The Jewish word that no one uses anymore


But, this leaves me with a question about the future of Jewish identity.

Once upon a time, our parents and grandparents could, and would, complete the following sentence: “Jews don’t ________________.”

We had our list of answers:

  • “Jews don’t buy retail.”
  • “Jews don’t make racist jokes.”
  • “Jews don’t play or enjoy violent sports.”
  • “Jews don’t hunt.” (Because of the prohibition against cruelty to animals, and also because the biblical Esau was a hunter – which was, by the way, a shanda).

I once gave a sermon on that last statement – “Jews don’t hunt” — in a Southern congregation.

During the oneg Shabbat, a few congregants approached me to tell me, in no uncertain terms, that Jews do, in fact, hunt.

Is it still possible to make the statement: “Jews don’t…”? 

I wonder.

And, I wonder what happens to a culture when there are no longer taboos.

I believe that the era of shanda has vanished — if only because our children and grandchildren will lack the ethnic Velcro to see Jewish bad actors as somehow inextricably linked to them. 

While shanda has evaporated, another Yiddish word might be experiencing a renaissance — though perhaps not in the original Yiddish.

I am talking about past nischt — that there are things that Jews should not do.

Shanda was about what others might think. The Other has the power to define you and evaluate you.

Past nischt is about what we — in the form of Jewish history, Jewish values — and we might even dare to say, God — might think. We, or our surrogates, have the power.

I feel that sense of past nischt all over the place, and I suspect that Letty would agree with me.

In particular, I feel that sense of past nischt — not only in an ethical sense, but increasingly in the sense of what is going on in our world today.

I know that Letty knows this, because her leftward leanings on Israel. She might think that Netanyahu was a shanda, but a more concise critic of Israeli policies might hope that a people that has been powerless might say, about the gratuitous use of power: Past nischt.

Sometimes, I agree with her.

I will go beyond that.

When I encounter Jews who behave badly, it is not only a case of shanda; it is a case of past nischt.

As in: they should know better, and be better, and act better.

As in: a people that has a covenant with God should know better, be better, and act better. 

In the words of my friend, colleague, and teacher, Rabbi Lauren Berkun of the Shalom Hartman Institute, in her interpretation of the teachings of Rabbi Donniel Hartman (whose father, the late Rabbi David Hartman, Letty cites in this book):

We answer to a higher authority, we answer to a higher standard, and that is the standard that’s worthy of who we perceive we ought to be. A standard that embraces exceptionalism, not in any sense of arrogance, but in the sense that “you shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” This is what you must work to become. If we fail to do so, we are failing to live up to our mission as a nation charged to be God’s covenantal partners and consequently to be a light that sanctifies God’s name and enables God to be the God of the world.

If we fail in doing that — well, that would be a shanda.

I love this book, and I suspect that I will be returning to it frequently.

You will love it as well — probably because you will see yourself, and your family, and your own complicated narrative in its pages.

With that, may we all live in such a way that our names appear in the Book of Life.



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