Are Ashkenazi Jews more inherently quarrelsome than other people? All peoples quarrel and I doubt whether we do more of it than others. Yet it is easy to see that modern Ashkenazi Jews have developed a peculiar way of expressing anger at one another that makes our family quarrels unusually prolonged and bitter. We demand more justice of others than we are prepared to offer. Perhaps our quarrels are so obdurate because we desire more justice than is available in this world.
Who declared me an expert? Well, you did. I have spent untold hours in law firm boardrooms, the night ticking away, while people—my own people, i.e., you—struggle with anger at one another. More simply, as a lawyer turned mediator, I regularly deal with people who, aided by other lawyers, bicker endlessly over who screwed whom. Where a judge must disconnect himself from the quarreler’s passions, an effective mediator must connect with them. Above all else, I am one of the people about whom I write.
What kinds of quarrels? Quarrels over money, over the care of aged parents, over the management of businesses and synagogues, over slights: I come all the way from Cleveland for her son’s bar mitzvah and she sits me with her hair dresser? The dominant mode of attack is spurning. Once relations with the enemy have been cut off, the quarreler must then enlist new opponents for the purpose of repeating this highly satisfying ritual.
Quarrelers, like spiders, are adept at enmeshing the unwary. Many an innocent has thought that by agreeing with the quarreler’s complaints he will keep himself safely outside the war zone. Not so. To be allowed to side with a quarreler you must convince him that you share his painful sense of injustice, which is impossible because the quarreler is convinced that he alone fully appreciates the magnitude of the wrong he has suffered.
Which brings us to the heart of the Ashkenazi matter. In most cultures an angry person longs to unload his rage on the wrongdoer (“I’ll tell her …”) A Jewish quarreler, in contrast, prides him or herself on not talking to the offender. The quarreler will elaborate endlessly to anyone on the injustice he’s suffered—with the crucial exception of the putative wrongdoer.
This reality is beautifully captured in the word broigus—which appears to have entered English from Yiddish. I recently asked an elderly relative who grew up speaking Yiddish what the word means, and he answered “a fight where people won’t talk to each other.” That is the deep meaning of the old Jewish joke about the religious man who is rescued from a deserted island after years of isolation. Before departing, he proudly displays the work of his hands. Pointing to one of the three buildings he has erected, he says, “That is my hut, where I live.” Pointing to a second, “That is my synagogue, where I pray.” And to the third, “And that is the synagogue I wouldn’t set foot in if you paid me.”
Not talking is what most distinguishes the Jewish quarrel from all other kinds. In the absence of contact with the alleged wrongdoer, quarrels become obdurate. The quarreler builds a mental world in which he is entirely blameless, an illusion that can be preserved only by avoiding the intrusion of reality. In this way the quarrel becomes a theodicy, in which unhappiness over another’s conduct (“You signed Mom’s tax return without telling me”) matures into denunciation of the person’s character (“My sister has always been a taker”) and ultimately into a morality play in which the complainant is wholly right and the offender wholly wrong.
A fully established quarrel is therefore a life project. Left to follow its natural course, the quarrel will often flower into escalating transgressions as each side avoids direct engagement while trying desperately to prove the wrongness of the other. Thus a fight over Mom’s tax return will often result in Mom being cajoled into making a will that disinherits one of her children.
It might seem that quarrelsomeness is simply the Jewish fate. Indeed, the book of Genesis can be read as the record of an extended quarrel that begins with Cain’s fratricide and more-or-less continues until Joseph in Egypt exacts obedience from the brothers who came close to committing the same sin. (And we know how that sojourn in Egypt worked out.) Even with that world-historic resolution in place, the later biblical books and the rabbinic literature are replete with admonitions against stiff-necked pride. So it is—and yet, here we are.
Yet, could it really be that a people so incapable of seeing reason could repeatedly revive itself as we have? Indeed, as much as the Bible records quarrels, it also records resolutions and offers a teaching on how to achieve them.
