As Jews across the region, the country and the world prepare for the holiest days of the Jewish year, it is worth doing a bit of self-assessment regarding where we stand as a community. Jews in America are in one of the safest and most welcoming environments we have known across our long and often sad history. Jews in America have the freedom to worship how and where they want, and to be as open or as closed about their Judaism as they choose to be.
Lord knows I don't want to be the umpteenth analyst to count the number of Jewish senators and congressman, or to talk about how many Jewish Nobel Prize winners there have been. But the fact remains that America has allowed many talented Jews to reach their potential in a variety of fields. Furthermore, and of greater importance as we go into the High Holidays, American Jews do not have to choose between observance and success. Jewish students today can know that they can pursue and be successful in their areas of interest without having to compromise religious observance to do so.
Not only do Jews have a great deal of latitude regarding how they worship, but many communities make special accommodations for Jewish holiday requirements. As a child, I was always impressed when I heard that New York suspended its alternate side of the street parking rules for Jewish holidays. (New York, you should know, takes its parking restrictions very seriously.) Today, these kinds of accommodations now go beyond the Jewish capital of New York, and also include my own community in Montgomery County, which closes schools in honor of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Of course, it was not always thus. Jews were not always fully welcomed in America, and it took some time for Jews to feel fully at home here. One of the surprising things I learned in the course of writing my new book, What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House, is that interactions between Jewish artists and the president go back almost 200 years, at least as far back as the presidency of James Monroe.
These interactions increased in frequency in the 20th century, and in our current day are so regular and comfortable that they don't even bear mentioning. If President Obama meets with Steven Spielberg or Scarlett Johansson or Natalie Portman, no one remarks at how noteworthy it is that the president met with Jewish artists. They will, however, not be far wrong if they speculate that the meeting took place at yet another Hollywood fundraiser. But long before this current administration made such meetings so frequent, a significant number of American presidents played an important role in allowing Jewish artists to feel at home in America.
Of course, there are certainly many more places around the world where Jews feel far less safe and at home. I recently listened to a disturbing interview with Daniel Jonah Goldhagen about his new book, The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism. Goldhagen makes the point that people don't like to say it out loud, but much of the Arab world is now effectively Judenrein. Furthermore, and more worrisome, he is concerned about the direction that Europe is talking with regard to its Jews. Goldhagen notes that Jews in Europe are not all safe or comfortable in publicly displaying their Jewishness on the street. In addition, he laments that the Jewish institutions that are there are typically so well-protected that they resemble fortresses.
I know that post-9/11 American Jews have given a lot more thought to building more secure institutions, and that many shuls in the U.S. will have a police car stationed nearby on the High Holidays, but we have thus far been able to avoid making all of our Jewish communal buildings into unwelcome fortresses. I plan to add Goldhagen's book to my holiday reading list.
As we spend time in shul and with our families over this holiday season, we should be sure to take the time to appreciate the happy home Jews have found in this great country. At the same time, we should be thinking about the more difficult situation that our European brethren face, and wonder what we can and should be doing to help them. Shana tova to one and all.