Religion

Are the Jews still cool?

(RNS) — This past week was the 10th anniversary of the death of one of the greatest actors of our time, Philip Seymour Hoffman.

My favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman movie was “Almost Famous.”

The movie is set in the 1970s. William Miller is 15 years old. He wants to be a rock critic and to write for Rolling Stone magazine.

So, he pretends to be an adult, and he tours with a rock band. He writes about them, and in the process, he learns some very valuable lessons about life.

In the film, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays rock critic Lester Bangs, who wrote for Creem and Rolling Stone. He befriends and mentors young William.

At one point, on a Saturday night, William is having a crisis, and he calls Lester.

William is shocked to find Lester Bangs is home — on a Saturday night.

“You’re home?” William says.

To which Lester Bangs responds: “I’m always home. I’m uncool.”

“So am I!” says William.

Then, Lester Bangs says: The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.”

We will get to uncool a little later.

But, let us ask: What does it mean to be cool?

Let us turn to the source of all knowledge — Wikipedia.

Cool was once an attitude fostered by rebels and underdogs, such as slaves, prisoners, bikers and political dissidents, etc., for whom open rebellion invited punishment, so it hid defiance behind a wall of ironic detachment, distancing itself from the source of authority rather than directly confronting it.

Then, Wikipedia continues: “Someone who is cool is not constrained by the norms, expectations or beliefs of others.”

Jewish history is the history of being cool because “someone who is cool is not constrained by the norms, expectations or beliefs of others.”

Let us look at the great moments of Jewish cool.

It starts, of course, with Abraham. The coolest thing that Abraham ever did was to break his father’s idols, when he was 13 years old. (It’s a legend. Don’t bother looking for it in the Bible, though everyone is sure it’s there.)

Then Moses: His coolest moment was when he confronted Pharaoh.

The coolest woman in the Bible? That would be Yael. In the Book of Judges, Yael kills the Canaanite general Sisera by luring him into her tent and letting him think he was going to get lucky that night.

King David? Not always that cool — in fact, there were many times when David was simply a manipulative jerk.

The coolest moment in his life was when he brought the Ark into Jerusalem, and he was dancing with such utter joy that his robe went flying open, giving everyone a, well, royal view. This was not exactly dignified. David didn’t care. That was cool.

Who was the coolest Jewish philosopher? That would have been Baruch Spinoza, who lived in the 1600s in Amsterdam.

Among other things, Spinoza publicly doubted that God had revealed the Torah. He believed the Torah was only relevant in its ancient context. He publicly doubted the Jews were the chosen people. He believed everything was part of the same basic essence.

For his trouble, the Jews of Amsterdam ostracized him and humiliated him. He suffered terribly, but he spoke his truth. He was the ultimate bad boy of Jewish history, the sort of kid you want to hang out with but your parents won’t allow it. Spinoza was cool.

Let us now turn to Israel.

For a fleeting moment, after the Six Day War in 1967, Israel was “cool.” (So was being Jewish.) 

Here is why.

Of all modern Jewish ideologies, Zionism contained the greatest potential for “cool.”

Israel was the (invented term here) de-dweebification of the Jewish people. The kid who was constantly having his lunch money stolen by the bullies finally stood up to them.

It was like the final scene in “The Karate Kid.” The Jews were like Daniel, wounded in one leg, perched in precarious balance, lashing out and winning.

Nevertheless, the Jews had stood up to the world. Jewish power was a thing. It was cool. 

But the cool did not last. 

In fact, in recent years, both Israel and Zionism have become passé. Just as 19th-century German Jews wanted a Judaism that would be acceptable in polite society, many Jews found Jewish power to be an embarrassment — as if it were somehow cooler to be a dweeb. 

Also, in fact: It is possible that much of our young people’s anti-Israel and Israel-hypocriticism emerged out of a sense of rebellion against their parents. Or, to put it in the vernacular of several years ago, it was to snicker and say: “OK, boomer.”

None of this, however, could have possibly prepared us for what we are now seeing.

None of this could have prepared us for the stark reality that for many on the left, and even for many young Jews, it is not only that Israel is no longer cool.

It is that the young, hip and beautiful have handed the mantle of cool to an international Manson gang of murderers, kidnappers and torturers of infants, rapists and mutilators of women. 

Nothing in our experience could have prepared us for that.

“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.”

Lester Bangs was saying it takes courage to be uncool. It takes courage to be yourself. It takes courage to be vulnerable. It takes courage to be unafraid of what people are going to say about you.

When we are real with each other — that is the true currency.

(Please enjoy my new book — the first book to outline what a post-Oct. 7 American Judaism will look like — and how we can restore communal obligation to liberal Jewish life: “Tikkun Ha’Am/ Repairing Our People: Israel and the Crisis of Liberal Judaism.”)

(And, also, join the conversation about what it means to be Jewish and human after Oct. 7: “Wisdom Without Walls: An Online Salon for Jewish Ideas.” Learn with the most thoughtful thinkers in the Jewish world.)


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