The Ashkenazi quarrel is not a fate, but it does have a pronounced moral/theological dimension that makes it appear that way. This was first revealed to me when I realized that many of the quarrels to which I have officially been witness include surprisingly persistent and vicious fights over family photographs. In a theodicy or morality play, the good must be seen to triumph over the evil. To ensure that the audience tracks the action correctly, the gods provide signs and wonders to verify the goodness of the good.
In the Ashkenazi quarrel, the possession of the family photographs is such a proof. At some level, having possession of the photographs is experienced as a proxy for a permanent and living closeness with the people pictured in the images, especially those who are now deceased. In the crudest and most concrete instances, the possessor establishes full possession by defacing photos—scratching, cutting, or inking out the image of the enemy, or discarding images in which he appears. A slightly less concrete thinker will merely seize the album and refuse to share it.
In the most idealized and sadistic expression of the phenomena, the album is taken hostage and the kidnapper bargains for a ransom. This might seem an act of simple economic cold-bloodedness, but it actually cements the seller’s privileged status. He holds his place in the family’s history as a birthright: The party opposite must buy his way in. The seller gives up mere images, while the purchaser sacrifices his pride.
The Ashkenazi quarrel is to be distinguished from a mere family fight. Unlike the quarrel, which is poisonous, insidious and never-ending, family fights have a beginning, a middle, and an end—usually reconciliation. It is possible that a family that does not fight is no family at all. A good fight, like a good war, clears the air. Indeed, hot-blooded cultures all tend to incorporate some form of mediation into the family or communal structure to provide a pride-sustaining means of preventing fights from becoming something worse. I have noted, for example, the role played by hahamim in some Sephardic Jewish communities, which contrasts with the contemporary Ashkenazi rabbinate who tend to duck out when the swinging starts. This is simple and unobjectionable prudence, because the rabbis of Ashkenazi congregations are constantly exposed to the congregational version of the quarrel. The struggle for dominance within a family is ancient and ubiquitous, but the willingness to destroy the family in pursuit of it is not.
Family life is protected by a magical shield. In the usual course of things it takes depravity, mental illness, or outsiders to thoroughly destroy that shield. The common internal causes of family breakdown—for the Ashkenazi quarrel is a form of family breakdown—are incest, physical violence or mental cruelty, alcoholism, drug addiction, or serious mental illness. The introduction of outsiders will also do the trick, especially when a widowed or divorced parent brings into the family a stepparent (usually a stepmother) who is near in age to her stepchildren, i.e., a pseudosibling who sleeps with Daddy. (The Bible recognizes a version of this problem in the form of the quarrel between Leah and Rebecca and their respective children, and in the figure of Leah’s son, Reuben, who defies Jacob’s authority by sleeping with one of his wives.)
The Jewish quarrel somehow causes a seemingly intact family to behave like a very damaged one, which is to say one that cannot discharge the obligations—the fundamental obligations—of caring for common assets, the aged, and infirm and fairly distributing family inheritances.
How did a people—a traditional people—known for its tight family and communal structure become a hotbed of destructive quarrels? Other quarrelsome cultures tend to focus on outsiders (the IRA versus Britain) or nonfamilial rivals (competing Mafia families). In the latter case, the family enlarges itself through marriage or alliance to become a clan, a tribe, or a gang—that is, a pseudofamily armed for war.
This is a tangled question, but the most likely sources of Jewish inwardness are anti-Semitism on the one side (including the inheritance of the Holocaust), and the excesses of modern Jewish piety on the other. Anti-Semitism leaves Jews with no obvious point of escape: The effect is to leave many Jews feeling that their every effort at self-advancement—whether individual, familial, or national—will be met with obloquy (“the Jewish lobby,” “rich Jews”) so that it is impossible to ever establish a normal relation with the outside world. In this condition Jews, both secular and religious, feel compelled to view their origin as a burdensome fate, and their brethren as the source of their problem. In their desire to free themselves from Jew-hatred, Jews turn their bitterness on—other Jews.
