Tygerpen: ‘Who’s a Jew?’ is no dilemma. It’s easy!
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As a Jewish parent, I’ve followed all the requirements for creating Jewish-identifying children, such as observing holidays, sending them to Jewish camps, enrolling them in religious school and explaining why nebulous physical symptoms that, remarkably, occur each Sunday morning are not sufficient reason to miss religious school.
Most important, I’ve made absolutely certain for the sake of Jewish pride that they know nearly everyone who’s a famous person is Jewish.
This carries on a tradition I recall from my youth, when my mother constantly pointed out famous people who were Jewish. From experience, however, I’ve learned children can find this irritating. They actually learn in grade school and high school that there are famous non-Jews. This shouldn’t stop us from identifying famous Jews, but requires that we be more selective and aim high. So while kids know Adam Sandler, Jack Black, Billy Joel and Albert Einstein are Jewish, they need to know Christopher Columbus was Jewish. Also Abraham Lincoln.
I know what you’re thinking: There’s so little proof. But this is the beauty of the Rule of Close Enough. If the famous person has a Jewish name, Jewish parent, a large number of Jewish friends, contributed to Jewish causes, behaved Jewishly, went to Israel — any of the above — and done extraordinary things, that person is Jewish.
Under this rule, you can confidently and without guilt tell your children that, for example, based on your best information and belief, Johnny Cash was Jewish. (He went to Israel five times. He had a Jewish manager. The Jewish Studies program at Southern Methodist University includes him in the curriculum.)
This is one of the best answers to Jewish assimilation in America. Point out the behavior of a Close Enough Jewish person, and your child or young person will stand a little straighter and suddenly realize that there aren’t 6.5 million Jews in America, but probably twice that number or more!
Growing up in Portland, Ore., I knew from my Jewish upbringing that a) anyone who did something extraordinarily good was clearly Jewish, and b) someone will contest that view because Jews like to argue, get mad and, if possible, leave their current synagogue and form a new breakaway congregation. (Just recently, I actually was heartened to see the headline “Synagogue Fights Decline,” until I realized a Virginia synagogue was fighting the decline of membership.)
I am certain, just as I’m revealing the Rule of Close Enough, people are turning on their computers to write me a nasty comment, or calling their rabbis to announce they’re leaving the congregation.
This pugnacious attitude doesn’t upset me, because in Portland I grew up hearing about threats of breakaway congregations. In 1880, the rabbi and president of my (eventual) synagogue in Portland, who’d long disputed which prayerbook to use, got into a fistfight in downtown Portland. The rabbi pulled out a pistol and twice shot at the president-elect. No one was hurt, but the rabbi left town shortly thereafter, disgraced for being such a poor marksman.
So don’t let threats keep you from using the Rule of Close Enough. Just be certain you can muster enough evidence.
For example, I recently found out that Franklin Pierce, not Abe Lincoln, was the first Jewish president. Pierce’s name (often Jewish in itself) appears on the charter of a synagogue, Washington Hebrew Congregation (1856). Seven years later, in keeping with custom, half the congregation left Washington Hebrew to start their own synagogue.
The other Jewish president was Ulysses S. Grant. My mother used to say frequently, when we needed to move quickly, “Go like Grant took Richmond.” Years later, I learned Grant didn’t take Richmond, the Confederacy’s capital; a Gen. Godfrey Weitzel did. But Grant is still credited as the hero of the Civil War.
Though Grant, when he was a general, was responsible for issuing an insane order in 1862 that would have expelled thousands of Jews from their homes had not President Lincoln stopped it — this was during Grant’s self-hating Jew period — Grant totally transformed himself during his presidency and fought anti-Semitism. When he died, he was mourned in synagogues across the country.
If that isn’t enough under the Rule of Close Enough to make him a Jew, consider that Grant came to the 1876 dedication service of Adas Israel in Washington, D.C. He not only donated $10 to the synagogue’s building fund, he stayed for the entire three-hour service.
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