I love the following piece by Andrew Sillow-Carroll, the editor of The Jewish Week, about how we Jews pay such close attention to who among our fellow Jews are prominent in public life, and how we feel pride in relationship to some and shame in relationship to others. I’ve often pondered the pride-shame phenomenon and whether other religious and ethnic groups do what we Jews do relative to their own.
Pride and guilt are particularly powerful baked-in ingredients of American Jewish identity. Our best writers (Malamud, Roth, Ozick, Bellow, Englander, etc.) reflect on this frequently. Why? In an age of increasing diversification, independence, and autonomy, we might think that what one Jew does here has little or no effect on the identity of another Jew there. But it isn’t so and, I believe, never has been.
The Talmudic observation/supplication/dictum“Kol Yisrael aravim zeh bazeh – Every Jew is a guarantor for one another” is cited multiple times in our literature (Babylonian Talmud Shevuot 39a, Sanhedrein 27b; Sifra Bechukotai 7:5; Mishneh Torah on Oaths 11:16; Or HaChaim on Deuteronomy 29:9; Shaarei Teshuvah 3:72, etc.). I taught this Jewish life-principle to kids and adults in my community every chance I got. It’s a bedrock element in the notion of Jewish peoplehood and why the vast majority of American Jews care so much about Jews when they suffer in other parts of the world, when Israel is in trouble, and when Israeli government policies run counter to traditional liberal democratic and prophetic moral values vis a vis others.
We Jews couldn’t have survived as a people for 3600 years without our tribal identity and moral preoccupation for our own and for others. The pride and shame, increasingly and sadly, have evened out. We have Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and we have Stephen Miller. We have Dr. Jonas Salk, and we have Bernie Madoff. The list goes on.
Hopefully, our Jewish role models (public and personal) exuding goodness, decency, and moral progress influence us and our kids far more than those embodying corruption, hard-heartedness, and greed. If they don’t, we have only ourselves to blame. There I go again – see how baked in are both our tribal identity and moral conscience and proclivity to feeling shame when any of our people does wrong?
Enough said – enjoy this piece by Andrew Sillow-Carroll, editor of The Jewish Week (February 7, 2021):
“My colleagues at JTA, the Jewish news service, recently ran a feature, “All the Jews Joe Biden has tapped for top roles in his administration.” Allison Kaplan Sommer, who writes for Haaretz, was amused, tweeting: “When you see the headline, ‘All the Jews Joe Biden has tapped for top roles in his administration’ – do you think: ‘Jewish or Israeli publication’ – or ‘antisemitic website’? It’s a close call.”
Allison has been writing for Jewish media (that is, Jewish “ethnic” media, lest the conspiracy-mongers get the wrong idea) for nearly as long as I have, and we’ve often joked about the weird nature of our jobs. My version of the joke is that Jewish newspapers and the anti-Semitic press run the same articles, just with different adjectives.
Some find this sort of ethnic pride troubling – parochial at best, dangerous at worst. Of course, parochialism is baked into the formula of the ethnic media. I’ve often said that Jewish journalism is like a hometown newspaper, which doesn’t hesitate to kvell (or grumble) when one of its own makes news. For a delightful riff on this, see The Queens Daily Eagle, which runs jokey headlines about Donald Trump like “Queens man impeached — again.” “People love it,” David Brand, the paper’s managing editor, told The New York Times. “It’s a self-parody of local news, and I think people get that.”
Our town just happens to be defined not by a geographic border, but by membership in the Jewish people. So when the rest of the world is reporting that “Jeff Bezos to step down as Amazon CEO, Andy Jassy to take over,” we write, “Amazon’s next CEO Andy Jassy is Jewish.”
I’ll admit, this tendency can look small and self-involved. (“World to end tomorrow; Jews to suffer most” is the famous headline joke about Jewish narcissism.) When I worked at JTA back in the 1980s, one reporter had the self-appointed beat of tracking down Jewish victims of massive natural disasters. When she couldn’t find one, she’d say, “There’s nothing to report.”
And where do you draw the line? Mark Zuckerberg is Jewish; does everything he do qualify as “Jewish” news? (My answer is no, except when his actions touch directly on Jewish communal preoccupations, like curbing Holocaust denial and other forms of anti-Semitism and hate speech, or when he himself is the victim of anti-Semitic invective.) On a sliding scale of Jewish interest, from lowest to highest, there’s the fact of an appointment, followed by precedent (what Jews have been in this role before?), followed by the significance of their Jewish biography.
The best and most defensible kinds of “guess who’s Jewish?” stories are those in which that Jewish biography is unmistakably germane to the news itself. Exhibit A: Alejandro Mayorkas, the new Homeland Security secretary. His Jewish parents brought him from Cuba to the U.S. as a child, and his mother is a Holocaust survivor. Mayorkas, in his confirmation testimony, spoke about that family history, saying it made him “profoundly aware of the threat and existence of antisemitism in our country and the world” and “discrimination of all forms.” It’s not only interesting to us that he’s Jewish, but his Jewishness has shaped how he intends to carry out his job.
The flipside of the Mayorkas story, at least for liberal Jewish readers, was that of Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s restrictionist immigration policies. The Jewish media treated Miller’s Jewish upbringing as significant because his politics seemed to be so at odds with the ways the majority of Jews view immigration. It’s our job to discuss how individual and corporate Jewish identity function in the world, and that made reporting about Miller’s Jewishness perfectly legitimate.
One of Allison’s colleagues did point out one of the uglier sides of identifying Jewish newsmakers: Essentially, who is a Jew and who decides? It can be a sordid or chutzpadik exercise, looking for hints of a celebrity’s Jewish background, and then “claiming” him or her. The Jewish media found this out the hard way when it gushed about Ella Emhoff, whose father Doug Emhoff is Jewish and happens to be married to Vice President Kamala Harris. The Forward even named her to its “Forward 50” list of influential Jews. The only problem is, Ella Emhoff doesn’t identify as Jewish, as a family spokesperson told the Forward. We all had to change our tune.
But the occasional flub doesn’t invalidate the basic exercise. There is value in ethnic pride, seeing co-religionists sitting in places of influence or shaping public affairs in ways that are either consciously Jewish or have an impact just by the fact of their Jewishness. Every minority indulges in this exercise, and no one begrudges the Black or LGBTQ reader who thrills when a member of their community is elevated in one way or the other.
By the same token, it’s also the role of the ethnic media to identify wrongdoing among its own, even at the risk of comforting their enemies. A Cuban-Jewish immigrant who now heads Homeland Security is part of the Jewish story; so is the scammer who uses his connections among fellow Jews to pull off a Ponzi scheme.
Irving Howe once praised the Yiddish Forward for the “sustained curiosity it brought to the life of its own people.” We owe our readers nothing less.”