Among Strangers

Nov 25, 2004

This article originally appeared in Tradition 28, 1994. Reprinted here with permission.

To the Editor:

The Editor’s Notebook has used everyday observations to draw conclusions about life among Orthodox Jews. In that spirit, I share with the readers of Tradition some experiences I have had since becoming such a Jew myself. The occasion of the following anecdote was Passover last year. I was sitting at the seder table of a family on New York’s Upper West Side, next to another guest, a man in his mid thirties. He wore a black hat and, reading out loud the annotations from a Lubavitch Haggada, this gentleman would quote every few minutes from the lubavitcher rebbe–“shliita,” he carefully added each time. In between, he made “schwartze” jokes.

Each joke was a little more witless than the one before, with the progression culminating in this: “So I’m walking down the street the other day,” the man announced shortly after the afikoman had been found under a couch. “And there’s this schwartze passed out on a pile of garbage”: A pause here for comic effect. “And I said to myself ‘What a waste. Someone’s thrown out a perfectly good schwartze!'” He then looked around the table triumphantly, as if expecting applause.

Now Passover, of course, is the festival when a Jew is required to imagine that he himself-not merely an obscure ancestor-was a slave in Egypt. This yearly appeal to collective memory seeks to remind us, as we are told in Exodus, that “you know the heart of a stranger, seeing that you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” For halakhic purposes, we may take the term “ger,” or “stranger,” to mean a convert to Judaism. But in Egypt we were strangers, wretched and despised, in a more general sense. So, I wonder, why is it that one meets Orthodox Jews, of all Jews, who can muster only the shallowest sympathy for the heart of those dark-skinned strangers in our own midst?

It is possible that my political affiliation sets some men and women at ease, encouraging them to voice their least attractive opinions. On being introduced to people in synagogues and at Shabbat and Yom Tov tables, I am invariably asked what I do for a living. I say that I work for National Review, which is the conservative opinion magazine owned by William F. Buckley Jr. “So,” goes the next question, “you’re a conservative?” Some polite conversation follows. And then, not infrequently, my new acquaintance will proceed to drop remarks about “schwartzes”– pronounced, by the sort of person who use words like this, in the same tone of contempt as when pronouncing “guuy”, the Yiddish appropriation of the more neutral Hebrew “goy”. I am expected to join in the smirking, given that after all I am a conservative.

And so after telling the joke I mention above, the humorist at that seder turned to me, grinning wryly. “You’re not offended, are you?” he asked. “I thought you were a conservative.”

I had been waiting for this question. I had intended to adopt a look of pain-stricken dignity and tell him that there is a difference, sir, between a conservative and a bigot or something like that. But I lost my nerve, as I have before when the subject of “schwartzes” came up, and probably will the next time I’m given the opportunity. Instead I offered him a polite smile, and he turned away. Ah, the joy of Yiddish. While formidably expressive, the mother tongue of Eastern European Jews is not a beautiful language; and even among its ugliest words, the noun “schwartze” stands out for distastefulness. In part this is because one hears it so often in observant circles. Indeed, while many things have surprised me about the Orthodox world, nothing has surprised me more than the unapologetic bigotry of more than a few Orthodox Jews. At a Shabbat table recently a black-hatted man discussed which kosher establishments on the Upper West Side did and did not meet his standards. He then joked that in the 1960s he had been politically very liberal. “Yeah, I was almost a freedom rider,” he said, “but I couldn’t stand it to sit next to a schwartze on the bus. It would make me nauseous.”

A woman at the opposite end of the table found that this accorded with her experience and added that, in her opinion, blacks have an identifiable odor. “I don’t know what it is,” she told us. “I just find it offensive.” Another Friday night, a pretty young woman put it to me frankly. “I just hate Puerto Ricans.. period,” she said. Puerto Ricans.. you see, are honorary schwartzes.

As are the Arabs. One Shabbat morning at a wealthy Manhattan synagogue, the rabbi noted in his sermon that a West Bank settler was to be tried in Israel for killing a Palestinian. After stabbing a Jew, not fatally, the Palestinian had been disarmed and tied up. A settler had then walked up to the prisoner and shot him to death. As we walked out of the sanctuary, an acquaintance of mine argued that, under such arcumstances and if they could get away with it, Jewish settlers were right to execute Palestinians. “Violence. That’s all the Arabs understand,” he said. “When in China, do like the Chinese.”

