Try a thought experiment. Picture yourself in line at a supermarket, or a bank, or a Wal-Mart. You’re calmly flipping through a People magazine or checking text messages on your mobile phone, and you overhear a middle-aged woman, in front of you in line, talking on her phone in a pleasant, non-judgmental voice. You’re not really listening to what she’s saying, and then all of a sudden a sentence makes your ears perk up. “Oh, you know Peter,” she says, to whoever is on the other end of the call. “He’s a real Jew.”
Now, no matter how sweet her voice, or how anodyne the rest of her conversation, you are probably going to think, “Wow, that sounded anti-Semitic.” After all, what does it mean, in English-speaking culture, to call someone “a real Jew”? That he’s cheap? Pushy? Neurotic? Nothing good, that’s for sure.
Now consider another conversation. Same bank or supermarket, same woman talking on her phone, same sentence—with one slight change. “Oh, you know Peter,” she says. “He’s a real Christian.”
Totally different, right? A real Christian. Kind, charitable, self-sacrificing, Christ-like. I’m a Jew, but even my heart warms a little when I contemplate the kind of person who deserves to be called a real Christian.
I first noticed of this rather troubling disparity when I was a young reporter, covering religion for the Hartford Courant, and Al Gore lost the controversial 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush. Gore’s vice presidential candidate, Joe Lieberman, was a senator from our state of Connecticut, and most people I knew, even the ostensibly objective reporters in our newsroom, were excited for the Democratic ticket, and our hometown boy, to win. Of course, the election turned out to be the most muddled in American history, and a winner was not decided for a full month, until the Supreme Court, in Bush v. Gore, stayed the recount of the Florida vote, handing the election to Bush and Dick Cheney. For a full month, I, like most of my colleagues, was riveted by the political theater—more like political vaudeville—that our country had become.
When the election was finally decided, I, like many reporters I knew, hoped to never write another political story as long we lived. We were sick of politics. But one day the next January, I had an idea for a fun piece about how the vice-presidential candidacy of a Jew, Joe Lieberman, had made the world safer for ethnic humor. To take one example, Al Gore had joked on David Letterman’s show that their ticket would be there for the American people “24/6”—a reference to Lieberman’s observance of the Jewish Sabbath. I wrote and filed the story, my editor liked it, and he sent if off to the copy desk for a final read.
As I was throwing on my jacket and stuffing some work in my backpack, readying to go home, I got a call from Tim, one of the old-timers on the copy desk. “Hey, Mark,” he said. “OK if I change this line here?” I walked over to his desk and looked over his shoulder. He pointed at his screen. “You write here that the American people, to judge by the popular vote, ‘elected a Jew as vice president,’” Tim said. “OK if I change that to, ‘a Jewish vice president’?”
This was the sort of small change that a reporter would normally accede to, if only to get out of the office and on his way home. But I liked my sentence the way it was, so I pushed back.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I kind of like it the way it is. It’s snappier, to the point. Why change it?”
Tim rubbed his face and didn’t say anything for a moment.
“It’s just that …” He paused again. “Well, it sounds kind of offensive the way it is, doesn’t it? I mean, I’m not Jewish, but to me, if you just call somebody ‘a Jew’—like, that doesn’t sound very nice, you know?”
I knew what Tim was getting at, and I felt for the guy. He was a non-Jew talking to a Jewish reporter about how to refer to the man who was, for the moment, the country’s most famous Jew. He was trying not to be offensive, but he felt that, somehow, his attempt at not giving offense was backfiring. And he wasn’t sure why. I probably should have let Tim off the hook, but instead I pressed my case.
“No, I don’t know what you mean,” I said, although of course I did. “Lieberman is a Jew. So am I. What’s wrong with calling a Jew a Jew?”
Copy editors are like the doormen of the newsroom: They don’t rank very high, but they decide who gets in and gets out. Low prestige, high power. If Tim wasn’t comfortable with my calling the senator “a Jew,” he could keep the phrase out of the paper. Nevertheless, it’s never good when a copy editor has to invoke that prerogative and overrule a writer. It’s always better to come to an agreement. So Tim changed strategy.
“Let’s ask Ron,” he said.
Ron was the copy editor who sat at the next desk. Like Tim, he was an ex-reporter, and in his late forties or fifties. The copy desk was filled with ex-reporters, men and women who had traded the privilege of seeing their own bylines for the better hours and more structured, routine tasks of spotting typos and logical gaps in reporters’ rushed prose. Some, like Tim, were subdued, while some were excitable, as if they missed the rush of being out on the beat. Ron was the excitable kind.
