After Paris, Shifting the Focus


Talking to our children about horrors of our history – persecutions, pogroms and, of course, the Holocaust – has generally been a conversation about the past. Until now.

After the mass tragedy in Paris, it is harder to figure out how to explore the present-day hatred. How can we discuss anti-Semitism in a way that will not cause our children to resent their Judaism, to be afraid, or think that the world is a horrible place? We want our children to love their Judaism and to have a strong Jewish identity.

Just last year, a student asked me, “Why do they hate us so much?” Though not a new question, it is still not easily answered. That this hatred is an ancient one is cold comfort. That we Jews have experienced this animosity since before Christianity and Islam is no consolation. It is old, but it is as raw as ever.

Would it help our children to know that untangling the hatred is complicated and that theories abound? Does it matter? What difference does it make whether the enmity is an issue of being “the other,” or a product of contorted theological dogma, or perhaps a result of perceived financial prowess that has bred a potent jealousy?  Identifying with certainty the cause for the loathing of the Jew is doubtful and the conversation raises even more issues for students. 

What is done to us cannot become our identity. How others treat us cannot become our central script. I recall a request to speak at a public school in Pennsylvania. A teacher asked that I explain Judaism so that students would understand in advance of a Holocaust unit “why everyone hates the Jews so much.” My kishkes did not feel wonderful when I heard this, as if I need to defend or explain Judaism so that anti-Semitism could be understood. 

This hatred is not ours to deconstruct. If we allow our singular point of Jewish engagement to be the fight against anti-Semitism, we have surrendered the right of self-definition to those seeking our obliteration. We cannot become those who are attacked, those who are victimized, and those who are at risk. We need to shift the focus. 

I can’t help but get prickly when I sit at community events where the entire theme is ridding the world of Jewish hatred. I look around the room and wonder how many people here have been to a Shabbat table? Know the 24 books of the Tanach? Know what Midrash is? Have had the delight of authentic Jewish study? Can articulate why Jews and Judaism should exist?

If only Judaism as vibrant, joyous and potent with meaning was the epicenter of our dialogue. 

The Talmud teaches halacha Easav soneh et Yaacov – it is the law, Esau hates Jacob.   The message is that hatred is inevitable, and not in our control. So we must build secure facilities and guard against violence and certainly not be naïve about what is out there. We must not fall prey to the pitfalls of an optimism that leads to the gas chamber.

That said, the battle against anti-Semitism will not be the one that wins the war against the vanishing Jew. It is only an everyday living, breathing, authentic and relevant tradition that will continue to defy the foibles of the ages.

The need to alter the trope became clear to me after a Netflix winter-break marathon that included the 2013 film “Ida,” and the 1947 film “Gentleman’s Agreement.” A new film followed by a classic.

In “Ida,” set in 1962, a young novitiate nun has lived her whole life in a convent.  About to accept her vows, her true Jewish identity is revealed. Grappling with her discovery, she never explores what it means to be a Jew. What is Judaism? Why be Jewish? What was the Judaism of her parents and of the three million Polish Jews who were murdered? How did they live? What is their legacy?

It was hard to watch. I kept screaming from the depths of my soul – “find out, search, ask – do something to find out who you are!”

In “Gentleman’s Agreement,” Gregory Peck is a reporter posing as a Jew, exploring and uncovering ubiquitous anti-Semitism. Even his little boy is pressed into the ploy, getting picked on and roughed up at school. 

It’s remarkable. Anti Semitism is front and center and called out as wholly unacceptable. But nowhere, not in a single scene, is there a moment to explore what Judaism is and what Jewish life looks like. Jews are victims, people who are treated unfairly and who are different. Why not a single Jewish symbol, or a scene in a synagogue, at a Shabbat table, or in a school?

The absence is emblematic of an overwhelming emphasis on the negative – the anti-Semitism, the persecution, and the suffering. The negligible amount of airtime devoted to the joy, the meaningfulness and the richness of Jewish life is an indictment not just of these films, but also of our very own trope.

This is not new. This is a conversation that has been heard in the years when Holocaust education appeared to eclipse Jewish education and stories told to children were more of persecution than perseverance, and suffering over celebration.

The enemy cannot define us. They exist. They have done us harm. But they will not determine our future. That is for us.

We must put our collective strength in building a positive Jewish identity for our children. We must be proud of our Torah. We must be in love with our Shabbat.  We must embrace mitzvot with zeal. We must be committed to our People and our destiny. Devotion takes time and effort – and yes, sacrifices.  Shul over soccer.  School tuition over vacation. Friday night dinner over Friday night movies. 

Identity is essential to self-fulfillment. Making meaning is what we humans crave.  Ours is our Jewishness. We have contributed ideas of ethics and morals to the world:  love for the stranger and care for the downtrodden. 

Our perspicacity has given the world people of determination and talent. Our ideas of building a ladder to the sky, of drawing Heaven down to earth have inspired and ennobled generations past and will continue to do so into eternity.

Rivy Poupko Kletenik is Head of School at Seattle Hebrew Academy and is a recipient of The Covenant Award for excellence in Jewish education. She is a columnist for Seattle’s JT News and has been cited by the American Jewish Press Association for excellence in commentary.