Let’s begin with ourselves.
I have been broadcasting a national talk radio show for more than 25 years. The vast majority of my listeners are non-Jews. They know that I am a religiously committed Jew, but they also know that they are free to say anything to me about Jews.
One call I will never forget came from a non-Jewish man who lives in a Jewish area of Los Angeles (Pico-Robertson). He called to ask me whether Orthodox Jews are permitted to speak on the Sabbath.
I nearly always understand a caller’s question. But this question puzzled me. After assuring him that of course Jews are allowed to speak on the Sabbath, I asked him why he thought otherwise. He explained that on Saturday mornings he walks around his neighborhood, and that when he says, “Good morning” to Orthodox men walking to synagogue (he knows they were Orthodox because they wore black hats and suits), they don’t respond.
On the assumption that this this man was not lying — which I based on his obvious decency and on what I myself have observed — why would any Jew not instinctively respond to: “Good morning”? The primary reason, I am certain, is insularity, which often produces a social discomfort with non-Jews. If these very same Jews lived in, let’s say, Iowa, I am certain they would, at the very least, say, “Good morning.”
Most Jews prefer to live in Jewish neighborhoods, just as many Asians, Latinos, and African-Americans prefer to live in their own neighborhoods. But group-based neighborhoods are not good for the individual, and they are injurious to the larger culture.
The primary reason is that, just as one would expect, insular neighborhoods generally keep its residents insular. It is true that insularity doesn’t register on most people’s radar as an undesirable trait, but it should. Insularity has many problematic features. The less contact people have with people unlike themselves, the less other people seem real. And the less real members of other groups seem, the easier it becomes to mistreat them, or, at the very least, to prejudicially dismiss them. Blacks were not real to vast numbers of people in the age of slavery; Jews were not real to most Germans (that is why most Germans came to believe Nazi films depicting Jews as vermin and as subhuman); non-Muslims are not real to most Muslims living in Muslim societies; and Christians are not real to many Jews.
Insularity also weakens us intellectually. Good ideas usually originate through interaction with others. It is no coincidence that Moses grew up as an Egyptian or that Maimonides lived among non-Jews. Though many fine people live in insular communities, insularity presents a challenge to moral growth; it is difficult to love the stranger if you don’t live among any.
Here is a rule of life: People are generally nicer to strangers when they live among members of other groups. It would be fascinating to compare how Chabad shluchim (emissaries who set up Chabad “houses” around the world) interact with non-Jews with how Chabad Hasidim — or any ultra-Orthodox Jews — who have never left their religious neighborhoods interact with non-Jews. For that matter, I would wager that the ultra-Orthodox Jews who work at the country’s largest camera and electronics store — B & H Photo Video in Manhattan — are nicer to non-Jews than other members of their communities who rarely leave their religious Jewish neighborhoods.
This is not an argument for assimilation into the broader culture. To the contrary, I have devoted much of my life to helping Jews strengthen their Jewish identity and religiosity. But we should not have to do so while living — physically or psychologically — only among our own kind.
Leaving the shtetl (whether Pico- Robertson, Crown Heights, Square Town, or Bnei Brak) is good not only for the moral and intellectual development of individual Jews, but also for Judaism and the Jewish people. Isn’t the greatest mitzvah kiddush haShem — sanctifying God’s name before non-Jews? And aren’t we going to make a lot more friends for the Jewish people — certainly in America — if we socially interact with others? (Most Jews are unaware how negatively many good and decent non-Jews regard Jewish insularity.)
How exactly can Jews achieve these essential Jewish goals if we choose to live only among Jews?email print