I’ve never considered myself close-minded or judgmental. I believe who you love is your own business, as long you don’t publicize it and the object of your affection isn’t your sibling, parent or child, underage, coerced, or doing it for money. I believe deeply in the democratic process, and that every person who has the luck to live in a democracy has the right to choose whatever candidate best fulfills their vision of good government, even if their view directly opposes and nullifies my own. As for race, I grew up with mostly blacks and Puerto Ricans. Some were lovely, some were awful, to me and to each other. Except for a nostalgic fondness for Black people, and a tendency to disproportionately notice and admire the beauty of Asians, especially children, I don’t really don’t have many prejudices. Except for one: Jews who publicly exhibit contempt for their religion.
Once when we were living in San Jose, California while our new Jerusalem apartment was still under construction, we took the kids to the zoo. It was during the Intermediate Days of Passover when traditional Jews avoid leavened bread like virus germs. And as we were looking at the elephants, I suddenly heard a woman’s voice speaking in Hebrew. Riddled with homesickness, I turned around, eager to talk to her and bask in the glow of home. But as I did, I noticed her kids eating hot dogs in rolls they’d purchased in the park.
Even though I mentally accept that this stranger had every right to feed her children whatever she pleased, and that it was certainly none of my business, this public desecration of the Passover holiday sickened me, and made me feel miserable. I quickly turned away, all fuzzy feeling of camaraderie combusting as I suddenly realized I felt closer to the nice, blonde, Northern Californian gentiles taking photographs of their freckle-faced kids.
Over the years, I have thought about that moment. Why should it have bothered me so much? After all, growing up in America and living in Israel, I’d met numerous secular Jews. But in this case, applying reason never led to enlightenment: my feeling was stubborn, uncompromising, and visceral.
Only recently have I been able to coldly analyze this incident. And what I think happened was this: As a Jew temporarily exiled from home, I was deeply disappointed to see another Israeli Jew publicly rejecting the commandments given to us as one people.
By feeding her kids that non-kosher frankfurter in a forbidden bun on Passover, she was publicly asserting the idea that is no God, and that the Torah is therefore false, its commandments null and void, all silly, made-up, meaningless stuff. The logical extension of such an assertion is that all Jewish history, beliefs, culture, and thousands of years of scholarship is based on lies, and that whatever message our continued Jewish existence has to give to the world is thus worthless and meaningless. If there is no God who gave the Jews the Land of Israel and the Commandments, then our moral and historical basis for claiming peoplehood and sovereignty is also called into question.
If the Torah is false, then there was no slavery in Egypt, no desert wandering, no Abraham, no Moses. There was no Tabernacle in which God’s glory rested amidst His people in clouds of glory. There was no thundering mountain in which 600,000 men over the age of twenty and countless woman and children heard the voice of God in the wilderness revealing once and for all that yes, there is a God, and the Jewish people are the carriers of this message to mankind.
And if that is so, then there is also no hope for the redemption of the world through a Messianic age that will end all suffering, all sickness, all human strife and war.
To believe that is an unbearable negation of all that I find most hopeful in life. The idea that we are living in a world created and sustained by a Benevolent Living God Who is directing the history of mankind towards that wonderful conclusion makes life worth living, a family worth raising, a country worth investing in and defending even with the lives of those most precious to us.
Well, you might argue, and rightfully so, that someone who eats a frankfurter in a roll on Passover might just be ignorant. Yes, that is certainly true: a baby lost among gentiles. So why get angry?
I think that because they were speaking Hebrew, the language of the Bible, it’s just so much harder to believe in their lack of knowledge. They had, after all, lived in a Jewish country, and such a little one that they couldn’t help rubbing shoulders with the Bible every day of their lives. It makes the act of desecrating Biblical precepts just that much more deliberate and scornful.
My mind tells me that be that as it may, this is still none of my business. I would certainly not want anyone poking their nose into how I live, like the Chabadniks who offer me free Sabbath candles just because my skirt or my hair doesn’t look like their vision of a Sabbath-observer. Sometimes I tell the Chabadniks off, even though I know they mean well.
And sometimes, looking back, I feel sad that I never did say anything in English or in Hebrew to those Israelis in the zoo to explain how I felt, even though it would surely have resulted in offence and derision. I walked right past them as if they were air and had nothing to do with me at all, my heart yearning, my pulse pounding as disappointed as a child who reaches the ice cream truck just as it’s pulling away from the curb.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Naomi Ragen