“Of course that’s offensive!” Ron said. “You can’t just call someone ‘a Jew’! Change it to ‘Jewish.’”
At that point, I gave up. In the next day’s paper, we called the senator “Jewish,” just as we always had.
At the time, I didn’t spend any more time thinking about this minor disagreement. As a daily reporter, you just move on to the next day’s story. But over the years, I kept thinking back to distinction of “Jew” versus “Jewish.” Why was it, I wondered, that the noun “Jew” made my copy editors so uncomfortable? If I was being honest with myself, I knew that they were onto something.
And Jews and Christians alike have internalized these different connotations. Most Jews, if asked about their religion, say not, “I’m a Jew” but the softer, more acceptable, “I’m Jewish.” With Christians, the answer will vary depending on the kind of Christian you’re talking to. Liberal Protestants may say, “I’m Christian,” using the adjective, but many evangelicals, born-again Christians, and other passionate believers will say, “I’m a Christian.” It sounds a little jarring to more secular or liberal types, but not in a bad way. It just sounds hard-core, like the person is planting a flag and standing by it.
For Christians, the difference between “Christian” the adjective and “Christian” the noun is one of both degree and kind. We are all described by many adjectives, but we select very few nouns to sum up who we are. The nouns require a bit more commitment. It’s the difference between “I’m liberal” and “I’m a liberal”—the man or woman willing to own the noun is more committed, for sure. The adjective is what you are like; the noun is who you are.
To take another example, the short biographies that people write on their Twitter accounts are a useful, and fun, place to see the Christian noun at work. There’s football player Derek Carr: “Christian, Husband, Father and Oakland Raider.” Or boxer Nate Marquardt: “Christian, Husband, Father, Friend, Fighter—Striving to be the best in the world!” Jamaican sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce: “Christian. Wife.” Athletes, in particular, like the noun, it seems—there’s something macho about it, confrontational almost.
For what it’s worth, you don’t see a lot of Twitter accounts that say, “Jew, Husband, Father, Friend.” Jews simply don’t say, “I’m a Jew.” It seems that the copy editors at the Hartford Courant were right: To call someone a Jew does sound offensive, and even Jews agree.
I have been thinking about this distinction between adjective and noun as I have read Edgar Bronfman’s new book, Why Be Jewish? An astute reader of middlebrow popular Jewish apologetic writings may note that there is more than one book with that title. There are, unbelievably, three books on the market called Why Be Jewish? They are written by three utterly different men: Meir Kahane, the radical anti-Arab bigot, founder of the Jewish Defense League, who was assassinated by an Arab gunman in 1990, wrote his in 1977; David Wolpe, a prominent Los Angeles rabbi in the Conservative movement, wrote his in 1995; and Edgar Bronfman, the liquor baron, heir to the Seagram’s fortune, who before he died in 2013 became one of the Jewish world’s great philanthropists, has published his this month, posthumously. All three books are sub-par—or, rather, they are par for their genre. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth reading.
Wolpe’s Why Be Jewish? is the least interesting of the three. Wolpe is my kind of Jew, much more so than the Orthodox, right-wing Kahane or the aggressively secular, atheistic Bronfman. I wanted to like Wolpe’s little primer. But his book, while clearly written and pleasant to read, is basically an attempt to talk people into Judaism, which strikes me as a futile endeavor. If you ran focus groups, Judaism would never poll well. The food is fatty, the prayers are in a different alphabet, Christians have better music, and you have always have to keep at least one bag packed.
Undeterred, Wolpe offers three reasons to be Jewish, a chapter on each: “To Grow in Soul,” “To Join a People,” and “To Seek God.” If you fear you are in a swamp of New Age vagueness, you probably are. Hike up your dungarees. One sub-section, “The Truth About Human Nature,” begins: “Being in God’s image is an ambiguous legacy. For although God may overflow with goodness, we imperfect reflections of God do not.” Here’s a full paragraph, picked at random: “Law is the skeleton of behavior, of conduct that governs our lives. Law provides the framework. And love provides the force.” There’s a lot of platitude, not enough attitude.
