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THE TOP 10 JEWISH QUOTES BY JEWS WHO DEFINED THEIR ERAS

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THE SPIEL OF THE CENTURY: THE TOP 10 JEWISH QUOTES BY JEWS WHO DEFINED THEIR ERAS

There are many ways to compile a list of the Top 10 best Jewish Quotes. We could’ve taken a look at Jewish quotes through the ages, from the Torah to today. Or we could’ve narrowed things down and focused on just one of the many fields in which Jews have entered and excelled. Or we could’ve narrowed things by tone—sweet quotes, somber quotes, sarcastic quotes (there are more than enough of those) and so on. Such is the versatility and variety of Jewish identity.

With the past century being one of radical change, both globally and for Jews throughout the Diaspora as well as in Israel, our list here may be seen a is something akin to “The Century in Jewish Quotes,” if you will, with one moment and movement leading into the next.

“If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skulls, then why do we read it?” –  Franz Kafka, Letter to Oskar Pollack

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One of the greatest German-language authors of the past century as well as one of the most well-known Jewish authors the world over, Franz Kafka has carved out a place for himself in both the Western and Jewish tradition, making him the perfect starting point for our journey through a very Jewish century.

One of the things we’ll see throughout this list is the way in which these great Jewish figures speak to not just changes within the Jewish community, but the world at large. Kafka wrote this letter in 1904, just a decade before the dawn of dual horrors of the modern world—war and genocide—alongside one of Kafka’s most enduring works, most notably “Die Verwandlung” (“The Metamorphosis”), which is often seen as a meditation on alienation. The questions of alienation from and assimilation into society was one with which Jews were all too familiar with, one authors with Jewish heritage around the world—from Proust to Pasternak to Salinger—grappled with throughout the 20 th century, and one which still resonates today. Kafka’s stories of alienation don’t focus on Jews per se, but rather on the overriding experience of Otherness—and the resonance of confronting and coming to terms with such a situation, as expressed here, is still crucial to discovering one’s identity.

“In our life there is a single color, as on an artist's palette, which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the color of love.” – Marc Chagall, My Life


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Marc Chagall was and remains not just the greatest Jewish artist of the modern era, but one of the definitive artistic forces of the past century. His art, and this quote, contextualizes both of his homelands, and serves as the embodiment of this quote. Chagall’s career stretched from the 1910s until his death in 1985, and so his correlation and celebration of color and love in his work and this quote span the better part of the century. Given how much changed throughout the places he painted, both for Jews and others, it’s no small wonder that he should see color and art as bonding forces in places so bitterly divided. From Russia after the Revolution to Occupied France to Israel, the places in which Chagall lived or the lands in which his art hangs today was and in some cases still is visited by violence—making his devotion to color and love here, and the ethereal, Expressionist, often sky-borne lovers which populate his paintings, that much more important.

Chagall, in this quote and in his paintings, represents the beauty and spirit of the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora, and the enduring power of love which, like the Shehecheyanu, has “allowed us to reach this season.”

“I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” – Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl


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Anne Frank’s diary has become standard reading for millions of students worldwide, as she herself embodies the vitality and humanity both of her own words and those quotes mentioned already. Kafka wrote of the importance of a book shaking one from complacency and awakening them—and for millions around the world, Anne Frank’s diary did and continues to do just that, giving a voice and face to the greatest crime of modern times, humanizing it and, by extension, bringing non-Jews worldwide in contact with the humanity of a young girl and the Jewish community which she continues to represent. Chagall spoke to the power of love, while Frank’s quote embodies its importance and potential for healing. If ever there were a situation that could destroy one’s faith in humanity, it was the one Anne Frank faced—that her response to the cruelties she faced was continued faith in humanity speaks to her own incredible capacity for kindness and our continued need to be reminded of and guided by it.

For generations, Anne Frank’s diary has been the first way in which non-Jewish students have come to learn of the Holocaust, and so she is the first Jew millions of non-Jewish children “meet”—and there could be no better ambassador than a teenage girl wise, kind, and brave beyond her years.

“Without moral and intellectual independence, there is no anchor for national independence.” – David Ben-Gurion, Speech

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From the horrors of the Holocaust to the achievement of the “hope of two thousand years,” the fight for Israeli independence was one of the seminal events of the past century for Jews and the world at large. Israel today is both definitively Jewish and incredibly diverse. From Chagall’s Jerusalem Windows to Kafka’s manuscripts in the  Israeli National Library to the countless other representations of Jewish figures and culture, Israel has become a focal point of Jewishness for Jews throughout the former and still-existent Diaspora—all of which gives more “weight” to David Ben-Gurion’s comment on the “anchor” of national identity.

