It’s not an easy time to be Jewish, though there have been few moments in world history where it has been. A recent unscientific poll conducted in Europe found that 40 percent of European Jews hide their religion. The only thing surprising about that statistic is that it isn’t closer to 100%. The sour news out of Europe is never-ending: an arson of a synagogue in Belgium, a Swedish woman savagely beaten for wearing a Star of David, a deadly shooting outside of a Jewish school in France. The list, sadly, goes on, and on, and on.
Unfortunately for antisemites everywhere, Jews have a great deal to be proud of, and always have.
1. We’re wicked smart
Despite being just .2 percent of the world population, Jews have won 22 percent of the Nobel prizes awarded. From the 1920s until the late 1960s, Jewish students were either totally excluded or subject to quotas in Ivy League universities in the United States. Why? The schools had been admitting the best and brightest, and there were just too many Jews in attendance. Bloomberg reports on the Jewish quotas found in the United States,
Harvard, Yale and Princeton, up until the very early 1920s, had an exam-based system of admission. If you passed you were admitted. If you failed you were turned away. If you were in the gray zone, then they might admit you on conditions but basically, if you passed, regardless of your social background, you would be admitted. That was precisely why the system was judged to be no longer viable because too many of the wrong students, the “undesirable” students — that is, predominantly, Jewish students of East European background — started to pass the exams.
2. An entire language resurrected
At the founding of the state of Israel, Hebrew was just a language used in prayer. The language of the Jewish people was that of their home countries, as well as Yiddish. MyJewishLearning writes,
The reinstitution of Hebrew as a spoken language was almost miraculous. Hebrew had not been a spoken language for two millennia, and yet at the end of the 19th century, European Jews dreaming of a cultural renaissance in Palestine began to resurrect the language.
Eliezer ben Yehuda is considered the father of Modern Hebrew. He developed a vocabulary for Modern Hebrew, incorporating words from ancient and medieval Hebrew, in addition to creating new words. In 1922, Hebrew became one of the official languages of British Mandate Palestine, and today it is a modern language spoken by the citizens of Israel and Jews around the world.
3. Israel transformed
When the state of Israel was founded in 1948, it was far from the technology capital of the world that it has become. Tel Aviv, a bustling metropolis, was a small town. Malarial swamps dominated the north of the country, and in the south, the desert was barren. Anti-Israel activists have found it impossible to avoid using Israeli technology, and one group was even caught using an Israeli company (Wix) to build their anti-Israel website.
Farmers in the Negev desert (the above image portrays some of these pioneers) have turned a wasteland into a project that agriculturists worldwide look to replicate. Israel21c explains the incredible gains made by these desert farmers,
“We produce 25 tons per quarter acre, while the average in the world is seven.” At the Ramat Hanegev research station jointly owned and operated by the area farmers, rows of olive and pomegranate trees, sweet cherry tomatoes, green peppers and eggplant thrive on aquifers of salty (brackish) water discovered underground 17 years ago.
4. We’re a family
One of the most beautiful things about being Jewish is how we come together in times of great joy — and great sorrow. Just this week in one day I cooked a meal for a family in mourning as well as for a family with a new baby at home. At all of my synagogues I’ve ever attended a weekly email is sent around with news from our community, which includes the opportunity to join a “meal train,” where members of the community offer a family in need meals.
In Israel, this familial atmosphere plays itself out every day. Women ask strangers to hold their babies on buses while they fish for change for fares, search parties for three missing teens formed in hours, and funerals for fallen soldiers without Israeli families numbered in the tens of thousands.
The video above is from the funeral of Max Steinberg, an American soldier who was killed in action in Gaza during the last war. When word went out among Israelis that the friends and family of this “lone soldier” without any Israeli family were worried his funeral would be poorly attended, over 30,000 of his brothers and sisters gathered to wish Max farewell.
5. Jewish creative minds dominate Hollywood
All you have to do to know just how ubiquitous Jewish influence is for American popular culture is listen to Adam Sandler’s “Hanukkah Song.” Sandler lists dozens of famous Jews in music and movies in an attempt to soothe those who feel left out of the Christmas hullabaloo.
Since the song was released two of Hollywood’s biggest stars have been quite outspoken about their support for Israel and Israeli businesses. Scarlett Johansson vigorously defended her advertisement for SodaStream, an Israeli company which employs Palestinians in the West Bank. Confronted by Oxfam about her sponsorship of the company, Johannson decided to step down from her role at the charity. Natalie Portman, born Natalie Hershlag, was a research assistant for one of Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz’s books defending Israel.
