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D'var Torah: Yom Kippur


I’d like to talk about the concept of the scapegoat. And there are a few reasons that I’d like to talk about it. The first is that I’ve always found it puzzling, since my junior congregation days at Temple Beth Israel in Boonton, New Jersey. I knew that we were fasting, and that we were supposed to atone for our sins—to say that we were sorry, to make right what we had done wrong: to actively engage our sins, and to transform our lives, and the lives of the people around us. The story of “all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites whatever their sins” put on the “head of the goat,” and “sent off to the wilderness”: none of that seemed like active engagement with transgression. It didn’t suggest that the Israelites were transforming themselves—they were merely transferring their sins to someone or something else, an animal that had done nothing wrong. It wasn’t very inspiring. Although I wasn’t religious, I always liked Yom Kippur—I wanted a chance to think over my mistakes and apologize for them. Jewish guilt comes naturally to me. I wanted Yom Kippur to be meaningful. I wanted to try to transform my life, at least a little bit. But the story of the scapegoat really never helped.

Then in my twenties, I was doing my doctoral research. If you don’t know me, I teach American Jewish history at Michigan State and I did my research on a number of Jewish intellectuals in the 1960s, including feminist Betty Friedan. While I was researching Friedan, I found a short story called the “Scapegoat,” which she had written when she was an undergraduate at Smith College in the late 1930s and early 1940s and published in a college literary magazine. The story is a fictionalized version of events that really did occur when Friedan was at college.

Since I’ve taught at Michigan State, and especially since I’ve published my work on Betty Friedan, I’ve assigned my students this story, and I wanted to share it with you—because I think it has something to say for Yom Kippur.

“The Scapegoat” tells the story of Shirley, a Jewish girl who “didn’t seem to fit in” at Smith, from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, another Jewish girl who was very anxious—but more successful in her attempts—to fit in. Shirley was friendly and sweet, but somehow different from other girls. “There was something objectionable about her. I don’t know what it was. I don’t think the fact that she was Jewish had anything to do with it,” the narrator explains, but then describes Shirley’s differences in ways that did match stereotypes of Jewish women in the 1930s: she wore too much makeup, spent too much time on her hair, was unkempt and unhygienic. It’s even more clear that Shirley’s Jewishness bothers the narrator after Shirley invites her and the other Jewish girl in the dormitory, Alice, to her room to share a care package of greasy chicken. Alice and the narrator leave Shirley’s room quickly and rudely, and then share confidences: “You don’t suppose the others think we’re like her, do you? Just because we’re all three….” Alice says. “Well, they certainly see that we’re different from her,” the narrator insists, “But I don’t like the idea of her having just you and me up there tonight. As if we naturally belonged with her. It’s people like her that cause segregation, really.”

Alice and the narrator become friends with the other girls in the dormitory, and they participate in Shirley’s subsequent ostracism. The girls exclude Shirley from social events, and either ignore or ridicule her when she tries to tag along—and indeed, the group bonds around their shared hatred of Shirley. The narrator says: “In a way I think it was helpful to Alice and me, having Shirley in the house. Everyone was always so disgusted with her that they almost seemed to forget that we were Jewish, too.”

Shirley makes increasingly desperate plays for attention, turns to alcohol and sex, and then finally succumbs to a nervous breakdown and is forced to leave school altogether. When the narrator finds out what happened to Shirley, she considers how horrible Shirley’s experiences must have been and tries to encourage the other girls to consider their own responsibility for what happened to Shirley: “I said that in the last analysis we were to blame for her nervous breakdown or that at least we might have prevented it.” But the other girls disagree with her angrily: “What are you getting so worked up for? I didn’t notice you going out of your way to be nice to her,” one girl asks. “And so I didn’t say any more. The others might think I was on Shirley’s side because I was Jewish too. They might think I was afraid… afraid that the same thing might happen to me now that Shirley was gone,” the narrator says, ending her story: “And so I didn’t say any more. I really hadn’t liked her either, from the first.”

This story is fascinating for a lot of reasons. First, it offers us some insight into Betty Friedan’s Jewish identity. Friedan was not a religious Jew at all—at 16, she told her rabbi at her confirmation that she did not believe in God—yet she began this story with the quotation from Leviticus that I read at the beginning of the story: So even as a secular Jew, the story of the scapegoat meant something to her.

And it meant something to her in part because of the era in which she was living, and because of the people who were her role models and teachers. Friedan’s father was an immigrant, her mother a second generation American Jew—the child of immigrants—and her mother had always looked down on her husband for his poor taste and low status, criticizing him for his business failures and lack of “etiquette.” In other short stories, Friedan portrayed her mother cruelly denigrating her father for his “immigrant ways.” Then, in 1940, Friedan—a promising psychology student at Smith—went to work with refugee psychologist Kurt Lewin, who had left his family behind in Nazi Germany, and was just then developing the concept of the “self-hating Jew.” According to Lewin, the “self-hating Jew” was a Jew who longed to become a member of the dominant class, but was rejected, and turned his or her anger and resentment against other Jews.

The concept of the self-hating Jew would become a dominant one in Jewish life in the 1940s and 1950s, and it struck a chord with Friedan in these early years. She was convinced that it described her own mother, as well as herself. She wrote “The Scapegoat” in the wake of her work with Lewin, and she also spoke on “self-hating Jews” at her synagogue when she went home to Peoria for summer break. When Friedan developed her groundbreaking feminist book, The Feminine Mystique, she used the concept of the “self-hating Jew” (and the image of her mother’s unhappiness) as a building block for understanding women’s dissatisfaction with their families and their lives, even as they seemed to live contentedly in suburban homes.

I should say that the concept of the “self-hating Jew” became increasingly unpopular by the 1960s and 1970s, and it’s a concept that I personally have many problems with. But I think it speaks powerfully to Jews’ struggles with anti-Semitism and with one another in the 1940s. When I read the story of “The Scapegoat” with my students, they usually love it because it talks about anti-Semitism in another era, but it also speaks to their own lives, to a cruelty they can understand, and to a fear they know. But the story itself is confusing for many at first. Students are frequently surprised to learn that the narrator is Jewish, they are surprised to hear that Jewish girls used to be stereotyped as promiscuous—but most of all, they are surprised that the narrator does not change at the end of the story. She does not acknowledge her own cruelty or disavow her friends or seek out Shirley. She does not transform.

I’ve always attributed my students’ confusion to their need for a happy ending, their discomfort with anything that is not upbeat or that does not offer closure. But thinking about it more deeply for this d’var Torah, and talking with Rabbi Zimmerman, I’ve come to realize that there is actually transformation in this story, but it’s not the narrator or her friends or Shirley who change: it’s the author who has transformed—and the reader. Betty Friedan said that writing “The Scapegoat” exposed her own self-hatred and “freed her from being “a self-hating Jew.” Not only that, but Friedan’s understanding of self-hatred also informed her feminism, and helped her to write The Feminine Mystique: a book that literally transformed thousands of women’s lives, as well as Friedan’s own. Thinking about her own cruelty, exposing it, and talking to other people about it was a vehicle for Friedan’s own transformation, her ability to address transgression and call for change.

And that leads me back to the story of the scapegoat in our Yom Kippur reading.

I don’t know if the authors transformed as they told this story, or if they intended for us to be transformed. But maybe our struggle with the story of the scapegoat can be transformative. By struggling with a story that seems unsatisfying and empty, that unfairly places sins onto an innocent creature (just as we struggle with Friedan’s passive narrator who never atones for her sins), maybe we are struggling with our own inadequate efforts to address our wrongs. By struggling with the scapegoat, maybe we can think about the cruelty we have stood by and watched, or that we have actively participated in, and maybe we can expose it and change our own behavior. Maybe struggling with the scapegoat can make me think anew about what I have really done about images of Syrian refugees or videos of Eric Garner or Sandra Bland or the people who stand at the corner of Michigan and US127 asking for money: nothing. But it is that struggle that I hope can be transformative in this new year. Because I have realized—really only now—that it is not just Jewish guilt that keeps me coming to synagogue on Yom Kippur.

It is the reassurance that I am human and that the message that transformation is possible.

May you be sealed for a good year.

—Kirsten Fermaglich
September 2015





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