Some time ago, I came across the Twitter feed of a prominent American Jewish writer in which I noticed several disparaging remarks about ultra-Orthodox Jews, with liberal use of words like “parasites,” “psycho Haredim” and other choice denigrations.
On the wall of the administrator’s office at my Hasidic elementary school in Brooklyn’s Boro Park in the 1980s hung a curious sheet of paper with an English-language quotation, incongruous against a wall of Yiddish and Hebrew notices and talmudic citations. The sheet was an enlarged photocopy of comments written by Mark Twain. “The Jew,” Twain wrote, exhibits “no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew.”
‘They say you’re smart,” my friend Chavi emailed me a couple weeks ago, “ “so solve my problem, please.” I wanted to hear more about the unnamed “they” — we could be friends, I was sure — but Chavi’s dilemma was pressing.
Just when I thought I was ridding myself of my past, it rushed back at me with a single phone call. It was late evening during the fall of 2012. I had been out of the Hasidic world for five years, now living in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and was making progress with forgetting, moving on. Then the call came.
Several years ago, some friends and I gathered for a “holiday season party” in the days between Hanukkah and Christmas. We ate latkes. We drank eggnog. And we talked about the Maccabees. Around the table went a debate, about the Maccabees and the Hellenists in the battle for cultural supremacy in ancient Judea.
I expressed some sympathy for the Maccabees, and declared Antiochus Epiphanes to have been no saint.