That is definitely not the problem with Meir Kahane’s Why Be Jewish?, written in 1977, about five years after he made aliyah to Israel. Its subtitle is Intermarriage, Assimilation, and Alienation, and it is structured as—you knew it was coming—a response to the response to the television show Bridget Loves Bernie. Starring David Birney and the future Mrs. Keaton on Family Ties, Meredith Baxter, Bridget Loves Bernie ran for one season, 1972-1973; it was created by Bernard Slade, whom the world could also thank for The Partridge Family and The Flying Nun. Establishment Jewish groups, like the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, were offended by the show’s depiction of an intermarriage between a Jewish man and an Irish Catholic woman; they complained, vocally, the press covered their complaints, and CBS canceled the show, despite its excellent ratings.
Instead of marveling that a bunch of rabbis could get a hit show canceled (what would they have thought of Broad City?), Kahane took after them. In his view, these vocal communal leaders, whom he calls “Bernies,” were concerned about intermarriage but not really concerned about Judaism. In fact, their desiccated Jewish practice and eagerness to assimilate had given birth to a generation of Bernies. And now these Bernies rightly sensed the hypocrisy of their parents, who ate trayf, didn’t keep Shabbos, but wailed and moaned if their children married out of the faith. For Kahane, a generation of young, shiksa-obsessed Bernies was the inevitable outcome of any deviation from Orthodox, and Zionist, Judaism. If children start to believe that their parents are faking Judaism, pantomiming the rituals while secretly, or not so secretly, believing that Torah is a mere metaphor, they will rightly say, “Well, then what’s the point?”
To be clear, Kahane’s book is the work of a madman, and it concludes with a frothy-mouthed, and racist, if sometimes entertaining in a Trump-like way, jeremiad. The modern state of Israel is a miracle; any Jew who does not return to it immediately is a fool; the scorn of other nations is a badge of honor; the Arabs are beastly. “Where then is [our] God? … here, in the rise from the ashes of an independent Jewish State where the Jew is not beaten but who beats, if need be” … “Do not attempt to impose a Munich on us, for we know the reality of the Arabs” … “Foolish frightened Jew! For the Jew to stand alone is a blessing, not a curse” … and, well, on he goes. JCCs, by allowing Christians to exercise alongside Jews, promote intermarriage. They should be restricted to Jews.
But if you poke through the vomit of a madman you might find some tasty morsels. Kahane draws some smelly, and I think wrong, conclusions, but he is right, painfully and precisely right, in his diagnosis of Jewish American hypocrisy. Because he believes that Jews are holy by virtue of their covenant, not their behavior, he is free to admit that Jews are not necessarily more ethical: “Ethics! As if that was the beginning and end of Judaism. As if Christians and Shintoists could not be ethical, too.” He sees that preferring Judaism because one thinks that Jews are more charitable, or intellectual, is just chauvinism. We’re not any better, Kahane believes, just chosen.
Kahane’s description of the American bar mitzvah as “the culmination of an empty, vapid, childish, shallow Jewish ‘education,’ taught by men and women whose ignorance and lack of Jewish content make them superb vehicles for the ‘learning’ they pass on [in an] obscene cult of ostentatiousness” is not, alas, so far off. His diagnosis of the annual Passover Seder as a rite of the highest hypocrisy, in which American Jews with no intention of moving to Jerusalem—even though they now can!—proclaim “Next year in Jerusalem!” is uncomfortably on point. “Yet the ‘Zionist’ leaders do their Zionizing from America, except for paid junkets to Israel where they spend the public’s money on unnecessary convention”—is this some left-winger criticizing Birthright?
Kahane knows that Judaism can’t be defended on consequentialist grounds. It is not defensible if it’s just a system of ethics, or a parenting system for raising Nobel Prize winners, or a path to fulfillment. Perhaps for some people it may function as one or more of those things, but in general, people can be bookish, studious, and follow the Golden Rule without Judaism. For Kahane, Jews aren’t better people; for all he knows we may be worse. But it doesn’t matter. Kahane’s book is badly mistitled, for he understands that the question of why to be Jewish is nonsensical—one simply is Jewish. For him, the reason to live as a Jew is because that’s what Jews are commanded to do, and made to do; to do otherwise is to go into a personal exile, and often a geographical exile, too. And, he argues, we must come home, in both senses.
