This article appeared in the latest issue of La Voie Sepharad and JMag:
The Cost of Being Jewish
By Howie Silbiger
At the beginning of July, Newsweek Magazine, a weekly American news publication, ran a column entitled ‘The Cost of Being Jewish’. In the article, Lisa Miller, the magazine’s religion editor complained that the cost of being Jewish, essentially synagogue membership, tuition and kosher food was driving mainstream Jews away. She complained that the Jewish establishment wasn’t doing enough to curb the costs and middle to low class Jews were feeling the brunt, with some families having “to choose between Hebrew school and math tutoring.”
A 2009 American study reported that the average cost of synagogue membership in the US is $1,100.00, it’s not much less in Canada. Between synagogue membership, seats for the high holidays, donations and life cycle events the extra costs could run into the thousands of dollars, quite a chunk of after tax dollars (although some, but not all of it is tax deductible) for an average middle class family.
But money isn’t everything and if you make the decision to follow a lifestyle, you have to accept the intricate costs involved with it. No one said commitment to a higher being would be cheap, but is the cost worth the payback?
Most Montreal modern orthodox synagogues seem to care less about the religious aspect of the synagogue and are focussing more on the fundraising and programming aspect of their institutions. You see it on Shabbat morning when, in a lot of big synagogues, the chazzan is instructed to be finished ‘no later than 11:30 am’. In order to achieve that goal, these synagogues have cut out interaction with the audience, meaning no circulating the Torah for the audience to kiss, no handshaking with the Rabbi or Chazzan, a shortened Rabbis speech, no page numbers being called and a race to finish mussaf.
What these policies tend to do, however, is suck the life out of what is already a boring prayer service. If an unaffiliated Jew walked into one of these synagogues, the lightning speed and lack of intellectual stimulation would drive the Jew back to the shopping mall, ski hills and/or golf courses.
This unfortunate trend was started in Montreal by a group of Jewish school educated 40 somethings who felt the prayer service dragged on too long. They wanted to be out early on Shabbat. So with little consultation, they made the decisions, changed the policies and forced everyone attending their synagogues to follow their rules. This has led to unhappiness and confusion amongst synagogue goers and dissent amongst the ranks. Believe it or not, when people pay thousands of dollars a year to be members and only show up for Shabbat and some Yom Tovim, they want their money`s worth, or at minimum, a chance to shake the Rabbi`s hand. Its always baffling to then hear these same policy makers wonder why their synagogues are leaking membership.
But the monetary aspect is not the only cost of being Jewish. There is a social cost. We live in a secular world, most Jews are assimilated to a certain extent and do want what is perceived as the acceptance of their neighbours.
There`s an old joke often told around Christian holiday time: A Jewish man is walking home from work and sees a neighbour decorating a Christmas tree. He waves at the neighbour who stops his work and invites the man into his house for a cup of tea. Upon entering the house, the Jewish man immediately smells the turkey baking in the oven, cookies on the counter, a huge tree set up in the living room with dozens of presents under it, stocking hanging on the mantle, festive colourful decorations all over the house and holiday themed music. The Jewish man is taken aback, he`s shocked at how welcoming and fun the Christian holiday is. His neighbour notices his shock and asks, `why are you surprised?’ The Jew responded, ‘well in Judaism all of our holidays are about us being killed, we’re always mourning, it’s basically, we were killed, let’s eat, oh we were killed, repent, let’s eat.”
Not an overly funny joke, but one that truly highlights the problem with marketing Judaism. We get so caught up in the nitty gritty details that we forget the big picture. It isn’t a surprise that the North American Jews are assimilating and intermarrying in epic numbers, orthodox Judaism has given them nothing to hold onto, nothing to grasp. In fact, over the past few centuries, with a few exceptions, Orthodox Judaism has become an exclusionary club where only the privileged few are allowed to join.
On a recent radio program on Radio Shalom Montreal, the question of Jewish unity was raised. About 30 calls were received, most of them from disgruntled Jews upset at Orthodox Jews. The reasons for their dismay was clear, at one point or another they had the opportunity to interact with the orthodox community and were shunned, ignored or not welcomed.
The story is always the same, non-orthodox Jews entering orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods and being stared at by the kids. Overhearing the kids asking their parents if they are Jewish and hearing the parents answer “they are Jewish non-Jews.” This kind of self righteous, egotistical, exclusionary and repulsive behaviour is another cost of being Jewish. The message sent: not only are Jews hated by non-Jews in general, they are also hated by other segments of Jews. It always strikes me as odd that these segments of Judaism that reject other segments of Judaism still have the audacity to moan and wail on Tish Ba’av about the destruction of the Beit Hamigdash (Jewish Holy Temple) but at the same time don’t realize that the Temple was destroyed due to the unjustified hatred between Jews. Essentially, if that’s the case, then these Jews are part of the problem, they are standing in the way of the coming of Messiah and the building of the third Temple in Jerusalem.
