He just kept fighting for justice. That’s our legacy. That’s who we are. We can’t ever stop being that or frankly we’re not Jews.
As year 5792 greets us, I will bake a challah and have apples and honey. I won’t go to Temple, because, well, that’s a meaningless exercise to me. Some Jews will, some won’t. Some keep kosher, some don’t. But none of that matters. What counts is the lesson of Hillel. We must be true to our faith, we must fight zealotry and dogma, we must do our best to treat all people well and fight all hatred and discrimination, and we must never cower in the face of those who think otherwise, even if we lose our medical license, even if we engender hatful responses, even if our very life is on the line.
Happy New Year. I’m so very proud to be a Jew!