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November 28, 2006

Also, he's totally right that 50 years ago that guy would have been hanging upside down with a fork in his ass

If you'd asked me a week ago if I'd be defending Michael Richards on anything, I'd have said you were nuts. But in this post-scandal aftershock, he's getting a bum rap.

Howard Rubenstein acknowledged that Richards had shouted anti-Semitic remarks in an April standup comedy routine... But he defended Richards' language about Jews, saying that the comic "is Jewish."...

As Rubenstein's assertion circulated, Jewish organizations and commentators pointed out that the man who played Cosmo Kramer on "Seinfeld" has not converted to Judaism and neither of his parents are Jewish.

Which makes him ...

"Technically, not having been born by blood as Jewish and not formally going into a conversion, it was purely his interpretation of having adopted Judaism as his religion," Rubenstein told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "He told me, `I'm Jewish,' when I asked him.

"He said there were two mentors who raised him and who had a big influence on his life, and they were Jewish. He said, 'I agree with the concepts and the religious beliefs of Judaism and I've adopted Judaism as my religion,'" Rubenstein said. "He really thinks of himself as Jewish."

What do some Jews think?

"You can't feel Jewish. It's not a matter of feeling. You can convert to Judaism. You can't not convert to Judaism and then be Jewish," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.

Hier defined being Jewish from two perspectives, if someone hasn't gone through the process of formal conversion.

"From the Orthodox point of view, if that person has a Jewish mother, he would be considered Jewish," Hier said. "In the Reform tradition, there's also a patrilineage. Under those categories, he would not fit."

Let me offer a third perspective.

First let me grant for the sake of argument that Rubenstein's explanation is actually true: that Richards agrees with "the" concepts and religious beliefs of Judaism (as if there's only one agreed upon set) and practices accordingly, after whatever fashion is meaningful to him. (One hopes that making antisemitic jokes is not the extent of it; more on that at the end). If that's the case, Humanistic Judaism, which is my denomination, would welcome him. Here's what the official SHJ guidebook says about "adoption of Judaism."

Many Humanistic Jews prefer the word adoption to conversion in describing the procedure whereby a non-Jewish person becomes Jewish. While religious communities, like Christianity and Islam, typically are united by common beliefs, there are no beliefs or teachings that all Jews share and that define their membership in the Jewish community. Jewish atheists are no less Jewish than are theists. Viewed in this light, "adoption" into the Jewish "family," rather than conversion to a religious faith, more accurately conveys the meaning of the process by which a person not born of a Jewish mother or father becomes a member of the Jewish community.

A person's decision to be Jewish makes her or him so. Often, in preparation for the decision, the prospective adoptee undertakes a program of study and introspection, usually under the guidance of a knowledgable leader or teacher. Areas of study may include the nature of Jewish identity and of contemporary Jewish community, as well as Jewish history, holidays, and beliefs.

A formal ritual of acceptance into the Jewish people, though unneccesary, is appropriate. Some Humanistic Jewish communities have developed such celebrations of welcome.

Now it's important, of course, that "a program of study and introspection" is the norm, and highly encouraged. But the core tenet is, "A person's decision to be Jewish makes her or him so." This belief has its roots in the Humanistic Judaism understanding of Jewish identity.

Who is a Jew? After more than thirty centuries Jews continue to debate this question.

At stake is the integrity of millions of Jews who do not find their Jewish identity in religious belief or religious practice, but who discover their Jewishness in the historic experience of the Jewish people. At stake also is the Jewish identity of thousands of men and women, in Israel and in other countries of the world, who want to be Jewish, but who are rejected by the narrow legalism of traditional religious authorities.

We, the members of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews, believe that the survival of the Jewish people depends on a broad view of Jewish identity. We welcome into the Jewish people all men and women who sincerely desire to share the Jewish experience regardless of their ancestry. We challenge the assumption that the Jews are primarily or exclusively a religious community and that religious convictions or behavior are essential to full membership in the Jewish people....

We Jews have a moral responsibility to welcome all people who seek to identify with our culture and destiny. The children and spouses of intermarriage who desire to be part of the Jewish people must not be cast aside because they do not have Jewish mothers and do not wish to undergo religious conversion. The authority to define "who is a Jew" belongs to all the Jewish people and cannot be usurped by any part of it. [emphasis added]

In response to the destructive definition of a Jew now proclaimed by some Orthodox authorities, and in the name of the historic experience of the Jewish people, we, therefore, affirm that a Jew is a person of Jewish descent or any person who declares himself or herself to be a Jew and who identifies with the history, ethical values, culture, civilization, community, and fate of the Jewish people.

