Jews aren't just like everybody else Book attempts to define the Jewish character

June 28, 1998|By John Rivera

Arthur Hertzberg, rabbi, university professor and former president of the American Jewish Congress, gets right to the point.

"This is an annoying book, because it breaks some taboos," he says of his recently published "Jews: The Essence and Character of a People."

Hertzberg, who wrote the book with Aron Hirt-Manheimer, editor of Reform Judaism magazine, asserts that Jews have an essential identity, one that has set them apart in history, has helped them to persist and has made them the targets of anti-Semitism. Or, as he puts it in the first sentence of his introduction: "Jews are a peculiar people."

"Let me make the point very simply about Jews," Hertzberg says during an interview on a recent trip to Baltimore, his hometown. "If Jews are just like everybody else, then there isn't the slightest reason for their continuing to survive.

"If there is no corporate character, why should I allow my grandchildren to be brought up as Jews, ultimately to have to face the fact that being Jewish is glorious, but I also know it's painful?" he says. "God knows we've suffered for it through many centuries -- for a couple of millennia for that matter. The notion that there is no group identity is nonsense, pure nonsense."

Hertzberg thinks his statements will cause controversy in an American Jewish community that has seemed more interested in assimilation than asserting its distinctiveness. He writes that this work "is a scandalous book. It runs counter to polite and politically correct portraits of the Jews. It dares to define the lasting Jewish character. Such heresy is sure to evoke some shrill reactions from Jews, and from non-Jews, who will accuse us of producing a reactionary and damaging work."

At the heart of Jewish identity, Hertzberg says, is that they are the chosen people, that they are a community marked by infighting and fractiousness, and that they have been outsiders unwilling to conform.

The notion of chosenness "may be a delusion, or at very least an exaggeration, but this is at the very core of their self-image," he writes. "It has given us the courage, in age after age, to go on and raise our children within our tradition and community."

And essence of that chosenness is a responsibility and duty for Jews to the world. "The enemies of the Jews say chosenness really means a Jewish quest for world domination; Jews say it is a mandate to struggle for universal justice and peace," Hertzberg writes. "I say it is both a sense of moral mission and a survival mechanism that brings us both comfort and tribulation."

Tribulation, Hertzberg believes, because it is the distinctiveness of Jewish identity that is the root of anti-Semitism.

"One of the most scandalous things that I say is that because Jews are 'other,' there is anti-Semitism," he says. "Anti-Semitism doesn't create Jews. Jews, by being different, become the targets of anti-Semitism."

The answer to anti-Semitism is not to downplay difference, but to learn to live with diversity.

"I've taken the anti-Semitism thing, bull by the horns, and said, 'Look, stop pretending that we're all like everybody else, because it isn't so,'" he says. "Deal with the real question, which is we'd better learn to live with difference, with avowed and honestly stated difference, sometimes with annoyance, but under control, and basically with respect and affection."

Hertzberg's notions of Jewish identity were formed in his family's home in East Baltimore. "I grew up in the East European, Yiddish-speaking ghetto, what was left of it," he said. His father, Zvi Elimelech Hertzberg, was the rabbi of Beth Abraham from the 1930s until 1971.

"At home, we spoke only Yiddish," Hertzberg said. "I grew up living in two cultures. The house might just as well have been situated in eastern Galicia.

"Well, that's not quite true. We read the Baltimore Sun. My father was very aware of news, was very contemporary. But the house was permeated by old world European culture," he says.

His father insisted that before young Arthur left the house, he would be immersed in Jewish learning.

"He used to get me up at 5:30 in the morning, straight through high school and college, to study Talmud with him for a couple of hours before he'd let me go out into the world," Hertzberg says. "And then, when I walked out the door, I was in America."

In 1937, Hertzberg remembers that he won a scholarship to the Johns Hopkins University and was about to leave for his first day of class, when his father stopped him at the door.

"He says to me, 'I know that you will not find Jews at Johns Hopkins,' Hertzberg says. "I knew what he meant. Johns Hopkins was 25 or 30 percent Jewish then. What he meant was I wouldn't find Hasidics, I would not find his Eastside.

"'So promise me one thing, that you will associate only with intelligent non-Jews,'" he says. "There was the hinge between two worlds."

And his father insisted that he continue to study the Talmud as he went to the university.

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