Re-examining traditional stories of my Jewish heritage
November 1, 2019
I am writing in response to Bari Weiss’s article “How to Fight Anti-Semitism” (New York Times, Sunday Review, Sept. 8) and Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s critique of that article published in your Oct. 18th edition. Weiss’s article challenged me to re-examine traditional stories that defined my Jewish heritage. In Bovy’s lengthy op-ed there was no mention of two statements that stunned me.
Every Passover holiday, we reread the story of the Israelites’ courageous exodus from Egypt. Without citing any source, Weiss stated that “a majority of the Israelite slaves chose to remain in Egypt” rather than confront the unknown as a free people. Was the story I learned from childhood not the “real” one? I pondered how we would pass on to the next generations the image of our ancestors paralyzed by fear. Would we talk about our own fears in present day that enslave us and alter our identity? My Internet research led to many differing opinions about how many Jews left Egypt, one identifying only the Levites, the priestly class, who left on the journey that tested their faith and their will to survive. All agreed, however, that the Exodus had occurred. That was comforting!
In Weiss’s discussion of Theodor Herzl, honored by Israel for his role as founder of the Zionist project and the Jewish state, I was stunned by her description of this hero who had considered changing his religion to escape the virulent anti-Semitism of his time. Her source, Simon Schama, author of “The Story of the Jews,” published in two volumes and later released as a TV series, as well as other accounts I checked, confirmed that in 1893, three years before Herzl envisioned a new home for the Jews, he had advocated a mass conversion to Catholicism by all the Jews of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Heroes are more human than we would like them to be. Perhaps fear and courage, dark and light, are part of everyone’s story.
Lenore Richman Roland