Sunday, March 21, 2010

Concerning Jews

"If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world's list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in the world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?" — Mark Twain, from Harper's Magazine, September 1899

This post is of/about/concerning Jews.

For the record, I am Jewish. As far back as the diaspora, and probably further than that, my history is the history of my people. My family can be traced back to the day Abraham left the city of Ur for the Promised Land. My tribe is the Levites -- priests -- and my ethnicity is Ashkenazi -- Eastern-European Jewry. My hair is nappy as fuck for a white person. Even my body is covered in coarse hair! My father is a lawyer, and my mother was overbearing. My grandmother lives in Florida at a "retirement community". My family in America comes from the Bronx, New York and Westside LA.

I had a bris, which is a ritual involving the removal of my foreskin while random family members gather around to celebrate, drinking Manischewitz, eating Gefilte fish or corned-beef sandwiches. Once they've snipped me, everybody goes to the backyard to bury my foreskin. It's still there to this day.

I also had a Bar'Mitzvah. The coming of age rite for every Jew, where at the precise moment that your voice is all fucked-up from puberty you get to sing and speak to a large group of your relatives, some you've never even met who'll listen patiently as you butcher your religious language with varying octaves of passages from the Torah.

I've got a tree planted in Israel for me, along with a dormant temple membership. I joined AZA in my teens, and partied it up with other upper-middle-class Jew-teens. My book shelves overflow with titles by Chabon, Foer, Chaim Potok, Biro, Evans, Salinger, and Bellow. I listen to Klezmer and Gypsy-Jazz on my iPod.

You really can't get any Jewier than me, unless you happen to be Woody Allen or Mel Brooks.

But before we get any further, let's define and outline a couple of things about Judaism, and Jews especially.
"Being a Jew, one learns to believe in the reality of cruelty and one learns to recognize indifference to human suffering as a fact." -- Andrew Dworkin

What is Judaism exactly? What separates it from other religions?

Judaism is a monotheistic religion founded over 3000 years ago. Some of the main tenets include faith in one God, observance of the covenants, belief in the Torah/Tanakh/Talmud/other Holy books. Maimonides, a famous medieval Jewish scholar, penned thirteen principles of faith that define in a general sense what Judaism is about.

Even still, there is a problem trying to say "all Jews believe this" or "all Jews believe that" because since the historical destruction of the second temple by the Romans around 70 CE Jews have had no centralized authority. The religion existed for hundreds of years in exile, carried on by local communities centered around their learned scholars and rabbi. (A rabbi is a religious teacher.) Thus, unlike many other religions there is no consensus on what "defines" a Jew. There are many various sects, from Orthodox to Reconstructionist, from Haredi to Hasidic, and even today the Modern Jew is a fluid concept that incorporates aspects of religion, culture, ethnicity, and even race.

“Some people like the Jews, and some do not. But no thoughtful man can deny the fact that they are, beyond any question, the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has appeared in the world.” -- Winston Churchill.

Some common misconceptions of Jews (particularly by Christians):

1. Jews do not believe in Jesus Christ.

Often Jews will accept the historical existence of Jesus, and even commend his works as good mitzvot (mitzvah is a word to denote the 613 commandments of Judaism, and colloquially for good deeds in general) but never accept his divinity as God/son of God, or his sacrifice of dying for humanity's sins.

2. Jews do believe in God.

In fact, Jews are strictly monotheistic -- which means no trinity, no Holy Ghost, and no "son" or "father". There is only one God, and he has never taken human form. (Though conceivably he could, if he wanted to. God has taken the form of fire, light, snakes, wind, and other miracles.)

