Their usual haunt is Times Square but this time the threatening
threesome had set up shop – a makeshift stage and an impressive speaker
system – near the Staten Island Ferry terminal in Manhattan, where I
embark on my commute home each day. I was surprised to see that my old
acquaintances hadn’t changed at all since the last time I had come
across them a few years ago in midtown.
The master of ceremonies, as then, was loudly inveighing against people
of non-color. He was flanked by his two assistants dressed like he was,
in colorful caps and robes adorned with Jewish symbols. Together, they
angrily denounced Caucasians – with particular malice for “so-called
Jews.” Occasionally, the lead man would nudge one of his helpers who
had missed a cue to read from the bible he held in his hand. The addled
assistant, once (or several times) so reminded, would then find the
place in his own book and, pointing with his finger, read a
pre-designated verse, stiltedly but with enthusiasm.
Next to the stage was a large display board, inscribed with the names of
the twelve tribes of Israel. Opposite each was a novel identification:
one of twelve African or Caribbean nationalities. Their citizens, the
MC announced loudly, were the “real Jews.”
When I first saw the performance a few years ago, my immediate reaction
was amusement. But then I experienced something like pity for the
triumphalist trio and their fans. How tragic, I thought, that beings
created in the image of G-d, capable of truly meaningful
accomplishments, can imagine themselves worthy of dignity only by
belittling others, even stooping to adopt an identity not their own.
There would be no point, I realized, in engaging the pitiable prophets
in conversation. Their beliefs were fueled by fantasy, not fact,
impervious to reason. But I indulged all the same in a little
fantasizing myself, imagining what I would tell them if only I might
find some crack in the wall of their whimsy.
The revelation would no doubt disappoint them, but I would share with
them a secret: Jewish chosenness isn’t a trophy, a bed of laurels on
which to proudly rest. It doesn’t mean having made it – or, for that
matter, having anything at all.
In the Jewish view of things, being chosen is less a badge than a
charge. Yes, religious Jews do indeed consider our forefathers’ and
foremothers’ merit as extending throughout the generations to encompass
their descendants. But the bottom line of being chosen is that it is
not a reward for any achievement – certainly not any of our own – but an
obligation to achieve.
In fact, I would tell them, if they were still listening, that the
special status we Jews possess – unlike the supremacy preached by
racists of whatever hue – is in fact available to anyone who both
recognizes what “chosen” truly means and is sincerely and utterly
willing to join the Jewish people and its mission. Many are the
biological ethnicities represented in the Jewish people – today as
throughout the millennia. One can indeed choose to be chosen.
But the tickets of admission to the Jewish People are sincerity and
commitment, not placards and loudspeakers. It’s easy to strut about and
shout, to brandish skullcaps and Stars of David. Undertaking the
endeavor of Judaism – humbly assuming the yoke of the Torah’s
commandments and Jewish observance – is in a different realm entirely.
Then, though, something else dawned. The rabbis of the Talmud exhort us
to “learn from every man.” Might there be something to be learned from
the fearsome threesome? Of course there is. For they are remarkable,
if unintentional, testimony to how coveted the name “Jew” is, even at a
time (have there been others?) when the real “real Jews” are hated by so
many. The Times Square trio may have no clue about what being a Jew
really means, but their desire to assume the mantle is still striking
and worth pondering.
What it should teach us born or properly converted Jews is just how
special we in fact are, how desired is our very identity. And what it
should inspire us to do is more seriously set ourselves to the holy
mission of being what Jews are meant to be.