Tradition is left to struggle with Jew-hatred and God’s continued silence in the face of it. This is most evident in Israel which, in its internal life, is a mother lode of Ashkenazi quarrels, the most evident and obdurate of which is currently that between its inhabitants who identify themselves as the Haredim and all other citizens of the country. The righteous cherish their sanctity, while denigrating those who sponsor it with their tax dollars and defend it with their lives.
Remind you of anything? The salient features of the Jewish quarrel in the Holy Land—inwardness, sternness, shunning, the claim to own the faith and its history implied in the very terms “Orthodox” and “Haredim,” and a will to self-destruction—are remarkably similar to the Ashkenazi quarrels that continually erupt among secular Jews in the West. I here advance as a linking case between these extremes the nasty feuds regularly kicked off within synagogues by disgruntled congregants anxious to disengage themselves from a rabbi—often a learned, decent man, and almost never one so base or negligent as to deserve the public humiliation his congregants dish out. Thus have the forms of faith—piety, intransigence, righteousness—been emptied of tradition and refilled with secular content.
Let me offer a concrete example. In the Mishneh Torah Maimonides strongly enjoins a pious Jew to assist in making a “will” that departs from the biblical rule of inheritance (which calls for a modified form of primogeniture), even for the sake of transferring wealth away from an undeserving child. In stark contrast to this command, there is a burgeoning literature created by scholars who are competent in both Jewish and secular law. One such writer gives an example of the circumstances in which Halakhic techniques may be used to depart from the traditional rule. A man has two daughters and a son. His son becomes a sculptor, while his sons-in-law join him in his business. He does not wish to give his son control of his business as strict observance of the Bible compels him to do. The article proceeds to detail the techniques of breaching Maimonides’ moral teaching while preserving the forms of Jewish law. Halakha itself, it seems, is capable of becoming a traditional form animated by a wholly nontraditional content.
The familiar Ashkenazi crankiness and touchy dignity are generally bearable, if not always lovable, precisely because they are usually paired with, and restrained by, the bonds of familial loyalty and love. When parents—even traditional ones—feel justified in judging their children harshly (Oh, those errant sculptors!) and harming them accordingly, crankiness has hardened into something worse. What is it that releases crankiness to become hot indignation?
Once again, we are swimming in murky waters. I submit, however, that crankiness arises when the desire to escape anti-Semitism (supported by the belief that the world should be more just than it typically is) is transferred onto the shoulders of innocent children. For a family-oriented people who have successfully relied on the family for support against a crazily unjust world, crankiness amounts to the disposition to seize defeat from the jaws of victory. Its classic manifestation is the parent who receives every call from a child with a guilt-inducing complaint about why it did not come sooner, and ends every call with a guilt-inducing complaint about why it must end so soon.
Within families, crankiness expresses itself in two damaging ways. First, highlighting the failings and weaknesses of one’s own family by endless comparison to others’ strengths and successes (e.g., the parent who, on being told of his son’s admission to Harvard law, reminds him of his cousin Sheldon who was admitted on a scholarship.) Second, relying on the achievements of spouses or children to bolster the crank’s self-worth, and then blaming them for failing to deliver. Most parents succumb at times to these vices, but the crank is incapable of recognizing that he is the problem.
Crankiness may be funny, but it is also undignified, if by “dignity” one means holding fast to what is true or right while accepting those aspects of reality that are irrefutably neither. Dignified people do not whine when the world refuses to go their way. Here I return to an earlier point—the Torah offers a model for the dignified resolution of quarrels within the family, especially in the story of the classic inheritance battle between the strife-torn twin brothers, Jacob and Esau.
