Whenever I’m cataloguing the benefits of being Jewish — bountiful comfort food, emphasis on education and family, interest-free loans from George Soros — I always include the advantage of being in an extreme minority. About 1% of Americans are Jewish.
Not a lot. And steadily dwindling due to assimilation and intermarriage. Which is a shame. Because being an outsider has advantages. It sharpens your powers of observation. What is unquestioned, standard operating procedure to the majority is strange to you. It makes you think, even if that thought is, “Why can’t I celebrate Christmas like everyone else?”
There are exceptions. Jewish ultra-Orthodox, like zealots everywhere, have the same tendency to live in uniform bunches, like grapes, and crave conformity. They emphasize learning, but won’t touch a book that isn’t approved.
I’m thinking of mainstream American Jews, whose fish-out-of-water quality contradicts a central value of Christianity — that everyone should be like you, the culture revolve around you, and every shiny surface reflect a person just like you.
They don’t know what they’re missing. Being an outcast encourages you to dance to strange music. To explore places not meant for you. Such as when my younger son was in high school and expressed interest in the University of Notre Dame. We took a road trip, then a tour. That doesn’t mean I left my personality in the car.
“You can be the Jew,” I whispered to the boy — Notre Dame ranks last among the top 25 American universities when it comes to Jewish population.
To Notre Dame’s credit, the cathedral-like stonework of the lovely Jordan Hall of Science includes not only Louis Pasteur and Madam Curie, venerated like saints with full-body statues, but Galileo, whom you may recall got in hot water with the Catholic Church for endorsing the Copernican notion that the earth revolves around the sun. This was heresy because in the Bible, the earth — and mankind — is the center of universe.
That inclination — let’s call it Center-of-the-Universism — is no longer applied to the cosmos. But that doesn’t mean the urge has gone away. The need to star in a show all about your own glory is still very much practiced, and the key to making sense of what’s going on in schools in Texas and Florida and other strongholds of nationalistic Republicanism.
For a while I was stumped. As much as I consider myself an amateur student of the right-wing mind, if that isn’t an oxymoron, this whole war on “woke” just baffled me. Yes, they are big on positing harms — gay marriage hurts straight marriage, drag story hour hurts children, abortion kills babies — to justify their bottomless grievances.
But civil rights are one of the most thrilling narratives in American history. A group brought to this continent in chains — shorn of humanity, of education and family. Enslaved. Who nevertheless managed not only survive, but use the rights our nation created exclusively for white men to gradually win their own freedom and reach an equal status in society. It took centuries, true, and they’re not there yet. But closer. As much as voting was thwarted, at least Black men could do it, in theory, after the Civil War. White women didn’t win the right to vote until 1920.
Leave it to Republicans to decide this story hurts them, causing their children “guilt and shame” — I wish. This is what is called a “self-own.” Like portraying D-Day as an embarrassment; that would depend on which side you’re on. If you connect emotionally with the Wehrmacht, then yeah, Normandy Beach was a humiliating disaster. Those who want to scrub Rosa Parks lily white in textbooks are echoing the church going after Galileo for suggesting they aren’t the cynosure of all creation.
Jews know all too well that history can be a bad place. My education involved seeing footage of the naked bodies of my relatives being bulldozed into pits. Given that, I believe schools can spill the beans about segregation without Republican children crying themselves to sleep.
But, as I said initially, I was annealed as an extreme minority, with all the strengths that follow — including a sense of humor, and it’s sad that I feel obligated to point out, for the record, that I was joking about George Soros. He’s just the code right-wingers use for “rich Jewish bankers.” Nobody is a bigot because of an overabundance of courage.