Will Kenneth Unobservant Jew

On the Verge of Repeating History by Will Kenneth

When I was still living with my parents, my dad handed me a copy of A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson and asked me to read it.

My response probably went something like, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll get around to it,” before tossing it onto a pile of high school textbooks and avoiding it.

AHistory of the Jews became the alpha of my book backlog. Despite making more than half a dozen moves, I never tossed it out. I thought that maybe keeping this book will one day absolve my guilt for being an agnostic, unobservant Jew. (I wasn’t bar mitzvahed until I was twenty-eight, which for Jewish men usually happens at thirteen, so I was a little late on that one.)

TV taught me everything I knew about ancient Jewish history, which probably wasn’t the best filter for learning about my people. If The Simpsons didn’t satirize it, or if Syfy channel couldn’t point at something bizarre and say, “That was probably an ancient alien,” it might as well have never happened.

And, honestly, I felt pretty glib about my understanding of ancient Jewish history. Like, the Jews wandered the desert for forty years. Booooring.

As for modern history, my knowledge was limited to what my high school and elementary school taught us about World War II. Our high school once ushered us into an assembly to watch Schindler’s List, and a few times we were lucky to meet with Holocaust survivors first hand, which is a privilege that younger generations like my daughter’s won’t be able to experience themselves.

My formal education on Jewish history ended at these two extremes.

Late last year when The New York Times reported that the Trump administration was floating an executive order to combat anti-Semitism at universities, the Jewish community was alarmed when reporters revealed that Trump’s administration would do so by making Jews a separate race or nationality.

Though the goal might have been to stifle criticism of Israel, this tack echoed fascist plans to relegate Jews to second class citizens, such as the Nuremberg Laws, which stripped Jews of their German citizenship before the Holocaust. Whether or not that was intentional is anyone’s guess, but given Donald Trump’s affection for sociopathic dictators, we had good reason to be concerned.

Thankfully, the executive order’s final version left out the parts about Judaism being a separate race or nationality. Though the final executive order was still problematic in different ways, the original reporting still struck me as something familiar and got me to crack open the A History of the Jews for the first time in roughly twenty years.

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The Pale of Settlement

In the late 1700s, Russia began to acquire Polish and Lithuanian territory that included large swaths of Jewish people. These lands became part of The Pale of Settlement, a new territorial designation where Jews were allowed to live and settle.

During the 1800s, as emancipated serfs acquired freedom to move outside the Pale, Jews were excluded from these reforms. Over time, the Jewish people received tightened restrictions on where they could live and travel even within the Pale itself, and they also faced forced relocations (though some rights would be granted to Jews depending on who was in power). Jews were also restricted from taking some work to protect businesses held by non-Jews, effectively making the Jewish people second class citizens. For the most part, Jews were forced to live in poverty.

Recently I learned my father’s family can be traced back to what’s now central Ukraine. They lived in Zvenigorodka (that’s the Yiddish spelling), which, until the creation of the Pale of Settlement, didn’t have much of a Jewish population to speak of. By the mid-19th century, Zvenigorodka’s Jewish population numbered more than 2,000, and by the end of the century was about 6,000. (I suspect my family may have been forced to move to Zvenigorodka at some point, but short of digging through Russian census data, I have little way of knowing for sure.)

Jews in Zvenigorodka were artisans, worked in trade, and harvested crops. My great- great- great-grandfather was a Rabbi (how Jewish is that!?). They had their own hospital, an orphanage, multiple synagogues, and schools.

After the 1881 assassination of Czar Alexander II, Jews were scapegoated for his death by Russian officials, and anti-Semitic violence and murders erupted against Jewish communities. These government-sanctioned attacks, known as Pogroms, also reached the closest neighboring city to my family in Kiev. Pogroms erupted again at the turn of the 20th century and again at the end of World War I, where they reached Zvenigorodka in 1918.

Facing violence, institutional poverty and inequality, my family joined the millions of Jews who left the Pale behind and sought a better future in the United States. Unfortunately, I’m nearly confident I don’t have living relatives in Zvenigorodka today, as those who stayed behind were systematically killed by Nazis in World War II. The current population of Jewish residents in Zvenigorodka numbers less than a hundred, a tiny fraction of its peak prior to World War II, so I’m not holding out hope for my distant cousins.

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The Executive Order

Thankfully, Donald Trump’s executive order wound up not being what the New York Times initially said it was (of course, the Trump administration could have changed course when they saw the backlash from the Jewish community).

In no part does it define Jews as having a separate nationality, nor does it try to strip rights away from us, but instead it aims to reassert that Jews are entitled to the same protections as everyone else under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. (And though my layman’s understanding of the executive order is that it doesn’t explicitly attempt to curtail criticism of Israel’s inexcusable treatment of the Palestinian people, I wouldn’t put it past them to try.)

In effect, the executive order does nothing to protect the Jewish people. Today, the Jewish people are facing an increasing amount of violent anti-Semitic attacks, according to the Anti-Defamation League, but most Jews could tell you that without needing the ADL keeping track. We’ll have a hard time forgetting the memory of deadly attacks in Pittsburgh, Poway, and Overland Park.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump says white supremacists are “very fine people,” accuses Jews of having dual loyalty to Israel, frequently refers to political opponents and Jews as globalists, and relies on Jewish stereotypes when speaking with Jewish groups.

If Trump truly wanted to protect the Jewish people, he’d need to take a hard look at how his actions and words have inspired those who would do us harm.

If Trump wanted to help the Jewish people, he’d respect our values and disband ICE and close their concentration camps (we might want to start calling them death camps now that we know ICE and CBP are intentionally denying peoplebasic medical care), open the borders to all immigrants fleeing tyranny, war, and climate change, and end his xenophobic and racist tirades, which rev up his supporters and may have inspired acts of mass violence.

Of course, Trump is an obvious narcissist and is incapable of self-reflection, so I’m not holding out hope for change and accountability.

I’m struck by how little I knew about the history of my people, and how history seems to be on the verge of repeating itself again. Much of this would’ve been lost on me if I hadn’t picked up A History of the Jews or followed up with tracing my family’s history.

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I held onto A History of the Jews out of a sense of guilt, but I opened it to better understand the present as a tiny act of self-preservation. Thankfully, the book is well written, and I’m enjoying it so far, but it’s too early to tell if it’s going to be as good as The Simpsons reinterpreting the story of David and Goliath. After all, what book can compare to The Simpsons?


Will Kenneth lives in Jacksonville, Fla. ALL > Descendents. (Facebook | Instagram | w o l f m a n w i l l [@] g m a i l)