Christmas is a national American holiday. The country closes on Christmas. Yes, they respect Jews enough so that most television stations wish us a Happy Hannukkah (with an “H,” not a guttural “Ch”) and a Happy New Year, but Christmas is all-permeating. The shopping malls are infused with Christmas music and carols. Thre entertainment venues shift into Christmas. Disneyland pulls out Santa Claus, fake snow in California and Florida. All the television shows have episodes that week with a Christmas theme.
To live in America as a Jew is to be a tolerated minority. This is not a complaint, but a reality. This year, because of the way our lunar calendar interplays with the solar calendar, all the Jewish holidays came out “early.” It was not that the secular September came out "late.” Rosh Hashannah “interfered” with Labor Day.
Many American Jews had no idea that the holidays were at hand “so soon.” Even for the somewhat attuned, they did not know when Sukkot came out because they never know when Sukkot comes out. They live in America where, as a tolerated minority, their Sukkot holiday is identifiable only to the degree that they make it their business to identify it.
Shmini Atzeret? Fuggediboudit.
I grew up in a “Modern Orthodox” Brooklyn home and was in a Jewish-embracing environment for much of my life’s first segment. I attended yeshiva day school from kindergarten through twelfth grade, four years at Columbia University in Manhattan, and then learned for rabbinic ordination, semikha, at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. Afterwards, I served a decade as a “shtella rov,” a synagogue rav (Orthodox rabbi), as well as a faculty member at two yeshiva high schools, where I taught Talmud, Chumash (Bible), Jewish law and customs, and secular courses in social studies. Only in my late 30s, when I attended law school and then began a decade-long career as a high-stakes Big Firm business-litigation attorney did I find myself really among non-Jews in America.
So many American Jews in New York and New Jersey live in a bubble, blinded by the apparition that Jews are totally equal in America. It is not so, and it can never be so. As Simon and Garfunkel sang in “The Boxer,” a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”
Two thousand years of Exile uinderstandably result in people “learning to live with it.” A person with a bad singing voice one day learns to accept that he will not be a Caruso or Pavarotti, unless he is the one in a million whose singing voice is so bad that he becomes a singing sensation like Bob Dylan. An ugly person ultimately accepts that he never will be a Brad Pitt or a Jennifer Whatever, so he makes his peace or he decides to make a living off being “funny looking” like Steve Buscemi. And Jews in Exile, after 2000 years of being spit on, stepped on, burned alive, sliced to death, and so much else, came to make their peace with the reality of 2000 years of Exile.
But Steve Buscemi always will be ugly. Bob Dylan always will be unable to sing. And Jews never will be equal in all ways outside of Israel. Shmini Atzeret always will be lost for all but the Orthodox and a few non-Orthodox.
I recall the first time I had to tell a non-Jewish employer that I needed to take the days off for Shmini Atzeret and the additional holy day in Exile for Simchat Torah. I now was practicing law at Jones Day, one of only three or four Jews among 100 attorneys, and the only one who “knew from Judaism.” I was working under a vicious litigation partner, Dan McLoon, who unfortunately loved my work ethic and the quality of my writing so much that he regularly pulled me in to be on his cases. I explained to him that I have to leave early on Frodays, and he had a bit of a fit. He was respectful of my religious situation, continued pulling me in, but kept forgetting every Friday that I had to leave early.
One Friday he notified me at 2:00 p.m. that he needed me to draft a motion to strike. I remoinded him that I leave Frdiays at 2 p.m. This was a law firm where people never left. You had to bill 2,200 hours a year, and junior associates were there all night, night after night. The firm’s name was Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue — but we insiders called it “Jones, Day, Nights & Weekends.” So there is Dan, expecting me to start draftig a legal brief, and I have to leave for Shabbat. I walk into his office and remind him that, like every weekend before and every weekend forthcoming, I have to leave early on Fridays and be absent on Saturdays — which also means I will be in all-day Sunday and will be in most nights until midnight.
He looks at me: “But your Sabbath does not begin until night time. That’s like 10 p.m., 11 p.m., right?”
I remind him that, besides my need to get home well in advance of Shabbat to prepare, to help get the kids ready, to shower, to change clothes, to get to shul, Shabbat actually begins Friday 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 that you are standing here right now, and you know the exact minute the sun is going to set?”
Me: “Yeah. 4:37.”
Dan: “And I think you are full of [baloney]. Sit down in that chair. We’re going to get to the bottom of this stuff, once and for all.”
He grabs the landline phone and calls the law firm’s in-house librarian: “Can you please come up here right now and bring a copy of today’s L.A. Times.” (It was the pre-digital era when people actually held newspapers.)
She shows up, hands him the paper, and leaves. He grabs the Metro section, turns to the back page that has all the weather info, and starts perusing.
Dan: “Holey [moley]! I can’t believe my [. . . ] eyes! The [ . . . ] sun is going to set today at 4:37 p.m. How the [heck] did you know that?”
Me: “That’s when my Sabbath begins.”
Dan (still looking at the data on the weather page): “OK, Mr. Smart [y pants]. So tell me what time High Tide is tonight.”
And that is what it is to be a Jew in America. Comes Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, and everyone but the Nazis will give you the day off without too much trouble. But now it is back to Dan for Sukkot:
Me: “Dan, I won’t be in next Tuesday or Wednesday. And I have to leave at 2 on Monday.”
Dan: “What? Now you have four days of Sabbath each week?”
Me: “Kind of. Not exactly. It’s a Jewish holiday. It’s called ‘Sukkot.” Maybe you’ve heard of ‘Tabernacles’?”
Dan: So you people just have holidays 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 see the huts around Los Angeles. These 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?”
And then, finally, having traversed almost all of it, I come to the next week.
