Jews in Hollywood, the New Anti-Semitism and the Slow March to Freedom

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, March 30, 2018 / 14 Nisan 5778

NO MISHNA BERURAH CLASS until Sunday, April 8TH.

Summary: Rabbi Kosak recounts a generational shift in thinking he discerns in some of his students. He connects that to the recent rise in anti-semitism and offers some questions and topics for your Passover table. 

Jews in Hollywood, the New Anti-Semitism and the Slow March to Freedom

It was after Cantor Bitton’s Jewish TV theme song program. I turned around and asked my 12th graders, “why do you think there were/are so many Jews in Hollywood?” They didn’t accept the implicit premise of my question–that either there was a much higher percentage of Jews in Hollywood than in the general population–or explained that Jewish presence was just about contacts and who you know. It was as though my question struck their ears as racist.

I was startled. First, I’m familiar with the history of why Jews migrated into Hollywood–that we weren’t shut out of it because it wasn’t an established industry; or that our long status as a minority within a larger and sometimes alien culture meant that we learned to laugh to survive, and consequently produced many comedians; or that Jews possess a historically-earned disposition to be boundary-crossers, ending up in the first wave of many new industries and at the forefront of political movements.

But this was not about me possessing some knowledge that they did not. It was something more critical and somewhat new. You see, this was a case where my twelfth graders and I simply think in different categories. That matters deeply because it influences the way you see and interpret the rest of the world.

Let me try to unpack this. There is a new generation coming up who increasingly don’t hold by notions of Jewish uniqueness or particularism. It’s not just that they hold all people are created equal–many previous generations believed that as well. Very ancient midrashim (Jewish fables used to interpret the Bible) believed that. Heck, the Torah holds that. It’s more that the very notion that a people or culture might have certain transmitted traits doesn’t cross their radar. Such a category doesn’t exist for them.

That’s not all bad. In fact, such a stance has decided advantages–and also some risks. To explain this, we need to take a detour.

Twelve days, Nan Lipton sent me a link to an article written by Jonathan Weisman. She wanted to get my bead on the piece. Weisman’s an editor in the Washington Bureau of the NY Times. The article was entitled, “Anti-Semitism Is Rising. Why Aren’t American Jews Speaking Up?” Weisman’s basic premise is that the last two years have seen a spike of anti-semitic incidents but that the American Jewish community isn’t doing much to address this or talk about it.

Neither his premise nor his article were very accurate or useful. I can think of several times when our Portland community–and its leadership have spoken up after anti-Semitic banners have been hung on freeway overpasses, or when a van painted with anti-Semitic screeds has been seen and reported. That was also the case in Cleveland. Only two communities, but I’d need to see data from the author that demonstrates these two very different communities in markedly different regions of the country are outliers.

There are some other issues the author misses. One, our connections with law enforcement and the general community is quite different than, say, when the ADL or SPLC–and antisemitism were in their hay day. That means different sorts of tactics are required. When incidents have occurred, communal leadership has notified the police and signs have immediately been taken down, graffiti covered over and official investigations have been undertaken.

Second, in our polarized era, (as Weisman mentioned with a New Jersey politician), techniques which worked previously (make a lot of public noise) can backfire while working relationship nets–with civic and interfaith leaders, and police can prove more effective. The first takes an adversarial stance, the second recognizes we are all in this together and that we all are stronger united.

Third, there has been concerted and vocal efforts by Jewish communal leaders across the nation to to draw attention to Charlottesville (anti-semitism on the right) and also to resist and confront BDS (anti-semitism on the left). These efforts have received press coverage. While Weisman may think that BDS represents leadership’s focus on Israel, he would be mistaken. BDS to date proves no danger whatsoever to Israel. Our deputy counsel of Israel’s NW region who just visited us made this very statement. But it poses a very real concern for American Jews.

So with all this concerted response from Jewish communal leaders, why doesn’t Weisman think we are paying sufficient attention to the problem? Several answers can be given but one of the issues at play brings us back to our twelfth graders.

If you are of a certain age, there can be a tendency to give in to our deeply-rooted historical fears that “they are all out to get us.” Because you know, a heck of a lot of them were. Were. Seeing the world through this particularistic mindset can be distorting. Yes, we should pay attention to the rise of anti-semitic incidents. After all, as Passover begins, we would be foolish to forget the importance of political freedom and the role that societal acceptance plays in ensuring that freedom.

But we also need to pay attention to how a strong majority of Americans view Jews, which is in a positive light and without malice. The very categories my twelfth graders use to think about the world may distort their understanding of Hollywood and the Jews, but it allows them to see more clearly where Weisman stumbles. They seem free of his historical fear.

That difference in thinking is fascinating. It shows, of course, that we all have blinders on. It also highlights that redemption and freedom have to be internalized, and that political freedom, while essential, is not sufficient to make one feel secure.

It’s a long walk to freedom, and in the end, we all simultaneously march together and alone.

Let me wish you a wonderful holiday. May you enjoy the blessings of friends or family at your seders. And I hope you’ll be blessed to spend a few enlightening moments discussing the many different facets that make up our freedom today.

Chag Kasher v’sameach,

Rav D

Passover Table Talk

  1. Have you been subjected to anti-semitism? What occurred? How did it make you feel? Did you respond in the moment?
  2. Do you believe that the increase in anti-semitism over the last 2 years poses a threat to Jews or to you in particular? Why or why not?
  3. What are some personal experiences when you noticed a big generational gap in outlook? How have you tried to bridge that difference in understanding?

Last Week’s Passover Table Talk Questions

  1. What is your personal “master story?” How did it become central to you? Where has it guided you in your life?
  2. Do you have a Jewish master story? One that is tied to your Jewish identity? If so, where does it play a role in your life?
  3. Before Passover, spend a day noticing all of the plastic you use by happenstance. What might you do to reduce this “accidental” plastic you encounter.
  4. Even the most humble person suffers from some sort of internal chametz. What is yours? How might you counteract it during the week of Pesach?

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