For the strong sense of nationalism often accorded to Ben-Gurion and much of Israel, it is telling that this speech links national and personal independence, asserting the former not being truly possible without the latter. This interplay between personal independence and communal interdependence is characteristic of nation states around the world, but it’s especially interesting in the case of Israel given that aforementioned diversity. It speaks to what a Jewish State means and should mean, a perfect example of which being Chagall’s aforementioned Jerusalem Windows. Without the protections Israel affords, those definitively-Jewish windows could be shattered, and without the moral, intellectual, and cultural independence they represent, a Jewish state would lose that which makes it—and us—Jewish in the first place.

“The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice and the desire for personal independence—these are the features of the Jewish tradition which make me thank my stars that I belong to it.” – Albert Einstein, The World As I See It


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It was Einstein who graced the cover when  Time magazine chose their Person of the Century in 1999. Even among the great names which have preceded and will succeed him on this list, Einstein is a true giant, one of the few people who truly is known to and widely-beloved by billions worldwide. In a way, Einstein’s Jewishness is as new as it is centuries old. His attitudes towards the nature of the universe harken back to the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, whose monist view of existence proved a fit for Einstein’s theories. Likewise, in the same way his rethinking of centuries’ old questions in physics changed the way we view that field, Einstein’s comparative public secularism presented yet another face of Jewishness, one which endured to this day and is embodied in this quote.

From ancient rabbinic and Talmudic scholarship through to the philosophical and literary pursuits of a Spinoza or Kafka to the scientific enquiry of everyone from fellow Jew and Manhattan Project pioneer J. Robert Oppenheimer to Rosalind Franklin and her work in helping to discover DNA—

For Einstein, the conditions for these individual bursts of genius, the substance of which aids not just Jews but humanity at large, does indeed stem in part from the “pursuit of knowledge for its own sake,” which has characterized Jewishness for millennia, and continues to do so into the New Millennium.

“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” – Leonard Bernstein, The Joy of Music

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Where Chagall’s work largely responded to the violence of everything from the Russian Revolution to the World Wars which ravaged Europe, Bernstein’s is set against the backdrop of the Cold War and socio-economic divisions of his America, and where Chagall lived in first Russia and then France, both nations with centuries-old Jewish populations, Bernstein embodied a new and burgeoning Jewish community. New York and Los Angeles are far and away the two biggest centers of Jewish life in America, two of the largest Jewish communities within the Diaspora, and both are deeply tied into the two biggest and arguably most distinctive outlets for American culture—Broadway and Hollywood.

The results of Bernstein’s quoted ethos are evident in works such as West Side Story. Chagall’s attempt to meet violence with love made use of ethereal, Expressionist figures influenced by Jewish folklore. By contrast, the violence of Bernstein’s world was one of cultural and Cold War binaries—the USA and USSR, North and South Korea, Israelis and the Arab States—and so Bernstein’s response, while borrowing from Romeo and Juliet, is firmly rooted in the a more modern, concrete setting than Chagall. In doing so, Bernstein’s attempt to “make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before” becomes a commentary on the dangers of seeing the world as Black and White, a level of social awareness and political engagement that continues to distinguish Broadway, Hollywood, and the Jewish-American community at their best.

"Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!" – Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove or, How I Quit Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb


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Another Jew, another medium, and another response to the violence and fears of the time—1964’s  Dr. Strangelove still ranks today as not just one of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpieces, but one of the greatest and most celebrated satires of the past century. Where Einstein and Oppenheimer helped develop the atomic bomb that ended WWII, the latter referencing Hindu scripture in worrying about having “become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” Kubrick’s film analyzes and highlights the absurdity of living with annihilation being a one miscommunication away, doing so through the power of satire.

In doing so, the Bronx-born, British-expatriated Kubrick’s film may be seen the meeting between that commitment to social conscience and justice spoken of by Einstein and Bernstein met with the tradition of Jewish-American comedy by way of the Marx Brothers. That line, one of the most famous of the film, is the perfect example of those two traditions not just colliding, but combining in a new and powerful way. The absurd irony of chastising fighting in “the War Room” wouldn’t be out of character for Groucho Marx or out of place in a Marx Brothers film, and the social commentary and needling of the audience’s social and political consciences fits Einstein and Bernstein’s view of Jewishness as being a force for intellectual and social justice respectively.

“The legend engraved on the face of the Jewish nickel–on the body of every Jewish child!–not IN GOD WE TRUST, but SOMEDAY YOU'LL BE A PARENT AND YOU'LL KNOW WHAT IT'S LIKE.” – Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint


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While Arthur Miller, Isaac Asimov, Dorothy Parker, and many other great Jews in America have found success as authors, it’s Philip Roth who is the definitive Jewish-American author. From the overanalyzing of neuroses and sexual politics to the clash between some of the various Jewish traditions listed here, all filtered through a viewpoint which is at once sarcastic and insightful, politically-minded and politically incorrect, Portnoy’s Complaint is in many ways a self-portrait of modern Jewish life in general and that of American Jews in particular.

