I like to write letters to the New York Daily News Voice of the People. I began doing this in the late 1980s and have had dozens of letters published in their opinion section. Writing letters to the editor is an excellent way for someone to express opinions in a succinct manner and get a good amount of exposure.
I’ve tackled a variety of topics over the years, most fairly serious. More than a few times I have addressed social and political issues, especially in relation to Jews. And after the horrors of October 7 in Israel, and the global growth of antisemitic and anti-Israel sentiment, I felt compelled to write a letter addressing this problem. In addition to attending the first major pro-Israel rally at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza on October 10th, donating to charities, praying, and contacting my friends in Israel, I knew I should express my thoughts in a well-composed but persuasive short piece. Here it is in full:
“The Passover Haggadah states, “In each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us.” Yet Jewish people always manage to survive. While this is something to be proud of, here are some sobering questions: Why do antisemites keep trying so hard to destroy Jews, knowing the ultimate failure rate? How do Jews grapple with escalating trauma and anxiety? And why can’t Jews have just one small ancestral nation in this world to call their own?”
I have noticed over the years that the Voice of the People staff rarely edits my work but does compose the titles for my letters. And I thought that this title, “Jewish Questions”, was canny on more than one level.
Yes, I wrote about questions that Jews have been pondering for so long, thus it is a fitting title. But the title also echoes several historic references to “the Jewish Question.” This “Jewish question” also referred to as the “Jewish problem”, was the general (and often harsh, discomforting) debate, especially in Europe during the 19th and early 20th centuries, about the treatment and status of Jews. While this expression was much more common in the past, it still echoes today, particularly amongst contemporary white supremacists who dub it the “JQ.”
Several writers addressed this in essays, pamphlets and books; among them were Bruno Bauer (on German Jews), Karl Marx, Adolf Hitler, and writers in books such as “Jean-Paul Sartre and the Jewish Question” and “Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question.” While some of these people discussed civil and social issues, others such as Hitler tackled this topic by stating frankly that the “ultimate goal must definitely be the removal of the Jews altogether.”
Jews have not been the only group facing such “questions”, but we have certainly received the lion’s share of this awkward and even frightening set of “questions.”
But my own set of questions is perhaps more a set of “Why us?” questions. Why are we picked on, dumped on, singled out, blamed, defamed, tortured, and so on? Just saying “Hey, you (or we) are the Chosen Ones!” is too glib. And I know that other groups have at various times, also experienced these hardships, these gut-wrenching puzzlements– but historically, the Jewish people have been attacked the most and the longest.
Look at a partial list of our enemies over the centuries: Egyptians, Amalekites, the destruction of our two holy Temples, the Crusades, various European blood libels, pogroms, the Farhud, the lynching of Leo Frank, the Holocaust, the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, all the wars in Israel, the list goes on and on.
Yet we persevere. We go on. We make bitter jokes about all this. We unify, close ranks. Then later on we bicker amongst ourselves. We watch as some people apologize for hurting us, while others grow more stubborn, even proud of their invective and hurtful actions. In every generation, must we always rehash the bad? Will we only cease this when…the Messiah arrives?
Should I attempt to answer the questions I posed in my letter?
- People who are antisemitic keep trying to destroy us due to their hatred, their fervor, their ignorance. Some think they just might succeed in destroying us. Others know they cannot but still want to hurt us, humble us. It is akin to a disease, a mental affliction.
- How do we deal with the pain? It is not easy. We pray, we cry, we scream and rant. We write about it, speak about it, make sarcastic jokes about it. We go to therapy. And so on. It is not easy, and I don’t know when it will end.
- We can have our one small ancestral land, but there will continue to be people who don’t want us to have this land of Israel. They want it themselves. Or they deny their antisemitism and call it “anti-Zionism.” Many really wouldn’t care but they get caught up in the frenzy of protesting. They think it’s cool to condemn us, even if they have scant knowledge of history.
There are many more questions that I could write, and they would fall under the category of “Jewish Questions.” I pose this to you, dear reader, to come up with your own list of Jewish Questions.
Here are a few others:
- Why do so many people think that all Jews look alike? We don’t. We come from many different backgrounds.
- Why do some people you would expect to hate us actually like us? (Don’t make assumptions!)
- How can Jews continue to fight for their rights? How can they protect themselves? (Education, endurance, experience, energy… and more.)
This “Jewish Question” discussion will go on. Certainly I (and I assume you) would like a respite from this. At times it seems less severe, but then along comes an October 7th to shake us out of our calm. Stay strong, stay educated, stay aware, Jews of the world. And keep your sense of humor close at hand.
For further reading and explanation, look into these sources:
Ellen Levitt is the author of the three books in the series The Lost Synagogues of New York City (Avotaynu) and 3 other books. She has also written for various online and print publications, including the New York Times and New York Daily News. Ellen is a longtime member of the Flatbush Womens Davening Group. She and her husband and children reside in Brooklyn, NY.