OCTOBER 20, 2007
RABBI MITCHELL WOHLBERG
Are Jews Too Powerful? The Vanity Fair Perspective
This magazine may be dangerous to your health … or maybe not! You can't tell which magazine it is because I've only shown you the back cover. The front cover has a picture of Nicole Kidman in a state of undress and I fear if I show it to you, you may have trouble focusing on me!
The magazine I am referring to is the October issue of Vanity Fair. Vanity Fair is one of the magazines I subscribe to. I do so because I have a subscription that costs only $12 a year and despite the fact that most of its advertisements (the main reason I subscribe to any magazine) is geared toward women, I find Vanity Fair a lively magazine where every month at least one or two of its articles I find of interest. But nothing prepared me to expect what is found in two articles in October's Vanity Fair – two articles that may be dangerous to your health as a Jew – or maybe not!
In the October issue of Vanity Fair there is an article on page 259 entitled, "The 2007 New Establishment" – a list of what Vanity Fair considers the 100 most powerful, influential people in American society. Now I think it was Joseph Aaron in the Chicago Jewish News who first took note of a rather remarkable aspect about these 100 people.
We Jews represent about 2.5 percent of the American people. So one could naturally expect that out of the 100 most influential people in America, one would find listed two or three Jews. How many Jews do you think were listed? You're going to find this hard to believe, but according to Mr. Aaron's calculation, 51 out of the 100 are Jewish! Now, keep in mind that this is not a list of shleppers … amongst the 100 are people with names
like Warren Buffet, Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey. And yet, right along side of them are people with names like Schwartzman and Spielberg and Bloomberg and Geffen and Perelman and Lauder and Wasserstein and Cohen and Weinstein and Weintraub, and Friedman, and Silver.
Not bad, my friends! Not bad! Not bad when one considers that
there are more people born in China every year than there are Jews in the whole world!
And as if all this is not enough, on page 306 in the same issue of the magazine, there is another list. This one called "The Next Establishment" listing younger people who Vanity Fair believes will eventually make it to the 'big list.' There are 26 people on that list … 15 are Jews. Again, over 50%! Eat your heart out, Anne Coulter!
And then, just in case you still don't get it, on page 308 of Vanity Fair they have a list of people who made the "New Establishment" list in the past, but for one reason or another didn't make it this year, but Vanity Fair believes will be back in the future.
There are 9 names on this list … 8 of them are Jews! This is absolutely unbelievable!
This is absolutely incredible! The only question is – the age old question: Is it good for the Jews? Does presenting so many Jews out front in the public, in positions of power, drawing attention to us … is that good? It shows how good we are? Or is it bad, feeding the hatred of the anti-Semites who accuse us of being too powerful and too controlling.
It's not easy giving a correct answer to this question because I believe Jewish tradition provides two contradictory responses. On a verse toward the end of Genesis where Jacob speaks to his children as they are about to go down to Egypt, the Midrash describes the conversation: "Jacob requested of them: do not go out with bread in your hands and do not all enter through one gate … do not go out with bread in your hands in order not to arouse ill feeling and do not all enter through one gate for fear of the eye."
There was a famine in Egypt and Jacob is telling his children that when they go down to Egypt don't let the people see that you have bread. And don't all come marching in together as one; people will be afraid of you; people will envy you; people will give you the 'evil eye.' With this in mind, one cannot help but think that the articles in Vanity Fair are not doing us any favor. It would be better if there wasn't so much attention drawn to our success.
On the other hand, in the Book of Exodus, in describing the garment that was made for the High Priest to wear in the Temple, we are told that the hem of his robe had bells on it so that people would know that he was coming. And the Lubavitcher Rebbe saw this as a lesson that a Jew should go out into this world proud and confident, trying to spread the message.
And that's just what Lubavitcher Chasidim do these days, with their "Mitzvah Mobiles" and the big Chanukah menorahs they put up in public squares throughout our country. So, from the perspective of the Lubavitcher Rebbe you could say – although he never would have put it this way: "If you've got it, flaunt it!"
So what do you think? Lay low or flaunt it? Is Vanity Fair good for the Jews or not? I venture to say that your answer depends upon how old you are.
Alan Dershowitz put it so well in his book appropriately entitled, Chutzpah" when he pointed out, "We are at a generational crossroads. The Jews who were the American pioneers – our first generations of immigrants – were indeed guests in other people's land." Yes, many of our fathers and mothers and certainly our grandfathers and grandmothers felt that they
were guests in America. And so they made sure that they did nothing to 'rock the boat.'
They did as little as possible to draw attention to themselves. They had a 'sha-shtil' philosophy – lay low and they won't come after us with an ax. And so, Betty Perske changed her name to Lauren Bacall, and Joseph Gottlieb to Joey Bishop, and Issur Danielovich Demsky to Kirk Douglas, and Sidney Liebowitz to Steve Lawrence. But as Jews grew more successful in America they also grew to feel at home in America. And
suddenly Jews were asserting their rights as Jews. In the 50's and 60's when many Jews moved to the suburbs there were many synagogues across the country that built their parking lot in the front and the synagogue in the back so as not to upset their neighbors.
