The Importance of Appearances
Final Report for Joyce & Irving Goldman Family Foundation American Jewish Committee Fellowship

Dylan Tatz August 29, 2005

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It is understandable that the people of Acco adopted the custom of not sitting on gentiles’ workplace stools on Shabbat, because one doing so appears as if he were engaged in commerce. – Talmud, Tractate Pesachim, Verse 51a, explaining the concept of maris ayin (literally “the sin of visual appearance”) Only now, as I patiently endure the grueling 12-hour flight from Zurich to Los Angeles and have an opportunity to reflect on this summer’s fellowship, can I truly appreciate the implications of this passage: in my immediate vicinity are approximately twenty Chinese tourists, and two Hassidic men. The two Hassidic men are talking loudly and kneeing the seats in front of them. I can overhear some of their neighbors gossiping in Chinese about “these inconsiderate Jews”. Fearing that this brief, negative impression might define their conception of a Jew, I discreetly remove my hat – revealing my kippah – and start up a friendly conversation in Chinese with one of the tourists. Why did I feel so compelled to act as an ambassador for the Jewish people? Why can I assume that their impression of me will be any better than their impression of the Hassidic men? Why should I shoulder the image of the Jewish people? What gives me the right to represent so many others? The answers to these questions, and the justification for my actions, lie in Poland, the country which I currently flee with the utmost compassion. I did not accept this responsibility as a spokesman because I happen to be an employee of the American Jewish Committee, because I founded a Hebrew School at my synagogue, or because I am one of the leaders of the Jewish community at Princeton. Rather, I accept this responsibility as a singular Jew who can represent the Jewish people no better and no worse

2 than any other Jew, but who may offer an alternative (though not necessarily superior) paradigm to these two Hassidic men. My experiences in Poland have taught me that this is the responsibility of all Jews. In Poland, a country with at most 4,000 identifiable Jews, this problem is especially acute. Even when I hear someone make a comment that is marginally anti-Semitic, I am willing to put aside my natural inclination to take a hawkish approach to anti-Semitism (as cultivated during my time working at the Anti-Defamation League) and begin a dialogue with the speaker, embracing, as difficult as it may be, the possibility that what could so easily be misinterpreted as anti-Semitism may merely represent naïve ignorance. The Forum for Dialogue Among Nations exists to combat these misconceptions by promoting direct, personal interaction between Poles and Jews, correctly realizing that without education, a lack of knowledge can be just as dangerous as malicious anti-Semitism. During my 9-week fellowship with the Forum, I managed the following four projects, all of which apply this basic mission in various ways: • “Difficult Questions”: This project seeks to promote mutual understanding between Poles and Jews by soliciting expert answers to some of the most “difficult questions” from both sides regarding Polish-Jewish relations, and publishing them in a bound volume. Sample questions include: why were Poles so complacent during the Holocaust, and why do American Jews think that Poles are so anti-Semitic? The forward to this volume will be written by David Harris. Delegation of Rabbis: This April, the Forum brought two American Rabbis – one Reform and the other Orthodox – to Poland to speak with Polish high school and university students in Warsaw, Krakow and Lublin. The program was a tremendous success – most of these students were meeting a Jew for the first time, and were quite surprised that the Jew standing in front of them didn’t fit their preconceived stereotypes – and the Forum is currently planning to expand this program for next year. Kozienice Exhibit: In the summer of 2006, the Forum will present an exhibition of recently discovered photographs from before and during the Holocaust from a small town named Kozienice in Central Poland where Jews, Poles, and Germans peacefully coexisted until 1939. This exhibit will display approximately 250 photographs from this collection to provide an image of these three pre-war communities in the wake of Holocaust, and highlight the town’s unusually diverse demography. Upon first glance at these photographs, one is taken aback by the similarities between members

3 of the three communities: surprisingly, the victims, spectators and perpetrators of the Holocaust are all depicted virtually identically in their portraits, aside from the telltale signs of accessories such as swastika armbands. These striking visual parallels between the three communities raise many larger questions about the Holocaust and the nature of assimilation and minorities, thus providing many educational opportunities as well. • Exchanging Faiths: An Interfaith Retreat for American Rabbinic and Polish Seminary Students: This program, scheduled for August 2006, will send 10 American rabbinical students from various denominations to Poland for a week of “exchanging faiths” with 10 Polish Catholic seminary students. The program will blend theological text-study sessions in a one-on-one environment (based on the chavurah model) with historical lessons on Jewish-Christian relations over the past 2,000 years, allowing all participants to challenge their existing stereotypes about the other and address these biases in an intimate, personal context. This program will also host 5 rabbis and 5 priests as “mentors” or “scholars-in-residence.” These scholars-in-residence will lead discussion groups on specified topics within their realm of academic expertise as well as provide personal support for the students. These group discussions will focus primarily on the history of Jewish-Christian relations, and on the everyday practices of each faith. Currently, Polish priests-intraining and American rabbinical students have no other opportunity to interact and discuss theology with each other. This program will fill a notable and pressing void: the need for dialogue between young seminary students, those who will one day shape and even define the views of their congregants regarding other religions.

In his 13th Century commentary on the Talmud’s concept of maris ayin, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher gives the example that if a Jew must conduct legitimate business in a brothel (for instance, to collect a debt from the owner), then he should remove his kippah before entering so that onlookers don’t get the wrong idea. As Rabbi Jacob taught, sometimes reality is not nearly as important as one’s superficial perception: one’s brief impression of an individual, if left devoid of its context, can be irrationally applied to others who fit the same mold and can logically lead to false conclusions. In fact, the Chinese word for prejudice,

(pian jian), literally means “profile view,” an etymology which immediately reveals the

root of all prejudice in the world: a skewed view of other people. It is only through a variety of direct, nuanced, and personal interactions that these ignorance-fueled prejudices can truly be uncovered as possibly benign but certainly destructive forces, and consequentially eliminated. This may be a cynical comment for an idealist such as myself, but we must remember, in the wise words of Oscar Wilde, that “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”

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