Jewish shame, Jewish pride

Joseph Aaron

There are two things you usually don’t think of Jews as.

Sexual predators and baseball stars.

And yet, so it is in the continually amazing, bewildering time that Jews today are living.

We already knew about Harvey Weinstein, former and still honoree of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. But in the last few days, we’ve also learned about director James Toback, Jew, and journalist Mark Halperin, Jew, and journalist Leon Wieseltier, Jew (Jewish journalists as creeps. Who woulda thunk it?).

And to show just how bizarre things are in today’s Jewish world, we learned that someone has even accused Elie Wiesel of sexual harassment. Yes, Elie Wiesel. Yes, sexual harassment.

Showing that even Jewish men can be pigs.

While I feel nothing but disgust and revulsion about Halperin, who several women have accused of grabbing their breasts, rubbing his bris up against them, kissing them against their will, greeting them at his hotel room with his bathrobe open, and more; and while I feel nothing but disgust and revulsion about Toback, who more than 300 women have accused of truly vile acts of sexual abuse and harassment; and while I feel nothing but disgust and revulsion for Leon Wieseltier, who a number of women have accused of  sloppily kissing them on the mouth, making crude comments to them, asking them about their sex lives and telling them about his, and more;  I must admit my feelings about what Wiesel has been accused of are a lot more difficult for me.

It’s kind of how I feel about the accusations that several women have made about former
President George H.W. Bush.

In Bush’s case, the women said he would first tell them this joke: ‘you know who my favorite magician is? David cop-a-feel,’ and he would then proceed to do just that by squeezing their behinds.

Now I absolutely do not excuse that behavior but I must admit I am not so outraged by it. Bush is 93, grew up in a very time and culture, has lived a very pampered life, was brought up with outdated notions of men and women.

I truly think Bush did not do what he did, say what he said, out of any sense of wanting to demean the women or was seeing it at all in sexual terms. I think he’s an old guy who thought it was harmless fun, the kind of thing a preppy man would to do a pretty younger woman. Doesn’t make it right but also doesn’t put it anywhere near the same category as Harvey Weinstein, who raped women, physically hurt women, emotionally traumatized women, was into some kind of power trip where he felt he had the right to do whatever he wanted, no matter how vile or violent, to any woman he chose, because he had the power to make or break their careers. That is truly sick and not at all in the same league as where Bush was coming from.

I kind of feel the same way about Wiesel. First it seemed impossible to believe that Wiesel would do anything at all wrong. He is such a Jewish role model, such a Jewish saint, is after all a Holocaust survivor and so needs to be seen and treated with that always in mind.

But he was also human. I remember when he fell off the pedestal I had always had him on. A few years ago, a playwright in Washington wrote a play that imagined all time creep Bernie Madoff, who ruined so many lives out of greed, meeting Wiesel. Wiesel did not at all want to be in the same company as Madoff, did not want the play to performed and so sued to prevent the play from being produced.

I couldn’t believe it. Wiesel, someone who more than most should value the First Amendment, should do all he could to safeguard freedom of speech, was trying to silence a playwright because he didn’t like what she had to say. The First Amendment is precisely there to protect speech some of us may not like.

So from that day on, I didn’t think of Wiesel the same, couldn’t see him in the same light. The fact that we later learned he had invested his money with Madoff in real life, made things worse, then when I heard he turned down a chance to be president of Israel and that he backed the insane effort by Prime Minister Netanyahu to block the Iran deal, made me realize that even Elie Wiesel was human, even Elie Wiesel was flawed.

But even so, sexual harassment? I couldn’t believe it and still have trouble doing so. But in fact a woman has said that when she was 19, Wiesel grabbed and squeezed her behind in a way that made her feel violated. Yes, Elie Wiesel. If the last few weeks have taught us anything it is to believe that anything is possible, to trust women when they say they have been abused, because it takes so much courage to do so and because we see that even big time producers like Weinstein and respected directors like Toback and acclaimed journalists like Halperin and Wieseltier do do such things.

