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Those People, Over There

In his commencement address at Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles, the author exhorts the class of 2018, the Jewish leaders of the future, to knock down the walls

Michael Chabon
May 30, 2018
Photo: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

My wife and I spat into a couple of little plastic vials and sent them off for DNA analysis. We were curious and apprehensive to hear the tale of our genetic inheritance: markers for certain diseases and disorders, for intolerance to certain drugs, for aversion to cilantro or the smell of asparagus pee. In the matter of our ancestry, however, apart from slight uneasiness at the prospect of discovering that we were, like, third cousins, there was not a whole lot of suspense. My results came back with a small ancestral non-surprise in the form of one non-Jewish Eastern European around the 17th century. There was one puzzling Brit from about a century before that and, on my father’s side, “no earlier than 1690,” a beautifully inexplicable sub-Saharan African. For my wife, however, as with the mythical turtles of Eastern cosmology, it was Ashkenazim all the way down.

Like our parents, grandparents and many-times great-grandparents before us, in other words, my wife and I married-in.

Leaving aside the minor consideration of my having fallen in love with her at first sight, marrying-in was, on the face of it, a strange thing for me to have done. I abhor homogeneity and insularity, exclusion and segregation, the redlining of neighborhoods, the erection of border walls and separation barriers. I am for mongrels and hybrids and creoles, for syncretism and confluence, for jazz and Afrobeat and Thai surf music, for integrated neighborhoods and open borders and the preposterous history of Barack Obama. I am for the hodgepodge cuisines of seaports and crossroads, for sampling and mashups, pastiche and collage. I am for ambiguity, ambivalence, fluidity, muddle, complexity, diversity, creative balagan. Even when it comes to my own psyche, the only emotions I really trust are mixed emotions. I ply my craft in English, that most magnificent of creoles, and my personal house of language is haunted by the dybbuk of Yiddish, that most humble and sly. Monocultural places—one language, one religion, one haplotype—make me profoundly uncomfortable whether they’re found inside or beyond the ghetto walls.

An endogamous marriage is a ghetto of two; as the traditional Jewish wedding ritual makes explicit, it draws a circle around the married couple, inscribes them—and any eventual children who come along—within a figurative wall of tradition, custom, shared history, and a common inheritance of chromosomes and culture. I know that “ghetto” is a loaded word, and to the extent that one makes the choice to marry-in free from any fear of paying the price of an exogamous marriage in shame, ostracism or worse, maybe a kinder or more charitable word would be “enclave.” But you know what? I abhor an enclave, too: a gated community, a restricted country club, or a clutch of 800 zealots lodged in illusory safety behind a wall made from the bodies of teenage soldiers, gazing out in scorn and lordly alarm at the surrounding 200,000 residents of the city of Hebron who are manifestly (for this is a fundamental purpose of all walls) Other, and therefore—so goes the logic of the deepest, oldest human evil—less truly human.

We tend to draw a distinction between walls that protect and walls that imprison, but that is only the same dark logic again, justifying itself, as always, in the name of security. Security is an invention of humanity’s jailers. Anywhere you look it is—and has always been—the hand of power drawing the boundaries, putting up separation barriers and propagandizing hatred and fear of the people on the other side. Security for some means imprisonment for all. Jews walled up inside Venice’s historic ghetto suffered less from pogrom and everyday persecution than Jews of the surrounding Veneto; and I have never seen a sorrier and more riotous group of convicts than the Jews of present-day Hebron.

As for Judaism itself, as presented to me both when I was young and when I returned to it in my late 20s: The whole thing’s a giant interlocking system of distinctions and divisions and the means—through prayer and ritual, narrative and commentary—of drawing them. The whole story begins with three mighty acts of division: day from night, heaven from earth, sea from land. After that it’s all boundaries and bright lines, from the bookended candle-lightings of Shabbat to a woman’s monthly mikveh, from circumcision to the bar mitzvah ceremony, from the Four Questions to the bedikat chametz, from the shearing of a bride’s hair to the intricate string-webs of an eruv. This night is not all those other nights. This is a woman, no longer a girl. We are not those people, over there.

Now, it’s always been the business of religions, all around the world, to make and enforce distinctions between the sacred and profane, heaven and earth, gods and humans, clean and unclean, us and them. But in exilic Judaism, after the shattering of the priesthood, that business devolved, uniquely, onto the everyday shoulders of the ordinary Jew. In my novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union I invented a career and a character called a “boundary maven,” a man whose job is to create, map and oversee the maintenance of the intersecting eruvim of my fictional Sitka, Alaska, but in fact every Jew is, or is expected to become, a boundary maven. Every Jew’s job is not just to see and understand but to maintain, through constant vigilance and patrolling to enforce, like a Yiddish policeman, the division between day and night, sabbath and profane week, clean and unclean, child and adult, maiden and matron, Jew and gentile, perfection and imperfection, modesty and vanity, indoors and out.

