My mother, a schoolgirl, leaning on the shoulder of her teacher.
My mother, a schoolgirl, leaning on the shoulder of her teacher.

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.

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.
This entry was posted in Absolute freedom and terror, Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, Art, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, bad faith, beauty, Bible, Biblical God, bigotry, book reviews, books, Childhood, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Female Power, Femininity, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Gnosticism, Guilt and Innocence, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immorality, Immortality, Institutional Power, Jews, Judaism, Law, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Martyrdom, Masculinity, master/slave relation, Memoir, memory, Mind Control, Modern Women, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, Mortality, motherhood, nineteenth-century, Ontology, Oppression, Past and Future, Philosophy, Political, Political Movements, politics, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Race, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Romance, Romantic Love, secular, self-deception, Sex Appeal, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, status of women, Suffering, Terror, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Theology, Time, twentieth century, twenty-first century, victimhood, victims, Violence, War, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ancestors

  1. Abigail says:

    It IS the best available psychological guide. At present, in my Reform Temple, we are going through Genesis. They’ll never put it on the Hallmark Channel. It’s gritty Family Realism. In the Beginning was Sibling Rivalry. Instead of Mom’s preferences, you have God’s. But I think that’s realism too, in an odd sort of way.

  2. Virginia Witmer says:

    I had forgotten the rhyme.
    After reading Polish history I concluded that I must be part Jewish as my mother had always accused my father of being. As an ex-Episcopalian (or is it once a, always a, as in teacher), I knew the Old Testament well and learned to admire the document as the best available psychological guide for humans.
    My relationship to the crusades: dissertation about a trouvère who arrived at the eastern border of France having given the king his required forty days of service, went back to his lady instead of continuing, enhanced my appreciation of the wisdom of Jewish scholars. I had a whole college course on the Song of Songs.

Leave a Reply