Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Mazel tov to Maitri on her measured, thoughtful appearance in this article in the Washington Post. The blogpocheh is getting more and more recognition out in the wide, wide world these days, and it's good to see and hear.

What the WaPo article got me thinking about, though, is that age-old question us Jewish folks have in the backs of our heads whenever any of our numbers have ventured out into the public sphere: insert political office/acting job/media position/celeb status here and ask "is this good for (insert your religion/race/creed/generation/gender/sexual orientation)?

from Arthur Szyk's Haggadah: The Four Sons

It's a tad early in the Jewish calendar for this story, but as part of the seder service on Passover, time is taken out of the retelling of how we all hauled our enslaved butts out of Egypt with help from God and Moses to talk about the four sons - one who is wise, one who is wicked, one who is simple, and one who doesn't yet know how to ask a question. Each one asks a question about Passover (except for the last one), and the father of the sons is advised on how to answer each son.

There have been discussions since time immemorial about the meaning of this part of the Haggadah. They run the gamut from why it is even in there to who or what each son represents. What Arthur Szyk's illumination does is put out there yet another interpretation of the parable, circa 1939.

Read as Hebrew is, from right to left starting in the upper right hand corner, the wise man is a yeshiva bucher, a student of Torah and a possible rabbinical candidate. The wicked man is a fully assimilated Jew who has tossed off the clothes and the attitudes of the shtetl Jew. The simple man is chubby and open, and the undecided man is at a crossroads, neither here nor there in his clothes or his thoughts. At a time when the Nuremberg Laws were closing around Germany's Jewish population with an iron fist and the eastern European and Soviet Jews weren't much better off, Szyk's version of the four sons parable is a cry for Jews to take pride in their Judaism.

Keep Szyk's men in mind when you contemplate this: A wicked son - what does he say? "What mean ye by this service?" He infers "ye", not himself. By shutting himself off from the general body, it is as though he denies the existence of God. Therefore thou shouldst distress him too, replying: "This is done because of that which the Lord did unto me when I came forth out of Egypt" - unto me, not him; for if he had been there he would not have been delivered.*

Ouch. I don't care who you are, that's gotta hurt. And anyone who takes it upon him/herself to cast off his/her heritage has to know that this kind of pain is part of the deal. In the 1930's, Szyk presciently saw assimilation as an issue of life and death for the Jews, and he chose to work against it, immigrating to England and lending his artistic talents to supporting the Allied war effort and the struggle for Israel's independence.

This still happens with so many people in this world. It can be so much easier to go along in order to get along. Being true to where you come from is the hard part.

Of course, this can also cause problems if one goes the "my people, right or wrong" path. It's a different kind of myopia that can blind one to what is really there. It can also close off any hope for compromise, any empathy. Which helps answer another important question about the four sons parable: why is that wicked son even there? Why allow such a guy to sit at your table and be so insolent?

It might just be so that we who have invited the schmo to the table can keep our minds open. We might all learn something from contact with each other. And, who knows , the benefits might outweigh the drawbacks, or the whole experiment might well prove to be a disaster, but we have at least got to try.

Jindal is at Louisiana's table now. The debate concerning how good he is for the Indian-American population will most likely become more heated as time passes, but what would be worse would be no debate at all over the subject. Ultimately, the people that argue together have a better chance of staying together.

*translation courtesy of the Szyk Haggadah


Maitri said...

Being true to where you come from is the hard part

Aaah, there's the rub. Where do you come from and to what is your primary allegiance? I look Indian, but have lived outside India for all of my life. Then again, what is American? Is there a formula for that?

We have to make sure that our ethnic allegiances don't cloud our social judgments. Also, don't just support the candidate who looks and talks like you, hold him accountable and responsible when he fails.

Leigh C. said...

"We have to make sure that our ethnic allegiances don't cloud our social judgments. Also, don't just support the candidate who looks and talks like you, hold him accountable and responsible when he fails."

Well, exactly. That should be the norm now, and, among people with intelligence who can think critically about this stuff and are not afraid of questioning a person and holding him/her accountable, it is the norm.

The American "type" was, and in many ways still is, very WASP. Lily-white preferences and prejudices against the "Other" have gone underground, being "coded" in different language or denied in such a way as to be tougher for others to call the offenders on it.
Keeping the debate alive and pinning down the weasels who would keep everybody in their places if they could can only, ultimately, be a good thing.