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The Oys and Joys of Being Jewish

Deborah LipstadtFilmed at Limmud Conference 2014

I am a Professor of Holocaust Studies so my talk may not be what you expect to hear from other motivational speakers. I talk about how the Jewish people are creative and smart and should be known for what they have achieved and can create in the future not by what has been done to them.

Deborah Lipstadt, Emory University’s Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies, is author of The Eichmann Trial and History on Trial, the story of her libel defense against David Irving who sued her for calling him a Holocaust denier.

For many years I used to attend a synagogue, we were in the breakaway minyan, the library minyan but on Yom Kippur the chief rabbi, the rabbi of the synagogue would come down to do the Israel bonds appeal and he would proceed to tell us very eloquently and rhetorically in a very well done fashion, how things this year were worse than they had ever been before and therefore we should give. And then the next year he would come and he would tell us the same thing and the next year and the speeches were, I was then at the beginning of my teaching career and I said, “this is a master teacher, sermoniser, a master speaker”. The only problem with his talk is that things weren’t worse year after year after year. Now in his defence, he might be said to have had Jewish tradition on his side. The Jewish thinker, writer, thinker, the creator of the Jewish studies programme at Brandeis University, a man named Shimon Rawidowicz, wrote a seminal essay published in 1948 called, “Israel The Ever Dying People”. And in it Rawidowicz traced how starting with Avraham Avinu, who worried that because he had no children his servant, a non-Jew, not a member of the covenant, would inherit his household, through to the sages of the Mishnah, the teachers of Talmud. Rambam, Maimonides – same person, all the way through the Middle Ages to the present day and not just religious speakers, religious thinkers, they all worried that they would be the last, that this was the end of Jewish learning, that there would be no one to study, no one to continue the tradition. Y. L Gordon, Hayim Nachman Bialik, all worry, who will read our poetry? Who will read what we have to write? Rawidowicz describes this as a psychological coping mechanism. That if you feared the very worst the worst couldn’t surprise you. If you drive your car down town or into the city, you pay the tax whatever it is and you drive in and you don’t expect to find a parking space and you berate yourself all the way there, why do I do this and you find one, you think you’re in great shape. And if indeed you don’t find one, you say, “you see? I was right.” And so to with the Jews, they never could be surprised. It was similar I am known to say that when you give Jews silver lining, they look for the cloud. Rawidowicz’s erudition could have been summarised in the Jewish joke, “what’s a Jewish telegram? ‘Start worrying, details follow’.” We Jews are a people, I think we’re the only ones, who when we see the light at the end of the tunnel we are fairly certain it’s another train coming straight at us. So my question is, is this pessimism built into our DNA? Is it who we really are? Is it how the rest of the world sees us? Now recently I came across a great movie, weird title, “Hava Nagilla – The Movie”, it’s for real and there are some, its really an anthropological study of contemporary Jewry through this song, whose words, whose title really means, “let us be happy” [clip “it’s Jewish”].  If we were to think, as some of you have heard me say before here at Limmud, think of Jewish life on a spectrum with “oy” at one end, that light at the end of the tunnel coming towards us and “joy” at the other end, to a great degree Hava Nagilla sort of encapsulates that joy and it’s not just in movies that we’ve seen it. [Clips] So are we seen through the pessimism, the sadness, or are we seen through Hava Nagilla or are we seen through make people who come from our tribe, who know so well how to make the rest of the world laugh, laugh at us, laugh at themselves and be joyous. What is it? You know there’s a story told of a Jew who was on a train and he was terribly thirsty, he was in a compartment and he sat there saying, “oy am I thirsty, oy am I thirsty” and there’s another Jew in the compartment couldn’t stand it anymore and went and got the guy some water, went and brought him some water, he drank it and he felt much better. Everything was quiet, the train continued on its way and after a few minutes, now it’s a Jewish joke so it’s got two endings you can choose