Many remember the opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity … it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
I would venture to say, however, that just as many have forgotten an equally poignant set of polar-opposite perceptions: In 1957, then British prime minister Harold Macmillan marked the end of postwar gloom by declaring that “most of our people never had it so good.” But, 43 years earlier, in 1914, another British statesman, foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey, presciently remarked: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
Are we in a Macmillan moment or a Grey moment? Is it the best of times or the worst of times?
If you are not one to remember the opening lines of Dickens’ great novel, or the musings of two obscure British political figures, maybe you remember the children’s story of Chicken Little. It is the tale of the little chick that causes widespread panic when he mistakes a falling acorn for a piece of the sky. He goes about the barnyard crying that the “sky is falling.”
The chick sees events surrounding him and interprets them all to suggest that calamity is around the corner. Eventually everyone begins to see the world as Chicken Little sees it – catastrophe and chaos bearing down on all. I have often wondered whether this story was originally written in Yiddish. It seems to reflect the normative pattern of our Jewish world.
Take Israel, for example. When speaking of Israel, many are focused on the apathy among millennials. Many are focused on the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movements on campuses or in government houses. Many are focused on the challenges posed to the values of North American Jewish and Israeli liberals by the Israeli government’s support for policies that appear to reject cherished values of gender equity, equality and inclusion.
The ongoing conflict between the push of a small orthodox religious minority for a theocracy and the majority of Israelis for a democratic Jewish state takes up a significant amount of Jewish conversation. Many Jews are willing to place all the blame on Israel for the lack of progress toward a two-state solution. I could continue to enumerate the ways in which we Jews cry out that the sky above the State of Israel is falling.
Yet, in spite of grave security issues, Israel’s advancements in science and technology are to be envied. Under a constant barrage of external threats, Israeli culture, literature, film, dance, music and theatre are all not just surviving, but flourishing. Despite attempts to paint Israel as an apartheid regime by the world’s leftists and many members of the Jewish community, the rule of law reigns supreme for all citizens of Israel. The truth is that, when it comes to dialogue about the state of Israel, it is both the “spring of hope” and the “winter of despair.” Those who are “lovers of Israel” see both sides simultaneously.
Nor do we have to travel thousands of kilometres to worry about threats to our survival. There is no dearth of geshreying about the state of the Ottawa Jewish community. Not enough children enrolled in Jewish schools. Not enough Jewish members of the SJCC. Not enough adults filling the pews on Shabbat. Too much Jewish poverty and too little response. Not nearly enough money donated to the annual Federation campaign. Too many “old” people making community decisions. The list of complaints is endless. Spend one hour on the community campus and you can fill an entire external hard drive.
Yet, here too, the opposite prevails. We are a community struggling against societal tides of accommodation, absorption and assimilation. Yet we have community institutions that continue to swim against those tides. Our Jewish schools still believe in their mission to preserve the Jewish people. Our university campus programs build pride and advocacy for our future. Both universities in town offer a rich assortment of Jewish learning opportunities. Our synagogues have swiftly replaced successful, but aging, rabbis with young and vibrant successors. Our community celebrations and observances may not have the perfect demographic mix, but they remain vibrant and inclusive for all.
The truth is that, here in Ottawa, it is the “age of foolishness and the epoch of belief.” I don’t know that it ever was or ever will be any different.