BELFAST, Maine — There’s an old joke told by Jews that gets at the heart of Rabbi Steve Shaw’s understanding of his fellow Jews.
A Jewish man is traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway when an officer of the czar’s army boards. After a time, the soldier grabs the Jew by the lapels and says, “Tell me, why are you Jews so much brighter than everyone else?”
The man is silent for a moment, then responds: “It’s because of the herring we eat.” The Jew then takes out some herring, and the soldier asks to buy some. The Jew says he will sell the fish for 20 rubles, a great deal of money. The soldier agrees to the price.
After eating some of the herring, the soldier says, “This is ridiculous. In Moscow I could have bought all the herring I want for a pittance.”
“You see?” the Jew says. “It’s working already.”
The joke is recounted in a book Shaw uses in the class he is teaching at Belfast Senior College, “Exploring Jewish Life and Wisdom.” After sharing the joke during an interview, Shaw, 70, watches the reaction and chuckles, his bearded face turning boyish, his eyes twinkling.
Shaw, who lives in Warren, also taught the course at the Coastal Senior College in Waldoboro in the fall. He says the course succeeds in letting people who are curious about Jews and Judaism — the people and the religion — learn about them without fear of offending. Still, students often tiptoe around their questions in the beginning of the course.
The course description asks some provocative questions: “Why do Jews love to argue? Why are so many prominent lawyers and jurists of Jewish origin? What are the possible explanations for the large number of Jews who have Nobel Prizes?”
In an era where political correctness and ethnic tolerance are revered, those inquiries — and the assertions couched in them — can be a little unsettling.
Shaw confesses to being deliberately provocative — “I’m fooling around with very dangerous stuff,” he admits — but when these and other stereotypes are raised in an interview, he repeatedly turns the question back on the questioner: “Why do you think that is?”
Darah Lerner, a rabbi for Bangor’s Congregation Beth El, said some of Shaw’s claims have a basis in fact.
Jews were not allowed to own property for centuries, she said, so education was stressed.
Jews began to dominate nonproperty professions such as medicine, law and banking, she added. In fact, for centuries, Christians were prohibited by the church from loaning money at interest, so Jews moved into that business.
Lerner said that while banking is seen as a worthy profession, if times are bad and bankers are seen as the enemy, then sweeping, broad statements about Jews and banking can have — and have had — calamitous consequences.
Stereotypes, even those that reflect admirable traits, have the potential to lead to discrimination, she said.
Shaw admits that perception and reality may part ways on some of the stereotypes about Jews, but, as Lerner noted, he believes many of those traits can be explained. The Jewish Torah or Bible contains many instances of people “arguing with God,” he noted, including Moses, Job and Jonah.
“There’s no other religion characterized by arguing with God,” he said.
The Yiddish term “chutzpah” was first used to describe a kind of brashness before God, he said.
When Shaw opened the first session of the class in Belfast on Jan. 17, it was attended by more than 75 people, making it one of the most popular recent classes, according to Dale Kuhnert of the senior college curriculum committee. Among the questions Shaw asked students to answer after the first meeting was whether they believe Jews are God’s chosen people, and if so, why.
After that first session, Shaw read student responses to some of his questions and found that only a handful were Jewish.
“I think this is what I find interesting,” he wrote in an email after the class. “People — non-Jews — seem both curious about Jews and Judaism and very favorably inclined [toward them].”
During the first class, he passed out some photocopied excerpts from books, including one on Jewish humor. A guffaw rang out as one man got to the punch line of one of the New Yorker cartoons included in the hand-out.
Shaw also talked about famous Jewish criminals, such as Meyer Lansky, who worked for Lucky Luciano and was known as the “mob’s accountant,” and the Jewish crime syndicate known as Murder Incorporated, a group of hitmen allegedly responsible for killing 1,000. The point, he explained, is that Jews aren’t perfect.
He then noted that though Jews represented a fraction of a percent of the world population, they have been disproportionate winners of the Nobel Prize.
And in an earlier interview, he said that three Jews are responsible for the three most important revolutions of the last 100 years: Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein.
A comprehensive survey of American opinion on different faith groups included in the book “ American Grace” by Robert Putnam, published last year, found that Jews were held in “warm” regard, more so than most other groups, Shaw pointed out in an interview.
The only hints Shaw gives as to what he believes about these Jewish superlatives is his observation that Jews have faced unique challenges: banished 2,000 years ago from the land central to their beliefs and scattered through the world; banned from working in trades in the middle ages; subjected to a concerted effort to exterminate them during World War II; defiantly surviving in Israel in the face of neighboring nations vowing to wipe them from the map.
No wonder Jews value education, he said, given that history. “Study and intellectual inquiry were very important,” he said. “The Jews had to live by their wits.”
Shaw also plans to raise the issue of anti-Semitism in the class, another force in the life of Jews.
Shaw was born and raised in New York City and still maintains an apartment there. He also has an apartment in Jerusalem. In Israel, he worked with the nation’s Bedouin Arab population. He received his rabbinic ordination after five years of graduate work at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
Shaw served for a time as a rabbi for a congregation in Rutherford, N.J., but confessed he was “somewhat ambivalent about the whole rabbi thing. Rabbis are larger than life and they represent God,” a role he didn’t find comfortable.
He has visited Maine annually over the last 30 years, but settled here permanently a year ago.
His approach to the traits he believes Jews generally exhibit might also be applied to the Scotch-Irish who settled parts of the midcoast, Shaw mused in an interview. But that would be another course.