No change at all

Joseph Aaron

The thing that always amazes me about the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the days right after Yom Kippur, is how everyone seems to be just like they were in the days before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

I look at people and I see no change at all. They act as they’ve always acted, they talk like they’ve always talked, they behave as they’ve always behaved.

I guess I’m naïve, which is one of the many names I’ve been called in the 24 years we’ve been putting out this newspaper each and every week, but it seems to me that if you have any understanding at all about what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are about, you should come out of them somehow changed. Even a little bit.

Maybe you don’t gossip about people quite so much or try to be a teeny bit kinder to people or try to act a bit more in line with the highest Jewish teachings. Look, I understand human nature and I know people don’t completely change overnight and I know that while we stand there in synagogue saying the prayers, it doesn’t mean that we are absorbing them, doesn’t mean we are being affected by them, being yes at least a little changed by them.

I have seen quite a few Rosh Hashanahs and Yom Kippurs in my time and every year I make the same mistake. For some reason, every single year, I expect that everyone I encounter in the Jewish world after the High Holidays will be somehow different, somehow better, just a wee bit nicer, just a wee bit less icky.

But they are not. Hell, the minute shul is over and people are walking out, you can see the hours they just spent saying the words they just said and hearing the words they just heard and listening to the shofar they just listened to, seems to have made absolutely no difference at all.

I find that sad and depressing. Of course, I must admit I am finding much about the world sad and depressing these days, finding most of my interactions with most people sad and depressing, and so I think my hope was a bit higher this High Holiday season that somehow some of us would take it all to heart, have it change our heart just a bit. Guess not.

In the lead up to the High Holidays, there were a few stories that crossed my path that I wanted to say something about but didn’t get around to as I wrote my column looking back at the Jewish year just ending and then my column on the Jewish year just beginning and then my column on how someone in Chicago was so evil, so full of hate, so judgmental, thinks himself so much a better Jew than me, that he actually interfered in a business transaction I was involved in that would have been of great benefit to this paper, and killed it, knowing full well, indeed intending to, hurt us and me.

I know I should get over it but I can’t. I find myself obsessing over how nasty people can be, how some Jews take it upon themselves to decide who is a good Jew and who not, who is doing the right Jewish thing and who is not. I’ve had a lot of nasty stuff done to me over the past 24 years, but never anything like this and I’m not really sure I will ever get over it.

That said, let me say a few things about a few things that got lost in the pre High Holidays shuffle.

I found it fascinating that when Kofi Annan died a little while ago he was praised to the skies by many Jewish leaders including Prime Minister Netanyahu himself. Annan was the head of the United Nations for about a decade and, as you know, it seems to be one of the requirements of being a Jew today that you hate the UN, believe it is out to get Israel, is the worst organization in the history of mankind, is full of anti-Semites, only and always does the Jewish state wrong.

And yet there was Netanyahu expressing his “sorrow” over the passing of Annan, while other Israelis remembered him as a staunch proponent of the Jewish state’s right to exist who was firmly opposed to anti-Semitism.

In a statement, Netanyahu described Annan, as a friend of Israel and the Jewish people.

“We will remember him as having been very active in the international arena and as someone who fought anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial,” said Netanyahu. The Israeli Foreign Ministry described Annan as someone who “resisted the delegitimization of Israel” and “fought actively against Holocaust denial.”

“The United Nations is, I hope and believe, what it always should be – a place where Jews can feel at home,” Annan said in 2006. “I hope that within my lifetime, just as in this country, where Jews are accepted without question as full citizens, by all their fellow citizens, so Israel will be accepted without question as a member by the whole family of nations.”

Pretty amazing stuff. Stuff we don’t ever seem to hear. As I say, there are certain things in the Jewish world that are just assumed to be true even if they are not or if there are other aspects to them. In the last 24 years, I have seen the Jewish world become less and less gray, more and more black and white, with us having an increasingly long list of those we are required to hate, those we must believe are out to get us. As Jews and the Jewish world have become more secure and accepted, the sad irony is that internally we have become more insular, more afraid, more sure we are surrounded by enemies. Kofi Annan’s death reminds us to keep our minds open and to recognize that things have changed for us, are changing for us and that we have far more friends than enemies in the world today.

