Welcome to the newest installment of TRADITION Questions – click here to read the series introduction.
Flight attendant: Would you like anything to read?
Passenger: Do you have anything light?
Flight attendant: How about this leaflet, “Famous Jewish Sports Legends”?
Passenger: Yes, thank you.
— Airplane! (1980)
What’s happening? First published in 1983, Robert Slater’s Great Jews in Sports challenged the premise of this joke by profiling the “finest Jewish athletes of all time.” Updated and re-issued in 1992 and 2000, the 288-page work expanded to 368 pages. Its last edition went to print in 2005. Great Jews in Sports is the most famous of a genre that might be called “Jews In” books. These volumes (including a number by Darryl Lyman) sought to generate pride for collective Jewish accomplishments in fields such as entertainment, politics, and science. The genre exhibits the insecurities of an immigrant population that struggled to conform to a dominant culture. In the past fifteen years, this genre has all but vanished.
Why does it matter? Jews are defined by those who hate them as both “less than” and “more than.” The putative goal of the “Jews In” genre was to challenge “less than” anti-Semitism. The books describe the triumphant integration of Jews into the upper echelons of Western society. By celebrating Jewish successes, the books refute “less than” hatred, both external and internal to the collective Jewish psyche. “More than” hatred portrays the Jew as deviously powerful. The IHRA definition of anti-Semitism describes this as “the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.” With the ongoing rise of such “more than” hatred, “Jews In” books appear somewhat vulgar, if not outright threatening.
The genre’s disappearance speaks to something additional. We are quick to publish books about accomplished Jews and to embrace a collective identity, as we bask in their reflected glory. Yet, do Jews contemplate the crimes and damage that their coreligionists cause? We might have a “Jews In” literature; we do not have a “Jew Sin” literature. (Although, our haters have, for generations, produced and fabricated many such items.) We are happy to claim our co-religionists on the way up. We do not know them – or claim any collective identity with them – on their way down.
What questions remain? A leaflet would not suffice for the wrongdoings of Jack Abramoff, Mordechai Elon, Jeffrey Epstein, Sam Bankman-Fried, Baruch Lanner, Bernard Madoff, Sholom Rubashkin, Richard Sackler, Chaim Walder, or Harvey Weinstein. Such a volume would certainly not be light reading. Do we reflect on what these “Jews are in” and ask what their lives say about the community and culture from which they come?
In our ardent opposition to both “less than” and “more than” hatred, have we allowed our communal introspective muscles to atrophy? Do we have a process in which we can hold a mirror up to ourselves as a people and ask if we are in fact living up to the values that we so proudly proclaim?
While doing all we can to fight stereotypes, we must – as Jews and as members of general society – ask how “they” got away with it for so long. One piece of the answer is high-end, extremely capable, and mercenary service-providers (lawyers, accountants, bankers, HR professionals, executive assistants – and, yes, rabbis and educators) who should really have known better. How does our community train the service-providers who will emerge from its schools and shuls to stand up to their employers when they see future wrongdoing?
In the late twentieth century, American Jews widely adopted Tikkun Olam as a central tenet of their identities. This ideology claims that Jews are called upon to make the world more just, peaceful, tolerant, and equal, through acts of charity, kindness, and political action. Whatever one’s position on the modern concept’s legitimacy, the expectation that Jews should be net-contributors (a source of blessing) to the world is well-founded. So, in the past generation, did Jews improve the world? Are we improving it now?
A legitimate hubris is baked into the idea, “We can fix the world.” Yet in asserting this personal and communal goal, we fail to acknowledge the possibility that we might be doing the opposite of Tikkun Olam. We do have the capacity to damage the world. The Talmud relates:
Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Shimon, says: Since the world is judged by its majority, i.e., depending on whether people have performed a majority of mitzvot or a majority of sins, and an individual is likewise judged by his majority, each person must consider that if he performs one mitzva he is praiseworthy, as he tilts the balance of himself and the entire world to the scale of merit. Conversely, if he transgresses one prohibition, woe to him, as he tilts the balance for himself and the entire world to the scale of liability, as it is stated: “But one sin destroys much good” (Kiddushin 40b).
Walter E. Houghton writes in The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870, “When fear and guilt were making people acutely conscious of lower-class suffering, the role of the philanthropist took on an importance, even a necessity, which called for the rhetoric of heroism” (320). Does our community use heroic philanthropy to conceal certain crimes toward which its members contribute? Does the replacement of “Tikkun Olam” with “effective altruism” only further universalize this subterfuge?
While the consumption of celebrity through the lens of collective identity may be in decline, the worship of individual celebrity intensifies. Does the Kiddush Hashem narrative around the heroics of sports celebrities or the glamour of Hollywood stars properly reflect what a Kiddush Hashem really is? Can we speak about Kiddush Hashem when addressing a sports team that holds a losing record? To what extent does the ethos of material success color our moral vision? Who really are the “finest Jewish athletes of all time?”
Chaim Strauchler, an associate editor of TRADITION, is rabbi of Cong. Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck.