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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Confessions of a Philosemite

-- By Tom Phillips

Recently I learned a new word, which made me happy for about fifteen minutes.  The word is Philosemite, meaning someone who admires and appreciates the Jewish people, their religion and culture.  That’s me, I thought.  I have spent most my life among Jews, owe them inestimable debts and would feel lost without their presence.  But I had never come across a term to describe my relation to them. “Philosemite” had a good sound to it, its mixed Greek and Hebrew roots expressing the fascination of an outsider, and the contrast with “anti-Semite” seeming to provide a badge of innocence in a suspicious age. 

However, after a brief Google search I was stunned to find a quote from a neighbor, an English professor whose daughter once played with mine in the West Side Soccer League.  “We must stamp out Philosemitism, wherever it rears its ugly head,” roared Melvin Bukiet in the Jewish newspaper Forward.   Further research revealed that the word has an ugly origin, coined by anti-Semites in 19th-century Germany as a term of derision for those who sympathized with Jews.  And it’s no badge of innocence; many people regard Philosemitism as a cover for anti-Semites, a socially acceptable way for them to express their sick fascination with Jews.    

A joke: Which is preferable – the anti-Semite or the Philosemite? 
             The anti-Semite.  At least he isn’t lying.   

Smacked down from my initial attraction to the word, I eventually decided to accept it anyway and apply it to myself.   I did so because the alternative would be to keep doing what I have learned to do, which is keep my mouth shut and try to pose as someone who has no strong feelings or mixed feelings about Jews or Judaism.  That’s a lie, and I think a common one.  In the long shadow of the Holocaust, complex or ambivalent feelings about Jews or Judaism have become dangerous to acknowledge.  And the chilling effect has extended into the political arena, curbing free discussion around crucial subjects like Zionism, Israel and U.S. foreign policy, areas where free speech is compromised at great risk to all. 

No joke:  Which are more dangerous, feelings that are communicated, or those that are denied?   Dr. Freud had the answer to that.   So the goal of this essay will be to communicate the mind of a Philosemite who isn’t lying.  

My Philosemitism began as an adolescent, in a sleepy Long Island village.  In the 1950s, large estates were being sold off in the area, and the forest bulldozed to make way for housing developments.  Jewish families from New York City were moving into new neighborhoods with names like Nob Hill, Strathmore and Country Estates.  My mother, normally resentful of the rich, approved in this case.   She was the local Democratic committeewoman, and these were mostly liberal Democrats, new voters and activists who would eventually oust the Republican machine in Nassau County.   

I heard her talk about this when I was 11, my last year in a small grade school on the edge of town.  I didn’t really know what a Jew was.  But the next year, I entered junior high school with an influx of Jewish kids from the city, who transformed the school, the town and my life. 

These people were nothing like the Irish, Italian and Polish working-class kids, poor blacks and middle-class WASPs who had been my classmates up to then.  The atmosphere in town had been somnolent and sullen, a semi-rural pastoral existence with undertones of racism and anti-intellectualism.  You learned to keep your mouth shut and avoid bullies.   

Jewish kids had nothing to do with any of this.  The boys were good in school and not at all ashamed of it.  They liked sports, but never got into fights.  They were friendly and talkative and intensely interested in sex, a subject that had never come up for me.  My best friend Bruce made fun of my ignorance, but without too much malice, and taught me what I needed to know.   

The girls were the most beautiful creatures I had ever seen, in cashmere and pearls, with delicate facial lines that I would study when they were absorbed in their books or drawings.   In repose, they seemed like angels.  And they were as remote to me as angels.  I read the message in a gold necklace with a heart pendant, with a Star of David inside the heart.  Not for you, buddy.   

But my friend Bruce, to my surprise, invited me into his home and his family life, where I was accepted and even cultivated.  His parents included me in family excursions to the theater, art films and concerts, gave me books to read, instructed me in Jewish customs, and fed me many fine meals.  In this and other Jewish homes, I was exhilarated to discover a method and theory of child-rearing far more generous than I’d seen in my part of town.   Catholic parents especially seemed to regard their children as ticking bombs, sinners looking for any chance to take the road to Hell.  Bringing them up meant reining them in, with surveillance, threats, and corporal punishment.     

Jewish parents never beat their children, and regarded them not as depraved sinners but treasured vessels, not candidates for heaven or hell, but the parents’ own posterity on earth.  As such they lavished them with gifts, the most valuable being knowledge, experience and wisdom.  And I was being let in on the largess.   

At 13, I walked into a synagogue for the first time, for Bruce’s Bar Mitzvah.  During the Kaddish, I looked up to see a man I knew, the father of a classmate, beating his breast and crying out in grief over the death of a relative.  Not pretending to beat his breast and cry out, actually doing it.   I was dumbfounded.   I had no use for religious ceremony – I had watched Catholics in a row kneeling, sitting, standing and mumbling prayers, and even taken a white-bread-and–grape-juice communion at the local Presbyterian church.  These were dumb shows, signifying nothing to me.  But this was not a show.    

The next year I went to a confirmation service for a girl I knew, and heard another 13-year-old classmate deliver a sermon, on the Book of Ruth.  As I remember it, the sanctuary seemed to flood with light as she read the old translation of Ruth’s vow:  “Whither thou goest I will go, where thou lodgest I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.”   She wasn’t preaching to me.  But the story of the Moabite said to me on some level that the barriers to Judaism are not insurmountable, that an outsider can participate and come to belong.  At that moment, maybe, I was confirmed as a Philosemite, and accepted a lifetime koan – craving what is not mine, I refuse to renounce it, I will find a way to possess it.  But how?   

As a teenage boy, my method of dealing with such a profound question was to ignore it, blunder through the requirements of teenage life, and follow my instincts.  That combination led me to become a hanger-on in many Jewish households, an outsider on the inside, a Jew amongst the Jews.    

What was I seeking?  Not Judaism per se.  A couple of my friends, seemingly tickled by my overt Philosemitism, had suggested I become a Jew.  But there were no local converts, and no institutional support for conversion.  Besides, it didn’t appeal to me.  I actually liked my outsider status; in that one way, I felt Jewish.  And what I really craved was Jewishness.  I didn’t know what it was, and still wouldn’t try to define it.  But it involved courage, stubbornness, intelligence, wit, and above all authenticity.  You are what you are, not what the world wants you to be.  I relished that role and craved the company of others who lived it, and I pursued it instinctively in the form of Jewish girls.  I didn’t choose them because they were Jewish, but inevitably they were:  I didn’t even know one of them was Jewish, until the day she kicked me out of the house because the family had to prepare for Passover.    

And so I passed my high-school years in a daze of Judeophilia, leavened only by an equal obsession with basketball.   When it came time to apply for college, I was clueless.  But then one day in a barber shop I saw a magazine article about Brandeis College, a visionary new school founded by Jews but open to all.  A photograph showed Brandeis students in an informal debate on campus, in the center a raven-haired intellectual identified as somebody Finkelstein.   I stared at the picture and felt myself falling for Finkelstein, forming an intention to go to Brandeis.   And just about that time, I decided it might be time to take a break.     

Finally I was forced to acknowledge the downside of Philosemitism.  I had to admit there was a current of weary resentment under my admiration and affection for Jews.  Frankly, it’s a drag to realize you are not a full and equal member of the society you have chosen.   I remember more than once sitting around a table of my peers, listening to people make fun of this or that as “goyishe.”  Either they didn’t know I wasn’t Jewish or didn’t care.   In those moments I had an angry reaction that might be translated as “What am I, chopped liver?”   

I also felt envy, for the material riches my friends enjoyed, but even more for the spiritual riches of Jewish life that were denied to an outsider.  A veil seemed to close around the High Holy Days, and my friends took a leave of absence.    

Don’t get me wrong.  Not for a minute would I question the right of Jews, or any group, to draw their own boundaries around their religious or familial life.  Still, feelings have their consequences.  I didn’t think my weariness would hold up for another four years at Brandeis.  So I bid my friends farewell and took off alone for Grinnell College, amid the alien corn of Iowa.  And there I found a Jewish mentor, and even a Jewish fiancee, but that’s another story.   

I took with me another lifetime koan, received from an old man, the grandfather of my girlfriend Marla -- the one who kicked me out of her house for Passover.   At age 17 I was a naïve philosopher, and my great discovery was the non-existence of the soul.   I had examined the Catholic concept of an immortal personal essence and found it empty.  I told Marla about my insight and she had apparently relayed the headline to her family at large – her boyfriend didn’t believe in the soul!  When I met this patriarch he nodded.  “So,” he says, “you don’t believe in the soul.” 

He looked me up and down and smiled gently.  “Well, I believe in the soul.”   

I was awestruck.  I had no answer, because even then I knew that this was not a theological or philosophical statement.  It was something deeper, maybe the kind of affirmation that can only be pronounced by a patriarch.

Today I am an old man myself, an elder in the Presbyterian Church, a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, who made the Law and the Prophets accessible to all.   But my Philosemitism underlies my Christianity, it’s older and deeper, and nothing in this world can stamp it out.    

-- Copyright 2012 by Tom Phillips

Note:  much valuable background for this article came from a 2011 collection of essays, Philosemitism in History, edited by Jonathan Karp and Adam Sutliffe. 

This article was later adapted as a chapter in my memoir "A Beginner's Life," published by Full Court Press in 2015.  To order the book, click here