In the 1980s, one of my close friends travelled to the USSR’s capital city, Moscow, to teach. The problem with his visit was that the subject he had come to teach was a highly illegal one. He had come to teach Torah.
It was a very cloak-and-dagger, “007” sort of experience for Rabbi Yosef Grunfeld, the founder of Project SEED UK. As a Gateshead Jew, he had, and probably still has to this day, no clue who James Bond is, but he found himself followed and watched carefully by the KGB.
I recall him telling me of the morning he walked into Moscow’s Great Synagogue to pray. Sitting behind separate desks at the back, wearing tallis and tefillin, were the Jews known as “the Stinkers.”
On their desks sat telephones, which they picked up to call their KGB bosses and report anything or anyone that might be suspicious, like the arrival of a rabbi from Gateshead in the United Kingdom.
Jews like those have been present in almost every place and time throughout Jewish history. In Egypt, fully four-fifths of the Jewish people “died in the plague of darkness,” according to Rashi. The Medrash, which is the source of Rashi’s statement, has a second opinion: They didn’t die physically in the plague of darkness, but they did die spiritually. They chose to remain behind in Egypt at the Exodus. For these Jews – most Jews – the essential thing in their lives was belonging to Egyptian culture and everything it stood for, even if they could only belong as slaves.
The same was true during the era of Greek dominance of the Jewish people that we recall at Chanukah. Many Jews passionately wanted to belong to Greece and its culture. They came to despise the “Jewish Jews” who didn’t. Like the Stinkers of Moscow, the Stinkers of Athens happily engaged in the repression of these traditional Jews – those “too Jewish” Jews – and their beliefs.
A talmid gave me the gift of a first edition of my favorite commentator, the Alshich, published in Venice in 1603. Inside is the signature of another Stinker who, having converted to Christianity, became a censor examining the Jewish books published there and scoring out words or phrases his new religion might object to.
In fact, the Stinker phenomenon has been such a constant of Jewish history that the 18 blessings of the Amidah were amended just after the destruction of the Second Temple to include a 19th, “And for the betrayers, let there be no hope.”
The Jewish section of the Communist party, the Yevzektzia, obliged Stalin by rounding up the rabbis and teachers of Torah and shooting them or sending them to the gulag. There have always been Stinkers.
The conditions that turn a Jew into a Stinker are well documented. These are usually Jews denied knowledge and experience of their religion and peoplehood, or who have rejected their religion in favor of the fashionable politics and philosophies of the age.
The publication of a recent book, The Jews Should Keep Quiet, exposes FDR’s policies of stopping Jews from escaping the Holocaust. The role and support FDR received from Reform rabbi and Jewish communal leader Stephen Wise is less known but is just as shocking. In awe of the President and with his loyalty to FDR’s vision of America superseding his loyalty to his people (amongst other betrayals), Wise was active in preventing food parcels from being sent to Jews in Nazi ghettos, thus condemning hundreds of thousands who might have been saved.
In a more current iteration, “Code Pink” national co-director Ariel Elyse Gold caused real anger and derision among Jewish Jews when she recently tweeted, “Note: when Iranians chant “death to America,” “death to Israel,” they are not calling for the deaths of people but empire and imperialism.”
Then there is Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. In his attempt to get the Democratic nomination in 2016, he found it very difficult indeed to mention that he was a Jew. Instead, Senator Sanders was running as the proud son of “Polish immigrants.” In his current run to secure the Democratic nomination, he recently made clear precisely what sort of Jew he is. Sanders favors syphoning off some of the military aid America sends to Israel and diverting it to Hamas, the Islamo-Fascist rulers of Gaza, instead.
Jewish betrayers, like the Stinkers who sat dutifully at those tables at the back of Moscow’s Great Synagogue, are a shameful and dangerous recurrence throughout Jewish history.
Mind you, I have always been troubled by the wording of that 19th additional blessing, “Let them have no hope.” (emphasis added). Judaism – that is, the authentic version of the “too Jewish” Jews – doesn’t believe that anyone is irredeemable. Why do we pray that the betrayers be so thoroughly excised?
In searching for an answer, I saw that Rabbi Yitzchok Blazer, who was the 19th-century chief rabbi of St. Petersburg, says that we are praying that their schemes and plots to betray the Jewish people should fail and be without hope. Naturally, we hope that they themselves will find a way back to their religion and people.
Today, with so many American Jews, especially young American Jews, in very great danger of occupying the same role as those two Jews who sat at the back of that Moscow shul, we “Jewish Jews” better make sure that we put extra sincerity into that 19th blessing of the Amidah, the next time we are praying in our own shuls.