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About "Parnassah"

It’s weird how ideas get embedded in your subconscious. The younger you are the more I think this is likely to happen, because your brain is not developed enough to think critically.


Such was the case, I think, with the Jewish term “parnassah,” meaning “to earn a living,” as it was used in my orbit.


Keep in mind as you read this that I grew up in an unusual world, with parents who were “intermarried.” Both are Orthodox Jewish, but my mom is Ashkenazic and my dad Chasidish.


If you don’t know what that means, to simplify and overgeneralize:

  • Ashkenazim, being Talmudically oriented, are “by the book” — a rule is a rule, regardless of the bigger picture.
  • Chasidim, being Rebbe-oriented, are “by the heart” — the ends justify the means, even if you have to break a rule to get there.
Obviously culture is not something you can argue about, even though everybody (not just Ashkenaz or Chasidic but Sephardic, Israeli, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and every combination and variation thereof) thinks that they are “right.”
But I wanted to talk about “parnassah” and some related terms as they became an axis of conflict in my family of origin.
Particularly in my mother’s parents’ (may they rest in peace) home, we used to debate ethical issues surrounding “parnassah” with my grandparents expressing anger that people would use “earning a living” as an excuse for behaving in ways that were rude, bad for the family, unethical and even downright illegal. (Like Chasidim abusing government welfare programs.)
But from my father’s parents’ point of view (may they rest in peace), non-Jews were frequently anti-Semitic and did unscrupulous things, including abusing the law, to hurt Jews. (My Zayde was a military officer in Romania before the Holocaust and was put into a labor camp where he hid Jews beneath the freezing hay). There were other things too that happened after the war, anti-Semitic things my Zayde would not want me to talk about. He was able to overcome them by the grace of G-d. But I think my Zayde would have cast a skeptical eye upon the argument that law is equally applied to everyone.
There’s the rub. Ashkenazim like living in the American, secular world, and they believe in fighting for a fairer legal system. Chasidim believe that the system is inherently biased against Jews. They don’t like living in a secular world, but they do what they have to do to survive. They will partner with non-Jews, but they are deeply conscious of the memory of the six million (the Holocaust). It is never a partnership of trust.
I grew up in both worlds and have a foot in both worlds. I understand how Chasidim think, and I understand how Ashkenazim do as well. I tend to be one of those people who wants to work within the system for change, but I also understand that behind closed doors people absolutely hate Jews, and that is true whether they are on the left or the right of the political spectrum.
You still have to follow the law. If it is anti-Semitic, we have to say so; if we can’t live within a system of law that’s biased against Jews, we have to go to a country where the laws don’t operate against us.
I tend to think that Ashkenazic Jews like being part of the non-Jewish world so very much, that they are afraid to call anti-Semitism out for what it is.
All opinions my own.

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