But inter-Jewish relationships or lack thereof are not the only cost of living in a secular world and being Jewish. There’s also a societal cost.
Since the beginning of time, Jews have not been well accepted in lands that they did not control. When Hashem gave the Jews the Torah on Mount Sinai and effectively created the chosen people, other nations were upset. They couldn’t accept the fact that this small nation was Hashem’s favourite. It was the exact reaction expected when a father tells the rest of his children that his favourite child is a certain son. Resentment sets in and other children vie for the affection of their Father.
Christians got around the problem by creating the New Testament, a book of the teachings of a Jewish man, whom the Christians claimed was the Jewish Messiah. Jesus, according to Christian liturgy, ushered in a new testament and agreement with Hashem. Basically, after Jesus and his teachings, Hashem had named a new chosen people. But what to do with the problem of the old chosen people? The ones who rejected the New Testament, the ones who didn’t accept Jesus as messiah?
Thus started a series of inquisitions, persecutions and conquests all targeting Jews. Many Jews, in order to survive, converted to Christianity. Many others fled, fought back or died in the name of the Torah. But Judaism survived.
Then came the Moslems, who through a prophet named Mohammed, received another new testament from Hashem. The Koran was a new set of laws which essentially named Islam as the new chosen ones. The question arose, what to do about the Jews, the original chosen people and the Christians, the new chosen people?
The answer was simple, through a series of Jihads over centuries, Islam tried to convert Jews and Christians to their way of life. While moderately successful, Islam is the largest religion in the world, Jews and Christians still remain and the Jihad continues to this very day.
So economically, religiously and socially, Judaism appears to be nonsensical, on the surface it looks as though the costs outweigh the benefits greatly. If it were a business, any smart businessman would shut it down immediately. Yet, Judaism has survived thousands of years, countless persecutions and attempted genocides and explosions of intermarriage and assimilation.
Nineteenth Century American humorist and author Mark Twain, commenting on the recently held first World Zionist Congress in Basel, noted that Theodor Herzl had enunciated a plan to ‘gather the Jews of the world in Palestine, with a government of their own – under the suzerainty of the Sultan, I suppose.’
Twain responded: “I am not the Sultan, and I am not objecting; but if that concentration of the cunningest brains in the world are going to be made into a free country (bar Scotland), I think it would be politic to stop it. It will not be well to let that race find out its strength. If the horses knew theirs, we should not ride anymore.” He then concluded with the oft quoted “The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then . . . passed away. The Greek and the Roman followed. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts. … All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”
Twain failed to realize the same thing many North American and even most world Jews still fail to realize. Being a Jew isn’t about how much it monetarily costs or the hardships of following the rules or how much land Jews control and who conquered what when. Judaism is not about any of those things, it is simply about a stubbornness to follow the word of Hashem.
Jewish stubbornness is the secret of Jewish survival.
When Jews of Spain were faced with conversion or death, they converted but, facing the penalty of death, still held secret Friday night candle lighting and dinners in the basements of their homes to commemorate Shabbat.
In Russia, when the Cossacks banned religion, and practicing Jews were being persecuted, facing the punishment of firing squads or worse, they still built secret cheders (learning centers) so that they could teach their children the basics of Judaism. So the religion that Hashem passed down to his chosen people could survive.
When, in the 1930s and 40s, Jews were being corralled into ghettos and concentration camps, facing certain death, many snuck in scraps of paper with prayers on them and prayed everyday. In the Ghettos, Jewish mothers gathered their children and the children of their neighbours and gave lessons on Torah and Judaism, because even in the face of death, there was an off chance that one of these children would survive and continue to spread the word of Hashem.
In the 1970s and 80s, in Russia, facing death or life of hard labour in Siberia, men like Anatoly Sharansky held onto their Judaism, were viciously punished, tortured and imprisoned, but remained steadfast and stubborn holding onto their ancestral traditions.
Today we live in a free society, we fret day in and day out, complain about the high cost of living as a Jew.
Everytime anyone brings it up to me, I immediately think about the Jews cowering in their basements, hoping and praying that the Spanish royal guards don’t see the flickering of the candles, of the Jews teaching aleph bet to children in Russia with one ear to the door, listening for the stomping of soldiers boots, and to the Jews, who facing the Nazi firing squads and gaz chambers, still had the courage and stubbornness to scream out Shema Yisroel.
I think about Anatoly Sharanksy, who never dreamed while sitting and being tortured in a KGB prison, that he would ever be a cabinet minister in Israel free to watch the fall of Communism.
When I think about these Jews, their struggle and their stubbornness, I realize that we don’t have it all that bad.
Howie Silbiger is a freelance writer based in Montreal. He is the host of the Howie Silbiger Show on the Truetalk Radio Network, heard in Montreal, Sunday through Tuesday at 6 p.m. on 1650 Am CJRS Radio Shalom Montreal. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org