To begin, where the Ashkenazi quarrel is often without substance, the quarrel between Jacob and Esau is of great moment. The issue is not material wealth, but birthright. Esau is the firstborn and his father’s favorite, but manifestly unworthy. Just how much so is indicated by the fact that the Amalekites—the archetypal enemies of the Jewish people—are his issue. As well, he deals cavalierly with his birthright, selling it to his brother for lentil stew and pita.
Yet even so, Jacob and his wily mother, Rebecca, pull a fast and nasty one on Jacob’s aging father, Isaac: They trick him into bestowing the birthright on Jacob. This arouses fratricidal rage in Esau and causes Jacob to flee to his mother’s people, where he remains for decades.
As Jacob returns, the stage is set for a restoration of peace with his brother. Jacob prepares himself to confront his brother—to deal with him face-to-face, the very opposite of the Ashkenazi quarrel. First, Jacob—a man of great strength and wiles, is caused to wrestle with a divine being and although he is not defeated, left with a new name, a limp—and an appreciation of the limits of his strength and cunning. He is forced to slow down and accept his human limitations, which means reflecting hard on his conduct toward his brother. Second, he approaches his brother in a manner that displays no small amount of wiliness—but this time tempered by self-abasement. He makes lavish gifts to his brother, a man who is likely to be moved by such gestures, and then abases himself before him, acknowledging his superiority and making amends for the early misdeed.
Esau is moved to tears, but Jacob is not. He knows his brother: He makes peace but not a common household, ignoring the invitation to join with him and instead settling in the town of Shechem. You might say that he loosens the fraternal and familial bond for the sake of fulfilling his larger religious and political obligations. Family peace requires placing the tensions and dissatisfactions native to family life in a larger frame.
The Bible thus offers a sober appreciation of the propensity for rage within the family, and a recipe for addressing it. Fathers must be wise and careful in anointing successors; successors must be modest, restrained and prudent; and the task or project of succession must be understood not as an end in itself, but as a necessary but insufficient aspect of the larger project of conducting a decent and humanly satisfying family and communal life. But the lesson may also be put negatively: when faith is freed from a larger communal or political structure the stage is set for trouble within the family.
The Ashkenazi quarrel replaces the requirement that family life conform itself to external demands of justice with a demand that individuals fully conform to the rules of justice in their actions within the family—as understood by the parent or sibling who makes the demand. The effect is to free whomever initiates the quarrel to act simultaneously as prosecutor and adjudicator.
The most telling examples of this phenomenon are the all-too-common instances where parents make substantial late-life gifts or leave a disproportionately large inheritance to a child who is dramatically less enterprising, competent and honest than his siblings, but seemingly more submissive. In the worst cases, such gifts or inheritances are left to outsiders or charities in preference to children. In these and many other instances, the traditional form of parental authority is thus maintained but emptied of its traditional content.
Taking the family out of the community also places it beyond the reach of justice. When the traditional demand for justice is expressed not as an external constraint on family life but as an internal form the results are explosive.
In our current circumstances, Jewish communal institutions have lost the ability to curb the disastrous secularization of pious impulses. The rabbinate is dependent on wealthy donors, and too exposed to the forces of the Jewish quarrel, to dare the attempt. Other communal institutions are bent on courting charitable gifts, in direct competition with the children of those who have wealth to bestow.
The Ashkenazi quarrel is not, however, a fight over money. Rather, it is the outcome of approaching inheritance and other family matters with a misplaced religious zeal. Simple money fights (who owes what to whom) mostly settle at the point where each party recognizes that resolution is more advantageous than fighting on. The Ashkenazi quarrel, in contrast, often continues well past the point of mutually advantageous financial settlement. Indeed, the longer a quarrel continues, the further it likely is from resolution. The moral impulse driving the quarrel hardens as the financial costs rise. In these fights money and objects are a proxy for the parental approval and love—for the respect—which no amount of quarreling can secure.
