As far as being Jewish goes, I am no great role model: I don’t keep kosher, I don’t observe the Sabbath, I don’t fast on Yom Kippur and I have married outside my religion.
But I consider myself Jewish in my upbringing, cultural connections, appreciation of Jewish food, jokes and more deeply a sense simply of always, no matter what, being a Jew.
Then of course there is just being a decent human being: fair, just, kind, compassionate, empathetic. These too I consider very Jewish values (and ones that I try to uphold), though they are also the values of good and decent Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and atheists.
For me they have always been more important than going to synagogue, observing the high holy days, not mixing milk and meat or wearing a kippah on my head.
Which is why I have always believed so strongly that intolerance has no place in Judaism or Jewish life and why I reacted so strongly when I read a letter, published recently in the Australian Financial Review, written by a fellow Jew, Michael Burd of Toorak, Melbourne.
Written soon after the Australian government had agreed to take in an additional 12,000 Syrian refugees and amidst the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War, Mr Burd’s contribution to the debate was not to naturally as a Jew, identify with the persecuted, tortured, and frightened people fleeing genocide, but argue against compassion and call for the protection of the Jewish community in Australia – one of the most privileged minorities in one of the world’s most prosperous countries.
In his letter, Mr Burd wrote of the threats to Jewish schools from Muslim extremists (never mind that the greatest threat to Jewish kids comes from the paedophiles that work in these schools) and other Jewish institutions, ending his indignant letter by saying:
With 12,000 Syrian asylum seekers coming to Australia our government is playing Russian roulette with Jewish community safety.
It appalls me that an educated Jewish man, who probably lost relatives in Europe during the Holocaust, and would well know the long history of Jewish flight from persecution to set up new lives as refugees in countries like South Africa and Australia, should hold such intolerant beliefs and paint modern day refugees in such a negative light, particularly given current events in Europe, and around the world.
But it does not surprise me at all.
So many of the memories of my very Jewish upbringing (I had a Bar Mitzvah, attended a Jewish Day School, went to synagogue on the Sabbath) in South Africa are darkened by intolerance.
Here’s a phrase I remember well: ” Shiksas are good for sleeping with, just so long as you don’t marry them.”
A Shiksa, for those who don’t know is a non-Jewish woman. Another word used constantly for non-Jew was ‘Yok’.
Then there were the constant references to the ‘schvartze‘ – a derogatory Yiddish word referring to a black person.
When I was growing up in South Africa, the schvartze was the black domestic worker toiling silently in the kitchen or the garden ‘boy’ (in fact a grown man) raking up the leaves from the swimming pool.
Words like shiksa and schvartze was said all the time by the very people who should have been my role models: my peers, older relatives and even those observant, ultra-religous Jews with their disapproving judgements of non-religous Jewish life.
Of course there have been many heroic Jews around the world who have fought for human rights and justice, who would be equally appalled at Mr Burd’s letter.
In South Africa, people like anti-apartheid heros Joe Slovo and Albie Sachs and war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone spring to mind. Indeed, there is my own cousin Henry Brown, who represented Nelson Mandela as a young lawyer in the 1960s.
But it is the intolerance within the Jewish community that has seen me drift further and further away from my faith.
Instead, i see my Jewishness, purely through cultural references and reminscences: the comedy and witticism of Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, the mournful hymns we use to sing in the beautiful old Germiston Synagogue on Saturday mornings, the lavish meals of chopped liver, marrow bones on challah, mock crayfish, matzoh ball soup, roast meats, potato kugel and parve chocolate mousse served for dessert.