(RNS) — It was several weeks ago, the final weekend of 2022, and I was having a convivial dinner with friends at a restaurant in the Berkshires.
I told a self-deprecating Jewish joke, which aroused a small amount of laughter.
Out of the blue, the man at the next table said to me: “That joke is pretty old.”
I admitted that it was a little dated and then smiled, thinking that our encounter was over.
A few minutes later, he thrust his iPhone at me, showing me a Facebook meme. It was of a man and a woman, her face and most of her body was covered.
The caption read: “The great thing about being an Islamist is that when you get divorced and re-marry, you don’t have to change the photo of your wife on your desk.”
I found myself, momentarily and uncharacteristically, without words.
I turned to my friends, and quite audibly, asked: “At what point in this conversation do I tell this man that one of my closest friends is Imam Abdullah Antepli?” (the co-director, with Yossi Klein Halevi, of the Muslim Leadership Initiative at the Shalom Hartman Institute and my lecture partner in Muslim-Jewish dialogue).
The man shrugged and took back his phone, and the rest of the dinner proceeded without incident and without threadbare jokes.
By the way: this happened at a delicious Indian restaurant, owned by an Indian immigrant family who were, themselves, ethnic others. Just saying, and just piling on the sociological ironies.
Let me unpack this story.
The man at the next table was — let me invent a term for this — “Jew-dentifying.” He was making sure that I knew he was a “MOT,” a member of the Jewish tribe.
He had already commented that my Jewish joke was a little dated. At that moment, in his mind, he had established a bond with me. To use the homey Yiddish term, we were landsmen.
That could have been enough. Being at a restaurant in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, a place I have characterized as the Upper West Side with grass and mountains — would either of us have been surprised to find a Jew at an adjacent table? A post-soup-course round of Jewish geography among the patrons would have yielded at least three summer camps and two synagogues in common.
But, it was the way he expressed his ethnic solidarity that troubled me.
It wasn’t a telltale word of Yiddish, or even a “so, where are you from?”
He expressed that solidarity through an act of ethnic and religious bigotry aimed at Muslims. It was as if he was saying: “I feel safe sharing this ‘joke’ with you. Can’t one Jew count on another Jew to hate Muslims?”
But, to me, this is the lowest and least attractive form of Jew-dentification.
I know I handled it correctly. I delivered a reproof that was gentle, polite and, I hope, effective. Perhaps I should have been both stronger and louder. But, such a performance would have violated a whole set of social norms and would have created an unpleasant scene.
But, still. I would have wanted to remind this man that at that particular moment, somewhere, two guys were sharing anti-Jewish or anti-Black jokes, and thereby forging a common bond with each other.
I have a robust and, sometimes, iconoclastic, sense of humor. But, still, I would have wanted to tell this man that sometimes the joke isn’t all that funny. Sometimes, hatred starts with a joke, or a meme. In our society, the bonds of fellowship and mutual decency — the firewalls that would normally contain bigotry and keep it under wraps — have become intolerably frayed.
I would have wanted to tell this man what I am telling myself, and all of you. It is unacceptable for Jews to feel a kinship with each other based on their enemies, real or imagined. There must be a far stronger, meaningful, transcendent bond between Jews. That bond must be based — not on hatred, but on love — on our love for our people, for other peoples, for God and to feel those loves as a refraction of God’s love for us.
The dinner was coming to a close, and as the man left, he smiled at me and said kindly: “Shanah tovah.” The wish was sincere and sweet, even if liturgically misplaced. Normally, Jews reserve the “shanah tovah” wish for the Rosh Hashanah season and not for the secular new year.
Oh, never mind. It was another act of Jew-dentifying — this time, far less offensive and based, at least, on a linguistic solidarity of the season. Having failed to make the connection based on a distrust of Muslims, he was just hitting me with a little bit of Hebrew.
I write this on the Shabbat of the birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The best way we can honor the memory of Dr. King is to refuse to accept the status quo; to refuse to accept the small vulgarities of life; to demand of the other that they lift themselves out of the moral abyss.
I paraphrase the words of an anonymous rabbi.
If God had given me two souls, I would use one for hatred, and the other for love.
But, I am not that lucky.
God only gave me one soul.
So, I guess I’m stuck with using it for love.