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The Jews - an Introduction

We Jews are a strange people. Buffeted and battered by the forces of history, we survive with our senses intact. Our story is perhaps the saddest of all, yet we have helped to give humour to the World! A race that was being systematically slaughtered by Nazi brutes in Europe was, at the same time, entertaining America on stage and screen. A people who have, on the World stage, produced the highest proportion to size of Nobel Prize winners have been persecuted and reviled and forced into Jewish ghettos. A folk who provided Gentiles, in Jesus of Nazareth, with a Saviour and inspiration are tortured and killed in the name of the same man.

Why can't the World just leave us Jews alone - to create, invent, compose and entertain - and find another people to torment? What's it all about? So, the Jews are meant to be different, the 'chosen people'. As Tevya said in The Fiddler in the Roof, 'Maybe we've had enough of being chosen, Lord, can't you go and choose someone else - if just for one day?' Do we feel the same way? Does our chosen-ness mean anything to us now, in the 21st Century? Sure, it's a source of great pride when we look at the achievements of our people, often against great odds. But we don't like reading and hearing about the other side, the Holocaust and the pogroms. Yet they both work together, they are both part of the same package, like strawberries and cream (or should I say 'smoked salmon and beigels').

Jewish achievements in the World at large are nothing short of astounding! There are just over 13.4 million Jews world-wide (2010 figures), out of a World population of 6,960 million. This means that about 0.19% of the World is Jewish; about 1 person out of every 520. So one would naturally expect that 0.19% of the World's scientists, musicians, entertainers, writers etc. would, on average, be Jewish. Well, it hasn't worked out like that, something has gone wrong in our calculations, our decimal point has gone walkabout! Just looking in the period since the mid 19th Century we find that about 25% of the World's scientists have been Jews. That's over one hundred times too many! It has been estimated also that 22% of all Nobel Prize winners in the 20th Century were Jewish. This is from just 0.19% of the population! But has mankind been grateful for this contribution? What do people think of the Jews?

These articles have been written to look at how the World has reacted to the Jewish people over the centuries, from the time of Abraham to the modern day. We will ask why the Jews, by the very fact of surviving for so long, have managed to confound all models of history. The historian, Arnold Toynbee, who couldn't fit them into any of the usual moulds, just dismissed them as fossils of history. Oh yes? How many fossils do you know that account for 25% of the world’s scientists since the mid 19th Century? The Jews are certainly an interesting people.

We will begin by considering the question, who exactly is a Jew? At a time of unprecedented mixing between the races we find ourselves in a society inhabited by folk of all hues and mixtures of traditions. My own children have the culturally confused heritage of English secular Judaism mixed with Polish Catholicism. My wife comes from a German/Polish background; her German mother is an atheist and her Polish father was a Catholic. What does that make our children? According to one definition they are not Jewish by birth, but another tradition would make them as Jewish as they wish to be and yet another tradition, the Nazi one, albeit for the wrong purposes, would make them Jewish on account of their grandparents' background and nothing else. If you go to Israel and expect to see a nation of olive skin and brown eyes you'll be surprised at the blond hair and blue eyes you'll see, even in that bastion of national identity, the Israeli Army. These days, contrary to the belief of some, you can't measure your Jewishness by the size of your nose. Mind you I am reminded of a true story of a friend, a Gentile, who only discovered when he was in his twenties that his father was Jewish. His first words at this discovery were, 'Ah, so that explains the nose!' This story aside, we need a better way of defining Jewishness and we do this in a forthcoming article, when we look at the question of origins.

But what of today? What do modern Jews think of their identity? There is a certain degree of pride. After all, Jewish people have impacted the World in so many different spheres and have influenced the thinking of the World so dramatically, that we need to look deeper at this situation. The three men who have, arguably, most influenced the 20th Century, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, were all Jewish, as were the founders of two of the main World religions, Judaism and Christianity. Even Mohammed, the founder of Islam, drew greatly from Jewish sources. I'm sure someday someone will discover that the Buddha was a victim of the first Diaspora who got lost and ended up in India!

Like it or not, we Jews are pretty religious too. There is a joke that is told, in various forms, by Jews the World over. It goes something like this, in a heavy Yiddish accent:

Sadie Cohen, an elderly Jewish lady from New York goes to her travel agent.

"I vont to go to India."

"Mrs Cohen, India! It's filthy, it's too hot, and it's full of brown people!"

"I vont to go to India."

"But it's a long journey. And what will you eat? The food's too hot and spicy. You can't drink the water, you can't eat fresh fruit or vegetables. You'll get ill. Plague, cholera, typhoid. God only knows. Can you imagine? And no Jewish doctors. Why torture yourself?"

"I vont to go to India."

So arrangements are made and off she goes. She gets there and despite the noise, the smells, the crowds, she gets to the ashram, a holy place. There she joins the long queue waiting to see the guru, the holy man. She's told she'll have to queue for three days. Out comes her knitting. Eventually she's at the head of the queue. She's told firmly that she's allowed only three words with the guru.

"Dat's OK."

She's ushered into the inner sanctum where the guru is seated, ready to bestow blessings on eager disciples. Again she's reminded by an aide that she's only got three words. Unlike every other visitor she doesn't prostrate herself at his feet. She stands right in front of him, her arms crossed, staring at him fixedly and says,

"Marvin, come home."

You may laugh, but Jews form a large proportion of both leaders and followers of many spiritual movements, some of them decidedly dodgy. You'll see them in yoga and meditation classes, New Age cults, Hindu and Buddhist groups. One guru had so many Jewish disciples that he called them 'Hinjews'. Jews are not always as material minded as people think; many seem to spend their lives searching to fill a spiritual 'hole in their heart'.

Steve Maltz
May 2013

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book Outcast Nation)

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