By Rafi Cooper
“Confidence is what you have before you understand the problem.” Classic Woody Allen. Classic Jewish anxiety. Being Jewish is often characterised, particularly in the modern media’s imagination, as this Allenesque mix between a kind of unspoken self-confidence and a self-deprecating comedic front, masking a sense of unease with oneself.
As Rosh Hashanah approaches, this question of Jewish anxiety always springs up at me. I wonder what Isaac thought as his father was binding him to the altar. Was he anxious? Surely if anyone had the right to be anxious, it would be him (understatement being another classic Jewish trait).
For centuries, Jewish thinking has debated what was going through Isaac’s mind. This debate will go on. Suffice to say here, if Isaac was feeling more than a hint of Jewish anxiety, it would be perfectly understandable.
Yet despite this tale being at the very heart of the festival, Rosh Hashanah is not a festival traditionally associated with anxiety. We celebrate, we pray, we hope, we give to charity, but feeling anxious is not on most people’s Rosh Hashanah tick list.
Yet whilst Pesach naturally comes with the Spring emotions of new hope, growth and life beginning, it feels like Rosh Hashanah should somehow mirror these emotions, sitting, as it does, at the opposite side of the calendar.
Many do feel underlying anxiety at this time of year. The preparation, the need to make exactly the right amount of soup and kneidlach (and then inevitably making too much – another Jewish trait), the need to send the right cards to the right people. The turning of the season contributes to this; as winter nears and the nights close in, a certain apprehension transcends.
As Rosh Hashanah approaches, I’ve been reflecting on the anxiety felt by other communities at this time of year. Over half of World Jewish Relief’s work is in Ukraine. The situation there has dominated our television screens for months. The media presents images of Russian aid convoys amassing at the border, but the full, scary reality of the humanitarian situation has not been adequately portrayed. The sheer magnitude is almost impossible to portray.
It’s far too simplistic to say “we’ve got it easy, we shouldn’t be worried. Those people over there have a right to feel anxious, look at their situation.” It’s neither necessary nor meaningful to quantify anxiety and compare it. My anxiety is no less real than their anxiety. However, what is genuine, meaningful and urgent is the situation faced by Jews and others in Ukraine.
Their situation this New Year is critical and deeply worrying. Over 2,000 Jews have been forced to flee their homes due to the fighting. One told me recently that dead bodies litter the streets in Luhansk, her home town. That’s incredibly hard to hear. It must be unbearable to see. It’s no wonder that people are feeling anxious.
World Jewish Relief is helping some of the world’s most vulnerable Jewish communities, supporting people who range from simply anxious to absolutely desperate. People who have had to leave their homes, who need human essentials to survive – food, clothing, accommodation. This work is literally life-saving.
And this is the flip side of Jewish anxiety – the urgency by which Jews want to right wrongs in the world. An anxiety to fulfil yetzer tov, the inclination to do good. For every Woody Allen, caricaturing Jewish anxiety, there are hundreds of others who every day feel an urgent desire – an anxiety – towards tikkun olam, healing the world. As long as this feeling continues to perpetuate the Jewish ideal of helping those less fortunate than ourselves, you can count me in for Jewish anxiety.
Rafi Cooper is World Jewish Relief’s Director of Communications. You can find out more about Ukraine by going to www.wjr.org.uk