A Purim “Nahafochu” Reversal: Let’s Reach Out to Christians

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-6-12

Our first year in Jerusalem, I heard that neighborhood kids were ringing the doorbell of the local church, then cursing into the intercom. I was appalled. We did not establish a Jewish state to do to “them” what “they” did to us – but to model different behavior. That Purim, my family and I delivered Mishloach Manot – Purim treats – in costume — to our neighborhood nuns. We were, I admit, a tad uncomfortable when we rang the bell outside their imposing door.  We were stretching, unsure what the reaction would be.
Greeting us in German-accented Hebrew, the nuns welcomed us warmly.  It seemed as if they never interacted with their neighbors.  They knew the Purim ritual but never had received Hamantaschen. That Easter, we received painted eggs and chocolate. That Rosh Hashanah, we delivered apples and honey. That Christmas, we received little Santas and more chocolate.  We now have a ritualized gift exchange four times a year.
I think of our little family “tikun,” our minor attempt to repair a breach, whenever I hear stories about this disgusting phenomenon of some – note the word some – ultra-Orthodox Jews spitting at priests and Seminary students in the Old City. While it is hard to know how widespread a phenomenon it is, we must have zero-tolerance for such appalling behavior. It violates a central commandment from the Torah, Vayikra Leviticus 19, to “treat the stranger who sojourns among you as the native.”
But objecting is not enough. Israelis must demand that the perpetrators be caught, prosecuted aggressively, and jailed for assault. We must determine which communities are teaching such anti-humanistic, anti-Jewish and anti-Christian ideas and pressure their leadership to follow the true Torah teaching. Moreover, each of us should make our own “tikun,” reaching out to Christians in Jerusalem and elsewhere, welcoming them somehow, reassuring them that this pathological minority of hooligans does not represent Israelis or Jews.  Here, our guiding principles should be, how do we want to be treated outside Israel? What do we expect from Christians when a synagogue is defaced, a kippah is knocked off a head, an anti-Semite barks out a hurtful curse like “Dirty Jew”?
Purim has emerged as one of the great Israeli holidays (he writes after fighting off the crowds at the local toy store cum costume shop).  It highlights the culturally invigorating opportunities that arise from establishing a majority Jewish culture in our homeland. With school cancelled, the weather improving, and masquerades charming young and old alike, it is a rare Scrooge who does not participate in Purim. The streets fill with happy kids wearing costumes – and delivering treats, not demanding them to avoid some “trick.” The range of hamantaschen fillings is dazzling, from the Troy family favorite – chocolate – to halva.  And the spectrum of venues for megillah readings is impressive, from private homes to grand synagogues.
While all societies need the occasional Mardi-Gras style release, and the value of a good shtick should never be underestimated, these rituals transmit important values and narratives.  There is, for example, a jump in serious charitable giving as modern Israelis fulfill the ancient tradition of “matanot le’evyonim,” gifts to the poor.  While formal philanthropic opportunities for giving in Israel abound, Israel also has a broad network for personal giving to the poor, which helps thousands without generating tax receipts or donor recognition plaques. It is also worth thinking about the deeper question too, after a summer of social protest, namely, how to develop a capitalist society that maximizes freedom and opportunity for all, while minimizing the suffering for some that inevitably results.
This Purim, with the Iranian nuclear threat climbing higher on the geopolitical agenda, with Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, Obama administration officials and critics, all meeting at the massive AIPAC policy conference in Washington, DC, and with President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting again for one of their periodic, awkward encounters, the Purim lessons are resonating, left and right. In fact, Netanyahu handed Obama a megillah – a Purim scroll.
Given Esther’s role in subverting Haman’s plans, the modern Zionist message of Jewish self-reliance, emphasizing the need for Jews to identify the enemy, highlighting the greater risks we as a minority face in the world, warning of the risks of complacency amid existential threats, all ring true. But, ultimately, Esther and Moredechai had to convince Ahasuerus that Hamanidejad, er, Haman, posed a threat to the kind of king he wanted to be, and the kind of kingdom he wanted to lead. If we only learn from the Purim story that “goyim” are bad like Haman and Amalek, we miss learning how to befriend non-Jews, whom we still need, even with a sovereign Jewish state.
While in the Diaspora, knowledgeable Jews talk about “adloyada,” celebrating until we cannot distinguish between Mordechai the good and Haman the bad, savvy Israelis talk about “nahafochu,” let’s reverse things. With the Iranian threat looming, with an American President who lacks a clear, constructive foreign policy vision, we cannot afford to indulge in “adloyada” confusion or relativism when assessing world threats, especially from Iran. But we need more “nahafochu.” The Zionist revolution achieved two clear “nahafochus,” from powerlessness to power and from minority to majority status. Israelis need a “nahafochu” with our Christian neighbors, actively protecting and reassuring them. Jews needs a “nahafochu” with our Christian friends, emphasizing our common values and interdependence, especially with American Christians. And Israel needs a “nahafochu” with its enemies –seeking to turn the tables on them – hopefully by fomenting internal tension that helps the regime implode but being prepared, if all alternatives fail, to defend Israel – and democracies throughout the world, including the “Big Satan,” the United States, which Iranian radicals constantly threaten too.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The History of American Presidential Elections.

