Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Pottery Barn Jew

“I blame the Pottery Barn holiday catalog for the fact that my husband and I, both Jews, spent last weekend in Home Depot picking out a Christmas tree.”

So begins an article printed in the New York Times this week. Although it is wonderful to hear that some Jews are still marrying Jews, the article succeeds admirably in its attempt to disturb. The writer mocks the consumerism of Christmas in America and assures us that the appeal is purely aesthetic, but that does little to assuage the revulsion of those of us with an iota of religious sensitivity, Jewish pride or even just an awareness of history.

The sad truth is, her story is probably far more common than we would like to admit.

Why is American Jewry so shallow? Why is their connection to their heritage so tenuous? The answer can be found in this week’s parsha.

Yaakov is old now, but he is journeying to Egypt to see his long lost son Yosef before he dies. On the road out of Israel, Yaakov receives a prophecy.

I am G-d, the Lord of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt for I will make you a great nation there.

Presumably, G-d would only tell someone not to be afraid if they were. What was Yaakov afraid of? Egypt’s a great country! It’s got exotic restaurants, tourist attractions, boating on the Nile… and Yosef runs the place! What could be bad?

The answer is that these are precisely the things that make Yaakov nervous. Yaakov is afraid of assimilation. And he was right – the Jews very nearly lost their identity during their stay in Egypt. This is why G-d came to Yaakov, to reassure him that his descendants would not vanish in the Egyptian melting pot. (R. Yaakov Kaminetzky, d. 1986)

Yaakov does not rely on miracles; he takes matters into his own hands.

[Yaakov] sent Yehuda ahead of him to make preparations (l’horot) in Goshen. (Bereishit 46:28)

L’horot is translated as “preparations” (Kaplan), but literally the word means to legislate or to teach. Rashi says the following:

According to the Midrash, l’horot means to set up a house of study.

This was Yaakov’s plan to ensure Jewish survival. Before he brought his family to Egypt, he set up Jewish schools. After he got there would have been too late.

Yaakov arrives in Egypt and is reunited with his son, but there is no time now to catch up on lost years. Some important business must be taken care of first. Pharaoh will want to meet the family and Yosef needs to prime them.

To his brothers and his father’s family, Yosef said, “I will go and tell Pharaoh. I will say the following to him: ‘My brother’s and my father’s family have come to me from Canaan. These men deal in livestock and are tenders of sheep. They have brought along their sheep, their cattle and all their possessions.’
“When Pharaoh summons you and inquires as to your occupation, you will tell him, ‘We and our fathers have dealt in livestock from our childhood until now.’ This is in order to ensure that you settle in the Goshen district, since all shepherds are taboo in Egypt.” (Bereishit 46:31-34)

What is going on here? Why the politicking? Who cares where they live? Was livelihood a problem for the brothers of Yosef? If shepherding was taboo, would it not be prudent for new immigrants to find a different line of work?

The real intent of Yosef and his brothers is not hard to figure out. The family had no emotional attachment to sheep; they just wanted to be left alone. The Egyptian distaste for shepherding was being used as a convenient excuse for living apart.

This is the story of the Jews in all of their exiles. Our fathers and the fathers of our fathers always preferred to tolerate the [anti-Semitic] decrees and persecutions of the nations of the world, just as long as they would not have to have a relationship with them. (Reb Yerucham Levovitz, d.1936)

This week’s parsha illustrates the traditional Jewish plan for survival in exile. It starts with a healthy fear of assimilation, followed by the early creation of Torah schools and clearly defined Jewish communities. This was obviously not the model for Jewish immigration to the United States and now we suffer the consequences.

Today our brothers and sisters joyously embrace the religions of America, whether it be Christianity, Secularism, Materialistic Consumerism or some bizarre combination of the three. They are lost to our people and don’t even know it yet. But don’t blame them or the Pottery Barn catalogue. Blame the grandparents who came to these shores without fear.


  1. first, i think you should copyright the term "pottery-barn jew", before someone else does.

    i enjoyed your thoughts and found them to be very insightful. however, i am not sure what you mean to imply by your closing statement. aren't we too look at our ancestors as our role models and as people who lead us in choosing right from wrong? i am certainly a lot closer to a "pottery barn jew" than my zeide!

  2. Rabbi A.Y. Kook had an important caveat about teachers and role-models. "Know their flaws. Otherwise you are destined to emulate that too." The same could be said for parents and grandparents.
    Certainly, we are all a lot closer to the Pottery Barn Jew than the generations before us, but if we don't do something about it what will our grandchildren look like?

  3. Sandy Gordon12/29/2006 2:44 PM

    I absolutely loved this parsha post. However,in regard to the last line, that doesn't seem to be such a fair comment. What about all the immigrants who were forced to flee their homes b/c of antisemitism or b/c of the need to earn a living? They didn't have a chance to create an infrastructure or the means to do so?

