Monthly Archives: January 2017

Are We Smarter?

Last time I wrote about Warren Harding and fears of a repeat of the intolerance of that time. The fears may be justified. Besides that, I cannot keep up with the whirl of events that is our new President’s first days in office, nor do I want to spend every waking hour stressing about it, which is easy to do. I will please or disappoint you by changing the subject, trying to maintain some sense that the usual questions are still of interest.

My question this week is whether we Jews are smarter than other people. If that was ever true, it certainly isn’t provable. I am not sure what all the Nobel Prizes prove. What is provable is how much we value education. Maybe you saw the December release of the Pew Research Center’s latest study, one of educational attainment among people of different religions across the globe. We Jews are the world’s most educated religious group, shout the headlines (at least in the Jewish press.) We have an average of 13.4 years of formal schooling. The global average is 7.7 years. Christians average 9.3 years of schooling, while the “unaffiliated” ( they don’t identify as religious) come in at 8.8. Hindus and Muslims 5.6. Buddhists 7.9.

What does it all mean? Part is just geography: most Jews live in the U.S. or Israel where there is a high level of education overall. 98% of Hindus on the other hand live in developing countries. But it’s not just geography: Jews in Brazil average 12.5 years of schooling, nearly twice that of non Jewish Brazilians.

There are many little subplots here: one is the Muslims in Israel whose younger generations have added four years of education to the older generation’s average, or we see the opposite among Jewish men in the U.S. as so many of the Orthodox go to yeshiva year after year and only 37% have formal higher education (vs. 77% for the older Orthodox men.) The full study can be seen at

What, again, does it all mean? We (still) take education seriously. At least those who identify with the Jewish religion, though I suspect that the numbers for Jews who consider themselves Jewish but not by religion are not so different. I think this is something to be proud of. But not too proud, because – you guessed it- when it comes time for learning about the religious tradition that seems to make us want to learn, we are not doing so well. We are looking at maybe 7.0 years of formal education on the average, and that only for a few hours/week. We pay a price for that. Jews who are highly educated but have a 13 year old’s knowledge of Judaism will almost certainly feel ignorant or uncomfortable in many Jewish settings and try to avoid them. Regardless, it can’t be that our religion encourages us to take education seriously when we have so little contact with it. I am left with no answer to my question. Maybe you can help me.

Next time, barring the unforeseen, we do more demography. I hope you can wait. Best regards.        Bill Rudolph


On the Eve of the Inauguration

With the inauguration just hours away, and many of us on edge about what lies ahead, we might want to look back to another inauguration, that of Warren G. Harding, in early 1921. Jonathan Sarna, not long ago a Beth El Scholar in Residence and arguably the dean of historians of the American Jewish experience, reminds us of the hatred that accompanied and followed Harding’s election, with an eerily familiar ring.

“America First.” “Return to Normalcy.” These were some of the slogans in Harding’s campaign. He represented a sharp break from the previous administration, the liberal presidency of Woodrow Wilson. His election was soon followed by the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921, limiting the total number of immigrants for the first time in U.S. history and placing quotas from countries like Poland and Russia where Jews were hoping to escape the reality that followed the Russian Revolution. At the same time, more immigrants than ever were deported for politic views. Rings any bells? “The hatred of everything foreign has become an obsession,” complained Louis Marshall, the unofficial leader of American Jewry at the time.

Hatred was not confined to foreigners. Domestically, antipathy towards blacks, Catholics, Jews and others surged. The KKK flourished, with a membership of close to 5 million white males in a total U.S. population of only about 106 million. Catholic parochial schools were banned in many cities and in the whole state of Oregon. Discrimination in university admissions hit Jews especially, and clubs and hotels and resorts shut out Jews completely. And Henry Ford, one of the great anti-semites in all of U.S. history and one of Harding’s premier supporters, spewed his hatred of Jews and the “international Jewish conspiracy.” It was not Nazi Germany, for sure, and we don’t expect Trump’s election to lead to anything like that either. Nonetheless, we are chilled when bomb threats are called into dozens of JCC’s, Nazi graffiti appears on walls of schools and public buildings and Jewish homes, and a climate of intolerance for most if not all minorities seems to be gaining ground.

Three strategies were utilized back in the Harding period. One, Jews assisted and supported one another. Two, Jews fought back, with PR campaigns and books and articles exposing and rebutting anti-semitic charges – even causing Henry Ford to issue an apology in 1927 for “resurrecting exploded fictions.” And, third, Jews joined up with other groups like the NAACP and Catholic school officials in legal battles of all kinds, allies working together.

Prof. Sarna says that the most remarkable thing is that, despite all the negativity of this period, Jews managed to thrive in many ways. Economically, they took advantage of a rising stock market and built opulent synagogues and institutions like Yeshiva University. Deborah Dash Moore argues that during the 1920s Jews actually “became at home in America.” The hatred unleashed following Harding’s election worked in the end to make the American Jewish community stronger. One wonders what lies ahead for us, and other minorities, and our country as a whole.

Ponder this and hope, as I do, for silver linings in a pretty cloudy four year forecast. Bill Rudolph

Melting Pot or Orchestra?

