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In Defence of American Jewry
Last uploaded : Tuesday 10th Mar 2009 at 23:14
Contributed by : Carol Gould


8th March 2009


I nearly fell of my chair as the Jewish Sabbath came in on Friday 6th March, having just read my esteemed colleague Michael Freedland’s sweeping condemnation of American Jewry in 'The Jewish Chronicle.' (He said he loves to generalise, so I am assuming his appraisal of my countrymen and women applies to all six million of us.) Unfortunately his article is not available on the 'JC' website but I will try to address his litany of woes.

This weekend, including Saturday (I am one of those American Jews who writes books and plays but whom Michael says can’t recite Kiddush from memory and am therefore thick) , I did some research on the points Michael raises about the yidlach he met on the cruise. (See? I even learned a smattering of Yiddish from my imbecile mother, a teacher and pianist. )

First: The people he met had nil sense of humour. I have been on cruises and endured similar. But has Michael ever tried to make Anglo-Jews laugh? I used to attend a large shul in London but might as well have been in an Anglican chapel in Hartest for all the laughs I could extract from the irritable, prickly, snobbish and sometimes downright nasty parishioners. ( Yes, these are not davening shulgoers but parishioners, folks.) I switched shuls to a more frum one and was glared at by ladies in dumpy clothes and scowled at by men in faded suits. I grew up in a large and dynamic multicultural inner-city community in Philadelphia and sang in my school gospel choir; we gave concerts at churches and synagogues. Did this make me any less Jewish? Hell, no. I mentioned this to a LIBERAL shulgoer one day and he said it was utterly disgraceful that I had entered a church. As Ahad Ha’am is said to have observed when here one-hundred years ago trying to promote Wissotsky Teas, ‘Anglo-Jewry is akin to a giant graveyard. ‘

Taking the ‘humour’ shtick one step further: the British documentary producer Rex Bloomstein produced a series, ‘A History of American Jewish Humour’ after dropping the title, ‘A History of Jewish Humour.’ Was he going to find heaps of Jewish comedians and raconteurs in Britain, France or Italy? Do me a favour. He had to go to the USA for Yiddishkeit. My country has produced Jack Benny, Milton Berle, George Burns, Walter Matthau, Goldie Hawn, Don Rickles, Sid Caesar, Marty Feldman, Gilda Radner, Jackie Mason, Henny Youngman, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller (Ok, so his mother isn’t) , Sarah Silverman.. Adopted American Jew Victor Borge had me in tears of laughter even offstage, ordering in a restaurant when I knew him many years ago. The list of funny American Jews on Google is longer than a Purim shpiel.

So, you may say: for every famous Jewish comedian there are 100,000 Jews without a sense of humour. Yes, I am prepared to admit Michael met a few of them on the cruise. My Uncle Lou was also a dentist, like the crowd on the cruise liner, but he would have his patients in stitches -- literally -- all day. Legend has it people prayed for a toothache to be able to visit Dr Karash. Uncle Lou was an inveterate teller of tales, whilst my late mother would have people rolling in the aisles with her readings of Immanel Olsvanger‘s legendary ‘Royte Pomerantsn.’

Second: Michael makes the grave mistake of criticising this group of Jewish cruise-goers for having little knowledge of ritual. Let me tell you a story, Michael: a London friend attended a liberal Jewish wedding in upstate New York last year. According to him the attendees knew their prayers by heart and had a profound, ’in your face’ love for their heritage. Orthodox, reform and liberal sat together and there was no rancour, a disgraceful side to Anglo-Jewry that Michael Freedland ought to examine before condemning American Jews as pariahs. ( To this day I remain apoplectic over the Orthodox Authorities’ non-attendance of Holocaust survivor Rabbi Hugo Gryn’s funeral.) No community in the world is as passionate about Israel, about anti-Defamation and about Jewish pride than the chutzpah-dikkah Americans.

