Step Out of Line!

This week’s Dvar Torah was written by Rabbi Efrat Zarren-Zohar in partnership with Audrey Maman, CAJE’s Program Manager for Educational Services.

Whether you were interested or able to watch the Emmy’s this past Sunday night, you’ve probably heard or seen Alex Borstein’s acceptance speech for her award as best supporting actress in a comedy (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel). In the middle of it, she became serious and told the audience she came from a family of immigrants and Holocaust survivors, then said:

My grandmother was in line to be shot into a pit.
She said, ‘What happens if I step out of line?’
[The guard] said, ‘I don’t have the heart to shoot you but somebody will,’
and she stepped out of line.
For that, I am here and my children are here.
So step out of line, ladies. Step out of line!

Some people found Borstein’s statement powerful and uplifting; others found it cringe-worthy, if not outright offensive because it seemed to blame all the others who did not step out of line during the Shoah. 

On social media, individuals knowledgeable about the Holocaust wrote that many people tried to step out of line in the Holocaust and were murdered. (True.) Others noted, “it’s deeply ahistorical and victim-blaming to suggest a spark of individual courage would save someone from the Nazis.” (Partly but not always true.) Still others fretted, “Her grandmother was lucky… Her story reinforces a narrative of ‘if only they had just resisted a little more…” (Also true.)

And yet, why did so many Jews (even those of us knowledgeable about the Shoah) react with such positivity to her comments?

First, she took a story from her family history and utilized it as encouragement to women in the film and television industry who have endured decades of sexual harassment and discrimination, often silently. Most Jewish people I know applaud the effort to create a harassment-free world for women and all people. Moreover, her extrapolation from her family’s story to a current issue is very close to the style of Midrash— taking one text and applying its lessons in other contexts.

Second, and this is probably closer to the reason for positive Jewish reactions, it’s because in this time of rising white nationalism on the Right and BDS Israel-bashing that often easily falls into anti-Semitic tropes on the Left, here was a woman “out and proud” to be Jewish.

And that’s not something we should take for granted.

Every Jewish generation feels that we are the very last Jews and must strengthen ourselves, which is perhaps (ironically) what motivates us to work so hard to maintain Jewish culture, Jewish practice, Jewish wisdom and Jewish community.

In our work at CAJE, we are always pushing ourselves- as well as the schools, teachers and professionals with whom we work- to essentially “step out of line” and think outside the norm. So this expression can clearly be understood in multiple ways and apply to many different aspects in our lives.

We at CAJE are proud to work for an organization that ‘steps out of line’ every day in order to bring the best in Jewish Education to our community-- whether it be through professional development workshops, adult learning classes, programs like the Leo Martin March of the Living and the Diller Teen Fellows, or through the medium of Jewish film.

Alex Borstein may not have realized the many ways her words would be understood when she spoke them. But as with all speakers and authors, it is up to us to interpret the words and apply them to our lives today.

With Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) just ahead, we should all think of ways to “step out of line” and push ourselves to be the best we can be both personally and professionally, asking ourselves: How will I “step out of line” and seek to lead a more holy, more righteous life in the year ahead?

Shabbat Shalom

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