A Medieval Disputation in the 21st Century

Anyone who reads about the Jewish Middle Ages in Europe will notice that the Church, often helped by a prominent Jewish convert to Christianity, and perhaps under the aegis of some King, would make the Jews debate the fine points of the Bible. It is an odd feeling to be needed in such a way, especially after the Jewish collective survival in Christendom at times depended on this very same neediness. Once or twice a year, a random person walks up to me in some public arena, like a store, park, or street corner (as I wait for the “walk” sign), to lob some Biblical verse in my direction. This happened last night at CVS as I was returning from Synagogue after Rosh HaShanah services. The stranger, another customer at CVS, spotted my kippah and perhaps my “rabbinic” black-and-white spiffy suit and decided to impress me with his knowledge of Leviticus. (I should say, ONLY men accost me in this way; which may say something about men.) Over the years, being confronted in such a way, I learned not to ignore the person. If I say, “I do not know,” it would disappoint him. He thought I was a “Jew,” who is supposed to be naturally impressed by his knowledge of the Bible, but I was really just a pretender. My whole existence crashes down before his eyes. I certainly would not want to disappoint anyone in this way. A real “Jew” should have every verse of the Bible memorized and play along. For just this moment, – as my whole life comes down to an eventuality, – I should “witness” the Second Coming of Christ, realizing the Old Testament had prefigured his coming the first time around. At the same time, if I denied Christ, I would be a typical “Jew,” which would also bring too much pleasure to my instructor as he tells that I will burn in hell, or something along those lines. Some years ago, I did not know what was better: to be a “Jewish” pretender or the “Jewish” denier. There is no win-win. So I devised a plan to pretend to listen without saying a word while finishing my chores and walking away.            


Yesterday, in a thrift shop on Lincoln Ave. in Willow Glen, a woman approached me and asked: “Excuse me, is today a special Jewish day, like a holiday?”

”I don’t know,” I said, trying to plumb the depth of such a question.

“Oh,” she continued, puzzled, “well, it’s because my daughter is going out with a Jewish guy, I am going to meet him later today, and I don’t want to appear ignorant.”

“Good luck,” I said and we parted smiling to each other.

Interpret this encounter as you wish.


The Color-Line in America: Part II

Imagine, there was a prominent Jewish clan in the town of Medina, in the Arabian Peninsula. At the time, the people of Arabia (the Arabs) were pagan. Came the Messenger of Allah, Muhammed, seeking shelter from his enemies in Mecca, where he first revealed the new religion of Islam, and brought his teachings to Medina. At first, it was difficult for Muhammed to gain a following in Medina, as well. Yet, he was a great and charismatic leader. Sooner or later, Muhammed attracted the Arabs of Medina to his side. The Jews of Medina, however, continued to reject Muhammed’s teachings. Muhammed then raised a militia and defeated his opponents of Mecca, as well as, of Medina, and forever silenced all doubters, including the Jews of Arabia. Muhammed, thereby, showed everyone he was a strategic mastermind who knew when to make peace and when to war with those who reject him as the Messenger of Allah.   

In short, this is what one of my SJSU students wrote on his short essay response (which I briefly paraphrased above) for my summer (2019) course on Western Civilization (until 1648). It had almost nothing to do with the assignment, which was to write at least five-hundred words on any aspect of the history in chapters 8-14 in the assigned textbook, The Making of the West, that had to do with either gender or economy. It was a way to assess how well the students gobbled up large chunks of information presented to them in the one-month long summer session that ought to take three months to cover.  

I am not sure why someone would write the response I paraphrased above. Is it because I am unmistakably Jewish? I could just ignore the matter, make no mention of it publicly, not bring unsavory attention to the issue and to myself.   

 Now, imagine, in an American history course, a white student wrote an essay response to a black professor that retold the history of American slavery from the perspective of Confederate slave-owners, even though it had nothing to do with the assignment. The professor in question would be confronted by a Booker T. Washington or W.E.B. Dubois choice: Should she/he not call any attention to the matter because he has more important things to focus on or worry about, such as, his personal career? Or, should she/he call attention to the matter and risk making someone in the administration uncomfortable, especially since the university blogosphere is almost entirely for promotional purposes?  

