When being right is wrong
by Jonathan Rosenblum
January 14, 2000
Last week, a young journalist with whom I am friendly
confided that she was having second thoughts about
journalism as a career, despite having landed a plum job
almost from the start.
She feels constant pressure to produce "scoops" -
which in today's journalistic climate usually means showing
how smart you are by exposing the folly of others in the
most dismissive terms possible.
I couldn't disagree with my young friend. I mentioned
that her cynical tone and scoop mentality create their own
distortions of reality. Worse, the attitude she brings to
work cannot help but spill over into the rest of her life
and turn her into someone she would rather not be - arch,
sarcastic, and bitter.
One of the underpinnings of the Jewish laws of lashon
hara (improper speech), I noted, is the interplay between
the way we speak about people and the way we view the
world. Learning to speak properly causes us to look at
others more favorably, and makes us less embittered, angry
After that conversation, I had another look at my
piece last week on the Birthright Israel program, and I
couldn't help noticing more than a trace of dyspepsia.
(Probably the effect of reading too many Ha'aretz
editorials with throwaway lines like "the haredim, who
contribute not one iota to society ...")
The folly of making the fight against intermarriage an
end in itself and not the by-product of a serious Jewish
education is a good and proper topic. Unless we can provide
our children with an answer as to why it is important that
the Jewish people continue to exist, we have nothing with
which to combat the tangible reality of the wonderful non-
Jew with whom they are in love.
Does it make sense for Irish-American parents to
insist that their children marry only those of pure
But did that have to be last week's topic when the
Birthright participants were in town? Why not start instead
by paying tribute to the remarkable generosity of Michael
Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman?
Our Sages describe generosity and concern for others
as defining characteristics of the Jewish people. So much
so that anyone lacking in those traits is suspected of not
being of Jewish descent.
Our philanthropists deserve homage, especially when
they devote their resources to Jewish continuity, however
defined, and not the local opera and ballet.
Steinhardt and Bronfman didn't ask me how they should
spend their money. Nor are they likely to do so in the near
future. True, if I were Midas, I would spend the money
differently - for example, on scholarships for thousands of
Jewish children whose parents would opt for a Jewish day
school education if they could afford it.
But it would not have hurt to note that I fervently
wish Birthright success, even according to its very minimal
standards of Jewish identity. If Birthright lowers the
intermarriage rate among the participants by even 5
percent, at a minimum there will be hundreds more Jewish
children in the next generation with whom there is at least
the potential for a dialogue about what it means to be
A FRIEND of mine taught a class to 80 Birthright
participants last week on the suffering of the righteous
and the prosperity of the wicked. Afterwards one student
told him he never knew that Judaism had anything to say
about the topic. Indeed, he never knew there was such a
thing as Jewish thought or philosophy. The student asked
for a reading list for future study. That class would not
have taken place in Acapulco or Vail.
Even if I have my doubts about the long-range impact
of Birthright, why share them with the participants? Why be
pessimistic about the potential of any Jew to change and
Those of us who not so many years ago sported long
hair or high Afros should be the last to be horrified by
the tattoos and body piercings of the next generation. We
know that our appearance then did not define us, so why
should we assume that theirs defines them?
The Jews I admire most are distinguished by their
ability to discern the pintele Yid (the Jewish spark) in
every Jew. At the Stolliner Rebbe's Friday night tisch in
Mea She'arim one can find a colorful array of Jews.
Hassidic dress is - to say the least - not de rigueur.
Shouldn't the rebbe be the model for me?
Of course, I was right that Israel is undergoing a
profound Jewish identity crisis of its own. Sarah Honig's
column last week on Christmas celebrations in her
daughter's school could have served as the proof text. Such
an Israel is increasingly incapable of serving as a source
of Jewish identity for others.
But that is the voice of logic. Short-term visitors
will see Israel through much more romantic spectacles. And
that is not a bad thing. Who should know that better than
I? If my parents had not been so intensely involved with
Israel, I doubt they would be living here today surrounded
by more than 30 children and grandchildren.
One of my closest friends - a hassid with a long black
coat, who is doing as much for Jewish identity as anyone in
Israel today - told me this week that instead of writing
sourpussed articles, I should have been at Ben-Gurion
Airport with a smiling face, carrying a "Welcome to Israel"
sign and passing out cakes.
He was right.
Related Topics: American Jewry & Continuity
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