The Difficulty in Being Jewish
And The Challenges of Growing Anti-Semitism
A rabbi friend once attacked me with tefillim and I can’t even spell it right, it’s tefillin, which is a sign of how little I know about my birthright religion of Judaism.
Let me explain what happened one spring day when I visited the rabbi to talk about his congregation’s new torah for a story I was working on. I entered and the rabbi met me, tefillin at the ready, and before I could respond, he was wrapping leather straps around my arm and placing a strange box with leather straps on my head. Then the rabbi led me in a prayer and it was done, painlessly, although I would not get caught using tefillim, sorry, tefillin, in public because people would ostracize me and think I was a member of some weird cult.
Tefillin, also called phylacteries, include a small leather box containing Hebrew texts on vellum, worn by Jewish men at morning prayer as a reminder to keep the law. It is a tradition as old as the religion. Tefillin are placed on the arm adjacent to the heart and on the head above the brain to demonstrate that these two major organs are willing to perform the service of God. The word “phylacteries” derives from Ancient Greek, meaning “guarded post, safeguard, security”, and in later Greek, “amulet” or “charm.”
Like all religions, Judiasm has many archaic customs that appear strange to the uneducated and many people fear that which they don’t understand. Imagine what people would think if they knew about the practice of some mohels, designated Jews who perform the ritual circumcision on the newborn boy. Under Jewish law, a mohel must draw blood from the circumcision wound. Most mohels do it by hand with a suction device but some follow the traditional practice of doing it by mouth.
And then there is the traditional yarmulke or kippah, the skullcap that is worn by Jewish men at services and at all times by orthodox Jews and again I always felt it was wimpy to be seen wearing a yarmulke, which is what we called it, and because the yarmulke never stayed on my head and I had to continually move it atop my noggin. I saw real Jews who wore small yarmulkes and kept in on their heads with bobby pins, but I would not put a bobby pin on my head, so I didn’t wear s yarmulke until I was confronted in the synagogue and was instructed to put one on my head or leave. The synagogue was a place I visited only when forced to by my parents, again, because I didn’t think that real men went to the synagogue, church, yes, but not the synagogue.
Jews, Muslims and Christians, though historically often deadly enemies, have more than a few similar customs. In Arabic, the taqiyah, araqchin or kufi is a short, rounded skullcap, looking very much like the yarmulke. And like the yarmulke, It is often worn for religious purposes. Muslims believe that the Islamic prophet Muhammad used to keep his head covered, therefore making it mustahabb or commendable to cover the head in order to emulate the prophet. Muslim men often wear them during the five daily prayers, not very differently than Jews wearing their yarmulkes during prayer.
And then there’s the zucchetto, meaning “small gourd” or “pumpkin” in Italian, a small, hemispherical, form-fitting ecclesiastical skullcap worn by clerics of various Catholic churches, the Syriac Orthodox Church, and by senior clergy in Anglicanism. It is also called a pilus, pilos, pileus, pileolus (pileolo), subbiretum, submitrale, soli deo (solideo), berrettino, or calotte (calotta). It looks very yarmulke-like. A yarmulke by any other name is just as pious.
I am not proud of these feelings that I harbor toward my religion, in fact, I feel rather ashamed and I have never fully understood why I feel the way I do. Shame may be too strong a word for the feeling but I certainly do my best not to broadcast my religion so as to appear different than the majority and feeling different has been a hallmark of my development and something that has given me the most angst or more specifically, tsuris, throughout my life. The Yiddish worst, tsuris, most closely explains the feeling, meaning troubles, worries, aggravation, woes, suffering, grief or heartache.
I strongly identify with Judaism, I am proud to be Jewish and I have a fixation on the Holocaust, reading all that I can and always feeling personal about the persecution of the Jews. I have relatives who disappeared during the Holocaust. My mother used to tell me that there will come eventually be another confrontation between Jews and non-Jews and that I should always be ready. It didn’t exactly give me a warm feeling about being Jewish in a majority Christian country and world.
I didn’t want to be identified as a Jew, because, as everyone knows, Jews have small, soft hands, they usually wear glasses, they are often a bit paunchy and uncoordinated and if confronted, they would try to use reason and if that didn’t work, they run rather than fight because they would get beat up anyway and they do not tell dirty jokes. Real men tell dirty jokes. Very Woody Allenish. I understand none of this makes sense and I look at the Israeli Defense Force, possibly the strongest and bravest army in the world or those amazingly strong Jews who somehow survived the Holocaust and let nothing stand in the way of having fulfilled, successful lives. Talk about strength. I will challenge anyone who insults Jews and I will fight white supremacists and anti-Semites to the end. So, yes, it is complicated to be Jewish in America, always has.
Which gets me to anti-Semitism and white supremacists and the latest anti-Semitic incident on Jan. 15, when Malik Faisal Akram, a 44-year-old British Pakistani armed with a pistol, took four people hostage in the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, , during a Sabbath service. In hostage negotiations Akram demanded the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani national and alleged al-Qaeda operative imprisoned in nearby Fort Worth for attempted murder and other crimes. Akram released one hostage after six hours, while the remaining three hostages escaped 11 hours into the standoff. Tactical officers from the FBI Hostage Rescue Team subsequently entered the synagogue and fatally shot Akram. If I was there, I figure that Akram would not have really cared if I told him that I was never a very religious Jew, he would just say a Jew is a Jew is a Jew.
The latest survey by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that more than 90 percent of American Jews say there’s at least some anti-Semitism in the U.S., while 75 percent of American Jews believe that there is more anti-Semitism today in the U.S. than five years ago. Though Jews are often very diverse in their beliefs and culture, 82 percent of American Jewish respondents said they believed that what happens to American Jewry affects them personally and accept a shared fate.
A third of Jews between the ages of 18 and 39 say they have personally experienced antisemitism, while 60 percent say they know a family or friend who has. Jews over 60 years old were more likely to have seen “a lot” of antisemitism (62 percent) than younger Jews (47 percent), as determined by the survey, which examined 2,500 Jewish American adults in December 2019 and 1,000 more from October to November 2021.
Anti-Semites believe that Jews are a monolithic force that controls the financial world and the media, and have unbalanced influence in the movies. I have trouble paying my monthly bills but I would enjoy controlling a bank or two, I never met George Soros, I have no influence on the news and as far as the movies, I am still waiting to be discovered as a future star. As far as a monolithic force, I think of myself as pretty much of a loner. The historical bigotry is strange given that Jews make up just 2 percent of the U.S. population and 0.2 percent of the world’s population.
I am worried in a time when a former president cozies up to white supremacists and anti-Semites and when far right wingers seem to be growing like poison mushrooms. Hopefully, my mother wasn’t right.