Me: “Dan, I won;ty be in this Tuesday or Wednesday. And I have to leave at 2 on Monday.”
Dan: “What? Now the Homelessness Shelter Festival is part of your Jewish week?”
Me: No, that one is winding down. This is the very last one until April. Jesus observed it, too. It is called ‘Shmini Atzeret’ and is followed by something called “Simchat Torah’ the next day.”
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 Jonjes Day who ever had made partner, to anyone’s memory. Almost all the litigation partners at that time literally had surnames beginning with “Mc” — McKnight, McLoon, McKay, McMahon, McMillan, McConnor, McDougal.” And Goldberg.
Goldberg had not risen through the ranks. The Jews who had been hired as junior associates never made it to partner. Somewhere around the fourth to sixth yeart on the ten-year track, the Jews would realize they never will make partner there and would transfer over to a “Jewish” firm that would embrace the superstars among us who had done so well in law school and had excelled so well at Jones Day. And meantime, the non-Jewish associates at those “Jewish” firms, also around their mid-level years, would transfer over to the Jones Days. In the end, it all would work out.
But Goldberg was different. Goldberg was a holdover, a remnant of the years when Big Firms would not hire any Jews, not even as junior associates whose blood could be sucked dry for five or six years. In those days, the Big Firms quietly banned all Jews. A 1950s Academy Award Best Picture, “gentleman’s Agreement,” tells the story magnificently. Every Jew should watch it at least two or three times as a reminder of reality.
In those days, the Big Firms made one exception — bankruptcy law. The very idea of practicing bankruptcy law was beneath the upper class, the idea of using the law to help a person to avoid his or her debts. So the Big Firm lawyers would not touch it. And yet they all had major corporate clients who needed to collect as creditors on millions of dollars from debtors whol were trying to escape their obligations, sometimes unlawfully. And, like it or not, some huge corporations also go belly-up: Circuit City, Chrysler, Washington Mutual, PG&E, even Genrral Motors. What to do?
So every Big Firm resolved the “Bankruptcy Conundrum” the same way: we cannot risk losing corporate clients to competitors who offer the full gamut of legal expertise from environmental law to corporate mergers and acquisitions to international contracts to financial services law to employment law. But none of us will touch bankruptcy. So, since we ban Jews from practice anyway, we can make the one exception of hiring a few Jews who will practice bankruptcy law. That way we hire a Jew or two, so prove we are not anti-Semitic. We let the Jews handle this garbage because they like to do this stuff that no self-respecting Christian gentleman ever 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, even the Harvards and Yales, who could have practiced with great success in any of law areas ended up getting directed in the 1950s and 1960s into bankruptcy law. As a result, many people find even today a residual disproportionately high number of Jews practicing bankruptcy law and sitting as judges in bankruptcy court. Goldberg was such a lawyer, who had amassed a tantalizingly huge “book of business,” a sought-after bankruptcy expert who excelled at recovering millions of what could be recovered for the mega corporation creditors he represented so effectively. The thing is, Goldberg — a very warm and sweet man when not in “barracuda mode” in bankruptcy court — also was a pork-eater, totally assimilated. And now Dan called Martin in to his office, with me sitting in the other chair.
Dan: “Hi, Marty. Dov and I have been having a conversation, a bit of a disagreemennt, and we thought you could help us cut to the chase.”
Goldberg: “OK. Shoot.”
Dan: “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 takinjg off three days a week for holidays — plus his Sabbath — ever since he got here. You’re Jewish, and you and I are partners and good friends. So I just wanted to ask you. First, how many days of New Years do you people have? I do January 1. That’s what everyone here does. 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. Did you take off that much time for New Year’s?”
Goldberg: “No, I just take off most of a 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?”
Me; “Yeah. I thought you would know about it. I knew you had some background.”
Goldberg: “Yeah, Dan. Actually, that’s legit. They take a lemon and a tree branch, and they point it at you. It’s a thing. 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 socializes.”
Me: “Marty, it’s called ‘Shmini Atzeret.’ Haven’t you ever heard of it?”
Goldberg: “Not really, but I totally believe you. 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.”
And that is what it is to be a Jew in America. Never in all my years when I practiced Big Firm law did Dan or anyone else deny me my right to observe my every halakhic Judaic law requirement.
But that is what it is to be a minority. Arabs deal with it in Israel. Jews deal with it in America. Because too many Jews in America are too ready to assimilate and to give up so much of our precious heritage, one does not hear them complain as they marry into the Biden and Clinton families, and into less famous non-Jewish families, as they ignore Shabbat and eat non-kosher and celebrate Christmas by dining at Chinese restaurants, and as the worst apostates among them — the Bernie Sanderses and George Soroses, the J Streets and Jewish Voice for Palestines, the Bens and Jerrys — even turn against Israel and her political needs in America, lining up behind Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), Elizabeth Warren, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and such.
It is the way in all countries. There is a majority cuilture and a plethora of minorities. France is Roman Catholic through and through. So are Italy and so much else in Europe. In countries like Germany and Great Britain, expressions of Protestantism dominate instead. In Russia, it is Eastern Orthodoxy. In mainland China it is atheism as it has been for much of a century in the Soviet Union. In America it is Christianity.
In Israel it is Judaism. Jiminy Cricket, that is normal.
Rabbi Prof. Dov Fischer is Contributing Editor at The American Spectator, adjunct professor of law at two prominent Southern California law schools, Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Coalition for Jewish Values, rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County, California, and has held prominent leadership roles in several national rabbinic and other Jewish organizations. He was Chief Articles Editor of UCLA Law Review, clerked for the Hon. Danny J. Boggs in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and served six years on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. His writings have appeared in The Weekly Standard, National Review, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Jerusalem Post, Israel Hayom, and The Jewish Press. Other writings are collected at www.rabbidov.com .