It Seems To Me

On Being a Jew

From a Russian shtetl to Washington, D.C., in one leap.

I venture to air these musings about my life because so much is being written these days about who is a Jew, or about who is a good Jew. I don’t know how typical my experience is, but I am sure it is not unique.

I recently read a little book, The Penguin Book of Jewish Short Stories, which my daughter had given me. Reading these stories about Jewish life in eastern Europe a hundred or so years ago was eye-opening. I had never before felt so close to my roots. I could have been one of the pale, skinny young men who sat in the synagogue all day studying the Talmud. I could have been the Jewish actor in Warsaw fantasizing about his love affair with the beautiful actress. I felt that there was nothing in my own personality or character that would have prevented me from being just like them if I had been born in their time and place.

The discontinuity between Jewish life in the Russian shtetl in 1897 and Jewish life in the Watergate Apartments in Washington in 1997 must be the greatest one-century gap in Jewish life since the Exodus. If I could imagine myself back at the beginning of that discontinuity in 1897, I could by easy stages imagine myself back three millennia.

My family and I made that leap in the direction from 1897 to 1997 with no intermediate stops. We did not have resting places in prolonged settlement in a transplanted Warsaw on the East Side of Manhattan or a transplanted shtetl in Brownsville. My father came to America from the shtetl just about a hundred years ago, and almost immediately left the Jewish life behind. Having no supportive family, at an early age he joined the United States Cavalry, using a borrowed birth certificate. That was about as un-Jewish an occupation as you can imagine. He went with his troop to the Philippines to chase the rebels against the American raj.

When I was born, he was living in Detroit, then a quite un-Jewish town, working for the Ford Motor Co., a notoriously un-Jewish employer, as a blue-collar machinist, a very un-Jewish occupation. Until I was 20, although I and everyone else knew I was Jewish, I led a life with hardly any Jewish content. After Detroit, I lived in Schenectady, another gentile community. I never had a bar mitzvah. Although I spent five years studying Latin, I never spent a day studying Hebrew. At the age of 11, I spent one semester at Sunday school in a Reform synagogue. That was the extent of my Jewish education. I spent much more time studying Shakespeare than studying the Bible. I went to an isolated college in the Berkshire Mountains where 4 percent of the class that entered with me was Jewish. We had compulsory attendance at Episcopal chapel services eight times a week. Until I went to graduate school, I never had a Jewish teacher except for my clarinet teacher in Detroit.

The raising of my consciousness as a Jew began at 21, when I married a Jewish girl whose family and community background were much more Jewish than mine, although she was still not an observant Jew. Other steps came with maturation. Being a husband, then a father and homeowner, gave me a more realistic sense of my own identity and responsibilities than I had had when I lived in the fantasy world of academia. As a result of the pattern of residential segregation that remained in Washington at least through the 1950s, each of the three houses that we bought in succession was on a block with many Jewish neighbors. I became one of the first members of a newly formed synagogue in the suburban Maryland county where we lived. But I attended services rarely and felt uncomfortable when I did, because I knew so little of what was going on.

Learning of the Holocaust was a powerful reminder that I had an identity that, except for the accident of geography, would have brought me to the same fate as 6 million others. The establishment, triumphs, and risks of Israel were a source of pride and obligation to me.

Oddly, two of the most satisfying experiences of my life as a Jew came about on the initiative of gentiles. In 1972 President Richard Nixon sent me, with my wife, to Israel as his representative at the celebration of the anniversary of the founding of the state. This was a great pleasure and honor for me personally, but I also felt that I was doing something for my people by serving as a token of America’s support for Israel.

Having used the magic words “Nixon” and “Jew” in the same paragraph, I want to answer a question often asked of me. Apparently, Mr. Nixon said some things that I wish he had not said. But I know of nothing in his behavior to me, to my family, to Israel, or to Jews in general that entitles him to anything less than my total loyalty.

The other gentile who enters my story, and in a more important way, is George Shultz. As secretary of state in 1984, he named me to be a consultant on the economic problems of Israel. I worked with several other people, Israelis and Americans, to develop a policy that would rescue Israel from devastating inflation and set the country on a course of durable economic progress. The policy succeeded, and I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to make that contribution to my people.

So, what kind of Jew am I after 60 years of consciousness-raising? For one thing, I am proud to be a Jew. I do not refer only to the cliché of pride in belonging to the community of Moses, Freud, Einstein, and Jonas Salk; or to pride in the fact that “God Bless America” was written by Irving Berlin. I refer also to pride in Jews as a whole. I recently saw statistics saying that there are about 5 billion people in the world, about 2 billion of them Christians and about 13 million of them Jews. And I thought, wow, we precious few have achieved a lot and survived a lot! My Jewishness certainly includes support for Israel, although not always support for the policies of the government of Israel, and I have recommended a reduction in U.S. government financial aid for Israel.

I am puzzled about what to say on the subject of my religion. I pray to God, but I do not feel that I am praying to an exclusively Jewish God. If, as we say, there is one God, surely he is God of the whole universe, including the gentiles. I observe nine of the 10 commandments, excepting only the one about the Sabbath, but I don’t think the commandments are for Jews alone. I recognize deficiencies in my Jewishness. I wish I had studied Hebrew rather than Latin. I regret that I did not have more Jewish education. I do not have the energy to remedy these deficiencies now. I am pleased that my children have had more Jewish education than I did, and that my grandchildren have even more.

All in all, I believe that if I ever meet one of my forebears, one of those pale, skinny yeshiva students from the eastern European shtetl of 1897, I will be able to say to him, “I, too, am a Jew–not a saint, but a Jew like you.”