It’s one of those memories that burn.
23 years ago or so, I took a girl to an Indian restaurant in Adams Morgan. She was friend’s with my roommate, and from the first time I met her, I knew this tall, beautiful woman could talk, drink and think circles around time. If she ever actually liked me, I knew immediately this had the potential to be much, much more than just a hookup.
And so I took a chance, and on our first official date, I said something that I knew might make her run the other way.
“I really like you, but I value our friendship. And I think there’s real potential in our relationship. So I just want to tell you up front that one thing I need is to have my children raised as Jews. If that’s not something you’d consider, we should just stay friends, as I don’t want to lose that.”
I remember her saying she appreciated my honesty.
And I also remember at that moment I thought I had just tossed the best thing I ever had out the window. The strains of Tevya’s “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof strained in my mind’s ear.
But it wasn’t. She asked if that meant that she needed to convert. I said absolutely not. Not long after, we were roommates, and a few years after that, engaged.
That’s a wonderful memory, but it’s not the one that burns.
As we decided to start our lives together, one thing we were looking at was the right fit for us, and our future children, was a synagogue. I was brought up in a conservative household, and still enjoyed the rituals and traditions and underlying philosophy of Judaism—particularly the notion of Tikkun Olam; the notion that we are partners with the almighty to assist in the perfection of the world. My work, my coaching, and my writing are entirely infused with that concept to this day.
But despite my background, I was a skeptical about taking our interfaith relationship in that direction. Intermarriage is something of a “crisis” to many conservative Jews, and I wanted Kirsten to feel welcomed for who she was. But I didn’t rule it out, either. And one of our synagogue shopping stops was the largest conservative synagogue in the D.C. area, Adas Israel, was only a couple of Metro stops away.
And so I called to ask about whether we could attend a service and talk to the rabbi. A woman with a distinctly New York accent got on the line. I remember her name was Tobie.
I told her our situation, and what we were looking to do.
“So how do you practice?” Tobie inquired. I was a bit taken aback as I didn’t expect this to be about me.
“Uh, I light candles pretty much every Friday,” I stammered back. “I attend services on the High Holidays, and I’m always home for Pesach.”
There was a pause. And then there was a sentence I will never, ever forget.
“That isn’t Judaism.”
Stunned, I mumbled, “Uh, okay.”
Then she started rambling. Something about my needing to invest more in the rituals and how important that was, and reconnect with my Judaism in a meaningful way. None of that mattered, as she had already lost me with that most insulting of phrases. It wasn’t that her opinion was better. Not that she was more connected to the Jewish community than I was. It was that everything I felt and believed was invalid. I did not have the right to believe or feel the way I did.
That isn’t Judaism.
That’s what burned.
I do not now nor did I then believe that was the way that Adas Israel itself wanted to speak to young Jewish kids like me, and I don’t hold it against the congregation. But I will never forget that, in all my life and among the many anti-Semitic jabs taken at me over the years, I have never felt as insulted as a Jew as I did that day.
And then I got a chance to read about our prospective new Ambassador to Israel.
To quote from today’s New Yorker:
“Finally, are J Street supporters really as bad as kapos? The answer, actually, is no,” Friedman wrote in Arutz Sheva. “They are far worse than kapos—Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps. The kapos faced extraordinary cruelty and who knows what any of us would have done under those circumstances to save a loved one? But J Street? They are just smug advocates of Israel’s destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas—it’s hard to imagine anyone worse.”
Asked about this piece of wisdom recently at the Saban Conference, in Washington, Friedman doubled down. “They’re not Jewish,” Friedman said of J Street, “and they’re not pro-Israel.”
They’re not Jewish [epm. added]. This is a calumny of the most disgusting order. But hardly a new one. Netanyahu, in the hope of solidifying his conservative and religious base, was once overheard whispering in the ear of the Sephardic leader and rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri, “The left has forgotten what it is to be Jewish.” The question of Jewish identity has for centuries been a matter of debate and halakhah, Jewish law. It has never, to my knowledge, been a matter of bankruptcy law.
Friedman’s view is Tobie on steroids, and taken now to a global scale. He goes beyond disagreeing with those that dissent from his viewpoint, and goes even beyond dismissing those viewpoints. He delegitimizes. And not only the viewpoint, but, like Tobie did to me, he delegitimizes the people behind the opinion.
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is excruciatingly complex. I’m not going to get in to the details here but for anyone who wants to get a flavor for just how tenuous a lasting peace was even at its zenith of hope, I highly recommend Dan Ephron’s excellent work, The Killing of a King. There are sides-within-sides-within-nuances-within-conundrums. Those that try and make this simple on either/any side is doing a tremendous disservice to their own argument.
But this is about something beyond the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and beyond Israel itself. To elevate a man who chooses to question not the validity of the argument, but the validity of the person, is someone, and something that is beyond question an insult to governance, regardless of issue or viewpoint.
Both America and Israel built their democracies on disagreement. It has helped to check direction, strengthen argument, and create enduring institutions where the voice of the “other” had to be heard. The selection of David Friedman is contrary to what is best in both peoples.
I AM a Jew. I AM and American. As “real” as any other. And the minimum I expect from those that govern is to acknowledge those fact, regardless of my viewpoint. The fact that this is actually a matter of debate at this moment should give every American and every Jew, regardless of their viewpoint, pause and cause to leap past politics and understand that there is something truly dangerous to free society afoot.