My own family goes back to 1811, when, as Professor Simon Schama pointed out in his recent BBC series ’The American Future,’ Jews were free to buy land, attend university, vote and run for office, freedoms afforded, he said, nowhere else on earth. Michael should be reminded that the ignorant community that doesn’t know Kiddush from kangaroos may be 87% Progressive, but that same company of nincompoops also supports Jewish charities to the hilt. My friend tells me that when it came to an appeal for Israel the wedding-attendees took out cheque books, and one man wrote a cheque for $1 million. I can vouch for this; when I attended the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues convention in Johannesburg in 1997 one Canadian couple wrote out a cheque for $500,000 just for the liberal community in Israel . Michael, some of these folks may not know Kiddush by heart but by Jove, they will lay down their livelihoods for good causes.

Let us delve a little more deeply into this issue of ‘ritual.’ As I mentioned before, my family, the Kareshes, go back to 1811 when my ancestor Jacob settled in South Carolina. One of my cousins fought for the Confederacy whilst others were fierce campaigners for black emancipation and equality. My late mother was nearly given a dishonourable discharge from the United States Army for railing at her CO about the segregation of the troops in her unit and my late father marched in 1938 for rights for a group of persecuted black civil engineers.

These American Jews threw off what they perceived as the shackles of Orthodoxy in the time of my South Carolina ancestors. Are the Karashes and Kareshes of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, South Carolina, Virginia and elsewhere still Jewish? You bet. Two years ago I spent one of the most miserable weekends of my life with an Anglo-Jewish person who had invited me to a country retreat. Never once did this shul-macher stop reprimanding me about my every move. In the end I was informed that my parents ‘could not have been Jewish’ if I switched lights on and off after sundown Friday and if I ate treif from time to time. How dared this Anglo-Jew suggest my beloved, deeply proud Jewish parents were ‘goyim’ because my mother, like millions of modern, educated and cosmopolitan American Jewish women, could pick out the best lobster at the seafood market or make the best pea and hambone soup in creation? (She did. She also made gefilte fish from scratch, carrot tsimmis, lokshen, cholent, helzel, proches, knishes and hamantaschen to die for.)

Just because the people Michael encountered on the ship did not know Kiddush by heart does that make them less Jewish than the London Dayanim who declared that the great Hugo Gryn was ‘a destroyer of the faith?’ Does Michael think the American geniuses Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Richard Rodgers, Louis Brandeis, Jerome Kern, Jonas Salk, Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller, Jerry Herman, Alan Jay Lerner and the host of other world-class Jews were and are any less Jewish because they might not be able to recite Kiddush? Conversely, I was appalled when I attended the funeral of a Rothschild some years ago when I realised I was one of a handful of attendees who knew the words to Kaddish whilst the grandees of Anglo-Jewry present simply mumbled.

Anglo-Jews, with their shameful, petty squabbles about the liberal movement, ought not to pass judgement on levels of Jewishness. In my hometown of Philadelphia Rebecca Gratz, born in the eighteenth century, was a pioneer of every social issue. Jews shaped the destiny of many aspects of American history and included Haym Solomon, who was one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence. Michael, when your community can boast the dynamic, welcoming and totally pluralistic life American Jewry offers, then I bow to your assessment. But a bunch of dentists on a cruise liner do not constitute American Jewry.

Finally, let me share with JC readers an experience I had in 2006 travelling on a special cruise for members of Cunard World Club. I was ‘sat’ ( an English expression that has come into common parlance ) with a group of English passengers for lunch. Several were tattoeed and some were not dressed smartly, though we had been told in advance to honour the dress code. I tried to make conversation with them but to no avail. All I got were grunts. They were illiterate, coarse and rude individuals but would I lump all of white, working class England together as Michael has American Jewry? He was unlucky, but I suggest readers try Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, Seattle etc etc and see how stupid, humourless and un-Jewish my people really are.

Carol Gould’s new book, ‘Don’t Tread on Me -- anti-Americanism Abroad’ (Encounter Books) is out in the UK and USA on 25 March and her novel, ‘Spitfire Girls’ (Random House) on 21 May. She was Drama Commissioning Editor at Anglia Television for ten years and has appeared on ‘Any Questions?’ on Radio 4, the World Service and Sky News.


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