First Person: In Praise of Jewish People by Harry Weininger

Tuesday March 28, 2006

I’ve never heard anyone call Jews lovable. The Irish are lovable, and the Italians. The French are admired for their savoir faire, the English for their gentility—still, “some of my best friends are Jews.”  

I like Jews for their robust righteousness, their survivor strength, their combativeness, their intellectual curiosity—they dig for ultimate causes. In my experience, Jews are caring and generally abhor violence. They don’t rejoice in the misfortunes of others, even their adversaries. They don’t proselytize or poach on other faiths. They prize scholarship and family. They appreciate humor, even at their own expense. From civil rights to social justice, Jews are in the forefront. 

I didn’t start out liking Jews. I grew up in a non-Jewish neighborhood, on the outskirts of a small town founded by the Romans in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. Czernowitz, which had a significant Jewish population, had changed hands often (Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Romania, Moldova, the Soviet Union) and is now in Ukraine. 

I first saw the cost of being Jewish as a 4-year-old, after viewing a military parade. The parade was quite marvelous, with all the pomp that a Romanian Royal garrison with an Austrian Imperial tradition could provide--flamboyant uniforms, flashing sabers, and priests carrying icons and incense. Walking home, my neighbor asked, “What will you be when you grow up?” Still under the spell of the colorful procession, I said, “I will be a captain in the king’s army.” She gently squeezed my hand and said, “You can’t. To become an officer you have to venerate the Holy Mother of God.” I was devastated. Years later, as I received my commission as an officer in the U.S. Army combat infantry, I flashed on this incident. 

Along with the neighborhood kids, I absorbed the local prejudices. My parents never corrected this perception, even though they certainly didn’t share it. It was like sex—one simply didn’t talk about it. I was not pleased with being Jewish, which only seemed to close doors.  

In 1940 the Germans came. The stakes were suddenly much higher. Good relations with our non-Jewish neighbors were critical. I vividly remember an incident with my goat who, fond of flowers and weeds, grazed outside. Some folks started throwing stones at her and calling her a Jewish goat. We had to bring her inside. Being Jewish was perilous. Jews took extraordinary risks to survive. 

By the time of my Bar Mitzvah, I had come to see Jews as bright and energetic people who repeatedly demonstrate resilience and accomplishment after centuries of oppression and subjugation. I developed an appreciation for my “comrades,” who have had a positive impact in so many areas. And other people were not excluded from having those universal qualities that I appreciate in Jews. 

I’m bothered by the bigoted hostility toward Jews. Even Jews themselves can buy into negative stereotyping about Jews and sometimes engage in perplexing, seemingly anti-Semitic behavior. In a sense, prejudice against Jews is an indicator of a general malaise in the world—akin to the proverbial canary in a coal mine.  

Especially troublesome is a pervasive double standard when it comes to Jews. People are quick to rise to the defense of others when they perceive even a slight injustice, but are strangely quiet when a negative or hostile remark is made about Jews. Joseph Conrad wondered, why one man can steal a horse while another must not even look at a halter?  

There is a twinge of pride when a Jew is elevated to the Supreme Court, wins a Nobel Prize, or receives some other distinction. It’s not a celebration—just a little bit of satisfaction that such a miniscule minority can excel in an enormous range of human endeavors. 

These thoughts were triggered sitting around the dinner table with very good friends, people I care much about—one Lutheran, two Jews, three Catholics. My liking Jews does not prevent me from liking other people just as much. Without my noticing it, perhaps they have all become Jewish..