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I WITNESS: Yiddishkeit

If someone in Hollywood were to make a musical about both sides of my family, they would have to call it “Schindler on the Roof.” That’s how good my Jew cred is.

Yiddishkeit (noun): Jewish character or quality; Jewish way of life; Jewishness (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

I grew up in a very observant Jewish family. I will never forget the sukkah my father constructed in our back yard every autumn to celebrate the fall harvest, or the sight and sound of him blowing the shofar every year at our synagogue on the High Holy Days, or the sabbath and holiday meals prepared so lovingly by my mother. I attended six years of Hebrew school and 10 years of religious school. We went to schul (synagogue) to pray on every Jewish holiday. Every summer I attended a Jewish sleep-away camp in northern Wisconsin. All of my friends were Jewish.

I marinated in Judaism from the time I was born on the first night of Passover in 1957 until sometime in my early 20s when my rabbi, in his infinite wisdom, denounced homosexuality from the pulpit. At that point, I discontinued my observant Jewish practice, but I have never stopped being a Jew.

Religious practices vary widely among Jews, as is the case with Christianity—that is, some Jews are very orthodox and rigidly devout in their practices; some Jews are more conservative and middle-of-the-road in their practices; and some Jews fall within the not-quite-so-devout reform branch of Judaism. Additionally, there are many progressive Jewish congregations these days who grapple with more contemporary, secular issues and integrate them into their religious observance.

But regardless of the intensity of one’s practice, what all Jews have in common is a culture, a mindset, an identity, a shared history, and a spiritual lens through which our human experiences are filtered.

I happen to have an exceptionally strong Jewish identity. My father survived two years in Auschwitz by playing in the camp orchestra. His parents and his sister were sent directly into the gas chamber the day they arrived at Auschwitz aboard a freight train from Berlin on January 31, 1943.

My mother’s mother was the youngest of seven children who grew up in the Verbovitz ghetto in the Pale of Settlement (now Ukraine) at the end of the 19th century. One by one, her older siblings made their way to America, the “Golden Land,” to seek opportunity, freedom, and safety from the poverty and bloody pogroms of eastern Europe.

If someone in Hollywood were to make a musical about both sides of my family, they would have to call it “Schindler on the Roof.” That’s how good my Jew cred is.

My grandmother’s parents, the very pious Moishe and Shaindel, were the last to arrive in America with their youngest child, my grandmother, during the first decade of the 20th century. They owned a Hebrew bookstore in Baltimore and never learned to speak English. My great-grandfather prayed and studied religious texts all day, every day, while my great-grandmother ran the store.

My mother’s father, along with the rest of his family, also fled the antisemitism of eastern Europe, emigrating from Lithuania to Palestine in the late 1800s. At that time, Palestine was still part of the Ottoman Empire. By the time Palestine became the state of Israel in 1948, my grandfather had been living in America for close to 40 years. He, like my grandmother, made his way to the United States during the first decade of the 20th century. To this day, his entire family lives in Israel. He was the cantor—the identified singer of Jewish liturgical music—at his ultra-orthodox schul until the day he died.

According to 23 and Me, my saliva reveals that I am 100 percent Ashkenazi (European) Jew. Yiddish is the mother-tongue of Ashkenazi Jews, and is derived from German. My mother’s first language was Yiddish, and my father was fluent in Yiddish as well. They communicated in Yiddish when I was a child, particularly when they didn’t want me to know what they were saying. Of course, like all nosy children, this prompted me to learn Yiddish at lightning speed.

Thus, as a first/second-generation American Jew, I speak more Yiddish than almost anyone else I know, although my very WASP-y partner, who has spent more than 50 years in the continual company of Ashkenazi Jews, also speaks more Yiddish than almost anyone else I know. I find this both hilariously funny and deeply endearing.

I have a profoundly Jewish soul, a profoundly Jewish heart, and a profoundly Jewish perspective on almost every conceivable issue. I experience and move through the world as a Jew. There is a term for this: “Yiddishe Kopf,” meaning, literally, “Jewish head,” or a Jewish way of thinking about, and perceiving, the world.

So why, you might ask, is there so much Jew talk today? Why so much Shabbos self-disclosure?

All of today’s Jew talk comes to you courtesy of Donald John Trump, who appears to think that he knows more about what it means to be Jewish than I do.

Here is what the world’s leading authority on Judaism had to say last week on Sebastian Gorka’s mega-MAGA radio show: “Any Jewish person that votes for Democrats hates their religion … I actually think they hate Israel. And the Democrat Party hates Israel.”

Mr. Trump, if he knows anything about being Jewish, has come to his expertise exclusively through his vague proximity to Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, whom I happen to consider a paragon of religious hypocrisy. I won’t say any more about him right now, but I have certainly written about him in the past. A good Jew, he is not.

Additionally, Mr. Trump grew up in New York City, so perhaps he thinks that having ordered a corned beef on rye at the Carnegie Deli uniquely qualifies him to weigh in on what it means to be Jewish.

Spoiler alert: It doesn’t.

