How Jews Can Build on Billy Joel’s Call to Action
In the wake of the awful events in Charlottesville, Billy Joel’s fans got an inspiring surprise toward the end of his recent concert at Madison Square Garden.
The singer, who does not wear his Jewish upbringing on his sleeve, came out for his encore wearing a yellow Star of David. Deservedly, Joel has received kudos in many quarters for spurning silence in response to Charlottesville. By boldly wearing the startling image of the star that Nazis forced Jews to wear during the Holocaust, Joel was decrying antisemitism, in particular — and, by implication, racism and other forms of hate.
But Billy Joel is a celebrity. What can the average person do to help repair the severe divisions that are besetting our nation — and to fulfill the ideal of tikkun olam? I believe that we can do plenty — and that, even then, we can always do more.
Take even Billy Joel.
What if, instead of donning the yellow star, he had returned to his piano wearing a kippa? Here’s the message this would have sent: that instead of reminding his audience of antisemitism’s terrible toll for Holocaust victims, including his father’s family, Joel had chosen to symbolize the present and the future — that Jewish traditions and values will not only survive, but thrive.
And that brings me to my main point. It is one thing to wish; it is another to do. Judaism, after all, is a tradition of deeds — of performing mitzvot.
The perfect illustration of this is occurring right now in response to the flooding in Texas. Yes, we wish for a speedy recovery, but what can we do? Well, we can donate money or supplies to any number of organizations offering support to the victims — including many organizations in the Jewish community. (Some individuals can even help in a hands-on way. I just read about Jewish summer camps in Texas being opened to provide shelter for hurricane victims, and about a young Jewish man from Ohio whose organization has been volunteering on the ground.)
And what about the rest of the year? Of times that do not convey a sense of urgency or immediately to elicit our compassion?
On August 22, the New York Times’ podcast “The Daily” profiled Derek Black, a young man born into one of the “first families” of white nationalism. As a boy in Palm Beach County, he already had a radio show aimed at youngsters that spewed bigotry and white supremacy. As a teen, he got into politics to further his cause.
Then he went to college. He hid his background, but eventually videos of his earlier activities surfaced at the school, and many fellow students learned of his past. One of his friends did not shun him, however. Instead, that young man, an Orthodox Jew, invited Derek to one of the Shabbat dinners that he routinely held for a wide range of friends.
That was the turning point. Derek started to open his mind to others’ experiences and views. After a while, he came to see his values as wrong, and — painfully — he turned his back on his family’s teachings. Now Derek has gone public with his transformation in order to help others.
Given the deep divisions in our country right now, many leaders have called on us to stop demonizing people outside of our belief system or political leanings, and, instead, to try and understand their perspectives. This is definitely something that each of us can do.
It should come as no surprise that the Rebbe, of blessed memory, offered a beautiful example of how we can move from feelings to action: The story is told of a Jewish leader who suggested that, in the days leading up to Passover, the Rebbe should tell all his Chabad followers to add an empty chair at the Passover seder table. This empty chair would symbolize those who were missing because of the Holocaust.
The Rebbe wisely replied that, yes, he would encourage the setting of an extra chair at every seder — but that it should be occupied by a person who would otherwise not have attended the seder. The point is that Judaism must be about what we are for, not what we oppose.
So with apologies to Billy Joel, he could have acted in an even more courageous way if he had gone beyond harking to the past, and expressed or demonstrated what he was for.
But to Joel’s credit, he didn’t stop with his important, symbolic gesture at the concert. A few days later, responding to all the attention that his gesture had received, he cited the renowned quote by the 18th century Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
This is the Jewish way. We are instructed that when we encounter darkness, it is our responsibility — indeed, it is a mitzvah — to light a candle, to do that extra good deed. And that is what we all can — and must — do.
Rabbi Aryeh Kaltmann is the Chabad emissary in Columbus, Ohio.