After law school and before beginning my law practice I spent some
time enrolled at a major rabbinical academy in Brooklyn. When I
inquired of my colleagues where "everyone" did their banking,
I was directed to the branch of a big money-center bank around the
corner. Attired in the garb of a strictly orthodox rabbinical student
which except for the fedora, was not so different from that
of a Wall Street lawyer (but the suit costing quite a bit less)
I was soon speaking to a floor officer about opening a joint
checking account in the names of my new bride and myself.
Being a good businessman and a friendly person as well, the bank
officer was chatting me up about how "all the rabbis"
from the yeshiva did their banking with this branch, and did I know
Rabbi so and so, who was a wonderful, wonderful man, etc. I did
not know Rabbi so-and-so, being a relative newcomer to this institution,
but I had heard his distinctive, Eastern European name many times.
Like most orthodox yeshivas, it was populated mostly by children
and grandchildren of postwar refugees. Their names were neither
pristinely German-Jewish nor changed for convenience and social
necessity as previous generations believed necessary. Most retained
profoundly Yiddish phonemes.
It was at the end of the process that the train of routine came
to a stop. The bank officer suddenly realized, as he took my application,
that despite the look and the affiliation, something didn't add
up: My name lacked that old-country resonance shared by his friend
the rabbi and all the others who had come around the corner from
the big brick building full of rabbis. "Ronald . . . Coleman?"
he asked me, with a quizzical look.
"Yes," I answered, "that's me." Grinning and
shaking his head all but saying, "Funny, doesn't sound
Jewish" he recovered long enough to ask, "And the
joint account holder?"
"Jane," I said. "Jane Coleman." Then, before
he could finish his sentence about whether he was on Candid Camera,
I reassured him. "Maiden name Goldberg." We both chuckled
and wrapped up the ceremonial signature-card ritual, and I returned
to the study hall for the afternoon session.
This story might not seem so remarkable to every reader, but people
who are accustomed to what we might call certain ethnic "trends,"
such as trends in names, do tend to make certain assumptions based
on our experience. That is why it is so disheartening for me, as
editor of this newsletter and given my own predilections, to see
the parade of plaintiffs' names in religious liberties cases cited
in this modest journal names on the wrong side of the "v,"
and names that, like Rabbi So-and-so, presume to tell you more than
neutralized monikers such as mine.
We do not know whether the Zelmans, Rosenbergers and Weismans
all named parties in cases cited in this edition are Jews,
and if so whether there is any Judaic content in their lives, or
whether they are merely are descended from Jews. Their names may
be misleading, as mine is.
But we can speak of trends. For a century or more, the religion
of pluralism has encroached, nearly fatally, on that of the synagogue.
And unfortunately, the almost united voice of organized Jewish life
in America has urged that not only should Jews turn their back on
faith, but that there should be no expression in public life of
the faiths of others. This sentiment is based on ancient and dark,
but real, enmities and dangers. Today, however, the biggest threat
to the Jews in America is not from the Father Coughlins, Pat Buchanans
or even evangelists such as Jews for Jesus, but from profound Jewish
ignorance and alienation from a heritage worthy of celebration.
It is as if the battle of Chanuka has been lost without a Greek
arrow being loosed.
Whether they would regard themselves as modern-day Hasmoneans or
otherwise, however, some Jewish groups are fighting and, in some
cases, winning back the Temple. Orthodox outreach groups such as
Aish HaTorah, Ohr Someach and Partners in Torah have made meaningful
progress in instilling an understanding and commitment to traditional
Jewish values among Jews on their last legs of Jewish affiliation.
And on the legal front, orthodox Jewish groups such as Agudath Israel
of America and Torah Umesorah which largely represent families
that tend to be middle- and lower-income, as well as very large
are championing Jewish private education. They find themselves
comfortably allied with Christians fighting for school choice and
non-discrimination on the school funding front.
Ironically, the Jews working most closely with Christians on common
faith- and family-oriented political and legal goals are the ones
with the least to fear from the majority religion. The majority
of American Jews, scared at best and alienated at worst, know little
about Chanuka except thinking that it is the "Jewish Christmas."
(They do not, of course, have the slightest idea what Christmas
is either.) Others believe and even teach that Chanuaka was a triumph
of "religious freedom," but in fact it was not. The Chanuka
story was a fight for God's truth which, once identified, required
complete sacrifice and, dare it be said, no tolerance of impurity
hence the eight-day wait for unsullied oil.
Maybe the time is coming when Jews, inspired by the Maccabees,
will find their names on the right side of the "v" in
the legal fight over our childrens' futures. Until then, we light
the candles one at a time in the dark winter nights.
Ronald Coleman, Vice Chairman, Publications
Religious Liberties Practice Group