From my personal point of view, as someone who is unmistakably Jewish, the primary difference between the case in my course and the hypothetical case in the American history course is that American slavery is something that happened less than two centuries ago, the effects of which are still very much present in American society, while the enslavement and eradication of the Jews of Medina happened about fifteen centuries ago.  

Of course, the response was written in 2019 and should the administration investigate, there was absolutely nothing on my part that would prompt such a response. Not even close.  

Ilhan Omar’s Kerchief

My wife, Ruthie, wears a kerchief every day. She is an Orthodox Jew, like me. Orthodox Jewish women, like Muslim women, cover their hair. Only, Muslim women also cover their ears (and, sometimes, necks, as well), while Orthodox Jewish women do not (except for a small sect in Modiin, Israel, where women don a burqa). In fact, some suggest that traditionally Jewish women got their practice of covering their hair from Muslim women.

I remember once when Ruthie saw a picture of Ilhan Omar in the newspaper for the first time and she was immediately inspired by Omar’s beauty with a kerchief styled in the same way she put its on. Ruthie always struggled to cover her hair with a kerchief, day in and day out, in college, at the workplace, because of the way she sometimes invites people’s glances or even because of the way she is sometimes treated: as someone different and strange. When inyerviewing for a job in th Bay Area, for example, the kerchief may not help. The fact that Ilhan Omar covers her hair in public as a congresswoman every day, on every picture, in every tabloid, is an immense inspiration.

And, then, Omar opens her mouth about Israel and Jews, without an ounce of sensitivity for rhetoric, which does not help anyone, especially Israelis and Palestinians. She especially sets a bad example for reasonable dialogue among the young people of this country. 

And today the government of Israel is cowering to Trump’s demands not to let Omar into Israel. Whatever Omar might say, the congresswoman should be able to inspire and to un-inspire us in Israel, as well.

Today the 9th of Av

Traditionally, the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av is the day of mourning and supplication and fasting and commemoration of all the suffering that the Jewish people went through over the centuries. This includes the Holocaust, of course.

There are two other nontraditional memorial days of Holocaust. The International Holocaust Remembrance Day is January 27th, when the Red Army liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps in 1945. The other is the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nissan, called Yom HaShoah, and is commemorated in Israel and by Jewish communities around the world in solidarity with Israel. The 27th of of the Hebrew month of Nissan (which falls either in April or May in the Solar calendar) marks the irruption of the Warsaw ghetto uprising (in April 19, 1943), which makes sense for Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. (The Warsaw Ghetto uprising that remarkably fended off the German wehrmacht, undoubtedly at the time the most powerful army in the world, for over one month, irrupted after the last ghetto residents found out [through the help of the Polish underground resistance movement] that over three million of their brethren had been systematically gassed in the German-occupied Poland between the springs of 1942 and 1943.)   

There is an eerie difference between the traditional day of commemoration and the nontraditional memorial days. For one, both memorial days commemorate the human motive for liberation from collective suffering. The traditional day of commemorating collective suffering had been designated over time as the day of disaster, the cruel suffering itself. In other words, the most cruel suffering in Jewish history is collapsed into the one traditional day: the 9th of Av.

The 9th of Av is especially when the sacking of the 1st and the 2nd Jerusalem Temples had been commemorated in Jewish communities for over two millennia. In fact, the 9th of Av is not the day when both Temples fell. The 1st Jerusalem Temple fell in 586 BCE on the 7th of Av and the 2nd Jerusalem Temple fell in 70 CE on the 10th of Av. But both dates were collapsed into one, the 9th of Av. In the course of the last two thousand years, the most dramatic events of Jewish suffering were added to the same day of commemoration, fasting, and supplication, according to the traditional Jewish calendar, even if those events really happened on completely different days. One of the primary reasons for this conflation is rather simple: to synchronize the mourning period of the various Jewish communities scattered about the world.   