It is not uncommon for siblings caught up in an Ashkenazi quarrel to do surprisingly nasty, if not outright illegal, things to one another. The childish needs underlying the Ashkenazi quarrel also explain why so much of the wrongdoing committed in this context has a childish air: The combatants mince about like cartoon characters, each with a speech bubble above his head reading “But it’s not fair!”
It is a cliché to blame the prevalence of the Ashkenazi quarrel on profligate baby boomers who disdain the mores of their stern, moderate, and frugal parents. In my experience, this cliché is structurally false. As with Jacob and Esau, the quarrel originates with parents not children. This may appear to be a harsh judgment of contemporary parents, but it is not: Parents are all also children.
We are who we are, and I for one would not turn the clock back on Zionism or the right of Jews to freely exercise their individual talents and abilities like all other members of society. At the same time, I will not deny that modern, secular life has caused Ashkenazi Jews to maintain forms of parental authority that appear to be traditional, but really are not—and that are now causing more self-inflicted harm than a small, beleaguered people can safely bear.
The standard family narratives that lead to the Ashkenazi quarrel are endlessly replayed. A mother shuns the child who seeks independence. A father treats his children as rivals. A mother serially picks favorites, continually playing children off against one another. Parents favor a pathologically needy child at the expense of his more independent and competent siblings.
When children equate money and objects with love, it is often because their parents also do. When siblings are bitterly divided, it is often because parents have incited the division. And where parents secretly fear their children, and imagine that they are colluding to take control of and squander their assets, the children will often imagine this of one another. Here’s the rub: All these difficult parents love their children. Lack of affection is not the problem: misplaced affection is.
It is the transposition of ethical or religious concerns onto money, business succession and will-making that is the proximate cause of the quarrel. That is why the quarrel will so often lead to financially goofy behavior. I have seen numerous instances of an unsuccessful child who insists that family wealth be squandered to support his unprofitable business. Equally common is the miscreant who squanders large amounts of family wealth in mismanagement and groundless litigation, then resists the appointment of a court-supervised administrator on the ground his frugal parents would be horrified at such an expense. In one case, a mother, angry at her son’s intermarriage, cut off distributions to him from a family trust. A court ultimately sanctioned her for breach of trust: She was entitled to the fullness of her disapproval, but not to the misplaced impulse to express it by withholding money.
Perhaps every child somewhere harbors a wish to be the special object of his parent’s affection. But it requires an unusual level of self-delusion to become convinced that parents harbored a secret wish to single one child out for special favor while for decades maintaining wills that treated all their children equally. Relatively few parents, while in full possession of their faculties, will openly and effectively disinherit one child in favor of another.
To the bitter, manipulative children of bitter, manipulative parents I offer two pieces of advice: They don’t really mean it—and, in the unlikely event that they do, ignore them.
The Jewish love of justice today leaves many of us able neither to tolerate nor break away from family life. As fewer and fewer of us adhere to the habits of soul and mind that temper self-regard, or to the traditions that temper rage with shame, the demand for justice comes perilously close to childish self-assertion. This is justice in which the prosecutor also wants to be the judge. For some time now God has maintained a disappointing silence on Jewish dissatisfactions and, unlike Neiman Marcus, neither history nor the cosmos maintains a complaints department. As no one else particularly cares about our dissatisfactions, we Jews take them out on one another.
The quarrel is the shadow of Ashkenazi Judaism. And yet, though a constant of Jewish life, it is not a given. There are many families—some Jewish, some not—that weather disruptive parenting intact.
So what makes the difference? In some families, destructive rage is a compulsion—a possibility that is always softly beckoning in the background. In such families, distrust, manipulation, and disputes serve as a combination of stimulant and opiate. They bring focus and excitement to life, and a pleasant respite from anxiety—including the anxious wait for someone to drop the next bomb on family harmony. Like many compulsions, this one begins to loosen its hold—to become less compulsive—once it is acknowledged.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.