Friday, April 4, 2008

Paranoia, Cossacks, Bolsheviks and Bugs in Your Broccoli

So, in a discussion with my boss, I explained a tendency towards paranoia as stemming from my family's history. It's simple. My ancestors spent a few hundred years in Ukraine outrunning Cossacks, then Bolsheviks. Paranoia becomes somewhat hereditary.

Thinking about it more carefully, I realized that they probably didn't actually outrun anyone. After all, there's no evidence of fast speed in my family. Frankly, if you think about Jewish athletes, you won't come up with names of runners, either. Hank Greenberg and Shawn Green --- sluggers; Sandy Koufax threw his way to fame; Mark Spitz was a swimmer; the Israeli Olympic medalists were in windsurfing (or something like that) and judo.

If my ancestors and those of fellow Members of the Tribe didn't outrun their adversaries, then they must have had other traits that allowed them to stay out of the way of danger. My guess: The same "radar" that allows Members of the Tribe to find one another at a party or concert must have a component that allows us to pick up emerging danger. What's paranoid in the U.S. in 2008 would have been called a survival mechanism in 19th century Ukraine. That same "paranoia" probably also helped my mother-in-law and her family -- good Berlin Jews -- to suspend the disbelief that sophisticated, cultured Germans might actually turn against the Jews even in the modern 20th century, and get out of the country when they still could.

Fitness is the word that I believe is used by scientists to describe the traits that help a certain species to survive. That trait, when present, gives the organism a better fighting chance against enemies. Those organisms with the traits are more likely to make it. In the Jews' case, paranoia may have been such a trait. And as we know, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that they're not out to get you.

If I'm right, then the question is: what happens to those traits when they're no longer needed? Perhaps the appendix, that utterly useless piece of our GI tract, is a great example. This appendage probably once played some role. Today, it's sole purpose is to occasionally act up and require immediate medical attention.

Paranoia then, is the appendix of the Jewish nation. We've made it into a bit of an art form. The Jewish community spends millions of dollars in America to support organizations that will protect American Jews against a level of anti-semitism that would be a joke to my grandparents. After all, does a nasty teenager spray painting a swastika on a building in suburbia really hold a candle to rape, pillage and kill? Matter of fact, in my Long Island shtetl, some locals were so desperate to exercise that once adaptive character trait of paranoia, that they "discovered" that desks in the public library were arranged in a pattern that reminded them of a swastika (http://www.libraryjournal.com/blog/1010000101/post/1100021310.html ). And in Alabama, a retirement home continues to work on its building so that people flying over won't see the swastika that tha building looks like from above (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/worldnews.html?in_article_id=534010&in_page_id=1811 ).

From my limited understanding, Darwin would get it. The adaptive behavior of having ultrasensitive radar to dodge the next pogrom in Ukraine gets transplanted to America and has us biologically programmed to look for evidence of anti-semitism here.

But could it also be driving the Kashrut market? In the past century, American observant Jews have upped the ante for keeping Kosher. In the early and mid-twentieth century, the Kosher consumer was taught how to read ingredients on labels to ascertain whether something was Kosher. That was good enough for many communities for several generations. Then Kosher supervision became more widespread, making keeping Kosher easier. Suddenly, in the last 20 years, new "enemies" have arisen: hidden bugs that allegedly threaten the Kashrut of every vegetable (http://www.bodek.com/aboutus.htm ). And then there are the little crustaceans that infiltrated even Brooklyn water supplies, threatening the drinking water supply for the Kosher consumer (http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C04E5D71631F932A35755C0A9629C8B63 ).

Crazy religious people looking for traife because Kosher has just become too easy? Nope. It's the appendix thing: what was once an adaptive trait - paranoia - remains a trait. Like the appendix, it struggles to come to the forefront, but can only do so by acting up occasionally.

Shabbat Shalom, Darwin!