6. Charity knows no bounds
One amazing part about being a member of the Jewish community is the existence of “gemachs,” which are sort of like lending libraries for any item imaginable. Community members are responsible for different kinds of gemachs, which function thanks to donations. A bride interested in a used wedding dress can visit a dress gemach (like the one above, in Brooklyn); new parents borrow toys, books and clothes from a baby gemach; and those in financial distress can take out an interest-free loan from an individual or the charitable organization.
Many Jewish holidays have the same central theme: “They tried to kill us all, but they didn’t, let’s eat!” The seudah, or festive meal, is a component of the observance of many holidays. The Jewish contributions to the greater culinary world are vast, and most holidays have their own iconic food. Passover has matzah, Rosh HaShanah has apples and honey, Shabbat has challah, Shavuot has cheesecake, and Hanukkah has donuts and latkes. Being Jewish might not be good for your waistline, but it is good for your palate. The above image comes from a matching game where players guess which foods match which holidays.
Photo courtesy of Becky Katz, an awesome Jew and human being
8. Donating spirit on hyperdrive
I mentioned previously that Jews are a charitable bunch of people. There’s some charity, though, that goes above and beyond what I’ve heard of in any other community. In most Orthodox communities, listservs exist to exchange information and to barter, buy and sell items. There are some notices, though, that break up the monotony of posts that usually consist of “Does anyone know a reliable contractor in the community?” These messages implore those reading to consider donating a kidney or part of a liver to a fellow Jew in medical distress. While these posts are somewhat frequent, many must wonder “does anyone actually do this?” And the answer, surprisingly, is yes. Fellow Jews donate their kidneys to total strangers, to friends they have shared a few dozen Sabbath meals with in the past.
An organization called Renewal facilitates these donations. Chabad.org writes about the role it plays to connect Jews with donors:
Renewal, which sees patients from the United States, Canada, Israel and a handful of other countries, began five years ago and has been involved in more than 115 transplants to date. It focuses on helping people who need kidneys find donors, as well as spreading knowledge in the community about live organ donation.
The organization helps donors financially with loss of wages and any expenses they have due to the donation, sends them to convalesce after the surgery, and supports them through the preparation, process and recovery. It is funded by donations from the community and works closely with hospitals.
Incredibly enough, I have a good friend from the Washington, D.C., area that answered the call. It was well-known that a member of her community was in dire need of a kidney. Being an incredible, generous human being, she selflessly volunteered not only her organ, but also her time and her comfort, to save the life of a man who was just a friend, but who was a member of the community and a beloved husband. Three cheers to my friend Becky (pictured, because she should get so many kudos), and all Jews who give of themselves in this incredible way!
9. Jewish inventors have shaped the world
Without Jews, the world would be a very different place. The Boulder Jewish News put together an informal list of Jewish inventions several years ago, and they are wide-ranging and quite surprising in their impact on human history. Here’s a sampling:
REALLY PRACTICAL INVENTIONS: Jeans, Lipstick, the Ballpoint Pen, Contraceptives, Instant Coffee, Television Remote Control, Traffic Lights, Scotchguard, the Flexistraw.
REALLY BIG INVENTIONS: The Atomic Bomb, the Thermonuclear Bomb, God, Genetic Engineering, the Nuclear Chain Reactor, Virtual Reality.
I FEEL BETTER ALREADY: Prozac, Valium, The Polio Vaccine, Radiation, Chemotherapy, the Artificial Kidney Dialysis machine, the Defibrillator, the Cardiac Pacemaker, Vaccination against the deadly “Hepatitis B” virus, the Vaccinating Needle, Laser Technology
10. An emphasis on learning
There’s a reason why Jews are “wicked smart” as I mentioned previously. Throughout Jewish history, there is a tradition of learning and critical thinking that has shaped how the Jewish people think and argue (there’s a reason why so many Jews become lawyers). When someone dies or is ill, some families request that members of the community learn tractates of Jewish texts in their memory or honor. During the last war in Israel students of Jewish law studying in Jewish schools (called yeshivas or yeshivot) focused their spiritual energies on a safe and successful outcome for the Jewish state (the video above is some of those students learning).
Community resources, like gemachs, help members of the community stay in kollel (a full-time institute for study) or yeshiva while supporting their families. Scholarship programs are funded by fellow Jews who wish to advance the personal growth and knowledge of their fellow Jew. At supermarkets, anonymous donors give a little extra on top of their bill to offset the cost of groceries for students learning in kollel or yeshiva. While it’s not easy for the large families that many of these students have to stay afloat on one salary, somehow everyone seems to make it work with help from their fellow Jews.