The Return of the Prodigal Son
A reluctant Jew finally sees the light.
September 25, 2011 - 12:19 am
I grew up in a Jewish anti-Jewish household dominated by my father who never once attended synagogue and refused to associate with any of the Jewish inhabitants of the town we lived in. My father hated Jews with a passion — although I should mention that he hated just about everybody with a passion. Jews, however, for reasons I could never fathom, received an extra share of his animadversion. Perhaps this was because, despite his overweening selfishness and high self-esteem, he also detested himself and simply acted out the venerable cliché, going through the motions of classic psychological projection. He was not a lovable man. But whatever the deep interior motive at work in his lava-spewing psyche, I was taught to regard my fellow Jews with unwavering suspicion. My father was not a leftist, so there was nothing “red diaperish” about my early education. I learned only that Jews of any stripe — left or right, observant or secular — were to be avoided.
But even without such indoctrination, I was ripe for apostasy. I naturally disliked Jewish cooking. The sound of Yiddish was like gristle in my ears. The complacent and self-important worshippers I mingled with during my occasional visits to the synagogue left me cold. With only a few exceptions, I could not tolerate my Jewish relatives. I lived in fear of my uncle Snetzi, who would suddenly rush into the house and fling himself under a bed, whimpering, “They’re after me, they’re after me.” My uncle Aby was a good-natured philanderer who never had a serious thought in his life. Eventually he suffered an aneurism and spent his days shambling aimlessly about the streets, grinning inanely. My auntie Rosie, during her occasional descents upon our hospitality, would install herself in the bathroom and spend long, devoted hours rinsing out her lingerie, over and over again, like a working-class Lady Macbeth fascinated by invisible spots. My auntie Ida was partial to oily slabs of carp wrapped in greasy newspapers, which she would serve up at indigestible dinners. What had I to do with these people, I used to wonder. I was a Jew and yet I wasn’t.
The circumcision rite had to be performed on the sly, thanks to the fortunate collusion between my mother and the mohel conspiring behind my father’s back. I was given Hebrew lessons as a child during one of those rare periods when my father accommodated my mother’s wishes. Regrettably, this interval lasted only a short while — though long enough for me to pick up the rudiments. But I never had a Bar Mitzvah. Instead of attending Hebrew School to simulate what passed for correct pronunciation and learn my prayers (for the most part, phonetically), a chore my mother insisted upon despite my father’s glowering disapproval — this was the only other concession he ever made to her — I would stop off to play hockey with my schoolmates on my way to the synagogue. After several months of such enjoyable truancy, the rabbi belatedly telephoned my mother to inquire as to my whereabouts, but by then it was far too late to catch up. My mother was mortified and my father was euphoric. I continued to play hockey and though I’d devolved into a bad Jew, I evolved into a pretty good goaltender.
Later on during my university days and for many years thereafter, I grew somewhat more sophisticated in my anti-Jewishness, adopting the political positions favored by the anti-Zionists. I was perfectly aware that for many of the people I knew, anti-Zionism was merely an expedient substitution for antisemitism, but I persisted nevertheless. My father had died but I carried on the family tradition, or at least his side of it.
I was in sync with Hannah Arendt’s supercilious disdain of the Ostjuden (Eastern European Jews) whom she regarded as lower-class banausics. Had the BDS scandal, or the Apartheid Week orgies, or the “peace” NGOs existed then, I would probably have participated in their malignant festivities. I was so fervently pro-Palestinian that my mother disinherited me. I would not have thought to question the pseudo-history of an indigenous Palestinian people who formed a long-established nation, a microbial fable and, in the words of Middle East scholar David Meir-Levi, a “pernicious tradition to which more and more of our mainstream media and academia fall prey.” And I would have approved Benny Morris’ revisionist libel of Zionism in Righteous Victims as a “colonizing and expansionist ideology,” rather than affirmed it for what it really was and is, a legitimate, historical movement to reclaim, re-establish, and perpetuate the allodial legacy of the Jewish people in the land of their fathers, as I do now. I might even have worn a keffiyeh rather than a kippa. It would have been “the thing to do” and would have confirmed me in my recidivism, aside from allowing me to remain in good standing with the antisemitic aristocracy of the like-minded. I was certainly no paragon of sechel, the partly untranslatable Yiddish word — Saul Bellow’s favorite — usually rendered as “smarts.”
The shock to my system and to my congenial beliefs came with 9/11, which represented my personal crossing of the Red Sea from the captivity of unreflected notions and crude prejudice to the freedom of real, independent thinking and impartial research. I was at that historic moment trapped on a small Greek island with no way of leaving since all maritime transportation had been suspended. I gradually understood this situation as an allegory of my own prior state of mind, snared in an insular delusion without the intellectual means of deliverance or extrication.
For the next several weeks, stunned by the images I had seen on the television screen in the village café, I submitted myself to a relentless analysis of the values and convictions I had accepted as gospel. How solidly grounded in authentic knowledge were the political convictions I habitually expressed? What were the sources of my attitudes, ideas, and judgments? Why was I almost instinctively anti-Israeli in my sentiments? Why did I wish to reject my kinship with Jewish thought, Jewish communion, Jewish antiquity? Why did I march in my thoughts with the Palestinians, the anti-globalists, the welfare socialists, the Peace Now movement? Was I somehow complicit with the demonic forces that wished to bring down America and destroy Israel, that worked against my own survival and the survival of those I loved? Did I really want to become like my father? Could I be so easily brainwashed? What the hell was wrong with me?
They were not Jews who brought down the Twin Towers, but the very people I and my cohort had empathized with. These were the people responsible for the Munich massacre, for myriad airplane hijackings, for suicide bombings, for random acts of terrorism, for the slaughter of innocents, which we had risibly explained away as legitimate acts of “resistance” against the “Zionist entity” and the American hegemon, as expressions of the quest for freedom and justice. In the wake of the 9/11 cataclysm, such frivolous justifications would no longer hold up to scrutiny. New York had been the current target. The next might be Montreal where I lived, or London, or Paris, or Tel Aviv.
I came to the conclusion that I had felt and acted out of mere rote behavior and fortuitous conjecture, out of an unexamined desire to think in accordance with the inferences and presuppositions of my friends and colleagues, my intellectual contemporaries, who were all either members of the international Left or, at any rate, exhibited leftist inclinations. We had embraced the multicultural pieties of the era, were duly anti-colonialist, anti-corporatist, anti-American, and obviously anti-Zionist.
Many of these social paladins and millennial protagonists bivouac’d comfortably in university departments, upscale condos, and tony suburban neighborhoods. Their Molotov cocktails were the proverbial lattes over which they would discuss their resonating ideals, plan politically biased academic courses, deplore Islamophobia (even before the factoid), raise consciousness of the plight of the Palestinians and the machinations of the Israelis, and in effect conspire against the very democratic institutions and cultural norms that provided them with the sinecures they blithely took for granted. To my everlasting shame, though I did not go to the same lengths, I hobnobbed with professors in the English Department who would teach their courses from the standpoint of an irreal utopianism, believing in the freedom and autonomy of the aesthetic as a prototype of human possibility in a harmonious and compassionate world. This meant a collectivist future without America and certainly without Israel. They had no difficulty surrendering their intellects to such puerile and noxious fantasies. And they had no idea that they were eventually in for a very bumpy ride that would send their double-doubles all over the upholstery.