Edgar Bronfman completed his Why Be Jewish? shortly before he died in 2013. It’s a short, sweet book, an attempt by a non-scholarly Jewish atheist to explain why he found religious practice after marrying his fourth wife (for his fifth marriage—he married the third wife twice). He grew up wealthy and assimilated in Canada, didn’t give his children a Jewish education, and for most of his life attached to the community mainly as a philanthropist. But in his last two decades he worked his way back to a kind of earnest observance: candle lighting, Passover Seders, a respect for, if not rigorous observance of, Shabbat. And he began learning some Torah. “I discovered,” he writes, “that even for a nonreligious Jew like me who rejects the notion of a supernatural God acting on our behalf, Judaism remains an immensely rich enterprise.”
Put another way, Bronfman never fell in love with God, but he fell in love with being Jewish. He discovered his Jewish pride. And he worked hard to make up for lost time. His Why Be Jewish?—subtitled A Testament—is a last essay at atonement. His goal is to say enough positive things about Judaism that even other nonbelievers might give the old religion the old college try. And there’s a lot at stake. Judaism might disappear, for one thing. Or—and for Bronfman, this might be worse—the fundamentalists will win the day. “Another possibility that frightens me,” he writes, “is that due to a high birth rate among the ultra-Orthodox, this great civilization could be redefined by those who have chosen to turn their backs on a good part of the modern world.” In other words, Kahane’s Jews might win.
Superficially, Bronfman’s book seems to be a longer, more detailed, less ethereal version of Wolpe’s. Where the rabbi offered up a prayer, vague but capacious, with big ideas about Judaism, the philanthropist gives us a manual, a guide to Jewish practice. And much of it is pretty good, pitched at a literate, adult-ed level. There are sections on hesed, deeds of lovingkindness; tikkun olam, social justice; worship; Torah study; and so forth—each section an exhortation to do more of that thing! At times, the book veers toward pop empowerment or, worse, business lit: “My study of Moses inspired me in my work as head of the World Jewish Congress: Through him, I learned the skills, strategies, and attitudes needed to effectively lead.” When I read Bronfman’s interpretation of “the book of Esther as a story about the salvation of the Jewish people through the use of strategic thinking and bold actions,” I nearly went out to get baptized.
What saves Bronfman’s book is his understanding that except for our small, but welcome, stream of converts, Judaism isn’t a choice—it’s a fact of our lives. He never makes this point with the boldness, or sophistication, that I wished. But read this: “Many have debated the best term for Judaism—is it a culture, an ethnicity, a religion, or a civilization? My own feeling is that Judaism is a big family of individuals with a common bond that has stayed strong through a long history and much hardship.” I have long believed that Judaism as a family is the right metaphor for what we are (and more than a metaphor, as both Torah and genetic testing tell us how closely related we are). But Bronfman quickly pivots away from his profound statement and moves into Wolpe-like apologetics, explaining why it’s neat to be Jewish, and why the bad things they say about Judaism just aren’t so. “To identify with the Jewish people does not mean to care only for the fates of other Jews,” he writes. “In fact, the opposite is true.”
Kahane would disagree; he writes explicitly that to be a Jew is to care mainly for other Jews. But Bronfman, in calling Judaism what it is—a family; a kinship that we do not choose—shows himself to be more Kahane than he is Wolpe. Bronfman wrote this book, after all, because late in his life he found he could no longer run from Jewish practice; if a Jew stands still, Judaism will catch up to him. Despite their book titles, Bronfman and Kahane weren’t asking why to be Jewish, but how. Kahane would find Bronfman’s form of Judaism to be inert, fawning, and dishonest; Bronfman would call Kahane fanatical, stupid, and dangerous. But both men had the clarity to see that Judaism is always with the Jews. I always say Judaism is like the Hotel California: We can check out any time we like, but we can never leave.
Which brings us back to the Lieberman question. Was the senator a Jew or was he a Jewish senator?
We might say that the Jew Wolpe is writing for, the Jew Kahane is condemning, the Jew Bronfman is afraid of being, is Jew-ish. Being Jewish is something he or she is sort-of kind-of like; it’s an attribute. For him or her, “Jewish” is a synonym for other adjectives, like “ethical” or “compassionate” or “questioning.” If he or she is being honest, then sometimes, surely, “Jewish” is a synonym for negative adjectives, as when other Jews are “ostentatious” or “clannish” or “greedy.” But the Jew, as opposed to the Jewish person, is simply a member of this family that was, according to Kahane, chosen by God and given the Torah at Sinai—the family that, according to Bronfman, somehow kept its identity over millennia and developed a rich heritage worth perpetuating. Neither understanding of my family story satisfies me perfectly, but I think they are onto something. They’re mishpochah. Not Jewish, but fellow Jews.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood.