October 20, 2018

Pew, Pew, Pew

Jews have trouble with good news. That’s why Jewish grandmothers taught us the spitting sounds “poo, poo, poo” to ward off the evil eye anytime something good happens.

So much good stuff has happened to Jews in America that we might as well say poo, poo, poo all day long. This is the modern Jewish paradox: We suffered for centuries with really bad news, but now that we have really good news, we’re afraid to embrace it too tightly, lest we lose it.

The poo-poo-poo mindset expresses itself in different ways, sometimes by minimizing good news (“Joey got into Harvard — poo, poo, poo”), other times by maximizing bad news (“Is it true a neo-Nazi was stalking our shul?”).

There’s something endearing about a people who are always watching their backs. Jews can never trust too much, get too comfortable or too happy. That’s what 2,000 years of persecution buys you: We never know when some evil force will come and take all this good stuff away.

This mindset also keeps us sharp. Let’s face it, when you see threats around every corner, you’re less likely to get ambushed by reality.

The Jewish community is especially good at seeing threats around every corner. Surveys from the Pew Center have become the evidence par excellence. If you want bad news about “the new generation,” Pew will deliver. No doubt this is helpful for fundraising: If Pew says young Jews are assimilating at an alarming rate, what better set-up for philanthropists worried about the future of their people?

In short, bad news is good for the Jews. It keeps away the evil eye, keeps nonprofits in business and enlivens conversations. Poo, poo, poo.

So much good stuff has happened to Jews in America that we might as well say poo, poo, poo all day long.

This is even more true in journalism. Bad news is our lifeblood. I will confess: I was electrified when I heard last week that a man with neo-Nazi connections was suspected in the Orange County slaying of a gay Jew, Blaze Bernstein. I thought of finding an enterprising reporter to infiltrate and expose the neo-Nazi group and create a national story. I had no time for sadness. I was just thinking of the story.

I go out of my way to include some bad news in every issue of the Journal. Last week, we were able to provide two good pieces of bad news: a mezuzah that was removed from the doorpost of an office at UCLA, and a binational, Jewish same-sex couple who were suing the U.S. over parental rights. This week, all we have is the neo-Nazi story.

I imagine that the simplest way to provide bad news every week would be to have regular columns quoting Pew studies. One of the more fascinating Pew findings is the growing divide between American Jews and Israeli Jews. In surveying Jewish adults in both places, Pew found sharp differences. For example, while 39 percent of Israeli Jews quoted “economic problems” as the most important long-term problem facing Israel, only 1 percent of American Jews did. This may help explain the greater obsession with the peace process among American Jews — it’s the luxury of not living in Israel and facing everyday problems.

In terms of Jewish identity, there’s more bad news: 53 percent of American Jews identify as Reform or Conservative, compared with only 5 percent of Israeli Jews. No wonder so many divisive religious issues have flared up in recent years, among them the egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. The two camps are living in different realities.

The Jewish community is especially good at seeing threats around every corner. Surveys from the Pew Center have become the evidence par excellence.

If you bring a bad-news mentality to such findings, you will use them to nourish the crisis narrative of Jewish communal life. We’re all familiar with this narrative. It’s a lot more energizing to talk about a crisis than to do a calm analysis that will help us better understand the issues.

This, then, is the dilemma: How do we handle bad news without letting it drown us and define us? If bad news is the surest way to raise funds or get media attention, how do we keep it in its proper place?

It’s clear that bad news gives us a sense of purpose, a direction to improve the world. But if we focus so much on the bad that we lose our sense of joy, what good is living? If we become so good at complaining that we lose the ability to create and imagine, what kind of future is that?

This past Saturday night, I bumped into a group of French Sephardic Jews at Shiloh’s restaurant. I knew many of them. They all spoke French. I could tell they were having a really good time. They had come out of a Torah class given by a rabbi from Paris. It seemed as if all they talked about was good news, as if they were looking for good news, or at least things to laugh about.

I should have said poo, poo, poo.