That last part is important in this discussion because many Orthodox authorities would not recognize Richards as a Jew even if he had gone through a Reform study program and ceremony (or if his father were Jewish but not his mother). And yet it's hard to imagine, if that were the case, that the AP reporter would gin up a controversy over it by going to Orthodox rabbis and asking them to issue a pronouncement about the faith of a person who doesn't even claim to be Orthodox. I see little difference (again, giving Rubenstein the benefit of the doubt over the veracity of his statement) between that and what the writer actually did.

I, for one, am, conditionally, quite comfortable acknowledging that Michaeld Richards is a Jew. And it's a shanda fur die goy!

As a final note, the web site for my home congregation notes that "When a person declares him or herself to be Jewish it is important for the individual to gain public confirmation of his or her private declaration." Presumably that means before he makes antisemitic cracks, not after. Even Sammy Davis Jr. knew to warm up the crowd with a heartfeld account of his decision to become a Jew before he launched into his "there goes the neighborhood" shtick. Indeed, as a new Jew wading into these waters, Richards would have done well to watch a classic episode of a TV show called Seinfeld, which I understand is now available on DVD.

Tim: All right, it is cavity time. Ah, here we go. Which reminds me, did you here the one about the rabbi and the farmer's daughter? Huh?

Jerry: Hey.

Tim: Those aren't mahtzah balls.

Jerry: Tim, do you think you should be making jokes like that?

Tim: Why not? I'm Jewish, remember?

Jerry: I know, but...

Tim: Jerry, it's our sense of humor that sustained us as a people for 3000 years.

Jerry: 5000.

Tim: 5000, even better. Okay, Chrissie. Give me a schtickle of flouride.

-- Jerry and Elaine at Jerry's apartment.

Jerry: And then he asked the assistant for a schtickle of flouride.

Elaine: Why are you so concerned about this?

Jerry: I'll tell you why. Because I believe Whatley converted to Judaism just for the jokes.

Posted by Daniel Radosh

Comments

At Thanksgiving my brother-in-law's mother, devoutly Jewish, said her first reaction to hearing about the incident (for some reason the older generation was extraordinarily informed on the matter) was to hope that he was the one among those four who was not Jewish. If Rubenstein is right I know what she's getting for Jewish Christmas this year!

Mere declaration is all that is required for many religions but if the identification is cultural and not religious it strikes me as a little flimsy just to declare. Why not say also that ethnicity is merely declaration and start accepting so many condescending, patronizing, cultural imperialists as blacks? Is my sister really a gypsy? I think if he partakes in some actual practices (or has deep beliefs) of historical Jews he certainly has a case for declaration. But to be culturally something I think you need something to stake your claim on. Maybe having two influential mentors is enough. Whatever that means. Probably.

Isn't the existence of cultural and ethnic identities dependent on some kind of transmission, with an agent and a receptor and not just a receptor? Are they a historical legacy, like English spelling, that tells us something about what's been going on before we particular individuals got here? Or are they just lifestyles, affinities, consumables?

Hence my granting for the sake of argument that Richards really does identify, in the fullest sense, not merely declare. Again, if that's not the case then I agree that his claim is a little flimsy. Since no one has yet come forward to say, "he's a friend, and he always told us he was Jewish," that's certainly possible. But my main point here is to challenge the contention that only religious authorities (and orthodox ones at that) get to decide who is a Jew.

Also, unless your sister is even more self-hating than Richards, she's a Roma.

Thanks for taking up this meme and for the links to Humanistic Judaism.

I'm falling more and more into the camp of Jew-haters, as I find so many of the faith's tenents (or at least the tenents held by the majority of the faith) to be appalingly racist. I'm not sure I want to be associated anymore with a group that won't welcome my children as members.

TGG's comments are right on... you can't just declare yourself "black". Black is a term of race that we've objectified over the years with a variety of specious, insidious qualfications (e.g. at least one black grandparent, darker skin than coffee with cream, etc).

I think it's totally valid for someone to identify as ethnically African American or Hispanic or Italian or Jewish without having to pass some outside "objective" kosher test.

The option for conversion as a leveler is as much of a cop-out as the idea that it's fair to enfranchise blacks but require literacy tests... especially in some counties.

I'd like to think I can raise my children to be as or more Jewish than Madeline Allbright or John Kerry.

