Editor's Note - A Chanuka Name Game

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


2001 The Federalist Society