In Defense of Jewish Pride

Thursday, 24 June, 2021 - 1:01 pm

An immigrant Jewish salesman from the 1950s related this incident to his children. “I was traveling by bus from town to town through the south. Suddenly a couple of rednecks got on the bus and started to speak disparagingly about Jews. Their words became increasingly malevolent. I felt very afraid and threatened.” His son asked, “What did you do Papa? How did you handle the situation?” The salesman replied, “I just sat in the corner and pretended I wasn’t Jewish.”

Throughout the ages, Jews have been faced with an existential question. Is it better to blend in and lay low about our Jewishness? Will that save us from persecution and/or gain us acceptance to the societies in which we live? Or, is it advisable to be open and proud of who we are and what we stand for?

Many opted for the first path. Family names were changed. Westernized first names were taken. Visibly Jewish garb such as yarmulkas were left at home or removed altogether. Jewish practices and observances were marginalized, especially when they conflicted with participation in society. How can we keep Kosher if that will keep us out of restaurants and important social functions? How can we keep Shabbos if that will prevent us from participating in valuable events? And so on and so forth. Did it help? History tells us that just when we think we have succeeded in convincing society that we are a part of them, they provide us with an ugly reminder that they still consider us to be an “other.” It may take some time, but in the end that is what happens.

On the other hand, when Jews are steadfast and openly proud of who they are and principled about their values and practices, they ultimately engender respect even from those that resent them. It may take some time, but in the end that is what happens.

In this week’s Parsha, Bilaam, one of history’s greatest anti-Semites, tries everything he can to portray the people of Israel in negative light. In the end, he could not help but speak admiringly, albeit begrudgingly, of their fine qualities and principled devotion to their identity. He examined them with a proverbial magnifying glass to try to find flaws. The more deeply he looked, the greater his respect grew for them.

When Jews take pride in who they are, and demonstrate devotion to their values and principles, that gains them the respect and ultimately, the admiration of those around them.

My friends, every day is Jewish pride day. Every week is Jewish pride week. Every month is Jewish pride month. Every year is Jewish pride year. Hold your head high, keep your spine straight, and be a proud member of our people!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


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