Jewish Resistance, Then And Now
First Person

Jewish Resistance, Then And Now

Resistance is, one could say, a Jewish state of mind.

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

A Christmas tree standing behind the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, Dec. 26, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
A Christmas tree standing behind the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, Dec. 26, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Because we have given our three daughters a Jewish education and raised them in Jewish neighborhoods, first in Harrisburg, Pa., and now in Baltimore, it came as something of a shock to me and my wife this year that our middle daughter, Sarah, whose bat mitzvah is coming up in just a couple of months, kept asking for a Christmas tree. While my wife and I, who both work professionally in the Jewish community, categorically denied her request, we still cannot quite wrap our minds around why she yearns for Santa Claus and mistletoe. But as her elder sister, Hannah, put it, “Everyone loves Christmas” — in other words, there is something irresistible about it.

Indeed, my daughter’s request brought me back to my own adolescence in Great Neck, when I would take the train into the city during the Christmas season to walk up and down Fifth Avenue and gaze into the department store windows fancifully decorated with dioramas and moving dolls. But I knew, even as a thoroughly secular Jew, that I needed to shut my eyes and ears to the endless Christmas carols on the radio, Santa Claus movies on TV, and other Yuletide “cheer.” Even though my family had little connection to Judaism, I was supposed to reject the Christmas spirit that enveloped the land.

Resistance is, one could say, a Jewish state of mind. Abraham developed a relationship with God partly by refusing to follow his bidding in a mindless way. This is why the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, remains such a seminal text for us — it forces us to grapple with what happens when Abraham fails to stand up to his Creator.

Resistance is a theme throughout Jewish life. What is Chanukah but a celebration of victory against the Hellenists who sought to assimilate Jews to the secular culture? Psychoanalysis, the “Jewish science,” is based on the idea of resistance — the analyst gets the patient to confront his or her unwillingness to articulate his or her own deepest, most repressed feelings. Physical health, long a Jewish preoccupation, is aided by exercise; the only way to build muscles is to oppose heavier and heavier weights against our efforts to lift our limbs.

Jewish comedy is also based on resistance to the status quo — think of Lenny Bruce’s courageous, boundary-breaking comedy routines. Played by Luke Kirby in the delightful new Amazon series, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” Bruce becomes a role model and friend of the title character, Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), an aspiring stand-up comic who is herself unafraid to flout the taboos of 1950s America against women using profanity and exposing themselves in public. Bruce’s influence can be seen in the work many of today’s Jewish comics, especially female ones like Susie Essman, Amy Schumer and Sarah Silverman.

Jewish resistance also has dark historical overtones. For decades after the Holocaust, European Jews were castigated for allowing themselves to be like lambs led to the slaughter. But more recent scholarship has emphasized the manifold ways in which Jews refused to submit, including through ghetto uprisings, rebellions against concentration camp guards, and concealing ritual items and papers like the musical manuscripts that are the basis of the current Folksbiene production of “The Sorceress.” Humor was also itself a form of resistance; the Jews in the ghettoes referred to Hitler’s opus as “Mein Krampf” (My Cramp) and even staged musical comedies by David Baigelman and other composers.

Political resistance has been at the heart of American Jewish liberalism. The planned relocation of the American embassy in Israel will likely trigger protests by left-wing Jews much more than by right-wing ones. They will do well not to lose their sense of humor as they approach such a fraught political situation. David Weinbach won last summer’s Funniest Jewish Comedian Contest by predicting that Donald Trump would never be able to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem since doing so would entail hiring Israel movers, who, as New Yorkers well know, refuse to lower their price and then, in an act of passive-aggression, lose all your stuff anyway. “Can you imagine the memo from the State Department?” Weinbach asked. “‘Good news! The embassy has moved from Tel Aviv. Unfortunately, we can’t locate it. We think it’s somewhere in a warehouse in Queens.’”

The wittiest line about resistance comes, though, not from a Jewish comic but from British one who suffered much for his own refusal to live his live according to the prevailing mores of his time. “I can resist anything,” a character in Oscar Wilde’s 1892 play, “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” proclaims, “except temptation.”

Ted Merwin serves as executive director of Beth Am Synagogue in Baltimore. He writes about theater for the paper.

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