3. Jews did not kill Jesus.

This one I hear over and over again. During biblical story of Jesus -- no matter what gospel you're reading, or what version of the Bible you're using -- the Jews present at his trial (and his execution) had no power over his release. Pontius Pilate, according to the story, offered Jesus or Barabbas to the crowd in accordance with the tradition of commuting the sentence of one prisoner on Passover. I stress "the crowd" because not all the residents of Jerusalem were Jews. When the crowd chose Barabbas -- who was a terrorist to the Roman Empire, but is considered a freedom fighter for the Jews -- Pilate then had Jesus crucified for his crimes against Rome. There is no part in the narrative where the Jews killed Jesus. The beatings, the crown of thorns, the torture, even the spear in his side were all done by Romans. The Jews, while apathetic toward Jesus as a leader, did not actually kill him.

For a more humorous interpretation, I give you Bill Hicks: "A guy says, 'I hate Jews,' and I said, 'Why?' He goes, 'Because they killed my God.' They believe that. If I believed that the Jews killed my God, I'd worship the Jews, 'cause shit, there's some badasses on that team, man. I haven't seen God ever, I see Jews all the time — go figure."

4. Jews are not greedy, cheap, or obsessed with money.

Since the medieval times, Jews were not allowed to practice many professions, thus driving them in to sectors that most Christians would not, or could not practice due to their religion. One of these was money-lending (which ultimately grew into the early form of banking) and due to the success of Jews at it, led to the stereotype of associating Jews with greed and cheapness.


For millennia Jews have been a religion of many colors. From the Kaifeng Jews of China to Ethiopia's Beta Israel movement, and back into the annals of history in Egypt where Moses was likely a black man, Jews have been the same as Joseph's coat -- a rainbow. Even today, Judaism is not limited to the Ashkenazim residents of New York's Lower East side, but includes Middle-Eastern peoples such as the Yemenite Jews, or Latino Jews who have many temples right here in San Francisco!

Other interesting facts about Judaism:

Among the many commandments of Judaism, there are conjugal rights due to a wife from her husband, and they have even been numbered according to the husband's profession. Some scholars interpret this to mean anything from intimacy, sex, even orgasms. Yes, Judaism has a commandment forcing husbands to give their wives orgasms, and a certain number per month based on his job to boot! (Husbands with more difficult jobs -- like Rabbi's -- have a very low number.)

Judaism believes in the concept of soulmates, called a "bashert". A man's bashert is divinely announced 40 days before a male child is conceived, and the voice will tell him who's daughter he is going to marry. The term can often mean a good match in general (i.e. the perfect house, the perfect job) but frequently refers specifically to soulmates.

Unlike most religions, Jews discourage conversion. A rabbi is required by Jewish Oral Law (called Halakhah) to make three "vigorous" attempts to dissuade someone who is trying to convert to Judaism. This is done because most people are not prepared for the extra responsibilities of being Jewish, such as the various commandments and especially since all Jews are expected to be responsible for each other, both in secular and religious life. The process of conversion can take anywhere from a few weeks to several years, due to the amount of study required.

There are two types of Jews: Hebrews and Shebrews. A Hebrew is a male Jew, while a Shebrew is a female Jew, which is an altogether superior creation. With Hebrews, the types are fairly easy to recognize. Hebrews come in doctors, lawyers, or (rarely) accountants. Shebrews, however, come in only one type: JAP, Jewish American Princess. (JAPs also exist outside of the ethnocentric American context.)

Many nations and/or empires have tried to exterminate the Jews over history, yet the Jews have survived intact (more or less) and earned the bewildered respect of history for our stubborn, continued existence. Allow me to list a few of the major groups that persecuted Jews who are now gone while we go on: Ancient Egypt, the Philistines, the Assyrian Empire, the Babylonian Empire, the Persian Empire, the Greeks, the Romans, The Byzantines, the Crusaders, the Spanish kingdom, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. Not bad for the minority of all minorities, huh?

Anyhoo, hope ya'll enjoyed this (brief) introduction to Jews & Judaism. I leave you with one more awesome quote concerning my peeps, known variously as People of the Book, The Tribe, Heebies, Jeebies, Sheenies, Yids, The Chosen Ones, The Circumcised Ones, Hymies, Kikes, Jewbags, and The Other White People.