And yet despite my instinctive mistrust of wall-building and boundary-patrolling, and my reverence for miscegenation as the source of all human greatness, I went and married a Jew. We had four Jewish children, and enrolled them in temple preschools. We taught them to value the things we found valuable in our culturally rich if genetically somewhat impoverished heritage. We made hamantaschen and latkes, lit candles, ransomed afikomens. When the children wrestled to understand the outrageous deeds of their mythic forebears—Abraham with his filicidal knife, say, or the endless massacres of innocents, from the flood to Egypt to Shushan, when they asked tough questions like Why didn’t God save all the animals, what did they do wrong?, or even Why is God so mean?, I tried to teach them that this questioning, the very wrestling so hauntingly encoded in the story of Jacob and the messenger, was the most valuable part of their inheritance, the one they should never dishonor. I taught them what I knew about the names and characters of the various immigrant Jews whose genes they carried in jumbled bits and pieces, whose journeys to freedom, opportunity and a ranch house in the suburbs of Philly, New York or D.C. had made their lives possible. I said what could be said—it was not very much—about the Jews who had been left behind, and taught my kids as much as they could handle about the genocidal power that had built its ghettoes and enclosures, drawn its lines of race and purity and lebensraum, and othered all those aunts, uncles and cousins into dust and ash. When they each turned 13 I sent my children reeling around an uproarious room, staggered by the astonishing heaviness of a Torah.

And if you had asked me, when my four little Jews were young, if I hoped that they would marry-in like their parents, grandparents, et cetera, I would have answered—if I was telling the truth—yes. There were so few of us, relatively speaking, in the world. If we did not want to see Jews and Judaism extinguished forever, like Manichaeism or the African gray rhinoceros, somebody, like Doritos, was going to have to make more.

In the 25 years since my Jewish wedding and the 23 since the birth of our first yidele, power around the world has gone on drawing its lines, enforcing its borders, building its walls and camps, patrolling its checkpoints; excluding and imprisoning and denying human beings their humanity. And all that time, as they always have, the world’s religious traditions—my own shamefully among them—have served to justify, to give context to, and to prettify the dirty work. So, in the early days of my return to Judaism, I used to try to draw a distinction of my own: between that kind of religion and my kind, between the gods of hatred and the God of love. But at some point—I think it might have started with Baruch Goldstein—the comforting line I tried to draw between the nice kind of religion and the nasty began to waver, and then one day it just collapsed. It wasn’t the worst thing that did the trick; nobody died. But one day I saw video footage of some male Haredim in Jerusalem assaulting a group of young girls for the sin of daring to learn, all these pious ganefs throwing rocks at little girls, and in my outrage and disgust I found myself thinking That is not Judaism. And then, immediately afterward, Those are not Jews.

Knowing, of course, that if one of those rock throwers dropped in for High Holiday services at Chochmat HaLev, or Kehilla, or one of the other Berkeley congregations where my family liked to worship, with the ouds skirling, and women in tallises swirling Deadhead-style during the Hallelu, and all the language of patriarchy and triumphalism and exclusion reconfigured for maximum niceness, he would have used the same terms to divide himself from us: That is not Judaism. You are not Jews.

That was the moment when I felt the toxin in the bloodstream, like on Game of Thrones when Ser Jorah Mormont looks down at the skin of his forearm and sees the first dreaded pebblings of the disease called greyscale, and knows that it’s only a matter of time before his flesh petrifies and his mind unravels. “You should have cut off your arm the moment that you were touched,” the Archmaester at the Citadel will afterward inform Ser Jorah. The moment I found myself attempting to draw that exclusionary circle around “my kind of Jews,” some grave archmaester in my heart made a similar prescription: Cut it away. I stopped lighting candles. I didn’t bother with the bedikat chametz. When the next High Holidays rolled around, I stayed home. On Yom Kippur I fasted, maybe because I wanted to show myself, or my ancestors, or the God I don’t believe in, that my non-participation was not a matter of indolence or physical weakness. Or maybe I just did it aftselakhis—out of spite.

Over the years that followed, my retreat from religious practice only deepened, and since we put the last of the bnai mitzvah behind us, it has become near-total. And here we are, living in a world that feels so irredeemably addicted to the building of walls, to the architectures and economics of exclusion, to the violence that is the inevitable resort of all those distinction-drawing ideologies of “purity”—Who’s white? Who’s a woman? Who’s a Jew?—that have always been humankind’s most wrong-headed and dangerous vice.

So now, today, at this retrograde and perilous moment in history, when ideologues are busily trying to string the world with eruvim of intolerance, were you to ask me if I hope my children marry-in, I would say, Yes. I want them to marry into the tribe that prizes learning, inquiry, skepticism, openness to new ideas. I want my children to marry into the tribe that enshrines equality before the law, and freedom of conscience, and human rights. I want them to marry into the tribe that sees nations and borders as antiquated canards and ethnicity as a construct prone, like all constructs, to endless reconfiguration. I still believe, even today, that this is the world’s most populous tribe. There will be plenty of potential partners for my children to choose among; a fair number of those potential partners are even likely to be Jews.

And what if every Jewish parent thought that way? I can hear some of you saying. What would happen to Judaism if all, or even most, of the world’s Jews married out of Judaism? Judaism might disappear from the face of the Earth, forever! I don’t believe that’s ever going to happen, but let’s say that it does. On the day that the last Jewish couple dies, after watching their children marry Hindus, Lutherans, atheists, Sunnis, Buddhists—the fault for that extinction will lie squarely with Judaism itself, and not because Judaism failed to enforce its teachings against intermarriage but because it was necessary ever to have such teachings in the first place. Any religion that relies on compulsory endogamy to survive has, in my view, ceased to make the case for its continued validity in the everyday lives of human beings. If Judaism should ever pass from the world, it won’t be the first time in history—far from it—that a great and ancient religion lost its hold on the moral imaginations of its adherents and its relevance to their lives. Nor will it be the first time that an ethnic minority has been absorbed, one exogamous marriage at a time, into the surrounding population. We will grieve that loss, you and I, if we’re still around to witness it. But we probably won’t be, and anyway the history of the Jews, like the history of humanity and every individual human who has ever lived, is just one long story of grief, loss and fading away.

This year we went to the home of my brother and his wife for the Passover seder. She’s a cantor, Conservative training, Reform shul, and their home is a very Jewish place, in a progressive, East Bay kind of way. They keep kosher, in the house and out. They stay off of phones and screens on Shabbat. Seders at my brother’s house tend to be much more fun than the seders of our own childhood—they make ample room for children and their wrestling, and adults and their wrestling; and when it’s time for Dayenu we all beat each other up, like the Yemenite Jews, with scallions. I look forward to these seders.

Even so, this year, there were moments during the service when I felt myself falling into the depressed mode that has tended to bedevil me at Passover in the years since I looked into my Jewish soul and saw the first stony blotch of greyscale. These Passover funks of mine tend to go through three stages. First, all the language of liberation and freedom that used to inspire me, as a child, with so much pride in the legacy of Jewish commitment to ending the misery of enslaved and oppressed peoples everywhere, starts to sound self-aggrandizing and hollow, as I think of my shame at the oppression I’ve witnessed—Jewish oppression—in Hebron, Susiya, East Jerusalem. Then we get to the 10 plagues, locus of so much of my own childhood wrestling, and there’s old Yahweh again, hardening Pharaoh’s heart, ensuring the slaughter of thousands of innocent Egyptian boys, and I think, there’s the God who wants you to throw rocks at little girls on their way to school. Then comes the final stage, where I remind myself that, anyway, the whole Exodus story is all just a bunch of baloney. There’s not a shred of evidence, in the archaeological and historical record, for any of it. The numbers and the dates don’t add up, and the geography is funky, and the pyramids weren’t even built by slave labor. It seems pretty clear that we just made the whole damn thing up.

But this year—watching my three nephews and their first cousins reenact the 10 plagues with homemade paper hand-puppets—I suddenly found myself thinking: What a weird thing for us to have done! When human beings have looked backward, as a people, to their remote ancestors, they’ve tended to see—or to invent—legacies of grandeur, mighty conquerors, demigods and Golden Ages. What kind of people willingly devises for itself, out of whole cloth, a history of bitterness, inferiority and subjugation? How different what we now call Judaism must have been, before that strange invention, before we decided that we had once been slaves! And then I thought about other profound shifts in Jews’ understanding of their own Judaism: when the God of some nomadic shepherds became the God of a kingdom of settled farmers, when the great Temple rose in Jerusalem, when it was destroyed and our history became a history of exile. With each of those shifts, old lines and boundaries were erased, and new ones drawn. Every time upheaval and disaster threatened it, Judaism reinvented itself.

It seemed to me then, sitting at my brother and sister-in-law’s table, that Judaism had survived for so long not because of its famous tradition but rather because of its mutability, its flexibility, its adherents’ capacity not just to behave but to feel as though they have always been what they never were before. Hey, I thought, looking down the table at all those Jews of the future, that could happen again. And then I thought, It must happen again. Because in catastrophic times the survival of Judaism was ensured not through standing pat, turning inward, or building walls but through adaptation, moving outward, opening our minds to the ideas, and our ears to the music, and our mouths to the languages, and our bellies to the kitchen-wisdom of the people living on the other side of whatever boundary line we chose, in our collective wisdom, to ignore.

This is my charge to you, class of 2018, Jewish leaders of the future: Knock down the walls. Abolish the checkpoints. Find room in the Jewish community for all those who want to share in our traditions. Inscribe the protective circle of your teachings around all those people whose very otherness demands that we honor our avowed commitments to peace and justice and lovingkindness. Seize every opportunity to strengthen and enrich our cultural genome by embracing the inevitable variation and change that result from increased diversity. And if—no, let’s say when—the Jews of the future find that, under your leadership, they can longer tolerate the occupation being undertaken in their name, when they have repudiated the purity tests and the separation barriers and all the rhetoric and instrumentalities of dehumanization, let it be because you have taught them to throw open the sanctuary gates of their own best idea of themselves, and to make room at their tables, and in their families, and in their lands, for all who are truly hungry—like the book says—to come and partake.


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Michael Chabon is the author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, A Model World, Wonder Boys, Werewolves in their Youth, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Summerland, The Final Solution, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Maps & Legends, Gentlemen of the Road, Telegraph Avenue, Moonglow, and the picture book The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man.

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