How odd of God
To choose the Jews.
So goes the old rhyming joke, from I dunno who. Some Englishman perhaps.
But allow me to step in, on behalf of God, to explain why God did that. My explanation may count as an exercise in theodicy, the justification of the ways of God to humankind.
Put yourself in God’s sandals. The deity had already established a vast variety of relationships with our species, mediated by countless cultures. Prior to God’s call to Abraham, bonds with the divine could already be discovered in nature, in meditative practices, in chanting, rituals and extraordinary connections of countless kinds.
However, there remained one kind of divine-to-human relationship that God still needed to delineate, if a willing partner could be found. It’s the one between God and human beings in history: in the setting of real time and space, giving room for consequential actions affecting past, present and future. History includes not just the doing of deeds but the recording of them. And not only between people. God too leaves footprints in history. To keep the record of such interactions, the Creator needed the resources of an entire memory-ridden, write-it-down people, who would consent to do God’s bidding at least some of the time and – when they hadn’t – to record that too!
So there you have it. The Jews and their special assignment. For which they are hated — unnecessarily but quite predictably.
My first cousin died last Sunday. Though Nomi was my senior by some years, we occupied the same generational plane. Our mothers were sisters. We both remember our grandfather, who was once the chief rabbi of Odessa. There is a street in Jerusalem named after him and a neighborhood in Jerusalem named after Nomi’s father.
We met when I was still a child and she a young woman with tanned legs, vibrant black hair and overflowing youthful vitality. She was the first Sabra (native-born Israeli) I’d ever seen and I loved her on sight. I think the bond between us was instant and real, though life never gave us enough time together to figure it out. My recent trips to California for neuropathy treatments gave us a chance to meet in the final years, and to share with Jerry this life-spanning friendship.
Today I telephoned Orna, her daughter on the East coast, now back from the week of mourning in California. As our conversation lengthened, I decided to share with her some of the puzzle pieces of the family saga. I figured, for whom would I be saving them now – these precious secrets, this hidden epic? Her mother and I had known them, turning them over and back in our conversations of the last years. Now, “I only am escaped alone to tell thee” [Job 1:15-19].
The family saga shows a recurrent theme: when family figures in leadership roles come to the love-or-duty fork in the road, private preference submits to the demands of duty. They don’t marry their heart’s choice; they marry — or stay married — to the person with whom they can best carry out the role in which Jewish history has previously placed them. My mother was an exception: she did live her heart’s first choice, but others consequentially did not — and the personal costs are still detectable down each rung of the generational ladder.
I compare my own Jewish family epic with the two described in a recently recorded conversation between playwright Tom Stoppard, author of the much acclaimed “Leopoldstadt,” and Edmund de Waal, whose book, The Hare with Amber Eyes, was earlier reviewed here. Stoppard, born Tomáš Sträussler, left Europe in 1939 – an infant in the arms of his fleeing family. He was 56 years old before he found out he was Jewish. De Waal, his interlocutor, is only one quarter Jewish, though that fraction occupies a disproportionately large space in his mind.
Both writers had roots in Vienna, where their families had lived the precarious drama of assimilation, the effort “to continue as a Jew without insult.” At one point, the writers’ conversation turned to the Wittgensteins, who walked the same tightrope in Vienna, but believed that – with the insulation of great wealth and the family’s huge service to the state – they’d be exempt from the Nazi liquidation policy. One day, one of them (not the philosopher) “came into that home, pale with shock,” saying, “we count as Jews!” The chosen people bears this special insignia of their chosenness:
they can’t be above it.