Donald Trump is the grandchild of Friedrich Trump, who amassed a small fortune during the Gold Rush by running a house of prostitution for miners in the Klondike. Making a living as a pimp is a decidedly un-Jewish occupation. He is also the son of Fred Trump—a racist, antisemitic real estate profiteer who was arrested while attending a Ku Klux Klan rally at Madison Square Garden in 1927. That doesn’t sound particularly Jewish, either. According to Trump’s first wife Ivana, Donald kept a copy of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” on his nightstand throughout their marriage. Donald Trump is also alleged to have told his closest aides in the White House that Hitler did some really great things for Germany.

So here is my response to the world’s most prominent expert on Judaism:

Mr. Trump,

You know nothing about Judaism or what it means to be Jewish. You not only know nothing about what it means to be Jewish, you know nothing about what it means to be a Christian. Malignant self-interest is your only religion. I know this because I watch you practice it every day on the television, which is your sacred house of worship.

You are so irredeemably biased that you subscribe to the notion of racial and cultural monoliths, meaning that you believe all Black Americans act, look, think, and vote alike; all Latino Americans act, look, think, and vote alike; all Muslim Americans act, look, think, and vote alike; and all Jewish Americans act, look, think, and vote alike. While that notion is beyond absurd, here’s what no member of any particular group enjoys: being smeared, savaged, reviled, threatened, and insulted by you.

I know plenty of Jews who voted for you — twice — because they believed that you were staunchly supportive of Israel, and deeply committed to increasing their already exceptionally high net worth. But after watching your nationally televised insurrection on January 6, even they decided that they had had enough. They decided they had had enough because what you and your thugs did to the U.S. Capitol that day looked way too much like what Adolph Hitler and his thugs did to the German Reichstag right before they seized power and sent all of our relatives to the gas chambers.

Helpful hint: Most of the Jews I know are not interested in voting for anyone who has already announced that his next presidency will be a dictatorship. Most of the Jews I know do not appreciate your view that tiki-torch-bearing neo-Nazis, and insurrectionists wearing “Camp Auschwitz” tee shirts, are “very good people.” Again, it’s that Hitler thing. It just really sticks in our collective craw.

At this point, I don’t personally know a single Jew who would ever vote for you again. While there may still be some coreligionists who are willing to roll the dice one more time, their numbers are few. Most of the Jews I know, even if Republicans, would rather vote for no one than vote for you. They haven’t been dragged away by Democrats; they’ve been driven away by you.

There is a reason that far more Jews describe themselves as Democrats, or Independents, than as Republicans: It is because, in general, Democrats and Independents embrace pluralism, diversity, multiculturalism, social responsibility, inclusivity, good works, and respect for basic human dignity—all of which are foundational Jewish values.

When you announce that Jews who vote for Democratic candidates are bad Jews, it seems that what you are really saying is that any Jew who doesn’t vote for you is a bad Jew. On this score, you are also wrong. I would argue that any Jew who doesn’t vote for you is actively embracing and practicing their core Jewish values.

While there may be some Jews out there who are indifferent to the viability and survival of Israel, they are few and far between. I certainly don’t know any. But supporting the right of Israel to exist does not mean that we are unable to see that Benjamin Netanyahu is dangerously cruel and unfit for office. Most of us believe that he should be replaced by someone whose values are more aligned with Judaism than with Trumpism.

That’s why at least half the population of Israel, Jews all, will try to remove Netanyahu from office at their earliest opportunity, and send him to prison for his years’ worth of corruption and flagrant disregard for human rights. Jews know exactly how bad Netanyahu is for Israel, and how equally bad you are for the United States. You have both been flaunting your authoritarianism, contempt for the rule of law, and utter corruption for decades.

I would like to make you an offer: If you stop presuming that you know more about being Jewish than I, then I won’t presume to know more about being a dishonest neo-fascist than you.

Every time you run your mouth about how disloyal the Jews are, you lose another Jewish vote, and as I have already said, there aren’t that many Jewish Americans left who would be willing to cast another ballot for you. So keep it up—you might finally succeed in provoking the mass exodus of every single Jew from the Republican Party.

Let’s look at the electorate, shall we? You will not capture much of the Black or Latino vote this November because you are an unmitigated racist; you will not capture much of the Muslim or Jewish vote because you are an unrepentant antisemite; you will not capture much of the women’s vote because you stacked the court with a bunch of right-wing, theocratic zealots who took away their right to make their own reproductive choices, not to mention the fact that most women are completely repulsed by your history of sexual predation; you will not capture the union vote because you believe in low wages for workers so that their bosses can live like oligarchs; you will not capture the college-educated vote because they recognize you as a functional illiterate; you will not capture the youth vote because you are a climate denier, and you refuse to do anything to prevent crazies with assault weapons from killing them at school.

I am not sure if you will be able to win an election when only 33 percent of the electorate still think that you are a good idea. It seems to me that you have whittled your base of support down to the small-but-vocal coalition of conspiracy theorists, misogynists, xenophobes, homophobes, and white nationalists who are your kindred spirits.

I can assure you of one thing: You will never have this Jew’s vote, not if it’s my last Jewish day on earth, and not if it’s the last Jewish breath I take.

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