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.”
The elderly administrator, Reb Aron, a Holocaust survivor whose office walls held that Twain quote, must have found this Southern gentile’s ode to the Jew so touching that he could not resist displaying it. Reb Aron, it so happens, also doubled as aspirin-bearer, which he would offer students for all ailments, from stomach aches to bee stings to itchy scalps, and I remember claiming a headache often, just for the chance to visit Reb Aron’s office, to read Mark Twain’s quote once again. They were unusually comforting, those words, as they dispelled a disquieting suspicion I had begun to feel: that our notions of specialness, of being unique among the nations, might just have been our own invention, and not very credible.
Like most religious Jews, and many nonreligious ones, I was raised to believe in Jewish exceptionalism. We were chosen. We were smart. We were, in the words of the rabbis, “compassionate, shy, and bestowers of kindness.” Not only did we have great scholars and saints, but even our hoi polloi were the best in the world. “Even the empty [among us] are filled with good deeds.”
This wasn’t some late rabbinic or folkloric invention, either; it went all the way back to biblical times. “A wise and understanding people, this great nation,” Moses tells the Israelites, which the rabbis, somewhat curiously, declare refers to our calendar-making skills, with our invention of syncing up the lunar and solar cycles by adding an extra month to the calendar every few years. And so we get this extra month of Adar we are now in — our wise and understanding people to be thanked.
Jewish chosenness, Jewish smarts, Jewish compassion, however, always struck me as dubious; I knew plenty of poor and foolish and cruel Jews. Did we just invent all this self-congratulatory talk to make ourselves feel good? I wondered.
But no, here was proof we did not: Mark Twain, a bona fide gentile as far as anyone knew, confirmed our specialness. Why would he say it if it weren’t true?
The matter would seem settled, except that over the years, the discomfiting suspicion would return, especially once I stepped out to explore the wider world, first for the practical necessity of supporting my family and later as a wonderer. When I got my first job as a computer programmer, at a company in midtown Manhattan, I began to wonder seriously about Jewish exceptionalism, and much of it had to do with my Jewish employer.
A kippah-wearing, ostensibly religious Jew, my boss was also cartoonishly vulgar and an obsessive micro-manager. He believed that Jews were unusually clever, which, he claimed, was the reason he himself was successful. He preferred, however, that his employees, Jewish or not, be docile order-followers. I, a 26-year-old Hasid with a wife and four children to support, tried to ingratiate myself by taking initiative and coming up with creative solutions to various problems.
““Don’t be such a f—king smart Jew!” he would shout with what seemed almost pathological hysteria. “ “Just do what you’re f—king told!” This, I would learn, was his favorite catchphrase: Don’t be such a f—king smart Jew.
His obscenity-laden speech and routine verbal abuse stunned me. Even more stunning were his disparaging remarks about his non-Jewish employees. “Goyishe kop,” he would mutter whenever his own vice president, a highly educated and accomplished non-Jewish woman, disagreed with him.
Of course, Jews behaving badly is hardly news, but as one of the few religious Jews in that office, I was deeply ashamed, in front of the two dozen other employees, at my boss’s behavior. Once, after a round of verbal abuse toward our office manager — a 70-year-old widow who not only managed payroll, kept the books and supervised the entire office, but also took care of our boss’s dry cleaning, packed his suitcases for his travels and knew exactly what he liked for lunch on which day — one of my non-Jewish co-workers approached me quietly and asked, “Isn’t there, like, a Jewish commandment, or something, to respect the elderly?”
What could I say, but that there were some Jews who behaved badly? “Jews are just people,” I told him. “Just like everyone else. There are good Jews and bad Jews. Smart Jews and dumb Jews. Rich Jews and poor.”
He nodded; it was reasonable enough, but I had to wonder. Jews are just people, just like everyone else, I had said, but weren’t we supposed to be exceptional? Weren’t we always claiming we were not like everyone else? So which was it?
I would hold this tension for a long time, wondering about the fact that we took so much pride in Jewish achievements and strengths but shrugged aside as aberrations those whose behaviors we found shameful. And I’d wonder: What right did we have to feel pride in our fellow Jews’ successes if we didn’t also own their failures?
Of course, one might point to the fickle nature of humans, and their contradictory and irrational beliefs, and move on with it. Perhaps, though, Jewish exceptionalism can be held on to with something of a reframing.
Oddly enough, it was our current presidential election season that got me thinking.
It isn’t every day that a Hasidic master is quoted on national TV, but just such a moment occurred when Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett of Temple Beth Abraham, in Nashua, New Hampshire, in a question he put to Hillary Clinton during a town hall meeting, cited a famous quote from Reb Bunim of Peshischa.
“We must all have two pockets,” Reb Bunim said. “One with a note that says, ‘The world was created for me.’ The other with a note that says, ‘I am but dust and ashes.’”
How, Spira-Savett asked, did candidate Clinton manage those two pockets? The question led to a revealing moment for Clinton, who offered a rare glimpse into her often-shielded inner world. To me, however, Reb Bunim’s saying hit a different note: Perhaps, I wondered, keeping two pockets was not just for individuals, but also for us as a people. How do we, as Jews, hold on to our collective pride, our collective ego, our belief that we are indeed exceptional, against the knowledge that too often we fall short of our ideals?
This, to me, is what Jewish exceptionalism is really about: We are not unique for what we are or what we have done, but for who we claim to be. Perhaps Jewish exceptionalism isn’t so much demonstrable as it is aspirational. And so we, too, as a people, need those two pockets: one for the pride we take in who we are and what we’ve achieved, and the other to remind us of how often we fall short.
If Twain were alive today, I’d go back and tell him how the world has changed. How we Jews have grown prosperous in most countries in which we live, and how half the world’s Jews now live in a Jewish state risen miraculously into a regional superpower. That’s the note in one pocket.
But I would also tell Twain that he was wrong: The Jew is mortal, if not in body then in spirit. With prosperity and strength come moral challenges we once could not predict. A Jewish state has risen miraculously while another people have been put to more than a half-century of degradation, with no end in sight.
Are we indeed a “wise and understanding people”? Are we “compassionate and bestowers of kindness”? I am no longer sure. Again, as in childhood, I wonder if we really know ourselves well enough. I wonder if we’re reading the notes in both our pockets.
Shulem Deen is the author of ‘All Who Go Do Not Return.”