Reflecting on the Jewish Culture I Know and Love
Commentary by Pete Haug
Last week’s commentary “for non-Jews on Judaism” by Hyphen Parent caught my interest. I’m not Jewish. Never was. I was raised Episcopalian, embraced agnosticism for more than a decade and settled into the Baha’i Faith for the last half-century. Along the way I’ve always admired the rich cultural heritage of my many Jewish friends.
Hyphen’s article shares some of that culture, in this case “Chanukah,” or “Hanukkah,” the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights, which ended last week. That festival recalls “a people’s uprising and holy miracle” in which light won out over darkness. It also commemorates the rebuilding and rededication of the Jerusalem temple in 164 B.C.E. Hanukkah and Christmas come every December in close proximity.
I grew up on Long Island, 16 miles east of Manhattan. The greater New York area is a cultural pastiche of multiple ethnic pockets, many Jewish. My village had only one Jewish family. We all knew who they were, and we respected them.
My Jewish roommate
Before college, I was assigned a roommate from a nearby, predominantly Jewish, community. Gene’s parents worried when he was paired with a goy (gentile) roommate. They knew my village had virtually no Jews. For my family it was no big deal. I’d roomed with a black kid my last years of boarding school. Gene’s parents suggested we meet for dinner. Things went well at dinner and at college. We got along so well that we both flunked out.
But I learned a lot from Gene, including my favorite Yiddish word, farblonjet. Yiddish is primarily a spoken language with approximate phonetic spellings and varied definitions for many words. One definition of farblonjet is simply, “totally lost or confused.” But that’s a nebbish definition. The one Gene shared was glorious: “It’s the feeling you get when you see your mother-in-law driving off a high cliff in your brand-new Cadillac.” Mother-in-law jokes were still acceptable in 1953, as were jokes disparaging women.
Jewish humor is universal
As a boy, I heard lots of Yiddish-based humor. Radio was our major source of entertainment. Sunday nights we listened to half-hour comedy shows before, during and after dinner. We heard Jack Benny, Eddy Cantor, Groucho Marx, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and many others. Their styles differed, but all were enormously popular and funny. These and many other comedians, from the 1940s through the end of the century, shared one thing in common: Most were Jewish (except for Gracie Allen, George’s Irish Catholic wife and comedy partner).
Beginning with vaudeville in the 1880s, Jewish comedians, with their self-deprecating humor, warmed the hearts of generations of Americans. During World War II they lifted our spirits. Their popularity grew with radio, movies and television.
My wife Jolie grew up in a Catskill Mountain village about 80 miles northwest of New York City. Every summer, hordes of Jewish families would flee the hot city, flocking to “bungalow colonies” in the “Jewish Alps.” Summer resorts were a proving ground for Jewish comedians. Many of the greatest got their starts doing stand-up in the Catskills.
Aish.com reported that in 1978, “80 percent of American standup comics were Jewish.” Jewish humor is “born of depression and alienation from the general culture.” Such comedy “is a defense mechanism to ward off the aggression and hostility of others.”
Our inland northwest
At times our inland northwest has nurtured antisemitism, racism and other prejudices. Last year a self-proclaimed Nazi vandalized a Spokane synagogue with “painted swastikas.” A Holocaust memorial was also damaged.
Why? Why this aggressive hatred against Jews and non-Jewish segments of our multifarious humankind? Jews in particular have contributed to science, literature and the performing arts far out of proportion to their numbers.
Some Jews are obnoxious. So are some Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Baha’is and followers of many other religions. Yet historically Jews seem singled out for persecution. Why? I’ve found intelligence, warmth and humor among Jews I’ve known.
A Semitic word for the New Year
As we move into the New Year, let’s close with a word, similar in Hebrew and Arabic, both Semitic languages. For Jews throughout the world the traditional Hebrew greeting, Shalom aleichim, is used for hellos and farewells, often shortened to “shalom.” Arabic equivalents differ slightly: Salamun Alaykum is often shortened to “salaam.”
Besides greetings and farewells, these words carry broader connotations in both languages, e.g., “peace be upon you.” The Hebrew version inspired a song in the Broadway musical “Milk and Honey,” a reference to the Holy Land, sometimes known as “the land of milk and honey.”
Shalom, “the nicest greeting you know,” means also “bonjour, salud, and skoal,” yet it’s “twice as much as hello … It means a million lovely things, like peace be yours, welcome home. And even when you say goodbye, you say goodbye with Shalom.”
Take your pick, shalom or salaam: May peace be upon you in 2023.
Pete plunged into journalism fresh out of college, putting his English literature degree to use for five years. He started in industrial and academic public relations, edited a rural weekly and reported for a metropolitan daily, abandoning all for graduate school. He finished with an M.S. in wildlife biology and a Ph.D. in systems ecology. After teaching college briefly, he analyzed environmental impacts for federal, state, Native American and private agencies over a couple of decades. His last hurrah was an 11-year gig teaching English in China. After retiring in 2007, he began learning about climate change and fake news, giving talks about both. He started writing columns for the Moscow-Pullman Daily News and continues to do so. He first published for SpokaneFaVS.com in 2020. Pete’s columns alternate weekly between FāVS and the Daily News. His live-in editor, Jolie, infinitely patient wife for 61 years, scrutinizes all columns with her watchful draconian eye. Both have been Baha’is since the 1960s. Pete’s columns on the Baha’i Faith represent his own understanding and not any official position.
I’m so glad to see something so positive.
I just want to point out that Yiddish isn’t necessarily a primarily spoken language. There’s tons of Jewish literature written in Yiddish. Most early American Jewish newspapers were written exclusively in Yiddish. There’s even a very well-respected Yiddish Book Center based out of Massachusetts where they have over a million editions of physical Yiddish books as well as digital versions.
And I echo your wish for the coming year. Here’s hoping 2023 will be a year of peace.
Oh and you may appreciate the song, “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu.” It’s a song about peace in Hebrew and Arabic that includes refrains of both “Shalom” and “Salaam.”