Dan, he's a MASON. Kramer does not think Jewish.

In Lexington, MA is a creepy museum called "The Museum of our National Heritage," which is by, for and about the glorious Masonic Temple. One exhibit, the obligitory, "Hey... so who's a hip, happnin' Mason TODAY?!" exhibit, features a big old photo of Michale Richards. I sawr it with my own Scottish eyeballs.

Masons are a theistic fraternal order, not a religion. You can be Jewish and a Mason. According to conspiracy nuts, they're one and the same anyway.

Dan - GET THE HELL OUTTA HERE*. All the Masons I know are tighty whiteys. I just learned me some'in.

*You're always right, and that's why I love you. You keep me from being too ig'nant all the time.

Masons are a theistic fraternal order, not a religion. You can be Jewish and a Mason.

And, as you pointed out, you can be Jewish and an atheist. Therefore the "religion" distinction seems like cherry-picking here.

Look, I'm sympathetic to your argument, but I think it goes too far in the whole tolerant, humanistic vein. While it's fine under normal circs for someone to "be" whatever they "self-identify" as, there's a different standard when that self-identification is being used to deflect charges of bigotry against the identity group in question. So far, Richards hasn't come close to that standard (e.g. many people claiming he's always publicly self-identified as Jewish, proof that he has studied or consistently observes any Jewish rituals whatsoever, etc.) and frankly, I doubt that he will.

Correcting to "Roma" was my first instinct as well but she was in such a good mood.

Religions are nothing if not prone to sectarianism and I'm all for new institutions which keep the Olde Wayes and identities alive without suffocating people or making them believe ridiculous things about the universe.

Masons, on the other hand, fill in the gaps between the two great foundation stones of our Freepublic; Columbia Records and the CIA.

A far more interesting corollary is not race, but sexuality. Can I declare myself gay? I have all the equipment. Am I gay only if I'm using it a particular way, or can I be gay in the off hours too? The range of precedent on this point ranges from Cobain ('Everyone is gay') to Lenny Bruce ("Suck one cock..." since I don't know it verbatim, I'm not going to try).

That's not to diminish the significance of seeing oneself as a thoroughgoing Jew or gay, but since the threshhold for either identity can be set pretty low (we wouldn't have to go too far to find someone who is the obverse of Richards -- a Jew who had the benefit of bloodline and enculturation but does nothing otherwise that would make them 'Jewish'), if someone is truly empathetic, what is the harm in associating with an identity that is not inborn or externally practiced? If more people empathized with or identified with blacks or jews, or gays, we could expect that to minimize prejudice. And hasn't that been the program of liberal/PC identity theorists for the past generation?

Vance -- just to reiterate, hopefully for the last time, I don't know enough about MR to judge whether he comes to his identity honestly or for the purposes of spin, though it certainly may be the latter. However, while that may deligitimize his standing, I don't think it undermines my premise.

Dan - I get that you're trying to keep the two issues separate - one, whether or not Richards is sincere and two, whether or not one can become Jewish by self-declaration. What I'm asserting is that in this case they are not separate issues - the circumstances under which the declaration is being made alters the burden of proof for sincerity.

I don't think anyone here would argue with your premise out of context - that religious identity need not always be codified by given religious authorities - but since you brought it up within this context, it has to be assessed with that baggage attached.

But really the context for my post was not Richards' claim, but the article about it, which attempted to judge Richards claim entirely based on the opinions of religious authorities, thus leaving the strong impression that Jewishness can not be a matter of self-identity. Had the writer attempted to find out if and how Richards had identified as a Jew prior to Rubenstein's claim, I would have had nothing to say. But by going to traditional rabbis, he very strongly implied that it wouldn't matter if Richards had been "openly" and devoutly Jewish for his entire adult life because he did not have Jewish parentage or a orthodox/conservative conversion.

Since we're now in near total agreement, I feel confident that you'll now try to sneak in the last word.

No, me!! I want it!

Damn. I was thisclose. Nay, thicslose.

Vance,

I'm very sorry you didn't get the last word.

It sounds like you all just made a big loop that could have been summed up "words mean different things to different people." The catch is some words (Jewish, gay, black) entangle huge chunks of our culture while others (ham, cock, rap) quietly mean a bunch of different things and people only ask for clarification when they don't know which meaning to apply.

Gypsy lore: The singular of Roma is Rom for both masc and fem. One Rom, two or more Roma, they speak Romany, the adjective is Romany.

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