Q: I don’t think a lack of pride or self-esteem is the problem with the American Jewish community these days.
A: No, but I’ll tell you. It can be. I went a couple of years ago to a retreat, a Wye Plantation retreat, where the subject was, will Jewish civilization survive the year 2025? And there were 10 Israelis, 10 Americans, and a whole group of scholars. And the scholars had distilled the essence of survival, they studied Gibbon and Spengler, et cetera. And they analyzed why was it that the Roman, the Greek, and the Incan civilizations all passed on and the Jewish civilization survived? And out of their distillation came the idea that the difference between all these great civilizations was that after a great trauma or defeat, the Romans got up and said, “I don’t want to be a Roman.” The Greeks got up and said, “Hell, I don’t want to be a Greek.” The Incas ran all over the place. But the Jews, after every tragedy, brushed themselves off and said, “I want to be Jewish!”
So, call it pride, call it self-pride, I don’t know. There are two modern-day miracles—one is Soviet Jewry, michias hamatim. The even greater miracle was after the Holocaust, that the Jews still wanted to want to raise their kids Jewish.
So, the question now is, with the freedom and the assimilation of America, will Jews still get up in the morning and affirm that they want to continue to be Jews? It’s an open question.
Jews often joke about Jewish holidays. Their theme, we tease, is "They tried to kill us, we won, let's eat!" Which is funny, but is also, I think, the point of Judaism. Once I wrote about how modern Jews might not be Jews if not for the Holocaust. I said it like it was a sad thing. But maybe, just maybe, it's actually the most Jewish of things.
The first truly Jewish holiday is Passover. Before then, there were no Jews, just tribal Israelites. God took us out of Egypt "with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm" and made us a nation. Egyptians were the first "they" who tried to kill us.
In the Ten Commandments we are commanded to remember "I am the Lord, your God, who took you out of Egypt." It's right there, commandment number 1.
Later, we are commanded specifically to remember the exodus from Egypt and eat unleavened bread each year to commemorate. From that moment on, it sets the stage. Remember where you came from, remember how you got there. Remember that they tried to kill you, but God saved you with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm... now let's eat.
That same formula is repeated several times:
In Hanukkah, it's the Greeks. Worse than tried to kill us, they defaced the holy temple with pork products, and forbid studying Torah. The Maccabees fought back against the Greek tyranny. They lost, we won, the oil that should have lasted for 1 day lasts for eight, let's eat some fried stuff!
In Purim, it's the Persians. The king's evil advisor was a real anti-Semite, just hated the Jews for existing. He convinces the king to kill us, but Esther, his wife, is secretly Jewish and reveals that, convincing him to maybe not kill the Jews. Haman, the evil advisor, is hung on the gallows intended for the Jews. He lost, we won, let's eat some triangular cookies and get really drunk.
And now, the Shoah, the Holocaust. Hitler, a modern-day Haman, wants to kill the Jews for being Jews. He very nearly succeeds, but he arrogantly fought a war on two fronts. The mighty hand (Allied Forces) and the outstretched arm (Soviet Union) defeat him, liberate the concentration camps. They lost, we won (if you can call it winning), and now we live in a land flowing with milk and honey and suicide bombers.
Point is, Foxman is right. We have been trained since the very beginning of Judaism to get up, to brush ourselves off, and to keep on being Jewish. It's not in spite of the Holocaust, in spite of the destruction of the Second Temple and before that the First Temple. It's not in spite of the Anti-Semites who would try to kill us. It's because of them. It's because God said "I am the Lord, your God, who took you out of Egypt," and commanded us to remember.
In Exodus 3:7-8, God appears to Moses in a burning bush:
And the Lord said, "I have seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and I have heard their cry because of their slave drivers, for I know their pain. I have descended to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians and to bring them up from that land, to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey.And every time since, it goes the same way. They tried to kill us, we won, let's eat.