I enjoy teaching basic Judaism: it’s my true love, my mission, my passion. “Intro,” done well, can enrich an entire Jewish community by helping outsiders become regulars. The class has to be more than facts and how-to’s, because Judaism isn’t just a religion, it’s a vast array of ethnicities, customs, history, and culture – as Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan famously titled his book, Judaism is a civilization. As an “Intro” teacher, I’m a tour guide, den mother, demystifier, and spiritual director.
But there’s one class in every series that I hate to teach. Not coincidentally, it covers one of the few topics specified by the tradition as a requirement. Rabbinic tradition is rather vague about what converts to Judaism must be taught before they go to the mikveh, but it is adamant that they understand that Jews have been a despised and persecuted people. In other words, they need to be acquainted with anti-Semitism.
I bring a printed-out lesson plan to the session, because I know that otherwise I will wander off-topic at the first opportunity. I march through my list: the misgivings about Jews in classical civilization, Christian attitudes about Jews that took shape in both church doctrine and in civil law, and the obsession with Jewish ancestry that surfaced in Spain in the 16th century that presaged full-blown ethnic hatred of Jews in the Western world. I talk about Herzl’s realization, as he covered the Dreyfus affair, that the Jews of Europe faced something terrible. I talk about all of that as a prelude to the Shoah. And then we talk about the “New” anti-Semitism.
We talk about the memes that have dogged Jews through history: blood libel, moneylending, court Jews, conspiracy, communism, socialism, anarchism, pinko-Commie-whatever-ism. I tell them about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I tell them about the origins of the term “Anti-Semitism,” that it was invented by a German journalist as a sophisticated-sounding substitute for Judenhass, Jew-hatred.
Some students who have been engaged Christians at some point in their lives practically writhe with discomfort. I acknowledge that when you’ve got one foot in each community, this can be very hard listening. I share the fact that when I took the class as a prospective convert I found the class deeply upsetting because I felt somehow responsible. Some Jewish students look distant, and I suspect they are running through unpleasant memories and feelings. Or maybe, like me, they just hate the topic.
My impulse is to comfort. I bring cookies. I reassure. But I march relentlessly through that lesson plan, because it is important that they know this stuff. I have a duty to see to it that they understand that when you sign up to be a Jew, you sign up for this, too. For Gentiles in the class, it is important to know why Jews seem “sensitive” about some things, why some topics are funny only if you are a mad genius like Mel Brooks and can take them all the way off the deep end.
Usually the evening ends off topic: I get to the end of the list, and we trail off from “Jews run the media” into jokes and trivia about Hollywood and Jews. If I’m artful, we’ll leave on an upbeat note. But I’m always relieved when the evening is over, because I hate this topic. I hate, hate, hate it.