Some of the recent disturbing polling data about how Jews are perceived in the US put me in mind of two conversations I had recently, where the person I was talking to had something negative to say about other Jews. One of them was a now completely secular Jew who grew up in a mainstream non-charedi orthodox environment, and the other was a Jewish Rockland resident who identifies with a liberal Jewish movement. The two things that they had in common were that they unconsciously made assumptions and generalizations (about both positive and negative beliefs), and that they didn’t distinguish between individuals and groups when talking about other streams of Jewish identity.
The individual who has a completely secular identity was convinced that liberal streams of Jewish observance were intent on criticizing, changing, and imposing their values on more halachically observant Jews - that their identity depended on’ tearing down’ strict orthodox practice. The individual who identifies with liberal manifestations of Judaism was convinced that those who identify as orthodox are in a constant state of judgment and criticism of other Jews.
Let’s be real here. Jews can be heroes, paragons of virtue and righteousness, exemplars of kindness and compassion. Jews can be thieves and gangsters. Jews can be brilliant scientists, spectacular talmudists, and incredible artists. Jews can be unmotivated, apathetic, and dull. Jews can be misogynistic and chauvinistic, too. They can also be conveners, contributors, mediators and motivators. Jews can be highly materialistic, and they can be incomparably spiritual.
As the late British Rabbi Lionel Blue famously put it, “The Jews are just like everyone else, only more so.”
One thing we are not, despite similarities of how some of us dress, or speak, or vote, is monolithic. Another truth is that despite how knowledgeable we can be about so many things, we are often ignorant about each other.
In pursuit of a ‘new year’s resolution’ I’ve determined to read a book or article each month on a Jewish subject I am unfamiliar with, by an author I’ve not read before. I hope that in a small way this helps me to understand my fellow Jew without making assumptions about them. I hope that you will find ways to do the same.