Jews have always been of two minds about how to present themselves to the world. Should they be, in the words of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the fighting Jew or the Jew who bends with the wind — the “exclamation point” or the “question mark?”
Lookstein is a well-known modern Orthodox rabbi and the principal of Ramaz, a large Orthodox day school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Last month, when a Jewish couple was assaulted near the school by a mob carrying Palestinian flags, his immediate reaction was to recommend to his head of school that male students cover their kippot with baseball caps while walking in the streets. He then changed his mind.
“Our answer to anti-Semitism has to be that we stand up like exclamation points and not bend over like question marks,” he was reported as saying, but not before the head of school followed Lookstein’s initial recommendation and sent a memo home suggesting that “parents may consider advising their children to be discreet in wearing uncovered kippot, tzitzit, etc.” Lookstein was right on both counts. Life and personal safety are paramount considerations – for schools, parents and for individuals. His immediate reaction to reports of the attack was to counsel caution.
But he seems to have realized quickly that he was reacting to the shock of the moment and that his neighborhood isn’t the Russia of the pogroms or even the Upper East Side of his youth. Back then, the kippah was an “indoor garment,” as he wrote in The New York Jewish Week. But it is no more. He therefore concluded that in today’s America, it is safe and appropriate for Jews to wear their badges of identification with pride.
What is more, he realized that the attack on the couple is a societal problem, not just a Jewish one. Americans – Jews and gentiles alike – must fight the kind of anti-Semitic “hooliganism” reflected in the attack and seen this summer in Europe, he wrote. “We cannot tolerate that here. The public and the police have to be vigilant and unrelenting on making our society safe.”
This story carries with it an important message: Jewish pride and visibility is unquestionably a right bequeathed us by a democratic society. But it is a right that carries with it certain responsibilities – including the responsibility to act appropriately and to be ever cognizant of the danger of sullying the reputation of the Jewish people. Above all, Jewish visibility presents a challenge to demonstrate the best of what Judaism is. As we grapple with how best to meet that challenge as individuals and as members of the global Jewish community, we wish all of our readers a healthy, happy, peaceful and sweet New Year.