Purim, America, and the Jews

            “The posts went forth in haste by the king’s commandment, and the decree was given out in Shushan the castle; and the king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Shushan was perplexed.”

JewishsurveyPromo_639x300On the eve of Purim I always think about this passage in the Book of Esther—”the Megillah”—which will be chanted aloud tonight in synagogues circling the planet. Haman’s name —he was the Hitler of ancient Persia—will provoke a deafening stamping of feet and crackling of groggers, little noisemakers that children twirl with a big ratchety sound, or shaking of boxes of macaroni and cheese destined for charity. Since the silence is rarely restored promptly, the last phrase may be drowned out: “But the city of Shushan was perplexed.” It’s interesting.

 
Haman decides to murder all the Jews, the decree goes out, the messengers do their duty, but the capital city of the empire is perplexed. I can only think this means that the people more or less said, “Huh? Kill the Jews? Why?” That Jews were well enough woven into the fabric of Persian life so that despite their customs, which had to seem strange to their neighbors, people viewed them with respect, or at least with a big dose of “live and let live.”

Quite different from the reactions of Germans, Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and others to Hitler’s decrees, as I was reminded last Saturday when my Holocaust (Shoah) survivor friends were musing on that disturbing history. Not so many of those peoples were perplexed. They just said, Sure, let’s kill the Jews. Shushan’s response was, perhaps, reflective of something like the broad acceptance Jews enjoy today in the United States.

A new Pew study of Jews here and in Israel updates the famous one in 2013 (see below), which showed a decline in American Jewish identity, especially in the young. This one shows a slight increase in religiousness. But when comparing us to Israeli Jews, Pew found stark contrasts. We are more liberal, better educated, much less religious, and by various measures much less Jewish than our Israeli brethren—with whom we disagree on many things. They are much more divided among themselves, and of course they are surrounded by hostility and chaos, while we are safely dispersed among peaceful and often admiring American neighbors.

Few modern Persians—today’s Iranians—would be perplexed at the notion of slaughtering Jews, but Americans would be astonished to the point of staunchly defending us. When Joe Lieberman ran for Vice President in 2000, he wore his Jewishness, even his Orthodoxy, on his sleeve. It never became an issue in the campaign, except that religious Christians admired his commitment.

Sixteen years later, a surprisingly successful candidate for President, Bernie Sanders, is much more quietly Jewish—some might say, hardly at all. But no one who matters is accusing him of hiding something, and his Jewishness appears not to matter to other Americans. Asked about it in one debate, he pointed to the Shoah survivors he had known as a child, and explained how that terrible knowledge inspired him to seek social justice. And not just for Jews.

Some of us worry when Shoah remembrance is so central to Jewish identity that it is the first or only thing mentioned, but Jewish commitment to social justice long predates that catastrophe. Among Jews in the U.S., South Africa, and much of the diaspora it has been very important and very non-parochial.

Not so in Israel. Pew found that for more than half of Jewish Americans, social justice is an important part of what it means to be Jewish; only a quarter of Jewish Israelis said the same. And we are far more likely than they are to have non-Jewish friends. Those facts go a long way to explaining why we Jewish Americans are in a Golden Age, greater than any in the past. We are lucky.

And so when President Obama’s new Supreme Court nominee took the podium in the Rose Garden, he emphasized his Jewish origins and identity, despite being named Merrick Garland. His lifelong devotion to justice was not just for Jews. Which is why nobody was perplexed by his nomination. And if he doesn’t reach the Supreme Court, it won’t be because he is Jewish, despite the fact that he would be the fourth out of nine who is.