Being Jewish In 2018 America

By

Leonard Zwelling

I would have thought that by the time I turned 70, this would be getting easier. It doesn’t seem to be.

I am of the generation that was regaled with stories about knocks on the door in the middle of the night. My parents were brought up as Hitler rose to power and were acutely aware of what had happened in Nazi Germany, reminding me of it regularly. Then my father couldn’t get a job as an engineer after the war, even as a veteran of that war and service in Europe, because of his religion.

My earliest memories are of a place called Stratford, Connecticut where my family was one of only a few Jewish ones there. I had to explain Hanukkah to my kindergarten class and there were no synagogues in Stratford. We had to travel to the next town, Bridgeport, to find a small one. Fitting in was difficult there.

Fitting in became easier once my family moved to the south shore of Long Island in 1956. There were many Jews there escaping the tenements of Manhattan, the high rises of Brooklyn and the Bronx, or the row houses of Queens. There were actually quite a few students and teachers who were absent from school on the High Holidays. I didn’t feel foreign taking those days off to be in synagogue.

Over the years I have been in and out of the world of comfortable Judaism. I have never been more in it than here in Greater Jewish Houston. Although there are only about 50,000 Jews in this city of 4 million, I surely do not feel out of place here. Yet still, as this weekend reminds me, I am still a stranger in a strange land as a Jew in America. Nowhere in the world have we as Jews ever been more welcomed before 1948, than we were here, yet still we are other. Now, in Israel, we are not, and that’s just how it feels walking down the streets of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Even thousands of miles from Houston, I am home in Israel.

Being Jewish sure has changed for me.

I’ve been the other in Stratford and then again at Duke in 1966, although now there is a Center for Jewish Life at Duke. I never thought I would see the day. Bagels have finally supplanted hush puppies somewhere in North Carolina.

But as the events of this weekend remind all of American Jewry, vigilance is still the watchword. We are home here, in places like Squirrel Hill, but the threat from those who would have us dead is ever present. Perhaps that is what is most different in Israel. The threat is there and everyone knows it. It is overt. It is loud. And the response to that threat to Jewish predominance in the Holy Land is not arguable. It must be that way if we are to continue to have a place to go when we have no place else to go.

This event in Pittsburgh will serve as a reminder. Although we have been welcomed here in the United States like we have been in few other places over the millennia, we still must be aware that there are those who would kill us for our customs and beliefs.

It is way easier for me to be Jewish in Houston than it was to be Jewish in Durham, North Carolina in the 1960s or in Stratford, Connecticut in the 1950s. Easier, but surely not simple.

But the real question is why is anti-Semitism on the rise now?

In a word—Trump.

Anti-Semitism has been a fixture of American life since the first Jew got here hundreds of years ago. But now it appears that all forms of bigotry have gotten a green light to go public. We see it in the recently captured bomber and we see it in Pittsburgh, although these two co-temporal incidents have uncommon antecedents, I suspect. Mr. Trump has given voice to the white disenchanted and they feel free to raise those voices in bigotry and hatred against political opponents, press with whom they disagree and, unfortunately, against all minorities including Jews.

I am unsure that there is anything that this Tweety-headed president can say that would undo the damage he has done. It will take other leaders to do so. It might start with some courage from the president’s party members opposing his rhetoric and his intolerance. It might. But if you are looking for courage, don’t look to Congress.

It is a sad day for America and a sad day for American Jews. But any American Jews who support the policies and style of this president ought to give their position a second look. A long hard second look. Mr. Trump, as my grandmother might say, is not good for the Jews even as he supports the State of Israel he undermines the security of those of us who live here, in America.

Leonard Zwelling