Policy made plain.
Feb. 16 1997 3:30 AM

(920 words; posted Saturday, Feb. 15; to be composted Saturday, Feb. 22)


A Journey of Self-Discovery

This week's "The Gist" column ("Did She Know?") addresses the question of whether Secretary of State Madeleine Albright knew she was Jewish before the Washington Post reported it recently. Albright says she had no idea. Many people find that implausible. Nothing important turns on the question, but it is darned interesting nonetheless. (One Jewish Slate staffer, who does not know Albright personally, says, "She may not have known she was Jewish, but I knew she was Jewish.")

The editor of this publication was fascinated by the Albright episode for a special reason. It caused him to think back over his own life, and he was suddenly dumbstruck by the realization that he might be Jewish.

He can hardly be blamed, of course, for ignoring the clues. There was his circumcision. But he was only a few days old when it occurred, and he remembers very little about it--at least consciously. Furthermore, almost everyone did that back in those days.


His bar mitzvah at age 13 he does remember clearly. And perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, that should have tipped him off that he was not a Sunni Muslim as his parents had told him. (Or did he only imagine that his parents had told him that?) He recalls wondering vaguely why there was a rabbi at this ceremony, why it was conducted in Hebrew, and why it took place in a synagogue. But one's youth is full of wonders, not all of which can be fully pursued.

Then there is the bizarre coincidence that all his relatives are Jewish, including his parents and his grandparents on both sides. Should this have alerted him to the possibility that he, too, might be Jewish? Not really. After all, many of his relatives drive Buicks, whereas he drives a Honda Accord.

The regular celebration of Jewish holidays in his childhood home, the mystifying absence of a Christmas tree--all these, to his mature mind, demand an explanation. So, too, do the letters he has received over the years from Jewish charities, asking for contributions in support of worthy projects in America and Israel. Why, he used to wonder, were they singling him out? It must be, he concluded, some exaggerated notion of his ecumenical generosity. Isn't that the most logical theory?

Finally, there is the easily forgotten fact that he himself has often claimed to be Jewish. Was this the clue he should have picked up on? Who, after all, would be in a better position to know the real story? But the editor, like most people, tells himself many things, not all of which are believable. And, as a busy man, he cannot be expected to listen to everything he has to say (any more than Madeleine Albright had time to read all those letters from family connections in Czechoslovakia).


Now, thanks to the Albright episode, the editor is examining the evidence with fresh eyes. (Or is it fresh oys?) Naturally, though, he is not leaping to any hasty conclusions.

Dromedary Date

Continuing on a religious theme: Have you checked out our newest "Dialogue"? It concerns an issue first raised a couple of thousand years ago (by another fellow who thought he might be Jewish). Is it easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into the kingdom of heaven? Actually, both participants in Slate's dialogue, as devout Christians, accept the accuracy of Jesus' assertion. (And both are political conservatives, to boot.) But they disagree about what he meant. Can e-mail solve a puzzle that two millenniums of nonelectronic communication could not?

For some reason, Bill Gates has shown a special interest in the outcome of this "Dialogue." He instructed his butler, Higgins, "Let me know immediately as soon as they have the answer. I must know." Summoned, we explained to him that, although we hope for dialectical progress in these dialogues, we cannot guarantee that they will always lead to a definitive conclusion. "That's not good enough," he reprimanded us. "Suppose I let our folks at Excel put out a spreadsheet that only produced dialectical progress"--here, he began to mimic us cruelly--"toward the right numbers. Suppose the spell-checker in Word 97 didn't guarantee a definitive conclusion. Then where would we be? Computers are supposed to provide answers, not"--mincing--"dialectical progress."


Then he brightened. "I've got an idea. Higgins, call me a camel."

"Sir, you're a ..."

We won't report what happened to Higgins, but a camel was ultimately procured, and the experiment was duly conducted. And we're here to testify that a camel, with sufficient inducement, actually can pass through the eye of a needle. Or at least that a loyal employee, with sufficient inducement, can be persuaded that he's seen almost anything.

The Winter of Our New Contents, Continued

Reactions (e-mailed to slate@msn.com) to our new home page and contents list have been mixed, as we expected. Some people like the minimal scrolling, some people feel it's too cramped. We're working to address one complaint: that the headlines of "Dispatches and Dialogues" are too small. (And remember that you can always adjust font sizes yourself on your browser.) We've also highlighted the new display options for contents: If you don't like the current design, you can opt for a straight list with today's new stuff on top, yesterday's next, and so on. Just click on the word "Date" right below the Slate logo. Or, for that matter, click on this button:

--Michael Kinsley