Rabbi Sessler D’var Torah

Steven Spielberg’s Antisemitic Childhood

Steven Spielberg is a living cinematic legend. He also carries with him to this day the scars of an antisemitic adolescence.

When Spielberg was a teenager, his parents divorced, and Spielberg moved with his mother to San Jose. It was during his last year of high school that things became particularly insufferable for young Spielberg.

As a senior in high school, Spielberg was kicked by antisemitic thugs during gym class. He was also beaten up with sticks, and some of his fellow students threw coins at him “Because Jews are cheap”. Things became so bad, that at some point Spielberg’s mother (today known as Leah Adler, she is also the proud owner of a dairy kosher restaurant on Pico) had to come and pick up her son by car from school, so that he would not be bullied and beaten up on his way home.

Despite this traumatic episode in his life, Spielberg never lowered his head as a Jew. On the contrary, Spielberg became a leading Jewish cultural and philanthropic leader. With “Schindler’s List”, Spielberg brought the Holocaust to the forefront of global consciousness, and educated hundreds of millions of people who knew nothing or very little about the genocide of the Jews of Europe.

With his Shoah Foundation, Spielberg also made sure that the biographical attestations of Holocaust survivors will endure well beyond our lifetime, and become readily available, in order to educate and inform future generations.

Spielberg was also at the forefront of many other worthy Jewish projects, including the restoration of Torah scrolls which belonged to Jewish communities in Europe prior to the Holocaust.

The proud Jewishness of Steven Spielberg comes to mind also in the context of this week’s Torah portion “Shalch”. In our parashah, twelve Jewish leaders, also known as the twelve spies, are sent by Moses to Israel, in order to assess, amongst other things, the military capacity of the indigenous population.

Upon their return to the desert in order to submit their geo-political report to the rest of the nation, the Spies’ defeatist and self-deprecating report demoralizes the entire people.

Depicting Israel’s enemies as awesome and gigantic, the spies essentially conveyed to the people their own insecurities and national inferiority complex, by exclaiming: “We were as grasshoppers in OUR OWN eyes”.

In other words, unlike Steven Spielberg, ten of the twelve spies internalized the antisemitic discourse and gaze. These men had such a fragile and precarious sense of national and collective self-worth that they came to regard themselves as “grasshoppers”, as minuscule and hideous insects, as non-humans.

Unlike Steven Spielberg the teenager, the antisemitic acts and rhetoric of their surroundings eventuality got under their skin, and infiltrated their consciousness, identity and self-esteem.

As Jewish-Americans we are all Spielbergs. We know that there are vast and vile political forces out there. Forces which shamelessly and overtly espouse and promote racism, prejudice and antisemitism. But like Steven Spielberg, and unlike the twelve spies, we never confuse the antisemitic filth, with the ennobling privilege and boundless blessings of being A Jew.

Like Spielberg, we walk tall, and we stand strong. We know that we are anything but grasshoppers. We know and we remembers that we are G-d’s people, and also – that we are the heirs of spiritual giants and pioneers who enlightened the world. As Jews who embrace the Torah, we remind the world that history, including our own personal histories, has meaning, and that humanity has a destiny.

Rather than grasshoppers, we are soaring beings who oscillate between the here and now of our worldly affairs, and our longings and yearnings to unite and merge with the Infinite and the Eternal in privileged and intimate sacred moments of cosmic attachment to the Source of all life. We are leaders of humanity in many fields, and the way that we conceive of ourselves and our vocation will have an incalculable impact not only upon the future of the Jewish people, but also upon the fate of the world, and upon the future of humanity.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Sessler

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