I’m not the best faster, which means I’m usually not the best at Yom Kippur prayers. But I did notice two things this Yom Kippur, once while I was praying and the other time while I was not praying. In Avinu Malkeinu, the customary prayer we say over and over again during the High Holidays, I noticed that אָבִֽינוּ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ הָרֵם קֶֽרֶן יִשְׂרָאֵל עַמֶּֽךָ is translated as “Our Father, Our King, raise up the pride of Israel, Your nation.”
Now as an organization that thinks a lot about Jewish pride, I have to admit, I never realized that “Jewish pride” is an old idea. But it makes sense. Jewish pride is essential to the Jewish people thriving. When we feel proud of our people, our wisdom, our traditions, we stand taller as Jews. We lean into our traditions and we want to unite with our brothers and sisters. These feelings come about when we are exposed to Kiddush Hashem, which literally means the sanctification of the Name, but practically means, when we see a Jew upholding a Jewish value publicly.
Conversely, when we feel Jewish shame, the exact opposite events occur. We turn away from our traditions, we don’t want to feel part of our people, we hate who we are. These feelings can come about due to chilul Hashem, desecration of God’s name, or when a Jew publicly does something that is abhorrent and against Jewish values.
There is another way Jews can feel shame – when antisemitic regimes make us feel shame. My go-to book over Shabbos and holidays in the last few months has been “A Brief History of Antisemitism,” by Israel B. Bitton. It is anything but brief and the information in it is often chilling. A few weeks ago, when I got to the pogroms that immediately followed the Holocaust, I had to put it away for a while.
Over Yom Kippur, I got to the first instance that Jews were made to wear the yellow star as an act of shaming. It wasn’t during Nazi Germany, as we’ve been led to believe. When the Cairo Geniza was discovered, it described the Muslim caliphate of the Abbasids based in Baghdad in the 8th century as the first group to institute this practice. Not only did the Jews have to wear these yellow badges on their headgear and necks, the women had to wear one black shoe and one red shoe. They had to wear small bells around their necks or shoes.
All of these acts were done in order to shame and humiliate the Jews of the time, just as the pointy hats the Jews were made to wear after the two Church councils of 1267 was an act of degradation. After thousands of years of antisemites blaming and shaming our people, it is no wonder that so many Jews today have internalized those feelings.
I recently heard a Jewish leader of a major organization publicly state that Hollywood used to be a good place for the Jews, but now it is increasingly dangerous. This is a really misguided and ignorant statement. Hollywood was built, in large part, by Jews who were full of shame and self-hatred. These founders couldn’t make it in any gentile industries, which shut them out. As author Neal Gabler writes, in “An Empire of Their Own,” the Hollywood founders told the assimilation stories they wanted to become. They turned their kids into complete yankees in a single generation.
Even in Hollywood that was “run by Jews,” the Jews changed their names and inserted mocking, degradation, assimilation and appropriation into the vast majority of the stories they told about Jews. Hollywood never was and continues not to be a place where you can be too Jewish. You can only be a little bit Jewish. A flagrantly looking and/or observing Jew never had a home in Hollywood and in our age of accommodation, nothing has changed.
When I was at a recent Hollywood filming, I met a Chinese producer. I told her that I loved Marvel’s Shang-Chi because it was a story of a person from a minority group getting his strength and heroism by returning to his land, his language, his customs. She told me she thought the movie was OK, but she’s sick of the story of the Chinese person returning to Mother China. She is ready to see a story of a Chinese person finally assimilating into American culture.
I was shocked and amused. Apparently Hollywood is only able to tell assimilation stories when it comes to Jews! Other minority groups didn’t get such treatment. The more I learn of how our enemies tortured and shamed us, the deeper our JITC Hollywood Bureau gets into the entertainment industry, the more emboldened I am to tell the stories that will make our people proud. We have so many heroes, there is so much Jewish wisdom, there is so much beauty to our traditions.
This year, I didn’t pray on Yom Kippur as much as I wanted to, but I did say, “Our Father, Our King, raise up the pride of Israel, Your nation,” with tremendous focus. May the pride of Israel increase this year!