... we’ve got a problem
Check out this JTA article, “Bronfman salon asks: Why be Jewish?”
To an extent, it’s a matter of envy that I’m never asked to these kind of events. But pushing this personal dissatisfaction aside, it’s sad to read of these things. Why should we have to justify being Jewish to ourselves or others? Shouldn’t this be as ludicrous a question as asking someone who is French or Danish or maybe African American or Latino?
First of all, we should be able to simply acknowledge who we are and not feel the need to justify or propagandize about it, depending upon our brand of Jewish belief or lack of same. But we in the United States in particular see our Jewish identity as primarily (or exclusively) religious — among American Jews who largely don’t have strong identification with Judaism as a religion. Yet this article on the conference is frustrating in reporting that:
“Absent from these conversations were anti-Semitism, Israel and the Holocaust, the holy trinity of American Jewish identity for the past 60 years. That, too, was intentional.
“The big question this generation is asking is: Why should I be Jewish? How does Judaism influence my life? The old ‘peoplehood’ argument doesn’t resonate with them,” [conference organizer Rabbi Eliyahu] Stern said.
This “holy trinity” of anti-Semitism, Israel and the Holocaust is of prime importance to me as a child of Holocaust refugees who lost more close family members than I exactly know and with half of my known relatives being Israeli. I don’t think that these are the only considerations for being Jewish; Judaism has its positive rewards as a rich cultural, philosophical and religious legacy — which one practices or ignores as a citizen of a (still) free country as one chooses.
Jewishness is a rich cultural and historical heritage even when devoid of religious elements. My father, for example, was Jewish to his core even as a totally non-religious individual. As a fluent speaker of Yiddish and Hebrew, it was easier for him to be Jewish (that is to imbue his life with Jewish content) even as he rejected almost all forms of religious observance.
He sent me to Hebrew school partly in the mistaken belief that I’d learn Hebrew there; he did not object to my learning to daven [pray] but I would have caused problems at home if I had insisted on eating kosher. They drew the shades down when eating on Yom Kippur but also sought out a place to say Yizkor (the memorial prayer) on some years.
My parents were happy to invite guests for a Passover seder, but their version was shockingly superficial and ill-informed from the point of view of even Reform religious practice. Maybe my aging mother was losing it when she did the following one year when in her 80s: She shocked me by laying out sliced bread beside the matzah. “People should have a choice,” she declared when challenged.
But still, after all this, they were very Jewish. I’ve always identified with our fate and destiny as Jews — as a small people proudly struggling to survive and maintain ourselves as Jews. In fact, they did not believe that one had a choice in this matter; their experience of the world was that one cannot simply renounce being Jewish, that anti-Semites will find a way to remind you of your Jewishness.
My answer to the question, “why be Jewish?”: It’s up to each of us individually to find what is meaningful and real within the very wide array of what it is to be Jewish. It might be religious practice; traditional Judaism is genuinely a way of life. Judaism can enrich our lives by providing a calendar, a schedule, a behavioral framework that helps order what might otherwise be chaotic. Or it might be Judaism that engages one intellectually, morally or spiritually with its demands and its questions as well as its answers — whether one is religiously observant or not. Or it might be learning and continually drinking of the depth of Jewish cultural and historical experience — an orientation that engages Jews who are secularist (secularism involves beliefs and practices, as opposed to the absence of such, which is commonly meant by the term “secular” rather than “secularist”).
Notwithstanding Rabbi Stern, as a Zionist activist, I am also an advocate of Jewish peoplehood. But it’s up to us as individuals to discover our Jewish path, of which there are quite a few choices. If we don’t insist that being Jewish is essentially “this” or “that” particular thing, it would help.