Put aside the question of what happens to a Jewish state when its citizens, in particular those citizens identified as among its most strictly observant, begin behaving like their Arab rivals. (Does Israel become, in effect, an Arab state?) I don’t mean to make an issue of bigotry among the Israelis. The Jews of Israel are, after all, surrounded by enemy states. To live in Israel has become nearly as frightening as to live in Washington, D.C. Resentment must be expected. Does the same go for Americans? A rabbi of the Talmud declared, “Kill the best of the gentiles! Crush the heads of the best of the snakes!” But Simeon ben Yohai had seen Rabbi Akiva burned alive by the soldiers of the Emperor Hadrian. He had a reason to curse. In 1994, we American Jews, I would say, do not.

I make this claim notwithstanding the view of a prominent Lubavitch rabbi, Schmuel Butman, who at a synagogue meeting I attended compared present day New York to Berlin and Warsaw in the years preceding the Holocaust. Nazis in New York? Perhaps you will agree that the ludicrousness of the idea need not be asserted. Still, a resident of Crown Heights, like an Israeli, may in part be excused for expressing extreme opinions about his gentile neighbors. Context counts, and the Lubavitchers have had it harder than the rest of us. However, the bigotry I’ve heard comes not from Brooklyn, but from Jews living in the far less threatening borough of Manhattan. I’ve heard it elsewhere too–for example in Washington, where I lived until a couple of years ago–though with much less frequency.

Such bigotry flourishes unmolested despite the obvious truth that American Jews enjoy a state of ease and convenience of a type our forefathers, through centuries of exile, never experienced. Our great-great-grandparents would be astonished at the way the surrounding society pets and caresses us, stepping gingerly around our delicate feelings on a diversity of subjects. At Passover in New York, the Republican mayoral candidate, Rudolph Giuliani, traveled from synagogue to synagogue making saccharin speeches about “this great night for the Jewish people.” It should be a comfort that the absolute worst we have seen is the riot in Crown Heights–a disturbance that has been termed a “pogrom,” if an exceedingly minor one by authentic pogrom standards, even a “massacre” (a “massacre” of one person) in a synagogue bulletin I received. In politics and on the street, we have rarely if ever been less threatened. Unlike the Israelis, we have no excuse.

I have made this point in conversations with other Jews, and have heard in reply that every religious group has its bigots, there are rotten apples in every basket, and so on. That’s true enough. But what is most striking about the nasty remarks from ostensibly religious Jews is not really the words themselves. What’s striking is the assumption that saying such things, in front of total strangers, requires the speaker neither to apologize afterward nor even to look vaguely sheepish. Orthodox bigots express themselves without the concern that anyone present will disagree enough to take offense.

One needn’t even be in a private home. At a shul in Midtown Manhattan, I have heard astonishing comments about “schwartzes”, comments pronounced in a small room loudly enough for all strangers to hear, while we waited for minha to begin. The kindly old rabbi looked passively on. During Hanuka, the same group of middle-aged men exited the shul after ma’ariv growling humorously, “Kill ’em! Kill ’em all!” This was a joke: they referred to the Greek soldiers who are the villains of Hanuka. Or did they? Listening to these men whose sense of humor I know too well, I wondered if long-dead Greeks stood in place of some other, contemporary “goyim”.

Among such Orthodox Jews there is an assumption of bigotry among all Orthodox Jews. However inaccurate, that assumption is plausible to some, and that should worry us more than the mere fact that a minority of Jews tell ugly jokes. The man at our seder with the Lubavitch Haggada was not, by the way, a Lubavitcher. He is a successful Manhattan lawyer, a man who, it was made known at one point, wears only Hermes ties. He lives on the Upper West Side. If ever it was possible for people like him–like us–to appreciate the misery of certain groups of gentiles and be struck into sobriety, one would think it should be here and now. That observant Jews can grin without shame at the expense of the “schwartzes” makes a bad joke of the eternal lessons of Passover.

Literary Editor
National Review
New York City