Jewish World Review August 10, 2000/9 Menachem-Av, 5760
That makes me, as a Jew, proud. But it makes me nervous, too. Other "firsts'' in academia, sports and politics have made Jews nervous. "Jewish happiness,'' a wise man once said, "is never entirely free from fear.''
Lionel Trilling, for example, was the first Jewish teacher of English literature to become a full professor at Columbia University in the 1940s. No small thing, because most schools in those days had quotas limiting the number of Jewish students. Not everyone wished him success, and some -- probably many -- hoped that he would fail. Even those who admired his literary criticism warned him not to think of his appointment as an opening for other Jews. The prejudice as then articulated suggested that Jews could not appreciate the nuance of Anglo-Saxon literature (though Christian theologians did just fine with interpreting the Torah).
Hank Greenberg, another Jewish first, was a slugger who joined the Detroit Tigers in 1933 and whose life was recently the subject of a documentary that begins with children singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game'' in Yiddish. The sportswriters of his day called him "Hammerin' Hank'' (and Jewish fans called him the "Moses of baseball''). Every time he came to bat you'd hear anti-Semitic slurs in the stands. Teammates sometimes used the slurs, too. Spectators even hurled pork chops at him. Hank did not keep kosher (you might think someone would have taken the pork chops home) but he was later regarded by some as the "Jackie Robinson of the Jews.''
Hank returned from the war in mid-season and hit a grand slam homer at the end of the season to lift Detroit into the 1945 World Series with the Chicago Cubs, and then led the Tigers to the title. His fifth-inning home run with two on in the pivotal second game broke the Series open. He was such a hero to Jewish kids that years later Alan Dershowitz recalled that he thought "Hank Greenberg would be the first Jewish president.'' Though he wasn't religious like Joe Lieberman, Hank wouldn't play baseball on Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish holiday, and his precedent was followed a generation later by Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who sat out a World Series game on Yom Kippur in 1965.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed so many Jewish advisers to high-ranking positions that his program was sometimes sneered at as the "Jew Deal.'' Rather than becoming more sensitive to what was happening to Jews in Germany in the 1930s, the president and his advisers instead ignored the documentary evidence of the atrocities, including photographs. When Jews in his administration tried to interest FDR in what was going on in the Third Reich, they failed. In fact, the presence of so many Jews at the White House probably made FDR less likely to act. He wouldn't risk the criticism that he was intimidated by Jews.
Joe Lieberman was at first dismissed as a vice presidential prospect because Al Gore's advisers, including some Jewish ones, were afraid of arousing "latent anti-Semitism.'' In addition, Jews who worked in the civil rights movement in the 1960s -- and who were often particularly despised by Southern sheriffs -- have had an uneasy relationship with blacks in the decades since. Jesse Jackson once described New York City as "Hymietown,'' and Louis Farrakhan has called Judaism a "gutter religion,'' even as many Christian conservatives warmed to conservative Jews to forge alliances in the culture wars.
Joe Lieberman's nomination may force a public discussion of Judaism, which could be as obfuscating as informative because American Jews are a very complex minority, ranging from the secular to the spiritual. It's easy to misunderstand the faith of others, as Jimmy Carter learned when he talked earnestly of the sin of pride and of lust in his heart.
Genuine anti-Semitism is easy to veil in hypocrisy. There's a risk as well that legitimate criticism of the Jewish candidate, such as in a discussion of Leiberman's difficulties in keeping his Orthodox observance of the Sabbath, will be interpreted as anti-Semitism when it's not.
We're all subject to the occasional prejudice of others not like us, but Jews have a history of
understanding their plight and explaining it away, as in this aphorism: "Only one kind of worry is
correct; to worry because you worry too
08/07/00: Brains, beauty and beastly politics