“If we had lived in the second millennium BC, the millennium of Abraham, and could have canvassed all the nations of the earth, what would they have said of Abraham’s journey? In most of Africa and Europe, they would have laughed at Abraham’s madness and pointed to the heavens, where the life of earth had been plotted from all eternity ... a man cannot escape his fate. The Egyptians would have shaken their heads in disbelief. The early Greeks might have told Abraham the story of Prometheus ... Do not overreach, they would advise; come to resignation. In India, he would be told that time is black, irrational and merciless. Do not set yourself the task of accomplishing something in time, which is only the dominion of suffering. On every continent, in every society, Abraham would have been given the same advice that wise men as diverse as Heraclitus, Lao-Tsu and Siddhartha would one day give their followers: do not journey but sit; compose yourself by the river of life, meditate on its ceaseless and meaningless flow.”

“The Jews started it all—and by ‘it’ I mean so many of the things we care about, the underlying values that make all of us, Jew and Gentile, believer and aethiest, tick. Without the Jews, we would see the world through different eyes, hear with different ears, even feel with different feelings ... we would think with a different mind, interpret all our experience differently, draw different conclusions from the things that befall us. And we would set a different course for our lives.”

- Thomas Cahill, The Gifts Of The Jews

5 footnotes:

Jasmin said...

I like this post--I learned some new things. :-)

How do the rabbis dissuade people from conversion? (I definitely did that and some people *ahem* could take a note from them on proselytizing.)

Who does the bris, a doctor or a rabbi? Is the foreskin buried deep, like a body, or just under a mound of dirt?

Would you say that it's generally acceptable for Jews to belief that Jesus existed (like a historical figure), or should they not believe he existed at all?

With the bashert, is it assumed that all Jews will have Jewish soulmates? And how many orgasms would, say, a writer, have to give his wife monthly? :-P

Sorry, I have a million questions; I'll stop now. :-)

Zek J Evets said...


1. rabbis usually just ask them if they *really* want to convert, but sometimes they outright refuse them and see if they keep trying.

2. a mohel does the bris. he's a guy trained in ONLY doing circumcisions. you don't have to bury it too deep. mostly it's just a custom.

3. it's generally accepted that jesus was probably a historical figure, but many believe he didn't exist at all.

4. yes, every jewish man has his bashert =) and orgasms for a writer would probably be... a lot, haha.

only four questions? i guess that'll do ;)

Mira said...

My hair is nappy as fuck for a white person, while my body is generally covered in coarse hair too.

Um... This was a bit of "too much information". :P I like "nappy as fuck" comment, though.

I had to learn a lot about Jewish history as part of my "Ancient History I" course, but to be honest, I don't know much about Jewish history since the destruction of the second temple till WWII. (I found the ten lost tribes thing was the most interesting, not sure why).

Anyway, there are not many Jewish people in my country, or at least nobody pays attention on them. During the WWII many families trued to protect their Jewish friends, and I don't remember any hate towards Jews. After the war, Jews were seen as the victims of our common enemy (Nazi Germany, who killed many Slavs too) so I don't remember any anti-Semitism. I still don't see it. But then again, I hear it is present so I am shocked. I mean, I am shocked to hear there are neo Nazis in my country (how can you be neo Nazi if Nazis killed your people?) Anyway, I digress.

Because there are not many Jews here, and Christianity is different than in the US (Orthodox), the misconceptions are different.

1. Whether Jews believe in Jesus Christ or not is not really an issue, since the word "God" is more frequently used here. So the question some people might ask is whether Jews believe in God. Which brings us to:

2. Jews do believe in God.- I think people believe Jews believe in God. The misconception (if it is?) is that it's generally believed Jews believe in the God from the Old Testament.

3. Jews killing Jesus is never mentioned. In fact, it is believed Jesus himself was a Jew (ethnically if not religiously). This is not seen as a problem.