But then, all of a sudden, in the 70's "Freedom for Soviet Jewry" was put on billboards in front of every synagogue … and Jews started demanding their rights and asserting their interests. Sure, it led the Jimmy Carters and the Walts and the Mearsheimers to claim that the Jewish lobby was too powerful. But just one generation ago there was no Jewish lobby! And there was no Israeli Air Force! And by the time others fought our battle, 6
million Jews had gone up in smoke!
At the beginning of this morning's Torah portion God challenges Abraham to leave his country and to come to the Promised Land of Israel. "V'escha l'goy gadol – and I will make of thee a great nation and I will bless thee and make thy name great and be thou a blessing." God promised Abraham that his progeny would become a great nation. As you know, the Jewish people have never been great in numbers, and yet there are people who think that we rule the world! It's unbelievable! There are ¾ of a billion Hindus in this world. There are over 300 million Buddhists. There are more Zoroastrians and Mormons in the world than there are Jews! But who rules the world?
Not them! Who rules? Me and you … and our 'mishpocho' over at Vanity Fair.
And you know what? There are lots of people who think that's true! And you know what? I'm glad they do! It's very important for our survival.
My teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, of blessed memory, once pointed out and interesting fact about Abraham. Abraham found respect from the outside world only in the aftermath of one particular incident. As we're told in our Torah portion this morning, "Melchizedak, king of Salem, brought forth bread and wine." He went so far as to make a kiddush – "And he blessed him and said: Blessed be Abraham of God most high, maker
of heaven and earth." What prompted this profusion of compliments? Why was a Jew suddenly thrust into the role of universal hero? Pointed out Rabbi Soleveitchik: this reception was never accorded Abraham when he fulfilled his characteristic of chesed, showing kindness to strangers and hospitality to wayfarers. Helping others won Abraham no worldly praise. It was only now – now that Abraham has pursued the terrorists who held his nephew Lott captive, and in the words of the Torah: "Smote them
and pursued them." … only now did the world show respect. For what impresses the world is not saintliness as much as strength, not character as much as courage, not piety as much as power.
Let our enemies think that we are all-powerful. As Akiva Eldar once put it in the Haaretz newspaper, "The Arab belief that the Jews rule the world has become one of Israel's most important deterrent factors, no less than its military strength. The lunatic idea that 6 million Jews dictate the policies of a superpower with 280 million inhabitants has contributed greatly to the decisions by Arab and Palestinian leaders, and even to that of the Arab League, to accept – albeit with gritted teeth – the existence of the Jewish
state. When Anwar Sadat and King Hussein came to Jerusalem, they had at least one eye fixed on Washington." Yes, let the Arab world think that we're all-powerful. That's the only way they may somehow come to the realization that they're going to have to learn how to live with us.
And here in America, I'm sure there are some people who, when they read Vanity Fair, will have an upset stomach. But do you think they would learn to love us if we were less successful? Should we be less successful just to please them? The Jews living in the shtetels of Eastern Europe were not successful, had no power. That didn't stop the Cossacks and others from destroying their homes and killing their families!
I've told you the story of someone sitting in a café in London on Feb. 28, 2001 reading the International Herald Tribune. He couldn't get over the fact, in turning to the editorial page, five of the six columns were written by Jews: Richard Cohen, Stephen Rosenfeld, Robert Caplan, Ellen Goodman and Thomas Friedman. The sixth column was written by a South Korean by the name of Prof. Han Sung-Joo. Five Jews and a Joo! It's true, with
so many Jewish names in positions of prominence, it drives our enemies crazy. But you know what? It makes many of our friends feel good! And we Jews have many friends here in America. Many of them believe that the Bible is the word of God. And they take seriously – very seriously – the words of God's promise to Abraham when He said,
"V'avorcha m'vorechacha u'mkalelcha oar – and I will bless them that bless thee and him that curseth thee I will curse." Those are very important words that God promised to Abraham; that those who will support the Jews will be blessed and those who curse us will be cursed. You should know that it is this promise which forms the basis of much of the Evangelical Christian support for the State of Israel. Type in the words of this promise on an Internet search engine; type in Genesis 12:3 and you'll see how many Christian websites pop up. If you are our friend, you'll be blessed … if you are against us you'll be cursed. It's one of the facts of history.
We speak of the "glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome."
But that glory and grandeur soon departed after the Greeks and Romans turned against us. Similarly, soon after Spain expelled its Jews, the sun began to set on the Spanish Empire. And in modern times, the Iron Curtain of Communism first began to fall when the Jews sought their freedom. So let people think we are blessed. They just might be right … and they just might be blessed as well.
"I will bless them that bless thee and him that curseth thee I will curse."
On a majestic night nearly 4000 years ago, God promised our forefather Abraham that his people would be made in to a "great nation." That pledge by the Almighty was repeated to our forefathers and remains a solemn oath. This month's Vanity Fair seems to indicate the pledge is being fulfilled in our day. We are the most blessed generation in the last 2000 years of our people. We should thank God for being that privileged
generation that has an Israeli Air Force that could knock out Iraq's nuclear reactor and Syria's as well. We should thank God for living in this great country, the good old U.S. of A where a majority of the members of the New Establishment are Jewish. "Hashem oz l'amo yitain. Hashem yevorach et amo bashalom. The Lord has given strength to His people. May He now bless us with peace." Amen.
Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg • October 20, 2007 • Beth Tfiloh Congregation • Baltimore, Maryland