Perfectionism as a personality trait may have many causes, but only Jews have their tribal history as justification. Rather than power, our neurotic aspiration is towards a semblance of perfection so that we will be endured, accepted, loved. Not by God, but my our neighbors. I myself am helpless against it.
Hatred of the Jews had been growing in German soil for long centuries before I came to be, a weed among weeds. Hitler came to power in 1933, when I was barely two, so it is not stretching the truth to say that I grew up knowing that Jews constituted an unacceptable segment of society. All around me there was evidence of the general opprobrium in which we were held: the overt antisemitism among teachers at school, the aversion of my company by certain children and whole neighboring families, the cautions that were early urged on me to protect my safety. Staying out of trouble therefore was more than a casual desire. There were people who could hurt me, I knew early on.
But why? Why was this so? Even as a small child, I had a great need to know. I asked a lot of questions to which I usually got satisfactory answers, but to this question I received none. My mother said she did not know; my father said he wished he knew, and I believed him – he was like me. Both my parents relied on hemming and hawing to satisfy my excessive curiosity and circumvent my difficult questions, in order to shield me from ugly truths and to protect themselves from making actionable statements against the government. The walls, everyone knew, had ears, and the actions taken by the government in such cases were severe.
As I grew older in this stifling atmosphere, I developed my own theories. Jews, I saw, were not perfect. I had observed my relatives and friends. Some were occasionally mean and nasty, some committed secret misdeeds, some were mistrustful of their leadership. Maybe it was our own shortcomings that caused our troubles. Maybe that dear God in Heaven was punishing us for our falling off the path. Maybe, maybe, if we strove to be better human beings, perhaps other people would like and respect us more. Unconsciously rather than determinedly, I set my childish self on a righteous path. I chose to act in such a way that no one could find reason to hate me. I worked hard. I followed orders. I did what I was told to do as I tried to make sense of the world.
One day last week, the New York Times featured on its front page an investigative article about two unscrupulous entrepreneurs who managed to be each paid more than a million dollars a year – out of Medicaid funds – for administering a large number of programs for developmentally challenged and disabled persons. Crimes were committed, though no charges have yet been filed. The two are brothers, Jews, with no shame. Reading the article detailing their activities and their imperial life style, I felt ashamed on their behalf, and furious at them on my own behalf, furious that they could act in such self-serving, greedy and antisocial fashion, enriching themselves at public expense.
I was surely not alone in that reaction. Jews the world over are sensitive to such news and generally shudder each time a Jewish name is connected with headline-earning misbehaviors. Elliot Spitzer? Ugh. Bernie Madoff? Anthony Weiner? Son of Sam? No no no, not another Jew misbehaving! It makes us cringe with revulsion, and shame, not because Jews commit more crimes than other ethnic groups (“We are entitled to have as many criminals as any other group of human beings,” a wise rabbi once told me, without convincing me in the slightest) but because we should know better. Our tradition teaches us to choose holy paths of action. Common sense teaches us to stay out of the news.
We cannot help thinking that such front-page news puts our tribal reputation in jeopardy. Again. If a Jew gets into trouble, it’s bad for the Jews. That’s what we think because we remember how, historically, one Jew’s perceived or real fall from grace has led to uncountable acts of retribution involving beatings, slashing, blood and flames. And tears. Always tears. It is hard to forget such things. It can surprise no one that even today, even in America, where Jews are safer than they have ever been, it remains true that the response among Jews to headlines including Jewish names remains the question: Is it good or bad for the Jews?
So I realize now, thinking about it, what I did not realize at the time of my reading the article, that, in my reaction to the miscreant Levy brothers, there was the barely veiled thread of an ancient fear entwined among the strands of silent fury and the rage. Somewhere, deep inside, the old anxiety rustled: What will happen if “they” get angry at the Jews again? And decide to destroy us again? What will happen to us? To me?
So it is not only perfection in my own personal behavior that seems called for. All Jews need to act in accordance with the highest standards in order for us to avoid that element of Jew hatred that arises out of our own actions in the public sphere. Although this naiveté of my childhood has given way to a more cynical worldview, enough of it lingers to govern my life choices, to restrict my comings and goings to what I believe to be a holy path, as if it were true that good behavior is an antidote to antisemitism.
In my head, I know better. But, heck, what can it hurt?
[August 4, 2011]