A dumb mistake by the White House raises a question with as many answers as there are Jews: What makes a Jewish hero, anyway?
In a Jewish Heritage Month proclamation, someone in the administration thought it would be a good idea to mention Aaron Copland, Albert Einstein, Louis Brandeis — and Gertrude Stein? Bad timing: Thanks to a major exhibit of her famed art collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a number of prominent Jews — Alan Dershowitz among them — pointed out her very, very sketchy reputation as a Vichy sympathizer during the Nazi occupation of France. Hardly a proud Jew to begin with, Stein suggested in 1934 that Hitler should receive the Nobel Prize, became a fan of Vichy’s collaborationist leader Marshall Petain, and rode out the occupation thanks to her friend and protector, the collaborator and Nazi agent Bernard Fay. Like the White House, the Met heeded the complaints and has agreed to add signage at the exhibit referring to this noisome history.
You can well wonder, however, what a figure as assimilated and deracinated as Stein was doing on a list of Jewish role models in the first place. Partly it is our own fault: We often raise on pedestals Jews whose own sense of Jewish identity is meager, so long as they reflect well on us. You can also blame the Nazis and other anti-Semites: Who are we to count out of the community people who would be persecuted because of their background, however attenuated? Compare Stein to Irene Nemirovsky, another Parisian intellectual who cast off her Jewish identity but who would nonetheless be killed in Auschwitz. Should we claim her as a Jewish novelist? Dare we not?
Jewish identity and self-expression are elastic to begin with, so it has always done us good to pitch a big tent. But how big? Copland is better known for his lush prairie anthems than anything he did or said Jewishly. But his very presence on the classical stage brought credit to his people. I would say that so long as you don’t actually renounce or deny your own Jewish identity, you have a place in the Jewish conversation.
Which doesn’t mean it is an important place. I think the real Jewish heroes aren’t just good for the Jews, but there for the Jews. It’s not about belief or practice or affiliation but rather about a sense of family. Peoplehood means you consider yourself part of the family, and feel a sense of obligation and love for its members in good times and bad. It means you may drift away at times, but you stay in touch — and when you do come back, the family welcomes you home.