Recently a colleague’s daughter suggested that he reconsider the distinctive blessings that he (and many of us) gives to boys and girls at Friday night services or dinners, since there are those whose genders are still emerging or don’t fall neatly into biblical categories and shouldn’t they receive God’s blessings as well? The colleague, Elliot Cosgrove, writing in the Jerusalem Post months ago, was struck by this question, and mused about it in ways I have been contemplating as discussions of issues like gender and intermarriage happen for me at least almost daily. In real ways, the two are not different issues.

Issues like gender and intermarriage are just a piece of larger discussions on boundaries and inclusion and how we navigate between the two. On the one hand, “identity politics” have become more and more charged, as every subgroup stands vigilant against any “micro-aggression” that somehow offends its distinct stature and sensibility. In our time, everyone must be validated in their identities whatever they may be. Spend a few moments on college campuses and you will see this. At the same time, we are living in a post-gendered, post-ethnic, post-everything world; young people look askance at assigned or inherited social identities and the notion of erecting boundaries of any sort is totally displeasing. The intermarriage discussion fits well here – why can’t we marry anyone we want to, our kids ask, whatever their ethnicity, religion, gender? Didn’t you teach us to treat everyone the same?

What does all this mean for the Jewish community in America? Trouble, or a challenge, depending on our mood. There are two historical answers: Israel Zangwill (100+ years ago) in his play The Melting Pot had a grand vision of America as God’s crucible, where the diversity of its immigrants would melt away into one common identity. Not everyone liked that vision, Rabbi Judah Magnes among them; he saw it as suicide for the Jewish community. The counter narrative comes from the likes of Horace Kallen (in my lifetime) – America is like an orchestral symphony in which “every instrument has its specific timbre and tonality.” We must embrace the other all the while retaining our own particularity.

Our time, you have probably figured out, is not the time of the melting pot or the orchestra. It’s a new era, and we are still figuring it out. But we don’t have the luxury of standing on the sidelines while the discussion rages. In our post-everything world of unending validation, we have to retain/retrieve the language of difference. Jews must opt for particularism over universalism, collectivism over individualism. That may sound “old school.” Inclusiveness is nice, but we are in the business of building Jewish identities, Jewish homes and Jewish families. In that business, not every choice is equally OK. We need to find a new language both affirming our liberalism and maintaining that not all life-style choices are equal. As Cosgrove puts it, we need to find “a language of tribalism without triumphalism, affiliation without parochialism, peoplehood without ethnocentrism.” It’s not easy, to be sure. It’s a narrow path to walk. But do we have a choice?

Let me know your thoughts. Best, Bill Rudolph

Star Wars

Happy 2017. I think most people here and around the world are happy to say goodbye to 2016, lots of tsuris, but part of us fears that the new year could be worse. But we can’t think like that.

Gail and I saw a number of movies over the break. Even I have figured out that Hollywood saves its best for year’s end, so the Oscar deciders won’t have forgotten how enthusiastic they may have been for a film if too much time has gone by. So we enjoyed Manchester by the Sea (beautifully done but very sad), La La Land ( terrific but we wished for a different end), Rogue One (see below) and Lion (powerful.)

Rogue One has a lot of deep historical significance for Star Wars fans, I am told. For the average Joe, it is a fun sci fi film with maybe too much violence. What got my attention was an article by Sam Kestenbaum in the Forward that talked about the attention the film is getting from, of all people, white supremacists. I was surprised and read on.

White supremacists, alt-right people we now seem to call them, are actually of two minds on Star Wars, this film and its recent predecessors. You won’t like either of the two. On the one hand, some of these white nationalists want the film boycotted, calling it evidence of a Jewish plot to foist racial diversity on whites. “(((Star Wars))) is anti-white social engineering,” says GenFrancoPepe on one “alt-right” forum. [Did you know that the triple parentheses, known as an “echo,” are a way anti-Semites online call attention to Jewish names or perceived Jewish influence?] Look, says GenFrancoPepe, at the multiracial makeup of the stars, look at the female starring roles of late, look how many Jewish writers and producers are involved. It’s the Jewish cabal promoting multiculturalism at the expense of an embattled “white civilization.” Who knew it wasn’t just a movie?

On the other hand, some on the far right love Star Wars. The evil Empire is appealing, Darth Vader a hero. Star Wars creator George Lucas “confused the good guys with the bad,” wrote a Weekly Standard writer early in the Star Wars releases;“the deep lesson of Star Wars is that the Empire is good.” Then there is Steve Bannon, about whom we have heard much, musing as follows, “Darkness is good…. Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.” One commentator with this view urged people to pirate the film (God forbid they pay to get in) and “fantasize about being a stormtrooper.” When you think about it, the Empire leadership is easily mistaken for Nazis. Silly George Lucas, he thought that would make them unappealing! But the Nazis hated Jews and believed in the pure Aryan (white) race – that makes them appealing to the alt-right. Another “alt-right” member writes: “We know which side we prefer. Always buy the Empire Legos. Always root for Hitler. Always retell the story your own way.”

Isn’t this a fitting commentary on what the year now past brought us? Goodbye and good riddance. We hope that somehow 2017 will see a rebirth of civility and tolerance, but it takes all of our optimism genes and more to see that happening. At the least, we can practice those good qualities in our own lives.

Happier topics to follow I hope. Best, Bill Rudolph