Why Do Secular Jews Think It’s OK To Publicly Mock Judaism?

At school I’m a part of this program of academically excellent students called the Presidential Scholars. We have a colloquium every few weeks where we get to see a point of view on a social/political/cultural part of New York City. Every year there is a performance. Last year was a jazz band, which was lovely. This year, it was an opera singer. Needless to say, we were, at the very least, hoping to learn something.

These colloquia are at night, naturally an inconvenience to any student. A lot of people don’t show up. As much as it ruins my schedule, I always go. I get a lot of benefits from the program and almost always I enjoy myself or learn something.

I am sitting with my friend Justine in the amphitheater, she is very excited because she is of Italian descent and loves her culture. The man gets up right away and starts singing.   He’s good. Very good.  We all clap for him, and he opens his mouth to speak. “You can’t clap louder? I thought this was FIT, you guys are happy fashion girls. You should be excited to be here. That sounded like a Harvard applause.”

We laugh nervously- it’s going to be one of those kinds of nights. If there’s anything all 12,000 FIT students can agree on, it’s that it’s really frustrating when everyone treats us like idiots because we go to FASHION school and like FASHION and make PRETTY DRESSES. (Regardless of the fact that over 11,000 FIT students are not making pretty dresses, and less than that are not studying about the fashion industry at all. Also, making a dress is incredibly difficult).

So the night goes on. He insults everyone in the room in pretty much every way possible. Then he says the one thing I didn’t want to hear.  “Yeah. My name is David. My mom is Jewish…but I only celebrate three holidays. Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, and tax returns.”

Everyone chuckles nervously and I turned to my friend Justine.  Oh HELL no.  He did not just say that.  He is not…You got to be kidding me.

David continues, singing and insulting.  He invites a group of guys up on stage and pokes fun at them.  “There’s a guy named Moises…Ah the hero of my people! You took us 40 years across the desert to end up in the only Middle Eastern country that doesn’t have oil.”

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(This is not true and I said it loud enough to make people turn and look at me with wonder. Is that what she’s angry about? Really?) And the night went on.

David forced them to sing and unbuttoned their shirts and made fun of their lisps. I hid my face in my sweater and started crying. Everyone around me was horrified, the head of the program was basically sitting there with her mouth open.  I had the thoughts that anyone of any minority group has had when someone is being generally horrible in the name of your ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or religion.

  1. Why did he have to say he was Jewish? What does this have to do with Italian Opera? When am I going to learn something about Opera?
  2. Does his Savta know how much of a jerk he is?
  3. I wonder where we lie on Jewish geography. Will I see him at a wedding, perhaps singing a song during a chuppah? Weirder things have happened.
  4. Punching him wouldn’t be derech chibah, right?
  5. Why did I have to be here for this?
  6. Maybe he said Kurdish or Swedish and I heard him wrong?
  7. Does it make me an anti-Semite that I really hate this guy?
  8. Why does every experience I have with Jews having a little bit of secular attention have to be so horribly negative? Why do we make fun of ourselves in public and let other people take our beliefs and twist and bend them to their unknowing, skeptical will?

After it’s over and I’m on the train crying (I also cry a lot, especially on the subway), I wonder if the problem is me. When did being an observant Jew give me the right to judge other Jews for laughing at themselves? Or being bad people?

Becoming more observant, I had a goal to not lose my open-mindedness and still be accepting of people, even if they made me uncomfortable. Was my complete contempt of this person as a Jew a failure? Maybe it’s better that the world thinks my ethno-religion is a joke and doesn’t know any better- they cannot use it as ammunition.

Perhaps in these moments, I am the one who should be compassionate and let guys like David be angry. I get to live a life in the omnipotent arms of Hashem and Torah and he’s the one who is lost. Angry. And cannot do what he loves without tearing the people around him down with him like forgotten post-it notes you leave on the mirror but carry the weight of the world.

It’s not my fault his world is burning, for everyone he speaks to to see… Right?