Judaism and classism

(Inspired in part by Ilyka)

There is something I’ve noticed in the community at large, overall: the highest forms of achievement to reach are careers in medicine, finance, and law, and in fact for many would appear to be the ONLY aspirations of worth. Unfortunately, there are in fact two problems with this (actually three, if you count this potentially being based on an unfair generalization):

The first problem with this, really, is that it helps to perpetuate myths about Jews and their power and wealth: that the more Jews are pressured to enter these careers, the better they can be pointed to by anti-Semites who in times past have and in some circles continue to conflate Jews with capitalism to deride our culture and deny our legitimacy.

I certainly think it’s most likely that this situation came about mere generations ago when many Jews lived in societies where law, medicine and finance were the only career paths made available to them by oppressive governments (in the case of medicine, we were often seen to make better doctors than other groups of people – see Sherwin Nuland’s Maimonides for more detail), but at least ostensibly, now, in North America we are free to any career path we might want, so is it not time to ease up?

The second such problem, really, is that this attitude that working-class lives and less glamorous and respectable careers are unfitting of Jews has no real place in Judaism. A university education need not be the primary metric of worth, especially not in our community. The biggest example, I would think, is of Rabbi Akiba. Rabbi Akiba was 40 years old before he began to learn Torah; a shepherd AND illiterate to boot, the legend goes that he was inspired after seeing water wear down a rock and thought “if a trickle of water can break through a rock, how, too, can the Torah reach me!” And so he began to learn. I grant that it is true he DID learn eventually, it’s true, but the simple fact is that he was a man of very humble lifestyle before this, and the Talmud does not denigrate this fact, and in fact highlights it.

It also occurs to me that the greatest Jewish heroes of the Torah as well as Talmud, that is Moses and King David, were also shepherds at points in their lives, and this is not denigrated or played down, so why is it that only the highest positions are acceptable for careers for Jews? If it’s a defense against the scourges of institutional anti-Semitism as it maybe has been in the past, well, medical boards could deny Jews their licenses, the Bar Association could do the same for lawyers, and academics could be denied tenure. So even that, hypothetically, wouldn’t be foolproof.

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6 Responses

  1. This is such a fabulous post! I’ve worked with lots of Jews in working class jobs. When gentile co-workers discover they are Jews, there is always this surprise (and I probably reacted this way too, when I was young and hadn’t had extensive work experience), and they ask “What are they doing HERE?”

    Like, they have a yacht somewhere, or a Harvard education on the back-burner. The implication is they really aren’t regular working-class people, like us… they are slumming.

    Sometimes, they will ask them outright, “What are you doing HERE?” –and they will sigh, “Same thing you are.”

    (I get the idea they’ve heard that before, lots of times.)

    Last time a Jew got fired where I work, the conventional wisdom seemed to be, “Well, she WAS Jewish, and probably didn’t really need the job.”

    It may be why she was fired so easily, in fact–someone seen as “needing the job” might have been given another break.

  2. Hey, Daisy! Good to see you, I quite like your blog I must say. I was once a huge Zeppelin fan too but I burnt myself out pretty young.

    I haven’t noticed an awful lot of that sort of thing, truth be told, but I think it’s the profession – I’ve never really worked working-class jobs (yeah, there’s the class privilege for you) but it’s definitely something I’ve seen for other people, both from outside the community and from the inside.

    There is a lot of surprise and disdain, overall, and it’s like, well – Jews aren’t all totally privileged, you know? That carries this assumption that Jews as a whole look of the Ashkenazi variety and can sometimes pass for white, especially if their names don’t happen to have “silver”, “gold”, “berg”, “man” or “stein” in them, but it doesn’t take into account the Sephardim, Mizrachim, Beta Israel, or the Indian or Chinese communities who can’t really pass for white.

    Though it’s most likely these attitudes come up most in places where JOC aren’t likely to set up shop, places outside the seaboards, so as silly as the assumption is, I can at least see where it comes from.

    Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

  3. 1) I think you have it backwards slightly. I would think Jews entered the fields of law, medicine, and finance in large numbers after anti-Semitic restrictions were lifted. However, it’s more complex than that. Many Jews after all were bankers during the Middle Ages and Renaissance forced into those positions because it allowed them access to the powerful, a way out of the ghettos in later history (I’m specifically thinking of the Rothchilds), and because Christianity forbade the lending of money with interest to fellow Christians, therefore in good Capitalistic sense nobody ever wanted to lend people money since at best they got their principal back with nothing extra and at worst they lost their loan. So, yes, in a certain sense Jews were forced into the field of banking to fill a gap.

    However, much of the current Jewish presence in these fields has more to do with the lifting of anti-Semitic restrictions on Jews rather than them being forced into these fields. You didn’t mention that these fields aren’t so muh prized by Jews, but are prized areas of study within the larger dominant culture itself.

    Go up to any non-Jew living in America and they would probably state the same three general fields: Law, Medicine, and Finance as prized fields to aim for.

    2) I think it is a huge assumption to claim that certain Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews could not pass for white. I’ve met many a Sephardic Jew that is far whiter than I am.

    Not to mention it discounts that there was probably more intermarriage between Ashkenazi and Sephardic when they made contact in various European locals over time than people seem to think.

    In all fairness, though, I have met Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews who were a darker tinge than me and probably would have a lot more difficulty passing for white.

    I just wanted to remind you that these aren’t hard and fast rules.

    I personally think the real and more practical differences between Ashkenazis and Sephardic are more cultural and litigurgical practices and traditions than real differences of ethnicity or skin color.

  4. Eric,

    I’d guess that that’s fair. I think I’ve made the common mistake of conflating Sephardic/Mizrahi Jews when that is fairly inaccurate, and I concede your point since, well, making large assumptions is probably my biggest failing when making arguments. Sloppy, I know.

    That being said, I think it’s possible that these things started to happen after anti-Semitism – and maybe this post wasn’t well-served by specifically referencing Jews and could’ve instead encompassed Western society in general.

    Although, I take your point about these fields being prized by society at large, and blame sort of occupational bias for that since I work in a very “un-Jewish” area that is prized to an extent by society at large, but not so much by Jews, which I think is part of where this post originated.

  5. Good post!

  6. Thanks for the interesting post! I found it when I was looking for classism among Jewish Israelis (and Palestinians), so that perspective gave it yet another interesteing angle–after all, the Israeli society thrives with not only doctors, lawyers, and high-brow business men. That being said, I doubt that the privilege of these jobs (and upper class in general) looks so much different… well, at least that’s what I’m trying to read up on. (So if you should know any references about classism in Israel/Palestine, it’d be awesome if you could point me to them. Thanks!) Keep up the critical spirit, and thanks for your post!

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