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The Magic of Keeping Kippot On in Europe

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-27-11

On our trip to Spain this Hanukkah, my two sons debated whether they should wear their kippot openly, as they usually do, or cover them with baseball caps. The ensuing family debate stirred many compelling Jewish identity dilemmas. Ultimately, their decision worked for them and us.  Wandering around Christmas-time Barcelona with their kippot naturally, proudly, perched on their heads added Jewish magic to our family vacation.

As an American and a Jew I have long been ambivalent about Europe. As an American, I often feel judged by Europeans as a loud, crude, grasping cowboy.  In return, I confess, I can be a bit judgmental myself, wandering around Venice, Florence or other sites, dazzled by their medieval majesty, but wondering, “what have they done lately?” Of course, as a Jew I am all too aware of what some Europeans did lately, both six decades ago with the Holocaust and most recently with their New anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Yet, as a Jew I also acknowledge how modern Judaism benefited from its creative symbiosis with Europe. I feel positive resonances of Jewish history throughout Europe, even the relatively Jew-free zone called Spain. And, as a human, I appreciate how much of the cultural, intellectual, and ideological forces I most cherish in Western civilization bear Europe’s imprint.

As a modern Jew I also have my issues with kippa-wearing. Reared as an achievement-oriented Queens-boy in 1970’s New York, I was raised to fit in. Fitting in was America’s great welcoming gift to us, the European Enlightenment’s promise finally fulfilled in the New World. Fitting in was also the key to getting ahead, the Holy Grail for all us middle class wannabes — and a kippa did not fit the plan. It was always about standing out.

Blessed with a name like Gil Troy, I could get great service at Greek restaurants – balancing out all the jokes about whether my mother was Helen-of…. and, joy of joys, I sometimes was even mistaken for a WASP. When I was a teaching assistant at Harvard in the 1980s, a real White Anglo-Saxon Protestant who like me had a last name that also can function as a first name, said to me: “There are so few WASPs like us left at Harvard nowadays.” Putting on my thickest “New Yawk” accent, I retorted: “even fewer than ya think!” Enjoying my malleability, I joined the kippa-ba-kis, the kippa-ever-present-in-the-pocket, crowd — keeping it rolled not folded to avoid telltale creases, but ready to don it for religious ceremonies and in more 24-7-like Jewish contexts.
By contrast, my two sons have a delightfully healthy and natural relationship with the kippa. They wear it all the time. Whereas their dad might feel uncomfortable if “caught” wearing it in the “wrong” context, outside the Jewish bubble and frankly in more secular Jewish contexts too, they feel uncomfortable if they don’t wear it. My son Yoni, now 14, started wearing a kippa fulltime when he decided at the age of four that he was “awthodox.” He didn’t have his “r”s yet but he had his theology intact. For Aviv, 11, it has always been a part of his daily uniform, like wearing a shirt and pants.
We visited Italy in October 2001 just weeks after 9-11 and at the height of Arafat’s war of terror.  In those tense days, when people told us we were crazy even to fly, our hosts in Italy were so uncomfortable, they did not want Yoni wearing his kippa under his baseball cap, lest he somehow be exposed. I felt terrible having to explain to my four-year-old and his six-year-old sister about anti-Semitism and terrorism, initiating them into the ancient Jewish neurosis based in the reality of unfair targeting and enduring vulnerability.
Ten years later, the day we left for Spain, I received an email singling it out as Europe’s most anti-Israel country last year. I told my kids. We had a short to-cap-or-not-to-cap debate. But the boys decided quickly and definitively that they were who they were. They would do the Jewish Full Monty in Spain without cowering behind a Yankee logo.
I am thrilled to report that their kippot served as a friend magnet, bringing out the best in Barcelonans and serving as a homing signal for fellow Members of the Tribe. Aviv did feel stared at once or twice but, the first time, he said “I stared right back, and their super-gelled hair was much weirder than my kippa.” The second time, he just imagined them wondering, “Hey, what are you doing here? We thought we got rid of you in 1492.”
“You see the kippa’s magic,” Yoni said. “It made us new friends. It  attracted one rapper who rapped to us about Jewish-Christian friendship, two mah nishmas -whats up -from non-Jews, three chag sameachs from Jews, and four Israelis who said ‘hi.”” Yoni also noted that, thanks to their kippot, we were able to steer a French family who asked us, to the kosher market.
The Zionist revolution promised normalcy. My sons and I experience normalcy differently. To me, normalcy is the ability, after centuries of ghettoization, to blend in, to pass, to be accepted. To them, normalcy is the ability, despite the enduring curse of anti-Semitism, to stand out, but to feel completely at home about their uniqueness.
Not all European adventures for kippa-wearers end happily. But the few disasters make the headlines while the many magical moments don’t. When I told Aviv that Yoni found the kippot magical, he corrected me – “they are not magical, they are holy.” Then, pushing his dad, he asked: “After this, maybe you’ll consider wearing one all the time too?”

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is the “History of American Presidential Elections.”