Darn it, I wish I could remember the name of this short story by the late Noble Prize winner, Shmuel Yosef Agnon. It goes like this. The Jews in a small Eastern European village (shtetl), circa 1900, have never seen a convert to Judaism. In those days of hardship for Jews, they were not attracting many new customers. As a result, no one in town has ever been able to perform the divine commandment (mitzvah) to “love the convert.”
Then the news breaks: a convert is coming to town! Everyone is so excited, there is a bounce in every step. They could finally perform this act of kindness, of humanity, of respect. When the convert arrives he is greeted by throngs of well-wishers. Everyone wants to invite him into their homes. Finally a modus operandi emerges. He will go to a different house each day, so everyone can get a chance to host the convert and accomplish the good deed. Each family honors his presence by bringing out their best silverware and setting a sumptuous table.
After about two months, the convert has completed his round of courtesy calls. The very next morning, the townspeople awaken to discover they have all been robbed of their silver. The friendly hamlet that never locked its doors had been cleaned out by this scoundrel who had learned the interior of each home. The culprit had absconded and was nowhere to be found.
Horrified, everyone gathered in the town square. The rabbi led the meeting and they decided it would be pointless to involve the police. The money was lost; life goes on. Wait… there was still one question that arose from the hearts and mouths of the assemblage. “But was he really a convert?”
At the end of the day good people do not mind so much the loss of money, or even the humiliation of being scammed. If they know for sure — if someone can assure them — if only they were certain — that they had achieved this great mitzvah, they would write off the financial loss on their spiritual tax returns.
It took me eight years, and the man had to leave office, before I could figure out the true identity of Barack Obama. Now I get it: HE IS THE CONVERT FROM AGNON’S STORY.
Think about it. Eight years ago we were the nice good-hearted citizens of the United States of America. We had regrets about past history when we did not live up to our standards and assigned a lesser dignity to people of dark skin. Now we had cleaned up our act and become a colorblind society, committing to promotion on merit. Anyone could attain any privilege in our society, if he or she achieved the qualifications.
Would we elect a black President? Of course we would. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton ran in primaries, but we rejected them on the basis of charlatanry. General Colin Powell could have had the Republican nomination on a platter in 1996 but he chose not to compete. We knew in our hearts we would not reject a candidate based on something so meaningless as pigmentation, but the chance to prove that was not forthcoming.
Then we heard: the convert is coming! There is a black man of great presence, with an understated charisma and a thoughtful manner. Finally we could do the great Mitzvah! We could “love the convert” and invite him into our homes, trust him with our finest silver.
Eight years later he gets ready to leave and suddenly we look around us in horror. Our silver is all gone. In that short span of time he managed to spend every single penny of tax revenue, plus ten trillion dollars more in borrowed money. And astonishingly we got nothing in return. The roads are still pockmarked, the bridges are still banged up, the airports are sagging. We look around us and see everything exactly the same, just eight years older. And we are left with a bill of ten thousand billion dollars!
The money is not coming back, not now, not ever. If we want to spruce up our country, we will have to start now from scratch. Who got all that money? We may never fully understand where it all went. This reality is so starkly dismaying we are left feeling like Madoff investors, shaken and taken and forsaken.
Yet the question that still matters to us most is this one: was he really a convert? Did we do our mitzvah? The saddest part of all this is that the same professors are still deriding us as overprivileged white imperialists. Yes, I borrowed ten trillion dollars and all I got was this lousy T-shirt. The only consolation is the motto on its chest: Make America Great Again!
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