4. I am afraid this one is true: sometimes, Jews are seen as obsessed with money. I am not sure why, because most of the people here never met any Jews.

5. Jews are considered to be white. Unless they are clearly black or Asian (in a way of East Asian). Views on race here are not the same as in the US. "White" doesn't mean just blond hair and blond eyes- most of the people have dark hair anyway. So I think Jews (most of them) are seen as white. That doesn't mean privilege like in the US.

Now about the misconceptions (?) that do exist:

Jews believe in the Old Testament, but not the New one. Thora equals Old Testament. Jesus was a Jew. I don't remember other misconceptions.

I don't know many (if any) Jews, or perhaps I do but I don't know they're Jewish (hope it make sense). I remember a Jewish guy from my class and um... attention he got in the male locker room, but I don't think his family was very religious (but then again, it was back in the days when religion was discouraged).

PS- Christianity is a monotheistic religion too. The Holy trinity doesn't mean there are more than one God. However, I must admit I am unable to explain the philosophy/faith behind it, which makes me ashamed of myself. I never thought of it that way (I must think about it).

Zek J Evets said...

@mira: haha, mira. you're one of my favorite commenters =)

i've changed the offending passage to read a little less... awkwardly.

according to my grandmother, the slavs were hardly better than the germans. hell, my whole family refuses to let anyone go back to eastern europe because they're afraid we'll get killed in a pogrom or something. i remember growing up with stories about how the polish, ukrainians, and other slavic peoples would constantly rob and murder jews in the shtetls (villages). i'm guessing things are better now, but for my family the "old country" isn't some nostalgic vacation spot.

however, i should probably study up on orthodox christianity. the eastern orthodox church isn't all that present in the US, or at least not obviously present. i've only seen the whirling dervishes once in my life.

Mira said...

i've changed the offending passage to read a little less... awkwardly.

Lol, you didn;t have to do that! It was ok the way it was, I was just joking. I just tried to imagine "nappy as fuck hair for a white person" (whatever that means), because I think my husband has it too.

according to my grandmother, the slavs were hardly better than the germans. hell, my whole family refuses to let anyone go back to eastern europe because they're afraid we'll get killed in a pogrom or something. i remember growing up with stories about how the polish, ukrainians, and other slavic peoples would constantly rob and murder jews in the shtetls (villages).

That is horrible to hear. I had no idea. I'm not saying your grandmother was wrong (I mean, of course she knows better), I'm just saying how Jews were viewed in Yugoslavia- as victims of the same enemy. Though we all know what Nazis did to Jews was the most horrible, it was always noted their second and third victims on the list were Gypsies and Slavs. Germans were viewed as a common enemy, so when you share an enemy, there's some sort of sympathy. I know some people who were hiding their Jewish friends and I a good friend of my grandmother was a Jew and she stayed in Yugoslavia after the war.

i'm guessing things are better now, but for my family the "old country" isn't some nostalgic vacation spot.

There were never many Jews here, and there are so few now, so I guess they are not seen as a threat to anybody. But then again, I did hear that anti-Semtism exist in Serbia, but I guess it's not as prominent as the other forms of ethnic hate (towards Croatians, Albanians and Gypsies). I live near Belgrade synagogue (sp?) and there was never a single incident. It's not because people here are tolerant and open minded, but because there are only a few Jew and like I said, many people don't see them as a threat. One of my husband's fav writers (and mine, now when I think about it) is a Jew (now living in Canada) and yet, I don't think many people realize he's Jewish. So maybe that's the answer- Jews look the same as other people on the street, and their names are usually not "unusual" enough for people to notice.

however, i should probably study up on orthodox christianity. the eastern orthodox church isn't all that present in the US, or at least not obviously present. i've only seen the whirling dervishes once in my life.

Dervishes are Muslim. I think Eastern Orthodox churches are there, but I don't think a non-Christian would notice a difference. Other examples of Eastern Orthodox Christians: Russians, Greeks.