We Were So Racist

 

In the video I’ve just posted we will focus on two small shuls in the lower neighborhood of the 160s and below. Ahavath Torah and Tikvoh Chadoshoh were vibrant religious centers for German Jews, some who identified as  “Traditional” and some who identified as Orthodox.

Many of the children of these congregations attended Public School and did talmud torah as an after-school program.

Predictably, as seen across the American Jewish landscape, whether these children would remain traditional or join the likes of the liberal Jewish Community was up in the air.

In the movie ” We Were So Beloved”, Manfred Kirchheimer revisits his childhood in the early 1980s (released in 1985) and recounts with his parents, his friends, and their parents- the horrors of fleeing Germany, surviving, and arriving in the United States. He touches on many issues along the way including, righteous Gentiles, American inaction, survivor’s disillusion with both societies, and the power of charismatic leaders and mob-mentality.

Manfred also admits that he once tried to join the Orthodox men of the daily minyan, but the lifestyle did not last. He and his three friends featured entered the heart of the Liberal Arts world- with he and Walter in motion-pictures, Max Frankel sporting an obnoxious cigar in the Times editorial room, and a zany anarchist academic weighing in with a sob-story about his rearing.

Towards the end of the film Manfred takes his carefully guided introspection somewhere very dark. He elicits the fear and the skepticism his parents’ friends had for the newer immigrants in the neighborhood, namely the Hispanic and the Russian arrivals. The interviewees express some indignation over the fact that US policy had changed over time and immigrants were accepted without affidavits and with immediate access to public support. They also feel sidelined by the seeming disinterest of the new arrivals to learn the language.  

Simultaneously, Kirchheimer introduces a dark episode in the career of his Rabbi in which his congregants either mis-judged or, as suggested,overreacted to a report about the rabbi.  

Without a great deal of discretion he prods the rebetzin in to saying that the congregation’s group-think was analogous to the behavior of the German people under Hitler. Even if this was the rebetzin’s own formulation out of reliving the stressful episode, including it in his “introspective” documentary was cheap fodder for where he was going next.

Continuing the line of moral relativism- the religion he picked up when he left Orthodoxy, Manfred in his closing segment defecates in public by showing the mild xenophobia of his parents’ generation as analogous to the attitudes of the Nazis and their sympathizers and certainly well below the idealism of the Gentiles who took risks on behalf of the Jews.  

Now, I will not jump on the moral-relativism, because I consider it an outlook on the spectrum of opinion (though it often yields a good chuckle e.g. “Palestinian-BDS Pride March”, yeah, try hosting that in Ramalah), but I call out the superficiality of comparing mild-xenophobia to the complicite united effort of the “ordinary men” who killed 6 Million Jews, mercilessly, including one million children (!) and another million political rivals, Gypsies and other marginalized peoples, though in a less coordinated way.  

There is no connection between the attitudes of his parents and the German conspirators. Because only merciless hate can bring to the atrocities of Nazi brutality and German indifference -and hate was not present in the voices of his interviewees.

He glazes over the weekly reports of muggings, push-in robberies and auto-theft that plagued this neighbirhood during those years and instilled bitter fear in his parents. You see, Manfred had been occupying an “Ivory Tower” pre-war apartment in the low 100s since the mid 1960s. One of the neighborhoods famous for strong and united vocal opposition to the inclusion of low income housing or homeless shelters.

 

The towers of the uppity west and east sides of New York are just high enough for flinging stones at people who live, love and coexist with recent immigrants…even if they sometimes sigh at the hardships sharing a neighborhood often brings.

Two more points that went over Kirchheimer’s white- mane- and- moccasin debonairism:

  1. xenophobia is good. When one has a phobia, which is usually associated with an involuntary reaction, the person is on the alert. Always testing the waters and re-aligning his defenses. If you think all immigrants/others are bad, then you are in for a lesson in the holiness and humanity within each human. If you think all immigrants are good, then you are in for a lesson in the “dog-eat-dog” nature of the inner city. But if you live in an ivory tower and engage with humanity on your own terms…well then you protest the homeless shelter.  
  2. The Torah has many intricate laws that don’t seem to create better people. These laws permeate the life of an Orthodox Jew. The laws do not automatically shield him from the human folly that lurks behind the corners of life and its moral tests. But the laws fine tune the person, so that should that person be a thinking introspect, he will not stop his brain at the first opportunistic opportunity and he will not allow superficial analogies to satisfy him. He is used to corroborating his ideas with the tenets of justice and love, and as he knows his G-d you can’t have one without the other. He won’t call his parents Nazis to satisfy his friends.  

I don’t fault Manfred. He espoused what he was taught to think, and alot of good has come out of people like him. I see in him the lost generation south of the bridge, but because I have a fondness for those people and an innate respect for the faithful, I detest the disparagement he shed upon the friends of his parents.  

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