The other night I was on YouTube and came across a rerun of a roast to Don Rickles from a few years back. In it, Jerry Seinfeld said in his view there are four comedians who deserve to be on the Mount Rushmore of comedy – Rickles, Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Bill Cosby. Who could have imagined then that Cosby was doing what we now know he did. So when you find it impossible to believe that Elie Wiesel could have sexually harassed a woman, think about how you would have reacted five years ago if someone had told you that Bill Cosby was drugging and raping dozens of women.

As the child of Holocaust survivors, the accusation against Wiesel especially pains me, and as a journalist, so do those against Halperin and Wieseltier, not only because they’re journalists, but because they had such sterling reputations, and in Wieseltier’s case because he always made a big deal about his Jewishness, often writing about it and writing about Israel. And in Halperin’s case because he said something no Jew should ever say. After woman after woman told of what he had done to them, he issued a statement that said in part “I now understand from these accounts that my behavior was inappropriate.” Now he understands? Now? I don’t care how little role Judaism played in his life, how little involved in or knowledgeable about Judaism he is, there is no excuse for any Jew to not understand that grabbing a woman’s breasts, rubbing your bris up against her, playing with your bris in front of her during a business meeting is, to say the least, inappropriate. Every one with a Jewish soul should understand that, which is what makes the behavior of Harvey and Leon and James and Mark so incredibly hurtful and why every Jew should feel shame.

But thankfully, as is so often the case in Jewish life, just as we had reason to kvetch, along came something to make us kvell. It too came from an unexpected source, namely baseball.

We just witnessed one of the most amazing World Series in the history of baseball, one incredible game after another played by two fantastic teams. And for Jews it was something extra special.

This year’s World Series featured not one but two Jewish players — Joc Pederson of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Alex Bregman of the Houston Astros. Each of them homered in the Series, becoming the first Jewish players to go deep for opposing teams in the Fall Classic and only the third and fourth Jewish players to homer in the World Series (the others were Ken Holtzman, an Oakland A’s pitcher, who hit an improbable homer in 1974, and Hall of Fame slugger Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers, who accomplished the feat five times in the 1930s and ’40s.)

And that wasn’t the only Jewish history made in this year’s Series. When Bregman got a hit in the bottom of the tenth inning to win Game 5 for the Astros, he notched the first-ever walk-off hit by a Jewish player in the World Series.

To have two such prolific Jews playing such important roles for their teams in the very same World Series was a huge injection of Jewish pride, just when we needed it.

And while Pederson and Bregman are the present, and symbolic of all the good Jewish stuff going on these days, despite Harvey, Leon, James and Mark, the Series also reminded us of a Jewish hero of the past, one who showed his Jewish allegiance at a time it wasn’t as easy to do as it is today.

With the Dodgers in the World Series for the first time in almost 30 years, we got to see Sandy Koufax, the legendary Dodgers and Jewish pitcher of the 60s. He was on hand at Dodger Stadium to congratulate his old team after Game 1. Koufax is not only one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball, which should make Jews proud, but he did something that took real guts and should make Jews especially proud.

Back in the 1965 World Series, a game Koufax was supposed to pitch fell on Yom Kippur. And so Koufax, the Dodgers best pitcher, was faced with the question of pitching because it was baseball’s biggest event, the World Series, or not pitching because it was Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. Letting down his fans and his team, versus letting down his faith and his people.

Koufax realized the most important team he was on was Team Jewish and so he didn’t pitch that World Series game on Yom Kippur. Imagine the strength of character, the commitment to his people, it took for him to do that. It would be an incredibly shining moment at any time, but especially so because back 50 years ago, people were not so accepting of diversity, not so tolerant of differences, not so embracing of Jewish ways.

But Koufax stood up for all of us and for Judaism by sitting down and not taking the mound on Yom Kippur. This year’s World Series, by featuring his team, gave us the chance to remember that and to take pride in that and in a true blue Jew named Sandy Koufax. That this year’s Series featured two Jews such as Pederson and Bregman gave us even more reason to smile and feel pride.

So while we were all feeling the pain in our hearts that Jews could behave like Harvey and Leon and Mark and James did, could act in such not Jewish ways, we should be comforted by the memory of how Sandy showed us how a Jew is to be, and be joyful and grateful at how Bregman and Pederson showed that yes, some Jewish men can be pigs, but there are also Jewish men who are sluggers.

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