Now that the Tishrei Jewish holiday season has ended, the time could not be more fitting to reflect on the difference we just experienced socially between being a Jew in Israel and one in Diaspora.
For American Jews, too many deny the reality of exile. This is not to denigrate America nor its unique historic religious tolerance. However, for example, Christmas is a national American holiday. Yom Kippur and Sukkot are not. The United States all but “closes shop” on December 25. Public school choirs learn to sing carols – notwithstanding the separation of church and state.
Jewish composers who wanted to succeed in America and who simply could not stand their ground as Jews, who caved in because they had great songwriting gifts and skills but could not make it financially by writing Chanukah songs, ultimately reflected what it means to be living as a minority in a Christian country. They not only melted into the American “melting pot” but dissolved in it.
So Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas,” Felix Bernard wrote “Winter Wonderland,” Ralph Blane wrote “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Fred Coots wrote “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” Mel Tormé wrote “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” Sammy Cahn and Julie Styne wrote “Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” Edward Pola wrote “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” Jay Livingston wrote “Silver Bells,” and Johnny Marks wrote “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
As for us American Jews, we have a song about making a dreidl out of clay.
I recall the first time I had to tell a non-Jewish employer that I needed to take days off from work for Shmini Atzeret. I was practicing law at Jones Day in Los Angeles, one of only three or four Jews among 100 attorneys, and worked under Dan, a tough litigation partner. Early on, I explained to him that I regularly have to leave early on Fridays. He kept forgetting.
One Friday he notified me at 2:00 p.m. that he needed me to draft a court briefing. I reminded him I leave on Fridays at two.
This was a law firm where people never left. They even had shower facilities to keep you there. I walk into Dan’s office and remind him about Shabbat. (I am reconstructing the dialogue from memory as best I can.)
He looks at me: “But your Sabbath does not begin until night – like 10 p.m., right?”
I remind him that – besides my need to get home well in advance of Shabbat to prepare – Shabbat actually begins at sunset, not night time.
“Dan,” I say, “Sunset tonight is at 4:37 p.m., so I have to run.”
He looks at me: “You mean to tell me you know the exact minute the sun is going to set today?”
Me: “Yeah. 4:37.”
Dan: “And I think you are full of [baloney]. We’re going to get to the bottom of this stuff.”
He grabs a copy of the day’s newspaper, turns to the weather page, and starts perusing.
Dan: “Sonovogun! The sun actually is going to set at 4:37 p.m. How did you know that?”
Me: “That’s when my Sabbath begins.”
Dan (still looking at the weather page): “OK, Mr. Smart. So tell me what time High Tide is tonight.”
And that is what it is to be a Jew in America. Comes Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and everyone but Nazis will give you the day off without much trouble. But a week later it is back to Dan for Sukkot:
Me: “Dan, I won’t be in next Tuesday or Wednesday. And I have to leave at two on Monday.”
Dan: “What? Now you have four days of Sabbath each week?”
Me: “Not exactly. It’s a Jewish holiday called ‘Sukkot.’ Maybe you’ve heard of ‘Tabernacles’?”
Dan: So you people just have holidays all week every week? Don’t you people ever work three days in a row? And, no, I never heard of ‘Tabernacles.’ I thought that’s the Mormons.”
Me: “No, really. It’s in the Bible, the Old Testament. Jesus observed it. He ate in a hut all week with the Apostles. You probably will see huts all around Jewish sections of Los Angeles. Y’know – the temporary structures with tarps for walls and some tree branches on top.”
Dan: “Of course I see them all around Los Angeles. I thought they’re called ‘Homeless shelters.’ You mean homelessness is a Jewish religious thing?”
One more week ahead. I take my deepest breath and come back to him on Chol HaMoed.
Me: “Dan, I won’t be in this Tuesday or Wednesday either. And I have to leave at two on Monday again.”
Dan: “What? Now the Homeless Festival is part of your regular Jewish week?”
Me: “This is the last one until April. It is called Shmini Atzeret.”
