The Gift of the Jews

Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, Rembrandt 1630

Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, Rembrandt 1630

Unwrapping the Gift of the Jews

What’s the gift of the Jews? It’s to live with God chronologically.

Is that all? Is that anything?

Well, I don’t know if it’s anything, but it’s the reasoning behind the Bible. Keep track of what happens, what you do about it and why, if it’s important to your soul and in your life. Never mind psychology. Never mind what mood you’re in. Keep the event, the purpose arising from the event, and the deed, lined up in their correct, before-and-after sequence. Don’t leave missing links or (to vary the metaphor) blank pages.

Know how you got here and why.

Where does God fit in? There’s supposed to be some kind of an agreement, contract or “covenant” with God in the Bible, is there not? Yes. God is your Witness. As in,

“Here is exactly what I said,


and suffered,

so far as I can recall,

as God is my Witness.”

The Bible is a remarkable, collective, collected record of those kinds of efforts: to live novelistically-dramatic but nonfiction lives, of which God is the Witness.   It’s not primarily a literary or mythopoeic phenomenon. Its poetry is powered by its real-life seriousness, not the other way around.

What should the world feel about those who defied their prudential instincts to preserve and transmit that record? Not a problem. That’s easy. Gratitude.  Not groveling gratitude. Not mythicized “thankfulness” (if anyone was so inclined). Just,

Hey guys, thanks.

What do we have instead? Yipes! I didn’t know they cared!

Joseph Puder is the Director of the Philadelphia Office of StandWithUs, a fine organization that helps American Jewish students defend themselves against the newest varieties of campus anti-semitism.. His weekly column has a broad international reach and this week it concerns Sweden. In Malmo, an Israeli Jewish teacher who has lived in Sweden with her Swedish husband for 39 years, was “fired last month for being Jewish. [She] claimed that her school principle warned her that the students ‘hate the Jews’ and added that she would be abused by both the Swedish and the Arab students. … A synagogue in central Stockholm had its windows boarded to hide the fact that it was a Jewish place of worship.” A mother of four was beaten severely “for wearing a … star of David necklace. … ‘I cannot go to the police. … They will know where to find me and know that I am the Jew who reported them.’” In Sweden, the governing political party, the Church of Sweden and the most popular tabloids all appear to be in synch with this hatred.

I used to joke that in my next life, I’m coming back Swedish. Not any more.

The widow of an Australian photographer/anthropologist friend sent me a few of the videos that my late friend had made, of aboriginal life in the Outback. In one episode, a mounted rancher was directing a herd of cattle. He was recorded talking on horseback in his own native, picturesque jargon. And what was he talking about? You guessed it. The Jewish conspiracy to ruin the world! In the blankety blank Outback! There isn’t a Jew for a thousand miles. Where’d he read that? In Charles Dickens?

Back here in sylvan Bucks County, the neighborhood Quaker-affiliated group has again taken up its defamatory placards in the town square, singling out Israel as The Only Immensely Powerful Obstacle to World Peace. Syria has murdered about 400,000 of its own people. ISIS is beheading, burning alive, gang-raping, crucifying – literally! that’s not a metaphor – Christians and Yazidis by the thousands and erasing the Christian presence in the Middle East. Hamas endorses the extermination of every last Jew on the planet in its thirteen-point charter. Undaunted and unflinching, our Local Lovers of Peace dedicate their energies to the defaming of the only Jewish state.

Last night, for one reason or another, I was feeling particularly destabilized by these and other phenomena of the same kind. Jerry and I had watched our late evening video to wind down and then we got ready for bed. These days my nighttime reading before lights out has been Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. I’m not reading it for the literary value. I’m interested in it as a record of the major types of thought that shaped Europe in the last years of the nineteenth century, before World War I brought us all our disillusioned modernity. The novel doesn’t seem to me so much a story about its hero, Hans Castorp, as a single-file procession of the ideas he encounters during his sojourn as a patient in the “magic mountain,” the alpine sanatorium where he is undergoing treatment for tuberculosis. The ideas are personified as characters in the novel. But they are not characters in the round. They are ideas with legs.

For that reason, I thought, whatever The Magic Mountain does or does not do, at least it won’t upset me. If I don’t want to read about tubercular lungs, I can skip that part.

But, whadd’ya know! One of the characters, one of the “ideas with legs,” turns out to be a Jew by birth, and the description of his Jewish antecedents gleams and glistens with anti-Jewish malice! Who knew the omniscient narrator, the great Thomas Mann, could dip so low? I switched off the light, deciding that it was better to lie there in the dark, before I was tired, than to read any more.

I like to be edifying, and leave the reader with a moral, so what’s the moral this time?

There is a Gift that The Jews give the world. I am not talking about good people or bad. There are both kinds of Jews. You can’t approach Jews uncritically or sentimentally. Some can disappoint very badly and I believe that some have done great harm by their misuse of their Gift. But it’s been my experience that some of the best souls in the world are Jews and, if you have a friend like that, you are fortunate indeed.

By the Gift, I am referring to the covenant that the Jews signed with God, to live historically. It is a sane and normal way to live. It is the salt of the earth. One wants the face of that covenant to show and to shine through.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to The Gift of the Jews

  1. Abigail says:

    Interesting, that she said that. The Jewish optic, through which Anne Frank saw the world, is not often emphasized. She just seems so “normal,” & that’s what’s emphasized. But it IS normal, to be Jewish! Jewish is normal. Thanks for the reminder, Brian.

  2. Brian Hennessy says:

    “Who has made us Jews different from all other people? Who has allowed us to suffer so terribly up until now? It is G-d who has made us as we are, but it will be God, too, who will raise us up again. Who knows it might even be our religion from which the world and all peoples learn good, and for that reason and only that reason do we suffer. We can never become just Netherlanders, or just English or representatives of any country for that matter. We will always remain Jews.”—From the diary of Anne Frank, April 11, 1944

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