the one you like, one is purely pessimistic and one is optimistically pessimistic. The purely pessimistic one is that after a few moments the man starts to say, “oy will I be thirsty, oy…” the optimistic pessimistic one he starts to say is, “oy, was I thirsty, oy was I thirsty”. So we Jews know how to do that at the same time there is much in our history that is of course tragic. Tragic, sad, painful and there’s no way we can ignore it. It hurts us, it pains us. The challenge that we have, I would argue, is to find a balance. To find a balance between this and to find a balance between laughing at ourselves, with ourselves, making others laugh, being joyous in who we are. I can use myself as an example here at Limmud 2014, in the course of the conference I will give 8 presentations, I am not sure how that happened but somehow I ended up giving 8 presentations. Every single one of them, with the exception of this one, is about how Jews died, not how Jews lived. How Jews are an object, object of hatred, object of contempt, not Jew as subject – what Jews do. It is what is done to Jews and not what Jews do. But, I remind myself that I am doing it, here at Limmud, in the midst of a festival of Jewish learning, of Jewish living, of Jewish joy – the food may not be great, new caterer is good, the coffee is awful, if you can get it, but the atmosphere is priceless because it is Jews, living and learning and enjoying and sharing as Jews. And that is something we must treasure. The challenge to us is to take those painful moments and to meld them with the more difficult and meld them with the good things that have happened to us. And if ever, and that’s why I was so glad to reprise this speech, because if ever there was a time, if ever there was a moment in the history of the lives of the people in this room, when we worry about Israel, when we worry about antisemitism in a way that we haven’t worried before, now is the time to take that way of finding a balance, of balancing between the oy and the joy. We do it not because of the terror we face, or the oppression we face, we do it “af al pi” despite, despite the best efforts of the world in the past, to cause us harm, we celebrate who we are, we celebrate who we are as Jews. A number of years ago I was invited to a wedding, it was the child of a colleague of mine and a number of other of our colleagues were invited and my colleague said to me, “one of our non-Jewish colleagues is coming and this is the first time she’s every been at a traditional Jewish wedding so will you sort of be her minder, you know, and show her what’s what.” Well this colleague who was coming happened to be a cultural anthropologist and she had done her homework and she knew bedekken and she knew it was checking that the right bride is there and she knew the breaking of the plate and she even knew erusin and nisuin and the two separate parts of the ceremony, she knew it all. And every time I’d lean over she’d say, “isn’t this where … “and I suddenly saw I didn’t have to mind too much, she had it all. The ceremony is over, the place erupts, young people singing and dancing the couple out, people, clapping, happy, laughing and she turns to me and she says, “but I don’t understand why they didn’t do the solemn moment of commemoration of breaking of the glass, of remembering the past.” I said, “they did,” “I missed it”, “didn’t you hear [stamps] that?” She said, “I thought that was the sign for joy and gladness to erupt”, because as soon as that happened there was a cacophony of singing, I said to her, “we as a people have lived through so much tragedy and through so much joy that for us they’re melded together, we celebrate, we mourn, we celebrate, it’s all as one.” We have to learn to dance as people danced in the past, [clip Hava Negilla playing in the background] “It would start everyone would just get happy” [clip joyous dancing]. One of the things we have to do is remember that we have a book, it’s the Torah, and in it we have many things but two of the sentences that jump out of me, one is, “zachor et asher asa lecha Amalek”, “remember what Amalek did to you”, when you were tired and weary and leaving Egypt, “asher karcha baderech”, “they attacked you in a vicious way. “Zachor al tishkach”, “remember, don’t forget.” The Torah’s emphasising that, we’ve got to remember that, at the same time, that same Torah teaches us, “v’samachta”, “Be joyous”, “v’hayitem ach sameach”, “Be very very happy”. So at a time where there seems to be so much darkness in our world let us do exactly what that song that we love to hate says, “Hava Nagilla”, “Be very very happy”. Thank you very much.

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