This piece was published in the Pasadena Star-News on October 2, 2006.
As I sit with my fellow Jews on Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the year, The Day of Atonement, I will have Mel Gibson on my mind. I will also recall my dear father-in-law, Jack Stein, who left this earth almost six years ago. I will remember him cheering for the Dallas Cowboys, humming in the shower, dancing with the ladies and generally enjoying life.
I will cringe as I think of Gibson’s tirade against “the Jews” as I recall the life of Jack Stein.
I am a Jew-by-choice, a convert to a religion that I knew full well had been maligned for centuries. Before I married my Jewish husband, I though of Jews as rather sad people who had been the target for extermination by the Nazis. As I went through conversion class and read about Jewish history, I got a very different picture of Jewish life.
But it was from Jack and his friends, a group of Holocaust survivors who settled in Dallas after the war and raised their families together, that I learned about Judaism. And it has nothing to do with what Gibson thinks it is.
I learned from them that being Jewish leaves one open to irrational hatred that no one can understand, much less explain. What Jews do, I learned, is survive.
By the time I came into the family, Jack and his friends had raised their children and were in their retirement years. One night, I sat on the couch with Mrs. “Red” Goldberg and Mrs. “Black” Goldberg (so designated by the hair color of their respective husbands) and listened as they described the Nazi horrors inflicted on them and their families. They described their hardship without self pity or bitterness but with a will to survive that didn’t have to be expressed specifically, because it was infused in their words.
They talked with gratitude about the life they had been able to build in this country. That is the Judaism I learned about that inspires me.
When I think of Mel Gibson’s accusation about the Jews starting all the wars, I wonder how he would have reacted to these Jews, who were the victims of a war they certainly didn’t start, who lost everything because of it, and who made the decision to come to the United States so they could live in a society where they were free to practice their religion.
It is likely that Gibson has sung “God Bless America” to express his patriotism. He may not know that it was written by Irving Berlin, a Jew who immigrated to the United States from Russia when he was a child.
I’m pretty sure Gibson has sung “White Christmas” when he celebrates his holy season, free from epithets and slurs. That song was written by Berlin too.
One thing I have learned about Jews is that an unbreakable thread runs through the them that has never been severed, in spite of the most evil attempts to break it. So far, the Jewish people have not been annihilated, and we continue to make contributions to art, medicine, industry and economics that make the world a better place.
Gibson probably doesn’t know the Jewish phrase: “Tikkun olam,” which translates to “repairing the world.” Jews are taught from a young age that it is their responsibility to make contributions to humanity.
In my more than twenty years as a Jew, I have not come across a phrase that starts out: “start all the wars.”
On the most holy and solemn day of the Jewish year, I know that people who despise a group for their religion, color or ethnic background, diminish themselves, not the group they attack. Rather than reflecting on anti-Semitism, I will think about Jack Stein, and how he taught by example to survive terror and pain and to go on to live a good, long life surrounded by family and friends.