What makes Roth’s work stand out, both from his Jewish predecessors and—given its content and release in 1969, the height of the Sexual Revolution—his fellow sex-interested contemporaries is its very Jewishness. Where Kubrick and Kafka used Jewish social ideals and values to create works about non-Jews, Roth’s focus and humor is here largely for the sake of simultaneously analyzing, critiquing, and roasting modern Jewish life. It’s work of English language which prominently features Yiddish for its humor. The entire book consists of Portnoy relaying his feelings on everything from his role as a Jewish son, what it’s like having Jewish parents (see the quote above), the complexities of how Jews and non-Jews view one another, the relationship between American and Israeli Jews, the Jewish relationship to the past, present, sex, politics, baseball—on and on, all to a psychoanalyst, Dr. Spielvogel. While a non-Jew can still read and enjoy the book, a Jew who knows Yiddish might pick apart that name, “Spielvogel,” or see him as a Freud stand-in, or be privy to any number of other Jew-specific in-jokes.

That linguistic touch and Roth’s being a Jew speaking about Jews allows Jewish readers to be all the more “in on the joke” and, thus, experience a sense of inclusion which Western Literature since long before Kafka has often denied them.

“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” – Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind


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Hannah Arendt is most known for her 1963 work Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil , wherein she relates the account of the Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel. While her account sparked controversy, Arendt, a German-born Jew who fled the Holocaust, coined the term “banality of evil”—a phrase which might’ve been perfectly appropriate to Kafka’s Der Prozess (The Trial)—and influenced the way in which we view and consider the nature of evil.

With Jewish life entering a second generation post-Holocaust and roughly a quarter century since Israeli independence, Arendt’s audience for her posthumous 1978 work, The Life of the Mind, were even further removed from those events. There is something striking in Arendt’s somber contemplation of human nature here when set against the comparative optimism of Anne Frank’s quote. The difference in their perspectives is vast—Frank writing in secret, at a young age, and with the Holocaust ongoing, as opposed to Arendt’s writing for a public, in her 60s, and in an entirely different world—but that basic notion of remembrance of the past intellectually as well as emotionally is a crucial aspect to  Jewish life. Art Spiegelman, from 1980 to 1991, would write and serialize Maus, an account of both his Polish-Jewish father’s Holocaust experience and his own relationship with him, his family, and those events. The work won the Pulitzer Prize, and is just one example of considering the nature of evil committed in the Holocaust while keeping the memory of those involved alive—a literary legacy largely indebted to Frank and Ardent.

“Dissents speak to a future age.” – Ruth Bader Ginsburg, NPR Interview

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Having assumed her office as Justice on the Supreme Court in 1993 and continuing to stand as one of the most influential judges on issues such as women’s rights, Ruth Bader Ginsburg shows the progress Jews, women, and indeed Jewish women have made in the past century-plus. When Kafka wrote his letter to Oskar Pollack in 1904 on the importance of the written word being able to awaken something within us, the world of political power was almost exclusively a white, male, and Christian affair. A century on, and Germany, France, Britain and, with Golda Meir, Israel have all seen female Heads of State, the First, Second, and Third Waves of feminism have and continue to push for equality, and the Supreme Court has seen eight Jewish Supreme Court Judges, with Justice Ginsburg having been the first Jewish woman appointed.

Her role as being a continuous voice of conscientious dissent and corresponding ascent has mirrored the rise of women, Jewish and otherwise. While Philip Roth is imperishable as the literary voice of American Jews, Amy Schumer and a new generation of female writers and comediennes today have built upon the foundation he laid while adding women’s voices to that chorus of laughter and social critique. After dedicating their lives and crafts to the furtherance of love in the face of violence, Chagall and Bernstein have given way to a new generation of Jewish female artists, actresses, and singers. Both Senators for the State of California—Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer—are Jewish women, with Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz the Chair of the Democratic National Committee.

All of which speaks to the nature of Ginsburg’s quote here. When Kafka to Oskar Pollack in 1904, Jews were still largely seen as a dissenting Other within Western society, and had been for centuries within both male-centric, Christian and Arab-dominated nations. The value of “The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake,” as Einstein put it, and of having words and ideas awaken us, as Kafka wished, like “a fist hammering on our skulls” create the conditions for Ginsburg-esque dissent, the kind that can speak to the future while preserving the memory of the past. That, in turn, produces a lively culture which can at once accept the value of tradition and dissent—both of which have shaped the “spiel” within the Jewish community for the past century, and promises to do so for many more to come, in-jokes and all.

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