I grew up in the least-Jewish Jewish family around in the 1950s. We celebrated Christmas every year in a big-time fashion: tree, decorations, and all. And despite the desires of my dear grandmother, there would be no temple, no Sunday Hebrew school, no religion of any sort. I actually went to a Quaker school and I suspect that the first temple I ever entered was at 13 for a friend’s bar mitzvah. I did have one Israeli buddy for a few years, a neighbor who got a black-and-white TV before we did and so I spent as much time as I could in his apartment until his family went back to the Middle East. Yes, sometime in those early years, I was on the street with my own father when a passing stranger made an antisemitic slur and, being a tough, no-nonsense guy (“Major” Engelhardt as he liked his friends to call him from his years in World War II), my dad went right after him. And yes, one of my first roommates at Yale (which had only removed its Jewish quotas a year or two before I arrived in 1962), someone I grew to like, later told me that his dad, undoubtedly a Yale alumni, had specifically warned him to watch out for any Jew at Yale whose father was in the insurance business. (Consider that a knife through the heart!)
And none of that has ever changed. I married an ex-Catholic, brought my kids up without religion, and though there’s a temple catty-corner to the apartment building I’ve lived in for almost the last half-century, I’ve only been inside it once (for a Pete Seeger concert). And yet, explain it as you will, I take what Benjamin Netanyahu and crew, the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, are doing in Gaza in a strangely personal fashion. Yes, I was horrified when Hamas committed its grim crimes on October 7th, but somehow, somewhere deep in my heart, I never thought that the Israelis would respond not just in kind but in a fashion even more horrifying and without end.
I mean, honestly, given the historic suffering of Jews, who the hell kills untold thousands of children in a 25-mile-strip of land; attacks every hospital in sight; instantly cuts off food, fuel, and water to more than two million people; causes massive deaths (a daily toll higher than any other significant twenty-first-century conflict); destroys more than half of that area’s housing; and leaves untold thousands of Gazan civilians starving to death and with untreated illnesses of all sorts — and, after all of that, still isn’t faintly done? Somehow — yes, call it the hidden Jew in me — I take offense at that. And in that context, let me turn to TomDispatch regular Robert Lipsyte who offers his own very personal look at what being Jewish has meant to him and means to him now in this all-too-hellish world of ours. Tom
But I Know What Eyeless in Gaza Means
Long ago, I came to believe that being a Jew, even a secular one like me, entailed certain responsibilities. A people who had suffered so much yet survived were obligated, if not honored, to serve as witnesses and supporters of other oppressed people and to live in the public interest, to model ethical lives. Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, and Sandy Koufax all made me proud, while I felt ashamed of Roy Cohn, Alan Dershowitz, and Henry Kissinger.
I never reached such lofty, self-righteous, or even chauvinistic heights or depths, but such figures, positive and negative, offered a comforting structure for my casual, shallow life as a Jew. I rarely observed high holy days. My children were neither bar nor bat mitzvahed. I have lived in a space somewhere between my immigrant grandmother’s anxious response to all current events -- “Is it good or bad for the Jews?” -- and my father’s snarky yet philosophical “Judaism would be a great religion if you got God out of it.” In my overall indifference to my Jewishness and my unsureness about what it meant to me lay, I thought, a kind of worldliness and emotional integrity. It was enough to attempt to live a decent life, be a sportswriter for the New York Times, write books for adults and children, try my best to do some good works.Read More