Dan: “What did you say you call it? Jiminy Cricket?”
Me: “No, Shmini Atzeret.”
Dan: “OK. Take a seat. I’m calling in Goldberg.”
Martin Goldberg was the only Jew in the Los Angeles office of Jones Day to anyone’s memory who ever had “made partner.” Almost all the litigation partners at that time had surnames beginning with “Mc”: McKnight, McLoon, McKay, McMahon, McMillan, McConnor, McDougal.” And Goldberg.
It’s not that Goldberg had risen through the ranks. Rather, he was a remnant of the years when Big Firms would not hire any Jews, not even as junior associates. (A 1950s Hollywood movie, “Gentleman’s Agreement,” tells the story magnificently.) In those days, the Big Law Firms made one exception — bankruptcy law. The very idea of practicing bankruptcy law was beneath the upper class – to use the law to help a person avoid his or her debts. So the Big Firm lawyers would not touch it. Yet they all had major corporate clients who needed to collect millions from debtors trying to escape obligations. And, like it or not, some huge corporations also go belly-up: Circuit City, Chrysler, even General Motors. What to do?
So every Big Firm resolved the “bankruptcy conundrum” the same way: “We cannot risk losing major corporate clients to competitor law firms who offer the full gamut of legal expertise. But none of us will touch bankruptcy. So let’s make one exception and hire a few Jews who will practice bankruptcy law. Let the Jews handle this garbage because they like to do this stuff that no self-respecting Christian gentleman would touch. Our corporate clients remain with us while the Jews fight it out among themselves. Win-win.”
As a result, truly brilliant Jewish law school graduates from the best law schools ended up getting funneled into bankruptcy law. Goldberg was just such a sought-after bankruptcy expert who excelled at recovering millions for his mega-corporation creditors. The thing is, Goldberg – a very warm and sweet man when not in “barracuda mode” in bankruptcy court – was totally assimilated. And now Dan called Martin in to his office, with me sitting in the other chair.
Dan: “Hi, Marty. Dov says he needs to take off three more days this week for some Jewish holiday named ‘Jiminy Cricket’ or something like that. He’s been taking off three days a week for holidays – plus his Sabbath – ever since he got here. You’re Jewish. So I just wanted to ask you: First, how many days of New Year’s do you people have? I do January 1. But Dov told me he needed a half day off to prepare for New Year’s, then two more days off for New Year’s. How long does it take for a Jew to start a year?”
Goldberg: “No, I just take off most of one day.”
Dan: “And what about some Homeless Shelter Day? He says he needs two full days, plus a half day before it, to take off from work for some Homeless Shelter celebration.”
Goldberg: “I never heard of that one.”
Me: “Marty, he’s talking about Sukkot. You’ve heard of that, right?”
Goldberg: “Oh, you mean the thing with the lemon? Yeah, Dan. Actually, that’s legit. They take a lemon and a tree branch, and they point it at you. I’m not Orthodox, but that’s a thing they do.”
Dan: “And now what about this next one – Jiminy Cricket?”
Goldberg: “I don’t know about that one. I thought it’s just a hut for one evening. My Reform temple does that. They set aside one of the rooms in the temple, put a few bamboo sticks along a wall, and everyone basically gets together and eats cake.”
Me: “Marty, it’s called ‘Shmini Atzeret.’ Haven’t you ever heard of it?”
Goldberg: “Not really, but I remember my grandfather used to have holidays all month into the middle of October until it started raining, and as soon as the rain started he was finished celebrating.”
Never in all my years when I practiced Big Firm law did anyone deny me my right to observe my every Judaic requirement. But that is what it is to be a minority, a Jew in America. It is the way of all countries. There is a majority culture and a plethora of minorities. France is Roman Catholic through and through. So are Italy and so much else in Europe. The United Kingdom is Protestant.
In America it is Christianity – and Jiminy Cricket.
In Israel it is Judaism – and Shmini Atezeret.