"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Chosen People–An Odyssey From Ancient Egypt To The State Of Israel

“The Jews are God’s chosen people”, said Bruce Birnbaum to hecklers on the New Brighton green who razzed him about his yarmulke, his nose, and his father’s furrier business.  They jeered him every time he came to bat, called him kike and sheeny, and hooked their fingers over their noses.  He was the only Jew at Muirland Country Day and not only was he Jewish, but stereotypically so.  He looked Jewish, was bookish to a fault, and was as awkward as a girl on the baseball diamond.  How he was ever admitted to the deeply Anglo-Saxon pre-preparatory school was beyond everyone.  Money should not have been an issue, since all Muirland families had more pedigree than John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton put together, were the captains of industry who built the city into an industrial powerhouse in the 19th century, and through Puritan frugality and good sense had built Robber Baron fortunes that beggared any in New York.

It couldn’t have been political pull.  The mayor of the city was Polish as all mayors before him since 1945 when Poles began to emigrate to New Brighton from Europe to escape the Communists. Not only did Poles take care of their own but were anti-Semitic to the core; so there was no way that Mayor Roszicki would have intervened for anyone except a Pole.

The only possible explanation was that Shecky Birnbaum had something on the school, its principal, or one of the directors on the Board. Loan sharking most likely.  Rumors had it that Shecky was a real Shylock, kept most of the West End in his clutches and had sealed bonds guaranteeing a pound of flesh from everyone up and down Lincoln Street in the event of default. Despite the prestige and the supposed great wealth of the descendants of Hart Booth and McKenzie Roberts, it was all show, and they were deeply in debt, and beholden to banks in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York as well as to the shyster, Shecky Birnbaum.

All of this was speculation, based on innuendo and hearsay, frequent trips on the New York, New Haven & Hartford up and down the Northeast Corridor, vodka bottles tipping the trash cans long before weekly pickup, and high-stakes poker at the Club.  As far as Shecky was concerned, he was a model of propriety and rectitude.  He no sooner would cheat a West Hartford matron with cheap fur than he would his own mother.  He was proud of his son, and did everything he could to make his path to Harvard easier.

Catholics don’t read the Bible.  The Church prefers to pass Christian history, myth, and legend through its own filter and is dismissive of any sect that claims a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  Martin Luther started it all, and the Church has had to plug holes in its increasingly leaky doctrinal ship ever since. 

In any case, few Catholics knew anything about the Bible, and as far as we were concerned Jesus was a Catholic. We knew that Jews not only didn’t believe in Jesus Christ, but that they were responsible for His death.  ‘Christ-killer’ was one of the names we called Bruce Birnbaum as he went up to bat on the New Brighton green.

The El-Shalom Temple on West Main Street was an austere blockhouse of a building. Its façade was simple and spare.  Only the name El Shalom, engraved on the frieze above the door, suggested that this was a place of worship. None of us had ever been inside, so of course the same rumor and innuendo mill that had transformed the honest and fair Shecky Birnbaum into a shyster Shylock, turned the temple into an idolatrous altar of pagan sacrifice.  Bobby Fillip’s mother had been Jewish until she converted to marry his father, but she still had Biblical tales to tell of burnt offerings, sacrificial lambs, and ritual slaughters and sacrifices.

We were convinced that on Fridays after the heavy iron doors of the temple were closed and locked, the congregation participated in the most unholy and Satanic rituals.  Only after I went to Bruce’s bar mitzvah that I realized that all the talk was nonsense. The ceremony was as hokey and lame as any at St. Mary’s, complete with costumes, postures, and admonishments.

Bruce went on – dare I say it without falling into the trap of familiar stereotypes – to Harvard and Harvard Law School.

“You had a rough time of it at Muirland, didn’t you?”, I asked him many years later when I reconnected with him in Washington where he was a judge of the Superior Court.

“Not really”, he replied. “We’re used to it”.  He didn’t have to remind me of the 500 years of Jewish expulsions, shtetls, pogroms, Kristallnacht, ghettoes, and ethnic slurs.

Bruce was a Zionist and an ardent supporter of Israel.  His grandparents had been gassed at Auschwitz as had his great-cousins, –aunts, and –uncles. His father had contributed to Ben Gurion and the Israeli nationalist cause; and Bruce had defended Israel with commitment and absolute fidelity since the 1967 War. A modern Jewish state, he told me, was not just a refuge, or a historically logical homeland; but a sacred place, one selected and anointed by God himself for the Jewish people.  Returning to Palestine was not simply compensation for the Holocaust or an international judgment on the right of Jewish sovereignty.  It was a return to the land of the Old Testament. “Read it”, Bruce said, “and you will understand.”

The Old Testament is many things – a story of Creation, the Fall, and the propagation of the Earth. A catalogue of commandments, injunctions, and penalties for civil and moral offenses. An instructional guide to arks, altars, and the performance of ritual sacrifice. The Pentateuch details lineage and genealogy from Adam to David.  More than anything, however, the first five books of the Bible recount the Jewish exodus from Egypt, the years in the wilderness, the fights against the Philistines, Hittites, and Amorites, and the final conquest of Canaan.

When non-Jews think of the exodus from Egypt, they remember only Moses’ parting of the waters of the Red Sea; but are unfamiliar with the long, arduous journey through inhospitable desert and hostile tribes; the forty-years wandering in the desert; the insurrections of Israelite factions which threatened Moses’ mission to claim Canaan; the bloody battles, the heroism, and the ferocity of Israelite armies.  Moses was a leader, a manager, a cheerleader, and a consummate politicians.  Joshua was one of the greatest generals in world history. The final conquest of Canaan and the establishment of the Jewish kingdoms of Saul and David were not just military and political victories, but the consummation of God’s plan.

After reading the Old Testament and tracking the Israelite journey from Thebes to Jericho, I was more committed than ever to the Israeli cause.  Israel was not just a modern political state, a homeland, or a geographical entity.  It was a divinely ordained holy land for the Jews – the Chosen People of God. I immediately understood  the absolute conviction of all Israelis and most Jews concerning the state of Israel.  I understood the wars, the brutal reprisals for Palestinian terrorism and intifadas, the absolute refusal to compromise and to allow any erosion of Israeli borders.

For centuries history noted The Wandering Jew, the disenfranchised, powerless, and stateless people expelled from Palestine, Spain, Russia, and Germany.  Jews were the People of the Book, studious to a fault, but lacking spine, discipline, and courage.  Shylock was indeed The Jew.  “My daughter…..my ducats”, he exclaims, finally compromising his faith, his family, and himself in the hopes of retaining some of his fortune. For centuries this stereotype persisted, even and especially through the Holocaust.  Why was the Warsaw Uprising the only expression of anger and resentment of the War?  Why did Jews go to the ovens like lambs to the slaughter?

Until Israel, when Jews recovered their confidence, muscular identity, and mission.  Moses, Joshua, Samson, Aaron, and others were military heroes, doing battle with the enemy until men, women and children were destroyed.  They were God’s army, obeying him, and laying waste to the hostile tribes which prevented their access to The Promised Land.  Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu are the descendants of Joshua and Aaron. Their fight is not only against a defiant secular enemy, but for the continuance and supremacy of the State of Israel, the Jewish homeland, the Promised Land of the Bible.

I met Bruce Birnbaum recently, for lunch between court sessions at Judiciary Square. He thought it right and fitting that he had become a judge – “I hope you read Judges carefully”, he reminded me – and that he had fulfilled his father’s wish.  There was no profession that better exemplified Jews and their heritage than that of judge.  The wisdom of Solomon, like many Biblical precedents, was not mythology or legend, but substantive and real.

The Bible is used and misused as a source for the parties of contentious social and political issues.  The Old Testament is absolutely and unequivocally clear about homosexual unions.  They are ‘an abomination’, an injunction repeated in many books of both Old and New Testaments; and yet those who take the Bible literally are mocked, marginalized, and ridiculed.  The Old Testament is equally clear and unequivocal about a Jewish Palestine. It was ordained by God. That’s good enough for me.

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