The second main difference between the traditional and nontraditional days of remembering the Holocaust is the major conflict between the traditional and the non-traditional reckoning. While the International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27th does not seem to conflict with the accepted Jewish calendar of the last two millennia, Yom HaShoah does conflict with the month of Nissan, which is the first month of the traditional Jewish calendar, a month of joy and celebration in the birth of the Jewish people as highlighted by the prevalent communal celebration of Passover (Pesach) to this very day. Life is full of contradictions.

The Color-Line in America: Part 1

Here’s an interesting episode from the life of an Orthodox Jew at SJSU.

Today, a stranger tapped on my shoulder as I boarded the elevator at the MLK library. “Hey, do you believe the original Jews were really black?” Usually, the question is “Do you know the real Jews are really black?” About 18 years ago I once spent 18 hours on the same Greyhound bus (from New York to Cleveland via Buffalo) with a fellow passenger sitting next to me who tried to prove to me that he was really Jewish, while I was a fake, according to the Bible. It was my first real encounter with age-old Christian super-sessionism that was less about “Veritas Israel” than racial supremacism (like in Hitler’s Table Talk), only it was not the ultimate, inborn supremacy of the White Man but of the Black Man, in this case. Back then, in response, I tried to prove to him that I was really a black man. This time in the elevator at the MLK library, my fellow passenger phrased the same belief rather differently and I was appreciative of it. I probed, “Do I believe [the original Jews were really black]?” He nodded. I responded, “Probably.” He gave me a fist bump (which is like a “high five”) and walked out of the elevator at the designated floor.

Were original Jews black? Sure. Where they white? Sure, why not. Why stop there? They were probably also brown, yellow, pink, or olive-green. And, what is the business with the “original” Jews? Where “original”? Is this “original” like “vintage,” like the “original” Babe Ruth rookie card when he was still the fabled south-paw of the Boston Red Sox? Of course, the Bible (even the Christian Bible) does not really shed much light on the “original” pigment, and for good reason.

Indeed, why stop at white or black? Why the fixation with only white and black? Someone else’s skin color is subjective anyway. If I may be permitted to use Michael Jackson to teach us an important lesson (“Michael Jackson” as symbolic of the Age, not of the person):


The Canaanite god, Baal-Peor, in Downtown San Jose. Ha!?

Would you imagine my bewilderment [predicament]!? I was taking a leisurely stroll around the block from my office this morning to “get a piece of fresh air,” as they say. The cars zooming by, the birds chirping, the soft breeze on my prickly face, the glowing rotunda of the post-modern San Jose City Hall that lost its ’90s luster, rising before me on the horizon. As I approached the back entrance of City Hall, I looked up and  BEHOLD!:
You can imagine my confusion. I was staring at the backside of the statue with the dome of the rotunda of the City Hall before me like in procession.
I slowly pivoted around to witness the great, mighty, and colorful cow.
“Wow,” I thought, “the Canaanite god, Baal-Peor! Here, in San Jose!?”
How funny it is to stumble on the backside of the statue of a cow to let you know, “BEHOLD, you are about to enter the sacred  of the City Hall FROM THE BEHIND.”

Black Power, Martin L. King, and Zionism

Incidentally, I met the actual author of Martin Luther King’s famous “Letter to an Anti-Zionist Friend,” which is conclusively (and without-any-shadow-0f-doubt) forged. The real author produced the “Letter” in a discussion thread on the internet back in 1988 (at Stanford)!

In fact, King’s views on Israel and Zionism have only been recently deciphered by scholars. Not surprisingly, they are complex and he would never have conflated anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Of particular importance is chapter 4 in Micheal Fischbach’s Black Power and Palestine: Transnational Countries of Color (Stanford University Press, 2018). You can listen to Fischbach about his book in an Interview, which includes his overview of chapter 4.