  4. I know. I certainly don't blame them for coming. Thank G-d they came!
    My issue is not so much with the individual as it is with the group. It took over two centuries of Jewish immigation before we began to get our act together. I'm afraid we're a little late.

  5. Another view. It is not the fear of assimilation. It is the fear not to be in good terms with our gentile people of all other religions:

    Read below.

    Miha Ahronovitz


    There is almost no doubt, that the most touching episode in the Bible appears in this week's Torah portion. Joseph, who has miraculously become the viceroy of Egypt after being sold as a slave 22 years earlier, faces his brothers who do not recognize him. Convinced of his brothers' repentance and overcome with emotion, Joseph finally reveals himself to them. I invite everyone to delve into the verses in Genesis 45 that unravel this story. It is impossible for the reader to remain indifferent. Tears unwittingly stroll down the eyes, as the heart trembles with an inexplicable tremor of fear and compassion.

    Yet it seems that our Sages did not consider including this episode in the selected name of our Torah portion. They preferred the name "Vayigash", "and he came near". And I ponder: if a name is a 'reflection of the soul' as Kabbalah explains, how does this name reflect the heartbreaking soul of our portion?

    In the years preceding the holocaust, the great rabbi of Danzig , Germany preached to his community the age-old Jewish custom of greeting every passerby with a pleasant face. As a good teacher, he too would offer a warm "Gut Morgen" (good morning) to every person that crossed his way in the busy streets of Danzig , including a certain farmer, Her Muller. "Gut morgen Her Muller" he used to exclaim to him. "Gut Morgen, Her Rabbiner", the farmer would reply. When the dark cloud of evil descended upon Germany , the rabbi was sent to Auschwitz . As he stood in Mengele's infamous line, where he would decide who would live and who would die, he saw the farmer from Danzig standing before him in an SS uniform. The rabbi was gaunt and starved, hardly recognizable but when he saw the farmer he said "Gut morgen Her Muller". The guard was surprised but instinctively replied Gut Morgen, Her Rabbiner, and quickly motioned that he should move, not towards death, but toward the work details, to life. By divine providence, my eyes crossed this astounding story just a few days ago, as I was looking for a satisfying answer to the aforementioned question. And I heard it echo loudly a simple yet vital lesson: when a person "Vayigash - comes near' to another, when he demonstrates genuine care toward his surroundings, he is also inadvertently tracing himself a path of personal freedom that may eventually affect his life profoundly.

    In fact Joseph's own redemption began with a similar gesture. If you recall, when Joseph sat in Egypt 's prison, he noticed that Pharaoh's butler and baker were worried. So he asked Pharaoh's officials: "'Why do you look so bad today?'" (Genesis 40:6-7). They tell him about their troubling dreams, he accurately interprets the dreams, and the rest is history. This is perhaps why the name of our Torah portion is Vayigash – and he came near. Because Joseph's redemption, his unforgettable encounters with his brothers, his moving revelation, all began with a simple "vayigash", an unpretentious display of sincere care and concern for his fellow human beings. And ultimately this led Joseph to experience this climax of unprecedented emotions that we tearfully read about in this week's portion.

    The renowned author Shay Agnon, once wrote: "Take care that the face that looks out from the mirror in the morning is a pleasant face. You may not see it again during the day, but others will." This is the lesson we ought to learn from 'Vayigash'. So when you conclude reading this article, and make your way out to the streets, don't forget to lend a hand, an ear, or just a few words of candid care to strangers and acquaintances alike. Who knows? It may eventually change not only their lives. But also yours.

  6. I take exception to your last sentence blaming our grandparents for coming to America without fear of assimilation. They were afraid, but they were more afraid of seeing their families killed in a pogrom. They came to this country with no idea of what awaited them. And this new country, which was founded in a spirit of rugged individualism, had no idea of what to make of these strange newcomers. Our grandparents did what they had to to survive, and survival is the key -- if Jews hadn't made it to this country even more would have been killed in the Holocaust. Jews have thrived in America. I am proud to be Jewish, proud to be American, so please don't blame my grandparents for, in essence, planning for my eventual arrival!

  7. Carol-
    As I clarified in an earlier comment, in no way do I question the wisdom of moving to America. Like most other Jews, I would not exist today if my grandparents hadn't come.
    All I am saying is that many Jews, in their rush to become good Americans, forgot to preserve their own heritage and pass it on to the next generation. You are a proud Jew, so I assume that your grandparents did not assimilate. But many others did and today their great grandchildren are not a part of our people.
    Life was rough and keeping a job and observing Shabbat was sometimes impossible; I am not judging any individual. But as a community, we failed.

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.