Next was a story that really touched me, probably because I am the son of Holocaust survivors. We learned that Michael Cohen, Trump’s long time fixer and personal attorney who once said he would take a bullet for Trump, decided to turn on him because of a conversation Cohen had with with his father, a Holocaust survivor.

Maurice Cohen reportedly told his son that he did not survive the Nazi genocide to have the family name dragged through the mud by Trump, The Wall Street Journal reported. Soon after, Cohen testified in federal court that his former boss had directed him to pay off two women with whom Trump allegedly had extramarital affairs.

Cohen referenced his father’s wartime experiences in June when he quit a senior position on the Republican National Committee, citing his opposition to Trump’s immigration policies and invoking the Holocaust experience of his father. “As the son of a Polish Holocaust survivor, the images and sounds of this family separation policy is heart wrenching,” Cohen wrote at the time. “While I strongly support measures that will secure our porous borders, children should never be used as bargaining chips.” 

We owe so much in so many ways to Holocaust survivors. We tend to think of the big things, but it can be the little things like Maurice Cohen talking to his son, where you see how much they have given to the Jewish world in terms of teaching all of us what true Judaism is all about.

And speaking of the High Holidays, when one would hope Jews would feel closer to each other, would stop hating each other so much, a kind reader named Alan Posner shared with me something the former chief rabbi of England Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote, something I would like to share with you in the hope that it might make you act differently toward Jews not like you. He lays out the following seven principles.

PRINCIPLE 1: Keep talking, even when you disagree. The more you talk, the more you are likely to eventually find a way to work together. 

PRINCIPLE 2: Listen deeply to one another. Hear what your opponent is saying. Listening is profoundly therapeutic. It is also deeply spiritual. The good news about the Jewish people is that we’re among the world’s best speakers. The bad news is that we’re among the world’s worst listeners. This has to change. Shema Yisrael, the great command, means, “Listen, Israel.” 

PRINCIPLE 3: Always be humble and modest by striving to understand the point of view with which you disagree. That was the way of Hillel. It remains the first rule of conflict management.  

PRINCIPLE 4: Never seek victory. Never ever seek to inflict defeat on your opponents. If you seek to inflict defeat on your opponent, your opponent – such is human psychology – will seek to retaliate by inflicting defeat on you. The end result will be that even if you win today, you will lose tomorrow, and, in the end, everyone will lose. Don’t think in terms of victory and defeat. Think in terms of what is best for the Jewish people. 

PRINCIPLE 5: If you show contempt for other Jews, they will show contempt for you. If you show respect for other Jews, they will show respect for you. If you seek respect, give respect. 

PRINCIPLE 6: Remember that the ultimate basis of Jewish peoplehood is “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh,” “All Jews are responsible for one another.” We may not agree on anything, but we remain a single extended family. If you disagree with a friend, tomorrow he or she may no longer be your friend. But if you disagree with a family member, tomorrow he or she is still part of your family. Being a family is what keeps us together. We don’t need to agree with each other, but we do need to care about each other. 

PRINCIPLE 7: G-d chose us as a people. He didn’t choose only the righteous; He chose all of us. It is as a people we stand before G-d, and it is as a people we stand before the world. The world doesn’t make distinctions, anti-Semites don’t make distinctions. We are united by a covenant of shared memory, shared identity, and shared fate, even if we have differing perspectives on our faith. 

“The Sages said that the Torah was given to make peace in the world. How can we, the Jewish people or the State of Israel, be at peace with the world if we are unable to live at peace with ourselves? Bear this in mind the next time you are tempted to walk away from some group of Jews that you think has offended you. We are each called on to make some effort, some gesture, to listen to one another, to forgive one another, and to stay together as an extended, almost infinitely varied family.”

Something to keep in mind for the new year. Thought I doubt anyone will.

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